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Idealab
Class of 2013: Be the Entrepreneur of Your Life
By Julie Hanna, Idealab Advisor
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You're the future. That makes me the past. What can the past tell the future? Does the future even want to hear it?

Chances are you're multi-tasking, texting, tweeting. Or maybe you've moved on to snapchat and making cines. I might be the past, but I'm on to you guys. And if you don't know what cines are, then maybe I'm half a step ahead. At least, for now.

I got my computer science degree at a time when hardly anyone, me included, knew what computer science was. Having entered college at sixteen, the idea that you were supposed to know what you wanted to be when you grew up seemed like a cruel joke. One where a few insiders, like the kid who's known he wants to be a doctor since he was an embryo gets the punch line, while the rest of us laugh nervously, pretending we got it too.

I felt lost and too scared to admit it, even to myself. Life's biggest questions were looming like a pop quiz where a pass/fail would seal my fate. The pressure not to screw it all up had become paralyzing.

At some point, a quiet voice asked, "What do you really care about?" Before my brain had a chance to formulate an answer, the deepest part of me said, "fairness... justice..." When my brain caught up, it dismissed this as the motherhood and apple pie of vague platitudes.

Soon after, I stumbled across a little known program called electronic mail on a late night at the computer lab. Today, email is old school, but at the time a message that could travel the world in an instant was a revelation. I became convinced that one day we'd all use email, like the phone. Email could connect people and democratize communication. Maybe it would give a little power to people who weren't in power. This set me on the course of creating products and companies to do just that. Fairness... justice... technology... I began to connect the dots. Using technology to enable fair access and create a more just world became the narrative of my work and life. A quarter of a century later, it informs my work with Kiva.

Everyone thought I was just a little bit crazy. It was the eighties and no one knew what email was. They'd say, "why not just use the phone?" And in those days, you couldn't even carry a phone from room to room, much less in your jeans.

So when you snapchat and make cines, people around you will look on with curiosity and skepticism. Fear even. That's because the future is about change. And change is hard for most, especially those of us that have become the past.

Pretty much the only certainty in life is we all eventually become the past. The best way I know to adapt to change is to be an agent of it. What I love most about Silicon Valley is that it's all about the future. Constantly reinventing itself. It's not a terribly sentimental place with little attachment to the past. We're always inventing the new thing. In fact, we use to call it the "new, new, thing" because things move and change so fast, that the new thing became the old thing in the blink of an eye. Then we stopped calling it the new, new thing because even that expression became old. We create the future we want to live in, obsessed with finding a better way. That mindset can change the world and often does.

So, I like to think of you guys in Silicon Valley terms. You're entrepreneurs creating the future you want to live in and changing the world along the way. Your graduation is the launch of a hot new product called YourLife. Till now, you've been in the YourLife Beta, run by your parents and teachers who put you through a lot of testing to work out the bugs and launch you into the future.

People often ask, "what's in the Silicon Valley magic dust?" Like most, my answer is it's in our attitude toward failure. Most startups fail. What keeps entrepreneurs at it is our belief that you often fail on your way to success because discovering a new path means taking risks and experimenting. Our mantra is "fail, forward, fast". There's an understanding that failing doesn't make you a failure. As a result, the culture here is open to new people and new ideas, even half-baked ones. And believe me, we've got more than our fair share of those.

Entrepreneurship and Silicon Valley are as much a mindset, as a vocation and place. Entrepreneurship is mostly an inside job. In short, it's about 1) figuring out what turns you on and 2) not letting anything get in the way. That's pretty much it. Deceptively simple. Simple, not easy.

So what gets in the way? In a word, fear.

Fear is the biggest bully we face, no matter the flavor. Whether it's fear of not living up to expectations, fearing the judgements of others, fear of not being good enough, or the uber fear, fear of failure, where society and our judging mind conspire to equate failing with being a failure. Until we work up the courage to stare them down, this gang of fear-bullies push us into a small corner on the playground of life.

I've learned that no good decision ever comes from a place of fear. Left unchecked, fear solves for safety. The price we pay is a subtle "death by a thousand cuts" that goes unnoticed until we find ourselves living perfectly executed lives of quiet desperation. That, darlings of the future, is how the genocide of our finest impulses happens. The words of Henry Miller's are an aching reminder that...
"Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there."
The greatest entrepreneurs I know are on a mission that transcends their lives. Their lives are rich precisely because they aren't seeking a life of riches. They are doing what Martin Luther King Jr's mentor, Howard Thurman urged,
"Don't ask yourself what the world needs – ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
Take time to discover what matters most and why. It will lead you to work that makes you come alive. To work that is worthy of your life. It will mean the difference between having a job and changing the world.

Conquering fear helps us do the right thing. And when you're afraid, do the right thing anyway. Most of the time, it will not be the easy thing. It may not be the hip or popular thing. No one will come along and give you a pat on the back or tell you are a hero. Just the same, these small acts tilt the moral arc of the universe toward justice. Without trying, your choices will start to impact the people around you. Then one day, some one far younger will notice and you will take up permanent residence in their psyche, inspiring them to be their best self. When that happens, your life will matter just a little bit more. You might figure out that being a role model is about the coolest kind of rock star there is.

Our heart informs our intellect and education giving us wisdom and compassion. Lead with a warm heart. Make kindness cool. Prove that nice "guys" finish first in the school of life. The world would be a cold, despairing place were it not for the kindness and compassion of others. It is the lubricant that makes the dark times of pain and suffering bearable.

What do you really care about? Be still and listen for the deepest part of you to answer. The one you usually dismiss or let the noise of the world drown out. It won't always be fun, but it will lead you to a lifetime of meaningful fun you never thought possible.

People say that youth is wasted on the young. I don't believe that's true. You are the planet's change agents and it is your youth that questions conventional wisdom and fuels new ideas. Let the answers to the simple question "why?" be your compass in all of life's choices, big and small. Before you know it, the tender shoots of your finest impulses will have grown into majestic, awe inspiring trees.

So darlings of the future at the launch of YourLife, my wish is that as you slowly but surely become the past, you hang on to the childlike curiosity and wonder, the passion and creativity, the fearlessness and boldness of youth. Create the future you want to live in. Challenge the world around you and everything that came before, including everything that you've heard here. This is what it means to be the entrepreneur of your life.

Adapted from Julie Hanna's 2008 Commencement Address at University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she was also named Distinguished Alumni of the Year. See the original post here.
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