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Uplyft 2021 Vinod Khosla Keynote

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Uplyft 2021 Vinod Khosla Keynote

Anand Ashar:

Now let’s dig right in with the next show of this gleaming Saturday morning with Vinod Khosla who’s about to relay his unconventional wisdom to high school students on how to innovate the world. Mr. Khosla is an entrepreneur, investor, technologist and above all an amazing person. He founded Sun Microsystems which invented Java, led investments as a general partner at Kleiner Perkins and is currently the founder of Khosla Ventures, a firm focusing on assisting entrepreneurs to build impactful new energy and technology companies. And Mr. Khosla, the floor is all yours. Thank you so much for joining us this vibrant morning.

Vinod Khosla:

Let me start by saying, the biggest thing that concerns me with kids your age is they get channeled into expectations and so I mostly want to talk about how to buck those expectations and define your own path. So let me start with some unconventional wisdom that I truly believe in. This is the conventional wisdom. Most of you have heard this from your parents, your teachers, all of this. I would suggest in the next few minutes, all of these are exactly the wrong things to do, every single one of them. And so I’m mostly going to tell you the things your parents don’t want you to hear and not just to be controversial.

I truly, honestly believe this is the right thing for somebody your age. First thing I’d say, fail well but fail with effort, a lot of effort. The one thing you want to do is work really hard at whatever you’re trying to work at. And I would contend nobody remembers your failures. Now you introduced me by saying I was the founder of Sun Microsystems, but you didn’t say I was the founder of another company that also failed. I’ve never seen anybody remember what was this other company. I’ll let the audience guess and if anybody is curious I’ll give you the name of the company. But nobody remembered the thing I failed at, they remembered the thing I succeeded at. In hindsight, when you’re failing it’s easy to focus on the failure.

My first thing to you is be reverend in a thoughtful way. But it is very, very important to disrespect authority. It’s very important to disrespect experts, to challenge your teachers and get evicted from your apartment like I did very early. You’ll survive, I survived. But I did some things that were thoughtful, that was purposeful, that matter. And what this lets you do is explore the edges of a system, not just what you’re taught. Societies very good at directing you within what’s called the boundaries of what’s known and expert opinion. But let me tell you the following, in the last 40 years I haven’t found one large change, one large innovation that was driven by somebody not only who knew the area, but also was an expert in.

So let me give you some examples, there is no chance somebody at Boeing, or Lockheed, or Airbus could reinvent space like SpaceX and Rocket Lab did. Those two founders knew nothing about launches, they didn’t get their degrees in astronautics, they just had a passion for it. Similarly no chance that General Motors, or Volkswagen, or Mercedes could innovate in electric cars or self driving cars, that came from Google which knew nothing about cars, and Tesla somebody who never even worked in any hardware thing let alone in cars. Airbnb didn’t come from Hilton, they didn’t know anything about hotels. The Uber guys didn’t come from Hertz and Avis rental car companies. No matter where you look. Amazon didn’t come from somebody who knew or had ever done retailing. And so expertise biases you towards conventional thinking and minor extrapolations of the past, not against what I suggest you do, which is invent the future you want to bide in.

And I’ll come back to the question of is this for everybody? It’s not for everybody. But it is for the people, the young kids who want to really make a change in the world. It’s not to listen to teachers who will guide you into conventional paths, not to listen to experts who will guide you into your path. They tell you to score high on your tests, much more important that you learn to explore than to score high. Which is why I had to teach my kids at the dining table to throw food because it changes the edges. I won’t go into every example but I had to throw an eraser at a teacher once from the back of the class because it was so frustrating how conventional they were being and wrong. I let my daughter drop out of school because she had a passion for something else, not to drop out of school but to pursue her passion for something else.

So almost all learning happens on the edges of a system not in the core of a system. If you think of a core of a system it’s solidified with very little room to change and gel. The edges are where most interesting things happen. If you’re Indian like me, or Chinese, or many other societies, your parents want you to be a doctor, or an engineer, or something like that. There are many more options. So color outside the lines. Let me start with a couple of quick examples. This is the problem all of you should try and do immediately. How many lines to connect these dots? And there’s a pretty conventional answer, there’s five lines. But that’s a conventional solution.

Let me suggest, and I like to say, most people no matter what age are limited not by what they can do but by what they think they can do, that’s the principle limitation for most people. So nobody told you, you couldn’t go outside the square box, but most people imposed that limitation on themselves. And here we connected it with four lines. How about three? Nobody said that they had to go through the center of the dot. You get the idea. This is my favorite. In fact, my favorite is the next one. Nobody said how wide the line had to be. Reinvent the definition of problems so you can solve them in more creative ways. This is incredibly important and this is why you shouldn’t color inside the lines like your teacher wants you to.

