Tim Cook couldn’t help himself.
After starting the week by criticizing Donald Trump’s decision-making, the leader of the world’s most valuable company ended it by poking at the president’s Twitter habit during his commencement speech at MIT on Friday.
“I know MIT has a proud tradition of pranks, or as you would call them ‘hacks,’ Cook joked. “I’ll never figure out how MIT students sent that Mars Rover to Kresge Oval or put a propeller beanie on the Great Dome. Or how you’ve obviously taken over the president’s Twitter account.”
“I can tell college students are behind it because most of the tweets happen at 3 a.m.,” he added, as the crowd laughed.
While it seemed to be light-hearted, Cook’s quip at the president comes at an awkward time. Apple’s CEO has toed the line between deference to the president and standing up for his company’s principles, and while Cook has shown a willingness to work with Trump’s administration, he has also criticized its policies.
In January, following the Trump administration’s attempt to ban immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the US, Cook wrote an email to employees noting that it was “not a policy we support.” On Monday, following his keynote address at Apple’s developers conference, he told Bloomberg that Trump’s decision to remove the United States from the Paris climate accord was “wrong.” Bloomberg had earlier reported that Cook had called the White House in late May to urge the president to stay in the landmark 2015 climate change pact.
“He didn’t decide what I wanted him to decide,” Cook said. “He decided wrong. It’s not in the best interest of the United States what he decided.”
That statement, as well as Friday’s commencement speech joke, could make for awkward conversation in about a week’s time when Apple’s CEO meets with Trump and other business leaders at the American Technology Council. Cook, along with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and others, are expected to join what is seen as a continuation of a December meeting Trump held with technology leaders before his inauguration.
One source, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak on the record, told BuzzFeed News that the council will discuss immigration among other topics, though it’s still unclear if there will be conversations on the environment. The agenda is still being set for that meeting, the source said.
The rest of Cook’s 14-minute commencement address on Friday was largely filled with the typical graduation pomp and platitudes. He gave a short account of how he finally found his purpose in life after coming to work for Apple and then-CEO Steve Jobs, whose 2005 speech at Stanford University in which he urged graduates to “stay hungry, stay foolish” is still referenced today. Cook’s talk took a somewhat darker tone, and while he urged MIT’s students to serve humanity in their next lines of work, he also advised them to tune out a world where there is so much “conspiring to make you cynical.”
“The internet has enabled so much and empowered so many, but it can also be a place where the basic rules of decency are suspended and pettiness and negativity thrive,” he said. “Don’t listen to trolls, and for God’s sake, don’t become one. Measure your impact on humanity, not on likes, but on the lives you touch; not in popularity, but in the people you serve.”
Cook ended his address with an anecdote about a shareholder meeting in which an investor asked why Apple was investing so heavily in green initiatives without a clear return on investment.
“We do these things because they’re the right thing to do and protecting the environment is a critical example,” he said.
“When you’re convinced your cause is right, have the courage to take a stand,” Cook added. “If you see a problem or an injustice, recognize that no one will fix it but you.”
Cook’s meeting with Trump at the American Technology Council is scheduled for June 19.
Thank you all! And congratulations, Class of ’17!
I especially want to thank Chairman Millard, President Reif, distinguished faculty, trustees, and members of the class of 1967. It’s a privilege to be here with you and your families and friends on such an amazing and important day.
MIT and Apple share so much. We both love hard problems. We love the search for new ideas. And we especially love finding those ideas — the really big ones — the ones that can change the world.
I know MIT has a proud tradition of pranks — as you would call them ’hacks’ — and you’ve pulled off some great ones over the years. I’ll never figure out how MIT students sent that Mars Rover to the Kresge Oval.
Or put a propeller beanie on the Great Dome. Or how you’ve obviously taken over the President’s Twitter account. I can tell college students are behind it because most of the tweets happen at 3:00 a.m.
I’m happy to be here. Today is about celebration. You have so much to be proud of.
As you leave here to start the next leg of your journey in life, there will be days where you will ask yourself: Where is all this going? What is the purpose? What is my purpose?
I’ll be honest, I asked myself that same question and it took me nearly 15 years to answer it. Maybe by talking about my journey today I can save you some time. The struggle for me started early on.
In high school, I thought I’d discover my life’s purpose when I could answer that age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up”? Nope. In college, I thought I’d discover it when I could answer, “What’s your major?” Not quite. I thought that maybe I’d discover it when I found a good job. Then I thought I just needed to get a few promotions.
That didn’t work either. I kept convincing myself that it was just over the horizon around the next corner. Nothing worked—and it was really tearing me apart. Part of me kept pushing ahead to the next achievement.
And the other part kept asking ”is this all there is?” I went to grad school at Duke looking for the answer. I tried meditation. I sought guidance in religion. I read great philosophers and authors. And in a moment of youthful indiscretion, I might even have experimented with a Windows PC. Obviously, that didn’t work.
After countless twists and turns, at last, twenty years ago, my search brought me to Apple. At the time, the company was struggling to survive. Steve Jobs had just returned to Apple and had launched the Think Different campaign.
He wanted to empower the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels, the trouble makers, the round pegs in the square holes, to do their best work. If we could just do that, Steve knew we really could change the world.
