Nikesh Arora, Senior Vice President and Chief Business Officer at Google
Graduate Commencement Ceremony Remarks
May 3, 2013
Good afternoon graduates and good afternoon families, faculty, and staff. I was talking to President Aoun earlier and he said, “This morning was phenomenal. We had a great speaker. He was very humble and very funny.” I want to warn you that I’m not going to be funny. Thankfully trustee Carol was very kind as we were walking here. She said, “The morning was fun. People had balloons and their families were excited. The afternoon is a bit more serious.” So I think you and I are going to get along just fine.
It is a pleasure to be back at Northeastern after 21 years. When you deliver a speech like this you often wonder what you are going to talk about. What kind of message can I give to all of you to carry forward from here? It’s tough; you go back and forth in your head. And suddenly the light bulb goes off and you say, “I know exactly what I want to talk about.” I want to talk about suitcases.
I grew up in India. I spent 22 years of my life over there. And one day I decided to pack my suitcase and come to America. When I came here, all I had was my suitcase and $100. Well actually, I had $3,100. I borrowed $3,000 from my father. These were his life savings and he had given them to me.
My goals were simple when I came here: I had to get through two years, I had to make sure I didn’t run out of money, I had to make sure I did well, and I had to make sure I was able to return his money at some point in time. Failure was not an option. I had to find a way.
The way I found was here. Northeastern was my Ellis Island, my new home. Getting off the E line at Huntington Avenue, looking for Dodge Hall with my suitcases. This campus, this school, is what introduced me to America. It introduced me to the culture, and first and foremost, what was going to be my future.
And the key to it all was my suitcase. There was a lot more in it than just some clothes. When I showed up I had my dreams, my aspirations, my hopes, and more importantly, my skills that were going to propel me to a new life. That is what I had brought with me.
I had all that but I also had the belief of my family. My father had given me all of his life savings, my mother was willing to let her son cross the seas, and my sister was sad to see her brother go. My family believed in me, they bet on me. They thought—I think they actually knew—that I was going to be okay.
There are a lot of people that bet on all of you, and I think they’re here today: Your parents, your husbands, your wives, your significant others, your children, and your friends. They probably took you to Conors for a drink—maybe five drinks—when you were having a bad day. I think this would be a good moment to pause and recognize their support and contribution in your graduating today.
Much as families and friends, I think now is a good time to also talk about people who supported you and me while we were at Northeastern. The teachers who, in simple ways, guided us and helped us pack a lot more into our suitcases.
In my case it was Professor Harlan and Marjorie Platt. I had the privilege of learning from them and working with them. I owe them so much. They even invited me to their home on Thanksgiving and made me feel extremely welcome. I would like to do what I wasn’t able to do well as I graduated from Northeastern. I would like to thank the faculty and teachers for allowing me to be who I am and guiding me at that moment in time.
I’m sure each of you has a professor here who has helped shape and guide you. Please make sure you do what I didn’t get to do before I left campus; make sure you go and share your gratitude with them.
I know graduate school is a choice. You made an active choice at some point in your career—you looked in your suitcase and said, “I’m missing something.. I need to go to graduate school to get those skills. I need to fill up my suitcase because I need to go do something different.” And now you’re here—you’ve packed a lot of skills into that suitcase.
So as you walk away from here today, I want you to think, “What did I come to Northeastern with in my suitcase and what am I leaving with?” And don’t forget, every time things change in life, make sure you take stock and say, “Do I have that in my suitcase?”
As I was talking to somebody earlier this morning, he turned to me and said, “You’re lucky.” I said, “What did I do?” He said, “You’re lucky you get to come make a speech and you get a degree. We had to work really hard for ours. We had to work for many many years.” I thought about it—yes I am lucky, but I’ve also spent 23 years packing my suitcase, so it’s taken me way longer than you guys. You guys got yours in four or five years; it’s taken me 23.
When you get out of here, you will go into many different fields. You will go into finance, operations, marketing, computer science, management, consulting. Some of you will start your own businesses. No matter what you do, you will start from the same place and end up in different places. So it’s going to be hard for me to give you advice on what you should do from here. But I thought what I would do is share some of the things I’ve managed to collect in my suitcase.
