Great Speeches and Talks Compilation

One of the things I enjoyed doing during the community quarantine (because of the pandemic) was reading great speeches and talks I can find in the web. During these hard times when I need to stay at home and just pray and hope that the pandemic will end soon, I find inspiration by reading these powerful speeches. It made me feel good and motivated. It keeps me reminded of so many good things despite hardships in life.

I have searched and read speeches in the internet then I thought it will be good idea to make my own compilation so that visitors of this site will also have something inspiring to read. So I have listed below the great speeches and talks I found on the internet. This list is in no particular order, I wrote the title first, the author and the year when it was written or delivered.

You can scroll down continuously to find and read the transcripts of  all talks listed in the table. But you can also click the title of the speech you want to read and open it exclusively on a different page or tab.


Great Speeches and Talks Compilation

Title

 Author          

 Year   

 The Fringe Benefits of Failure J.K. Rowling
 2008
 Don’t Give Up Jim Valvano 1993
 Enough
 John C. Bogle 2007
 2005 Stanford Commencement Address          
 Steve Jobs 2005
 Make Your Bed                        
 Admiral William H. McRaven 2014
 The Anatomy of Trust Brené Brown 2015
 Creativity in Management John Cleese 1991
 2007 USC Law School Commencement Address Charlie Munger 2007
 A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom Charlie Munger 1994
 How to Guarantee a Life of Misery Charlie Munger 1986
 The Psychology of Human Misjudgment Charlie Munger 1995
 What Matters More Than Your Talents Jeff Bezos 2010
 Solitude and Leadership William Deresiewicz 2009
 Make Good Art Neil Gaiman 2012
 Personal Renewal John W. Gardner 1990
 Your Elusive Creative Genius Elizabeth Gilbert 2009
 The Common Denominator of Success Albert E. N. Gray 1940
 Running Down a Dream Bill Gurley 2018
 The Danger of a Single Story Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 2009
 The Multidisciplinary Approach to Thinking Peter Kaufman 2018
 Finding Your Own Vision Arno Rafael Minkkinen 2004
 Roadkill on the Information Highway Nathan Myhrvold 1994
 Achieving Your Childhood Dreams Randy Pausch 2007
 Time Management Randy Pausch 2007
 Seeking New Laws Richard Feynman 1964
 Learning to Learn Richard Hamming 1995
 You and Your Research Richard Hamming 1986
 1999 Mount Holyoke Commencement Speech Anna Quindlen 1999
 I Wish You Bad Luck John Roberts 2017
 Do Schools Kill Creativity? Sir Ken Robinson 2016
 Inventing on Principle Bret Victor 2012
 This is Water David Foster Wallace 2005
 Just Do It Art Williams 1987
 A Journey on the Information Highway Evan Williams 2013
 Failures of Kindness George Saunders 2013
 Creative Thinking Claude Shannon 1952



“The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and The Importance of Imagination” by J.K. Rowling

The speech was delivered by J.K. Rowling as the commencement address at Harvard University on June 5, 2008.

Speech Transcript

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates. The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honor, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self-improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this. I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

These may seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension. I know that the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil, now.

So they hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticize my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticized only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers. I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies. The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to speak against their governments. Visitors to our offices included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had left behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him back to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just had to give him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, people who have been kind enough not to sue me when I took their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom: As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

I wish you all very good lives. Thank you very much.


“Don’t Give Up” by Jim Valvano

Jim Valvano also known as Jimmy V delivered this speech at the ESPYs on March 4, 1993 shortly before he died from cancer. He was an American basketball player, coach and also a broadcaster.

Speech Transcript

I can't tell you what an honor it is to even be mentioned the same breath with Arthur Ashe. This is something I certainly will treasure forever. But as was said on the tape, and also, I don't have one of those things going with the cue cards, so I'm going to speak longer than anybody else who's spoken tonight. That's the way it goes. Time is very precious to me. I don't know how much I have left and I have some things that I would like to say. Hopefully at the end, I'll have something that will be important to other people, too, but I can't help it. Now when I'm fighting cancer, everybody knows that, and people ask me all the time about how you go through your life and, “How's your day?”

And nothing has changed for me, as Dick said. I'm a very emotional, passionate man. I can't help it, that's being the son of Rocco and Angelina Valvano. It comes with the territory, right? We hug, we kiss, we love.

And when people say to me, “How do you get through life?” Each day's the same thing. To me, there are three things we all should do every day. If we do this every day of our life, you're going to … What a wonderful … Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think, you should spend some time in thought. And number three is you should have your emotions moved to tears. Could be happiness or joy, but think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special.

And so, I can't help … I rode on the plane up today with Mike Krzyzewski, my good friend, and a wonderful coach. What people don't realize, he's a 10 times better person than he is a coach and we know he's a great coach. He's meant a lot to me in these last five or six months with my battle. But when I look at Mike, I think we competed against each others as players. I coached against him 15 years, and I always have to think about what's important in life. To me, it's three things: where you started, where you are, and where you're going to be. Those are the three things that I try and do every day. And when I think about getting up and giving a speech, I can't help it. I have to remember the first speech I ever gave. I was coaching at Rutgers University. That was my first job.

And I was the freshman coach. That's when freshmen played on freshmen teams. And I was so fired up about my first job. I see Lou Holtz, Coach Holtz here. What was it like the first job you had, right? The very first time you stood in the locker room to give a pep talk. That's a special place, the locker room, for a coach to give a talk. So my idol as a coach was Vince Lombardi. And I read this book called Commitment to Excellence by Vince Lombardi. And in the book, Lombardi talked about the first time he spoke before his Green Bay Packer team in a locker room, they were perennial losers. And I'm reading this, and Lombardi said, he was thinking, “Should it be a long talk? A short talk?” But he wanted to be emotionally, so he said, Be brief.”

And this is what he did. Normally, you get in a locker room, I don't know, 25 minutes, a half hour before the team takes the field. You do your little X and O's, and then you give the great Knute Rockne talk, we all do. Speech number 84, you pull them right out, you get ready, get your squad ready. Was the first one I ever gave. And I read this thing, Lombardi, what he said was, he didn't go in, he waited. His team was wondering, “Where is he? Where's this great coach?” He's not there. 10 minutes, he's still not there. Three minutes before they have to take the field, Lombardi comes in, bangs the door open, and I think you all remember what great presence he had, right? Great presence. And he walked in and he just walked back and forth like this, just staring at the players. And he said, “All eyes on me.”

And I'm reading this in his book, I'm getting a picture of Vince Lombardi before his first game. And he said, “Gentlemen, we will be successful this year. You can focus on three things and three things only. Your family, your religion, and the Green Bay Packers.” And the rest of them, they knocked the walls down, the rest was history. I said, “That's beautiful! I'm going to do that.” Your family, your religion and Rutgers basketball. That's it. I had it. Listen, I'm 21 years old. The kids I'm coaching are 19, all right? And I'm going to be the greatest coach in the world, the next Lombardi. And I'm practicing right beside the locker room, the manager's telling me, “You gotta go in.” Not yet, not yet. Family, religion, Rutgers basketball. All eyes on me. I got it, I got it.

And now finally he said, “Three minutes!” I said, “Fine.” True story, I go to knock the doors open just like Lombardi. Boom. It didn't open. I almost broke my arm. It didn't open, now I'm down, the players are looking. “Yo, coach. Help the coach up, help him up.” And now I did like Lombardi, I walked back and forth, and I was going like that with my arm, get the feeling back in it. And finally I said, “Gentlemen, all eyes on me.” and these kids wanted to play, they're 19, “Let's go.” I said, “Gentlemen, we'll be successful this year. If you could focus on three things and three things only.” I said, “Your family, your religion, and the Green Bay Packers.” I did that. I remember that.

I remember where I came from. It's so important to know where you are. I know where I am right now. How do you go from where you are to where you want to be? And I think you have to have an enthusiasm for life. You have to have a dream, a goal you have to be willing to work for.

I talked about my family. My family is so important. People think I have courage. The courage in my family is my wife Pam, my three daughters here, Nicole, Jamie, Leanne, my mom who is right here, too.

I just got one last thing. I urge all of you, all of you, to enjoy your life, the precious moments you have to spend each day with some laughter and some thought, to get your emotions going, to be enthusiastic every day. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Nothing great can be accomplished without enthusiasm to keep your dreams alive in spite of problems.” Whatever you have, the ability to be able to work hard for your dreams to come true, to become a reality. Now I look at where I am now and I know what I want to do. What I would like to be able to do is to spend whatever time I have left and to give maybe some hope to others. The Arthur Ashe foundation is a wonderful thing. And AIDS, the amount of money pouring in for AIDS is not enough, but it is significant.

But if I told you it's 10 times the amount that goes in for cancer research, I also tell you that 500,000 people will die this year of cancer. And I'll also tell you that one in every four will be afflicted with this disease. And yet somehow we seem to have put it in a little bit of the back burner. I want to bring it back on the front table. We need your help. I need your help. We need money for research. It may not save my life, it may save my children's lives. It may save someone you love. And it's important. And ESPN has been so kind to support me in this endeavor and allow me to announce tonight that with ESPN's support, which means what? Their money, and their dollars, and they're helping me. We are starting the Jimmy V Foundation for cancer research.

And its motto is, “Don't give up. Don't ever give up.” And that's what I'm going to try to do every minute that I have left. I will thank God for the day and the moment I have. And if you see me smile and maybe give me a hug cause that's important to me, too. But try if you can, to support, whether it's AIDS or the cancer foundation, so that someone else might survive, might prosper, and might actually be cured of this dreaded disease.

I can't thank ESPN enough for allowing this to happen and I'm going to work as hard as I can for cancer research. And hopefully we'll be … maybe we'll have some cures and some breakthroughs, and I'd like to think I'm gonna fight my brains out to be back here again next year for the Arthur Ashe recipient. I want to give it next year.

I know I've got to go. I've got to go, and I got one last thing. I've said it before and I'm gonna say it again. Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind. It cannot touch my heart. And it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever. I thank you and God bless y'all.


“Enough” by John C. Bogle

This speech was delivered by John C. Bogle in May 2007 at Georgetown University as a commencement speech. He is the founder of The Vanguard Group.

Speech Transcript

Here’s how I recall the wonderful story that sets the theme for my remarks today: At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, the late Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, the author Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch 22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have . . . Enough.”

Enough. I was stunned by its simple eloquence, to say nothing of its relevance to some of the vital issues arising in American society today. Many of them revolve around money—yes, money—increasingly, in our “bottom line” society, the Great God of prestige, the Great Measure of the Man (and Woman). So this morning I have the temerity to ask you soon-to-be-minted MBA graduates, most of whom will enter the world of commerce, to consider with me the role of “enough” in business and entrepreneurship in our society, “enough” in the dominant role of the financial system in our economy, and “enough” in the values you will bring to the fields you choose for your careers.

Kurt Vonnegut loved to speak to college students. He believed, if I may paraphrase here, that “we should catch young people before they become CEOs, investment bankers, consultants, and money managers (and especially hedge fund managers), and do our best to poison their minds with humanity.” And in my remarks this morning, I’ll try to poison your minds with a little bit of that humanity.

Over the past two centuries, our nation has moved from being an agricultural economy, to a manufacturing economy, to a service economy, and now to a predominantly financial economy. But our financial economy, by definition, subtracts from the value created by our productive businesses. Think about it: while the owners of business enjoy the dividend yields and earnings growth that our capitalistic system creates, those who play in the financial markets capture those investment gains only after the costs of financial intermediation are deducted. Thus, while investing in American business is a winner’s game, beating the stock market before those costs is a zero-sum game. But after intermediation costs are deducted, beating the market—for all of us as a group—becomes a loser’s game.

Yes, the more that our financial system takes, the less our investors make. Yet the financial field is where the money is made in modern-day America, the breeding ground for the wealthiest of our citizens. (If you made less than $140 million dollars last year, you didn’t make enough to rank among the 25 highest-paid hedge fund managers.) When we add up all those hedge fund fees, all those mutual fund management fees and operating expenses; all those commissions to brokerage firms and fees to financial advisors; investment banking and legal fees for all those mergers and IPOs; and the enormous marketing and advertising expenses entailed in the distribution of financial products, we’re talking about some $500 billion dollars per year. That sum, extracted from whatever returns the stock and bond markets are generous enough to deliver to investors, is surely enough, if you will, to seriously undermine the odds in favor of success for our citizens who are accumulating savings for retirement.

Yet the fact is that the finance sector has become by far our nation’s largest generator of corporate profits, larger even than the combined profits of our huge energy and health care sectors, and almost three times as much as either manufacturing or information technology. Twenty–five years ago, financials accounted for only about 6 percent of the earnings of the 500 giant corporations that compose the Standard & Poor’s 500 Stock Index. Ten years ago, the financial sector share had risen to 20 percent. And last year, the financial sector profits had soared to an all-time high of 27 percent. If we add the earnings of the financial affiliates of our giant manufacturers (think General Electric Capital, for example, or the auto financing arms of General Motors and Ford) to this total, financial earnings now likely exceed 33 percent of the earnings of the S&P 500. While that share may or may not be enough, it seems likely to continue to grow, at least for a while.

We’re moving, or so it seems, to a world where we’re no longer making anything in this country; we’re merely trading pieces of paper, swapping stocks and bonds back and forth with one another, and paying our financial croupiers a veritable fortune. We’re also adding even more costs by creating ever more complex financial derivatives in which huge and unfathomable risks are being built into our financial system. “When enterprise becomes a mere bubble on a whirlpool of speculation,” as the great British economist John Maynard Keynes warned us 70 years ago, the consequences may be dire. “When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job of capitalism is likely to be ill-done.”

Once a profession in which business was subservient, the field of money management and Wall Street has become a business in which the profession is subservient. Harvard Business School Professor Rakesh Khurana was right when he defined the conduct of a true professional with these words: “I will create value for society, rather than extract it.” And yet money management, by definition, extracts value from the returns earned by our business enterprises. Warren Buffett’s wise partner Charlie Munger lays it on the line:

“Most money-making activity contains profoundly antisocial effects . . . As high cost modalities become ever more popular . . . the activity exacerbates the current harmful trend in which ever more of the nation’s ethical young brain-power is attracted into lucrative money-management and its attendant modern frictions, as distinguished from work providing much more value to others.”

But I’m not telling you not to go into the highly-profitable field of managing money. Rather, I present three caveats:

    One, if you do enter this field, do so with your eyes wide open, recognizing that any endeavor that extracts value from its clients may, in times more troubled than these, find that it has been hoist by its own petard. It is said on Wall Street, correctly, that “money has no conscience,” but don’t allow that truism to let you ignore your own conscience, nor to alter your own conduct and character.
    Two, when you begin to invest so that you will have enough for your own retirement many decades hence, do so in a way that minimizes the extraction by the financial community of the returns generated by business. This is, yes, a sort of self serving recommendation to invest in low-cost all-U.S.—and global—stock market index funds, the only way to guarantee your fair share of whatever returns our financial markets are generous enough to provide.
     Three, no matter what career you choose, do your best to hold high its traditional professional values, now swiftly eroding, in which serving the client is always the highest priority. And don’t ignore the greater good of your community, your nation, and your world. After William Penn, “we pass through this world but once, so do now any good you can do, and show now any kindness you can show, for we shall not pass this way again.”

Most commencement speakers like to sum up by citing some eminent philosopher to endorse his message. I’m no exception. So I now offer to you new Masters of Business Administration these words from Socrates, spoken 2500 years ago, as he challenged the citizens of Athens.

“I honor and love you: but why do you who are citizens of this great and mighty nation care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul. Are you not ashamed of this? . . . I do nothing but go about persuading you all, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man.”

I close by returning to Kurt Vonnegut’s story, which, when I finally tracked it down, turned out to be a poem. It’s delightful; even better, it’s only 92 words long:

True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead,
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in Peace!

But it’s not time for any of you to rest in peace, or to rest in any other way. Bright futures lie before you. There’s the world’s work to be done, and there are never enough citizens with determined hearts, courageous character, intelligent minds, and idealistic souls to do it. Yes, our world already has quite enough guns, political platitudes, arrogance, dis-ingenuousness, self interest, snobbishness, superficiality, war, and the certainty that God is on one side or the other. But it never has enough conscience, nor enough tolerance, idealism, justice, compassion, wisdom, humility, self-sacrifice for the greater good, integrity, courtesy, poetry, laughter, and generosity of substance and spirit. It is these elements that I urge you to carry into your careers, and remember that the great game of life is not about money; it is about doing your best to build the world anew.

And that’s enough . . . at least for today.


“2005 Stanford Commencement Address” by Steve Jobs

This speech was delivered by Steve Jobs as the commencement address to the graduates of Stanford University on June 12, 2005.

Speech Transcript

I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.

The first story is about connecting the dots.

I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?

It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned Coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backward 10 years later.

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

My second story is about love and loss.

I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents’ garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4,000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.

I really didn’t know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down — that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the world’s first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple’s current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.

I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

My third story is about death.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors and Polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: It was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Thank you all very much.


“Make Your Bed” by Admiral William H. McRaven

This speech was delivered as the commencement address to the graduates of The University of Texas at Austin on May 17, 2014.

Speech Transcript

President Powers, Provost Fenves, Deans, members of the faculty, family and friends and most importantly, the class of 2014. Congratulations on your achievement.

It’s been almost 37 years to the day that I graduated from UT. I remember a lot of things about that day. I remember I had throbbing headache from a party the night before. I remember I had a serious girlfriend, whom I later married — that’s important to remember by the way — and I remember that I was getting commissioned in the Navy that day.

But of all the things I remember, I don’t have a clue who the commencement speaker was that evening, and I certainly don’t remember anything they said. So, acknowledging that fact, if I can’t make this commencement speech memorable, I will at least try to make it short.

The University’s slogan is, “What starts here changes the world.” I have to admit — I kinda like it. “What starts here changes the world.”

Tonight there are almost 8,000 students graduating from UT. That great paragon of analytical rigor, Ask.Com, says that the average American will meet 10,000 people in their lifetime. That’s a lot of folks. But, if every one of you changed the lives of just 10 people — and each one of those folks changed the lives of another 10 people — just 10 — then in five generations — 125 years — the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people.

800 million people — think of it — over twice the population of the United States. Go one more generation and you can change the entire population of the world — eight billion people.

If you think it’s hard to change the lives of 10 people — change their lives forever — you’re wrong. I saw it happen every day in Iraq and Afghanistan: A young Army officer makes a decision to go left instead of right down a road in Baghdad and the 10 soldiers in his squad are saved from close-in ambush. In Kandahar province, Afghanistan, a non-commissioned officer from the Female Engagement Team senses something isn’t right and directs the infantry platoon away from a 500-pound IED, saving the lives of a dozen soldiers.

But, if you think about it, not only were these soldiers saved by the decisions of one person, but their children yet unborn were also saved. And their children’s children were saved. Generations were saved by one decision, by one person.

But changing the world can happen anywhere and anyone can do it. So, what starts here can indeed change the world, but the question is — what will the world look like after you change it?

Well, I am confident that it will look much, much better. But if you will humor this old sailor for just a moment, I have a few suggestions that may help you on your way to a better a world. And while these lessons were learned during my time in the military, I can assure you that it matters not whether you ever served a day in uniform. It matters not your gender, your ethnic or religious background, your orientation or your social status.

Our struggles in this world are similar, and the lessons to overcome those struggles and to move forward — changing ourselves and the world around us — will apply equally to all.

I have been a Navy SEAL for 36 years. But it all began when I left UT for Basic SEAL training in Coronado, California. Basic SEAL training is six months of long torturous runs in the soft sand, midnight swims in the cold water off San Diego, obstacles courses, unending calisthenics, days without sleep and always being cold, wet and miserable. It is six months of being constantly harrassed by professionally trained warriors who seek to find the weak of mind and body and eliminate them from ever becoming a Navy SEAL.

But, the training also seeks to find those students who can lead in an environment of constant stress, chaos, failure and hardships. To me basic SEAL training was a lifetime of challenges crammed into six months.

So, here are the 10 lessons I learned from basic SEAL training that hopefully will be of value to you as you move forward in life.

Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Vietnam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed. If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack — that’s Navy talk for bed.

It was a simple task — mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle-hardened SEALs, but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.

During SEAL training the students are broken down into boat crews. Each crew is seven students — three on each side of a small rubber boat and one coxswain to help guide the dingy. Every day your boat crew forms up on the beach and is instructed to get through the surfzone and paddle several miles down the coast. In the winter, the surf off San Diego can get to be 8 to 10 feet high and it is exceedingly difficult to paddle through the plunging surf unless everyone digs in. Every paddle must be synchronized to the stroke count of the coxswain. Everyone must exert equal effort or the boat will turn against the wave and be unceremoniously tossed back on the beach.

For the boat to make it to its destination, everyone must paddle. You can’t change the world alone — you will need some help — and to truly get from your starting point to your destination takes friends, colleagues, the good will of strangers and a strong coxswain to guide them.

If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.

Over a few weeks of difficult training my SEAL class, which started with 150 men, was down to just 35. There were now six boat crews of seven men each. I was in the boat with the tall guys, but the best boat crew we had was made up of the the little guys — the munchkin crew we called them — no one was over about five-foot-five.

The munchkin boat crew had one American Indian, one African American, one Polish American, one Greek American, one Italian American, and two tough kids from the midwest. They out-paddled, out-ran and out-swam all the other boat crews. The big men in the other boat crews would always make good-natured fun of the tiny little flippers the munchkins put on their tiny little feet prior to every swim. But somehow these little guys, from every corner of the nation and the world, always had the last laugh — swimming faster than everyone and reaching the shore long before the rest of us.

SEAL training was a great equalizer. Nothing mattered but your will to succeed. Not your color, not your ethnic background, not your education and not your social status.

If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.

Several times a week, the instructors would line up the class and do a uniform inspection. It was exceptionally thorough. Your hat had to be perfectly starched, your uniform immaculately pressed and your belt buckle shiny and void of any smudges. But it seemed that no matter how much effort you put into starching your hat, or pressing your uniform or polishing your belt buckle — it just wasn’t good enough. The instructors would find “something” wrong.

For failing the uniform inspection, the student had to run, fully clothed into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand. The effect was known as a “sugar cookie.” You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day — cold, wet and sandy.

There were many a student who just couldn’t accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. That no matter how hard they tried to get the uniform right, it was unappreciated. Those students didn’t make it through training. Those students didn’t understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform.

Sometimes no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform you still end up as a sugar cookie. It’s just the way life is sometimes.

If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.

Every day during training you were challenged with multiple physical events — long runs, long swims, obstacle courses, hours of calisthenics — something designed to test your mettle. Every event had standards — times you had to meet. If you failed to meet those standards your name was posted on a list, and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to a “circus.” A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit.

No one wanted a circus.

A circus meant that for that day you didn’t measure up. A circus meant more fatigue — and more fatigue meant that the following day would be more difficult — and more circuses were likely. But at some time during SEAL training, everyone — everyone — made the circus list.

But an interesting thing happened to those who were constantly on the list. Over time those students — who did two hours of extra calisthenics — got stronger and stronger. The pain of the circuses built inner strength, built physical resiliency.

Life is filled with circuses. You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times it will test you to your very core.

But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.

At least twice a week, the trainees were required to run the obstacle course. The obstacle course contained 25 obstacles including a 10-foot high wall, a 30-foot cargo net and a barbed wire crawl, to name a few. But the most challenging obstacle was the slide for life. It had a three-level 30-foot tower at one end and a one-level tower at the other. In between was a 200-foot-long rope. You had to climb the three-tiered tower and once at the top, you grabbed the rope, swung underneath the rope and pulled yourself hand over hand until you got to the other end.

The record for the obstacle course had stood for years when my class began training in 1977. The record seemed unbeatable, until one day, a student decided to go down the slide for life head first. Instead of swinging his body underneath the rope and inching his way down, he bravely mounted the TOP of the rope and thrust himself forward.

It was a dangerous move — seemingly foolish, and fraught with risk. Failure could mean injury and being dropped from the training. Without hesitation the student slid down the rope perilously fast. Instead of several minutes, it only took him half that time and by the end of the course he had broken the record.

If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.

During the land warfare phase of training, the students are flown out to San Clemente Island which lies off the coast of San Diego. The waters off San Clemente are a breeding ground for the great white sharks. To pass SEAL training there are a series of long swims that must be completed. One is the night swim.

Before the swim the instructors joyfully brief the trainees on all the species of sharks that inhabit the waters off San Clemente. They assure you, however, that no student has ever been eaten by a shark — at least not recently. But, you are also taught that if a shark begins to circle your position — stand your ground. Do not swim away. Do not act afraid. And if the shark, hungry for a midnight snack, darts towards you — then summon up all your strength and punch him in the snout, and he will turn and swim away.

There are a lot of sharks in the world. If you hope to complete the swim you will have to deal with them.

So, if you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.

As Navy SEALs one of our jobs is to conduct underwater attacks against enemy shipping. We practiced this technique extensively during basic training. The ship attack mission is where a pair of SEAL divers is dropped off outside an enemy harbor and then swims well over two miles — underwater — using nothing but a depth gauge and a compass to get to their target.

During the entire swim, even well below the surface, there is some light that comes through. It is comforting to know that there is open water above you. But as you approach the ship, which is tied to a pier, the light begins to fade. The steel structure of the ship blocks the moonlight, it blocks the surrounding street lamps, it blocks all ambient light.

To be successful in your mission, you have to swim under the ship and find the keel — the centerline and the deepest part of the ship. This is your objective. But the keel is also the darkest part of the ship — where you cannot see your hand in front of your face, where the noise from the ship’s machinery is deafening and where it is easy to get disoriented and fail.

Every SEAL knows that under the keel, at the darkest moment of the mission, is the time when you must be calm, composed — when all your tactical skills, your physical power and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.

If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.

The ninth week of training is referred to as “Hell Week.” It is six days of no sleep, constant physical and mental harassment, and one special day at the Mud Flats. The Mud Flats are area between San Diego and Tijuana where the water runs off and creates the Tijuana slues, a swampy patch of terrain where the mud will engulf you.

It is on Wednesday of Hell Week that you paddle down to the mud flats and spend the next 15 hours trying to survive the freezing cold mud, the howling wind and the incessant pressure to quit from the instructors. As the sun began to set that Wednesday evening, my training class, having committed some “egregious infraction of the rules” was ordered into the mud.

The mud consumed each man till there was nothing visible but our heads. The instructors told us we could leave the mud if only five men would quit — just five men — and we could get out of the oppressive cold. Looking around the mud flat it was apparent that some students were about to give up. It was still over eight hours till the sun came up — eight more hours of bone-chilling cold.

The chattering teeth and shivering moans of the trainees were so loud it was hard to hear anything. And then, one voice began to echo through the night, one voice raised in song. The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm. One voice became two and two became three and before long everyone in the class was singing. We knew that if one man could rise above the misery then others could as well.

The instructors threatened us with more time in the mud if we kept up the singingbut the singing persisted. And somehow the mud seemed a little warmer, the wind a little tamer and the dawn not so far away.

If I have learned anything in my time traveling the world, it is the power of hope. The power of one person — Washington, Lincoln, King, Mandela and even a young girl from Pakistan, Malala — one person can change the world by giving people hope.

So, if you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.

Finally, in SEAL training there is a bell. A brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see. All you have to do to quit is ring the bell.

Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT — and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. Just ring the bell.

If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.

To the graduating class of 2014, you are moments away from graduating. Moments away from beginning your journey through life. Moments away from starting to change the world — for the better. It will not be easy.

But, YOU are the class of 2014, the class that can affect the lives of 800 million people in the next century.

Start each day with a task completed. Find someone to help you through life. Respect everyone.

Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often. But if take you take some risks, step up when the times are toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden and never, ever give up — if you do these things, then the next generation and the generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today.

And what started here will indeed have changed the world — for the better.

Thank you very much. Hook ’em horns.


“The Anatomy of Trust” by Brené Brown

Brené Brown originally delivered this speech at UCLA's Royce Hall in 2015.

Speech Transcript

Oh, it just feels like an incredible understatement to say how grateful I am to be here with all of you. I feel like I have a relationship with many of you on social media, and you were like, “T-minus two days.” I'm like, “It's coming! We're going to be together.” So I'm so grateful to be here with you.

I'm going to talk about trust and I'm going to start by saying this: One of my favorite parts of my job is that I get to research topics that mean something to me. One of my least favorite parts of my job is I normally come up with findings that kicked me in the butt and make me change my entire life. That's the hard part. But I get to dig into the stuff that I think matters in my life and the life of the people around me.

And the topic of trust is something I think I probably would have eventually started to look at closely because I study shame and vulnerability. But there's a very personal reason I jumped to trust early in my research career, and it was a personal experience.

One day, my daughter, Ellen, came home from school. She was in third grade. And the minute we closed the front door, she literally just started sobbing and slid down the door until she was just kind of a heap of crying on the floor. And of course I was … It scared me, and I said, “What's wrong Ellen? What happened? What happened?”

And she pulled herself together enough to say, “Something really hard happened to me today at school, and I shared it with a couple of my friends during recess. And by the time we got back into the classroom, everyone in my class knew what had happened, and they were laughing and pointing at me and calling me names.” And it was so bad, and the kids were being so disruptive, that her teacher even had to take marbles out of this marble jar.

And the marble jar in the classroom is a jar where if the kids are making great choices together, the teacher adds marbles. If they're making not great choices, the teacher takes out marbles. And if the jar gets filled up, there's a celebration for the class.

And so, she said, “It was one of the worst moments in my life. They were laughing and pointing. And Miss Bacchum, my teacher, kept saying, ‘I'm going to take marbles out.' And she didn't know what was happening.”

And she looked at me just with this face that is just seared my mind and said, “I will never trust anyone again.” And my first reaction, to be really honest with you, was, “Damn straight, you don't tell anybody anything but your Mama.”

Yeah, right? That's it. I mean, that was my … “You just tell me. And when you grow up and you go off to school, Mama will go too. I'll get a little apartment.” And the other thing I was thinking to be quite honest with you is, “I will find out who those kids were.” And while I'm not going to beat up a nine year old, I know their mamas.

You know, that's the place you go to. And I'm like, “How am I going to explain trust to this third grader in front of me?” So I took a deep breath and I said, “Ellen, trust is like a marble jar.” She said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “You share those hard stories and those hard things that are happening to you with friends, who, over time, you filled up their marble jar. They've done thing after thing after thing where you're like, ‘I know I can share this with this person.' Does that make sense?”

Yes!

And that's what Ellen said, “Yes, that makes sense.” And I said, “Do you have any marble jar friends?” And she said, “Oh yeah. Totally. Hannah and Lorna are marble jar friends.” And I said … And then this is where things got interesting. I said, “Tell me what you mean. How do they earn marbles for you?”

And she's like, “Well, Lorna, if there's not a seat for me at the lunch cafeteria, she'll scoot over and give me half a heinie seat.” And I'm like, “She will?” She's like, “Yeah. She'll just sit like that, and so I can sit with her.” And I said, “That's a big deal.” This is not what I was expecting to hear.

And then she said, “And you know Hannah, on Sunday at my soccer game?” And I was waiting for this story where she said, “I got hit by a ball and I was laying on the field, and Hannah picked me up and ran me to first aid.” And I was like, “Yeah?” And she said, “Hannah looked over and she saw Oma and Opa,” my parents, her grandparents, “And she said, ‘Look, your Oma and Opa are here.'” And I was like …

And I was like, “Boy, she got a marble for that?” And she goes, “Well, you know, not all my friends have eight grandparents.” Because my parents are divorced and remarried, my husband's parents were divorced and remarried. And she said, “And it was so nice to me that she remembered their names.”

And I was like, “Hmm.” And she said, “Do you have marble jar friends?” And I said, “Yeah, I do have a couple of marble jar friends.” And she said, “Well, what kind of things do they do to get marbles?” And this feeling came over me. And I thought … The first thing I could think of, because we were talking about the soccer game, was that same game. My good friend Eileen walked up to my parents and said, “Diane, David, good to see you.” And I remember what that felt like for me. And I was like, certainly, trust cannot be built by these small insignificant moments in our lives. It's gotta be a grander gesture than that.

So, as a researcher, I start looking into the data. I gather up the doctoral students who've worked with me. We start looking. And it is crystal clear. Trust is built in very small moments. And when we started looking at examples of when people talked about trust in the research, they said things like, “Yeah, I really trust my boss. She even asked me how my mom's chemotherapy was going.” “I trust my neighbor because if something's going on with my kid, it doesn't matter what she's doing, she'll come over and help me figure it out.” You know, one of the number one things emerged around trust and small things? People who attend funerals. “This is someone who showed up at my sister's funeral.”

Another huge marble jar moment for people, “I trust him because he'll ask for help when he needs it.” How many of you are better at giving help than asking for help? Right? So, asking for help is one of those moments.

So, one of the ways I work as a grounded theory researcher, is I look at the data first, then I go in and see what other researchers are talking about and saying, because we believe the best theories are not built on other existing theories, but on our own lived experiences.

So, after I had looked at this, I said, “Let me see what the research says.” And I went to John Gottman, who's been studying relationship for 30 years. He has amazing work on trust and betrayal. And the first thing I read, “Trust is built in the smallest of moments.” And he calls them “Sliding door moments.”

Sliding Doors is a movie with Gwyneth Paltrow from the 90s. Have you all seen this movie? So, it's a really tough movie, because what happens is it follows her life to this seemingly unimportant moment where she's trying to get on a train. And she makes the train, but the movie stops and splits into two parts where she makes a train and she doesn't make the train, and it follows them to radically different endings. And he would argue that trust is a sliding door moment. And the example that he gives is so powerful.

He said he was lying in bed one night, he had 10 pages left of his murder mystery, and he had us feeling he knew who the killer was, but he was dying to finish this book. So he said, “I don't even want … I want to get up, brush my teeth, go to the bathroom, and get back in and not have to get up.” You know that feeling when you just want to get all situated and read the end of your book?

So, he gets up and he walks past his wife in the bathroom, who's brushing her hair and who looks really sad. And he said, “My first thought was just keep walking. Just keep walking.”

And how many of you have had that moment you walk past someone and you're like, “Oh, God. They look … Avert your eyes.” Or you look at caller ID or your cell phone, and you're like, “Oh yeah, I know she's in a big mess right now. I don't have time to pick up the phone.” Right? Yes or no? This looks like guilty laughter to me.

So, he said, “That's a sliding door moment.” And here's what struck me about his story, because he said, “There is the opportunity to build trust and there is the opportunity to betray.” Because as small as the moments of trust can be, those are the moments of betrayal as well. To choose to not connect when the opportunity is there is a betrayal. So he took the brush out of her hand and started brushing her hair and said, “What's going on with you right now, babe?” That's a moment of trust, right?

So fast-forward five years, and I'm clear about trust, and I talk about trust as the marble jar. We've got to really share our stories and our hard stuff with people whose jars are full, people who've, over time, really done those small things that have helped us believe that they're worth our story.

But the new question for me was this: What are those marbles? What is trust? What do we talk about when we talk about trust? Trust is a big word, right? To hear, “I trust you,” or “I don't trust you.” I don't even know what that means. So, I wanted to know, what is the anatomy of trust? What does that mean?

So, I started looking in the research and I found a definition from Charles Feldman that I think is the most beautiful definition I've ever heard. And it's simply this: “Trust is choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else.” “Choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else.” Feldman says that distrust is what I have shared with you that is important to me is not safe with you.

So, I thought, “That's true.” And Feldman really calls for this, let's understand what trust is. So, we went back into all the data to find out, can I figure out what trust is? Do I know what trust is from the data? And I think I do know what trust is.

And I put together an acronym, BRAVING, B-R-A-V-I-N-G. BRAVING. Because when we trust, we are braving connection with someone. So what are the parts of trust? B, boundaries. I trust you. If you are about your boundaries and you hold them, and you're clear about my boundaries and you respect them. There is no trust without boundaries.

R, reliability. I can only trust you if you do what you say you're going to do. And not once. Reliability … Let me tell you what reliability is in research terms. We're always looking for things that are valid and reliable. Any researchers here or research kind of geeks? There's 10 of us.

Okay. So we would say a scale that you weigh yourself on is valid if you get on it and it's an accurate weight. 120. Okay. So that would be a very valid scale. I would pay a lot of money for that scale. So, that's actually not a valid scale, but we'll pretend for the sake of this. That's a valid scale.

A reliable scale is a scale that if I got on it a hundred times, it's gonna say the same thing every time. So, what reliability is, is you do what you say you're going to do over and over and over again. You cannot gain and earn my trust if you're reliable once, because that's not the definition of reliability.

In our working lives, reliability means that we have to be very clear on our limitations so we don't take on so much that we come up short and don't deliver on our commitments. In our personal life, it means the same thing. So, when we say to someone, “Oh God, it was so great seeing you. I'm going to give you a call and we can have lunch. Yes or no?” “No. It was really great seeing you.” Moment of discomfort. Goodbye. Right? But honest.

So B, Boundaries. R, Reliability. A … Huge. Accountability. I can only trust you if, when you make a mistake, you are willing to own it, apologize for it, and make amends. I can only trust you if when I make a mistake, I am allowed to own it, apologize, and make amends. No accountability? No trust.

V, and this one shook me to the core. Vault. The Vault. What I share with you, you will hold in confidence. What you share with me, I will hold in confidence. But you know what we don't understand? And this came up over and over again in the research. We don't understand the other side of the vault. That's only one door on the vault. Here's where we lose trust with people.

If a good friend comes up to me and says, “Oh my God, did you hear about Caroline? They're getting a divorce and it is ugly. I'm pretty sure her partner's cheating.” You have just shared something with me that was not yours to share, and now, my trust for you, even though you're gossiping and giving me the juice, now my trust for you is completely diminished.

Does that make sense? So the Vault is not just about the fact that you hold my confidences, it's that, in our relationship, I see that you acknowledge confidentiality. Here's the tricky thing about the Vault. A lot of times, we share things that are not ours to share as a way to hot wire connection with a friend, right? If you don't have anything nice to say, come sit next to me. You know? Yes or no? Our closeness is built on talking bad about other people. You know what I call that? Common enemy intimacy.

What we have is not real. The intimacy we have is built on hating the same people, and that's counterfeit. That's counterfeit trust. That's not real. So, the Vault means you respect my story, but you respect other people's story.

I, Integrity. I cannot trust you and be in a trusting relationship with you if you do not act from a place of integrity and encourage me to do the same. So, what is integrity?

I came up with this definition because I didn't like any of the ones out there, and that's what I do when I don't like them. I do. I look in the data, and I say, “What's integrity?” Here's what I think integrity is. Three pieces. It's choosing courage over comfort, choosing what's right over what's fun, fast, or easy, and practicing your values, not just professing your values, right? I mean, that's integrity.

N, Non-judgment. I can fall apart, ask for help, and be in struggle without being judged by you. And you can fall apart, and be in struggle, and ask for help without being judged by me, which is really hard because we're better at helping than we are asking for help.

And we think that we've set up trusting relationships with people who really trust us because we're always there to help them. But let me tell you this, if you can't ask for help and they cannot reciprocate that, that is not a trusting relationship. Period. And when we assign value to needing help, when I think less of myself for needing help, whether you're conscious of it or not, when you offer help to someone, you think less of them too.

You cannot judge yourself for needing help but not judge others for needing your help. And somewhere in there, if you're like me, you're getting value from being the helper in relationship. You think that's your worth. But real trust doesn't exist unless help is reciprocal and non-judgment.

The last one is G, Generosity. Our relationship is only a trusting relationship if you can assume the most generous thing about my words, intentions, and behaviors, and then check in with me. So, if I screw up, say something, forget something, you will make a generous assumption and say, “Yesterday was my mom's one year anniversary of her death, and it was really tough for me, and I talked to you about it last month. And I really was hoping that you would've called, but I know you care about me. I know you think it's a big deal. So I wanted to let you know that I've been thinking about that.” As opposed to not returning calls, not returning emails, and waiting for the moment where you can spring, “Well, you forgot to call on this important …” You know? You'll make a generous assumption about me and check it out.

Does that make sense? So we've got boundaries, reliability, accountability, the vault, integrity, non-judgment, and generosity. These, this is the anatomy of trust, and it's complex.

Why do we need to break it down? For a very simple reason. How many of you in here have ever struggled with trust in a relationship, professional or personal? It should be everybody, statistically, right? And so, what you end up saying to someone is, “I don't trust you.” “What do you mean you don't trust me? I love you. I'm so dependable. What do you mean you don't trust me?”

How do we talk about trust if we can't break it down? What understanding trust gives us is words to say, “Here's my struggle. You're not reliable with me. You say you're going to do something, I count on it, you don't do it.” Or maybe the issue is non-judgment. But we can break it down and talk about it and ask for what we need, very specifically. Instead of using this huge word that has tons of weight and value around it, we can say, “Here's specifically what's not working. What's not working is we've got a boundaries issue.”

So, one of the things that's interesting, I think, is one of the biggest casualties with heartbreak and disappointment and failure and our struggle, is not just the loss of trust with other people, but the loss of self trust. When something hard happens in our lives, the first thing we say is “I can't trust myself. I was so stupid. I was so naive.”

So, this BRAVING acronym works with self-trust too. So, when something happens … I just recently went through a really tough failure, and I had to ask myself, “Did I honor my own boundaries? Was I reliable? Can I count on myself? Did I hold myself accountable? Was I really protective of my stories? Did I stay in my integrity? Was I judgmental toward myself? And I give myself the benefit of the doubt? Was I generous toward myself?”

Because if braving relationships with other people is braving connection, self-trust is braving self-love. Self-respect, the wildest adventure we'll ever take in our whole lives. And so, what I would invite you to think about when you think about trust is if your own marble jar is not full, if you can't count on yourself, you can't ask other people to give you what you don't have. So we have to start with self-trust.

There's a great quote from Maya Angelou that says, “I don't trust people who don't love themselves, but say I love you.” Right?

She quotes an African proverb when she said that, and she said, “Be wary of the naked man offering you a shirt.” And so, a lot of times if you find yourself in struggle with trust, the thing to examine first is your own marble jar, how you treat yourself. Because we can't ask people to give to us something that we do not believe we're worthy of receiving. And you will know you're worthy of receiving it when you trust yourself above everyone else. So, thank y'all so much. I'm so honored to be here. Thank you. Thank y'all.


“Creativity in Management” by John Cleese

This speech was delivered to Video Arts by John Cleese in 1991.

Speech Transcript

You know, when Video Arts asked me if I'd like to talk about creativity I said “no problem!” No problem! Because telling people how to be creative is easy, it's only being it that's difficult.

I knew it would be particularly easy for me because I've spent the last 25 years watching how various creative people produce their stuff, and being fascinating to see if I could figure out what makes folk, including me, more creative.

What is more, a couple of years ago I got very excited because a friend of mine who runs the psychology department at Sussex University, Brian Bates, showed me some research on creativity done at Berkley in the 70s by a brilliant psychologist called Donald MacKinnon which seemed to confirm in the most impressively scientific way all the vague observations and intuitions that I'd had over the years.

The prospect of settling down for quite serious study of creativity for the purpose of tonight's gossip was delightful. Having spent several weeks on it, I can state categorically that what I have to tell you tonight about how you can all become more creative is a complete waste of time.

So I think it would be much better if I just told jokes instead.

You know the lightbulb jokes? How many Poles does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One to hold the bulb, four to turn the table. How many folksingers does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: five, one to change the bulb and four to sing about how much better the old one was. How many socialists does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: We're not going to change it, we think it works. How many creative art–

The reason why it is futile for me to talk about creativity is that it simply cannot be explained, it's like Mozart's music or Van Gogh's painting or Saddam Hussein's propaganda. It is literally inexplicable.

Freud, who analyzed practically everything else, repeatedly denied that psychoanalysis could shed any light whatsoever on the mysteries of creativity.

And Brian Bates wrote to me recently “Most of the best research on creativity was done in the 60s and 70s with a quite dramatic drop-off in quantity after then,” largely, I suspect because researchers began to feel that they had reached the limits of what science could discover about it.

In fact, the only thing from the research that I could tell you about how to be creative is the sort of childhood that you should have had, which is of limited help to you at this point in your lives.

However there is one negative thing that I can say, and it's “negative” because it is easier to say what creativity isn't.

A bit like the sculptor who when asked how he had sculpted a very fine elephant, explained that he'd taken a big block of marble and then knocked away all the bits that didn't look like an elephant.

Now here's the negative thing: Creativity is not a talent. It is not a talent, it is a way of operating.

So how many actors does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Answer: thousands. Only one to do it but thousands to say “I could have done that.” How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Answer: Don't mind me, I'll just sit here in the dark, nobody cares about…  How many surgeons —

You see when I say “a way of operating” what I mean is this: creativity is not an ability that you either have or do not have.

It is, for example, (and this may surprise you) absolutely unrelated to IQ (provided that you are intelligent above a certain minimal level that is) but MacKinnon showed in investigating scientists, architects, engineers, and writers that those regarded by their peers as “most creative” were in no way whatsoever different in IQ from their less creative colleagues.

So in what way were they different?

MacKinnon showed that the most creative had simply acquired a facility for getting themselves into a particular mood — “a way of operating” — which allowed their natural creativity to function.

In fact, MacKinnon described this particular facility as an ability to play.

Indeed he described the most creative (when in this mood) as being childlike. For they were able to play with ideas… to explore them… not for any immediate practical purpose but just for enjoyment. Play for its own sake.

Now, about this mood.

I'm working at the moment with Dr. Robin Skynner on a successor to our psychiatry book Families and How To Survive Them we're comparing the ways in which psychologically healthy families function (the ways in which such families function) with the ways in which the most successful corporations and organizations function.

We've become fascinated by the fact that we can usually describe the way in which people function at work in terms of two modes: open and closed.

So what I can just add now is that creativity is not possible in the closed mode.

Ok, so how many American network TV executives does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Answer: Does it have to be a lightbulb? How many doorke–

Let me explain a little. By the “closed mode” I mean the mode that we are in most of the time when at work.

We have inside us a feeling that there's lots to be done and we have to get on with it if we're going to get through it all.

It's an active (probably slightly anxious) mode, although the anxiety can be exciting and pleasurable.

It's a mode which we're probably a little impatient, if only with ourselves.

It has a little tension in it, not much humor.

It's a mode in which we're very purposeful, and it's a mode in which we can get very stressed and even a bit manic, but not creative.

By contrast, the open mode, is relaxed… expansive… less purposeful mode… in which we're probably more contemplative, more inclined to humor (which always accompanies a wider perspective) and, consequently, more playful.

It's a mood in which curiosity for its own sake can operate because we're not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

When Alexander Fleming had the thought that led to the discovery of penicillin, he must have been in the open mode.

The previous day, he'd arranged a number of dishes to that culture would grow upon them.

On the day in question, he glanced at the dishes, and he discovered that on one of them no culture had appeared.

Now, if he'd been in the closed mode he would have been so focused upon his need for “dishes with cultures grown upon them” that when he saw that one dish was of no use to him for that purpose he would quite simply have thrown it away.

Thank goodness, he was in the open mode so he became curious about why the culture had not grown on this particular dish. And that curiosity, as the world knows, led him to the lightbulb — I'm sorry, to penicillin.

Now in the closed mode an uncultured dish is an irrelevance. In the open mode, it's a clue.

Now, one more example: one of Alfred Hitchcock's regular co-writers has described working with him on screenplays.

He says, “When we came up against a block and our discussions became very heated and intense, Hitchcock would suddenly stop and tell a story that had nothing to do with the work at hand. At first, I was almost outraged, and then I discovered that he did this intentionally. He mistrusted working under pressure. He would say “We're pressing, we're pressing, we're working too hard. Relax, it will come.” And, says the writer, of course it finally always did.

But let me make one thing quite clear: we need to be in the open mode when we're pondering a problem but once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we've made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness.

For example, if you decide to leap a ravine, the moment just before take-off is a bad time to start reviewing alternative strategies. When you're attacking a machine-gun post you should not make a particular effort to see the funny side of what you are doing.

Humor is a natural concomitant in the open mode, but it's a luxury in the closed.

No, once we've taken a decision we should narrow our focus while we're implementing it, and then after it's been carried out we should once again switch back to the open mode to review the feedback rising from our action, in order to decide whether the course that we have taken is successful, or whether we should continue with the next stage of our plan. Whether we should create an alternative plan to correct any error we perceive.

And then back into the closed mode to implement that next stage, and so on.

In other words, to be at our most efficient we need to be able to switch backwards and forwards between the two modes.

But here's the problem: we too often get stuck in the closed mode.

Under the pressures which are all too familiar to us we tend to maintain tunnel vision at times when we really need to step back and contemplate the wider view.

This is particularly true, for example, of politicians. The main complaint about them from their non-political colleagues is that they become so addicted to the adrenaline that they get from reacting to events on an hour-by-hour basis that they almost completely lose the desire or the ability to ponder problems in the open mode.

And that's it. Well… 20 minutes to go… So, how many women's libbers does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: 37, one to screw it in, and 36 to make a documentary about it. How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? The answer: only one, but the lightbulb has really got to want to change.

Oh, there is one, just one, other thing that I can say about creativity.

There are certain conditions which do make it more likely that you'll get into the open mode, and that something creative will occur.

More likely… you can't guarantee anything will occur. You might sit around for hours as I did last Tuesday, and nothing.

Zilch.

Bupkis.

Not a sausage.

Nevertheless I can at least tell you how to get yourselves into the open mode. You need five things:

    Space
    Time
    Time
    Confidence
    a 22 inch waist

Sorry, my mind was wondering. I'm getting into the open mode too quickly. Instead of a 22 inch waist, you need humor. I do beg your pardon.

Let's take space first: you can't become playful and therefore creative if you're under your usual pressures, because to cope with them you've got to be in the closed mode.

So you have to create some space for yourself away from those demands. And that means sealing yourself off.

You must make a quiet space for yourself where you will be undisturbed.

Next: Time. It's not enough to create space, you have to create your space for a specific period of time. You have to know that your space will last until exactly 3:30, and that at that moment your normal life will start again.

And it's only by having a specific moment when your space starts and an equally specific moment when your space stops that you can seal yourself off from the every day closed mode in which we all habitually operate.

And I'd never realized how vital this was until I read a historical study of play by a Dutch historian called Johan Huizinga6 and in it he says “Play is distinct from ordinary life, both as to locality and duration. This is its main characteristic: its secludedness, its limitedness. Play begins and then (at a certain moment) it is over. Otherwise, it's not play.”

So combining the first two factors we create an “oasis of quiet” for ourselves by setting the boundaries of space and of time.

Now creativity can happen, because play is possible when we are separate from everyday life.

So, you've arranged to take no calls, you've closed your door, you've sat down somewhere comfortable, take a couple of deep breaths and if you're anything like me, after you've pondered some problem that you want to turn into an opportunity for about 90 seconds, you find yourself thinking “Oh I forgot I've got to call Jim… oh, and I must tell Tina that I need the report on Wednesday and not Thursday which means I must move my lunch with Joe and Damn! I haven't called St. Paul's about getting Joe's daughter an interview and I must pop out this afternoon to get Will's birthday present and those plants need watering and none of my pencils are sharpened and Right! I've got too much to do, so I'm going to start by sorting out my paper clips and then I shall make 27 phone calls and I'll do some thinking tomorrow when I've got everything out of the way.”

Because, as we all know, it's easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking.

And it's also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we're not so sure about.

So when I say create an oasis of quiet know that when you have, your mind will pretty soon start racing again. But you're not going to take that very seriously, you just sit there (for a bit) tolerating the racing and the slight anxiety that comes with that, and after a time your mind will quiet down again.

Now, because it takes some time for your mind to quiet down it's absolutely no use arranging a “space/time oasis” lasting 30 minutes, because just as you're getting quieter and getting into the open mode you have to stop and that is very deeply frustrating. So you must allow yourself a good chunk of time. I'd suggest about an hour and a half. Then after you've gotten to the open mode, you'll have about an hour left for something to happen, if you're lucky.

But don't put a whole morning aside. My experience is that after about an hour-and-a-half you need a break. So it's far better to do an hour-and-a-half now and then an hour-and-a-half next Thursday and maybe an hour-and-a-half the week after that, than to fix one four-and-a-half hour session now.

There's another reason for that, and that's factor number three: time.

Yes, I know we've just done time, but that was half of creating our oasis.

Now I'm going to tell you about how to use the oasis that you've created.

Why do you still need time?

Well, let me tell you a story. I was always intrigued that one of my Monty Python colleagues who seemed to be (to me) more talented than I was {but} did never produce scripts as original as mine. And I watched for some time and then I began to see why. If he was faced with a problem, and fairly soon saw a solution, he was inclined to take it. Even though (I think) he knew the solution was not very original.

Whereas if I was in the same situation, although I was sorely tempted to take the easy way out, and finish by 5 o'clock, I just couldn't. I'd sit there with the problem for another hour-and-a-quarter, and by sticking at it would, in the end, almost always come up with something more original.

It was that simple.

My work was more creative than his simply because I was prepared to stick with the problem longer.

So imagine my excitement when I found that this was exactly what MacKinnon found in his research. He discovered that the most creative professionals always played with a problem for much longer before they tried to resolve it, because they were prepared to tolerate that slight discomfort and anxiety that we all experience when we haven't solved a problem.

You know I mean, if we have a problem and we need to solve it, until we do, we feel (inside us) a kind of internal agitation, a tension, or an uncertainty that makes us just plain uncomfortable. And we want to get rid of that discomfort. So, in order to do so, we take a decision. Not because we're sure it's the best decision, but because taking it will make us feel better.

Well, the most creative people have learned to tolerate that discomfort for much longer. And so, just because they put in more pondering time, their solutions are more creative.

Now the people I find it hardest to be creative with are people who need all the time to project an image of themselves as decisive.

And who feel that to create this image they need to decide everything very quickly and with a great show of confidence.

Well, this behavior I suggest sincerely, is the most effective way of strangling creativity at birth.

But please note I'm not arguing against real decisiveness. I'm 100% in favor of taking a decision when it has to be taken and then sticking to it while it is being implemented.

What I am suggesting to you is that before you take a decision, you should always ask yourself the question, “When does this decision have to be taken?” And having answered that, you defer the decision until then, in order to give yourself maximum pondering time, which will lead you to the most creative solution.

And if, while you're pondering, somebody accuses you of indecision say, “Look, Babycakes, I don't have to decide 'til Tuesday, and I'm not chickening out of my creative discomfort by taking a snap decision before then, that's too easy.”

So, to summarize: the third factor that facilitates creativity is time, giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original.

Now the next factor, number 4, is confidence.

When you are in your space/time oasis, getting into the open mode, nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.

Now if you think about play, you'll see why. To play is experiment: “What happens if I do this? What would happen if we did that? What if…?”

The very essence of playfulness is an openness to anything that may happen. The feeling that whatever happens, it's ok. So you cannot be playful if you're frightened that moving in some direction will be “wrong” — something you “shouldn't have done.”

Well, you're either free to play, or you're not.

As Alan Watts puts it, you can't be spontaneous within reason.

So you've got risk saying things that are silly and illogical and wrong, and the best way to get the confidence to do that is to know that while you're being creative, nothing is wrong. There's no such thing as a mistake, and any drivel may lead to the break-through.

And now, the last factor, the fifth: humor.

Well, I happen to think the main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.

I think we all know that laughter brings relaxation, and that humor makes us playful, yet how many times important discussions been held where really original and creative ideas were desperately needed to solve important problems, but where humor was taboo because the subject being discussed was {air quotes} “so serious”?

This attitude seems to me to stem from a very basic misunderstanding of the difference between ‘serious' and ‘solemn'.

Now I suggest to you that a group of us could be sitting around after dinner, discussing matters that were extremely serious like the education of our children, or our marriages, or the meaning of life (and I'm not talking about the film), and we could be laughing, and that would not make what we were discussing one bit less serious.

Solemnity, on the other hand… I don't know what it's for. I mean, what is the point of it? The two most beautiful memorial services that I've ever attended both had a lot of humor, and it somehow freed us all, and made the services inspiring and cathartic.

But solemnity? It serves pomposity, and the self-important always know with some level of their consciousness that their egotism is going to be punctured by humor — that's why they see it as a threat. And so dishonestly pretend that their deficiency makes their views more substantial, when it only makes them feel bigger.

No, humor is an essential part of spontaneity, an essential part of playfulness, an essential part of the creativity that we need to solve problems, no matter how ‘serious' they may be.

So when you set up a space/time oasis, giggle all you want.

And there, ladies and gentlemen, are the five factors which you can arrange to make your lives more creative:

Space, time, time, confidence, and Lord Jeffrey Archer.

So, now you know how to get into the open mode, the only other requirement is that you keep mind gently 'round the subject you're pondering.

You'll daydream, of course, but you just keep bringing your mind back, just like with meditation. Because, and this is the extraordinary thing about creativity, if you just keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious, probably in the shower later. Or at breakfast the next morning, but suddenly you are rewarded, out of the blue a new thought mysteriously appears.

If you've put in the pondering time first.

So, how many Cecil Parkinsons does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: two, one to screw it in, one to screw it up. How many account executives does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Answer: Can I get back to you on that? How many Norwei— Oh, sorry, how many Yugoslav— how many Malt– how many Dutch— I'm out of jokes.

Oh! One thing! Looking at you all reminds me, I think it's easy to be creative if you've got other people to play with.

I always find that if two (or more) of us throw ideas backwards and forwards I get to more interesting and original places than I could have ever have gotten to on my own. But there is a danger, a real danger, if there's one person around you who makes you feel defensive, you lose the confidence to play, and it's goodbye creativity.

So always make sure your play friends are people that you like and trust.

And never say anything to squash them either, never say “no” or “wrong” or “I don't like that.”

Always be positive, and build on what is being said:

“Would it be even better if…”

“I don't quite understand that, can you just explain it again?”

“Go on…”

“What if…?”

“Let's pretend…”

Try to establish as free an atmosphere as possible.

Sometimes I wonder if the success of the Japanese isn't partly due to their instinctive understanding of how to use groups creatively.

Westerners are often amazed at the unstructured nature of Japanese meetings but maybe it's just that very lack of structure, that absence of time pressure, that frees them to solve problems so creatively. And how clever of the Japanese sometimes to plan that un-structured-ness by, for example, insisting that the first people to give their views are the most junior, so that they can speak freely without the possibility of contradicting what's already been said by somebody more important.

Four minutes left… How many Irish– sorry, sorry

Well, look, the very last thing that I can say about creativity is this: it's like humor. In a joke, the laugh comes at a moment when you connect two different frameworks of reference in a new way.

Example: there's the old story about a woman doing a survey into sexual attitudes who stops an airline pilot and asks him, amongst other things, when he last had sexual intercourse. He replies “Nineteen fifty eight.” Now, knowing airline pilots, the researcher is surprised, and queries this. “Well,” says the pilot, “it's only twenty-one ten now.”

We laugh, eventually, at the moment of contact between two frameworks of reference: the way we express what year it is and the 24-hour clock.

Now, having an idea, a new idea, is exactly the same thing. It's connecting two hitherto separate ideas in a way that generates new meaning.

Now, connecting different ideas isn't difficult, you can connect cheese with motorcycles or moral courage with light green, or bananas with international cooperation. You can get any computer to make a billion random connection for you, but these new connections or juxtapositions are significant only if they generate new meaning.

So as you play you can deliberately try inventing these random juxtapositions, and then use your intuition to tell you whether any of them seem to have significance for you. That's the bit the computer can't do. It can produce millions of new connections, but it can't tell which one smells interesting.

And, of course, you'll produce some juxtapositions which are absolutely ridiculous, absurd. Good for you!

Because Edward de Bono (who invented the notion of lateral thinking) specifically suggests in his book PO: Beyond Yes and No that you can try loosening up your assumptions by playing with deliberately crazy connections. He calls such absurd ideas “Intermediate Impossibles.”

And he points out the use of an Intermediate Impossible is completely contrary to ordinary logical thinking in which you have to be right at each stage.

It doesn't matter if the Intermediate Impossible is right or absurd, it can nevertheless be used as a stepping stone to another idea that is right. Another example of how, when you're playing, nothing is wrong.

So, to summarize: if you really don't know how to start, or if you got stuck, start generating random connections, and allow your intuition to tell you if one might lead somewhere interesting.

Well, that really is all I can tell you that won't help you to be creative. Everything.

And now, in the two minutes left, I can come to the important part, and that is, how to stop your subordinates {from} becoming creative too, which is the real threat.

Because, believe me no one appreciates better than I do what trouble creative people are. And how they stop decisive, hard-nosed bastards like us from running businesses efficiently.

I mean, we all know, we encourage someone to be creative, the next thing is they're rocking the boat, coming up with ideas, and asking us questions. Now if we don't nip this kind of thing in the bud, we'll have to start justifying our decisions by reasoned argument. And sharing information — the concealment of which gives us considerable advantages in our power struggles.

So, here's how to stamp out creativity in the rest of the organization and get a bit of respect going.

One: Allow subordinates no humor, it threatens your self-importance and especially your omniscience. Treat all humor as frivolous or subversive.

Because subversive is, of course, what humor will be in your setup, as it's the only way that people can express their opposition, since (if they express it openly) you're down on them like a ton of bricks.

So let's get this clear: blame humor for the resistance that your way of working creates. Then you don't have to blame your way of working. This is important. And I mean that solemnly. Your dignity is no laughing matter.

Second: keeping ourselves feeling irreplaceable involves cutting everybody else down to size, so don't miss an opportunity to undermine your employees' confidence.

A perfect opportunity comes when you're reviewing work that they've done. Use your authority to zero in immediately on all the things you can find wrong. Never, never balance the negatives with positives, only criticize, just as your school teachers did.

Always remember: praise makes people uppity.

Third: Demand that people should always be actively doing things. If you catch anyone pondering, accuse them of laziness and/or indecision. This is to starve employees of thinking time because that leads to creativity and insurrection. So demand urgency at all times, use lots of fighting talk and war analogies, and establish a permanent atmosphere of stress, of breathless anxiety, and crisis.

In a phrase: keep that mode closed.

In this way we no-nonsense types can be sure that the tiny, tiny, microscopic quantity of creativity in our organization will all be ours!

But! Let your vigilance slip for one moment, and you could find yourself surrounded by happy, enthusiastic, and creative people whom you might never be able to completely control ever again!

So be careful.

Thank you, and good night. Thank you.


“2007 USC Law School Commencement Address” by Charlie Munger


This speech was delivered as the commencement address to the graduates of the University of Southern California Law School on May 13, 2007.

Speech Transcript

Well, no doubt many of you are wondering why the speaker is so old. Well, the answer is obviously he hasn’t died yet.

And why was the speaker chosen? Well, I don’t know that either. I like to think that the development department had nothing to do with it. Whatever the reason I think it’s very fitting that I'm sitting here because I see one crowd of faces in the rear not wearing robes, and I know, from having educated an army of descendants, who really deserves a lot of the honors that are being given are the people here upfront. The sacrifice and the wisdom and the value transfer that comes from one generation to the next can never be underrated.

And that gives me enormous pleasure as I look at this sea of Asian faces to my left. All my life I’ve admired Confucius. I like the idea of filial piety, the idea that there are values that are taught and duties that come naturally and all that should be passed on to the next generation. And you people who don’t think there’s anything in this idea, please note how fast these Asian faces are rising in American life. I think they have something.

All right, I scratched out a few notes and I’m going to try and just give an account of some ideas and attitudes that have worked well for me. I don’t claim that they are perfect for everybody. Although I think many of them are pretty close to universal values and many of them are can’t fail ideas.

What are the core ideas that have helped me?

Well, luckily, I got at a very early age the idea that the safest way to try and get what you want is to try and deserve what you want. It’s such a simple idea. It’s the golden rule so to speak. You want to deliver to the world what you would buy if you were on the other end. There is no ethos, in my opinion, that is better for any lawyer or any other person to have.

By and large, the people who have this ethos win in life and they don’t win just money, just honors and emoluments. They win the respect, the deserved trust, of the people they deal with, and there is huge pleasure in life to be obtained from getting deserved trust. And so the way to get it is to deliver what you’d want to buy if the circumstances were reversed.

Occasionally, you find a perfect rogue of a person, who dies rich and widely known. But mostly, these people are fully understood by the surrounding civilization, and when the cathedral is full of people at the funeral ceremony, most of them are there to celebrate the fact that the person is dead.

And that reminds me of the story of the time when one of these people died and the minister said, “It’s now time for someone to say something nice about the deceased.”

And nobody came forward.

And nobody came forward.

And nobody came forward.

And finally one man came up and he said, “Well, his brother was worse.”

That is not where you want to go! That’s not the kind of funeral you want to have. You'll leave entirely the wrong example.

A second idea that I got very early was that there is no love that’s so right as admiration-based love, and that love should include the instructive dead. Somehow, I got that idea and I lived with it all my life and it’s been very very useful to me.

A love like that celebrated by Somerset Maugham and his book “Of Human Bondage”… that’s a sick kind of love, it’s a disease. And if you find yourself in a disease like that my advice to you is turn around and fix it. Eliminate it.

Another idea that I got, and this may remind you of Confucius too, is that wisdom acquisition is a moral duty. It’s not something you do just to advance in life. Wisdom acquisition is a moral duty.

And there’s a corollary to that proposition which is very important. It means that you’re hooked for lifetime learning, and without lifetime learning you people are not going to do very well. You are not going to get very far in life based on what you already know. You’re going to advance in life by what you’re going to learn after you leave here.

If you take Berkshire Hathaway, which is certainly one of the best-regarded corporations in the world and may have the best long-term investment record in the entire history of civilization, the skill that got Berkshire through one decade would not have sufficed to get it through the next decade with the achievements made. Without Warren Buffett being a learning machine, a continuous learning machine, the record would have been absolutely impossible.

The same is true at lower walks of life. I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than when they got up and boy does that help—particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.

Alfred North Whitehead said it one time that “the rapid advance of civilization came only when man invented the method of invention” and, of course, he was referring to the huge growth of GDP per capita and all the other good things that we now take for granted, which started a few hundred years ago and before that all was stasis.

So, if civilization can progress only when it invents the method of invention, you can progress only when you learn the method of learning.

I was very lucky. I came to law school having learned the method of learning and nothing has served me better in my long life than continuous learning. And if you take Warren Buffett and watched him with a time clock, I would say half of all the time he spends is sitting on his ass and reading. And a big chunk of the rest of the time is spent talking one on one either on the telephone or personally with highly gifted people whom he trusts and who trust him. In other words, it looks quite academic, all this worldly success.

Academia has many wonderful values in it. I came across such a value not too long ago. It was several years ago, in my capacity as a hospital board chairman. I was dealing with a medical school academic. And this man over years of hard work had made himself know more about bone tumor pathology than almost anybody else in the world. And he wanted to pass this knowledge on to the rest of us.

And how was he going to do it? Well, he decided to write a textbook that would be very useful to other people. And I don’t think a textbook like this sells two thousand copies if those two thousand copies are in all the major cancer centers in the world.

He took a year sabbatical, he sat down in front of his computer and he had all the slides because he saved them and organized them and filed them. He worked 17 hours a day, 7 days a week, for a year and that was his sabbatical. At the end of the year, he had one of the great bone tumor pathology textbooks in the world. When you’re around values like that, you want to pick up as much as you can.

Another idea that was hugely useful to me was that I listened in law school when some wag said, “A legal mind is a mind that when two things are all twisted up together and interacting, it's feasible to think responsibly about one thing and not the other.”

Well, I could see from that one sentence that was perfectly ridiculous, and it pushed me further into my natural drift, which was into learning all the big ideas and all the big disciplines so I wouldn’t be a perfect damn fool who was trying to think about one aspect of something that couldn’t be removed from the totality of the situation in a constructive fashion. And what I noted, since the really big ideas carry 95 percent of the freight, it wasn’t at all that hard for me to pick up all the big ideas and all the big disciplines and make them a standard part of my mental routines.

Once you have the ideas, of course, they are no good if you don’t practice. You don’t practice, you lose it.

So, I went through life constantly practicing this model of disciplinary approach. Well, I can’t tell you what that’s done for me. It’s made life more fun. It’s made me more constructive. It’s made me more helpful to others. It’s made me enormously rich. You name it, that attitude really helps.

Now there are dangers there, because it works so well, that if you do it, you will frequently find you are sitting in the presence of some other expert—maybe even an expert that’s superior to you, supervising you—and you will know more than he does about his own specialty, a lot more. You will see the correct answer when he’s missed it.

That is a very dangerous position to be in. You can cause enormous offense by helpfully being right in a way that causes somebody else to lose face. And I never found a perfect way to solve that problem. I was a great poker player when I was young, but I wasn’t a good enough poker player so people failed to sense that I thought I knew more than they did about their subjects, and it gave a lot of offense. Now I’m just regarded as eccentric, but it was a difficult period to go through. And my advice to you is to learn sometimes to keep your light under a bushel.

One of my colleagues, also number one in his class in law school—a great success in life, worked for the supreme court, etc.—he knew a lot and he tended to show it as a very young lawyer and one day the senior partner called him in and said, “Listen, Chuck, I want to explain something to you. Your duty under any circumstances is to behave in such a way that the client thinks he’s the smartest person in the world. If you have any little energy and insight available after that, use it to make your senior partner look like the smartest person in the world. And only after you’ve satisfied those two obligations do you want your light to shine at all.”

Well, that may be very good advice for rising in a large firm. It wasn’t what I did. I always obeyed the drift of my nature and if other people didn’t like it I didn’t need to be adored by everybody.

Another idea, and by the way, when I talk about this multidisciplinary attitude I’m really following a very key idea of the greatest lawyer of antiquity, Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero is famous for saying, “A man who doesn’t know what happened before he was born goes through life like a child.” That is a very correct idea of Cicero’s. And he’s right to ridicule somebody so foolish as not to know what happened before he was born.

But if you generalize Cicero as I think one should, there are all these other things that you should know in addition to history, and those other things are the big ideas in all the other disciplines. And it doesn’t help you just to know them enough just so you can prattle them back on an exam and get an A. You have to learn these things in such a way that they’re in a mental latticework in your head and you automatically use them for the rest of your life.

If you do that, I solemnly promise you that one day you’ll be walking down the street and look to your right and left and think, “My heavenly days! I’m now one of the few most competent people of my whole age forward.” If you don’t do it, many of the brightest of you will live in the middle ranks or in the shallows.

Another idea that I got—and it was encapsulated by that story the Dean recounted about the man who wanted to know where he was going to die and he wouldn’t go there—that rustic let that idea have a profound truth in his hand.

The way complex adaptive systems work and the way mental constructs work; problems frequently get easier and I would even say usually are easier to solve if you turn around in reverse. In other words, if you want to help India, the question you should ask is not, “How can I help India?” You think, “What’s doing the worst damage in India? What would automatically do the worst damage and how do I avoid it?”

You’d think they are logically the same thing, they’re not. Those of you who have mastered algebra know that inversion frequently will solve problems which nothing else will solve. And in life, unless you’re more gifted than Einstein, inversion will help you solve problems that you can't solve in other ways.

But to use a little inversion now, “What will really fail in life? What do you want to avoid?”

Such an easy answer: sloth and unreliability. If you’re unreliable, it doesn’t matter what your virtues are, you’re going to crater immediately. So doing what you have faithfully engaged to do should be an automatic part of your conduct. You want to avoid sloth and unreliability.

Another thing I think should be avoided is extremely intense ideology because it cabbages up one’s mind. You’ve seen that. You see a lot of it on TV. You know preachers, for instance, you know they’ve all got different ideas about theology and a lot of them have minds that are made of cabbage. But that can happen with political ideology. And if you're young, it’s easy to drift into loyalties. And when you announce that you’re a loyal member and you start shouting the orthodox ideology out, what you’re doing is pounding it in, pounding it in, and you’re gradually ruining your mind so you want to be very careful with this ideology. It’s a big danger.

In my mind, I got a little example I use whenever I think about ideology and it’s these Scandinavian canoeists who succeeded in taming all the rapids of Scandinavia and they thought they would tackle the whirlpools in the Aaron Rapids here in the United States. The death rate was 100 percent. A big whirlpool is not something you want to go into and I think the same is true about a really deep ideology.

I have what I call an “iron prescription” that helps me keep sane when I naturally drift toward preferring one ideology over another. And that is I say, “I’m not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people do who are supporting it.” I think only when I reach that stage am I qualified to speak.

Now, you can say that’s too much of an iron discipline. It’s not too much of an iron discipline. It’s not even that hard to do. It sounds a lot like the iron prescription of Ferdinand the Great, “It’s not necessary to hope in order to persevere.” That probably is too tough for most people. I don’t think it’s too tough for me, but it's too tough for most people.

But this business of not drifting into extreme ideology is a very very important thing in life if you want to have more correct knowledge and be wiser than other people. A heavy ideology is very likely to do you in.

Another thing, of course, that does one in is the self-serving bias to which we are all subject. You think that your little me is entitled to do what it wants to do and, for instance, why shouldn’t the true little me overspend my income?

Well, there once was a man who became the most famous composer in the world, but he was utterly miserable most of the time and one of the reasons was he always overspent his income. That was Mozart. If Mozart can’t get by with this kind of asinine conduct, I don’t think you should try it.

Generally speaking, envy, resentment, revenge, and self-pity are disastrous modes of thought. Self-pity gets pretty close to paranoia and paranoia is one of the very hardest things to reverse. You do not want to drift into self-pity.

I have a friend who carried a big stack of linen cards about this thick, and when somebody would make a comment that reflected self-pity, he would take out one of the cards, take the top one off the stack and hand it to the person, and the card said, “Your story has touched my heart. Never have I heard of anyone with as many misfortunes as you.”

Well, you can say that’s waggery, but I suggest that every time you find you’re drifting into self-pity—I don’t care what the cause, your child could be dying of cancer, self-pity is not going to improve the situation—just give yourself one of those cards. It’s a ridiculous way to behave and when you avoid it you get a great advantage over everybody else, almost everybody else, because self-pity is a standard condition and yet you can train yourself out of it.

And, of course, a self-serving bias, you want to get out of yourself: thinking that what’s good for you is good for the wider civilization and rationalizing all these ridiculous conclusions based on the subconscious tendency to serve one’s self. It’s a terribly inaccurate way to think and, of course, you want to drive that out of yourself because you want to be wise, not foolish.

You also have to allow for the self-serving bias of everybody else, because most people are not gonna remove it all that successfully, the only condition being what it is. If you don’t allow for self-serving bias in your conduct, again, you’re a fool.

I watched the brilliant Harvard Law Review-trained general counsel of Salomon lose his career. And what he did was, when the CEO was aware some underling had done something wrong, the general counsel said, “Gee, we don’t have any legal duty to report this, but I think it’s what we should do. It’s our moral duty.”

Of course, the general counsel was totally correct, but, of course, it didn’t work. It was a very unpleasant thing for the CEO to do and he put it off and put it off and, of course, everything eroded into a major scandal and down went the CEO and the general counsel with him.

The correct answer in situations like that was given by Ben Franklin. He said, “If you want to persuade, appeal to interest not to reason.” The self-serving bias is so extreme. If the general counsel said, “Look, this is going to erupt. It’s something that will destroy you, take away your money, take away your status. It’s a perfect disaster.” It would have worked! You want to appeal to interest. You want to do it of lofty motives, but you should not avoid appealing to interest.

Another thing: perverse incentives. You don’t want to be in a perverse incentive system that’s causing you to behave more and more foolishly or worse and worse. Incentives are too powerful a controller of human cognition and human behavior, and one of the things you are going to find in some modern law firms is billable hour quotas and I could not have lived under a billable hour quota of 2,400 hours a year. That would have caused serious problems for me. I wouldn’t have done it and I don’t have a solution for you for that. You have to figure it out for yourself, but it’s a significant problem.

And you particularly want to avoid working directly under somebody you really don't admire and don't want to be like. It's very dangerous. We're all subject to control to some extent by authority figures—particularly authority figures that are rewarding us. And that requires some talent.

The way I solved that is I figured out the people I did admire and I maneuvered cleverly, without criticizing anybody, so I was working entirely under people I admired. And a lot of law firms will permit that if you're shrewd enough to work it out. And your outcome in life will be way more satisfactory and way better if you work under people you really admire. The alternative is not a good idea.

Objectivity maintenance. Well, we all remember that Darwin paid special attention to disconfirming evidence, particularly to disconfirm something he believed and loved. Well, objectivity maintenance routines are totally required in life if you’re going to be a correct thinker. And they were talking about Darwin’s attitude—special attention to the disconfirming evidence—and also to checklist routines. Checklist routines avoid a lot of errors. You should have all this elementary wisdom and then you should go through and have a checklist in order to use it. There is no other procedure that will work as well.

A last idea that I found very important is I realized very early that non-egality would work better in the parts of the world I wanted to inhabit. What do I mean by non-egality? I mean John Wooden, when he was the number one basketball coach in the world. He just said to the bottom five players, “You don't get to play. You're sparring partners.”

The top seven did all the playing. Well, the top seven learned more—remember the learning machine—because they were doing all the playing. And when he got to that system, why, Wooden won more than he'd ever won before.

I think the game of life, in many respects, is getting a lot of practice into the hands of the people that have the most aptitude to learn and the most tendency to be learning machines. And if you want the very highest reaches of human civilization, that’s where you have to go. You do not want to choose a brain surgeon for your child among fifty applicants, all of them just take turns during the procedure. You don’t want your airplanes designed that way. You don’t want your Berkshire Hathaway’s run that way. You want to get the power into the right people.

I frequently tell the story of Max Planck, when he won the Nobel prize and went around Germany giving lectures on quantum mechanics. And the chauffeur gradually memorized the lecture and he said, “Would you mind, professor Planck, just because it's so boring staying in our routines, would you mind if I gave the lecture this time and you just sat in front with my chauffeur's hat?” And Planck said, “Sure.”

And the chauffeur got up and he gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics, after which a physics professor stood up in the rear and asked a perfectly ghastly question. And the chauffeur said, “Well, I'm surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I'm going to ask my chauffeur to reply.”

