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Dropbox CEO Drew Houston's 2013 MIT commencement address transcript

Network World Staff | June 10, 2013
Below is the prepared text of the commencement address by Drew Houston '05, the CEO of Dropbox, for MIT's 147th commencement held June 7, 2013.

You already know this feeling: At MIT we call it "drinking from the firehose." It's about as fun as it sounds, and all of us have the internal bleeding to prove it. But we've also learned it's good for you. Today, one valve shuts off. Now you need to go out and find another firehose.

Dropbox has been mine. As you might expect, building this company has been the most exciting, interesting and fulfilling experience of my life. What I haven't really shared is that it's also been the most humiliating, frustrating and painful experience too, and I can't even count the number of things that have gone wrong.

Fortunately, it doesn't matter. No one has a 5.0 in real life. In fact, when you finish school, the whole notion of a GPA just goes away. When you're in school, every little mistake is a permanent crack in your windshield. But in the real world, if you're not swerving around and hitting the guard rails every now and then, you're not going fast enough. Your biggest risk isn't failing, it's getting too comfortable.

Bill Gates' first company made software for traffic lights. Steve Jobs' first company made plastic whistles that let you make free phone calls. Both failed, but it's hard to imagine they were too upset about it. That's my favorite thing that changes today. You no longer carry around a number indicating the sum of all your mistakes. From now on, failure doesn't matter: You only have to be right once.

I used to worry about all kinds of things, but I can remember the moment when I calmed down. I had just moved to San Francisco, and one night I couldn't sleep so I was on my laptop. I read something online that said "There are 30,000 days in your life." At first I didn't think much of it, but on a whim I tabbed over to the calculator. I type in 24 times 365 and -- oh my God, I'm almost 9,000 days down. What the hell have I been doing?

(By the way: You guys are 8,000 days down.)

So that's how 30,000 ended up on the cheat sheet. That night, I realized there are no warmups, no practice rounds, no reset buttons. Every day we're writing a few more words of a story. And when you die, it's not like "here lies Drew, he came in 174th place." So from then on, I stopped trying to make my life perfect, and instead tried to make it interesting. I wanted my story to be an adventure -- and that's made all the difference.

My grandmother is here today, and next week we'll be celebrating her 95th birthday. We talk more on the phone now that I've moved out to California. But one thing that's stuck with me is she always ends our phone calls with one word: "Excelsior," which means "ever upward."

And today on your commencement, your first day of life in the real world, that's what I wish for you. Instead of trying to make your life perfect, give yourself the freedom to make it an adventure, and go ever upward. Thank you.

 

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