University of Minnesota Commencement speech – May 10th 2013

Steve at PodiumI am honored to be with you as we gather to celebrate your graduation.

This school has a distinguished roster of graduates… Earl Bakken, the founder of Medtronic, was an Electrical Engineering grad, and Bob Gore of Gortex, and your current president are both alums of your Chemical Engineering program.

In fact, I feel very connected to another one your grads. I’m sure you’ve heard of Seymour Cray, he built a supercomputer company in Chippewa Falls that made the fastest computers in the world. These were very expensive supercomputers. They cost 10’s of millions of dollars and filled two tractor-trailers worth of space.

Back in Silicon Valley I co-founded a company that built desktop workstations powerful enough to compete against Cray. We bid against them in a sale to the Pittsburgh Supercomputer Center… and lost. I never forgot that loss because instead of buying hundreds of our small computers they spent $35 Million on that Cray. My startup never recovered and soon after went out of business.

Fast-forward 15 years, Now retired I noticed that the Pittsburg Supercomputer Center had put their Cray for sale on Ebay.  Yep – the $35 Million machine was now for sale for $35,000 dollars.

I bought that Cray, … Honest… you can Google “Cray on eBay” and there I am… I had it shipped to my ranch and kept it in the barn next to the cows and manure.

It was closure.

But the story about Cray is also a story about success and failure.  If I can keep you awake, I’m going to tell you why – while you may have thought today was the end of your education – it’s really only the beginning. And while you might be moaning about that thought, pay attention because what I’m about to share could make a few of you very, very successful.

First day of your life
For most of you, college was the first day of your own life – the morning you stepped onto campus you were no longer just a child of your parents – college was the first place you could taste the freedom of making your own decisions – and in some of those mornings-after – learn the price of indulgence and the value of moderation.

Here at school you had your first years of taking responsibility for yourself. While it may not be obvious to you yet, your college years were a transition from having your parents make decisions for you to making decisions for yourself.  But now you face a new chapter that -– if you’re not careful – could result in having companies make decisions for you.

UofM Commencement

Career Choices
It might turn out that graduating from college and getting a job may be just an illusion of independence. If you’re not careful you’ll simply end up having others tell you what to work on, how to spend your time, when to show up and when to go home.  In fact, working in a company could be the adult version of listening to your parents tell you what to do… Only the pay is usually a whole lot better than your allowance.

For some of you, that may be exactly what you are looking for. Many of you are going to take what you learned here, get a good job, get married, buy a house, have a family, be a great parent, serve your community and country, hang with friends and live a good life. And that’s great. Minnesota is a wonderful place to hunt, fish, canoe, raise kids, and pursue lots of interests other than just your job.

All of you will ultimately make a choice… a choice about whether you “work to live” or you “live to work.” This should be a conscious choice. Don’t get trapped into the daily routine of showing up and just getting by.

Diverging Interests
While you’re excited about your first “real” job, recognize that your interests and those of your employer are probably not the same. Having your employer tell you what a great job you’re doing and rewarding you for it is not the same as discovering your passion, and figuring out who you are, and what’s rewarding for you.

What I am saying is, “Don’t let a career just happen to you.”  And as much you love, respect and honor your parents, don’t live their lives. Your obligations to meet their expectations ended the day you became an adult.

At the end of the day, you can decide whether you want to be an employee with a great attendance record, getting promoted to ever better titles and working on interesting projects – or whether you want to attempt to do something spectacular – this be or do should be a question you never stop asking yourself — for the next 20 years, and beyond. Be? or Do?

Let me share with you the day I faced the Be or Do question.

Big Company versus Startup
Out of the military, my first job in Silicon Valley was with one of the most exciting companies you never heard of. By the time I joined it was a decade old, and no longer a startup. Our customers were the CIA, NSA, and National Reconnaissance Office. Our CEO, Bill Perry eventually became the Secretary of Defense.

In the 1970’s and ‘80’s the U.S. military realized that our advantage over the Soviet Union was in silicon, software and systems. These technologies allowed the U.S. to build weapons previously thought impossible or impractical.  The technology was amazing, and somehow in my 20’s I found myself in the middle of all of it.

