Larry Page’s University of Michigan commencement address

Larry Page’s University of Michigan commencement address

October 28, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Class of 2009! I don’t think I heard you.
Class of 2009! First I’d like you to stand up, wave and cheer your supportive
family and friends! I’m sure you can find them out there. Show your love! It is a great honor for me
to be here today. Now wait a second. I know: that’s such a cliche?
You’re thinking: every graduation speaker says that
— It’s a great honor. But, in my case,
it really is so deeply true — being here is more special and more
personal for me than most of you know. I’d like to tell you why. A long time ago, in this cold September
of 1962, there was a Steven’s co-op at this very university. That co-op had a kitchen with a ceiling
that had been cleaned by student volunteers probably every decade or so. Picture a college girl named Gloria,
climbing up high on a ladder, struggling to clean that filthy ceiling. Standing on the floor, a young boarder
named Carl was admiring the view. And that’s how they met.
They were my parents, so I suppose you could say I’m a direct result
of that kitchen chemistry experiment, right here at Michigan. My Mom is here with us today, and we should
probably go find the spot and put a plaque up on the ceiling that says: “Thanks Mom and Dad!” Everyone in my family went here at
Michigan: me, my brother, my Mom and Dad — all of us. My Dad actually got the quantity
discount: all three and a half of his degrees are from here. His Ph.D. was in Communication Science
because they thought Computers were just a passing fad. When he earned it 44 years ago. He and Mom made a big sacrifice for that. They argued at times over pennies,
while raising my newborn brother. Mom typed my Dad’s dissertation by hand.
Kind of ironic given it was a computer science dissertation. This velvet hood I’m wearing,
this was my Dad’s. This diploma, just like the one you’re
about to get, this was my Dad’s. And my underwear… oh never mind.
Sorry. My father’s father worked in the
Chevy plant in Flint, Michigan. He was an assembly line worker. He drove his two children here to Ann Arbor,
and told them: That is where you’re going to go to college. I know it sounds funny now. Both of his kids did graduate
from Michigan. That was the American dream. His daughter, Beverly, is with us today. My Grandpa used to carry an “Alley Oop”
hammer — a heavy iron pipe with a hunk of lead melted on the end. The workers made them during the sit-down
strikes to protect themselves. When I was growing up, we used that hammer
whenever we needed to pound a stake or something into the ground.
It is wonderful that most people don’t need to carry a heavy blunt object
for protection anymore. But just in case, I brought it with me. Al right… My Dad became a professor at…
Michigan State, and I was an incredibly lucky boy. A professor’s life is pretty flexible,
and he was able to spend oodles of time raising me. Could there be a better upbringing
than university brat? What I’m trying to tell you is that this
is WAY more than just a homecoming for me. It’s not easy for me to express how proud
I am to be here, with my Mom, my brother and my wife Lucy, and with all of you,
at this amazing institution that is responsible for my very existence. I am thrilled for all of you, and I’m
thrilled for your families and friends, as all of us join the great,
big Michigan family I feel I’ve been a part of all of my life. What I’m also trying to tell you is that
I know exactly what it feels like to be sitting in your seat,
listening to some old gasbag give a long-winded commencement speech. Don’t worry. I’ll be brief. I have a story about following dreams. Or maybe more accurately, it’s a story about finding a
path to make those dreams real. You know what it’s like to wake up in
the middle of the night with a vivid dream? And you know how, if you don’t
have a pencil and pad by the bed, it will be completely
gone the next morning? Well, I had one of those dreams
when I was 23. When I suddenly woke up, I was thinking: what if we could download the whole web,
and just keep the links and… I grabbed a pen and started writing! Sometimes it is important to
wake up and stop dreaming. I spent the middle of that night
scribbling out the details and convincing myself it would work. Soon after, I told my advisor,
Terry Winograd, it would take a couple of weeks to download the web — he nodded knowingly, fully aware
it would take much longer but wise enough to not tell me. The optimism of youth is often underrated!
