“We’re up all night to the sun
We’re up all night to get some
We’re up all night for good fun
We’re up all night to get lucky”
– Daft Punk (source)
I recently returned from the South by South West Interactive conference in Austin. SXSWi is a colorful combination of tech schmoozing, learning and just having a good time.
Something stood out for me this time – wherever we went, there was some sweepstakes or the other. Esurance had this very elaborate set up where you could, once a day, scan a random card they gave you to potentially win a Fitbit and other bigger prizes. Pepsi had a booth at the conference center. Mashable, Buzzfeed, another geeky party – wherever we went, there was a lottery or a raffle, some game of chance.
Of course, there are two kinds of reactions from people when they see something like this: there are the people who roll their eyes, shake their head and keep walking. And then there are the people who think “why not?” and roll the dice.
This got me thinking. Why do people participate in a lottery in the first place? A lottery means taking on some risk (your financial input) for a minuscule chance of a disproportionate reward. Indeed, that chance of winning is so fractional that the expectation is to lose a lottery, to the extent that losing the lottery is almost part of the definition of lottery itself. No one says, “ah! I lost the lottery I participated in.” Losing the lottery doesn’t even make the news, but winning does.
Just because winning the lottery is an unlikely scenario, does that mean we shouldn’t even participate? Someone is going to win – what if that’s us? Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, once said (I am recreating to the extent that I can remember):
“Of course it was crazy for me to think that I’d be the new CEO. But I remember thinking, someone is going to be CEO!”
– Lloyd Blankfein
Several vastly successful people admit the role of luck in their lives. Michael Lewis says:
“Don’t be deceived by life’s outcomes. Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck…”
– Michael Lewis (source)
Jim Carrey, who quit school at 15 to help support his family, working as a janitor, talks about it:
“I had a substitute teacher from Ireland in the second grade that told my class during Morning Prayer that when she wants something, anything at all, she prays for it, and promises something in return and she always gets it. I’m sitting at the back of the classroom, thinking that my family can’t afford a bike, so I went home and I prayed for one, and promised I would recite the rosary every night…
Two weeks later, I got home from school to find a brand new mustang bike with a banana seat and easy rider handlebars… My family informed me that
I had won the bike in a raffle that a friend of mine had entered my name in, without my knowledge.
That type of thing has been happening ever since, and as far as I can tell, it’s just about letting the universe know what you want and working toward it while letting go of how it might come to pass.
Your job is not to figure out how it’s going to happen for you, but to open the door in your head and when the doors open in real life, just walk through it. Don’t worry if you miss your cue. There will always be another door opening. They keep opening.”
– Jim Carrey (source)
Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, says:
“I’m very, very lucky. I’m lucky in so many ways. I won a lot of lotteries in life and I’m not just talking about Amazon as a certain kind of financial lottery for sure, but I have won so many lotteries.
My parents were both amazing role models… In life, we get a lot of rolls of the dice, and one of the big rolls of the dice is who are your early role models.”
– Jeff Bezos (source)
I have won certain lotteries and we all know people who have. We don’t win those lotteries everyday or even frequently and we don’t win big every time but I think winning once is enough to truly realize that there’s a non-zero chance we may win again – if we keep our head on our shoulders and stay at it.
So maybe it’s not such a bad idea to spin the wheel every once in a while – and expect to win.
Ed Helms at Cornell:
“Only a fool would work hard when there is no clear objective. Be that fool. Many times in life, we don’t have a clear goal. Doesn’t matter. Be a fool and work hard at whatever’s right in front of you. When you try hard at everything you do, even if it seems utterly foolish to do so, you are opening up future doors and possibilities that you might not be seeing in the moment.
Only a fool would deliberately scare himself. Be that fool. Scaring ourselves isn’t necessarily fun for anybody, but you have to do it – it’s the most potent catalyst for growth.
I was a fool for taking on more than I could handle and it was brutal, but at least I had an outcome. And outcomes, whether good or bad, allow us to move forward. Maybe trim the sails, but stay in forward motion. Had I exercised good sense and good judgement, had I not been foolish I would have never done it and then all I would have is a vague sense of regret and wonder which is at best useless and at worst paralyzing.
Only a fool would disregard his past and future. Be that fool. We should all learn from our past and plan for our future, right? Well, sort of. The problem is we often take it too far and undervalue the present. Enjoy this moment! Staying present in the moment is counter-intuitive but it’s worth it.
I thought I was being smart, prudent, exercising discretion and common sense. But I was actually just being arrogant and fearful, preoccupied with catastrophe. What I really needed was to disengage my analytical mind and be foolishly in the moment.
The script in front of me was really funny, and made me laugh! I knew I would have fun making this movie. All of that information was reality, it was the present. My paranoid predictions about the future – that was fantasy. Once I focused on the present, what was real, the answer was abundantly clear. Do the damn movie!
Good old days are good because it’s the times we look back on and realize we really liked ourselves. I contend that good old days are marked by relatively high levels of foolishness. Case in point? College. College is almost always considered good old days and for good reason – it’s one of the great incubators for foolishness. Sadly so much of that vitality and curiosity that we bring to college is almost immediately squished out of us when we step out into the real world.
Remember when you arrived as freshmen for orientation and you were so open and curious and vulnerable? You went out of your way to meet other kids in your hall, you helped your neighbors move in. Over the next few years you worked hard but you probably also went to some weird jazz concerts or poetry readings, maybe a party or two. Perhaps you stayed up late debating Ayn Rand vs Karl Marx or skipped class to go on a great hike. You joined clubs, you scoured the course catalogs to find subjects that ignited your curiosity.
