How to live by your values, according to Andy Grove

An Elegy for Andy Grove

I didn’t think I’d miss my old professor Andy Grove. But on the day he died, I felt a great loss. So I thought about him, this most improbable of heroes, the Hungarian immigrant who escaped communism and founded a little startup that became Intel Corporation. The entreprenuers of the world revered him. The privileged of the world first scorned him — and then revered him, too. But not just for his might. For something truer, deeper, more beautiful. Something that he taught me then, and still resonates in me now. What is that something?

Andy Grove wasn’t just a winner. He was a leader. We are so blind today that we think they mean the same thing, but there’s a world of difference between the two. One can guide each and every one of us, as we stretch our own selves in our own little startups.

A winner is someone who wins something. An award, a fortune, a promotion, and so forth. A leader is someone who leads people, right? We don’t really call someone a “leader” unless they’ve got something to lead. But even that’s just a superficial definition. In Andy Grove, I see what the idea — it is not just a word — really means, and why it matters.

A true leader is someone who inspires people to work on things that matter, resonate, endure. What are those things? They’re not just degrees, money, job titles. Throughout history, the figures that we think of as inspired leaders, whether they are Andy Grove or Richard Feynman, defend values.

So what are values? They are not what you think they are. You’re probably thinking: values are whatever you think is important. I like smoothies, therefore I value strawberry smoothies. That’s not what values are about. Genuine values are what you think is worthy for everybody. What everybody should have, possess, obtain, own, inalienably, irrevocably, naturally, simply because they exist.

Andy Grove wasn’t just a winner. He was a leader. We are so blind today that we think they mean the same thing, but there’s a world of difference between the two.

Values aren’t about you at all. Values are about everyone. Yet so lost we are in this decade of decline that we forgot the most fundamental ethical idea of all, which is that a value is what makes life worthy. Not just your life, at everyone’s expense.

The list of possible values, then, is small. There aren’t too many things that a sensible person can believe are valuable to everyone. You can’t really hold slavery as a “value,” unless you want to be a slave. So to name a few: Truth. Freedom. Equality.

Those are the values that Andy Grove instilled in his students at Stanford University, in every single class. Those are the values that he practiced, not just for himself, but for us.

Sure, it’s true that we can “each have our own definitions” of values. But it’s truer to say that a few people live their definitions, while most don’t.

Why not? Because really living our values requires not just bravery, grit, cleverness, or might. But the mightiness thing of all. Love. Not in the romantic sense, it’s not Valentine’s day yet. But in the true sense of self-sacrifice. Why? A value is something we believe is good for everyone, not just for us. So to really live our values, we must often forego what is only good for us, right? If we can do that, then we can genuinely love the people we are leading a little bit, right?

That is the story of Andy Grove’s life. He stood against the Hungarian Fascist dictatorship and was exiled. He stood for freedom and justice, and was excoriated. And yet. We loved him because he loved us. In the simplest and truest way. He lived a set of values for us, not just for him.

What do we call it when people sacrifice a bit of themselves for others? Nobility. And that is what we admire, respect, love in leaders. They are noble. Not just proud, vain, narcissistic. Those are things with no meaning. Nobility makes mighty Gods out of little humans. True leaders are noble. They are willing to be condemned, exiled, excoriated, shunned. For genuine values. Things they believe that everyone should have.

So while I didn’t think I’d miss Andy Grove, I felt a great loss on the day he died. And then I wondered why. My old Stanford professor, a lion-hearted poet with a genius’s mind, what did he mean to me?

And then I realized that his life was a mirror of ours.

Our systems, institutions, way of life. What does it produce? It produces a small number of winners. A large number of losers. And almost no true leaders. Lion-hearted people with genuine values. Who are then noble enough to live them. Not just for themselves, but for us. Who defend them to the point of self-sacrifice. Because that is what living your values means.

The winners in Silicon Valley today are the opposite of leaders, are they not? Founders of fast growing Y-Combinator backed startups don’t seem to possess values in the way Andy Grove did. In fact, they don’t appear to have any real values at all. They appear to believe that everyone should have the inalienable right to … nothing. Not freedom, not truth, not justice. So they have an absence of values. Without genuine values, they cannot be noble leaders. They can only be small and stressed. And that is what the winners in Silicon Valley usually are now, aren’t they? Youdon’t have to look very hard around here to see limitless examples.

Andy Grove. Maya Angelou. Martha Graham.
They were mighty leaders. In the great sense. 
Before the CEO, the poet, the dancer. 
There were true, deep, inalienable values. 
Values they believed everyone should have.
And because the list of genuine values is small,
it was more or less the same, wasn’t it?
Respect. Love. Truth. Freedom. Equality.

As I thought about this, with sadness, I felt maybe just for a moment, like Andy Grove might have felt. Not sad. But defiant. The Jewish refugee from Eastern Europe. Seeing a world aflame with hatred, untruth, inequality. I felt not just stronger, tougher, smarter. But gentler. Kinder. Truer. Freer. More grateful. And that is how he became not just a winner, but a leader.

All of which brings me to you. We all have a struggle, don’t we? But no matter how mighty your struggles are, they probably pale in comparison to Andy Grove’s.

There is a dearth of leaders in our world today. 
We have winners and losers, but leaders?
People with genuine values,
who live them with lion-hearted nobility,
defying damnation, condemnation, cheap temptation, false salvation.
They’re almost nonexistent, aren’t they?

When I was a student at Stanford, I was surfing Facebook and saw a quote that said:

I would rather loose in cause that would one day win, than win in a cause that would one day loose.

Whatever your cause, here’s your challenge: be a leader.