Building these systems required resources way beyond the scope of a single company. A complete system had spacecraft and rockets and the resources of ten’s of thousands of people from multiple companies.

If you love technology, these projects are hard to walk away from. It was geek heaven.

While I worked on these incredibly interesting intelligence systems, my friends in startups worked on new things called microprocessors.  They’d run around saying, “Hey look, I can program this chip to make this speaker go beep.” I’d roll my eyes, comparing the toy-like microprocessors to what I was working on – which was so advanced you would have thought we acquired it from aliens.

But before long I realized that at my company, I was just a cog in a very big wheel. A small team had already figured out how to solve the problem and ten’s of thousands of us worked to build the solution. Given where I was in the hierarchy, I calculated that the odds of me being in on those decisions didn’t look so hot.

In contrast, my friends at startups were living in their garages fueled with an energy and passion to use their talents to pursue their own ideas, however unexpected or crazy they sounded. “Really, you’re building a computer I can have in my house?”

For me, the light bulb went off when I realized that punching a time clock is not the way to change the world. I chose the path of entrepreneurship and never looked back.

Engineers Run the World
Engineers used to be the people who made other peoples ideas work. Today, they change the world.  We live in a time where scientists and engineers are synonymous with continuous innovation. We don’t think twice as our phones shrink, our computers fit in our pockets, our cars run on batteries, and our lives are extended as new medical devices are implanted in our bodies. Scientists and engineers no longer work anonymously in backrooms. Today we celebrate them for improving the quality of peoples’ lives.

George Bernard Shaw once said, Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.” Engineers like you have the capacity to move the world forward by continually asking “why not?” It’s your special “doing” gene that empowers us to do better.

You invent. You imagine. You see things that others don’t. Where others see blank canvases, you’ll see finished paintings. You hear the music that’s not written, you see the bridges that have yet to be built.  You envision the products and companies that don’t exist yet.


Only In America
University of Minnesota Science and Engineering alumni have founded more than 4,000 active companies, employing over ½ million people and generating annual revenues of $90 billion. These alums chose not to take the safe road but instead to push beyond their boundaries and DO.

At some time you might decide that you want to become the master of your own destiny – that you want to take an idea – and start your own company. And all of you sitting here just earned a degree that gives you choices that very few other professions have.

Entrepreneurship is not something foreign – it’s built into the DNA of this country. America was built by those who left the old behind. Not too many generations ago your family packed up what they had, got on boat and came to America. They struck out across the country and ended up here in Minnesota.

And what’s great about the United States… No other country embraces innovation and entrepreneurship quite like we do. You don’t have to stay in one job, and it’s really, really hard to starve to death.

I predict that 78% of all commencement speeches this year will have advice about “pursuing your passion and doing stuff you love.” But they don’t tell you why.  Well here’s the secret – if you’re going to spend your career in a company, doing stuff you enjoy will help you keep showing up..

But if you want to do something, something entrepreneurial, just loving what you do is isn’t enough. You’re pursuing ideas you can’t get out of your head. Ideas that you obsess about. That you work on in your spare time.

Because that fearless vision and relentless passion are what it takes to sustain an entrepreneur through the inevitable bad times – the times your co-founder quits, or when no one buys, or the product doesn’t work. The time when everyone you know thinks that what your doing is wrong and a waste of time. The time when people tell you that you ought to get a “real” job.

By the way, every year I remind my students that great grades and successful entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation – and anecdotal evidence suggests that the correlation may actually be negative. There’s a big difference between being an employee at a great company and having the guts to start one.

You don’t get grades for resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition and tenacity.

You just get successful.

The downside of starting something new is that’s it’s tough, because unlike the movies – you fail a lot. For every Facebook and Google, thousands never make it.

Like Rocket Science Games, which was my biggest failure. 90 days after showing up on the cover of Wired Magazine I knew the game company where I raised 35 million dollars was headed for disaster.

We’d believed our own press, inhaled our own fumes and built lousy games. Customers voted with their wallets and didn’t buy our products. The company went out of business. Given the press we had garnered, it was a very public failure.

We let our customers, our investors, and our employees down. I thought my career and my life were over. But I learned that in Silicon Valley, honest failure is a badge of experience.