Amazingly, At that time I had no thought of building a search engine. The idea wasn’t even on the radar. But, much later we happened upon a
better way of ranking and we made a really great search engine,
and Google was born. When a really great dream shows up,
grab it! When I was here at Michigan, I had
actually been taught how to make dreams real! I know it sounds funny, but that is what
I learned in a summer camp converted into a training program called Leadershape. Yeh, we got a few out there. Their slogan is to have a
“healthy disregard for the impossible”. That program encouraged me to
pursue a crazy idea at the time: I wanted to build a personal rapid transit
system on campus to replace the buses. Yeh, you’re still working on that, I hear. It was a futuristic way of
solving our transportation problem. I still think a lot about transportation
— you never loose a dream, it just incubates as a hobby. Many things that people labor hard
to do now, like cooking, cleaning, and driving will require much
less human time in the future. That is, if we “have a healthy
disregard for the impossible” and actually build new solutions. I think it is often easier to make
progress on mega-ambitious dreams. I know that sounds completely nuts. But, since no one else is
crazy enough to do it, you have little competition. In fact, there are so few people
this crazy that I feel like I know them all by first name. They all travel as if they are pack
dogs and stick to each other like glue. The best people want
to work the big challenges. That is what happened with Google. Our mission is to organize the world’s
information and make it universally accessible and useful. How can that not get you excited? But we almost didn’t start Google
because my co-founder Sergey and I were too worried about
dropping out of our Ph.D. program. None of you have that issue, it seems. You are probably on the right track
if you feel like a sidewalk worm during a rainstorm! That is about how we felt after we maxed
out three credit cards buying hard disks off the back of a truck. That was actually the first
hardware for Google. Parents and friends:
more credit cards always help. What is the one sentence summary
of how you change the world? Always work hard on something
uncomfortably exciting! As a Ph.D. student, I actually had
three projects I wanted to work on. Thank goodness my advisor said,
“why don’t you work on the web for a while”. He gave me some seriously good advice
because the web was really growing with people and activity, even in 1995! Technology and especially the
internet can really help you be lazy. Lazy? What I mean is a group of three
people can write software that then millions can use and enjoy. Can three people answer
the phone a million times? Find the leverage in the world,
so you can be more lazy! Overall, I know it seems like
the world is crumbling out there, but it is actually a great time in your
life to get a little crazy, follow your curiosity, and be ambitious about it. Don’t give up on your dreams.
The world needs you all! So here’s my final story: On a day like today,
you might feel exhilarated — like you’ve just been shot out of a cannon
at the circus — and even invincible. Don’t ever forget that incredible feeling. But also: always remember that the moments
we have with friends and family, the chances we have to do things that might
make a big difference in the world, or even to make a small difference to
someone you love — all those wonderful chances that life gives us,
life also takes away. It can happen fast, and a whole
lot sooner than you think. In late March 1996, soon after I had
moved to Stanford for grad school, my Dad had difficultly breathing
and drove to the hospital. Two months later, he died. I was completely devastated. Many years later, after a startup,
after falling in love, and after so many of life’s adventures,
I found myself thinking about my Dad. Lucy and I were far away in a steaming
hot village walking through narrow streets. There were wonderful
friendly people everywhere, but it was a desperately poor place —
people used the bathroom inside and it flowed out into the open gutter
and straight into the river. We touched a boy with a limp leg,
the result of paralysis from polio. Lucy and I were in rural India — one of the few places where
Polio still exists. Polio is transmitted fecal to oral,
usually through filthy water. Well, my Dad had Polio. He went on a trip to Tennessee
in the first grade and caught it. He was hospitalized for two months and
had to be transported by military DC-3 back home — his first flight. My Dad wrote, “Then, I had to stay
in bed for over a year, before I started back to school”. That is actually a quote
from his fifth grade autobiography. My Dad had difficulty breathing his
whole life, and the complications of Polio are what took
him from us too soon. He would have been very upset that
Polio still persists even though we have a vaccine. He would have been equally upset that
back in India we had polio virus on our shoes from walking through the contaminated
gutters that spread the disease. We were spreading the virus
with every footstep, right under beautiful kids
playing everywhere. The world is on the verge of eliminating
polio, with 328 people infected so far. Let’s get it done soon.
Perhaps one of you will do that. My Dad was valedictorian of the
Flint Mandeville High School class of 1956 of about 90 kids. I happened across his graduating speech
recently, and it blew me away. 53 years ago at his
graduation my Dad said: “…we are entering a changing world,
one of automation and employment change where education is an economic necessity. We will have increased periods of time to
do as we wish, as our work week and retirement age continue to decline…
(Or we wish that were true….) We shall take part in, or witness,
developments in science, medicine, and industry that we can
only dream of today. … It is said that the future of any
nation can be determined by the care and preparation given to its youth. If all the youths of America were as
fortunate in securing an education as we have been, then the future of the
United States would be even more bright than it is today.” If my Dad was alive today, the thing I
think he would be most happy about is that Lucy and I have a
baby in the hopper. Yeh, let’s cheer Lucy. I think he would have been annoyed that
I hadn’t gotten my Ph.D. yet (thanks, Michigan!). Dad was so full of insights, of excitement
about new things, to this day, I often wonder what he would
think about some new development. If he were here today — well, it would
be one of the best days of his life. He’d be like a kid in a candy store.
For a day, he’d be young again. Many of us are fortunate enough
to be here with family. Some of us have dear friends
and family to go home to. And who knows, perhaps some of you,
like Lucy and I, are dreaming of future families of your own. Just like me, your families brought you
here, and you brought them here. Please keep them close and remember:
they are what really matters in life. Thanks, Mom; Thanks, Lucy. And thank you, all, very much.