“There are 30,000 days in your life” Drew Houston’s Commencement Speech for MIT 2013

“There are 30,000 days in your life” Drew Houston’s Commencement Speech for MIT 2013
MIT News: Drew Houston’s Commencement address

*This article was originally published on Medium.

This is a full transcript of Drew Houston’s Commencement Speech given at MIT on June 7, 2013.

I think I came across this speech before I came to the US. It talked about the number of days in one’s life, and I remember being very struck by it at the time. Ever since then, I have been conscious of these days, and every time there is a milestone, I ask myself, “How many days of life have I just consumed?” “How many do I have left?” I have watched with indescribable feelings as the percentage of my life consumed has increased and increased. Then, one day when I was 27 years old, I finally passed the 10,000-day mark and had spent one-third of my life.

By being aware of death, I have come to understand the preciousness of life, and my attitude toward life has been greatly supported by this speech, as I have tried to live one day at a time and do something that will lead me to the next. I am sure I will look back on this speech in the future, and if so, I wanted to make it available as text so that I can highlight it and learn something new every time I look back on it. I hope this article will help you learn.

“It is now my honor to introduce our commencement speaker, MIT alumnus and co-founder and CEO of The online file-sharing phenomenon known as Dropbox, Drew Houston.

In 2005, Drew was sitting where you are sitting. He earned his bachelor’s degree from MIT in electrical engineering and computer science. Within months he had experienced, familiar to many graduates of MIT — he became so exasperated with the current state of technology that he invented a solution that would change the world. Drew was frustrated with the cumbersome process of having email files having to be sent to himself in order To work on those same files from multiple computers.

So he invented and later perfected a revolutionary answer, a technology that allows users to unite all of their documents, photographs, and videos for all of their devices, to gain access to them to share them with others anytime, anywhere.

In 2007, just two years after graduation, he turned this idea into an ambitious startup called Dropbox, and for many in the audience and for 100 million people around the world, “to Dropbox” has already become a verb and an everyday necessity. When Drew sought funding from a California venture capital firm, they insisted that he find a partner and a co-founder, so he came straight back to MIT.

And Drew brought with him today as a co-founder and chief technology, Arash Ferdowsi. Drew says that he learned fundamental management-level lessons from living and helping to run his fraternity, the MIT chapter of the Phi Delta Theta. The house has a number of other famous alums, including a Nobel laureate.

And that fact probably makes Phi Delta Theta The only living group at MIT that can boast both a Nobel Prize and a four-year-old company that is valued at many billions of dollars. I would urge the rest of you to use this as an example and keep trying. Ladies and gentlemen, Drew Houston.

Thank you, Chairman Reed. You’re going to hear this a lot today, but I feel so lucky to be the first to say it. Congratulations to all of you in the class of 2013.

And you should be so proud of yourselves. It’s really great to be back, and it’s such an honor to be here today. I still wear my brass rat every day, and turning this ring around on graduation is still one of the proudest moments of my life. And you guys know what “turning around the beaver” means. So there are a lot of reasons why this is a special day. But the reason I’m so excited for all of you is that today is the first day of your life where you no longer need to be checking boxes.

For the first couple decades, it’s all about jumping through hoops — get these test scores, Get into this college, take these classes, get this degree, pay your dues, and get to work. All of that ends today. Thank God.

The hard thing about planning your life is you have no idea where you’re going, but you want to get there as soon as possible. And people here are going to tell you, maybe you’ll start a company, or maybe you’ll cure cancer, or maybe you’ll write the next great American novel. And you’re probably thinking, I don’t know, Maybe things will go horribly wrong. I had no idea when I was graduating. And in fact, not too many years ago, I was sitting right over there. It was raining on my graduation too. It’s OK.

And being up here now in robes and speaking to all of you was not exactly part of my plan. And in fact, I’ve never really had a grand plan. And now I realize that it’s probably not possible to have a grand plan when You’re graduating, if ever. And I thought a lot about what’s different about the life that all of you are beginning today, and I’ve thought a lot about if I had to go back to 2006 and started all over again, what would I do. And what got you here is basically being smart and working hard. But nobody tells you that today the recipe for success changes.

So what I want to do is give you guys a little cheat sheet, the one I would have loved to have on my graduation day. And if you were to look at my cheat sheet, There wouldn’t be that much on it. There’d be a tennis ball, there’d be a circle, and there’d be the number 30,000.

Now, I know none of that makes sense right now, but let’s roll with it. So I started my first company when I was 21. I was born in a Chili’s, and my co-founder Andrew Crick and I had never done this before. So we think starting a company is a big deal. We’re, like, do you need to wear a suit to City Hall, or do we need to go get a seal so we can stamp all of our important documents? And it turns out you can just go online and fill out a form, and you’re done in two minutes. So it was a little anticlimactic.

But we were in business and our got our onion strings. And we decided that our company was going to make a new kind of online course for the SAT. And most kids back then were using these old-school, like, 800-page books, and the other online courses weren’t very good.