Well, the reason I tell that story is not entirely to celebrate the quick wittiness of the protagonist. In this world, we have two kinds of knowledge. One is Planck knowledge—the people who really know. They've paid the dues, they have the aptitude.

Then, we've got chauffeur knowledge—they have learned to prattle the talk and they have a big head of hair. They may have fine timbre in the voice. They really make a hell of an impression. But in the end, they've got chauffeur knowledge. I think I've just described practically every politician in the United States.

And you are going to have the problem in your life of getting the responsibility to the people with the Planck knowledge and away for the people who have the chauffeur knowledge. And there are huge forces working against you.

My generation has failed you to some extent. We are delivering to you, in California, a legislature where only the certified nuts from the left and the certified nuts from the right are allowed to serve and none of them are removable. That’s what my generation has done for you, but you wouldn’t like it to be too easy would you?

Another thing that I found is an intense interest of the subject is indispensable if you are really going to excel. I could force myself to be fairly good in a lot of things, but I couldn’t be really good in anything where I didn’t have an intense interest. So, to some extent, you’re going to have to follow me. If at all feasible you want to drift into doing something in which you really have a natural interest.

Another thing you have to do, of course, is have a lot of assiduity. I like that word because it means “sit down in your ass until you do it.”

I’ve had marvelous partners all my life. I think I got them partly because I tried to deserve them and, partly, because I was wise enough to select them and, partly, maybe it was some luck. But two partners that I chose for one little phase of my life had the following rule and they created a little design-build construction team. And they sat down and said, “Two-man partnership. Divide everything equally. Here’s the rule: Whenever we're behind in our commitments to other people, we will both work 14 hours a day until we're caught up.”

Well, needless to say, that firm didn’t fail! The people died rich. It’s such a simple idea.

Another thing, of course, is life will have terrible blows, horrible blows, unfair blows. Doesn’t matter. And some people recover and others don’t. And there I think the attitude of Epictetus is the best. He thought that every mischance in life was an opportunity to behave well. Every mischance in life was an opportunity to learn something and your duty was not to be submerged in self-pity, but to utilize the terrible blow in a constructive fashion. That is a very good idea.

And you may remember the epitaph which Epictetus left for himself: “Here lies Epictetus, a slave, maimed in body, the ultimate in poverty, and favored of the gods.”

Well, that’s the way Epictetus is now remembered. He said big consequences. And he was favorite of the Gods! He was favored because he became wise, and he became manly. Very good idea.

I got a final little idea because I’m all for prudence as well as opportunism. My grandfather was the only federal judge in his city for nearly forty years and I really admired him. I’m his namesake. And I’m Confucian enough that, even now, I sit here and I’m saying, “Well, Judge Munger would be pleased to see me here.”

So I'm Confucian enough, all these years after my grandfather is dead, to carry the torch for my grandfather's values. And, grandfather Munger was a federal judge at a time when there were no pensions for widows of federal judges. So if he didn't save from his income, why, my grandmother would have been in penury. And being the kind of man he was he underspent his income all his life and left her in comfortable circumstances.

Along the way, in the thirties, my uncle's bank failed and couldn't reopen. And my grandfather saved the bank by taking over a third of his assets—good assets—and putting them into the bank and taking the horrible assets in exchange. And, of course, it did save the bank.

While my grandfather took a loss, he got most of his money back eventually. But I've always remembered the example. And so when I got to college and I came across Houseman, I remember the little poem from Houseman, and that went something like this:

“The thoughts of others
Were light and fleeting,
Of lovers' meeting
Or luck or fame.
Mine were of trouble,
And mine were steady;
So I was ready
When trouble came.”

You can say, “Who wants to go through life anticipating trouble?” Well, I did! All my life, I've gone through life anticipating trouble. And here I am, well along on my eighty-fourth year, and like Epictetus, I've had a favored life. It didn't make me unhappy to anticipate trouble all the time and be ready to perform adequately if trouble came. It didn't hurt me at all. In fact, it helped me. So I quick claim to you Houseman and Judge Munger.

The last idea that I want to give you, as you go out into a profession that frequently puts a lot of procedure, and a lot of precautions, and a lot of mumbo-jumbo into what it does, this is not the highest form which civilization can reach. The highest form that civilization can reach is a seamless web of deserved trust. Not much procedure, just totally reliable people correctly trusting one another.

That's the way an operating room works at the Mayo Clinic. If a bunch of lawyers were to introduce a lot of process, the patients would all die. So never forget, when you're a lawyer, that you may be rewarded for selling this stuff, but you don't have to buy it. In your own life, what you want is a seamless web of deserved trust. And if your proposed marriage contract has forty-seven pages, my suggestion is you not enter.

Well, that’s enough for one graduation. I hope these ruminations of an old man are useful to you. In the end, I’m like the Old Valiant-for-Truth in The Pilgrim’s Progress: “My sword I leave to him who can wear it.”


“A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom” by Charlie Munger

This speech was delivered at USC Business School in 1994.

Speech Transcript

I'm going to play a minor trick on you today because the subject of my talk is the art of stock picking as a subdivision of the art of worldly wisdom. That enables me to start talking about worldly wisdom—a much broader topic that interests me because I think all too little of it is delivered by modern educational systems, at least in an effective way.

And therefore, the talk is sort of along the lines that some behaviorist psychologists call Grandma's rule after the wisdom of Grandma when she said that you have to eat the carrots before you get the dessert.

The carrot part of this talk is about the general subject of worldly wisdom which is a pretty good way to start. After all, the theory of modern education is that you need a general education before you specialize. And I think to some extent, before you're going to be a great stock picker, you need some general education.

So, emphasizing what I sometimes waggishly call remedial worldly wisdom, I'm going to start by waltzing you through a few basic notions.

What is elementary, worldly wisdom? Well, the first rule is that you can't really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang 'em back. If the facts don't hang together on a latticework of theory, you don't have them in a usable form.

You've got to have models in your head. And you've got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You've got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.

What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you've got to have multiple models—because if you just have one or two that you're using, the nature of human psychology is such that you'll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you'll think it does. You become the equivalent of a chiropractor who, of course, is the great boob in medicine.

It's like the old saying, “To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” And of course, that's the way the chiropractor goes about practicing medicine. But that's a perfectly disastrous way to think and a perfectly disastrous way to operate in the world. So you've got to have multiple models.

And the models have to come from multiple disciplines—because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department. That's why poetry professors, by and large, are so unwise in a worldly sense. They don't have enough models in their heads. So you've got to have models across a fair array of disciplines.

You may say, “My God, this is already getting way too tough.” But, fortunately, it isn't that tough—because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.

So let's briefly review what kind of models and techniques constitute this basic knowledge that everybody has to have before they proceed to being really good at a narrow art like stock picking.

First there's mathematics. Obviously, you've got to be able to handle numbers and quantities—basic arithmetic. And the great useful model, after compound interest, is the elementary math of permutations and combinations. And that was taught in my day in the sophomore year in high school. I suppose by now in great private schools, it's probably down to the eighth grade or so.

It's very simple algebra. It was all worked out in the course of about one year between Pascal and Fermat. They worked it out casually in a series of letters.

It's not that hard to learn. What is hard is to get so you use it routinely almost everyday of your life. The Fermat/Pascal system is dramatically consonant with the way that the world works. And it's fundamental truth. So you simply have to have the technique.

Many educational institutions—although not nearly enough—have realized this. At Harvard Business School, the great quantitative thing that bonds the first-year class together is what they call decision tree theory. All they do is take high school algebra and apply it to real life problems. And the students love it. They're amazed to find that high school algebra works in life….

By and large, as it works out, people can't naturally and automatically do this. If you understand elementary psychology, the reason they can't is really quite simple: The basic neural network of the brain is there through broad genetic and cultural evolution. And it's not Fermat/Pascal. It uses a very crude, shortcut-type of approximation. It's got elements of Fermat/Pascal in it. However, it's not good.

So you have to learn in a very usable way this very elementary math and use it routinely in life—just the way if you want to become a golfer, you can't use the natural swing that broad evolution gave you. You have to learn—to have a certain grip and swing in a different way to realize your full potential as a golfer.

If you don't get this elementary, but mildly unnatural, mathematics of elementary probability into your repertoire, then you go through a long life like a onelegged man in an asskicking contest. You're giving a huge advantage to everybody else.

One of the advantages of a fellow like Buffett, whom I've worked with all these years, is that he automatically thinks in terms of decision trees and the elementary math of permutations and combinations….

Obviously, you have to know accounting. It's the language of practical business life. It was a very useful thing to deliver to civilization. I've heard it came to civilization through Venice which of course was once the great commercial power in the Mediterranean. However, double-entry bookkeeping was a hell of an invention.

And it's not that hard to understand.

But you have to know enough about it to understand its limitations—because although accounting is the starting place, it's only a crude approximation. And it's not very hard to understand its limitations. For example, everyone can see that you have to more or less just guess at the useful life of a jet airplane or anything like that. Just because you express the depreciation rate in neat numbers doesn't make it anything you really know.

In terms of the limitations of accounting, one of my favorite stories involves a very great businessman named Carl Braun who created the CF Braun Engineering Company. It designed and built oil refineries—which is very hard to do. And Braun would get them to come in on time and not blow up and have efficiencies and so forth. This is a major art.

And Braun, being the thorough Teutonic type that he was, had a number of quirks. And one of them was that he took a look at standard accounting and the way it was applied to building oil refineries and he said, “This is asinine.”

So he threw all of his accountants out and he took his engineers and said, “Now, we'll devise our own system of accounting to handle this process.” And in due time, accounting adopted a lot of Carl Braun's notions. So he was a formidably willful and talented man who demonstrated both the importance of accounting and the importance of knowing its limitations.

He had another rule, from psychology, which, if you're interested in wisdom, ought to be part of your repertoire—like the elementary mathematics of permutations and combinations.

His rule for all the Braun Company's communications was called the five W's—you had to tell who was going to do what, where, when and why. And if you wrote a letter or directive in the Braun Company telling somebody to do something, and you didn't tell him why, you could get fired. In fact, you would get fired if you did it twice.

You might ask why that is so important? Well, again that's a rule of psychology. Just as you think better if you array knowledge on a bunch of models that are basically answers to the question, why, why, why, if you always tell people why, they'll understand it better, they'll consider it more important, and they'll be more likely to comply. Even if they don't understand your reason, they'll be more likely to comply.

So there's an iron rule that just as you want to start getting worldly wisdom by asking why, why, why, in communicating with other people about everything, you want to include why, why, why. Even if it's obvious, it's wise to stick in the why.

Which models are the most reliable? Well, obviously, the models that come from hard science and engineering are the most reliable models on this Earth. And engineering quality control—at least the guts of it that matters to you and me and people who are not professional engineers—is very much based on the elementary mathematics of Fermat and Pascal:

It costs so much and you get so much less likelihood of it breaking if you spend this much. It's all elementary high school mathematics. And an elaboration of that is what Deming brought to Japan for all of that quality control stuff.

I don't think it's necessary for most people to be terribly facile in statistics. For example, I'm not sure that I can even pronounce the Poisson distribution. But I know what a Gaussian or normal distribution looks like and I know that events and huge aspects of reality end up distributed that way. So I can do a rough calculation.

But if you ask me to work out something involving a Gaussian distribution to ten decimal points, I can't sit down and do the math. I'm like a poker player who's learned to play pretty well without mastering Pascal.

And by the way, that works well enough. But you have to understand that bellshaped curve at least roughly as well as I do.

And, of course, the engineering idea of a backup system is a very powerful idea. The engineering idea of breakpoints—that's a very powerful model, too. The notion of a critical mass—that comes out of physics—is a very powerful model.

All of these things have great utility in looking at ordinary reality. And all of this cost-benefit analysis—hell, that's all elementary high school algebra, too. It's just been dolled up a little bit with fancy lingo.

I suppose the next most reliable models are from biology/ physiology because, after all, all of us are programmed by our genetic makeup to be much the same.

And then when you get into psychology, of course, it gets very much more complicated. But it's an ungodly important subject if you're going to have any worldly wisdom.

And you can demonstrate that point quite simply: There's not a person in this room viewing the work of a very ordinary professional magician who doesn't see a lot of things happening that aren't happening and not see a lot of things happening that are happening.

And the reason why is that the perceptual apparatus of man has shortcuts in it. The brain cannot have unlimited circuitry. So someone who knows how to take advantage of those shortcuts and cause the brain to miscalculate in certain ways can cause you to see things that aren't there.

Now you get into the cognitive function as distinguished from the perceptual function. And there, you are equally—more than equally in fact—likely to be misled. Again, your brain has a shortage of circuitry and so forth—and it's taking all kinds of little automatic shortcuts.

So when circumstances combine in certain ways—or more commonly, your fellow man starts acting like the magician and manipulates you on purpose by causing your cognitive dysfunction—you're a patsy.

And so just as a man working with a tool has to know its limitations, a man working with his cognitive apparatus has to know its limitations. And this knowledge, by the way, can be used to control and motivate other people….

So the most useful and practical part of psychology—which I personally think can be taught to any intelligent person in a week—is ungodly important. And nobody taught it to me by the way. I had to learn it later in life, one piece at a time. And it was fairly laborious. It's so elementary though that, when it was all over, I felt like a fool.

And yeah, I'd been educated at Cal Tech and the Harvard Law School and so forth. So very eminent places miseducated people like you and me.

The elementary part of psychology—the psychology of misjudgment, as I call it—is a terribly important thing to learn. There are about 20 little principles. And they interact, so it gets slightly complicated. But the guts of it is unbelievably important.

Terribly smart people make totally bonkers mistakes by failing to pay heed to it. In fact, I've done it several times during the last two or three years in a very important way. You never get totally over making silly mistakes.

There's another saying that comes from Pascal which I've always considered one of the really accurate observations in the history of thought. Pascal said in essence, “The mind of man at one and the same time is both the glory and the shame of the universe.”

And that's exactly right. It has this enormous power. However, it also has these standard misfunctions that often cause it to reach wrong conclusions. It also makes man extraordinarily subject to manipulation by others. For example, roughly half of the army of Adolf Hitler was composed of believing Catholics. Given enough clever psychological manipulation, what human beings will do is quite interesting.

Personally, I've gotten so that I now use a kind of two-track analysis. First, what are the factors that really govern the interests involved, rationally considered? And second, what are the subconscious influences where the brain at a subconscious level is automatically doing these things—which by and large are useful, but which often misfunction.

One approach is rationality—the way you'd work out a bridge problem: by evaluating the real interests, the real probabilities and so forth. And the other is to evaluate the psychological factors that cause subconscious conclusions—many of which are wrong.

Now we come to another somewhat less reliable form of human wisdom—microeconomics. And here, I find it quite useful to think of a free market economy—or partly free market economy—as sort of the equivalent of an ecosystem….

This is a very unfashionable way of thinking because early in the days after Darwin came along, people like the robber barons assumed that the doctrine of the survival of the fittest authenticated them as deserving power—you know, “I'm the richest. Therefore, I'm the best. God's in his heaven, etc.”

And that reaction of the robber barons was so irritating to people that it made it unfashionable to think of an economy as an ecosystem. But the truth is that it is a lot like an ecosystem. And you get many of the same results.

Just as in an ecosystem, people who narrowly specialize can get terribly good at occupying some little niche. Just as animals flourish in niches, similarly, people who specialize in the business world—and get very good because they specialize—frequently find good economics that they wouldn't get any other way.

And once we get into microeconomics, we get into the concept of advantages of scale. Now we're getting closer to investment analysis—because in terms of which businesses succeed and which businesses fail, advantages of scale are ungodly important.

For example, one great advantage of scale taught in all of the business schools of the world is cost reductions along the so-called experience curve. Just doing something complicated in more and more volume enables human beings, who are trying to improve and are motivated by the incentives of capitalism, to do it more and more efficiently.

The very nature of things is that if you get a whole lot of volume through your joint, you get better at processing that volume. That's an enormous advantage. And it has a lot to do with which businesses succeed and fail….

Let's go through a list—albeit an incomplete one—of possible advantages of scale. Some come from simple geometry. If you're building a great spherical tank, obviously as you build it bigger, the amount of steel you use in the surface goes up with the square and the cubic volume goes up with the cube. So as you increase the dimensions, you can hold a lot more volume per unit area of steel.

And there are all kinds of things like that where the simple geometry—the simple reality—gives you an advantage of scale.

For example, you can get advantages of scale from TV advertising. When TV advertising first arrived—when talking color pictures first came into our living rooms—it was an unbelievably powerful thing. And in the early days, we had three networks that had whatever it was—say 90% of the audience.

Well, if you were Procter & Gamble, you could afford to use this new method of advertising. You could afford the very expensive cost of network television because you were selling so many cans and bottles. Some little guy couldn't. And there was no way of buying it in part. Therefore, he couldn't use it. In effect, if you didn't have a big volume, you couldn't use network TV advertising which was the most effective technique.

So when TV came in, the branded companies that were already big got a huge tail wind. Indeed, they prospered and prospered and prospered until some of them got fat and foolish, which happens with prosperity—at least to some people….

And your advantage of scale can be an informational advantage. If I go to some remote place, I may see Wrigley chewing gum alongside Glotz's chewing gum. Well, I know that Wrigley is a satisfactory product, whereas I don't know anything about Glotz's. So if one is 40 cents and the other is 30 cents, am I going to take something I don't know and put it in my mouth—which is a pretty personal place, after all—for a lousy dime?

So, in effect, Wrigley , simply by being so well known, has advantages of scale—what you might call an informational advantage.

Another advantage of scale comes from psychology. The psychologists use the term social proof. We are all influenced—subconsciously and to some extent consciously—by what we see others do and approve. Therefore, if everybody's buying something, we think it's better. We don't like to be the one guy who's out of step.

Again, some of this is at a subconscious level and some of it isn't. Sometimes, we consciously and rationally think, “Gee, I don't know much about this. They know more than I do. Therefore, why shouldn't I follow them?”

The social proof phenomenon which comes right out of psychology gives huge advantages to scale—for example, with very wide distribution, which of course is hard to get. One advantage of Coca-Cola is that it's available almost everywhere in the world.

Well, suppose you have a little soft drink. Exactly how do you make it available all over the Earth? The worldwide distribution setup—which is slowly won by a big enterprise—gets to be a huge advantage…. And if you think about it, once you get enough advantages of that type, it can become very hard for anybody to dislodge you.

There's another kind of advantage to scale. In some businesses, the very nature of things is to sort of cascade toward the overwhelming dominance of one firm.

The most obvious one is daily newspapers. There's practically no city left in the U.S., aside from a few very big ones, where there's more than one daily newspaper.

And again, that's a scale thing. Once I get most of the circulation, I get most of the advertising. And once I get most of the advertising and circulation, why would anyone want the thinner paper with less information in it? So it tends to cascade to a winnertakeall situation. And that's a separate form of the advantages of scale phenomenon.

Similarly, all these huge advantages of scale allow greater specialization within the firm. Therefore, each person can be better at what he does.

And these advantages of scale are so great, for example, that when Jack Welch came into General Electric, he just said, “To hell with it. We're either going to be # 1 or #2 in every field we're in or we're going to be out. I don't care how many people I have to fire and what I have to sell. We're going to be #1 or #2 or out.”

That was a very toughminded thing to do, but I think it was a very correct decision if you're thinking about maximizing shareholder wealth. And I don't think it's a bad thing to do for a civilization either, because I think that General Electric is stronger for having Jack Welch there.

And there are also disadvantages of scale. For example, we—by which I mean Berkshire Hathaway—are the largest shareholder in Capital Cities/ABC. And we had trade publications there that got murdered where our competitors beat us. And the way they beat us was by going to a narrower specialization.

We'd have a travel magazine for business travel. So somebody would create one which was addressed solely at corporate travel departments. Like an ecosystem, you're getting a narrower and narrower specialization.

Well, they got much more efficient. They could tell more to the guys who ran corporate travel departments. Plus, they didn't have to waste the ink and paper mailing out stuff that corporate travel departments weren't interested in reading. It was a more efficient system. And they beat our brains out as we relied on our broader magazine.

That's what happened to The Saturday Evening Post and all those things. They're gone. What we have now is Motocross—which is read by a bunch of nuts who like to participate in tournaments where they turn somersaults on their motorcycles. But they care about it. For them, it's the principal purpose of life. A magazine called Motocross is a total necessity to those people. And its profit margins would make you salivate.

Just think of how narrowcast that kind of publishing is. So occasionally, scaling down and intensifying gives you the big advantage. Bigger is not always better.

The great defect of scale, of course, which makes the game interesting—so that the big people don't always win—is that as you get big, you get the bureaucracy. And with the bureaucracy comes the territoriality—which is again grounded in human nature.

And the incentives are perverse. For example, if you worked for AT&T in my day, it was a great bureaucracy. Who in the hell was really thinking about the shareholder or anything else? And in a bureaucracy, you think the work is done when it goes out of your in-basket into somebody else's in-basket. But, of course, it isn't. It's not done until AT&T delivers what it's supposed to deliver. So you get big, fat, dumb, unmotivated bureaucracies.

They also tend to become somewhat corrupt. In other words, if I've got a department and you've got a department and we kind of share power running this thing, there's sort of an unwritten rule: “If you won't bother me, I won't bother you and we're both happy.” So you get layers of management and associated costs that nobody needs. Then, while people are justifying all these layers, it takes forever to get anything done. They're too slow to make decisions and nimbler people run circles around them.

The constant curse of scale is that it leads to big, dumb bureaucracy—which, of course, reaches its highest and worst form in government where the incentives are really awful. That doesn't mean we don't need governments—because we do. But it's a terrible problem to get big bureaucracies to behave.

So people go to stratagems. They create little decentralized units and fancy motivation and training programs. For example, for a big company, General Electric has fought bureaucracy with amazing skill. But that's because they have a combination of a genius and a fanatic running it. And they put him in young enough so he gets a long run. Of course, that's Jack Welch.

But bureaucracy is terrible…. And as things get very powerful and very big, you can get some really dysfunctional behavior. Look at Westinghouse. They blew billions of dollars on a bunch of dumb loans to real estate developers. They put some guy who'd come up by some career path—I don't know exactly what it was, but it could have been refrigerators or something—and all of a sudden, he's loaning money to real estate developers building hotels. It's a very unequal contest. And in due time, they lost all those billions of dollars.

CBS provides an interesting example of another rule of psychology—namely, Pavlovian association. If people tell you what you really don't want to hear what's unpleasant—there's an almost automatic reaction of antipathy. You have to train yourself out of it. It isn't foredestined that you have to be this way. But you will tend to be this way if you don't think about it.

Television was dominated by one network—CBS in its early days. And Paley was a god. But he didn't like to hear what he didn't like to hear. And people soon learned that. So they told Paley only what he liked to hear. Therefore, he was soon living in a little cocoon of unreality and everything else was corrupt—although it was a great business.

So the idiocy that crept into the system was carried along by this huge tide. It was a Mad Hatter's tea party the last ten years under Bill Paley.

And that is not the only example by any means. You can get severe misfunction in the high ranks of business. And of course, if you're investing, it can make a lot of difference. If you take all the acquisitions that CBS made under Paley, after the acquisition of the network itself, with all his advisors—his investment bankers, management consultants and so forth who were getting paid very handsomely—it was absolutely terrible.

For example, he gave something like 20% of CBS to the Dumont Company for a television set manufacturer which was destined to go broke. I think it lasted all of two or three years or something like that. So very soon after he'd issued all of that stock, Dumont was history. You get a lot of dysfunction in a big fat, powerful place where no one will bring unwelcome reality to the boss.

So life is an everlasting battle between those two forces—to get these advantages of scale on one side and a tendency to get a lot like the U.S. Agriculture Department on the other side—where they just sit around and so forth. I don't know exactly what they do. However, I do know that they do very little useful work.

On the subject of advantages of economies of scale, I find chain stores quite interesting. Just think about it. The concept of a chain store was a fascinating invention. You get this huge purchasing power—which means that you have lower merchandise costs. You get a whole bunch of little laboratories out there in which you can conduct experiments. And you get specialization.

If one little guy is trying to buy across 27 different merchandise categories influenced by traveling salesmen, he's going to make a lot of poor decisions. But if your buying is done in headquarters for a huge bunch of stores, you can get very bright people that know a lot about refrigerators and so forth to do the buying.

The reverse is demonstrated by the little store where one guy is doing all the buying. It's like the old story about the little store with salt all over its walls. And a stranger comes in and says to the storeowner, “You must sell a lot of salt.” And he replies, “No, I don't. But you should see the guy who sells me salt.”

So there are huge purchasing advantages. And then there are the slick systems of forcing everyone to do what works. So a chain store can be a fantastic enterprise.

It's quite interesting to think about Wal-Mart starting from a single store in Bentonville, Arkansas against Sears, Roebuck with its name, reputation and all of its billions. How does a guy in Bentonville, Arkansas with no money blow right by Sears, Roebuck? And he does it in his own lifetime—in fact, during his own late lifetime because he was already pretty old by the time he started out with one little store….

He played the chain store game harder and better than anyone else. Walton invented practically nothing. But he copied everything anybody else ever did that was smart—and he did it with more fanaticism and better employee manipulation. So he just blew right by them all.

He also had a very interesting competitive strategy in the early days. He was like a prizefighter who wanted a great record so he could be in the finals and make a big TV hit. So what did he do? He went out and fought 42 palookas. Right? And the result was knockout, knockout, knockout—42 times.

Walton, being as shrewd as he was, basically broke other small town merchants in the early days. With his more efficient system, he might not have been able to tackle some titan head-on at the time. But with his better system, he could destroy those small town merchants. And he went around doing it time after time after time. Then, as he got bigger, he started destroying the big boys.

Well, that was a very, very shrewd strategy.

You can say, “Is this a nice way to behave?” Well, capitalism is a pretty brutal place. But I personally think that the world is better for having Wal-Mart. I mean you can idealize small town life. But I've spent a fair amount of time in small towns. And let me tell you you shouldn't get too idealistic about all those businesses he destroyed.

Plus, a lot of people who work at Wal-Mart are very high grade, bouncy people who are raising nice children. I have no feeling that an inferior culture destroyed a superior culture. I think that is nothing more than nostalgia and delusion. But, at any rate, it's an interesting model of how the scale of things and fanaticism combine to be very powerful.

And it's also an interesting model on the other side—how with all its great advantages, the disadvantages of bureaucracy did such terrible damage to Sears, Roebuck. Sears had layers and layers of people it didn't need. It was very bureaucratic. It was slow to think. And there was an established way of thinking. If you poked your head up with a new thought, the system kind of turned against you. It was everything in the way of a dysfunctional big bureaucracy that you would expect.

In all fairness, there was also much that was good about it. But it just wasn't as lean and mean and shrewd and effective as Sam Walton. And, in due time, all its advantages of scale were not enough to prevent Sears from losing heavily to Wal-Mart and other similar retailers.

Here's a model that we've had trouble with. Maybe you'll be able to figure it out better. Many markets get down to two or three big competitors—or five or six. And in some of those markets, nobody makes any money to speak of. But in others, everybody does very well.

Over the years, we've tried to figure out why the competition in some markets gets sort of rational from the investor's point of view so that the shareholders do well, and in other markets, there's destructive competition that destroys shareholder wealth.

If it's a pure commodity like airline seats, you can understand why no one makes any money. As we sit here, just think of what airlines have given to the world—safe travel, greater experience, time with your loved ones, you name it. Yet, the net amount of money that's been made by the shareholders of airlines since Kitty Hawk, is now a negative figure—a substantial negative figure. Competition was so intense that, once it was unleashed by deregulation, it ravaged shareholder wealth in the airline business.

Yet, in other fields—like cereals, for example—almost all the big boys make out. If you're some kind of a medium grade cereal maker, you might make 15% on your capital. And if you're really good, you might make 40%. But why are cereals so profitable—despite the fact that it looks to me like they're competing like crazy with promotions, coupons and everything else? I don't fully understand it.

Obviously, there's a brand identity factor in cereals that doesn't exist in airlines. That must be the main factor that accounts for it.

And maybe the cereal makers by and large have learned to be less crazy about fighting for market share—because if you get even one person who's hell-bent on gaining market share…. For example, if I were Kellogg and I decided that I had to have 60% of the market, I think I could take most of the profit out of cereals. I'd ruin Kellogg in the process. But I think I could do it.

In some businesses, the participants behave like a demented Kellogg. In other businesses, they don't. Unfortunately, I do not have a perfect model for predicting how that's going to happen.

For example, if you look around at bottler markets, you'll find many markets where bottlers of Pepsi and Coke both make a lot of money and many others where they destroy most of the profitability of the two franchises. That must get down to the peculiarities of individual adjustment to market capitalism. I think you'd have to know the people involved to fully understand what was happening.

In microeconomics, of course, you've got the concept of patents, trademarks, exclusive franchises and so forth. Patents are quite interesting. When I was young, I think more money went into patents than came out. Judges tended to throw them out—based on arguments about what was really invented and what relied on prior art. That isn't altogether clear.

But they changed that. They didn't change the laws. They just changed the administration—so that it all goes to one patent court. And that court is now very much more pro-patent. So I think people are now starting to make a lot of money out of owning patents.

Trademarks, of course, have always made people a lot of money. A trademark system is a wonderful thing for a big operation if it's well known.

The exclusive franchise can also be wonderful. If there were only three television channels awarded in a big city and you owned one of them, there were only so many hours a day that you could be on. So you had a natural position in an oligopoly in the pre-cable days.

And if you get the franchise for the only food stand in an airport, you have a captive clientele and you have a small monopoly of a sort.

The great lesson in microeconomics is to discriminate between when technology is going to help you and when it's going to kill you. And most people do not get this straight in their heads. But a fellow like Buffett does.

For example, when we were in the textile business, which is a terrible commodity business, we were making low-end textiles—which are a real commodity product. And one day, the people came to Warren and said, “They've invented a new loom that we think will do twice as much work as our old ones.”

And Warren said, “Gee, I hope this doesn't work because if it does, I'm going to close the mill.” And he meant it.

What was he thinking? He was thinking, “It's a lousy business. We're earning substandard returns and keeping it open just to be nice to the elderly workers. But we're not going to put huge amounts of new capital into a lousy business.”

And he knew that the huge productivity increases that would come from a better machine introduced into the production of a commodity product would all go to the benefit of the buyers of the textiles. Nothing was going to stick to our ribs as owners.

That's such an obvious concept—that there are all kinds of wonderful new inventions that give you nothing as owners except the opportunity to spend a lot more money in a business that's still going to be lousy. The money still won't come to you. All of the advantages from great improvements are going to flow through to the customers.

Conversely, if you own the only newspaper in Oshkosh and they were to invent more efficient ways of composing the whole newspaper, then when you got rid of the old technology and got new fancy computers and so forth, all of the savings would come right through to the bottom line.

In all cases, the people who sell the machinery—and, by and large, even the internal bureaucrats urging you to buy the equipment—show you projections with the amount you'll save at current prices with the new technology. However, they don't do the second step of the analysis which is to determine how much is going stay home and how much is just going to flow through to the customer. I've never seen a single projection incorporating that second step in my life. And I see them all the time. Rather, they always read: “This capital outlay will save you so much money that it will pay for itself in three years.”

So you keep buying things that will pay for themselves in three years. And after 20 years of doing it, somehow you've earned a return of only about 4% per annum. That's the textile business.

And it isn't that the machines weren't better. It's just that the savings didn't go to you. The cost reductions came through all right. But the benefit of the cost reductions didn't go to the guy who bought the equipment. It's such a simple idea. It's so basic. And yet it's so often forgotten.

Then there's another model from microeconomics which I find very interesting. When technology moves as fast as it does in a civilization like ours, you get a phenomenon which I call competitive destruction. You know, you have the finest buggy whip factory and all of a sudden in comes this little horseless carriage. And before too many years go by, your buggy whip business is dead. You either get into a different business or you're dead—you're destroyed. It happens again and again and again.

And when these new businesses come in, there are huge advantages for the early birds. And when you're an early bird, there's a model that I call “surfing”—when a surfer gets up and catches the wave and just stays there, he can go a long, long time. But if he gets off the wave, he becomes mired in shallows….

But people get long runs when they're right on the edge of the wave—whether it's Microsoft or Intel or all kinds of people, including National Cash Register in the early days.

The cash register was one of the great contributions to civilization. It's a wonderful story. Patterson was a small retail merchant who didn't make any money. One day, somebody sold him a crude cash register which he put into his retail operation. And it instantly changed from losing money to earning a profit because it made it so much harder for the employees to steal….

But Patterson, having the kind of mind that he did, didn't think, “Oh, good for my retail business.” He thought, “I'm going into the cash register business.” And, of course, he created National Cash Register.

And he “surfed”. He got the best distribution system, the biggest collection of patents and the best of everything. He was a fanatic about everything important as the technology developed. I have in my files an early National Cash Register Company report in which Patterson described his methods and objectives. And a well-educated orangutan could see that buying into partnership with Patterson in those early days, given his notions about the cash register business, was a total 100% cinch.

And, of course, that's exactly what an investor should be looking for. In a long life, you can expect to profit heavily from at least a few of those opportunities if you develop the wisdom and will to seize them. At any rate, “surfing” is a very powerful model.

However, Berkshire Hathaway , by and large, does not invest in these people that are “surfing” on complicated technology. After all, we're cranky and idiosyncratic—as you may have noticed.

And Warren and I don't feel like we have any great advantage in the high-tech sector. In fact, we feel like we're at a big disadvantage in trying to understand the nature of technical developments in software, computer chips or what have you. So we tend to avoid that stuff, based on our personal inadequacies.

Again, that is a very, very powerful idea. Every person is going to have a circle of competence. And it's going to be very hard to advance that circle. If I had to make my living as a musician…. I can't even think of a level low enough to describe where I would be sorted out to if music were the measuring standard of the civilization.

So you have to figure out what your own aptitudes are. If you play games where other people have the aptitudes and you don't, you're going to lose. And that's as close to certain as any prediction that you can make. You have to figure out where you've got an edge. And you've got to play within your own circle of competence.

If you want to be the best tennis player in the world, you may start out trying and soon find out that it's hopeless—that other people blow right by you. However, if you want to become the best plumbing contractor in Bemidji, that is probably doable by two-thirds of you. It takes a will. It takes the intelligence. But after a while, you'd gradually know all about the plumbing business in Bemidji and master the art. That is an attainable objective, given enough discipline. And people who could never win a chess tournament or stand in center court in a respectable tennis tournament can rise quite high in life by slowly developing a circle of competence—which results partly from what they were born with and partly from what they slowly develop through work.

So some edges can be acquired. And the game of life to some extent for most of us is trying to be something like a good plumbing contractor in Bemidji. Very few of us are chosen to win the world's chess tournaments.

Some of you may find opportunities “surfing” along in the new high-tech fields—the Intels, the Microsofts and so on. The fact that we don't think we're very good at it and have pretty well stayed out of it doesn't mean that it's irrational for you to do it.

Well, so much for the basic microeconomics models, a little bit of psychology, a little bit of mathematics, helping create what I call the general substructure of worldly wisdom. Now, if you want to go on from carrots to dessert, I'll turn to stock picking—trying to draw on this general worldly wisdom as we go.

I don't want to get into emerging markets, bond arbitrage and so forth. I'm talking about nothing but plain vanilla stock picking. That, believe me, is complicated enough. And I'm talking about common stock picking.

The first question is, “What is the nature of the stock market?” And that gets you directly to this efficient market theory that got to be the rage—a total rage—long after I graduated from law school.

And it's rather interesting because one of the greatest economists of the world is a substantial shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway and has been for a long time. His textbook always taught that the stock market was perfectly efficient and that nobody could beat it. But his own money went into Berkshire and made him wealthy. So, like Pascal in his famous wager, he hedged his bet.

Is the stock market so efficient that people can't beat it? Well, the efficient market theory is obviously roughly right—meaning that markets are quite efficient and it's quite hard for anybody to beat the market by significant margins as a stock picker by just being intelligent and working in a disciplined way.

Indeed, the average result has to be the average result. By definition, everybody can't beat the market. As I always say, the iron rule of life is that only 20% of the people can be in the top fifth. That's just the way it is. So the answer is that it's partly efficient and partly inefficient.

And, by the way, I have a name for people who went to the extreme efficient market theory—which is “bonkers”. It was an intellectually consistent theory that enabled them to do pretty mathematics. So I understand its seductiveness to people with large mathematical gifts. It just had a difficulty in that the fundamental assumption did not tie properly to reality.

Again, to the man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If you're good at manipulating higher mathematics in a consistent way, why not make an assumption which enables you to use your tool?

The model I like—to sort of simplify the notion of what goes on in a market for common stocks—is the pari-mutuel system at the racetrack. If you stop to think about it, a pari-mutuel system is a market. Everybody goes there and bets and the odds change based on what's bet. That's what happens in the stock market.

Any damn fool can see that a horse carrying a light weight with a wonderful win rate and a good post position etc., etc. is way more likely to win than a horse with a terrible record and extra weight and so on and so on. But if you look at the odds, the bad horse pays 100 to 1, whereas the good horse pays 3 to 2. Then it's not clear which is statistically the best bet using the mathematics of Fermat and Pascal. The prices have changed in such a way that it's very hard to beat the system.

And then the track is taking 17% off the top. So not only do you have to outwit all the other betters, but you've got to outwit them by such a big margin that on average, you can afford to take 17% of your gross bets off the top and give it to the house before the rest of your money can be put to work.

Given those mathematics, is it possible to beat the horses only using one's intelligence? Intelligence should give some edge, because lots of people who don't know anything go out and bet lucky numbers and so forth. Therefore, somebody who really thinks about nothing but horse performance and is shrewd and mathematical could have a very considerable edge, in the absence of the frictional cost caused by the house take.

Unfortunately, what a shrewd horseplayer's edge does in most cases is to reduce his average loss over a season of betting from the 17% that he would lose if he got the average result to maybe 10%. However, there are actually a few people who can beat the game after paying the full 17%.

I used to play poker when I was young with a guy who made a substantial living doing nothing but bet harness races…. Now, harness racing is a relatively inefficient market. You don't have the depth of intelligence betting on harness races that you do on regular races. What my poker pal would do was to think about harness races as his main profession. And he would bet only occasionally when he saw some mispriced bet available. And by doing that, after paying the full handle to the house—which I presume was around 17%—he made a substantial living.

You have to say that's rare. However, the market was not perfectly efficient. And if it weren't for that big 17% handle, lots of people would regularly be beating lots of other people at the horse races. It's efficient, yes. But it's not perfectly efficient. And with enough shrewdness and fanaticism, some people will get better results than others.

The stock market is the same way—except that the house handle is so much lower. If you take transaction costs—the spread between the bid and the ask plus the commissions—and if you don't trade too actively, you're talking about fairly low transaction costs. So that with enough fanaticism and enough discipline, some of the shrewd people are going to get way better results than average in the nature of things.

It is not a bit easy. And, of course, 50% will end up in the bottom half and 70% will end up in the bottom 70%. But some people will have an advantage. And in a fairly low transaction cost operation, they will get better than average results in stock picking.

How do you get to be one of those who is a winner—in a relative sense—instead of a loser?

Here again, look at the pari-mutuel system. I had dinner last night by absolute accident with the president of Santa Anita. He says that there are two or three betters who have a credit arrangement with them, now that they have off-track betting, who are actually beating the house. They're sending money out net after the full handle—a lot of it to Las Vegas, by the way—to people who are actually winning slightly, net, after paying the full handle. They're that shrewd about something with as much unpredictability as horse racing.

And the one thing that all those winning betters in the whole history of people who've beaten the pari-mutuel system have is quite simple. They bet very seldom.

It's not given to human beings to have such talent that they can just know everything about everything all the time. But it is given to human beings who work hard at it—who look and sift the world for a mispriced be—that they can occasionally find one.

And the wise ones bet heavily when the world offers them that opportunity. They bet big when they have the odds. And the rest of the time, they don't. It's just that simple.

That is a very simple concept. And to me it's obviously right—based on experience not only from the pari-mutuel system, but everywhere else.

And yet, in investment management, practically nobody operates that way. We operate that way—I'm talking about Buffett and Munger. And we're not alone in the world. But a huge majority of people have some other crazy construct in their heads. And instead of waiting for a near cinch and loading up, they apparently ascribe to the theory that if they work a little harder or hire more business school students, they'll come to know everything about everything all the time.

To me, that's totally insane. The way to win is to work, work, work, work and hope to have a few insights.

How many insights do you need? Well, I'd argue: that you don't need many in a lifetime. If you look at Berkshire Hathaway and all of its accumulated billions, the top ten insights account for most of it. And that's with a very brilliant man—Warren's a lot more able than I am and very disciplined—devoting his lifetime to it. I don't mean to say that he's only had ten insights. I'm just saying, that most of the money came from ten insights.

So you can get very remarkable investment results if you think more like a winning pari-mutuel player. Just think of it as a heavy odds against game full of craziness with an occasional mispriced something or other. And you're probably not going to be smart enough to find thousands in a lifetime. And when you get a few, you really load up. It's just that simple.

When Warren lectures at business schools, he says, “I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only 20 slots in it so that you had 20 punches—representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you'd punched through the card, you couldn't make any more investments at all.”

He says, “Under those rules, you'd really think carefully about what you did and you'd be forced to load up on what you'd really thought about. So you'd do so much better.”

Again, this is a concept that seems perfectly obvious to me. And to Warren it seems perfectly obvious. But this is one of the very few business classes in the U.S. where anybody will be saying so. It just isn't the conventional wisdom.

To me, it's obvious that the winner has to bet very selectively. It's been obvious to me since very early in life. I don't know why it's not obvious to very many other people.

I think the reason why we got into such idiocy in investment management is best illustrated by a story that I tell about the guy who sold fishing tackle. I asked him, “My God, they're purple and green. Do fish really take these lures?” And he said, “Mister, I don't sell to fish.”

Investment managers are in the position of that fishing tackle salesman. They're like the guy who was selling salt to the guy who already had too much salt. And as long as the guy will buy salt, why they'll sell salt. But that isn't what ordinarily works for the buyer of investment advice.

If you invested Berkshire Hathaway-style, it would be hard to get paid as an investment manager as well as they're currently paid—because you'd be holding a block of Wal-Mart and a block of Coca-Cola and a block of something else. You'd just sit there. And the client would be getting rich. And, after a while, the client would think, “Why am I paying this guy half a percent a year on my wonderful passive holdings?”

So what makes sense for the investor is different from what makes sense for the manager. And, as usual in human affairs, what determines the behavior are incentives for the decision maker.

From all business, my favorite case on incentives is Federal Express. The heart and soul of their system—which creates the integrity of the product—is having all their airplanes come to one place in the middle of the night and shift all the packages from plane to plane. If there are delays, the whole operation can't deliver a product full of integrity to Federal Express customers.

And it was always screwed up. They could never get it done on time. They tried everything—moral suasion, threats, you name it. And nothing worked.

Finally, somebody got the idea to pay all these people not so much an hour, but so much a shift—and when it's all done, they can all go home. Well, their problems cleared up overnight.

So getting the incentives right is a very, very important lesson. It was not obvious to Federal Express what the solution was. But maybe now, it will hereafter more often be obvious to you.

All right, we've now recognized that the market is efficient as a pari-mutuel system is efficient with the favorite more likely than the long shot to do well in racing, but not necessarily give any betting advantage to those that bet on the favorite.

In the stock market, some railroad that's beset by better competitors and tough unions may be available at one-third of its book value. In contrast, IBM in its heyday might be selling at 6 times book value. So it's just like the pari-mutuel system. Any damn fool could plainly see that IBM had better business prospects than the railroad. But once you put the price into the formula, it wasn't so clear anymore what was going to work best for a buyer choosing between the stocks. So it's a lot like a pari-mutuel system. And, therefore, it gets very hard to beat.

What style should the investor use as a picker of common stocks in order to try to beat the market—in other words, to get an above average long-term result? A standard technique that appeals to a lot of people is called “sector rotation”. You simply figure out when oils are going to outperform retailers, etc., etc., etc. You just kind of flit around being in the hot sector of the market making better choices than other people. And presumably, over a long period of time, you get ahead.

However, I know of no really rich sector rotator. Maybe some people can do it. I'm not saying they can't. All I know is that all the people I know who got rich—and I know a lot of them—did not do it that way.

The second basic approach is the one that Ben Graham used—much admired by Warren and me. As one factor, Graham had this concept of value to a private owner—what the whole enterprise would sell for if it were available. And that was calculable in many cases.

Then, if you could take the stock price and multiply it by the number of shares and get something that was one third or less of sellout value, he would say that you've got a lot of edge going for you. Even with an elderly alcoholic running a stodgy business, this significant excess of real value per share working for you means that all kinds of good things can happen to you. You had a huge margin of safety—as he put it—by having this big excess value going for you.

But he was, by and large, operating when the world was in shell shock from the 1930s—which was the worst contraction in the English-speaking world in about 600 years. Wheat in Liverpool, I believe, got down to something like a 600-year low, adjusted for inflation. People were so shell-shocked for a long time thereafter that Ben Graham could run his Geiger counter over this detritus from the collapse of the 1930s and find things selling below their working capital per share and so on.

And in those days, working capital actually belonged to the shareholders. If the employees were no longer useful, you just sacked them all, took the working capital and stuck it in the owners' pockets. That was the way capitalism then worked.

Nowadays, of course, the accounting is not realistic because the minute the business starts contracting, significant assets are not there. Under social norms and the new legal rules of the civilization, so much is owed to the employees that, the minute the enterprise goes into reverse, some of the assets on the balance sheet aren't there anymore.

Now, that might not be true if you run a little auto dealership yourself. You may be able to run it in such a way that there's no health plan and this and that so that if the business gets lousy, you can take your working capital and go home. But IBM can't, or at least didn't. Just look at what disappeared from its balance sheet when it decided that it had to change size both because the world had changed technologically and because its market position had deteriorated.

And in terms of blowing it, IBM is some example. Those were brilliant, disciplined people. But there was enough turmoil in technological change that IBM got bounced off the wave after “surfing” successfully for 60 years. And that was some collapse—an object lesson in the difficulties of technology and one of the reasons why Buffett and Munger don't like technology very much. We don't think we're any good at it, and strange things can happen.

At any rate, the trouble with what I call the classic Ben Graham concept is that gradually the world wised up and those real obvious bargains disappeared. You could run your Geiger counter over the rubble and it wouldn't click.

But such is the nature of people who have a hammer—to whom, as I mentioned, every problem looks like a nail that the Ben Graham followers responded by changing the calibration on their Geiger counters. In effect, they started defining a bargain in a different way. And they kept changing the definition so that they could keep doing what they'd always done. And it still worked pretty well. So the Ben Graham intellectual system was a very good one.

Of course, the best part of it all was his concept of “Mr. Market”. Instead of thinking the market was efficient, he treated it as a manic-depressive who comes by every day. And some days he says, “I'll sell you some of my interest for way less than you think it's worth.” And other days, “Mr. Market” comes by and says, “I'll buy your interest at a price that's way higher than you think it's worth.” And you get the option of deciding whether you want to buy more, sell part of what you already have or do nothing at all.

To Graham, it was a blessing to be in business with a manic-depressive who gave you this series of options all the time. That was a very significant mental construct. And it's been very useful to Buffett, for instance, over his whole adult lifetime.

However, if we'd stayed with classic Graham the way Ben Graham did it, we would never have had the record we have. And that's because Graham wasn't trying to do what we did.

For example, Graham didn't want to ever talk to management. And his reason was that, like the best sort of professor aiming his teaching at a mass audience, he was trying to invent a system that anybody could use. And he didn't feel that the man in the street could run around and talk to managements and learn things. He also had a concept that the management would often couch the information very shrewdly to mislead. Therefore, it was very difficult. And that is still true, of course—human nature being what it is.

And so having started out as Grahamites which, by the way, worked fine—we gradually got what I would call better insights. And we realized that some company that was selling at 2 or 3 times book value could still be a hell of a bargain because of momentums implicit in its position, sometimes combined with an unusual managerial skill plainly present in some individual or other, or some system or other.

And once we'd gotten over the hurdle of recognizing that a thing could be a bargain based on quantitative measures that would have horrified Graham, we started thinking about better businesses.

And, by the way, the bulk of the billions in Berkshire Hathaway have come from the better businesses. Much of the first $200 or $300 million came from scrambling around with our Geiger counter. But the great bulk of the money has come from the great businesses.

And even some of the early money was made by being temporarily present in great businesses. Buffett Partnership, for example, owned American Express and Disney when they got pounded down.

Most investment managers are in a game where the clients expect them to know a lot about a lot of things. We didn't have any clients who could fire us at Berkshire Hathaway. So we didn't have to be governed by any such construct. And we came to this notion of finding a mispriced bet and loading up when we were very confident that we were right. So we're way less diversified. And I think our system is miles better.

However, in all fairness, I don't think a lot of money managers could successfully sell their services if they used our system. But if you're investing for 40 years in some pension fund, what difference does it make if the path from start to finish is a little more bumpy or a little different than everybody else's so long as it's all going to work out well in the end? So what if there's a little extra volatility.

In investment management today, everybody wants not only to win, but to have a yearly outcome path that never diverges very much from a standard path except on the upside. Well, that is a very artificial, crazy construct. That's the equivalent in investment management to the custom of binding the feet of Chinese women. It's the equivalent of what Nietzsche meant when he criticized the man who had a lame leg and was proud of it.

That is really hobbling yourself. Now, investment managers would say, “We have to be that way. That's how we're measured.” And they may be right in terms of the way the business is now constructed. But from the viewpoint of a rational consumer, the whole system's “bonkers” and draws a lot of talented people into socially useless activity.

And the Berkshire system is not “bonkers”. It's so damned elementary that even bright people are going to have limited, really valuable insights in a very competitive world when they're fighting against other very bright, hardworking people.

And it makes sense to load up on the very few good insights you have instead of pretending to know everything about everything at all times. You're much more likely to do well if you start out to do something feasible instead of something that isn't feasible. Isn't that perfectly obvious?

How many of you have 56 brilliant ideas in which you have equal confidence? Raise your hands, please. How many of you have two or three insights that you have some confidence in? I rest my case.

I'd say that Berkshire Hathaway's system is adapting to the nature of the investment problem as it really is.

We've really made the money out of high quality businesses. In some cases, we bought the whole business. And in some cases, we just bought a big block of stock. But when you analyze what happened, the big money's been made in the high quality businesses. And most of the other people who've made a lot of money have done so in high quality businesses.

Over the long term, it's hard for a stock to earn a much better return than the business which underlies it earns. If the business earns 6% on capital over 40 years and you hold it for that 40 years, you're not going to make much different than a 6% return—even if you originally buy it at a huge discount. Conversely, if a business earns 18% on capital over 20 or 30 years, even if you pay an expensive looking price, you'll end up with a fine result.

So the trick is getting into better businesses. And that involves all of these advantages of scale that you could consider momentum effects.

How do you get into these great companies? One method is what I'd call the method of finding them small get 'em when they're little. For example, buy Wal-Mart when Sam Walton first goes public and so forth. And a lot of people try to do just that. And it's a very beguiling idea. If I were a young man, I might actually go into it.

But it doesn't work for Berkshire Hathaway anymore because we've got too much money. We can't find anything that fits our size parameter that way. Besides, we're set in our ways. But I regard finding them small as a perfectly intelligent approach for somebody to try with discipline. It's just not something that I've done.

Finding 'em big obviously is very hard because of the competition. So far, Berkshire's managed to do it. But can we continue to do it? What's the next Coca-Cola investment for us? Well, the answer to that is I don't know. I think it gets harder for us all the time….

And ideally and we've done a lot of this—you get into a great business which also has a great manager because management matters. For example, it's made a great difference to General Electric that Jack Welch came in instead of the guy who took over Westinghouse—a very great difference. So management matters, too.

And some of it is predictable. I do not think it takes a genius to understand that Jack Welch was a more insightful person and a better manager than his peers in other companies. Nor do I think it took tremendous genius to understand that Disney had basic momentums in place which are very powerful and that Eisner and Wells were very unusual managers.

So you do get an occasional opportunity to get into a wonderful business that's being run by a wonderful manager. And, of course, that's hog heaven day. If you don't load up when you get those opportunities, it's a big mistake.

Occasionally, you'll find a human being who's so talented that he can do things that ordinary skilled mortals can't. I would argue that Simon Marks—who was second generation in Marks & Spencer of England—was such a man. Patterson was such a man at National Cash Register. And Sam Walton was such a man.

These people do come along—and in many cases, they're not all that hard to identify. If they've got a reasonable hand—with the fanaticism and intelligence and so on that these people generally bring to the party—then management can matter much.

However, averaged out, betting on the quality of a business is better than betting on the quality of management. In other words, if you have to choose one, bet on the business momentum, not the brilliance of the manager.

But, very rarely, you find a manager who's so good that you're wise to follow him into what looks like a mediocre business.

Another very simple effect I very seldom see discussed either by investment managers or anybody else is the effect of taxes. If you're going to buy something which compounds for 30 years at 15% per annum and you pay one 35% tax at the very end, the way that works out is that after taxes, you keep 13.3% per annum.

In contrast, if you bought the same investment, but had to pay taxes every year of 35% out of the 15% that you earned, then your return would be 15% minus 35% of 15%—or only 9.75% per year compounded. So the difference there is over 3.5%. And what 3.5% does to the numbers over long holding periods like 30 years is truly eye-opening. If you sit back for long, long stretches in great companies, you can get a huge edge from nothing but the way that income taxes work.

Even with a 10% per annum investment, paying a 35% tax at the end gives you 8.3% after taxes as an annual compounded result after 30 years. In contrast, if you pay the 35% each year instead of at the end, your annual result goes down to 6.5%. So you add nearly 2% of after-tax return per annum if you only achieve an average return by historical standards from common stock investments in companies with tiny dividend payout ratios.

But in terms of business mistakes that I've seen over a long lifetime, I would say that trying to minimize taxes too much is one of the great standard causes of really dumb mistakes. I see terrible mistakes from people being overly motivated by tax considerations.

Warren and I personally don't drill oil wells. We pay our taxes. And we've done pretty well, so far. Anytime somebody offers you a tax shelter from here on in life, my advice would be don't buy it.

In fact, any time anybody offers you anything with a big commission and a 200-page prospectus, don't buy it. Occasionally, you'll be wrong if you adopt “Munger's Rule”. However, over a lifetime, you'll be a long way ahead—and you will miss a lot of unhappy experiences that might otherwise reduce your love for your fellow man.

There are huge advantages for an individual to get into a position where you make a few great investments and just sit back and wait: You're paying less to brokers. You're listening to less nonsense. And if it works, the governmental tax system gives you an extra 1, 2 or 3 percentage points per annum compounded.

And you think that most of you are going to get that much advantage by hiring investment counselors and paying them 1% to run around, incurring a lot of taxes on your behalf'? Lots of luck.

Are there any dangers in this philosophy? Yes. Everything in life has dangers. Since it's so obvious that investing in great companies works, it gets horribly overdone from time to time. In the “Nifty-Fifty” days, everybody could tell which companies were the great ones. So they got up to 50, 60 and 70 times earnings. And just as IBM fell off the wave, other companies did, too. Thus, a large investment disaster resulted from too high prices. And you've got to be aware of that danger….

So there are risks. Nothing is automatic and easy. But if you can find some fairly-priced great company and buy it and sit, that tends to work out very, very well indeed—especially for an individual,

Within the growth stock model, there's a sub-position: There are actually businesses, that you will find a few times in a lifetime, where any manager could raise the return enormously just by raising prices—and yet they haven't done it. So they have huge untapped pricing power that they're not using. That is the ultimate no-brainer.

That existed in Disney. It's such a unique experience to take your grandchild to Disneyland. You're not doing it that often. And there are lots of people in the country. And Disney found that it could raise those prices a lot and the attendance stayed right up.

So a lot of the great record of Eisner and Wells was utter brilliance but the rest came from just raising prices at Disneyland and Disneyworld and through video cassette sales of classic animated movies.

At Berkshire Hathaway, Warren and I raised the prices of See's Candy a little faster than others might have. And, of course, we invested in Coca-Cola—which had some untapped pricing power. And it also had brilliant management. So a Goizueta and Keough could do much more than raise prices. It was perfect.

You will get a few opportunities to profit from finding underpricing. There are actually people out there who don't price everything as high as the market will easily stand. And once you figure that out, it's like finding in the street—if you have the courage of your convictions.

If you look at Berkshire's investments where a lot of the money's been made and you look for the models, you can see that we twice bought into twonewspaper towns which have since become onenewspaper towns. So we made a bet to some extent….

In one of those—The Washington Post—we bought it at about 20% of the value to a private owner. So we bought it on a Ben Grahamstyle basis—at onefifth of obvious value—and, in addition, we faced a situation where you had both the top hand in a game that was clearly going to end up with one winner and a management with a lot of integrity and intelligence. That one was a real dream. They're very high class people—the Katharine Graham family. That's why it was a dream—an absolute, damn dream.

Of course, that came about back in '73-74. And that was almost like 1932. That was probably a once-in-40-yearstype denouement in the markets. That investment's up about 50 times over our cost.

If I were you, I wouldn't count on getting any investment in your lifetime quite as good as The Washington Post was in '73 and '74.

But it doesn't have to be that good to take care of you.

Let me mention another model. Of course, Gillette and Coke make fairly lowpriced items and have a tremendous marketing advantage all over the world. And in Gillette's case, they keep surfing along new technology which is fairly simple by the standards of microchips. But it's hard for competitors to do.

So they've been able to stay constantly near the edge of improvements in shaving. There are whole countries where Gillette has more than 90% of the shaving market.

GEICO is a very interesting model. It's another one of the 100 or so models you ought to have in your head. I've had many friends in the sick business fixup game over a long lifetime. And they practically all use the following formula—I call it the cancer surgery formula:

They look at this mess. And they figure out if there's anything sound left that can live on its own if they cut away everything else. And if they find anything sound, they just cut away everything else. Of course, if that doesn't work, they liquidate the business. But it frequently does work.

And GEICO had a perfectly magnificent business submerged in a mess, but still working. Misled by success, GEICO had done some foolish things. They got to thinking that, because they were making a lot of money, they knew everything. And they suffered huge losses.

All they had to do was to cut out all the folly and go back to the perfectly wonderful business that was lying there. And when you think about it, that's a very simple model. And it's repeated over and over again.

And, in GEICO's case, think about all the money we passively made…. It was a wonderful business combined with a bunch of foolishness that could easily be cut out. And people were coming in who were temperamentally and intellectually designed so they were going to cut it out. That is a model you want to look for.

And you may find one or two or three in a long lifetime that are very good. And you may find 20 or 30 that are good enough to be quite useful.

Finally, I'd like to once again talk about investment management. That is a funny business because on a net basis, the whole investment management business together gives no value added to all buyers combined. That's the way it has to work.

Of course, that isn't true of plumbing and it isn't true of medicine. If you're going to make your careers in the investment management business, you face a very peculiar situation. And most investment managers handle it with psychological denial just like a chiropractor. That is the standard method of handling the limitations of the investment management process. But if you want to live the best sort of life, I would urge each of you not to use the psychological denial mode.

I think a select few—a small percentage of the investment managers—can deliver value added. But I don't think brilliance alone is enough to do it. I think that you have to have a little of this discipline of calling your shots and loading up—you want to maximize your chances of becoming one who provides above average real returns for clients over the long pull.

But I'm just talking about investment managers engaged in common stock picking. I am agnostic elsewhere. I think there may well be people who are so shrewd about currencies and this, that and the other thing that they can achieve good longterm records operating on a pretty big scale in that way. But that doesn't happen to be my milieu. I'm talking about stock picking in American stocks.

I think it's hard to provide a lot of value added to the investment management client, but it's not impossible.


“How to Guarantee a Life of Misery” by Charlie Munger

This speech was originally delivered to the Harvard School on June 13, 1986.

Speech Transcript

Now that Headmaster Berrisford has selected one of the oldest and longest-serving trustees to make a commencement speech, it behooves the speaker to address two questions in every mind:

1) Why was such a selection made? and,

2) How long is the speech going to last?

I will answer the first question from long experience alongside Berrisford. He is seeking enhanced reputation for our school in the manner of the man who proudly displays his horse which can count to seven. The man knows that counting to seven is not much of a mathematical feat but he expects approval because doing so is creditable, considering that the performer is a horse.

The second question, regarding length of speech, I am not going to answer in advance. It would deprive your upturned faces of lively curiosity and obvious keen anticipation, which I prefer to retain, regardless of source.

But I will tell you how my consideration of speech length created the subject matter of the speech itself. I was puffed up when invited to speak. While not having significant public-speaking experience, I do hold a black belt in chutzpah, and, I immediately considered Demosthenes and Cicero as role models and anticipated trying to earn a compliment like Cicero gave when asked which was his favourite among the orations of Demosthenes. Cicero replied: ‘The longest one.”

However, fortunately for this audience, I also thought of Samuel Johnson’s famous comment when he addressed Milton’s poem, Paradise Lost, and correctly said: “No one ever wished it longer.” And that made me consider which of all the twenty Harvard School graduation speeches I had heard that I wished longer. There was only one such speech, that given by Johnny Carson, specifying Carson’s prescriptions for guaranteed misery in life. I therefore decided to repeat Carson’s speech but in expanded form with some added prescriptions of my own.

After all, I am much older than Carson was when he spoke and have failed and been miserable more often and in more ways than was possible for a charming humorist speaking at younger age. I am plainly well-qualified to expand on Carson’s theme.

What Carson said was that he couldn’t tell the graduating class how to be happy, but he could tell them from personal experience how to guarantee misery. Carson’s prescriptions for sure misery included:

1) Ingesting chemicals in an effort to alter mood or perception;

2) Envy; and

3) Resentment.

I can still recall Carson’s absolute conviction as he told how he had tried these things on occasion after occasion and had become miserable every time. It is easy to understand Carson’s first prescription for misery -ingesting chemicals. I add my voice. The four closest friends of my youth were highly intelligent, ethical, humorous types, favoured in person and background. Two are long dead, with alcohol a contributing factor, and a third is a living alcoholic -if you call that living. While susceptibility varies, addiction can happen to any of us, through a subtle process where the bonds of degradation are too light to be felt until they are too strong to be broken. And I have yet to meet anyone, in over six decades of life, whose life was worsened by overfear and overavoidance of such a deceptive pathway to destruction.

Envy, of course, joins chemicals in winning some sort of quantity price for causing misery. It was wreaking havoc long before it got a bad press in the laws of Moses. If you wish to retain the contribution of envy to misery, I recommend that you never read any of the biographies of that good Christian, Samuel Johnson, because his life demonstrates in an enticing way the possibility and advantage of transcending envy.

Resentment has always worked for me exactly as it worked for Carson. I cannot recommend it highly enough to you if you desire misery. Johnson spoke well when he said that life is hard enough to swallow without squeezing in the bitter rind of resentment.

For those of you who want misery, I also recommend refraining from practice of the Disraeli compromise, designed for people who find it impossible to quit resentment cold turkey. Disraeli, as he rose to become one of the greatest Prime Ministers, learned to give up vengeance as a motivation for action, but he did retain some outlet for resentment by putting the names of people who wronged him on pieces of paper in a drawer. Then, from time to time, he reviewed these names and took pleasure in noting the way the world had taken his enemies down without his assistance.

Well, so much for Carson’s three prescriptions. Here are four more prescriptions from Munger:

First, be unreliable. Do not faithfully do what you have engaged to do. If you will only master this one habit you will more than counterbalance the combined effect of all your virtues, howsoever great. If you like being distrusted and excluded from the best human contribution and company, this prescription is for you. Master this one habit and you can always play the role of the hare in the fable, except that instead of being outrun by one fine turtle you will be outrun by hordes and hordes of mediocre turtles and even by some mediocre turtles on crutches.

I must warn you that if you don’t follow my first prescription it may be hard to end up miserable, even if you start disadvantaged. I had a roommate in college who was and is severely dyslexic. But he is perhaps the most reliable man I have ever known. He has had a wonderful life so far, outstanding wife and children, chief executive of a multibillion dollar corporation.

If you want to avoid a conventional, main-culture, establishment result of this kind, you simply can t count on your other handicaps to hold you back if you persist in being reliable.

I cannot here pass by a reference to a life described as “wonderful so far,” without reinforcing the “so far” aspects of the human condition by repeating the remark of Croesus, once the richest king in the world. Later, in ignominious captivity, as he prepared to be burned alive, he said: “Well now do I remember the words of the historian Solon: “No man’s life should be accounted a happy one until it is over.”

My second prescription for misery is to learn everything you possibly can from your own personal experience, minimizing what you learn vicariously from the good and bad experience of others, living and dead. This prescription is a sure-shot producer of misery and second-rate achievement.

You can see the results of not learning from others’ mistakes by simply looking about you. How little originality there is in the common disasters of mankind -drunk driving deaths, reckless driving maimings, incurable venereal diseases, conversion of bright college students into brainwashed zombies as members of destructive cults, business failures through repetition of obvious mistakes made by predecessors, various forms of crowd folly, and so on. I recommend as a memory clue to finding the way to real trouble from heedless, unoriginal error the modern saying: “If at first you don’t succeed, well, so much for hang gliding.”

The other aspect of avoiding vicarious wisdom is the rule for not learning from the best work done before yours. The prescription is to become as non-educated as you reasonable can.

Perhaps you will better see the type of non-miserable result you can thus avoid if I render a short historical account. There once was a man who assiduously mastered the work of his best predecessors, despite a poor start and very tough time in analytic geometry. Eventually his own original work attracted wide attention and he said of that work:

“If I have seen a little farther than other men it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.”

The bones of that man lie buried now, in Westminster Abbey, under an unusual inscription:

“Here lie the remains of all that was mortal in Sir Isaac Newton.”

My third prescription for misery is to go down and stay down when you get your first, second, third severe reverse in the battle of life. Because there is so much adversity out there, even for the lucky and wise, this will guarantee that, in due course, you will be permanently mired in misery. Ignore at all cost the lesson contained in the accurate epitaph written for himself by Epictetus: “Here lies Epictetus, a slave, maimed in body, the ultimate in poverty, and favoured by Gods.”

My final prescription to you for a life of fuzzy thinking and infelicity is to ignore a story they told me when I was very young about a rustic who said: “I wish I knew where I was going to die, and then I’d never go there.” Most people smile (as you did) at the rustic’s ignorance and ignore his basic wisdom. If my experience is any guide, the rustic’s approach is to be avoided at all cost by someone bent on misery. To help fail you should discount as mere quirk, with no useful message, the method of the rustic, which is the same one used in Carson’s speech.

What Carson did was to approach the study of how to create X by turning the question backward, that is, by studying how to create non-X. The great algebraist, Jacobi, had exactly the same approach as Carson and was known for his constant repetition of one phrase: “Invert, always invert.” It is in the nature of things, as Jacobi knew, that many hard problems are best solved only when they are addressed backward. For instance, when almost everyone else was trying to revise the electromagnetic laws of Maxwell to be consistent with the motion laws of Newton, Einstein discovered special relativity as he made a 180 degree turn and revised Newton’s laws to fit Maxwell’s. It is my opinion, as a certified biography nut, that Charles Robert Darwin would have ranked near the middle of the Harvard School graduating class of 1986. Yet he is now famous in the history of science. This is precisely the type of example you should learn nothing from if bent on minimizing your results from your own endowment. Darwin’s result was due in large measure to his working method, which violated all my rules for misery and particularly emphasized a backward twist in that he always gave priority attention to evidence tending to disconfirm whatever cherished and hard-won theory he already had. In contrast, most people early achieve and later intensify a tendency to process new and disconfirming information so that any original conclusion remains intact. They become people of whom Philip Wylie observed: ” You couldn’t squeeze a dime between what they already know and what they will never learn.”

The life of Darwin demonstrates how a turtle may outrun the hares, aided by extreme objectivity, which helps the objective person end up like the only player without blindfold in a game of pin-the-donkey. If you minimize objectivity, you ignore not only a lesson from Darwin but also one from Einstein. Einstein said that his successful theories came from: “Curiosity, concentration, perseverance and self-criticism. And by self-criticism he meant the testing and destruction of his own well-loved ideas.

Finally, minimizing objectivity will help you lessen the compromises and burdens of owning worldly goods, because objectivity does not work only for great physicists and biologists. It also adds power to the work of a plumbing contractor in Bemidji. Therefore, if you interpret being true to yourself as requiring that you retain every notion of your youth you will be safely underway, not only toward maximizing ignorance, but also toward whatever misery can be obtained through unpleasant experiences in business.

It is fitting now that a backward sort of speech end with a backward sort of toast, inspired by Elihu Root’s repeated accounts of how the dog went to Dover, “leg over leg.” To the class of 1986:

Gentlemen, may each of you rise high by spending each day of a long life aiming low.


“The Psychology of Human Misjudgment” by Charlie Munger

This speech was delivered by Charlie Munger at Harvard University in 1995.

Speech Transcript

I am very interested in the subject of human misjudgment, and Lord knows I've created a good bit of it. I don't think I've created my full statistical share, and I think that one of the reasons was I tried to do something about this terrible ignorance I left the Harvard Law School with. When I saw this patterned irrationality, which was so extreme, and I had no theory or anything to deal with it, but I could see that it was extreme, and I could see that it was patterned, I just started to create my own system of psychology, partly by casual reading, but largely from personal experience, and I used that pattern to help me get through life.

Fairly late in life I stumbled into this book, Influence, by a psychologist named Bob Cialdini, who became a super tenured hotshot on a 2,000 person faculty at a very young age. And he wrote this book, which has now sold 300 odd thousand copies, which is remarkable for somebody. Well, it's an academic book aimed at a popular audience that filled in a lot of holes in my crude system. When those holes had filled in, I thought I had a system that was a good working tool, and I'd like to share that one with you.

And I came here because behavioral economics. How could economics not be behavioral? If it isn't behavioral, what the hell is it? And I think it's fairly clear that all reality has to respect all other reality. If you come to inconsistencies, they have to be resolved, and so if there's anything valid in psychology, economics has to recognize it, and vice versa. So I think the people that are working on this fringe between economics and psychology are absolutely right to be there, and I think there's been plenty wrong over the years.

Well let me romp through as much of this list as I have time to get through. 24 Standard Causes of Human Misjudgment.

First. Under recognition of the power of what psychologists call reinforcement and economists call incentives. Well you can say, “Everybody knows that.” Well I think I've been in the top 5% of my age cohort all my life in understanding the power of incentives, and all my life I've underestimated it. And never a year passes, but I get some surprise that pushes my limit a little farther.

One of my favorite cases about the power of incentives is the Federal Express case. The heart and soul of the integrity of the system is that all the packages have to be shifted rapidly in one central location each night. And the system has no integrity if the whole shift can't be done fast. And Federal Express had one hell of a time getting the thing to work. And they tried moral suasion, they tried everything in the world, and finally somebody got the happy thought that they were paying the night shift by the hour, and that maybe if they paid them by the shift, the system would work better. And lo and behold, that solution worked.

Early in the history of Xerox, Joe Wilson, who was then in the government, had to go back to Xerox because he couldn't understand how their better, new machine was selling so poorly in relation to their older and inferior machine. Of course when he got there he found out that the commission arrangement with the salesmen gave a tremendous incentive to the inferior machine.

And here at Harvard, in the shadow of B.F. Skinner, there was a man who really was into reinforcement as a powerful thought, and you know, Skinner's lost his reputation in a lot of places, but if you were to analyze the entire history of experimental science at Harvard, he'd be in the top handful. His experiments were very ingenious, the results were counterintuitive, and they were important. It is not given to experimental science to do better.

What gummed up Skinner's reputation is that he developed a case of what I always call man-with-a-hammer syndrome, to the man with a hammer, every problem tends to look pretty much like a nail. And Skinner had one of the more extreme cases in the history of Academia, and this syndrome doesn't exempt bright people. It’s just a man with a hammer and Skinner is an extreme example of that. And later, as I go down my list, let’s go back and try and figure out why people, like Skinner, get man-with-a-hammer syndrome.

Incidentally, when I was at the Harvard Law School there was a professor, naturally at Yale, who was derisively discussed at Harvard, and they used to say, “Poor old Blanchard. He thinks declaratory judgments will cure cancer.” And that's the way Skinner got. And not only that, he was literary, and he scorned opponents who had any different way of thinking or thought anything else was important. This is not a way to make a lasting reputation if the other people turn out to also be doing something important.

My second factor is simple psychological denial. This first really hit me between the eyes when a friend of our family had a super-athlete, super-student son who flew off a carrier in the north Atlantic and never came back, and his mother, who was a very sane woman, just never believed that he was dead. And, of course, if you turn on the television, you find the mothers of the most obvious criminals that man could ever diagnose, and they all think their sons are innocent. That's simple psychological denial. The reality is too painful to bear, so you just distort it until it's bearable. We all do that to some extent, and it's a common psychological misjudgment that causes terrible problems.

Third. Incentive-cause bias, both in ones own mind and that of ones trusted advisor, where it creates what economists call agency costs. Here, my early experience was a doctor who sent bushel baskets full of normal gallbladders down to the pathology lab in the leading hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska. And with that quality control for which community hospitals are famous, about five years after he should've been removed from the staff, he was.

And one of the old doctors who participated in the removal was also a family friend, and I asked him, I said, “Tell me, did he think, here's a way for me to exercise my talents,” this guy was very skilled technically, “And make a high living by doing a few maimings and murders every year, along with some frauds?” And he said, “Hell no, Charlie. He thought that the gallbladder was the source of all medical evil, and if you really love your patients, you couldn't get that organ out rapidly enough.”

Now that's an extreme case, but in lesser strength, it's present in every profession and in every human being. And it causes perfectly terrible behavior. If you take sales presentations and brokers of commercial real estate and businesses, I'm 70 years old, I've never seen one I thought was even within hailing distance of objective truth. If you want to talk about the power of incentives and the power of rationalized, terrible behavior, after the Defense Department had had enough experience with cost-plus percentage of cost contracts, the reaction of our republic was to make it a crime for the federal government to write one, and not only a crime, but a felony.

And by the way, the government's right, but a lot of the way the world is run, including most law firms and a lot of other places, they've still got a cost-plus percentage of cost system. And human nature, with its version of what I call incentive-caused bias, causes this terrible abuse. And many of the people who are doing it you would be glad to have married into your family compared to what you're otherwise going to get.

Now there are huge implications from the fact that the human mind is put together this way, and that is that people who create things like cash registers, which make most behavior hard, are some of the effective saints of our civilization. And the cash register was a great moral instrument when it was created. And Patterson knew that, by the way. He had a little store, and the people were stealing him blind and never made any money, and people sold him a couple of cash registers and it went to profit immediately.

And, of course, he closed the store and went into the cash register business. With results which are … And so this is a huge, important thing. If you read the psychology texts, you will find that if they're 1,000 pages long, there's one sentence. Somehow incentive-caused bias has escaped the standard survey course in psychology.

Fourth, and this is a superpower in error-causing psychological tendency, bias from consistency and commitment tendency, including the tendency to avoid or promptly resolve cognitive dissonance. Includes the self-confirmation tendency of all conclusions, particularly expressed conclusions, and with a special persistence for conclusions that are hard-won.

Well what I'm saying here is that the human mind is a lot like the human egg, and the human egg has a shut-off device. When one sperm gets in, it shuts down so the next one can't get in. The human mind has a big tendency of the same sort. And here again, it doesn't just catch ordinary mortals, it catches the deans of physics. According to Max Planck, the really innovative, important new physics was never really accepted by the old guard.

Instead, a new guard came along that was less brain-blocked by its previous conclusions. And if Max Planck’s crowd had this consistency and commitment tendency that kept their old inclusions intact in spite of disconfirming evidence, you can imagine what the crowd that you and I are part of behaves like.

And of course, if you make a public disclosure of your conclusion, you're pounding it into your own head. Many of these students that are screaming at us, you know, they aren't convincing us, but they're forming mental change for themselves, because what they're shouting out they're pounding in. And I think educational institutions that create a climate where too much of that goes on are in a fundamental sense, they're irresponsible institutions. It’s very important to not put your brain in chains too young by what you shout out.

And all these things like painful qualifying and initiation rituals, all those things, pound in your commitments and your ideas. The Chinese brainwashing system, which was for war prisoners, was way better than anybody else's. They maneuvered people into making tiny little commitments and declarations, and then they'd slowly build. That worked way better than torture.

Sixth. Bias from Pavlovian association, misconstruing past correlation as a reliable basis for decision-making. I never took a course in psychology, or economics either for that matter, but I did learn about Pavlov in high school biology. And the way they taught it, you know, so the dog salivated when the bell rang. So what? Nobody made the least effort to tie that to the wide world. Well the truth of the matter is that Pavlovian association is an enormously powerful psychological force in the daily life of all of us. And, indeed, in economics we wouldn't have money without the role of so-called secondary reinforcement, which is a pure psychological phenomenon demonstrated in the laboratory.

Practically, I'd say 3/4 of advertising works on pure Pavlov. Think how association, pure association, works. Take Coca-Cola company we're the biggest share-holder. They want to be associated with every wonderful image, heroics in the Olympics, wonderful music, you name it. They don't want to be associated with Presidents’ funerals and so forth. When have you seen a Coca-Cola ad, and the association really works.

And all these psychological tendencies work largely or entirely on a subconscious level, which makes them very insidious. Now you've got Persian messenger syndrome. The Persians really did kill the messenger who brought the bad news. You think that is dead? I mean you should've seen Bill Paley in his last 20 years. He didn't hear one damn thing he didn't want to hear. People knew that it was bad for the messenger to bring Bill Paley things he didn't want to hear. Well that means that the leader gets in a cocoon of unreality, and this is a great big enterprise, and boy, did he make some dumb decisions in the last 20 years.

