What Harvard graduates saw from Mark Zuckerberg: Humility
“My Snapchat is frozen. Must be ’cause Zuck is nearby,” a Harvard undergraduate joked Thursday as he stared at his phone. A few rain-soaked yards away, Drew Faust, president of Harvard University, was giving her commencement address for the Class of 2017.
Faust’s speech was on freedom of speech and the need to listen to ideologies different than your own. The undergraduate, a member of the choir, was too busy trying to access the Snapchat Stories of his closest friends to listen. His joke was a reflection of what is dominating headlines about Facebook: less about freedom of speech, more about copying all of Snapchat’s features.
A few minutes later, the student put down the phone. A damp and listless crowd moved to attention. Surrounded by the usual top hats and fancy attire found at a Harvard University Commencement, Facebook CEO and cofounder Mark Zuckerberg, a member of the Class of 2004 who famously never graduated, took the stage to speak.
The rain—and the fact that graduates had already received their degrees earlier in the day—meant Harvard Yard was well less than half full. Of course, those missing people could watch Zuckerberg’s speech live on Facebook from anywhere in the world.
For those, like the Snapchat-loving student who sat in front me, it was a moment to watch one of the richest people in the world reminisce on his college years at a shared institution and offer some advice.
For myself, a business reporter in the audience, it was a chance to see Zuckerberg in a suit and hear him talk to students, rather than to a room full of developers, investors, or journalists like usual. This was a Zuck out of water, though there was plenty of that too.
What we both learned is that Zuckerberg isn’t just after the fame, the money, and a potential presidential run. He spent his Thursday afternoon telling and showing the world that he can be humble about the success he’s achieved—and that he hopes others with power can do the same.
“I love this place,” Zuckerberg said, with an unexpected amount of enthusiasm especially when compared to Faust, to begin what would be a 30-minute long speech that had a one-word tagline: purpose.
That single word was uttered 27 times within the speech, according to a transcript he later published to his Facebook page.
“Today I want to talk about purpose,” Zuckerberg said. “But I’m not here to give you the standard commencement about finding your purpose. We’re millennials. We’ll try to do that instinctively.”
“Instead, I’m here to tell you finding your purpose isn’t enough. The challenge for our generation is creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose,” he continued.
Zuckerberg’s first laugh from the audience came rather quickly. In his opening, welcoming esteemed people in attendance, he greeted “members of the Ad Board,” the body of faculty in charge of disciplining students—whether it be for cheating on an exam or, in Zuckerberg’s case, creating a site called Facemash.
The students around me laughed and the enthusiasm continued as he named classes and other experiences only Harvard alumni would really understand. His trip down memory lane, before he transitioned to the topic of purpose, was a tribute to Priscilla Chan, his wife and Harvard graduate of the Class of 2007.
“My best memory from Harvard was meeting Priscilla,” he said. “Without Facemash I wouldn’t have met Priscilla, and she’s the most important person in my life, so you could say it was the most important thing I built in my time here.”
A female undergraduate, a member of the band, “aww’ed” next to me, and she asked if Zuckerberg was crying. Regardless if there were tears, to me, someone who has heard Zuckerberg speak dozens of times — in person at Facebook’s F8 conferences, on earnings calls, and in Facebook Lives — it was the first time I had really felt a sense of humility from him. That continued.
When Zuckerberg began talking about purpose, it seemed that he was simply reiterating what he had already written in the nearly 6,000-word manifesto he published earlier this year titled Community. But while the words in that post were a bit dry and all around suspicious to a 2020 presidential campaign run, the speech at Harvard was a reminder that he’s giving back right at this moment, not as a politician.
“Giving everyone the freedom to pursue purpose isn’t free. People like me should pay for it. Many of you will do well and you should too,” he said.
“He must be announcing Zuckerberg 2020 in a minute,” joked another student sitting behind me.
Perhaps, but not today. For now, it seems that Zuckerberg isn’t done with Facebook and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative.
The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative covers a lot of issues, many of which he mentioned in his speech: climate change, health care, “modernizing democracy with online voting,” online education, to name a few. He spoke of universal basic income, affordable childcare, and automation affecting jobs.
Zuckerberg also mentioned student debt. A student next to me rolled his eyes at the mention and asked to himself, yet aloud, “What is he actually doing about that? This is insulting.”
For sure, Zuckerberg, from what I can see, isn’t donating money to students’ educations or lobbying for the federal government for a change of policy on student debt.
But what was important, at that moment, was his next transition, where Zuckerberg proved he can be humble. Yes, the man who dropped out of Harvard, created a network that serves nearly 2 billion people, and is on a quest to crush Snap Inc. can admit to his own privilege.
“If I had to support my family growing up instead of having time to code, if I didn’t know I’d be fine if Facebook didn’t work out, I wouldn’t be standing here today. If we’re honest, we all know how much luck we’ve had,” Zuckerberg said.
Again, humility shone through. Since it’s a commencement speech we’re talking about, this wasn’t just The Zuckerberg Show. He had a lesson for undergraduates: to embody this same humility and to give back.
“If we’re honest, we all know how much luck we’ve had”
It isn’t easy, he said. Zuckerberg admitted to his own resistance to give back. He thanked his wife, who was in the audience, for convincing him to teach underprivileged youth after school.
Harvard students aren’t naive to giving back. The dozens of students I sat with had woken up before 5 a.m. to play their instruments or sing Harvard songs until 5 p.m. They weren’t paid. It was for a love of the craft that included entertaining the tens of thousands of people in the audience.
So, Zuckerberg may be preaching to the choir (figuratively, but to some literally) when he stresses giving back. But the human element was apparent—especially during one of the most inspirational parts of his speech, when he cried.
The most memorable moment came when he spoke of a student in the class he taught — thanks to Chan — that was headed to college next year. The student was scared — given his status as an undocumented immigrant — that his achievement would be taken away from him.
Zuckerberg had asked him over a meal what he wanted for his birthday. The student asked for a book on social justice.
“Here’s a young guy who has every reason to be cynical,” Zuckerberg said as he began choking up, “but he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. He wasn’t even thinking of himself.”
“I don’t want to say his name to get him in trouble,” he continued.
Zuckerberg, at his current state, has the power to connect the world. But he doesn’t have the ability to get this student papers. In fact, the program that his company uses to hire foreign workers, H1B visas, has been ripped apart by the Trump administration. While Zuckerberg didn’t directly name that program, nor mention President Donald Trump during his speech, the pain and the annoyance was obvious in his message and especially poignant in some sentences.
“We live in an unstable time,” Zuckerberg said. “It’s tough to care about other places when we don’t feel good about our lives at home.”
Zuckerberg may not run president in 2020. Neither will the undergraduates in attendance. But perhaps one day they will, and perhaps they’ll be reminded what Zuckerberg said on that rainy day in Harvard Yard.
“Congratulations class of 2017. Good luck out there,” he said in closing.