Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a sweeping commencement speech Thursday to Harvard University’s 2017 class. The central message was the importance of purpose and giving everyone the “freedom to fail.” The best example: Queen Bey. “Even Beyoncé had to make hundreds of songs to get ‘Halo,'” he cracked, earning a collective laugh.
The 33-year-old, who dropped out of Harvard in 2004 before his game-changing move to Silicon Valley, also used himself as an example – along with author J.K. Rowling. “Facebook wasn’t the first thing I built,” he said. “I also built chat systems and games, study tools and music players. And I’m not alone: J.K. Rowling got rejected 12 times before she finally wrote and published Harry Potter.”
Zuckerberg returned to the Ivy League school to accept an honorary doctorate. During his speech, the tech giant reflected on the early days of Facebook – including a story about how a close advisor tried to pressure him into selling the company before he was ready. “[He] told me if I didn’t agree to sell the company right [then], I would regret that decision for the rest of my life,” Zuckerberg said.
Within a year after that tough decision, everyone from his original management team fled. “That was my hardest time leading Facebook,” he said. “I believed in what we were doing, but I felt alone. And, worse, it was my fault. I wondered if I was just wrong – an imposter, a 22-year-old who had no idea how things actually worked. Now, years later, I understand that that is how things work when there’s no sense of higher purpose.”
Zuckerberg structured his speech into three main themes: “taking on big, meaningful projects together,” “redefining equality so everyone has the freedom to pursue their purpose” and “building community all across the world.” Throughout the 40-minute talk, he touched on topics like immigration, climate jobs, racism and healthcare.
“It is time for our generation-defining great works,” he said. “How about stopping climate change before we destroy the planet and getting millions of people involved manufacturing and installing solar panels? How about curing all diseases and getting people involved by asking volunteers to share their health data, track their health data and share their genomes? … How about modernizing democracy so everyone can vote online? And how about personalizing education so everyone can learn? These achievements are all within our reach.”