We stand on the shoulders of giants.
Every meaningful action infused with the spirit of the greats that came before.
My heroes are my inspiration, my anchors. They were there to guide me through difficult decisions, helped me get through desperate times, taught me to fall in love with the world and be a better person.
If I’m lost, they help me find my way. So in their honor, I wrote this list as a reminder for myself.
Steve Vai is a master guitar player, who performs with his whole image – he is part of the music; it’s not just rhythm, melody, harmony, legato, attack – it’s a person, a body, a story. How he looks is often part of the performance (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yw74sDWPH7U).
He’s not my favorite musician. I like other things about music than what he likes to create and explore. There is an interview with him, though, which stuck with me more than what I’ve heard from just about any other musician – and which goes beyond just music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atGBKuCJ-Jc).
He says that before you can achieve something, you must picture yourself having achieved it.
I’ve found endless depth in that sentiment; until you understand each detail of what success, what the goal looks like – you are walled out from attaining it.
Thoughts manifest reality. The same idea to me is represented by a quote which I first encountered in The Iron Lady (a film), and its origin seems to sort of trace back to no person in particular, but is somewhat attributable to Bishop Beckwaith (https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/01/10/watch-your-thoughts/):
Plant a thought and reap a word;
plant a word and reap an action;
plant an action and reap a habit;
plant a habit and reap a character;
plant a character and reap a destiny.
For his relentlessness, and willingness to do whatever it takes to get to where he’s going. I wasn’t able to find the quote, but I watched an interview where he was talking about his bodybuilding phase, and said something to the effect of “At that time, if someone told me I had to eat a spoonful of shit every day to make progress – I would”.
I admire his wit and intellect, however, the quote that I always come back to in my mind that reminds me of him has to do with the art of getting things done: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and starting on the first one.”
A person I have deep respect for. Her approach to art is hugely influencial to me: her art is extremeley raw, and honest; the priority is connection, not perfection – and sometimes perfection can get in the way of connection.
A friend of mine, Momo Smith, has reinforced the same lesson for me – in the context of dancing. He said – it doesn’t matter if you’re dancing with the best follower, or a total beginner; that’s not what tango is about. He will have a good time with the person in front of him, and give his best.
To me, being talented is not even slightly inspiring; there’s no lesson in talent, no lesson in wealth, nothing to learn from people who are amazing and smarter than everyone else. All the lessons come from what people do with what they have. Steven Hawking did so much more with what he had than anyone would have thought possible. To me, that is a much larger lesson than any contribution to physics any one person can hope to achieve.
Felt misunderstood and lonely, but persevered through emotional hardship; left his soul on the canvas, and connected with the void of the eternal human dialogue when he felt distanced from the people around him. He taught me that there is something greater than my immediate suffering.
Inspiring beautiful view of nature and the Universe fed by deep curiousity. He was able to communicate complex ideas in understandable terms. If you’re truly in love with what you’re curious about, it’s poetic, it conjures imagery, metaphor, and the complications fade away if a clear and honest picture is painted. He’s guided my love for the beauty of the world around me.
Bottomless devotion and passion drives breakthrough, fosters a transcendental understanding of what you’re passionate about. Tesla was daring and courageous enough to explore realms no one else thought to explore, and he persevered through hardships, guided by his convictions, his drive towards mastery and understanding.
The most beloved Russian poet. When I had to study his work in high school, I was not yet into poetry. However, as I moved forward through life, I’ve experienced intimately relating to him and re-evaluating my understanding of his persona. He’s so famous and celebrated in Russian education, that it almost obscures the man behind the work, his beautiful soul.
The lessons, or personality traits, I found myself associating with him go beyond the appreciation of the quality of his work. As I’ve gone through my own relationships and created my own art, I found something different in him: a distant friend in spirit, a bright, beautiful light that shines its influence on me, infusing me with unabating love, that crosses the boundaries of circumstance, for the people that I’ve let into my heart.
It’s easy to cherish the brilliant nuggets that our minds conceive of, that are tempting to take credit for – the process by which the ideas formed illusive and partially out of our control. I’ve been very attached to my intellectual achievements at various times.
