Pharrell Williams tells grads the secret of motivation: ‘Serve humanity’

On Wednesday, the next generation’s future was the focus of Pharrell Williams’ commencement speech to New York University students. As a musician, producer, business mogul, and fashion-forward millinery maestro, Williams has always been about the future, years ahead of his peers in his music and style.


Don’t be motivated by attention

Williams highlighted the work of the other NYU honorary degree recipients as a lesson to students on how to achieve success by staying focused. They included Thomas Frieden, the ex-head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the longest-serving female U.S. senator, former Congresswoman and gun control advocate Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly.

The lesson from their accomplishments? They stay focused on their goals. The honorees weren’t distracted by the fame their high-profile positions brought them: “They are not motivated by attention. But rather, they are motivated by the idea of creating change.”

In other words: Don’t chase fame. Chase results.

Although Williams has over nine million followers on Instagram, he does not consider that a metric of success.

“These great scientists, public servants, and activists cannot be bothered with building their Instagram followers,” he said. “Or how many views they get on Youtube…But they are the real influencers. Their work makes us healthier, safer, more enriched, and more intelligent. Their work is designed to improve the quality of life for all people, not just themselves.”

‘There is no humanity without education’

Calling himself “forever a student,” Williams told the Class of 2017 that education was the key to their success.

“There is no humanity without education. There is no education without demand. You are all walking endorsements for education. Embrace it.”

Williams did not finish college himself, but he has invested in education. In 2016, he held an emotionally moving masterclass on music for NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

The next generation will close the gender gap

Williams emphasized that women are the future, and that the Class of 2017 is “the first generation that navigates the world with the security and confidence to treat women as equal.”

Williams is hopeful that the future generation will help close the gender gap: “Your generation is unraveling deeply entrenched laws, principals, and misguided values that have held women back for far too long and, therefore, have held us all back.”

Williams recognizes that success can seem distant and even unattainable in the beginning of a career. He sought to inspire students by bringing his and the other honorees’ accomplishments down to Earth.

“Just like you, these recipients are brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters,” he said. “We all put our pants on one leg at a time. We all have a daily commute, but we do so with an eye towards something bigger: Serving humanity.”