Apple’s CEOs are fascinating: Where Steve Jobs cultivated a shrewd genius persona, Tim Cook’s journey to Apple’s upper echelon is equally inspiring. In his George Washington commencement speech this weekend, Cook shared some details about that journey—and threw in an iPhone joke or two.
Commencement speeches tend to be part humblebrag and part sickening optimism, but at the very least, Tim Cook talks about some very private accounts of his life in the South, meeting governors and US presidents, and eventually Steve Jobs. Here are some of the best bits:
Tim Cook on Growing Up in the South [2:30 - 6:10]
In the summer of 1977—yes, I’m a little old—I was 16 years old and living in Robertsdale, the small town in Alabama that I grew up in. At the end of my junior year of high school, I had won an essay contest sponsored by the National Rural Electric Association. I can’t remember what that essay was about, but what I do remember very clearly is writing it by hand, draft after draft after draft. Typewriters were very expensive and my family could not afford one. I was one of two kids from Baldwin county that was chosen to go to Washington with hundreds of other kids from around the country.
Before we left, the Alabama delegation took a trip to our state capital in Montgomery with a meeting with the governor. The governor’s name was George C. Wallace. The same George Wallace who in 1963 stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to block African Americans from enrolling. Wallace embraced the evils of segregation. He pitted whites against blacks, the south against the north, the working class against the so-called elites. Meeting the governor was not an honor for me. My heroes in life were Dr. Martin Luthor King and Robert F. Kennedy who fought against the very things that Wallace stood for. Keep in mind that I grew up in a place where King and Kennedy were not held in high esteem. When I was a kid, the South was sitll coming to grips with its history. My textbooks even said that the Civil War was about states rights. They barely mention slavery.
So I had to figure out for myself what was right and true. It was a search. It was a process. It drew on the moral sense that I learned from my parents, and in church, and in my own heart and led me on my own journey of discovery. I found books in the public library that they probably didn’t know they had. They all pointed to the fact that Wallace was wrong. That injustices like segregation have no place in our world, and that equality is a right.
As I said, I was only 16 when I met governor Wallace, so I shook his hand as we were expected to do, but shaking his hand felt like a betrayal of my own beliefs. It felt wrong. Like I was selling a piece of my soul.
Meeting Steve Jobs [9:10 - 10:54]
Twenty years after my visit to Washington, I met someone who made me question everything, who up ended all my assumptions in the very best way. That was Steve Jobs. Steve had built a successful company. He’d been sent away and returned to find it in ruins. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was about to dedicate the rest of his life to rescuing it and leading it to heights greater than anyone could ever imagine. Anyone that is, except for Steve. Most people have forgotten but in 1997 and early 1998, Apple had been adrift for years. Rudderless. But Steve thought Apple could be great again and he wanted to know if I’d like to help. His vision for Apple was a company that turned powerful technology into tools that were easy to use, tools that would help people realize their dreams, and change the world for the better.
I had studied to be an engineer and earned an MBA. I was trained to be pragmatic, a problem solver. Now I found myself sitting before and listening to this very animated 40-something guy with visions of changing the world. It was not what I had expected.
Screw them haters [18:10-18:56]
The one thing I’d like to bring to you from Cupertino, California is the idea that progress is possible whatever line of work you choose. There will always be cynics and critics on the sidelines tearing people down, and just has harmful are those people with good intentions who make no contribution at all. In his letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. King wrote that our society needed to repent not merely for the hateful words of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.
iPhone rules, Android drools
You’ve heard this one before, about silencing your phones. For those of you with an iPhone, place it in silent mode. For those of you who don’t have an iPhone, please pass it to the center aisle. Apple has a world-class recycling program.
Damn, Cook. Someone apply some cold water directly to that sick burn. [Vimeo]
Contact the author at email@example.com.