Oscar Wilde imparted on me a very interesting departure from that in The Picture of Dorian Gray, as Henry conjures up magnificent thought castles, only to throw them away – beauty and depth can be one-off, a self-contained transient sketch. This has pushed me to strive for improvisation, and perfecting the mind, rather than the product.
Leslie Lamport inspired me to start writing this. As I got interested in distributed systems – which are computer science artefacts, but in my mind are models for the whole world, not just computer systems – a lot of the material I found was down to earth, practical, non-fundamental.
But Leslie Lamport’s work goes so deep, and so broad, with eloquence, long-term perspective. The lessons I started to get from him transcended distributed systems – it was a deeper way of thinking, of improving the fundamentals of aspects of mind we take for granted. How much more he puts into his work than what his work is about staggered me, and got me to think of other situations where I felt so over-illuminated in trying to learn something new.
Jonathan Blow, Chris Avellone (Torment)
Storytelling pervades all human activity – whether you’re trying to understand relationships, or get hired, or raise funds for a company, present slides at a company’s all hands, raise children, connect with your partner by recapping your day – and I’ve encountered infinite approaches to telling stories.
I used to think storytelling is tied to spoken or written language. But storytelling pervades music, and mathematics, dancing, and – what got me to understand this in the first place – game design.
Jonathan Blow created Braid, and used game design to tell a deep, heartfelt, emotional story, which changed the way I think about relationships. And him using game design to do it changed the way I think about stories, games, design, communicating with an audience through a medium.
Planescape: Torment is a game that affected me in a similar way to Braid – on the emotional level. Both these games speak to the tragedy of the arrow of time: we can’t go back and fix our mistakes. And the game design, the character design – the medium of Planescape: Torment – creates a mountain, with a pedestal at the top, upon which sits a message that has helped to shape my choices, and learn from my mistakes.
What can change the nature of a man? On the monument they’d built, in golden letters they enshrined one answer to this question: “Regret”. We can’t change the past, but we can change who we are. It’s no simple thing to internalize a mistake and adjust for it. It takes years; it takes a monumental story.
Eminem is an inspiration to me in many ways, and his music has been valuable for me in so many different ways; however, he is also a hero for what stands behind his art, his stories, craft, technique, and words.
His lessons are of resilience, and perseverance – hanging on to your truth through the lows of life, pushing forward, doing your best, speaking your mind with courage. Pain becomes art, and serves as fuel that drives innate desire for mastery.
At a certain point, the cares of what people think, the obstacles of your image don’t matter anymore. Staying true to yourself, following your instinct, shooting for the stars – is admirable, and somewhat desperate; it’s risky, it will never work. But sometimes you have to hang on to that, and persevere, believe in yourself, keep pushing forward, growing, creating, and things will fall into place.
Leonardo Da Vinci
I’ve only come to relate to Leonardo Da Vinci much later in life.
He’s a polymath and autodidact. I think that’s the way we should all live.
His endless breadth of aptitude and creativity, bridging art and science – is how a human should exist. That’s what a human mind is for: it’s for everything, it wants to grow. Different activities feed into each other as metaphors, and strengthen disparate aspects of congnition, and reinforce connection between different parts of the brain – it’s a non-linear process, and through this process profound discovery is made.
Starting something new requires boldness, being comfortable being a beginner. Making progress demands perseverance. Over time, it compounds in non-linear ways. The mind’s life is learning, making connections, always going into the unknown. There are no guarantees, no higher paycheck, no reward or payout – but this is the significant thing to do, and the path is available to anyone who wishes to walk it.
Faraday grew up in a very simple family, and is largely self-educated. Having social and emotional support, he used books to guide him to become one of the greatest physicists of all time.
To me, the lesson is that education is taken, not given. We live in the age of the internet; Faraday lucked into having access to books, but today there is no excuse around having access to information. Curiosity and love fuel the long path of learning, and it’s crucial to have supporting relationships to survive the marathon – but knowledge and intellect can be won, not having any wealth, or background, or hands-on guidance.
