Apple CEO tells college graduates: ‘We have failed you’

“Today, certain algorithms pull toward you the things that you already know, believe, or like, and they push away everything else. Push back!”

Tulane University

Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a wide-ranging commencement address at Tulane University about making the hard decisions, climate change, and the dangerous creep of algorithms.

Cook, who grew up on the Gulf Coast in Alabama and went to Auburn University, began by making sure to thank not only the faculty but the “workers, ushers, volunteers” who prepared the space.


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Cook urged graduates to make decisions that felt true to them even when others told them “No, that you can’t, that you shouldn’t, that you’d be better off if you’d didn’t try.”

He used the example of how he came to Apple in the first place. He had been at Compaq previously, a company that “at the time looked like it was going to be on top forever.” But the status quo never lasts, Cook warned graduates. In 1998, Steve Jobs convinced him to “leave Compaq behind to join a company that was on the verge of bankruptcy. They made computers, but at that moment, people weren’t interested in buying them.” But Cook was interested in being part of Apple’s transformation. For him, he said, it was a “search for greater purpose” that brought him there.

The lesson? To be successful and fulfilled, Cook said, don’t take the well-trod path. “Don’t waste time on problems that have been solved … Instead, steer your ship into the choppy seas. Look for the rough spots, the problems that seem too big, the complexities that other people are content to work around. It’s in those place you will find your purpose. It’s there that you can make your greatest contribution.”

The tech wizard, curiously, warned against algorithms, which his company, in part, helped popularize: “We forget sometimes that our preexisting beliefs have their own force of gravity. Today, certain algorithms pull toward you the things you already know, believe, or like, and they push away everything else. Push back. It shouldn’t be this way. But in 2019, opening your eyes and seeing things in a new way can be a revolutionary act. Summon the courage not just to hear but to listen. Not just to act, but to act together.”

Cook also discussed climate change and Franklin Roosevelt, and the duty to build a better world.

“Call upon your grit,” Cook commanded. “Make it your life’s work to remake the world, because there is nothing more beautiful or worthwhile than working to leave something more beautiful than humanity.”

Below is video and the full transcript of his commencement address:

Hello Tulane! Thank you, President Fitts, Provost Forman, distinguished faculty, other faculty [laughs], and the entire Tulane family, including the workers, ushers, [and] volunteers who prepared this beautiful space. And I feel duty-bound to also recognize the hard-working bartenders at The Boot. Though they’re not here with us this morning, I’m sure some of you are reflecting on their contributions as well. [The Boot is a popular college bar right next to Tulane’s campus which has been around for decades.]

And just as many of you have New Orleans in your veins, and perhaps your livers, some of us at Apple have New Orleans in our blood as well. When I was a student at Auburn, the Big Easy was our favorite getaway. It’s amazing how quickly those 363 miles fly by when you’re driving toward a weekend of beignets and beer. And how slowly they go in the opposite direction. Apple’s own Lisa Jackson is a proud Tulane alum. Yes. She brought the Green Wave all the way to Cupertino where she heads our environment and public policy work. We’re thrilled to have her talent and leadership on our team.

OK, enough about us. Let’s talk about you. At moments like this, it always humbles me to watch a community come together to teach, mentor, advise, and finally say with one voice, congratulations to the class of 2019!

Now there’s another very important group: your family and friends. The people who, more than anyone else, loved, supported, and even sacrificed greatly to help you reach this moment. Let’s give them a round of applause. This will be my first piece of advice. You might not appreciate until much later in your life how much this moment means to them. Or how that bond of obligation, love, and duty between you matters more than anything else.

In fact, that’s what I really want to talk to you about today. In a world where we obsessively document our own lives, most of us don’t pay nearly enough attention to what we owe one another. Now, this isn’t just about calling your parents more, although I’m sure they’d be grateful if you did that. It’s about recognizing that human civilization began when we realized that we could do more together. That the threats and danger outside the flickering firelight got smaller when we got bigger. And that we could create more — more prosperity, more beauty, more wisdom, and a better life — when we acknowledge certain shared truths and acted collectively.

Maybe I’m biased, but I’ve always thought the South, and the Gulf Coast in particular, have hung on to this wisdom better than most. [Tim Cook grew up in Robertsdale, Alabama, which is about an hour from New Orleans and is similarly close to the Gulf of Mexico.] In this part of the country, your neighbors check up on you if they haven’t heard from you in a while. Good news travels fast because your victories are their victories too. And you can’t make it through someone’s front door before they offer you a home-cooked meal.

Maybe you haven’t thought about it very much, but these values have informed your Tulane education too. Just look at the motto: not for one’s self, but for one’s own. You’ve been fortunate to live, learn, and grow in a city where human currents blend into something magical and unexpected. Where unmatched beauty, natural beauty, literary beauty, musical beauty, cultural beauty, seem to spring unexpectedly from the bayou. The people of New Orleans use two tools to build this city: the unlikely and the impossible. Wherever you go, don’t forget the lessons of this place. Life will always find lots of ways to tell you no, that you can’t, that you shouldn’t, that you’d be better off if you didn’t try. But New Orleans teaches us there is nothing more beautiful or more worthwhile than trying. Especially when we do it not in the service of one’s self, but one’s own.

