Twitter Co-founder Ev Williams Nebraska Commencement Address
Ev Williams, co-founder and former CEO of Twitter and co-founder and CEO of Medium, delivered the University of Nebraska-Lincoln undergraduate commencement address May 6, 2017 at Pinnacle Bank Arena. He told of his journey from Nebraska farm kid to successful internet entrepreneur and offered advice to the graduates.
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[00:00:04.274]Good morning faculty, families, friends,
[00:00:09.437]and everyone who's helped these graduates reach this day.
[00:00:13.064]Congratulations to you and the Class of 2017.
[00:00:24.632]This is a very humbling opportunity for me
[00:00:28.656]and a humbling honor, I really appreciate it.
[00:00:34.154]I think it's gonna be a little confusing for my kids,
[00:00:37.140]why, when we went to Nebraska this time and visited Grandpa,
[00:00:41.292]Dad became a doctor.
[00:00:48.699]But I'm gonna make them call me that around the house,
[00:00:51.640]so I think they'll
[00:00:53.647]get used to it.
[00:00:57.198]I've been asked to speak for less than 10 minutes
[00:01:00.231]so this won't be too long but for me,
[00:01:03.663]that's like 50 characters worth of tweets,
[00:01:06.100]so it's pretty generous.
[00:01:09.555]I might go a little bit over that, too, we'll see.
[00:01:12.836]Though I really appreciate the introduction,
[00:01:15.824]I don't really feel like a Silicon Valley guy,
[00:01:18.418]especially being back here.
[00:01:20.516]'Cause at heart, I'm a Cornhusker.
[00:01:29.507]And I mean that quite literally.
[00:01:34.072]I did grow up on the farm near Clark's
[00:01:36.234]about 90 miles northwest of here
[00:01:39.064]and one of my many summer jobs was to go pick
[00:01:41.695]and husk the sweet corn for dinner.
[00:01:44.942]Some of you may be familiar with that
[00:01:47.648]and I had fond memories of growing up on the farm.
[00:01:50.753]I'm very proud to be from here
[00:01:54.360]but I didn't really feel like a Clark's guy
[00:01:56.306]when I was there, I always felt a bit different
[00:02:01.070]than those around me.
[00:02:03.728]I knew I wanted to go out and be part of something big
[00:02:06.770]and make my mark, I just didn't know what that was.
[00:02:10.792]So, like you, I enrolled here at U.N.L.
[00:02:16.814]And though I thought about not going to college at all,
[00:02:20.298]I never thought about going anywhere else.
[00:02:23.208]As Chancellor mentioned, both my mother and father went here
[00:02:26.049]and met here while attending.
[00:02:29.187]My older brother and sister came here as well
[00:02:33.139]and speaking of being part of something big,
[00:02:36.290]from the perspective of a farm kid,
[00:02:39.491]this is pretty damn big.
[00:02:48.365]And I figured if this were really the place
[00:02:54.811]where the boys were the squarest
[00:02:56.068]and the girls were the fairest,
[00:02:59.645]not only would I fit right in,
[00:03:02.084]I'd have something to look forward to.
[00:03:08.218]So, I loved my year and a half here
[00:03:10.484]but I didn't find what I was looking for
[00:03:12.913]and I was in a hurry to get to go do something else
[00:03:18.371]so I kept searching and one day, I found a clue
[00:03:23.851]in, of all places, the Conastoga Mall in Grand Island.
[00:03:28.772](audience lightly clapping)
[00:03:32.804]So it was there I picked up a copy of Wired Magazine
[00:03:38.219]and I'd never seen this magazine before, most people hadn't.
[00:03:41.206]It was the second ever issue
[00:03:44.091]and I picked it up thinking it must have
[00:03:46.681]something to do with computers,
[00:03:49.082]which I was kind of interested in
[00:03:52.430]but it turned out to be about ideas.
[00:03:56.091]Ideas like connecting every brain on the planet.
[00:04:01.669]One of the essays read, "Words have been de-coupled
[00:04:04.302]"from paper, transforming the world
[00:04:07.131]"as profoundly as the printing press did 500 years ago."
[00:04:12.942]Of course, it was talking about the internet,
[00:04:15.851]which I knew a little bit about.
[00:04:17.144]We had it here at school, even in the early 90s
[00:04:21.223]but it wasn't yet a part of our lives.
[00:04:24.822]Maybe it was because I grew up on that farm
[00:04:27.919]with so many ideas in my head
[00:04:30.937]and so few people to share them with
[00:04:33.910]but I couldn't think of anything more exciting
[00:04:36.942]than a system with the potential to connect brains
[00:04:40.081]from all over the planet,
[00:04:43.853]a giant idea-sharing machine, as I saw it.
[00:04:48.839]I've spent my life ever since working on that machine,
[00:04:52.893]connecting brains and helping people share ideas
[00:04:55.991]in easier and better ways.
[00:05:00.207]That work did not start smoothly.
[00:05:02.831]I founded my first internet company here in Lincoln,
[00:05:06.990]we had an office down at 14th and O,
[00:05:10.098]which is a great location for going to the bar.
