Jigar Patel Driving fast in a slow lane!

Life Lessons by John Ousterhout

June 06, 2017 / Jigar Patel

John Ousterhout is a professor of Computer Science at Stanford Univercity. Every week he gives a simple yet profound life lesson to the class. Following is a compilation of such lessons shared by his students on the internet.

A little bit of slope makes up for a lot of y-intercept

01/13/2012. From a lecture by Professor John Ousterhout at Stanford, class CS140

Here’s today’s thought for the weekend. A little bit of slope makes up for a lot of Y-intercept.

So at a mathematical level this is an obvious truism. You know if you have two lines, the red line and the blue line and the red line has a lower Y-intercept but a greater slope then eventually the red line will cross the blue line.

And if the Y-axis is something good, depending on your definition of something good, then I think most people would pick the red trajectory over the blue trajectory (..unless you think you’re going to die before you get to the crossing point).

So in a mathematical sense it’s kind of obvious. But I didn’t really mean in a mathematical sense, I think this is a pretty good guideline for life also. What I mean is that how fast you learn is a lot more important than how much you know to begin with. So in general I say that people emphasize too much how much they know and not how fast they’re learning.

That’s good news for all of you people because you’re in Stanford and that means you learn really, really fast. This is a great advantage for you. Now let me give you some examples. The first example is: you shouldn’t be afraid to try new things even if you’re completely clueless about the area you’re going into. No need to be afraid about that. As long as you learn fast you’ll catch up and you’ll be fine.

For example I often hear conversations the first week of class where somebody will be bemoaning, “Oh so-and-so knows blah-blah-blah, how am I ever going to catch up to them?” Well, if you’re one of the people who knows blah-blah-blah it’s bad news for you because honestly everyone is going to catch up really quickly. Before you know it that advantage is going to be gone and if you aren’t learning too you’re going to be behind.

Another example is that a lot of people get stuck in ruts in their lives. They realize they’re in the wrong job for them. I have the wrong job or the wrong spouse or whatever…

And they’re afraid to go off and try something new. Often they’re worried, I’m going to really look bad if I go..

I’m kidding about the spouse. But, seriously people will be afraid to try some new thing because they’re worried they’ll look bad or will make a lot of rookie mistakes. But, I say, just go do it and focus on learning.

Let me take the spouse out of the equation for now.

Focus on the job.

Another example is hiring. Before I came back to academia a couple of years ago I was out doing startups. What I noticed is that when people hire they are almost always hire based on experience. They’re looking for somebody’s resume trying to find the person who has already done the job they want them to do three times over. That’s basically hiring based on Y-intercept.

Personally I don’t think that’s a very good way to hire. The people who are doing the same thing over and over again often get burnt out and typically the reason they’re doing the same thing over and over again is they’ve maxed out. They can’t do anything more than that. And, in fact, typically what happens when you level off is you level off slightly above your level of competence. So in fact you’re not actually doing the current job all that well.

So what I would always hire on is based on aptitude, not on experience. You know, is this person ready to do the job? They may never have done it before and have no experience in this area, but are they a smart person who can figure things out? Are they a quick learner? And I’ve found that’s a much better way to get really effective people.

So I think this is a really interesting concept you can apply in a lot of different ways. And the key thing here I think is that slow and steady is great. You don’t have to do anything heroic. You know the difference in slopes doesn’t have to be that great if you just every day think about learning a little bit more and getting a little bit better, lots of small steps, its amazing how quickly you can catch up and become a real expert in the field.

I often ask myself: have I learned one new thing today? Now you guys are younger and, you know, your slope is a little bit higher than mine and so you can learn 2 or 3 or 4 new things a day. But if you just think about your slope and don’t worry about where you start out you’ll end up some place nice.

Ok, that’s my weekend thought.

Fear is more dangerous than evil

1/18/2013. From a lecture by Professor John Ousterhout, Class CS140

Last week’s thought for the weekend was, a little bit of slope makes up for a lot of y-intercept. This week’s thought for the week is, fear is more dangerous than evil.

First of all, maybe I’m an optimist, but I think there aren’t many truly evil people in the world. Maybe there are some and they get their fair share of publicity. I think much more damage is caused by people who are afraid. This is a much bigger problem I think for society in general.