And now the Persian messenger syndrome is alive and well. When I saw, some years ago, Arco and Exxon arguing over a few hundred millions of ambiguity in their North Slope treaties before a superior court judge in Texas, with armies of lawyers and experts on each side. Now this is a Mad Hatter's tea party, two engineering-style companies can't resolve some ambiguity without spending tens of millions of dollars in some Texas superior court? In my opinion what happens is that nobody wants to bring the bad news to the executives up the line. But here's a few hundred million dollars you thought you had that you don't. And it's much safer to act like the Persian messenger who goes away to hide rather than bring home the news of the battle lost.

Talking about economics, you get a very interesting phenomenon that I’ve seen over and over again in a long life. You’ve got two products, suppose they’re complex, technical products. Now you’d think, under the laws of economics, that if product A costs X, if product Y costs X minus something, it will sell better than if it sells at X plus something, but that’s not so. In many cases when you raise the price of the alternative products, it’ll get a larger market share than it would when you make it lower than your competitor's product.

That’s because the bell, a Pavlovian bell, I mean ordinarily there’s a correlation between price and value, then you have an information inefficiency. And so when you raise the price, the sales go up relative to your competitor. That happens again and again and again. It’s a pure Pavlovian phenomenon. You can say, “Well, the economists have figured this sort of thing out when they started talking about information inefficiencies,” but that was fairly late in economics that they found such an obvious thing. And, of course, most of them don't ask what causes the information inefficiencies.

Well one of the things that causes it is pure old Pavlov and his dog. Now you’ve got bios from Skinnerian association, operant conditioning, you know, where you give the dog a reward and pound in the behavior that preceded the dog’s getting the award. And, of course, Skinner was able to create superstitious pigeons by having the rewards come by accident with certain occurrences, and, of course, we all know people who are the human equivalents of superstitious pigeons. That’s a very powerful phenomenon. And, of course, operant conditioning really works. I mean the people in the center who think that operant conditioning is important are very much right, it’s just that Skinner overdid it a little.

Where you see in business just perfectly horrible results from psychologically rooted tendencies is in accounting. If you take Westinghouse, which blew, what, two or three billion dollars pre-tax at least loaning developers to build hotels, and virtually 100% loans? Now you say any idiot knows that if there’s one thing you don’t like it’s a developer, and another you don’t like it’s a hotel.

And to make a 100% loan to a developer who’s going to build a hotel. But this guy, he probably was an engineer or something, and he didn't take psychology any more than I did, and he got out there in the hands of these slick salesmen operating under their version of incentive-caused bias, where any damned way of getting Westinghouse to do it was considered normal business, and they just blew it.

That would never have been possible if the accounting system hadn’t been such but for the initial phase of every transaction it showed wonderful financial results. So people who have loose accounting standards are just inviting perfectly horrible behavior in other people. And it’s a sin, it’s an absolute sin. If you carry bushel baskets full of money through the ghetto, and made it easy to steal, that would be a considerable human sin, because you’d be causing a lot of bad behavior, and the bad behavior would spread. Similarly an institution that gets sloppy accounting commits a real human sin, and it’s also a dumb way to do business, as Westinghouse has so wonderfully proved.

Oddly enough nobody mentions, at least nobody I’ve seen, what happened with Joe Jett and Kidder Peabody. The truth of the matter is the accounting system was such that by punching a few buttons, the Joe Jetts of the world could show profits, and profits that showed up in things that resulted in rewards and esteem and every other thing that human being. Well the Joe Jetts are always with us, and they’re not really to blame, in my judgment at least. But that bastard who created that foolish accounting system who, so far as I know, has not been flayed alive, ought to be.

Seventh. Bias from reciprocation tendency, including the tendency of one on a roll to act as other persons expect. Well here, again, Cialdini does a magnificent job at this, and you’re all going to be given a copy of Cialdini’s book. And if you have half as much sense as I think you do, you will immediately order copies for all of your children and several of your friends. You will never make a better investment.

It is so easy to be a patsy for what he calls the compliance practitioners of this life. But, at any rate, reciprocation tendency is a very, very powerful phenomenon, and Cialdini demonstrated this by running around a campus, and he asked people to take juvenile delinquents to the zoo. And it was a campus, and so one in six actually agreed to do it. And after he’d accumulated a statistical output he went around on the same campus and he asked other people, he said, “Gee, would you devote two afternoons a week to taking juvenile delinquents somewhere and suffering greatly yourself to help them,” and there he got 100% of the people to say no.

But after he’d made the first request, he backed off a little, and he said, “Would you at least take them to the zoo one afternoon?” He raised the compliance rate from a third to a half. He got three times the success by just going through the little ask-for-a-lot-and-back-off.

Now if the human mind, on a subconscious level, can be manipulated that way and you don’t know it, I always use the phrase, “You’re like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.” I mean you are really giving a lot of quarter to the external world that you can't afford to give. And on this so-called role theory, where you tend to act in the way that other people expect, and that’s reciprocation if you think about the way society is organized.

A guy named Zimbardo had people at Stanford divide into two pieces, one were the guards and the other were the prisoners, and they started acting out roles as people expected. He had to stop the experiment after about five days. He was getting into human misery and breakdown and pathological behavior. I mean it was awesome. However, Zimbardo is greatly misinterpreted. It’s not just reciprocation tendency and role theory that caused that, it’s consistency and commitment tendency. Each person, as he acted as a guard or a prisoner, the action itself was pounding in the idea.

Wherever you turn, this consistency and commitment tendency is affecting you. In other words, what you think may change what you do, but perhaps even more important, what you do will change what you think. And you can say, “Everybody knows that.” I want to tell you I didn’t know it well enough early enough.

Eight. Now this is a lollapalooza, and Henry Kaufman wisely talked about this, bias from over-influence by social proof, that is, the conclusions of others, particularly under conditions of natural uncertainty and stress. And here, one of the cases the psychologists use is Kitty Genovese, where all these people, I don’t know, 50, 60, 70 of them just sort of sat and did nothing while she was slowly murdered. Now one of the explanations is that everybody looked at everybody else and nobody else was doing anything, and so there’s automatic social proof that the right thing to do is nothing.

That’s not a good enough explanation for Kitty Genovese, in my judgment. That’s only part of it. There are microeconomic ideas and gain/loss ratios and so forth that also come into play. I think time and time again, in reality, psychological notions and economic notions interplay, and the man who doesn’t understand both is a damned fool.

Big-shot businessmen get into these waves of social proof. Do you remember some years ago when one oil company bought a fertilizer company, and every other major oil company practically ran out and bought a fertilizer company? And there was no more damned reason for all these oil companies to buy fertilizer companies, but they didn't know exactly what to do, and if Exxon was doing it, it was good enough for Mobil, and vice versa. I think they’re all gone now, but it was a total disaster.

Now let’s talk about efficient market theory, a wonderful economic doctrine that had a long vogue in spite of the experience of Berkshire Hathaway. In fact one of the economists who won, he shared a Nobel Prize, and as he looked at Berkshire Hathaway year after year, which people would throw in his face as saying maybe the market isn’t quite as efficient as you think, he said, “Well, it’s a two-sigma event.” And then he said we were a three-sigma event. And then he said we were a four-sigma event. And he finally got up to six sigmas, better to add a sigma than change a theory, just because the evidence comes in differently. And, of course, when this share of a Nobel Prize went into money management himself, he sank like a stone.

If you think about the doctrines I’ve talked about, namely, one, the power of reinforcement after all you do something and the market goes up and you get paid and rewarded and applauded and what have you, meaning a lot of reinforcement, if you make a bet on a market and the market goes with you. Also, there’s social proof. I mean the prices on the market are the ultimate form of social proof, reflecting what other people think, and so the combination is very powerful.

Why would you expect general market levels to always be totally efficient, say even in 1973, 4 at the pit, or in 1972 or whatever it was when the Nifty 50 were in their heyday? If these psychological notions are-

Fifty were in their heyday. If these psychological notions are correct, you would expect some waves of irrationality, which carry general levels to … 'til they're inconsistent with the reason.

Nine. What made these economists love the efficient-market theory is the math was so elegant, and after all, math was what they'd learned to do. To the man with a hammer, every problem tends to look pretty much like a nail. The alternative truth was a little messy, and they'd forgotten the great economist Keynes, whom I think said, “Better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.”

Nine. Bias from contrast caused distortions of sensation, perception, and cognition. Here the great experiment that Cialdini does in his class is he takes three buckets of water. One's hot, one's cold, and one's room temperature. And he has the student stick his left hand in the hot water and his right hand in the cold water. Then he has them remove the hands and put them both in the room temperature bucket, and of course with both hands in the same bucket of water, one seems hot, and the other seems cold because the sensation apparatus of man is over-influenced by contrast. It has no absolute scale. It's got a contrast scale in it, and it's scale with quantum effects in it, too. It takes a certain percentage change before it's noticed.

Maybe you've had a magician remove your watch, I certainly have, without your noticing it. It's the same thing. He's taking advantage of your contrast type troubles and your sensory apparatus. But here the great truth is that cognition mimics sensation, and the cognition manipulators mimic the watch-removing magician. In other words, people are manipulating you all day long on this contrast phenomenon.

Cialdini cites the case of the real estate broker. You've got the rube that's been transferred into your town, and the first thing you do is you take the rube out to two of the most awful over-priced houses you've ever seen, and then you take the rube to some moderately over-priced house and then you stick 'em. And it works pretty well, which is why the real estate salesmen do it. It's always gonna work.

And the accidents of life can do this to you, and it can ruin your life. In my generation when women lived at home until they got married, I saw some perfectly terrible marriages made by highly desirable women because they lived in terrible homes. And I've seen some terrible second marriages, which were made because they were slight improvements over an even worse first marriage.

You think you're immune from these things, and you laugh, and I wanna tell you you aren't. My favorite analogy, I can't vouch for the accuracy of. I have this worthless friend I like to Bridge with, and he's a total intellectual amateur that lives on inherited money. But he told me once something I really enjoyed hearing. He said, “Charlie,” he says, “If you throw a fog into very hot water, the frog will jump out. But if you put the frog in room temperature water and just slowly heat the water up, the frog will die there.”

Now I don't know whether that's true about a frog, but it's sure as hell true about many of the businessmen I know, and there again, it is the contrast phenomenon.

These are hot-shot high-powered people. These are not fools. If it comes to you in small pieces, you're likely to miss, so you have to … if you're gonna be a person of good judgment, you have to do something about this warp in your head where it's so mislead by mere contrast.

Bias from over-influence by authority. Well here the Milgram experiment is it's caused … I think there have been 1600 psychological papers written about Milgram. He had a person posing as an authority figure trick ordinary people into giving what they had every reason to expect was heavy torture by electric shock to perfectly innocent fellow citizens. And the experiment has been … he was trying to show why Hitler succeeded and a few other things. So it has really caught the fancy of the world. Partly it's so politically correct and …

Over-influence by authority has another very … this'll … you'll like this one. You got a pilot and a co-pilot. The pilot is the authority figure. They don't do this in airplanes, but they've done it in simulators. They have the pilot do something where the co-pilot who's been trained in simulators a long time. He knows he's not to allow the plane to crash. They have the pilot to do something where an idiot co-pilot would know the plane was gonna crash, but the pilot's doing it, and the co-pilot is sitting there, and the pilot is the authority figure. 25% of the time, the plane crashes. This is a very powerful psychological tendency.

It's not quite as powerful as some people think, and I'll get to that later.

11. Bias from Deprival Super Reaction Syndrome, including bias caused by present or threatened scarcity, including threatened removal of something almost possessed but never possessed. Here I took the Munger dog, lovely harmless dog. The one way, the only way to get that dog to bite you was to try and take something out of its mouth after it was already there.

Any of you who've tried to do take-aways in labor negotiations will know the human version of that dog is there in all of us. I had a neighbor, a predecessor, on a little island where I have a house, and his nextdoor neighbor put a little pine tree in that was about three feet high, and it turned his 180 degree view of the harbor into 179 and three-quarters. Well they had a blood feud like the Hatfields and McCoys, and it went on and on and on. People are really crazy about minor decrements down.

Then if you act on them, you get into reciprocation tendency because you don't just reciprocate affection, you reciprocate animosity. And the whole thing can escalate, and so huge insanities can come from just subconsciously over-weighing the importance of what you're losing or almost getting and not getting.

The extreme business cake here was New Coke. Now Coca-Cola has the most valuable trademark in the world. We're the major shareholder. I think we understand that trademark. Coke has armies of brilliant engineers, lawyers, psychologists, advertising executives, and so forth. And they had a trademark on a flavor, and they'd spent better part of 100 years getting people to believe that trademark had all these intangible values, too. And people associate it with a flavor, so they were gonna tell people not that it was improved 'cause you can't improve a flavor. If a flavor's a matter of taste, you may improve a detergent or something, but telling you're gonna make a major change in a flavor, I mean … So they got this huge Deprival Super Reaction Syndrome.

Pepsi was within weeks of coming out with Old Coke in a Pepsi bottle, which would have been the biggest fiasco in modern times. Perfect, pluperfect insanity. And by the way, both Goizueta and Keough are just wonderful about it. They just joke. They don't … Keough always says I must've been away on vacation. He participated in every single … he's a wonderful guy. And by the way, Goizueta's a wonderful, smart guy, an engineer.

Smart people make these terrible blunders. How can you not understand Deprival Super Reaction Syndrome? But people do not react symmetrically to loss and gain. Now maybe a great Bridge player like Zeckhauser does, but that's a trained response. Ordinary people subconsciously affected by their inborn tendencies.

Bias from envy/jealousy. Well, envy/jealousy made what, two out of the 10 commandments. Those of you who've raised siblings or tried to run a law firm or investment bank or even a faculty. I've heard Warren say a half a dozen times, “It's not greed that drives the world but envy.”

Here again, you go through the psychology survey courses. You go to the index: envy, jealousy. Thousand page book, it's blank! There's some blind spots in academia. But it's an enormously powerful thing, and it operates to a considerable extent at a subconscious level, and anybody who doesn't understand it is taking on defects he shouldn't have.

Bias from chemical dependency. Well we don't have to talk about that. We've all seen so much of it, but it's interesting how it always causes moral breakdown if there's any need, and it always involves massive denial. It aggravates what we talked about earlier in the aviator case, the tendency to distort reality so that it's endurable.

Bias from gambling compulsion. Well here, Skinner made the only explanation you'll find in the standard psychology survey course. He, of course, created a variable reinforcement rate for his pigeons, his mice, and he found that that would pound in the behavior better than any other enforcement pattern. He says, “Ah ha! I've explained why gambling is such a powerful, addictive force in the civilization.” I think that is, to a very considerable extent, true, but being Skinner, he seemed to think that was the only explanation.

The truth of the matter is the devisers of these modern machines and techniques know a lot of things that Skinner didn't know. For instance, a lottery … you have a lottery where you get your number by lot and then somebody draws a number by lot? It gets lousy play. You get a lottery where people get to pick their number, get big play. Again, it's this consistency and commitment thing. People think that if they've committed to it, it has to be good. The minute they've picked it themselves, it gets an extra validity. After all, they thought it and they acted on it.

Then if you take slot machines, you get bar, bar, lemon. It happens again and again and again. You get all these near misses. Well that's Deprival Super Reaction Syndrome, and boy do the people who create the machines understand human psychology.

And for the high IQ crowd, they've got poker machines where you make choices, so you can play blackjack, so to speak, with the machine. It's wonderful what we've done with our computers to ruin the civilization.

But anyway, this gambling compulsion is a very, very powerful important thing. Look at what's happening to our country. Every Indian reservation, every river town, and look at the people who are ruined with the aid of their stockbrokers and others.

Again, if you look in the standard textbook of psychology, you'll find practically nothing on it except maybe one sentence talking about Skinner's rats. That is not an adequate coverage of the subject.

Bias from liking distortion, including the tendency to especially like oneself, one's own kind, and one's own idea structures, and the tendency to be especially susceptible to being mislead by someone liked.

Disliking distortion. Bias from that. The reciprocal of liking distortion and the tendency not to learn appropriately from someone disliked. Well here again, we've got hugely powerful tendencies, and if you look at the wars in part of the Harvard Law School as we sit here, you can see that very brilliant people get into this almost pathological behavior, and these are very, very powerful, basic, subconscious, psychological tendencies or at least partly subconscious.

Now let's get back to B.F. Skinner, man with a hammer syndrome revisited. Why is man with a hammer syndrome always present? Well if you stop to think about it, incentive caused bias. His professional reputation is all tied up with what he knows. He likes himself, and he likes his own ideas, and he's expressed them to other people, consistency and commitment tendency. I mean you've got four or five of these elementary psychological tendencies combining to create this man with a hammer syndrome.

Once you realize that you can't really buy your thinking down. Partly you can, but largely you can't in this world. You've learned a lesson that's very useful in life. George Bernard Shaw said, and a character say in The Doctor's Dilemma, “In the last analysis, every profession is a conspiracy against the laity.” But he didn't have it quite right because it's not so much conspiracy as it is a subconscious, psychological tendency.

The guy tells you what is good for him, and he doesn't recognize that he's doing anything wrong any more than that doctor did when he was pulling out all those normal gallbladders. He believed that his own idea structures will cure cancer, and he believed that the demons that he's the guardian against are the biggest demons and the most important ones. And in fact, they may be very small demons compared to the demons that you face. So you're getting your advice in this world from your paid advisor with this huge load of ghastly bias. And woe to you!

And only two ways to handle it. You can hire your advisor and then just apply a windage factor like I used to do when I was a rifle shooter. I'd just adjust for so many miles an hour wind. Or you can learn the basic elements of your advisor's trade. You don't have to learn very much, by the way, because if you learn just a little and you can make him explain why he's right. And those two tendencies will take part of the warp out of the thinking you've tried to hire down.

By and large, it works terribly. I have never seen a management consultant's report in my long life that didn't end with the following paragraph: “What this situation really needs is more management consulting.” Never once! I always turn to the last page. Of course Berkshire Hathaway doesn't hire them, so … I only do this in sort of a lawyer-istic basis. Sometimes I'm in a nonprofit where some idiot hires one.

17. Bias from the non-mathematical nature of the human brain in its natural state as it deals with probabilities employing crude heuristics and is often mislead by mere contrast. The tendency to overweigh conveniently available information and other psychological rooted mis-thinking tendencies on this list when the brain should be using the simple probability mathematics of Fermat and Pascal, applied to all reasonably attainable and correctly weighted items of information that are of value in predicting outcomes. The right way to think is the way Zeckhauser plays Bridge. It's just that simple.

And your brain doesn't naturally know how to think the way Zeckhauser knows to play Bridge. Now you notice I put in that availability thing, and there I'm mimicking some very eminent psychologists … Tversky, who raised the idea of availability to a whole heuristic of misjudgment.

You know, they are very substantially right. Ask the Coca-Cola company, which has raised availability to a secular religion, if availability changes behavior. You'll drink a hell of a lot more Coke if it's always available. Availability does change behavior and cognition.

Nonetheless, even though I recognize that and applaud Tversky, Kahneman, I don't like it for my personal system except as part of a greater subsystem, which is you gotta think the way Zeckhauser plays Bridge. It isn't just the lack of availability that distorts your judgment. All the things on this list distort judgment. And I wanna train myself to mentally run down the list instead of just jumping on availability. So that's why I state it the way I do.

In a sense, these psychological tendencies make things unavailable 'cause if you quickly jump to one thing and then because you've jumped to it, the consistency and commitment tendency makes you lock in, boom, it's there. Number one.

Or if something is very vivid, which I'm going to come to next, that will really pound in. And the reason that the thing that really matters is now unavailable and what's extra vivid wins is … the extra vividness creates the unavailability. So I think it's much better to have a whole list of things that cause you to be less like Zeckhauser than it is just to jump on one factor.

Here, I think we should discuss John Gutfreund. This is a very interesting human example which will be taught in every decent professional school for at least a full generation. Gutfreund has a trusted employee, and it comes to light not through confession but by accident that the trusted employee has lied like hell to the government and manipulated the accounting system and was really the equivalent to forgery. The man immediately says, “I've never done it before. I'll never do it again. It was an isolated example.” Of course, it was obvious that he was trying to help the government as well as himself 'cause he thought the government had been dumb enough to pass a rule that he'd spoken against. And after all, if a government's not gonna pay attention to a bond trader at Salomon, what kind of a government can it be?

At any rate, and this guy has been part of a little clique that has made way over a billion dollars for Salomon in the very recent past, and it's a little handful of people. So there are a lot of psychological forces at work. You know the guy's wife, he's right in front of you, and there's human sympathy, and he's sort of asking for your help, which is the form which encourages reciprocation, and there are all these psychological tendencies are working. Plus the fact he's part of group that have made a lot of money for you.

At any rate, Gutfreund does not cashier the man, and of course, he had done it before, and he did do it again. Well now you look as though you almost wanted him to do it again or God knows what you look like, but it isn't good. And that simple decision destroyed John Gutfreund.

It's so easy to do. Now let's think it through like the Bridge player, like Zeckhauser. You find an isolated example of a little old lady in the See's candy company, one of our subsidiaries, getting into the till, and what does she say? “I never did it before. I'll never do it again. This is gonna ruin my life. Please help me.” And you know her children and her friends, and she's been around 30 years and standing behind the candy counter with swollen ankles. In your old age, isn't that glorious a life? And you're rich and powerful and there she is. “I never did it before, and I will never do it again.”

Well how likely is it that she never did it before? If you're gonna catch ten embezzlements a year, what are the chances that any one of them, applying what Tversky and Kahneman called baseline information, will be somebody who only did it this once? And the people who have done it before and are gonna do it again, what are they all gonna say?

Well in the history of the See's candy company, they always say, “I never did it before, and I'm never gonna do it again.” And we cashier them. It would be evil not to because terribly behavior spreads. … You let that stuff … you've got social proof, you've got incentive caused bias, you got a whole lotta psychological factors that will cause the evil behavior to spread, and pretty soon the whole damn … your place is rotten, the civilization is rotten. It's not the right way to behave, and …

I will admit that I have … when I knew the wife and children, I have paid severance pay when I fire somebody, for taking a mistress on a extended foreign trip. It's not the adultery I mind. It's the embezzlement. But there, I wouldn't do it where Gutfreund did it, where they'd been cheating somebody else on my behalf. There I think you have to cashier, but if they're just stealing from you and you get rid of them, I don't think you need the last ounce of vengeance. In fact, I don't think you need any vengeance. I don't think vengeance is much good.

Now we come bias from over-influence by extra vivid evidence. Here's one … I'm at least $30 million poorer as I sit here giving this little talk because I once bought 300 shares of a stock, and the guy called me back and said, “I got 1500 more.” I said, “Will you hold it for 15 minutes while I think about it?” In CEO of this company, I've seen a lot of vivid peculiarities in a long life, but this guy set a world record. I'm talking about the CEO, and I just mis-weighed it. The truth of the matter is his situation was foolproof. He was soon gonna be dead. I turned down the extra 1500 share, and it's now cost me $30 million, and that's life in the big city.

It wasn't something where stock was generally available, and so it's very easy to mis-weigh the vivid evidence. Gutfreund did that when he looked into the man's eyes and forgave the colleague.

22. Stress-induced mental changes, small and large, temporary and permanent. Oh no, no no, I've skipped one.

Mental confusion caused by information not arrayed in the mind and theory structures creating sound generalizations, developed in response to the question why. Also mis-influence from information that apparently but not really answers the question why. Also failure to obtain deserved influence caused by not properly explaining why.

Well we all know people who've flunked, and they try and memorize, and they try and spout back, and they just … doesn't work. The brain doesn't work that way. You've got to array facts on theory structures answering the question why. If you don't do that, you cannot handle the world.

Now we get to Feuerstein, who was the general counsel of Salomon when Gutfreund made his big error. And Feuerstein knew better. He told Gutfreund, “You have to report this as a matter of morality and prudent business judgment.” He said, “It's probably not illegal. There's probably no legal duty to do it, but you have to do it as a matter of prudent conduct and proper dealing with your main customer.” He said that to Gu-

… and proper dealing with your main customer. He said that to Gutfreund on at least two or three occasions, and he stopped. And, of course, the persuasion failed, and when Gutfreund went down, Feuerstein went with him. It ruined a considerable part of Feuerstein's life. Well Feuerstein, was a member of the Harvard Law Review, made an elementary psychological mistake. You want to persuade somebody, you really tell them why. And what did we learn in lesson one? Incentives really matter. Vivid evidence really works. He should have told Gutfreund, “You're likely to ruin your life and disgrace your family and lose your money.” And is Mozer worth this? I know both men. That would've worked. So Feuerstein flunked elementary psychology, this very sophisticated, brilliant lawyer. But don't you do that. It's not very hard to do, you know, just to remember that “Why?” is terribly important.

Other normal limitations of sensation, memory, cognition and knowledge. Well, I don't have time for that. Stress-induced mental changes. Here, my favorite example is the great Pavlov. He had all these dogs in cages, which had all been conditioned into changed behaviors, and the great Leningrad flood came, and it just went right up. The dog's in a cage, and the dog had as much stress as you can imagine a dog ever having. The water receded in time to save some of the dogs, and Pavlov noted that they'd had a total reversal of their conditioned personality. Well, being the great scientist he was, he spent the rest of his life giving nervous breakdowns to dogs, and he learned a hell of a lot that I regard as very interesting. I have never known any Freudian analyst who knew anything about the last work of Pavlov, and I never met a lawyer who understood that what Pavlov found out with those dogs had anything to do with programming, and de-programming, and cults and so forth. …

Then, we've got other common mental illnesses and declines, temporary and permanent, including the tendency to lose ability through disuse. Then I've got mental and organizational confusion from say-something syndrome. Here, my favorite thing is the bee, a honeybee. A honeybee goes out and finds the nectar, and he comes back, and he does a dance that communicates to the other bees where the nectar is, and they go out and get it. Well, some scientist who was clever, like B.F. Skinner, decided to do an experiment. He put the nectar straight up. Way up. Well, in a natural setting, there is no nectar way the hell straight up, and the poor honeybee doesn't have a genetic program that is adequate to handle what he now has to communicate.

You'd think the honeybee would come back to the hive and slink into a corner, but he doesn't. He comes into the hive and does this incoherent dance, and all my life I've been dealing with the human equivalent of that honeybee. And it's a very important part of human organization to set things up so the noise, and the reciprocation and so forth of all these people who have what I call say-something syndrome don't really affect the decisions.

Now, the time has come to ask two or three questions. This is the most important question in this whole talk. What happens when these standard psychological tendencies combine? What happens when the situation, or the artful manipulation of man, causes several of these tendencies to operate on a person toward the same end at the same time? The clear answer is the combination greatly increases power to change behavior, compared to the power of merely one tendency acting alone. Examples are: Tupperware parties. Tupperware has now made billions of dollars out of a few manipulative psychological tricks. It was so schlock that directors of Justin Dart's company resigned when he crammed it down his board's throat. And he was totally right, by the way, judged by economic outcomes.

Moonie conversion methods. Boy, do they work. He just combines four or five of these things together. The system of Alcoholics Anonymous. A 50% no-drinking rate outcome when everything else fails? It's a very clever system that uses four or five psychological systems at once toward, I might say, a very good end. The Milgrim experiment. See, Milgrim … It's been widely interpreted as mere obedience, but the truth of the matter is that the experimenter who got the students to give the heavy shocks in Milgrim, he explained why. It was a false explanation. “We need this to look for scientific truth,” and so on. That greatly changed the behavior of the people. And number two, he worked them up, tiny shock, a little larger, a little larger. So commitment and consistency tendency and the contrast principle were both working in favor of this behavior. So again, it's four different psychological tendencies.

When you get these lollapalooza effects you will almost always find four or five of these things working together. When I was young, there was a whodunit hero who always said cherchez la femme. What you should search for in life is the combination, because the combination is likely to do you in. Or, if you're the inventor of Tupperware parties, it's likely to make you enormously rich if you can stand shaving when you do it. One of my favorite cases is the McDonald-Douglas airliner evacuation disaster. The government requires that airliners pass a bunch of tests. One of them is evacuation. Get everybody out, I think it's 90 seconds or something like that. It's some short period of time. The government has rules, make it very realistic, so on, and so on. You can't select nothing but 20-year-old athletes to evacuate your airline.

So McDonald-Douglas schedules one of these things in a hangar, and they make the hangar dark. The concrete floor is 25 feet down, and they got these little rubber chutes, and they got all these old people. They ring the bell, and they all rush out. In the morning when the first test is done, they create, I don't know, 20 terrible injuries. People go off to hospitals. Of course, they scheduled another one for the afternoon. By the way, they didn't meet the time schedule either, in addition to causing all the injuries. So what do they do? They do it again in the afternoon. Now, they create 20 more injuries and one case of a severed spinal column with permanent, unfixable paralysis. They're engineers. These are brilliant people. This is thought over through in a big bureaucracy. … Authorities told you to do it. He told you to make it realistic. You've decided to do it. You'd decided to do it twice. Incentive-caused bias. If you pass, you save a lot of money. You've got to jump this hurdle before you can sell your new airliner.

Again, three, four, five of these things work together, and it turns human brains into mush. And maybe you think this doesn't happen in picking investments. If so, you're living in a different world than I am. Finally, the open-outcry auction. Well the open-outcry auction is just made to turn the brain into mush. You get social proof. The other guy is bidding. You get reciprocation tendency. You get deprival super-reaction syndrome. The thing is going away. I mean, it just absolutely is designed to manipulate people into idiotic behavior.

Finally, the institution of the board of directors of a major human, American company. Well, the top guy is sitting there. He's an authority figure. He's doing asinine things. You look around the board, nobody else is objecting. Social proof, it's okay. Reciprocation tendency, he's raising the director's fees every year. He's flying you around in the corporate airplane to look at interesting plants, or whatever in hell they do, and you go and you really get extreme dysfunction as a corrective decision-making body in the typical American board of directors. They only act, again the power of incentives, they only act when it gets so bad that it starts making them look foolish, or threatening legal liability to them. That's Munger's rule. I mean, there are occasional things that don't follow Munger's rule, but by and large the board of directors is a very ineffective corrector if the top guy is a little nuts, which, of course, frequently happens.

The second question. Isn't this list of standard psychological tendencies improperly tautological compared with the system of Euclid? That is, aren't there overlaps, and can't some items on the list be derived from combinations of other items? The answer to that is, plainly, yes. Three. What good, in the practical world, is the thought system indicated by the list? Isn't practical benefit prevented because these psychological tendencies are programmed into the human mind by broad evolution so we can't get rid of them? Broad evolution, I mean the combination of genetic and cultural evolution, but mostly genetic. Well, the answer is the tendencies are partly good and, indeed, probably much more good than bad, otherwise they wouldn't be there. By and large these rules of thumb, they work pretty well for man given his limited mental capacity, and that's why they were programmed in by broad evolution.

At any rate, they can't be simply washed out automatically and they shouldn't be. Nonetheless, the psychological thought system described is very useful in spreading wisdom and good conduct when one understands it and uses it constructively. Here are some examples. Karl Braun's communication practices. He designed oil refineries with spectacular skill and integrity. He had a very simple rule. Remember I said, “Why is important?” You got fired in the Braun company. You had to have five Ws. You had to tell who, what you wanted to do, where and when, and you had to tell him why. If you wrote a communication and left out the why, you got fired, because Braun knew it's complicated building an oil refinery. It can blow up. All kinds of things happen, and he knew that his communication system worked better if you always told him why. That's a simple discipline, and boy does it work.

Two, the use of simulators in pilot training. Here, again, abilities attenuate with disuse. Well, the simulator is God's gift because you can keep them fresh. Three, the system of Alcoholics Anonymous. That's certainly a constructive use of somebody understanding psychological tendencies. I think they just blundered into it, as a matter of fact, so you can regard it as kind of an evolutionary outcome. But, just because they blundered into it doesn't mean you can't invent its equivalent when you need it for a good purpose. Clinical training in medical schools. Here's a profoundly correct way of understanding psychology. The standard practice is watch one, do one, teach one. Boy, does that pound in what you want pounded in. Again, the consistency and commitment tendency. That is a profoundly correct way to teach clinical medicine.

The rules of the U.S. Constitutional Convention, totally secret, no vote until the final vote, then just one vote on the whole Constitution. Very clever psychological rules, and if they had a different procedure, everybody would have been pushed into a corner by his own pronouncements and his own oratory and his own … and no recorded votes until the last one. And they got it through by a whisker with those wise rules. We wouldn't have had the Constitution if our forefathers hadn't been so psychologically acute, and look at the crowd we got now.

Six, the use of granny's rule. I love this. One of the psychologists who works with the center gets paid a fortune running around America, and he teaches executives to manipulate themselves. Now granny's rule is you don't get the ice cream unless you eat your carrots. Well, granny was a very wise woman. That is a very good system. So this guy, a very eminent psychologist, he runs around the country telling executives to organize their day so they force themselves to do what's unpleasant and important by doing that first, and then rewarding themselves with something they really like doing. He is profoundly correct.

Seven, the Harvard Business School's emphasis on decision trees. When I was young and foolish, I used to laugh at the Harvard Business School. I said, “They're teaching 28-year-old people that high school algebra works in real life?” We're talking about elementary probability. But later, I wised up and I realized that it was very important that they do that, and better late than never. Eight, the use of post-mortems at Johnson & Johnson. At most corporations, if you make an acquisition and it works out to be a disaster, all the paperwork and presentations that caused the dumb acquisition to be made are quickly forgotten. You've got denial, you've got everything in the world. You've got Pavlovian association tendency. Nobody even wants to even be associated with the damned thing, or even mention it. At Johnson & Johnson, they make everybody revisit their old acquisitions and wade through the presentations. That is a very smart thing to do. By the way, I do the same thing routinely.

Nine, the great example of Charles Darwin is he avoided confirmation bias. Darwin probably changed my life because I'm a biography nut, and when I found out the way he always paid extra attention to the disconfirming evidence, and all these little psychological tricks, I also found out that he wasn't very smart by the ordinary standards of human acuity, yet there he is buried in Westminster Abbey. That's not where I'm going, I'll tell you. And I said, “My God, here's a guy that, by all objective evidence, is not nearly as smart as I am and he's in Westminster Abbey? He must have tricks I should learn.” And I started wearing little hair shirts like Darwin to try and train myself out of these subconscious psychological tendencies that cause so many errors. It didn't work perfectly, as you can tell from listening to this talk, but it would've been even worse if I hadn't done what I did. And you can know these psychological tendencies and avoid being the patsy of all the people that are trying to manipulate you to your disadvantage, like Sam Walton. Sam Walton won't let a purchasing agent take a handkerchief from a salesman. He knows how powerful the subconscious reciprocation tendency is. That is a profoundly correct way for Sam Walton to behave.

Then, there's the Warren Buffett rule for open-outcry auctions: don't go. We don't go to the closed-bid auctions too because they … that's a counter-productive way to do things ordinarily for a different reason, which Zeckhauser would understand. Four, what special knowledge problems lie buried in the thought system indicated by the list? Well, one is paradox. Now, we're talking about a type of human wisdom that the more people learn about it, the more attenuated the wisdom gets. That's an intrinsically paradoxical kind of wisdom. But, we have paradox in mathematics and we don't give up mathematics. I say damn the paradox. This stuff is wonderfully useful.

By the way, the granny's rule, when you apply it to yourself, is sort of a paradox in a paradox. The manipulation still works even though you know you're doing it. I've seen that done by one person to another. I drew this beautiful woman as my dinner partner a few years ago, and I'd never seen her before. Well, she's married to prominent Angelino. She sat down next to me, and she turned her beautiful face up and she said, “Charlie,” she said, “What one word accounts for your remarkable success in life?” Now, I knew I was being manipulated and that she'd done this before, and I just loved it. I never see this woman without a little lift in my spirits. By the way, I told her I was rational. You'll have to judge yourself whether that's true. I may be demonstrating some psychological tendency I hadn't planned on demonstrating.

How should the best parts of psychology and economics interrelate in an enlightened economist's mind? Two views. That's the thermodynamics model. You know, you can't derive thermodynamics from plutonium, gravity, and laws of mechanics, even though it's a lot of little particles interacting. And here is this wonderful truth that you can sort of develop on your own, which is thermodynamics. Some economists, and I think Milton Friedman is in this group, but I may be wrong on that, sort of like the thermodynamics model. I think Milton Friedman, who has a Nobel prize, is probably a little wrong on that. I think the thermodynamics analogy is over-strained. I think knowledge from these different soft sciences have to be reconciled to eliminate conflict. After all, there's nothing in thermodynamics that's inconsistent with Newtonian mechanics and gravity, and I think that some of these economic theories are not totally consistent with other knowledge, and they have to be bent. And I think that these behavioral economics, or economists, are probably the ones that are bending them in the correct direction.

Now, my prediction is when the economists take a little psychology into account that the reconciliation will be quite endurable. Here, my model is the procession of the equinoxes. The world would be simpler for a long-term climatologist if the angle of the axis of the Earth's rotation, compared to the plane of the Euclyptic, were absolutely fixed. But it isn't fixed. Over every 40,000 years or so there's this little wobble, and that has pronounced long-term effects. Well, in many cases, what psychology is going to add is just a little wobble, and it will be endurable. Here, I quote another hero of mine, who of course is Einstein, where he said, “The Lord is subtle, but not malicious.” And I don't think it's going to be that hard to bend economics a little to accommodate what's right in psychology. The final question is if the thought system indicated by this list of psychological tendencies has great value not widely recognized and employed, what should the educational system do about it? I am not going to answer that one now. I like leaving a little mystery.


“What Matters More Than Your Talents” by Jeff Bezos

On May 30, 2010 during a gratuation from Princeton University, Jeff Bezos delivered this speech.

Speech Transcript

As a kid, I spent my summers with my grandparents on their ranch in Texas. I helped fix windmills, vaccinate cattle, and do other chores. We also watched soap operas every afternoon, especially “Days of our Lives.” My grandparents belonged to a Caravan Club, a group of Airstream trailer owners who travel together around the U.S. and Canada. And every few summers, we’d join the caravan. We’d hitch up the Airstream trailer to my grandfather’s car, and off we’d go, in a line with 300 other Airstream adventurers. I loved and worshipped my grandparents and I really looked forward to these trips. On one particular trip, I was about 10 years old. I was rolling around in the big bench seat in the back of the car. My grandfather was driving. And my grandmother had the passenger seat. She smoked throughout these trips, and I hated the smell.

At that age, I’d take any excuse to make estimates and do minor arithmetic. I’d calculate our gas mileage — figure out useless statistics on things like grocery spending. I’d been hearing an ad campaign about smoking. I can’t remember the details, but basically the ad said, every puff of a cigarette takes some number of minutes off of your life: I think it might have been two minutes per puff. At any rate, I decided to do the math for my grandmother. I estimated the number of cigarettes per days, estimated the number of puffs per cigarette and so on. When I was satisfied that I’d come up with a reasonable number, I poked my head into the front of the car, tapped my grandmother on the shoulder, and proudly proclaimed, “At two minutes per puff, you’ve taken nine years off your life!”

I have a vivid memory of what happened, and it was not what I expected. I expected to be applauded for my cleverness and arithmetic skills. “Jeff, you’re so smart. You had to have made some tricky estimates, figure out the number of minutes in a year and do some division.” That’s not what happened. Instead, my grandmother burst into tears. I sat in the backseat and did not know what to do. While my grandmother sat crying, my grandfather, who had been driving in silence, pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. He got out of the car and came around and opened my door and waited for me to follow. Was I in trouble? My grandfather was a highly intelligent, quiet man. He had never said a harsh word to me, and maybe this was to be the first time? Or maybe he would ask that I get back in the car and apologize to my grandmother. I had no experience in this realm with my grandparents and no way to gauge what the consequences might be. We stopped beside the trailer. My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”

What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy — they’re given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you’re not careful, and if you do, it’ll probably be to the detriment of your choices.

This is a group with many gifts. I’m sure one of your gifts is the gift of a smart and capable brain. I’m confident that’s the case because admission is competitive and if there weren’t some signs that you’re clever, the dean of admission wouldn’t have let you in.

Your smarts will come in handy because you will travel in a land of marvels. We humans — plodding as we are — will astonish ourselves. We’ll invent ways to generate clean energy and a lot of it. Atom by atom, we’ll assemble tiny machines that will enter cell walls and make repairs. This month comes the extraordinary but also inevitable news that we’ve synthesized life. In the coming years, we’ll not only synthesize it, but we’ll engineer it to specifications. I believe you’ll even see us understand the human brain. Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Galileo, Newton — all the curious from the ages would have wanted to be alive most of all right now. As a civilization, we will have so many gifts, just as you as individuals have so many individual gifts as you sit before me.

How will you use these gifts? And will you take pride in your gifts or pride in your choices?

I got the idea to start Amazon 16 years ago. I came across the fact that Web usage was growing at 2,300 percent per year. I’d never seen or heard of anything that grew that fast, and the idea of building an online bookstore with millions of titles — something that simply couldn’t exist in the physical world — was very exciting to me. I had just turned 30 years old, and I’d been married for a year. I told my wife MacKenzie that I wanted to quit my job and go do this crazy thing that probably wouldn’t work since most startups don’t, and I wasn’t sure what would happen after that. MacKenzie (also a Princeton grad and sitting here in the second row) told me I should go for it. As a young boy, I’d been a garage inventor. I’d invented an automatic gate closer out of cement-filled tires, a solar cooker that didn’t work very well out of an umbrella and tinfoil, baking-pan alarms to entrap my siblings. I’d always wanted to be an inventor, and she wanted me to follow my passion.

I was working at a financial firm in New York City with a bunch of very smart people, and I had a brilliant boss that I much admired. I went to my boss and told him I wanted to start a company selling books on the Internet. He took me on a long walk in Central Park, listened carefully to me, and finally said, “That sounds like a really good idea, but it would be an even better idea for someone who didn’t already have a good job.” That logic made some sense to me, and he convinced me to think about it for 48 hours before making a final decision. Seen in that light, it really was a difficult choice, but ultimately, I decided I had to give it a shot. I didn’t think I’d regret trying and failing. And I suspected I would always be haunted by a decision to not try at all. After much consideration, I took the less safe path to follow my passion, and I’m proud of that choice.

Tomorrow, in a very real sense, your life — the life you author from scratch on your own — begins.

How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?

Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?

Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?

Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?

Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?

Will you bluff it out when you’re wrong, or will you apologize?

Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?

Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?

When it’s tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless?

Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?

Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?

I will hazard a prediction. When you are 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices. Build yourself a great story. Thank you and good luck!


“Solitude and Leadership” by William Deresiewicz

This speech was delivered at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009.

Speech Transcript

My title must seem like a contradiction. What can solitude have to do with leadership? Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others—the people you’re leading. When we think about leadership in American history we are likely to think of Washington, at the head of an army, or Lincoln, at the head of a nation, or King, at the head of a movement—people with multitudes behind them, looking to them for direction. And when we think of solitude, we are apt to think of Thoreau, a man alone in the woods, keeping a journal and communing with nature in silence.

Leadership is what you are here to learn—the qualities of character and mind that will make you fit to command a platoon, and beyond that, perhaps, a company, a battalion, or, if you leave the military, a corporation, a foundation, a department of government. Solitude is what you have the least of here, especially as plebes. You don’t even have privacy, the opportunity simply to be physically alone, never mind solitude, the ability to be alone with your thoughts. And yet I submit to you that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership. This lecture will be an attempt to explain why.

We need to begin by talking about what leadership really means. I just spent 10 years teaching at another institution that, like West Point, liked to talk a lot about leadership, Yale University. A school that some of you might have gone to had you not come here, that some of your friends might be going to. And if not Yale, then Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and so forth. These institutions, like West Point, also see their role as the training of leaders, constantly encourage their students, like West Point, to regard themselves as leaders among their peers and future leaders of society. Indeed, when we look around at the American elite, the people in charge of government, business, academia, and all our other major institutions—senators, judges, CEOs, college presidents, and so forth—we find that they come overwhelmingly either from the Ivy League and its peer institutions or from the service academies, especially West Point.

So I began to wonder, as I taught at Yale, what leadership really consists of. My students, like you, were energetic, accomplished, smart, and often ferociously ambitious, but was that enough to make them leaders? Most of them, as much as I liked and even admired them, certainly didn’t seem to me like leaders. Does being a leader, I wondered, just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight As make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons or great novelists or great shortstops may be terrific at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaders. Leadership and aptitude, leadership and achievement, leadership and even ex­cellence have to be different things, otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning. And it seemed to me that that had to be especially true of the kind of excellence I saw in the students around me.

See, things have changed since I went to college in the ’80s. Everything has gotten much more intense. You have to do much more now to get into a top school like Yale or West Point, and you have to start a lot earlier. We didn’t begin thinking about college until we were juniors, and maybe we each did a couple of extracurriculars. But I know what it’s like for you guys now. It’s an endless series of hoops that you have to jump through, starting from way back, maybe as early as junior high school. Classes, standardized tests, extracurriculars in school, extracurriculars outside of school. Test prep courses, admissions coaches, private tutors. I sat on the Yale College admissions committee a couple of years ago. The first thing the admissions officer would do when presenting a case to the rest of the committee was read what they call the “brag” in admissions lingo, the list of the student’s extracurriculars. Well, it turned out that a student who had six or seven extracurriculars was already in trouble. Because the students who got in—in addition to perfect grades and top scores—usually had 10 or 12.

So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life. They would come back for their 25th reunion as a partner at White & Case, or an attending physician at Mass General, or an assistant secretary in the Department of State.

That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.

But I think there’s something desperately wrong, and even dangerous, about that idea. To explain why, I want to spend a few minutes talking about a novel that many of you may have read, Heart of Darkness. If you haven’t read it, you’ve probably seen Apocalypse Now, which is based on it. Marlow in the novel becomes Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen. Kurtz in the novel becomes Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. But the novel isn’t about Vietnam; it’s about colonialism in the Belgian Congo three generations before Vietnam. Marlow, not a military officer but a merchant marine, a civilian ship’s captain, is sent by the company that’s running the country under charter from the Belgian crown to sail deep upriver, up the Congo River, to retrieve a manager who’s ensconced himself in the jungle and gone rogue, just like Colonel Kurtz does in the movie.

Now everyone knows that the novel is about imperialism and colonialism and race relations and the darkness that lies in the human heart, but it became clear to me at a certain point, as I taught the novel, that it is also about bureaucracy—what I called, a minute ago, hierarchy. The Company, after all, is just that: a company, with rules and procedures and ranks and people in power and people scrambling for power, just like any other bureaucracy. Just like a big law firm or a governmental department or, for that matter, a university. Just like—and here’s why I’m telling you all this—just like the bureaucracy you are about to join. The word bureaucracy tends to have negative connotations, but I say this in no way as a criticism, merely a description, that the U.S. Army is a bureaucracy and one of the largest and most famously bureaucratic bureaucracies in the world. After all, it was the Army that gave us, among other things, the indispensable bureaucratic acronym “snafu”: “situation normal: all fucked up”—or “all fouled up” in the cleaned-up version. That comes from the U.S. Army in World War II.

You need to know that when you get your commission, you’ll be joining a bureaucracy, and however long you stay in the Army, you’ll be operating within a bureaucracy. As different as the armed forces are in so many ways from every other institution in society, in that respect they are the same. And so you need to know how bureaucracies operate, what kind of behavior—what kind of character—they reward, and what kind they punish.

So, back to the novel. Marlow proceeds upriver by stages, just like Captain Willard does in the movie. First he gets to the Outer Station. Kurtz is at the Inner Station. In between is the Central Station, where Marlow spends the most time, and where we get our best look at bureaucracy in action and the kind of people who succeed in it. This is Marlow’s description of the manager of the Central Station, the big boss:

He was commonplace in complexion, in features, in manners, and in voice. He was of middle size and of ordinary build. His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold. . . . Otherwise there was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy—a smile—not a smile—I remember it, but I can’t explain. . . . He was a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts—nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust—just uneasiness—nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a . . . a . . . faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. . . . He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him—why? . . . He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing within him. Such a suspicion made one pause.

Note the adjectives: commonplace, ordinary, usual, common. There is nothing distinguished about this person. About the 10th time I read that passage, I realized it was a perfect description of the kind of person who tends to prosper in the bureaucratic environment. And the only reason I did is because it suddenly struck me that it was a perfect description of the head of the bureaucracy that I was part of, the chairman of my academic department—who had that exact same smile, like a shark, and that exact same ability to make you uneasy, like you were doing something wrong, only she wasn’t ever going to tell you what. Like the manager—and I’m sorry to say this, but like so many people you will meet as you negotiate the bureaucracy of the Army or for that matter of whatever institution you end up giving your talents to after the Army, whether it’s Microsoft or the World Bank or whatever—the head of my department had no genius for organizing or initiative or even order, no particular learning or intelligence, no distinguishing characteristics at all. Just the ability to keep the routine going, and beyond that, as Marlow says, her position had come to her—why?

That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.

I tell you this to forewarn you, because I promise you that you will meet these people and you will find yourself in environments where what is rewarded above all is conformity. I tell you so you can decide to be a different kind of leader. And I tell you for one other reason. As I thought about these things and put all these pieces together—the kind of students I had, the kind of leadership they were being trained for, the kind of leaders I saw in my own institution—I realized that this is a national problem. We have a crisis of leadership in this country, in every institution. Not just in government. Look at what happened to American corporations in recent decades, as all the old dinosaurs like General Motors or TWA or U.S. Steel fell apart. Look at what happened to Wall Street in just the last couple of years.

Finally—and I know I’m on sensitive ground here—look at what happened during the first four years of the Iraq War. We were stuck. It wasn’t the fault of the enlisted ranks or the noncoms or the junior officers. It was the fault of the senior leadership, whether military or civilian or both. We weren’t just not winning, we weren’t even changing direction.

We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

Now some people would say, great. Tell this to the kids at Yale, but why bother telling it to the ones at West Point? Most people, when they think of this institution, assume that it’s the last place anyone would want to talk about thinking creatively or cultivating independence of mind. It’s the Army, after all. It’s no accident that the word regiment is the root of the word regimentation. Surely you who have come here must be the ultimate conformists. Must be people who have bought in to the way things are and have no interest in changing it. Are not the kind of young people who think about the world, who ponder the big issues, who question authority. If you were, you would have gone to Amherst or Pomona. You’re at West Point to be told what to do and how to think.

But you know that’s not true. I know it, too; otherwise I would never have been invited to talk to you, and I’m even more convinced of it now that I’ve spent a few days on campus. To quote Colonel Scott Krawczyk, your course director, in a lecture he gave last year to English 102:

From the very earliest days of this country, the model for our officers, which was built on the model of the citizenry and reflective of democratic ideals, was to be different. They were to be possessed of a democratic spirit marked by independent judgment, the freedom to measure action and to express disagreement, and the crucial responsibility never to tolerate tyranny.

All the more so now. Anyone who’s been paying attention for the last few years understands that the changing nature of warfare means that officers, including junior officers, are required more than ever to be able to think independently, creatively, flexibly. To deploy a whole range of skills in a fluid and complex situation. Lieutenant colonels who are essentially functioning as provincial governors in Iraq, or captains who find themselves in charge of a remote town somewhere in Afghanistan. People who know how to do more than follow orders and execute routines.

Look at the most successful, most acclaimed, and perhaps the finest soldier of his generation, General David Petraeus. He’s one of those rare people who rises through a bureaucracy for the right reasons. He is a thinker. He is an intellectual. In fact, Prospect magazine named him Public Intellectual of the Year in 2008—that’s in the world. He has a Ph.D. from Princeton, but what makes him a thinker is not that he has a Ph.D. or that he went to Princeton or even that he taught at West Point. I can assure you from personal experience that there are a lot of highly educated people who don’t know how to think at all.

No, what makes him a thinker—and a leader—is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself. And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren’t popular. Even when they don’t please his superiors. Courage: there is physical courage, which you all possess in abundance, and then there is another kind of courage, moral courage, the courage to stand up for what you believe.

It wasn’t always easy for him. His path to where he is now was not a straight one. When he was running Mosul in 2003 as commander of the 101st Airborne and developing the strategy he would later formulate in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual and then ultimately apply throughout Iraq, he pissed a lot of people off. He was way ahead of the leadership in Baghdad and Washington, and bureaucracies don’t like that sort of thing. Here he was, just another two-star, and he was saying, implicitly but loudly, that the leadership was wrong about the way it was running the war. Indeed, he was not rewarded at first. He was put in charge of training the Iraqi army, which was considered a blow to his career, a dead-end job. But he stuck to his guns, and ultimately he was vindicated. Ironically, one of the central elements of his counterinsurgency strategy is precisely the idea that officers need to think flexibly, creatively, and independently.

That’s the first half of the lecture: the idea that true leadership means being able to think for yourself and act on your convictions. But how do you learn to do that? How do you learn to think? Let’s start with how you don’t learn to think. A study by a team of researchers at Stanford came out a couple of months ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked? The answer, they discovered—and this is by no means what they expected—is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself.

One thing that made the study different from others is that the researchers didn’t test people’s cognitive functions while they were multitasking. They separated the subject group into high multitaskers and low multitaskers and used a different set of tests to measure the kinds of cognitive abilities involved in multitasking. They found that in every case the high multitaskers scored worse. They were worse at distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information and ignoring the latter. In other words, they were more distractible. They were worse at what you might call “mental filing”: keeping information in the right conceptual boxes and being able to retrieve it quickly. In other words, their minds were more disorganized. And they were even worse at the very thing that defines multitasking itself: switching between tasks.

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

I used to have students who bragged to me about how fast they wrote their papers. I would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day—half the length of the selection I read you earlier from Heart of Darkness—for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.

Now that’s the third time I’ve used that word, concentrating. Concentrating, focusing. You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?

You and the members of the other service academies are in a unique position among college students, especially today. Not only do you know that you’re going to have a job when you graduate, you even know who your employer is going to be. But what happens after you fulfill your commitment to the Army? Unless you know who you are, how will you figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life? Unless you’re able to listen to yourself, to that quiet voice inside that tells you what you really care about, what you really believe in—indeed, how those things might be evolving under the pressure of your experiences. Students everywhere else agonize over these questions, and while you may not be doing so now, you are only postponing them for a few years.

Maybe some of you are agonizing over them now. Not everyone who starts here decides to finish here. It’s no wonder and no cause for shame. You are being put through the most demanding training anyone can ask of people your age, and you are committing yourself to work of awesome responsibility and mortal danger. The very rigor and regimentation to which you are quite properly subject here naturally has a tendency to make you lose touch with the passion that brought you here in the first place. I saw exactly the same kind of thing at Yale. It’s not that my students were robots. Quite the reverse. They were in­tensely idealistic, but the overwhelming weight of their practical responsibilities, all of those hoops they had to jump through, often made them lose sight of what those ideals were. Why they were doing it all in the first place.

So it’s perfectly natural to have doubts, or questions, or even just difficulties. The question is, what do you do with them? Do you suppress them, do you distract yourself from them, do you pretend they don’t exist? Or do you confront them directly, honestly, courageously? If you decide to do so, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or even in The New York Times. They can only be found within—without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.

But let me be clear that solitude doesn’t always have to mean introspection. Let’s go back to Heart of Darkness. It’s the solitude of concentration that saves Marlow amidst the madness of the Central Station. When he gets there he finds out that the steamboat he’s supposed to sail upriver has a giant hole in it, and no one is going to help him fix it. “I let him run on,” he says, “this papier-mâché Mephistopheles”—he’s talking not about the manager but his assistant, who’s even worse, since he’s still trying to kiss his way up the hierarchy, and who’s been raving away at him. You can think of him as the Internet, the ever-present social buzz, chattering away at you 24/7:

I let him run on, this papier-mâché Mephistopheles and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt. . . .

It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to . . . the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. . . . I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.

“The chance to find yourself.” Now that phrase, “finding yourself,” has acquired a bad reputation. It suggests an aimless liberal-arts college graduate—an English major, no doubt, someone who went to a place like Amherst or Pomona—who’s too spoiled to get a job and spends his time staring off into space. But here’s Marlow, a mariner, a ship’s captain. A more practical, hardheaded person you could not find. And I should say that Marlow’s creator, Conrad, spent 19 years as a merchant marine, eight of them as a ship’s captain, before he became a writer, so this wasn’t just some artist’s idea of a sailor. Marlow believes in the need to find yourself just as much as anyone does, and the way to do it, he says, is work, solitary work. Concentration. Climbing on that steamboat and spending a few uninterrupted hours hammering it into shape. Or building a house, or cooking a meal, or even writing a college paper, if you really put yourself into it.

“Your own reality—for yourself, not for others.” Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.

So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself.

Second, most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: this is precisely what makes them valuable. They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today. Even if they merely reflect the conventional wisdom of their own day, they say something different from what you hear all the time. But the great books, the ones you find on a syllabus, the ones people have continued to read, don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day. They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today. And when I say “revolutionary,” I am deliberately evoking the American Revolution, because it was a result of precisely this kind of independent thinking. Without solitude—the solitude of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine—there would be no America.

So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship. Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend’s room listening to music and studying. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.”

Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person. One other person you can trust, one other person to whom you can unfold your soul. One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things—to acknowledge things to yourself—that you otherwise can’t. Doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask. Feelings or opinions that would get you laughed at by the group or reprimanded by the authorities.

This is what we call thinking out loud, discovering what you believe in the course of articulating it. But it takes just as much time and just as much patience as solitude in the strict sense. And our new electronic world has disrupted it just as violently. Instead of having one or two true friends that we can sit and talk to for three hours at a time, we have 968 “friends” that we never actually talk to; instead we just bounce one-line messages off them a hundred times a day. This is not friendship, this is distraction.

I know that none of this is easy for you. Even if you threw away your cell phones and unplugged your computers, the rigors of your training here keep you too busy to make solitude, in any of these forms, anything less than very difficult to find. But the highest reason you need to try is precisely because of what the job you are training for will demand of you.

You’ve probably heard about the hazing scandal at the U.S. naval base in Bahrain that was all over the news recently. Terrible, abusive stuff that involved an entire unit and was orchestrated, allegedly, by the head of the unit, a senior noncommissioned officer. What are you going to do if you’re confronted with a situation like that going on in your unit? Will you have the courage to do what’s right? Will you even know what the right thing is? It’s easy to read a code of conduct, not so easy to put it into practice, especially if you risk losing the loyalty of the people serving under you, or the trust of your peer officers, or the approval of your superiors. What if you’re not the commanding officer, but you see your superiors condoning something you think is wrong?

How will you find the strength and wisdom to challenge an unwise order or question a wrongheaded policy? What will you do the first time you have to write a letter to the mother of a slain soldier? How will you find words of comfort that are more than just empty formulas?

These are truly formidable dilemmas, more so than most other people will ever have to face in their lives, let alone when they’re 23. The time to start preparing yourself for them is now. And the way to do it is by thinking through these issues for yourself—morality, mortality, honor—so you will have the strength to deal with them when they arise. Waiting until you have to confront them in practice would be like waiting for your first firefight to learn how to shoot your weapon. Once the situation is upon you, it’s too late. You have to be prepared in advance. You need to know, already, who you are and what you believe: not what the Army believes, not what your peers believe (that may be exactly the problem), but what you believe.

How can you know that unless you’ve taken counsel with yourself in solitude? I started by noting that solitude and leadership would seem to be contradictory things. But it seems to me that solitude is the very essence of leadership. The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.


“Make Good Art” by Neil Gaiman

This speech was delivered on May 17, 2012 commencement ceremony at The University of the Arts.

Speech Transcript

I never really expected to find myself giving advice to people graduating from an establishment of higher education.  I never graduated from any such establishment. I never even started at one. I escaped from school as soon as I could, when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I’d become the writer I wanted to be was stifling.

I got out into the world, I wrote, and I became a better writer the more I wrote, and I wrote some more, and nobody ever seemed to mind that I was making it up as I went along, they just read what I wrote and they paid for it, or they didn’t, and often they commissioned me to write something else for them.

Which has left me with a healthy respect and fondness for higher education that those of my friends and family, who attended Universities, were cured of long ago.

Looking back, I’ve had a remarkable ride. I’m not sure I can call it a career, because a career implies that I had some kind of career plan, and I never did. The nearest thing I had was a list I made when I was 15 of everything I wanted to do: to write an adult novel, a children’s book, a comic, a movie, record an audiobook, write an episode of Doctor Who… and so on. I didn’t have a career. I just did the next thing on the list.

So I thought I’d tell you everything I wish I’d known starting out, and a few things that, looking back on it, I suppose that I did know. And that I would also give you the best piece of advice I’d ever got, which I completely failed to follow.

First of all: When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing.

This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can.

If you don’t know it’s impossible it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that again, yet.

Secondly, If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that.

And that’s much harder than it sounds and, sometimes in the end, so much easier than you might imagine. Because normally, there are things you have to do before you can get to the place you want to be. I wanted to write comics and novels and stories and films, so I became a journalist, because journalists are allowed to ask questions, and to simply go and find out how the world works, and besides, to do those things I needed to write and to write well, and I was being paid to learn how to write economically,  crisply, sometimes under adverse conditions, and on time.

Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes  it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you are doing the correct thing, because you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.

Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.

I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.

Thirdly, When you start off, you have to deal with the problems of failure. You need to be thickskinned, to learn that not every project will survive. A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.

The problems of failure are problems of discouragement, of hopelessness, of hunger. You want everything to happen and you want it now, and things go wrong. My first book – a piece of journalism I had done for the money, and which had already bought me an electric typewriter  from the advance – should have been a bestseller. It should have paid me a lot of money. If the publisher hadn’t gone into involuntary liquidation between the first print run selling out and the second printing, and before any royalties could be paid, it would have done.

And I shrugged, and I still had my electric typewriter and enough money to pay the rent for a couple of months, and I decided that I would do my best in future not to write books just for the money. If you didn’t get the money, then you didn’t have anything. If I did work I was proud of, and I didn’t get the money, at least I’d have the work.

Every now and again, I forget that rule, and whenever I do, the universe kicks me hard and reminds me. I don’t know that it’s an issue for anybody but me, but it’s true that nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money was ever worth it, except as bitter experience. Usually I didn’t wind up getting the money, either.  The things I did because I was excited, and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down, and I’ve never regretted the time I spent on any of them.

The problems of failure are hard.

The problems of success can be harder, because nobody warns you about them.

The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you. It’s Imposter Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.

In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don’t know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn’t consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read. And then I would go away quietly and get the kind of job where you don’t have to make things up any more.

The problems of success. They’re real, and with luck you’ll experience them. The point where you stop saying yes to everything, because now the bottles you threw in the ocean are all coming back, and have to learn to say no.

I watched my peers, and my friends, and the ones who were older than me and watch how miserable some of them were: I’d listen to them telling me that they couldn’t envisage a world where they did what they had always wanted to do any more, because now they had to earn a certain amount every month just to keep where they were. They couldn’t go and do the things that mattered, and that they had really wanted to do; and that seemed as a big a tragedy as any problem of failure.

And after that, the biggest problem of success is that the world conspires to stop you doing the thing that you do, because you are successful. There was a day when I looked up and realised that I had become someone who professionally replied to email, and who wrote as a hobby.  I started answering fewer emails, and was relieved to find I was writing much more.

Fourthly, I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. I once misspelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, “Coraline looks like a real name…”

And remember that whatever discipline you are in, whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a designer, whatever you do you have one thing that’s unique. You have the ability to make art.

And for me, and for so many of the people I have known, that’s been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones.

Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.

Make good art.

I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

Make it on the good days too.

And Fifthly, while you are at it, make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.

The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.

The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.

The things I’ve done that worked the best were the things I was the least certain about, the stories where I was sure they would either work, or more likely be the kinds of embarrassing failures people would gather together and talk about  until the end of time. They always had that in common: looking back at them, people explain why they were inevitable successes. While I was doing them, I had no idea.

I still don’t. And where would be the fun in making something you knew was going to work?

And sometimes the things I did really didn’t work. There are stories of mine that have never been reprinted. Some of them never even left the house. But I learned as much from them as I did from the things that worked.

Sixthly. I will pass on some secret freelancer knowledge. Secret knowledge is always good. And it is useful for anyone who ever plans to create art for other people, to enter a freelance world of any kind. I learned it in comics, but it applies to other fields too. And it’s this:

People get hired because, somehow, they get hired. In my case I did something which these days would be easy to check, and would get me into trouble, and when I started out, in those pre-internet days, seemed like a sensible career strategy: when I was asked by editors who I’d worked for, I lied. I listed a handful of magazines that sounded likely, and I sounded confident, and I got jobs. I then made it a point of honour to have written something for each of the magazines I’d listed to get that first job, so that I hadn’t actually lied, I’d just been chronologically challenged… You get work however you get work.

People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

When I agreed to give this address, I started trying to think what the best advice I’d been given over the years was.

And it came from Stephen King twenty years ago, at the height of the success of Sandman. I was writing a comic that people loved and were taking seriously. King had liked Sandman and my novel with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, and he saw the madness, the long signing lines, all that, and his advice was this:

“This is really great. You should enjoy it.”

And I didn’t. Best advice I got that I ignored.Instead I worried about it. I worried about the next deadline, the next idea, the next story. There wasn’t a moment for the next fourteen or fifteen years that I wasn’t writing something in my head, or wondering about it. And I didn’t stop and look around and go, this is really fun. I wish I’d enjoyed it more. It’s been an amazing ride. But there were parts of the ride I missed, because I was too worried about things going wrong, about what came next, to enjoy the bit I was on.

That was the hardest lesson for me, I think: to let go and enjoy the ride, because the ride takes you to some remarkable and unexpected places.

And here, on this platform, today, is one of those places. (I am enjoying myself immensely.)

To all today’s graduates: I wish you luck. Luck is useful. Often you will discover that the harder you work, and the more wisely you work, the luckier you get. But there is luck, and it helps.

We’re in a transitional world right now, if you’re in any kind of artistic field, because the nature of distribution is changing, the models by which creators got their work out into the world, and got to keep a roof over their heads and buy sandwiches while they did that, are all changing. I’ve talked to people at the top of the food chain in publishing, in bookselling, in all those areas, and nobody knows what the landscape will look like two years from now, let alone a decade away. The distribution channels that people had built over the last century or so are in flux for print, for visual artists, for musicians, for creative people of all kinds.

Which is, on the one hand, intimidating, and on the other, immensely liberating. The rules, the assumptions, the now-we’re supposed to’s of how you get your work seen, and what you do then, are breaking down. The gatekeepers are leaving their gates. You can be as creative as you need to be to get your work seen. YouTube and the web (and whatever comes after YouTube and the web) can give you more people watching than television ever did. The old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are.

So make up your own rules.

Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped.

So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.

And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.


“Personal Renewal” by John W. Gardner

This speech was delivered by John W. Gardner to McKinsey & Company on November 10, 1990.

Speech Transcript

I'm going to talk about “Self-Renewal.” One of your most fundamental tasks is the renewal of the organizations you serve, and that usually includes persuading the top officers to accomplish a certain amount of self-renewal. But to help you think about others is not my primary mission this morning. I want to help you think about yourselves.

I take that mission very seriously, and I've written out what I have to say because I want every sentence to hit its target. I know a good deal about the kind of work you do and know how demanding it is. But I'm not going to talk about the special problems of your kind of career; I'm going to talk about some basic problems of the life cycle that will surely hit you if you're not ready for them.

I once wrote a book called “Self-Renewal” that deals with the decay and renewal of societies, organizations and individuals. I explored the question of why civilizations die and how they sometimes renew themselves, and the puzzle of why some men and women go to seed while others remain vital all of their lives. It's the latter question that I shall deal with at this time. I know that you as an individual are not going to seed. But the person seated on your right may be in fairly serious danger.

Not long ago, I read a splendid article on barnacles. I don't want to give the wrong impression of the focus of my reading interests. Sometimes days go by without my reading about barnacles, much less remembering what I read. But this article had an unforgettable opening paragraph. “The barnacle” the author explained “is confronted with an existential decision about where it's going to live. Once it decides.. . it spends the rest of its life with its head cemented to a rock..” End of quote. For a good many of us, it comes to that.

We've all seen men and women, even ones in fortunate circumstances with responsible positions who seem to run out of steam in midcareer.

One must be compassionate in assessing the reasons. Perhaps life just presented them with tougher problems than they could solve. It happens. Perhaps something inflicted a major wound on their confidence or their self-esteem. Perhaps they were pulled down by the hidden resentments and grievances that grow in adult life, sometimes so luxuriantly that, like tangled vines, they immobilize the victim. You've known such people — feeling secretly defeated, maybe somewhat sour and cynical, or perhaps just vaguely dispirited. Or maybe they just ran so hard for so long that somewhere along the line they forgot what it was they were running for.

I'm not talking about people who fail to get to the top in achievement. We can't all get to the top, and that isn't the point of life anyway. I'm talking about people who — no matter how busy they seem to be — have stopped learning or growing. Many of them are just going through the motions. I don't deride that. Life is hard. Just to keep on keeping on is sometimes an act of courage. But I do worry about men and women functioning far below the level of their potential.

We have to face the fact that most men and women out there in the world of work are more stale than they know, more bored than they would care to admit. Boredom is the secret ailment of large-scale organizations. Someone said to me the other day “How can I be so bored when I'm so busy?” And I said “Let me count the ways.” Logan Pearsall Smith said that boredom can rise to the level of a mystical experience, and if that's true I know some very busy middle level executives who are among the great mystics of all time.

We can't write off the danger of complacency, growing rigidity, imprisonment by our own comfortable habits and opinions. Look around you. How many people whom you know well — people even younger than yourselves –are already trapped in fixed attitudes and habits. A famous French writer said “There are people whose clocks stop at a certain point in their lives.” I could without any trouble name a half of a dozen national figures resident in Washington, D.C., whom you would recognize, and could tell you roughly the year their clock stopped. I won't do it because I still have to deal with them periodically.

I've watched a lot of mid-career people, and Yogi Berra says you can observe a lot just by watching. I've concluded that most people enjoy learning and growing. And many are dearly troubled by the self-assessments of mid-career.

Such self-assessments are no great problem at your age. You're young and moving up. The drama of your own rise is enough. But when you reach middle age, when your energies aren't what they used to be, then you'll begin to wonder what it all added up to; you'll begin to look for the figure in the carpet of your life. I have some simple advice for you when you begin that process. Don't be too hard on yourself. Look ahead. Someone said that “Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.” And above all don't imagine that the story is over. Life has a lot of chapters.

If we are conscious of the danger of going to seed, we can resort to countervailing measures. At almost any age. You don't need to run down like an unwound clock. And if your clock is unwound, you can wind it up again. You can stay alive in every sense of the word until you fail physically. I know some pretty successful people who feel that that just isn't possible for them, that life has trapped them. But they don't really know that. Life takes unexpected turns.

I said in my book, “Self-Renewal,” that we build our own prisons and serve as our own jail-keepers. I no longer completely agree with that. I still think we're our own jailkeepers, but I've concluded that our parents and the society at large have a hand in building our prisons. They create roles for us — and self images — that hold us captive for a long time. The individual intent on self-renewal will have to deal with ghosts of the past — the memory of earlier failures, the remnants of childhood dramas and rebellions, accumulated grievances and resentments that have long outlived their cause. Sometimes people cling to the ghosts with something almost approaching pleasure — but the hampering effect on growth is inescapable. As Jim Whitaker, who climbed Mount Everest, said “You never conquer the mountain, You only conquer yourself.”

The more I see of human lives, the more I believe the business of growing up is much longer drawn out than we pretend. If we achieve it in our 30's, even our 40s, we're doing well. To those of you who are parents of teenagers, I can only say “Sorry about that.”

There's a myth that learning is for young people. But as the proverb says, “It's what you learn after you know it all that counts.” The middle years are great, great learning years. Even the years past the middle years. I took on a new job after my 77th birthday — and I'm still learning.

Learn all your life. Learn from your failures. Learn from your successes, When you hit a spell of trouble, ask “What is it trying to teach me?” The lessons aren't always happy ones, but they keep coming. It isn't a bad idea to pause occasionally for an inward look. By midlife, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.

We learn from our jobs, from our friends and families. We learn by accepting the commitments of life, by playing the roles that life hands us (not necessarily the roles we would have chosen). We learn by growing older, by suffering, by loving, by bearing with the things we can't change, by taking risks.

The things you learn in maturity aren't simple things such as acquiring information and skills. You learn not to engage in self-destructive behavior. You leant not to burn up energy in anxiety. You discover how to manage your tensions, if you have any, which you do. You learn that self-pity and resentment are among the most toxic of drugs. You find that the world loves talent, but pays off on character.

You come to understand that most people are neither for you nor against you, they are thinking about themselves. You learn that no matter how hard you try to please, some people in this world are not going to love you, a lesson that is at first troubling and then really quite relaxing.

Those are things that are hard to learn early in life, As a rule you have to have picked up some mileage and some dents in your fenders before you understand. As Norman Douglas said “There are some things you can't learn from others. You have to pass through the fire.'

You come to terms with yourself. You finally grasp what S. N. Behrman meant when he said “At the end of every road you meet yourself.” You may not get rid of all of your hang-ups, but you learn to control them to the point that you can function productively and not hurt others.

You learn the arts of mutual dependence, meeting the needs of loved ones and letting yourself need them. You can even be unaffected — a quality that often takes years to acquire. You can achieve the simplicity that lies beyond sophistication.

You come to understand your impact on others. It's interesting that even in the first year of life you learn the impact that a variety of others have on you, but as late as middle age many people have a very imperfect understanding of the impact they themselves have on others. The hostile person keeps asking ‘Why are people so hard to get along with?” In some measure we create our own environment. You may not yet grasp the power of that truth to change your life.

Of course failures are a part of the story too. Everyone fails, Joe Louis said “Everyone has to figure to get beat some time.” The question isn't did you fail but did you pick yourself up and move ahead? And there is one other little question: ‘Did you collaborate in your own defeat?” A lot of people do. Learn not to.

One of the enemies of sound, lifelong motivation is a rather childish conception we have of the kind of concrete, describable goal toward which all of our efforts drive us. We want to believe that there is a point at which we can feel that we have arrived. We want a scoring system that tells us when we've piled up enough points to count ourselves successful.

So you scramble and sweat and climb to reach what you thought was the goal. When you get to the top you stand up and look around and chances are you feel a little empty. Maybe more than a little empty.

You wonder whether you climbed the wrong mountain.

But life isn't a mountain that has a summit, Nor is it — as some suppose — a riddle that has an answer. Nor a game that has a final score.

Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one's capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.

Perhaps you imagine that by age 35 or 45 or even 33 you have explored those potentialities pretty fully. Don't kid yourself!

The thing you have to understand is that the capacities you actually develop to the full come out as the result of an interplay between you and life's challenges –and the challenges keep changing. Life pulls things out of you.

There's something I know about you that you may or may not know about yourself. You have within you more resources of energy than have ever been tapped, more talent than has ever been exploited, more strength than has ever been tested, more to give than you have ever given.

You know about some of the gifts that you have left undeveloped. Would you believe that you have gifts and possibilities you don't even know about? It's true. We are just beginning to recognize how even those who have had every advantage and opportunity unconsciously put a ceiling on their own growth, underestimate their potentialities or hide from the risk that growth involves.

Now I've discussed renewal at some length, but it isn't possible to talk about renewal without touching on the subject of motivation. Someone defined horse sense as the good judgment horses have that prevents them from betting on people. But we have to bet on people — and I place my bets more often on high motivation than on any other quality except judgment. There is no perfection of techniques that will substitute for the lift of spirit and heightened performance that comes from strong motivation, The world is moved by highly motivated people, by enthusiasts, by men and women who want something very much or believe very much.

I'm not talking about anything as narrow as ambition. After all, ambition eventually wears out and probably should. But you can keep your zest until the day you die. If I may offer you a simple maxim, “Be interesting,” Everyone wants to be interesting — but the vitalizing thing is to be interested. Keep a sense of curiosity. Discover new things. Care. Risk failure. Reach out.

The nature of one's personal commitments is a powerful element in renewal, so let me say a word on that subject.

I once lived in a house where I could look out a window as I worked at my desk and observe a small herd of cattle browsing in a neighboring field. And I was struck with a thought that must have occurred to the earliest herdsmen tens of thousands of years ago. You never get the impression that a cow is about to have a nervous breakdown. Or is puzzling about the meaning of life.

Humans have never mastered that kind of complacency. We are worriers and puzzlers, and we want meaning in our lives. I'm not speaking idealistically; I'm stating a plainly observable fact about men and women. It's a rare person who can go through life like a homeless alley cat, living from day to day, taking its pleasures where it can and dying unnoticed.

That isn't to say that we haven't all known a few alley cats. But it isn't the norm. It just isn't the way we're built.

As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Old or young, we're on our last cruise.” We want it to mean something.

For many this life is a vale of tears; for no one is it free of pain. But we are so designed that we can cope with it if we can live in some context of meaning. Given that powerful help, we can draw on the deep springs of the human spirit, to see our suffering in the framework of all human suffering, to accept the gifts of life with thanks and endure life's indignities with dignity.

In the stable periods of history, meaning was supplied in the context of a coherent communities and traditionally prescribed patterns of culture. Today you can't count on any such heritage. You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments — whether to your religion, to an ethical order as you conceive it, to your life's work, to loved ones, to your fellow humans. Young people run around searching for identity, but it isn't handed out free any more — not in this transient, rootless, pluralistic society. Your identity is what you've committed yourself to.

It may just mean doing a better job at whatever you're doing. There are men and women who make the world better just by being the kind of people they are –and that too is a kind of commitment. They have the gift of kindness or courage or loyalty or integrity. It matters very little whether they're behind the wheel of a truck or running a country store or bringing up a family.

I must pause to say a word about my statement “There are men and women who make the world better just by being the kind of people they are.” I first wrote the sentence some years ago and it has been widely quoted. One day I was looking through a mail order gift catalogue and it included some small ornamental bronze plaques with brief sayings on them, and one of the sayings was the one I just read to you, with my name as author. Well I was so overcome by the idea of a sentence of mine being cast in bronze that I ordered it, but then couldn't figure out what in the world to do with it. I finally sent it to a friend.

