Namgi, Eunice, Isabella, Melissa, Wayne… all you graduates this year… congrats!
The commencement address Steve Jobs gave at Stanford made the rounds last week, but I just got around to reading the text. It’s a good read… notable for it’s authenticity, and for the irony of a college dropout delivering a commencement address at a preeminent university.
It was a heck of a lot better than the speech I listened to at Jeanhee’s brother’s graduation from Kellog this past weekend. Perhaps the valedictorian’s speech at my sister’s high school graduation this Friday will be better…
Anyway, Jobs’ talk of dropping out of Reed reminded me a lot of my own college dropout days. Like Jobs, I had trouble with my mom spending so much money to send me to school considering I didn’t know what I planned to get out of it. But I liked high school, and was good at it, and had this feeling I wanted to keep learning. So I said no to Brown, and went down to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville — much less expensive, and still a top school, I reasoned.
My dad’s friend John Fogg let me put my layout and design skills to use at his company, and as a result, I found myself surrounded by entrepreneurs. It awoke the entrepreneurial genes passed down from my folks, and before I knew what happened, I had started up a software company with a few partners that was later named Kaizensoft.
I continued to attend school full-time, lived in student housing, though I paid less attention in class, and my grades declined. I petitioned to be granted resident tuition, and was approved on account of the fact that my company was employing Virgina citizens and paying state taxes. That saved me eight grand a year, and I assumed my own tuition payments, which saved me from a lot of guilt over squandering my mom’s money.
One day, I was sitting in a Japanese literature class. We were studying The Tale of Genji. That is, the rest of the class was studying Genji. I was making notes for an agenda for a board meeting later that afternoon. In that moment, I realized I was being ridiculous. At the end of the semester, I went part-time. As part of an honors program I had earned with my high school record, I had no requirements to fulfill. So I took a theatrical lighting course. A course on religion in modern drama. I enjoyed them a lot.
During this time, I worked as an entrepreneur, but lived as a student. My bedroom in a house shared with 6 other students was furnished with a futon on the floor. I can’t remember where I put my clothes. I slept mostly at my honor student girlfriend’s house, though rarely got there before three in the morning.
I loved it all at the time. Took it very seriously. Pushed myself. It was a sleep-deprived daydream fueled with adolescent invincibility, entrepreneurial passion, youthful love and the work-hard/play-hard ethos of college. In retrospect, I see that I was out of balance — working too much for my body and my relationships to get what they needed. But in that chaos, I got a lot of skills and education I would need later on.
Jobs talked about connecting the dots, and how they aren’t connected forward, but backward. I always liked computers, and had a clear aptitude, but I went into college sure that I didn’t want to be a programmer. My computer science class did nothing to dissuade me from that position. But learning about object-oriented design for the first time from our lead developer, Mike Hill — that planted some seeds in my mind, unnoticed.
Three quarters of a decade later, I’m working as a software development manager. I’m using software and ideas I was first introduced to as a punky young president of a start up. Sometimes I wonder if I’m collecting the skills I’ll need later to start a company like Kaizensoft, but to do it successfully. (Kaizen ended up a dud after three years, one and a half major versions and a cool hundred grand and change.) Maybe I’ll discover a reason to finish school. Jeanhee’s job extends to me some incredible tuition benefits, so it’s crossed my mind a lot lately. Some of the dots have been connected, but there are lots of lines still to be drawn.
So what can I say to the graduates? I don’t know. I feel like I’m still on the path, and it’s a hard place to give advice from (not that you asked anyway). I can tell you this: have fun along the way! Commencement is a really great name for graduation, and the cool thing is, who knows what exactly it is that’s beginning?