The first thing I want to talk about is this: if you set out to change the world or join people who aspire to change the world, you’re more than likely going to make a difference.
I had the privilege and pleasure of working with the founders of Google. As many of you know, Google is not a normal company. We don’t spend our time trying to solve incremental problems. We do something we call “10 X Thinking.” That is, we try and improve something by 10 times. Because if you set out to improve something by 10 times, failure is getting to two, to three, to five times. If you set out to improve something by 10 percent, you end up with a very bad number.
So, when you get out of here, use your power of imagination. Think about how to look at a problem that appears unsolvable and see if you can try and solve it. Think about turning it upside-down on its head and see what you can do about it. It doesn’t mean you’re supposed to improve a solution that already exists. It means completely rethinking the entire problem.
A few years ago, I was on a plane with Google’s cofounder Larry Page and we’re flying over the desert in Nevada. We look down and he said to me, “It’s quite clear. We could get a much better visual representation of the United States if we flew small planes over the entire country.” And I said, “Why would we do that?” He said, “Well you can get 25 centimeter-type resolution instead of 50 centimeter resolution, which you get from satellites.” So in a few minutes, he’s calculated on the back of a napkin how long it would take, how many planes we would need, and how much it would cost to get a clear representation of the U.S. Some of you might be using a feature on Google called Google Maps, which allows you to do that.
As we went up further, we were crossing the highway, which was extremely congested. He said, “You realize, because of human reaction times, there’s 20 percent more capacity down there on the highway than people realize.” I didn’t know that computers react 10 times faster to breaking cars than you and I would. Hence the beginning of the Google driverless car.
Elon Musk, who some of you might know as the founder of Tesla, came over the other day. I was telling him I had to come from New Delhi to Boston, which I did this morning, it took me 20 hours. He said, “Well, we’re soon going to have something called the Hyperloop, which is a tube that will get you from [Los Angels to San Francisco] in 30 minutes.” He wasn’t trying to build a better car or a better plane; he was trying to change the future of transportation. In fact, he’s famous for saying he wants to die on Mars, and not by impact.
So this is what I think you guys need to think. As you leave here, you have to think about how to take a fundamental problem and change it. A big part of thinking 10 X is learning how to live outside your comfort zone and take risks.
I’m naturally restless. Every time I feel that something can be predicted, I stop and I change course. I get bored. Remember, it’s okay to be bored—it’s not okay to be boring.
So in the height of the bull market I was working in Boston in finance, in 1999, and I could not make sense of the market anymore.
I decided to pack my suitcases again and I left for Germany. Every day when I woke up I would think, “Why did I do that? Why did I leave my family, take my suitcases, and head out to Germany?” Because I wanted to do something different, I wanted to step outside my comfort zone.
As we get older and go through life, we get more and more risk averse. You go from your youth to your 20s to your 30s; later, you have families, you have mortgages, you have kids, you don’t want to move, and you suddenly become more and more risk averse. As we progress through our careers and our lives, it’s important to not become risk averse. It’s important to remember you always have to stay slightly outside your comfort zone.
There’s a quote that I love. It goes, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” So don’t go out there and stay in your harbor—get out there and explore the world. Take disproportionate risks. Google, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram would not exist if one or two people had not gotten restless, decided to leave everything they were doing, and stepped out of their comfort zone. Don’t think you’re going to leave here and go into a comfortable job and life will be wonderful ever after. Go out there and live outside your comfort zone. You guys are in an enviable position—you can take risks and that’s what you should do.
I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t stepped out of my comfort zone multiple times in my life. If you don’t jump, you’re not going to land on your feet. If you’re not brave, you’re never going to know.
I was with Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt once in New York City, and he said, “Nikesh, learn how to keep saying ‘yes.’ Embrace ‘yes,’ don’t say ‘no.’ Once you say ‘yes,’ you always have the option of saying ‘no’ later.” Once you say ‘no,’ it’s very hard to go back and say ‘yes,’ because it feels like you’ve lost face. So remember, say ‘yes;’ you can always say ‘no’ later.
But that’s not the way our biggest problems are solved. The only way our biggest problems are solved is if we step out of our comfort zone. You cannot make progress if you’re not willing to solve problems of scale. You have to laugh at the impossible. Laughing reminds me of something else you guys should remember as you leave here.
