On June 11th, 2011, I was honored to address the graduating class at the Delphi Academy in Los Angeles. Here is the text of my speech.
It’s an amazing time to be a Delphi graduate. I am so happy and proud of you! So… where do you go from here?
You’re graduating in the middle of a continuing recession. Supposedly, there are no jobs. Right?
Actually, there is plenty of work in this country. Did you know that right now, the health care and engineering fields in this country alone are short nearly a million jobs?
You’ve heard that manufacturing is in trouble, right? All the labor has gone to China and India, right?
So… how come the US manufacturing sector has 228,000 unfilled jobs right this minute?
The reason for all this unfulfilled demand is all around you, in everything you do: it’s about technology. Technology is taking over our lives at an astonishing rate, and those who aren’t trained for it are obsolete.
Look at the power of Facebook alone. Not only did Facebook users help overthrow the governments of Tunisia and Egypt this year, but two weeks ago when a young lady who was planning her birthday party forgot to make her Facebook invitation private, 16,000 people accepted. The parents cancelled the party, but still 1,600 people showed up, with all kinds of gifts and birthday cakes. The police had to be called, and two small fires had to be put out.
Many jobs are becoming more and more tech-oriented, and existing workers can’t be — will probably never be — retrained for these high tech skills. So they are falling by the wayside. And the kids coming out of school… well, the kids aren’t ready.
Colleges all over the country these days are forced to spend precious time and money to remedy the study skills of incoming students, students who supposedly had a high school education.
What the kids need
What are these kids lacking? You know they don’t read. You know they don’t have the basics, so they can’t learn easily. They are illiterate, so they can’t absorb technical knowledge. And many have been using drugs, which makes any study problem into a nightmare.
Did you know that a welder these days can earn a starting salary of $70,000 per year? But this is not your old-fashioned welder: the position is very technical these days.
The machines are doing the easy stuff, so the humans have to step up. That takes someone who can learn.
The old-style jobs are called “legacy”, because they are in our past. The new technology jobs are in high tech, or in the new green industries, like mine, or in any area, because every single job out there uses technology — and the race is to the quick. So now you know why you’ve been playing video games all this time… it was job training!
What about China and India? Their educational systems are still very rigid. People are being trained to learn ‘in the box’. And you have to think outside the box to win — that’s why the best software and videogames, and music, and movies, are made right here in the US, and that’s not likely to change. This country remains the most innovative and inventive in the world. So, relax.
Failure IS an option
Next thing: failure. In places like Germany, if you try a new business and you fail, then you are toast — for your whole career! It’s over. Failure is not an option for people in many countries. So, how do you learn?
You have no idea how important it is that here, we let people fail. Only through trial and error — lots of error — can you create something new. Our rowing coach, Guillermo, used to say “You’ve got to lose to win” — and he was right. So, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t ever regret them, either.
I think you know, as a Delphi grad, that you are highly favored. This system taught you to teach yourself, like an adult. It emphasized your personal responsibility. Through this system, you got the basics. And unlike some other very good educational systems, technology is OK in this school.
I think you know that you can try anything, and that you can fail creatively. On top of it, you have deep ethical values, which go beyond morality. You know what is positive behavior and what is negative behavior.
So you are well prepared to pursue any career you want, go to any school, qualify for any task anywhere in the world. Even in China, India, Germany. You got the power!
The real luxury
But you are fortunate in a totally different way. This measure is called mobility — and it’s the one that really matters.
As you rise in society, you gain in mobility. If you’re working nine to five, and you’re just making your bills, you have no mobility. Supposedly as you start to make more money, you get more mobility. But of course, then you want more stuff, so it doesn’t always work out that way.
You know, the most high-powered people in this country often don’t have mobility. Many attorneys work punishing hours — a hundred or more a week. They can’t get away. A lot of people in Washington work punishing hours. Doctors, same thing.
I hope you get to work very hard, because it’s really satisfying to lose yourself in your work — but if you lose the ability to move around freely, to set your own timetable, then maybe you aren’t as wealthy as you think.
Right now, you do have the luxury of total mobility. Even without any money at all, you know you can do anything you want. This is the time to use it. Because it will pay off in unexpected ways.
Creatively wasting time
Here’s a story that may make my point:
In my thirties, I worked very hard to launch a high tech company in New York City. And I burned out. Gave the business to my best salesman (he’s still doing it) and I experimented. I became a wine importer, and a waiter and cook in a fine dining restaurant high on a mountain in Colorado. I spent a year in the movie business. I worked on projects to make businesses more efficient through technology — and met my future wife on one of those projects.
I loved every one of these adventures. One day, I realized that I was now good enough to create a career in just six months. That was a realization!
The Internet came along on one of these projects, and I climbed aboard for a crazy rocket ride that lasted more than a decade. Again, constantly changing adventures.
Finally, I got a chance to start a company in this amazing field called algae. Algae to clean up our emissions, to replace fossil fuels, to make enough food to feed the planet. Now I have a chance to do something about our climate, and our energy, and the sustainability of our whole society. Isn’t that amazing!
I’m sure that all the time I “wasted” doing different things, things that had no rhyme or reason except that I wanted to try them, helped me immensely to be quick and adaptable, and especially to have no fear of failing.
So I encourage you from the bottom of my heart to stay relaxed about your career goals. Go after whatever sounds like fun at the time. Pursue knowledge for its own sake. Keep an eye out for what really makes your day.
Zany is good – if it works
And don’t worry if it sounds zany. The world is built on zany ideas.
Marc Andreesen, who helped launch the Internet back in the early nineties, who now helps to launch new high tech companies, actually looks for ideas that people are making fun of, that make no sense — except that for some reason, they are popular with users. It’s practically a guarantee that something the smartest people don’t “get” is actually going to succeed.
Look at Twitter. To have people send short messages to each other, that was the dumbest idea ever. Pretty good dumb successful idea!
So don’t be afraid of ridicule. The ridiculous is often the most rewarding.
The lesson of a coal mine
I’d like to tell you a last story.
About a hundred fifty years ago, the French writer Emile Zola visited a coal mine. At the bottom of the coal mine, he saw these big draft horses pulling the mine carts. He was puzzled. How did they get the horses up and down every day?
Oh non, Monsieur, he was told. These horses come down here as foals, and they never go back up. They live out their lives in the coal mine.
That’s pretty tough. That horse actually played in the fields with his friends. Now he’s working nine to five.
Let’s imagine for a second that you had a whole human society working and living down in that coal mine, and never coming up. They do fine, they ship out the coal and they get food and stuff sent down.
Life is OK, you have your friends and you can go down Shaft Number Three for a very exclusive party with only your BFFs.
But every once in a while, you might walk past the central mine shaft. If you bothered to look up, you might see a patch of blue sky.
You might even be curious enough to want to see what was up there.
You might try to figure out how to get up that shaft and out into the unknown, wide world.
A lot of people might ridicule the idea, and a lot of people might say it could never work, that it had been tried before.
But you and one or two of your friends might try it, and after many attempts, you might one day succeed. And the world would literally be yours.
That is what I wish for you, my dear Delphi graduates. May the whole world literally be yours.
June 11, 2011