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Posted: May 04, 2009

Do work that’s ‘uncomfortably exciting’ Google’s Larry Page tells grads

University of Michigan commencement speech underscores need for risk takers

Mary Butler

My nephew didn’t stop smiling all weekend, as he basked in the accomplishment of having graduated from the University of Michigan. With degrees in psychology and economics and four years of Mandarin under his belt, he plans to head off to China for a year to teach English.

It took me back in time to spend a couple of days with him and his buddies in Ann Arbor. I remembered the uncertainty and the excitement of having my whole life ahead of me. I gave him the best advice I had – to always keep learning, growing and pursuing your passion, no matter what it pays. It’s a familiar and even tired sentiment: Always follow your dreams. 

But it’s one thing to hear sappy wisdom from aunt Mary and quite another to hear it from Google cofounder Larry Page, who headlined UM’s commencement.

“It’s a great time to get a little crazy and follow your curiosity,” Page told graduates, following a string of introductory speakers, who also served up silver linings after reminding the young men and women that they are facing one of the worst job markets since the Depression. 

“It has never been a better time to be young, to be creative, to take risks,” said Ariel Buckler Arce, a UM senior in the school of music, theater and dance, who began the ceremony with her reflections. “There has been no time in recent history when the need for change has been so palpable,” said Terrence McDonald, dean of UM’s college of literature, science and the arts. McDonald spoke of Depression-era UM graduates, who faced unemployment rates of higher than 20 percent, including playwright Arthur Miller (class of ’38) and President Gerald Ford (class of ’35).

"The young and motivated worked to reshape America,” McDonald said, and then he urged: “Make us better. Make us proud.”   

Page choked up the audience as he told the story of his father, who studied communication science at UM and died in his 50s as a result of complications from childhood polio that dogged him his entire life. Page’s paternal grandfather worked hard at the Flint, Mich., Chevy plant to provide a better life for his children, who didn’t disappoint him. Page’s father became a professor at Michigan State University, and Page wore his father’s UM doctoral hood and held his father’s Ph.D. as he received an honorary doctorate in engineering on Saturday. Page never finished his Ph.D., which he was working on when he had his life – and world-changing dream.

At the age of 23, Page wondered in his sleep, ‘What if I could download the whole Web?’” He got up and started writing down his ideas. “I had no thought of building a search engine,” Page told UM’s graduates. But, he said he had a “healthy disregard for the impossible,” and “the optimism of youth.”

“We almost didn’t start Google – we were too worried about dropping out of the Ph.D. program,” Page said of himself and Google cofounder Sergey Brin. The two carried on, though, and maxed out three credit cards buying hard disks to store the Web.

He advised the graduates to always pursue work that is “uncomfortably exciting.” “The best people want to work on the biggest challenges,” he said. “Since no one else is crazy enough to do it, you have little competition.”

The world needs you, Page told the graduates. There are so many problems that need solving.

Page recalled a trip to rural India, one of the few places left in the world where people still get polio. He said his father got so upset that the disease – which confined him to bed for a year when he was a child – still existed even though there was a cure. Already this year, more than 328 cases have been reported. Page said he hoped one day soon the disease would be eradicated, and perhaps one of UM’s alumni would be the one to wipe polio off the face of the planet.    

 “On a day like today, you might feel exhilarated, like you’ve been shot out of a cannon at the circus – and even invincible,” Page said. “Don't ever forget that incredible feeling.”

If you’re living your dreams, you won’t. And you might even change the world, too. If you need proof, just Google Larry Page.

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Mary Butler is ColoradoBiz's online editor.

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