Letter #4: Steve Jurvetson (2010)
St. Mark's School of Texas 2010 Commencement Speech
Hi there! I go by KG, and I love studying the history of business and investing. I’ll be sharing some notes from one Investor/Shareholder letter per weekday (mostly from my compilations) here.
Today’s notes are on Steve Jurvetson’s 2010 St. Mark’s School commencement speech. I’m still playing around with format here, but today’s format are lightly-annotated, highlighted quotes (longer than a tweetstorm allows). (bullet points = some of my thoughts).
You can find this essay in my Dear Graduates… Compilation. This particular essay starts on page 84.
I’m still figuring out formatting, so I’d appreciate if you let me know how you like this one compared to my previous ones.
If you have any thoughts on what you’d like to see, let me know!
I will post this on Flickr tonight so you have something to take away from this evening.
Jurvetson has, in my opinion, one of the greatest, and most consistent, blogs of all time. I’ve tried making a compilation for him, but there’s just too much. Highly recommend you just dive in yourself—I may try for a “best of SJ” compilation if there’s enough interest though.
And although I am facing your families from this podium, I am addressing my comments to you.
Always know your audience.
This reminds of me Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture. Even though he was addressing the audience, his real audience was his children. One of the greatest speeches of all time, btw.
It’s like my career path has ADD.
But had I stopped at any of the earlier branches, I may have never found my true calling – when fortune taps you figuratively on the shoulder and allows you to do something special. To find your calling in life is priceless.
Many people give up before finding their calling. Never stop looking, because when you find it, it will change your life.
In many ways, college should further open your field of view. The tree branches again and the child-like rush of myriad horizons opens anew.
Embrace something new. Explore the world. There will be plenty of time to iterate and execute as you age.
Interesting given all the hate that the University system is getting these days… especially in Silicon Valley. Despite all the calls for people to go into the real world, college is an invaluable experience that allows you to transition from the safety of home to the real world, discover your likes and dislikes, and just have fun.
Take the time to explore. You’ll have time to iterate and operate later on.
Unfortunately, most workplaces plunge us into deep mental ruts. They reward competencies that are self-reinforcing rather than diversifying, and they encourage people to acquire domain expertise instead of continuing to ask stupid questions and learn new things. We need to find our way out of these ruts, rediscover and rekindle the creativity that many of us left behind in childhood.
Whether by hobbies, or a career that rewards diversity, you have to make a determined effort to keep that part of yourself alive, but the payoff is a keener, more nimble intellect.
In short, celebrate the child-like mind.
Geeks like me do this naturally.
From what I can see, the best scientists and engineers nurture a child-like mind, even the greats, like Newton, Feynman and Einstein. They are playful, open-minded, and unrestrained by the inner voice of reason, collective cynicism, or fear of failure. Why do I say “child-like” mind? Alison Gopnik writes int eh book Scientist in the Crib (which I recommend to any geek about to have a child): “Babies are just plan smarter than we are, at least if being smart means being able to learn something new… They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations and even do experiments… In fact, scientists are successful precisely because they emulate what children do naturally.”
Of course, they lack wisdom and experience, but they are amazing learning machines.
When you’re young, everyone says to grow up. When you’re “grown-up” everyone says to embrace your inner child.
I maintain my inner child by doing what I enjoyed when I was a kid… reading sci-fi and philosophy (by philosophy I mean Calvin and Hobbes).
Many scientists are portrayed in the media as being socially awkward… is that a result of their “child-like mind and curiosity?” I find children often unable to read their environments and pick up on social cues… same as media-portrayed scientists
Although you can’t regrow an entire brain from serious injury, new synaptic connections are being formed all the time. This phenomenon is call neuroplasticity. Through cognitive exercise, you can dial up or down the rate of rewiring. Physical exercise is repetitive; mental exercise is eclectic.
As we extend human lifespan with each passing decade, we expose the weak evolutionary link – our brains were not built to last that long. In the not too distant future, we will look back and marvel that we thought we could stay mentally fit without mental exercise any better than we could stay physically fit without physical exercise.