All of you will fail at some time in your career…or in love, or in life.

No one ever sets out to fail.

But being afraid to fail means you’ll be afraid to try.  Playing it safe will get you nowhere.

As it turned out, rather than run me out of town, the two venture capital firms that had lost $12 million in my failed startup actually asked me to work with them again.

During the next couple years…and much humbler… I raised more money and started another company that we were ultimately able to take public, and those patient investors more than made up for their earlier loss – many times over.

Hypothesis Testing
As scientists and engineers, you know about failure. You know that virtually no experiment works the first time.  And in a new company all you have is a series of untested hypotheses. You learned something vital in school — to test your hypotheses by designing experiments, getting accurate data, analyzing the results, and then modifying your initial hypotheses based on those results. This is the scientific method, and surprisingly we found the exact same method works for startups.

Because failure is a part of the startup process. In Silicon Valley, we have a special word for a failed entrepreneur – it’s called experiencedOur country and our entrepreneurial culture is one of second and third chances. It’s what makes us great. You don’t have to change your name or leave town. Entrepreneurs in America know that they get multiple shots at the goal.

Be or Do
Someday several of you in this graduating class will be worth a $100 million dollars. And a few of you might change the way the world works.

I want you to look around you.  …Go ahead.  Take a few seconds and give it a look…

While most of you were looking around wondering who this was going to be, I hope a few of you were feeling sorry for the rest of your classmates, knowing that the most successful person in the audience is going to be you.

These days I write a blog about entrepreneurship.  At the end of each post, I conclude with “lessons learned”—a kind of Cliff Notes of my key takeaways.  So that’s how I’ll finish up today.

Here are the two lessons that I’d like to pass on to you

Your science or engineering degree gives you tremendous choices – you, and no one else gets to decide two things:

  • whether you choose to be or you choose to do
  • whether you “work to live” or whether you “live to work”

Remember… live your life with no regrets. There’s no undo button.

And Congratulations  — you’ve earned it!

Thank you very much.

Listen to the post here or download the podcast here

33 Responses

  1. Thank you Steve

    This has to be one of the best posts I have read in a long time. Very true advice and motivating in the best way

    Once again thank you

    Penski :) xx


  2. Really original and insightful. As the parent of a graduating engineer this year, I hope his speaker is as relevant!


  3. We got you first!

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. Great talk Steve,
    When I graduated from the U. of Wisconsin in 1964, I had just been working with a CDC computer (built up near Minneapolis) and sensed that what you just said was right. I wished had heard you speak.
    John Holzrichter


  5. You are grater than Jobs! Got your DNA! Revive Japan with it!



  6. […] UMN CSE Commencement Speech 2013: Steve Blank […]


  7. Steve, as a regular reader of your
    blog, I cannot recall any mention of
    an upcoming CSE commencement
    address. I live a quarter mile from
    where you gave your speech. Next
    time, please offer some notice. I’d
    like to hear you in person.


  8. Great commencement. Couple of quotes I really liked:

    You don’t get grades for resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition
    and tenacity.

    In Silicon Valley, we have a special word for a failed entrepreneur – it’s called experienced.


  9. Amazing speech!!! Thank you so much!! WIsh my commencement speech was this good :)

    Much Love and Many Blessings, Ben Rolnik


  10. Sorry to burst some bubbles, but the facts are most of the people who decide to go out there and risk it all on pursuing their dream will fail and try again and fail, and try again and keep failing and never realize what it was they set out for. So unless you learn to enjoy whatever path you find yourself on, instead deferring happiness to some imaginary future state, chances are you will be a sad person. You know why you don’t hear this in commencement speeches? Because no one invites lifelong failures to be speakers, but I wish they would. It would be fascinating and more realistic instruction about what life is really like. Oh and luck is huge. The one thing I want more of in life is good luck and yes I know that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” and fortunately for me, I like preparing. Now, just more luck is needed.


  11. Steve:

    What a great speech with excellent advice. I hope those engineers listened carefully. Time will tell.

