Here is the full transcript of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard Commencement Speech which was delivered on Thursday, May 25, 2017.
Right click to download the MP3 audio:
I would be remiss on this special occasion if I did not say thank you for using your T-shirt wardrobe to demonstrate to the world that male sartorial elegance doesn’t always present itself in a suit, tie and cufflinks. Most importantly, thank you for being with us today on our special day.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is my high honor to introduce Dr. Mark Zuckerberg.
Mark Zuckerberg – CEO, Facebook
I love this place. Thank you all for coming out in the rain, the pouring rain. We’re going to make this worth it for you.
President Faust, Board of Overseers, faculty, friends, alumni, proud parents, members of the ad board, and graduates of the greatest university in the world.
I’m honored to be here with you today because, let’s face it, you accomplished something I never could. If I get through this speech today, it’ll be the first time I actually finish something here at Harvard. Class of 2017, congratulations!
Now I’m an unlikely speaker today, not just because I dropped out, but because we’re technically in the same generation. We walked this yard less than a decade apart, we studied the same ideas and slept through the same Ec10 lectures. We may have taken different routes to get here, especially if you came all the way from the Quad, but today I want to share what I’ve learned about our generation and the world we’re all building together.
But first, these last couple of days have brought back a lot of good memories. How many of you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you got that email telling you that you got into Harvard? I was playing – I was playing the video game Civilization and I ran downstairs, and got my dad, and for some reason, his first reaction was to video me opening the email. That could have been a really, really sad video. But I swear getting into Harvard is the thing my parents are most proud of me for. My mom is nodding. You know what I am talking about. Look guys, it’s tough to beat this.
How many of you remember your first lecture here at Harvard? Mine was Computer Science 121 with the incredible Harry Lewis. Harry! I was running late for class, so I threw on a T-shirt and I didn’t realize until afterwards that I put it on inside out and backwards and my tag was sticking out at the front. I couldn’t figure out why no one in class would talk to me — except for this one guy, KX Jin, he just went with it. We started doing our problem sets together, and now he runs a big part of Facebook. And that, Class of 2017, is why you should be nice to people.
But my best memory from Harvard is meeting Priscilla. I had just launched this prank website Facemash, and the ad board wanted to “see me”. Everyone thought I was going to get kicked out. My parents drove up here to help me pack my stuff. My friends threw me a going away party. Who does that? As luck would have it, Priscilla was at that party with her friends. And we met in line for the bathroom in the Pfoho Belltower, and in what must be one of the all-time most romantic lines, I turned to her and said: “I’m going to get kicked out in three days, so we need to go on a date quickly.” Actually, any of you graduating today can use that line: Ï am getting kicked out today; we need to go on a date fast”.
I didn’t end up getting kicked out — I did that to myself. Priscilla and I started dating. And, you know, that movie made it seem like Facemash was so important to starting Facebook. It wasn’t. But without Facemash I never would have met Priscilla, and Priscilla is the most important person in my life, so you could still say it was the most important thing I built in my time here.
We’ve all started lifelong friendships here, and some of us even families. That’s why I’m so grateful to this place. Thanks, Harvard.
Today I want to talk about purpose. But I’m not here to give you the standard commencement about finding your purpose. We’re millennials. We try to do that instinctively. Instead, I’m here to tell you that finding your purpose isn’t enough. The challenge for our generation is to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.
One of my favorite stories is when JFK went to go visit the NASA space center, and he saw a janitor holding a broom and he asked him what he was doing. And the janitor replied: “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon”.
Purpose is that feeling that you are a part of something bigger than yourself, that you are needed, that you have something better ahead to work for. Purpose is what creates true happiness. And you’re graduating at a time when this is especially important. When our parents graduated, that sense of purpose reliably came from your job, your church, your community. But today, technology and automation are eliminating many jobs. Membership in a lot of communities has been declining. And a lot of people are feeling disconnected and depressed, and are trying to fill a void in their lives.
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.
So what are we waiting for? It is time for our generation-defining great works. How about stopping climate change before we destroy the planet and getting millions of people involved manufacturing and installing solar panels? How about curing all diseases and getting people involved by asking volunteers to share their health data – track their health data and share their genomes? You know, today our society spends more than 50 times as much treating people who are sick, as we invest in finding cures, so people don’t get sick in the first place. That makes no sense. We can fix this.