So we thought this was great, and we brushed off our SAT vocab, and we called it Accolade, which means an honor or an award. Actually, we didn’t call it “Accolade.” We called it “The Accolade Group, LLC,” because we thought that sounded much more impressive. So it was great. I’d stop at Staples on the way home, and I’d get some card stock.

And if any of you ever start a company someday, you’ll realize that the first order of business is firstly, Photoshop a logo. And then you print out a bunch of business cards that say “Founder” on them. And the next thing you do is you hand them out at conferences, and you practice telling girls, well, yes, I do have a company. It was awesome. But actually, the best part was learning all kinds of new things. So I lived in my fraternity house every summer.

And up on the fifth floor, there’s a room with a ladder that goes up to the roof. And I had this nylon green folding chair, and I bought all these books off of Amazon. And every weekend, I’d drag all that stuff up to the roof, And I’d read about all these new things — about sales, about marketing, about strategy, and management — all these things I knew nothing about. So it wasn’t exactly my plan to get my MBA on the roof of Phi Delta Theta, but that’s kind of what happened.

So it was all good for a while, but a couple years later things started going downhill. And it just felt like it got harder and harder to get things done. And at some point, something in me just snapped. I’m, like, My God, I just can’t deal With any more math questions about parallel lines or isosceles triangles or the two trains leaving Memphis at 3:45. And of course, I’m, like, Oh, God, there’s something wrong with me, and I felt guilty because I was unproductive.

And starting a company had been my dream for a long time. So I remember this moment where I thought, well, maybe I don’t have what it takes after all. So I took a little break. I don’t know if any of you guys study Course 6, But I studied Course 6, Computer Science. And if you’re in Course 6, sometimes taking a break means writing a poker bot. And if you haven’t played poker online before, basically, what happens is you sit for hours, and you’re clicking buttons.

And then you lose all your money. So all the poker bot does is it lets your computer lose all of your money for you, which is what I did. But I was fascinated. I was possessed. I just couldn’t stop thinking about this thing. I would think about it in the shower. I’d think about it waking up in the middle of night. And it was like a switch went on and I was a machine.

And then I remember in the middle of all this, one weekend Mom and Dad wanted all of us to go up to New Hampshire to have this family weekend together. And I was thinking, OK, but I don’t want to stop working on my poker bot. So I pull up in my Accord, and I get out and I say, hi, Mom. And then I open the trunk, and next, I’m dragging 100 pounds and all my computer stuff and all these wires into our little cottage on the lake.

And I would go inside, and I look. I’m, like, oh, the dining room table is not big enough. So I start rearranging stuff on the stove, like moving the pots and pans around to make room for all my monitors. And my mom comes in, and she’s, like, what the hell are you doing? Actually, she was convinced that I was going to jail. And actually, I’m going to take a second really quick. So actually I put my mom and dad through a lot, and I’m sure all of us here put our parents through a lot.

So let’s all just take a second to thank them, our moms, dads, families, everyone we love who got us here. Thank you. So I was going to say, work on what you love. That’s actually not that helpful. It’s so easy to convince yourself or rationalize that you love what you do. But when I think about it, the happiest and most successful people that I know — they’re not just in love with what they do, They’re obsessed.

And they’re not just obsessed, but they’re obsessed with solving an important problem, something that really matters to them. I had dogs growing up. I don’t know if you’ve ever thrown a tennis ball for a dog, but you don’t have to throw it. You lift it up, and the dog gets these crazy eyes. And then you throw it, and the leash snaps, and they go bounding off.

And they’re plowing through whatever’s in their way to get it. That’s what my friends feel like. And that’s what I hope all of you find, because I have other friends too who work hard, and they’re paid well in their jobs. But they complain, and they feel like they’re shackled to a desk. So the problem is a lot of people don’t find their tennis ball right away, even for me. And don’t get me wrong, I love the SAT. I love me a good standardized test as much as the next guy.

But being king of SAT prep, I’m not sure what kind of hat you get for that. But that wasn’t to be my tennis ball. So what scares me is that both Dropbox and this poker bot started out as distractions. That little voice in my head was telling me what to do all along, and the whole time I’m telling it to shut up so I can get back to work. I almost missed it. But sometimes that little voice knows best.

So it took me a while to get it, but I realize the people that work the hardest don’t work hard because they’re disciplined. They work hard because solving and working On an exciting problem is fun. So after today, it’s not just about pushing yourself. It’s about finding your tennis ball. It’s about finding the thing that pulls you. It might take a while, but until you find it, keep looking, and keep an ear out for that little voice.

Let’s go back to the summer after my graduation, the one of you are about to have. So one of my best friends and fraternity brothers, this guy Adam Smith, started a company with his friend Matt Brezina. And I was excited, and we all got together. And we decided hey, why don’t we all work together out of the same apartment. It’ll save some money. It’ll be fun. And it was perfect. It was a perfect summer.

Well, it was almost perfect. The air conditioning was broken, so we were all coding in our boxers. But it was pretty good. So Adam and Matt were working every waking hour, But as time went on, they kept getting pulled away. And I’d be, like, where are you guys going? And they’re, like, well, we’re going to meet with another investor. And I’m, like, OK.