[00:05:15.577]Which we did plenty of.
[00:05:18.539]The company itself was a complete disaster,
[00:05:22.566]I had no idea what I was doing
[00:05:24.601]and learned many painful lessons but it did serve a purpose
[00:05:29.007]and that was to fuel my interest in the internet
[00:05:32.110]and prompt me to consider moving to California,
[00:05:36.493]which was an even scarier journey to contemplate
[00:05:39.972]than coming here from the farm.
[00:05:43.981]My concept of California at the time was a vague montage
[00:05:46.912]of Baywatch, earthquakes, hippies,
[00:05:52.778]and what I had read about Silicon Valley,
[00:05:55.762]a wondrous place where super-geniuses
[00:05:58.125]were actually building that brain-connecting,
[00:06:00.662]idea-sharing, money-making machine called the internet
[00:06:06.099]and I wanted to be a part of it.
[00:06:09.269]But it was scary because with my first business failure
[00:06:13.028]fresh in my mind and no real training or education,
[00:06:17.584]unlike yourselves, I didn't know
[00:06:20.628]if I was gonna be able to compete in that world.
[00:06:25.464]Nonetheless, I harnessed my ancestral pioneer spirit
[00:06:32.043]and I headed west.
[00:06:42.695]I was saddened at first to learn that there's nothing
[00:06:45.832]in San Francisco that remotely resembles Baywatch.
[00:06:51.691]For you students, that's a television show from the 90s.
[00:06:58.976]But I was relived to find
[00:07:00.079]that there was nothing to be afraid of
[00:07:03.008]except the hippies.
[00:07:07.527]What I realized quickly
[00:07:08.989]was that the people in Silicon Valley
[00:07:10.401]weren't smarter than I was,
[00:07:12.009]they were just in the right place
[00:07:13.070]to do what they were good at.
[00:07:16.408]Well, that's not entirely true.
[00:07:17.857]Some of them were way smarter than I was
[00:07:22.603]but I came to discover that if you focused
[00:07:24.308]on adding value, they were more interested in collaborating
[00:07:28.552]than competing, that we could connect our brains together
[00:07:32.962]and come up with better ideas.
[00:07:37.303]So, that's what I did and the first thing I did that worked
[00:07:40.333]was called Blogger, which I created with my friends,
[00:07:42.569]Meg and Paul, also a U.N.L. alum.
[00:07:47.745]We didn't invent blogging and we certainly didn't perfect it
[00:07:51.480]but driven by our own needs and a hunch
[00:07:53.477]that others would find it useful, we made it easier to do.
[00:07:59.197]And it turns out, that's enough.
[00:08:02.985]In fact, that's basically all the technology does,
[00:08:06.931]it makes things that people wanna do easier.
[00:08:10.992]Very often, this is a good thing, not always
[00:08:16.506]but making things easier is the key.
[00:08:20.818]Another key is realizing that ideas only get you so far.
[00:08:26.025]Success almost always requires working hard for a long time.
[00:08:32.500]Four years after I started that company,
[00:08:36.348]years that included running out of money,
[00:08:39.476]laying off all my employees, and spending countless nights
[00:08:43.123]on the office sofa, I sold Blogger to Google.
[00:08:50.376]That was a tiny deal by Silicon Valley terms
[00:08:53.043]but it was a huge deal for me.
[00:08:56.872]Not least of all because it meant I got to go join Google
[00:09:01.314]and work with the smartest people I'd ever met.
[00:09:06.493]Even after that success, many people were still skeptical
[00:09:09.347]of a concept I had come to believe deeply.
[00:09:13.054]The normal people have worthwhile ideas
[00:09:16.267]to share with the world,
[00:09:18.406]at least worthwhile to someone in the world,
[00:09:22.889]someone who might not reside in their same tiny town.
[00:09:28.299]With Twitter, some friends and I followed another hunch
[00:09:31.254]and made it easier still.
[00:09:33.740]Unleashed from our computers, you could now share an idea
[00:09:36.364]anytime, anywhere, as long as it was 140 characters or less.
[00:09:44.353]Now at first, people were even more skeptical of this
[00:09:46.742]than they were of blogging, 140 characters?
[00:09:51.538]I'll admit, it was a strange concept
[00:09:55.495]but I was convinced that we were enabling
[00:09:57.098]the grand promise of the internet,
[00:09:59.949]the open flow of information
[00:10:02.337]and that this was definitely a good thing.
[00:10:06.262]In fact, I thought this was the key
[00:10:08.013]to making the world better.
[00:10:10.620]Free idea exchange meant more good ideas,
[00:10:13.645]eradicating the dumb ideas that bring society down.
[00:10:18.509]Everything would be better, I thought,
[00:10:20.086]if we just got rid of the information gatekeepers
[00:10:22.406]and let people talk.
[00:10:26.555]I'll admit those of us in Silicon Valley
[00:10:28.143]sometimes think this way
[00:10:30.321]like we're Prometheus stealing fire
[00:10:33.167]from the selfish gatekeeper gods
[00:10:35.383]and giving it to mere mortals.
