In a steady rain, 2,635 newly minted graduates received their MIT degrees in Killian Court today after hearing advice and encouragement from someone who was in their place on a similarly rainy June morning just eight years ago: Drew Houston ’05, co-founder and CEO of the successful startup Dropbox.
“Now you need to go out and find another fire hose,” Houston said, in a riff on the fabled quotation equating an MIT education with “drinking from a fire hose.” He said that his post-MIT fire hose has been the company he started soon after graduating from the Institute.
Starting and growing Dropbox — now valued at about $4 billion — has been “the most exciting, interesting and satisfying experience of my life,” Houston said. But, he noted, “It’s also been the most humiliating, frustrating and painful experience.” And that, he told the assembled graduates and their poncho-clad guests, is just fine.
“No one has a 5.0 [GPA] in real life,” he said. “In the real world, if you’re not swerving around and hitting the guardrails every now and then, you’re not going fast enough.”
As was the case with technology success-stories Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Houston said his first company was a failure, but the experience gave him the courage to find his real passion — and, in the process, a company that worked. “From now on, failure doesn’t matter,” Houston told the graduates. “You only have to be right once.”
Houston compared true excitement for one’s work to a tennis ball that a dog can’t resist chasing: “The happiest and most successful people I know don’t just love what they do, they’re obsessed with solving an important problem, something that matters to them. … They go bounding off, plowing through anything that gets in their way.”
“So after today,” Houston said, “it’s not about pushing yourself; it’s about finding your tennis ball, the thing that pulls you.”
‘Hack the world’
MIT President L. Rafael Reif welcomed the graduates anew “to the MIT family — even though you joined our family the moment you registered as an MIT student for the first time.” MIT’s is a sprawling clan, Reif stressed, with 127,000 alumni worldwide, including 78 Nobel laureates — more than all but three nations.
“This family is ambitious,” Reif added, “incredibly, beautifully, disruptively ambitious.” And he recounted that last year’s Commencement speaker, online-education pioneer Sal Khan ’98, MEng ’98, has said that one can always spot someone from MIT: “When you tell them that some problem is impossible, their eyes light up!”
The sense of family, Reif said, was brought home this year after tragedies including the Boston Marathon bombing and the death of MIT police officer Sean Collier: “The whole world saw what I saw: the extraordinary outpouring of respect and gratitude for our beloved MIT Police, and the loving sympathy that flowed from this family. … I have never felt so proud of MIT.”
Reif urged the new graduates to “use what you have learned here to make the world a better place.”
To do so, he presented them with a final bit of homework — or, in MIT parlance, a “p-set,” or problem set: “As you go out into society, I want you to change the source code. I want you to rewire the circuits. Rearrange the molecules. Reformulate the equation. In short, I want you to hack the world … until you make the world a little more like MIT.”
Those qualities, Reif told the graduates and guests, include making the world “more daring and more passionate; more rigorous, inventive and ambitious; more humble; more respectful; and more kind.”
2,635 graduates and 10,000 guests
A total of 977 undergraduates and 1,658 graduate students received their degrees at today’s Commencement. An estimated 10,000 family members and guests were on hand for Friday’s ceremony, although the chilly rain prompted some of them to view the proceedings indoors, on monitors set up in classrooms.
For the entire academic year, including degrees awarded in September and February, MIT granted 1,042 bachelor’s degrees, 1,749 master’s degrees and 587 doctoral degrees.
Brian Spatacco, president of the Graduate Student Council, reminded his fellow graduates of “that exciting but sometimes scary moment when you decide to take a different approach because you think you may know a better way. … This risk-taking behavior can be thought of as a sort of ‘Constructive Irreverence,’” characterized by going “beyond the phase of asking ‘Why?’ or ‘Why not?’ and actually creating value.”
Everyone at MIT, Spatacco said, has been exposed to this “highly infectious strain,” whose symptoms include “aversion to doctrine, and a healthy appreciation for failure. … Never try to cure yourself of it. … Never stop thinking of a better way to do things.”
Amanda David, president of the Class of 2013, told her classmates, “We have a lot of life to live, and a lot more to give. Let’s challenge ourselves to remain grounded with a healthy perspective of where we’ve been as we continue to seek to understand others, improve ourselves, pursue our passions, and brighten the future. We can do it!”