And one of these investors actually took him on a helicopter ride. At this point, I was, like, OK, seriously, I’ve been working on my company for two years, and Adam’s only been at it for two months. I’m, like, I want to helicopter ahead. But that was just the beginning.

Things only got worse. August rolled around, and Adam gave me the bad news that they were moving out. And not only were they moving out, but they were off to Silicon Valley, where the real action was happening, and I was getting left behind. It was OK. Every now and then, I would call Adam to see how things were going, and things were always pretty good.

So I remember one afternoon I called him, and he’s, like, Oh, we met with Vinod. Today. And I knew that Vinod Khosla. He’s this legendary Silicon Valley investor, entrepreneur, billionaire. And I was, like, oh, that’s cool, what did he say? And Adam was, like, he’s going to give us $5 million to get started.

So I was thrilled for Adam, but this was a shock for me, because here’s Adam, he’s my little brother in the fraternity. He’s my beer-pong partner. He’s two years younger than me. I’m out of excuses. Adam is off to the Super Bowl, and I’m not even getting drafted. And Adam had no idea at the time, but he actually gave me just the kick that I needed. It was time for a change.

So they say that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. So think about that for a second. Who would be in your circle of five? And I have some good news. MIT is one of the best places in the world to start building that circle, because if I hadn’t come here, I never would’ve met Adam, I never would have met my amazing co-founder Arash, and there would be no Dropbox.

One thing I’ve learned is that surrounding yourself with people who inspire you is now just as important as being talented or working hard. Can you imagine if Michael Jordan hadn’t been in the NBA if his circle of five were a bunch of guys in Italy or something? I don’t think we’d be seeing him on Wheaties boxes. So that’s the point. Your circle pushes you to be better, just like Adam pushed me. And now your circle is going to grow to include your coworkers and the people around you where you live.

And where you live matters. There’s only one MIT, and there’s only one Hollywood, and there’s only one Silicon Valley. And this isn’t a coincidence. For whatever you’re doing, there’s One place in the world where the best people go, and you should go there. Don’t settle for anywhere else. Being able to meet my heroes and learn from them gave me a huge advantage.

So your heroes are part of your circle too. So follow them. The last trap you might fall into after school is this idea of getting ready. Don’t get me wrong. Learning is still your top priority. It’s the most important thing you can do. But the way you do it changes. From now on, the fastest way to learn is by doing. Otherwise, if you have a dream, you can spend a lifetime planning for it and studying for it, and getting ready for it.

But what you should be doing is getting started. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been ready. I remember right after we moved to San Francisco. I remember the day that our investors said, yes, we want to invest. Where do we send the money? So for a 24-year-old, this is like Christmas.

And opening your present is like running over your computer on Monday morning refreshing BankofAmerica.com and watching your company’s checking account go from $60 to $1.2 million. And I’m, like, oh my God, this is amazing. That number has two commas in it. And then something happened.

I just got this feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m, like, wait a minute. Some day these guys are going to come looking for this. What the hell have I got myself into? And you guys all know this feeling. At MIT we call it “drinking from the fire hose.” and it’s about as fun as it sounds, and we got the internal bleeding to prove it. But we’ve also learned that it’s good for you. And today one valve shuts off, and now your job is to go out and find a new fire hose. And for me, that’s been Dropbox.

As you might expect, building this company has been the most exciting and interesting, and fulfilling experience of my life. But what you probably don’t know, and what I haven’t really talked about, is it’s also been the most painful and humiliating and frustrating experience too. And I look back over the years, and I can’t even count the number of things that have gone wrong. And fortunately, it doesn’t matter. That’s the thing.

Nobody has a 5.0 in real life. Actually, now that you’re done with school, the whole idea of a GPA just goes away. Bill Gates’s first company made software for traffic lights. Steve Jobs’s first company made plastic whistles that allowed you to make free phone calls. Neither of these companies were successful, and it’s hard to imagine that these guys are too worried about it. That’s my favorite thing about what changes today.

From now on, failure doesn’t matter. You only have to be right once. I feel like I used to worry about all kinds of things. But I can remember the moment where I calmed down and got over it. So I’d just moved to San Francisco, And one night I couldn’t sleep. So I’m on my laptop and was on the Internet. And I run into this page, and I read there are 30,000 days in your life. And at first, I’m, like, yeah, whatever, obviously.

But then I was, like, huh. And I remember I tabbed into the calculator, and I typed in 24 times 365. I’m, like, oh my God, I’m, like, 9,000 days down. What the hell have I been doing? And 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.

There are no practice rounds and no reset buttons. Every day we’re writing a few more words of a story. And from then on — actually, when you die, it’s not, like, here lies Drew. He came in 174th place. And from then on, I decided that instead of trying to make my life perfect, I’m going to make it interesting. I want my story to be an adventure, and that’s made all the difference.

So grandmother is here today. Next week we’ll be celebrating her 95th birthday, and I love her very much. And we talk on the phone more often, now that I’m on the West Coast. But one thing that’s always stuck with me is she always ends our phone calls with the same one word, “excelsior,” meaning “ever upward.”

And now I’m here 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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