Oct. 19, 2011

'Excellence is an attitude,' says Lee Pillsbury '69

"Excellence in life is not a skill," said Lee Pillsbury '69, speaking in his first visit to campus as a Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of '56 Professor. "It's an attitude."

Pillsbury, a venture capitalist with an extensive background in the hospitality industry, presented "Do You Want to Know Who You Are?" to a nearly full Call Auditorium Oct. 17. He said success strongly depends on one's mindset -- not just in entrepreneurship, but in any aspect of life.

Many students, he said, feel anxious about what they want to be. He proposed that they follow the advice of Thomas Jefferson: "You want to know who you are? Don't ask. Act!" By going after what they want with a proactive attitude, Pillsbury said, anyone can achieve success.

"When I was 12 years old, I wanted a 10-speed bike and it cost $120," he said. "My parents said we couldn't afford it. So I went door to door in Cayuga Heights, where I grew up, asking my neighbors if I could mow their lawn for them."

When summer came around and during dry spells when the grass stopped growing, Pillsbury said, he watered the grass. When fall came, he raked leaves. Finally, he got the bicycle. This experience taught him that just because someone else can't do something doesn't mean you can't.

"People tell you what they can't do," Pillsbury said. "My parents said 'Lee, we can't afford it.' That didn't mean I couldn't have the bike."

The bike experience, he said, also taught him a valuable lesson about goal setting: "You've got to aim high to hit high. It doesn't make any sense to set a low goal."

For those who are unsure of their goals, Pillsbury offered a brainstorming technique, using a notebook. "On the first page, I make a list of everything I want in six months: These are the places I want to go, the things I want, the experiences I want to have," he said. He then repeats the list for one year and three years.

Reflecting on his college days, Pillsbury said the most valuable thing he learned at Cornell was how to think critically and analytically.

"In kindergarten, a teacher holds up a piece of paper and says, 'What color is this?'" Pillsbury said. "And everybody shouts out, 'It's white!'" But in college, if a professor asked the same question, you might think:

"Is it white only because those lights are white?" Pillsbury said. "What color would it be [if] those lights were blue or red or green? When you get to college, it's about thinking about the question embedded in the question."

Elisabeth Rosen '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.