Hello GW. Thank you very much President Knapp for that kind intro. Alex, trustees, faculty and deans of the university, my fellow honorees, and especially you the class of 2015. Yes.
Congratulations to you, to your family, to your friends that are attending today’s ceremony. You made it. It’s a privilege, a rare privilege of a lifetime to be with you today. And I think thank you enough for making me an honorary Colonial.
Before I begin today, they asked me to make a standard announcement. You’ve heard this before. About silencing your phones. Those of you with an iPhone, just place it in silent mode. If you don’t have an iPhone, please pass it to the center aisle. Apple has a world‑class recycling program.
You know, this is really an amazing place. And for a lot of you, I’m sure that being here in Washington, the very center of our democracy, was a big draw when you were choosing which school to go to. This place has a powerful pull. It was here that Dr. Martin Luther King challenged Americans to make real the promises of democracy, to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. And it was here that President Ronald Reagan called on us to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds. I’d like to start this morning by telling you about my first visit here. In the summer of 1977 — yes, I’m a little old — I was 16 years old and living in Robertsdale, the small town in southern Alabama that I grew up in. At the end of my junior year of high school I’d won essay contest sponsored by the National Rural Electric Association. I can’t remember what the essay was about, what I do remember very clearly is writing it by hand, draft after draft after draft. Typewriters were very expensive and my family could not afford one.
I was one of two kids from Baldwin County that was chosen to go to Washington along with hundreds of other kids across the country. Before we left, the Alabama delegation took a trip to our state capitol in Montgomery for a meeting with the governor. The governor’s name was George C. Wallace. The same George Wallace who in 1963 stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to block African Americans from enrolling. Wallace embraced the evils of segregation. He pitted whites against blacks, the South against the North, the working class against the so‑called elites. Meeting my governor was not an honor for me.
My heroes in life were Dr. Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy, who had fought against the very things that Wallace stood for. Keep in mind, that I grew up, or, when I grew up, I grew up in a place that where King and Kennedy were not exactly held in high esteem. When I was a kid, the South was still coming to grips with its history. My textbooks even said the Civil War was about states’ rights. They barely mentioned slavery.
So I had to figure out for myself what was right and true. It was a search. It was a process. It drew on the moral sense that I’d learned from my parents, and in church, and in my own heart, and led me on my own journey of discovery.
I found books in the public library that they probably didn’t know they had. They all pointed to the fact that Wallace was wrong. That injustices like segregation had no place in our world. That equality is a right.
As I said, I was only 16 when I met Governor Wallace, so I shook his hand as we were expected to do. But shaking his hand felt like a betrayal of my own beliefs. It felt wrong. Like I was selling a piece of my soul. From Montgomery we flew to Washington.
It was the first time I had ever been on an airplane. In fact it was the first time that I traveled out of the South. On June 15, 1977, I was one of 900 high schoolers greeted by the new president, President Jimmy Carter on the south lawn of the White House, right there on the other side of the ellipse.
I was one of the lucky ones, who got to shake his hand. Carter saw Baldwin County on my name tag that day and stopped to speak with me. He wanted to know how people were doing after the rash of storms that struck Alabama that year. Carter was kind and compassionate; he held the most powerful job in the world but he had not sacrificed any of his humanity. I felt proud that he was president. And I felt proud that he was from the South.
In the space of a week, I had come face to face with two men who guaranteed themselves a place in history. They came from the same region. They were from the same political party. They were both governors of adjoining states. But they looked at the world in very different ways. It was clear to me, that one was right, and one was wrong. Wallace had built his political career by exploiting divisions between us. Carter’s message on the other hand, was that we are all bound together, every one of us. Each had made a journey that led them to the values that they lived by, but it wasn’t just about their experiences or their circumstances, it had to come from within.
My own journey in life was just beginning. I hadn’t even applied for college yet at that point. For you graduates, the process of discovering yourself, of inventing yourself, of reinventing yourself is about to begin in earnest. It’s about finding your values and committing to live by them. You have to find your North Star. And that means choices. Some are easy. Some are hard. And some will make you question everything.
Twenty years after my visit to Washington, I met someone who made me question everything. Who upended all of my assumptions in the very best way. That was Steve Jobs.
Steve had built a successful company. He had been sent away and he returned to find it in ruins. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was about to dedicate the rest of his life to rescuing it, and leading it to heights greater than anyone could ever imagine. Anyone, that is, except for Steve. Most people have forgotten, but in 1997 and early 1998, Apple had been adrift for years. Rudderless. But Steve thought Apple could be great again. And he wanted to know if I’d like to help.
