Last weekend I gave a speech at this year’s graduation event for the Stanford Online High School (OHS) that one of my children has been attending. Here’s the transcript:
Thank you for inviting me to be part of this celebration today—and congratulations to this year’s OHS graduates.
You know, as it happens, I myself never officially graduated from high school, and this is actually the first high school graduation I’ve ever been to.
It’s been fun over the past three years—from a suitable parental distance of course—to see my daughter’s experiences at OHS. One day I’m sure everyone will know about online high schools—but you’ll be able to say, “Yes, I was there when that way of doing such-and-such a thing was first invented—at OHS.”
It’s great to see the OHS community—and to see so many long-term connections being formed independent of geography. And it’s also wonderful to see students with such a remarkable diversity of unique stories.
Of course, for the graduates here today, this is the beginning of a new chapter in their stories.
I suspect some of you already have very definite life plans. Many are still exploring. It’s worth remembering that there’s no “one right answer” to life. Different people are amazingly different in what they’ll consider an “‘A’ in life”. I think the first challenge is always to understand what you really like. Then you’ve got to know what’s out there to do in the world. And then you’ve got to solve the puzzle of fitting the two together.
Maybe you’ll discover there’s a niche that already exists; maybe you’ll have to create one.
I’ve always been interested in trajectories of peoples’ lives, and one thing I’ve noticed is that after some great direction has emerged in someone’s life, one can almost always look back and see the seeds of it very early.
Like I was recently a bit shocked actually to find some things I did when I was 12 years old—about systematizing knowledge and data—and to realize that what I was trying to do was incredibly similar to Wolfram|Alpha. And then to realize that my tendency to invent projects and organize other kids to help do them was awfully like leading an entrepreneurial company.
You know, it’s funny how things can play out. Back when I was a kid I was really interested in physics. And to do physics you have to do a lot of math calculations. Which I found really boring, and wasn’t very good at.
So what did I do? Well, I figured out that even though I might not be good at these calculations, I could make a computer be good at them. And needless to say, that’s what I did—and through a pretty straight path, that’s what brought the world Mathematica and Wolfram|Alpha.
You know, another thing was that when I was a kid I always had a hard time getting myself to do exercises from textbooks. I kept on thinking to myself, “Why am I doing this exercise when zillions of other people have already done it? Why don’t I do something different, that’s new, and mine?”
People might think: that must be really hard. But it’s not. It’s just that you have to learn not just about how to do stuff, but also about how to figure out what stuff to do. And actually one thing I’ve noticed is that in almost every area, the people who go furthest are not the ones with the best technical skills, but the ones who have the best strategy for figuring out what to do.
But I have to say that for me it’s just incredibly fun inventing new stuff—and that’s pretty much what I’ve spent my life doing.
I think most people don’t really internalize enough how stuff in our world gets made. I mean, everything we have in our civilization—our technology, our ways of doing things, whatever—had to be invented. It had to start with some person somewhere—maybe like you—having an idea. And then that idea got turned into reality.
It’s a wonderful thing going from nothing but an idea—to something real in the world. For me, that’s my favorite thing to do. And I’ve been fortunate enough to do that with a number of big projects, alternating between science, technology and business. At some level, my projects might look very different: building a new kind of science, creating a computer language, encoding the world’s knowledge in computational form.
But it turns out that at some level they’re really all the same. They’re all about taking some complicated area, drilling down to the essence of it, then doing a big project to build up to something that’s useful in the world.
And when you think about what it is you really like, and what you’re really good at, it’s important to be thematic. Maybe you like math. But why? Is it the definiteness? Problem solving? Elegance? Even at OHS you only get to learn about certain specific subjects. So to understand yourself, you have to take your reactions to them, and generalize—figure out the overall theme.
You know, something I’ve learned is that the more different areas I know about, the better. When I was a kid I learned Latin and Greek—and I was always complaining that they’d never be useful. But then I grew up—and had to make up names for products and things. And actually for years a big part of what I’ve done every day is to take ideas from very different areas that I’ve learned about—and bring them together to make new ideas.
One thing, if you want to do this, is that you really have to keep all those things you’ve learned at your fingertips. History of science can’t stay in a history of science class. It has to inform that clever social media idea you have, or that great new policy direction you come up with, or that artistic creation you’re making, or whatever. The real payoff comes not from doing well in the class, but from internalizing that way of thinking or that knowledge so it becomes part of you.
You know, as you think about what to do in the world, it’s worth remembering that some of the very best areas are ones that almost nobody’s heard about yet—and there certainly aren’t classes about. But if you get into one of those new areas, it’s great—because there’s still all this basic ground-floor stuff to do there, and as the area grows, you get propelled by that.
I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard. Because early in life I got really interested in computation, and in the computational way of thinking about things. And I think it’s becoming clear that computation is really the single most important idea that’s emerged in the past century. And that even after all the technology that’s been built with it, we’re only just beginning to see its true significance.
And today, you just have to prepend the word “computational” to almost any existing field to get something that’s an exciting growth direction: computational law, computational medicine, computational archaeology, computational philosophy, computational photography, whatever.
And yes, to be able to do all this stuff, you have to get familiar with the computational way of thinking, and with things like programming. That’s going to be an increasingly important literacy skill. And I have to say that in general, even more valuable than learning the content of specific fields is to learn general approaches and tools—and keep up to date with them.
It’s not for everybody, but I myself happen to have spent a lot of time actually building tools. And for me the most powerful thing has been being able to build a tower of tools, then to use them to figure things out, then to use those things to go on and build more tools. And I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to go on doing that for more than 30 years now.
You know, it’s always an interesting judgment call when to go on in a life direction you’re already going, and when to branch into something new, or to chase some new opportunity. For myself, I try to maintain a portfolio—continuing to build on what I’ve done, but also always making sure to add new things.
One of the consequences of that is that at any given time, there’s always an area where I’m basically a beginner—and just learning. Right now, for example, that happens to be programming education. We’ve managed to automate a lot of programming—which I think is going to be a pretty big deal in general—but for education it means there’s a much broader range of people and places where programming can be taught. But how should it be done? Math and language and areas like that have centuries of education experience to draw on. But with what’s now possible with programming education, we’ve got a completely new situation, that kind of has to be figured out from the ground up. It’s always a little scary doing something like that, and I always think, “Maybe this is finally an area I’ll never figure out.” But somehow if one has the confidence to keep going, it always seems to come together—and it’s really satisfying.
You know, when I was a kid I learned some things in school and some things on my own. I was always doing projects about this or that. And somehow I’ve just kept on doing projects and learning more and more things. You’ve been exposed to lots of interesting things at OHS. Make sure you expose yourselves to lots more things in college or wherever you’re going next. And don’t forget to do projects—to do things that are really yours, and that people can look at and really get a sense of you from.
And don’t just learn stuff. Keep thinking about strategy too. Keep trying to solve the puzzle of what your best niche is. You might find it or you might have to create it. But there will be something great out there for you. And never assume that the world won’t let you get to it. It’s all part of the puzzle to solve. And the seeds are already there in who you are; you just have to find them, nurture them, and keep pushing to let them grow as each chapter of your story unfolds…