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Panera Founder and CEO Ron Shaich: It's Not About Choosing the 'Right' Path, It's About Knowing What Ignites Your Passion. Figure out what you care about, what brings you joy and what drives you, Shaich told Clark University graduates. The rest will come.

By Laura Entis

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Editor's Note: With the 2014 graduation season in full swing, is bringing you full commencement addresses given by some of the world's most inspiring leaders.

Ron Shaich founded Panera Bread back in the 1980s. Since then, the fast-casual restaurant has exploded into a national chain with nearly 1,800 locations. It's a success story, to be sure, but Shaich isn't convinced it was the only path for him.

Speaking at Clark University's commencement, Shaich recounted his own college experience where, despite being a self-titled social activist with "pie-in-the-sky theories" and a "desire to change the world," he nonetheless derived intense satisfaction from launching and running a convenience store on campus. "I found creating a business to be the most creative experience of my life," he told the students at the Worcester, Mass. school.

"Yet, like some of you, as I was graduating, I found myself at a fork in the road. I knew my passion in life was to make a difference in the world," Shaich said. "The question I had was this: What path was the right one? I was torn between pursuing the creativity of business and the life of political action."

Related: The Best Inspirational Quotes from 2013 Commencement Speeches (Slideshow)

He ended up trying his hand at both, attending business school and working for a large company before leaving to work at citizen action groups and a political consulting firm in Washington. Neither role stuck, however. "Ultimately, through a series of fortuitous circumstances, I had the opportunity to open a cookie store in downtown Boston. That store became the seed stock of Panera Bread," he said. "It was through that store that I became an entrepreneur and, later, a company builder."

Today, Panera employs 80,000 associates and has opened up five non-profit "pay what you want" cafes, a fledgling effort to feed the less fortunate.

He's proud that he's been able to have an impact on an issue that he cares about, but unlike many leaders, who retrospectively look back at their careers and conclude that they chose the unequivocally correct path, Shaich doesn't believe it's ever that clear cut. He could have attacked the issues that matter to him in a myriad of ways -- there was never one solution.

"Looking back, I'm certain that had I stuck with a career in politics, I also could have made a difference," he told the graduates. "It's not choosing the 'right' path that matters. It's knowing what ignites your passion. Once you've figured out what brings you joy, you don't have to worry about finding the right path. Any path—any path—will take you there."

Read the full commencement address below.

Congratulations to the Class of 2014.

I am frankly very thrilled to be with you today at your commencement from Clark. It's an institution that links all of us, and made such a difference in my own life. And, frankly, could you have had a more beautiful day for graduation? The clouds are holding off. This is beautiful.

Each of you receiving your degree today—master's degree recipients, doctoral degree recipients, as well as those of you receiving bachelor's degrees—you all have worked incredibly hard. You have committed years to the effort. And many of you are swamped with student debt. True.

I too will receive a degree today -- but let's just say my requirements were a bit more relaxed than yours.

I'm sure that my wife Nancy—who's here with me today, who got her doctoral degree the "old-fashioned" way—will remind us what it's like to earn a "real" Ph.D.

In any case, Class of 2014, this is your day. Later this afternoon, as you celebrate your accomplishments, I want you to think about something

I want you to think about all the people who have been there for you.

Think about your first roommate—as well as your second, third, and fourth roommates. Tell them you've figured out that it was you who was the problem, not them.

Think about the cafeteria worker who always gave you a bright "Hello," when you ambled in bleary-eyed after a night at Moynihan's.

And think about that special professor who covered for you on Spree Day…

Above all, think about your parents and thank them…In fact, thank them twice. First, thank them for letting you move back into your old home—tomorrow.

Second—and I mean this in all seriousness—thank your parents and your family for all they did to help you earn this degree.

You know, over the years, I've come to believe a Clark education is powerfully different. At far too many schools, students are taught what to think. Clark is an exception, because Clark taught us how to think.

Many universities push their students to deliver the right answers. Clark taught us that to arrive at better answers, we must first ask better questions.

A provocative question pushes us to dig deep and to do the hard work of challenging convention and changing the world.

