Let me make one thing unequivocally clear: The goal of this piece is not to ignite another debate over the value of sciences versus the humanities, or, as its known around here, the “techie-fuzzy divide” — a phrase that always leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
That topic was beaten to death long ago.
Instead, I want to focus on a different angle of the “techie-fuzzy” debate — one I believe more closely aligns with the question we really intend to ask: “What does it mean to be successful?”
Towards the end of November, I was talking to my friend Alison who had just returned from the “Last Lecture” of retiring Stanford biology professor Robert Simoni.
Initially, Alison looked stunned and confused, and I wasn’t sure why until she told me that only a handful of people — most of them colleagues and current students — had attended Professor Simoni’s lecture. I was surprised, too, that one of the most prolific professors in the University’s history — Simoni had put in 42 years of teaching and groundbreaking research on cholesterol metabolism — would exit on such an underwhelming note.
At first, I thought the poor attendance at the lecture was probably a result of insanely busy schedules of Stanford students. It’s too much to ask of students to take time out of their day to hear someone speak, right?
Well, I eventually realized that that’s not necessarily true. When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made his annual Fall Quarter visit to CS106A, the Hewlett Teaching Center was stuffed to its limit — and then some. Many students who were not even enrolled in the course had arrived two hours beforehand to secure the perfect seat from which to hear Zuck dispense his wisdom.
Clearly, there’s nothing stopping Stanford students from making the effort to come listen to someone who they actually want to hear.
So what, then, differentiates the campus’s response to Zuckerberg versus Simoni? I believe that it has something to do with the question I asked in the beginning: “What constitutes being successful?”
In many ways, Mark Zuckerberg is the biggest hero within Stanford’s startup culture, a man who summited a mountain that so many are eager to climb; he’s young, brilliant, very wealthy and created a product that is used by hundrdes of millions of people. In fact, he has become somewhat of a demigod on campus.
Simoni, meanwhile, became a renowned authority on molecular biology and the longtime chair of one of the best departments in the world through his commitment and longevity. Through meticulous research and dedication to teaching — Simoni taught Bio 41 in each of his 42 years — he became one of the best professors at Stanford and an authority in his field.
Recently, Zuckerberg was back on campus for a free-flowing conversation with Stanford President John Hennessy in a sold out Memorial Auditorium. While Hennessy, the founder of MIPS Computer Systems, and Zuckerberg are both highly-regarded as giants in the tech world, they devoted a significant chunk of the conversation to discussing the apparent divide between the humanities and technical fields and, in particular, the interplay between the two.
In the conversation, Hennessy noted that much of the criticism directed towards studying the humanities in today’s world stems from a lack of immediate job prospects; however, he argued that this notion is flawed because “it’s not about the job you get right out of college, but what you’re doing 15 years from now.”
For a long time, I was never really sure that President Hennessy was sincere when he talked about the value of the humanities, but I found his words during his conversation with Mark Zuckerberg to be not only accurate but also genuine and profound.
This idea that everyone needs to study something in college and get rich quick follows a very narrow definition of success, one that Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire poster child of this “startup culture,” denies is the only path.
In particular, Zuckerberg suggested that college is not really about finding that platform to get rich right away (though there is nothing inherently wrong with that) but to explore and find interesting problems and dive headfirst into them with a willingness to cross disciplines.
Those problems, be they designing solutions to meet the world’s energy demands, understanding why some countries are rich and some poor and exploring why certain works of literature are so captivating, are all questions that can be explored from a variety of disciplines. They encourage a strong sense of creativity and imagination that is truly universal.
Ultimately, exploring these exciting questions may not land you the billions of dollars or the “perfect” job right away, but they almost certainly will instill the passion and love of constant learning necessary to stay afloat in an ever-changing world. Everyone doesn’t need to achieve everything by age of 25 — and this is not a techie-fuzzy debate; Professor Simoni is a scientist, after all. We need to respect and admire the Robert Simoni approach because we endanger ourselves if we come to view instant gratification and getting rich quickly as the only acceptable forms of success.
Don’t get me wrong. The world needs more entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg. And the entrepreneurial spirit remains one of the greatest features of the University. However, this recent “startup culture” phenomenon could use a dose of perspective and an understanding that there are many different ways of being successful before getting to that first billion before the age of 25.
My dream is that we can appreciate what Robert Simoni has done with fervor equal to that with which we appreciate the achievements of Mark Zuckerberg. Similarly, by appreciating that success can take many different forms, I hope that we can appreciate the brilliant work done by humanists as well as engineers with an understanding that a love of learning and a desire to solve problems — whatever they may be — transcend all fields and any one job.
Accepting that one can take many different paths through life and still be happy and fulfilled — that there are many different ways to be successful aside from hitting a home run right away — may be just what we need to bring this campus closer together.
Special thanks to Alison Nguyen for the inspiration to write this column.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.