Advice for a nephew, inspiration from a wonderful life

Last week the father of a couple of my best friends passed away. Earl Potter was a leader and successful and well regarded. He had a twinkle in his eye, a strong handshake, amazing curiosity, and a wonderful presence. A horrible loss, another life taken by automobiles.

And this week one of my nephews is in town from the New Orleans area, where he is a senior in the most selective local magnet high school w/ a high GPA despite being a minority w/ divorced parents whose Mom works at least two jobs in part because she never went to college; he’s a great kid and he’s my nephew so I’m thinking about how to be a value-added Uncle (other than letting him borrow my car or raid my bank account). I’m going to spend a couple of days later this week and weekend with my nephew and the expectation is very much that I’m going to further mentor him and, I suppose, impart some wisdom.

Here’s the thing — while I’m over-read and educated and certainly live by some engineered habits and values — I’m sure I’m not wise. So what I thought I’d do is try to package some of the inspiration I felt while kneeling at Earl’s funeral service — and in discussions with his friends and family — and try to harness it in a form that might be useful for my nephew and maybe for others, including, especially, myself and my 9 year old daughter as she grows.

I thought I’d organize my thoughts into questions my nephew may ask or may want to ask.

Here goes:

What will business be like after I get out of college?

Like many people I think a lot about trends in technology. I have read the Second Machine Age ( relatively recently, I’m up to my neck in machine learning, and just listened to a podcast with Kevin Kelly of Wired fame now (

By the way, I highly recommend the Tim Ferris podcast and his interview with Marc Andreessen as well as the Kevin Kelly interview are each quite fun and insightful.

If I had to summarize changes to the prospects for a young American it would be that thanks to globalization, and automation, and now even the rise of machine learning that we can expect to see ongoing exacerbation in income inequality. If you have something that is the best in the world you can now achieve global scale relatively easily. That’s not to say that I think the rich getting richer is just or that there isn’t more we can all do to improve opportunities and outcomes.

However I’m also reminded of Earl Potter’s life experience. He was drafted during the Vietnam war and enlisted in the Coast Guard. He faced “an uncertain future” — the mortality rates for the coast guard in Vietnam was extremely high. Whereas we live in a time in which our kids and nephews might wonder about when and how the robots will come to take our jobs or perhaps enable us to do work beyond our comprehension, Mr Potter lived in a time in which he was thrown into the literal front lines of conflict in which his life was at risk.

So what did he do? He traveled the world. And did his duty. With, by all accounts, a joy of life that remained infectious throughout his life. And he had an incredible life.

Which brings me to my first suggestion — the words of Polonius still ring true: “above all else, to thine own self be true.” While typically this is interpreted at least in California as “follow your muse, dude” — or more specifically “go kite surfing” — scholars of Shakespeare suggest he probably meant it to mean be honest with yourself. And here it is worth mentioning that radical candor is fundamental not just to self growth and happiness but to leadership and achieving great outcomes professionally; First Round has a great blog summarizing the insights of Kim Scott of Google fame here: and you could see a similar thread running through the the success of organizations such as Bridgewater Associates, whose founder Ray Dalio outlines his principals in a handbook given to each new hire here:

In short — if you want to chart your course don’t become too transfixed by what is on the outside. Instead, examine yourself and start to test hypotheses about what you like to do that can make you happy and, again, truly great at what you do. And before you spend too many hours examining your navel — “what is my favorite color, which religion should I follow, how can I be truly me” — keep in mind that only through experience can we both reveal and build upon ourselves. Get out there and try to be great at something. You’ll flourish.

Along those same lines, the mind / body duality is arguably a false one. Which means, for example, what you eat or how much exercise and sleep you have had can help determine how you feel and what decisions you make. And if you are not careful you will form habits that over time degrade your ability to flourish; if you habitually sit around eating junk food and playing pointless video games, you’ll become a much less capable person — on the other hand, if you habitually eat well, get enough rest, and try to learn something new every day over time you’ll flourish. To be direct, I suggest spending some time each day being ‘mindful’ with a quiet mind. I also suggest exercising frequently as that both improves your effectiveness as a person — for example building your energy levels and physical presence — and also because it is an area where you can quantify your self improvements.

There may be relatively few of us that have been able to run through an iterative process to find our strengths and, frankly, to improve where we were weak all in the name of building a life — and a self — into something we find meaningful. Which brings me to the next possible question….

Where should I go to college?

If you accept that, as suggested above, life is about learning about oneself and about adding to one’s character desired traits and skills and also about where one’s engineered self can make the greatest impact in life -> then clearly education is about much more than vocational concerns. So don’t just go to the school that will help you learn a certain field faster or maybe for less money. Whatever field you learn in college will likely not exist in 20–30 years. But you will (we hope). And so will society. And so will your capacity to learn.

So go somewhere you feel comfortable learning and learning about how you like to learn and about what it takes to turn yourself into who you want to be. In my case this meant getting into the best liberal arts college I could attend; these institutions have unmatched student / teacher ratios, are small enough that you will inevitably have opportunities to lead and to experiment, and yet the top ones have incredible facilities and reputations so that you also have much of the reach of the top research institutions such as Stanford, Berkeley, or Harvard and the other Ivy League schools.

Because the size and mission and track record of the top Liberal Arts colleges you are going to have the opportunity to lead and to shine amidst some of the smartest and most interesting people your age in the world.

On the other hand, many of these schools are in areas of the country that are economically and socially less dynamic and also colder and in my opinion somewhat less beautiful than California. With that in mind, it may well be worth trading off being one of 300–400 people in your freshman classes vs. one of 7–10 in return for a much stronger network of people in Silicon Valley.

One more point — when at Williams I had the chance to go to Williams at Oxford however I didn’t go in part because I heard that academically it wasn’t that challenging and I was really excited about the courses I was going to take junior year at Williams; plus it would have been tricky as my major was essentially a double major. Since then I’ve learned so much about the United States — and about myself — by traveling outside of the United States. I strongly recommend that as a part of your college experience you travel to other dynamic parts of the world. Europe is nice too :) I also found hiking for a couple of weeks in the backwoods could provide a similar perspective. You will “see” the fabric and attitudes and assumptions of the United States more clearly by leaving the US (or at least hiking into the woods) and looking back upon it.

How can I compete? I don’t know how to code, to present, to lead?

If you know how to learn then you will know how to stay on top of trends as they emerge.

One advantage of high technology and other fields that change quickly is that you can become an expert in a field fairly quickly simply by picking up the new technologies and attempting to use them. I categorically reject any excuses when it comes to learning. There has never been a better time to learn. I learn every day and without it I’d feel dull — nearly dead to the world. Learning should be a way of life.

However, again, you need to learn what it takes for you to learn. We all learn a bit differently. Per the above, keep a bias towards action. Try something, get feedback (that radical candor again), and make changes both to what you understand and to how you plan to learn better next time.

A few more thoughts:

As the song goes, “I hope you dance.”

Joy — and struggle; love — and heartbreak; who you are today and who you want to become…

Embrace these and other dualities.

And maybe like Earl Potter and others like him you’ll live with a twinkle in your eye that seems to say — “life — isn’t it wonderful?”

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