So here's the question I would like to ask today…what really matters in creating a successful career and a successful life?

If there's one lesson that I take away from my 30 years as a business builder, it is this: Knowing what matters dramatically increases the probability you will produce the outcomes you desire.

Our society has long equated certainty with success. Some think those who have all the answers are the ones that get ahead.

Yet, so many times, I've seen people with all the answers jump to action without truly understanding what really matters, and because they don't know what matters, they fail.

So today, I want to share three quick stories about what really matters.

My first story is about knowing what matters as you try to find your way in the world. Universities are wonderful places to learn who you are. And Clark, as a relatively small university, provides extraordinary opportunities to test out our different identities. Indeed, this is exactly what I did when I was here.

When I arrived at Clark as a freshman, I was a budding social activist, long hair -- hard to believe it you saw what was under this cap -- pie-in-the-sky theories and a desire to change the world. During my junior year, I launched an on-campus convenience store here at Clark—a store that was run by and for the students—and suddenly I found myself in business. To my great surprise, I found creating a business to be the most creative experience of my life. Indeed, as a kid from New Jersey who couldn't paint, who couldn't dance, and couldn't sing, I came to conclude that business was the closest I would ever become to an artist.

Yet, like some of you, as I was graduating, I found myself at a fork in the road. I knew my passion in life was to make a difference in the world. The question I had was this: What path was the right one?

I was torn between pursuing the creativity of business and the life of political action.

After graduation, I tried business. I went to business school and I worked for a large company for over a year.

Then I quit and took up the life of a political activist: I worked for citizen action groups. Then I joined a political consulting firm in Washington.

Frankly, it was a confusing time. When I worked in business, I was the political activist. When I worked in politics, I was the business strategist.

Ultimately, through a series of fortuitous circumstances, I had the opportunity to open a cookie store in downtown Boston. That store became the seed stock of Panera Bread. It was through that store that I became an entrepreneur and, later, a company builder.

Today, there are 80,000 associates at Panera that depend on us for steady employment. Panera touches the lives of 8 million guests each week. Serving others stands at the core of our business.

Looking back, I'm certain that had I stuck with a career in politics, I also could have made a difference.

So what's my point? Folks, it's not choosing the "right" path that matters. It's knowing what ignites your passion. Once you've figured out what brings you joy, you don't have to worry about finding the right path. Any path—any path—will take you there.

So forget about plotting out a well-planned life. Your life isn't a business plan. To borrow a phrase from New York Times columnist David Brooks, "Life isn't a project to be completed; it's an unknowable landscape to be explored."

My second story is about what matters to succeed in work.

Five years ago, we decided that Panera could do more to attack the growing problem of hunger in America.

It's hard to believe, but we live in a country where one out of six Americans—children as well as adults— go to bed without knowing where their next meal is coming from. Panera annually donates over $100 million in cash and unsold baked goods to food pantries and homeless shelters across the country. But I knew we could do more; the question was, "How?"

One night, an answer began to emerge.

I happened to be watching an NBC News feature about a community cafe in Denver, Colorado. A community cafe has a menu, but no set prices. If you have the financial resources, you're asked in community cafés to leave a bit more to cover for those who have less. If you have little or no money, you're invited to leave what you can. In all cases you get to eat. Although the NBC piece was inspiring, it included one sobering detail: it had taken almost a decade of struggle for the community cafe in Denver to become a reality. And then it hit me. Panera opens a new cafe every 72 hours, every three days. We can do this, we really could; we could open one of those cafés.

So here's what we did not do. We didn't rush out to launch our first community cafe. Instead, we took over a year to study the challenge.

Along with a small team, I took a lap around the country to listen, to observe, and to learn. We wanted to stand in other people's shoes and see the world through their eyes. And so we went to soup kitchens, but we didn't go as visitors. We stood in line as clients. We experienced first-hand that people visiting soup kitchens lacked both food and dignity, and the gloomy setting didn't do much to alleviate it.

We also visited community cafés. Many of them were small facilities in the back of churches. The volunteers had an abundance of goodwill. But they lacked the skills and the resources to make a bigger impact.