Exercise is important — both mental and physical. In Chinese Martial Arts, a unity between body and mind (and soul) is often preached. Without one, you cannot have the other. It’s amazing seeing science explain our predecessors’ discoveries and thoughts.
How long as we extend the human lifespan? If our brains aren’t built to last, can we build a better brain?
Now I realize that for boys your age, about to experience collegiate life for the first time, it may be dangerous and downright reckless to suggest you fully embrace immaturity. I am referring only to cognitive curiosity. As for your physical health and safety, my only advice to you is that if you find yourself encircled by a crowd chanting “Do it! Do it!” it is almost always a good idea not to do whatever it is.
Lifelong learning is especially critical in a rapidly changing world. Not surprisingly, adult re-education is a booming market.
ABL: Always be learning
Consider public speaking. It is a learned skill, not an innate ability. I credit my years of debate at St. Mark’s for my ability to stand here before you today without completely freaking out.
And it has been my observation that the people that rise to the top of any organization – from companies to non-profits to politics – are good public speakers.
Consider computer science. I recently learned that most of the CS majors at Stanford had no prior programming experience. When they were deciding between Econ and Poli-Sci, they discovered CS. So it’s not too late to become a fine geek.
Public speaking and computer science. These two skills will never go out of style.
But, most importantly, explore a bit at college. This is especially true for those of you who already know what you want to major in.
One reason to consider this: the world is increasingly interdisciplinary. The critical advances that will change the world are more likely to come from the interstices between academic disciplines than from the purist’s pursuit of a traditional discipline like physics or chemistry.
Explore, explore, explore.
Personally, and I kid you not, when I was in 7th grade, I wrote down as one of my goals I would work for McKinsey or Goldman one day… needless to say, I did not explore very much until I realized how stupid I was (a whole seven years later during my sophomore year of college)
As Charlie Munger said, “You have to learn (The big ideas in all the other disciplines) 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.”
The sciences are converging… (or have they always been the same?)
Yes, innovation is important, yet it seems so random. So, let’s talk about that for a moment.
Let me pose a question to each of you: What is the most important company 20 years from now/ Think of a specific company, and if you are not into companies much, think of the most important person 20 years from now.
I would bet even money that nobody assembled here today is correct. Not because I know the company’s name, but because that company does not have a name yet. It does not exist today.
Startups pull the world forward.
The world is always changing. So… ABL
Entrepreneurs change the world, always have… Consider the billion-dollar creations of the recent past: Microsoft, Dell, Apple, Google, Facebook. What do they all have in common?
They were all started by students – most of them teenagers. You are not too young to dream of greatness.
Young != naive or clueless or uncapable
So when you first think about doing something entrepreneurial, let me give you this advice. If everyone thinks your idea is a good, one, it is not disruptive enough to change the world. If most people laugh at your or say it will never work, and a handful think it is brilliant, you may be on to something. If nobody agrees with you, you are probably wrong. Sometimes you just have to admit that.
Couldn’t say it any better myself.
And when it comes to finding innovation in an organization, leaders can tune process of innovation more than they can hope to dictate the product of innovation. Just like evolution.
Why? Unpredictable events increasingly rule our world. These are called Black Swan events, and they make sense in retrospect, but nobody saw them coming – like Google and eBay before they become Google and eBay.
Great additional reading on finding/tuning the process of innovation comes from Mike Maples Jr. of Floodgate on “How to Build a Breakthrough”
Nobody, but a select few, saw them coming. Google and eBay, after all, were career/fund-makers in the venture world
Moore’s Law was pretty important to the computer and communications industries… and over time, as formerly lab sciences became information sciences, Moore’s Law innervates other industries from biotech to cleantech, bringing them to the pace of change of the information age. This disrupts a lot of cozy businesses that have not seen much innovation for decades. And this non-linear pace of change is a perpetual source of disruption, and creating wave after wave of opportunities for new entrants.
Since the 80s, technological innovation has seemingly mostly stagnated (Peter Thiel & Tyler Cowen) outside of software.