For me, it was that search for greater purpose that brought me to Apple in the first place. I had a comfortable job at a company called Compaq that at the time looked like it was going to be on top forever. As it turns out, most of you are probably too young to even remember its name. But in 1998, Steve Jobs convinced me to leave Compaq behind to join a company that was on the verge of bankruptcy. They made computers, but at that moment at least, people weren’t interested in buying them. Steve had a plan to change things. And I wanted to be a part of it.

It wasn’t just about the iMac, or the iPod, or everything that came after. It was about the values that brought these inventions to life. The idea that putting powerful tools in the hands of everyday people helps unleash creativity and move humanity forward. That we can build things that help us imagine a better world and then make it real.

There’s a saying that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. At Apple, I learned that’s a total crock. You’ll work harder than you ever thought possible, but the tools will feel light in your hands. As you go out into the world, don’t waste time on problems that have been solved. Don’t get hung up on what other people say is practical. Instead, steer your ship into the choppy seas. Look for the rough spots, the problems that seem too big, the complexities that other people are content to work around. It’s in those places that you will find your purpose. It’s there that you can make your greatest contribution. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of being too cautious. Don’t assume that by staying put, the ground won’t move beneath your feet. The status quo simply won’t last. So get to work on building something better.

In some important ways, my generation has failed you in this regard. We spent too much time debating. We’ve been too focused on the fight and not focused enough on progress. And you don’t need to look far to find an example of that failure. Here today, in this very place, in an arena where thousands once found desperate shelter from a 100-year disaster, the kind that seem to be happening more and more frequently, I don’t think we can talk about who we are as people and what we owe to one another without talking about climate change.

[applause] Thank you. Thank you.

This problem doesn’t get any easier based on whose side wins or loses an election. It’s about who has won life’s lottery and has the luxury of ignoring this issue and who stands to lose everything. The coastal communities, including some right here in Louisiana, that are already making plans to leave behind the places they’ve called home for generations and head for higher ground. The fishermen whose nets come up empty. The wildlife preserves with less wildlife to preserve. The marginalized, for whom a natural disaster can mean enduring poverty.

Just ask Tulane’s own Molly Keogh, who’s getting her Ph.D. this weekend. Her important new research shows that rising sea levels are devastating areas of Southern Louisiana more dramatically than anyone expected. Tulane graduates, these are people’s homes. Their livelihoods. The land where their grandparents were born, lived, and died.

When we talk about climate change or any issue with human costs, and there are many, I challenge you to look for those who have the most to lose and find the real, true empathy that comes from something shared. That is really what we owe one another. When you do that, the political noise dies down, and you can feel your feet firmly planted on solid ground. After all, we don’t build monuments to trolls, and we’re not going to start now.

If you find yourself spending more time fighting than getting to work, stop and ask yourself who benefits from all the chaos. There are some who would like you to believe that the only way that you can be strong is by bulldozing those who disagree or never giving them a chance to say their peace in the first place. That the only way you can build your own accomplishments is by tearing down the other side.

We forget sometimes that our preexisting beliefs have their own force of gravity. Today, certain algorithms pull toward you the things you already know, believe, or like, and they push away everything else. Push back. It shouldn’t be this way. But in 2019, opening your eyes and seeing things in a new way can be a revolutionary act. Summon the courage not just to hear but to listen. Not just to act, but to act together.

It can sometimes feel like the odds are stacked against you, that it isn’t worth it, that the critics are too persistent and the problems are too great. But the solutions to our problems begin on a human scale with building a shared understanding of the work ahead and with undertaking it together. At the very least, we owe it to each other to try.

It’s worked before. In 1932, the American economy was in a free-fall. Twelve million people were unemployed, and conventional wisdom said the only thing to do was to ride it out, wait, and hope that things would turn around. But the governor of New York, a rising star named Franklin Roosevelt, refused to wait. He challenged the status quo and called for action. He needed people to stop their rosy thinking, face the facts, pull together, and help themselves out of a jam. He said: “The country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it and try another. But above all, try something.”

This was a speech to college students fearful about their future in an uncertain world. He said: “Yours is not the task of making your way in the world, but the task of remaking the world.” The audacious empathy of young people, the spirit that says we should live not just for ourselves, but for our own. That’s the way forward. From climate change to immigration, from criminal justice reform to economic opportunity, be motivated by your duty to build a better world. Young people have changed the course of history time and time again. And now it’s time to change it once more.

I know, I know the urgency of that truth is with you today. Feel big because no one can make you feel strong. Feel brave because the challenges we face are great but you are greater. And feel grateful because someone sacrificed to make this moment possible for you. You have clear eyes and a long life to use them. And here in this stadium, I can feel your courage.

Call upon your grit. Try something. You may succeed. You may fail. But make it your life’s work to remake the world because there is nothing more beautiful or more worthwhile than working to leave something better for humanity.

Thank you very much, and congratulations class of 2019!


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Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.