Based on what we experienced, we began to think deeply about the key questions: what were we really trying to accomplish in opening a community cafe? And what would it take to succeed at it? What would it take? We concluded our real aim was to provide a platform so that neighbors could help neighbors in need. We recognized that if that cafe offered the full Panera experience, we could create a community cafe that attracted those who could pay, while offering a healthy dose of positive energy and dignity to those in need. We called the cafés Panera Cares.

Five Panera Cares cafés have now been opened—including one in Boston's Government Center. Even more interesting, Panera Cares will serve nearly one million guests this year. That's amazing.

Panera Cares is our modest attempt to make a difference in people's lives. But successfully making a difference starts with learning how to do just that.

And all learning starts with empathy.

Yes, you heard me correctly…empathy.

Empathy is not a soft skill. It's an acquired talent. Empathy is about choosing to enter into another person's life. It's about actively listening. And it's about experiencing their pains and their needs in an authentic way.

Frankly, empathy is one of the most powerful tools available to us. Empathy leads to seeing new opportunities, and seeing new opportunity is the gateway to all of your future success.

My last story is a bit more difficult to share, especially on such a joyous day. During the 1990s, I watched both of my parents die in my arms. My mother died of heart disease and my father died after battling cancer for nearly four years. Along the way, my dad moved to Boston and lived in my house so we could treat his illness at Dana Farber. During the time we spent together, my father often replayed his life. He talked about his successes and about his disappointments. He wished he could have been a better parent. He agonized over decisions he had made. He regretted the missed opportunities—the roads he didn't take.

I cannot tell you whether there is a judgment day after we die. The answer to that question is found in each of our personal beliefs. But I can tell you this: as I watched my father in his last few months, I came to realize we each judge ourselves before we pass. We do. Our own self-assessment will lead us to ask the inevitable questions: Did I live the life I wanted to live? Did I realize all the possibilities of what my life could have been? And most importantly, did I live a life I respected?

Death is the catalyst for life-altering change. But to use death to shape our lives, we can't wait 'til the end to make our decisions.

Instead of doing a post-mortem at the end of life, as my father did, we really need to do a pre-mortem as we engage in life.

With a pre-mortem, we look into a future that's many years away. We imagine ourselves on our deathbed, looking back on our lives.

So ask yourself…what will you value as you conduct your pre-mortem? What will you value? I strongly suspect that the things that will matter most to you won't be money. It won't be accolades. And it won't even be an honorary degree. What will matter most will be the depth of your relationships with your family, and the people you care about most deeply. What will matter most to you will be the quality of your work, and the humanity you bring to everyday life.

If you prove yourself up to the task, you will reap the by-product of having lived a successful life.

Most importantly, you will have honored yourself.

I believe I can speak with some authority on your ability to act on what I am suggesting. I have worked shoulder to shoulder with many of your peers. Your generation bakes Panera's bread, it serves our guests, and it manages our cafés.

I know you are competent. I know you care. And I know you are open to change. Indeed you are fully capable of surmounting all the challenges that my generation has bequeathed to you.

So here is what I hope for each and every one of you.

I hope that many years from now, when you look back on your life, you will say that you focused on discovering your passion rather than obsessing over the "correct" path or following what others tell you to do.

This, and only this, will take you where you want to go.

I hope you commit to the hard skills of listening, learning, and empathizingâ€" that you devote yourselves to understanding more deeply the lives of others. This and only this will fuel your success.

And finally, I hope that from time to time you imagine yourself at the end of your life, that you take stock, and then recommit in the here and now to the things you value most. This will ensure you have a life you respect.

For many of you today, this ceremony marks the end of your formal education. Clark University has prepared you to think, it has prepared you to continue to learn, and it has prepared you to act. Now it's up to you. As you embark on your life after graduation, I challenge you to do the work that matters. Do that and you will have truly learned what matters to living a life well.

Thank you, Class of 2014.

Good luck, and have a great life!

Laura Entis

Staff Writer. Frequently covers tech, business psychology, social media, startups and digital advertising.

Laura Entis is a staff writer at

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