We tend to think of youth and the active middle years as the years of commitment. As you get a little older, you're told you've earned the right to think about yourself. But that's a deadly prescription! People of every age need commitments beyond the self, need the meaning that commitments provide. Self-preoccupation is a prison, as every self-absorbed person finally knows. Commitments to larger purposes can get you out of prison.

Another significant ingredient in motivation is one's attitude toward the future. Optimism is unfashionable today, particularly among intellectuals. Everyone makes fun of it. Someone said “Pessimists got that way by financing optimists.” But I am not pessimistic and I advise you not to be. As the fellow said, “I'd be a pessimist but it would never work.”

I can tell you that for renewal, a tough-minded optimism is best. The future is not shaped by people who don't really believe in the future. Men and women of vitality have always been prepared to bet their futures, even their lives, on ventures of unknown outcome. If they had all looked before they leaped, we would still be crouched in caves sketching animal pictures on the wall,

But I did say tough-minded optimism. High hopes that are dashed by the first failure are precisely what we don't need. We have to believe in ourselves, but we mustn't suppose that the path will be easy, it's tough. Life is painful, and rain falls on the just, and Mr. Churchill was not being a pessimist when he said “I have nothing to offer, but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” He had a great deal more to offer, but as a good leader he was saying it wasn't going to be easy, and he was also saying something that all great leaders say constantly — that failure is simply a reason to strengthen resolve.

We cannot dream of a Utopia in which all arrangements are ideal and everyone is flawless. Life is tumultuous — an endless losing and regaining of balance, a continuous struggle, never an assured victory.

Nothing is ever finally safe. Every important battle is fought and re-fought. We need to develop a resilient, indomitable morale that enables us to face those realities and still strive with every ounce of energy to prevail. You may wonder if such a struggle — endless and of uncertain outcome — isn't more than humans can bear. But all of history suggests that the human spirit is well fitted to cope with just that kind of world.

Remember I mentioned earlier the myth that learning is for young people. I want to give you some examples, In a piece I wrote for Reader's Digest not long ago, I gave what seemed to me a particularly interesting true example of renewal. The man in question was 53 years old. Most of his adult life had been a losing struggle against debt and misfortune. In military service he received a battlefield injury that denied him the use of his left arm. And he was seized and held in captivity for five years. Later he held two government jobs, succeeding at neither. At 53 he was in prison — and not for the first time. There in prison, he decided to write a book, driven by Heaven knows what motive — boredom, the hope of gain, emotional release, creative impulse, who can say? And the book turned out to be one of the greatest ever written, a book that has enthralled the world for ever 350 years. The prisoner was Cervantes; the book: Don Quixote.

Another example was Pope John XXIII, a serious man who found a lot to laugh about. The son of peasant farmers, he once said “In Italy there are three roads to poverty — drinking, gambling and fanning. My family chose the slowest of the three.” When someone asked him how many people worked in the Vatican he said “Oh, about half.” He was 76 years old when he was elected Pope. Through a lifetime in the bureaucracy, the spark of spirit and imagination had remained undimmed, and when he reached the top he launched the most vigorous renewal that the Church has known in this century.

Still another example is Winston Churchill. At age 25, as a correspondent in the Boer War he became a prisoner of war and his dramatic escape made him a national hero. Elected to Parliament at 26, he performed brilliantly, held high cabinet posts with distinction and at 37 became First Lord of the Admiralty. Then he was discredited, unjustly, I believe, by the Dardanelles expedition — the defeat at Gallipoli– and lost his admiralty post. There followed 24 years of ups and downs. All too often the verdict on him was “Brilliant but erratic…not steady, not dependable.” He had only himself to blame. A friend described him as a man who jaywalked through life. He was 66 before his moment of flowering came. Someone said “It's all right to be a late bloomer if you don't miss the flower show.” Churchill didn't miss it.

Well, I won't give you any more examples. From those I've given I hope it's clear to you that the door of opportunity doesn't really close as long as you're reasonably healthy. And I don't just mean opportunity for high status, but opportunity to grow and enrich your life in every dimension. You just don't know what's ahead for you. And remember the words on the bronze plaque “Some men and women make the world better just by being the kind of people they are.” To be that kind of person would be worth all the years of living and learning.

Many years ago I concluded a speech with a paragraph on the meaning in life. The speech was reprinted over the years, and 15 years later that final paragraph came back to me in a rather dramatic way, really a heartbreaking way.

A man wrote to me from Colorado saying that his 20 year-old daughter had been killed in an auto accident some weeks before and that she was carrying in her billfold a paragraph from a speech of mine. He said he was grateful because the paragraph — and the fact that she kept it close to her — told him something he might not otherwise have known about her values and concerns. I can't imagine where or how she came across the paragraph, but here it is:

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.”


“Your Elusive Creative Genius” by Elizabeth Gilbert

This speech was originally delivered by Elizabeth Gilbert at TED in February of 2009.

Speech Transcript

I am a writer. Writing books is my profession but it's more than that, of course. It is also my great lifelong love and fascination. And I don't expect that that's ever going to change.

But, that said, something kind of peculiar has happened recently in my life and in my career, which has caused me to have to recalibrate my whole relationship with this work. And the peculiar thing is that I recently wrote this book, this memoir called “Eat, Pray, Love” which, decidedly unlike any of my previous books, went out in the world for some reason, and became this big, mega-sensation, international bestseller thing. The result of which is that everywhere I go now, people treat me like I'm doomed.

Seriously — doomed, doomed! Like, they come up to me now, all worried, and they say, “Aren't you afraid you're never going to be able to top that? Aren't you afraid you're going to keep writing for your whole life and you're never again going to create a book that anybody in the world cares about at all, ever again?”

So that's reassuring, you know.

It would be worse, except for that I happen to remember that over 20 years ago, when I was a teenager, when I first started telling people that I wanted to be a writer, I was met with this same sort of fear-based reaction. And people would say, “Aren't you afraid you're never going to have any success? Aren't you afraid the humiliation of rejection will kill you? Aren't you afraid that you're going to work your whole life at this craft and nothing's ever going to come of it and you're going to die on a scrap heap of broken dreams with your mouth filled with bitter ash of failure?”

The answer — the short answer to all those questions is, “Yes.”

Yes, I'm afraid of all those things. And I always have been. And I'm afraid of many, many more things besides that people can't even guess at, like seaweed and other things that are scary.

But, when it comes to writing, the thing that I've been sort of thinking about lately, and wondering about lately, is why? You know, is it rational? Is it logical that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this Earth to do? And what is it specifically about creative ventures that seems to make us really nervous about each other's mental health in a way that other careers kind of don't do, you know?

Like my dad, for example, was a chemical engineer and I don't recall once in his 40 years of chemical engineering anybody asking him if he was afraid to be a chemical engineer, you know? “That chemical-engineering block, John, how's it going?” It just didn't come up like that, you know? But to be fair, chemical engineers as a group haven't really earned a reputation over the centuries for being alcoholic manic-depressives.

We writers, we kind of do have that reputation, and not just writers, but creative people across all genres, it seems, have this reputation for being enormously mentally unstable. And all you have to do is look at the very grim death count in the 20th century alone, of really magnificent creative minds who died young and often at their own hands, you know?

And even the ones who didn't literally commit suicide seem to be really undone by their gifts, you know. Norman Mailer, just before he died, in his last interview, he said, “Every one of my books has killed me a little more.” An extraordinary statement to make about your life's work. But we don't even blink when we hear somebody say this, because we've heard that kind of stuff for so long and somehow we've completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.

And the question that I want to ask everybody here today is are you guys all cool with that idea? Are you comfortable with that?

Because if you look at it even from an inch away and, you know — I'm not at all comfortable with that assumption. I think it's odious. And I also think it's dangerous, and I don't want to see it perpetuated into the next century. I think it's better if we encourage our great creative minds to live.

And I definitely know that, in my case — in my situation — it would be very dangerous for me to start sort of leaking down that dark path of assumption, particularly given the circumstance that I'm in right now in my career.

I'm pretty young, I'm only about 40 years old. I still have maybe another four decades of work left in me. And it's exceedingly likely that anything I write from this point forward is going to be judged by the world as the work that came after the freakish success of my last book, right? I should just put it bluntly, because we're all sort of friends here now — it's exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me.

Jesus, what a thought! That's the kind of thought that could lead a person to start drinking gin at nine o'clock in the morning, and I don't want to go there. I would prefer to keep doing this work that I love.

And so, the question becomes, how?

It seems to me, upon a lot of reflection, that the way that I have to work now, in order to continue writing, is that I have to create some sort of protective psychological construct. I have to sort of find some way to have a safe distance between me, as I am writing, and my very natural anxiety about what the reaction to that writing is going to be, from now on.

As I've been looking, over the last year, for models for how to do that, I've been sort of looking across time, and I've been trying to find other societies to see if they might have had better and saner ideas than we have about how to help creative people sort of manage the inherent emotional risks of creativity. And that search has led me to ancient Greece and ancient Rome. So stay with me, because it does circle around and back.

In ancient Greece and ancient Rome people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings. People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons.

The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity “daemons.” Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar.

The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist's studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.

So brilliant — there it is, right there, that distance that I'm talking about — that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work.

And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right? So the ancient artist was protected from certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant, you couldn't take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.

And this is how people thought about creativity in the West for a really long time. Then the Renaissance came and everything changed. We had this big idea, and the big idea was, let's put the individual human being at the center of the universe above all gods and mysteries, and there's no more room for mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine. And it's the beginning of rational humanism, and people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius, rather than having a genius.

And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error.

I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It's like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

And, if this is true, and I think it is true, the question becomes, what now? Can we do this differently? Maybe go back to some more ancient understanding about the relationship between humans and the creative mystery. Maybe not. Maybe we can't just erase 500 years of rational humanistic thought in one 18 minute speech. And there's probably people in this audience who would raise really legitimate scientific suspicions about the notion of, basically, fairies who follow people around rubbing fairy juice on their projects and stuff. I'm not, probably, going to bring you all along with me on this.

But the question that I kind of want to pose is — you know, why not? Why not think about it this way? Because it makes as much sense as anything else I have ever heard in terms of explaining the utter maddening capriciousness of the creative process. A process which, as anybody who has ever tried to make something — which is to say basically everyone here — knows does not always behave rationally. And, in fact, can sometimes feel downright paranormal.

I had this encounter recently where I met the extraordinary American poet Ruth Stone, who's now in her 90s, but she's been a poet her entire life and she told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape.

And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.”

And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn't be fast enough, so she'd be running and running, and she wouldn't get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.”

And then there were these times — this is the piece I never forgot — she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right? So, she's running to the house and she's looking for the paper and the poem passes through her, and she grabs a pencil just as it's going through her, and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail, and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first.

That's not at all what my creative process is — I'm not the pipeline! I'm a mule, and the way that I have to work is I have to get up at the same time every day, and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly. But even I, in my mulishness, even I have brushed up against that thing, at times. And I would imagine that a lot of you have too.

You know, even I have had work or ideas come through me from a source that I honestly cannot identify. And what is that thing? And how are we to relate to it in a way that will not make us lose our minds, but, in fact, might actually keep us sane?

And for me, the best contemporary example that I have of how to do that is the musician Tom Waits, who I got to interview several years ago on a magazine assignment. And we were talking about this, and you know, Tom, for most of his life, he was pretty much the embodiment of the tormented contemporary modern artist, trying to control and manage and dominate these sort of uncontrollable creative impulses that were totally internalized.

But then he got older, he got calmer, and one day he was driving down the freeway in Los Angeles, and this is when it all changed for him. And he's speeding along, and all of a sudden he hears this little fragment of melody, that comes into his head as inspiration often comes, elusive and tantalizing, and he wants it, it's gorgeous, and he longs for it, but he has no way to get it. He doesn't have a piece of paper, or a pencil, or a tape recorder.

So he starts to feel all of that old anxiety start to rise in him like, “I'm going to lose this thing, and I'll be be haunted by this song forever. I'm not good enough, and I can't do it.” And instead of panicking, he just stopped. He just stopped that whole mental process and he did something completely novel.

He just looked up at the sky, and he said, “Excuse me, can you not see that I'm driving? Do I look like I can write down a song right now? If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment when I can take care of you. Otherwise, go bother somebody else today. Go bother Leonard Cohen.”

And his whole work process changed after that. Not the work, the work was still oftentimes as dark as ever. But the process, and the heavy anxiety around it was released when he took the genie, the genius out of him where it was causing nothing but trouble, and released it back where it came from, and realized that this didn't have to be this internalized, tormented thing. It could be this peculiar, wondrous, bizarre collaboration, kind of conversation between Tom and the strange, external thing that was not quite Tom.

When I heard that story, it started to shift a little bit the way that I worked too, and this idea already saved me once. It saved me when I was in the middle of writing “Eat, Pray, Love,” and I fell into one of those sort of pits of despair that we all fall into when we're working on something and it's not coming and you start to think this is going to be a disaster, the worst book ever written. Not just bad, but the worst book ever written. And I started to think I should just dump this project.

But then I remembered Tom talking to the open air and I tried it. So I just lifted my face up from the manuscript and I directed my comments to an empty corner of the room. And I said aloud, “Listen you, thing, you and I both know that if this book isn't brilliant that is not entirely my fault, right? Because you can see that I am putting everything I have into this, I don't have any more than this. If you want it to be better, you've got to show up and do your part of the deal. But if you don't do that, you know what, the hell with it. I'm going to keep writing anyway because that's my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.”

Because in the end it's like this — centuries ago in the deserts of North Africa, people used to gather for these moonlight dances of sacred dance and music that would go on for hours and hours, until dawn. They were always magnificent, because the dancers were professionals and they were terrific, right?

But every once in a while, very rarely, something would happen, and one of these performers would actually become transcendent. And I know you know what I'm talking about, because I know you've all seen, at some point in your life, a performance like this. It was like time would stop, and the dancer would sort of step through some kind of portal and he wasn't doing anything different than he had ever done, 1,000 nights before, but everything would align. And all of a sudden, he would no longer appear to be merely human. He would be lit from within, and lit from below and all lit up on fire with divinity.

And when this happened, back then, people knew it for what it was, you know, they called it by its name. They would put their hands together and they would start to chant, “Allah, Allah, Allah, God, God, God.” That's God, you know.

Curious historical footnote: when the Moors invaded southern Spain, they took this custom with them and the pronunciation changed over the centuries from “Allah, Allah, Allah,” to “Olé, olé, olé,” which you still hear in bullfights and in flamenco dances. In Spain, when a performer has done something impossible and magic, “Allah, olé, olé, Allah, magnificent, bravo,” incomprehensible, there it is — a glimpse of God. Which is great, because we need that.

But, the tricky bit comes the next morning, for the dancer himself, when he wakes up and discovers that it's Tuesday at 11 a.m., and he's no longer a glimpse of God. He's just an aging mortal with really bad knees, and maybe he's never going to ascend to that height again. And maybe nobody will ever chant God's name again as he spins, and what is he then to do with the rest of his life?

This is hard. This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life. But maybe it doesn't have to be quite so full of anguish if you never happened to believe, in the first place, that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you. But maybe if you just believed that they were on loan to you from some unimaginable source for some exquisite portion of your life to be passed along when you're finished, with somebody else. And, you know, if we think about it this way, it starts to change everything.

This is how I've started to think, and this is certainly how I've been thinking in the last few months as I've been working on the book that will soon be published, as the dangerously, frighteningly over-anticipated follow up to my freakish success.

And what I have to sort of keep telling myself when I get really psyched out about that is don't be afraid. Don't be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then “Olé!” And if not, do your dance anyhow. And “Olé!” to you, nonetheless.

I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. “Olé!” to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.

Thank you.


“The Common Denominator of Success” by Albert E. N. Gray

It was originally delivered by Albert E. N. Gray to the National Association of Life Underwriters at their annual convention in 1940.

Speech Transcript

Several years ago I was brought face to face with the very disturbing realization that I was trying to supervise and direct the efforts of a large number of men and women who were trying to achieve success, without knowing myself what the secret of success really was. And that, naturally, brought me face to face with the further realization that regardless of what other knowledge I might have brought to my job, I was definitely lacking in the most important knowledge of all.

Of course, like most of us. I have been brought up on the popular belief that the secret of success is hard work, but I had seen so many people work hard without succeeding and so many people succeed without working hard that I had become convinced that hard work was not the real secret even though in most cases it might be one of the requirements.

And so I set out on a voyage of discovery which carried me through biographies and autobiographies and all sorts of dissertations on success and the lives of successful individuals until I finally reached the point at which I realized that the secret I was trying to discover lay not only in what individuals did, but also in what made them do it.

I realized further that the secret for which I was searching must not only apply to every definition of success, but since it must apply to everyone to whom it was offered it must also apply to everyone who had ever been successful. In short, I was looking for the common denominator of success.

And because that is exactly what I was looking for, that is exactly what I found.

But this common denominator of success is so big, so powerful, and so vitally important to your future and mine that I'm not going to make a speech about it. I'm just going to “lay it on the line” in words of one syllable, so simple that everyone can understand them.

The common denominator of success – secret of success of every individual who has ever been successful – lies in the fact that he or she formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.

It's just as true as it sounds and it's just as simple as it seems. You can hold it up to the light, you can put it to the acid test, and you can kick it around until it's worn out, but when you are all through with it, it will still be the common denominator of success, whether we like it or not.

It will still explain why some individuals have come into this business of ours with every apparent qualification for success and given us our most disappointing failures, while others have come in and achieved outstanding success in spite of many obvious handicaps. And since it will also explain your future, it would seem to be a mighty good idea for you to use it in determining just what sort of a future you are going to have. In other words, let's take this big, all-embracing secret and boil it down to fit the individual you.

If the secret of success lies in forming the habit of doing things that failures don't like to do, let's start the boiling-down process by determining what are the things that failures don't like to do. The things that failures don't like to do are the very things that you and I and other human beings, including successful people, naturally don't like to do. In other words, we've got to realize right from the start that success is something which is achieved by the minority of people, and is therefore unnatural and not to be achieved by following our natural likes and dislikes nor by being guided by our natural preferences and prejudices.

The things that failures don't like to do, in general, are too many and too obvious for us to discuss them here, and so, since our success is to be achieved in the sale of life insurance, let us move on to a discussion of the things that we as life insurance agents don't like to do. Here, too, the things we don't like to do are too many to permit of specific discussion, but I think they can all be disposed of by saying that they all emanate from one basic dislike peculiar to our type of selling. We don't like to call on people who don't want to see us and talk to them about something they don't want to talk about. Any reluctance to follow a prospecting program, to use prepared sales talks, to organize time and to organize effort are all caused by this one basic dislike.

Perhaps you have wondered what is behind this peculiar lack of welcome on the pan of our prospective buyers. Isn't it due to the fact that our prospects are human too? And isn't it true that average human beings are not big enough to buy life insurance of their own accord and are therefore prone to escape our efforts to make them bigger or persuade them to do something they don’t want to do by striking at the most important weakness we possess; namely, our desire to be appreciated?

Perhaps you have been discouraged by a feeling that you were born subject to certain dislikes peculiar to you, with which the successful agents in our business are not afflicted. Perhaps you have wondered why it is that our biggest producers seem to like to do the things that you don’t like to do.

They don't! And I think this is the most encouraging statement I have ever offered to a group of life insurance agents.

But if they don't like to do these things, then why do they do them? Because by doing the things they don't like to do, they can accomplish the things they want to accomplish. Successful people are influenced by the desire for pleasing results. Failures are influenced by the desire for pleasing methods and are included to be satisfied with such results as can be obtained by doing things they like to do.

Why are successful people able to do things they don't like to do while failures are not? Because successful people have a purpose strong enough to make them form the habit of doing things they don't like to do in order to accomplish the purpose they want to accomplish.

Sometimes even our best producers get into a slump. When people go into a slump, it simply means that they have reached a point at which, for the time being, the things they don't like to do have become more important than their reasons for doing them. And may I pause to suggest to you managers and agents that when one of your good producers goes into a slump, the less you talk about production and the more you talk about purpose, the sooner you will pull that agent out of that slump?

Many people with whom I have discussed this common denominator of success have said at this point, “But I have a family to support and I have to make a living for my family and myself. Isn't that enough of a purpose?”

No, it isn't. It isn't a sufficiently strong purpose to make you form the habit of doing the things you don't like to do for the very simple reason that it is easier to adjust ourselves to the hardships of a poor living than it is to adjust ourselves to the hardships of making a better one. If you doubt me, just think of all the things you are willing to go without in order to avoid doing the things you don't like to do. All of which seems to prove that the strength which holds you to your purpose is not your own strength but the strength of the purpose itself.

Now, let's see why habit belongs so importantly in this common denominator of success.

People are creatures of habit just as machines are creatures of momentum, for habit is nothing more or less than momentum translated from the concrete into the abstract. Can you picture the problem that would face our mechanical engineers if there were no such things as momentum? Speed would be impossible because the highest speed at which any vehicle could be moved would be the first speed at which it could be broken away from a standstill. Elevators could not be made to rise, airplanes could not be made to fly, and the entire world of mechanics would find itself in a total state of helplessness. Then who are you and I to think that we can do with our own human nature, what the finest engineers in the world could not do with the finest machinery that was ever built?

Every single qualification for success is acquired through habit. People form habits and habits form futures. If you do not deliberately form good habits, then unconsciously you will form bad ones.You are the kind of person you are because you have formed the habit of being that kind of person, and the only way you can change is through habit.

The success habits in life insurance selling are divided into four main groups:

1. Prospecting habits
2. Calling habits
3. Selling habits
4. Working habits

Let's discuss these habit groups in their order.

Any successful life insurance agent will tell you that it is easier to sell life insurance to people who don't want it than it is to find people who do want it, but if you have not deliberately formed the habit of prospecting for needs, regardless of wants, then unconsciously you have formed the habit of limiting your prospecting to people who want life insurance, and therein lies the one and only real reason for lack of prospects.

As to calling habits, unless you have deliberately formed the habit of calling on people who are able to buy but unwilling to listen, then unconsciously you have formed the habit of calling on people who are willing to listen but unable to buy.

As to selling habits, unless you have deliberately formed the habit of calling on prospects determined to make them see their reasons for buying life insurance, then unconsciously you have formed the habit of calling on prospects in a state of mind in which you are willing to let them make you see their reasons for not buying it.

As to working habits, if you will take care of the other three groups, the working habits will generally take care of themselves because under working habits are included study and preparation, organization of time and efforts, records, analyses, etc. Certainly you're not going to take the trouble to learn interest arousing approaches and sales talks unless you're going to use them. You're not going to plan your day's work when you know in your heart that you're not going to carry out your plans. And you're certainly not going to keep an honest record of things you haven't done or of results you haven't achieved. So let's not worry so much about the fourth group of success habits, for if you are taking care of the first three groups, most of the working habits will take care of themselves and you'll be able to afford a secretary to take care of the rest of them for you.

But before you decide to adopt these success habits, let me warn you of the importance of habit to your decision. I have attended many sales meetings and sales congresses during the past ten years and have often wondered why, in spite of the fact that there is so much good in them, so many people seem to get so little lasting good out of them. Perhaps you have attended sales meetings in the past and have left these meetings determined to do the things that would make you successful or more successful only to find your decision or determination waning at just the time when it should be put into effect or practice.

Here's the answer. Any resolution of decision you make is simply a promise to yourself which isn’t worth a tinker's damn until you have formed the habit of making it and keeping it. And you won't form the habit of making it and keeping it unless right at the start you link it with a definite purpose that can be accomplished by keeping it, in other words, any resolution or decision you make today has to be made again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, and the next, and so on. And it not only has to be made each day, but it has to be kept each day for if you miss one day in the making or keeping of it, you've got to go back and begin all over again. But if you continue the process of making it each morning and keeping it each day, you will finally wake up some morning, a different person in a different world, and you will wonder what has happened to you and the world you used to live in.

Here's what has happened. Your resolution or decision has become a habit and you won't have to make it on this particular morning. And the reason for your seeming like a different person living in a different world lies in the fact that for the first time in your life, you have control of yourself and control of your likes and dislikes by surrendering to your purpose in life. That is why behind every success there must be a purpose and that is what makes purpose so important to your future. For in the last analysis, your future is not going to depend on economic conditions or outside influences of circumstances over which you have no control. Your future is going to depend on your purpose in life. So let's talk about purpose.

First of all, your purpose must be practical and not visionary. Some time ago, I talked with a woman who thought she had a purpose which was more important to her than income. She was interested in people's suffering and she wanted to be placed in a position to alleviate that suffering. But when we analyzed her real feelings, we discovered, and she admitted it, that what she really wanted was a real nice job dispensing charity with other people's money and being well paid for it, along with the appreciation and feeling of importance that would naturally go with such a job.

But in making your purpose practical, be careful not to make it logical. Make it a purpose of the sentimental or emotional type. Remember needs are logical while wants and desires are sentimental and emotional. Your needs will push you just so far, but when your needs are satisfied, they will stop pushing you. If, however, your purpose is in terms of wants or desires, then your wants and desires are fulfilled.

Recently I was talking with a young man who long ago discovered the common denominator of success without identifying his discovery. He had a definite purpose in life and it was definitely a sentimental or emotional purpose.

He wanted his children to go through college without having to work their way through as he had done. And he wanted his wife, and mother of his children, to enjoy the luxuries and comforts and even necessities, which had been denied his own mother. And he was willing to form the habit of doing things he didn‘t like to do in order to accomplish this purpose.

Not to discourage him, but rather to have him encourage me, I said to him, “Aren't you going a little too far with this thing? There's no logical reason why your children shouldn't be willing and able to work their way through college just as their father did. Of course they'll miss many of the things that you missed in your college life and they'll probably have heartaches and disappointments. But if they're any good, they'll come through in the end just as you did. And there's no logical reason why you should slave in order that your wife can enjoy comforts and luxuries that your mother never had.”

He looked at me with a rather pitying look and said, “But Mr. Gray, there's no inspiration in logic. There's no courage in logic. There's not even happiness in logic. There's only satisfaction. The only place logic has in my life is in the realization that the more I am willing to do for my family, the more I shall be able to do for myself.”

I imagine, after hearing that story, you won't have to be told how to find your purpose or how to identify it or how to surrender to it. If it's a big purpose, you will be big in its accomplishment. If it's an unselfish purpose, you will be unselfish in accomplishing it. And if it's an honest purpose, you will be honest and honorable in the accomplishment of it.

But as long as you live, don't ever forget that while you may succeed beyond your fondest hopes and your greatest expectations, you will never succeed beyond the purpose to which you are willing to surrender. Furthermore, your surrender will not be complete until you have formed the habit of doing things that failures don't like to do.


“Runnin’ Down a Dream: How to Succeed and Thrive in a Career You Love” by Bill Gurley

This speech was delivered at the McCombs School at the University of Texas by Bill Gurley.

Speech Transcript

Thanks for having me. Believe it or not, I've been thinking about giving this particular presentation for about a decade. I've been talking to the administration. I was inspired after studying the stories of three people that you might call luminaries. They were probably heroes of mine when I read about them, and I noticed an overlap of pattern amongst them. That's what I'm here to talk about. Now, how many people in the room have heard of the phrase Dream Job? Raise your hand. All right, everybody has heard the phrase, so you know what it means. It means chasing a career where you just have immense passion. My partner Kevin Harvey has a phrase that I love, and he says, “Life is a use or lose it proposition.” For most humans, they take one career path. If you've only got one shot, and then it's all over why not do what makes you most happy?

By the way, one of the reasons this is the audience, and I want to thank you for being here, this is the audience I wanted to do this presentation to first because I think coming to an MBA program is this amazingly unique opportunity you have. You've had your undergrad degree. You've worked a little bit, and now you have this chance to go do whatever you want. It's an amazing pivot point. For me, you're the opportune audience for this, and, obviously, I wanted to come back to Texas to do it. Thanks for having me.

What I'm going to do first is I'm going to start by telling three stories of these luminaries, and then after that I'm going to walk through five guidelines that I've inferred from what they did. Then there's some special stories at the end as well. I'm going to start in Orville, Ohio. Anyone know what company was founded in Orville in 1897? I'll give you 20 bucks if anybody knows, Smucker's. That has nothing to do with this presentation.

The first gentleman I'm talking about is a guy named Robert Montgomery that grew up in Orville. This is in 1940, and this is what the town looked like when he did. He attended Orville High School where he was a three-sport letter man, baseball, football, basketball. He was lucky enough one of his neighbors knew the coach, Fred Taylor at Ohio State, and he was able to get a spot on a really good basketball team. This is Robert, number 24. He's a point guard. That's him peering into the huddle. That's Fred Taylor, the coach of Ohio State at the time.

Robert wasn't a starter. He came off the bench, and he didn't get a ton of minutes, but this team had John Havlicek and John Cuzzie. His sophomore year they won the national championship. They played in the national championship his junior and senior year. Those two players that I mentioned went onto the NBA, and Robert went into coaching. He spent his first year as a JV coach at a high school, and then finagled his way onto the staff at Army. At 22, he was an assistant at Army, the Black Knights. They played here in Gillis Field House.

When he was 24 the head coach retired, and he begged for the job. This is him signing the contract. At 24, he became head coach of a D-1 school. Now, what ended up making Robert successful, from my point of view, isn't what happened inside the four walls of the gym where they practiced every day. It's what he did outside. In the first five years of his coaching career he befriended five of the top basketball minds on the East Coast. This is Red Auerbach, so Havlicek went to Boston, and Red was the coach at the time. He was able to build a relationship through that.

This is Joe Lapchick. Clair Bee coached at Long Island University and has the best record of any coach in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Robert met Clair when he was 25. When he was 27, Robert drove Clair to Clair's induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame and sat next to him. The next one is Henry Iba. He coached 36 years at Oklahoma State and was, at the time, probably one of the most successful basketball coaches of all time. That's Evert Dean from Indiana, and he met all of them and became friends. Two of them Lapchick and Iba, he just went to a coaches' luncheon where he knew they were going to be, and he begged, he said,”Can I sit next to you?” That's how he met both of them. Then he kept following up and hanging out.

A year later he met Pete Newell. Pete was the greatest basketball mind on the West Coast at the time. They became fast friends. Years later Pete would induct Robert into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He didn't limit his peer network to basketball coaches. He met football coaches as well. This was the coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, Bo Schembechler, who would go on to coach at Michigan, was his assistant on the basketball team at Army. He met Bill Parcells around the same time, way before Bill became a star in the National League. Then Doc Counsilman was the long-time swimming coach at Indiana, and also someone that Robert became friends with.

Now, I'm using the name Robert to obscure things a little bit. I'm talking about Bobby Knight. At age 31 Bobby Knight became head coach at Indiana University. Five years later at 36 they went undefeated, both in the regular season and the post season, and won the national championship. That's never been repeated since in over four decades. At Indiana, he would win three national championships, four coach of the year awards, 11 Big 10 titles, and when he retired he had 902 victories, the most of any coach at the time. As I said, Pete Newell inducted Bobby into the Hall of Fame.

I'm going to move onto the next story, and then I'll circle back, and you'll see where I'm going. Now I'm going to start in Hibbing, Minnesota. This is about two or three hours north of Minnesota. Another Robert, Robert Zimmerman, grew up in Hibbing. That's what Hibbing looked like when he was young. Even though it's pretty far north in Minnesota, there's a bit of an urban environment. Robert loved music, and in this early photo he's got a drum. He got a guitar when he was 10 years old, and by high school was playing in a band regularly. They used to cover Elvis and Little Richard. His yearbook says that he's likely to join Little Richard. That didn't happen.

What happened was he went to the University of Minnesota. He didn't go to class. He was hanging out in this place called Dinky Town, which is this photo right here. At the time, and this is late 50s, early 60s, there's a lot of new stuff happening. Even though he grew up playing rock and roll, he fell in love with folk music. Over, I would say, eight or nine months he studied every folk album he possibly could. He didn't have a lot of money. Back in the time you could walk into a record store and listen in a booth. He would do that for hours and hours and hours. He became friends with people that also liked folk music, but had money. He would go to their house and listen to their record collection. He's even accused of having “borrowed” their records and not returned them, which is a point of controversy even still today.

The next thing that happened, I think, is one of the most ambitious actions anyone that I know has taken to pursue their dream job. He hitch-hiked from Minneapolis to New York City. He had a guitar, a suitcase and $10, and it's 1,200 miles. If you ask him today why he did it, he'll talk a little bit about chasing the performers, so this is Dave Van Ronk, Peggy Seeger, the New Lost City Ramblers, these were people he was listening to in Minnesota, but these people were in New York City, and so he wanted to see them.

There was really one person he wanted to see, which is Woody Guthrie. Woody Guthrie had become his hero. If you just go to Wikipedia, once you find out who this is, if you don't know already, he went to New York to find Woody Guthrie. That was his pursuit because he had come to have this affection and love for the way Woody played, and he wanted to know everything he possibly could about it.

He went to New York. He found Woody Guthrie. He used to perform for him. Then he started hanging out at these three venues, the Café Wha?, The Gaslight Café and Gerde's Folk City. This was the epicenter of folk music at the time, and he would sit in each of these venues for hours upon hours and study what the other artists were doing. Years later Liam Clancy would say, “He could perform any one of our songs like us, including tonality, tempo, everything,” so he was a mimic. He was studying, studying, studying. He got a big break. He was asked to open for John Lee Hooker at Gerde's one day, and his career got started.

This gentleman is Joe Hammond. He was the producer for Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Count Basie. One day he walked in and found this gentleman, 1961. I think he's 22, 23, something like that. The next year Robert Zimmerman changes his name to Bob Dylan. John releases the first album. The album does okay. In '63 they released The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. This album goes to number 22 in the U.S. and number one in the UK. From there everything was off and to the races. In '63 he performed at the march on Washington with Joan Baez where Martin Luther King spoke his famous speech. A year later he performed for the first time with Johnny Cash, another one of his heroes. Johnny gave him a guitar and asked if he could record several of his song. Johnny asked Bob if he could record his songs, which he did.

The rest is history, as they say, 100 million albums sold, 11 Grammys, an Oscar, an Emmy. He was introduced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and then he took it to a whole new level, a Kennedy Center Award with Clinton, Barack Obama gave him a Medal of Freedom, and then he topped it off with something that's never been done. He won the Nobel Prize in literature. The only musician ever to be given such an award. That happened two years ago, amazing story.

All right, this one you won't know as well, but it's equally inspiring. Saint Louis, Missouri, the person this time is named Daniel. He grew up in Saint Louis. His father was an intelligence officer in the military, and moved around Europe quite a bit. After the war ended his father became a travel agent, and his mother worked with him, and so they traveled quite a bit. Now, because they were travel agents his mom told him he had to journal everything, so he was forced to go on vacation and take notes. He wasn't that interested in travel, but he loved food. When he went back and looked at all the journal notes he had always taken, they were always about the food they were eating wherever they were. He started to associate different places with the food that he went to.

He went to John Boroughs High School in Saint Louis. Ended up at Trinity College in Connecticut where he would spend every weekend in New York City eating food because that's what he was passionate about. He got a poly-sci major. He went and work on a campaign for a year, wasn't that interesting to him, so he went back to New York. Robert Zimmerman was chasing folk music, Danny was chasing food. His personal life was all about what he could do, and going to different restaurants and exploring.

He went to work for Check Point. They make those things that you attach to clothes in the store so that when you walk out the beeper goes off. This was early in Check Point's life. He did incredibly well there, and within a year was making 125K a year as a salesman, which, he spent the most of it on food in New York City. One night he was out to eat with his uncle and his aunt and his grandmother at Elio's, a restaurant that's open.

He told him that he was studying for the LSAT. He was going to take the LSAT next year and go up his career ladder again and become a lawyer, to which his uncle replied, “Will you just stop it? Why don't you go open a restaurant? You know that's what you're supposed to do.” Caught him a little off-guard, but woke him up. The next day he took the LSAT. He never sent the scores to a single school. Never applied to a single school. He quit his job as a salesman, and went to work at a restaurant called Pesca in the front office for $12,500 a year, so he took a 10x salary reduction.

The reason he chose Pesca is there was a chef there, an up-and-coming chef called Michael Romano. He wanted to be around this gentleman. He would work during the day in the front office, and then at night he'd beg to do the slop work in the kitchen just so he could get exposure to what was happening there. He was also taking a wine class at night, and he met this gentleman who happened to be the head or one of the top restaurant critics for the New York Times. They started hanging out together and going to different restaurants and talking and learning.

He did something really interesting. He made a list of 12 icons in the restaurant industry. These were new people that were doing innovative things around opening new high-end restaurants. Wolfgang Puck is the first one, but there were 12 different. A lot of these people are on celebrity chef shows today. He started studying them. He created a notebook for each and every one of them, what makes them special, what do they do unique? He started looking at their recipes.

Then he got even bolder and decided to go to Europe. He took every single one of the connections he had, both in the restaurant industry and the travel industry through his parents, plus when he was at Trinity he would go do tours in Europe for his parents, and so he had a lot of connections, and he did this. Now, I just had to look this up for the presentation. It's a stagiaire, which I think is a fancy French word for, “I'll work in a restaurant for free,” because that's what he did. One of the restaurants that he worked in he had to pay $500 a month, which I ran the math, and that's equal to a negative 25 thousand K a year salary. He's gone from making 125 to 12, to now he's upside down 25.

What he does is what you think he would do. He studies, so in each and every one of these places, each and every one of these restaurants he's watching the chef. He's watching the recipes. He goes on the sourcing trips to see how they pick food out of markets or from different fish markets. He just takes tons of notes. He looks at the décor, he looks at the wine list. On the way home from this nine-month journey he said it took the entire eight and a half hour flight just to organize the notes.

When he gets back to New York he'll spend another six or seven months searching a hundred locations to find the very best location to launch his first restaurant. He's 27 years old when he opened his Union Square Café. This is Danny Meyer for those of you that might know who he is. I love this quote. He's most proud of the studying he did on his own, not the studying that he did at Trinity College. He viewed this as the best work he had ever done as a student. Union Square Café is still open today, 11 times Zagat has said it's the very best restaurant in New York. Danny Meyer would go on to launch 16 high-end restaurants in New York City, four have won Michelin Stars. He is the undisputed king of high-end restaurants in New York City, but he wasn't done.

A lot of these restaurants, Danny would open in areas that needed re-gentrification. He had a philosophy that if he could build a restaurant it could become the bespoke place that people go, and then the community would evolve, that he would get a lift alongside that. He, typically, would look for areas that were on the rise, but needed help. One area that needed a lot of help was Madison Square Park, which wasn't far from Union Square. He and a bunch of other business people helped launch the Madison Square Conservancy that rebuilt the park. A few years after that happened they started improving the park. There was a decision made to allow there to be a restaurant in the center of the park. He applied, got the bid, and won. That was the location of the first Shake Shack.

A while later I'm going to go through something so you'll see the work that went into launching the first Shake Shack. If you go to the first Shake Shack, it doesn't look like this. If you want to eat it looks like this when it's open. There's always a line. I got to know Danny on the Open Table board. We worked together for over a decade, and he used to tell me I had to keep it a secret, but that this single venue made way-more profit than any of the white table cloth restaurants that he owned. Of course, fast-forward today. There's 190 Shake Shacks around the world. 2015 they took Shake Shack public on the NYSC, and it's now worth 2.2 billion. I think there's one here in Austin, correct?

These were the three stories. I had read them all independently, and I noticed that there was a similar strain that was running through each and every one of these stories. Now I've organized that, and I want to talk to you about it. The first one is the one that I can provide the least amount of help with you about because I don't know what your passions are. My first piece of advice would be to find your passion. Pick a profession in which you have a deep, personal interest.

There's nothing that's going to make you be more successful than if you love doing what you're doing because you're going to work harder than anybody else because it's going to feel like work. It's going to feel like fun. I think this is the most important decision you can possibly make in a career, is to make sure you have immense passion for what you're doing. This should be your personal passion, not your parents, not your sister's, not your family generation of expectation. It needs to be something that you're doing on your own. It might be that your passionate about the same thing as your parents. You don't have to run from them, but you need to know that this is something you're doing on your own.

Then, I also mention status and compensation. There are a lot of high-profile careers that make a lot of money, and they're generally perceived to be areas where successful people go. If you run at those things and don't have a passion for them you're going to burn out eventually. It's not going to be where you want to be. The last point is just you can't fake it. Somebody else sitting in some other MBA program has a deep passion for whatever career path you're going down, and they're going to smoke you if you don't have it yourself.

This is one of my favorite quotes from Bobby Knight. He says, “Everybody has the will to win. People don't have the will to practice.” I think this is the test for whether or not you're actually pursuing your dream job, which is the essence of it that would be considered studying or work or practice, do you enjoy that part? Do you enjoy the preparation? Everybody enjoys winning. Do you enjoy the preparation?

The second of the five guidelines I'd have for you is hone your craft constantly. It's extremely important to be obsessive about understanding everything you possibly can about your craft. Consider it an obligation. Hold yourself accountable. That requires you to keep learning over time. Study the history, know the pioneers. It's the bedrock foundation for what you're going to build upon, and it will help you in networking that you're able to talk the language of the people that came before you.

Strive to know more than everyone else about your particular craft. That can be in a subgroup. What do I mean by that? Let's say you love E-sports. Let's just say you've decided multiplayer gaming E-sports, like, this is it for you. You grew up gaming, “I love it.” All right? Within the first six months of being in this program you should be the most knowledgeable person at McCombs in E-sports. That's doable. You should be able to do that. Then, by the end of your first year you should be top five of all MBA students, and, hopefully, when you exit your second year you're number one of any MBA student out there. It doesn't mean you're the best E-sports person in the world, but you've separated yourself from everyone else that's out there. I can't make you the smartest or the brightest, but it's quite doable to be the most knowledgeable. It's possible to gather more information than somebody else, especially today.

Then, lastly, and this is a bit of a caveat, depending on what it is that you're chasing, you might want to go to where the epicenter is. The reason is there's just more networking available there if that's where the great people are. The next two bullet points will tie into that. This is an interesting story from Bobby Knight's biography. His second time he met with Pete Newell he walked into the room. This guy's like 32, Pete Newell is one of the most famous basketball coaches ever. He walks into the room with 74 plays diagrammed on three by five cards, sits down in the middle of the floor and says, “Hey, Pete, come go through these with me.” I don't know if it's audacious or brilliant or what, but some people would consider that over-the-top, but to get the number one mentor you can possibly find and make them go through that amount of tedious work, but he did it. Pete did it. They both learned from it, which is interesting.

These quotes from the movie “No Direction Home”, Martin Scorsese did against Dylan, really highlight the point that I'm trying to drive home to you. Most people would think, “Eh, Bob Dylan, folk singer. Probably just had the DNA, or got lucky or something.” He was studying. He used the word, “I'm a musical expeditionary.” I looked up expeditionary. An expedition is to travel for scientific research or exploration. That's what Dylan was doing. There was no one that knew more about folk music than he did when he broke out. He knew more than anybody. Another guy in Minneapolis that knew him called him a sponge. Then this, “There's a ruthlessness in the way Dylan finds sources, uses them and moves on,” constantly gathering information and putting it into his own repertoire.

I'm going to read from Danny's book for you because I want to drive home this point of studying. You can see I'm a huge fan of Danny. I've got all these markers here. He's one of the most genuine humans I've ever met. He has a restaurant in New York called Blue Smoke, which is actually a barbecue place. When they were thinking about launching that he says, “In the barbecue, within the 35 mile radius of Austin and the Texas hill country lie five towns I revere. Each with a distinctly different style of barbecue. The elements of barbecue are limited, ribs, brisket, pulled pork, chop mince pork, sausage, chicken, coleslaw, beans and a handful of sides, but it's become an American culinary language with thousands of dialects and accents. I tried to understand each variation.

During one 36 hour road trip through North Carolina I tasted 14 variations on chopped pork, each defined by subtle and dramatic differences in texture, the degree and type of smoke used, the amount of tomato or vinegar in the sauce, how much heat was applied to the meat and how well or how much or how little crackling got chopped up and tossed in.” That's the level of detail he thinks about food.

I really like this one because it has to do with Shake Shack, but, “As soon as we won the bid Richard Corrine, my most enthusiastic researcher of road food, and I set off to study burger and shake stands all over the country. We started out, of course, at Ted Drew's Steak and Shake in Saint Lewis,” which he grew up eating. “Continued on to Kansas City, and individually made stops in Michigan, Culver's, Los Angeles, In-N-Out Burger, Napa, Taylor's Automatic Refreshers, Chicago, Gold Coast Dogs, plus eight other establishments. Connecticut,” and he names three or four. “Always in search of the best of breed.” That's how they did research for Shake Shack. I think it drives home this point of like understand more than anybody else.

This is a bit of an aside. Does anybody know this painting? This is a painting called First Communion. It was painted by Pablo Picasso when he was 15 years old. Most people, I think, are brought up, and they're told about Picasso in their first art class. You look at these cubism pictures, and someone will say, “Oh, a seven year old could do that.” What they don't know that Picasso was a trained classic artist and had mastered it by the time he was 15. He had spent time studying the way you would if you had set out to be the greatest painter in the world, and that's why I made this statement, “Greatness isn't random, it's earned.” If you're going to research something, this is your lucky day. Information is freely available on the internet. That's the good news. The bad news is you have zero excuse for not being the most knowledgeable in any subject you want because it's right there at your fingertip, and it's free, which is excellent.

Three: Develop mentors in your field. I don't know if any of you will ever dare to be as aggressive as Dylan, hitch-hiking 1,200 miles to find your mentor, but that might be the type of attitude you want to think about in the back of your mind as you pursue mentors. Take every chance you can to find somebody who can teach you about the field you want to excel in. You can work your way up the stack. You don't have to jump straight to the top on day one. Treat them with respect. Debate things, learn from them. Document what you hear, share it with others. Try to get these mentors interested in you and your own development. How do you do this? Send them notes. Tell them when you use their advice to be successful. Send them gifts when you have accomplishments. Get them bought in. One of the reason American Idol works because you start voting or cheering for somebody, and not all of a sudden you feel like you're part of that process, right? Get them to feel that way about your own success.

Then, on the mentor thing, never stop. You've got to keep on pursuing. I had the remarkable fortune this year in my 20th year as an investor to meet Stan Druckenmiller and Howard Marks. They're two people I've admired for a very long time. I read everything that they write any time they speak. I got to sit down with both of them for a couple of hours and talk about investing. It was awesome. The things that they pushed on changed some of the actions that I'm taking today in my work.

I'd already walked you through these examples. Every one of these three luminaries had a mentor that was important to them. Funny story, last week when I was preparing for this presentation I was rereading Danny's book, and I went back to this notion when he was 25 and he made this list of people that he considered to be icons in the industry. I texted him and I said, “Danny, how many of those 12 icons have you ended up establishing a relationship with?” He sent me this emoji back. I was thrilled that he knew how to use emojis. He went on to tell me that four of them have become close, personal friends. I think it just documents this point I'm making about how searching for mentors and leaning on mentors is a never-ending task.

Four: Embrace peers in your field. Develop a relationship with them. Have discussions. Have arguments. This is a way you learn. This is a way that ideas get shared. This is a way you hone and innovate ideas. This is one thing I wish someone had told me. When I got to MBA school everybody said, “Network, network, network,” and I thought it was a social activity. I thought they were telling me, “Oh, you need to develop your social skills,” and they want me to randomly talk to people that I have no similar interests with. What I've come to realize is, no, it's not about that. It's about connecting with the people that you have the most overlap with because you'll be able to help each other along the way, along the journey.

Always share best practices and don't worry about giving any proprietary knowledge. It's a good trade. It's just smart. If you get caught in worrying about it, you're going to fail to advance. The activity of sharing with mentors and peers will lead to so many positive things that help you go up, that whatever the negative costs are aren't going to come anywhere close. Celebrate your peers' accomplishments as if they were your own. Cheer them, send them notes, be happy for them. That will come back to you in spades.

Then, lastly, peers don't need to be in your exact field. Bobby Knight had sat down with a swimming coach and got knowledge. Some of the entrepreneurs I work with and CEOs find that it's more interesting to go to a conference on a topic that's a little bit far away because they get more innovative ideas that they can bring back to their field. It doesn't have to be this close. It can be spread out.

Now, most of you know that this is the way you're supposed to network online, and you should certainly have a LinkedIn profile, and you should certainly connect with people. I'll give you one piece of advice, which is, I'd be a little stingy with who you link to. I have a rule where I only want to link to people that I would call and trust their advice because then when I'm searching for a candidate that I want a reference on or something I don't get random answers. I get people that I know I'm going to use. I think people over proliferate their LinkedIn account.

But, and for those of you who were here yesterday, I think there is a much more incredible resource, not an alternative, you should do this and Twitter. Twitter is the most amazing networking and learning network ever built. For someone that's pursuing their dream job or chasing a group of mentors or peers it's remarkable. In any given field 50% to 80% of the top experts in that field are in Twitter, and they're sharing ideas, and you can connect to them and follow them in your personal feed. If you get lucky enough and say something they find interesting they might follow you. The reason this becomes super-interesting is that unlocks direct message. Now all of a sudden you can communicate directly electronically whenever you want with that individual, very, very powerful. If you're not using Twitter you're missing out. I don't even own any shares anymore.

Last one, this should be obvious to people, but always give the majority of the credit to the other people that helped you up along the way. One, it's the right thing do to, and, two, it'll keep you from being an asshole when you're successful. I find all the greats do it. It's the right thing to do. Send letters, send gifts, anytime you accomplish something in your career take the time to send messages back to the people that helped you.

I'll tell you a personal story that's quite serious that'll help reinforce this. My favorite professor when I was here was Jim Fredrickson who, many of you know, passed away this year. Along the way along my journey three or four times I took the time to write him a letter, send him a note, send him a gift and tell him what an impact he had had on me. When he passed I didn't have all this anxiety like, “Oh, I didn't get a chance to tell him.” I took the chances to tell him, and I would encourage you guys to do that type of stuff along the way.

Then, lastly, eventually you've got to pay it back. You become the mentor, people start reaching out to you. Make sure you take the time. Here are a few examples of that. This is Bobby Knight. Shortly after one of his sessions with Pete Newell and the next year Indiana's playing one of Pete's teams. They end up in a tournament together. Bobby uses the stuff that Pete taught him and beats Pete on the field. He recalled that notion in the book, and he said, “You know, if Pete was willing to do that for me, I've got to do it for everybody else.”

Let me show you statistically a little bit of the impact of what Bobby did later in his career. This is from Wikipedia. These are Bobby's former players that are coaching either D-1 or NBA, and this is his former coaches that are coaching D-1 or NBA. It's an immense legacy of people that he developed that went on to be successful. If any deep, deep basketball fans in the room they know that his point guard at Army was none other Mike Krzyzewski, who is one of two people that have now passed him on career wins, 902. Krzyzewski asked Bobby Knight to induct him into the Hall of Fame, which is a moving video you can go watch on YouTube if you're interested.

This is Danny. He's probably the most wonderful human, or certainly one of the most wonderful humans I've ever met in my life. He talks here about graciousness. It's evident in every single thing that he does, how he talks to people, how he treats his staff. His book is worth reading, if you get a chance. As you can see, I'm a huge fan.

Now I'm going to tell you two more stories, if we have time. The reason, once again, that I wanted to talk to an MBA class is because an MBA degree, and when you're here, is an opportune time to chase your dream job. The next two stories I'm going to tell you are more contemporary. They both involve using an MBA program as a way to pivot into success.

Now we're in Marlow, Oklahoma. All these are in the Midwest. Sam is my next contestant. Sam grew up in Marlow. His father worked at Halliburton, which is in Duncan, a little bitty town right near. He went to Marlow High School where he also was a multi-sport athlete. Unfortunately, he was five-nine and 140, so he didn't get to keep playing in college. I'm about to show you the university he attended, and you'll know what to do. There we go. Okay, perfect. He went to the University of Oklahoma, ended up going to Bane. I think he actually worked anybody Bane Capital. He was pursuing his career path like he thought he was supposed to. They relocated in Sydney.

He's sitting in one of these high-rises overlooking the Sydney Opera House, and he hears about this book, Money Ball by Michael Lewis. He reads it in three days. He can't get it out of his head. It's consumed him. He decides immediately, not unlike Danny, in the restaurant that this is what he has to do. He starts applying to business schools. He gets accepted at Harvard and Stanford. In deciding which one he's going to go to he goes and he asks for tons of meetings with the schools, and he tells him what he's going to do, “I'm going to get a job in sports analytics, come hell or high water.” He claims Harvard looks at him like he's crazy. The Stanford staff says, “Come on. That'd be awesome. We want to introduce you to everyone that we know.”

He shows up at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Lo and behold, they have a sports management class. Lo and behold, Billy Bean from the Oakland A's and the Money Ball book is speaking his first semester. He gets to know Billy Bean. Billy Bean introduces him to Michael Lewis. They start spending time together. Michael lives in Oakland. The school lets him get to know people at the Niner's organization, and at several sports organizations all over the country. He combines it with hard work. He says he sent a hundred letters out to get summer interns. He ends up with one at the Texans. When he gets back from that Michael Lewis asks him to come over and talk football because he's working on the Blindside, so he helps Michael Lewis on the Blindside.

Eventually he gets a job with the Houston Rockets. He spent two and a half hours with Lex Alexander. Lex hires him at, I believe, 27 years old. Nine months later the Rockets hired Daryl Morey, and the two of them worked together for seven years, I think, and built the best basketball sports analytics department in the country. Daryl won executive of the year last year at the Rockets.

At age 35 Sam Hinkie's named general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. This is, what, like nine years after he read Money Ball looking over the Sydney Opera House. For those of you that know the story, there's some good and some bad. Sam and Daryl had spent a lot of time studying the ways you could turn a program around. I've had long discussions with Daryl about it. It's fascinating the way they think through it. If you're in a particularly tough spot, the only way to do it is to shed your talent, improve your salary cap room, let your young players get tons of playing time, and win through the draft. Now, that's the plan Sam took, and like any good entrepreneur or business person he told all his constituents, “It's about the long-term, not the short-term. You've got to stay with me on this.” He wrote tons of letters. He's very thoughtful. He's very smart.

That strategy led to three of the worst seasons in the history of the NBA, but it also led to the drafting of Joel Embiid, who has become a close, personal friend of Sam's. Some of you may know the rest of the story. Eventually, the ownership got tired of this strategy and cut ties with Sam. About that exact same moment in time everything started getting better, and they started winning. There were a few fans that supported him along the way, and there were signs that are way worse than this one, “Now we're stinky, but I trust Hinkie.”

Today, for those of you that know, Vegas has the Sixers as the number-two team in the East right now. This is Durant. I chose the Texas jersey on purpose instead of the Warriors, talking about how they're the team to watch. Barkley goes further. He says if they stay healthy this will be a team to watch for 10 years. Three years are bad, 10 years are good. That's a pretty good trade if you're willing to make it. Not everyone was able to make it. Sam now is, especially in basketball circles, I hope he never goes back to basketball because it'll be more legendary that way. This phrase, this meme is now an internet meme that's outside of basketball, but some of the players started using this phrase when they were losing games and people were upset, “Trust the process.” No one used it more than Joel, and no one's a bigger fan of Hinkie's than Joel, which frustrates the ownership to no end. They're still missing a GM right now. They're having trouble finding one.

This is the new meme, which is a little more aspirational. During the draft when they drafted Ben Simmons there's a video on the web of a sports bar in Philly where they got everyone together for the draft. Before the draft they raised a banner of Hinkie and retired it. Joel won't stop, so this last year. Hinkie, I think, in a little bit of a jab, the Astros, for those of you who don't know, was also an analytics turnaround. When the Astros won last year Hinkie wrote, “I love it when a plan comes together.” Then Joel threw both memes back, “Trust the process. He died for our sins.” Then someone in Philly did this. This is a little over-the-top. You've got the resurrection with the players. I think it's an amazing story. One fun part about this, Sam's now back at Stanford. He's teaching two courses there. He may play two separate dream jobs. He's hanging out with startups, venture capitalist, and he may do it all over again, which I think is really cool.

All right, last one. This one's very near and dear to my heart. There's an executive I work with named Katrina Lake. She grew up in San Francisco, but she went to high school in Minnesota. I use the map of Minnesota so they could all be from the Midwest. I like that story better. This is the high school she went to. She went to Stanford, thought she was going to be premed, ended up not liking it very much, got an economics major. Went to work at a consulting firm called Parthenon. They had a number of clients in the retail and fashion space. She noticed that she had an affection for that and started hanging around those clients and focusing on those clients.

While she was visiting those places she kept asking herself questions like, “Why does this work this way?” She told me she was in a department store, and she's like, “Why are these clothes out here? Why isn't there just like one here, and you press a button and then it's put into your dressing room because you keep all the inventory in the back where you could stack it better?” She just kept saying, “Why? Why? Why? Why is this stuff organized this way?”

Finally, she decided, “I'm going to go do something about this,” and she came up with a notion of a company that would be a personal shopper for everybody. She didn't quite know how to launch it, so she decided to use her MBA program as a way to launch it. She told me that she planned to graduate, but not a much higher bar from a classroom perspective, but she wanted to use the platform as a way to build a company.

She ended up at Harvard. The first thing she did was scoured LinkedIn and the alumni directory to find anybody that had anything to do with fashion. She was mostly interested in sourcing and merchandising because she didn't have any knowledge there. She found all kind of contacts in New York. She made personal trips, asked for meetings, not unlike the other people that I've showed you.

Next, she found two founders that had launched startups. This is Joann from Trunk Club and Craig from Shop It To Me, in a similar space, but were a little different. She got them on the phone. She wanted to hear if what she was thinking about was different and better than what they had done because she wanted it to be different and better. There was a professor at Harvard that had run, had been CEO of a retail store named José Alvarez. She started writing drafts of what she wanted to do and got him to push back. At first, he was very skeptical, but she said the back and forth helped her and modified her plan quite a bit.

In the summer she went to, actually, a company we were invested in called Polyvore, which was a social fashion site where people aggregated likes on the web. Sukhinder Singh, who had run a huge chunk of the revenue at Google, was CEO there, so she built that relationship. She also got to study how fashion websites spend time with bloggers.

After graduating, she came to San Francisco to launch her company. She did two things that are miraculous for me from a mentoring standpoint. The first one is she found Eric Colson. He ran all of data science at Netflix. You remember the million dollar prize, all that stuff. That was under Eric. He had recently retired from Netflix and was looking for something to inspire him, and she did. He became an advisor to the company. Marka Hansen was over 20 years at GAP in merchandising, marketing, same story. Katrina found her, Marka was very exited about helping Katrina. Marka's still on the board today. Marka would spend a day a week, a day a month in the early days at the company helping her almost the way an executive chairman would.

She then found two other people, John Fleming was CEO of Walmart.com. Julie Bornstein I worked with back at Nordstrom years ago. She was CMO at Sephora and hanging out in San Francisco. She put Julie on the board. Then a feat I've never seen before, she recruited Eric and Julie off the board and into the company. They both work there. Julie as COO and Eric as head of data analytics, where he is still today. The company has 95 data scientists at a fashion company.

This is her at the very beginning. She's trying to figure out exactly what they were going to do. For those of you that don't know how it works, Katrina Lake runs a company called Stitch Fix. You fill out a 15 page profile about yourself. You give a lot of information, way more information than any other retailer has on you. Then you press a button. A stylist looks at your profile and picks five items. The stylist is sitting in front of a dashboard. There's a keep score for every single item in our inventory for every single shopper that's out there, unique to that individual shopper. As you buy more the data science studies what you like, what you don't like, and that's how the system works.

I was lucky enough to become an investor in this company, even though it has inventory, has a lot of inventory. There's five warehouses today. Along the way as it was starting to succeed this article ran, which was a nice tie to the last one. Forbes called her, “Fashionista Money Ball.” There are certainly elements that would cause that correlation. In her third year she went profitable. She only consumed 20 million dollars of venture capital in the company's life. When we went public there was 100 million in cash on the balance sheet. At year five she hit a billion in revenues.

At age 34 she became the youngest founder, CEO, female founder, CEO ever last fall when we took Stitch Fix public. That's me hiding in the back. I think one thing that really differentiates Katrina, if she were here today, she'd certainly be proud of this story, but I think she's more proud of how she's been able to use the platform to speak out on social change. This was an infographic that they released about a year ago. 31% of the engineers are female, 60% of the board, 62% of the management team and 86% of the entire org. She's not afraid to speak out on topics like this. When we did the bake-off for the IPO she insisted all the investment banks put their diversity record at the front of the pitch deck, every single one of them that came in, and they all did.

These are the five profiles that I shared with you. I would highlight a couple of things about this. First of all, in the first three if I said to you, “Hey.” You say, “I'm going to MBA school. I want to do something inspiring and have a great career.” You wouldn't think I would mention opening a restaurant or being a basketball coach or a folk singer. Those aren't things you would say. Yet, it didn't stop these people from being successful.

The other thing that I would highlight is all five of them, I don't think a single one of them started what they're doing for money. In each and every story they were chasing a passion and a dream that allowed them to want to study, going back to Bobby Knight saying about having the will to practice. They all did it on their own. Danny uses a phrase, “Professional research,” in his book constantly, which I think is an interesting phrase because most of us think about the studying and research we do around curriculum and a teacher. You don't think about if you're in finance or marketing or accounting, do you go home at night and study for yourself, like, to improve your own skillset? Most people don't do that. I think that's interesting.

For those of you who have decided your dream job is consulting, they say you've got to tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them, so this is for you. Pick a career about what you're passionate. Be obsessive about the learning. Lean on mentors, lean on peers. Give the credit to someone else, and pay it forward. For those into music, that like music, you know I stole the title of this speech from Tom Petty who, unfortunately, passed away this year. He was once asked what advice he'd have for people if he were giving it. While it's not as ambitious as what I've told you, it's almost the exact same thing on the exact same vector. I'll let you read that yourself. That's it. Thank you for allowing me to do that. I really appreciate it.


“The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This speech was originally delivered at TEDGlobal in July of 2009.

Speech Transcript

I'm a storyteller. And I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call “the danger of the single story.”

I grew up on a university campus in eastern Nigeria. My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children's books.

I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.

Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn't have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.

My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer, because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was. And for many years afterwards, I would have a desperate desire to taste ginger beer. But that is another story.

What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify.

Now, things changed when I discovered African books. There weren't many of them available, and they weren't quite as easy to find as the foreign books. But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye, I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized.

Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are.

I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So, the year I turned eight, we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn't finish my dinner, my mother would say, “Finish your food! Don't you know? People like Fide's family have nothing.” So I felt enormous pity for Fide's family.

Then one Saturday, we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.

Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

I must say that before I went to the U.S., I didn't consciously identify as African. But in the U.S., whenever Africa came up, people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia.

But I did come to embrace this new identity, and in many ways I think of myself now as African. Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country, the most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in “India, Africa and other countries.”

So, after I had spent some years in the U.S. as an African, I began to understand my roommate's response to me. If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner. I would see Africans in the same way that I, as a child, had seen Fide's family.

This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature. Now, here is a quote from the writing of a London merchant called John Lok, who sailed to West Africa in 1561 and kept a fascinating account of his voyage. After referring to the black Africans as “beasts who have no houses,” he writes, “They are also people without heads, having their mouth and eyes in their breasts.”

Now, I've laughed every time I've read this. And one must admire the imagination of John Lok. But what is important about his writing is that it represents the beginning of a tradition of telling African stories in the West: A tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa as a place of negatives, of difference, of darkness, of people who, in the words of the wonderful poet Rudyard Kipling, are “half devil, half child.”

And so, I began to realize that my American roommate must have, throughout her life, seen and heard different versions of this single story, as had a professor, who once told me that my novel was not “authentically African.” Now, I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things wrong with the novel, that it had failed in a number of places, but I had not quite imagined that it had failed at achieving something called African authenticity. In fact, I did not know what African authenticity was. The professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. My characters drove cars. They were not starving. Therefore they were not authentically African.

But I must quickly add that I too am just as guilty in the question of the single story. A few years ago, I visited Mexico from the U.S. The political climate in the U.S. at the time was tense, and there were debates going on about immigration. And, as often happens in America, immigration became synonymous with Mexicans. There were endless stories of Mexicans as people who were fleecing the healthcare system, sneaking across the border, being arrested at the border, that sort of thing.

I remember walking around on my first day in Guadalajara, watching the people going to work, rolling up tortillas in the marketplace, smoking, laughing. I remember first feeling slight surprise. And then, I was overwhelmed with shame. I realized that I had been so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in my mind, the abject immigrant. I had bought into the single story of Mexicans and I could not have been more ashamed of myself.

So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.

It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It's a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called “American Psycho” and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.

Now, obviously, I said this in a fit of mild irritation. But it would never have occurred to me to think that just because I had read a novel in which a character was a serial killer that he was somehow representative of all Americans. This is not because I am a better person than that student, but because of America's cultural and economic power. I had many stories of America. I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskill. I did not have a single story of America.

When I learned, some years ago, that writers were expected to have had really unhappy childhoods to be successful, I began to think about how I could invent horrible things my parents had done to me. But the truth is that I had a very happy childhood, full of laughter and love, in a very close-knit family.

But I also had grandfathers who died in refugee camps. My cousin Polle died because he could not get adequate healthcare. One of my closest friends, Okoloma, died in a plane crash because our fire trucks did not have water. I grew up under repressive military governments that devalued education, so that sometimes, my parents were not paid their salaries. And so, as a child, I saw jam disappear from the breakfast table, then margarine disappeared, then bread became too expensive, then milk became rationed. And most of all, a kind of normalized political fear invaded our lives.

All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes: There are immense ones, such as the horrific rapes in Congo and depressing ones, such as the fact that 5,000 people apply for one job vacancy in Nigeria. But there are other stories that are not about catastrophe, and it is very important, it is just as important, to talk about them.

I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

So what if before my Mexican trip, I had followed the immigration debate from both sides, the U.S. and the Mexican? What if my mother had told us that Fide's family was poor and hardworking? What if we had an African television network that broadcast diverse African stories all over the world? What the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe calls “a balance of stories.”

What if my roommate knew about my Nigerian publisher, Muhtar Bakare, a remarkable man who left his job in a bank to follow his dream and start a publishing house? Now, the conventional wisdom was that Nigerians don't read literature. He disagreed. He felt that people who could read, would read, if you made literature affordable and available to them.

Shortly after he published my first novel, I went to a TV station in Lagos to do an interview, and a woman who worked there as a messenger came up to me and said, “I really liked your novel. I didn't like the ending. Now, you must write a sequel, and this is what will happen…”

And she went on to tell me what to write in the sequel. I was not only charmed, I was very moved. Here was a woman, part of the ordinary masses of Nigerians, who were not supposed to be readers. She had not only read the book, but she had taken ownership of it and felt justified in telling me what to write in the sequel.

Now, what if my roommate knew about my friend Funmi Iyanda, a fearless woman who hosts a TV show in Lagos, and is determined to tell the stories that we prefer to forget? What if my roommate knew about the heart procedure that was performed in the Lagos hospital last week? What if my roommate knew about contemporary Nigerian music, talented people singing in English and Pidgin, and Igbo and Yoruba and Ijo, mixing influences from Jay-Z to Fela to Bob Marley to their grandfathers.

What if my roommate knew about the female lawyer who recently went to court in Nigeria to challenge a ridiculous law that required women to get their husband's consent before renewing their passports? What if my roommate knew about Nollywood, full of innovative people making films despite great technical odds, films so popular that they really are the best example of Nigerians consuming what they produce? What if my roommate knew about my wonderfully ambitious hair braider, who has just started her own business selling hair extensions? Or about the millions of other Nigerians who start businesses and sometimes fail, but continue to nurse ambition?

Every time I am home I am confronted with the usual sources of irritation for most Nigerians: our failed infrastructure, our failed government, but also by the incredible resilience of people who thrive despite the government, rather than because of it. I teach writing workshops in Lagos every summer, and it is amazing to me how many people apply, how many people are eager to write, to tell stories.

My Nigerian publisher and I have just started a non-profit called Farafina Trust, and we have big dreams of building libraries and refurbishing libraries that already exist and providing books for state schools that don't have anything in their libraries, and also of organizing lots and lots of workshops, in reading and writing, for all the people who are eager to tell our many stories.

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

The American writer Alice Walker wrote this about her Southern relatives who had moved to the North. She introduced them to a book about the Southern life that they had left behind. “They sat around, reading the book themselves, listening to me read the book, and a kind of paradise was regained.”

I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

Thank you.


“The Multidisciplinary Approach to Thinking” by Peter Kaufman

This speech was delivered by Peter Kaufman to the Cal Poly Pomona Economics Club.

Speech Transcript

I was asked to talk about the multidisciplinary approach to thinking. So I’ll start out with that. But if you guys get bored or something and say ‘Well I thought we were supposed to have fun listening to this today.’ You can raise your hand and say ‘Could you talk about leadership or team building or business strategy or ethics or something else?’ I gave a talk recently at Google, in fact I’ve given three talks at Google. And the first talk I gave they said ‘What are you going to talk about?’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you want to talk about?’ They said, ‘About whatever you want. What do you usually talk about?’ Well I usually talk about leadership, culture, team building, strategy, ethics. And they said, ‘We don’t want to hear about that team building crap. We get that all the time. We want to hear about self-improvement.’ So I will mix in with our multidisciplinary topic a little bit of self-improvement as well. Is that OK? OK.

So why is it important to be a multidisciplinary thinker? The answer comes from the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who said, ‘To understand is to know what to do.’ Could there be anything that sounds simpler than that? And yet it’s a genius line, to understand is to know what to do. How many mistakes do you make when you understand something? You don’t make any mistakes. Where do mistakes come from? They come from blind spots, a lack of understanding. Why do you need to be multidisciplinary in your thinking? Because as the Japanese proverb says, ‘The frog in the well knows nothing of the mighty ocean.’ You may know everything there is to know about your specialty, your silo, your “well,” but how are you going to make any good decisions in life – the complex systems of life, the dynamic system of life – if all you know is one well?

So I tried to learn what Munger calls, ‘the big ideas’ from all the different disciplines. Right up front I want to tell you what my trick was, because if you try to do it the way he did it, you don’t have enough time in your life to do it. It’s impossible. Because the fields are too big and the books are too thick. So my trick to learn the big ideas of science, biology, etc., was I found this science magazine called Discover Magazine. Show of hands, anybody here ever heard of Discover magazine? A few people. OK. And I found that this magazine every month had a really good interview with somebody from some aspect of science. Every month. And it was six or seven pages long. It was all in layperson’s terms. The person who was trying to get their ideas across would do so using good stories, clear language, and they would never fail to get all their big ideas into the interview. I mean if you’re given the chance to be interviewed by Discover Magazine and your field is nanoparticles or something, aren’t you going to try your very best to get all the good ideas into the interview with the best stories. OK. So I discovered that on the Internet there were 12 years of Discover Magazine articles available in the archives. So I printed out 12 years times 12 months of these interviews. I had 144 of these interviews. And I put them in these big three ring binders. Filled up three big binders. And for the next six months I went to the coffee shop for an hour or two every morning and I read these. And I read them index fund style, which means I read them all. I didn’t pick and choose. This is the universe and I’m going to own the whole universe. I read every single one. Now I will tell you that out of 144 articles, if I’d have been selecting my reading material, I probably would have read about 14 of them. And the other 130? I would never in a million years read six pages on nanoparticles. Guess what I had at the end of six months? I had inside my head every single big idea from every single domain of science and biology. It only took me 6 months. And it wasn’t that hard because it was written in layperson’s terms. And really, what did I really get? Just like an index fund, I captured all the parabolic ideas that no one else has. And why doesn’t anybody else have these ideas? Because who in the world would read an interview on nanoparticles? And yet that’s where I got my best ideas. I would read some arcane subject and, oh my god, I saw, ‘That’s exactly how this works over here in biology.’ or ‘That’s exactly how this works over here in human nature.’ You have to know all these big ideas. Or there is an alternative, find somebody who did what I did and just get all the ideas from them. Now when I was your age and I was in school I thought the asymmetry of it was very unfair because I had to do all the work. So every time I go back and meet with a group of students I change the asymmetry around. I did all the work for you…

I have (multiple examples) of models that I derived from what I call my ‘three buckets’. Let’s see if I’ve got my three buckets in here. I do. I do have my three buckets. OK. So this is how I use ideas that no one else in the world uses and yet I can be comfortable that they’re right. A statistician’s best friend is what? A large, relevant sample size. And why? Because a principle derived from a large relevant sample size can’t be wrong can it? The only way it could be wrong is if the sample size is too small or the sample itself is not relevant. So I want to tell you what my three buckets are where I derive my models, my multidisciplinary models. Number one is 13.7 billion years. Is that a large sample? It’s the largest one in the whole universe. There is no larger sample. Because what is it? It’s the inorganic universe. Physics. Geology. Anything that’s not living goes in my bucket number 1. 13.7 billion years.

Bucket number 2 is 3.5 billion years. It’s biology on the planet Earth. Is that a big sample size? Is it relevant? We’re biological creatures. Let me ask you this, inorganic, bucket number one, is it relevant? We live in it. So bucket number one we live in, 13.7 billion years. Bucket number two is what we’re part of, biology. 3.5 billion years. And number three is 20,000 years of recorded human history. That’s the most relevant of all. That’s our story. That’s who we are.

So we’re going to take a couple of examples here of multidisciplinary thinking. We’ll ask this question, is there a simple two word description that accurately describes how everything in the world works? That would be very useful wouldn’t it if you know how everything works in just two words? So we go to bucket number one. How does everything work? We go to Newton’s Third Law of Motion. We’re getting very multidisciplinary here. Does anybody in the room know what Newton’s Third Law of Motion says? (Answer: “For every action there will always be an equal and opposite reaction.”) That’s beautiful. He wins one of my pens here for answering that question correctly. I always give out rewards. It’s like operant conditioning from psychology, right? So there you go.

Yes if I put this bottle of water on this table, Newton’s Third Law of Motion says that if the bottle pushes down on the table with ‘force x’, and it also strangely says that the table pushes back with equal ‘force x’. That’s very strange. But you know how long that’s been true? 13.7 billion years that’s been true. Now what if I push down twice as hard, what does the table do? Well if I push down twenty one and a half times as hard? What does the table do? Twenty one and a half! OK. Now is there a good word, a catchall word to describe what we’re talking about here when this pushes down and this thing pushes back? Yeah, it’s reciprocation isn’t it? But it’s not mere reciprocation. It’s perfectly mirrored reciprocation. The harder I push, the harder it pushes back. Does everybody buy that? That’s bucket number one. That’s how the world works. It’s mirrored reciprocation. Everything in the inorganic universe works that way.

We go to bucket number 2. I’m going to introduce a little humor into this. Even though this is a dog, pretend it’s a cat. OK? This is a cat for the time being. Mark Twain said that a man who picks up a cat by its tail will learn a lesson he can learn in no other way. What is this cat going to try to do? It’s going to do what? (Answer: “Attack you.”) Yeah it’s going to try and scratch me with its sharp claws. And why? It doesn’t find being picked up by its tail very agreeable does it? Now what if I start swinging this cat around by its tail. What does the cat do now? Now it’s trying to scratch my eyes out. It said, ‘You escalated on me pal, I’m going to escalate back on you.’ Does that sound a lot like mirrored reciprocation? But what if instead of doing something disagreeable with this cat we do something very agreeable with this cat? And this cat’s sitting here and we come over and we gently pick it up by its tummy and we put it in the crook of our elbow and we gently stroke it. Does the cat try and scratch us? What does it do? It licks our hands. And as long as I sit here and stroke it, it’s going to continue to try and lick my hand. It wants to show me what? ‘I like this. This is agreeable. You’re a good guy. Keep it up man!’ It is mirrored reciprocation isn’t it? If I act in a disagreeable way to the cat, the cat acts in a disagreeable way back, and mirrored. If I act in an agreeable way, what do you think we’re going to find when we go to bucket number three? It’s exactly the same thing isn’t it? Your entire life. Every interaction you have with another human being is merely mirrored reciprocation. Now you’re going to say to yourself ‘This is too simple. It can’t be this simple.’ It is this simple! It doesn’t mean it’s not sophisticated. This is a very sophisticated model we just derived isn’t it? We did it in a multidisciplinary fashion didn’t we? We looked into the three largest sample sizes that exist, the three most relevant, and they all said exactly the same thing. Do you think we can bank on that? 100 percent we can bank on that.

So, if you think about things being complex as being sophisticated like most people do, you think the more complex it is, the more sophisticated it is. I want you to remember, as best you can, what I’m about to say. It’s very, very important. Albert Einstein once listed what he said were the five ascending levels of cognitive prowess. Now there’s nobody in this room that doesn’t want to be level number one. Right? That’s why we’re here. You don’t want to be level number five. You want to be level number one. Wait until you hear what these levels are, it’s going to blow your mind. So number 5 he said, at the very bottom, was smart. OK. That’s the lowest level of cognitive prowess is being smart. The next level up, level 4, is intelligent. Level 3, next up, is brilliant. Next level up, level 2, he said is genius. What? What’s higher than genius? He must have that backward. No he doesn’t. Wait until you hear what number one is according to Albert Einstein. We just demonstrated it. Number one is simple. Simple transcends genius.

Why is simple, the right kind of simple, better than genius? Because you can understand it! I bought this book – I usually take it when I’m giving a talk like this. It’s The Ethics by Spinoza. Spinoza’s ethics book was written by a true genius. And guess what? You can’t understand anything in it. But can you understand what I walked you through – mirrored reciprocation? OK.

Now, because this is an economics club, right, everybody here is interested in economics? So let’s give an example of a model derived, multidisciplinary, same way we did before, but is just about as pure an economic model as you can find. So now we’re going to ask the question, what’s the most powerful force that we as human beings, both as individuals and groups, can potentially harness towards achieving our ends in life?

