As the story goes, Churchill was well into his 80s - frail, wizened, and stooped - when he attended the annual opening of school. At the event's conclusion, Churchill was asked if he'd say a few words. He rose, paused, and then spoke. "Never give up. Never. Never. Never. Never. Never." He then sat down, to thunderous applause.
I especially love the fifth never in that sequence, because it's a wonderful metaphor for the numerous times in our lives when, faced with defeat, we have had to draw on our deepest resources to fight back and defend our principles, honor, and character.
Churchill's nevers surely must number in the scores. He fought in India, in the Sudan, was captured and escaped during the Boer War. In and out of Parliament for decades, he became prime minister in 1940. His determination, spirit, and never-say-die leadership rallied Britain in World War II, propelling the Allies to victory in 1945. Rejected by the voters later that year, he returned as prime minister in 1951. Surely, Winston Churchill was the paradigm of his words; the great man never gave up.
Like Churchill, even those of us with far more humble accomplishments have confronted adversity and defeat and never given up. What accounts for that spirit? In my case, I think it began with my beloved mother reading to her boys - over and over again - The Little Engine That Could: "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can." And then, "I knew I could, I knew I could, I knew I could." That spirit gave me strength during my academic struggles - a 40 on my first algebra exam; a D in economics at Princeton University, which threatened my scholarship and thus my continuing there. But I never gave up, and graduated with distinction.
That same spirit bolstered my ability to face a lifetime of health challenges. When doctors told this then-31-year-old man, suffering from congenital heart failure, that he was unlikely to reach his 40th birthday, there was little choice but to fight on. Despite another seven or eight heart attacks (who can count!), I beat the odds and fought my way through the next four decades. But by then, half of my heart had stopped pumping, and I needed a transplant.
After 128 days in the hospital, suffused with life-sustaining intravenous drugs, the strong spirit and the frail body never gave up, and the new heart arrived Feb. 21, 1996. Such a second chance in life is something of a miracle, and though the intervening years have presented their own health challenges, my reaction is simple: If you've been granted 14 additional years of life, it doesn't seem appropriate to go around bitching. (Please forgive my crude choice of words, but complaining simply doesn't do the job!)
I've also faced major challenges in my career. It's no fun to be fired - but that's exactly what happened to me in January 1974, eight years after I made a foolish decision to merge the firm I then headed. Alas, corporate power and politics trumped common sense; the merger blew up, and I found myself out of work. But I wasn't the giving-up type. By September 1974, I'd started a new firm, named it Vanguard, and went back to work. I took on my new job just the way I left my old one - fired with enthusiasm.
Most of the ideas and values that I invested in Vanguard were themselves greeted with skepticism, opprobrium, and even antagonism. The world's first index mutual fund and our revolutionary new investment strategies for bond-fund management and for tax-efficient investing were first mocked, and then widely embraced.
But these ideas, combined with our unique mutual structure - which saves our investors/owners billions of dollars each year - and a "never-give-up" attitude enabled our firm to become the largest mutual fund manager in the world. So, yes, even the most ordinary souls among us, favored by extraordinary circumstances and powerful determination, can help to build a better world. But only if we refuse to give up.
What does all this mean today?
In today's uncertain world, the challenges facing our younger generations will likely call upon greater stores of character and greater ability to fight through defeat than the challenges of my generation required.
Our economy remains in a perilous state; the unemployment rate stubbornly hovers near double digits; our global financial system is fragile, encumbered by grotesquely excessive debt. And perhaps most worrisome, our nation's political process seems incapable of dealing with these - or any - issues.
So I continue do what I can, even in these late years of my long life: to fight for financial reform, to channel the rewards of investing to those Main Street shareholders who put up their capital, rather than to those Wall Street money changers who, more often than not, reap enormous rewards, by fair means or, as is now clear, foul.
As the next generation grapples with these and the numerous unforeseen challenges that lie ahead, I have no doubt that they'll measure up - they are our nation's greatest hope. There is much work to be done, and they have the great opportunity to fix what has been so badly broken in our society, and to help build a better world.
As they set about making things right, I would only advise them that when reversals come, as they surely will, never give up. Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.
And don't forget that fifth never. Sooner or later, we all need it.
This essay was adapted from a commencement address delivered
at Trinity College on May 23.