[00:10:40.697]What we tend to forget is that Zeus was so pissed
[00:10:43.290]at Prometheus that he chained him to a rock
[00:10:47.671]so eagles could peck out his guts for eternity.
[00:10:52.816]Some would say that's what we deserve
[00:10:55.914]for giving the power of tweets to Donald Trump.
[00:11:00.708]Some would say that, I'm not...
People have said that.
[00:11:11.362]I was nervous about that joke in Nebraska.
[00:11:20.771]I now know that more people putting their ideas
[00:11:22.935]out into the world
[00:11:24.854]does not automatically make the world smarter.
[00:11:28.372]Many amazing things have come from this
[00:11:30.660]but like Zeus sending us Pandora with her box,
[00:11:34.349]we've unleashed not only good ideas but bad ones
[00:11:38.508]and it's very hard to sort through the noise.
[00:11:42.840]Storytelling may be as old as human language
[00:11:45.160]but so are arguments, insults, and fake news,
[00:11:50.082]or as we like to call it in Nebraska, bullshit.
[00:11:59.500]Turns out, the internet is not a silver bullet,
[00:12:02.409]it's just a tool, kind of like the two-way radios
[00:12:05.475]we used to use back on the farm,
[00:12:07.701]just with a little broader range.
[00:12:10.847]It's a tool that reflects us.
[00:12:13.739]It's just as good or as bad as we are
[00:12:17.335]but despite this, or actually because of it,
[00:12:20.051]I'm an optimist.
[00:12:22.800]Optimists, I find, are more pleasant to be around
[00:12:25.560]than pessimists, so I encourage you to be one, too.
[00:12:30.531]But you should know that it is more work
[00:12:33.004]because if you believe it's possible to solve problems,
[00:12:36.520]you feel obligated to try
[00:12:40.311]so I'm gonna keep working on this idea-sharing machine.
[00:12:44.701]I'm still as excited about it
[00:12:45.889]as when I picked up that copy of Wired.
[00:12:48.583]I still think we can connect our brains together
[00:12:50.420]for better and better outcomes,
[00:12:53.315]we just have some kinks to work out with the system,
[00:12:56.285]some bugs to squash.
[00:12:59.713]The same could be said of our government, our schools,
[00:13:02.797]our health care system, our economy,
[00:13:04.630]and so many important, worthy areas
[00:13:06.716]where you can apply your ideas and efforts.
[00:13:12.200]I'm sure you've already thought a lot about that
[00:13:13.908]since today you're graduating to beta.
[00:13:19.675]You may also still have some kinks to work out, we all do,
[00:13:24.401]but in addition to your degree,
[00:13:26.782]you have unlimited amounts of flexibility and potential.
[00:13:32.442]I saw in the top of a hat walking this way,
[00:13:34.987]"Anything is Possible," absolutely.
[00:13:38.755]The question is what will you do with it?
[00:13:42.250]I've tried to share parts of my story
[00:13:43.415]from which I've derived important lessons,
[00:13:46.731]lessons that would've been valuable to me
[00:13:48.202]as a young Nebraskan
[00:13:51.319]but since this is a commencement address
[00:13:54.654]and since many of you are probably hungover,
[00:13:59.936]let me finish by boiling it down to some succinct advice.
[00:14:06.233]First, genius plans and eureka moments are overrated.
[00:14:10.216]Follow your hunches.
[00:14:12.722]Try things and be open to where your gut
[00:14:14.972]tells you to go next.
[00:14:17.669]You don't have to set out to change the world,
[00:14:20.597]just find a way to make something worthwhile
[00:14:24.042]easier for other people
[00:14:25.965]and you just might change the world along the way.
[00:14:30.565]Second, no matter where you are,
[00:14:32.747]never doubt that you can be a part of something big
[00:14:36.010]and make an impact.
[00:14:38.844]There's no such thing as a flyover state anymore.
[00:14:42.510]You're just as connected as anyone else.
[00:14:46.865]I know you're just as smart
[00:14:49.575]and as Nebraskans, you actually have some advantages:
[00:14:53.928]realness, resilience, and fairness
[00:14:56.577]are values we were probably all raised with
[00:14:59.630]and in my experience, they go a long way in the real world.
[00:15:04.646]Third, work hard for a long time
[00:15:08.804]and focus on your growth, not your status.
[00:15:12.452]It's cliched advice but the truth is
[00:15:14.760]most people are not willing to do it,
[00:15:17.127]so it's still an advantage.
[00:15:20.409]And fourth, be an optimist,
[00:15:23.837]even though it will obligate you
[00:15:25.698]to try and solve problems, it's worth it.
[00:15:31.567]Commencement speakers tend to talk about graduates
[00:15:34.845]as our idealistic young saviors but having met a few of you
[00:15:40.580]and having employed and worked with some of your peers,
[00:15:43.485]I can't help but place a great deal of hope in you.
[00:15:47.428]The world needs your ideas and your hard work.
[00:15:51.562]We live in amazing times, for better and for worse.
[00:15:56.289]I know you're up for the challenge.
[00:15:58.914]I can't wait to see what you do.
[00:16:01.172]Congratulations and the greatest of luck.
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