OK. We go to bucket number one. We ask, what’s the most powerful force in bucket number one? I’m going to quote Albert Einstein again. He said, ‘The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest.’ But that’s not all he said about compound interest. He not only said that it’s the most powerful force in the universe, he said it’s the greatest mathematical discovery of all time. He said it’s the eighth wonder of the world. And he said that those who understand it get paid by it and those who don’t pay for it. He said all these things, Albert Einstein, about compound interest. Now what’s a good working definition of compound interest? I will propose one. You can have your own, but this is mine. I say compound interest is dogged incremental constant progress over a very long time frame. Is that a fair definition? Alright? I think that’s the answer from bucket number 1. The most powerful force that could be potentially harnessed is dogged incremental constant progress over a very long time frame.

We go to bucket number 2. 3.5 billion years of biology. What’s the most powerful force in three and a half billion years of biology? It’s the machine of evolution. How does it work? Dogged incremental constant progress over a long time frame. This is the beauty of deriving things multidisciplinary. You can’t be wrong! You see these things lined up there like three bars on a slot machine. Boy do you hit the jackpot.

What do you think we’re going to find when we go to bucket number three? 20,000 years of human experience on earth. You want to win a gold medal in the Olympics. You want to learn a musical instrument. You want to learn a foreign language. You want to build Berkshire Hathaway. What’s the formula? Dogged incremental constant progress over a very long time frame. Look how simple this is. This is above genius. It’s absolutely above genius because you can understand it. This isn’t somebody drawing all these formulas and things up here about, you know, how numbers multiply and amplify over time. The problem that human beings have is we don’t like to be constant. Think of each one of those terms. Dogged incremental constant progress over a very long time frame. Nobody wants to be constant. We’re the functional equivalent of Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the mountain. You push it up half way, and you go, ‘Aw, I’ll come back and do this another time.’ It goes back down. ‘I’ve got this great idea, I’m going to really work hard on it.’ You push it up half way and,’ Aw, you know I’ll get back to this next month.’ This is the human condition. In geometric terms this is called variance drain. Whenever you interrupt the constant increase above a certain level of threshold you lose compounding, you’re no longer on the log curve. You fall back onto a linear curve or God forbid a step curve down. You have to be constant. How many people do you know that are constant in what they do? I know a couple. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. Everybody wants to be rich like Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. I’m telling you how they got rich. They were constant. They were not intermittent.

Let me give you an example of why intermittency is perhaps the most important thing in your lives whether you realize it or not. We’ll begin with the example of bringing home a puppy from the pet shop. Brand spanking new puppy from the pet shop. And the kids are so excited, they’re so excited. What’s your goal of bringing home this puppy to your household? I say it’s to have an engaged, contributing, all-in, new member of your household. And night number one, how are we doing? It’s a disaster. This thing’s over in the corner shaking like a leaf. It’s anything but engaged. It’s anything but contributing and it’s anything but all-in. It’s shaking like a leaf. Human beings are really good at solving this problem. We know we need to create a calm, reassuring, secure, and safe environment.

We know that even though this puppy can’t understand what we’re saying, we need to communicate in soothing tones. And we also know that we need to provide food and water for this puppy. But underlying all these things, stitching them all together, we really know we have to be constant, don’t we? You can’t not feed the puppy one day, or what happens? Well, the puppy freaks out. The puppy becomes a neurotic puppy. It doesn’t know whether it can trust you or not. This trust that this puppy needs to go all-in is dependent upon you being constant in these behaviors. Does everybody accept that? So, if we are constant, usually in about seven days more or less, if we are constant, this little puppy will trot over to our side and it will attach itself to us. And for the rest of its life it will be willing to die for us. That puppy just went all-in, didn’t it? Now did it go all-in because it’s our idea that we want an engaged, contributing, all-in new member of our household? It doesn’t even know what our idea is, does it? Why did it just go all in? It was the puppy’s idea!

Now let me tie this to your lives. I did this at Google and they really couldn’t figure out what I was doing. And then afterwards they said ‘You know that was really good. Your eight dollar crystal ball that’s really a good trick. So I’ll do my eight dollar crystal ball trick. And I told them…I had rows bigger than this one, full of the smartest people in the world. And I said guess what I’m going to do with my eight dollar crystal ball? I said, I’m going to do a psychic reading of anybody in this room. Anybody. And I said to Google, ‘If you think that I’ve got a stooge in the room where I’ve got this prearranged, I don’t. Go out in the corridor and bring somebody in. I’ll do the psychic reading.’ This eight dollars I spent on Amazon is the best money I ever spent. So I’m going to select you. What’s your name? (Answer: “Emily”) We’re going to take Emily, we’re going to do a psychic reading of Emily right in front of you. You’re not going to believe this. I’m going to nail this. You’re all going ‘This guy’s a nutcase.’ Spencer’s going, ‘Man why did I invite this guy?’ Just be patient, Spencer, this is good stuff. I’ll pull it off. So I’m going to tell Emily what she’s been looking for her whole life. Is there anybody here who thinks I can do this? Well, wait until you hear my answer and then for the rest of your life you’re all going to go, ‘I know what everybody in the world is looking for.’ Emily, your entire life you’ve been on a quest, an odyssey, a search for that individual that you can 100 percent absolutely and completely trust. But who’s not just trustworthy, but principled, and courageous, and competent, and kind, and loyal, and understanding, and forgiving, and unselfish. I’m right, aren’t I? (Answer: “Dead on”) You know what else my eight dollar crystal ball tells me? If you ever think you may have encountered this person, you are going to probe and probe and test and test to make sure that they are real, that you’re not being fooled. And the paradox is that it looks like you’re probing for weakness but you’re not. You’re probing for strength. And the worst day of your life is if instead of strength, you get back weakness. And now you feel betrayed. You know why? You’ve got to start your search all over again. It’s the worst thing in the whole world isn’t it? Does everybody here agree with me on this? Look how simple this is.

Here’s your 22-second course in leadership. That’s all it takes. You don’t have to go to business school. You don’t need books. You don’t need guest speakers. All you have to do is take that list that’s in Emily’s head, and every single other person in this room, every single other person in the whole world, has this list in their head – trustworthy, principled, courageous, competent, loyal, kind, understanding, forgiving, unselfish, and in every single one of your interactions with others, be the list! Remember how that puppy went all in? You do this with the other human beings you encounter in life. They’re all going all-in and not because it’s your idea. Most people spend all day long trying to get other people to like them. They do it wrong. You do this list, you won’t be able to keep the people away. Everybody’s going to want to attach to you. And be willing to do what? Just like the puppy, they’d be willing to die for you. Because you are what they’ve been looking for their whole lives. This is pretty profound, isn’t it?

Look at this picture. I love this picture. Does this woman look like she’s having a good time? OK. So I helped teach this high school class in Los Angeles, and the first class of each semester, a brand new group just like you guys, and I make them go through the following exercise. And believe me just like my eight dollar crystal ball, afterwards you’re going to go ‘I’m really glad I heard that. Because now I really understand things at a level I didn’t understand them before.’ And to understand is to what? To know what to do.

This will clear up all your blind spots about yourself and other human beings. I asked the group, show of hands, how many of you think all human beings are alike? Why? (Answer: ‘We all have the same basic needs. We express them differently. Tremendous diversity in how we go about meeting them, but ultimately we all have the same needs.') You get two pens! That’s a beautiful answer. So we’re going to identify what those needs are. What’s your name? (Answer: ‘Craig') Craig nailed it. Show of hands. How many of you want to be paid attention to? I mean is there really anybody here who doesn’t want to be paid attention to? You’re a different kind of human being if you are. OK. How many of you want to be listened to? How many of you want to be respected? How many of you want meaning, satisfaction, and fulfillment in your life in the sense that you matter? And then I tell the high school kids, number five. I put it number five. Even though it’s the most important of the five, I put it last, because if I put it first, you wouldn’t raise your hands because it’s awkward. They’re just going to think I’m weird. But then they do raise their hand because I soften them up. How many of you want to be loved? Everybody’s exactly the same. The only difference is, as Craig said, the strategy that they’re employing to try to get to fulfill those needs. OK.

Now I’m going to tell you the strategy that dogs use. The dog is going to be very unhappy with me for telling you this. I’m ratting them out. So when your dog is in the backyard and he goes to the fence between your house and the next house and he talks to the dog next door, I’m going to tell you what he says. No one has ever divulged this before. You’re the first group to hear this. Your dog says to the dog next door, ‘Can you believe how easy it is to manipulate human beings and get them to do whatever you want them to do for you?’ And the dog next door goes, ‘I know it’s a piece of cake.’ And your dog says ‘Yeah. All you have to do is every single time they come home, you greet them at the door with the biggest unconditional show of attention that they’ve ever gotten in their whole life. And you only have to do it for like 15 seconds, and then you can go back to doing whatever you were doing before and completely ignore them for the rest of the evening.’

However, you do have to do this every single time they come home. And what will the person do? They’ll take care of them. They’ll do anything for this dog. OK? Now do you think that this woman feels she’s being paid attention to? And listened to? And respected? Do you think she’s getting meaning, satisfaction, and fulfillment? Do you think she matters to this dog? And do you think she thinks this dog loves her? And what does the dog get in return? Everything.

All you have to do, if you want everything in life from everybody else, is first pay attention, listen to them, show them respect, give them meaning, satisfaction, and fulfillment. Convey to them that they matter to you. And show you love them. But you have to go first. And what are you going to get back. Mirrored reciprocation. Right? See how we tie this all together? The world is so damn simple. It’s not complicated at all! Every single person on this planet is looking for the same thing. Now why is it that we don’t act on these very simple things?

So I have an example I use with the class, my elevator example. I’m famous for my elevator story. You’re standing in front of an elevator. The doors open. And inside the elevator is one solitary stranger. You’ve never met this person before in your whole life. You walk into the elevator; you have three choices for how you’re going to behave as you walk into this elevator. Choice number one: you can smile and say good morning. And I say, at least in California, if you do that, 98 percent of the time the person will smile, say good morning back. You can test it. OK. My guess is you’re going to find that 98 percent of the time that people say good morning. Choice number two: you can walk in and you can scowl and hiss at this stranger in the elevator. And they have no idea why you’re scowling and hissing at them. And I say 98 percent of the time, they may not hiss back at you, but they will scowl back at you. And option number three. This is where the wisdom comes. You can walk into the elevator and you can do nothing. And what do you get 98 percent of the time if you walk into an elevator and you do nothing from that stranger in the elevator? Nothing. It’s mirrored reciprocation isn’t it? But what did you have to do? You have to go first. And you’re going to get back whatever you put out there.

This is why these bars are full of people at 2 a.m. drowning their sorrows. Knocking down these drinks. ‘When’s the world going to give me something man? When am I going to get mine?’ Well, what did you ever do? Did you ever get up in the morning and smile at the world? No. You either did nothing or you scowled and hissed at the world. You’re getting back exactly what you would expect to get back if you understood how the world really works. Which is why we study multidisciplinary things right? We can’t be wrong on this. can we? It’s all mirrored reciprocation. So what do you want to do? You want to go positive, you want to go first. What’s the obstacle? There’s a big obstacle. This is an economics club. Certainly, you have all heard of Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner in economics. Behavioral economics. And what did he win his Nobel Prize for? For answering the question, why would people not go positive and not go first when there’s a 98 percent chance you’re going to benefit from it, and only a 2 percent chance the person’s going to tell you to ‘screw off’ and you’re going to feel horrible, lose face, and all the rest of that. And that’s real. That’s why we don’t do it. He said there’s huge asymmetry between the standard human desire for gain and the standard human desire to avoid loss. Which one do you think is more powerful? 98 percent versus 2!

Now I gave this same talk at Fairfax up in Toronto, Prem Watsa’s outfit. It’s the Berkshire Hathaway of Canada. And I said ‘Of all people in the whole world, you guys should not be making this mistake.’ Why? Because you’re in the insurance business. How does insurance work? You’re supposed to spend 2 percent to protect 98 percent, right? Look what you’re doing. You’re spending 98 percent to protect against the 2 percent probability that somebody makes you look foolish. Lou Brock set the Major League record for stolen bases with the St. Louis Cardinals many years ago. And he once said, ‘Show me a man who is afraid of appearing foolish and I’ll show you a man who can be beat every time.’ And if you’re getting beat in life, chances are it’s because you’re afraid of appearing foolish. So what do I do with my life? I risk the two percent. I was so proud the other day, I was reading Bono on Bono. Bono’s the lead singer of U2. He’s the only other person I’ve ever encountered in my entire life, and I asked all my cronies, ‘Has anybody else ever encountered this elevator model before?’ ‘No. No that’s yours Peter.’ And I said, ‘You know how I said 98-2? Guess who’s got the exact same model? Bono! Well he doesn’t have 98-2, he’s got 90-10.’ Those are his numbers – 90-10. Can I be wrong on this? That guy is really squared away. I hope some day I’m as squared away as he is. It’s incredible to think, he figured it out. That’s why that guy’s had such a great life. He goes, ‘You know, I know 10 percent of people are going to screw me. That’s OK. If I’m not willing to be vulnerable and expose myself to that 10%, I’m going to miss the other 90%.’ Does that make sense? Now Charlie Munger one day, you know he turned my whole life upside down. I was over at his house one day and he said, ‘Peter, I’ve been hearing about you going around giving all these talks. You don’t have to go around the country telling people how to make more money.’ I said, ‘Well that’s not what I do Charlie.’ I was very nimble on my feet. I said there’s a catch. I do tell how to make more money but, by the way, if you do these things that get people all-in and whatnot, you’ll make all the money there is to be made. You really will. That’s not why I’m here. I’m here to give you the second half of the message, which is how to be a good person! What’s your name? (Answer: ‘Albert'). Albert, how many lifetimes do you have Albert? (Answer: ‘One'). That’s correct, you get a pen. You see Albert lucked out, he got an easy question. Is your lifetime important to you Albert? (Answer: ‘One of the most important. Absolutely').

Now what do we know in economics, it’s an economics model, what do we know we need to use as our decision making prism whenever something is both finite, like one, and important like your life? How do we have to make decisions? You had Mankiw here right? He didn’t talk about opportunity cost? Have you all heard of opportunity cost? It’s the classic illustration of opportunity cost. You have a finite number of something, it’s important. If you’re doing ‘A’ with it, it means what? It means you’re not doing B or C or D or E. What do you have to do? You have to evaluate all the different alternatives and pick the one that’s most optimal. Is that fair? So you’ve got one lifetime. How do you want to spend your one lifetime? Do you want to spend your one lifetime like most people do, fighting with everybody around them? No. I just told you how to avoid that. And in exchange have what? A celebratory life. Instead of an antagonistic fighting life. All you have to do is go positive, go first, be patient enough. You know we have to be patient for a week with this puppy. Do you know how long it usually takes for a human being to do all the probing and testing that Emily was going to do and to find out that you’re for real? It takes six months. This is why nobody does it. ‘Oh it takes too long.’ Compared to what? Look at the plan B that everybody uses. It’s terrible! It doesn’t work. They spend their whole lives fighting with everybody.

The three hallmarks of a great investment are superior returns, low risk, and long duration. The whole world concentrates on Category 1. But if you’re a leader of any merit at all, you should be treating these three as what? Co-priorities. How do you get low risk and long duration? Win-Win. This is the biggest blind spot in business. People are actually proud of a win-lose relationship. ‘Yeah we really beat the crap out of our suppliers.’ You know, ‘We’ve got these employees for…you know, we’ve got them on an HB1 visa, they can’t work anywhere else for three years.’ They’re proud of it! Total Win-Lose. You take game theory and you insert the word lose in any scenario in game theory and what do you have? A suboptimal outcome. What happens when you insert win-win in any game theory scenario, what do you get? Optimal every time. What must you necessarily do if you’re interested in achieving win-win frameworks with your important counterparties in life? You must understand the basic axiom of clinical psychology, which I know because I’m multidisciplinary. I also learned psychology. The basic axiom of clinical psychology reads, ‘If you could see the world the way I see it, you’d understand why I behave the way I do.’ That’s pretty good isn’t it? Now there’s two corollaries to that axiom. And I say if you buy the axiom, which you should, you must buy the two corollaries as well because they’re logical extensions. They’re undeniable. Corollary number one, if that axiom is true and you want to understand the way someone’s behaving, you must see the world as they see it. But corollary number two, if you want to change a human being’s behavior and you accept that axiom, you must necessarily, to get them to change, change how they see the world. Now this sounds impossible. It’s not really that hard. You take a business. Most employees of a business see the world as employees. What if you could get them to see the world instead through the eyes of an owner? Do you think that’s going to change how they behave? It totally changes how they behave. Employees don’t care about waste. Owners do. Employees don’t self-police our place. Owners do.

This is the secret to leadership. The secret to leadership is to see through the eyes of all six important counterparty groups and make sure that everything you do is structured in such a way to be win-win with them. So here are the six. Your customers, your suppliers, your employees, your owners, your regulators, and the communities you operate in. And if you can truly see through the eyes of all six of these counterparty groups and understand their needs, their aspirations, their insecurities, their time horizons – how many blind spots do you have now? Zero. How many mistakes are you going to make? You’re going to make zero. People don’t think this is possible. It’s really easy. To understand is to know what to do. So I’m going to wrap up here because I’ve only got two minutes. There’s this great African proverb. It’s the definition of win-win. ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.’ Live your life to go far together. Don’t live it to go quickly alone. Most people grow up wanting to go quickly alone. It doesn’t work. You wind up like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. You get to the end of your life. Yeah you’re rich, you’re powerful, you’re famous, and you want a do-over because you realize at the end of your life, ‘I didn’t live my life right.’ I don’t have what really matters. What really matters is to have people pay attention to you, listen to you, and respect you, show you that you matter, and to love you. And to have it be genuine, not bought. Does that makes sense?

And I’ll leave you my last bit of wisdom. There’s another proverb, it’s a Turkish Proverb. ‘No road is long with good company.’ The essence of life is to surround yourself, as continuously as you can, with good company. Like I have today. You’re marvelous company. But how did I get that? I had to earn it, didn’t I? I’m not just some guy you picked off the street. I earned the privilege of coming here and the privilege of being with you. It gives me what? It gives me meaning in my life. It makes me feel I matter. To have people listening to me. This is my strategy for getting those five thing. You can develop your own strategy and I hope it involves going positive and going first. Thank you.


“Finding Your Own Vision” by Arno Rafael Minkkinen

This speech was originally delivered by Arno Rafael Minkkinen as the 2004 commencement address at the New England School of Photography.

Speech Transcript

We are in the midst of sea change – a tidal wave might be more accurate – with the medium of photography. While the lens is still firmly fixed to the camera body, the body itself appears to have imploded. The inner workings, that is—the guts of the camera from Talbot’s days (when cameras were called “mousetraps” by his wife who was always tripping over them) have changed faster than anyone expected.

The digital camera, the D-SLR, has become the new tool for lens-based professionals and artists almost overnight. Everywhere. We all have them now. But the pictures have not changed. Nor have the ground rules for making them. The need for pictures that make a mark on our lives, that give meaning to experience, that park themselves deep in our consciousness, the way new music always does, has never been greater, the appetite for lens-based visual culture stands above most other mediums of communication hands down.

In the art world, photography has stepped forward as the most important art medium of our times.

Roberta Smith, writing for New York Times a few years back, put it this way (and I am paraphrasing here): “In the last 30 years no medium has had a more profound effect on art than the medium of photography.” This, mind you, comes from one of America’s foremost critics of sculpture!

There is a bus station in Helsinki I want to introduce you to, a bus station just next to Eliel Saarinen’s famous train station. Surrounded by Jugenstil architectural gems like the National Theater and the National Art Museum, the bus station makes a cool backdrop for Magnum wannabees armed with D-SLRs and vintage Leica’s.

You might find yourself there sometime, too.

But getting back to the bus station and what makes it famous, at least among the students I teach at UMass Lowell, the University of Art & Design Helsinki, École d’Art Appliqués in Lausanne, or the many workshops I give in Tuscany, Maine and Santa Fe, is the metaphor it offers students and professionals alike for creative continuity in a life-long journey in photography, the metaphor it provides to young artists seeking to discover their own unique vision one day.

The Helsinki Bus Station: let me describe what happens there.

Some two-dozen platforms are laid out in a square at the heart of the city. At the head of each platform is a sign posting the numbers of the buses that leave from that particular platform. The bus numbers might read as follows: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19.

Each bus takes the same route out of the city for a least a kilometer stopping at bus stop intervals along the way where the same numbers are again repeated: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19.

Now let’s say, again metaphorically speaking, that each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer, meaning the third bus stop would represent three years of photographic activity.

Ok, so you have been working for three years making platinum studies of nudes. Call it bus #21.

You take those three years of work on the nude to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn. His bus, 71, was on the same line. Or you take them to a gallery in Paris and are reminded to check out Bill Brandt, bus 58, and so on.

Shocked, you realize that what you have been doing for three years others have already done.

So you hop off the bus, grab a cab (because life is short) and head straight back to the bus station looking for another platform.

This time you are going to make 8×10 view camera color snapshots of people lying on the beach from a cherry picker crane.

You spend three years at it and three grand and produce a series of works that elicit the same comment: haven’t you seen the work of Richard Misrach? Or, if they are steamy black and white 8×10 camera view of palm trees swaying off a beachfront, haven’t you seen the work of Sally Mann?

So once again, you get off the bus, grab the cab, race back and find a new platform. This goes on all your creative life, always showing new work, always being compared to others.

What to do?

It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the f*cking bus.

Why, because if you do, in time you will begin to see a difference.

The buses that move out of Helsinki stay on the same line but only for a while, maybe a kilometer or two. Then they begin to separate, each number heading off to its own unique destination. Bus 33 suddenly goes north, bus 19 southwest.

For a time maybe 21 and 71 dovetail one another but soon they split off as well, Irving Penn is headed elsewhere.

It’s the separation that makes all the difference, and once you start to see that difference in your work from the work you so admire (that’s why you chose that platform after all), it’s time to look for your breakthrough.

Suddenly your work starts to get noticed. Now you are working more on your own, making more of the difference between your work and what influenced it.

Your vision takes off.

And as the years mount up and your work takes begins to pile up, it won’t be long before the critics become very intrigued, not just by what separates your work from a Sally Mann or a Ralph Gibson, but by what you did when you first got started!

You regain the whole bus route in fact. The vintage prints made in twenty years ago are suddenly re-evaluated, and for what it is worth, start selling at a premium.

At the end of the line—where the bus comes to rest and the driver can get out for a smoke or better yet a cup of coffee—that’s when the work is done. It could be the end of your career as an artist or the end of your life for that matter, but your total output is now all there before you, the early (so-called) imitations, the breakthroughs, the peaks and valleys, the closing masterpieces, all with the stamp of your unique vision.

Why, because you stayed on the bus.

When I began photography I was enamored with the work of Ralph Gibson, Duane Michals, and Jerry Uelsmann. I was on their platforms. Each told me that it was possible to use your mind to make pictures. As a copywriter on the Minolta account (before I became a photographer) I wrote: “What happens inside your mind can happen inside a camera.” I took that credo and made it my own. Not with multiple images like Uelsmann or in sequences like Michals. But it was Ralph Gibson’s images that haunted me.

There was this one picture in particular of hands coming up over the prow of boat he made in 1970 that I loved. I had picture of my foot coming over the prow of a Finnish rowboat the other way made in 1976. I am sure his image had inspired mine even though I wasn’t thinking about it when I made my picture.

In 1989, there was a show in Antibes called Three Masters of the Surreal with Eikoh Hosoe, the great Japanese master, Ralph Gibson, and humbly, myself. At the party after the vernissage, I told Ralph about my trepidations when I first began photography. He nodded his head and said, “When I first saw your work (this was in 1975 or thereabouts), I had that feeling of something familiar.” But then he was quick to add: “But you know, it didn’t take you long to find your way.”

I had found the difference. Ralph went on to photograph women and walls, color and surreal light. I continued my bus route less haunted, more assured.

So, our best chance of making our voice and vision heard is to find that common attribute by which the work can be recognized, by which audiences are made curious. It can happen early, as my teacher Harry Callahan stated it: you never get much better than your first important works. And they come soon.

At an auction in London at Sotheby’s a few years back, one of my pieces came up for bidding. It shows my upside down face with mouth wide open on a boardwalk in Narragansett, Rhode Island. When the auctioneer announced the piece, certainly he or she didn’t describe it as a student work, which, in fact, it was. I had made it for Harry’s class.

And it is why I teach. Teachers who say, “Oh, it’s just student work,” should maybe think twice about teaching.

Georges Braque has said that out of limited means, new forms emerge. I say we find out what we will do by knowing what we will not do.

And so, if your heart is set on 8×10 platinum landscapes in misty southern terrains, work your way through those who inspire you, ride their bus route and damn those who would say you are merely repeating what has been done before. Wait for the months and years to pass and soon your differences will begin to appear with clarity and intelligence, when your originality will become visible, even the works from those very first years of trepidation when everything you did seemed so done before.

We can do a whole lot of things in art, become ten different artists, but if we do that, there is great danger that we will communicate very little in the end. I say ride the bus of your dreams and stay the course.

In closing, I now want to take you to Switzerland where I also teach.

Stand back, stand back, far enough so you can see your own mountain top, then head straight for it knowing it will disappear from sight for most of your life as you meander the hidden forest trails that lift you ever higher even as many sections force you to drop down into the mountainside pockets of disappointment or even despair, but you will be climbing soon enough and always headed towards your goal.

There will be those special occasions, and may there be many of them, when the fruits of your labors are suddenly made visible, to be celebrated, when you will again see that peak, only closer now, giving you the confidence to step forward ever more briskly and bravely.

At one point the tree line will thin out the way hair on the top of old man begins to bald away but air will be clear and the path sure.

At the top you will delight in what you have accomplished as much as become aware of peaks far higher than what you had ever dreamed of, peaks that from the distance when you first saw them were hard to judge for their heights.

But now you see them way up there but your climbing days are done.

If you look up to those lofty peaks with raging jealousy, you will end your days in sadness and regret.

If you look down at the path you came up, you can become proud or even arrogant if you like of every step you took.

But if you skim the horizon with your eyes and take in the gorgeous sweep of panorama before you, you will know peace and rare humility.

We do not have to be number one in this world. We only have to be number one to ourselves. There is a special peace that comes with such humility, one that showers respect on you from your peers both above and below you.

When you reach this peak in life, you’ve reached the highest peak of them all.

God can’t bless both sides of a football field any more than she or he should bless one country over another.

You can’t be number one without having a number deux, tres, quatro, or funf.

It’s a lesson we are back in the classrooms of America learning I think. I hope.

When I see bumper stickers that read my son made the dean’s list, I see all the sons and daughters that didn’t. Tracey Moffatt has this poignant series of works dedicated to athletes who’ve come in fourth place: no gold, no silver, not even bronze. Being number uno? Stardom is no dream to chase. We just need to be good. And make good work.

So, be the caretaker of your vision. Make it famous. And above all, remember, that art is risk made visible.

Good luck and see you out there. You’re going to be great.


“Roadkill on the Information Highway” by Nathan Myhrvold

This speech was delivered by Nathan Myhrvold of Microsoft in July 1994.

Speech Transcript

Hi. I'm Nathan Myhrvold, and I'm gonna talk to you today about roadkill on the information highway. Now, any sufficiently complex and interesting topic is always reduced to a series of silly cliches. And so it is with a set of technology that winds up being referred to in the press as the information highway.

When you're presented with a choice, you either have to completely choose the silly cliché, or wallow in it, and you'll see we'll probably wallow in it a little bit today. But there's a very serious issue here, which is how does computing and communication come together to change our world? How will that change the landscape for the people involved competitively there? How will it change the technology? And ultimately, how will it change society itself?

Now, the foundations of this information highway phenomena really rest on two fundamental technologies. VLSI, the chip technology that gives the raw power to computing, and software, which harnesses that raw power for end users' needs. I'm primarily a software guy, but we'll talk a bunch about hardware today because it's very important to understand what capabilities the hardware is gonna provide for us.

Over the last 20 years, there's been an explosion in the price/performance ratio. Meaning at a constant price, the performance of computers has gone up enormously. At a constant level of performance, the price has dropped precipitously. It's been about a factor of a million increase in the last 20 years, and from all we can tell, the next 20 years will have another factor of a million. And with any luck, the 20 years thereafter has another factor of a million.

In tossing factors of a million around, it's hard to get a grasp on what that really means. For reference, a factor of a million takes a year into 30 seconds. That says a computer 20 years from now will do in 30 seconds what today's computers would take a year to do. 40 years hence, the computers will do in 30 seconds what one of today's machines, at comparable cost, would take a million years to do.

Now that realm of increase in performance is so large that it stretches credulity. It's almost ridiculous. People's eyes glaze over and say, “Oh no. That couldn't be. Something's gonna happen.” But I'm basically here today to say I don't think that something unusual will happen. I think we'll get those factors.

That's what's changed the computing world today. That's why we have microprocessors and digital electronics and computers increasingly in our lives. Over the next 20-40 years, that's going to change even more so.

The ability to store information has also gone up. RAM memory or semiconductor memory increases by about 4X in density every 18 months. And that has happened historically for a very long time. The price of RAM drops at about 30% per year in a very steady fashion. Hard disks or magnetic storage decreases as well, about 60% per year.

I have a general rule of thumb. The size of your hard disk that you may have on a computer today for a computer user, that's how much RAM you'll have in between 3-5 years. And the size of your hard disk will expand accordingly. That rule has been true for me for as long as I've had a computer or been involved in them, and all of these technologies are moving in a direction that that will remain true. That's even without breakthroughs in optical storage technology, which could revolutionize both the fast main memory storage with things like holographic memory, or mass storage with new kinds of CD-ROM and writeable optical media. Not only are we able to compute more and more, we're able to store more and more. This is gonna be a fundamental piece of what happens with the information highway.

Here's a chart that shows what I've been talking about. This shows the number of bytes you get of dynamic RAM memory per dollar. This is a semi-log chart, so it's a logarithmic scale. You can see it's a nice straight line. The line goes back to 1970. That's almost 25 years that we've had remarkably steady, exponential decreases in the price per bit of memory. The last few data points in the chart are extrapolated out to the year 2000. I think there's every reason to believe that this phenomena is gonna continue.

In fact, if you look at the solid state physics that's involved, you'll find that people already have a very good idea as to how they're gonna continue to improve the density of RAM, how they'll continue to improve the price/performance ratio of processors. The fundamental physics is there. What people need to do is learn how to make it more cost-effective, manufacture in volume, make it reliable and cheap. People are very good at doing that once the fundamental capability is there.

The real lesson behind all of this is the importance of being exponential. If you know anything about exponential growth, what you know that it's the asymptotic scaling that matters. Anything which has a fixed threshold of performance, has a fixed amount of computing power, is rapidly overwhelmed. Even things that grow or grow exponentially are overwhelmed if the growth rate winds up being slower. That's why mainframe computers lost to microprocessors. They had exponential increase in performance too, just not at the same growth rate the microprocessor-based systems had.

This leads to a fascinating phenomena. This unimaginable performance is going to go and blow by any fixed thresholds. On the other hand, there's still some problems that are gonna be very hard that no amount of computing power, 40 years, 100 years, 1,000 years hence, will be able to solve. An example is a class of problems called NP hard problems in computer science. Consider a simple example where you have n objects and you take all combinations of those n objects, all different orderings. Well, the number is n!. For three objects, the number is six.

But it grows very rapidly with the number. If you take 59 objects and put them in all possible combinations, which really isn't all that many objects. It's only a little larger than the number of cards in a deck of playing cards. The total number of combinations is about 10^80th. Cosmologists estimate that's the number of baryons … that's heavy particles, protons, neutrons, things like that … in the entire universe. If you did manage to calculate that number, you couldn't print it out unless you used all the matter and all the energy in the universe to actually make the printout.

Clearly that problem is not gonna be solved anywhere near, in any finite period of time, and that's only 59. If you make the number larger, it gets worse. The trick going forward is gonna be to figure out which problems will fall to the exponential rise of computing and communications, and which will remain. That's the real challenge for the coming decades.

Here's another interesting chart. It's a chart of Microsoft stock price. And like the other chart, this is a semi-log chart. Exponential growth. Here's the arithmetic version. Why am I showing you this? Well, whenever we talk to stock market analysts, people say, “Gee, Microsoft stock has been going up a lot. How come that's so? Isn't that a very unusual circumstance?” Well, it's really very unusual if you take it from the first principle's perspective. But not if you recognize that we're surfing on a wave. A wave of computing created by the increase in performance of semiconductors, price performance.

Basically, every time a new processor comes out and is twice as fast, we have more opportunity to add value by creating new products. Every time RAM gets larger, we have an opportunity to develop more and larger programs and sell them to people. To show this effect, I took this Microsoft stock price and I divided it out by that previous graph of the memory price, and you get this. It's almost flat.

Now, this only takes the price of dynamic RAMs into account. If I also took the CPU price and the hard disk price and made an overall index, the curve would be absolutely flat. I have a conclusion that I draw from this. Software is a gas. It expands to fit the container it's in. In our case, the container is the VLSI technology. The CPU cycles software gets to burn, the memory that we get to store things in. And god bless those guys making the containers. As long as they keep making them larger, we're gonna keep having an ability to add value with software.

I used to be a cosmologist, actually, and I have another way of viewing this. It's like selling real estate in an inflationary universe. You keep selling stuff, but the universe keeps expanding exponentially.

There's a specific business strategy you have to follow if you want to keep surfing on this wave of exponential growth. And that's to measure your success not by the traditional means of revenue and profit or market share. You should measure your success by the percentage of CPU cycles you consume. By the percentage of RAM that you occupy. And so our strategy at Microsoft has been to say, “Let's follow the microprocessor.” And we have had to change the mix of our products to do that. We had to move from being a company that first wrote a programming language, BASIC, to developing operating systems, DOS and Windows. Developing graphical applications. More recently you've seen announcements or you may have seen announcements that we're doing multimedia titles, encyclopedias and titles on baseball and dinosaurs and a variety of other things.

Finally, in my group, we're working on a variety of new platforms. Intelligent televisions, servers that sit on these broadband networks I'll talk about in a little bit. Tiny computers that will fit in your pocket. Wherever there are microprocessors and memory, there's a job for software. And if you want to maintain your share of the world's cycles, you have to change your software product mix in order to follow that VLSI wherever it goes.

There are a few bottlenecks. We talked about enormous exponential growth. Turns out there's a key network that is not gonna grow fast enough. It will become a major bottleneck for some things. It won't be a bottleneck for others. The network I'm talking about isn't the phone network. It isn't the cable network. It's the human nervous system.

You see, our input and output is limited, and we're not growing our capabilities exponentially. Human beings only take a certain amount of information in and a certain amount of information out, and that's a fixed number. It's one of those fixed thresholds that computing is just gonna blow by.

I don't know how to build the peripherals that will be used in this system, how you can get touch and sense and other things built. But you can estimate what you would do if you had those peripherals. How hard is the pure computing task? What do we have to do? How far away are the ultimate data types, the complete perfect human interface that mimics reality as much as possible, or unreality? But that manages to saturate our I/O bus that gets the maximum amount of information in and out.

It's interesting to actually look at a couple of the senses and figure out how hard that would be and what sort of limits might come up, so let's take a look at them. Taste and smell are not appropriate for many programs. Using them as an I/O means for a computer program is gonna be somewhat specialized. And I don't know how on earth we're gonna connect those up to a computer, how we manage whether we jack into our central nervous system or we have some weird peripheral that puts little drops of chemicals on our tongues.

But we can calculate what the fundamental data type is and estimate how much it would take to compute that, synthesize and manipulate it. It turns out people have done a variety of physiological experiments to see how many unique tastes we can actually taste. And they've dropped little drops of stuff on people's tongues and asked them to fill out questionnaires and so forth.

It turns out that the range of taste and also smell is quite limited. Something in the order of 50,000 unique different tastes and smell elements. Some people actually break it down to smaller than that, but conservatively, let's say 50,000 different elements. Turns out the time resolution of smell and taste is very low. You don't have thousands of tastes and smells per second. You have in the order of a few tastes and smells per second.

If we compare this with, say, CD audio. CD audio has two 16-bit samples 44,000 times a second. Here we're talking about one 16-bit sample to get 64,000 different tastes and smells. We got a few bits of amplitude on top of that. We probably only sample it 10 times or 100 times a second. The total bandwidth is far less than audio. Presumably, it's far easier to synthesize, calculate, store.

On the day that you can jack in and get taste and smell, we'll discover it's really not all that hard. We have all the computing power necessary to do it today. It doesn't require any great breakthroughs in terms of the computing aspect of the problem.

Touch is another great one. Obviously video is something that's quite common in computers these days. On a video screen, you tend to divide the screen up into a bunch of pixels or picture elements. Well, let's estimate how many touch elements or “touchels” you'll need. Again, we assume we have little discreet elements. Well, once again, there's been some physiological tests that have been done where people try to estimate the touch resolution people have in various parts of their bodies. They poke people with rods of various sizes and shapes.

The surprising conclusion is, we have very poor touch resolution everywhere except our hands, our lips and a couple other places. Otherwise, the resolution is quite low. I was replicating some of these experiments, poking myself with these various rods to see if I could tell the difference. Somebody walked in the room and I had to explain, really, this is research. This is for work.

It turns out that the total size of your body that has this high resolution stuff is also quite limited. In fact, to do an experiment there, I took some paper towels and covered the size of the monitor that I use for a computer. That's got about a 100 dots per inch resolution for a decent quality computer monitor these days. That's also about the same resolution you have on the high-sensitivity parts of your body. It's about 100 touchels per inch, would be about the maximum density.

Then the question is, does the screen have greater area than your body? And of course you can do that by cutting that paper towel out and applying it to the sensitive parts of your body. You really don't wanna get caught doing that experiment. But it turns out that in fact it's about the same.

If you assume you have somewhere between 8 and 24 bits of resolution per touchel, you have about the same total number of touchels as you have in a high-res computer screen. The bandwidth is only about the same as video. Now, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there's some additional factors in there. Suppose it was 10X video? Remember, if you double every year, the factor of 10 only takes you about three and a half years before you're there.

The story here is that although, again, I don't know how we'll get touch sensitivity with computers, the total data feed isn't all that big a deal. It's not gonna be any harder to synthesize. It won't be any harder to ship around or store than video is. You put this together with the taste … We already know how to do video reasonably well and they're making it stereo. Completely saturating humans' ability to do input and output is gonna be over within a few years. What it means is the computing is gonna have to move to other challenges, that providing the ultimate user interface is a temporary, desirable, but hardly a final state.

Now, we've talked a bunch about computing, storing information, about calculating stuff. But what about communicating it? Well, the world of communication is one that hasn't followed any of these laws of exponential growth. And, in fact, you can make a very strong analogy between a central office telephone switch and a mainframe. Both giant systems. They have a similar kind of a culture. They have very similar sorts of margins and costs, et cetera.

You can make an analogy that the PBX that people have inside a company, which is a smaller-scale switch, is a lot like a minicomputer. Literally, it's based on minicomputer technology, but again, the aspects of that industry are very similar to the aspects of the minicomputer world.

Well, minicomputers' mainframes ruled the world, computing-wise, until microprocessor-based systems came in. Starting with personal computers and workstations and now large servers, the microprocessor has decimated the ranks of the mainframe and minicomputer world. And I think a similar thing is gonna be happening in communications because of two key technologies. The first is ATM switching. The other is fiber optics.

For many years, fiber optics has had the ability to pipe huge amounts of information over long distances. You can modulate these lasers that are used in the fiber very, very well, so getting information from one point to another via fiber is commonplace. Essentially, all long-distance phone calls go that way today.

The problem has been that you couldn't get that high speed switched or delivered to the right place. You could move the bits, and if it was point to point you were okay, but you couldn't actually have a network that would get the information from one point to another. That's where ATM switches come in. And I believe that ATM switches and that whole technology area is the equivalent for the communications world to what the microprocessor was for computing. ATM switches follow VSLI price/performance curves. They are based on a small number for such a large number, but of replicated, cheap pieces of VLSI.

ATM switching allows new entrants to come into the market. Just as a variety of start-up companies came in and revolutionized the world of personal computing, we're gonna find dozens of start-up companies coming in in the ATM switch area. I think that a variety of the existing switch people are gonna also be making great switches. I don't mean it's limited to that. But we're gonna see a change here where people are very happy to get their 56KB or ISDN 64KB lines today. That's high-tech in wide-area networking, whereas that's gonna be ridiculous in just a few years. And that industry's gonna restructure completely as a result.

But that's the technology level. There's also some interesting service aspects of that. We go to what I call the communications rollercoaster. Your phone bill hasn't followed an exponential price curve. It hasn't dropped by a factor of two every year. Nor has the amount of data that you send. It expanded by a factor of two at the same cost. It's basically been static.

Well, now we have ATM technology. We have fiber optics. And we have a third factor, competition, coming in. Those three things are gonna combine to make the communications world change overnight. Now overnight may take five years, may take 10 years to do, but in the historical context we're gonna go from voice being a very expensive sort of a service to voice essentially being free.

In fact, you can calculate the numbers. A lot of people in the communications world are gearing up for video on demand service where they say, “We'll offer you a pay per view movie in your home.” They'll have to charge … Nobody knows exactly what they'll charge, but they'll have to charge something like $3, $4 for that. If they charged more, they wouldn't be competitive with the existing Blockbuster store.

And out of that $3 or $4, they have to pay Tom Cruise and the guys in Hollywood, whoever the stars are. Those guys have to get some money and distributors have to get some money. The raw communications cost is probably only about $1 or 50 cents per hour. 50 cents per hour for 4 megabits per second. If you compare that to what you have today for voice, you get 9600 VOD service, which costs, for most long-distance calls, between 30 and 60 cents a minute. That's a factor of 10,000 different in price.

I believe that we'll see a time when voice calls, even long-distance voice calls, are free. Not free by themselves, but someone will say, “Hey, if you sign up for our video on demand service and our video telephone service and you sign up for all of that, we'll let you have the voice side for free,” betting that you'll move across.

One of the other factors to consider here is that the economics of the communications business is gonna be turned on its head. The way that public utility commissions and the networking companies today think is in terms of the enormous value of their installed equipment. Well, it is valuable, but you have to remember that the new equipment will probably be a factor of two better for the same price every year.

Whoever is operating these networks has to go on a very intense schedule of upgrading them. They also have to worry that …

A schedule of upgrading them. They also have to worry that if they don't upgrade, some new guy's going to come in, pay a fraction of what they paid to put the things in originally, and have much better service. It's going to be a hell of a ride. But ultimately, I think both for the companies in that business and for the consumers, it's going to be a real thrill too.

What sort of network are we talking about? We've sort of talked around the edges. I think the overall system that we foresee is a switched digital network that offers point to point high bandwidth digital communications, and on which you hang a wide variety of different devices. This is interesting analogy to the electrical system. When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, it became the killer app, the key thing, that focused people's minds on electrification. When electricity was first installed in American homes, it was installed as a dedicated lighting system. In fact, in large cities, it replaced an earlier dedicated lighting system based on gas, gas lights. Now, we don't think of electricity as a dedicated lighting system anymore. Sure, we have lights, but we also plug in our Cuisinart and our stereo and our computer and our electric razor. It's a general utility.

The same thing has happened in the communications world. Today, you have two dedicated networks. You have a cable TV network, dedicated in the notion it'll deliver you video. You have a telephone network, dedicated in the notion it delivers you point to point communications. Those are going to evolve as we look forward into a general information utility. You'll have a bit socket, like the RJ11 jack you have today. Into that bit socket, you'll plug your personal computer, and you'll plug your camcorder when you want to send pictures of the kids to grandma. You'll have your smart TV, your smart cable box. You'll have some dumb cable boxes. You'll have wireless phones and smart phones, and you'll have a wide variety of servers and other systems that are set up in order to supply information.

This isn't about the telephone taking over the world. It's not about the TV or the set top box taking over the world. It's not about the personal computer taking over the world. What we're talking about here is a general information utility. People like to talk, “Will the TV win over the PC?” They'll both win. Not only those, your water heater will be connected. Every electrical device will ultimately be connected to this information utility, and offer you the ability to do demand-side power management, security, a wide variety of different kinds of information usage. In fact, we'll think of information as just as fundamentally utility as we think of electricity today.

Now, in looking at how this world is going to evolve, there's a variety of aspects of this information. What do you mean information? What kinds of information? How will it alter? I think one of the interesting ways to look at it is to divide things into two sides, the pure information addressing aspects. Are you sending something to one person or to many people? Is it point to point, one to one, or one to many? Also, look at the temporal aspects in time. Is it synchronous, like a telephone call when both parties have to be on the line at the same time, or is it asynchronous, or offline, so that the two parties can be completely decoupled in time?

Well, you can make a list of these things. Examples of an online one to many service would include things like television and radio. We all have to be there when The Simpsons start, and if not, they start without us. We're all synced up. Telephones and most computer networks are examples of point to point communications. We're sending something from one place to another place. Telephone is certainly a synchronous example, or online example. The offline side, a book or a magazine is a classic one to many offline thing. You don't care when the book was written, it could have been written a hundred years before you were born. It fundamentally was written for a wide audience, not just for you. Finally, there is point to point off line, electronic mail, fax, ordinary postal service. Again, you have a decoupling of time, but you have a point to point address.

Now, within each of these categories, I've described a variety of different information utilities, each of which has very different characteristics today. That's going away. Because once you have this kind of information transmittal means, storage means in your hand, you wind up finding that everything within a box winds up becoming quite similar. The difference between say a record album, which is one kind of one to many offline thing and a book, well that's just different kinds of data. Once you're storing them all digitally, what does it matter? Fundamentally, you see the world collapsing into two kinds of services. There's digital data that's online, a digital phone call, a digital video call, et cetera. There's digital data which is offline, either via a store and forward system, or perhaps it's on an optical storage disc.

I think we'll see a lot of things move from the online category to offline. Why should we all have to wait for The Simpsons to come on at a particular time? We've made ourselves slaves to the machines, slaves to the system. You should be able to watch a TV show, a movie, anytime you like. Doesn't mean everything's offline of course. There'll still be late breaking news stories that'll come on that you're going to want to watch at that point in time, but by and large, many of the things that are multicast and online will move offline. Similarly, many of the things which you had a very long time constant for, you're going to be able to get instantaneously. Ultimately, as we look forward to these kinds of information, we discover that the factors which survive the best are those that are the most generic, the addressing capabilities and the temporal aspects.

To get more information on how this is going to happen, we have to look for analogies. It's hard to find something that has the same characteristics as this information highway explosion will have, unless you go very far back, back to the first information revolution, when Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press and completely changed the way people thought about information. I've got an analysis of that, based on what I call document demographics.

Consider the total number of documents, say, published each year, versus the total number of readers that that information was dedicated to. In the zero column are notes to yourself. People take notes, they're not intended for any reader other than the author, it's not for any kind of distribution really, it's as a memory aid. Well, then you've got letters, personal letters to a person, business letters, et cetera. Those exist in one to a small number of copies. Once you get up to a higher volume above a hundred, you're probably not sending letters. It's probably things like ads, brochures, newsletters. Finally, get up above about 10,000, you have books, magazines, newspapers, things of that sort. You can estimate what the shape of that curve is. You can do that by figuring out how much notebook paper is sold, how many Post-It Notes are sold, what's the combined circulation of newspapers, magazines, books, et cetera. I've got a schematic curve there sort of illustrating this.

The thing that's fascinating to me about this curve is that print media, which is basically what we're talking about, is very mature. Print media is driven more by the fundamental desire of the people who are using it, than by the technology, although technology's played an important role. It gives us an interesting way of looking at what might happen, I believe will happen, for online digital information. Now, within each of these different ranges of documents, there's a characteristic technology used for reproduction, for making the copies, for actually getting the copies out to people.

For the zero case, it's pen or pencil. That's how a document that gets no distribution other than the author is written. From one copy up to a hundred copies, you're in another realm, the realm of the photocopier, the Xerox machine. That's revolutionized that area. From 100 to 10,000 copies, you're really in the realm of desktop publishing. Laser printers, they're important in the smaller range too, but laser printers, and small offset presses and desktop publishing, really come into their own between 100 and 10,000 copies. Finally, when you get above say 5 or 10,000 copies and up, you're in the realm of commercial printing. I say around 10,000 because that's the minimum number you do really serious commercial printing for. Most books, regardless of whether they're some very popular book or they're some very obscure scientific tome, aren't printed in less than about 5 or 10,000 copies. It's just not worth starting the presses if you don't do that.

Now, in addition to reproduction, there's a characteristic distribution technology. How do you take those copies you've made for people, and physically get them to the people who need to see them? Well, once again, distribution's not a problem when you're in the zero case. From zero to a hundred, you're probably either using by hand, you're physically handing people or your interoffice mail is taking it. Perhaps you're mailing them. Between 100 and 10,000 copies, there's kind of an awkward phase. How do you send 1,000 copies of something? It's too small a number to go into commercial distribution. Instead, what you have to do, pretty much, is use the mail. There's no good way of getting it out other than that. Most of the documents in that are either given free, they're ads, or if they're sold, they're usually fairly expensive. If you subscribe to an industry newsletter, they usually cost $100 to $1,000 a year. It's quite expensive compared to, say, a popular magazine. Once you get above 10,000 copies, you have the commercial world of distribution, retail, et cetera, where people either use the mail in the case of magazines, they use newsstands, bookstores, paperboys. There's a specialty distribution system, it's all set up for that domain.

Now, there's a fundamental lesson to learn here. Each technology has characteristic economics, and that economics is what shapes the whole field. You may think of it in other terms, but in fact, the price per copy was an enormous barrier to people making photocopies at one time. Was changed enormously by Xerox. In addition to direct economic costs, there's the convenience, the ability to go up to a machine and press a button, changed things enormously. In fact, we can go back and look at what the effects of each of these kinds of information delivery would have been before the technology changed the economics. In fact, the lesson is, when you change the economics of the information distribution, you change the world.

Here's a chart where I've superimposed on the original one what you used to do before Xerox, before desktop publishing, and before Gutenberg. Well, before Xerox, you could make a photostat or a mimeograph. There were ways of making copies. You could use carbon paper, but you had to hit those keys awful hard to make more than about two copies. In fact, there's a hugely fewer number of copies made. You can estimate this by looking at the sales of copiers and copier paper. People basically did without having large numbers of copies. As soon as Xerox made them feasible, they exploded. People found a need for all of this. It's hard to imagine if you see the use of Xerox machines today how on earth we could have survived without it.

The same thing was true, qualitatively, if you look at the next phase up, for desktop publishing. Prior to desktop publishing and cheap offset printing being able to be done, small distribution documents either weren't done, or they were done very carefully, because they had to be hand set in lead type. It was one of these typesetting machines would melt hot lead and do this huge amount of effort. It was very expensive. Could cost up to $1,000 a page to get something typeset and camera-ready copy prepared. Desktop publishing enormously changed the number of documents in that range, both in terms of quality and number, by making it cheap and easy to do.

Finally, commercial printing was utterly revolutionized by Gutenberg. Prior to Gutenberg, there was some monks that would carefully copy a small number of documents, but they fundamentally had a very different means. It wasn't a distribution means. Books were an object. It was a beautiful thing. They did these wonderful illuminated manuscripts, but a book was no different than a sculpture or a painting. It wasn't something that large numbers of people got. Something you'd come and venerate in a museum or a monastery. Gutenberg changed that, and in changing it created this first information revolution. The lesson we learn is that every time you make it easier, either more convenient or cheaper or both, it creates a whole new industry. Billions of dollars change hands. But even more than that, the world changes. The world after Gutenberg was a literate world. It was a world where information would flow, where people had to learn to read. Similarly, we're going to see this kind of change happening again, because I believe there's a fundamental need here. These existing technologies in the print world have sampled something very fundamental.

Now, we can see that by looking at the distribution of what happens for consumer information today. Let's take videotape. Millions of people have camcorders, and take pictures of the kids or their vacation or the dog or whatever. That's very much like notes to one's self. But after that, the curve drops off like a rock. There's some wedding videos, maybe make 10 copies of those, there's training videos, but from there you get this huge desert from three copies out to 10,000 copies. What do you do? Video is extremely expensive to produce, a lot like typesetting used to be. It's very hard to distribute. What do you do, you mail people tapes, you have some mail order thing. There's no good way of getting it out. Once you get above 10,000 copies, you discover that there is a market, a commercial market, in video cassette rental, cable television, broadcast television, et cetera. But it's a very funny curve.

In fact, qualitatively speaking, it's exactly like the curve before Gutenberg, before desktop publishing, and before Xerox. Consumer information today, from a technological perspective, is way back from what print is. Now, I believe there's a fundamental need expressed here, a thirst that people have for information. With electronic distribution we have the chance to fundamentally raise that curve. Now, this is a radical view in many ways. If you live in the current world of, say, video information, you think that the world is all about having a small number of people transmit information to many. It's a small to many phenomenon, so it's Steven Spielberg, and TV producers, and the anchor people on CNN. Those are the ones that need to communicate to all of us. We don't need to communicate to each other in this medium. Wrong.

The thing that's constant, the lesson you learn consistently from the print world, is that people want information at all scales. In fact, there's far more information distributed in small volumes than in large. Sure, there's going to be Steve Spielbergs that make a Jurassic Park 4 that 100,000,000 people have to see. But there's also going to be communications from your mother. Communications from my mother aren't of interest to anybody else, but we all have a mom. We all have jobs. We all have purchase orders and forms and memos and a variety of pieces of written information that we use that will transfer to the digital world.

In fact, the general lesson here is that authors are everywhere. You have to have a scalable system. You have to have a system that allows you to support everything ranging from the person making notes to themself all the way up to the Steve Spielbergs or somebody else, making a document or a creation that millions or billions of people will see. If you sit there, and you think only about, “Yeah, this is just about Hollywood entertainment,” one to very, very many, you'll miss out. Of course, by the same token, if you think it's only about the other end of the curve, you'll miss out. It's really about the full gamut. Now, this vision is based on the fundamental belief that there is that thirst for information, that we all do want and need to be authors at various levels. But I think the print history is going to bear us out. It'll be interesting to see if that's true.

There'll be a variety of false starts along this information highway. If you listen at a very high level, everyone seems to be saying the same thing, “Wow, it's going to change your life. It's going to be great. It's going to be wonderful. We're all into it.” When you really look in detail, you discover almost everyone is doing something different. Different in the details, some different in crucial details. The other thing that you'll find is that there's going to be very many more experiments than there are successes. In the early days of the PC industry, dozens of machines came and went. This is a natural and healthy part of rapid evolution. When you have people trying to apply their creativity to the maximum, this happens. But it also means that there's going to be a lot of things that look really great that turn out not to be.

Data processing is an example of an area that's going to be enormously changed. Today, if you look at a large data processing system, a traditional mainframe center, you might think about the SABRE system that American Airlines uses. It's a huge system by many means. Four terabytes of data, does about 3,600 transactions per second. It's a whole series of large IBM mainframes in a set of disc farms. But if you replicated that system today, with multiple PCs, you'd discover that you could build the whole thing for maybe $650,000. It would require about 10 large PCs running NTs and databases and discs. If you look at the year 2000, you discover that the whole system will fit on a PC.

Now, the fascinating thing about this is that there's no room for it to grow. It's an example of something that will be blown past by exponential growth, because there's only so many travel agents that only type so fast. They're not breeding like rabbits. Neither is human population, at least at these kinds of rates. There's only so many airplanes. No matter what happens, the size of that data can never grow fast enough to beat the exponential growth of computing. This is a problem that's destined to fall to that, to go from being a giant problem, it's a miracle that they can get it together, to something that anybody with a PC can set up. Doesn't mean that SABRE will go away, or the service will go away, but anyone who's betting on the barrier to entry being this giant data center, they'll be surprised.

In fact, we'll see an increasing number of these things happen. As exponentially increasing computing and communications come into play, you'll discover that it's a very dangerous combination if you're not fast on your feet. If people in an information business can't adapt to this technology, can't figure out what parts of it are very relevant to exponential expansion will be and succumb, and what parts will not, they'll discover that they rapidly become obsolete. Conversely, this'll offer tremendous opportunity for those who do realize those advantages, and wind up changing the status quo by offering new goods and services.

There's a lot of people that are going to be out of luck, but there's a lot of people that are going to be in luck as well. The author, the creative person that is creating information, is going to find better tools and a better way of getting to customers than ever before. Nerds like me, programmers, are going to have a terrific time, because this will be the age of the nerd, the golden age. The people involved in building the networks and the equipment are going to find there's a $100 billion bill just in the US, that they're going to have to rise to the challenge of going ahead and providing the services for. So although there's going to be some tremendous problems, there's going to be tremendous opportunities as well.

Now, in many ways, the technology we're talking about is the greatest mass extinction event that the planet has seen in 65 million years. The old-fashioned stock market ticker, the typewriter, doing a spreadsheet with pencil and paper, the analog record turntable, they're all extinct. I have five-year old twins and took them to Tower Bookstore the other day, and there's a Tower Records next door, and explained how Tower Books was where they sold books and so one of them said, “Daddy, do they sell records at Tower Records?” I said, “No, it's just an expression.” The record's gone. You go in Tower Records, it's nothing but CDs. The extinctions we've seen so far are just the barest tip of the iceberg, because the endangered species list is very large. Whether that's things in the office, the way we file things, communicate them, or things in our own personal lives. There's a tremendous number of things which are on the bridge of extinction, and that we're going to see go by.

Same thing occurred in the early days of the personal computer. We saw many companies come and go. Even for companies that are still around and haven't gone broke, they've usually gone through one or even three generations of computers to get where they are today. The earlier ones proving obsolete, not being able to grow fast enough, leading to new opportunities. Now, for all of this concern about extinction and so forth, there's also a terrific amount of greed.

… worth. There's also terrific amount of greed, people thinking, “Wow, this is the opportunity that we're gonna get rich with.” Amusing fact is nobody knows where the profit will be, and I think they'll try all kinds of variations and try and look for it. Is this going to be a question of metering things by the bit, or will it be a value-based charge, where some things are charged on the value they deliver not the communications class? Will it be driven by advertising, the way say radio and TV are today, or the way magazines and newspapers are to a lesser extent? Or is it going to be more like books or movies, that aren't at all advertising driven?

It's very difficult to figure those questions out, and when you see people that are plunking billions of dollars down, or just hundreds of millions a year in the case of my company, they're doing so largely on faith, faith that somehow, they're going to find a way through this puzzle. I don't know what the answer's going to be, but I think there are some initial conclusions you can draw.

The people who win at this are going to be the ones who have the most open, the most flexible business model, that allows the largest number of variations to occur. Without that, you're lost. There's a fascinating issue of time involved here. How long will this take? What's going to occur along the way? Who wins? Who loses?

I like to use an example in entertainment here. The play, the theater, was in Shakespeare's day a tremendous means of popular entertainment. Groups of troubadours and players would go around playing music, producing small theatrical performances. It was a populist medium. Well, the movie came along, and movies changed that to some degree. Movies were much cheaper to distribute, a little more expensive to make than a play, but you could play them many times over, more easily than moving the people around. It was cheaper, reached a larger audience.

Then television came, and of course, when television came, people predicted the death of the movies, just as when people saw movies, they predicted the death of theater. Well, we've gone from ordinary television, the network broadcast variety, to cable TV. It was a proliferation of new channels. We've gone from that to home video.

Now, fascinating thing is that every step along the way, we changed the distribution means for entertainment. At every step, we wound up having all kinds of people predicting, “Oh my god, everything else is going to die. The video cassette's going to kill the movie business,” and of course, what happened at every step is the market got a lot bigger and all of the existing things up to that point continued. The VCR didn't kill cable, cable didn't kill broadcast, broadcast didn't kill movies, and movies haven't killed the play.

Now, when you go see a play today, it's not as broad-scale mainstream populist form of entertainment as it was in Shakespeare's day, when it was about the only thing going, but they still exist. In the same way, when people talk about newspapers dying, or traditional television will die, or this will die, I think they're exaggerating enormously. What will happen is the market will expand, new things will come in, older forms of media may become relegated to smaller and smaller segments, much as the theater is today, but I think they're still going to be there, because they satisfy very unique points in people's information needs. There's unique experiences involved, so it's not going to happen overnight.

Another interesting question is, “What will the killer application be?” For the personal computer, the killer apps were things like word processors, spreadsheets, and databases. That's really what drove the personal computer's initial expansion. But, that isn't the end of it. In fact, the reason that people buy PCs today has as much to do with multimedia titles, and games, and presentation graphics, and desktop publishing, things that didn't exist at all in the early days of the PC industry.

The same sort of thing is true with this information highway. Don't think of one killer app. Think of many killer apps. I like to use an example from the cable TV world. The killer app for cable in the early days was better TV reception. People at outlying areas got all the static. They could only get one or two channels, so people put the first cable systems in. But that's not why 60% of American homes have cable today. They have cable because they want to get MTV. They want CNN, The Weather Channel, HBO, Discovery, all kinds of TV programming that you cannot get any other way. That was the killer app in the '80s and '90s. Has very little to do with the original one. The original one's actually pretty boring.

But, that's the nature of these systems. The start is always boring things, which are easy to accept. They're a small step up, but that isn't what makes it really popular. It becomes popular because of the new and unique means that you can do that you can't get any other way. In the case of interactive TV, I think it's pretty clear that the early applications will also be relatively boring, things like video on demand, online TV guides, et cetera. But that's not what this system's about.

What it's really about is going to be new forms of interactive programming, things that we can only guess at today. They will be as remote to our thinking today as saying you were going to have MTV back in the late '50s, early '60s when the first cable systems came in. You know, you said, “Yeah, I'm going to have this program where all these little music shots are shown one after another.” People would have thought you were crazy. I think the same thing … I'm betting the same thing's going to happen here.

Now, video on demand is a fascinating thing. It is both very exciting and very unexciting. The unexciting part is it's really just storing a bunch of files, from a technical perspective. Although there are some challenges, they're fairly limited. On the other hand, from a social perspective, there's really a very large benefit, because what you wind up doing is breaking the constraint of opportunity cost.

Today, with prime time TV, we all share the same limited number of broadcast things. There's only about 21 hours of prime time a week. There's only a couple of channels, so there's a very small number of slots. Those slots are hugely valuable, like a million dollars an hour is the opportunity cost. So, they only put on things that they think will appeal to the broadest possible audience, and they often make a bad decision.

Now, contrast that with the case of a bookstore. A bookstore at the airport may only have a couple dozen books, you know, the New York Times bestseller list. What if you restricted all bookstores to only have that amount? Well, I think that would be a tragedy two ways. First, you'd lose the richness of the world's literature, but second, you'd wind up making books themselves less popular. Many of the books on the New York Times bestseller list weren't built to be there. They were happy accidents. They exist because the barrier to entry is low.

Now, imagine if the publishing executives only had a couple of slots that they had to fill, and they had to make a decision for each and every book. I used to work with Stephen Hawking when I was a physicist, and he wrote a book called A Brief History of Time. Madonna wrote, created, a book called Sex, lots of pictures of her without any clothes on. So suppose you had some executive at a publishing company that had one slot left, and he had to sit there and say, “Well, it's Madonna selling sex, this guy talking about the origin of the universe. I'll go with the physicist.”

Not very likely, but it turns out that would have been the right decision, not just on some moral grounds or something, on a business basis. Sex sold less than a million copies. Stephen's book has sold over five-and-a-half million copies, and the total revenue is much larger. So, it turns out that the knee-jerk response of pandering to the lowest common denominator would be the wrong decision, but it'd be very hard for someone to make that decision. That's not just Brief History of Time. Bridges of Madison County, a zillion other books, have become popular by accident. They're there because a publisher said, “Yeah, sure, I'll try it,” and then it turned out to be very, very successful thereafter.

Video on demand has a chance to change that for video entertainment. That's a very important thing. On the other hand, video on demand is a fairly boring thing. I like to call it the terminal emulator of the 1990s. Terminal emulators were a great way to use a personal computer in the early days. Very important application, one of the killer apps. If you had a mainframe or a mini computer, and you want to connect to it, a piece of software on a PC was a great way to do it. These days, it's ridiculous. No one, or very few people, use them because the mainframes and minis themselves have shrunk in importance. And that's really not what personal computing's about.

I think the opportunity, from an entertainment perspective, is distributed programming, is people creating new kinds of applications that mix computing, communication, and data storage. It won't just be video on demand. It'll be far richer. If that wasn't the case, Microsoft would not be betting the $200 million a year we're betting in R&D in this area, because it wouldn't have enough technical depth that a software company would be able to make the kind of difference that we think we'll make if there is a rich distributed programming environment.

Distributing information, and the economics therein, is hugely important, but it's also important to be able to create the information in the first place, because if you don't have it, you can't distribute it. And, this is an area that I think we'll see an enormous amount of change in. If you are involved in video production, you see this huge number of expensive special purpose equipment, that very difficult to actually do. Specialists are required at many stages of the process.

In the future, this work is all going to be done on a small number of general purpose computers and pieces of software. It's very much like the situation with desktop publishing. All those great typesetting machines that would melt the hot lead and cast the type, that's all on a couple diskettes now. In the same way, creating audio, creating video, creating animations, that'll be on a few diskettes in a couple years.

And the opportunities go beyond just creating video as we know it today, or animation, or multimedia as we know it today. We'll have the opportunity to synthesize actors. It may sound a little bit crazy, but of course, that's how the special effects in Terminator are done. That's how various high-tech special effects happen. You can't say, “Oh, order me up a tyrannosaurus rex from central casting,” or, “Excuse me, stuntman, I'd like you to melt through that wall.” All that stuff is done today with a synthetic actor, but over time, there's no reason not to have that more broadly. If you can bring t-rex back to life, why not Elvis? It's going to change, completely, not only the creative scope of what people can do, but the amount of access people get.

Authoring isn't just about the Steven Spielbergs or the would-be Steven Spielbergs. It's about everybody. Given the exponential increase in computing, in less than 10 years, a child's toy will have the same power as the computers used in Jurassic Park. Say, “Mommy, look at my velociraptor. Look what I made it do.” this is really about allowing people to create information, literally at all scales, whether it's children, businessmen, as well as the would-be auteurs creating their multimedia magnum opus.

The information highway, the whole name information highway, implies that this is something that's about information, information businesses, communications, entertainment. It turns out many things are information businesses, one way or another. Consider the food chain of distributors that takes things from the original manufacturer, to warehouses, to local stores, or the food chain in the financial world. You deposit a dollar in the bank. The bank goes and takes that money, and aggregates it, and goes off to world financial markets to buy or sell various financial instruments, make loans, et cetera. There's a huge food chain that is built up in each of these areas. Fundamentally, though, those are information businesses.

There's been a big trend in retailing, where we've seen a move away from the small, local store, which is fed by the distributor, which is fed by the nationwide warehouse, which is fed by the manufacturer. Instead, we have outfits like Price Costco or Walmart, that create a big warehouse and have everybody come in, and they offer cut-rate prices and a lot of value on that basis.

Well, the information highway is going to be like Costco or Walmart on steroids. You're going to find, instead of going to the big warehouse, why not browse it electronically? In fact, why warehouse things? Why not have manufacturing on demand, so that when you go ahead and ask for something, you order it, it's created on the spot, and it creates an entire chain of messages flowing around to the various suppliers and their suppliers, so that people don't have to maintain expensive inventories.

When you have something like the banking system, instead of depositing a dollar into my account and then having the bank go and aggregate that, and take it off to world financial markets, when I walk up to an ATM, and I go and I enter my dollar I'm going to deposit, that's like a bid or an ask on the world financial market. It's like, “Hey, I want to invest a dollar.” Why can't there be competitive bidding for that, with people bidding, by and large who are not people, actually computer programs bidding it?

I think we'll see a huge trend where middlemen, people whose only role has been either to warehouse things or to be a cog in the middle between the contact with the customer and the actual creation, are going to be squeezed, because fundamentally, middlemen are in the information business, and once we can all communicate directly, from the largest financial traders to the smallest individuals, from the people who want goods or services to the people who create it, once that communication happens directly, it completely restructures the way the whole role of what a middleman is.

It may take decades for this to really role out. I don't think it's going to cause the existing series of things to die overnight. I mean, after all, I can still go have a suit custom made if I really want, and in the future, you'll say, “Yeah, I could go to a store to get a suit if I really wanted, but it's so much cheaper and easier to have one manufactured on demand to my size.” It's going to be a huge change for the world of retailing.

Sort of in a very general sense, man has been bound by physical proximity. We've been prisoners of the world's geography, and the tyranny of geography has ruled our lives. Originally, this meant we could only communicate in a very small, local area. A series of things, transportation, the steam ship and railroads, shrank the world. After that, we talked about … There was enormous talk about telegraph, and telephone, and communication satellites shrinking the world. Well, this technology's going to shrink the world even more. And not only does it expand on the existing modes of communications, it allows fundamentally new things.

I can call anyone in the world, if I know their phone number, even in Albania, and more or less it's going to go through. But I can't meet people with similar interests. I can't form virtual communities. I can't say, “Gee, anyone who's out there, who's interested in buying a microscope, let's get together and talk about it,” or, “Everyone who's a real physics nut, let's communicate.” Unless you know their specific numbers, you can't get to them. The new modes of communication and the ability to shrink the world is going to change the way we think of things. It's going to remove the tyranny of geography from human society and change our society enormously in the result.

Politics is a terrific example of an information-oriented phenomena that I think will be utterly changed by this technology. We have a system of representative democracy here in the US, that's based entirely on geography. It's an example of the tyranny of geography. My representatives are elected from a specific geographic region. Doesn't matter whether I have a lot on common with my neighbor or not, we share the same Congressman. On another level, we share the same Senators. In fact, you might ask why have representatives at all? The whole notion of representative democracy is based on the presumption that it's not feasible to poll us and ask us all the time, that we have to have a representative that goes someplace.

But, when you think about it, I have more in common with a technology person who might live in Silicon Valley, or Route 128 area, or some other part of the country than I do with the people who live next door to me. In fact, I know my neighbors. I actually have almost nothing in common with them. If there's a local issue, if they're going to tear up the street and run a new sewer in, sure, the neighbors can get together on something, but why don't we have something that allows the fundamental interest groups to be together? The ultimate minority is the individual.

I think a variety of things on the information highway will enable that. Grassroots political movements will find bulletin boards, electronic mail, and the new communications facilities to be invaluable in being able to organize themselves. The ability to directly poll people is going to change the way we think of representatives. It might not do away with representative democracy. I think there's actually some very good reasons for it, but if in fact a representative can get an instant poll of all or a quorum of his constituents, every day if they need, it's going to change the way they vote, change the way they react. Ultimately, I think this is all for the positive, because it means enabling and empowering people, people more than the current system. On the other hand, it's hard to predict exactly what twists and changes are going to happen as a result.

Information is an enormously valuable thing. It's been enormously valuable in both a positive and a negative sense. Information is used for great good. It's also used for great evil. The government has become quite used to tapping our phones, and both whether an international basis or inside the country. The trouble is, those alligator clips you see James Bond putting on the phone lines, those don't work on fiber optics. In fact, they don't work well on packet-switched networks.

There's some really fundamental questions that we're going to come up with, because this technology has the capability of either enabling privacy at a much greater degree than we've ever seen or destroying it utterly. It's hard to say which it will be. It's clear that the discussions that have gone on so far are all over the map. On one hand, the FBI was behind legislation that would actually outlaw packet switching, had a variety of technical characteristics that said there had to be a single predictable path from any point to any other point so they could intercept it. There have been proposals to make cryptography illegal.

On the other hand, if you looked at the flip side and say, “If we don't do something about privacy and encryption, how will we be able to use this?” We all have our car keys, right? Keys to our offices, keys to our house. You couldn't build a society today that didn't have the ability for us to have some privacy and to be able to protect our physical property somehow. Yet, that's exactly what happens in a computer system today. There's no way to prove who you are. There's no way to sign your name. There's no way to protect your property directly, unless you use cryptography.

I don't know which way this'll come out, but it's going to be a fascinating debate. If we're not careful on one hand, we'll cripple or ruin this entire thing, by either not enabling the security to be there or to turn the information highway into the ultimate digital jackboot of big brother. On the other hand, I have sympathy for people on the other side who say, “My god, this is going to be how people plan terrorist attacks and all new forms of crime.” It's a fascinating issue, and we'll see how it turns out.

So, what will the future bring? I don't know, and that's part of the fun of it to be honest. I'm enormously hopeful, because information, the ability for us to communicate, to learn, to record, is what I think shows humans off at their best. The first information revolution, with Gutenberg, changed our lives for the better. I think this one will too, although the forms it takes, the variety, who will win and who will lose, that's far harder to predict, but I think we all have our work cut out for us in figuring out how we do fit into the information highway, how to avoid being roadkill, and trying to realize the incredible possibilities that this enables. Thanks very much.


“Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” by Randy Pausch

This speech was delivered by Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon University in September 2007.

Speech Transcript

It's wonderful to be here. What [they] didn't tell you is that this lecture series used to be called The Last Lecture. If you had one last lecture to give before you died, what would it be? I thought, “Damn, I finally nailed the venue and they renamed it.”

So, in case there's anybody who wandered in and doesn't know the back story, my Dad always taught me when there's an elephant in the room, introduce them. If you look at my CAT scans, there are approximately 10 tumors in my liver and the doctors told me three to six months of good health left. That was a month ago, so you can do the math. I have some of the best doctors in the world.

So, that is what it is. We can't change it and we just have to decide how we're going to respond to that. We can not change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand. If I don't seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you.

And I assure you, I am not in denial. It's not like I'm not aware of what's going on. My family, my three kids, my wife, we just decamped. We bought a lovely house in Chesapeake, Virginia, near Norfolk and we're doing that because that's a better place for the family to be, down the road.

And the other thing is, I am in phenomenally good health right now. I mean, it's the greatest thing of cognitive dissonance you will ever see is the fact that I am in really good shape. In fact, I'm in better shape than most of you. So anybody who wants to cry or pity me, can come down and do a few of those and then you may pity me.

All right, so what we're not talking about today. We're not talking about cancer. Because I spend a lot of time talking about that and I'm really not interested. If you have any herbal supplements or remedies, please stay away from me.

And we're not going to talk about things that are even more important than achieving your childhood dreams. We're not going to talk about my wife, we're not gonna talk about my kids. Because I'm good, but I'm not good enough to talk about that without tearing up. So, we're just gonna take that off the table. That's much more important.

And we're not gonna talk about spirituality and religion. Although, I will tell you that I have experienced a death bed conversion. I just bought a Macintosh. Now I knew I'd get nine percent of the audience with that, but …

All right, so what is today's talk about then? It's about my childhood dreams. And how I've achieved them. I've been very fortunate that way. How I believe I've been able to enable the dreams of others. And to some degree, lessons learned. I'm a professor. There should be some lessons learned. And how you can use the stuff you hear today to achieve your dreams or enable the dreams of others. And as you get older, you may find that enable the dreams of others thing is even more fun.

So, what were my childhood dreams? Well, you know, I had a really good childhood. I mean, no kidding around. I was going back through the family archives and what was really amazing was, I couldn't find any pictures of me as a kid where I wasn't smiling. Right? And that was just a very gratifying thing. There was our dog. Awe, thank you. And there, I actually have a picture of me dreaming. And I did a lot of that, you know. There was a lot of, “Wake up!”s, you know?

And it was an easy time to dream. I was born in 1960. Right? When you're eight or nine years old and you look at the TV set and men are landing on the moon, anything is possible. And that's something we should not lose sight of. Is that the inspiration and the permission to dream is huge.

So what were my childhood dreams? You may not agree with this list, but I was there. Being in zero gravity. Playing in the National Football League. Authoring an article in the World Book Encyclopedia. I guess you can tell the nerds early. Being Captain Kirk. Anybody here have that childhood dream? Not at CMU, no. I wanted to become one of the guys who won the big stuffed animals in the amusement park. And I wanted to be an Imagineer with Disney. These are not sorted in any particular order, although I do think they get harder, except for maybe the first one.

Okay, so being in zero gravity. Now it's important to have specific dreams. I did not dream of being an astronaut because when I was a little kid, I wore glasses. And they told me, “Oh, astronauts can't have glasses.” And I was like, “Mm,” I didn't really want the whole astronaut gig. I just wanted the floating. So, and as a child, prototype zero point zero. But that didn't work so well.

And it turns out that NASA has something called the “vomit comet” that they use to train the astronauts. And this thing does parabolic arcs. And at the top of each arc, you get about 245 seconds where you're ballistic and you get about a rough equivalent of weightlessness for about 25 seconds. And there is a program where college students can submit proposals. And if they win the competition, they get to fly. And I thought that was really cool and we had a team, we put a team together. And they won and they got to fly. And I was all excited 'cause I was gonna go with them. And then I hit the first brick wall because they made it very clear that under no circumstances were faculty members allowed to fly with the teams.

I know, I was heartbroken. Right. I was like, “But, I worked so hard.” And so, I read the literature very carefully and it turns out that NASA, it's part of their outreach and publicity program. And it turns out that the students were allowed to bring a local media journalist from their hometown. And, Randy Pausch, web journalist. It's really easy to get a press pass.

So I call up the guys at NASA and I said, “I need to know where to fax some documents.” And they said, “What documents are going to fax us?” I said, “My resignation as the faculty advisor and my application as the journalist.” And he said, “That's a little transparent. Don't you think?” And I said, “Yeah, but our project is virtual reality and we're gonna bring down a whole bunch of VR headsets and all the students from all the teams are going to experience it. And all those other real journalists, are going to get to film it.”

Jim Foley's going, “Oh, you bastard. Yes.” And the guy said, “Here's the fax number.” So, and indeed, we kept our end of the bargain. And that's one of the themes that you'll hear later on in the talk is, “Have something to bring to the table.” All right? Because that will make you more welcomed.

All right, let's talk about football. My dream was to play in the National Football League. And most of you don't know that I actually pl- No. No, I did not make it to the National Football League. But, I probably got more from that dream and not accomplishing it than I got from any of the ones that I did accomplish.

I had a coach. I was signed up when I was nine years old. I was the smallest kid in the league, by far. And I had a coach, Jim Graham, who was six foot four. He had played linebacker at Penn State. He was just this hulk of a guy and he was old school. I mean really old school. Like, he thought the forward pass was a trick play.

