What Mark Zuckerberg gets wrong about finding your "purpose"

ByJames Dennin

In Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's much-discussed Harvard commencement speech on Thursday, the dropout — awarded an honorary degree — had advice for young graduates. He emphasized in particular the importance of finding what motivates you: "Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves," he said. "Purpose is what creates true happiness."

That may sound like pretty typical, pat graduation speech fare, but the Facebook founder's speech went further, arguing that graduates must look beyond their personal goals to create a society where all people have meaning: "The challenge for our generation is creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose." Sounds great, right?

Not quite. Let's set aside, for a moment, speculation about Zuckerberg's future political ambitions — fueled further by the support he expressed in his speech for a universal basic income, his globalist rhetoric and other politically-tinged remarks. (As BuzzFeed's Nitasha Tiku points out, other reasons why the young executive might be trying refurbish his public image include concerns over Facebook's role in the sharing of incorrect information during the presidential election and the fact that philanthropic endeavors, like his Free Internet initiative and failed project with Newark public schools, have been criticized as self-serving or out-of-touch.)

Crucially — whether Zuckerberg's public makeover is about his company's corporate agenda or to serve his own political aspirations — his vision for entrepreneurialism and what college graduates should be doing, exactly, misses some key points about the obstacles faced by people who, as Zuckerberg put it, are being "left behind by globalization."

Here are three key places where Zuckerberg's vision for "redefining equality" and creating "purpose" for the world comes up short. 

1. Young people of color face different odds

It's notable that despite referring to several marginalized groups — including undocumented workers — Zuckerberg's commencement speech made little mention of race, aside from an anecdote about teaching a class at a local Boys and Girls' Club, where he mentions that the students there taught him what it is like "feeling targeted for your race."

If Zuckerberg's volunteering has indeed opened his eyes to racial iniquities, he has not followed these revelations with action, as Tiku argued in a piece for Wired. Facebook's 2016 diversity figures remain lacking, even relative to the rest of the tech industry: Just 4% of Facebook's workforce is Hispanic, and 2% is black, the same as in 2014.

The toxic work environments endured by underrepresented groups in technology — from condescension to unwanted sexual attention — cost the industry some $16 billion a year in turnover costs, according to one recent study. And contrary to arguments blaming a pipeline problem, there are lots of talented people from under-represented groups who could make it in tech, but then choose to leave: According to that same study, two thirds of the people who leave tech jobs say they would have stayed if the company had taken steps to reform its culture.

In other words, certain graduates in the class of 2017 will have a much harder time trying to find and follow their "purpose." And Facebook — as the fifth largest company in the world — puts Zuckerberg in a position to lead by example, to help fix this problem, as others in the tech community would likely replicate any concrete steps Facebook took to make itself more inclusive.

If Zuckerberg really cared about expanding opportunity, he might start by reforming his own company, not doing a 50-state publicity tour.

2. Great public works take more than "courage" — they require big money

Zuckerberg concluded his speech with a paraphrase of a Jewish prayer: "I hope you find the courage to make your life a blessing." Rhetorically, this places the onus on the audience — to march out into the world and make a difference. The problem? Many of the examples of "defining works" of generations that the CEO cited as success stories are not actually comparable to Zuckerberg's experience launching Facebook: They took far more manpower and money.

One of Zuckerberg's favorite stories, per his speech, is one about President John F. Kennedy and the moon landing. During a NASA space center visit the president is said to have asked a janitor what he was doing, and the janitor replied: “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon." Whether the story is actually true is another question. Zuckerberg said this was an example of the importance of being a part of something "bigger than ourselves."

"Every generation has its defining works. More than 300,000 people worked to put a man on the moon – including that janitor," Zuckerberg said. "Millions of volunteers immunized children around the world against polio. Millions of more people built the Hoover Dam and other great projects."

While that may sound inspiring, the moon landing, the Hoover Dam and the Great Society were all ambitious government programs passed in response to enormous challenges like the Great Depression and the Cold War; they were not ideas that were cooked up in a dorm or a Palo Alto garage. 

Zuckerberg did concede that people "like him" should pay for such endeavors, but, like many successful entrepreneurs, he failed to acknowledge how crucial taxpayer money has been to the biggest breakthroughs in United States history — particularly those that happened far away from the private sector. 

3. Universal basic income isn't going to let us all pursue our "purpose"

Universal basic income has increasingly become the vogue policy solution for tech luminaries like Zuckerberg and Y-Combinator's Sam Altman. The idea — to just simply give everyone a small cash payment to meet their basic needs — has a veneer of bi-partisan appeal because it would presumably replace the expensive social safety net we now have.

Detractors of a UBI argue that it's a "Trojan horse," and "a buyout in exchange for unwinding the federal government’s social-insurance obligations." Some people — the very sick and the very needy, perhaps, would be more expensive to take care of than you could feasibly cover in a fixed allowance. 

If a UBI replaced the social safety net wholesale, many people would likely be left behind, or forced to rely on charity: "The first rule is that the basic guaranteed income has to replace everything else," said Charles Murray, a major conservative proponent of UBI, in an interview with PBS. "So there’s no more food stamps; there’s no more Medicaid; you just go down the whole list. None of that’s left."

The average annual Medicaid benefit is close to $6,000, and far more for the elderly and the disabled. Taking away Medicare to give those people a one-time cash grant could leave them tens of thousands of dollars in the hole on their medical expenses. Those kinds of people are unlikely to find much fulfillment in, as Zuckerberg put it, the "freedom to fail." The new social contract he envisions would have to make room for them.

Given Silicon Valley's occasional tendency toward insularity, it is certainly heartening to see its most powerful leaders making a bigger case for a more inclusive society. But the solutions Zuckerberg lays out — from a UBI to a better paid family leave — conveniently don't require Facebook and the technology community at large to change their behavior.

To be fair, the graduation speech is an awkward format, and such speeches typically don't invite the kind of scrutiny Zuckerberg's received. But if, after reading or watching Zuck's speech, you're left in the mood to hear some more inspiring advice?

Consider David Foster Wallace's This is Water speech about finding meaning in the checkout line; or Cornell West's call for the "audacious hope" it would take to fully reckon with America's racist history. And in a widely shared graduation speech at Syracuse University, George Saunders actually argued against the rhetoric of success, saying that what he regretted most over time weren't professional failures, but rather "failures of kindness."

Whether or not Zuckerberg's message was naive, he is right that it's important for recent graduates to think about how they will find meaning in the professional world. People like Bill Gates and Zuckerberg say they find that meaning by trying to fix the world, but other people can be just as fulfilled by fighting fires, or making Stromboli.

If finding meaning seems like a tall order, remember that odds are you'll have four different jobs by your early thirties. Recent graduates have got lots of time to figure it out.

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