"In some important ways, my generation has failed you," Cook said Saturday in his commencement speech at Tulane University in New Orleans, La., at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
"We have spent too much time debating, we have been too focused on the fight, and not focused enough on progress," Cook, 58 and a member of the Boomer generation, said. Generally, college graduates are part of Generation Z.
"You don't need to look far to find an example of that failure," Cook said, referring to New Orleans, where he was speaking, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Cook bore down hard on climate change.
"Here today, in this very place, where thousands once found desperate shelter from a hundred-year disaster — the kind that seem to be happening more and more frequently — I don't think we can talk about who we are as people and what we owe to one another without talking about climate change," Cook said.
Fixing climate change should not be a matter for political debate, Cook said.
"This problem doesn't get any easier based on whose side wins or loses an election. It's about who has won life's lottery and has the luxury of ignoring this issue and who stands to lose everything," Cook said.
"The coastal communities, including some right here in Louisiana, that are also making plans to leave behind the places they have called home for generations and head for higher ground. The fisherman who nets come up empty. The wildlife preserves with less wildlife to preserve, the marginalized, for whom a natural disaster can mean enduring poverty."
More broadly, Cook called on the class of 2019 to focus on helping others, starting with those who need the most.
"When we talk about climate change or any issue with human cost — and there are many — I challenge you to look for those who have the most to lose, and find the real, true empathy that comes from something shared. That is really what we owe one another," Cook said.
From the Big Easy, the tech executive seemed to be taking a shot at the divisiveness taking root in Washington D.C. and corrupting the fabric of the country.
"When you do [find empathy], the political noise dies down and you can feel your feet firmly planted on solid ground. After all, we don't build monuments to trolls and we are not going to start now," Cook said.
To reduce that divisiveness, Cook pleaded with the young graduates to resist entrenched thinking and adopting points of view blindly.
"There are some who would like you to believe that the only way you can be strong is by bulldozing those who disagree or never giving them a chance to say their piece in the first place, that the only way you can build your own accomplishments is by tearing down the other side," he said.
"We forget sometimes that our preexisting beliefs have their own force of gravity. Today, certain algorithms pull towards you the things you already know, believe or like and they push away everything else. Push back. It shouldn't be this way," Cook said. "But in 2019, opening your eyes and seeing things in a new way can be a revolutionary act."
Work to understand the perspectives of those who see an issue differently than you do, Cook said.
"Summon the courage not just to hear but to listen. Not just to act but to act together. It can sometimes feel like the odds are stacked against you, that it isn't worth it. That the critics are too persistent and the problems are too great. But the solution to our problems begin on a human scale by building a shared understanding of the work ahead, and with undertaking it together. at the very least we owe it to teach other to try."
Above all, Cook called upon the graduating class to take action to improve the world they live in.
"Whatever you do, don't make the mistake of being too cautious," said Cook. "Don't assume that by staying put, the ground won't move beneath your feet. The status quo simply won't last. So get to work on building something better."
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