And he showed up for practice the first day and, you know, this big hulking guy, we were all scared to death of him. And he hadn't brought any footballs. How are we gonna have practice without any footballs? And one of the other kids said, “Excuse me, coach, cut there's no football.” And Coach Graham said, “Right. How many men are on a football field at a time?” So I said, “11 on a team, 22.” And Coach Graham said, “All right and how many people are touching the football at any given time?” “One of them.” And he said, “Right. So we're gonna work on what those other 21 guys are doing.”

And that's a really good story because it's all about fundamentals. Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. You've gotta get the fundamentals down because otherwise, the fancy stuff isn't gonna work.

And the other Jim Graham story I have is, there was one practice where he just rode me, all practice. Just, “You're doing this wrong. You're doing this wrong. Go back and do it again. You owe me. You're doing pushups after practice.” And when it was all over, one of the other assistant coaches came over and said, “Yeah, Coach Graham rode you pretty hard, didn't he?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “That's a good thing.” He said, “When you're screwing up and nobody's saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up.” And that's a lesson that stuck with me my whole life. Is that, when you see yourself doing something badly and nobody's bothering to tell you anymore, that's a very bad place to be. Your critics are your ones telling you they still love you and care.

After Coach Graham, I had another coach, Coach Setliff and he taught me a lot about the power of enthusiasm. He did this one thing where only for one play at a time, he would put people in at like, the most horrifically wrong position for them. Like all the short guys would become receivers, right? It was just laughable. But we only went in for one play. Right? And boy, the other team just never knew what hit 'em. Because when you're only doing it for one play and you're just not where you're supposed to be and freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, boy, are you gonna clean somebody's clock for that one play. And that kind of enthusiasm was great.

And to this day, I am most comfortable on a football field. I mean, it's just one of those things where, if I'm working a hard problem, people will see me wandering the halls with one of these things. And that's just because, you know, when you do something young enough and you train for it, it just becomes a part of you. And I'm very glad that football was a part of my life. And if I didn't get the dream of playing in the NFL, that's okay. I probably got stuff more valuable. Because looking at what's going on in the NFL, I'm not sure those guys are doing so great right now.

Okay, and so, one of the expressions I learned in electronic arts, which I love, which pertains to this is, “Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted.” And I think that's absolutely lovely.

And the other thing about football is, we send out kids out to play football or soccer or swimming or whatever it is, and it's the first example of what I'm gonna call a head fake or indirect learning. We actually don't want our kids to learn football. I mean, yeah, it's really nice that I have a wonderful three point stance and that I know how to do a chop block and all this kind of stuff. But, we send our kids out to learn much more important things. Team work, sportsmanship, perseverance, et cetera, et cetera. And these kinds of head fake learnings are absolutely important. And you should keep your eye out for them because they're everywhere.

All right, a simple one, being an author in the World Book Encyclopedia. When I was a kid, we had the World Book Encyclopedia on the shelf. For the freshman, this is paper. We used to have these things called books. And after I had become somewhat of an authority on virtual reality, but not like a really important one, so I was at the level of people at the World Book would badger. They called me up and I wrote an article. And this is Katelyn Kellaher. There's an article, if you go to your local library where they still have copies of the World Book, look under V for virtual reality and there it is.

And all I have to say is that, having been selected to be an author in the World Book Encyclopedia, I know believe that Wikipedia is a perfectly fine source for your information because I know what the quality control is for real encyclopedias. They let me in.

All right, next one. At a certain point, you just realize there's some things you're not gonna do, so maybe you just want to stand close the people. And, I mean, my god, what a role model for young people. I mean, this is everything you want to be. And what I learned that carried me forward in leadership later is that, you know, he wasn't the smartest guy on the ship. I mean, Spock was pretty smart and McCoy was the doctor and Scottie was the engineer. And you sort of go, and what skill set did he have to get on this damn thing and run it?

And clearly there's this skill set called leadership. And whether or not you like the series, there's no doubt that there was a lot to be learned about how to lead people by watching this guy in action. And he just had the coolest damn toys. Right? I mean, my god. I just thought it was fascinating as a kid that he had this thing and he could talk to the ship with it. I just thought that was just spectacular. And of course, now I own one and it's smaller. So that's kind of cool.

So, I got to achieve this dream. James T Kirk, his alter ego, William Shatner, wrote a book. Which, I think, was actually a pretty cool book. It was with Chip Walter who's a Pittsburgh based author who's quite good. And the wrote a book on basically the science of Star Trek, what has come true. And they went around to top places around the country and looked at various things and they came here to study our virtual reality set up. And so we built a virtual reality for him. It looks something like that. We put it in, put it to red alert. He was a very good sport. It's not like he saw that one coming. And it's really cool to meet your boyhood idol. But it's even cooler when he comes to you to see what cool stuff you're doing in your lab. That was just a great moment.

All right, winning stuffed animals. This may seems mundane to you, but when you're a little kid and you see the big buff guys walking around in an amusement park and they got all these big stuffed animals, right? And this is my lovely wife. And I have a lot of pictures of stuffed animals I've won. That's my Dad, posing with one that I won. I've won a lot of these animals. There's my Dad, he did win that one, to his credit. And this was just a big part of my life and my family's life.

But you know, I can hear the cynics. You know, in this age of digitally manipulated things, maybe those bears aren't really in the picture with me. Or maybe I paid somebody five bucks to take a picture in the theme park next to the bear. And I said, “How in this age of cynicism can I convince people?” And I said, “I know. I can show them the bears.” Bring them out. You can just put them right there. You can just put them back against the wall.

So here's some bears. We didn't have quite enough room in the moving truck down to Chesapeake. And anybody who'd like a little piece of me at the end of this, feel free to come up, first come, first serve.

All right, my next one. Being an Imagineer. This was the hard one. Believe me, getting to zero gravity is easier than becoming an Imagineer. When I was a kid, I was eight years old and our family took a trip cross country to see Disneyland. And if you've ever seen the movie National Lampoon's Vacation, it was a lot like that. It was a quest.

And these are real vintage photographs. And there I am, in front of the castle. And there I am. For those of you who are into foreshadowing, this is the Alice ride. And I just thought this was just the coolest environment I'd ever been in. And instead of saying, “Gee, I want to experience this,” I said, “I want to make stuff like this.”

And so I bided my time and then I graduated with PhD from Carnegie Mellon, thinking that meant me infinitely qualified to do anything. And I dashed off my letters of application to Walt Disney Imagineering and they sent me some of the damn nicest “go to hell” letters I've ever gotten. I mean, it was just, “We have carefully reviewed your application and presently, we do not have any positions available which require your particular qualifications.”

Now think about the fact that you're getting this from a place who's famous for guys who sweep the street. So that was a bit of a set back. But remember, the brick walls are there for a reason. All right? The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because they brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough. They're there to stop the other people.

All right, fast forward to 19991. We did a system back at the University of Virginia called “Virtual Reality on Five Dollars a Day”. Just one of those unbelievable spectacular things. I was so scared back in those days as a junior academic. Jim Foley's here and I just love to tell this story. He knew my undergraduate advisor, Andy VanDamm. And I'm at my first conference and I'm just scared to death and this icon in the user interface community walks up to me and out of nowhere just gives me this huge bear hug. And he says, “That was from Andy.” And that was when I thought, “Okay, maybe I can make it. Maybe I do belong.”

And a similar story is that this was just this unbelievable hit because, at the time, everybody needed a half a million dollars to do virtual reality. And everybody felt frustrated. And we literally hacked together a system for about $5,000 in parts and made a working VR system. And people were just like, “Oh my god.” This like, Hewlett-Packard garage thing. This is so awesome.

And so I'm giving this talk and the room has just gone wild. And during the Q and A, a guy named Tom Ferness, who was one of the big names in virtual reality at the time. He goes up to the microphone and he introduces himself. I didn't know what he looked like, but I sure as hell knew the name. And he asked a question. And I was like, “I'm sorry, did you say you're Tom Ferness?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Then I would love to answer your question, but first, will you have lunch with me tomorrow?” And there's a lot in that little moment. There's a lot of humility, but also, asking a person where he can't possibly say no.

And so, Imagineering, a couple of years later was working on a virtual reality project. This was top secret. They were denying the existence of a virtual reality attraction after the time that the publicity department was running the TV commercials. So Imagineering really had nailed this one tight. And it was the Aladdin attraction where you would fly a magic carpet. And the head mounted display, sometimes known as gator vision. And so, I had an in. As soon as the project had just … You know, they started running the TV commercials and I had been asked to brief the Secretary of Defense on the state of virtual reality. Okay, Fred Brooks and I had been asked to brief the Secretary of Defense. And that gave me an excuse. So I called them up, I called Imagineering and I said, “Look, I'm briefing the Secretary of Defense. I'd like some materials on what you have 'cause it's on of the best VR systems in the world.” And they kind of pushed back. And I said, “Look, is all this patriotism stuff in the parks a farce?” And they're like, “Mm, okay.” They said, “This is so new that the PR department doesn't have any footage for you so I'm gonna have to connect you straight through to the team who did the work.” Jackpot.

So I find myself on the phone with a guy named John Snoddy, who is one of the most impressive guys I have ever met. And he was the guy running this team. And it's not surprising they had done impressive things. And so he sent me some stuff. We talked briefly, he sent me some stuff and I said, “Hey, I'm gonna be out in the area for a conference shortly. Would you like to get together and have lunch?” Translation, I'm going to lie to you and say that I have an excuse to be in the area so I don't look too anxious. But I would go to Neptune to have lunch with you.”

And so John said sure. And I spent something like 80 hours talking with all the VR experts in the world saying, “If you had access to this one unbelievable project, what would you ask?” And then I compiled all of that and I had to memorize it, which anybody who knows me knows that I have no memory at all. ‘Cause I couldn't go in looking like a dweeb with, “Hi, question 72 …”

So, I went in and this was like a two hour lunch. And John must have thought he was talking to some phenomenal person because I was doing was channeling Fred Brooks and Ivan Sutherland and Andy VanDamm and people like that. Henry Fooks. So, it's pretty easy to be smart when you're parodying smart people.

And at the end of the lunch with John, I sort of, as we say in the business, made the ask. And I said, “You know, I have a sabbatical coming up.” He said, “What's that?” The beginnings of the culture clash. And so, I talked to him about the possibility of coming there and working with him. And he said, “That's really good, except, you know, you're in the business of telling people stuff and we're in the business of keeping secrets.” And then what made John Snoddy, John Snoddy, was he said, “But we'll work it out.” Which I really loved.

The other thing that I learned from John Snoddy, I could do easily an hour long talk just on what've I learned from John Snoddy. One of the things he told me was that, wait long enough and people will surprise and impress you. He said, “When you're pissed off at somebody and you're angry at them, you just haven't given them enough time. Just give them a little more time and they'll almost always impress you.” And that really stuck with me. I think he's absolutely right on that one.

So, to make a long story short, we negotiated a legal contract. It was going to be the first, some people referred to it as the first and last paper ever published by Imagineering. But the deal was, I go, I provide my own funding, I go for six months, I work with the project, we publish a paper.

And then we meet our villain. I can't be all sweetness and light, because I have no credibility. Somebody's head's gonna go on a stick. Turns out that the person who gets his head on a stick is a dean back at the University of Virginia. His name is not important, let's call him Dean Wormer. And Dena Wormer has a meeting with me where I say I want to do this sabbatical thing. And I've actually gotten the Imagineering guys to let an academic in, which is insane. I mean, if John hadn't gone nuts, this would never have been a possibility. This is a very secretive organization.

And Dean Wormer looks at the paperwork and he says, “Well, it says they're gonna own your intellectual property.” I said, “Yeah, we got the agreement to publish the paper. There is no other IP. I don't do patentable stuff.” He says, “Yeah, but you might. So deal's off. Just get them to change that little clause there and then come back to me.” I'm like, “Excuse me?” And then I said to him, “I want you to understand how important this is. If we can't work this out, I'm going to take an unpaid leave of absence and I'm just gonna go there and I'm gonna do this thing.” And he said, “Hey, you know, I might not even let you do that. I mean, you've got the IP in your head already and maybe they're gonna suck it out of you so that's not gonna fly either.”

It's very important to know when you're in a pissing match. And it's very important to get out of it as quickly as possible. So I said to him, “Well, let's back off on this. Do we think this is a good idea at all?” He said, “I have no idea if this is a good idea.” I was like, “Okay, well we've got common ground there.” Then I said, “Well, is this really your call? Isn't this the call of the dean of sponsored research? If it's an IP issue?” And he said, “Yeah, that's true.” So I said, “If he's happy, you're happy?” “Yeah, then I'd be fine.” Like Wile E Coyote. And I find myself in Gene Block's office, who's the most fantastic man in the world.

And I start talking to Gene Block and I say, “Let's start at the high level,” since I don't want to have to back out again. I said, “Let's start at the high level. Do you think this is a good idea?” He said, “Well, if you're asking me if it's a good idea, I don't have very much information. All I know is that one of my start faculty members is in my office and he's really excited, so tell me more.” Here's a lesson for everybody in administration, they both said the same thing. But think-

… they both said the same thing, but think about how they said it. Right? I don't know. Well, I don't have much information but one of my star faculty members is here and he's all excited so I want to learn more. They're both ways of saying “I don't know” but boy, there's a good way and a bad way. So anyway, we got it all worked out. I went to Imagineering. Sweetness and light. And all's well that ends well.

Some brick walls are made of flesh. So I worked on the Aladdin project. It was absolutely spectacular. I mean, just unbelievable. Here's my nephew, Christopher. This was the apparatus. You would sit on this sort of motorcycle-type thing and you would steer your magic carpet and you would put on the head-mounted display. The head-mounted display was very interesting. It had two parts and it was a very, very clever design. To get throughput through, the only part that touched the guests' head was this little cap and everything else clicked onto it, all the expensive hardware. So you could replicate the caps, because they were basically free to manufacture. And, this is what I really did, is I was a cap cleaner.

I loved Imagineering. It was just a spectacular place. Just spectacular. Everything that I had dreamed. I love the model shop. People crawling around on things the size of this room that are just big physical models. It was just an incredible place to walk around and be inspired. I'm always reminded, when I went there and people said “Do you think the expectations are too high?” And I said, “Did you ever see the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?” where Gene Wilder says to the little boy, Charlie, he's about to give him the chocolate factory and he says, “Well, Charlie, did anybody ever tell you the story of the little boy who suddenly got everything he ever wanted?” Charlie's eyes get like saucers and he says, “No, what happened to him?” Gene Wilder says, “He lived happily ever after.”

Okay. So, working on the Aladdin VR, I describe it as a once in every five years opportunity and I stand by that assessment. It forever changed me. It wasn't just that it was good work and I got to be a part of it, but it got me into the place of working with real people and real HCI user interface issues. Most HCI people live in this fantasy world of white collar laborers with PhDs and Masters degrees and, you know, until you got ice cream spilled on you, you're not doing field work, right?

And, more than anything else, from Jon Snoddy, I learned how to put artists and engineers together, and that's been the real legacy. We published a paper, just a nice academic cultural scandal. When we wrote the paper the guys at Imagineering said, well, let's do a nice big picture, like you would in a magazine. And the SIGGRAPH committee, which accepted the paper, it was like this big scandal. Are they allowed to do that? There was no rule. So we published the paper and, amazingly, since then there's a tradition of SIGGRAPH papers having color figures on the first page. I, so I've changed the world in a small way.

And then at the end of my six months, they came to me and they said, “You wanna do it for real? You can stay.” And I said, “No”. One of the only times in my life I have surprised my father. He was like, “You what?” He said, “Since you were, you know, all you wanted, and now you that you got it and you're like huh?”

There was a bottle of Maalox in my desk drawer. Be careful what you wish for. It was a particularly stressful place. Imagineering, in general, is actually not so Maalox-laden, but the lab I was in … Oh, Jon left in the middle. It was a lot like the Soviet Union. It was a little dicey for a while, but it worked out okay. And, if they had said “Stay here or never walk in the building again”, I would have done it. I would have walked away from tenure. I would have just done it. But they made it easy on me. They said, “You can have your cake and eat it too”. And I basically become a day a week consultant for Imagineering and I did that for about ten years. And that's one of the reasons you should all become professors, because you can have your cake and eat it too. Okay?

I went on and consulted on things like DisneyQuest. So there was the Virtual Jungle Cruise and the best interactive experience, I think, ever done, and Jesse Schell gets the credit for this, Pirates of the Caribbean. Wonderful at DisneyQuest.

And so, those are my childhood dreams. And, you know, that's pretty good. I felt good about that. So, then the question becomes, how can I enable the childhood dreams of others? And again, boy, am I glad I became a professor. What better place to enable childhood dreams? Maybe working at EA, I don't know, that'd probably be a good close second. But, and this started in a very concrete realization that I could do this because a young man named Tommy Burnett, when I was at the University of Virginia, came to me, was interested in joining my research group and we talked about it and he said, “Oh, and I have a childhood dream.” It gets pretty easy to recognize them when they tell you. And I said, “Yes, Tommy, what is your childhood dream?” He said, “I want to work on the next Star Wars film.” Now, you gotta remember the timing on this. Where is Tommy? Tommy is here today. What year would this have been? Your sophomore year?

TOMMY: It was around 1993.

RANDY PAUSCH: Are you breaking anything back there, young man? Okay. All right. So, in 1993. And I said to Tommy, “You know they're probably not going to make those next movies.” And he said, “No, they are.” And, Tommy worked with me for a number of years as an undergraduate and then as a staff member, and then when I moved to Carnegie Mellon, every single member of my team came from Virginia to Carnegie Mellon except for Tommy because he got a better offer. And he did indeed work on all three of those films. So …

And then I said, well, that's nice but, you know, one at a time is kind of inefficient. And people who know me know that I am an efficiency freak. So I said, “Can I do this en masse?” Can I get people turned in such a way that they can be turned onto their childhood dreams?

And I created a course, I came to Carnegie Mellon, I created a course called Building Virtual Worlds. It's a very simple course. How many people have ever been to any of the shows? Okay. So you have a, some of you have an idea. For those of you who don't, the course is very simple. There are 50 students drawn from all the different departments of the university. There are randomly chosen, randomly chosen teams. Four people per team, and they change every project. A project only lasts two weeks, so you do something, you make something, you show something, then I shuffle the teams. You get three new playmates, and you do it again. And, it's every two weeks, and so you do five projects during the semester.

The first year we taught this course, it is impossible to describe how much of a tiger-by-the-tail we had. I was just running the course because I wanted to see if we could do it. We had just learned how to do texture mapping on 3D graphics and we could make stuff that looked half decent but, you know, we were running on really weak computers, by current standards. But I said, “I'll give it a try.” And at my new university I made a couple of phone calls and I said I want to cross list this course to get all these other people. And within 24 hours it was cross-listed in five departments. I love this university. I mean, it's just, it's the most amazing place.

And I said, and the kids said, “Well, what content do we make?” I said, “Hell, I don't know. You make whatever you want.” Two rules: no shooting violence and no pornography. Not because I'm opposed to those in particular but, you know, that's been done with VR, right? And you'd be amazed how many 19-year old boys are completely out of ideas when you take those off the table. Anyway, so I taught the course.

The first assignment, I gave it to them. They came back in two weeks and they just blew me away. I mean, the work was so beyond, literally, my imagination, because I copied the process from Imagineering's VR lab but I had no idea what they could or couldn't do with it as undergraduates and how, because their, and their tools were weaker. And they came back in the first assignment and they did something that was so spectacular that I literally didn't, ten years as a professor and I had no idea what to do next. So I called up my mentor. I called up Andy Van Dam. And I said, “Andy, I just gave a two week assignment and they came back and did stuff that if I'd given them the whole semester, I'd have given them all A's. Sensei, what do I do?” And Andy thought for a minute and he said, “You go back into class tomorrow and you look them in the eye and you say, guys, that was pretty good but I know you can do better.” And that was exactly the right advice because what he said was, “You obviously don't know where the bar should be and you're only gonna do them a disservice by putting it anywhere.” And, boy, was that good advice because they just kept going.

And during that semester it became this underground thing. I'd walk into a class with 50, with 50 students in it and there were 95 people in the room because it was the day we were showing work. And people's roommates and friends and parents … I've never had parents come to class before. It was flattering and somewhat scary.

And so, it snowballed and we had this bizarre thing of, well, we've gotta share this. If there's anything I've been raised to do, it's to share. And I said, “We've gotta show this at the end of the semester. We've gotta have a big show.” And we booked this room, McConomy. I have a lot of good memories in this room. And we booked it, not because we thought we could fill it, but because it had the only A/V setup that would work, because this was a zoo. All right? Computers and everything. And then we filled it. And we more than filled it. We had people standing in the aisle.

I will never forget the dean at the time, Jim Morris, was sitting on the stage right about there. We had to kind of scoot him out of the way. And, the energy in the room was like nothing I had every experienced before. And President Cohen, Jerry Cohen, was there and he sensed the same thing. He later described it as like an Ohio State football pep rally, except for academics. And, and he came over and he asked exactly the right question. He said, “Before you start, he said, I gotta know, where are these people from?” He said, “The audience, what departments are they from?” And we polled them and it was all the departments. And I felt very good because I had just come to campus. He had just come to campus. And my new boss had seen in a very corporal way that this is the university that puts everybody together. And, and that made me feel just tremendous.

So we did this campus-wide exhibition and people performed down here. They're in costume and we project just like this. And you can see what's going on. You can see what they're seeing in the head-mount. There's a lot of big props. So there's a guy whitewater rafting. This is a fan and E.T. And, yes, I did tell them if they didn't do the shot of the kids biking across the moon, I would fail him. That is a true story. And I said, I thought I'd show you just one world. And if we can get the lights down, if that's at all possible. No. Okay. That means no. All right. All right. We'll just do our best then.

ANIMATED: Oh, hello there. I'm lonely. Make me a world. Yay. Yay. Yay. Yay. Make me some trees. Yay. Yay. Yay.

RANDY: Now, now they're gonna turn this on it's head. Watch closely. The world doesn't want to go on to the next thing in the show. So she's ready to move on and it's not.

ANIMATED: What are you doing? You can't end this now.

ON-SCREEN SPEAKER: But there's so many other worlds that have to go.

ANIMATED: But our world is the best world. Hey, hey, hey. Hey, No! Here I am.

ON-SCREEN SPEAKER: We're gonna shut you down. Control-alt-delete.

ANIMATED: Not control-alt-delete! You left us. You left us. We love you. Goodbye.

RANDY PAUSCH: It was an unusual course with some of the most brilliant, creative students from all across the campus. It just was a joy to be involved with. And they took the whole stage performance aspect of this way too seriously. And it became this campus phenomenon every year. People would line up for it. It was very flattering. And, it gave kids a chance, a sense of excitement, of putting on a show for people who were then excited about it. And I think that that's one of the best things you can give somebody, the chance to show them what it feels like to make other people get excited and happy. I mean, that's a tremendous gift.

We always tried to involve the audience, whether it was people with glow sticks or batting a beach ball around or driving. This is really cool. This technology actually got used at the Spider-Man 3 premiere in LA, so the audience was controlling something on the screen. So that's kind of nice.

And, I don't have a class picture from every year but I dredged all the ones that I do have, and all I can say is that, what a privilege and an honor it was to teach that course for something like ten years. And, all good things come to an end and I stopped teaching that course about a year ago.

People always ask me, “What was my favorite moment?” I don't know if you can have a favorite moment but, boy, there's one I'll never forget. This was a world with, I believe, a roller skating ninja. And one of the rules was that we performed these things live, and they all had to really work, and the moment it stopped working, we went to your backup video tape. And this was very embarrassing. So we had this ninja on stage and he's doing this roller skating thing and the world, it did not crash gently. And I come out and, I believe it was Steve, wasn't it? Was it? Where is he? Okay. Where is Steve? Ah. My man. Steve Audio. And talk about quick on your feet. Right? I say, “Steve, I'm sorry but your world has crashed and we're going to go to videotape.” And he pulls out his ninja sword and says, “I am dishonored. Whaa!” And just drops. And so I think it's very telling that my favorite moment in ten years of this high technology course was a brilliant ad lib. And then, when the videotape is done and the lights come up, he's lying there lifeless and his teammates drag him off. It was really a fantastic moment.

And, the course was all about bonding. People used to say, well, you know, what's gonna make for a good world? I said, “I can't tell you beforehand” but right before they present it, I can tell you if the world's good just by the body language. If they're standing close to each other, the world is good. All right?

And BVW was a pioneering course. And, I won't bore you with all the details but it wasn't easy to do, and I was given this when I stepped down from the ETC and I think it's emblematic. If you're gonna do anything that's pioneering, you will get those arrows in the back, and you just have to put up with it. I mean, everything that could go wrong did go wrong, but at the end of the day, a whole lot of people had a whole lot of fun.

When you've had something for ten years that you hold so precious, it's the toughest thing in the world to hand it over. And the only advice I can give you is, find somebody better than you to hand it to. And that's what I did. There was this kid at the VR studio way back when. And you didn't have to spend very long in Jesse Schell's orbit to go, “The Force is strong in this one.” And one of my greatest, my two greatest accomplishments, I think, for Carnegie Mellon were that I got Jessica Hodgins and Jesse Schell to come here and join our faculty. And I was thrilled when I could hand this over to Jesse and, to no one's surprise, he has really taken it up to the next notch and, you know, the course is in more than good hands. It's in better hands.

But it was just one course. And then we really took it up a notch and we created what I would call The Dream Fulfillment Factory. Don Marinelli and I got together and, with the university's blessing and encouragement, we made this thing out of whole cloth that was absolutely insane. Should never have been tried. All the sane universities didn't go near this kind of stuff, creating a tremendous opportunistic void.

So, the Entertainment Technology Center was all about artisan technologists working in small teams to make things. It was a two year professional Masters degree. And, Don and I were two kindred spirits. We're very different. Anybody who knows us knows that we're very different people. And we like to do things in a new way. And the truth of the matter is that we were both a little uncomfortable in academia. I used to say that I'm uncomfortable as an academic because I come from a long line of people who actually worked for a living. So, I detect nervous laughter. All right. And I want to stress, Carnegie Mellon is the only place in the world that the ETC could have happened. By far. The only place.

So, okay. This picture was Don's idea, okay? And we like to refer to this picture as Don Marinelli on guitar and Randy Pausch on keyboards. But we really did play up the left brain, right brain and it worked out really well that way. Don is an intense guy. And Don and I shared an office. And at first it was a small office. We shared an office for six years. All right? Now, those of you who know Don know he's an intense guy. Right? And, you know, given my current condition, somebody was asking me … This is a terrible joke but I'm gonna use it anyway … because I know Don will forgive me. Somebody said, “Given your current condition, have you thought about whether you're gonna go to heaven or hell?” And I said, “I don't know but if I'm going to hell, I'm due six years for time served.” I kid.

Sharing an office with Don was really like sharing an office with a tornado. Right? There was just so much energy and you never knew which trailer was next, right? But you knew something exciting was gonna happen. And, and there was so much energy. And I do believe in, in giving credit where credit is due. So, in my typically visual way, right? If Don and I were to split the success for the ETC, he clearly gets the lion's share of it. He did the lion's share of the work. Okay? He had the lion's share of the ideas.

It was a great teamwork. I think it was a great ying and a yang, but it was more like ying and yang. Right? And he deserves that credit and I give it to him because the ETC is a wonderful place and, you know, he's now running it and he's taking it global. We'll talk about that in a second. Describing the ETC is really hard and I finally found a metaphor. Telling people about the ETC is like describing Cirque Du Soleil if they'd never seen it. Sooner or later you're gonna make the mistake, you're gonna say, “Well, it's like a circus”. And then you're dragged into this conversation about, oh, how many tigers? How many lions? Right? How many trapeze acts? And that misses the whole point.

So when we say we're a Masters degree, we're really not like any Masters degree you've ever seen. Here's the curriculum … The curriculum ended up looking like this. All I want to do is visually communicate to you that you do five projects in Building Virtual Worlds. Then you do three more. All of your time is spent in small teams making stuff. None of that book learning thing. Don and I have no patience for the book learning thing. It's a Masters degree. They already spent four years doing book learning, right? By now they should have read all the books. Right?

The keys to the success were that Carnegie Mellon gave us the reigns. Completely gave us the reigns. We had no deans to report to. We reported directly to the provost, which is great because the provost is way too busy to watch you carefully. We were given explicit license to break the mold. It was all project-based. It was intense. It was fun. And we took field trips. Every spring semester in January we'd take all 50 students in the first-year class and we'd take them out to shops at Pixar. We'd take them to Pixar, Industrial Light and Magic. And of course when you've got guys like Tommy there acting as host, right? It's pretty easy to get entrée to these places.

So, we did things very, very differently. The kind of projects students would do, we did a lot of what we'd call edutainment. We developed a bunch of things with the Fire Department of New York. A network simulator for training firefighters using “videogame-ish”-type technology to teach people useful things. That's not bad. Companies did this strange thing. They put in writing, we promise to hire your students. I've got the EA and Activision ones here. I think there are now, how many? Five? … So, there are five written agreements. I don't know of any other school that has this kind of written agreement with any company. And so that's a real statement. And these are multiple year things. So they're agreeing to hire people for summer internships that we have not admitted yet. That's a pretty strong statement about the quality of the program.

And Don, as I said, he's now, he's crazy. And I mean that in a wonderful, complimentary way. He's doing these things where I'm like, “Oh, my God!” He's not here tonight because he's in Singapore because there's gonna be an ETC campus in Singapore. There's already one in Australia and there's gonna be one in Korea. So this is becoming a global phenomenon. So, I think this really speaks volumes about all the other universities. It's really true that Carnegie Mellon is the only university that can do this. We just have to do it all over the world now. Right?

One of the big successes about the ETC is teaching people about … oh, now I hear the nervous laughter from the students. I had forgotten the delayed shock therapy effect of these bar charts. When you're taking Building Virtual Worlds, every two weeks we get peer feedback. We put that all into a big spreadsheet and at the end of the semester you've had three teammates per project, five projects. That's 15 data points. That's statistically valid. And you get a bar chart telling you, on a ranking of how easy you are to work with, where you stack up against your peers. Boy, that's hard feedback to ignore. Some still managed but … But for the most part, people looked at that and went, “Wow, I gotta, I gotta pick it up a notch. I better start thinking about what I'm saying to people in these meetings.” And that is the best gift an educator can give is to get somebody to become self …

… and that is the best gift an educator can give is to get somebody to become self-reflective.

So the ETC was wonderful, but even the ETC and even as Don scales it around the globe, it’s still very labor intensive. It’s not Tommy one at a time, it’s not a research group 10 at a time. It’s 50 or 100 at a time per campus times four campuses. But I wanted something infinitely scalable, scalable to the point where millions or tens of millions of people could chase their dreams with something. You know, I guess that kind of a goal really does make me the Mad Hatter.

Alice is a project that we’ve worked on for a long, long time. It’s a novel way to teach computer programming. Kids make movies and games, the head fake — again, we’re back to the head fakes. The best way to teach somebody something is to have them think they’re learning something else. I’ve done it my whole career.

The head fake here is that they’re learning to program, but they just think they’re making movies and video games. This thing has already been downloaded well over a million times. There are eight textbooks that have been written about it. 10% of U.S. colleges are using it now, and it’s not the good stuff yet. The good stuff is coming in the next version.

I, like Moses, get to see the promised land, but I won’t get to set foot in it. That’s okay, because I can see it, and the vision is clear: millions of kids having fun while learning something hard. That’s pretty cool. I can deal with that as a legacy.

The next version’s going to come out in 2008. It’s going to be teaching the Java language if you want them to know they’re learning Java; otherwise, they’ll just think that they’re writing movie scripts. We’re getting the characters from the best-selling PC game in history, The Sims. This is all already working in the lab, so there’s no real technological risk. I don’t have time to thank and mention everybody in the Alice team, but I just want to say that Dennis Cosgrove is going to be building this, has been building this. He is the designer, it’s his baby. For those of you who are wondering, “Well, you know, in some number of months, who should I be emailing about the Alice project,” where’s Wanda Dann? Oh, there you are. Stand up, let them all see you.

Everybody say, “Hi, Wanda.”

AUDIENCE: Hi, Wanda.

RANDY PAUSCH: Send her the email.I’ll talk a little bit more about Caitlin Kelleher, but she’s graduated with her Ph.D. and is at Washington University, and she’s going to be taking this up a notch and going to middle schools with it. So grand vision, and to the extent that you can live on in something, I will live on in Alice.

All right, so now the third part of the talk, lessons learned. We’ve talked about my dreams. We’ve talked about helping other people enable their dreams. Somewhere along the way, there’s got to be some aspect of what lets you get to achieve your dreams.

First one is the role of parents, mentors, and students. I was blessed to have been born to two incredible people. This is my mother on her 70th birthday. I am back here. I have just been lapped. This is my dad riding a roller coaster on his 80th birthday, and he points out that, you know, he’s not only brave; he’s talented, because he did win that big bear the same day.

My dad was so full of life. Anything with him was an adventure. I don’t know what’s in that bag, but I know it’s cool. My dad dressed up as Santa Claus, but he also did very, very significant things to help lots of people. This is a dormitory in Thailand that my mom and dad underwrote, and every year, about 30 students get to go to school who wouldn’t have otherwise. This is something my wife and I have also been involved in heavily, and these are the kind of things that I think everybody ought to be doing, helping others.

But the best story I have about my dad is … unfortunately my dad passed away a little over a year ago, and when we were going through his things … he had fought in World War II in the battle of the Bulge … and when we were going through his things, we found out he had been awarded the Bronze Star for valor. My mom didn’t know it. In 50 years of marriage, it had just never come up.

My mom. Mothers are people who love you even when you pull their hair. I have two great mom stories. When I was here studying to get my Ph.D. and I was taking something called the theory qualifier … which I can definitively say is the second worst thing in my life after chemotherapy … and I was complaining to my mother about how hard this test was and how awful it was, and she just leaned over and she patted me on the arm, and she said, “We know how you feel, honey, and remember, when your father was your age, he was fighting the Germans.”

After I got my Ph.D., my mother took great relish in introducing me as, “This is my son. He’s a doctor but not the kind who helps people.”

These slides are a little bit dark, but when I was in high school, I decided to paint my bedroom. I’d always wanted a submarine and an elevator. The great thing about this … what can I say?

The great thing about this is, they let me do it, and they didn’t get upset about it, and it’s still there. If you go to my parents' house, it’s still there. Anybody who is out there who is a parent, if your kids want to paint their bedroom, as a favor to me, let them do it, okay? It’ll be okay. Don’t worry about resale value on the house.

Other people who help us besides our parents: our teachers, our mentors, our friends, our colleagues. God, what is there to say about Andy Van Dam? When I was a freshman at Brown, he was on leave, and all I heard about was this Andy Van Dam who was like a mythical creature, like a centaur, but like a really pissed off centaur, and everybody was really sad that he was gone but kind of more relaxed. I found out why, because I started working for Andy. I was a teaching assistant for him as a sophomore, I was quite an arrogant young man, and I came in to some office hours, and of course it was 9:00 at night, and Andy was there at office hours, which is your first clue as to what kind of professor he was.

I come bounding in, and, you know, I’m just, I’m going to save the world. There are all these kids waiting for help, da da, da da, da da, da da. Afterwards, Andy literally dutch-uncled … he’s Dutch, right? He dutch-uncled me, and he put his arm around my shoulders, and we went for a little walk, and he said, “Randy, it’s such a shame that people perceive you as so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what you’re going to be able to accomplish in life.”

What a hell of a good way to word “You’re being a jerk.” Right? He doesn't say, “You’re a jerk.” He says, “People are perceiving you this way,” and he says, “The downside is, it’s going to limit what you’re going to be able to accomplish.”

When I got to know Andy better, the beatings became more direct. I could tell you Andy stories for a month, but the one I will tell you is that when it came time to start thinking about what to do after graduating from Brown, it had never occurred to me in a million years to go to graduate school, just out of my imagination. It wasn’t the kind of thing people from my family did. We got, say, what do you call them? Jobs.

Andy said, “No, don’t go do that. Go get a Ph.D. Become a professor.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because you’re such a good salesman that any company who gets you is going to use you as a salesman, and you might as well be selling something worthwhile like education.”

Thanks.

Andy was my first boss, so to speak. I was lucky enough to have a lot of bosses. That red circle is way off. Al is over here. I don’t know what the hell happened there. He’s probably watching this on the webcast going, “My god, he’s targeting, and he still can’t aim!”

I don’t want to say much about the great bosses I’ve had except that they were great, and I know a lot of people in the world have had bad bosses, and I haven’t had to endure that experience, and I’m very grateful to all of the people that I ever had to report to. They’ve just been incredible.

But it’s not just our bosses. We learn from our students. I think the best head fake of all time comes from Caitlin Kelleher … excuse me, Dr. Caitlin Kelleher … who just finished up here and is starting at Washington University. She looked at Alice when it was an easier way to learn to program, and she said, “Yeah, but why is that fun?”

I was like, “Well, because I’m a compulsive male. I like to make the little toy soldiers move around by my command, and that’s fun.” She’s like, “Hmm.”

She was the one who said, “No, we’ll just approach it all as a storytelling activity.” She’s done wonderful work showing that, particularly with middle school girls, if you present it as a storytelling activity, they’re perfectly willing to learn how to write computer software. So all-time best head fake award goes to Caitlin Kelleher’s dissertation.

President Cohon, when I told him I was going to do this talk, he said, “Please tell them about having fun, because that’s what I remember you for.”

I said, “I can do that, but it’s kind of like a fish talking about the importance of water.” I mean, I don’t know how to not have fun. All right, I’m dying, and I’m having fun, and I’m going to keep having fun every day I have left, because there’s no other way to play it. Right?

So my next piece of advice is, you just have to decide if you’re a Tigger or you’re an Eeyore. I think I’m clear where I stand on the great Tigger-Eeyore debate.

Never lose the childlike wonder. It’s just too important. It’s what drives us. Help others. Denny Proffitt knows more about helping other people. He’s forgotten more than I’ll ever know. He’s taught me by example how to run a group, how to care about people.

M.K. Haley … I have a theory that people who come from large families are better people, because they’ve just had to learn how to get along. M.K. Haley comes from a family with 20 kids. Yeah, unbelievable. She always says, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

When I first got to Imagineering, she was one of the people who dressed me down, and she said, “I understand you’ve joined the Aladdin project. What can you do?”

I said, “Well, I’m a tenured professor of computer science.”

She said, “Well, that’s very nice professor boy, but that’s not what I asked. I said, ‘What can you do?'”

I mentioned sort of my working class roots. We keep what is valuable to us, what we cherish, and I’ve kept my letterman’s jacket all these years. I used to like wearing it in grad school, and one of my friends, Jessica Hodgins would say, “Why do you wear this letterman’s jacket?”

I looked around at all the non-athletic guys around me who were much smarter than me, and I said, “Because I can.”

She thought that was a real hoot, so one year she made for me this little raggedy randy doll. He’s got a little letterman’s jacket too. That’s my all-time favorite. It’s the perfect gift for the egomaniac in your life.

I’ve met so many wonderful people along the way. Loyalty is a two-way street. There was a young man named Dennis Cosgrove at the University of Virginia, and when he was a young man, let’s just say things happened, and I found myself talking to a dean, and the dean … no, not that dean. Anyway, this dean really had it in for Dennis and I could never figure out why, because Dennis was a fine fellow, but for some reason, this dean really had it in for him.

I ended up basically saying, “No, I vouch for Dennis.” The guy says, “You’re not even tenured yet, and you’re telling me you’re going to vouch for this sophomore or junior or whatever?” I think he was a junior at the time. I said, “Yeah, I’m going to vouch for him, because I believe in him.”

The dean said, “And I’m going to remember this when your tenure case comes up.” I said, “Deal.” I went back to talk to Dennis, and I said, “I would really appreciate you … that would be good.” But loyalty is a two-way street. I mean, that was God knows how many years ago, but that’s the same Dennis Cosgrove who’s carrying Alice forward. He’s been with me all these years, and if we only had one person to send in a space probe to meet an alien species, I’m picking Dennis.

You can’t give a talk at Carnegie Mellon without acknowledging one very special person, and that would be Sharon Burks. I joked with her, I said, “Well, look, if you’re retiring, it’s just not worth living anymore.” Sharon is so wonderful, it’s beyond description, and for all of us who have been helped by her, it’s just indescribable.

I love this picture, because it puts her together with Syl, and Syl is great, because Syl gave the best piece of advice pound for pound that I have ever heard, and I think all young ladies should hear this.

Syl said, “It took me a long time, but I’ve finally figured it out. When it comes to men that are romantically interested in you, it’s really simple. Just ignore everything they say and only pay attention to what they do. It’s that simple. It’s that easy.”

I thought back to my bachelor days, and I said, “Damn.”

Never give up. I didn’t get into Brown University. I was on the wait list. I called them up, and they eventually decided that it was getting really annoying to have me call every day, so they let me in.

At Carnegie Mellon, I didn’t get into graduate school. Andy had mentored me. He said, “Go to graduate school. You’re going to Carnegie Mellon. All my good students go to Carnegie Mellon,” and yeah, you know what’s coming.

He said, “You’re going to go to Carnegie Mellon, no problem.” What he had kind of forgotten was that the difficulty of getting into the top Ph.D. program in the country had really gone up, and he also didn’t know I was going to tank my GREs, because he believed in me, which based on my board scores, was a really stupid idea. I didn’t get into Carnegie Mellon. No one knows this till today I’m telling the story. I was declined admission to Carnegie Mellon.

I was a bit of an obnoxious little kid. I went into Andy’s office and I dropped the rejection letter on his desk. I said, “I just want you to know what your letter of recommendation goes for at Carnegie Mellon.”

Before the letter had hit his desk, his hand was on the phone, and he said, “I will fix this.” I said, “No, no, no, I don’t want to do it that way. That’s not the way I was raised. You know, maybe some other graduate schools will see fit to admit me.”

He said, “Look. Carnegie Mellon’s where you’re going to be.” He said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll make you a deal. Go visit the other schools.” Because I did get into all the other schools. He said, “Go visit the other schools, and if you really don’t feel comfortable at any of them, then will you let me call Nico?” Nico being Nico Habermann.

I said, “Okay, deal.” I went to the other schools. Without naming them by name — Berkeley, Cornell — they managed to be so unwelcoming that I found myself saying to Andy, “You know, I’m going to get a job.” And he said, “No, you’re not,” and he picked up the phone, and he talked in Dutch. He hung up the phone, and he said, “Nico says if you’re serious, be in his office tomorrow morning at 8:00 A.M.”

For those of you who know Nico, this is really scary. So I’m in Nico Habermann’s office the next morning at 8:00 A.M., and he’s talking with me, and frankly, I don’t think he’s that keen on this meeting. I don’t think he’s that keen at all.

He says, “Randy, why are we here?”

I said, “Because Andy phoned you?” I said, “Well, since you admitted me, I have won a fellowship, the Office of Naval Research, it’s a very prestigious fellowship. I’ve won this fellowship, and that wasn’t in my file when I applied.”

Nico said, “A fellowship, money, we have plenty of money.” That was back then. He said, “We have plenty of money. Why do you think having a fellowship makes any difference to us?” And he looked at me.

There are moments that change your life, and 10 years later, if you know in retrospect it was one of those moments, you’re blessed, but to know it at the moment with Nico staring through your soul … and I said, “I didn’t mean to imply anything about the money. It’s just that it was an honor. There were only 15 given nationwide, and I did think it was an honor that would be something that would be meritorious, and I apologize if that was presumptuous.” He smiled, and that was good.

So, how do you get people to help you? You can’t get there alone. People have to help you, and I do believe in karma, I believe in paybacks. You get people to help you by telling the truth, being earnest. I’ll take an earnest person over a hip person every day, because hip is short-term. Earnest is long-term.

Apologize when you screw up and focus on other people, not on yourself. I thought, how do I possibly make a concrete example of that? Do we have a concrete example of focusing on somebody else over there? Could we bring it out?

See, yesterday was my wife’s birthday. If there was ever a time I might be entitled to have the focus on me, it might be the last lecture. But no, I feel very badly that my wife didn’t really get a proper birthday, and I thought it would be very nice if 500 people …

(singing)

Now you all have an extra reason to come to the reception.

Remember, brick walls let us show our dedication. They are there to separate us from the people who don’t really want to achieve their childhood dreams.

Don’t bail. The best of the gold is at the bottom of barrels of crap.

What Steve didn’t tell you was the big sabbatical at EA. I had been there for 48 hours, and they loved the ETC. We were the best. We were the favorites, and then somebody else pulled me aside and said, “Oh, by the way, we’re about to give $8 million to USC to build a program just like yours. We’re hoping you can help them get it off the ground.”

Then Steve came along and said, “They said what? Oh God.”

To quote a famous man, “I will fix this,” and he did. Steve has been an incredible partner, and we have a great relationship, personal and professional, and he has certainly been point man on getting a gaming asset to help teach millions of kids, and, you know, that’s just incredible. But it certainly would have been reasonable for me to leave 48 hours into that sabbatical, but it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do, and when you do the right thing, good stuff has a way of happening.

Get a feedback loop and listen to it. Your feedback loop can be this dorky spreadsheet thing I did, or it can just be one great man who tells you what you need to hear. The hard part is the listening to it.

Anybody can get chewed out. It’s the rare person who says, “Oh, my God, you’re right,” as opposed to, “No wait, the real reason is …” we’ve all heard that.

When people give you feedback, cherish it and use it. Show gratitude. When I got tenure, I took all of my research team down to Disney World for a week, and one of the other professors at Virginia said, “How can you do that?” I said, “These people just busted their ass and got me the best job in the world for life. How could I not do that?”

Don’t complain; just work harder. That’s a picture of Jackie Robinson. It was in his contract not to complain, even when the fans spit on him.

Be good at something; it makes you valuable. Work hard. I got tenure a year early as Steve mentioned. Junior faculty members used to say to me, “Wow, you got tenure early. What’s your secret?”

I said, “It’s pretty simple. Call me any Friday night in my office at 10:00 o’clock and I’ll tell you.”

Find the best in everybody. One of the things that Jon Snoddy, as I said, told me is that you might have to wait a long time, sometimes years, but people will show you their good side. Just keep waiting, no matter how long it takes. No one is all evil. Everybody has a good side. Just keep waiting. It will come out. Be prepared. Luck is truly where preparation meets opportunity.

Today’s talk was about my childhood dreams, enabling the dreams of others, and some lessons learned. But did you figure out the head fake? It’s not about how to achieve your dreams. It’s about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you.

Have you figured out the second head fake? The talk’s not for you. It’s for my kids. Thank you all. Good night.


“Time Management” by Randy Pausch

This speech was originally given at the University of Virginia on November 27th, 2007.

Speech transcript

Thank you, that's very kind, but never tip the waiter before the meal arrives.

Thank you, Gabe and Jim, I couldn't imagine being more grateful for an introduction. These are two people that I've known a long time, I taught here at UVA, I love this school, it's an incredible place filled with tradition and history and respect, the kind of qualities that I really admire, that I want to see preserved in American society. And this is one of the places that I just love for preserving that. I think the honor code alone at the University of Virginia is something that every university administrator should study and look at and say: “Why can't we do that too?” I think there are a lot of things about this place to love.

I'm going to talk today on the topic of time management. The circumstances are, as you probably know, a little bit unusual. I think at this point I'm an authority to talk about what to do with limited time. My battle with pancreatic cancer started about a year and a half ago. Fought, did all the right things but as my oncologist said, if you could pick off a list, that's not the one you'd want to pick.

On August 15th, these were my CAT scans. You can see that if you scroll through all of them, there are about a dozen tumors in my liver, and the doctors at that time said, – I love the way they say it: “You have three to six months of good health left.” Optimism and positive phrasing. It's like when you are at Disney: “What time does the park close?” – “The park is open until eight.” So I have “three to six months of good health.”

Well, let's do the math: Today is three months and twelve days. So what I had on my day-timer for today was not necessarily being at the UVA. I'm pleased to say that we do treat with palliative chemo, they're going to buy me a little bit of time on the order of a few months if it continues to work. I'm still in perfectly good health. With Gabe in the audience, I'm not going to do push-ups, because I'm not going to be shown up. Gabe is really in good shape! But I continue to be in relatively good health, I had chemotherapy yesterday, you should all try it, it's great. But it does beg the question, I have finite time – some people said: “So why are you going and giving a talk?”

There are a lot of reasons I'm coming here and giving a talk. One of them is that I said I would. That's a pretty simple reason. And I'm physically able to. Another one is that going to the University of Virginia is not like going to some foreign place. People say: “Aren't you spending all your time with family?” And by coming back here for a day, I am spending my time with family both metaphorically and literally because it turns out that – many of you have probably seen this picture from the talk that I gave, these are my niece and nephew Chris and Laura. My niece Laura is actually a senior… a fourth year! here at Mr. Jefferson's university. Laura, could you stand up, so they see you've gotten taller? There you are. I couldn't be happier to have her here at this university.

The other person in this picture is Chris, if you could stand up so they see you've gotten much taller? They have grown in so many ways, not just in height. It's been wonderful to see that and be an uncle to them. Is there anybody here on the faculty or Ph.D. students of the history department? Any history people here at all? Anybody here who is from history, find Chris right after the talk. Because he is currently in his sophomore year at William and Mary and he's interested in going into a Ph.D. program in history down the road and there aren't many better Ph.D. programs in history than this one. So I'm pimping for my nephew here! Let's be clear!

What are we going to talk about today? We're going to talk about – this is not like the lecture that you may have seen me give before. This is a very pragmatic lecture. One of the reasons that I had agreed to come back and give this is because Gabe and many other faculty members had told me that they had gotten so much tangible value about how to get more done, and I truly do believe that time is the only commodity that matters. So this is a very pragmatic talk. It is inspirational in the sense that it will inspire you by giving you some concrete things you might do to be able to get more things done in your finite time. I'm going to talk specifically about how to set goals, how to avoid wasting time, how to deal with a boss, – originally this talk was how to deal with your advisor, but I tried to broaden it, so it's not quite so academically focused. How to delegate to people, some specific skills and tools that I might recommend to help you get more out of the day. And to deal with the real problems in our lives, which are stress and procrastination. If you can lick that last one, you are probably in good shape.

You don't need to take any notes. I presume if I see any laptops open you're actually just doing IM or email or something. If you're listening to music, please at least wear headphones. All of this will be posted on my website and to make it really easy, if you want to know when to look up, any slides that have a red star are the points that I think you should really make sure that you got that one. Conversely, if it doesn't have a red star, well…

The first thing I want to say is that Americans are very, very bad at dealing with time as a commodity. We're really good at dealing with money as a commodity. We are, as a culture, very interested in dealing with money, how much somebody earns is a status thing and so on, but we don't really have time elevated to that. People waste their time and it always fascinates me.

One of the things that I've noticed is that very few people equate time and money and they are very, very equatable. The first thing I started doing when I was a teacher was asking my graduate students: “Well, how much is your time worth an hour?” Or if you work at a company: “How much is your time worth to the company?” What most people don't realize is that if you have a salary, let's say you make $50,000 a year, you probably cost that company twice that in order to have you as an employee because there's heating and lighting and other staff members and so forth, so if you get paid $50,000 a year, you are costing that company – they have to raise $100,000 in revenue! And if you divide that by your hourly rate, you begin to get some sense of what you are worth an hour. When you have to make trade-offs of “Should I do something like write software or should I just buy it or should I outsource this?”, having in your head what you cost your organization an hour is really a staggering thing to change your behavior. Because you start realizing that, wow, if I free up three hours of my time and I'm thinking in that in terms of dollars, that's a big savings! So start thinking about your time and your money almost as if they are the same thing. Of course Ben Franklin knew that a long time ago.

So you've got to manage it and you've got to manage it just like you manage your money. Now I realize not all Americans manage their money, that's what makes the credit card industry possible. And apparently, mortgages too. But most people do at least understand – they don't look at you funny if you say: “Can I see your monetary budget for your household?” In fact, when I say “your household budget”, you presume that I'm talking about money when in fact the household budget I really want to talk about is probably your household time budget.

At the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon, students would come in during the orientation, I would say: “This is a master's program, everybody is paying full tuition.” It was roughly $30,000 a semester, and the first thing I would say is: “If you're going to come into my office and say: “I don't think this is worth $60,000 a year”, I will throw you out of the office. I'm not even going to have this discussion.” Of course they would say: “Oh god, this Pausch guy is a real jerk.” And then they were right! But what I then followed on with was: “Because the money is not important. You can go and earn more money later. What you'll never do is get the two years of your life back. So if you want to come into my office and talk about the money, I'll throw you out, but if you want to come into my office and say: “I'm not sure this is a good place for me to spend two years”, I will talk to you all day and all night because that means we're talking about the right thing, which is your time, because you can't ever get it back.”

A lot of the advice I'm going to give you particularly for undergraduates – how many people in this room are undergraduates, by show of hands? Okay, good! Still young! A lot of this – put it to Hans and Franz of Saturday Night Life if you're old enough: “Hear me now, but believe me later!” A lot of this is going to make sense later, and one of the nicest things is that Gabe has volunteered to put this up on the web. I understand that people can actually watch videos on the web now.

So a lot of this will make sense later, and when I talk about your boss if you're a student, think about that as your academic advisor, if you're a Ph.D. student, think about it as your Ph.D. advisor, and if you're watching this and you are a young child, think of this as your parent because that is the person who is in some sense your boss. The talk goes very fast and I'm very big on specific techniques. I'm not really big on platitudes. Platitudes are nice, but they don't really help me get something done tomorrow.

The other thing is that one good thief is worth ten good scholars. And in fact, you can replace the word “scholars” in that sentence with almost anything. Almost everything in this talk is to some degree inspired, which is a fancy way of saying lifted, from these two books (Time Management for Teachers by Cathy Collins and Career Track Seminar: Taking Control of Your Work Day), and I found those books very useful but it's much better to get them into a distilled form. What I've basically done is I've collected the nuggets for your bath.

I like to talk about “The Time Famine”. I think it's a nice phrase. Does anybody here feel like they have too much time? Okay, nobody, excellent. I like the word “famine”, because it's a little bit like thinking about Africa. You can airlift all the food you want in to solve the crisis this week but the problem is systemic, and you really need systemic solutions. A time management solution that says, “I'm going to fix things for you in the next 24 hours” is laughable, just like saying: “I'm going to cure hunger in Africa in the next year.” You need to think long-term and you need to change fundamental underlying processes because the problem is systemic, we just have too many things to do and not enough time to do them.

The other thing to remember is that it's not just about time management. That sounds like a kind of a lukewarm, a talk about time management, that's kind of milk-toast. But how about if the talk is: How about not having ulcers? That catches my attention!

So a lot of this is life advice. This is, how to change the way you're doing a lot of the things and how you allocate your time so that you will lead a happier, more wonderful life, and I loved in the introduction that you talked about fun! Because if I've brought fun to academia, well, it's about damn time! If you're not going to have fun, why do it? That's what I want to know.

Life really is too short, if you're not going to enjoy it… People who say: “Well, I've got a job and I don't really like it”, I'm like: “Well, you could change?!” “But that'll be a lot of work!” – “You're right, you should keep going to work every day doing a job you don't like. Thank you, good night.” So the overall goal is fun.

My middle child Logan is my favorite example. I don't think he knows how to not have fun. No, granted, a lot of the things he does are not fun for his mother and me. But he's loving every second of it. He doesn't know to do anything that isn't ballistic and full of life. He's going to keep that quality, he's my little Tigger, and I always remember Logan when I think about the goal is to make sure that you lead your life – I want to maximize use of time, but that's the means, not the end. The end is maximizing fun.

People who do intense studies and log people on videotape and so on say that the typical office worker wastes almost two hours a day. Their desk is messy, they can't find things, they miss appointments, are unprepared for meetings, they can't concentrate. Does anybody in here by show of hands ever have any sense that one of these things is part of their life? Okay, I think we've got everybody! So these are a universal thing and you shouldn't feel guilty if some of these things are plaguing you because they plague all of us, they plague me for sure.

The other thing I want to tell you is that it sounds a little clichéd and tried, but being successful does not make you manage your time well. Managing your time well makes you successful. If I've been successful in my career, I assure you it's not because I'm smarter than all the other faculty. I mean, I'm looking around, and I'm looking at some of my former colleagues, and I see Jim Cohoon up there: I'm not smarter than Jim Cohoon. I constantly look around at the faculty at places like the University of Virginia or Carnegie Mellon, and I go: “Damn, these are smart people!” And I snuck in! But what I like to think I'm good at is the meta-skills, because if you're going to have to run with people who are faster than you you have to find the right ways to optimize what skills you do have.

Let's talk first about goals, priorities and planning. Anytime anything crosses your life, you've got to ask: “This thing I'm thinking about doing, why am I doing it?”

Almost no one that I know starts with the core principle of, there's this thing on my To Do list, why is it there? Because if you're start asking like, why am I… my kids are great at this. That is, all I've ever heard at home is: Why? Why? Sooner or later they're going to stop saying “Why”, they're just going to say: “Okay, I'll do it.”

So ask, why am I doing this, what is the goal, why will I succeed at doing it, and here's my favorite: “What will happen if I don't do it?” The best thing in the world is when I have something on my To Do list and I just go: Hmm, no. No one has ever come and taken me to jail.

I talked my way out of a speeding ticket last week, that was really cool. It's like the closest I've ever going to be to attractive and blonde. I told the guy why we had just moved and so on and so forth, and he looked at me and said: “Well, for a guy who's only got a couple of months to live, you sure look good!” I just pulled up my shirt to show the scar and I said, “Yeah, I look good on the outside but the tumors are on the inside.” He just ran back to his cruiser and… ! So that's one positive law enforcement experience for me. The police have never come because I crossed something off my To Do list. That's a very powerful thing because you've got all that time back.

The other thing to keep in mind when you're doing goal setting is, a lot of people focus on doing things right. I think it's very dangerous to focus on doing things right. I think it's much more important to do the right things. If you do the right things adequately, that's much more important than doing the wrong things beautifully. Doesn't matter how well you polish the underside of the banister. Keep that in mind.

Lou Holtz had a great list: Lou Holtz's 100 things to do in his life. He would once a week look at it and say: If I'm not working on those 100 things, why was I working on the others? I think that's an incredible way to frame things. There's something called the 80/20 rule. Sometimes you'll hear about the 90/10 rule, but the key thing to understand is that a very small number of things in your life or on your ToDo-list are going to contribute the vast majority of the value. If you're a salesperson, 80 percent of the revenue is going to come from 20 percent of your clients. And you better figure out who those 20 percent are and spend all your time sucking up to them. Because that's where the revenue comes. You've got to be willing to say, this stuff is what's going to be the value and this other stuff isn't and you've got to have the courage of your convictions to say, therefore I'm gonna shove the other stuff off the boat.

The other thing to remember is that experience comes with time and it's really, really valuable, and there are no shortcuts to getting it. Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. So if things aren't going well, that probably means you're learning a lot and will go better later. This is, by the way, why we pay so much in American society for people who are typically older but have done lots of things in their past because we're paying for their experience because we know that experience is one of the things you can't fake. And do not lose sight of the power of inspiration.

Randy's in an hourlong talk, and we've already hit our first Disney reference. Walt Disney has many great quotes. One that I love is: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” A lot of my cynical friends say, “ya-di-ya-di-ya”… to which I say: Shut up. Inspiration is important, and … I don't know if Walt was right, but I tell you this much: If you refuse to allow yourself to dream it, I know you won't do it. So the power of dreams are that they give us a way to take the first step towards an accomplishment.

Walt was also not just a dreamer. Walt worked really hard. Disneyland – this amazes me because I know a little bit about how hard it is to put theme park attractions together, and they did the whole original Disneyland park in 366 days. That's from the first shovel full of dirt to the first paid admission. Think about how long it takes to do something, say, at a state university. By comparison! It's fascinating. When someone once asked Walt Disney, “How did you get it done in 366 days?”, he just deadpanned: “We used every one of them.”

So again, there are no shortcuts, there's a lot of hard work in anything you want to accomplish.

Planning is very important, one of the time management clichés is: Failing to plan is planning to fail. Planning has to be done at multiple levels. I have a plan every morning when I wake up and I say, what do I need to get done today, what do I need to get done this week, what do I need to get done each semester (that's sort of the time quanta because I'm an academic). That doesn't mean you're locked into it! People say: “Yeah, but things are so fluid! I'm going to have to change the plan!” And I'm like, “Yes! You are going to have to change the plan. But you can't change it unless you have it!” And the excuse of, I'm not going to make a plan because things might change is just this paralysis of: I don't have any marching orders. So have a plan, acknowledge that you're going to change it, but have it so you have the basis to start with.

To-do lists. How many people here, if I said, can you produce it, could show me their to-do list?

Okay, not bad. The key thing with to-do lists is you have to break things down into small steps. I literally once on my to-do list, when I was a junior faculty member at the University of Virginia, I put: “Get tenure.” That was naive! I looked at that for a while and I said: Oh, that's really hard. I don't think I can do that. My children, Dylan and Logan and Chloe, particularly Dylan, is at the age where he can clean his own room. But he doesn't like to, and Chris is smiling because I used to do this story on him but now I've got my own kids to pick on. Dylan will come to me and say: “I can't pick up my room, it's too much stuff!” [sighs exaggeratedly] He's not even a teenager and he's already got that move! And I say: “Well, can you make your bed?” – “Yeah, I can do that.” – “Okay, can you put all the clothes in the hamper?” – “Yeah, I can do that.” And you do three or four things, and then it's like: “Well, Dylan, you just cleaned your room!” – “I cleaned my room!” He feels good! He is empowered! And everybody is happy.

Of course, I've had to spend twice as much time managing him as I could have done it by myself but that's okay, that's what being a boss is about, is you're growing your people no matter how small or large they might be at the time. The last thing about to-do lists or getting yourself going is, if you've got a bunch of things to do, do the ugliest thing first. There's an old saying: “If you have to eat a frog, don't spend a lot of time looking at it first, and if you have to eat three of them, don't start with the small one.” This is the most important slide in the entire talk.

Due Soon, Not Due Soon, Important, Not Important.

If you want to leave after this slide, I will not be offended, because it's all downhill from here. This is blatantly stolen; this is Steven Covey's great contribution to the world. He talks about it in the 7 Habits book. Imagine your to-do list. Most people sort their to-do list either the order that I've got it, throw it at the bottom, or they sort it in due-date list, which is more sophisticated and more helpful but still very, very wrong.

Looking at the four-quadrant to-do list, if you've got a quadrant where things are “Important and Due Soon,” “Important and Not Due Soon,” “Not Important and Due Soon,” and “Not Important and Not Due Soon,” which of these four quadrants do you think – upper left, upper right, lower left, lower right – which one do you think you should work on immediately? Upper left! You are such a great crowd. Okay. And which one do you think you should probably do last? Lower right. And that's easy. That's obviously number one, that's obviously number four. But this is where everybody in my experience gets it wrong. What we do now is we say: “I do the number ones, and I move on to the stuff that's “Due Soon and Not Important.” When you write it in this quadrant list, it's really stunning, because I've actually seen people do this and they say: “Okay, this is due soon and I know it's not important so I'm going to get right to work on it.”

The most crucial thing I can teach you about time management is, when you're done picking off the “Important and Due Soon,” that's when you go here. Due Soon, Not Due Soon, Important – 1, 2. Not Important – 3, 4. You go to “Not Due Soon and Important,” and there will be a moment in your life where you say, “Hey, this thing that's due soon and not important: I won't do it! Because it's not important! It says so right here on the chart!” And magically, you have time to work on the thing that is not due soon but is important so that next week it never got a chance to get here because you killed it in the crib. My wife won't like that metaphor! But you solve the problem of something that's due next week when you're not under time stress because it's not due tomorrow. And suddenly, you become one of these Zen-like people who would just always seem like they have all the time in the world because they figured this out.

Paperwork. The first thing that you need to know is that having cluttered paperwork leads to thrashing. You end up with all these things on your desk, and you can't find anything, and the moment you turn to your desk, your desk is saying to you: “I own you! I have more things than you can do! And they are many colors and laid out!” So what I find is that it's really crucial to keep your desk clear, and we'll talk about where all the paper goes in a second, and you have one thing on your desk because then it's like: “Haha! Now it's thunderdome! Me and the ONE piece of paper.” I usually win that one.

One of the mantras of time management is: touch each piece of paper once. You get the piece of paper, you look at it, you work at it, and I think that's extremely true for email. How many people here – I'm going to take it for granted that everybody here has an email inbox – how many people here have more than 20 items in their email inbox? Oooh! I'm in the right room. Your inbox is not your to-do list. My wife has learned that I need to get my inbox clear. Sometimes this means just filing things away and putting something on my to-do list. Remember, the to-do list is sorted by importance, but does anybody here have an email program where you can press this “Sort By Importance” button? It's amazing how people who build software that really is a huge part of our life and getting work done haven't a clue. And that's not a slam on any particular company. I think they all have missed the boat. I just find it fascinating.

Most people I know have this inbox – oh, I've got to ask: How many people have more than 100 things in their inbox? Oh, I'm just not going to keep going, this is too depressing! You really want to get the thing in your inbox, look at it and say: “I'm either going to read it right now or I'm going to file it and put an entry in my to-do list.” That's a crucial thing because otherwise every time you go to read your email, you're just swamped and it's just as bad as the cluttered paper.
[He shows a picture of him and his wife on their wedding day.]

You're all trying to figure out how that heading goes with that picture. A filing system is absolutely essential. I know this because I'm married to the most wonderful woman in the world, but she's not a good filer. But she is now! Because after we got married and we moved in together and we resolved all the other typical couple things, I said: “We have to have a place where our papers go and it's in alphabetical order.” And she said: “That sounds a little compulsive…” And I said: “Okay, honey…”

I went out to IKEA and I got this big, nice, way too expensive wooden fake mahogany thing with big drawers. So she liked it because it looked kind of nice, and having a place in our house where any piece of paper went and was in alphabetical order did wonderful things for our marriage! Because there was never any of this, “Honey, where did you put blahblahblah?” And there was never being mad at somebody because they had put something in some unexpected place; there was an expected place for it.

When you're looking for important receipts or whatever it is, this is actually important, and we have found that this has been a wonderful thing for us. I think file systems among groups of people, whether it's a marriage or an office, are crucial, but even if it's just you, having a place where you know you put something really beats all hell out of running around for an hour, going: “Where is it? I know it's blue… and I was eating something when I read it.” I mean… This is not a filing system! This is madness!

A lot of people ask me: “So, Randy, what does your desk look like?” As my wife would say, “This is what Randy's desk looks like when he's photographing it for a talk.” The important thing is that I'm a computer geek so I have the desk off to the right, and then I have the computer station off to the left. I like to have my desk in front of a window whenever I can do that. This is an old photograph; these have now been replaced by LCD monitors, but I left the old picture because the crucial thing is, it doesn't matter if they're fancy high-tech, the key thing is screen space.

Lots of people have studied this. How many people here have more than one monitor on their computer desktop? Okay, not bad! So we're getting there, it's starting to happen. What I found is that I could go back from three to two, but I just can't go back to one. There's just too many things and as somebody said, it's the difference between working on a desk like at home and trying to get work done on the little tray on an airplane. In principle, the little tray on the airplane is big enough for everything you need to do. It's just that in practice, it's pretty small.

So multiple monitors are very important, and I'll show you in a second what I have on each one of those. I believe in this multiple monitor thing, we believed in it for a long time, that's my research group [shows a picture], our laboratory a long time ago in Carnegie Mellon. That's Caitlin Kelleher, who's now Doctor Kelleher, thank you, and she's at Washington University in St. Louis doing wonderful things. But we had everybody with three monitors, and the cost on this is absolutely trivial. If you figure the cost of adding a second monitor to an employee's yearly cost to the company, it's not even one percent anymore. So why would you not do it? One of my walkaways for all of you is, you should all go to your boss and say: “I need a second monitor. I just can't work without it, Randy told me to tell you that.” Because it will increase your productivity and the computers can all drive two monitors, so why not?

What do I have on my three monitors? On the left is my to-do list, all sorts of stuff in there. We're all idiosyncratic, my system is that I just put a number of 0 through 9 and I use an editor that can quickly sort on that number in the first column, but the key thing is that it's sorted by priority. In the middle is my mail program. Note the empty inbox! I try very hard, I sleep better if I go to sleep with the inbox empty. When my inbox does creep up, I get really testy, so my wife will actually say to me: “I think you need to clear the inbox.” On the third one is a calendar. This is from a number of years ago but that's like my days would be; I used to be very heavily booked.

I don't care which software you use, I don't care which calendars, I don't care if it's paper or computer – whatever works for you – but you should have some system whereby you know where you're supposed to be next Tuesday at two o'clock. Because even if you can live your life without that, you're using up a lot of your brain to remember all that. I don't know about you, but I don't have enough brain to spare to use it on things I can have paper or computers do for me.

Back to the overview. On the desk itself, let's zoom in a little bit, look, I have the one and one thing I'm working on at the time, I have a speaker phone; this is crucial. How many people here have a speaker phone on their desks? Okay, not bad, but a lot more people don't. Speaker phones are essentially free, and I spend a lot of time on hold, and that's because I live in the American society where I get to listen to messages of the form: “Your call is extremely important to us. Watch, while my actions are cognitively dissonant from my words.” It's like the worst abusive relationship in the world. Imagine a guy who picks you up at your first date and he smacks you in the mouth and says: “I love you, honey”. That's pretty much how modern customer service works on the telephone. But the great thing about a speaker phone is, you hit the speaker phone and you dial and then you just do something else, and if it takes seven minutes, it takes seven minutes and hey, I just look at this like somebody's piping music into my office. That's very nice of them.

I also found that having a timer on the phone is handy so that when somebody finally picks up in Bangalore, I can say things like: “I'm so glad to be talking with you, by the way, if you keep records on this sort of thing, I've been on hold for seven and a half minutes.” But you don't say it angry, you just say it as “I presume you're logging this kind of stuff”, and you're not angry, so they don't get angry back at you but they feel really guilty. And that's good, you want guilty! A speaker phone is really great. I find that a speaker phone is probably the best material possession you can buy to counter stress. If I were teaching a yoga and meditation class, I'd say, we'll do all the yoga and meditation, I think that's wonderful stuff, but everybody also has to have a speaker phone.

What else do we have besides the speaker phone? Let's talk about telephones for a second. I think that the telephone is a great time-waster, and I think it's very important to keep your business calls short so I recommend standing during the phone calls. Great for exercise, and if you tell yourself: “I'm not gonna sit down until the call is over”, you'll be amazed how much brisker you are. Start by announcing goals for the call. “Hello Sue, this is Randy, I'm calling you because I have three things that I want to get done.” Because then you have given her an agenda and when you're done with the three things, you can say, “That's great, those were the three things I had, it was great to talk to you, I'd love to talk to you again, bye.” Boom – you're off the phone. Whatever you do, do not put your feet up. If you put the feet up, it's just all over.

And the other handy trick is, have something on your desk that you actually are kind of interested in going to do next, so the phone call instead of being, “Wow, I could get off the phone and do some work… mmm… Or I could keep chit-chatting!” Usually the person you've called, they'd like to chit-chat too. So this is where the time-waster in the office goes, and if you're a grad student… [pauses] Well, if you're a grad student, you already know about time-wasting. Having something you really want to do next is a great way to get you off the phone quicker, so you've got to train yourself.

Getting off the phone is hard for a lot of people. I don't suffer from an abundance of politeness. My sister, who has known me for a long time, is laughing a knowing laugh. When I want to get off the phone, I want to get off the phone. I'm done. And what I say is: “I'd love to keep talking with you, but I have some students waiting.” Now I'm a professor. Somewhere there must be students waiting! It's got to be! Sometimes you get in a situation like with a telemarketer. That's awkward because a lot of people are so polite – I have no trouble with telemarketers, I'll just go there with them!

If you're a telemarketer and you call my house, you have made a mistake. “Yeah, I can't talk right now, but why don't you give me your home phone number, and I'll call you back on dinner time.” Seinfeld did a great bit on that. Or if you want to be a little bit more over the line: “I'd love to talk with you about that, but first, I have some things I'd like to sell you!” The funny part is, they never realize you're yanking with them, that's… But if you have to hang up on a telemarketer, what you do is, you hang up while you're talking. “Well, I think that's really interesting and I would love to keep –” I mean, talk about self-effacing! Hanging up on yourself! And they'll figure it out and if they'll do and call back, just don't answer! Ten years from now, all everybody will remember from this talk is hanging up on yourself.

The other thing is, group your phone calls. Call people right before lunch or right before the end of the day. Because then they have something they would rather do than keep chitty-chatting with you. So I find that calling somebody at 11:50 is a great way to have a ten-minute phone call. Because frankly, you may think you're interesting, but you are not more interesting than lunch. I have become very obsessive about using phones and time productively so I think that everybody should have something like this [puts on a headset]. I don't care about fashion, so… I don't have Bluetooth, and I have this big ugly thing: “Hi, I'm Julie from Time Life!”

But the thing this allows me to do because I'm living the limit case right now of, I've got to get stuff done and I really don't have a lot of time. So I get an hour a day where I exercise on my bike and this is me on my bike and if you look carefully you can see I'm wearing that headset, I've got my cell phone. And for an hour a day I ride my bike around the neighborhood. This is time that I'm spending on the phone getting work done and it's not a moment being taken away from my wife and my children. It turns out that I can talk and ride a bike at the same time. Amazing, the skill sets I have! It works better in warm weather climates but I have just found that having a headset frees me up even if it's just around the house, you wear a headset, you can fold laundry, it's an absolute “twofor.” And I just think telephones should have headsets and someday we will all have the Borg implant and it'll be a non-issue.

What else is on my desk? I have one of those address-stampers because I got tired of writing my address. I have a box of Kleenex. In your office at work, if you are a faculty member, you have to have a box of Kleenex. At least if you teach the way I do… There will be crying students in your office! And what I found to defuse a lot of that is that I would have CS 352 or whatever written on the side of the Kleenex box. I would turn it as I handed it to them and they would take the Kleenex and they would be like, “Oh…” I said, “Yeah… it's for the class. You're not alone!” So having Kleenex is very important. And Thank-You cards.

I'll now ask the embarrassment question, and I don't mean to pick on you but it just points things out so well. By show of hands, who here has written a Thank-You note that is not a quid pro quo. I don't mean, “Oh, you gave me a gift, I wrote you a Thank-You note.” And I mean a physical Thank-You note with a pen and ink and paper. Not email. Because email is better than nothing but [in high-pitched voice] it's that much better than nothing. How many people here have written a Thank-You note in the last week? Not bad, I do better here than at most places because it is UVA. Chivalry is not dead. How many people in the last month? How many people in the last year? The fact that there are a non-trivial number of hands not up for the year means that anybody who is in this audience, his parents are going, “Oooh… that was my kid.”

Thank-You notes are really important. They're a very tangible way to tell someone how much you appreciated things. I have Thank-You notes with me and that's because I'm actually writing some later today to some people who've done some nice things for me recently. You say, “Oh god, you have time for that?” and I'm like, “Yes, I have time for that, because it's important.” Even in my current status, I will make time to write Thank-You notes to people. And even if you're a crafty, weasely bastard, you should still write Thank-You notes. Because it makes you so rare that when someone gets a Thank-You note, they will remember you. It seems that the only place that Thank-You notes are really taken seriously anymore is when people are interviewing for jobs. They now sometimes write Thank-You notes to the recruiters, which I guess shows a sign of desperation on the part of the recent graduate. But Thank-You notes are a wonderful thing, and I would encourage all of you to go out and buy a stack at your local dime store and have them on your desk so when the moment seizes you, it's right there, and I leave my Thank-You notes out on the desk readily accessible.

As I've said before, gratitude is something that can go beyond cards. When I got tenure here, I took my whole research team down to Disneyworld on my nickel for a week. I believe in large gestures but it's also been a lot of fun, I wanted to go too! I didn't send them without a proper shepherd running after all. What else? I have a paper recycling bin, and this is very good because it helps save the planet but it also helps save my butt. When I have a piece of paper that I would be throwing away I put it in that bin, and that takes a couple of weeks to get filled up and then actually sent somewhere else. What I've really done here is, I've created the Windows/Macintosh trash can you can pull stuff back out of. It works in the real world too! And about once a month, I go ferreting through there to find the receipt that I didn't think I'll ever need again but I suddenly need and it's extremely handy. I suspected that if I were giving this talk in ten years, I would say I just put it in the auto-scanner because I find it almost inconceivable that ten years from now (first off that a lot of the stuff would be paper in my hands anyway), but if it were paper then I would have any notion of doing anything other than putting it on the desk where it goes “zzzk”, and it's already scanned because it touched the desk. This kind of stuff is not really hard to do. So I think that's what's going to happen.

And of course I have a phone book. Note pad… I can't live without Post-it Notes. And the view out the window of the dog. Because the dog reminds me that I should be out playing with him. When I got married, I married into a family. I got a wife and two beautiful dogs. There's the other one. Could you help me with a debate I've had with my wife? [He shows a picture of him sitting on the couch, the dog on his lap.] By show of hands, how many people would semantically say: “The dog is on the couch”? Nobody! Thank you! Thank you! Because the dog was not allowed on the couch. And my wife came in one day… Anyway, thank you for agreeing with me, it makes me feel very good. So the dog is wonderful. The dogs have long gone on, but they are still in our hearts and our memories, and I think of them every day and they're still a part of my life.

I've presented to you how I do my office, how I do things, it's not the only way. One of the best assistants I've ever met was the one named Tina Cobb, and she has a really different system; she's a spreader. If you think about it, there's a method to her madness: Everything here is exactly one arm's radius from where she sits. It's like a two- armed octopus. She got so much stuff done and I never presume to tell somebody else how to change their system if their system is working. Tina was much more efficient than I was, so I would just say, do what works for you, and everybody has to find a system for themselves but you've really got to think about, “What makes me more efficient?”