Before that moment, I had never met a leader with such passion—or encountered a company with such a clear and compelling purpose—to serve humanity. It was just that simple. Serve humanity.
And it was in that moment, after fifteen years of searching, something clicked. I finally felt aligned. Aligned with a company that brought together challenging, cutting-edge work with a higher purpose. Aligned with a leader who believed that technology which didn’t yet exist could reinvent tomorrow’s world. Aligned with myself, and my own deep need to serve something greater.
Of course, at the moment, I didn’t know all that. I was just grateful to have that psychological burden lifted. But, with the help of hindsight my breakthrough makes a lot more sense. I was never going to find my purpose working someplace without a clear sense of purpose of its own.
Steve and Apple freed me to throw my whole self into my work, to embrace their mission and make it my own: how can I serve humanity?
This is life’s biggest and most important question. When you work towards something greater than yourself, you find meaning, you find purpose. So the question I hope you will carry forward from here is: how will you serve humanity?
The good news is, since you’re here today, you’re already on a great track. At MIT you’ve learned how much power science and technology have to change the world for the better. Thanks to discoveries made right here, billions of people are leading healthier, more productive, more fulfilling lives.
And if we are ever going to solve some of the hardest problems still facing the world today—everything from cancer, to climate change, to educational inequality—then technology will help us do it.
But technology alone isn’t the solution. Sometimes, it’s part of the problem. Last year I had the chance to meet with Pope Francis. It was the most incredible meeting of my life. This is a man who has spent more time comforting the afflicted in slums than he has with heads of state. This may surprise you, but he knew an unbelievable amount about technology.
It was obvious to me that he had thought deeply about it—its opportunities, its risks, its morality. What he said to me in that meeting—what he preached, really—was on a topic we care a lot about at Apple. But he expressed a shared concern in a powerful new way. “Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely,” he has said.
Technology today is integral to almost all aspects of our lives and, most of the time, it’s a force for good. And yet, the potential adverse consequences are spreading faster and cutting deeper than ever before. Threats to our security. Threats to our privacy. Fake news. And social media that becomes anti-social. Sometimes the very technology that is meant to connect us divides us.
Technology is capable of doing great things, but it doesn’t want to do great things. It doesn’t want anything. That part takes all of us. It takes our values, and our commitment to our family, our neighbors, our communities. Our love of beauty and belief that all our fates are interconnected. Our decency. Our kindness.
I’m not worried about artificial intelligence giving computers the ability to think like humans. I’m more concerned about people thinking like computers: without values or compassion, without concern for consequences.
That is what we need you to help us guard against. Because if science is a search in the darkness, then the humanities are a candle that shows us where we’ve been and the danger that lies ahead. As Steve once said, “Technology alone is not enough. It is technology married with the liberal arts married with humanities that makes our hearts sing.”
When you keep people at the center of what you do, it can have an enormous impact. It means an iPhone that allows a blind person to run a marathon. It means an Apple Watch that catches a heart condition before it becomes a heart attack. It means an iPad that helps a child with autism connect with his or her world. In short, it means technology infused with your values—making progress possible for everyone.
Whatever you do in your life—and whatever we do at Apple—we must infuse it with the humanity each of us is born with. That responsibility is immense, but so is the opportunity. I’m optimistic because I believe in your generation. Your passion. Your journey to serve humanity. We are counting on you. There is so much out there conspiring to make you cynical.
The Internet has enabled so much and empowered so many. But it can also be a place where the basic rules of decency are suspended and pettiness and negativity thrive. Don’t let the noise knock you off course. Don’t get caught up on the trivial aspects of life. Don’t listen to the trolls, and for God’s sake don’t become one. Measure your impact on humanity not in likes, but in the lives you touch. not in popularity, but in the people you serve.
I found that my life got bigger when I stopped caring what other people thought about me. You will find yours will too. Stay focused on what really matters. There will be times when your resolve to serve humanity will be tested. Be prepared. People will try to convince you that you should keep your empathy out of your career. Don’t accept this false premise.
At a shareholder’s meeting a few years back, someone questioned Apple’s focus on the environment. He asked me to pledge that Apple would only invest in green initiatives that can be justified with a return on investment.
I tried to be diplomatic. I pointed out that Apple does many things—like accessibility features for those with disabilities—that don’t rely on an ROI. We do these things because they’re the right thing to do—and protecting the environment is a critical example. He wouldn’t let it go, and it got my blood up. So I told him, “if you can’t accept our position, you shouldn’t own Apple stock.”
When you are convinced your cause is right, have the courage to take a stand.
If you see a problem, or an injustice, recognize that no one else will fix it but you. As you go forward today, use your minds and hands—and your hearts—to build something bigger than yourselves. Always remember there is no idea bigger than this: as Dr. Martin Luther King said, “All life is interrelated.” We are all bound together, “into a single garment of destiny.”
If you keep that idea at the forefront of all that you do. If you choose to live your lives at that intersection between technology and the people it serves. If you strive to create the best, give the best, do the best for everyone, not just for some. Then, today, all of humanity has good cause for hope.
Thank you very much. And congratulations, Class of 2017!