‘Play like you have zero lives’

Internet entrepreneur inspires Carthage grads with wit, wisdom




Failure often plays an important role on the road to success.

And many times it’s the motivation that can be derived from failure that ultimately drives the most successful people to achieve.

So was the message imparted by Alexis Ohanian, an outspoken advocate for Internet neutrality who delivered the commencement address to the more than 560 students graduating Sunday afternoon at Carthage College’s Tarble Athletic and Recreation Center.

Ohanian, 31, who co-founded Reddit, an Internet social news site, with business partner and best friend Steve Huffman nine years ago, praised the graduating class of 2014.

Wit and wisdom

In his often tongue-in-cheek presentation, in which he frequently conjured quips from social media memes and even comedian Stephen Colbert, he also announced proudly that he, too, is a college graduate, a history major, bucking the trend of the college dropouts who’ve found success on the Web.

“I’m not here to talk about me. I’m here to inspire you by talking about me,” he said, quoting Colbert and drawing immediate laughter..

Ohanian’s path to failure, and later success, began when he met Huffman at the University of Virginia. Ohanian, who also studied business with a minor in German, thought he would become an immigration attorney. It was at a Waffle House, however, where he had his epiphany while feeling not-so motivated to study for the LSAT.

“If I wanted these waffles more than wanting to be a lawyer, should I really be involved with the law?” he said.

Yahoo encounter

Reddit, which depends on users’ feedback to decide what news receives top billing, didn’t come about without its share of tribulations, he said.

One day, company representatives from Yahoo flew Ohanian and Huffman to Silicon Valley. At the time, Reddit had only 10,000 users. Yahoo officials asked them what they were even doing there, Ohanian said.

“Uh, you invited us here?” said Ohanian, who acknowledged the meeting did not go well.

Yahoo executives further told them: “You are a rounding error,” he said.

Reddit now has 110 million unique visitors, as of last month, and the once-fledgling company is also one of the top 50 largest social media sites in the United States.


Ohanian also has a portfolio of more than 80 technology startups and is among the most prominent investors in the industry.

“There will be haters, and haters are gonna hate,” he said, quoting from a well-traveled meme before then launching into a stream of others. “But, what I’ve got to say to you is, ‘Ain’t nobody got time for that’ ... ‘Sucking is the first step to being good at something’.”

In his own words, however, Ohanian told graduates that success and failure are intertwined.

“You can’t have one without the other. They’re inextricably linked,” he said.

He told graduates that rather than going out immediately to change the world they must first start with themselves. Anyone who has it “all figured out,” he added, is lying.

“Every single one of us is just as clueless, curious,” he said, referring to those venturing out into the world.

‘Zero lives’

An avid gamer, he harkened back to his college days and childhood when video games rendered a player only so many “lives” before he would eventually expire.

He said knowing there was a finite number of lives motivated him to give it all he had, as in real life, and to remember those who helped him get there.

“We are all playing with zero lives,” he said. “Play like you have zero lives remaining. Take those people who take care of you and hold them close to you.”

Inspired graduates

Joann Kia, a senior who graduated with a degree in athletic training, said Ohanian’s speech was inspiring and entertaining.

“I want to do everything that I can and live life to the fullest,” said Zia, 21, of Schaumburg, Ill.

Graduating senior Carlie Wysocke, 21, whose degree is in marketing and business management, said she could relate to Ohanian’s words.

“I liked how said you can start small before you go on to bigger things. ” said Wysocke, 21 of Hoffman Estates, Ill. “Live zero lives. It sounds like such a cool charge.”

Special awards

n Barbara and F. Gregory Campbell, the college’s past president, were honored with the Flame Award, Carthage’s highest honor.n Graduating Carthage senior Ann O'Leary, double major in biology and neuroscience, was given the Distinguished Senior Award.n TheCarthage New Town Award was given to Carole M. Johnson of the Johnson Foundation for civic leadership.n An honorary degree was awarded to the Rev. Darrell Jodock, Martin Marty Regents Chair in Religion and the Academy at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.


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