As I’ve traveled around, I’ve sat with children in juvenile detention and opioid addicts, who told me that maybe their lives would have turned out differently if they just had something to do, an after-school program or somewhere to go. I’ve met factory workers who know their old jobs aren’t coming back and are just trying to find their path ahead.
For our society to keep moving forward, we have a generational challenge — to not only create new jobs, but create a renewed sense of purpose.
I remember the night I launched Facebook from that little dorm in Kirkland House. I went to Noch’s with my friend KX. And I remember telling him clearly that I was excited to help connect the Harvard community, but one day someone would connect the whole world.
The thing is, it never even occurred to me that someone might be us. We were just college kids. We didn’t know anything about that. There were all these great, big technology companies with all these resources. And I just assumed one of them would do it. But this idea was so clear to us — that all people want to connect. So we just kept working on it, day after day after day. And I know a lot of you are going to have your own stories just like this. A change in the world that seems so clear that you’re sure someone else is going to do it. But they are not. You will.
But it’s not enough to have that purpose yourself. You’ll also have to create a sense of purpose for others. And I found that out the hard way. You see, my hope was never to build a company. I wanted to have an impact. And as all these people started joining us, I just assumed that that’s what they wanted to do too, so I never took the time to explain what it was that I hoped we’d build.
A couple years in, some big companies wanted to buy us. I didn’t want to sell. I wanted to see if we could connect more people. And we were building the first version of News Feed at the time, and I thought if we could just launch this, it could change how we all learn about the world.
Nearly everyone else wanted to sell. Without a sense of higher purpose, this was their startup dream come true. And it tore our company apart. After one particularly tense argument, one of my close advisors told me if I didn’t agree to sell right now, I would regret that decision for the rest of my life. Relationships were so frayed that within a year or so every single person on our management team was gone.
That was my hardest time leading Facebook. I believed in what we were doing, but I felt alone. And worse, it was my fault. I wondered if I was just wrong, an imposter, a 22 year-old kid who had no idea how things actually worked.
Now, years later, I understand that, that is how things work when there is no sense of higher purpose. So it’s up to all of us to create it so we can all keep moving forward together.
And today I want to talk about three ways that we can create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose: by taking on big meaningful projects together, by redefining equality so everyone has the freedom to pursue purpose, and by building community all across the world.
First, let’s take on big meaningful projects. Our generation is going to have to deal with tens of millions of jobs replaced by automation like self-driving cars and trucks. But we have the potential to do so much more than that. Every generation has its defining works. More than 300,000 people worked to put that man on the moon – including that janitor. Millions of volunteers immunized children around the world against polio. And millions of more people built the Hoover dam and other great projects.
Now it’s our generation’s turn to do great things. Now I know, maybe you’re thinking: I don’t know how to build a dam, I don’t know how to get a million people involved in anything.
Well, let me tell you a secret: no one does when they begin. Ideas don’t come out fully formed. They only become clear as you work on them. You just have to get started.
If I had to know everything about connecting people before I got started, I never would have built Facebook. Movies and pop culture just get this all wrong. The idea of a single eureka moment is a dangerous lie. It makes us feel inadequate because we feel like we haven’t had ours yet. And it prevents people with seeds of good ideas from ever getting started in the first place.
Oh, you know what else movies get wrong about innovation? No one writes math formulas on glass. OK, that’s not a thing.
It’s really good to be idealistic. But be prepared to be misunderstood. Anyone working on a big vision is going to get called crazy, even if you end up right. Anyone taking on a complex problem is going to get blamed for not fully understanding it, even though it’s impossible to know everything upfront. Anyone taking initiative will always get criticized for moving too fast, because there’s always someone who wants to slow you down.
In our society, we often don’t take on big things because we’re so afraid of making mistakes that we ignore all the things wrong today if we do nothing. The reality is, anything we do today is going to have some issues in the future. But that can’t stop us from getting started.