A Sense of Purpose

Mark Zuckerberg recently gave the commencement speech at Harvard, his alma mater, from where he dropped out to work on his brainchild Facebook, which is ‘connecting people’ across the globe today. This ‘dropping out of college-then-success‘ story is being bandied about a lot. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Evan Williams (Twitter), Larry Ellison (Oracle) and Travis Kalanick (Uber) are all famous university drop-outs. It’s quite romantic to use these guys as examples if we happen to be not doing so well in college.

However these are the lucky few who made it. The media does not tell us the stories of the countless others who dropped out and never made it. Well, that’s because there isn’t any story to tell. Look at all the famous Indians who made it big in the US – Sunder Pichai, Satya Nadella, Rajeev Suri or Vinod Khosla – they all finished university. They stayed the course.

Moral of the Story – Kids, stay in school!

Zuckerberg’s speech was very inspiring in parts. It was a heady mix of personal anecdotes from his Harvard days and lessons from Facebook. And he did manage to inspire and motivate the graduates who were sitting before him. You will find the link to the full text and the video at the end of the page.


I have always been enamoured by commencement speeches. They motivate you to dream big. My all time favourite is that of JK Rowling. Recently as Chaplain of John Cabot University here in Rome, I was privileged to be present at their commencement which was delivered by Simonetta Di Pippo, Director of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs. Using interesting and captivating anecdotes from her own life-long work, she made us believe that the sky was no longer the limit.

Coming back to Zuckerberg’s speech. It was amazing. What made the most impact for me was his reflection on ‘purpose’. Purpose is born within the individual but to find its true fulfilment it must find its place in the collective purpose of humankind. We cannot reach for the stars alone. It takes thousands working together to put a man on the moon.

One of my favorite stories is when John F Kennedy visited the NASA space center, he saw a janitor carrying a broom and he walked over and asked what he was doing. The janitor responded: “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon”.


He rightly pointed out that the current crisis is making young people believe that they have a purpose, that they are part of something much bigger.

“When our parents graduated, purpose reliably came from your job, your church, your community. But today, technology and automation are eliminating many jobs. Membership in communities is declining. Many people feel disconnected and depressed, and are trying to fill a void.”

Families are scattered all across the globe. Most are not part of Church communities any more. Many young people take refuge online, trying to build virtual communities. But they are physically alone. Quite often emotionally. These virtual communities do not help you understand your destiny, your purpose, they do not help you make your life decisions. You have to make them yourself. And when you trust your virtual community more than your real community, how do you make those decisions? That is the challenge, that is the crisis. Ironically, Zuckerberg’s own Facebook has been accused by some of contributing in a big way to this present generation existential crisis, making the virtual more real than the real.

But his point remains nevertheless.

“Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for. Purpose is what creates true happiness.”

This next part struck me the most,

I remember the night I launched Facebook from my little dorm in Kirkland House. I went to Noch’s with my friend KX. I remember telling him I was excited to connect the Harvard community, but one day someone would connect the whole world.

The thing is, it never even occurred to me that someone might be us. We were just college kids. We didn’t know anything about that. There were all these big technology companies with resources. I just assumed one of them would do it.”

This is something I have really come to believe in the recent years. We all have an idea. We have a fascinating project that we dream about. It’s probably something connected to our career or our field of study or maybe just a hobby. But we stop at dreaming.

We think that one day in the distant future, when I have enough resources, I will do it. That day will never come. The time to work on an idea is now. It may not be as grand or elegant as you envisioned it, but in the real world it’s never going to be that way. Every well-finished product goes through a number of proto-types. It takes time, sometimes years. But you have to start now. Ideas and inspiration are like the morning dew. They dry up after some time.


In the last couple of years, I’ve tried to put every idea into action. Everything doesn’t always turn out to be the way it’s supposed to be, but that’s ok. What’s important is to see if it works. What matters is to have tried. There will be glitches but glitches can be fixed only in the real world, not while you are dreaming.

“A change in the world that seems so clear you’re sure someone else will do it. But they won’t. You will.”

If you have an idea, do something about it now.


Read Zuckerberg’s full speech here: Harvardgazette

Watch it in Youtube: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers Harvard commencement


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