Duke University, 2018
May 13, 2018
Hello, Blue Devils! It’s great to be back.
It’s an honor to stand before you—both as your commencement speaker and a fellow Duke graduate.
I earned my degree from the Fuqua School in 1988. In preparing for this speech, I reached out to one of my favorite professors from back then. Bob Reinheimer taught a great course in Management Communications, which included sharpening your public speaking skills. We hadn’t spoken for decades, so I was thrilled when he told me: he remembered a particularly gifted public speaker who took his class in the 1980s… With a bright mind and a charming personality! He said he knew—way back then—this person was destined for greatness. You can imagine how this made me feel. Professor Reinheimer had an eye for talent. And, if I do say so, I think his instincts were right… Melinda Gates has really made her mark on the world. I’m grateful to Bob, Dean Boulding, and all of my Duke professors. Their teachings have stayed with me throughout my career. I want to thank President Price, the Duke Faculty, and my fellow members of the Board of Trustees for the honor of speaking with you today. I’d also like to recognize this year’s honorary degree recipients. And most of all, congratulations to the class of 2018! No graduate gets to this moment alone. I want to acknowledge your parents, grandparents and friends here cheering you on, just as they have every step of the way. Let’s give them our thanks. Today especially, I remember my mother, who watched me graduate from Duke. I wouldn’t have been there that day—or made it here today—without her support. Let’s give our special thanks to all the mothers here today, on Mother’s Day. I have wonderful memories here. Studying—and not studying—with people I still count as friends to this day. Cheering at Cameron for every victory. Cheering even louder when that victory is over Carolina. Look back over your shoulder fondly and say goodbye to act one of your life. And then quickly look forward. Act two begins today. It’s your turn to reach out and take the baton. You enter the world at a time of great challenge. Our country is deeply divided—and too many Americans refuse to hear any opinion that differs from their own. Our planet is warming with devastating consequences—and there are some who deny it’s even happening. Our schools and communities suffer from deep inequality—we fail to guarantee every student the right to a good education. And yet we are not powerless in the face of these problems. You are not powerless to fix them. No generation has ever held more power than yours. And no generation has been able to make change happen faster than yours can. The pace at which progress is possible has accelerated dramatically. Aided by technology, every individual has the tools, potential, and reach to build a better world. That makes this the best time in history to be alive. Whatever you choose to do with your life… Wherever your passion takes you. I urge you to take the power you have been given and use it for good. Aspire to leave this world better than you found it. I didn’t always see life as clearly as I do now. But I’ve learned the greatest challenge of life is knowing when to break with conventional wisdom. Don’t just accept the world you inherit today. Don’t just accept the status quo. No big challenge has ever been solved, and no lasting improvement has ever been achieved, unless people dare to try something different. Dare to think different. I was lucky to learn from someone who believed this deeply. Someone who knew that changing the world starts with “following a vision, not a path.” He was my friend and mentor, Steve Jobs. Steve’s vision was that great ideas come from a restless refusal to accept things as they are. And those principles still guide us at Apple today. We reject the notion that global warming is inevitable. That’s why we run Apple on 100% renewable energy. We reject the excuse that getting the most out of technology means trading away your right to privacy. So we choose a different path: Collecting as little of your data as possible. Being thoughtful and respectful when it’s in our care. Because we know it belongs to you. In every way, at every turn, the question we ask ourselves is not ‘what can we do’ but ‘what should we do’. Because Steve taught us that’s how change happens. And from him I learned to never be content with things as they are. I believe this mindset comes naturally to young people…and you should never let go of that restlessness. So today’s ceremony isn’t just about presenting you with a degree, it’s about presenting you with a question. How will you challenge the status quo? How will you push the world forward? Fifty years ago today—May 13th, 1968—Robert Kennedy was campaigning in Nebraska, and spoke to a group of students who were wrestling with that same question. Those were troubled times, too. The U.S. was at war in Vietnam. There was violent unrest in America’s cities. And the country was still reeling from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King a month earlier. Kennedy gave the students a call to action. When you look across this country, and when you see peoples’ lives held back by discrimination and poverty… when you see injustice and inequality. He said, you should be the last people to accept things as they are. Let Kennedy’s words echo here today. “You should be the last people to accept [it].” Whatever path you’ve chosen… Be it medicine, business, engineering, the humanities—whatever drives your passion. Be the last to accept the notion that the world you inherit cannot be improved. Be the last to accept the excuse that says, “that’s just how things are done here.” Duke graduates, you should be the last people to accept it. And you should be the first to change it. The world-class education you’ve received—that you’ve worked so hard for—gives you opportunities that few people have. You are uniquely qualified, and therefore uniquely responsible, to build a better way forward. That won’t be easy. It will require great courage. But that courage will not only help you live your life to the fullest—it will empower you to transform the lives of others. Last month I was in Birmingham to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. And I had the incredible privilege of spending time with women and men who marched and worked alongside him. Many of them were younger at the time than you are now. They told me that when they defied their parents and joined the sit-ins and boycotts, when they faced the police dogs and firehoses, they were risking everything they had—becoming foot soldiers for justice without a second thought. Because they knew that change had to come. Because they believed so deeply in the cause of justice. Because they knew, even with all the adversity they had faced, they had the chance to build something better for the next generation. We can all learn from their example. If you hope to change the world, you must find your fearlessness. Now, if you’re anything like I was on graduation day, maybe you’re not feeling so fearless. Maybe you’re thinking about the job you hope to get, or wondering where you’re going to live, or how to repay that student loan. These, I know, are real concerns. I had them, too. But don’t let those worries stop you from making a difference. Fearlessness means taking the first step, even if you don’t know where it will take you. It means being driven by a higher purpose, rather than by applause. It means knowing that you reveal your character when you stand apart, more than when you stand with the crowd. If you step up, without fear of failure… if you talk and listen to each other, without fear of rejection… if you act with decency and kindness, even when no one is looking, even if it seems small or inconsequential, trust me, the rest will fall into place. More importantly, you’ll be able to tackle the big things when they come your way. It’s in those truly trying moments that the fearless inspire us. Fearless like the students of Parkland, Florida—who refuse to be silent about the epidemic of gun violence, and have rallied millions to their cause. Fearless like the women who say “me, too” and “time’s up”… women who cast light into dark places, and move us toward a more just and equal future. Fearless like those who fight for the rights of immigrants… who understand that our only hopeful future is one that embraces all who want to contribute. Duke graduates, be fearless. Be the last people to accept things as they are, and the first people to stand up and change them for the better. In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech at Page Auditorium to an overflow crowd. Students who couldn’t get a seat listened from outside on the lawn. Dr. King warned them that someday we would all have to atone, not only for the words and actions of the bad people, but for “the appalling silence and indifference of the good people, who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’” Martin Luther King stood right here at Duke, and said: “The time is always right to do right.” For you, graduates, that time is now. It will always be now.
It’s time to add your brick to the path of progress.
It’s time for all of us to move forward. And it’s time for you to lead the way. Thank you—and congratulations, Class of 2018!