Inside the mind of a billionaire — Sebastian Thrun

For most of my life, I’ve lived in a narrow circle of competence and limited to very small-scale thinking.

Small town, small school, small communities.

Hopes to go to university a small distance from home and maybe even to get a job in my hometown.

’Cause, why not, right? (wrong)

Then I joined TKS, and when we started learning about some of the smartest people in the world, everything changed.

Last week, we were learning about Sebastian Thrun, and he completely shifted my perspective.

Then, yesterday, I got to meet with him personally for lunch.

Ok, fine, I made the last part up. But! I DID recently get to visit his companies Udacity and Kitty Hawk in Silicon Valley (if you don’t know what this is, trust me — just watch)

Riding in a self-driving car at Udacity — this part wasn’t made up!

One particular quote from Sebastian really resonates with me:

I was head of Google X, I could be running possibly the coolest lab on the planet, my name was in the news at least three times a week for something… and here I am, giving up 97% of my salary joining a little startup company for a small fraction of income to go after education.

Simply put… Sebastian is a crazy (smart) dude.

But hang on, what’s this about giving up 97% of his salary?

It all comes down to the first big lesson we can learn from him:

It takes roughly the same amount of time and energy to impact 100 people as it takes to impact 1,000,000.

Don’t believe me? You don’t have to.

Sebastian had this exact realization during his time as a professor at Stanford. He was about to begin teaching an introduction to artificial intelligence when he decided to put the course online.

His course had about 50 students at the time, so he only really expected around 500 people to sign up.

But within a week, his class size reached 14,000 and grew above 160,000 by the time the course had ended.

In other words, his results exceeded his expectations by 32,000% 🤯

Takeaway: Think (really) Big.

A quick foreword on this section: my editor said it was boring, so I added a little spice for your entertainment

Use “Massive Impact” as the foundation.

When I first came across this idea, it seemed pretty unintuitive.

To me, “Thinking Big” seemed like something that would emerge from thinking small and scaling the vision up.

But the story of Sebastian’s online class and so many other examples prove that my assumption was just plain wrong, and that realization led to a profound shift in the way I develop knowledge a pretty epic enlightenment, bro.

Here’s what I mean:

I’ve found that it’s actually really hard to be completely aware of my assumptions (i.e. “woke”), but I recently learned about a philosophy that helped me unpack them a bit.

A few thousand years ago, another smart dude named Plato challenged the rest of the world to imagine themselves as lifelong prisoners in a cave with nothing to look at except shadows on a wall.

Or, if you prefer the modern adaptation, a classroom of high school students. (jk… not really though) 😬

Real-life depiction of my tenth-grade history class.

Someone who spends their entire life in the cave knows nothing of the outside world, so they grow up believing that the shadows constitute their reality. (ain’t woke!)

But think about this… What if someone managed to escape the cave?

Everything they thought they knew about the world would come crashing down.

They would see colour. Depth. Change. And less standardized testing. 🙄

The tests we’re given in school are too arbitrary to mean much in the real world. It kind of reminds me of something Albert Einstein used to say:

In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are very different.

From the school system’s perspective, the theory taught in class is what will educate students about how the world works. And from a theoretical point of view, maybe being able to derive formulas and recite WWII facts is useful.

But really, when was the last time you had to come up with the angular momentum of a wooden cone spinning on top of a sliding wooden block?

Truthfully, the theory just doesn’t align with what’s practical in reality.

This resonates deeply with the early days of Udacity. The company started out as a replacement for university and immediately fell flat on its face.

The initial hypothesis that students would flock to online substitutes for their $80,000 program tuition was just plain wrong. But the next part is key:

The company was able to succeed because Sebastian recognized that his initial hypothesis was wrong and he was flexible enough to completely restructure the company’s mission in order to 🚀

Takeaway: Recognize the limitations of your own perspective so that you can constantly move towards improvement.


If you think about it, the main takeaways I learned from Sebastian can also apply to any aspect of life.

For me, thinking big means expanding beyond the bubble I’ve grown up in and pursuing literally an entire world of possibilities.

I never really understood what the rest of the world was like. I was just a kid from a small place in suburban Ontario with small visions. I never thought I would be able to make a big impact, so I never imagined myself doing so.

But now I’m no longer thinking small. Whenever I’m working on something, I ask how many people will it realistically impact, and how can I scale number that by 1000x?

And all because I learned

  • To think (wayyyy) bigger
  • To expect that theory is never the same as practice
  • And to recognize my perspective’s limitations in order to continue growing

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