Adventures of the Mind

I’m in Princeton, NJ, at the Institute of Advanced Studies (home to many amazing people & events, like Einstein, Oppenheimer, von Neuman, and more) for an event called Adventures of the Mind — 150 high potential high school students from across the US gathered together. They’ve also invited ~40 mentors to give talks about how we got from there (high school) to here — flash talks of 10 minutes or so. So far last night & this morning, we’ve heard from 2 Nobel Laureates in Physics (of the 9 who are here!), 2 poet laureates of the US (including Billy Collins, who is hilarious and read some amazing poetry), we’ve heard from John Maeda and Annie Duke and Senator Patrick Leahy just got on stage to talk. So an intimidating lineup, for sure.

For the record, when they announced that I work for Mozilla on Firefox, everyone burst into applause, so that helped a lot. ๐Ÿ™‚

The emerging theme is that everyone who’s had any type of success has had more than their fair share of mistakes, of periods of muddling through.

Anyhow, this is what I said during my 10 minutes…

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I started preparing for this talk like I always do: by blogging & tweeting. I asked people what sorts of advice they’d give to their high school selves that wouldn’t sound like safely ignorable advice from an old guy. I didn’t get back a ton that met that test, honestly, except the sentiment that no matter what I said, it’ll probably sound like advice from an old guy (I’m a little sensitive about getting older now because I just got back from my 20th high school reunion!).

Vicky asked me to talk today about how we got where we are, and what we did to get here, and where we’re heading.

So as I started thinking about what to talk with all of you about, I found that I kept thinking about the turning points in my life — the inflection points where something I did or decided had a really profound impact on what my life would become. And it’s not that hard — I can look back at the 20 years or so since I was sitting where you were (more or less), and pinpoint a bunch of them — maybe 5 or 10 that really made a difference.
And here’s the thing: thinking back on all of them, when I was making those decisions, I never really had much idea that they were very important decisions. Let me say that again: for most of the important turning points in my life, I treated them with a little less seriousness than, you know, buying my next iPod. Now, I’m not saying that I didn’t recognize that sometimes decisions would have effects, or that I didn’t take them seriously. What I’m saying is that a bunch of decisions that I thought were really important turned out to be not important at all, and some things I decided to do just for fun changed everything (like when I went to visit an old high school friend in Jamaica who would eventually become my wife.)

Here’s a quick story to illustrate a turning point that I didn’t realize until much later. When I was a junior in college, I had decided to major in computer science, and was starting to get interested in something called Human Computer Interaction — designing systems for people to be able to use them effectively. I went to a lunchtime seminar by a guy named Robert Cailliau — a physicist from Switzerland of all places — and he brought with him a giant black computer called a NeXT — Steve Jobs’ creation that would eventually turn into the Macintosh that we know today. He started giving a demo of a program where you could bring up a page full of text and pictures, and click on blue underlined text to get to other pages full of text and pictures. And I remember saying to myself, “Huh, I guess that’s sort of neat — text & pictures, click click click.” And the next thing I remember was waking up when everyone was gathering up all their stuff to leave — I had fallen asleep — and missed, of course, the first demonstration I’d ever seen (or most people had ever seen) of the World Wide Web. So there you go — one of those powerful inflection points in my life — and I slept through it.

My theme throughout my few minutes here is going to be this: you never know when a decision you make is going to have a profound effect in your life. At least, I’ve never been able to tell. So my coping strategy — what I do to make everything work for me — is try to put myself into situations where there are tons of great choices, tons of great people, tons of great outcomes possible — so that it makes the odds that I make some really important & good choices that much better.

In high school, I felt like had everything pretty together — I loved math & physics in particular, and did pretty well — figured that I’d major in physics and if I didn’t get straight A pluses, I’d mostly get them. So of course I got to Stanford my freshman year, took my first physics class and proceeded to get my ass kicked. It was pretty horrifying, actually. Have you ever seen those bar charts with the numbers of people who got each grade? A histogram distribution of how everyone did? Yeah, so I had my own solitary bar, way over to the left hand side of the chart — and that’s not the good side. I quickly decided maybe physics wouldn’t be for me, but I did really start to enjoy computer science, and that’s where I focused.

Anyway, from Stanford I went to a startup in Austin where I realized I’d never be world class at programming or designing, but I could be world class at some other stuff — things like finding great people and hiring them and building awesome groups.

After a couple of years I went back to Apple, where I had been an intern during college — put yourself into situations where there are mostly great choices, remember? 1997 was an odd time at Apple — it’s when Steve came back and changed the place immediately — he’d always been a bit of an idol of mine. But as he started making decisions to change Apple, I saw them hurt a lot of the people there who I really cared about and respected — so then, at age 26, I decided it was time to start creating my own thing, and I set off with my mentor from Apple, my 2 best friends, and we started our own company, Reactivity. And through Reactivity, I got to meet and work with many of the people I’m closest to now & who are my mentors and peers and co-conspirators.