The world will tell you that that’s all well and good but it’s time to grow up now and leave those foolish, youthful diversions behind. Don’t fall for that. I’m here to tell you that those foolish diversions are the real nectar of life. Don’t relegate them to the good old days. Take them with you, keep creating good old days.
The only reason profound insights resonate with us is because at some level, we already know them. Somewhere deep inside we all share the secrets of the world. How you live your life depends on how many of those secrets will be revealed to you. Pursuing knowledge and responsibility gets you halfway there. The other half can only be tapped by being a glorious and wonderful fool.
Always nurture a healthy contempt for maturity and levelheadedness. The world out there cultivates conformity and cynicism but you don’t have to. Take a stand, put up a fight, be a fool. ”
People sometimes ask me – how was college? That question often leaves me speechless.
Princeton, when I first learned that you had accepted me – when the silhouette of that orange tiger delightfully filled up my computer monitor as my parents and I watched, stunned, sitting in my living room in New Delhi, India – I had never seen your campus. In fact, I had never seen any university’s campus. I had never been outside my country for the first 17 years of my life. It was a huge deal – not only was I leaving my country for the first time, it was also to start off college. So as excited as I was, I started off on tip-toes, for the first couple of weeks not knowing what I was doing. In some ways, not knowing if I could even trust you. But my Princeton interviewer told me I could trust you, and the beautiful faces at orientation told me I could trust you, and Jeff Nunokawa told me I could trust you, and… how can you not trust Jeff Nunokawa? So I gave it a shot and I gave you my trust – I gave you everything I had. And I am so glad I did.
Some people compare you to Disneyland. You are more like Disneyland++. There is a high price to get in and stay in – and I’m not talking about the money. It’s the hours, blood, sweat and tears that you have to spend to even hold a candle to the competition. But there is free laundry and the grass is perfectly groomed every single morning, so there’s that.
What I am sure of though is that I had the time of my life. What I am sure of is that you’ve prepared me to handle so much of what life will throw at me.
From now on, you are the constant in my life. Whether I change jobs or move to different cities or decide to grow facial hair, you are going to be the constant. You are what ties me to my best friends. You are the store of my best memories. You are my first love. You are my young adult life.
In so many ways, you are… home.
I know that when the year ends I can visit campus, see a familiar face and it will be like I never left. I know that even though others might be living in my freshman year dorm, when I go visit my room, all those memories from freshman year will come rushing back – roommates who I became best friends with, hallmates I made lifelong memories with. Their silhouettes will emerge in the room, around the dorm, and for a brief moment I will be a freshman again. Suitcase in hand, nervous parents by my side, standing in awe of the majestic Blair Arch. A clean slate, a fresh mind looking for direction, looking for purpose, looking for something that will engage it in the most challenging way.
I know I owe you – we all do. I also know that the debt I owe you is immeasurable, just as immeasurable as the impact you have had on my life – and the lives of countless other students. How can we ever repay that debt? I know it’s not going to be money – whether it’s a million dollars or ten, I know it’s not going to be enough.
Maybe the way to settle this debt then is to pay it forward. By trying to bring in a fraction of Jeff Nunokawa’s manic enthusiasm into our everyday interactions. By being as enchanting when we tell our stories as Harvey Rosen was when he introduced four hundred students to the world of microeconomics every fall, making them fall in love. By being as passionate about our work as Brian Kernighan was when he spoke about his love for computers and programming. By being as selfless as Shirley Tilghman, who devoted years of her life to an academic institution that changed the lives of thousands of students like us. Maybe by knowing, fully and completely, that we are really not all that different from people like Woodrow Wilson, Jeff Bezos, Michael Lewis and Meg Whitman – so that we might also aspire to achieving such greatness.
Princeton, I am sure I wasn’t the smartest person to walk your campus. I am sure I wasn’t the most dazzling, the most charming, the most eloquent – in fact, I am sure I wasn’t the most anything. What I do know is that I was surrounded by the nicest, smartest, sharpest, most ambitious and the most amazing people I have ever met, that I held my own for four years, and survived to tell the tale.
“Hey champ? How’s the new school? I loved school when I was your age. Seesaws, story time, chasing girls with sticks…
Ha ha ha ha! It wasn’t until the fifth grade that I found out she liked me, too.
But by then her family had moved to Scottsdale, so carpe diem, okay?”
Saul Goodman is one of the best cast characters in recent memory. Such a great job.
I remember, the first office didn’t even have a fan. But I didn’t seem to mind that at all at that point in time. I was so completely obsessed with what I was doing and what I was building. So every single year of my life when I look back, I thought, that was the coolest year of my life. That I was doing the most significant things that I could ever hope to do.
And that basically translates into being happy. So one way to describe myself would be, you know, an eternal optimist. When you are an optimist some of the external environment stuff doesn’t really bother you. It never bothered me.
It’s not just about a girl. It’s about a time and a place. It’s that time and that place. And that song. And you remember what it was like when you were in that place. And you listen to that song and you know you are not in that place anymore, it makes you feel hollow. You can’t just go find that stuff again.
- If you’re offered a seat on a rocketship, don’t ask what seat, just get on.
- Build your skills, not your resume.
- Don’t plan too much, and don’t expect a direct climb.
- Your strength will not come from your place in some org chart, your strength will come from building trust and earning respect.
You are going to need talent and skill and imagination and vision, but more than anything else, you’re going to need the ability to communicate authentically – to speak so that you can inspire the people around you, and to listen, so that you continue to learn each and every day on the job.
- All of us – especially leaders – need to speak and hear the truth.
- As you get more senior, not only will people speak less clearly to you, but they will overreact to small things you say.
- Three, that you remain true to, and open about, your authentic self.