Mark Zuckerberg is an unlikely commencement speaker, something that he acknowledged in his opening remarks at today’s graduation ceremony. He famously dropped out of Harvard during his sophomore year to pursue his then-startup, Facebook. He’s also 33, which means he is “technically in the same generation” as this year’s graduates.
Zuckerberg played on that generational tie to explain the focus of his speech: purpose. Not finding purpose, because, as he explained, “We’re millennials. We'll try to do that instinctively.” Instead, “The challenge for our generation is creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.”
Purpose is one of those inspirational buzzwords that pops up in many college graduation speeches. After all, if you didn’t pull all-nighters, sweat through exams, and pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition fees with some larger purpose in mind — whether that’s making money, changing the world, or something in between — why did you bother?
But Zuckerberg is probably one of the best people to speak to a sense of purpose that goes beyond one person’s ambitions. Facebook is a global, multi-billion dollar company that touches on almost everything we do each and every day. It’s where the average person, over the course of their lifetime, is expected to spend a full year and seven months. But it wasn’t always that way.
Zuckerberg told a cautionary tale about what happens when you don’t have a larger sense of purpose. A couple of years after Facebook began, before the first News Feed launched, large companies wanted to buy it. Zuckerberg didn’t want to sell (“I wanted to see if we could connect more people”), but his advisors did. “Without a sense of higher purpose, this was the startup dream come true,” he said. “It tore our company apart.”
After a year, everyone on the management team had left. “That was my hardest time leading Facebook,” Zuckerberg said. “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 the world worked.”
Zuckerberg laid out a three-step roadmap for creating purpose: establishing and taking on big projects (his lofty examples include building the Hoover Dam and immunizing children against polio); pursuing equal opportunity for all; and building community. He’s written a lot about community and purpose before, in relation to the business he’s building at Facebook.
While none of those steps can be called revolutionary, Zuckerberg’s compelling anecdotes throughout the speech were what stood out. He closed with a powerful one, about an undocumented student he taught at the Boys and Girls Club. “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,” Zuckerberg said. “But if a high school senior who doesn't know what the future holds can do his part to move the world forward, then we owe it to the world to do our part too.”
You can’t argue with that.