Mark Zuckerberg was chosen to give Harvard University’s commencement speech, a remarkable honor for somebody who wasn’t even qualified.
Zuckerberg, the co-founder and chief executive of Facebook, is fabulously wealthy and successful, but also not quite educated. He didn’t just quietly drop out of Harvard many years ago, he confirmed it for the campus newspaper when he dropped by campus in 2005 to recruit for his hot new company. The rest of his Harvard class graduated without him the following spring.
It must not have occurred to the Harvard officials who asked Zuckerberg to speak that his very presence might undermine the mission of this great university. And it came at a time when it’s becoming harder to remember that what’s really important about getting a formal education is what you learn and learn how to do. It’s not the job, wealth or status that may follow.
Zuckerberg in his address last month stressed the importance that graduates lead a life of clear purpose. But it’s hard to miss another message: that job, wealth or status — you know, success — can all be had without investing the time and money in a formal education.
A Harvard degree clearly wasn’t worth that much to Zuckerberg. Without one, he’s worth $64 billion.
The mission of places like Harvard isn’t to turn out wealthy CEOs, though, or even “successful” graduates. It’s to have students graduate far better prepared than when they got there, for work and whatever else life brings. And Harvard should by now have an awfully deep pool of actual graduates with something to say that’s worth hearing, no matter what their net worth is.
Unfortunately it’s now common to see celebrities standing in front of graduates and dispensing jokes and life advice without having first sat in the chairs of the graduates.
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is often listed as a brilliant college dropout who later nailed a commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005. Here’s one interesting thing about his talk, though, and why it’s worth finding on YouTube — Jobs really understood his mission that day.
“Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal,” he said. He began with a story he called “connecting the dots.”
Jobs explained that he had quit Reed College in Oregon, a small liberal arts college, because he lacked direction and the tuition and fees were eating up the life savings of his parents.
He didn’t just leave the Reed campus, though. He slept on the floor of friends’ rooms at night and bought food with the nickel deposits from returning Coke bottles, all so he could keep going to classes that really interested him.
“And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on,” he explained to the Stanford graduates.
His best example was discovering calligraphy, learning what makes typography beautiful. Years later, one result was Apple introducing the first personal computer that had the ability to create that beautiful typography.
For those young people now anxious about the value of an expensive college degree, trust Steve Jobs. Those dots someday can get connected, and in ways not at all easy to predict.
The same week Zuckerberg appeared at Harvard, graduates at Grinnell College in Iowa got to hear something far funnier and more down-to-earth than what Zuckerberg had to say. There, comedian and HBO TV star Kumail Nanjiani — Grinnell class of 2001 — really delivered.
Zuckerberg’s talk at Harvard at first seemed to be about graduates helping other people lead a purpose-driven life, but really it turned out to be mostly about himself. Nanjiani seemed to talk a lot about himself. But what he was really doing was talking about all the graduates seated in front of him, too, sharing a universal story of starting out in life that they probably recognized as much like their own.
Nanjiani began by mentioning some far more famous products of Grinnell College, including actor Gary Cooper and musician Herbie Hancock, “who both dropped out.”
“Perhaps that was the mistake I made,” he continued. “It’s the same mistake that you are all making right now. History is full of stories of extremely successful individuals who dropped out of college. You and I will never be among them.”
Of course it unfolded that he didn’t really consider finishing college a mistake, but a milestone in a long journey that began in his hometown of Karachi, Pakistan. (Hancock eventually earned his Grinnell degree as well.)
Nanjiani chose Grinnell to get a degree from a fancy college that would guarantee a job. He described his bewilderment upon first arriving at a very small campus in a small Iowa town and seeing nothing like the images of America he remembered from American TV and movies.
As he told the 2017 graduates, that first year he looked up from his bottom bunk in the dorm at the metal frame holding his roommate’s bed above him, and all he saw were prison bars. He felt trapped, a long way from his home.
Less than four years later, he was able to stand up in front of an audience at college and tell jokes, and from there he moved to Chicago ready to give stand-up comedy a go. It took years to find any real success as a comedian, but that’s another story.
His point was how in four years a deeply homesick and shy computer science student from Pakistan could blossom into a philosophy (and computer science) student with the confidence to actually perform on a stage. He recalled great classes and having some fun, too. But for him, college turned out to be where he finally learned who he really was.
That’s one irreplaceable value of an education. It was a wonderful reassurance for new college graduates to hear — from one of them.