How about modernizing democracy so everyone can vote online, and how about personalizing education so everyone can learn? These achievements are within our reach. Let’s do them all in a way that gives everyone in our society a role. Let’s do big things, not just to create progress, but to create purpose.
So taking on big meaningful projects together is the first thing we can do to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.
The second is redefining our idea of equality so everyone has the freedom to pursue their purpose. Now many of our parents had stable jobs throughout their careers. But in our generation, we’re all a little entrepreneurial, whether we’re starting our own projects or finding our role in another one. And you know, that’s great. Because our culture of entrepreneurship is how we create so much progress.
An entrepreneurial culture thrives when it is easy to try lots of new ideas. Facebook wasn’t the first thing I built. I also built chat systems, and games, study tools and music players. And I’m not alone. JK Rowling got rejected 12 times before she finally wrote and published Harry Potter. Even Beyonce had to make hundreds of songs to get Halo. The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail.
Now today, we have a level of wealth inequality that hurts everyone. When you don’t have the freedom to take your idea and turn it into a historic enterprise, we all lose. And right now today our society is way over-indexed on rewarding people in their successful and we don’t do nearly enough to make sure that everyone can take lots of different shots.
Let’s face it. There is something wrong with our system when I can leave here and make billions of dollars in 10 years while millions of students can’t even afford to pay off their loans, let alone start a business.
Look, I know a lot of entrepreneurs, and I don’t know a single person who gave up on starting a business because they were worried they might not make enough money. But I know too many people who haven’t had the chance to pursue their dreams because they didn’t have a cushion to fall back on if they failed.
We all know you don’t get successful just by having a good idea or working hard. You get successful by being lucky too. If I had to support my family growing up instead of having the time to learn how to code, if I didn’t know that I was going to be fine if Facebook didn’t work out, then I wouldn’t be standing up here today. And if we’re honest, we all know how much luck we’ve had to get to this point in our lives.
Every generation expands its definition of equality. Previous generations fought for the vote and civil rights. They had the New Deal and Great Society. Now it’s time for our generation to define a new social contract. We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to make sure that everyone has a cushion to try new ideas. We’re all going to change jobs and roles many times, so we need affordable childcare to get to work and healthcare that’s not tied to just one employer. And we’re all going to make mistakes, so we need a society that’s less focused on locking us up and stigmatizing us when we do, and as our technology keeps evolving, we need a society that is more focused on providing continuous education throughout our lives.
And yes, giving everyone the freedom to pursue purpose isn’t going to be free. People like me should pay for it. And a lot of you are going to do really well and you should too.
That is why Priscilla and I started the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and committed our wealth to promoting equal opportunity. These are the values of our whole generation. It was never a question of if we were going to do this. The only question was when.
Millennials are already one of the most charitable generations in history. In just one year, more than three in four US millennials donated to charity and more than seven in ten raised money for another one. But it’s not just about giving money. You can also give time. And I promise you, if you take an hour or two a week — that’s all it takes to give someone a hand, and help them reach their potential.
Now maybe you’re thinking that’s a lot of time, and I am not sure if I have that much time. I used to think that. You know when Priscilla graduated from Harvard she became a teacher, and before she’d do education work with me, she told me that I needed to get my own experience teaching a class. At first I complained: “You know, I’m kind of busy. I’m running this company.” But she insisted, so I taught an after-school program at the local Boys and Girls Club on entrepreneurship. I taught those kids lessons on product development and marketing, and they taught me what it was like growing up, feeling targeted for your race and what’s like having a family member in prison.
I shared stories of my time in school, and they shared their hope that one day they would get to go to college too. For five years, I’ve had dinner with those students every month. One of them even threw Priscilla and me our first baby shower. And next year they’re going to college. Every one of them. First generation in their families.
We can all make time to give someone a hand. Let’s give everyone the freedom to pursue purpose — not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because when more people can turn their dreams into something great, we’re all better for it.
Purpose doesn’t only come from work. The third way we can create a sense of purpose for everyone is by building community. And in our generation when we say purpose for everyone, we mean everyone in the world.