And when you do, you will fail. You will fail often. The idea of exploration is not a valid idea without the possibility of failure. This is a Harvard Business School case and the first line is a quote from me on the top, my freedom to fail gives me the freedom to succeed. Or our freedom to fail gives us the freedom to succeed. Without that succeeding in unusual ways is not possible and most people in avoiding failure avoid large success. And this is where you have to stop worrying about failure. Now I will, if I have time, talk about what’s smart failure and what’s dumb failure. Not all failure is good. But I do care about trying what’s worth trying. And I would at your age add, I only care about trying what’s worth trying for me. Because the definition of what’s worth trying can change over time and if you’re exploring you can have a wide range of things to try at.

This is the other piece. Most people reduce the probability of failure to the point where the consequences of success are inconsequential. You do what a million other people have done. I like to say, “try things that are worth succeeding at.” There may be a higher probability of failure but the consequences of success will be much more consequential. This is a Seneca quote, I very much believe it, which is why I say, most people are limited not by what they can do but what they think they can do. This is one of my favorites, I urge everybody to try and fail, but don’t fail to try. When you fail to try you failed before you start, it’s just you don’t have to acknowledge you failed because you didn’t try it. This is very, very important.

And this is a Robert F. Kennedy quote, if you’re trying to land on the moon, you’re likely to fail at least once or twice, but only those who dare fail greatly can achieve greatly. This is a Maya Angelou quote that I find really, really inspiring. Micheal Jordan said the same thing as Maya Angelou and I don’t have to read what he’s saying but it all comes back to try and fail, don’t fail to try. By the way, Einstein was classified as mentally slow and the light bulb was invented after 10,000… And the quote was by the inventor, I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that the light bulb won’t work. He did eventually find the one way it did work. And the same is true of any large thing. The Wright brothers for example. And at the time the Wright brothers were attempting this the president of the Royal Society in England, the most scientific body and the most senior respected person, the expert in this area said, heavier air flying machines are impossible. As an expert he declared flight impossible. Imagine if the Wright brothers had believed him.

And when people tell you not to take your risks, I would say, cynics never do the impossible, achieve the improbable, take on the inadvisable. Hope is the only path to extraordinary success for all of you. An improbable is not unimportant. When you’re inventing the light bulb you don’t know which one of 10,000 paths might succeed. I would argue only the improbable is important, it’s just we don’t know which improbable, which is why failure is important. So mindsets are very, very important. I always say, dream the dreams and then be just foolish enough to try and make them come true. At 16, never knowing anybody in business, never knowing anybody in technology, or science, or engineering, I grew up as a son of somebody in the Indian Army. I heard about a Hungarian immigrant, Andy Grove, starting Intel and I said, “why can’t I do that?” And that set me off on my entrepreneurial journey. So I was roughly the same age as many of you. It takes a little bit of foolishness to do it.

And it takes an unreasonable mess to attempt these things. So I suggest for those of you who want to achieve a lot, shoot for the moon, question everything, question the advice your teachers give you, and if you’re not failing you aren’t taking enough risks. So try harder, try to be more on the edge with a lot of persistence. Persistence in the face of repeated failure is essential. Stanford Business School turned me down twice, but I was pretty clear I wanted to be in Silicon Valley because I wanted to start a company and I kept applying. And when they did turn me down, even the second time, I didn’t give up. And the week classes started was when I convinced them to let me in because somebody else had dropped out. Against all odds I didn’t give up.

Failure doesn’t mean you can be a lagger, or lax, or not work hard. I’m mostly talking about pushing hard, trying very hard, working hard but at the thing you’re passionate about. It could be to cure cancer, it could be learning how to train a whale, all of those are perfectly reasonable examples. So don’t accept conventional wisdom of what’s worth doing. And do it with fun, the right attitude, with bravado. Bravado is almost essential to do unreasonable things and people will think you’re silly. And irreverence for experts and wise people. And then comes the question of how to figure out when you fail. And even though you’ve had bravado and irreverence I don’t suggest you ignore everybody else.