His vision for Apple was a company that turned powerful technology into tools that were easy to use, tools that would help people realize their dreams. And change the world for the better. I had studied to be an engineer and earned an M.B.A. I was trained to be pragmatic, a problem solver. Now I found myself sitting before and listening to this very animated 40‑something guy with visions of changing the world. It was not what I had expected. You see, when it came to my career, in 1998, I was also adrift. Rudderless.
I knew who I was in my personal life, and I kept my eye on my North Star, my responsibility to do good for someone else, other than myself. But at work, well I always figured that work was work. Values had their place and, yes, there were things that I wanted to change about the world, but I thought I had to do that on my own time. Not in the office. Steve didn’t see it that way. He was an idealist. And in that way he reminded me of how I felt as a teenager. In that first meeting he convinced me if we worked hard and made great products, we too could help change the world. And to my surprise, I was hooked. I took the job and changed my life. It’s been 17 years and I have never once looked back.
At Apple we believe the work should be more than just about improving your own self. It’s about improving the lives of others as well. Our products do amazing things. And just as Steve envisioned, they empower people all over the world. People who are blind, and need information read to them because they can’t see the screen. People for whom technology is a lifeline because they are isolated by distance or disability. People who witness injustice and want to expose it, and now they can because they have a camera in their pocket all the time.
Our commitment goes beyond the products themselves to how they’re made. To our impact on the environment. To the role we play in demanding and promoting equality. And in improving education. We believe that a company that has values and acts on them can really change the world. And an individual can too. That can be you. That must be you. Graduates, your values matter. They are your North Star. And work takes on new meaning when you feel you are pointed in the right direction. Otherwise, it’s just a job, and life is too short for that. We need the best and brightest of your generation to lead in government and in business. In the science and in the arts. In journalism and in academia. There is honor in all of these pursuits. And there is opportunity to do work that is infused with moral purpose. You don’t have to choose between doing good and doing well. It’s a false choice, today more than ever.
Your challenge is to find work that pays the rent, puts food on the table, and lets you do what is right and good and just.
So find your North Star. Let it guide you in life, and work, and in your life’s work. Now, I suspect some of you aren’t buying this.
I won’t take it personally. It’s no surprise that people are skeptical, especially here in Washington.
Where these days you’ve got plenty of reason to be. And a healthy amount of skepticism is fine. Though too often in this town, it turns to cynicism. To the idea that no matter who’s talking or what they’re saying, that their motives are questionable, their character is suspect, and if you search hard enough, you can prove that they are lying. Maybe that’s just the world we live in. But graduates, this is your world to change.
As I said, I am a proud son of the South. It’s my home, and I will always love it. But for the last 17 years I’ve built a life in Silicon Valley; it’s a special place. The kind of place where there’s no problem that can’t be solved. No matter how difficult or complex, that’s part of its essential quality. A very sincere sort of optimism. Back in the 90s, Apple ran an advertising campaign we called “Think Different.” It was pretty simple. Every ad was a photograph of one of our heroes. People who had the audacity to challenge and change the way we all live. People like Gandhi and Jackie Robinson, Martha Graham and Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart and Miles Davis. These people still inspire us. They remind us to live by our deepest values and reach for our highest aspirations. They make us believe that anything is possible. A friend of mine at Apple likes to say the best way to solve a problem is to walk into a room full of Apple engineers and proclaim, “this is impossible.”
I can tell you, they will not accept that. And neither should you. So that’s the one thing I’d like to bring to you all the way from Cupertino, California. The idea that great progress is possible, whatever line of work you choose. There will always be cynics and critics on the sidelines tearing people down, and just as harmful are those people with good intentions who make no contribution at all. In his letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. King wrote that our society needed to repent, not merely for the hateful words of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.
The sidelines are not where you want to live your life. The world needs you in the arena. There are problems that need to be solved. Injustices that need to be ended. People that are still being persecuted, diseases still in need of cure. No matter what you do next, the world needs your energy. Your passion. Your impatience with progress. Don’t shrink from risk. And tune out those critics and cynics. History rarely yields to one person, but think, and never forget, what happens when it does. That can be you. That should be you. That must be you.
Congratulations Class of 2015. I’d like to take one photo of you, because this is the best view in the world. And it’s a great one. Thank you very much.
Tim Cook is the CEO of Apple and a 2012, 2015 TIME 100 honoree.
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