If the physical sciences can match the pace of change of the internet, oh boy, we’re in for a fun future.
We use the tools from one generation to build the next, and this is true for all of technology. In fact it’s true for all innovation. Brian Arthur of the SFI (Santa Fe Institute) argues every invention is a novel combination of prior inventions. So over time, the combinatorial possibility space for new inventions grows exponentially. It is not just exogenous to economic swings, these inventions create the economy, and the economic growth that we cherish.
Brian Arthur’s increasing returns basically laid out why eBay would be so successful before eBay was even created… Bill Gurley speaks very, very highly of him
When you look at all the areas of accelerating change in technology and roll them up, there is a simple summary to remember: Today, 20 years of technological progress will be equivalent to the entire 20th century. In other words the 20 years taking us to 2020 will equal the past 100.
Change happens fast.
Nothing is certain but change.
Exponential progress perpetually pierces the linear presumptions of our intuition, and shrinks our forecast horizons. “Future Shock” is no longer on an inter-generational time-scale. For a current example, think of genetics.
Always look for linear input, exponential output (Peter Kaufman)
Realize that teenagers are also experimenting with this brave new world of synthetic biology. At the International Genetically Engineered Machines (IGEM) competition, teenagers are reprogramming E.Coli bacteria to be logic gates, arsenic sensors, symbiotic therapeutics, and photographic biofilms – what I like to call an E. Colaroid. For these teenagers, reprogramming the information systems of biology is not so different from playing with LEGO blocks.
Something I find fascinating is that people often dismiss young people, even though some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs (Jobs, Gates) and scientists/mathematicians (Newton, Ramanujan) started their companies and made their discoveries when they were teenagers/in their early 20s.
Craig Venter, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and entrepreneurs like them are our true national heroes. It is not our sports stars or entertainers.
Read the full letter for the story on Craig — Amazing guy.
What drives them is actually a universal human quest. We all strive by symbolic immortality – to leave something important behind after our short time on this Earth. Entrepreneurs create companies that outlast themselves, sometimes literally carrying on their name like Hewlett and Packard. Some create everlasting works of art or philanthropic acts of kindness. For many, we also find expression in our children and the generations left behind. (And your teachers are thinking about all of you like surrogate parents right now). And it goes without saying that some find it in a belief in the afterlife. It’s a powerful human drive.
My personal goal has always been to leave this world better than when I arrived, to make make an impact, no matter how big or how small, that I’m proud of.
They say people die twice. The first time is when you physical body dies and your heart stops beating. The second is when your name is said for the last time.
It’s interesting, Steve is striving for symbolic immortality, but based on his investments, also seems to be striving for physical immortality
So my hope for you is that you find a reservoir of self-confidence in some aspects of your life so that you can be humble, that you learn enough to never stop learning. And rest assured that we are entering an Intellectual Renaissance interwoven across the sciences. There is no better time to be a student of technology, no better time to start a company, no better time to learn something new. Individuals with good ideas are empowered as never before.
Know when to be confident and when to be humble
I like the number 6 on a scale of 1-10. Not so great that you look down on others, not so bad that you’re intimidated/can’t keep up with others. A solid mix between confidence and humility.
So skip forward on your future path with a playful curiosity; consider your destiny on this planet as something grand; change the world for the better, and you will find sweet success and the sublime satisfaction of symbolic immortality.
I love the word choice of here: “skip” rather than “walk,” “sprint,” “run,” or anything else.
What he refers to as destiny is what I refer to as the meaning of life
1) Always be Learning
Public Speaking and Compute Science are great places to start
2) Pursue interdisciplinary studies
Biology+Engineering particularly interesting right now
3) Embrace your inner child (cognitively)
If everyone around you is yelling “Do it! Do it!” you probably shouldn’t, whether that be in investing or in life.
Steve Jurvetson’s 2020 St. Mark’s School Commencement Speech
Speech given 10 years after this one, and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic
If you’ve got any thoughts, questions, or feedback, please drop me a line - I would love to chat! You can find me on twitter at @kevg1412 or my email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All compilations here.