Now quick show of hands: how many of you here are from another country? Now keep your hands up. How many of you are friends with one of these folks? Now we’re talking. See, we have grown up connected.
In a recent survey of millennials around the world asking what most defines our identity, the most popular answer wasn’t nationality, ethnicity or religion, it was “citizen of the world”. That’s a big deal. Every generation expands the circle of people we consider “one of us”. And in our generation that now includes the whole world.
We understand that the great arc of human history bends towards people coming together in ever greater numbers — from tribes to cities to nations — to achieve things we could not on our own.
We get that our greatest opportunities are now global; we can be the generation that ends poverty, that ends disease. And we get that our greatest challenges need global responses too. No country can fight climate change alone or prevent pandemics. Progress now requires coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.
But we live in an unstable time. There are people left behind by globalization across the whole world. And it’s tough to care about people in other places where we don’t first feel good about our lives here at home. There’s pressure to turn inwards.
This is the struggle of our time. The forces of freedom, openness and global community against the forces of authoritarianism, isolationism and nationalism. Forces for the flow of knowledge, trade and immigration against those who would slow them down. This is not a battle of nations, it is a battle of ideas. There are people in every country for more global connection and there are good people against it.
And this isn’t going to be decided at the UN either. It’s going to happen at the local level, when enough of us feel a sense of purpose and stability in our own lives that we can start to open up and care about everyone else too. And the best way to do that is to start building local communities right now.
We all get a lot of meaning from our communities. Who here is from Eliot House? How about Lowell? I know you guys fan community, because you literally live right on top of each other. And Mather?
Whether our communities are houses or sports teams, churches or cappella groups, they give us that sense that we are a part of something bigger, that we are not alone; they give us the strength to expand our horizons. And that’s why it’s so striking that over the past few decades, membership in all kinds of communities has declined by as much as one-quarter. That’s a lot of people who now need to find a sense of purpose somewhere else.
But I know that we can rebuild these communities and start new ones because many of you already are.
I met Agnes Igoye, who is graduating today. Agnes, where are you? She spent her childhood navigating conflict zones with human trafficking in Uganda, and now she’s trained thousands of law enforcement officials to keep communities safe.
I met Kayla Oakley and Niha Jain, graduating today, too. Stand up guys. Kayla and Niha started a non-profit that connects people suffering from chronic illnesses with people in their communities who are willing to help out.
And I met David Razu Aznar, who is graduating from the Kennedy School today. David, stand up. David is a former city councilor who fought to make Mexico City the first Latin American city to pass marriage equality, even before San Francisco.
And this is my story too. A student in a dorm, connecting one community at a time, and keeping at it until one day we connect the whole world.
Change starts local. Even global change starts small with people like us. In our generation, the struggle of whether we connect more, whether we achieve our greatest opportunities, comes down to this: your ability to build communities and create a world where every single person has a sense of purpose.
Class of 2017, you are graduating into a world that needs purpose. It’s up to you to create it.
Now, maybe you are asking yourself: can I really do this?
Well, remember when I told you about that class I taught at the Boys and Girls Club? One day after class I was talking to my students about going to college, and one of my top students raised his hand and said that he wasn’t sure he could go to college because he’s undocumented. He wasn’t sure if they’d take him.
Last year I took him out to breakfast for his birthday. And I wanted to get him a gift, so I asked him what he wanted, and he just started talking about struggles that he saw, how the students in his class are facing and finally he said “You know, I’d really just like a book on social justice.”
I was blown away. Here’s a young guy who has every reason to be cynical. He wasn’t sure if the country he calls home — the only one he’s known – was going to deny him his dream of going to college. But he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. He wasn’t even thinking of himself. He has a greater sense of purpose, and he’s going to bring people along with him.
It says something about our situation today that I can’t even say his name because I don’t want to put him at risk. But if a high school senior who doesn’t know what the future holds for him can do his part to move the world forward, then we owe it to the world to do our part too.
So before you walk out those gates one last time, and as we sit in front of Memorial Church, I am reminded of a prayer, Mi Shebeirach, that I say whenever I face a big challenge, that I sing to my daughter thinking of her future when I tuck her in at night. And it goes: “May the source of strength, who’s blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.”
I hope you find the courage to make your life a blessing.
Congratulations, Class of 2017! Good luck out there.