The Commencement Address Nobody Asked Me To Give
Welcome, graduates of the class of 2013, and congratulations. You are some of the finest students our system of education — no, our society — has ever produced. Rather than stand here and occupy your time with random inspirational thoughts, I would prefer to stand back and let you rush out there to disrupt the world into which you were born.
Unfortunately, you probably won’t. And that’s too bad because those of us who have gone before you really need you to disrupt things — which is ironic to say because we are actually the reason you won’t live up to your potential.
Now that I have your attention (and perhaps have primed the urge for an antidepressant), let me tell you why your future is likely so bleak.
You are among the world’s first fully digital citizens. You were born after the Macintosh IIx, Windows 3.0, and the launch of AOL. We now have the iPad, Windows 8, and Google Fiber. When you entered kindergarten, already 20 million US households were connected to the Internet, and by the time you started high school, that number had quadrupled to approximately 80 million. Oh, and in that year of high school, YouTube posted its first video and Facebook opened its social network to anyone with an email address; today, YouTube shows 4 billion hours of videos each month, and Facebook has more than 1 billion friends.
You lived through and accelerated all of this. And you are superhuman because of it. You have more potential knowledge than any generation before you. You have access to and are experts at navigating the tools, devices, networks, and systems that will define the economy of the future. And despite some popular perceptions of how you waste some of your time with those tools following drunk celebrities on Twitter or sexting each other, it is my experience that many of you are ready to assume a disruptive place in the world.
For example, earlier this year, I judged a competition between student groups at a Boston-area university. These teams worked for three weeks to generate business plans that employ the sponsoring company’s technology. As a former professor who had students create business plans in the mid-1990s, I can categorically say that all three of the business plans I judged were an order of magnitude better than what my students achieved nearly two decades ago. Digital tools gave the students of today a decided edge, in information gathering, idea generation, product testing, and prototyping. In fact, a few of the project plans were as good as a briefing I might get from a venture-backed startup in my role as a technology analyst.
As I sat through the pitches, there arose in me an irrational optimism for the future, given the capabilities of the students in whose care that future would be placed. Digitally equipped, they were ready to disrupt the world. They saw no boundaries between their ideas and the market. Then I remembered something: These bright, amazing, digital students would soon graduate and within very few months would have entry-level jobs in companies that would immediately begin the process of retraining them to think like analog people.
Analog people are those who have been subject to the forces of analog business long enough that they have never known or have forgotten how energizing it is to generate an idea, refine it through iterative conversation with bright peers, and then test it in the market as swiftly as you are ready to. And they certainly don’t see digital tools as the dramatic shortcut to all of those processes that you do. Most of us in the business world are analog people. And I collectively apologize to you on our behalf for the number of times you are going to hear the following analog excuses:
- We tried that once.
- We don’t have budget for that.
- You can’t prove the ROI on that.
- The executive team doesn’t like that idea.
- Our shareholders won’t tolerate that kind of risk.
- Sure, consumers love that, but where’s the revenue model?
- Our tech project list is full.
- We can’t risk our brand on that.
- We can’t cannibalize that business; it’s what keeps the lights on around here.
The list of excuses analog people give goes on and on. I’ve heard them all, including one I heard this week where someone resisted being inspired by disruptive startups Uber and AirBnB because “what they’re doing is illegal.” We’re good at thinking like this, and we’re going to do our best to invite you to the dark analog side of business. It would be easier on us to stand between you and the disruption that you are so capable of rather than encourage you.
But you should ignore us. Because the digital disruption you are capable of is disruption that we want because we’re consumers, too — we want better stuff, more efficient services, and cool experiences. And it’s also disruption that we need to grow our economy, to stimulate new opportunities for the workforce, and to make better use of the billions lying fallow in corporate accounts waiting to be put to use. And we need it to get your entire generation moving so that you don’t end up living in our basements for the next two decades, failing to launch, failing to marry, and failing to produce the next generation of kids who are going to be even more spectacularly equipped than you are. (Picture a generation of youth born after Google Glass.)
The more I stand here and give you the bleak overview of the future, the angrier I get about it. Hopefully, the more I say, the more rebellious you get, the more you want to rush out there and prove me wrong, and the more motivated you are to insist that your digital acumen coupled with your naïve faith in each other can and should be put to use by whatever company you work for. This is so that on day one, when your employer tries to tell you how things are “done around here,” you can respond with conviction: “Let me tell you how things are done out there.” Then go do them.