Let me give you an example. People who are afraid will do things that they know are wrong. For example, when people cheat on assignments, in most cases, it’s when people are up late the night before an assignment is due and they get desperate and afraid and made a silly decision to steal somebody else’s work. In industry, CEO’s are afraid to announce that their company had a bad quarter, so they allow their salespeople to report sales from the next quarter. Then in the next quarter, they have to cheat even more and eventually it all comes tumbling down.

When people are afraid, they often behave irrationally because they’re desperate. They try things that can’t possibly work but they do anyway because they’re desperate. That makes them unpredictable and really dangerous to be around.

But at an even simpler level, fear makes people underachieve in all sorts of ways and this may be the biggest problem of all. For example, people are afraid to try something new, so they get stuck in a rut doing something they know is not right for them. People might have a really bad relationship or a couple of bad relationships and they become so afraid of having another one and become so distrustful that they can’t form a good relationship anymore. They are basically damaged by their fear.

Or in another example, people are afraid to look bad. This is often true about leaders: you think you have to be invincible, that you’re not a good leader if you appear to make a mistake. So, you never admit a mistake to look strong. But if you never admit a mistake, then you don’t learn from it. If you don’t learn from it, you keep making more mistakes, which makes you more afraid, causing you to lie more and more and the whole thing just cycles on itself. And if you’re a leader, eventually people realize you don’t know what you’re talking about, even though you’re pretending everything’s alright.

Ironically, the people who sound the most confident and arrogant, I think, are often the most afraid. That arrogance is just a shell they build around their fear underneath. Furthermore, when really evil things happen, fear is often closely involved. If you take sociopathic criminals, these people are often motivated by fear, typically the fear of losing control. They commit violent crimes like murder and rape because that’s the only way they feel they can take and exert control over other people. It all comes from inner fear.

When evil’s carried out in a really large scale–take your favorite large-scale evil action, most of the work is done by people who are afraid. You have the evil person at the top who scares all the other people into doing the really nasty stuff. So it’s the fear that actually did most of the damage.

In general, I think fear is much more pervasive. It happens at all levels and it damages everyone to some degree. There are certainly times in my life where I did the wrong thing because I was afraid. On the other hand, fear does serve a fairly good biological purpose. Life without fear would probably be fairly short. An animal is about to attack you or a car is about to hit you and you’re standing on the edge of a cliff–these are good occasions to feel fear. And I think sometimes fear is unavoidable. With stage fright, if you’ve never given a talk before, you’re going to feel fear. Or if you take risks and try new things, it’ll be scary. But fear, I think, also occurs in many cases that are not constructive and helpful and just damages.

The question is, how are you going to keep fear from damaging your life? You’re not going to eliminate fear–you might not even want to do that: life is pretty dull if you have no fear at all. A couple of things to think about:

The first one is the red flag approach. Ask yourself, am I making a decision out of fear? The best way you can tell is if you’re running away from something instead of running towards something. Am I doing something because I’m afraid of something, not in spite of the fear, but because of the fear? If so, you should think about making changes. Change the decision or change the situation. If you’re fighting self constantly, being afraid a car is going to run you over, maybe you should be more careful when you walk out into the street. Or change yourself. Figure out how to get yourself in a situation where you’re not going to feel as much fear. I think the most important thing is to understand, see what is happening. If you do that, I think you’ll figure out a way to help yourself.

What do you do about fear? To me, the solution to fear is power. The opposite of fear is confidence and what gives you confidence is power. This is the superman kind of power, not the ability to manipulate and control other people, the Stalin kind of power. The way I think to have a fear-free life is to continually be developing skills so you don’t feel afraid anymore. My single most important strategy when bringing up our kids was to try and make our kids self-confident by teaching them lots and lots of skills. If they know how to do a lot of stuff, they’ll be confident and live lives without fear–that’s probably the best way to live a happy life. So develop your powers.

The third approach is to learn how to harness the fear. In some cases, it’s inevitable. For example, with stage fright, I still get scared when I make presentations to a large audience, but I realized that stage fright is an amazing natural drug. The adrenaline rush when you’re really scared wakes up your whole mind. I suddenly realize that I’m at my most alert, my best, just after I’m scared out of mind for ten seconds with a burst of adrenaline. This is an enormous source of power–I have all this adrenaline on my side and I didn’t even have to take a pill. So learn how to harness it.

Overall, I would say, just don’t let your life be damaged by fear. And furthermore, not just for yourself, but also for the people around you. Get them to a place where they’re not afraid and they can work through fear. My opinion is, if you want a world of peace, you need have a world without fear.