Over the years, I’ve found that commencement speeches are, word for word, some of the most wisdom-dense content one can consume. There is no shortage of legendary speeches – David Foster Wallace at Kenyon, Peter Thiel at Hamilton, Steve Jobs at Stanford, Elon Musk at Cal-Tech, Paul Tudor Jones at Buckley School – just to name a few.
I believe this speech, given by Steve Jurvetson to the Saint Marks Class of 2020, is one of the greats. I’ve transcribed the video for your convenience. The opening (which was cut from the video) is taken from Steve’s blog, and you can find the video here.
**Any mistakes should be attributed to me.
Steve Jurvetson ’85 // Distinguish Alumnus // Future Ventures, SpaceX, and Tesla
“The Saint Mark’s Class of 2020 has contributed greatly to our school community – in the classroom, in the arts, on the playing fields – and they’ve also led with courage, integrity, resilience, and with heart. Notwithstanding the adversity and significant disruption to their senior year, these Marksmen have set a great example and made us very proud.”
That is how your headmaster described you to me. He is proud of you. Your parents are proud of you. The long lineage of alumni that came before you are proud of you. This physical separation of our presence does not in any way gainsay your accomplishments. But it might feel a little strange.
So what to make of all this extra time at home? One of my children is also a senior this year. And it’s a blessing for me as a parent to have some interrupted blocks of time to think about the transition to come and to interact as adults. This may seem like the last thing you’d want more of, on the precipice of graduation, independence, and collegiate life.
But once you’re on the other side of this transition, you may realize how precious and rare these opportunities are. Tim Urban recently tabulated the days of our lives to the shocking realization that by the time you graduate high school, 93% of all of your in-person time with your parents will be behind you. The entire rest of your life is but 7%. Treat this sequestered time for what it is. Something precious. Be mindful, and kind, and grateful, if you can. This transition of yours is their proudest and most poignant passage. It will be something that causes them to cry as you go, whether they show it or not.
The repetition of life at home also affords an opportunity to reflect on what you choose to do each day. Will you start each day with exercise? Will you stay sober? Will you read a good book each night, or watch a screen? These simple choices, compounded over a decade, can make all the difference in the world for your professional advancement, happiness, and health. We know this to be true.
But it’s hard to see day-to-day. Think of the power of compounded interest. Let me say it more forcefully. Spend less time focused on the goals for your life. Spend more time on the habits and simple iterative algorithms that will improve your life. This obsession on goals is misplaced. Consider any competitive sporting event. The losers have the same goals as the winners. Right?
Learning from our heroes’ goals reflects a sample selection bias, since no one does a post-game interview of the losers to ask them about their goals. And they’re the same. And it’s the same in business. Elon Musk believes this dearly. The process of innovation is more important than the product of innovation. This is why he made all the Tesla patents opensource. To help recruit and motivate the best engineers to build the next product. He prioritizes a process of continuous innovation over protecting the products of the past.
You will also find happiness elusive if you focus on goals. It’s the journey of life that’s the reward, not a goalpost destination. Focus on your daily acts, your systems [that] become habits, and your identity will follow. Are you a runner? A lifelong learner? A caring soul? Your tombstone virtues will include none of your resume virtues – the goals and prizes you may seek today.
James Clear summarized it well: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” Once you enter the magical playground of college, it might be hard to establish those systems with so much change afoot. It might be hard to resonate with your identity when myriad horizons open anew.
So, as you’re entering this wild and wonderful world out there, I want to leave you some more thoughts:
10 years ago, I gave the St. Mark’s commencement speech to the graduating seniors, much like yourselves. I told them to, quote, “Rest assured we are entering an intellectual renaissance, interwoven across the sciences. There is no better time to be a student [of] technology, no better time to start a company, no better time to learn something new. Individuals with good ideas are empowered as never before” – I told them.
That is even more true today. The accelerating pace of technology-driven progress has compounded 1000-fold over the past decade – doubling each year for 10 years. Major improvements are just beginning in energy and sustainability, decoding the information systems of biology, and re-engineering the cellular production of meat without slaughter, polymers, and chemicals without oil. The iterative algorithms of evolution and machine learning are revolutionizing AI and the broad category of complex systems design. The resulting algorithmic advances in AI themselves are breathtaking, and remarkably easy to learn – once you shift the locus of learning from product to process, from the artifacts of creation to the methods of creation.
Later this month, SpaceX will return astronauts to space, and before you graduate college, we will have a permanent lunar settlement, and have sent our first landing party to Mars. As we expand outward on the final frontier, we find it representative of the palpable excitement on all the frontiers of the unknown – from neuroscience to AI to synthetic biology.
Now you may have noticed I haven’t said nothing about the tumult in the economy around us. It turns out that market disruption in needed for new entrants and new ideas. It’s an essential precursor for progress.
Tesla launched in the peak of the Great Recession of 2008. What better time to compete with the incumbent gas-burning car companies than when they’re going bankrupt and selling off all their assets? It turns out that starting a new business works best in a recession. Companies can focus on iterating with customers rather than racing off to the financial markets. If you look at the companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, two-thirds of them were founded in a recession. That was true in 2010, and it’s true today.
New entrants forge the future. They always have. They are the source of all meaningful change. And that is true for new companies, as well as new intellects – such as yourself – entering the world stage.
So I want to share my excitement for your future – oh, to be in your shoes again. I think, I will wish you the best in this. That you may skip forward on your future path, with playful curiosity, and consider your potential on this planet as something grand. You can change the world for the better, and find the sublime satisfaction of symbolic immortality.
Thank you, and all the best, from Steve Jurvetson, Class of ’85.