A Letter to My Grandson on the Occasion of His Birth

“Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.” — Mary Schmich. Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young. Chicago Tribune. June 1, 1997. Also, lyrics to “Everybody is free (to wear sunscreen)”— a popular song by Buzz Luhrmann.

Hello, little one.

Welcome to the world. I’ve been waiting for you. I hope you don’t mind me writing. I tried talking to you earlier today but you were busy babbling and didn’t seem particularly in the mood. Hopefully, you’ll get a chance to read this once you tire of screaming… and learn the English language.

Let me be the first to officially welcome you to our little world. You couldn’t have joined us at a more opportune moment in history. The truth, despite all the headlines you’ll see, is that you’ve arrived at the most peaceful moment in human history.

When you grow up, I want you to read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It’ll do your soul a world of good to learn that, as a species, we are becoming more peaceful towards one another, more understanding, less angry, less combative.

In order to appreciate what Pinker has shown authoritatively in his book, you will have to carefully ignore the headlines most of the time — especially in this age of the internet, social media, and fake news.

Always remember that headlines have to be negative. Those are the ones that get the most clicks, the most shares, the most re-tweets, the most outrageous reactions. It doesn’t pay to cover positive news.

Meanwhile, we’ve all been conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs to react to these negative headlines, to focus on catastrophes, to click on stories about conspiracy theories. No one will click on the article comparing economic and health data across generations. Everyone will click on the one about Trump and Putin. It’s human nature.

But those headlines are misleading. You have to step away from the relentless daily onslaught of bad news to get a broader view of the world around you. We are more peaceful and inclusive than we were a hundred years ago. We are better off. Data strongly validates this theory. If you don’t believe me, just think, dispassionately, about the world that our grandparents inhabited. And compare it to our own. On any scale of your choosing. I dare you. I double dare you.

The arc of history, it turns out, is liberal and inclusive in its trajectory despite what the headlines tell us everyday.

Your childhood years will likely be spent in a world that seems at first glance contentious, angry, even insane. That’s nothing new. Look back at any period in history and you’ll find amazing stories of man’s inhumanity to man, tales of murder and mayhem, catastrophes of biblical proportions. I expect nothing different going forward as we are, once again, going through turbulent times.

Don’t go in for any of it. Don’t give in to hate. Ever. Remember Steven Pinker. In the long run, we are becoming more peaceful. Be a part of that trend.

But I suspect you won’t be ready for that book for at least twenty years. Meanwhile, I hope you read every novel, every adventure story, every book of history, every biography, every science book you can get your hands on. Ask your mom for pointers; she has a vast library. You’re welcome to mine as well, of course.

Just promise me that you will keep reading. Read until your eyes hurt. Read until you fall asleep with the book in your hands, then wake up and read some more. Read with a flashlight under the covers at night: highly recommended.

Never stop reading. Never stop learning. That’s my first piece of advice to you. Books are not just for school; they’re your best friends for the rest of your life.

I hope, and have every reason to believe, that you will live to be a hundred years old or more, prospering well into the next century. The only way you can stay relevant in that future world is if you keep learning every day between now and then.

It would be presumptuous of me to tell you what knowledge you need to be successful a century from now; but what I can tell you, definitively, is that the only path to that success is through constant lifelong learning.

I also want you to read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I know, I know. You’re rolling your eyes right now: “Grandpaaaaa…” Trust me on this; you’ll thank me later.

Here’s a quote to get you started: “Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” [emphasis added]

Internalize what he says there because it’s a vital lesson. These ideas — God, religions, nations, corporations, monetary systems, laws — are all constructs of our minds and nothing more. If you don’t believe me, try giving a $20 bill to a monkey for his banana. See how far that gets you. Or travel back to 1491 and try to explain to people what the United States of America is.

We created these fictions over the course of human history to improve our lives in one way or another as our communities grew larger and became ever more complex. Paradoxically, some of these same ideas have also caused much of our suffering and pain.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong in believing in any one of them as long as we recognize that they’re all our own creations and, as such, malleable and not cast in concrete; as long as we’re willing to abandon or modify them when they stop serving their purpose and start hurting more than helping.

