Steve Blank, the famed Silicon Valley entrepreneur, professor, and creator of the Lean Startup movement, says he took a cue from Steve Jobs, the late Apple co-founder, for his 2016 commencement address.
"Steve Jobs gave the best commencement speech ever," Blank said, in conversation with Inc. last weekend, referring to his 2005 Stanford address, in which Jobs discussed the inevitability of death: "Remembering you are going to die is the best way to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose," said Jobs.
"Except that he was diagnosed [with cancer], and was lying to himself that he had more days left," Blank added.
On Monday, Blank took the stage to give the keynote address at NYU's Tandon School of Engineering. In his opening, he quipped that parents were likely pleased to not be paying student bills anymore. But the central theme of his speech was somewhat more sobering. In many ways, it echoed what Steve Jobs had to say more than a decade ago.
"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," Blank began. "Most of us will wake up 28,762 days -- and then one day -- we won't."
The aim, as Blank explained ahead of the ceremony, was to incite a sense of urgency in Millennial graduates. "In your twenties, you're not wired to process things," he said. "These are the engineers that can make the next big thing -- but are you going to look back in twenty years going, you know, I probably could have found a more productive use of my time?"
The decision to address the engineering school--as opposed to a business school--was intentional. According to Blank, it's the engineers who possess the necessary skills to build the next great social, industrial, or scientific innovation. The MBA earners, by contrast, are more likely to "financially engineer" the wrong kinds of startups: Those that bring in massive revenues, but do little to drive meaning, purpose or value.
In his speech, Blank reflected on his own professional experiences, and the myriad of ways in which he made his days count: He pushed back against the conventional wisdom at U.C. Berkeley and Stanford (that startups were merely "smaller versions" of large companies) to develop his own lean startup course; he took on mentors as a young founder (they would go on to help him build eight successful tech businesses); and he ultimately accepted that no career path is linear, that the best leaders give in to serendipity.
"Of course, only you can decide what you will do with the 14,000 days in your career," he concluded. "But as engineers trained here at NYU, you have a distinct advantage. You've been given the tools to design and build things to help people live better lives."