A tragic story of loss for mankind – he died at 20 years of age, leaving behind an unparalleled mathematical legacy.
He actively participated in politics in France in times of turmoil. In spite of a complicated and stressful life, he found the time to express his mathematical thoughts. And the day before he died – in a duel – he wrote down his most important contributions, and made sure they survived. His ideas were revolutionary.
The lesson I take is of scheduling – pursuing your passions in spite of the hardships of life, responsibilities, the distractions of survival; staying true to the fire of intellectual curiosity, digging for structure, formalizing, expressing the ideas you encounter.
Newton, Euclid, Lobachevsky, Einstein
In the history of science and mathematics, so many times established paradigms hindered progress. A great thinker would come along, and invent a new way of thinking, propelling humanity to new heights.
Where others are stumped, they take a step back, and reevaluate the fundamentals – invent new tools, approaches, entirely new ways of seeing the world. Those revelations surpass the solutions in significance.
Newton infused our understanding of the world with predictability. Euclid helped structure the way we think – start from basic principles, check each step of your reasoning. Lobachevsky showed that logically consistent counter-intuitive approaches have immense power, by stepping away from Euclid’s geometry, and considering what others thought absurd – turned out if you break the rules, you reach new heights.
And Einstein took Lobachevsky’s approach to a whole new level, applying it to physics rather than math – making it ok to start with first principles, logical consistency, and derive the world from that, rather than starting with the world and trying to make sense of it.
Albert Einstein is too much. His whole life, and way of thinking – is just overwhelming, too much to digest. Almost, I want to not exist when the wrecking train of Einstein’s life and legacy comes passing through my mind. Sometimes, the impact of his work can even be threatening to internalize as positive – nuclear weaponry would be impossible without understanding energy and mass. It’s painful to even think of his responsibility carrying profoundly deep ideas that affected our understanding of not just the Universe, but knowledge itself, through World War II.
Albert Einstein is a black hole of attempting to learn life lessons from. It almost feels blasphemous to attempt extracting a lesson from his life and ways of thinking. However, for myself, I look at the way he thought for lessons. First, I see his courage: challenging the Newtonian Universe and diving into the pits of relativity requires immense hubris and resolve. But for myself, the lesson I choose is his depth of thought.
Switching a gear very deep in the brain – of how a problem is approached in the first place. To me, the Albert Einstein lesson is similar to Elon Musk, who builds the world from first principles – ground up, rather than top down.
This quote from Einstein is so meaty, dense, and almost uncomfortable in the way the thought is laid out, but that is the lesson of shifting the paradigm, of solidifying the foundational layer:
“We can distinguish various kinds of theories in physics. Most of them are constructive. They attempt to build up a picture of the more complex phenomena out of the materials of a relatively simple formal scheme from which they start out. Thus the kinetic theory of gases seeks to reduce mechanical, thermal, and diffusional processes to movements of molecules—i.e., to build them up out of the hypothesis of molecular motion. When we say that we have succeeded in understanding a group of natural processes, we invariably mean that a constructive theory has been found which covers the processes in question.
Along with this most important class of theories there exists a second, which I will call “principle-theories.” These employ the analytic, not the synthetic, method. The elements which form their basis and starting-point are not hypothetically constructed but empirically discovered ones, general characteristics of natural processes, principles that give rise to mathematically formulated criteria which the separate processes or the theoretical representations of them have to satisfy.
Thus the science of thermodynamics seeks by analytical means to deduce necessary conditions, which separate events have to satisfy, from the universally experienced fact that perpetual motion is impossible. The advantages of the constructive theory are completeness, adaptability, and clearness, those of the principle theory are logical perfection and security of the foundations.
The theory of relativity belongs to the latter class” – Einstein, 1919
Any path worth treading is fraught with resistance – disbelief, loneliness. The early great scientists showed remarkable courage to go against the status quo, disrupt the most fundamental paradigms of belief in their time.