Here, unfortunately, is also where we usually go haywire as a species, believing so strongly in the inviolable truth of our own creations that they become a ball and chain around our ankles.

Here’s another way of making the point, much more eloquently: “Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.” [Sapiens again]

Everything that seems to separate us, you will find, is just a figment of our collective imaginations — and, as such, ultimately, under our control. If only more people understood this simple principle, we’d all lead happier lives.

“I find it’s a good habit to put pressure on all your beliefs, social, political, scientific, and philosophical. Believe whatever you believe by day; but at night, argue against the propositions you hold most dear. Don’t cheat! To the greatest extent possible you have to think as though you believe what you don’t believe. And if you can’t talk yourself out of your existing beliefs, you’ll know a lot more about why you believe what you believe. You’ll have come a little closer to a proof.” — Jordan Ellenberg. How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.

Always question your beliefs. Sadly, this is a skill we usually acquire in life long after we need it. Our confirmation biases routinely fool us into sticking with the status quo instead of questioning it. At every step, be skeptical of what you believe to be true. I don’t care who told you or how many people believe it. If you don’t have data to back it up, it’s probably not true.

It wasn’t that long ago that we all believed the Earth was flat and that you’d fall off the edge if you traveled far enough in any given direction. Even less time has elapsed since we believed that witches could fly on broomsticks and cast spells on you. Our ancestors believed these “facts” so strongly that they were willing to kill anyone who dared say otherwise. We may laugh at their naivete and cringe at their cruelty today but the sad truth is that most of us would not have challenged these beliefs had we been in their shoes.

Just because everyone believes something doesn’t make it true. Every time you believe something without demanding proof, the truth dies a little. So do your homework. Decide based on data, not based on emotion, not based on “belief,” and definitely not based on dogma.

Skepticism is the core tenet of science. And science is the only useful tool we have at our disposal for understanding the world around us. Make up your own mind on things. But, for the love of all that is precious to you, please do so based on data.

Never forget that you share 99.5% of your genes with every other human being on the planet. That means, whether you like it or not, that your worst enemy is also your brother — at least genetically speaking. In the same vein, you may have heard that we share 96% of our DNA with our closest relatives, the chimps. But did you also know that we share a quarter of our genes with a grain of rice and that as much as 8% can be derived from viruses? The truth is that we are related to every living thing on this planet.

We are also, by far, the strongest and most intelligent species. With that power comes responsibility. We are responsible for this “little blue dot” we call Earth and everything that lives on it. Remember that and act accordingly.

While we’re on the topic of genetics, I might as well fess up to something that you’ll figure out sooner or later. As you look at old photos on your mother’s side of the family, you may notice a prevalence of… shall we say… er… broad foreheads. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but chances are pretty high that you, too, are follicly challenged, like the rest of my male relatives, and will end up with little or no hair after the age of 25, thanks to a genetic predisposition to male pattern baldness inherited from yours truly.

Mea Culpa.

I can only hope that scientists will find a cure for this scourge of mankind soon. Meanwhile, my advice to you is to enjoy it while you’ve got it. Grow an Afro. Get a Mohawk. Dreadlocks are awesome, too.

Once the inevitable day arrives, don’t do a comb-over, don’t wear a rug, don’t plant hair like vegetables. Be proud! Be bald! Some of the greatest men in history were bald. There are practical benefits, of course: fast haircuts, no time wasted blow drying, no flash needed for selfies…

But I like to believe that we go bald because our brains are so huge that they push the hair follicles out. Why else would we only lose the hair on top of our heads and nowhere else on our bodies? I even found an article on the web that agrees, so it must be true!

Okay, enough silliness. Let’s get back to the serious stuff.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” — Steve Jobs. Stanford University Commencement Speech. June 12, 2005.

