This post is part of a series on several of this year’s notable Commencement speeches.
- Stephen Colbert’s address to Wake Forest University
- Ian McEwan, on the gift of free speech
- Katie Couric’s warnings about technological distraction.
- Bill Nye on literally saving the world
Today, we’re hearing from Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, who gave an address to the graduates at George Washington University.
Pursuing the Truth, Discovering Your Values
Cook begins his speech by sharing his personal journey of discovery, how he came to adopt the values that guide him in life. He mentions people who changed the world in various ways, as they engaged in pursuits drawn from deep conviction: Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan.
Next, Cook describes the dissonance of seeing heroes like King and Kennedy juxtaposed with George Wallace, the segregationist who hailed from Cook’s home state of Alabama. Wallace’s popularity in his home state led Cook to something of an intellectual crisis. When Cook saw how the textbooks in school downplayed the role of slavery in the Civil War, he decided he must look elsewhere to educate himself. This launched him on a pursuit of truth.
“So I had to figure out for myself what was right and true. It was a search. It was a process.”
I appreciate the way Cook describes this journey. His words are different than Colbert’s (“decide for yourself what is right and wrong”) in that he seems to be referring to “righteousness” and “truth” as something outside that must be discerned. It is something he is seeking, not something he is creating.
Cook goes on to mention how this process included “the moral sense that I’d learned from my parents, and in church, and in my own heart, and led me on my own journey of discovery.” In this picture, Cook is not the lone pursuer of truth, but one who is willing to listen to the people he respects.
To sum up this journey with other words, I’d say Cook’s goal was to own his values. Not content with simply inheriting values from others, Cook wanted to test them and come to be convinced of them for himself.
On What Basis Can I Judge?
Up to this point, we’ve seen Cook advocating (1) the pursuit of truth (what is right and wrong) and (2) owning your values for yourself.
What’s interesting is that in his account of meeting both Jimmy Carter and George Wallace within the space of a week, Cook can’t draw on anything other than his own values to condemn Wallace’s actions. It’s clear that he thinks Carter is the better man — Carter was right and Wallace was wrong; Carter united the country, while Wallace divided it. But then Cook makes an interesting comment:
Each had made a journey that led them to the values that they lived by, but it wasn’t just about their experiences or their circumstances, it had to come from within.
It’s fascinating to me to see Cook “take a side” so to speak, and then immediately shrug off the work of Wallace by saying, “But he was just living the values he believed in. They came from within.”
Cook has no objective basis by which to judge Wallace. He can think Wallace as wrong, but if Wallace was following his own internal compass and his own values, then Cook can’t really say much more. It’s illuminating to see how Cook has the noble desire to make a judgment call, but no external basis beyond his own values from which to do it.
The Purpose of Life as Self-Discovery
From there, Cook begins to talk about the purpose of life. We’ve seen in other speeches how often the purpose of life is summed up in discovering who you are. Cook goes in the same direction:
For you graduates, the process of discovering yourself, of inventing yourself, of reinventing yourself is about to begin in earnest. It’s about finding your values and committing to live by them. You have to find your North Star. And that means choices. Some are easy. Some are hard. And some will make you question everything.
Note how Cook describes the journey of life: figuring out who you are, making yourself who you want to be, or changing yourself if you decide it’s time to be someone different. You find your values and live by them. That’s the “North Star,” and your ability to do this well is what carries the story of your life forward.
The earlier section about pursuing truth might have led us to believe that Cook thinks there is such a thing as objective truth, right and wrong, to be discovered — a North Star that is the same for everyone. But here, it seems clear that the North Star for one person may differ from another’s.
This leads to an interesting question for society. How do people with vastly different values and North Stars coexist and thrive together? We are a country with a burgeoning immigrant population, with secularists living alongside Muslims, gay rights advocates doing business with evangelical Christians, and gentrified neighborhoods that go back and forth between peace and unrest. How can we have a common life together when our reference points for morality and values are so vastly different? That is the question that takes us beyond one’s individual North Star.
Integrating Values and Work
The most interesting part of Cook’s speech is the integration of one’s values and one’s work. Cook mentions Steve Jobs as someone who brought together the values of personal life with the values of work. No compartmentalization here. Your values in one area ought to be aligned with your values in another.
I knew who I was in my personal life, and I kept my eye on my North Star, my responsibility to do good for someone else, other than myself. But at work, well I always figured that work was work. Values had their place and, yes, there were things that I wanted to change about the world, but I thought I had to do that on my own time. Not in the office.
That dichotomy didn’t cut it for Jobs, and it’s not sufficient for Cook either. At the end of the speech, he once again encourages the graduates to live by their values and to make sure their work lines up with them:
Work takes on new meaning when you feel you are pointed in the right direction. Otherwise, it’s just a job, and life is too short for that. We need the best and brightest of your generation to lead in government and in business. In the science and in the arts. In journalism and in academia. There is honor in all of these pursuits. And there is opportunity to do work that is infused with moral purpose. You don’t have to choose between doing good and doing well. It’s a false choice, today more than ever.
Cook may be rich, but the pursuit of riches is not the main element of his business. He sees his company as making the world a better place. What gets him up in the morning is not a job; it’s a calling.
This infusion of “moral purpose” into the workplace is something that Christians have been encouraging for a long time. It’s not just a job; it’s a living out of one’s values by what you do.
But again, the question for the future is: what happens when these values collide? When the moral purpose is expressed through a boycott? When one business owner’s values lead to supporting causes that another business owner finds morally repugnant?
These are the questions that this generation will encounter in business. And Christians will need to be filled with wisdom in how we answer the questions of a pluralist society.