    Kent Millington


  12. Indeed good speech and excellent advice. See you soon in Singapore, Steve.


  13. A wonderful speech which has inculcated my working spirit this morning. Thanks for your advice Steve.


  14. Amazing speech for an early morning read here in India and for a father whose kids are just graduating this year…..I know India is not US yet as far as supporting entrepreneurship ventures are concerned with enough of social stigma attached to failures…..but that is slowly becoming a thing of the past and enough start-ups are now in the pipeline and many from the college campuses….


  15. Steve, great comments and talk. You have become a beacon for my ambitions. By the way – you were great in Berlin too. The canvas, four steps and the other tools are awesome and useful.

    The irony is my passion is about helping others find out what they want to do while I’m doing what I want to do.

    I can’t overstate the importance of your books, blog and talks.




  16. Inspirational. Thank you for sharing. “Be or Do?” Something all entrepreneurs must ask themselves each morning.


  17. Steve,
    Great way to start the day. Great speech.


  18. I was in the audience supporting my graduating husband listening to this speech. As a U of M alum of the Engineering department myself, I can say honestly that I very much disliked this speech. The message I took away from it was, “anyone with an Engineering degree that does not become an Entrepreneur is wasting their degree, their time, and their life.”

    I agree that the world needs Entrepreneurs, and it’s great to promote it. But to imply… no… to come right out and SAY that you’re not DOing anything worthwhile unless you become an Entrepreneur? Offensive.

    Maybe this speech would have sounded great to an audience full of Entrepreneurs, but that’s not what you had. You spent a half hour telling the vast majority of the people in the building you think they’re worthless (or will be, unless they follow your footsteps). Good job.


    • Liz,

      I guess I would be offended and disappointed as well if I had sat through 15 minutes of someone telling the “the vast majority of the people in the building you think they’re worthless (or will be, unless they follow your footsteps).

      Obviously you believe that’s what you heard, but that’s not what I said.
      The full text of the speech is here.

      I said exactly the opposite…
      Many of you are going to take what you learned here, get a good job, get married, buy a house, have a family, be a great parent, serve your community and country, hang with friends and live a good life.
      And that’s great. Minnesota is a wonderful place to hunt, fish, canoe, raise kids, and pursue lots of interests other than just your job

      I don’t think saying pursuing lots of interests other than just your job is a great choice is telling the vast majority of the audience I think they’re worthless. I don’t think telling your husband to have a family, be a great parent is telling them they’re worthless.

      I went on to say, that … All of you will ultimately make a choice… a choice about whether you “work to live” or you “live to work.” This should be a conscious choice.

      I’m not sure if this was the part that offended you, but given you were there supporting your husband I would hope that you would want him to realize that he had a choice as well.

      I contrasted the choice of spending your career inside a company with one outside. I framed it as a “be or do,” saying…
      At the end of the day, you can decide whether you want to be an employee with a great attendance record, getting promoted to ever better titles and working on interesting projects—or whether you want to attempt to do something spectacular. This be or do should be a question you never stop asking yourself—for the next 20 years, and beyond. Be? Or Do?
      What I am saying is, “Don’t let a career just happen to you.”…

      You said, “But to imply… no… to come right out and SAY that you’re not DOing anything worthwhile unless you become an Entrepreneur? Offensive.”

      The idea that “being” an employee is less worthwhile than “do’ing” as an entrepreneur, is your judgment, not mine.

      I said, This be or do should be a question you never stop asking yourself—for the next 20 years. Are you implying that asking yourself that question is somehow demeaning? Are you suggesting you would never want your husband to question his choice of where he works? At any time?

      I followed it up by pointing out that, …U of M Science and Engineering alumni have founded more than 4,000 active companies, employing over ½ million people and generating annual revenues of $90 billion.

      Somehow 4,000 graduates, just like your husband, asked the “be or do” question, and they chose to do. I don’t think pointing out to the graduates that this is a path they could choose was offensive. It’s simply a fact – one that the University your husband graduated from celebrates.

      I urge you to read the speech again and think about my comments above. The goal was to challenge engineers just like your husband to recognize that they have a choice in their careers – nothing more. Your husband will have a great career regardless of whatever path he chooses.



