[This story is adapted from Steve Blank’s commencement speech to the NYU Tandon School of Engineering earlier this week.]
Your life is already full of milestones: Your first steps, your first kiss, passing a driving test, this graduation. And there are more to come: your first job, getting married, buying a house, having a child, becoming a manager, starting a company, retirement – and eventually commencement speaker.
In 33% of the commencement speeches this year, 2.8 million graduates are going to hear advice about “follow your own path.” Or “Learn from others.” Or the perennial favorite: “You can make a difference.”
All of this is great advice. In fact, I’m going to give you exactly the same advice. But in very few of these speeches does anyone let you in on why we’re telling you this with such passion and urgency.
So today I’m going to tell you why.
When I was young, I learned a quote in Sunday school that has stayed with me throughout my life. It said, “Teach us to number our days that we gain a heart of wisdom.” Since then I’ve had a series of interesting careers: technician in the Air Force, tech writer, marketer, entrepreneur, CEO, and now educator and mentor.
But this idea has never been far from my mind: That most of us will wake up each morning for 28,762 days — and then one day we won’t.
That means you have about 21,000 days left – and about 14,000 of them for your career. So herein lies the urgency.
In every startup I did, every new course I created, and everything I’ve taught, the phrase “make every day count” took on new meaning when I knew how many days were left.
So how do you live a life making the most of each day?
That’s the challenge we all face – and we all make different choices on how we do it. But today I’d like to share three short stories about how I made my days count and gained some wisdom from others.
My first story is about taking risks and pushing boundaries
As you enter the working world, you’ll hear things like, “That’s not how we do things here,” “It’s never been done that way before,” and “The rules say you can’t do this.”
Some of these rules will keep you from killing yourself on the job. Some are required for you to gain the skills to perform your job. But most everything else people will tell you about rules is wrong. Not kind of wrong, but spectacularly wrong. It’s ironic because ignoring the rules is what drives innovation and invention. While most visionaries turn out to be hallucinating, the few who are right push the human race further along.
Let me give you an example.
When I retired after 21 years working in eight startups, I was invited to be a guest lecturer at the business school at the University of California Berkeley. They thought I could tell good stories about what it was like to start a company. Soon I began to pester the head of the department about this new idea I had … that startups are not smaller versions of large companies.
Actually they’re entirely different.
Established businesses execute business models, while startups search for them.
Yet everyone – investors, entrepreneurs, academics — expected new startups to follow the same practices that worked for large companies: Write a business plan, forecast five-year sales projections, and build the product without ever talking to customers.
I was a lone voice inside one of the country’s leading business schools challenging the conventional wisdom of the last 40 years, proposing that everything we were teaching about starting companies was wrong.
I can’t tell you the number of very smart professors and venture capitalists who laughed in my face. But I didn’t give up. Because I knew the clock was running and I was determined to make every day count.
I saw something that they didn’t and to their credit, Berkeley’s Business School and then Stanford’s Engineering School let me write and teach a new course based on my ideas.
Five years later, the U.S. National Science Foundation adopted this class, now called the Innovation Corps, as the basis of commercializing science in the Unites States. This unorthodox idea has become a movement, called The Lean Startup, and has led to entirely new ways to start companies, commercialize science, and think about innovation.
How did this happen? Innovation comes from those who see things that others don’t. It comes from people who not only question the status quo but keep persisting in the face of all the naysayers.
Because your time here is limited.
My second story is about mentors and gaining a heart of wisdom.
Questioning dogma doesn’t mean rejecting all advice and guidance from others who’ve come before you.
In fact, your career and life can take on a very different trajectory if you find mentors and learn from their experience.
As an entrepreneur in my 20s and 30s, I was lucky to have two extraordinary mentors, each brilliant in his own field. One, Ben Wegbreit, taught me how to think. Ben reviewed my first datasheet and returned it with entire paragraphs circled in red labeled “CFP.” I finally got enough nerve to ask him what CFP meant and he said, “Content Free Paragraph.” While Ben taught me how to think, Gordon Bell taught me what to think about. Gordon had the uncanny ability to see the future trajectory of computer and chip technology way before I even understood the problem.
I had no idea I was being mentored and never asked for it. But I sought out these really smart people, because I wanted to know what they knew.
In hindsight I realize that what made these brilliant engineers put up with me was that I was giving as good as I was getting. While I was learning from them – and their years of experience and expertise – what I was giving back was equally important. I brought fresh insights and new perspectives to their thinking.
In hindsight I realize now that mentorship is a two-way street.
Finding a mentor can change your life – this is where you can gain a heart of wisdom.
So if someone takes an interest in your work and career, be open to their advice. And think about what you can bring to the relationship.
Teach us to number our days that we gain a heart of wisdom.
My last story is about serendipity and making the days count.
Some of you may think you have a clear sense of where your career is headed. Others of you may still have no idea. But either way, while the days count down, none of you should be worrying about what you will be doing 10 or 20 years from now. Because none of it will happen as you expect.
While your education has prepared you to master the facts, the other half of your brain needs to learn to trust in serendipity. By the way, the engineering definition of serendipity is that life is too unpredictable to pre-compute. Serendipity is when it all comes together and you put all the days of your life into what becomes that heart of wisdom.
Here’s the latest way serendipity changed my life.
Over the last decade I’ve watched the Lean Startup approach to entrepreneurship take off. The National Science Foundation adopted it. The Lean LaunchPad class is now taught around the world. And VCs expect entrepreneurs to talk about not just their technology but their customer development findings.
It was amazing to see the movement I started grow and thrive.
Just recently, serendipity sent me down a new road that connected dots from 40 years ago to today.
When I was 18, I served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
After hanging up my uniform I had little interaction with the military until four decades later, when a group in the Department of Defense invited me to give a talk about Lean methods. Shortly after that, I met Pete Newell, the retired head of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force – one of the best Lean and agile organizations in the military. And I met Joe Felter, an ex Special Forces Colonel. As I spent time with Pete, Joe, and the Department of Defense, two things struck me:
- The U.S. government is still operating like a 20th century organization while our adversaries are operating at 21st century speed.
- Solving this problem requires new ways to think about how to organize, build, and deploy national security solutions.
Serendipity had just brought together my military experience of 40 years ago and the tools and techniques I spent the last decade building for Lean Startups.
I asked: What if we could teach students to use Lean methods to solve the most challenging national security problems? A new class – Hacking for Defense – was born.
Together with Pete and Joe and support from many others, we just taught this class for the first time.
We plan to scale the class across the country and create a new opportunity for students to engage in national service, solving problems to keep Americans safe at home and abroad.
How did this happen? Showing up a lot and being open to new seemingly unconnected experiences helped me create something that never existed before.
For me, knowing I was counting the days made me choose to work on things that pushed boundaries and made us collectively smarter.
As engineering graduates, you’ve been given the tools to design and build things to help people live better lives. You can solve major challenges the world faces. You can create something that never existed.
Congratulations class of 2016.
My challenge to you: Make every day ahead mean something. Make all the days of your life matter.
Steve Blank is a retired serial entrepreneur-turned-educator who has changed how startups are built and how entrepreneurship is taught. He created the Customer Development methodology that launched the lean startup movement, and wrote about the process in his first book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany. His second book, The Startup Owner’s Manual, is a step-by-step guide to building a successful company. Blank teaches the Customer Development methodology in his Lean LaunchPad classes at Stanford University, U.C. Berkeley, Columbia University, UCSF, NYU, the National Science Foundation and the I-Corps @NIH. He writes regularly about entrepreneurship at www.steveblank.com.