The Greatest Commencement Speeches in History: Steve Ballmer at University of Southern California

The Greatest Commencement Speeches in History is a weekly column that compiles the most memorable speeches in history with the goal to emphasize on the power of public speaking, to illustrate its importance, impact, and necessity to master.

Today we focus on one very inspirational commencement address delivered at University of Southern California by Steve Ballmer, the infamous businessman, investor and philanthropist who was the chief executive officer of Microsoft from January 2000 to February 2014. Here are the most important outtakes:

“I come here today imbued with a lot of optimism. I’m naturally, it’s kind of my personality, a very optimistic personality. And yet, I’m also optimistic because of the opportunity I’ve had to work in the field of information technology. Information technology has shaped the world. Information technology has been able to advance the world in a way that’s like none other, frankly, in human history. We’re sitting here 60 years, essentially, after the introduction of the first computer. And yet the amount of invention and creation that is continuing to go on to make society smaller, to lead to advances in science, and medicine and education, in communications, in media, is really quite remarkable.”

“When I decided to go to Microsoft, I was actually in the middle of an academic program. I was going for an MBA. And a friend of mine, Bill Gates, who I had gone to college with, he says, “Hey, Steve, why don’t you drop out and come join me?” Drop out? My father didn’t go to college. Dropping out, bad idea.”

“So, I went home and I told my mom and dad, I think I’m going to drop out, join a tiny little company, a friend of mine. But, boom, my parents jump in. They said, what do they do? Software. Software for personal computers. My father comes up out of his chair. “What’s software?” Pretty inconceivable today. My mother asked an even more interesting question for the year 1980, why would a person ever need a computer? The opportunities that are proceeding are really quite amazing. And I don’t think there would be any better time to really come out of school, and have a chance to make a difference across a broad variety of fields.”

“I would like you to think about three things, three things that I’ve had a chance to decide are really important based upon the time I’ve spent at Microsoft, and I’ve spent in the information technology industry.

Number one, great ideas matter. Number two, find passion. And, number three, be tenacious, be irrepressible.

Those three things are just, boom, bake them in, that’s what I encourage at least my poor freshman son to do, bake them in. They’ll really take you a long way. Microsoft was really founded on a single good idea, an insight, a direction that Bill Gates and Paul Allen had that nobody had had. The microprocessor is a form of free intelligence, and with the right software there will be a computer on every desk, and in every home. And now we can say every pocket and every television set, and every everything.”

“Second, find passion. This is not an easy one. People think passion is something you either have or you don’t. People think passion is something that has to manifest itself in some kind of explosive and emotional format. It’s not. It’s the thing that you find in your life that you can care about, that you can cling to, that you can invest yourself in, heart, body, and soul. Finding passion is kind of your job now.”

“And last but not least, be tenacious. I actually prefer the word irrepressible, but everybody I ran the speech by says it’s too hard for people to get. But, irrepressible is kind of tenacious, but with optimism. You just have it in you. You keep going and going. You could say, isn’t that the same as passion. It’s not. Passion is the ability to get excited about something. Irrepressibility and tenacity is about the ability to stay with it. If you take a look at all of the companies that have been started in our business, most of them fail. If you take even a look at the companies that have succeeded, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, you name it, all of these companies went through times of hardship. You get some success. You run into some walls. You try a formula for a new idea, a new innovation, it doesn’t work. And it’s how tenacious you are, how irrepressible, how ultimately optimistic and tenacious you are about it that will determine your success.”

“I happen to think that’s a good lesson. It’s not just a lesson in our business. It’s not just a lesson that we learned with our Xbox product, or our this, or our that. It’s a lesson that applies whether you’re going into science, or medicine, or business, or any other walk of life. Ideas matter, find your passion, and be tenacious.”


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