Apple’s Tim Cooks calls on graduates to be builders and to take responsibility

Tim Cook
Tim Cook speaking at Stanford’s 128th Commencement.

Commencement speaker and Apple CEO Tim Cook urged 2019 Stanford graduates to learn to take responsibility for that which they take credit, to lead lives of purpose marked by humility and to be builders with enduring legacies.

Cook spoke to some 30,000 attendees, including graduates and their family and friends Sunday morning in Stanford Stadium. He warned graduates that, when their time comes to lead, they won’t ever be truly ready. He said he learned that lesson from the passing of his predecessor at Apple, Steve Jobs, who gave an impassioned and memorable Commencement address on the same Stanford stage in 2005.

“Stanford is near to my heart, not least because I live just a mile and a half from here,” Cook said. Stanford and Silicon Valley are woven together, he said, adding, “The past few decades have lifted us together. But today we gather at a moment that demands some reflection.”

Technology, he said, magnifies rather than changes who we are, for the better and the worse. In recent times, he said, too many people have come to believe that good intentions excuse harmful consequences.

“Crisis has tempered optimism. Consequences have challenged idealism. And reality has shaken blind faith,” he said. “Our problems – in technology, in politics, wherever – are human problems. From the Garden of Eden to today, it’s our humanity that got us into this mess, and it’s our humanity that’s going to have to get us out.”

Cook, an engineer, business executive and Alabama native, speaks from experience. After earning degrees from Auburn and Duke, he spent his early career working for IBM, and later Intelligent Electronics and Compaq. He joined Apple in 1998 at the request of Jobs.

Cook praised Stanford’s role in the creativity and innovation that takes place in Silicon Valley. That innovation has, in turn, shaped much of the world’s culture over the past few decades.

“We’re part of the same ecosystem,” he said. “It was true when Steve stood on this stage 14 years ago, it’s true today, and, presumably, it’ll be true for a while longer still.”

Being a builder, taking responsibility
While Cook lauded the achievements of his industry, he was quick to shed light on its shortcomings. He cited data breaches, privacy violations, hate speech and the rise of so-called “fake news” as byproducts of some of Silicon Valley’s greatest inventions. He warned that such failures could lead to an environment that stifles creativity.

“Graduates, at very least, learn from these mistakes. If you want to take credit, first learn to take responsibility,” he said.

He predicted that Stanford’s graduates will likely go on to create and build many things. As builders, he urged them to be cognizant of what impact their creations will have on the generations that follow and to match their ambition with a humility of purpose.

Builders, he said, come in many forms. He cited the gay men and women involved in the Stonewall Inn demonstrations, which started the gay rights movement 50 years ago. Cook, who is gay himself, said the courage and conviction of the demonstrators on that fateful day had a lasting impact on his life.

“Graduates, being a builder is about believing that you cannot possibly be the greatest cause on this Earth, because you aren’t built to last,” he said. “It’s about making peace with the fact that you won’t be there for the end of the story.”

This was a lesson he learned the hard way. In 2011, as Jobs’ health was in decline from cancer, Cook said he persisted in believing that Jobs would return to lead Apple. But once Jobs passed, Cook said he learned the real, visceral difference between preparation and readiness. That period was what Cook called the loneliest of his life, as he could sense the weight of what was expected of him.

When the dust settled, he knew he’d have to be the best version of himself that he could be in order to lead Apple. But to achieve his best self, he couldn’t, as Jobs said in his 2005 Stanford Commencement address, live someone else’s life.

“So what was true then is true now. Don’t waste your time living someone else’s life. Don’t try to emulate the people who came before you to the exclusion of everything else, contorting into a shape that doesn’t fit,” he said.

He encouraged graduates to refocus their energy on creating and building, reminding them that, when their times comes, they’ll never be fully ready. And that’s OK.

“Find the hope in the unexpected. Find the courage in the challenge. Find your vision on the solitary road.”

Acknowledging the founders
In his remarks to graduates, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne recounted the lives of the university founders, Leland and Jane Stanford – and the tragic loss of their only son – Leland Stanford Jr., for whom the university is named.

“Since the Stanfords didn’t have the opportunity to give their son the future he had envisioned, they devoted themselves to creating a university that would both produce fundamental knowledge and apply that knowledge to tackle real-world problems – a university that would help countless other students build their own platforms and launch their own lives of purpose,” Tessier-Lavigne said.

The president said he learned much about the motivations of the Stanfords in creating their university when he recently visited the Stanford Family Collection at the Cantor Arts Center and read the journals of Leland Junior.

“Reading his journals, it was clear to me that from a very young age, Leland Junior was focused and working hard toward a life of intention and purpose,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “And it dawned on me that his drive to give his life greater purpose must have been nurtured and encouraged by his parents. It must have been a foundational value for the family, even before the tragedy that was about to befall them.”

The president encouraged graduates – no matter what profession they pursue – to use their gifts to change the world for the better.

“Having a platform also comes with a responsibility,” he said. “It requires an ongoing process of self-examination and a continual return to your guiding values. As Stanford graduates, you have built and earned your own platforms. Your education and experiences here will give you opportunities to pursue your interests and follow your own unique path.”

Stanford’s wackiest tradition
As is tradition, the Commencement began with the Wacky Walk, one of Stanford’s most recognizable traditions.

Undergraduates marched into Stanford Stadium dressed as mermaids, Pokémon, Pac-Man, Disney and comic book characters, In-N-Out employees, Vikings, zebras and cows holding signs that said “please don’t make us mooooooove” and “udderly sad to be leaving the Farm.”

In all, Stanford issued 1,792 bachelor’s degrees, 2,389 master’s degrees and 1,038 doctoral degrees. Of those receiving bachelor’s degrees, 313 graduated with departmental honors and 301 with university distinction.

A total of 162 members of the undergraduate class came from 55 countries, and 79 countries were represented by the 1,077 international students who received their master’s and doctoral degrees.