August 6, 2016

Find your passion, and 'grab the reins of life,' speaker tells Purdue graduates

Jim Miller Jim Miller, a Purdue alumnus and vice president of operations for Google, gives the keynote address during the commencement ceremony. (Purdue University image/John Underwood) Download image

Jim Miller, vice president of operations at Google, gave these remarks on Aug. 6, 2016 during Purdue University’s summer commencement.

Thank you, President Daniels, for inviting me to return to my alma mater to give this commencement address. I'm thankful for and humbled by your generosity and I consider it quite an honor.

Let me start by congratulating all of you on graduating from this amazing institution.  I know firsthand the hard work and determination that it takes to earn a degree from Purdue and it's quite an honor and an accomplishment. Even after 30 years, I still have nightmares about Physics 152!

When President Daniels asked me to deliver this commencement address a few months ago, it made me think of my graduation in 1986. 

If one word could describe 1986, it was "uncertainty."  The country was mired in a significant recession; job prospects weren't that great; we were at the height of the Cold War and a lot of people were asking themselves if the best days for the U.S. were behind us. Candidly, from where I was standing, the future did not look all that bright. 

No one could have imagined at the time that in just a few short years, that we would be setting the foundation for one of the longest and largest economic expansions that our country had ever seen. The foundation of which were laid by developments (dare I say revolutions) in technologies such as the Worldwide Web, Netscape's internet browser, the Intel Pentium, and companies like Amazon.com and my own employer, Google. 

And you know what? Most of these revolutions were created by 20- and 30-year-olds … and that's no coincidence. People such as yourselves are not encumbered by the past; you're not constrained by prior art – you possess the youthful naiveté to look at the world in a whole new light and believe that you can change it – and change it for the better. You know no bounds. And please keep thinking that way – even when you get to be an old guy like me! :-)

I had the opportunity a few years ago to chat with Jeff Bezos about creating Amazon.com and Larry Page about starting Google – both amazing companies in their own right. One common thread ran through both of those stories – they held a healthy disregard for the impossible; both wanted to change the world and they literally were shooting for the moon.  Most importantly, they had this unwavering desire to make the world a better place – AND foresee a vision for the world that was far beyond the grasp of most of us.

Even today, I'll leave a meeting with Larry and usually think, "I have no earthly idea how I'm going to do what he just asked me to do!" But, you know what? We always seem to find a way. It reminds me of that old saying, "If you shoot for the stars, you're never going to wind up with a handful of mud!"

Fast forward to today. I believe that it's easy to get overwhelmed by things happening in the world today. True, we face some massive challenges that are truly global in scope such as global climate change, anemic macro-economic growth, global terrorism and a nation and planet that seem to be more divided than ever. This is where you come in: we need you! Just as my generation ushered in a new era of technological change, you bring the energy, entrepreneurial spirit, idealism and tools to change the world – and we need to do it!

You're entering a world that is fantastical and was literally considered science fiction just a few decades ago. It's connected in a way that we could have never imaged – Facebook alone has 1.7 billion users and would be the largest country on the planet. The world possesses staggering computational power: We process 3.5 billion searches per day and we have just started to usher in a whole new era of machine learning and artificial intelligence that are going to change our lives in profound and positive ways. And, you will harness all of these capabilities in marvelous and exciting ways to change the world in ways that we simply cannot imagine today.

As I start to wind down my career and think about the next chapter of my life, let me leave you with a few pieces of advice that I would have offered to myself if I could have gone back 30 years in time.

Success is not about titles or trappings of materialism – all that is fleeting. Success is really about finding the intersection of what you love to do and what you're good at doing. And to do that means trying new things and failing – taking risks and getting out of your comfort zone. Finding your passion is usually a non-linear process. That's the only way to grow – and yes, it's usually a bit scary!

Create a legacy - we're not on this planet that long; make the best out of it while you're here - make a difference!

Consider your good fortune and give back. Today, the world needs this more than ever.

Don't plan your career - find your passion; let it guide your path and make the journey your own.

Finally, surround yourself with people that will stretch you and that challenge you – they will make you a better person.

I'm going to leave you with one final story.

I guess that it would be apropos to quote some pithy statement from a Si Valley luminary, but I'm going to pull something from left field, so to speak, and probably date myself in the process.

A few years ago, I was watching an interview of Roger Waters, the lead singer of the rock group, Pink Floyd, after they had recorded the album, "Dark Side of the Moon." To this day, "Dark Side of the Moon" is considered one of the most groundbreaking rock albums of all time and its influence transcends far beyond traditional rock music – and it was written and composed by a bunch of 20-something-year-olds.

Roger was being asked about how he found the inspiration to write and compose an album with the complexity and gravity considered beyond a 20-something year-old and he stated:

"We're taught to think of childhood and early adulthood as preparation for a life that's going to start later. One day, I had a revelation that life doesn't start later; it starts right here and now – at any point you can grasp the reins and start guiding your own destiny." 

I'll leave you with that story to ponder and ask you to grab the reins and make your life and your passion your own journey.

Thank you.

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