Innovation Talks: Finding A Better Way

I recently read an inspirational, deeply honest commencement address that has really stuck with me in a way that few such speeches do. It was delivered at the graduation ceremony at the University of Illinois in May by a man named Jeff Huber, a lifelong entrepreneur who previously worked at eBay and Google and is now the CEO of a company called GRAIL. I believe it contains an important message of hope and also a challenge for those of us who consider ourselves to be innovators.

Huber uses stories from his own life to reveal a larger experience and exhort these young graduates (and, by extension, all of us who hear or read his words) to “find a better way.” His speech still resonates with me weeks later, and I’d like to share some of the thoughts it has stirred with you.

Universal Lessons

As he begins to share his story with the assembled graduates and their families, Huber notes that his “experiences themselves may not be universal, but the lessons of failure and resilience, of passion and purpose, and of loss and renewal may be. And they’re united by an overarching belief, one that I hope I can convince you to share. The belief is this: there has to be a better way.”

Finding Passion and Purpose

Huber first came to this realization in a way that I think many of us can relate to. It started from a place of dissatisfaction that fueled his desire to create a life that excited him. Standing knee deep in cow manure on his family’s rural dairy farm, he decided that he was called to do something else. His passion, computers – which at that time were both expensive and difficult to acquire – took him in a different direction.

He built his first business from his farmhouse bedroom, ordering floppy disc drives in bulk and selling them to others. Huber notes that this business was “born out of both desire and need – a better way.” This echoes the questions I frequently ask entrepreneurs I work with today. Is there a real need for your product? Do you have a genuine desire to meet that need, to fill that gap in the market?

The best decisions we can make stem from the juncture at which desire and need meet. There, we connect our passion to our purpose and start to find a better way.

Finding Meaning

Huber’s first venture as a young entrepreneur eventually led him to a job at eBay, then in its early stages. Technology was still his passion, but he felt he “was still going through the motions” at eBay, and realized that “if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, then there has to be a better way.” His search for the better way led him to Google, where he “found his tribe” and had incredible success, contributing to the development of products such as Google Ads, Google Apps, and Google Maps.

Along with a career that fed his passion, Huber built a full life for himself. He met his wife, Laura, and they had two children during their 20 happy years together. Then, life intervened. Laura was diagnosed with stage four cancer and passed away late last year.

Losing a loved one to cancer is a terrible blow. It makes you question everything you thought you knew about the world. It deeply challenges your relationship to meaning, passion, and purpose in your own life. This is where Jeff Huber’s sharing of his experience and perspective becomes unflinchingly honest and deeply inspirational.

How Do You Respond?

Jeff writes,

“Things don’t ‘happen for a reason.’ But you can find purpose and meaning in things that do happen.

Things don’t happen for a reason. But how you respond can reveal your true character.

Things don’t happen for a reason. But they do often happen because nobody has yet found a better way.”

The life-altering experience of losing his beloved wife to cancer caused him to rethink his life’s work. He realized that although there was no reason, no deeper plan at work in this incredibly painful event, how he responded to it could give it meaning and purpose. His desire as a young man to create a better life for himself became a desire to create a better world for everyone, to find a better way.

Find A Better Way

“Losing Laura made me determined to understand one of the most complex processes — the biology of cancer — and how it can be stopped,” he writes. “It fuels my conviction that there has to be a better way for us, as a country and a world, to fight cancer.” His decision to leave Google to focus on a new venture, GRAIL, sprang from that conviction. Jeff is working from a place of deep need and passion to develop technology that enables early detection of cancerous cells in the body, technology that could save countless lives.

His stirring speech to the graduates of the University of Illinois is a call to all of us to find the place where need and passion meet, and to spark innovation that finds a better way to address each of the challenges of today’s world.

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