Larry Ellison shares what dropping out of college and getting divorced taught him about success

Larry Ellison University of Southern California commencementUniversity of Southern California/FacebookOracle founder and CTO Larry Ellison addresses graduates during the commencement ceremony at the University of Southern California.

If self-made billionaire Larry Ellison hadn’t trusted his instincts and dropped out of college, he may very well have never founded Oracle, one of the largest technology companies in the world.

During his University of Southern California (USC) commencement speech Friday, Ellison explained that his plan growing up was to go to the USC medical school, get married, raise a family, and move to Los Angles to become a doctor, which was considered the “pinnacle of professions” on the south side of Chicago.

“Virtually everyone important in my life — my family, my teachers, my girlfriend — wanted me to be a doctor,” Ellison said. “Over time, their dreams became my dreams. They convinced me that I should be a doctor.”

But as hard as he tried, Ellison said he couldn’t force himself to study something that didn’t interest him, and after a few difficult years of being an unhappy pre-med student, he decided to drop out of college and move to California.

“At the time, I thought I lacked discipline, and that I was selfish,” Ellison explained. “Maybe so. But whatever the underlying reasons, I was unable to make myself into the person that I thought I should be. So I decided to stop trying.”

After moving to California, Ellison became an environmentalist and split his time between computer programming and working outdoors as a rock-climbing instructor and river guide. “At this point in my life, I thought I was making real progress on my journey of self-discovery. I had found a cause; I had a couple of jobs that I loved, and one that was fun and paid the bills; I was pretty happy with my life — but my wife was not,” Ellison said.

He explained that what his wife saw in him was a college dropout who lacked ambition, and eventually she kicked him out and the couple divorced, which Ellison describes as another pivotal moment in his life.

“Once again, I was unable to live up to expectations of others,” he explained. “But this time, I was not disappointed in myself for failing to be the person they thought I should be. Their dreams and my dreams were different. I would never confuse the two of them again.”

Throughout his twenties, Ellison said he continued to experiment and try new things, constantly changing jobs. He eventually helped create a new kind of database that was considered a “defining technology at the dawn of the information age,” cofounded Oracle, and built it into one of the world’s largest technology companies. “Every day I learned something new and interesting — something I did not know the day before — I liked that,” Ellison said.

“I had found a place in the world,” he said, noting that his family finally forgave him for not going to medical school, and no one ever accused him of lacking ambition again.

His advice to graduates is to never be afraid to experiment and try lots of different things — and to never let people discourage them when they challenge the status quo.

“Each of you has a chance to discover who you are, rather than who you should be,” Ellison said. “A chance to live your dreams, not the dreams of others.”

Watch the full commencement speech below:

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