John D. McAfee's Roanoke College commencement address
SALEM, Va.-John D. McAfee, the founder of McAfee, Inc. which developed the world's first computer virus scanner, was the keynote speaker at Roanoke College's commencement ceremony where a record 421 graduates received degrees.
Following is a transcript of McAfee's speech.
Thank you, Dr. Maxey, for that optimistic description of myself.
Congratulations, Class of 2008. Congratulations, Jake. Congratulations, Megan.
I watched your faces as you walked in and you were 100 percent glowing with anticipation, relief. I saw a few doubts, and maybe some of you did not finish your term paper, and you're afraid they may find out before you actually get up here, but beyond that, this is a marvelous time in your life.
I came prepared with an address. I thought it was marvelous, and yesterday I tore it up. I tore it up because my good friend Richard Cornett listened to me as I read it to him. I was convinced that 100 years from now they would be circulating this address as the premier example of the perfect public address. Richard's comment was, "well … impersonal, abstract and boring." And indeed it was. He told me that I needed to relate it to my own experience. And that's quite true. I knew that … any good public speaker knows that.
Yet my personal experience, from a standpoint of giving direction to a college graduating class, seemed like a radical guideline to me.
We could begin with my work ethic. Work has never appealed to me, and the bulk of my career was spent avoiding it. My rhythm was working until I had saved enough money to travel the world for a year or two. Then I would quit and travel the world. Wherever I ended up, when I ran out of money, I would get another job. As a consequence, the longest I ever held a position was three years, and that was while I was at McAfee. And my average position lasted about 18 months.
It would be nice to say that after I achieved a degree of financial success, that my habits changed, but that was not the case. After three years at McAfee, I had had enough. I hired an executive to replace me, resigned, spent two years on the road, and never went back.
Later I become frustrated with e-mail's lack of flexibility so I developed instant messaging. Tribal Voice was the result. Two years later, I sold that company and hit the road yet one more time.
So, my work ethic is not something a sane person could use as a sound basis for advice.
My persona as it relates to the business world fares no better. Today, for the first time in 23 years, I am wearing a suit. I am doing this not so I can fit in but so that I do not cause embarrassment to my host. Since I graduated from this school 41 years ago, I can count on my fingers the number of times I have worn a suit.
My business attire is a T-shirt and blue jeans. If I am in warmer climates, it's tank tops and shorts. I favor sandals for footwear. I am tattooed from my shoulder to my waist and down both of my arms-and it's not the happy Mom-type of tattoos. I have, more than once, been denied entrance by security people to affairs at which I was the keynote speaker. Had Dr. Maxey known this prior to my invitation, someone else might be speaking to you today.
So I would have difficulty finding some aspect of my business persona that might in any way benefit you. And my business methodology is, sadly to say, nothing to recommend. I have never developed a business plan. I have never created a sales forecast, a competitive analysis, a marketing analysis or a product development schedule. It's not that I don't know how to do these things; it's just that they seem to me to be superfluous to the process of building a product and making money from it. I never had a staff meeting or formed a committee. In my companies' structures, I have never had a marketing division or a sales division, or a single marketing or sales employee.
When I left McAfee, the company was valued at half a billion dollars, and it didn't have a single salesman or marketeer or a secretary for that matter. I have a number of times spoken to Stanford's business school students, and while the students seemed somewhat interested in my ramblings, the professors generally appeared to be in shock. So I suspect that my business methodology is something that I should not advise you to follow. But if I am honest, I do have to say the following.
The success of my anti-virus venture rested solely on my abandoning the norms of the accepted business practices of the time. If any of you have studied the history of software development, you will have discovered that in the mid-1980s every software company was obsessed with how to prevent users from copying their software and using it without paying for it.
That seemed like an absurd occupation to me. So I came up with a new idea and decided to distribute my software for free. And even added a headline in the opening page that read: Please, steal this software.
The software became a world standard overnight. The money came by charging for upgrades to an existing user base of 30 million, who paid nothing to become users, but who paid yearly fees ever after to remain users. This distribution practice was later called freeware, and it became an integral part of the software world's business model.
My other ventures all shared some departure from the norm. This doesn't mean that if you develop a cavalier attitude toward work, tattoo yourself from head-to-toe and abandon all accepted business practices, you will be successful in business or in any other aspect of your life. I would not, in fact, recommend any of the above.
But, questioning the authority of accepted ideas is not always a bad thing-whether these ideas relate to business, culture, relationships or even religious beliefs. I might go further and say that questioning all authority might not be a bad thing. You may not be aware that you submit to authority, but you do. You submit to the authority of fashion, the authority of your cultural icons and the authority of your religion. The authority of your own knowledge-an authority, by the way, that has been greatly increased during these past few years-is probably your greatest authority.
Even if you are a rebel, and I hope, by the way, there are many of you that meet that classification, see that your rebellion is merely a quest for a new authority. The old authority has lost its ability to compel your obedience, so you seek one that can. And please, I'm not suggesting you run out and thumb your noses at the police. Authority that is accompanied by physical force should, in most circumstances, be meticulously obeyed.
But the remaining authorities, the truly important authorities, only have the power that you choose to give them. I ask you to question your authorities because there is a burdensome cost to authority. The authority of the ideal, for example, creates conflict between yourself and the imperfect world around you, and it causes a struggle between who you are and who you believe you should be. The authority of tradition restricts your ability to think and act freely in changing circumstances. And the authority of your value system may cause you to shun priceless gems of experience.
So if you make an authority of this knowledge that you have spent the last few years cultivating, then you create a flawed master for yourself-flawed because personal knowledge is memory, and memory responds with predictability. So there is no freedom in it.
The knowledge that composes memories' contents is likewise flawed. Historical knowledge is a mere shadow of a past reality. Scientific knowledge is obliterated or transformed with each new discovery. So it is ephemeral, transitory, fleeting. It is merely the anticipation of what might come next. All types of knowledge are similarly flawed. And in spite of its flaws, the authority that accompanies knowledge has an inherent arrogance-a sense of conceit that is truly incongruous with its limitations. It is the entity that makes you right and others wrong.
Knowing the precepts of your own religion, for example, allows you to see the errors in the religions of others. And it allows you to stroll blindly down paths that it has no real power to illuminate. As such, I would suggest that authority of knowledge is the source of absurdity. And lest I be forcibly removed from the stage, I'm not suggesting that you abandon knowledge, merely its authority.
You will want to solve problems as you go out into the world and encounter its tragedies and cruelties. But no problem can be addressed until it is first seen in its purest form. And if you see the world through an authority which, at best, is a coarse approximation of reality, then how will you see the pure form of anything? Many of you are yearning for truth, for what's really happening. This is a natural expression of a youthful and inquisitive mind, which I hope you all have. And you may wonder how truth is possible without authority.
But authority is finite, rigid and narrow. Truth is the actuality of what is happening. It is infinite. It is too grand to be contained within authority.
So, question every idea that begs to be obeyed. Resist accepted patterns. Be skeptical of the majority. Meet every event fresh, unencumbered by presuppositions. And see that if we all walk the same road, there could be no discoveries, no mysteries, no new things. So make your own path.
Strike out in the heart of the wilderness and claim everything that presents itself as your own-no matter how contradictory or strange it may seem to the rest of the world. And don't be afraid. The least trodden path is always the sweetest.
Released: May 14, 2008
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