Do Something Important
We’re at that most bizarre and head-scratching time of year: commencement address season.
Each year, around 3 million American twenty-somethings earn their degrees. And each year, most of those same 3,000,000 are forced to sit through a speech that is designed to somehow help them transition from academic to professional. To be sure, these commencement speeches can be profound, funny, historic and even — if you’re very, very lucky — meaningful and interesting. I’m sure that some percentage of these students go on to leverage the contents of that speech in their post-graduate lives.
But what about those of us not-so-recently graduated? Who’s going to give us a rousing address and acknowledge the need for fortitude and transformation we also face?
To that end, if you feel like you are staring down a major transition in your life but are not matriculating from an institution of higher learning this spring, I’m pleased to offer you these prepared remarks.
Fellow humans, I am honored and just a little bit humbled to have been asked to speak here as part of the 2017 commencement. As a very proud, fellow member of this collegial world, I just want to give a shout out to my favorite team: Go Humans!
[HOLD FOR APPLAUSE]
Now, many of you will be expecting an inspiring speech today full of quotes, quips, jokes and the occasional emotional outpouring.
Let me cut to the chase and avoid wasting the precious time you could be using to work, learn, sleep or just surf social media:
Do. Something. Important.
Many people will tell you something along those lines, such as “Find your purpose” or “Always pursue your passions”, or “Be your best self.”
I think those suggestions are great, but not especially practical when you are faced with making decisions of great importance.
If you’re very smart, your internal motivations will rarely be clear — and free of analysis or second-guessing — enough to rely upon entirely. I’ve only met very few people who woke up every day with a lifelong, singular vision of themselves and never questioned it. Trying to figure out a unifying theory of your own self-motivation is like attempting to boil down the economy to a single formula.
You are too fluid, sophisticated, and complex for that.
Heck, if you are like most smart people, your motivations, interests, passions and drive are constantly shifting — perhaps imperceptibly. New ideas, dreams and visions may emerge regularly, and as you meet new people and experience new things, your context changes such that the choices you’d make last year may no longer be current.
Moreover, if you made a list of the people you admire the most, I’m pretty sure they would all have something in common: they did something important.
Now, I’m sure you can come up with lots of people who might not fit the stereotypical definition of “achievers of importance”, but let’s break down the three words in my proposal to understand this better.
Do is the basic element of life. We must do in order to be, and it is the very fact of our doing that creates our place in time. Some would argue that “being” is sufficient, and mere existence is satisfactory. But I would argue that this is one of the most privileged ideas you could possibly entertain, and it’s insipid to the core. Nothing can happen without doing, and everything you have today exists because someone did. Your parents, your grandparents, the people who designed and built that device you’re using to read this. Everyone did, and because they did, you are here.
This doesn’t mean you have to work 24/7, or have a dozen children, or constantly create art in order to do. There are ebbs and flows, and a lifetime of doing has both ups and downs. But in order to be a doer you have to start every cycle of your life with the intention to create, to build, to form, to discover.
In short, there is no try. Only do.
Something may seem like a weak word, but its use is very specific. If I replaced this with the word nothing (“Do Nothing Important”), the whole meaning of my entreaty would reverse — so it’s clearly not a throwaway concept. But why something general and not something specific, you might ask?
The reason is that progress is better than perfection. Many people never do something because they are deathly afraid of not doing anything. And some are afraid to do something because they fear it simply won’t be good enough for whoever is their most vicious critic. I’ve spent a lifetime arguing with my loudest adversary (my internal, self-critical voice), and I can tell you definitively: there is never a moment where your critic will be satisfied.
So you have to do something. But how do you know what something to do?
That’s where Important comes in.
There are almost limitless choices in our current economy. Even if you feel like you don’t have many choices, there are options before you that are orders of magnitude more sophisticated than those that previous generations could experience. This is largely due to technology, but that is also a double-edged sword.
On one hand, we can do so much with even the technology currently in your pocket. On the other, it can be a tool of distraction, dehumanization and disconnection. The great challenge of our age — and the one I’ve dedicated my life to solving with my new startup Onward — is how we can use technology to help end addiction, change people’s lives and help them create tech-life balance.
I understood this was important because I’d spent the last 15 years making things more addictive and engaging in my work. As time went on, I started seeing the negative effects of my work on the world around me — and without ignoring the positive side as well — I knew I had to make it my mission to help people conquer addiction. Luckily I found many people willing to make common cause with me, and our team has grown to include the most amazing people I’ve ever had the chance to work with (and could include you too).
But while I found my importance taking a very big swing at a very big problem, if you don’t feel strongly about curing major diseases, you don’t need to fret. Importance is a highly relative personal value, and can be distilled down as the impact you have on other people’s lives. Both the amplitude of the impact and the number of people combine to set the overall societal “leaderboard” for importance — but in your world, the equation need not be so strict or global. You may decide that raising a single child, planting a garden, teaching or inventing a new form of math is your greatest contribution. The relative importance is up to you, though I hope your equation considers positive vs negative impacts on society.
When considering importance, start by thinking about impact: whose life can I change (for the better), and by how much.
And don’t worry too much about the far-flung future. Attempting to overpredict the unpredictable tends to leave people feeling powerless, unmotivated and unsure of how to effect change. This doesn’t mean you don’t care about the world you’re leaving for our kids and grandkids, it simply means that you are committed to improving it through concrete actions you can effect now, not perfect visions that may never be realized (unless vision is itself specifically how you create change).
Simply put — if you wake up every day and Do Something Important, and you maximize the equation according to your own skills and interests, I promise you a life of satisfaction, happiness and wealth — both emotional and physical.
[HOLD FOR APPLAUSE]
You’re too kind.
Thank you, really.
[EVEN MORE INTENSE APPLAUSE]