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The George Washington University had the pleasure of having Dr. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, address the Class of 2015 for their commencement ceremony on the National Mall this past May.

Besides running one of the major tech empires of the world, Dr. Tim Cook was also named “Person of the Year” in 2014 by the Financial Times. 

Now as an honorary Colonial and newly conferred doctor in public service, Cook gave some advice to the new graduates in identifying their beloved career paths: follow your “north star.”

According to Dr. Cook, everyone’s north star is something that drives an individual to work for the progress of society.

For Dr. Cook, growing up in a part of Alabama plagued with racial tension, he searched for his north star through the inspirational work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, two men that advocated for racial equality.

In search for his north star, Dr. Cook recalled a time when he won a state-wide essay contest and was recognized for his writing through a ceremony hosted by the acting state governor, George Wallace. The same man who stood outside the doors of the University of Alabama to prevent African Americans from enrolling in 1963. Shaking hands with Governor Wallace, Dr. Cook immediately felt a rush of guilt. He felt like he was betraying his own beliefs. From that moment on, Cook finally understood what core values he would stand for and what direction his life, and his north star, would take him.

Here are the five major steps to find and follow your north star.

Identify Your Core Values

Above all it is essential to define your ethical and moral beliefs. Identifying your values is necessary because the choices you make in life will depend on the type of standards you hold yourself up to.

Commit to Those Values

Once you identify your moral values, it’s important to embed them into your actions. You need to visualize what is right and true. So when the time calls you to question your values, you’re ready to defend them and stand up for what you believe in.

Work for the Progress of Others

Now that you’re instilling your values into your actions, you have a clearer roadmap to your north star.

The next step is to identify your north star by choosing the right career. This step is probably the most challenging one for many people. The trick is to simply find a job that works for the betterment of society. Steve Jobs strongly believed in this work ethic when he launched his company. He believed that his time was better spent in improving the lives of others instead of worrying about becoming rich.

“Our products do amazing things,” said Cook. “And just as Steve envisioned, they empower people all over the world… People who witness injustice and want to expose it, and now they can because they have a camera in their pocket all the time.”

Know that You Don’t Have to Choose Between Money and What You Love

Dr. Cook urged students to believe that choosing to do good and doing well is a false choice. Supporting yourself and furthering the progress of society are not mutually exclusive paths. The challenge of our generation is to find work that pays the rent, puts food on the table, and lets us do what is right and just.

Never be a Bystander

Once you figure out your values, your career, and a way to improve society—don’t just sit there. Your energy, passion, and impatience with progress should be fully immersed in the field of your choice. The sidelines are not where you want to live because there’s no room for those that are silent or indifferent.

In his speech, Cook quoted a letter Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote during his time in Birmingham jail.

“Our society needed to repent, not merely for the hateful words of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people,” said Dr. King.

Cook concluded his commencement address to the graduating class of George Washington with the idea that no problem is unsolvable.

“To every problem, there is always a solution that will emerge,” said Dr. Cook. “The difficulty and complexity of a problem is essentially why it’s so important to resolve it. Never accept the idea that something is impossible.”

The engineers at Apple never do. 

Photo by Mike Deerkoski via Flickr