When it comes time to work, don’t settle for a paycheck. Follow your passion. I know that sounds like a cliche but it’s an important lesson that, given its long term implications, you often don’t get a second chance at in life. If you are passionate about something, you will be good at it. I promise. And if you’re good at something, people will pay you good money to do what you enjoy doing in the first place.

If, instead, you settle for a career based on how much you get compensated, I bet you will hate the experience, you will be bad at it and resent being forced to do it, and you will make mediocre money because you can’t compete effectively with those who are passionate about it. That’s a guaranteed minimum “thirty years to life” sentence of misery. Life’s too short for that.

Compete with no one but yourself. Go back and read that sentence again because it’s probably the most critical piece of advice in this letter and the one most of us ignore every day of our lives for one reason or another. We do so to our own detriment.

There will always be people in the world better at things you choose to do: richer than you, faster than you, more famous than you. That’s almost guaranteed to be true given that there are now more than seven billion of us inhabiting the planet. By all means, study them, look up to them, even emulate them. But don’t compare your position in the race with them, don’t envy them, and most definitely don’t give up because you can’t reach them. Just do the best you can at everything you attempt, try your hardest, and then try to do better next time. You will be happy with the results. I promise.

Hold yourself accountable for learning from your mistakes; that’s the only way to avoid repeating them and, in the long run, the best we can hope for from ourselves. We all make mistakes. You will, too. Ask yourself, after each such blunder: Did I learn from this experience? How am I going to behave differently based on this new data, this new experience? Or am I going to make that same mistake again next time? That’s all we can do.

You can’t change the past. You already made that mistake; that’s why you’re here asking this question in the first place. The best you can do is to learn from the past and not repeat the same mistakes. Surprisingly, that single moment of introspection, that simple question, is something we deprive ourselves of, choosing instead to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

“Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft. Travel.” — Mary Schmich. Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young.

Travel the world over; and don’t just limit yourself to the industrialized nations. Spend some serious time in the third world. It’s inconvenient, it’s messy, its rules are illogical and frustrating, and travel through it is more often endured than enjoyed. But your experience at the time is less important than the lessons you’ll learn in the long run from seeing more of the world, seeing more of the diversity of its people, seeing first hand what our world, too, used to be like just a few decades ago.

A week spent in Kathmandu or Timbuktu is worth more, educationally speaking, than a year spent in school. Not to mention a lot more fun. But if you’re going to take me up on this particular piece of advice, you better do it sooner than later. The third world, you see, is quickly being replaced by a shoddy replica of the first world that has all the vices and none of the virtues or charm of either world. And that world is the last one you want to be trekking.

Speaking of travel, here’s another book for you. It’s a swashbuckling adventure story you can read at a much younger age than the other two: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing; and the best part is that it’s a true story.

It’ll be hard to complain about any supposed discomforts experienced during your travels once you learn what these guys went through in the most inhospitable place on Earth, spending two years stranded on the ice in the Antarctic, even boiling and eating their shoes when they ran out of food, and yet sticking together until every last man was saved.

The story of Shackleton’s heroic leadership over the two year expedition and his eventual rescue of the men after a thousand mile ocean journey on a dinghy is more amazing than any book of science fiction ever written. And it’s true!

Everything I ever needed to know about true grit, about camaraderie, and about valor in the face of extreme adversity, I learned from Shackleton and his men.

I guess that’s enough for now. It’s hard for me to talk to the future you with a straight face given that the present you seems to prefer drooling to listening. I didn’t even get a chance to talk about art, music, sports, hobbies, friendship, and love: all the pursuits that make life worth living. But that’s okay. No worries. We’ll have plenty of time to discuss those topics later. For now, here’s all you need to know: Life is a journey. The destination is not important. It’s the road trip itself that matters.

See you around, kid. Welcome to the world. You’re gonna love it here. And don’t forget the sunscreen. You’ll need it for your bald head!

Yours forever, Grandpa.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also want to check out my grandson’s reply (!!!) wherein he reviews the books I recommended.

Former CTO of VMware, former VP at Microsoft, recovering long distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.

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