Don’t Follow Your Passion: Career Advice for Recent Graduates

Ben Horowitz

watch time: 17 minutes


So first of all, thank you, Class of 2015, for inviting me to speak. It’s such a great honor and when I got the invitation I started thinking back to when I was in Columbia and I remember getting to Columbia and I was immediately stressed out, because I realized that I now had to figure out, at some point, what I was going to do with my life. That was super scary. Some of you might be going through that now a little bit, (but not to bring that up or anything.)

I remember when I got the first clue of what I might do, I was taking a class over in the Mudd Building, which somebody was telling me today is a great building if you like prisons and Catholic school. I was in this class and they were talking about this guy, Alan Turing and they were talking about how he had proven that if you built a machine, that he called a Turing Machine, it was theoretically impossible to build a machine that was computationally more powerful. It just melted my mind when I heard it, because I couldn’t even imagine what he was talking about, because it was 1984 and you have to remember 1984 computers weren’t even really a thing.

So the idea of a machine that could do anything was just so farfetched, because all of our machines were just special-purpose machines, like for doing math. Your parents will remember it’s called a calculator. And then we had one machine for word processing called a typewriter and we even had one for video called a television set. And so the idea of, okay, now you’re gonna have the machine that can do absolutely anything and this guy had figured that out 40 years previously — I didn’t even know it was possible. I had no idea, it was like this secret to the universe in which they were saying, “Oh, here, there is a machine that’s limitless and you can do anything on it.” And I was just thought: “No way.” Translate, español, no way Jose. For the parents, that’s a Kanye West reference.

That point in my life was like, for those of you who are Phineas and Ferb fans, it was like that time when Phineas goes, “I know what I’m gonna do today. ” I’m gonna major in computer science. And so I ran over to (Carmen) and I was just so excited to tell my friends. I was, like, man, they’re gonna be just like so fired up for me, I figured it out. I’m not gonna be stressed anymore: “Guys, I’m gonna major in computer science.” And one of my friends said, “Wow, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” And said: “Why?” He said, “Look, you’re at Columbia University. That’s like a trade. You could learn that at DeVry. They’ll teach you how to build computers, fix them, program them. Here you should major in something real.” And I was just thinking to myself: “I’m talking about a limitless machine. You’re talking about a washing machine.” I was completely frustrated, I couldn’t really explain to him why, but it was at that point, at my height of frustration that I learned the most valuable lesson that I learned at Columbia, which is: Don’t listen to your friends. Think for yourself.

Thinking for yourself sounds both simple and trivial, but in reality it’s extremely difficult and it’s profound and here is why. As human beings, we want to be liked. It’s anthropological. If people didn’t like you in caveman days, they would just eat you. So you really have a natural built in instinct to want to be liked and the easiest way to be liked is to tell people what they want to hear.

And you know what everybody wants to hear? What they already believe to be true. And so the last thing they want to hear is an original idea that contradicts their belief system. So it’s very hard to even bring that kind of stuff up. But those are the things; those are the only things — things that YOU believe, that everybody around you doesn’t believe — that when you’re right that create real value in the world. Everything else people already know. There is no value created. It’s just business as usual. So it’s so important to think for yourself.

I see this in my business every day. My business is that I fund people who have companies. Some of you probably have company ideas and you might come to me and say, “I’ve got an idea.” The biggest thing that I’ll look for when you come to with an idea is, have you thought for yourself? Is it something that you know that nobody else knows? Or is it something that everybody knows?

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you come to me and say, “Hey, I’ve got an idea to make batteries and cell phones last longer.” I would react, “Well, that’s a pretty good idea, but I’m not gonna fund it, because everybody thinks that’s a good idea.” And because everybody think that’s a good idea, companies like Google and Apple and Samsung with tons of resources will just build that. So it’s not really a new value creation for a new person.

Contrast that with an idea that came to me about five years ago. A young man by the name of Brian Chesky came up to me and had this idea that he was going to have an air mattress in his apartment that he rented to people. It would be an air bed and breakfast and I immediately thought: wow, that’s a horrible, horrible idea. Who would want to rent an air mattress out to somebody’s apartment like probably a serial killer?

But Brian had a secret and his secret: and that was he had run the experiment. He had actually tried his idea and a whole lot of people wanted to rent that air mattress and they weren’t serial killers. Beyond that, he went and he studied the history of hotel chains and he found out hotel chains were a relatively new concept. That before hotel chains, people stayed at inns and bed and breakfasts. And that the problem with inns and bed and breakfast were, they were like a box of chocolates. You had no idea what you were going to get — one day you might have something good and the other day you might have marzipan cherry or some weird stuff.

So, he though, with the internet, we can make every one of those little chocolates in the box transparent and you can know what you’re getting. And then you’d get all the greatness of the bed and breakfast and all the goodness of the hotel chain all in one. And he had figured out that secret and it was an interesting secret, because it wasn’t something everybody knew. Or it was something that probably everybody in the world knew at one point, but they had all forgotten. Everybody had forgot why we had hotels. And today? I think they rent more nights every night in New York than Hilton Hotel. Just five years ago and it was all based on him believing something that nobody else believed.

