Zuckerberg at Harvard: Successes Come From Having Freedom to Fail

Facebook’s founder/CEO and one-time Ivy League student Mark Zuckerberg delivered the 366th Harvard commencement speech at his alma mater today. Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his dorm room there in 2004, but later suspended his studies in 2005 to focus entirely on his company. Zuckerberg was also awarded an honorary degree from Harvard today.

Here’s the full text of his speech. His speech also coincides with a recent news story of black Harvard students holding their own graduation ceremony, though many have viewed it as self-segregation.

Here’s Harvard reasoning for selecting Zuckerberg as commencement speaker:

“Mark Zuckerberg’s leadership has profoundly altered the nature of social engagement worldwide. Few inventions in modern times can rival Facebook in its far-reaching impact on how people around the globe interact with one another,” said Harvard President Drew Faust in a university press release. “And few individuals can rival Mark Zuckerberg in his drive to change our world through the innovative use of technology, as well as his commitment to advance science, enhance education, and expand opportunity through the pursuit of philanthropy.”

His full speech, which was broadcasted live on Facebook, can be found here. His talk begins at the 1 hour, 38 minute mark:

Zuckerberg’s talk was prefaced by Harvard President Drew Faust, the 28th president of Harvard University and the Lincoln Professor of History in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“We must always be ready to be wrong,” said President Drew Faust. “We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them.”

During his talk to new Harvard graduates, Zuckerberg stressed the importance of Harvard graduates finding purpose in their lives.

“I’m here to tell you finding your purpose isn’t enough,” he said. “Purpose is that feeling that you’re part of something bigger than yourself. Purpose is what creates true happiness.”

He cited the advent of automation causing distress and pain for many Americans, and how people feel disconnected in an ever-connected world.  The casual observer can tell that Zuckerberg’s travels across the country have had an insurmountable effect on him. He stressed how meeting with and empathizing with different people can inspire people to “create a renewed sense of purpose.”

“It’s not enough to have that purpose yourself,” he said. “You have to create that sense of purpose for others.”

He broke his talk down into three main points on how Harvard students could promote purpose through big meaningful projects, redefining equality, and building community.

Big meaningful projects:

Zuckerberg’s first point encouraged graduates to find purpose to create big meaningful projects. He cited the construction of the Hoover Dam and the Moon Landing as accomplishments to model purpose after.

“Now it’s our generation’s turn to do great things,” said Facebook’s CEO and founder. “Ideas don’t come out fully formed.”

Zuckerberg ragged on the film industry for getting innovation wrong, citing that ideas take time to germinate and grow–how the idea of a single “Eureka!” moment grossly mischaracterizes innovation in the modern day.

“It’s good to be idealistic, but be prepared to be misunderstood, ” he added.

The speech then turned a bit more political, especially along the lines of combating climate change. However, I appreciated the point he made about new innovations for cures for cancer needing to be discovered and funded to put an end to horrible diseases. I think everyone regardless of political beliefs can agree with this point–especially if private enterprise is the financial catalyst behind this innovation.

Zuckerberg said in order to “create progress,” people must “create purpose.

Redefining equality

The second point of Zuckerberg’s talk focused on the idea of redefining equality. At first, I thought he would go full social justice warrior here, but he said some rather enlightening things. The following quote of his stood out to me the most:

“Our culture of entrepreneurship is how to create so much progress,” Zuckerberg said. “The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail.”

Having the freedom to fail…he sounds like a fan of free enterprise! (He very well should be, despite some of his associations with overly left-leaning political groups.)

The 33-year-old billionaire added that in order to be successful, you must have a good idea and get lucky. No mention of success being guaranteed or handed to you? How refreshing!

His next point, however, lost me.

“Every generation expands its generation of equality,” said Zuckerberg. “Now it’s time for our generation to define a new social contract.”

Citing FDR’s New Deal and other lefty social programs, Zuckerberg proposed that society start measuring progress not just by GDP, but by the role an individual plays in society. It seemed like he was sounding off on a political platform for a prospective 2020 run–hinting at support from universal basic income, affordable childcare, and expanded educational opportunities.

But then he got back on script when he uttered, “Freedom to pursue purpose shouldn’t be free.” He added that Millennials should not only donate to charity but also give time to help people pursue their purpose in life. (Good!) He said creating the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will create more equal opportunities, which is far preferable to government-sanctioned equality.

Building community

Mark Zuckerberg’s third and final call-to-action for Harvard graduates is to build community–especially global connections.

He said it’s imperative to create “purpose for everyone…in the world” citing our more interconnected world.  Action “starts in local communities,” Zuckerberg added.

“You are graduating into a world that needs purpose.”

Zuckerberg ended his speech with a Jewish prayer–which was quite unexpected, though he has abandoned atheism in recent years.

I would say that Zuckerberg has mellowed and matured over the last decade. Indeed, his company hasn’t been without controversy as we know. But any casual observer can see that he’s been making an effort to have Facebook cater to all viewpoints, perspectives, and people.

Earlier in the year, Zuckerberg pledged to visit all 50 states to meet everyday Americans. Some say this challenge to meet new people is indicative of a launch for a 2020 bid for president. However, I think he’s genuinely interested in making Facebook work for all users here in the U.S. and across the globe:

My personal challenge for 2017 is to have visited and met people in every state in the US by the end of the year. I’ve spent significant time in many states already, so I’ll need to travel to about 30 states this year to complete this challenge.

In October 2016, Zuckerberg took it to Facebook Live to announce a newfound appreciation for hunting.

“Things taste better when you make them yourself,” he said. “And they taste doubly better when you’ve hunted the animal yourself.” In 2011, he apparently pledged to only eat meat he kills or harvests. Below is the full live broadcast:

And perhaps his most interesting undertaking was returning to religion after dabbling in atheism.

While there were some mention of social justice platitudes–climate change, undocumented immigrants, etc.–dominating his speech, Zuckerberg wasn’t hostile to conservatives. His speech contained some good points we can all take to heart–especially the part about forging real connections in a disconnected world and making great change locally. (The old adage goes, all politics is local.) And I especially appreciated the part about him saying success comes from having the freedom to fail. How many liberal Silicon Valley executives admit to this? In fact, he didn’t say the government should come in and fix problems–whether failures or not. He encouraged people in their communities to make change. These are good baby steps; now to get him to open his mind to other things…That may take some time.

Facebook is the leading social media platform out there, with 1.94 billion monthly users (as of March 2017) and 1.15 billion mobile daily active users (as of December 2016). Zuckerberg has played a role in our daily lives, however big or small, with giving us Facebook. Let’s hope more Silicon Valley leaders take a page from the Zuckerberg playbook and try to relate better with us.

About the author

Gabriella Hoffman

Gabriella Hoffman is a media strategist based in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area. She has written for The Resurgent since March 2016 and serves as their D.C. Correspondent.

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