Let's talk about office logistics. In most office settings, people come into each other's offices and proceed to suck the life out of each other. If you have a big cushy chair in your office, you might as well just slather butter all over yourself and send yourself naked into the woods for the wild animals to attack you. I say, make your office comfortable for you and optionally comfortable for others. So no comfy chairs. I used to have folding chairs in my office, folded up against the wall. So people who want to come in to me and talk with me, they can stand. And I would stand up because then the meeting is going to be really fast because we want to sit down! But then, if it looks like it's something we should have a little bit more time on I very graciously go over and open the folding chair. I'm such a gentleman!

Some people do a different tack on this, they have the chair already there, but they cut two inches off the front leg so the whole time you're in their office, you're scooting yourself up. I'm not advocating that, but I thought it was damn clever the first time I saw it.

Scheduling yourself. Verbs are important: You do not FIND time for important things, you MAKE it. And you make time by electing not to do something else. There's a term from economics that everybody should hold near and dear to their heart, and that term is “opportunity cost”. The bad thing about doing something that isn't very valuable is not that it's a bad thing to have done it. The problem is that once you spent an hour doing it, that's an hour you can never again spend in any other way. And that's important. How do you keep these unimportant things from sucking into your life? You learn to say “No”.

It's great, my youngest child Chloe is at an age where this is her new word. About two weeks ago, she learned it. And it's like, now everything is “no!” “No! No! No-no-no-no-no! No!” She should be giving this talk! I asked her, and she said: “No!” So she's home playing! But we all hate to say “No” because people ask us for help and we want to be gracious, so let me teach you some gentle “No’s”.

The first one is: “I'm really strapped, but I want to help you. I don't want you to be in the bind, so if nobody else steps forward, I will do this for you.” Or: “I'll be your deep fall back but you have to keep searching for somebody else.” Now you will find out about the person's character at that moment because if they say: “Great! I got my sucker!”, and they stop looking, then they have abused the relationship. But if they say: “That's great, my stress level's down at zero, because now I know it's not going to be a disaster but I'm going to keep looking for somebody for whom it's less of an imposition.” That's a person that will get lots of this sort of support.

When I was in graduate school, we did a moving party with four people, a lot of moving parties, carry heavy objects, we had four people, we should have had twelve. It was a long day. And after that, I enacted a new policy, I said, from now on, when somebody says: “Will you help me move?”, I'd say: “How much stuff have you got?” And they would tell me and I would say: “Hmm, that sounds like about eight people. If you give me the names of seven other people that will be there, I'll be there.” And I never again was at a moving party that went for 14 hours in January in Pittsburgh.

Everybody has good and bad times. The big thing about time management is, find your creative time and defend it ruthlessly. Spend it alone, maybe at home if you have to. But defend it ruthlessly. The other thing is, find your dead time. Schedule meetings, phone calls, exercise, mundane stuff, but do stuff during that where you don't need to be at your best. We all have these times. And the times are not at all intuitive. I discovered that my most productive time was between ten p.m. and midnight which is really weird but for me it's just this burst of energy right before the end.

Let's talk about interruptions. There are people who measure this kind of stuff who have stopwatches and clipboards and what they say is that an interruption takes typically 6-9 minutes, but then there's a 4-5 minute recovery to get your head back into what you're doing. And if you're doing something like software creation, you may never get your head back there, the cost can be infinity. But if you do the math on that, five interruptions blow a whole hour. So you've got to find ways to reduce both the frequency and the length of these interruptions. One of my favorites is, turn phone calls into email. If you phone my office at Carnegie Mellon, it says: “Hi, this is Randy, please, send me email.”

Again, I presume everybody here has email, how many people here, when a new message comes in, does your computer go “ding” or make some other noise? Do we still have people doing that? What the heck is wrong with you people? I love the fact that computer scientists just know nothing about anything so for years by default all these packages out of the box would go “ding” every time you get a new piece of email so we had taken a technology explicitly designed to reduce interruption and we turn them into interruptions. So you just got to turn that off. The point of email is you go to it when you're ready, not you're sitting around like Pavlov's dogs saying, “Oh, maybe I'll get another email!”

In the same way, you try not to interrupt other people. I save stuff up so I have boxes for Tina or for my research group meeting and I put stuff in those boxes, and then once a week or however often when the box gets full, I walk down the hall and I interrupt that person one time and say, “Here are the eight things I have for you.” How do you cut things short? Because people always want to spend more time than you want to spend. Where you can say, look, somebody interrupts you and says: “Got a few minutes?” and I say: “Well, I'm in the middle of something right now.” That tells them: “I'm interrupting it, and I'm going to do it quickly, but I've got to get back to that.” Or you can say: “I only have five minutes.” The great thing about that is that later you have the privilege of extending that if you so choose. But when the five minutes are up then you say: “Well, I said at the beginning I'll have five minutes and I really have to go now.” So it's a very socially played way to bound the amount of time on the interaction.

If somebody's in your office and they don't get it – now I'm not saying that as a computer scientist I have an inordinate amount of time or opportunity to interact with people with no social skills… But if you have someone in your office who is just not getting it, what you do is, you stand up, you walk to the door, you compliment them, for some reason this is a crucial part of the process, you thank them and you shake their hand. And if they still don't leave which is pretty much a guarantee that you're dealing with someone from my tribe, then you're in the doorway, you just keep going. What I have found is that people don't like it when you look at your watch while you're talking with them, so what I do is, I put a clock on the wall right behind them so it's just off access from their eyes, and I can just glance over a little bit when I need to see what time it is. It's a very nice way to get me information without being rude to them.

Time journals. Time is the commodity, you better find out where your time is going. Monitor yourself and update it throughout the day. You can't wait till the end of the day and say: “What was I doing at 10:30?”, because our memories aren't that good. So what you do – and I really hope that technology within another five years or so will be so good that the time journals can be created automatically or at least some facsimile of it, but until then what we do is, we monitor it ourselves. This is what an empty time journal would look like. The details aren't important but the key thing is that, when you fill it in, you've got a bunch of categories and what I was doing, and you can do this very informally but you'll get a lot of real data about where your time went. And it's always very different. Anybody who has done monetary budgeting, you look at it and you go, “Wow, I didn't know I was spending that much on dry cleaning.” Or restaurants or whatever. It's always a fascinating surprise. And you always spend more than you think. But with time budgets, you find out that the time is going wildly differently than you would have imagined.

The best example of this I know is Turing Award winner Fred Brooks's time clocks. He's a brilliant computer scientist but he also has this great array of clocks in his office, and when you go in and talk to him, he says: “Is this meeting about research or teaching?” or whatever, and then he flips the appropriate switch and at the end of the week he knows exactly where his time went. The man is a genius! When I meet with students – and this is, I think, just as appropriate for people in a workplace – I say: “What's your schedule?” You have a set of fixed meetings every week and what you have to do is, you have to look at those and identify the open blocks where you're going to waste time, and I can tell you you're going to waste time just by looking at it. [He shows a picture of a schedule.] So in this case you've got a class where… you've got a class at a certain point, and then you've got a gap until the next class so I've identified those here. And the gaps between classes that, in this case, last an hour or an hour and a half, this is just prime time to be wasted!

So what I always told my students was, make up a fake class. The fake class is, go to one specific place in the library during that hour and when you're sitting there with just you in the library and your books, there's a pretty good chance you might actually study. Don't go and hang out with friends for an hour, just make that a fake class, make your own little study hall. It's a simple trick, but it's amazing how effective it is when somebody just explicitly does it.

When you've got your time journal data, what do you figure out from that? What am I doing that doesn't need to be done? What can someone else do? I love every day saying, what am I doing that I could delegate to somebody else? My sister is again laughing because she knows who that person was in our youth. What can I do more efficiently? And: How am I wasting other people's time? When you get good at time management you realize that it's a collaborative thing.

I want to make everybody more efficient, it's not a selfish thing, it's not me against you, it's: How do we all collectively get more done? As you push on the time journal stuff you start to find that you don't make yourself more efficient at work so you become some sort of über-worker person, you become more efficient at work so you can leave at five and go home and be with the people that you love. People call this work-life balance.

For the junior faculty, you may have heard of it in some sort of mythical sense but it is possible. I found that I worked less – I worked fewer hours after I got married and I got more done. And I was always fascinated in graduate school that the people who graduated fastest with their Ph.D.s were the people who had a spouse and kids. I said, how can that be? That's like a built-in boat anchor. You've got all these other demands on your time and I'm a single guy and I've got all the time in the world and that's the problem. I approach it like I've got all the time in the world so my time isn't precious. When you've got a spouse and little kids, your spouse is likely to say things to you like: “You better not be into that grad school more than 40 hours a week!”, so when you come in, you're not sitting around playing computer games. Not that I ever did that! But when you come in, you're coming in and you're doing work and I found like most people that once I got married and had kids my whole view of time management really got – I mean, we were playing for real stakes now! Because now there are people whose lives are impacted if I'm spending too much time at work.

The other thing about time management that makes you really start to look through a crystalline lens and figure out what's important and what's not – I love this picture. [He shows a picture from a newspaper article.] I blanked out her name, but this says: Blahblahblah, this is a pregnant woman, and it says: “She is worrying about the effect on her unborn child from the sound of jackhammers.” So they're doing construction and the people here are laughing because they can see that this woman who is so concerned about the jackhammers affecting her unborn child is holding a lit cigarette. You've got to get really good at saying, “I've got to focus my time and energy on the things that matter and not worry about the things that don't.” Now I'm not a medical doctor and I don't play one on TV but I'm willing to bet that if I were the fetus I'd be saying, “Put the cigarette out, mom! I can deal with the noise!”

I want to tell you a little story about effective versus efficient. I actually was going to give this talk a couple of weeks ago, and I talked with Gabe about it, and we were going to come up here because as a surprise for my wife, her favorite musical group in the whole world is The Police and has been for a long, long time, a wonderful group, and so we said, hey, we're going to drive up to Charlottesville and see them and we actually got some tickets and I said, “Well honey, as long as we're up there, I promised Gabe a long time ago that I wanted to give my time management talk”, and she said, okay, because it's about an three hour drive so it's very efficient to couple these two trips together. And about two days later she said: “You know, honey, I know how you are with talks. And before you give one for a couple of days, you start to obsess.” As we talked through it, she said: “So we're going to go up in this couple's time away, we've gotten our sitter to watch the kids, and this couple's time away is going to be eaten up by you obsessing over preparing this talk.” I thought about it, I said, “Okay, so obviously the right solution is, we should keep our couple's time our couple's time and we'll go up and see the concert we'll have our time together and I'll just schedule a different day and I'll go up on a one day trip and I'll do the talk!” And she said: “Wow, that was easy!”

And that's right! Once you've framed it in the right way, you say: “Yeah, the cost here is that I have to do the drive a second time.” But it turns out I'm doing the drive with my nephew Christopher and we talk and my mom turned up, so the time wasn't even dead time so there is no loss at all. But the key thing was we said, it's not about efficiency, it's about effectiveness and best overall outcome. And of course one of the nice things was that we did get to the Police concert, and I really want to thank Gabe and Jim Aylor because we really went to the concert! And my wife was very happy. I'm the guy in the back, saying: “She's not paying any attention to me today!” But it was wonderful, and he is a charming gentleman in person, he is absolutely charming.

Let's talk about procrastination. There's an old saying: “Procrastination is the thief of time.” Procrastination is hard and I have a little bit of an insight here for you: We don't usually procrastinate because we're lazy. Sometimes people rationalize their procrastination. They say: “Well, gee, if I wait long enough, maybe I won't have to do it.” That's true. Sometimes you get lucky. Other people say: “Gee, if I start on it now, I'm just going to spend all the time on it. If I only give myself the last two days, I'll do it in two days because that's, the work expands to fill the time available, Parkinson's law.” That's marginally true, but I think the key balance here is to understand that doing things at the last minute is really expensive. It's just much more expensive than doing it just before the last minute.

So if you're doing something and you can still mail it through the U.S. mail, you've suddenly avoided the “oh my god, I've got to do the whole FedEx thing”. Now I love FedEx. FedEx supports our whole universal habit of procrastination. But it also allows us to get stuff there when it really has to be there in a hurry, so that's a wonderful thing. But I think you have to realize that if you push things right up to the deadline, that's where all the stress comes from. Because now you can't reach people, if somebody is out of the office for just one day, your whole plan is upset, so you really have to work hard on this kind of stuff.

The other thing is that deadlines are really important. We're all essentially deadline-driven so if you have something that isn't due for a long time, make up a fake deadline and act like it's real. And that's wonderful because those are the deadlines, when push comes to shove, you can slip on by a couple of days and it's all right so they are less stressful. If you are procrastinating, you've got to find some way to get back into your comfort zone. Identify why you are not enthusiastic. Whenever I procrastinate on something, there's always a deep psychological reason. Usually it's, I'm afraid of being embarrassed because I don't think I'll do it well, or I'm afraid I'm going to fail at it. Sometimes it involves asking somebody for something.

One of the most magical things I've learned in my life is that sometimes you just have to ask and wonderful things happen. But you just have to step out and do that.

I won the parent lottery, I have just wonderful parents. My dad unfortunately passed away not too long ago. [He shows a picture of him and his dad and his son riding a monorail.] But this is one of my favorite photographs because my dad was such a smart guy, I could almost never surprise him or impress him because he was that good! But we were down at the family vacation at Disneyworld, and the monorails were going by and we're going to board the monorail and we noticed that in the front, up here in the cabin, I don't know if you can see it in this picture, but there's an engineer who drives the monorail and there are actually guests up there with him which is kind of unusual. My dad and I were talking about that and I knew, because I've done some consulting for Disney.

My dad's saying: “Oh, they probably have to be special VIPs or something.” I said: “Oh, there is a trick. There is a special way you get into that cabin.” And he said: “Really? What is it?” I said: “I'll show you. Dylan, come with me.” And Dylan, who's – the back of his head you can see there, we walk up and I whisper to Dylan: “Ask the man if we can ride in the front!” And we go to the attendant and the attendant says: “Yes, you can.” And he opens the gate and my dad is just like… [stares with eyes and mouth open]! I said: “I told you there was a trick, I didn't say it was hard!” Sometimes all you have to do is ask. And it's that easy.

Let's talk about delegation. Nobody operates individually anymore and you can accomplish a lot more when you have help. However, most people delegate very poorly. They treat delegation as dumping. “I don't have time to do this, you take care of it.” And then they micro-manage and it's just a disaster. The first thing if you're going to delegate something to a subordinate is, you grant them authority with responsibility. You don't tell somebody: “Go take care of this, but if you need to spend any money, you've got to come back to me for approval.” That's not empowering them, that's telling them you don't trust them.

If I trust you enough to do the work, I trust you enough to give you the resources and the budget and the time and whatever else you need to get it done. You give them the whole package. The other thing is, delegate but always do the ugliest job yourself. So when we need to vacuum the lab before a demo, I bring in the vacuum cleaner and I vacuum it. Do the dirtiest job yourself so it's very clear that you're willing to still get the dirt on your hands.

Treat your people well. People are the greatest resource, and if you are fortunate enough to have people who report to you, treat them with dignity and respect and to sound a little bit corny, the kind of love that they should have from someone who cares about them and their professional development. And for crying out loud, staff and secretaries are your life line! If you don't think you should treat them well because it's the decent thing to do, at least treat them well because if you don't, they will get you. And they will get you good and you will deserve it and I will applaud them.

My giving a talk with Alf Weaver in the audience – where is Alf? There he is. – that's like talking about surviving the Johnstown flood if Noah was in the audience. One of the things that Alf Weaver taught me is, whether it's to a colleague or to a subordinate, if you want to get something done, you cannot be vague, and he said: “You give somebody a specific thing to do, a specific date and time – “Thursday” is not a specific time. “Thursday at 3:22″ gets somebody's attention. And you give them a specific penalty or reward that will happen if that deadline for that thing is not met”, and then he paused, and he said: “And remember, the penalty or the reward has to be for them, not you!” – “I will be screwed over if you don't meet that deadline!” [ironically:] “Oh, bummer.” This is an important point to not get wrong.

Challenge people. I've been told that one of the tricks is, you delegate until they complain. I don't know about until they complain, but what I've found is that underdelegation is a problem. People are usually yearning for the opportunity to do more, they want to be challenged, they want to prove to you and themselves they can be more capable so let them. Communication has to be clear. So many times people get upset with their bosses because there's a misunderstanding. And particularly in a time of email, it's so easy to communicate via email. Even if you've had a face-to-face conversation, send a two-line email just to be specific afterwards. And it's not we're trying to be all lawyer-like, it's just that as judge Wapner said: “Get it in writing!”, if you remember the People's Court, and judge Wapner said: “If there isn't a problem, it's not a problem, it didn't take you much time, but if there ever is a problem, well – wait a second, there won't be a problem, because there is a written record.” And that's the magic. There won't be a confusion because you can't disagree about the written word. Don't give people how you want them do it, tell them what you want them to do. Give them objectives, not procedures. Let them surprise you with a way of solving a problem you would never have imagined. Sometimes those solutions are mind-blowing. Good or bad. But they're really much more fun than just having them do it the way you would have done it. And you know what, if you're at an university, your job should be to have people smarter than you, i.e. your students, and they will come up with stuff you would never have thought of.

The other thing is, tell people the relative importance of each task. Some people say: “My boss is an ogre, they gave me five things to do!” I'm like: “Oh, did they tell you which one was the most important?” – “Oh, yeah. I guess I could ask that.” Knowing that, if you have five things, which are the ones to get done is really important because if you're flying blind, you've got a 20 percent chance of getting them done in the right order. Delegation can never be done too young. Does everyone see the difference in the two pictures? [He shows two pictures of him and his daughter sitting in a chair, in one he is holding her milk bottle, in the other one she is holding the bottle herself.] This is my daughter Chloe, I love her to death, but I want her to grow up to be a wonderful person, and I know, the sooner she holds her own bottle, the better. Sociology. Beware upward delegation.

Sometimes you try to delegate and people try to hand it back to you. One of the best things I ever saw was someone who had a secretary trying to say, “I can't do this, you'll have to take it back”, and he just put his hands behind his back and took a step backwards. Then he waited. And then eventually the secretary said: “Or maybe I could find this other solution.” And he said: “That's wonderful! I'm so proud you thought of that.” It was just an elegant gesture. Reinforce behavior you want be repeated.

One of my favorite stories in the One Minute Manager is, he talks about, did you ever wonder about how they got the killer whales to jump through the hoop? If they did it like modern American office managers, they would yell at the killer whale: “Jump through the hoop!” And every time the killer whale didn't jump through the hoop they'd hit it with a stick. This is how we train people in the office place. Read the book if you want to see how they actually do it because I'm curious. I know now. But it's really cool how they get them to do it.

Reinforce behavior you want repeated. When people do things that you like, praise them and thank them. That's worth more than any amount of monetary reward or a little plaque. People really like to just be told straight up: “Thank you, I really appreciate that you did a good job.” The other thing is that if you don't want things delegated back up to you, don't learn how to do them! I take great pride, I don't know how to run photocopiers and fax machines, and I am not going to learn it. That's certainly not how I'm going to spend my remaining time. Meetings. The average executive spends more than 40 percent of his or her time in a meeting. My advice is, when you have a meeting, lock the door, unplug the phone and take everybody's BlackBerrys. Because if it's worth our time, it's worth our time. If it's not worth our time, it's not worth our time but I don't have any interest in being in a room with six people who are all half there. Because that's very inefficient.

I don't think meetings should ever last more than an hour with very rare exception. And I think there should be an agenda. I got into a great habit a couple of years ago when I just started saying: “If there's no agenda, I won't attend.” The great thing about that is, whoever called the meeting had to actually think before they showed up about why we were supposed to be there because otherwise it's like: “Why are we here?” – “Because we're having a meeting. It's on all of our calendars.” It's just a classic Dilbert moment.

Most important thing about meetings, and again, this comes from the One Minute Manager, one-minute minutes. At the end of the meeting somebody has to have been assigned to inscribe, and they write down in one minute or less what decisions got made and who is responsible for what by when and to email it out to everybody because if you don't do that, you have your next weekly meeting next week, and you're all sitting around going like, “Who was going to do this?” It's very inefficient. And it's so fast, you just do these one-minute minutes.

Let's talk about technology. I'm a computer scientist, so they say: “Which gadget will make me more time-efficient?” And I don't have any answer for that, it's all idiosyncratic, but I will tell you that my favorite comment about technology comes from a janitor at the University of Central Florida who said: “Computers are faster, they just take longer.” That's Zen right there. That's another way of saying, only use technology that's worth it and worth it is, in the end, did it make me more efficient? That depends on how you work and we're all different.

Remember that technology is getting insane, I walked into McDonald's and I ordered Happy Meal number two and they said: “Would you like a cell phone with that?” I went to the grocery store to buy 16 slices of American cheese and you get Grolier's Encyclopedia so with 16 slices of cheese you get all of men's knowledge for free! That's just spooky scary! Remember that technology really has to be something that makes your life better, you guys may have seen this, I just find it very humorous. [He shows a video clip of a guy angrily smashing his PC keyboard against the monitor.]

Only use technology that helps you! I find that technology is good if it allows you to do things in a new way. Just doing the same things a little bit faster with technology is nice but when technology changes the workflow… So I was carving pumpkins a few years ago and [shows some pictures of him and his friends carving pumpkins] this is F.M., a good friend of mine, and if you can see it, down by her right knee is a pattern and you lay this pattern over the pumpkin, and you get this little special carving knife, and you can instead of these amateurish pumpkins like I made, you get this “howling at the moon”, and her husband Jeff and I thought this was really cool but in sign of a reactionary burning man kind of a moment we grabbed our power drills and we carved our pumpkins that way! Use technology if it changes the way you do things because – believe me, the results of a power drill, you get these little – oh, it's just gorgeous.

Let's talk briefly about email because email is such a large part of all our lives. First off, don't ever delete any of it. Save all of it. I started doing this ten years ago. An interesting thing is that all the historians talk about, “Oh, it's such a shame we don't have people keeping diaries, we don't know what their days are like”, and I'm like: “You fools!” We have just entered a society circa about ten years ago and I'm a living example of it. Every piece of my correspondence is not only saved, it's searchable. If I were a person of merit, a historian – which is a big stretch, a historian could actually look at my patterns of communication much better than the most compulsive diary writer.

Now we could talk about whether or not I am being introspective, that's about content, but in terms of quantity it's great, and of course you can save your email and you can search it, and that's just wonderful because you can pull back stuff from five years ago. So never delete your email.

Here's a big email trick. If you want to get something done, do not send the email to five people. “Hey, could somebody take care of this?” Everyone of these five recipients is thinking one and only one thing: “I deleted it first!” – “The other four people will take care of this, I don't have to.” So you send it to one and only one person. But if you really want it to be done, send it to somebody who can do it, tell them, watch again, Alf Weaver: specific things, specific time, and the penalty can be more subtle like you just CC their boss.

And the other thing – I had this conversation with every student in my entire career because they send email and then they just wait for the person to respond. And I say: “If the person has not responded within 48 hours, it's okay to nag them, and the reason it's okay to nag them: Because if they have not responded within 48 hours, the chance that they are ever going to respond is zero.” Maybe not zero. Maybe that small. But in my experience, if people don't respond to you within 48 hours, you'll probably never hear from them so you just start nagging them.

Let's talk about the care and feeding of bosses. There's a phrase: Managing from beneath. Because we all know that all bosses are idiots. That's certainly the expression, the sense I've gotten from everybody who has a boss. When you have a boss, write things down, do that clear communication thing. Ask them: “When is our next meeting? What do you want me to have done by then?” So you've got sort of a contract. “Who can I turn to for help besides you because I don't want to bother you?” And remember, your boss wants a result, not an excuse. General advice on vacations. Phone callers should get two options: The first one is – the first option is: “Contact John Smith, not me, I'm out of the office, this person can help you now if it's urgent.” Or: “Call back when I'm back.” Why? Because you don't want to come back to a long sequence of phone messages saying: “Randy, can you help me get care of this?”, and you call them back, and you've been on vacation for a week, they already solved it.

The other thing is that it's not a vacation if you're reading email. Trust me on that. It's not a vacation if you're reading email. I can stay in my house all weekend and not read email, and it's a vacation. But if I go to Hawaii and I've got a blackberry, I'm not on vacation. And I know this, when I got married, my wife and I got married, and we left our reception in a hot air balloon, which did not have wireless on it, and Dean Jim Morris at the time – we took a month long honeymoon which was great but not really long enough – and I said: “I'm not going to be reachable for a month.” And Jim said: “That's not acceptable.” I said: “What do you mean, it's not acceptable?” He said: “Well, I pay you. So, that's the “not acceptable” part.” And I said: “Okay. So there has to be a way to reach me?” He said yes. And I said okay. So if you called my office there would be a phone answering machine message that said: “Hi, this is Randy, I'm on vacation. I really took 39 to get married. And so we're going for a month. And I hope you don't have a problem with that. But apparently, my boss does so he says, I have to be reachable. So here's how you can reach me. My wife's parents live in blahblahblah town. Here are their names, if you call directory assistance, you can get their number. And if you can convince my new in-laws that your emergency merits interrupting their only daughter's honeymoon, they have our number.”

Here's some more of my most important advice. We close with some of the best stuff: Kill your television. People who study this say the average American watches 28 hours of television a week. That's almost three quarters of a full time job. So if you really want to have time back in your life, you don't have to kill your television, but just unplug it and put it in the closet and put a blanket over it. See how long it takes you to get the shakes.

Turn money into time, especially junior faculty members or other people who have young children. This is the time to throw money at the problem. Hire somebody else to mow your lawn, do whatever you need to do but exchange money for time at every opportunity when you have very young children because you just don't have enough time, it's just too hard. The other thing is, eat and sleep and exercise above all else! You always have time to sleep. Because if you get sleep deprived, everything falls apart.

Other general advice: Never break a promise, but renegotiate them if need be. If you've said: “I have this done by Tuesday at noon”, you can call the person on Friday and say, “I'm still good to my word but I'm really jacked up and I'm going to have to stay and work over the weekend to meet that Tuesday deadline. Is there any way there's any slack on that?” And a lot of times I say: “Thursday's fine.” Because I really needed it Thursday, but I told you Tuesday.” Or they'll say: “It's no problem, I can have Jim do that instead of you. He has some free time.” Now if they say: “No, there's no wiggle room here”, you say: “That's okay, no problem, I'm still good to my word.” If you haven't got time to do it right, you don't have time to do it wrong, that's self-evident.

Recognize that most things are pass/fail. People spend way too much time – there's a reason we have the expression “good enough”. It's because the thing is “good enough”! The last thing is, get feedback loops. Ask people in confidence because if someone will tell you what you're doing right or doing wrong and they'll tell you the truth, that's worth more than anything else in the whole world. I recommend these two books. [Kenneth Blanchard/Spencer Johnson: The One Minute Manager; Stephen R. Covey: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People] Time management is not a latebreaking field, both these books are old books but I recommend them highly.

It's traditional to close a talk with this like, “Here's the things I told you about.” I'm not going to tell you the things I told you about, I want to tell you the things that you can operationally go out and do today.

First thing: If you don't have a day-timer or a Personal Digital Assistant, a Palm Pilot or whatever, go get one! Put your to-do list in priority order, you can use the four quadrants or do what I do, just put a number from zero to nine, but sort it by priority. And do a time journal, and if that's really too much effort, just count the number of hours you watch of television in the next week. That's my gift to you.

The last thing is, once you've got your day-timer, make a note for 30 days from today – it's okay if that one goes “ding” to remind you! – and revisit this talk in 30 days. It will be up on the web, courtesy of Gabe, and ask: “What have I changed?” If I haven't changed anything, then we still had a pleasant hour together. If you have changed things, then you'll probably have a lot more time to spend with the ones you love. And that's important. Time is all we have. And you may find one day you have less than you think.

Thank you.


“Seeking New Laws” by Richard Feynman

This speech was delivered as part of the Messenger Lectures on “The Character of Physical Law” at Cornell University on November 9, 1964.

Speech Transcript

What I want to talk to you about tonight is strictly speaking not on the character of physical laws. Because one might imagine at least that one's talking about nature, when one's talking about the character of physical laws. But I don't want to talk about nature, but rather how we stand relative to nature now. I want to tell you what we think we know and what there is to guess and how one goes about guessing it.

Someone suggested that it would be ideal if, as I went along, I would slowly explain how to guess the laws and then create a new law for you right as I went along.

I don't know whether I'll be able to do that. But first, I want to tell about what the present situation is, what it is that we know about the physics. You think that I've told you everything already, because in all the lectures, I told you all the great principles that are known.

But the principles must be principles about something. The principles that I just spoke of, the conservation of energy– the energy of something– and quantum mechanical laws are quantum mechanical principles about something. And all these principles added together still doesn't tell us what the content is of the nature, that is, what we're talking about. So I will tell you a little bit about the stuff, on which all these principles are supposed to have been working.

First of all is matter, and remarkably enough, all matter is the same. The matter of which the stars are made is known to be the same as the matter on the earth, by the character of the light that's emitted by those stars– they give a kind of fingerprint, by which you can tell that it's the same kind of atoms in the stars. As on the earth, the same kind of atoms appear to be in living creatures as in non-living creatures. Frogs are made out of the same goop– in different arrangement– than rocks.

So that makes our problem simpler. We have nothing but atoms, all the same, everywhere. And the atoms all seem to be made from the same general constitution. They have a nucleus, and around the nucleus there are electrons.

So I begin to list the parts of the world that we think we know about. One of them is electrons, which are the particles on the outside the atoms. Then there are the nuclei. But those are understood today as being themselves made up of two other things, which are called neutrons and protons. They're two particles.

Incidentally, we have to see the stars and see the atoms and they emit light. And the light is described by particles, themselves, which are called photons. And at the beginning, we spoke about gravitation. And if the quantum theory is right, then the gravitation should have some kind of waves, which behave like particles too. And they call those gravitons. If you don't believe in that, just read gravity here, it's the same.

Now finally, I did mention that in what's called beta decay, in which a neutron can disintegrate into a proton and an electron and a neutrino– or alien anti-neutrino– there's another particle, here, a neutrino. In addition to all the particles that I'm listing, there are of course all the anti-particles. But that's just a quick statement and takes care of doubling the number of particles immediately. But there's no complications.

Now with the particles that I've listed here, all of the low energy phenomena, all of in fact ordinary phenomena that happen everywhere in the universe as far as we know, with the exception of here and there some very high energy particle does something, or in a laboratory we've been able to do some peculiar things. But if we leave out those special cases, all ordinary phenomena are presumably explained by the action and emotions of these kinds of things.

For example, life itself is supposedly made, if understood– I mean understandable in principle– from the action of movements of atoms. And those atoms are made out of neutrons, protons, and electrons. I must immediately say that when we say, we understand it in principle, I only mean that we think we would, if we could figure everything out, find that there's nothing new in physics to be discovered, in order to understand the phenomena of light. Or, for instance, for the fact that the stars emit energy– solar energy or stellar energy– is presumably also understood in terms of nuclear reactions among these particles and so on.

And all kinds of details of the way atoms behave are accurately described with this kind of model, at least as far as we know at present. In fact, I can say that in this range of phenomena today, as far as I know there are no phenomena that we are sure cannot be explained this way, or even that there's deep mystery about.

This wasn't always possible. There was, for instance, for a while a phenomenon called super conductivity– there still is the phenomenon– which is that metals conduct electricity without resistance at low temperatures. And it was not at first obvious that this was a consequence of the known laws with these particles. But it turns out that it has been thought through carefully enough. And it's seen, in fact, to be a consequence of known laws.

There are other phenomena, such as extrasensory perception, which cannot be explained by this known knowledge of physics here. And it is interesting, however, that that phenomena had not been well-established, and that we cannot guarantee that it's there. So if it could be demonstrated, of course that would prove that the physics is incomplete. And therefore, it's extremely interesting to physicists, whether it's right or wrong. And many, many experiments exist which show it doesn't work.

The same goes for astrological influences. If it were true that the stars could affect the day that it was good to go to the dentist, then– because in America we have that kind of astrology– then it would be wrong. The physics theory would be wrong, because there's no mechanism understandable in principle from these things that would make it go. And that's the reason that there's some skepticism among scientists, with regard to those ideas.

On the other hand, in the case of hypnotism, at first it looked like that also would be impossible, when it was described incompletely. But now that it's known better, it is realized that it is not absolutely impossible that hypnosis could occur through normal physiological but unknown processes. It doesn't require some special, new kind of course.

Now, today although the knowledge or the theory of what goes on outside the nucleus of the atom seems precise and complete enough, in the sense that given enough time, we can calculate anything as accurately as it can be measured, it turns out that the forces between neutrons and protons, which constitute the nucleus, are not so completely known and are not understood at all well. And that's what I mean by– that is, that we cannot today, we do not today understand the forces between neutrons and protons to the extent that if you wanted me to, and give me enough time and computers, I could calculate exactly the energy levels of carbon or something like that. Because we don't know enough about that. Although we can do the corresponding thing for the energy levels of the outside electrons of the atom, we cannot for the nuclei. So the nuclear forces are still not understood very well.

Now in order to find out more about that, experimenters have gone on. And they have to study phenomena at very high energy, where they hit neutrons and protons together at very high energy and produced peculiar things. And by studying those peculiar things, we hope to understand better the forces between neutrons and protons.

Well, a Pandora's box has been opened by these experiments, although all we really wanted was to get a better idea of the forces between neutrons and protons. When we hit these things together hard, we discover that there are more particles in the world. And as a matter of fact, in this column there was plus over four dozen other particles have been dredged up in an attempt to understand these. And these four dozen other are put in this column, because they've very relevant to the neutron proton problem. They interact very much with neutrons and protons. And they've got something to do with the force between neutrons and protons. So we've got a little bit too much.

In addition to that, while the dredge was digging up all this mud over here, it picked up a couple of pieces that are not wanted and are irrelevant to the problem of nuclear forces. And one of them is called a mu meson, or a muon. And the other was a neutrino, which goes with it.

There are two kinds of neutrinos, one which goes with the electron, and one which goes with the mu meson. Incidentally, most amazingly, all the laws of the muon and its neutrino are now known. As far as we can tell experimentally, the law is they behave precisely the same as the electron and its neutrino, except that the mass of the mu meson is 207 times heavier than the electron.

And that's the only difference known between those objects. But it's rather curious. But I can't say anymore, because nobody knows anymore.

Now four dozen other particles is a frightening array– plus the anti-particles– is a frightening array of things. But it turns out, they have various names, mesons, pions, kaons, lambda, sigma– four dozen particles, there are going to be a lot of names.

But it turns out that these particles come in families, so it helps us a little bit. Actually, some of these so-called particles last such a short time that there are debates whether it's in fact possible to define their very existence and whether it's a particle or not. But I won't enter into that debate.

In order to illustrate the family idea, I take the two-part cases of a neutron and a proton. The neutron and proton have the same mass, within 0.10% or so. One is 1836, the other is 1839 times as heavy as an electron roughly, if I remember the numbers.

But the thing that's very remarkable is this. That for the nuclear forces, which are the strong forces inside the nucleus, the force between a pair of protons– two protons– is the same as between a proton and a neutron and is the same again between a neutron and a neutron. In other words, for the strong nuclear forces, you can't tell a proton from a neutron.

Or a symmetry law– neutrons may be substituted for protons, without changing anything, provided you're only talking about the strong forces. If you're talking about electrical forces, oh no. If you change a neutron for a proton, you have a terrible difference. Because the proton carries electrical charge, and a neutron doesn't. So by electric measurement, immediately you can see the difference between a proton and a neutron.

So this symmetry, that you can replace neutrons by protons, is what we call an approximate symmetry. It's right for the strong interactions in nuclear forces. But it's not right in some deep sense of nature, because it doesn't work for the electricity. It's just called a partial symmetry. And we have to struggle with these partial symmetries.

Now the families have been extended. It turns out that the substitution neutron proton can be extended to substitution over a wider range of particles. But the accuracy is still lower. You see, that neutrons can always be substituted for protons is only approximate. It's not true for electricity. And that the wider substitutions that have been discovered are legitimate is still more poor, a very poor symmetry, not very accurate. But they have helped to gather the particles into families, and thus to locate places where particles are missing and to help to discover the new ones.

This kind of game, of roughly guessing at family relations and so on, is illustrative of a kind of preliminary sparring which one does with nature, before really discovering some deep and fundamental law. Before you get the deeper discoveries, examples are very important in the previous history of science. For instance, Mendeleev's discovery of the periodic table for the elements is analogous to this game. It is the first step, but the complete description of the reason for the periodic table came much later, with atomic theory.

In the same way, organization of the knowledge of nuclear levels and characteristics was made by Maria Mayer and Jensen, in what they call the shell model of nuclei some years ago. And it's an analogous game, in which a reduction of a complexity is made by some approximate guesses. And that's the way it stands today.

In addition to these things, then we have all these principles that we were talking about before. Principle of relativity, that the things must behave quantum mechanically. And combining that with the relativity that all conservation laws must be local. And so when we put all these principles together, we discover there are too many. They are inconsistent with each other.

It seems as if, if we add quantum mechanics plus relativity plus the proposition that everything has to be local plus a number of tacit assumptions– which we can't really find out, because we are prejudiced, we don't see what they are, and it's hard to say what they are. Adding it all together we get inconsistency, because we really get infinity for various things when we calculate them. Well, if we get infinity, how will we ever agree that this agrees with nature?

It turns out that it's possible to sweep the infinities under the rug by a certain crude skill. And temporarily, we're able to keep on calculating. But the fact of the matter is that all the principles that I told you up till now, if put together, plus some tacit assumptions that we don't know, it gives trouble. They cannot mutually consistent, nice problem.

An example of the tacit assumptions that we don't know what the significance is, such propositions are the following. If you calculate the chance for every possibility– there is 50% probably this will happen, 25% that'll happen– it should add up to one. If you add all the alternatives, you should get 100% probability. That seems reasonable, but reasonable things are where the trouble always is.

Another proposition is that the energy of something must always be positive, it can't be negative. Another proposition that is probably added in, in order before we get inconsistency, is what's called causality, which is something like the idea that effects cannot proceed their causes. Actually, no one has made a model, in which you disregard the proposition about the probability, or you disregard the causality, which is also consistent with quantum mechanics, relativity, locality, and so on. So we really do not know exactly what it is we're assuming that gives us the difficulty producing infinities.

OK, now that's the present situation. Now I'm going to discuss how we would look for a new law. In general, we look for a new law by the following process. First, we guess it.

Then, we compute– well, don't laugh, that's really true. Then we compute the consequences of the guess, to see what, if this is right, if this law that we guessed is right, we see what it would imply. And then we compare those computation results to nature. Or we say, compare to experiment or experience. Compare it directly with observation, to see if it works.

If it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong. And that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn't make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn't make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong. That's all there is to it.

It's true, however, that one has to check a little bit, to make sure that it's wrong. Because someone who did the experiment may have reported incorrectly. Or there may have been some feature in the experiment that wasn't noticed, like some kind of dirt and so on. You have to obviously check.

Furthermore, the man who computed the consequences may have been the same one that made the guesses, may have made some mistake in the analysis. Those are obvious remarks. So when I say, if it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong, I mean after the experiment has been checked, the calculations have been checked, and the thing has been rubbed back and forth a few times to make sure that the consequences are logical consequences from the guess, and that, in fact, it disagrees with our very carefully checked experiment.

This will give you somewhat the wrong impression of science. It means that we keep on guessing possibilities and comparing to experiments. And this is– to put an experiment on a little bit weak position. It turns out that the experimenters have a certain individual character. They like to do experiments, even if nobody's guessed yet.

So it's very often true that experiments in a region in which people know the theorist doesn't know anything, nobody has guessed yet– for instance, we may have guessed all these laws, but we don't know whether they really work at very high energy because it's just a good guess that they work at high energy. So experimenters say, let's try higher energy. And therefore experiment produces trouble every once in a while. That is it produces a discovery that one of things that we thought of is wrong, so an experiment can produce unexpected results. And that starts us guessing again.

For instance, an unexpected result is the mu meson and its neutrino, which was not guessed at by anybody, whatever, before it was discovered. And still nobody has any method of guessing, by which this is a natural thing.

Now you see, of course, that with this method, we can disprove any definite theory. If you have a definite theory and a real guess, from which you can really compute consequences, which could be compared to experiment, then in principle, we can get rid of any theory. We can always prove any definite theory wrong.

Notice, however, we never prove it right. Suppose that you invent a good guess, calculate the consequences, and discover that every consequence that you calculate agrees with experiment. Your theory is then right?

No, it is simply not proved wrong. Because in the future, there could be a wider range of experiments, you can compute a wider range of consequences. And you may discover, then, that the thing is wrong.

That's why laws like Newton's Laws for the Motion of Planets lasts such a long time. He guessed the law of gravitation, tackling all the kinds of consequences for the solar system and so on, compared them to experiment, and it took several years before the slight error of the motion of Mercury was developed. During all that time, the theory had been failed to be proved wrong and could be taken to be temporarily right.

But it can never be proved right, because tomorrow's experiment may succeed in proving what you thought was right, wrong. So we never are right. We can only be sure we're wrong.

However, it's rather remarkable that we can last so long, I mean to have some idea which will last so long.

Incidentally, some people, one of the ways of stopping the science would be to only do experiments in the region where you know the laws. But the experimenters search most diligently and with the greatest effort in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove their theories wrong. In other words, we're trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible. Because only in that way do we find workers progress.

For example, today among ordinary low energy phenomena, we don't know where to look for trouble. We think everything's all right. And so there isn't any particular big program looking for trouble in nuclear reactions or in superconductivity.

I must say, I'm concentrating on discovering fundamental laws. There's a whole range of physics, which is interesting and understanding at another level these phenomena like super conductivity in nuclear reactions. But I'm talking about discovering trouble, something wrong with the fundamental law. So nobody knows where to look there, therefore all the experiments today– in this field, of finding out a new law– are in high energy.

I must also point out to you that you cannot prove a vague theory wrong. If the guess that you make is poorly expressed and rather vague, and the method that you used for figuring out the consequences is rather vague, you're not sure, and you just say I think everything is because it's all due to moogles, and moogles do this and that, more or less. So I can sort of explain how this works. Then you say that that theory is good, because it can't be proved wrong.

If the process of computing the consequences is indefinite, then with a little skill, any experimental result can be made to look like an expected consequence. You're probably familiar with that in other fields. For example, a hates his mother. The reason is, of course, because she didn't caress him or love him enough when he was a child.

Actually, if you investigate, you find out that as a matter of fact, she did love him very much. And everything was all right. Well, then, it's because she was overindulgent when he was young.

So by having a vague theory, it's possible to get either result.

Now wait, the cure for this one is the following. It would be possible to say if it were possible to state ahead of time how much love is not enough, and how much love is overindulgent exactly, then there would be a perfectly legitimate theory, against which you could make tests. It is usually said when this is pointed out, how much love and so on, oh, you're dealing with psychological matters, and things can't be defined so precisely. Yes, but then you can't claim to know anything about it.

Now, we have examples, you'll be are horrified to hear, in physics of exactly the same kind. We have these approximate symmetries. It works something like this. You have approximate symmetry, you suppose it's perfect. Calculate the consequences, it's easy if you suppose it's perfect.

You compare with experiment, of course it doesn't agree. The symmetry you're supposed to expect is approximate. So if the agreement is pretty good, you say, nice. If the agreement is very poor, you say, well this particular thing must be especially sensitive to the failure of the symmetry.

Now you laugh, but we have to make progress in that way. In the beginning, when our subject is first new, and these particles are new to us, this jockeying around, this is a feeling way of guessing at the result. And this is the beginning of any science.

And the same thing is true of psychology as it is of the symmetry propositions in physics. So don't laugh too hard, it's necessary in the very beginning to be very careful. It's easy to fall over the deep end by this kind of a vague theory. It's hard to prove it wrong. It takes a certain skill and experience to not walk off the plank on the game.

In this process of guessing, computing consequences, and comparing to experiment, we can get stuck at various stages. For example, we may in the guess stage get stuck. We have no ideas, we can't guess an idea.

Or we may get in the computing stage stuck. For example, Yukawa guessed an idea for the nuclear forces in 1934. Nobody could compute the consequences, because the mathematics was too difficult.

So therefore, they couldn't compare it with experiments successfully. And the theory remained– for a long time, until we discovered all this junk. And this junk was not contemplated by Yukawa, and therefore, it's undoubtedly not as simple, as least, as the way Yukawa did it.

Another place you can get stuck is at the experimental end. For example, the quantum theory of gravitation is going very slowly, if at all, because there's no use. All the experiments that you can do never involve quantum mechanics and gravitation at the same time, because the gravity force is so weak, compared to electrical forces.

Now I want to concentrate from now on– because I'm a theoretical physicist, I'm more delighted with this end of the problem– as to how do you make the guesses. Now it's strictly, as I said before, not of any importance where the guess comes from. It's only important that it should agree with experiment and that it should be as definite as possible.

But you say that is very simple. We've set up a machine, a great computing machine, which has a random wheel in it, that makes a succession of guesses. And each time it guesses a hypothesis about how nature should work, it computes immediately the consequences and makes a comparison to a list of experimental results it has at the other end.

In other words, guessing is a dumb man's job. Actually, it's quite the opposite. And I will try to explain why.

The first problem is how to start. You say, I'll start with all the known principles. But the principles that are all known are inconsistent with each other. So something has to be removed.

So we get a lot of letters from people. We're always getting letters from people who are insisting that we ought to make holes in our guesses. You make a hole to make room for a new guess.

Somebody says, do you know, you people always say space is continuous. But how do you know when you get to a small enough dimension that there really are enough points in between, it isn't just a lot of dots separated by little distances? Or they say, you know, those quantum mechanical amplitudes you just told me about, they're so complicated and absurd. What makes you think those are right? Maybe they aren't right.

I get a lot of letters with such content. But I must say that such remarks are perfectly obvious and are perfectly clear to anybody who's working on this problem. And it doesn't do any good to point this out. The problem is not what might be wrong, but what might be substituted precisely in place of it.

If you say anything precise, for example in the case of a continuous space, suppose the precise proposition is that space really consists of a series of dots only. And the space between them doesn't mean anything. And the dots are in a cubic array. Then we can prove that immediately is wrong, that doesn't work.

You see, the problem is not to change or to say something might be wrong but to replace it by something. And that is not so easy. As soon as any real, definite idea is substituted, it becomes almost immediately apparent that it doesn't work.

Secondly, there's an infinite number of possibilities of these the simple types. It's something like this. You're sitting, working very hard. You work for a long time, trying to open a safe.

And some Joe comes along, who doesn't know anything about what you're doing or anything, except that you're trying to open a safe. He says, you know, why don't you try the combination 10-20-30? Because you're busy, you're trying a lot of things.

Maybe you already tried 10-20-30. Maybe you know that the middle number is already 32 and not 20. Maybe you know that as a matter of fact this is a five digit combination.

So these letters don't do any good. And so please don't send me any letters, trying to tell me how the thing is going to work. I read them to make sure that I haven't already thought of that. But it takes too long to answer them, because they're usually in the class try 10-20-30.

And as usual, nature's imagination far surpasses our own. As we've seen from the other theories, they are really quite subtle and deep. And to get such a subtle and deep guess is not so easy. One must be really clever to guess. And it's not possible to do it blindly, by machine.

So I wanted to discuss the art of guessing nature's laws. It's an art. How is it done?

One way, you might think, well, look at history. How did the other guys do it? So we look at history.

Let's first start out with Newton. He has in a situation where he had incomplete knowledge. And he was able to get the laws, by putting together ideas, which all were relatively close to experiment. There wasn't a great distance between the observations on the test. That's the first, but now it doesn't work so good.

Now the next guy who did something– well, another man who did something great was Maxwell, who obtained the laws of electricity and magnetism. But what he did was this. He put together all the laws of electricity, due to Faraday and other people who came before him. And he looked at them, and he realized that they were mutually inconsistent. They were mathematically inconsistent.

In order to straighten it out, he had to add one term to an equation. By the way, he did this by inventing a model for himself of idle wheels and gears and so on in space. And then he found that what the new law was.

And nobody paid much attention, because they didn't believe in the idle wheels. We don't believe in the idle wheels today. But the equations that he obtained were correct.

So the logic may be wrong, but the answer is all right. In the case of relativity, the discovery of relativity was completely different. There was an accumulation of paradoxes. The known laws gave inconsistent results. And it was a new kind of thinking, a thinking in terms of discussing the possible symmetries of laws.

And it was especially difficult, because it was the first time realized how long something like Newton's laws could be right and still, ultimately, be wrong. And second, that ordinary ideas of time and space that seems so instinctive could be wrong.

Quantum mechanics was discovered in two independent ways, which is a lesson. There, again, and even more so, an enormous number of paradoxes were discovered experimentally. Things that absolutely couldn't be explained in any way by what was known. Not that the knowledge was incomplete, but the knowledge was too complete. Your prediction was this should happen, it didn't.

The two different roots were one by Schrodinger, who guessed the equations. Another by Heisenberg, who argued that you must analyze what's measurable. So it's two different philosophical methods reduced to the same discovery in the end.

More recently, the discovery of the laws of this interaction, which are still only partly known, had quite a somewhat different situation. Again, there was a– this time, it was a case of incomplete knowledge. And only the equation was guessed. The special difficulty this time was that the experiments were all wrong.

All the experiments were wrong. How can you guess the right answer? When you calculate the results it disagrees with the experiment, and you have the courage to say, the experiments must be wrong. I'll explain where the courage comes from in a minute.

Today, we haven't any paradoxes, maybe. We have this infinity that comes if we put all the laws together. But the rug-sweeping people are so clever that one sometimes thinks that's not a serious paradox.

The fact that there are all these particles doesn't tell us anything, except that our knowledge is incomplete. I'm sure that history does not repeat itself in physics, as you see from this list. And the reason is this.

Any scheme– like think of symmetry laws, or put the equations in mathematical form, or any of these schemes, guess equations, and so on– are known to everybody now. And they're tried all the time. So if the place where you get stuck is not that, you try that right away. We try looking for symmetries, we try all the things that have been tried before. But we're stuck.

So it must be another way next time. So each time that we get in this log jam of too many problems, it's because the methods that we're using are just like the ones we used before. We try all that right away. But the new scheme, the new discovery is going to be made in a completely different way. So history doesn't help us very much.

I'd like to talk a little bit about this Heisenberg's idea. But you shouldn't talk about what you can't measure, because a lot of people talk about that without understanding it very well. They say in physics you shouldn't talk about what you can't measure.

If what you mean by this, if you interpret this in this sense, that the constructs are inventions that you make that you talk about, it must be such a kind that the consequences that you compute must be comparable to experiment. That is, that you don't compute a consequence like a moo must be three goos. When nobody knows what a moo and a goo is, that's no good.

If the consequences can be compared to experiment, then that's all that's necessary. It is not necessary that moos and goos can't appear in the guess. That's perfectly all right. You can have as much junk in the guess as you want, provided that you can compare it to experiment.

That's not fully appreciated, because it's usually said, for example, people usually complain of the unwarranted extension of the ideas of particles and paths and so forth, into the atomic realm. Not so at all. There's nothing unwarranted about the extension.

We must, and we should, and we always do extend as far as we can beyond what we already know, those things, those ideas that we've already obtained. We extend the ideas beyond their range. Dangerous, yes, uncertain, yes. But the only way to make progress.

It's necessary to make science useful, although it's uncertain. It's only useful if it makes predictions. It's only useful if it tells you about some experiment that hasn't been done. It's no good if it just tells you what just went on. So it's necessary to extend the ideas beyond where they've been tested.

For example, in the law of gravitation, which was developed to understand the motion of the planets, if Newton simply said, I now understand the planet, and didn't try to compare it to the earth's pull, we can't, if we're not allowed to say, maybe what holds the galaxies together is gravitation. We must try that. It's no good to say, well, when you get to the size of galaxies, since you don't know anything about anything, it could happen.

Yes, I know. But there's no science here, there's no understanding, ultimately, of the galaxies. If on the other hand you assume that the entire behavior is due to only known laws, this assumption is very limited and very definite and easily broken by experiment. All we're looking for is just such hypotheses. Very definite, easy to compare to experiment.

And the fact is that the way the galaxies behaved so far doesn't seem to be against the proposition. It would be easily disproved, if it were false. But it's very useful to make hypotheses.

I give another example, even more interesting and important. Probably the most powerful assumption in all of biology, the single assumption that makes the progress of biology the greatest is the assumption that everything the animals do, the atoms can do. That the things that are seen in the biological world are the results of the behavior of physical and chemical phenomena, with no extra something.

You could always say, when we come to living things, anything can happen. If you do that, you never understand the living thing. It's very hard to believe that the wiggling of the temple of the octopus is nothing but some fooling around of atoms, according to the known physical laws.

But if investigated with this hypothesis, one is able to make guesses quite accurately as to how it works. And one makes great progress in understanding the thing. So far, the tentacle hasn't been cut off. What I mean is it hasn't been found that this idea is wrong.

It's therefore not unscientific to take a guess, although many people who are not in science think it is. For instance, I had a conversation about flying saucers some years ago with laymen.

Because I'm scientific, I know all about flying saucers. So I said, I don't think there are flying saucers. So my antagonist said, is it impossible that there are flying saucers? Can you prove that it's impossible? I said, no, I can't prove it's impossible, it's just very unlikely.

That, they say, you are very unscientific. If you can't prove it impossible, then how could you say it's likely that it's unlikely? Well, that's the way that it is scientific. It is scientific only to say what's more likely and less likely, and not to be proving all the time, possible and impossible.

To define what I mean, I finally said to him, listen. I mean that from my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence, rather than the unknown, rational efforts of extraterrestrial intelligence.

It's just more likely, that's all. And it's a good guess. And we always try to guess the most likely explanation, keeping in the back of the mind the fact that if it doesn't work, then we must discuss the other possibilities.

Now, how to guess at what to keep and what to throw away. You see, we have all these nice principles and known facts and so on. But we're in some kind of trouble– that we get the inifinities or we don't get enough of a description, we're missing some parts. And sometimes that means that we have, probably, to throw away some idea. At least in the past it's always turned out that some deeply held idea has to be thrown away.

And the question is what to throw away and what to keep. If you throw it all away, it's going a little far, and you don't got much to work with. After all, the conservation of energy looks good, it's nice. I don't want to throw it away, and so on.

To guess what to keep and what to throw away takes considerable skill. Actually, it probably is merely a matter of luck. But it looks like it takes considerable skill.

For instance, probability amplitudes, they're very strange. And the first thing you'd think is that the strange new ideas are clearly cockeyed. And yet everything that can be deduced from the idea of probability– the existence of quantum mechanical probability amplitude, strange though they are, all the things that depend on that work throughout all these strange particles, work 100%. Everything that depends on that seems to work.

So I don't believe that that idea is wrong, and that when we find out what the inner guts of this stuff is we'll find that idea is wrong. I think that part's right. I'm only guessing. I'm telling you how I guess.

For instance, that space is continuous is, I believe, wrong. Because we get these infinities in other difficulties, and we have some questions as to what determines the sizes of all these particles, I rather suspect that the simple ideas of geometry extended down into infinitely small space is wrong. I don't believe that space– I mean, I'm making a hole. I'm only making a guess, I'm not telling you what to substitute. If I did, I would finish this lecture with a known law.

Some people have used the inconsistency of all the principles to say that there's only one possible consistent world. That if we put all the principles together and calculate it very exactly, we will not only be able to reuse the principle, but discover that these are the only things that can exist and have the [INAUDIBLE]. And that seems to me like a big order.

I don't believe– that's not like wagging the tail by the dog. That's right. Wagging the dog by the tail.

I believe that you have to be given that certain things exist, a few of them– not all the 48 particles or the 50 some odd particles. A few little principles, a few little things exist, like electrons, and something, something is given. And then with all the principles, the great complexities that come out could probably be a definite consequence. But I don't think you can get the whole thing from just arguments about consistency.

Finally, we have another problem, which is the question of the meaning of the partial symmetries. I think I better leave that one go, because of a shortage of time. Well, I'll say it quickly. These symmetries– like the neutron and proton are nearly the same, but they're not, for electricity, or that the law of reflection symmetry is perfect, except for one kind of a reaction– are very annoying. The thing is almost symmetrical, but not.

Now, two schools of thought exist. One who say it's really simple, they're really symmetrical. But there's a little complication, which knocks it a little bit cockeyed.

Then there's another school, which has only one representative, myself.

Which says, no, the thing may be complicated and become simple only through the complication. Like this. The Greeks believed that the orbits of the planets were circles. And the orbits of the planets are nearly circles. Actually, they're ellipses.

The next question is, well, they're not quite symmetrical. But they're almost circles, they're very close to circles. Why are they very close to circles? Why are they nearly symmetrical? Because of the long complicated effects of tidal friction, a very complicated idea.

So it is possible that nature, in her heart, is completely as unsymmetrical for these things. But in the complexities of reality, it gets approximately looking as if it's symmetrical. Ellipses look almost like circles, it's another possibly. Nobody knows, it's just guess work.

Now another thing that people often say is that for guessing, two identical theories– two theories. Suppose you have two theories, a and b, which look completely different psychologically. They have different ideas in them and so on. But that all the consequences that are computed, all the consequences that are computed are exactly the same. You may even say they even agree with experiment.

The point is thought that the two theories, although they sound different at the beginning, have all consequences the same. It's easy, usually, to prove that mathematically, by doing a little mathematics ahead of time, to show that the logic from this one and this one will always give corresponding consequences.

Suppose we have two such theories. How are we going to decide which one is right? No way, not by science. Because they both agree with experiment to the same extent, there's no way to distinguish one from the other.

So two theories, although they may have deeply different ideas behind them, may be mathematically identical. And usually people say, then, in science one doesn't know how to distinguish them. And that's right.

However, for psychological reasons, in order to guess new theories, these two things are very far from equivalent. Because one gives a man different ideas than the other. By putting the theory in a certain kind of framework, you get an idea of what to change, which would be something, for instance, in theory A that talks about something. But you say I'll change that idea in here.

But to find out what the corresponding thing you're going to change in here may be very complicated. It may not be a simple idea. In other words, a simple change here, may be a very different theory than a simple change there.

In other words, although they are identical before they are changed, there are certain ways of changing one which look natural, which don't look natural in the other. Therefore, psychologically, we must keep all the theories in our head.

And every theoretical physicist that's any good knows six or seven different theoretical representations for exactly the same physics, and knows that they're all equivalent, and that nobody's ever going to be able to decide which one is right at that level. But he keeps them in his head, hoping that they'll give him different ideas for guessing.

Incidentally, that reminds me of another thing. And that is that the philosophy, or the ideas around the theory– a lot of ideas, you say, I believe there is a space time, or something like that, in order to discuss your analyses– that these ideas change enormously when there are very tiny changes in the theory.

In other words, for instance, Newton's idea about space and time agreed with experiment very well. But in order to get the correct motion of the orbit of Mercury, which was a tiny, tiny difference, the difference in the character of the theory with which you started was enormous. The reason is these are so simple and so perfect. They produce definite results.

In order to get something that produced a little different result, it has to be completely different. You can't make imperfections on a perfect thing. You have to have another perfect thing.

So the philosophical ideas between Newton's theory of gravitation and Einstein's theory of gravitation are enormous. Their difference is rather enormous. What are these philosophies? These philosophies are really tricky ways to compute consequences quickly. A philosophy, which is sometimes called an understanding of the law, is simply a way that a person holds the laws in his mind, so as to guess quickly at consequences.

Some people have said, and it's true, for instance, in the case of Maxwell's equations and other equations, never mind the philosophy, never mind anything of this kind. Just guess the equations.

The problem is only to compute the answers so they agree with experiment, and is not necessarily to have a philosophy or words about the equation. That's true, in a sense, yes and no. It's good in the sense you may be, if you only guess the equation, you're not prejudicing yourself, and you'll guess better. On the other hand, maybe the philosophy helped you to guess. It's very hard to say.

For those people who insist, however, that the only thing that's important is that the theory agrees with experiment, I would like to make an imaginary discussion between a Mayan astronomer and his student. The Mayans were able to calculate with great precision the predictions, for example, for eclipses and the position of the moon in the sky, the position of Venus, and so on.

However, it was all done by arithmetic. You count certain numbers, you subtract some numbers, and so on. There was no discussion of what the moon was. There wasn't even a discussion of the idea that it went around. It was only calculate the time when there would be an eclipse, or the time when it would rise– their full moon– and when it would rise, half moon, and so on, just calculating, only.

Suppose that a young man went to the astronomer and said, I have an idea. Maybe those things are going around, and there are balls of rocks out there. We could calculate how they move in a completely different way than just calculate what time they appear in the sky and so on.

So of course the Mayan astronomer would say, yes, how accurate can you predict eclipses? He said, I haven't developed the thing very far.

But we can calculate eclipses more accurately than you can with your model. And so you must not pay attention to this, because the mathematical scheme is better. And it's a very strong tendency of people to say against some idea, if someone comes up with an idea, and says let's suppose the world is this way.

And you say to him, well, what would you get for the answer for such and such a problem? And he says, I haven't developed it far enough. And you say, well, we have already developed it much further. We can get the answers very accurately. So it is a problem, as to whether or not to worry about philosophies behind ideas.

Another thing, of course, I wanted you to guess is to guess new principles. For instance, in Einstein's gravitation, he guessed, on top of all the other principles, the principle that correspondent to the idea that the forces are always proportional to the masses. He guessed the principle that if you are in an accelerating car, you couldn't tell that from being in a gravitational field. And by adding that principle to all the other principles was able to deduce correct laws of gravitation.

Well, that outlines a number of possible ways of guessing. I would now like to come to some other points about the final result. First of all, when we're all finished, and we have a mathematical theory by which we can compute consequences, it really is an amazing thing. What do we do?

In order to figure out what an atom is going to do in a given situation, we make up a whole lot of rules with marks on paper, carry them into a machine, which opens and closes switches in some complicated way. And the result will tell us what the atom is going to do.

Now if the way that these switches open and close, with some kind of a model of the atom– in other words, if we thought the atom had such switches in it– then I would say, I understand more or less what's going on. But I find it quite amazing that it is possible to predict what will happen by what we call mathematics. We're just simply following a whole lot of rules, which have nothing to do, really, with what's going on in the original thing. In other words, the closing and opening of switches in a computer is quite different, I think, than what's happening in nature. And that is, to me, very surprising.

Now finally, I would like to say one of the most important things in his guess compute consequences compare experiment business is to know when you're right, that it's possible to know when you're right way ahead of computing all a consequences– I mean of checking all the consequences. You can recognize truth by beauty and simplicity. It's always easy when you've got the right guess and make two or three little calculations to make sure it isn't obviously wrong to know that it's right. When you get it right, it's obvious that it's right. At least if you have any experience.

Because most of what happens is that more comes out than goes in, that your guess is, in fact, that something is very simple. And at the moment you guess that it's simpler than you thought, then it turns out that it's right, if it can't be immediately disproved. Doesn't sound silly. I mean, if you can't see immediately that it's wrong, and it's simpler than it was before, then it's right.

The inexperienced and crackpots and people like that will make guesses that are simple, all right, but you can immediately see that they're wrong. That doesn't count. And others, the inexperienced students, make guesses that are very complicated. And it sort of looks like it's all right. But I know that's not true, because the truth always turns out to be simpler than you thought.

What we need is imagination. But imagination is a terrible straitjacket. We have to find a new view of the world that has to agree with everything that's known, but disagree in its predictions, some way. Otherwise it's not interesting. And in that disagreement, agree with nature.

If you can find any other view of the world which agrees over the entire range where things have already been observed, but disagrees somewhere else, you've made a great discovery. Even if it doesn't agree with nature. It's darn hard, it's almost impossible, but not quite impossible, to find another theory, which agrees with experiments over the entire range in which the old theories have been checked and yet gives different consequences in some other range. In other words, a new idea that is extremely difficult, takes a fantastic imagination.

And what of the future of this adventure? What will happen ultimately? We are going along, guessing the laws. How many laws are we going to have to guess?

I don't know. Some of my– let's say, some of my colleagues say, science will go on. But certainly, there will not be perpetual novelty, say for 1,000 years. This thing can't keep on going on, we're always going to discover new laws, new laws, new laws. If we do, it will get boring that there are so many levels, one underneath the other.

So the only way that it seems to me that it can happen– that what can happen in the future first– either that everything becomes known, that all the laws become known. That would mean that after you had enough laws, you could compute consequences. And they would always agree with experiment, which would be the end of the line.

Or it might happen that the experiments get harder and harder to make, more and more expensive, that you get 99.9% of the phenomena. But there's always some phenomenon which has just been discovered that's very hard to measure, which disagrees and gets harder and harder to measure. As you discover the explanation of that one, there's always another one. And it gets slower and slower and more and more uninteresting. That's another way that it could end.

But I think it has to end in one way or another. And I think that we are very lucky to live in the age in which we're still making the discoveries. It's an age which will never come again. It's like the discoveries of America. You only discover it once. It was an exciting day, when there was investigations of America.

But the age that we live in is the age in which we are discovering the fundamental laws of nature. And that day will never come again. I don't mean we're finished. I mean, we're right in the process of making such discoveries. It's very exciting and marvelous, but this excitement will have to go.

Of course, in the future there will be other interests. There will be interests on the connection of one level of phenomena to another, phenomena in biology and so on, all kinds of things. Or if you're talking about explorations, exploring planets and other things. But there will not still be the same thing as we're doing now. It will be just different interests.

Another thing that will happen is that if all is known– ultimately, if it turns out all is known, it gets very dull– the biggest philosophy and the careful attention to all these things that I've been talking about will have gradually disappeared. The philosophers, who are always on the outside, making stupid remarks, will be able to close in. Because we can't push them away by saying, well, if you were right, you'd be able to guess all the rest of the laws. Because when they're all there, they'll have an explanation for it.

For instance, there are always explanations as to why the world is three dimensional. Well, there's only one world. And it's hard to tell if that explanation is right or not. So if everything were known, there will be some explanation about why those are the right laws.

But that explanation will be in a frame that we can't criticize by arguing that that type of reasoning will not permit us to go further. So there will be a degeneration of ideas, just like the degeneration that great explorers feel occurs when tourists begin moving in on their territory.

I must say that in this age, people are experiencing a delight, a tremendous delight. The delight that you get when you guess how nature will work in a new situation, never seen before. From experiments and information in a certain range, you can guess what's going to happen in the region where no one has ever explored before.

It's a little different than regular exploration. That is, there's enough clues on the land discovered to guess what the land is going to look like that hasn't been discovered. And these guesses, incidentally, are often very different than what you've already seen. It takes a lot of thought.

What is it about nature that lets this happen, that it's possible to guess from one part what the rest is going to do? That's an unscientific question, what is it about nature. I don't know how to answer.

And I'm going to give therefore an unscientific answer. I think it is because nature has a simplicity and therefore a great beauty. Thank you very much.


“Learning to Learn” by Richard Hamming

This lecture was delivered by Richard Hamming to graduate students at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, on March 28, 1995.

Speech Transcript

The first lecture is on orientation. What am I trying to do? The purpose of this course is to prepare you for your technical future. There really isn't this course any technical content, although I'm going to talk about digital fillers and all kinds of things. There are things you presumably know. I am concerned about style.

I have studied great scientists, ever since I was at Los Alamos during the war. What is different between those who do and those who do not do significant things? Mainly, it's a manner of style.

Many a person I've known worked just as hard and others, but didn't have much to show for it. So my problem is, to instill in you something called style so you'll amount to something. After all, the Navy is paying a large sum on money to have you here. And it wants it's money back, by your later performance.

Now I will examine, criticize and talk about various people's style. Mainly my own, but other people's, why can we use it. Now, there are many things I'm going to tell you, I wish somebody had told me. I had to find out for myself. This course is not a normal technical course. It's all about the topics they never told you in class, but they should have. Because each course is taught this way and a large amount falls in between. That's why I'm trying to pick up.

Now style cannot be put into words. I can only approach you by particular examples and let you infer what it is. Now, there's a belief that you probably have, that anything can be talked about. This goes back to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the early Greek times. They thought they could talk about the gods, truth, beauty, justice, love, all those things. At the time they were saying these things, there were the mystery cults in Greece. Who said you must experience, you cannot talk.

And if you remember the Middle Ages, various saints said, you can't talk about God. You got to experience him. The same way the Mohammedans about Allah, you can't portray him, you can't put pictures. You must sense. So there is a long minuscule that says you cannot put everything into words. And one of them is style. I really cannot say what I mean, I can only give you these examples of struggle. Hopefully, you will get the idea.

Now to be effective at a course like this, I have found that I have to talk about myself. If I make abstract remarks. It just sounds like so many pious words. If I talk about me and what I've done, maybe it will penetrate you. Now it gives a course, attitude of bragging. I'm always talking about myself. But I will tell you several mistakes that I made, so you won't do the same sort of thing.

Similarly, I have to get you to quit your modesty. I have to get you individually, to respond to my challenge that you're going to be great. You have to say to yourself, “Yes, if that guy Hammond can go out and become a great scientist, I can. Or I can become a great person.” I have to get you to say to yourself that you want to. That's it's worth the effort. And you're going to try to be something more than just the average person.

Now, while we speak of teachers, we are really coaches. I cannot run a mile, the four minute mile for you. I can comment upon your style. But you know you must do the work. The same way I cannot make you a great scientist. I can criticize style and other things. But I cannot, by mere words make you a great scientist. You just as in running four minute mile, must do the work. Which means you have to take what you hear and read. Think it over carefully, discuss with your friends and see what you can adapt yourself.

There is no one style which is successful. Painters paint many different styles. You have to find a style that fits you. Which means you have to take what fragments you can from other people, use them and adapt them and become yours. You can't copy me directly, you won't get away with it. And I will use the analogy of painting as an example. In painting, once you've learned color mixing and form and sketching, and so on, you study under a master who you temporarily accept as knowing what he's talking about.

Well, there are limits what can be done. You know that you copy the master style, exactly, you will not be a great painter. You know also, that if you paint in the style he did, or she did, it's too late. The future wants a different style. Thus I can tell you about the style I used in the past. But that won't be the style you'll have to have to cope with the future. You must manufacturer the style, which will make you as a significant person in the future. So it's not easy. While I can only talk about past ones and make references to possible future ones. It's a problem you face. What I did would not make me successful if I were starting now. Just as my predecessor got successful on other things that I couldn't do and get successful on.

Now is another practice very difficult for you. When I went to build our laboratories 1946, I looked around since I was already interested what made great scientists. And I looked at what they did. And when I looked at what they did to become famous, it didn't look that difficult. They tend to do the easy problems. Now I found in the course my time there, a couple of holes they left. But fundamentally, they did the easy problems. My generation did somewhat harder ones, and we left to the others the harder still. Every generation has more difficulty, but you stand on our shoulders to some extent yet, the task is harder. Having got man to the moon, the next real good feet in space is gonna be a lot harder. Therefore you have difficulty, it's very definite.

Now when I came to Bell Labs, there were four of us at the same time about. We came in about the same time. And we were about the same age within a year. We probably called ourselves the Four Young Turks. And many, many years later, I discovered top management called the same. We were troublemakers. We didn't do things the way the previous generation did. We did new things.

The previous generation didn't like it. We didn't do things right. For example, my boss Henry Boda in network theory had made reputation doing network to with complex variable, and knew that's how you do things, after all. That is what made him famous. This guy Hamming comes on and keeps using computing machines, which is not the way to do it in his eyes. But it was the thing that needed to be done. This is a lesson which I want to get across to you regularly.

Supposing I am successful and you do rise to the top. Would you please remember that what made you great is not appropriate for the next generation. You know how to get great because after all, you were great. But the things that you did may not be appropriate for next generation. All too often we have a troubled bosses. They know by God, this is the way I did it and I got the top, then it must be right. They're very often wrong. And I want you to think seriously, when you rise to the top that your method of success is not appropriate. Now the world has changed.

I want to talk to education. Education is what, when and why to do things. Training is how to do it. Most year courses I've been training, I'm trying to talk about the education part. It's not easy. But the school has allowed me a great deal of latitude in putting this course together, which is concentrating on education. Now, if you have one without the other, it's not much good. I've had very able technical people reporting to me, who apply their technology and the methods to the wrong problem. And it had to be undone. I have other people, who had all kinds of theory but couldn't do anything. They're not what you use either. You need both theory to guide you and skill and technique to do. One without the other isn't too good.

Now, in a certain sense, I'm engaged in meta education. I'm talking about education constantly, because that's what you're going to have to do. You're going to have to educate yourself constantly. That's what the future says. Now I'm going to constantly try and project forward what the world's gonna be like.

Let's look back first history. The modern era in science engineering began with Sir Isaac Newton, roughly. 1642, he was born Christmas Day, the same year that Galileo died. And he lived to be about 85. So we can say it's around 1700. From Newton's time to ours, we have about double the knowledge every 17 years.

The doubling period of science from then to now is roughly 17. Why can't a Bell Laboratories in 46, they were trying to shrink down the war size down to 5500 people. I watched through 30 years of management, putting hiring freeze and doing everything else like that double every 17 years with small Wiggles. They had to hire two people to keep up with expanding knowledge. Publications, books, journals, and so on. For example, I think I have the numbers here. No, I guess I don't. I'm going to make a digression. Oh. The other thing about the situation is that 90% of the scientists who ever lived are now alive. It's a common statement.

I'm going to now turn to a back of the envelope calculation, which I learned by watching family and other people, and other Shockley people I used to get lunch with them. I'm going to suppose first we have an exponential growth of the number of scientists. That comes from a differential equation, the rate of change is proportional how much you have. And the solution is a you know, the exponential growth. Now if I assume that the amount of knowledge being generated is proportional to the number of scientists, this is the amount of rate and in the up to 17 years ago. This is how much we generated. This is about up to now. Now I put minus infinity on because it doesn't matter what lower limit I put is so small, doesn't matter. The exponential is very, very small. So who cares?

Well, I will be would simply work it out. I would do the integration. I come up that, and the statement was half the stuff has been done, the doubling every 17 years from 17 years ago, now we've doubled. That says the ratio to half. I've got a farm you formula for B. Now take the other statement, 90% of the scientists who ever lived are now alive. From now back 55 years, that's what I'm going to take for lifetime of a scientist. You probably don't mean a living scientist, when he's two years old, you probably mean his science alive, what he's become are beginning to be a scientist. And until he decay somewhere in the 80s you deserve a sign. So 55 years is a reasonable number. If I put that in over the whole, of all scientists that ever lived, I come up with this, using that, this is a B. I come up with .9 which is just close enough to 90%.

Now let's see what happened. I got a clear idea what I was talking about. And I had to answer the question which I hadn't thought about. What did I mean by a lifetime of a scientist? But you see, those two statements are compatible. We double every 17 years, and 90% of the scientists who ever lived are now alive. You have seen enormous growth of science from Newton's time to now. Well, let me project. Well, let me say now, a good estimate of the number of various branches of science which we have developed. In Newton's this time, we had only one thing called natural philosophy. Now we have lots of specialties. There are something like 10,000 specialties. There certainly is more than 1,000, and almost certainly less than 100,000. So 10,000 is a good number.

Now if I could check forward, doubling every 17 years, for 340 years, that's a million fold to the 20th. That would make 10 million fields especially. But you don't believe it. You don't believe in 340 years, that'll be 10 billion fields of specialty. Consequently, science cannot go the way it has been for the next 320 or 40 years. The doubling and the growth cannot go on. One of the things we have done is we've got an exponential number of people in the field. We can't go on that either. Everyone would have to be a scientist. So you know the past is not too good a guide to the future.

Now the reason why I want to put the back the envelope in is it's widely used. I observed that Fairmi and Shockley and those, I use to eat lunch with them. They did back the envelope. And you saw what I had to do. Not only that, but it also does two things. It puts the thing firmer in your mind, having shown you the calculation, you may retain a little longer. Plus it gives you practice in quick modeling. Nobody pretends this is really accurate. I don't pretend 17 is exactly a number. It's somewhere around there. But back the envelope calculations are very useful.

I find it very, very useful. When I hear things over TV or something else. Radio, read newspapers, so on to a quick modeling and ask myself, are these numbers possible? And very frequently, two things emerge, either they're not possible or B, you didn't even know what they were talking about to make a model. Your father, they failed to tell you what they were talking about, just gave you a spectacular answer. So doing back envelope modeling is a very, very big help.

Now, this doubling business is a very serious one. I've had lived through my life with that fact. So I put them in here a table. Double the 17 years, triple that four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten times, about 56 years, something like that. Hey, how do you read that? One way is ask the time from now to retirement. Look at this column. That's how much knowledge will be, that much times at what you now have. If we go on the same way. You face a rather horrendous future. Another way to look at is this.

Suppose you were 34 when your child was born. Now your child goes to college. There's four times as much knowledge, not just mathematical theorems. Recording is Beethoven's Ninth, where to go skiing, what channels to read, listen to on TV. There's going to be four times as much knowledge for your poor child to face. Now you remember when you hit college, how much there seemed to be? Don't be surprised if your children are somewhat more disoriented than you were. And God knows you were sometimes disoriented.

This is what that means. Furthermore, the doubling, all the doubling occurs worst in the last period. Almost half, the half the episodes occur in the last doubling period. And that's what causes saturation. Saturation comes on quite rapidly. So another way of looking at doubling is simply this table here, which is disconcerting. If you think you'll be chief of staff in, say 44 years, no, I'll say 39 years. They'll be five times as much knowledge needed to run the Navy, as needed now.

That is what you face. But what's my answer? My answer to that is learning to learn, was the only thing I could do. Things become obsolete. Something like half of what we have taught you. Loving the other courses will be obsolete in 15 years. Either we're no longer doing it, or it's been replaced by something else. Consider what I had lived through. I came to Bell Laboratories in 46, and they were running back and due to so on with a very important part. So I started having a mathematical background, studying light to engineering and what back and tubes were to song.

