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.