We did that for 7 years before I decided it was time for me to do something else. (and a little while after I left, Reactivity was bought by Cisco, a happy event for everyone.)

And then, as I say, another accident. I was looking around for what to do next — I thought I might start a new company or become a venture capitalist — but during that time I got to know this little team of people at Mozilla — there were probably 15 employees at the time (but a much larger community) — they had just released Firefox about 6 months earlier, and they were changing the world. So I joined. My basic line of reasoning went like this: how often do you get a chance to really change the world?

I think not all that much, to be honest. Since then, I’ve moved through a few jobs at Mozilla, becoming the CEO about 18 months ago. Now we’re up to about 250 employees around the world — places like California and Toronto and Paris and Tokyo and Beijing and Auckland — and about 300 million people (nearly 25% of the web) use our software each month to interact with the web.

Now we’re spending our time on a few things: working on making Firefox on Windows & Mac & Linux better than ever — we just released version 3.5 last month, and are already working on the next few. We’ve got a mobile version coming out — not for iPhone yet, but for some other handhelds — because it’s pretty clear that everyone is going to be using the web in their pocket from here on out. We’re a 250 person company that’s competing with Microsoft & Apple & Google — all of whom are relentlessly working on and improving their own browsers. So it’s never dull. Competing with these guys — playing on this level — is brutal — there’s always more to do just to stay in place, there are always challenges to react to. But now that I’ve done it, it’s hard to imagine not being in this environment.

Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, a couple of days ago in Aspen said as a joke that he was like the Forrest Gump of the Internet — and you’re all too young to even know what that reference is, but it comes from a movie where the title character, Forrest Gump, was accidentally around some of the most interesting events in the world over the period of his life. For Craig to say that is ridiculous, of course. The real thing is that Craig is a very smart dude, and he’s been in situations where being smart and making choices can really matter. And so he’s been able to change the world.

I’ll leave you with a couple of other thoughts, both given to me by one of my mentors, a professor at Stanford named Tom Kosnik.

  • find your peer group & treat them right — that means look around, find the peers who you really like and respect — and keep in touch with them, visit with them, call them a lot (don’t just facebook them!)
  • do things that make your soul sing — this one’s easier, and I suspect will be a theme this weekend. But the shorthand is this: if you’re not loving what you’re doing, you’ve got to find something else to do. (which isn’t to say you shouldn’t work hard, or that it should always be fun — just that you should enjoy the overall thing that you’re doing.)

Last thing: take a few minutes to write down what you’re feeling as you go through life — and take a picture or two — you’ll end up doing some amazing things, and later on you’ll value being able to go back and try to see through your younger eyes, trying to imagine and remember who you were and how it felt.

5 comments

  1. John, very nice.
    Love Firefox, used IE for >10 years and finally gave up.

    Hey I remember the NeXT computers too. PanCanadian Petroleum, now Encana in Calgary, bought a truckload. I was part of the computer acquisitions team then!

    I’m glad you mentioned that they should chronicle their lives a bit…
    We just lost my niece to a tragic car accident in Calgary and now her facebook and linkedin and all her electronic presences are so valuable.

    Cheers
    Anar

  2. I love this. Just a quick glance back and I can come up with a dozen points where off-hand decisions, following my heart, and interactions with my little tribe of friends/sometimes-coworkers has shaped everything. Great insights ๐Ÿ™‚

    Not sure what I would have done with these insights if they’d been passed along to me when I was in highschool. Maybe just the awareness would be enough — being able to recognize and pay closer attention to those moments for what they are as they come along.

    For example, it took me a long, long time to realize that quitting highschool was one of the best things I’d done in my life — seemed rather the opposite for a long time, which tainted how I viewed everything for years. I eventually went back and finished, of course, but had I been aware that decision wasn’t necessarily going to ruin my life I may have taken better advantage of (and done a much more interesting things with) that time.

    Maybe? I was a bit of a dumbass at the time, so probably not ๐Ÿ™‚ Hindsight’s a funny thing.

  3. This is really great stuff – thanks for sharing!

    And for what it’s worth, I’ve had the exact same experience re: decisions that seemed small at the time turning out to be the big turning points. Funny how things work sometime…

  4. Thanks John for sharing your story.

    I particularly like your ethos of finding the peers you want and need in your life. I hope we get a chance to catch up again sometime soon โ€” you’re a very inspirational team, as are the all the people I’ve met from mozilla!

  5. I just wanted to know that I loved your speech. I ran into your blog post while searching Adventures, and it’s one of the higher ranked pages on the search engines.

    I was a student at the summit, and I had such a great time. Your story has been an inspiration for me, and I hope that someday I’ll end up where my dreams and goals will lead me. Thanks for coming.

    John