But in some years, I began eating with the physics department and I ate with the guy is while they were perfecting that when they started. When they were developing engineering side of transistors, I did a great deal of calculation for him on transistors. I absolutely needed all the knowledge I knew. I have to to see if I could do for long walks up to my friends office where he keeps going around the show suits what a vacuum tube is, you don't see the very often. Now you can say well, the original transistor roll tin cans and three legs. Now there's a minimalist ship that sides. I've had to do that. At Los Alamos, we calculate how we bomb designs, on really calculus, which probably averaged maybe an operation or a second, or maybe a second and a half. Round the clock, six and a half days a week for a month. Sometimes three months, but typically about a month, to get one solution. Now you can punch in a modern machine, go boop, boop, and there's the answer. I've had to live through a tremendous change.

Furthermore, I was educated as a mathematician, I certainly had no course numerical analysis. I never knew about a computer. I knew a little physics, the Los Alamos taught me so more. But fundamentally, when I went to Bell Labs, because I believe that the computing I did, I should understand the nature problem. I had to learn something of the breadth of physical sciences. Some chemistry, as well a lot of physics, some social science and a little bit of biological science. Because laboratories had such departments, and sub social science. I spent a lifetime getting background knowledge on something, you have to have background knowledge enough to penetrate jargon, which I'll talk about extensively at a later date.

Now, one thing you could do is to try and claim the fundamentals, which is very glib until you ask what do I mean by fundamentals? Well, I have two criteria, which are not adequate. One is from the fundamental you can derive the rest of the field. Secondly, they've been around for some time. But the fundamentals of application, which were vacuum tubes, doesn't count now. True, the formula for gain, oh. I have trouble with names frequently. I'll come to it pretty soon. Nyquist formulas are still good. The game form is used out of back in tubes are still useful. Although we have to apply it to other things. Feedback is still the same. A lot of things are not.

Now I need to discuss science versus engineering. Science, if you are doing it, you shouldn't know what you're doing. If you know what you're doing, you shouldn't be doing it. Not in science, because science is supposed to be exploration. But you don't know. Engineering. You shouldn't be doing it unless you do know what you're doing. Well, nothing is pure. Science involves a great deal of engineering. And engineering involves a great deal of new material. So it's a great blend. But what is painful to you is going to be worse, is that they two fields are growing together because of a simple fact. Again, going back by first candy Bell Labs, when suddenly we discovered in physics. The telephone company was not in that greater hurry to get it developed it into the field, after all have pretty much monopoly, why hurry? Now as you know, we are not willing to wait for scientific principles to develop we want the field tomorrow. So two fields to come together like that.

And the leisure which we use long ago, which we are still using some extent, develop the ideas first and then apply it is going to be less and less acceptable. When ideas first around you want to apply it. I just read last night, one of the presidents who were was at a museum or one of these World's Fair was shot, and the boat was back. Right his back, but the doctors refused operate because they didn't know where the bullet was. But there at the booth thing where X ray being demonstrated, they didn't use a new technique was right ready available, they kind of wheeled in their kind of picture. No, they were conservative, we don't allow that much anymore, we're pushing very hard Are you going to be pushed very much to go from idea to develop item and get it on the market rapidly.

I once read there was some 76 different methods of predicting the future, which is why I'm engaged in doing to some extent. One is to predict tomorrow will be like today. Whatever temperature is today predict tomorrow is the same. It's a pretty good prediction. A somewhat better one is to note the linear trend and predict a linear trend. That's good for a while but not too long. And furthermore, it depends on which variable you pick to be linear. If you pick the coefficient from to be linear, one thing we pick the exponent something else. It doesn't work too well. I made many predictions on how much computing I'll do pretty soon. Because I need to know how much capacity would need and so on. I was regularly raw on the low side.

So one time I said I will predict high. So I got the form is and predicted real high a couple years later, the paper turned off my desk I looked at it, I was low again, the growth in computing has been unbelievable. On the other hand, on the other side, take artificial intelligence. The predictions made by almost all the experts 10, 20, 30 years ago have not been realized. So you can't always go on things. None the less, there's a saying. Short term predictions are optimistic long term predictions are pessimistic. And the reason is very simple. The long term of the pessimistic is nobody can believe in geometric regression. I say again, when we got the transistors going, nobody in his right mind would have predicted a million transistors on a ship that big. Nobody. It's beyond belief. But that's what we did. You know, so predict the future is a very, very hard business. But you have to do it. History is important.

Now, some people believe that history repeats itself, and some people believe exactly the opposite. But one thing you can be sure. What we now regard is the past was to some people the future. And what you think is the future will be the past. There'll be a time when some of you will be in the history books. Yes, you live long enough and do enough. And you end up in history books. So what do you think the future will become the past?

Now, another thing against history is Henry Ford Senior's remark history is bunk. And I think he said it for two reasons. One is history is rarely reported correctly. There are great main description of what happened at last almost during the war. No two of them agree. And they don't agree with what I think happened. Indeed, one time, a math teacher who wrote his experience about the matter. And publisher guy came in last almost our regular summer visit said to my friend, “I just read William's book. That is the how I remembered it.” He said, “That isn't how I remember to either.” I was just going to say, “How do you remember?” And I suddenly realized no two people remember the same. You're familiar with this an accident. Several witnesses see it, they report different things. There is no reliable report of what happened in the past. It's what's has come down to is accepted. Secondly, I think in affords mine was the fact that the past has been more rapidly disconnected from the future.

The invention of the computer tells you how much the world is different than what was before computers appear. It's a change in the way we do things. Engineering now is to great extent, getting a computer do job writing program and putting some terminal equipment around the defect the real world. The heart of much of engineering now is a computer. Now, some historians when you read them, they will give you the impression that the it was inevitable this was going to happen it was inevitable that Rome would fall or this or that. And on the other hand, they will tell you the future is very open ended. Many things are possible. Can this be true that the past was very determined, the future is very open? It seems unlikely. So your left was saying maybe the past was not so determined. For example, individual lives of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Hitler. If they had died in their childhood, would not the world be very different?

On the intellectual side, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein are examples who people who had they died in their youth, the world would be rather different. So individuals do matter. I suggest the past was less determine the historians like to make and the future is less open ended than you would like to believe. But there's a great many possibilities for you. The future had got great possibilities. Now, one of the thing is history is unforeseen technological inventions can ruin anything like I told you transistors, the development of vacuum tubes was practically cut off.

A technological invention, you can change completely, the history of something, and one could hardly foresee technological inventions. But they're also social inventions, which are important. You people have been trained mainly in the physical side, I've got to make you more sensitive to the fact that all of your life takes place in a social society, which has restraints. Thus I will claim that the future of technology will be less determined by what technology can do. Then social, legal, and other restraints on what we can do this, if you stop, think about highway controlled, computer control highway traffic. It sounds good, do you ask yourself who do I sue in an accident? And you begin to decide, you know, it's going to be a very, very difficult thing to get going. Very difficult. Social conventions are going to stop great things from happening.

Now I want to talk another thing, a story which I'll use several times the story of the drunken sailor. He staggered a couple steps this way, and he staggers this way. And he staggers this way and he staggers this way. In N steps, typically he'll get the square root of N distance. In 100 steps, he'll get about 10. In 10,000 steps, it'll be about 100 times where he may be right where you started maybe for the way, but that's typical. On the other hand, if there's a pretty girl over there, he's talking like this back like this over like this. He's going to disproportional the end. If I can create in you a vision of where you are headed, you will make a progress proportional to end. If you do not have a vision, you will wander like a drunken sailor, and get very little. So one of my major purposes is to get you to form a reasonable vision of what you are going to do your future what kind of a person you're going to be.

Now you're gonna say me, “But Hannick, how do I know the future?” I'm gonna say, “It doesn't matter much from our examine in life. What goal you set? What do you want march that way, that way or that way. If you have a goal, you'll get somewhere near it. If you don't have a goal, you're a drunken sailor.” My problem is to make you form your goals and some except try to achieve them to make something important rather than just drifting. Now is comfortable drift to life. A great many people one question closely will assert that perfectly content to drift through life. I don't think too good idea of the whole thing.

Now, it's none of my business, what goal you take, it is my business, to force you one way or another to set up some reasonably decent goals to try and achieve something in your life. Again, this society is paying a great deal of money for your education, It's entitled to something those who do something generally have some kind of goals to see where they're headed, and their lives add up. Those who don't are just a bunch of isolated events. They did this they did that they did nothing, but nothing added up. So I promise to get you to choose your goals. Even if you want Mary be a great guitar player, I don't mind. So long you set a goal is struggling. That is the essential part that I'm really after. And that's what this course is about to some extent, forcing you somehow rather to do more than you would have done otherwise.

Now the standard method teaching is to have departments. Departments break things up into something better like calculus, linear, linear programming a so on. Too much falls between and this course is an attempt one way to plug all those holes, the engineering courses you had. You had a lot of engineering courses, they taught you this at the I mean, there are vast holes between them. The optimizing of the combos individual courses, is not optimizing a total education is I will come to the system engineering.

Now another goal I have is to show you that in spite of different departments, there's essential unity of all knowledge. When you face a difficult problem of unknown type, it doesn't matter whether it comes from chemistry, physics or anything else, you have to find the answer. And knowledge is pretty homogeneous, then it's no longer divided up into courses, no longer divided up in apartments, although at Bell Labs, I was in the math department almost all the time. In fact, I was doing great many things. I was doing statistics I was doing computing, how you doing physics, I did a lot of other chemistry.

We did not observed tied to division but for purpose of organization, you do have to have some structure by want to get new minds. Now which is sort of a homogeneous body, which we have specialized with certain names, but it's all reconnected together. Now the course will center around computing. Not I like to think because I'm prejudiced my life in computing, but rather in fact they are going to dominate science and engineering. And there are reasons for this, very powerful reasons.

Economics, for example, computers are far cheaper than human beings. Far cheaper and getting cheaper by the year, humans are getting more expensive by the year. Speed. Far, far faster. Your nervous system if you drop something on your toe signals up your head about 100 meters per second. Like 1000 kilometers per second you walk in a league you can't even touch electronic speeds, there's no way you come near. So speed is overwhelmingly on the side the machine. Accuracy the me number ditches arithmetic carry. Yes, they can be quite precise. They can do double precision if necessary. You will have trouble doing double precision with take probably if you tried doing it. You can work it out but you'd have trouble. Reliability. They're far, far ahead of you, God or nature however you want to it, didn't make you to be a reliable thing. You've been walking for years and still every now and then you trip and stumble. You can't do anything really reliable. That's why man ended up at the top of the heap.

He has the flexibility built in. But don't ever try to get humans do something reliable. Take for example bowling. Why you just throw the ball down the alley exactly same way every time have a perfect game. Perfect games are rare even among the most skill experts. Precision, flying and other things are very hard to do. We recognize it being very precise drill teams and so on or something remarkable. The human animal was really designed to do that. He was designed for something else. Repeated repetitive control because the machines got rapid control. We are now building airplanes which are basically unstable and we have a computer every millisecond is correcting usability.

So we get better performance out of it, but the pilot couldn't do it. If that computer goes out, the pilot's through. The pilot is left with a large scale abroad planning but the millisecond to millisecond is left better computer because of human just can't act act fast. Another one who tried well on very much freedom boarding. It sounds trivial. You cannot put a human being on a job to look for something for three years and when it happens respond properly. You can put a computer on the job. You can put the computer on job to watch for the rare event. If such and such an episode happens in the atomic pile, do this. But that hasn't happened for four years. The human being isn't going to do very well. You guys know looking at think for last two and a half years even.

You can't get humans to be freed from boredom. Machines don't know what the word is. Bandwidth in and out. In any rapidly changing situation, the person in charge can only get so much information in and out and there's a general belief that really you can process only about 50 bits per second maybe 60, something like that. But you can't process 10,000 bits per second. A machines got enormous more bandwidth. Now the visual auditory or pull all your inputs together they won't match a modern machine for bandwidth. Now only coming in, but getting orders out. For central control the humans simply cannot in a complicated situation compete with the machine. If it is merely bandwidth and bandwidth out. If it is making judgments to sell the story, but the machines simply cannot cope with us. We no longer have a crew aiming a gun at airplane, we have a self contained. The human is too slow, it just isn't much good.

We need much more rapid things and humans can cope with the bandwidth in and out, which is we speed of getting information is fundamental. Computers have got all over you. Ease of retraining. Training the old ways you learn to do something and now we I changed the equipment you gotta unlearn the old habits learn some new ones and you got to repeat them many many times to learn them with the computer I changed the program. And it's done, no elaborate training, no endless hours or constant practice. Just put a new program and machine behaves a new way. Very easy. Hostile environments, outer space, underwater, high radiation fields, warfare manufacturing situations are unhealthy and saw how you put machines those situations burn humans are very very difficult. In space, I gotta keep this human being in atmosphere somewhat he's used to, oxygen. So I'll ask the employed high radiation will kill him and so on. How we're gonna manage to get people to Mars and back in the radiation field is coming from the sun, I don't know. Well, we'll sort of radium thoroughly or maybe decide not to send human beings that far. It's a problem.

Now personal problems with another man as well. It's one I'm much sensitive to. Personal problems dominate management. There are all kinds of trouble with people. With machines are no pensions. There are no personal squabbles, two machines don't get squabbling with other, but I've had two girls squabble who wouldn't even share the same room together. Unions, no. Personal leave, no. Eagles, no. Death of relatives, no. Your mother died, machines don't have that. Recreation. I turn the machine off that's the end of it. Human being, I have to provide reasonable recreation. Machines got all over humans. Now all of you probably already been saying, “Oh yeah, but what about the advantages humans have?” I will have to list those you're trying to do it already.

But I gave you a bunch of details, which you could find very hard to get around because the machine has got great advantage many places. And because it's economically sound, you are going to see more and more machines running organizations. Some computer, let's say computers, the design of chips is only computer controlled agree step. Some computers are actually being assembled heavily by machines. I was on the board of directors of a computer company for a while. And at one point, more than half the computers coming down the production line we were grabbing to mechanized a production. Were mechanized in the building of computers. More than half the computers, we sold less than half of them because we're mechanized in line and getting production much cheaper. As show you how rapidly a company computing business was really mechanized itself. And one of my friends said he ordered a bunch of machines a message came in overnight, a bunch of machines assembled those particular computers they wanted. And the next day those computers were on the loading dock design, just what they wanted for the parts they want.

Now lastly, this is a certain sense of religious course, I am preaching the message that with one life to lead. You ought to me more than just get by. Now there are going to be religions. And I don't want to get involved in ones or the other too much. It is however, an emotional matter I'm really appealing to. Now is perfectly said that a happy like is one who has some goals they achieve. Well, starting the matter over and read about and talk to people, everybody pretty much up to agrees that it's not the achievement of the goal. That really is the best part is the struggle. The struggle to success is what makes you what you will be. Remember, you all age, you to live with yourself. There's no escaping live with yourself, your old age, you're stuck with yourself. And in old age you can't change much as you can when you're younger. Consider the kind of person you wish to be in your old age and start now being that kind of a person.

This is what the course is all about, really. In one sense. Now it's opinion. It's not a fact this opinion that most people believe that the struggle to to achieve excellence is worth the struggle. Also, when you look at people's lives, I can tell you a story which I may repeat a couple of times. As a child, I went to a movie. They were called Nickelodeons my day but we actually spent a dime to go to the movie. One Saturday, I went with a friend of mine, and it was one of these, you laughed and laughed and laughed. All ridiculous situations, we walked out. And he said to me, “You know, that wasn't a very funny movie.” I thought for a while. So you're right. All the laughter did not make a movie funny at all.

The same way with life. Pleasant life is not the ones the sum total of the pleasant moments. Somehow or others added up very, very differently. The Good Life is not the life of pleasure from moment to moment. And you know, the fact you are well aware that you cannot get up in the morning and say, I shall be happy today and make it work. The Good Life has to be snuck up upon. And I'm saying with an opinion of myself and many other books. The way to do that is to take yourself on hand and manage yourself to be the person you wish to be to achieve the goals you wish, and be more articulate than just idle drifting like a drunken sailor.

Now in ancient Greece, our boy Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” So what I'm saying goes back that far. I was crossing the campus one time as consultant for the present job. Hope for you put together I walk cross. I heard a professor walking across the campus right ahead of me saying to a student, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And in the course of crossing one quadrangle, he managed to say it three times. So I'll repeat the third time. “The unexamined life is not worth living.”


“You and Your Research” by Richard Hamming

This speech was delivered by Dr. Richard W Hamming in 1986 at Bell Labs.

Speech Transcript

It's a pleasure to be here. The title of my talk is, “You and Your Research.” It is not about managing research, it is about how you individually do your research. I could give a talk on the other subject – but it's not, it's about you. I'm not talking about ordinary run-of-the-mill research; I'm talking about great research. And for the sake of describing great research I'll occasionally say Nobel-Prize type of work. It doesn't have to gain the Nobel Prize, but I mean those kinds of things which we perceive are significant things. Relativity, if you want, Shannon's information theory, any number of outstanding theories – that's the kind of thing I'm talking about.

Now, how did I come to do this study? At Los Alamos I was brought in to run the computing machines which other people had got going, so those scientists and physicists could get back to business. I saw I was a stooge. I saw that although physically I was the same, they were different. And to put the thing bluntly, I was envious. I wanted to know why they were so different from me. I saw Feynman up close. I saw Fermi and Teller. I saw Oppenheimer. I saw Hans Bethe: he was my boss. I saw quite a few very capable people. I became very interested in the difference between those who do and those who might have done.

When I came to Bell Labs, I came into a very productive department. Bode was the department head at the time; Shannon was there, and there were other people. I continued examining the questions, “Why?” and “What is the difference?” I continued subsequently by reading biographies, autobiographies, asking people questions such as: “How did you come to do this?” I tried to find out what are the differences. And that's what this talk is about.

Now, why is this talk important? I think it is important because, as far as I know, each of you has one life to live. Even if you believe in reincarnation it doesn't do you any good from one life to the next! Why shouldn't you do significant things in this one life, however you define significant? I'm not going to define it – you know what I mean. I will talk mainly about science because that is what I have studied. But so far as I know, and I've been told by others, much of what I say applies to many fields. Outstanding work is characterized very much the same way in most fields, but I will confine myself to science.

In order to get at you individually, I must talk in the first person. I have to get you to drop modesty and say to yourself, “Yes, I would like to do first-class work.” Our society frowns on people who set out to do really good work. You're not supposed to; luck is supposed to descend on you and you do great things by chance. Well, that's a kind of dumb thing to say. I say, why shouldn't you set out to do something significant. You don't have to tell other people, but shouldn't you say to yourself, “Yes, I would like to do something significant.”

In order to get to the second stage, I have to drop modesty and talk in the first person about what I've seen, what I've done, and what I've heard. I'm going to talk about people, some of whom you know, and I trust that when we leave, you won't quote me as saying some of the things I said.

Let me start not logically, but psychologically. I find that the major objection is that people think great science is done by luck. It's all a matter of luck. Well, consider Einstein. Note how many different things he did that were good. Was it all luck? Wasn't it a little too repetitive? Consider Shannon. He didn't do just information theory. Several years before, he did some other good things and some which are still locked up in the security of cryptography. He did many good things.

You see again and again, that it is more than one thing from a good person. Once in a while a person does only one thing in his whole life, and we'll talk about that later, but a lot of times there is repetition. I claim that luck will not cover everything. And I will cite Pasteur who said, “Luck favors the prepared mind.” And I think that says it the way I believe it. There is indeed an element of luck, and no, there isn't. The prepared mind sooner or later finds something important and does it. So yes, it is luck. The particular thing you do is luck, but that you do something is not.

For example, when I came to Bell Labs, I shared an office for a while with Shannon. At the same time he was doing information theory, I was doing coding theory. It is suspicious that the two of us did it at the same place and at the same time – it was in the atmosphere. And you can say, “Yes, it was luck.” On the other hand you can say, “But why of all the people in Bell Labs then were those the two who did it?” Yes, it is partly luck, and partly it is the prepared mind; but “partly” is the other thing I'm going to talk about. So, although I'll come back several more times to luck, I want to dispose of this matter of luck as being the sole criterion whether you do great work or not. I claim you have some, but not total, control over it. And I will quote, finally, Newton on the matter. Newton said, “If others would think as hard as I did, then they would get similar results.”

One of the characteristics you see, and many people have it including great scientists, is that usually when they were young they had independent thoughts and had the courage to pursue them. For example, Einstein, somewhere around 12 or 14, asked himself the question, “What would a light wave look like if I went with the velocity of light to look at it?” Now he knew that electromagnetic theory says you cannot have a stationary local maximum. But if he moved along with the velocity of light, he would see a local maximum. He could see a contradiction at the age of 12, 14, or somewhere around there, that everything was not right and that the velocity of light had something peculiar. Is it luck that he finally created special relativity? Early on, he had laid down some of the pieces by thinking of the fragments. Now that's the necessary but not sufficient condition. All of these items I will talk about are both luck and not luck.

How about having lots of “brains?” It sounds good. Most of you in this room probably have more than enough brains to do first-class work. But great work is something else than mere brains. Brains are measured in various ways. In mathematics, theoretical physics, astrophysics, typically brains correlates to a great extent with the ability to manipulate symbols. And so the typical IQ test is apt to score them fairly high. On the other hand, in other fields it is something different. For example, Bill Pfann, the fellow who did zone melting, came into my office one day. He had this idea dimly in his mind about what he wanted and he had some equations. It was pretty clear to me that this man didn't know much mathematics and he wasn't really articulate. His problem seemed interesting so I took it home and did a little work. I finally showed him how to run computers so he could compute his own answers. I gave him the power to compute. He went ahead, with negligible recognition from his own department, but ultimately he has collected all the prizes in the field. Once he got well started, his shyness, his awkwardness, his inarticulateness, fell away and he became much more productive in many other ways. Certainly he became much more articulate.

And I can cite another person in the same way. I trust he isn't in the audience, i.e. a fellow named Clogston. I met him when I was working on a problem with John Pierce's group and I didn't think he had much. I asked my friends who had been with him at school, “Was he like that in graduate school?” “Yes,” they replied. Well I would have fired the fellow, but J. R. Pierce was smart and kept him on. Clogston finally did the Clogston cable. After that there was a steady stream of good ideas. One success brought him confidence and courage.

One of the characteristics of successful scientists is having courage. Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can. If you think you can't, almost surely you are not going to. Courage is one of the things that Shannon had supremely. You have only to think of his major theorem. He wants to create a method of coding, but he doesn't know what to do so he makes a random code. Then he is stuck. And then he asks the impossible question, “What would the average random code do?” He then proves that the average code is arbitrarily good, and that therefore there must be at least one good code. Who but a man of infinite courage could have dared to think those thoughts? That is the characteristic of great scientists; they have courage. They will go forward under incredible circumstances; they think and continue to think.

Age is another factor which the physicists particularly worry about. They always are saying that you have got to do it when you are young or you will never do it. Einstein did things very early, and all the quantum mechanic fellows were disgustingly young when they did their best work. Most mathematicians, theoretical physicists, and astrophysicists do what we consider their best work when they are young. It is not that they don't do good work in their old age but what we value most is often what they did early. On the other hand, in music, politics and literature, often what we consider their best work was done late. I don't know how whatever field you are in fits this scale, but age has some effect.

But let me say why age seems to have the effect it does. In the first place if you do some good work you will find yourself on all kinds of committees and unable to do any more work. You may find yourself as I saw Brattain when he got a Nobel Prize. The day the prize was announced we all assembled in Arnold Auditorium; all three winners got up and made speeches. The third one, Brattain, practically with tears in his eyes, said, “I know about this Nobel-Prize effect and I am not going to let it affect me; I am going to remain good old Walter Brattain.” Well I said to myself, “That is nice.” But in a few weeks I saw it was affecting him. Now he could only work on great problems.

When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. This is what did Shannon in. After information theory, what do you do for an encore? The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn't the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you. In fact I will give you my favorite quotation of many years. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in my opinion, has ruined more good scientists than any institution has created, judged by what they did before they came and judged by what they did after. Not that they weren't good afterwards, but they were superb before they got there and were only good afterwards.

This brings up the subject, out of order perhaps, of working conditions. What most people think are the best working conditions, are not. Very clearly they are not because people are often most productive when working conditions are bad. One of the better times of the Cambridge Physical Laboratories was when they had practically shacks – they did some of the best physics ever.

I give you a story from my own private life. Early on it became evident to me that Bell Laboratories was not going to give me the conventional acre of programming people to program computing machines in absolute binary. It was clear they weren't going to. But that was the way everybody did it. I could go to the West Coast and get a job with the airplane companies without any trouble, but the exciting people were at Bell Labs and the fellows out there in the airplane companies were not. I thought for a long while about, “Did I want to go or not?” and I wondered how I could get the best of two possible worlds. I finally said to myself, “Hamming, you think the machines can do practically everything. Why can't you make them write programs?” What appeared at first to me as a defect forced me into automatic programming very early. What appears to be a fault, often, by a change of viewpoint, turns out to be one of the greatest assets you can have. But you are not likely to think that when you first look the thing and say, “Gee, I'm never going to get enough programmers, so how can I ever do any great programming?”

And there are many other stories of the same kind; Grace Hopper has similar ones. I think that if you look carefully you will see that often the great scientists, by turning the problem around a bit, changed a defect to an asset. For example, many scientists when they found they couldn't do a problem finally began to study why not. They then turned it around the other way and said, “But of course, this is what it is” and got an important result. So ideal working conditions are very strange. The ones you want aren't always the best ones for you.

Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode's office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest. I don't want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode's remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done. I don't like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There's no question about this.

On this matter of drive Edison says, “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” He may have been exaggerating, but the idea is that solid work, steadily applied, gets you surprisingly far. The steady application of effort with a little bit more work, intelligently applied is what does it. That's the trouble; drive, misapplied, doesn't get you anywhere. I've often wondered why so many of my good friends at Bell Labs who worked as hard or harder than I did, didn't have so much to show for it. The misapplication of effort is a very serious matter. Just hard work is not enough – it must be applied sensibly.

There's another trait on the side which I want to talk about; that trait is ambiguity. It took me a while to discover its importance. Most people like to believe something is or is not true. Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. They believe the theory enough to go ahead; they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory. If you believe too much you'll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won't get started. It requires a lovely balance. But most great scientists are well aware of why their theories are true and they are also well aware of some slight misfits which don't quite fit and they don't forget it. Darwin writes in his autobiography that he found it necessary to write down every piece of evidence which appeared to contradict his beliefs because otherwise they would disappear from his mind. When you find apparent flaws you've got to be sensitive and keep track of those things, and keep an eye out for how they can be explained or how the theory can be changed to fit them. Those are often the great contributions. Great contributions are rarely done by adding another decimal place. It comes down to an emotional commitment. Most great scientists are completely committed to their problem. Those who don't become committed seldom produce outstanding, first-class work.

Now again, emotional commitment is not enough. It is a necessary condition apparently. And I think I can tell you the reason why. Everybody who has studied creativity is driven finally to saying, “creativity comes out of your subconscious.” Somehow, suddenly, there it is. It just appears. Well, we know very little about the subconscious; but one thing you are pretty well aware of is that your dreams also come out of your subconscious. And you're aware your dreams are, to a fair extent, a reworking of the experiences of the day. If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there's the answer. For those who don't get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn't produce the big result. So the way to manage yourself is that when you have a real important problem you don't let anything else get the center of your attention – you keep your thoughts on the problem. Keep your subconscious starved so it has to work on your problem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.

Now Alan Chynoweth mentioned that I used to eat at the physics table. I had been eating with the mathematicians and I found out that I already knew a fair amount of mathematics; in fact, I wasn't learning much. The physics table was, as he said, an exciting place, but I think he exaggerated on how much I contributed. It was very interesting to listen to Shockley, Brattain, Bardeen, J. B. Johnson, Ken McKay and other people, and I was learning a lot. But unfortunately a Nobel Prize came, and a promotion came, and what was left was the dregs. Nobody wanted what was left. Well, there was no use eating with them!

Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, “Do you mind if I join you?” They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, “What are the important problems of your field?” And after a week or so, “What important problems are you working on?” And after some more time I came in one day and said, “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?” I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.

In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, “Hamming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I thought about it all summer, i.e. what were the important problems in my field. I haven't changed my research,” he says, “but I think it was well worthwhile.” And I said, “Thank you Dave,” and went on. I noticed a couple of months later he was made the head of the department. I noticed the other day he was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. I noticed he has succeeded. I have never heard the names of any of the other fellows at that table mentioned in science and scientific circles. They were unable to ask themselves, “What are the important problems in my field?”

If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work. It's perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them. Let me warn you, “important problem” must be phrased carefully. The three outstanding problems in physics, in a certain sense, were never worked on while I was at Bell Labs. By important I mean guaranteed a Nobel Prize and any sum of money you want to mention. We didn't work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. It's not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important. When I say that most scientists don't work on important problems, I mean it in that sense. The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn't believe that they will lead to important problems.

I spoke earlier about planting acorns so that oaks will grow. You can't always know exactly where to be, but you can keep active in places where something might happen. And even if you believe that great science is a matter of luck, you can stand on a mountain top where lightning strikes; you don't have to hide in the valley where you're safe. But the average scientist does routine safe work almost all the time and so he (or she) doesn't produce much. It's that simple. If you want to do great work, you clearly must work on important problems, and you should have an idea.

Along those lines at some urging from John Tukey and others, I finally adopted what I called “Great Thoughts Time.” When I went to lunch Friday noon, I would only discuss great thoughts after that. By great thoughts I mean ones like: “What will be the role of computers in all of AT&T?”, “How will computers change science?” For example, I came up with the observation at that time that nine out of ten experiments were done in the lab and one in ten on the computer. I made a remark to the vice presidents one time, that it would be reversed, i.e. nine out of ten experiments would be done on the computer and one in ten in the lab. They knew I was a crazy mathematician and had no sense of reality. I knew they were wrong and they've been proved wrong while I have been proved right. They built laboratories when they didn't need them. I saw that computers were transforming science because I spent a lot of time asking “What will be the impact of computers on science and how can I change it?” I asked myself, “How is it going to change Bell Labs?” I remarked one time, in the same address, that more than one-half of the people at Bell Labs will be interacting closely with computing machines before I leave. Well, you all have terminals now. I thought hard about where was my field going, where were the opportunities, and what were the important things to do. Let me go there so there is a chance I can do important things.

Most great scientists know many important problems. They have something between 10 and 20 important problems for which they are looking for an attack. And when they see a new idea come up, one hears them say “Well that bears on this problem.” They drop all the other things and get after it. Now I can tell you a horror story that was told to me but I can't vouch for the truth of it. I was sitting in an airport talking to a friend of mine from Los Alamos about how it was lucky that the fission experiment occurred over in Europe when it did because that got us working on the atomic bomb here in the US. He said “No; at Berkeley we had gathered a bunch of data; we didn't get around to reducing it because we were building some more equipment, but if we had reduced that data we would have found fission.” They had it in their hands and they didn't pursue it. They came in second!

The great scientists, when an opportunity opens up, get after it and they pursue it. They drop all other things. They get rid of other things and they get after an idea because they had already thought the thing through. Their minds are prepared; they see the opportunity and they go after it. Now of course lots of times it doesn't work out, but you don't have to hit many of them to do some great science. It's kind of easy. One of the chief tricks is to live a long time!

Another trait, it took me a while to notice. I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, “The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.” I don't know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing – not much, but enough that they miss fame.

I want to talk on another topic. It is based on the song which I think many of you know, “It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it.” I'll start with an example of my own. I was conned into doing on a digital computer, in the absolute binary days, a problem which the best analog computers couldn't do. And I was getting an answer. When I thought carefully and said to myself, “You know, Hamming, you're going to have to file a report on this military job; after you spend a lot of money you're going to have to account for it and every analog installation is going to want the report to see if they can't find flaws in it.” I was doing the required integration by a rather crummy method, to say the least, but I was getting the answer. And I realized that in truth the problem was not just to get the answer; it was to demonstrate for the first time, and beyond question, that I could beat the analog computer on its own ground with a digital machine. I reworked the method of solution, created a theory which was nice and elegant, and changed the way we computed the answer; the results were no different. The published report had an elegant method which was later known for years as “Hamming's Method of Integrating Differential Equations.” It is somewhat obsolete now, but for a while it was a very good method. By changing the problem slightly, I did important work rather than trivial work.

In the same way, when using the machine “up in the attic in the early days, I was solving one problem after another after another; a fair number were successful and there were a few failures. I went home one Friday after finishing a problem, and curiously enough I wasn't happy; I was depressed. I could see life being a long sequence of one problem after another after another. After quite a while of thinking I decided, “No, I should be in the mass production of a variable product. I should be concerned with all of next year's problems, not just the one in front of my face. By changing the question I still got the same kind of results or better, but I changed things and did important work. I attacked the major problem – How do I conquer machines and do all of next year's problems when I don't know what they are going to be? How do I prepare for it? How do I do this one so I'll be on top of it? How do I obey Newton's rule? He said, “If I have seen further than others, it is because I've stood on the shoulders of giants.” These days we stand on each other's feet!

You should do your job in such a fashion that others can build on top of it, so they will indeed say, “Yes, I've stood on so and so's shoulders and I saw further.” The essence of science is cumulative. By changing a problem slightly you can often do great work rather than merely good work. Instead of attacking isolated problems, I made the resolution that I would never again solve an isolated problem except as characteristic of a class.

Now if you are much of a mathematician you know that the effort to generalize often means that the solution is simple. Often by stopping and saying, “This is the problem he wants but this is characteristic of so and so. Yes, I can attack the whole class with a far superior method than the particular one because I was earlier embedded in needless detail.” The business of abstraction frequently makes things simple. Furthermore, I filed away the methods and prepared for the future problems.

To end this part, I'll remind you, “It is a poor workman who blames his tools – the good man gets on with the job, given what he's got, and gets the best answer he can.” And I suggest that by altering the problem, by looking at the thing differently, you can make a great deal of difference in your final productivity because you can either do it in such a fashion that people can indeed build on what you've done, or you can do it in such a fashion that the next person has to essentially duplicate again what you've done. It isn't just a matter of the job, it's the way you write the report, the way you write the paper, the whole attitude. It's just as easy to do a broad, general job as one very special case. And it's much more satisfying and rewarding!

I have now come down to a topic which is very distasteful; it is not sufficient to do a job, you have to sell it. “Selling” to a scientist is an awkward thing to do. It's very ugly; you shouldn't have to do it. The world is supposed to be waiting, and when you do something great, they should rush out and welcome it. But the fact is everyone is busy with their own work. You must present it so well that they will set aside what they are doing, look at what you've done, read it, and come back and say, “Yes, that was good.” I suggest that when you open a journal, as you turn the pages, you ask why you read some articles and not others. You had better write your report so when it is published in the Physical Review, or wherever else you want it, as the readers are turning the pages they won't just turn your pages but they will stop and read yours. If they don't stop and read it, you won't get credit.

There are three things you have to do in selling. You have to learn to write clearly and well so that people will read it, you must learn to give reasonably formal talks, and you also must learn to give informal talks. We had a lot of so-called “back room scientists.” In a conference, they would keep quiet. Three weeks later after a decision was made they filed a report saying why you should do so and so. Well, it was too late. They would not stand up right in the middle of a hot conference, in the middle of activity, and say, “We should do this for these reasons.” You need to master that form of communication as well as prepared speeches.

When I first started, I got practically physically ill while giving a speech, and I was very, very nervous. I realized I either had to learn to give speeches smoothly or I would essentially partially cripple my whole career. The first time IBM asked me to give a speech in New York one evening, I decided I was going to give a really good speech, a speech that was wanted, not a technical one but a broad one, and at the end if they liked it, I'd quietly say, “Any time you want one I'll come in and give you one.” As a result, I got a great deal of practice giving speeches to a limited audience and I got over being afraid. Furthermore, I could also then study what methods were effective and what were ineffective.

While going to meetings I had already been studying why some papers are remembered and most are not. The technical person wants to give a highly limited technical talk. Most of the time the audience wants a broad general talk and wants much more survey and background than the speaker is willing to give. As a result, many talks are ineffective. The speaker names a topic and suddenly plunges into the details he's solved. Few people in the audience may follow. You should paint a general picture to say why it's important, and then slowly give a sketch of what was done. Then a larger number of people will say, “Yes, Joe has done that,” or “Mary has done that; I really see where it is; yes, Mary really gave a good talk; I understand what Mary has done.” The tendency is to give a highly restricted, safe talk; this is usually ineffective. Furthermore, many talks are filled with far too much information. So I say this idea of selling is obvious.

Let me summarize. You've got to work on important problems. I deny that it is all luck, but I admit there is a fair element of luck. I subscribe to Pasteur's “Luck favors the prepared mind.” I favor heavily what I did. Friday afternoons for years – great thoughts only – means that I committed 10% of my time trying to understand the bigger problems in the field, i.e. what was and what was not important. I found in the early days I had believed “this” and yet had spent all week marching in “that” direction. It was kind of foolish. If I really believe the action is over there, why do I march in this direction? I either had to change my goal or change what I did. So I changed something I did and I marched in the direction I thought was important. It's that easy.

Now you might tell me you haven't got control over what you have to work on. Well, when you first begin, you may not. But once you're moderately successful, there are more people asking for results than you can deliver and you have some power of choice, but not completely. I'll tell you a story about that, and it bears on the subject of educating your boss. I had a boss named Schelkunoff; he was, and still is, a very good friend of mine. Some military person came to me and demanded some answers by Friday. Well, I had already dedicated my computing resources to reducing data on the fly for a group of scientists; I was knee deep in short, small, important problems. This military person wanted me to solve his problem by the end of the day on Friday. I said, “No, I'll give it to you Monday. I can work on it over the weekend. I'm not going to do it now.” He goes down to my boss, Schelkunoff, and Schelkunoff says, “You must run this for him; he's got to have it by Friday.” I tell him, “Why do I?”; he says, “You have to.” I said, “Fine, Sergei, but you're sitting in your office Friday afternoon catching the late bus home to watch as this fellow walks out that door.” I gave the military person the answers late Friday afternoon. I then went to Schelkunoff's office and sat down; as the man goes out I say, “You see Schelkunoff, this fellow has nothing under his arm; but I gave him the answers.” On Monday morning Schelkunoff called him up and said, “Did you come in to work over the weekend?” I could hear, as it were, a pause as the fellow ran through his mind of what was going to happen; but he knew he would have had to sign in, and he'd better not say he had when he hadn't, so he said he hadn't. Ever after that Schelkunoff said, “You set your deadlines; you can change them.”

One lesson was sufficient to educate my boss as to why I didn't want to do big jobs that displaced exploratory research and why I was justified in not doing crash jobs which absorb all the research computing facilities. I wanted instead to use the facilities to compute a large number of small problems. Again, in the early days, I was limited in computing capacity and it was clear, in my area, that a “mathematician had no use for machines.” But I needed more machine capacity. Every time I had to tell some scientist in some other area, “No I can't; I haven't the machine capacity,” he complained. I said “Go tell your Vice President that Hamming needs more computing capacity.” After a while I could see what was happening up there at the top; many people said to my Vice President, “Your man needs more computing capacity.” I got it!

I also did a second thing. When I loaned what little programming power we had to help in the early days of computing, I said, “We are not getting the recognition for our programmers that they deserve. When you publish a paper you will thank that programmer or you aren't getting any more help from me. That programmer is going to be thanked by name; she's worked hard.” I waited a couple of years. I then went through a year of BSTJ articles and counted what fraction thanked some programmer. I took it into the boss and said, “That's the central role computing is playing in Bell Labs; if the BSTJ is important, that's how important computing is.” He had to give in. You can educate your bosses. It's a hard job. In this talk I'm only viewing from the bottom up; I'm not viewing from the top down. But I am telling you how you can get what you want in spite of top management. You have to sell your ideas there also.

Well I now come down to the topic, “Is the effort to be a great scientist worth it?” To answer this, you must ask people. When you get beyond their modesty, most people will say, “Yes, doing really first-class work, and knowing it, is as good as wine, women and song put together,” or if it's a woman she says, “It is as good as wine, men and song put together.” And if you look at the bosses, they tend to come back or ask for reports, trying to participate in those moments of discovery. They're always in the way. So evidently those who have done it, want to do it again. But it is a limited survey. I have never dared to go out and ask those who didn't do great work how they felt about the matter. It's a biased sample, but I still think it is worth the struggle. I think it is very definitely worth the struggle to try and do first-class work because the truth is, the value is in the struggle more than it is in the result. The struggle to make something of yourself seems to be worthwhile in itself. The success and fame are sort of dividends, in my opinion.

I've told you how to do it. It is so easy, so why do so many people, with all their talents, fail? For example, my opinion, to this day, is that there are in the mathematics department at Bell Labs quite a few people far more able and far better endowed than I, but they didn't produce as much. Some of them did produce more than I did; Shannon produced more than I did, and some others produced a lot, but I was highly productive against a lot of other fellows who were better equipped. Why is it so? What happened to them? Why do so many of the people who have great promise, fail?

Well, one of the reasons is drive and commitment. The people who do great work with less ability but who are committed to it, get more done that those who have great skill and dabble in it, who work during the day and go home and do other things and come back and work the next day. They don't have the deep commitment that is apparently necessary for really first-class work. They turn out lots of good work, but we were talking, remember, about first-class work. There is a difference. Good people, very talented people, almost always turn out good work. We're talking about the outstanding work, the type of work that gets the Nobel Prize and gets recognition.

The second thing is, I think, the problem of personality defects. Now I'll cite a fellow whom I met out in Irvine. He had been the head of a computing center and he was temporarily on assignment as a special assistant to the president of the university. It was obvious he had a job with a great future. He took me into his office one time and showed me his method of getting letters done and how he took care of his correspondence. He pointed out how inefficient the secretary was. He kept all his letters stacked around there; he knew where everything was. And he would, on his word processor, get the letter out. He was bragging how marvelous it was and how he could get so much more work done without the secretary's interference. Well, behind his back, I talked to the secretary. The secretary said, “Of course I can't help him; I don't get his mail. He won't give me the stuff to log in; I don't know where he puts it on the floor. Of course I can't help him.” So I went to him and said, “Look, if you adopt the present method and do what you can do single-handedly, you can go just that far and no farther than you can do single-handedly. If you will learn to work with the system, you can go as far as the system will support you.” And, he never went any further. He had his personality defect of wanting total control and was not willing to recognize that you need the support of the system.

You find this happening again and again; good scientists will fight the system rather than learn to work with the system and take advantage of all the system has to offer. It has a lot, if you learn how to use it. It takes patience, but you can learn how to use the system pretty well, and you can learn how to get around it. After all, if you want a decision `No', you just go to your boss and get a `No' easy. If you want to do something, don't ask, do it. Present him with an accomplished fact. Don't give him a chance to tell you `No'. But if you want a `No', it's easy to get a `No'.

Another personality defect is ego assertion and I'll speak in this case of my own experience. I came from Los Alamos and in the early days I was using a machine in New York at 590 Madison Avenue where we merely rented time. I was still dressing in western clothes, big slash pockets, a bolo and all those things. I vaguely noticed that I was not getting as good service as other people. So I set out to measure. You came in and you waited for your turn; I felt I was not getting a fair deal. I said to myself, “Why? No Vice President at IBM said, ‘Give Hamming a bad time'. It is the secretaries at the bottom who are doing this. When a slot appears, they'll rush to find someone to slip in, but they go out and find somebody else. Now, why? I haven't mistreated them.” Answer, I wasn't dressing the way they felt somebody in that situation should. It came down to just that – I wasn't dressing properly. I had to make the decision – was I going to assert my ego and dress the way I wanted to and have it steadily drain my effort from my professional life, or was I going to appear to conform better? I decided I would make an effort to appear to conform properly. The moment I did, I got much better service. And now, as an old colorful character, I get better service than other people.

You should dress according to the expectations of the audience spoken to. If I am going to give an address at the MIT computer center, I dress with a bolo and an old corduroy jacket or something else. I know enough not to let my clothes, my appearance, my manners get in the way of what I care about. An enormous number of scientists feel they must assert their ego and do their thing their way. They have got to be able to do this, that, or the other thing, and they pay a steady price.

John Tukey almost always dressed very casually. He would go into an important office and it would take a long time before the other fellow realized that this is a first-class man and he had better listen. For a long time John has had to overcome this kind of hostility. It's wasted effort! I didn't say you should conform; I said “The appearance of conforming gets you a long way.” If you chose to assert your ego in any number of ways, “I am going to do it my way,” you pay a small steady price throughout the whole of your professional career. And this, over a whole lifetime, adds up to an enormous amount of needless trouble.

By taking the trouble to tell jokes to the secretaries and being a little friendly, I got superb secretarial help. For instance, one time for some idiot reason all the reproducing services at Murray Hill were tied up. Don't ask me how, but they were. I wanted something done. My secretary called up somebody at Holmdel, hopped the company car, made the hour-long trip down and got it reproduced, and then came back. It was a payoff for the times I had made an effort to cheer her up, tell her jokes and be friendly; it was that little extra work that later paid off for me. By realizing you have to use the system and studying how to get the system to do your work, you learn how to adapt the system to your desires. Or you can fight it steadily, as a small undeclared war, for the whole of your life.

And I think John Tukey paid a terrible price needlessly. He was a genius anyhow, but I think it would have been far better, and far simpler, had he been willing to conform a little bit instead of ego asserting. He is going to dress the way he wants all of the time. It applies not only to dress but to a thousand other things; people will continue to fight the system. Not that you shouldn't occasionally!

When they moved the library from the middle of Murray Hill to the far end, a friend of mine put in a request for a bicycle. Well, the organization was not dumb. They waited awhile and sent back a map of the grounds saying, “Will you please indicate on this map what paths you are going to take so we can get an insurance policy covering you.” A few more weeks went by. They then asked, “Where are you going to store the bicycle and how will it be locked so we can do so and so.” He finally realized that of course he was going to be red-taped to death so he gave in. He rose to be the President of Bell Laboratories.

Barney Oliver was a good man. He wrote a letter one time to the IEEE. At that time the official shelf space at Bell Labs was so much and the height of the IEEE Proceedings at that time was larger; and since you couldn't change the size of the official shelf space he wrote this letter to the IEEE Publication person saying, “Since so many IEEE members were at Bell Labs and since the official space was so high the journal size should be changed.” He sent it for his boss's signature. Back came a carbon with his signature, but he still doesn't know whether the original was sent or not. I am not saying you shouldn't make gestures of reform. I am saying that my study of able people is that they don't get themselves committed to that kind of warfare. They play it a little bit and drop it and get on with their work.

Many a second-rate fellow gets caught up in some little twitting of the system, and carries it through to warfare. He expends his energy in a foolish project. Now you are going to tell me that somebody has to change the system. I agree; somebody's has to. Which do you want to be? The person who changes the system or the person who does first-class science? Which person is it that you want to be? Be clear, when you fight the system and struggle with it, what you are doing, how far to go out of amusement, and how much to waste your effort fighting the system. My advice is to let somebody else do it and you get on with becoming a first-class scientist. Very few of you have the ability to both reform the system and become a first-class scientist.

On the other hand, we can't always give in. There are times when a certain amount of rebellion is sensible. I have observed almost all scientists enjoy a certain amount of twitting the system for the sheer love of it. What it comes down to basically is that you cannot be original in one area without having originality in others. Originality is being different. You can't be an original scientist without having some other original characteristics. But many a scientist has let his quirks in other places make him pay a far higher price than is necessary for the ego satisfaction he or she gets. I'm not against all ego assertion; I'm against some.

Another fault is anger. Often a scientist becomes angry, and this is no way to handle things. Amusement, yes, anger, no. Anger is misdirected. You should follow and cooperate rather than struggle against the system all the time.

Another thing you should look for is the positive side of things instead of the negative. I have already given you several examples, and there are many, many more; how, given the situation, by changing the way I looked at it, I converted what was apparently a defect to an asset. I'll give you another example. I am an egotistical person; there is no doubt about it. I knew that most people who took a sabbatical to write a book, didn't finish it on time. So before I left, I told all my friends that when I come back, that book was going to be done! Yes, I would have it done – I'd have been ashamed to come back without it! I used my ego to make myself behave the way I wanted to. I bragged about something so I'd have to perform. I found out many times, like a cornered rat in a real trap, I was surprisingly capable. I have found that it paid to say, “Oh yes, I'll get the answer for you Tuesday,” not having any idea how to do it. By Sunday night I was really hard thinking on how I was going to deliver by Tuesday. I often put my pride on the line and sometimes I failed, but as I said, like a cornered rat I'm surprised how often I did a good job. I think you need to learn to use yourself. I think you need to know how to convert a situation from one view to another which would increase the chance of success.

Now self-delusion in humans is very, very common. There are enumerable ways of you changing a thing and kidding yourself and making it look some other way. When you ask, “Why didn't you do such and such,” the person has a thousand alibis. If you look at the history of science, usually these days there are 10 people right there ready, and we pay off for the person who is there first. The other nine fellows say, “Well, I had the idea but I didn't do it and so on and so on.” There are so many alibis. Why weren't you first? Why didn't you do it right? Don't try an alibi. Don't try and kid yourself. You can tell other people all the alibis you want. I don't mind. But to yourself try to be honest.

If you really want to be a first-class scientist you need to know yourself, your weaknesses, your strengths, and your bad faults, like my egotism. How can you convert a fault to an asset? How can you convert a situation where you haven't got enough manpower to move into a direction when that's exactly what you need to do? I say again that I have seen, as I studied the history, the successful scientist changed the viewpoint and what was a defect became an asset.

In summary, I claim that some of the reasons why so many people who have greatness within their grasp don't succeed are: they don't work on important problems, they don't become emotionally involved, they don't try and change what is difficult to some other situation which is easily done but is still important, and they keep giving themselves alibis why they don't. They keep saying that it is a matter of luck. I've told you how easy it is; furthermore I've told you how to reform. Therefore, go forth and become great scientists!
Questions and Answers

A. G. Chynoweth: Well that was 50 minutes of concentrated wisdom and observations accumulated over a fantastic career; I lost track of all the observations that were striking home. Some of them are very very timely. One was the plea for more computer capacity; I was hearing nothing but that this morning from several people, over and over again. So that was right on the mark today even though here we are 20 – 30 years after when you were making similar remarks, Dick. I can think of all sorts of lessons that all of us can draw from your talk. And for one, as I walk around the halls in the future I hope I won't see as many closed doors in Bellcore. That was one observation I thought was very intriguing.

Thank you very, very much indeed Dick; that was a wonderful recollection. I'll now open it up for questions. I'm sure there are many people who would like to take up on some of the points that Dick was making.

Hamming: First let me respond to Alan Chynoweth about computing. I had computing in research and for 10 years I kept telling my management, “Get that !&@#% machine out of research. We are being forced to run problems all the time. We can't do research because were too busy operating and running the computing machines.” Finally the message got through. They were going to move computing out of research to someplace else. I was persona non grata to say the least and I was surprised that people didn't kick my shins because everybody was having their toy taken away from them. I went in to Ed David's office and said, “Look Ed, you've got to give your researchers a machine. If you give them a great big machine, we'll be back in the same trouble we were before, so busy keeping it going we can't think. Give them the smallest machine you can because they are very able people. They will learn how to do things on a small machine instead of mass computing.” As far as I'm concerned, that's how UNIX arose. We gave them a moderately small machine and they decided to make it do great things. They had to come up with a system to do it on. It is called UNIX!

A. G. Chynoweth: I just have to pick up on that one. In our present environment, Dick, while we wrestle with some of the red tape attributed to, or required by, the regulators, there is one quote that one exasperated AVP came up with and I've used it over and over again. He growled that, “UNIX was never a deliverable!”

Question: What about personal stress? Does that seem to make a difference?

Hamming: Yes, it does. If you don't get emotionally involved, it doesn't. I had incipient ulcers most of the years that I was at Bell Labs. I have since gone off to the Naval Postgraduate School and laid back somewhat, and now my health is much better. But if you want to be a great scientist you're going to have to put up with stress. You can lead a nice life; you can be a nice guy or you can be a great scientist. But nice guys end last, is what Leo Durocher said. If you want to lead a nice happy life with a lot of recreation and everything else, you'll lead a nice life.

Question: The remarks about having courage, no one could argue with; but those of us who have gray hairs or who are well established don't have to worry too much. But what I sense among the young people these days is a real concern over the risk taking in a highly competitive environment. Do you have any words of wisdom on this?

Hamming: I'll quote Ed David more. Ed David was concerned about the general loss of nerve in our society. It does seem to me that we've gone through various periods. Coming out of the war, coming out of Los Alamos where we built the bomb, coming out of building the radars and so on, there came into the mathematics department, and the research area, a group of people with a lot of guts. They've just seen things done; they've just won a war which was fantastic. We had reasons for having courage and therefore we did a great deal. I can't arrange that situation to do it again. I cannot blame the present generation for not having it, but I agree with what you say; I just cannot attach blame to it. It doesn't seem to me they have the desire for greatness; they lack the courage to do it. But we had, because we were in a favorable circumstance to have it; we just came through a tremendously successful war. In the war we were looking very, very bad for a long while; it was a very desperate struggle as you well know. And our success, I think, gave us courage and self confidence; that's why you see, beginning in the late forties through the fifties, a tremendous productivity at the labs which was stimulated from the earlier times. Because many of us were earlier forced to learn other things – we were forced to learn the things we didn't want to learn, we were forced to have an open door – and then we could exploit those things we learned. It is true, and I can't do anything about it; I cannot blame the present generation either. It's just a fact.

Question: Is there something management could or should do?

Hamming: Management can do very little. If you want to talk about managing research, that's a totally different talk. I'd take another hour doing that. This talk is about how the individual gets very successful research done in spite of anything the management does or in spite of any other opposition. And how do you do it? Just as I observe people doing it. It's just that simple and that hard!

Question: Is brainstorming a daily process?

Hamming: Once that was a very popular thing, but it seems not to have paid off. For myself I find it desirable to talk to other people; but a session of brainstorming is seldom worthwhile. I do go in to strictly talk to somebody and say, “Look, I think there has to be something here. Here's what I think I see …” and then begin talking back and forth. But you want to pick capable people. To use another analogy, you know the idea called the ‘critical mass.' If you have enough stuff you have critical mass. There is also the idea I used to call ‘sound absorbers'. When you get too many sound absorbers, you give out an idea and they merely say, “Yes, yes, yes.” What you want to do is get that critical mass in action; “Yes, that reminds me of so and so,” or, “Have you thought about that or this?” When you talk to other people, you want to get rid of those sound absorbers who are nice people but merely say, “Oh yes,” and to find those who will stimulate you right back.

For example, you couldn't talk to John Pierce without being stimulated very quickly. There were a group of other people I used to talk with. For example there was Ed Gilbert; I used to go down to his office regularly and ask him questions and listen and come back stimulated. I picked my people carefully with whom I did or whom I didn't brainstorm because the sound absorbers are a curse. They are just nice guys; they fill the whole space and they contribute nothing except they absorb ideas and the new ideas just die away instead of echoing on. Yes, I find it necessary to talk to people. I think people with closed doors fail to do this so they fail to get their ideas sharpened, such as “Did you ever notice something over here?” I never knew anything about it – I can go over and look. Somebody points the way. On my visit here, I have already found several books that I must read when I get home. I talk to people and ask questions when I think they can answer me and give me clues that I do not know about. I go out and look!

Question: What kind of tradeoffs did you make in allocating your time for reading and writing and actually doing research?

Hamming: I believed, in my early days, that you should spend at least as much time in the polish and presentation as you did in the original research. Now at least 50% of the time must go for the presentation. It's a big, big number.

Question: How much effort should go into library work?

Hamming: It depends upon the field. I will say this about it. There was a fellow at Bell Labs, a very, very, smart guy. He was always in the library; he read everything. If you wanted references, you went to him and he gave you all kinds of references. But in the middle of forming these theories, I formed a proposition: there would be no effect named after him in the long run. He is now retired from Bell Labs and is an Adjunct Professor. He was very valuable; I'm not questioning that. He wrote some very good Physical Review articles; but there's no effect named after him because he read too much. If you read all the time what other people have done you will think the way they thought. If you want to think new thoughts that are different, then do what a lot of creative people do – get the problem reasonably clear and then refuse to look at any answers until you've thought the problem through carefully how you would do it, how you could slightly change the problem to be the correct one. So yes, you need to keep up. You need to keep up more to find out what the problems are than to read to find the solutions. The reading is necessary to know what is going on and what is possible. But reading to get the solutions does not seem to be the way to do great research. So I'll give you two answers. You read; but it is not the amount, it is the way you read that counts.

Question: How do you get your name attached to things?

Hamming: By doing great work. I'll tell you the hamming window one. I had given Tukey a hard time, quite a few times, and I got a phone call from him from Princeton to me at Murray Hill. I knew that he was writing up power spectra and he asked me if I would mind if he called a certain window a “Hamming window.” And I said to him, “Come on, John; you know perfectly well I did only a small part of the work but you also did a lot.” He said, “Yes, Hamming, but you contributed a lot of small things; you're entitled to some credit.” So he called it the Hamming Window. Now, let me go on. I had twitted John frequently about true greatness. I said true greatness is when your name is like ampere, watt, and fourier – when it's spelled with a lower case letter. That's how the hamming window came about.

Question: Dick, would you care to comment on the relative effectiveness between giving talks, writing papers, and writing books?

Hamming: In the short-haul, papers are very important if you want to stimulate someone tomorrow. If you want to get recognition long-haul, it seems to me writing books is more contribution because most of us need orientation. In this day of practically infinite knowledge, we need orientation to find our way. Let me tell you what infinite knowledge is. Since from the time of Newton to now, we have come close to doubling knowledge every 17 years, more or less. And we cope with that, essentially, by specialization. In the next 340 years at that rate, there will be 20 doublings, i.e. a million, and there will be a million fields of specialty for every one field now. It isn't going to happen. The present growth of knowledge will choke itself off until we get different tools. I believe that books which try to digest, coordinate, get rid of the duplication, get rid of the less fruitful methods and present the underlying ideas clearly of what we know now, will be the things the future generations will value. Public talks are necessary; private talks are necessary; written papers are necessary. But I am inclined to believe that, in the long-haul, books which leave out what's not essential are more important than books which tell you everything because you don't want to know everything. I don't want to know that much about penguins is the usual reply. You just want to know the essence.

Question: You mentioned the problem of the Nobel Prize and the subsequent notoriety of what was done to some of the careers. Isn't that kind of a much more broad problem of fame? What can one do?

Hamming: Some things you could do are the following. Somewhere around every seven years make a significant, if not complete, shift in your field. Thus, I shifted from numerical analysis, to hardware, to software, and so on, periodically, because you tend to use up your ideas. When you go to a new field, you have to start over as a baby. You are no longer the big mukity muk and you can start back there and you can start planting those acorns which will become the giant oaks. Shannon, I believe, ruined himself. In fact when he left Bell Labs, I said, “That's the end of Shannon's scientific career.” I received a lot of flak from my friends who said that Shannon was just as smart as ever. I said, “Yes, he'll be just as smart, but that's the end of his scientific career,” and I truly believe it was.

You have to change. You get tired after a while; you use up your originality in one field. You need to get something nearby. I'm not saying that you shift from music to theoretical physics to English literature; I mean within your field you should shift areas so that you don't go stale. You couldn't get away with forcing a change every seven years, but if you could, I would require a condition for doing research, being that you will change your field of research every seven years with a reasonable definition of what it means, or at the end of 10 years, management has the right to compel you to change. I would insist on a change because I'm serious. What happens to the old fellows is that they get a technique going; they keep on using it. They were marching in that direction which was right then, but the world changes. There's the new direction; but the old fellows are still marching in their former direction.

You need to get into a new field to get new viewpoints, and before you use up all the old ones. You can do something about this, but it takes effort and energy. It takes courage to say, “Yes, I will give up my great reputation.” For example, when error correcting codes were well launched, having these theories, I said, “Hamming, you are going to quit reading papers in the field; you are going to ignore it completely; you are going to try and do something else other than coast on that.” I deliberately refused to go on in that field. I wouldn't even read papers to try to force myself to have a chance to do something else. I managed myself, which is what I'm preaching in this whole talk. Knowing many of my own faults, I manage myself. I have a lot of faults, so I've got a lot of problems, i.e. a lot of possibilities of management.

Question: Would you compare research and management?

Hamming: If you want to be a great researcher, you won't make it being president of the company. If you want to be president of the company, that's another thing. I'm not against being president of the company. I just don't want to be. I think Ian Ross does a good job as President of Bell Labs. I'm not against it; but you have to be clear on what you want. Furthermore, when you're young, you may have picked wanting to be a great scientist, but as you live longer, you may change your mind. For instance, I went to my boss, Bode, one day and said, “Why did you ever become department head? Why didn't you just be a good scientist?” He said, “Hamming, I had a vision of what mathematics should be in Bell Laboratories. And I saw if that vision was going to be realized, I had to make it happen; I had to be department head.” When your vision of what you want to do is what you can do single-handedly, then you should pursue it. The day your vision, what you think needs to be done, is bigger than what you can do single-handedly, then you have to move toward management. And the bigger the vision is, the farther in management you have to go. If you have a vision of what the whole laboratory should be, or the whole Bell System, you have to get there to make it happen. You can't make it happen from the bottom very easily. It depends upon what goals and what desires you have. And as they change in life, you have to be prepared to change. I chose to avoid management because I preferred to do what I could do single-handedly. But that's the choice that I made, and it is biased. Each person is entitled to their choice. Keep an open mind. But when you do choose a path, for heaven's sake be aware of what you have done and the choice you have made. Don't try to do both sides.

Question: How important is one's own expectation or how important is it to be in a group or surrounded by people who expect great work from you?

Hamming: At Bell Labs everyone expected good work from me – it was a big help. Everybody expects you to do a good job, so you do, if you've got pride. I think it's very valuable to have first-class people around. I sought out the best people. The moment that physics table lost the best people, I left. The moment I saw that the same was true of the chemistry table, I left. I tried to go with people who had great ability so I could learn from them and who would expect great results out of me. By deliberately managing myself, I think I did much better than laissez faire.

Question: You, at the outset of your talk, minimized or played down luck; but you seemed also to gloss over the circumstances that got you to Los Alamos, that got you to Chicago, that got you to Bell Laboratories.

Hamming: There was some luck. On the other hand I don't know the alternate branches. Until you can say that the other branches would not have been equally or more successful, I can't say. Is it luck the particular thing you do? For example, when I met Feynman at Los Alamos, I knew he was going to get a Nobel Prize. I didn't know what for. But I knew darn well he was going to do great work. No matter what directions came up in the future, this man would do great work. And sure enough, he did do great work. It isn't that you only do a little great work at this circumstance and that was luck, there are many opportunities sooner or later. There are a whole pail full of opportunities, of which, if you're in this situation, you seize one and you're great over there instead of over here. There is an element of luck, yes and no. Luck favors a prepared mind; luck favors a prepared person. It is not guaranteed; I don't guarantee success as being absolutely certain. I'd say luck changes the odds, but there is some definite control on the part of the individual.

Go forth, then, and do great work!


“1999 Mount Holyoke Commencement Speech” by Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen delivered this speech as the commencement address to the class of 1999 at Mount Holyoke College.

Speech Transcript

I look at all of you today and I cannot help but see myself twenty-five years ago, at my own Barnard commencement. I sometimes seem, in my mind, to have as much in common with that girl as I do with any stranger I might pass in the doorway of a Starbucks or in the aisle of an airplane. I cannot remember what she wore or how she felt that day. But I can tell you this about her without question: she was perfect.

Let me be very clear what I mean by that. I mean that I got up every day and tried to be perfect in every possible way. If there was a test to be had, I had studied for it; if there was a paper to be written, it was done. I smiled at everyone in the dorm hallways, because it was important to be friendly, and I made fun of them behind their backs because it was important to be witty. And I worked as a residence counselor and sat on housing council. If anyone had ever stopped and asked me why I did those things–well, I'm not sure what I would have said. But I can tell you, today, that I did them to be perfect, in every possible way.

Being perfect was hard work, and the hell of it was, the rules of it changed. So that while I arrived at college in 1970 with a trunk full of perfect pleated kilts and perfect monogrammed sweaters, by Christmas vacation I had another perfect uniform: overalls, turtlenecks, Doc Martens, and the perfect New York City Barnard College affect–part hyperintellectual, part ennui. This was very hard work indeed. I had read neither Sartre nor Sappho, and the closest I ever came to being bored and above it all was falling asleep. Finally, it was harder to become perfect because I realized, at Barnard, that I was not the smartest girl in the world. Eventually being perfect day after day, year after year, became like always carrying a backpack filled with bricks on my back. And oh, how I secretly longed to lay my burden down.

So what I want to say to you today is this: if this sounds, in any way, familiar to you, if you have been trying to be perfect in one way or another, too, then make today, when for a moment there are no more grades to be gotten, classmates to be met, terrain to be scouted, positioning to be arranged–make today the day to put down the backpack. Trying to be perfect may be sort of inevitable for people like us, who are smart and ambitious and interested in the world and in its good opinion. But at one level it's too hard, and at another, it's too cheap and easy. Because it really requires you mainly to read the zeitgeist of wherever and whenever you happen to be, and to assume the masks necessary to be the best of whatever the zeitgeist dictates or requires. Those requirements shapeshift, sure, but when you're clever you can read them and do the imitation required.

But nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great ever came out of imitations. The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.

This is more difficult, because there is no zeitgeist to read, no template to follow, no mask to wear. Set aside what your friends expect, what your parents demand, what your acquaintances require. Set aside the messages this culture sends, through its advertising, its entertainment, its disdain and its disapproval, about how you should behave.

Set aside the old traditional notion of female as nurturer and male as leader; set aside, too, the new traditional notions of female as superwoman and male as oppressor. Begin with that most terrifying of all things, a clean slate. Then look, every day, at the choices you are making, and when you ask yourself why you are making them, find this answer: for me, for me. Because they are who and what I am, and mean to be.

This is the hard work of your life in the world, to make it all up as you go along, to acknowledge the introvert, the clown, the artist, the reserved, the distraught, the goofball, the thinker. You will have to bend all your will not to march to the music that all of those great “theys” out there pipe on their flutes. They want you to go to professional school, to wear khakis, to pierce your navel, to bare your soul. These are the fashionable ways. The music is tinny, if you listen close enough. Look inside. That way lies dancing to the melodies spun out by your own heart. This is a symphony. All the rest are jingles.

This will always be your struggle whether you are twenty-one or fifty-one. I know this from experience. When I quit the New York Timesto be a full-time mother, the voices of the world said that I was nuts. When I quit it again to be a full-time novelist, they said I was nuts again. But I am not nuts. I am happy. I am successful on my own terms. Because if your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all. Remember the words of Lily Tomlin: If you win the rat race, you're still a rat.

Look at your fingers. Hold them in front of your face. Each one is crowned by an abstract design that is completely different than those of anyone in this crowd, in this country, in this world. They are a metaphor for you. Each of you is as different as your fingerprints. Why in the world should you march to any lockstep?

The lockstep is easier, but here is why you cannot march to it. Because nothing great or even good ever came of it. When young writers write to me about following in the footsteps of those of us who string together nouns and verbs for a living, I tell them this: every story has already been told. Once you've read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbirdand A Wrinkle in Time,you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel. Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had. And that is herself, her own personality, her own voice. If she is doing Faulkner imitations, she can stay home. If she is giving readers what she thinks they want instead of what she is, she should stop typing.

But if her books reflect her character, who she really is, then she is giving them a new and wonderful gift. Giving it to herself, too.

And that is true of music and art and teaching and medicine. Someone sent me a T-shirt not long ago that read “Well-Behaved Women Don't Make History.” They don't make good lawyers, either, or doctors or businesswomen. Imitations are redundant. Yourself is what is wanted.

You already know this. I just need to remind you. Think back. Think back to first or second grade, when you could still hear the sound of your own voice in your head, when you were too young, too unformed, too fantastic to understand that you were supposed to take on the protective coloration of the expectations of those around you. Think of what the writer Catherine Drinker Bowen once wrote, more than half a century ago: “Many a man who has known himself at ten forgets himself utterly between ten and thirty.” Many a woman, too.

You are not alone in this. We parents have forgotten our way sometimes, too. I say this as the deeply committed, often flawed mother of three. When you were first born, each of you, our great glory was in thinking you absolutely distinct from every baby who had ever been born before. You were a miracle of singularity, and we knew it in every fiber of our being.

But we are only human, and being a parent is a very difficult job, more difficult than any other, because it requires the shaping of other people, which is an act of extraordinary hubris. Over the years we learned to want for you things that you did not want for yourself. We learned to want the lead in the play, the acceptance to our own college, the straight and narrow path that often leads absolutely nowhere. Sometimes we wanted those things because we were convinced it would make life better, or at least easier for you. Sometimes we had a hard time distinguishing between where you ended and we began.

So that another reason that you must give up on being perfect and take hold of being yourself is because sometime, in the distant future, you may want to be parents, too. If you can bring to your children the self that you truly are, as opposed to some amalgam of manners and mannerisms, expectations and fears that you have acquired as a carapace along the way, you will give them, too, a great gift. You will teach them by example not to be terrorized by the narrow and parsimonious expectations of the world, a world that often likes to color within the lines when a spray of paint, a scrawl of crayon, is what is truly wanted.

Remember yourself, from the days when you were younger and rougher and wilder, more scrawl than straight line. Remember all of yourself, the flaws and faults as well as the many strengths. Carl Jung once said, “If people can be educated to see the lowly side of their own natures, it may be hoped that they will also learn to understand and to love their fellow men better. A little less hypocrisy and a little more tolerance toward oneself can only have good results in respect for our neighbors, for we are all too prone to transfer to our fellows the injustice and violence we inflict upon our own natures.”

Most commencement speeches suggest you take up something or other: the challenge of the future, a vision of the twenty-first century. Instead I'd like you to give up. Give up the backpack. Give up the nonsensical and punishing quest for perfection that dogs too many of us through too much of our lives. It is a quest that causes us to doubt and denigrate ourselves, our true selves, our quirks and foibles and great leaps into the unknown, and that is bad enough.

But this is worse: that someday, sometime, you will be somewhere, maybe on a day like today–a berm overlooking a pond in Vermont, the lip of the Grand Canyon at sunset. Maybe something bad will have happened: you will have lost someone you loved, or failed at something you wanted to succeed at very much.

And sitting there, you will fall into the center of yourself. You will look for that core to sustain you. If you have been perfect all your life, and have managed to meet all the expectations of your family, your friends, your community, your society, chances are excellent that there will be a black hole where your core ought to be.

Don't take that chance. Begin to say no to the Greek chorus that thinks it knows the parameters of a happy life when all it knows is the homogenization of human experience. Listen to that small voice from inside you, that tells you to go another way. George Eliot wrote, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” It is never too early, either. And it will make all the difference in the world. Take it from someone who has left the backpack full of bricks far behind. Every day feels light as a feather.


“I Wish You Bad Luck” by John Roberts

This speech was delivered for the Commencement Address at Cardigan, his son's high school, on June 3, 2017.

Speech Transcript

Rain, somebody said, is like confetti from heaven. So even the heavens are celebrating this morning, joining the rest of us at this wonderful commencement ceremony.

Before we go any further, graduates, you have an important task to perform because behind you are your parents and guardians. Two or three or four years ago, they drove into Cardigan, dropped you off, helped you get settled and then turned around and drove back out the gates. It was an extraordinary sacrifice for them. They drove down the trail of tears back to an emptier and lonelier house. They did that because the decision about your education, they knew, was about you. It was not about them. That sacrifice and others they made have brought you to this point. But this morning is not just about you. It is also about them, so I hope you will stand up and turn around and give them a great round of applause. Please.

Now when somebody asks me how the remarks at Cardigan went, I will be able to say they were interrupted by applause.

Congratulations, class of 2017. You’ve reached an important milestone. An important stage of your life is behind you. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you it is the easiest stage of your life, but it is in the books. While you’ve been at Cardigan, you have all been a part of an important international community as well. And I think that needs to be particularly recognized.

(At this time, Roberts gave brief remarks in other languages.)

Now around the country today at colleges, high schools, middle schools, commencement speakers are standing before impatient graduates. And they are almost always saying the same things. They will say that today is a commencement exercise. ‘It is a beginning, not an end. You should look forward.’ And I think that is true enough, however, I think if you’re going to look forward to figure out where you’re going, it’s good to know where you’ve been and to look back as well. And I think if you look back to your first afternoon here at Cardigan, perhaps you will recall that you were lonely. Perhaps you will recall that you were a little scared, a little anxious. And now look at you. You are surrounded by friends that you call brothers, and you are confident in facing the next step in your education.

It is worth trying to think why that is so. And when you do, I think you may appreciate that it was because of the support of your classmates in the classroom, on the athletic field and in the dorms.

And as far as the confidence goes, I think you will appreciate that it is not because you succeeded at everything you did, but because with the help of your friends, you were not afraid to fail. And if you did fail, you got up and tried again. And if you failed again, you got up and tried again. And if you failed again, it might be time to think about doing something else. But it was not just success, but not being afraid to fail that brought you to this point.

Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.

Now commencement speakers are also expected to give some advice. They give grand advice, and they give some useful tips. The most common grand advice they give is for you to be yourself. It is an odd piece of advice to give people dressed identically, but you should—you should be yourself. But you should understand what that means. Unless you are perfect, it does not mean don’t make any changes. In a certain sense, you should not be yourself. You should try to become something better. People say ‘be yourself’ because they want you to resist the impulse to conform to what others want you to be. But you can’t be yourself if you don’t learn who are, and you can’t learn who you are unless you think about it.

The Greek philosopher Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ And while ‘just do it’ might be a good motto for some things, it’s not a good motto when it’s trying to figure out how to live your life that is before you. And one important clue to living a good life is to not to try to live the good life. The best way to lose the values that are central to who you are is frankly not to think about them at all.

So that’s the deep advice. Now some tips as you get ready to go to your new school. Other the last couple of years, I have gotten to know many of you young men pretty well, and I know you are good guys. But you are also privileged young men. And if you weren’t privileged when you came here, you are privileged now because you have been here. My advice is: Don’t act like it.

When you get to your new school, walk up and introduce yourself to the person who is raking the leaves, shoveling the snow or emptying the trash. Learn their name and call them by their name during your time at the school.

Another piece of advice: When you pass by people you don’t recognize on the walks, smile, look them in the eye and say hello. The worst thing that will happen is that you will become known as the young man who smiles and says hello, and that is not a bad thing to start with.

You’ve been at a school with just boys. Most of you will be going to a school with girls. I have no advice for you.

The last bit of advice I’ll give you is very simple, but I think it could make a big difference in your life. Once a week, you should write a note to someone. Not an email. A note on a piece of paper. It will take you exactly 10 minutes. Talk to an adult, let them tell you what a stamp is. You can put the stamp on the envelope. Again, 10 minutes, once a week. I will help you, right now.

I will dictate to you the first note you should write. It will say, ‘Dear [fill in the name of a teacher at Cardigan Mountain School].’ Say: ‘I have started at this new school. We are reading [blank] in English. Football or soccer practice is hard, but I’m enjoying it. Thank you for teaching me.’ Put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and send it. It will mean a great deal to people who—for reasons most of us cannot contemplate—have dedicated themselves to teaching middle school boys. As I said, that will take you exactly 10 minutes a week. By the end of the school year, you will have sent notes to 40 people. Forty people will feel a little more special because you did, and they will think you are very special because of what you did. No one else is going to carry that dividend during your time at school.

Enough advice. I would like to end by reading some important lyrics. I cited the Greek philosopher Socrates earlier. These lyrics are from the great American philosopher, Bob Dylan. They’re almost 50 years old. He wrote them for his son, Jesse, who he was missing while he was on tour. It lists the hopes that a parent might have for a son and for a daughter. They’re also good goals for a son and a daughter. The wishes are beautiful, they’re timeless. They’re universal. They’re good and true, except for one: It is the wish that gives the song its title and its refrain. That wish is a parent’s lament. It’s not a good wish. So these are the lyrics from Forever Young by Bob Dylan:

May God bless you and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay forever young

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
And may you stay forever young

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
And may you stay forever young

Thank you.


“Do Schools Kill Creativity?” by Ken Robinson

This speech was delivered by Ken Robinson at TED2016.

Speech Transcript

Good morning. How are you?

It's been great, hasn't it? I've been blown away by the whole thing. In fact, I'm leaving.

There have been three themes running through the conference which are relevant to what I want to talk about. One is the extraordinary evidence of human creativity in all of the presentations that we've had and in all of the people here. Just the variety of it and the range of it. The second is that it's put us in a place where we have no idea what's going to happen, in terms of the future. No idea how this may play out.

I have an interest in education. Actually, what I find is everybody has an interest in education. Don't you? I find this very interesting. If you're at a dinner party, and you say you work in education — Actually, you're not often at dinner parties, frankly.

If you work in education, you're not asked.

And you're never asked back, curiously. That's strange to me. But if you are, and you say to somebody, you know, they say, “What do you do?” and you say you work in education, you can see the blood run from their face. They're like, “Oh my God,” you know,

“Why me?”

“My one night out all week.”

But if you ask about their education, they pin you to the wall. Because it's one of those things that goes deep with people, am I right? Like religion, and money and other things. So I have a big interest in education, and I think we all do. We have a huge vested interest in it, partly because it's education that's meant to take us into this future that we can't grasp. If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue, despite all the expertise that's been on parade for the past four days, what the world will look like in five years' time. And yet we're meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.

And the third part of this is that we've all agreed, nonetheless, on the really extraordinary capacities that children have — their capacities for innovation. I mean, Sirena last night was a marvel, wasn't she? Just seeing what she could do. And she's exceptional, but I think she's not, so to speak, exceptional in the whole of childhood. What you have there is a person of extraordinary dedication who found a talent. And my contention is, all kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly.

So I want to talk about education and I want to talk about creativity. My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.

(Applause) Thank you.

That was it, by the way. Thank you very much.

So, 15 minutes left.

Well, I was born… no.

I heard a great story recently — I love telling it — of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was six, and she was at the back, drawing, and th