    • Dear Liz:
      I was at the commencement as well and did not take away that message. I think the main take away was: the Twin Cities have the highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies per capita, therefore the Medtronics, Best Buys and Targets will always be an option for the graduates in the room. However, these companies are big and most talented people, like yourself and your husband, may not be used to their ful potential. This is because big corporations create compartmentalized positions that are easy to perform in isolation, and therefore most workers never get to leverage their full potential because they get complacent using the same basic skill-set required to perform their limited duty.
      Steve’s suggestion was: since in MN it has become the norm to expect to work at one of these big companies, know that there are many alternatives to such a career path. One such alternative is entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship in this time and age is actually not as risky as one may think. It has become very easy and cost effective to test whether there is strong demand for a potential product. The biggest investment is having the courage to leave our comfort zone and social expectations and try experimenting whether an idea can be profitable. All Steve suggested was that entrepreneurship is an option you should explore sooner rather than later because while it might be hard work and “risky” it can be an extremely rewarding and value-creating career choice.

      Of course our perception of things is influenced by our mental state (known as framing) so maybe I was in a more optimistic mood, but I think it is useful to think of Steve’s speech as an opportunity to learn about an alternative career path as opposed to a waste of 30 minutes.



  19. I like the speech Steve but it never ceases to amaze me the very American expression: “maybe some day you will be worth a $100 million dollars”.

    It implies that people’s value is proportional to the money that they have in the bank, so a person that has no money or power, is worthless.

    I bet you don’t see it, like fish can’t see the Ocean, but makes a strong impression on people from other countries-cultures.


    • Jose,

      I spent my first 5 of 8 startups happy that I was doing what I loved and surprised every day that I was getting paid for it. I’ve found that’s the best attitude for starting a company. However, as I got older I found that doing it for others who were making money off of my hard work was simply naive.

      The point of the speech was that you can 1) Do what you love (rather than just being someones employee), and 2) you can be compensated for it.

      The short answer for other countries and cultures, is that if you believe that making money is bad, or “be worth $100Million” makes you uncomfortable, then in capitalist economies then you are always going to be working for others. That may be fine with you, but the talk offered that it’s a choice, not a permanent condition you can’t change.

      The combination of entrepreneurs and risk capital is why individuals have more opportunity to innovate and grow large in the U.S. It’s not that we have smarter entrepreneurs than anywhere else, it’s that we have a combination of entrepreneurs _and_ financial capital that take risk together. The goal of Venture investors is to make an obscene pile of money.

      Your goal, if you decide to take charge of your career, is do something important _and_ own a large share of that pile. As innovative and creative as the Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg’s were, they never lost sight of both of these goals.



  20. I look at “BEing” vs “DOing” the opposite way. I think when you are alligned with your heart and your passion, you are just BEing who you really are. You can BE an entrepreneur as well as BE an employee.

    When you “do” the routines as an employee or an entrepreneur, DO the things you are supposed to DO, I consider that to be a less passionate or deeply alligned activity.

    I suggest a person should ” BE great” not “DO great things”

    or, You can DO what your told by others, but only you can BE what your decide to BE.


  21. Hi Steve,
    Such an inspiring post and an inspiring speech. And yet another way to look at the power of entrepreneurism and the role it plays in innovation. I was so pleased to find this post shared in the BizSugar community. Thanks for giving us all another reason to love what we do.


  22. As a University of Minnesota engineering alumn, and entrepreneur, I really enjoyed this post, it’s a good motivation to help keep me up tonight working. Nice job, Steve!


  23. Have you ever heard of John Boyd? He was the preeminent US military strategist in the second half of the last century. He also was involved with getting the F-15 and F16 fighters built. In any case, he also had a “To be or To do” speech himself.
    Here is his quote:
    “Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” he said. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.”
    Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.”
    He paused and stared into the officer’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something.” In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”


  24. When I read this I think of a friend of mine who works in Silicon Valley with a well known company. He is a talented person and has a responsible position but I have always wondered why he does not go out and do something on his own. Afer all I have known him for 20 years and I see his ability. But after reading this speech I realize that it is above all fear which prevents him from doing anything. Fear I think is a tremendous obstacle to entrepreneurship. I think “successful” entrepreneurs are those who are able to face fear and drive straight through it. Great speech. Enjoyed it.


  25. One of the best posts I’ve read in a long time =)

    You’ve got to love a cracking commencement speech!


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