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Pung Speaker Series: How will you measure your life?

By Vivian Tran, student writer
Thursday, May 4, 2023

On April 13, Ryan Sullivan (B.A. Finance ’05), former CEO of Xenith and personal investor, spoke in the final installment of the 2022–23 Roy S. Pung Executive Speaker Series. The discussion was a year in the making.

Sullivan shared that former Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s book How Will You Measure Your Life? has strongly resonated with him since he first discovered it about a decade ago. The third-generation Spartan shared Christensen’s message and learnings from his own life experiences with an audience of Michigan State honors students and with one of his mentors, Helen Dashney, fixed-term faculty of finance and organizer of the series, as well as lifelong friend and previous guest speaker Michael Vichich (B.A. Finance ’06), founder and previous CEO of Wisely.

At the very beginning, before his prepared remarks, Sullivan dedicated his message to his late mother, Monica. He also mentioned that he hoped students would find his presentation impactful today and perhaps even 10 years down the road.

“As you leave Michigan State and you go out into the world, you’re going to face a lot of challenges, you’re going to face uncertainty,” Sullivan said. “The question is, What are the principles you want to live by and what do you want to get out of your life? That should be what guides those decisions, and unless you know that for yourself, it’s going to feel like someone else has the steering wheel of your life.”

Throughout the presentation, he shared cultural references in the form of quotes and song lyrics that resonated with him, along with quotes from his own mentors. Sullivan explained the context of why each of quote was meaningful to him and shared personal anecdotes to connect his important life lessons.

One quote was a powerful message attributed to Holocaust survivor and doctor Viktor Frankl: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.’” Its meaning for Sullivan is that those who have a sense of purpose or understand the meaning of their life can overcome any and all obstacles.

Sullivan laid out Christiansen’s framework for how to discover one’s purpose in life, which involved three key components:

  1. Likeness: Who is the person you want to be throughout your life? What does that look like? What are the characteristics of who you want to be?
  2. Commitment: Are you willing to commit to that idea of yourself that you have created? How does it manifest itself?
  3. Metric: How are you going to measure your life?

Finding a metric takes time, and Sullivan admitted he’s still refining his own. Two things he shared that were absolutely a priority in his life were his family and having an impact on Detroit and Michigan.

“What really matters and what is really lasting are those lifelong relationships you’re able to build. They’re based on a shared interest, genuine care and helping each other.”

Big life transitions, both professional and personally, have shaped the trajectory of Sullivan’s journey — all the ups and downs have led him to where he is now. His transparency and genuine remarks inspired the students to be thoughtful about the life they lead.

“When you think about having a career, it’s a place you spend your time and earn your living. As you grow, as you get older, as you rise … the costs of what you’re doing may or may not be clear to you along the way,” he explained. “You may find yourself doing things for success, money, title, status, more material things, and you may not be aware of the costs that you’re undertaking to achieve those things.”

Part of his presentation touched on the realities of how well-established, impressive business professionals often still question whether life is fulfilling for them and are trying to navigate their life’s purpose. Similarly, students often face the same dilemma as they navigate their college career, and many in the audience found comfort in knowing that everyone is faced with uncertainty and continuous introspection.

“If you handle things the right way, be open with people and talk things through with them, they’re going to respect that and respect you for that,” he shared.

Sharing his own experiences, Sullivan explained how he spent five years at Xenith, and following his departure, he took a year off to take a pause and ponder what he wanted to pursue next. He warned about the dangers of being comfortable and not being intentional with one’s life. Sometimes it takes courage to explore what makes you feel fulfilled and happy, whether that’s through spontaneous or intentional ventures.

During his time at Broad, Sullivan courageously sent cold emails to leaders such as the former mayor of Detroit, Dennis Archer, and throughout his career has become a skilled relationship builder. Sullivan provided his advice and perspective to the students on effective networking.

“What I would encourage you all to think about is when you hear networking, replace it with relationship building. It’s not about the volume of relationships you have or the number of connections you have on LinkedIn — none of that matters,” he said. “What really matters and what is really lasting are those lifelong relationships you’re able to build. They’re based on a shared interest, genuine care and helping each other.”

More information on previous events in the 2022–23 Pung Speaker Series, is available at the Full-Time MBA program page.

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