So in that spirit, what I’d like to give is a few unconventional graduation thoughts and I’m titling them, “Do Not Follow Your Passion and the World is Not Going to Hell in a Handbasket and the Class of 2015 is Not Required to Save it.”  I told you it wasn’t going to be conventional. Don’t follow your passion.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “That’s a really dumb idea.” Because if you poll 1,000 people who are successful they’ll all say that they love what they do. And so the broad conclusion of the world is that if you do what you love, then you’ll be successful. But we’re engineers and we know that that might be true. But it also might be the case that if you’re successful, you love what you do. You just love being successful and everybody loves you. It’s awesome.

So which one is it?

Well, I think to figure it out, you have to go back in time. You have to back off when you were successful to right now when you’re graduating as the Class of 2015. And the first tricky thing about passions are they’re hard to prioritize. Which passion is it? Are you more passionate about math or engineering? Are you more passionate about history or literature? Are you more passionate about video games or K-pop? These are tough decisions. How do you even know? On the other hand, what are you good at? Are you better at math or writing? That’s a much easier thing to figure out.

The second thing that’s tricky if you’re going forward in time with this follow your passion idea is that what you’re passionate about at 21 is not necessarily what you’re gonna be passionate about at 40. Now, this is true for boyfriends as well as career choices.

The third issue with following your passion is you’re not necessarily good at your passion. Has anybody ever watched American Idol? You know what I’m talking about. Just because you love singing doesn’t mean you should be a professional singer.

Finally and most importantly, following your passion is a very “me”-centered view of the world. When you go through life, what you’ll find is what you take out of the world over time — be it money, cars, stuff, accolades — is much less important than what you’ve put into the world. So my recommendation would be follow your contribution. Find the thing that you’re great at, put that into the world, contribute to others, help the world be better and that is the thing to follow.

Now, speaking of the world, this is generally the point in a graduation speech where I should say, “The Class of 2015 faces unprecedented challenges. There is ISIS. There is global warming. It sucks.” Don’t get me started on congressional gridlock. And I think all those are true, but what’s remarkable from a historical standpoint about this time in the world, to me, are not the unprecedented challenges; it’s the unprecedented opportunities.

Let me talk quickly about the state of the world.

The number of people living in extreme poverty today is the lowest in the history of the world and one-fifth of what it was in 1900. Child labor is in steep decline and fell one-third between 2000 and 2012. Compared to the late 19th Century, the number of hours that one has to work has fallen roughly in half. The percent of income spent on food has fallen in half since 1960. Life expectancy has increased six years between 1990 and 2012. Child mortality has fallen in half since 1990. People are getting taller, which is a measure of nutrition. People have grown more in the last 100 years than in the previous 2,000. Speaking of ISIS, worldwide battlefield deaths are down twentyfold since the 40s. The homicide rate in the U.S. is down half since the late 70s, violent crime is one-third of what it was in 1976. The global supply of nuclear weapons is down nearly fivefold since 1990 and in 2014 was the first year in 40 that carbon emissions were flat.

So it’s not that bad.

But the biggest opportunity is one that we’ve only begun to measure and to explain this, I’d like to go back to when your parents and I were in college, because when we were in college, and they may have told you this, and it may have scared you, we didn’t have the internet. There was no internet. And so if we had an idea Brian Chesky had an idea, and we wanted to find out about it, we couldn’t Google it.

But we did have a search engine. It was a different kind of technology. It was called a library and it kind of sucked. There is actually an old search engine behind me; I’m looking at it there. But it kind of sucked because, one, you couldn’t access it from your dorm room, because it wasn’t even in cyberspace. It was in, well, actual space. And you had to walk over there and then, and you had to bring your credentials or they wouldn’t even let you in. There was no logged out user experience.

And it was based on this really weird tech that was invented a long time ago called the Dewey Decimal System. And this tech was so old, Dewey was named after the guy Dewey who invented it. But to make it seem high tech, they said it’s a decimal system: “This is so high tech, we’re using numbers, dude.” And not just integers, the decimal system! The user interface to it was so bad, it was called a card catalog, they had to train you to use it. You couldn’t just go in and use it. You needed hours and hours of classroom training.

The net result of this was that looking stuff up was very discouraging, because you couldn’t look it up in milliseconds, it took hours, and that’s if you were a Columbia student, right? Even if you had a good library like Butler, it would take you hours to look things up, so it was very discouraging.

Maybe if Brian Chesky was born then he would just have said, “Forget this, I’m going to Taco Bell. I’m not figuring out where hotels came from.” But think about it, that’s for a Columbia student. Even worse for like a student who didn’t go to Columbia and didn’t have access to as good a library and, you might not even have that book in the library.

Or even more so, imagine if you grew up in Bangladesh or Sudan and you had all kinds of great ideas, you had no access, no search engine at all, no way to contribute your original ideas to the world.

But then we fast forward to where we are now and everybody who has a smart phone, which is pretty soon going to be everybody in the world has the Library of Congress in their pocket. That means a girl growing up in Bangladesh now has a better library than a student at Columbia or Harvard had 20 years ago.

What might her idea be? What might she contribute?

Well, I think that’s going be a lot up to you, because the world still isn’t flat. There are issues. There are issues with power and issues with water and issues with food and issues with equal rights. But if you contribute, if you put your contribution into the world, if you think for yourself, then I believe that you will be the greatest generation. Because when we look back 50 years from now, 100 years from now, 500 years from now, you will be the generation that unlocked human potential.

So congratulations Columbia Class of 2015 and thank you for inviting me.