by Adam Naor
I shared a meal with a tech billionaire. The advice he gave me was priceless.
While on a camping trip with friends last year I met and spent time with a self-made billionaire.
This entrepreneur, who earned his wealth by building software that many people use daily, spoke with us at great lengths and shared an impressive and arching vision of history and technology.
His thought provoking perspective inspired my first freeCodeCamp article.
Recently, our paths crossed again. I surmised that he would have new thoughts to share and advice to pass on.
My intuition was correct.
This time we spoke over a long meal. We discussed some of the political and technological developments that have occurred since our last meeting. Much like our first conversation, his words left an indelible impression.
I want to share these values with you — for I believe that the world would be better off if we all took his guidance to heart.
Value #1: Be kind
Don’t let ego, success, status, or power ever stand in the way of being kind. Kindness is more than an act. Kindness is a mindset, a way of living.
“Good manners,” the billionaire noted, “are always in fashion.” He told me the story of a CEO of one of the world’s largest companies.
By being kind, this CEO was able to retain talent and reduce executive turnover. Kindness empowered people to take more calculated, yet bold, risks. This led to a strong culture and durable competitive advantages.
“Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough” — President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Value #2: Strive for self-awareness and self-improvement
Ask yourself: What are you good at? What do you love to do? What skills are you able and willing to develop to have a bigger impact? And lastly, what are your blindspots?
In our first meeting, he noted: “no matter what you do, you can do it better.” This theme remained present in our most recent conversation. He challenged me to think critically about the skills the future will value, and to start developing those skills today.
In particular, he believes that machine learning and natural language processing are advances that all future technologists must deeply understand and that future computational progress will be built on.
He also challenged me to think about my limitations and how to improve by taking on weaknesses head-on. He analogized to sports: “even a basketball player that is a strong scorer will spend ample time practicing dribbling, passing, defense — while still taking hundreds of shots a day to keep the shot sharp.”
“A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.” — Steve Prefontaine
Value #3: Build bridges between people and listen carefully and intently
All people, and technologists in particular, should work hard to “build inclusive bridges” to connect and share common goals and visions.
He argued: “Act. Be Bold. Do things and don’t sit around with self-doubt, regret, or fear. Meet people from all walks of life and listen carefully to them.” After a short pause he added: “surround yourself with ‘doers’. Embrace change, embrace newness, and go build things that matter and that help people.” The ability to work with others to execute is a critical skill that should be cultivated and practiced.
“If we want technology to serve society rather than enslave it, we have to build systems accessible to all people — be they male or female, young, old, disabled, computer wizards or technophobes…Leaders of the future will have to be visionary and be able to bring people in — real communicators…” — Anita Borg
Value #4: Generate lots of ideas
Keep an “idea journal” and write down 5–10 new ideas per day. Think about all aspects of your life. How can each aspect be improved?
Write these ideas down and explain how they work or solve a problem that you face. As your ideas become stronger and better defined, draw sketches or write down product specifications.
How would this product work, and how would it be built? Try to break down software and hardware into simpler components. Become a domain expert and make improvements to your field.
Developing many ideas will lead to many that don’t work and a handful that will. Citing author Adam Grant, the billionaire noted that creative thinkers produce a greater volume of work which “gives them more variation and a higher chance of originality.” Successful ideas are a function of the total number of ideas generated.
“An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail” — Edwin Land
Returning from our meal, I thought about how I could leverage his advice to develop as a leader and aspiring technology investor and builder. As was the case during our first meeting, I realized that many of his views were specific to the successes of his life and the products he had helped engineer. Nevertheless, I thought about how I might apply them to the betterment of career and my goal of being a lifelong learner.
Imagine a world in which people are kind, strive for self-awareness and self-improvement, show agency, listen intently to others, and generate lots of ideas. This is the kind of world I want to live in. My intuition — and hope — is that you do too.
Thanks for reading. I’m doing my best to heed this advice, and if you’re interested in connecting you can reach me via LinkedIn or leave a note here.