The lesson is to have faith in yourself; trust what you know to push humanity forward. Time saves truth from falsehood and envy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fran%C3%A7ois_Lemoyne#/media/File:Time_Saving_Truth_from_Falsehood_and_Envy.jpg
I have a lot of respect for Will Smith. Truthfully, he taught me about integrity. I listened to his raps; he has one which he simply addresses to his son. He talks about the qualities a man should have.
I thought about his lessons – dignity, integrity, honor – and tried to map them to how I perceive Will Smith. It made me think, and look for these qualities in others, and do my best to be a better person.
Elon Musk taught me to think about big problems, ground up, from first principles.
He talks about this in interviews, but truly the real lesson comes from his actions. The problems he structured his companies around – ecology, global resources, human survival and long-term prosperity – do well to explain how to actually reason from first principles.
He also taught me about thinking in scale, and being fearless to implement ideas that solve problems of scale. When he announced the gigafactory, explained the problem of mass producing batteries for his cars, and how he solved them with this unparalleled production machine – it made a great impact on how I think about problem-solving, and how I currently write my software.
Margaret Thatcher, Coco Chanel
I have a lot of respect for these two indestructible women.
Relentless, with style, they broke all obstacles on their way to manifest their vision. Enviable strength of spirit – perhaps something to learn, as we all have the capacity to push forward the way they did.
Whoever they are/(s)he is – they are a pillar of freedom, democracy, and inspire through the intellectual depth that allowed them to act on their beliefs and enact a groundbreaking change into the world.
Louis De Broglie
In his MIT solid state chemistry class, Donald R. Sadoway gave me a deep lesson from Louis De Broglie.
The lesson is in the power of asking the right questions. Some questions lead to nothing; they have no useful answer. The right questions can spark a breakthrough in understanding.
Louis De Broglie asked a very specific question through his dissertation, that came to change our understanding of the Universe and sparked one of the greatest breakthroughs in quantum mechanics: “If an electron – which is a particle – can behave like a wave, then can light – which is a wave – behave like particles?”.
Hugh Everett & Nils Bohr
Hugh Everett proposed a beautiful theory that had a much more mathematical resolution to an inexplicable feature of quantum mechanics than what was the common belief at the time. Having Hugh Everett develop that theory, instead of what he went off to do, would have been a great boon to mankind. Nils Bohr was the leader of the field, met with Hugh Everett, and shut the idea down.
The meeting is a hero-lesson. It is a lesson of communication; of being receptive to opinions existing before you, and opinions coming after you. In order to sell a world changing idea – like Albert Einstein successfully did – you have to penetrate the anxiety that comes from someone qualified enough to evaluate your idea having to suppress their disbelief and summon an enormous amount of concentration and will to understand what the fuck your idea is, and whether it can possibly be true that everything you believed in up to that point is thusly disproven and disrupted.
What kind of person can drive an idea like that? It’s not Copernicus – he was burned at the stake, because he frustrated the establishment. There may not have been a path for him. But perhaps with the right relationship skills, he would have gotten the right people to get interested, and created a more modest change than a top-down takeover, but would have preserved his life, and applied his genius for many more years.
I’m not an expert on American history, but what little I know about Abraham Lincoln has been a life lesson for me.
In hardship, show resilience, courage, and honor. When necessary, take on the responsibility of leadership. Never lose your humanity in struggle.
My boss of 4 years gave me more than I could ever hope for. Sure, he taught me how to be a better engineer, and how to lead, how to contribute, and think about large world problems.
But most importantly, he taught me about purpose: knowing why I do anything I do, what change I’m trying to impact on the world – and, further, since I have purpose in my intention, following through with my actions, and making certain that what I did is consistent with what I intended.
My mom gave me some of the most important lessons that have guided me through the rest of my life. She taught me to be content, and find happiness in what I have… but truly, most importantly, she gave me boundless love.
My grandmother taught me the importance of family, and to care for the ones I love.
Be a real man – use your hands, know the earth, know your tools: your wrenches, hammers, screwdrivers. Be healthy and strong.
Most importantly, my dad taught me the value of honest, hard work – to spare no effort, and do whatever is required to get your job done.