As we grow older, we’re taught the concept of work. Work has to be serious and boring. If you’re having too much fun at work, you’re not working. There are work times and play times. As we go through our careers, it’s engrained in our lives that work is serious. You relax and have fun at home; you don’t relax at work, because it’s a bad idea. I had a job where I wore a suit every day; I sometimes felt I was wearing a costume. When you wear a costume, you start behaving like the actor who’s expected to behave like you in the costume. If you take off your costume, you can be who you are.
When you leave here, remember that life is about having fun, not just about work. At Google we have ping-pong tables and lava lamps, but that’s not what fun is. Fun is about enjoying your work. Fun is about making sure that you’re solving big problems of scale. Fun is about trying to see if you can change the world. If you enjoy your work, you’re going to have a lot of fun.
When you leave here, make sure that you’re in an environment where you’re having fun. As my daughter would say, “YOLO.” For those of you who understand what that is, very good; for those who don’t, find somebody 16 years or younger.
Keep your inner child alive. When we’re kids, we have lots of fun and we take risks. I don’t know if many of you have kids yet, but if you do, you’re always trying to stop them from running out into the street, you’re always trying to protect them, you’re always trying to inhibit their creativity.
I work with a guy named Matt. He’s a creative type who writes for a living and has a 3-year-old. He says, “Every morning my 3-year-old comes up with a concept which breaks all barriers and is extremely creative, but sometimes his mother tries to reign in the creativity—especially when he uses crayons to write on white walls.” His point to me was that he wishes he were as creative as his 3-year-old because he works in a very creative field. So as you leave here, make sure you can find your inner child.
Now the question is, where do you go from here? I live and breathe technology, so I’m going to talk to you about the power of technology.
I know President Aoun talked about Boston; right now is a good time to mention that we are in Boston. You all have been the center of attention on a national scale. As scary as the events on the day of the Marathon were, for people who were watching it from afar like me, I can only imagine what it must have been for all of you—real Boston Strong. While we mourn the tragedy and senselessness of the bombing, I think it’s also important to celebrate some of the positive outcomes. The unity of a city, a nation, definably brought together by those who sought to break us apart. I’m sure you feel a sense of camaraderie with your classmates, with the city. Please hold onto that; That’s rare—you should keep it as you progress through life.
But it’s also important to celebrate the impact of technology. The crowdsourcing, the digital imaging, the well-enabled citizen journalism that ended up not just catching the perpetrators, but also telling us the real story of what happened here. That’s the thing—technology is here and it’s here to stay.
About three years ago, my daughter was trying to teach my father how to use email and he was resisting it. He said, “I already know how to call you. I don’t have to learn how to email.” And she gave him an ultimatum and said, “You want to stay in touch with me? You better learn how to use email.” So now he uses email. I was sitting in the other room, listening to this exchange. I live and work in technology, and I was kind of getting tired of every new app that shows up—the day I figure one thing out, there’s a new thing. But my daughter says to me, “Dad, email is for formal communication and Facebook is passé.”
So, as I sat there and listened to that exchange, I reminded myself that I was not going to stop learning, I was not going to stop experimenting. If you stop experimenting and stop learning, you run the risk of being passé, just like email. So please don’t do that.
We are in a world where technology is going to keep changing—it’s going to move faster and faster. We’re going to see a different social structure as a consequence of technology. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, or whatever platform you use, technology is going to change our lives.
Even if you don’t work in tech, I urge you to stay tech-savvy. Information has the ability to make us very different as a society, very different from every business out there.
As you leave here, I’m going to ask you to do a few things. First, make sure you bring joy to others through your work. Your most profound joy will come from them. Give the world what it doesn’t even know it needs. Give it the Hyperloop—make sure they can get from one place to another in 30 minutes. If you see it as a problem, it is a problem. If you find a flaw, go out and fix it. If you believe it’s missing, go out and invent it. Don’t just set out to change an office or company—set out to change the world, because you’re more than likely to have an impact. Make sure that your adulthood is a happy childhood. With that, most importantly, keep packing new skills into your suitcase—there’s no limit to what it can contain. You’ve already got so much in it, but please do not stop putting more in it. Take it with you everywhere and see how far it takes you.
With that, congratulations graduates and good luck.