Always take all the input you can get, all the advice you’re given, consider it carefully, these are all helpful things in which your tactics may fail even if your goal is achievable. Account for all of them thoughtfully. The more input you get, and many people who have bravado, hubris, irreverence don’t want input and that’s very dangerous. In fact, you want to collect all the input and all the reasons what you’re trying to do may fail, consider it and try and eliminate those risks. But when you fail, it’s hard to decide when you’ve failed, but you sort of have to always be examining your assumptions and you will then be able to say, is this getting too improbable? Then you can try something new and different. Sometimes called the pivot.

Now I will come back to what’s good failure and what’s bad failure. But it’s often necessary to allow the phrase which you’ve all heard, necessity is the mother of invention. So jump without a parachute. If everything’s safe and planned you’re probably going to be too comfortable. You won’t create the necessity that gets your creative juices flowing because it is the key to invention. When you get into trouble with no easy out I suggest you get very, very creative. If you’re thoughtful, open minded, figure out why you’re failing and how you might try to work it out. Let me say again, it’s not always possible but it is more possible than most people think.

This is just, you may be pursuing the right vision but you may have done it wrong. Before Facebook there was MySpace, there was Friendster, there was many examples of people who got some tactics right even though the idea of a social network was right they did it wrong and they didn’t get up and try again, or iterate, or do something different. But Mark Zuckerberg got the social network right. And it’s important if you’re always questioning. Being bold about your goals doesn’t mean you have to be super confident. You always have to have doubt. If you’re smart at attempting unreasonable things and have lots of input on why things may fail, you will have to have paranoia that it may not succeed. It’s not to freeze in fear, it’s to keep looking for ways out and overcoming all the reasons people are telling you things will fail. But there will come a time if you’re being systematic and thinking from first principles which is key to any kind of endeavor. You may come to the conclusion it’s time to bail.

This is the other part that’s important. You can minimize your failures. So I don’t suggest be ambitious and jump off a building and assume you’ll figure out how to fly. If something doesn’t kill you it will make you stronger. If you read Nassim Taleb he will tell you a lot about that. You can minimize the level of failure, you can make failure that’s smart. And I’ll come back to, failure is the best way to learn faster which should be your objective. After you fail, if you ask lots and lots of questions you will learn from your failure and increase the probability of success in your next attempt.

I’ve talked about this failed strategies. So many people who attempted Facebook before Facebook had the right strategy, they just had the wrong tactics. Know which reason is why you’re failing. But let me tell you almost all the assumptions you have about the job you will do, what will work, what’s possible and what’s even a successful job will change in 20 years. And in the next 20 years, so do imagine 2040 today, it seems a long way away when you’re 20 years old but because of the increased rate of change 20 years from now life will be as different from today, 2020 or 2021, as today is from 1921. We will see more than a 100 years worth of past change in the next 20 because that’s the way exponential curves work. If you assume a rate of change the multiplier is large over the next change. And if you can’t imagine having forecast 2021 in 1921 you were not sitting here today. Be able to forecast 2041 today. Know that, understand it, build flexibility into your career path.

Nothing I learned about engineering school in 1971, I did electrical engineering, is relevant knowledge for anything I do today. No part of medicine when your parents went to school is really that relevant. I would argue, 20 years from today and I’ve written extensively about it, the notion of a physician may not exist, the job may not exist. Most people say that’s just ridiculous. I think it’s very likely. The job of an oncologist may not exist. So the world changes. There was no such job called mixing music 50 years ago. So the best way to predict the future is to invent it. I’ll go a little further than Alan Kay who is a computer scientist. I say, go invent the future you want to have happen. And I’ll come back to which of you can do it.

Now it’s pretty damn important to be self aware. Most people, especially young people, are not self aware. But even older people are not self aware. And there’s two very, very important parts of self awareness. One is to know what drives you, what do you want, what do you want to do. Most people don’t know it and if a parent or a friend says you should do that they look for social proof externally not internally. Who do I really care about? What excites me? What do I want to work on? That’s a very different question than what your friends, your parents, current models of success expect you to work on. That’s internal self awareness. It’s hard to find.

There was a friends daughter who became a doctor because her parents were Indian but she also became a musician and then split her life in half. Six months a year she’s a practicing physician in the Bay Area, the other six months a year she’s doing passion projects in nothing to do with medicine. You can redefine what to do. The other part, the second part of self awareness is how others perceive you. You may think you know what others think of you, very likely you’re wrong. It’s the thing I struggle with the most because nobody comes up to me, especially since I’m successful, and says, hey, Vinod, you’re a joke or you’re wrong. People are just too polite to tell you what they think and we have a lot of confirmation bias as human beings, so we believe things we want to believe. So work hard figuring out both types of self awareness.

My 90/10 rule, 90% of you in the audience unfortunately will conform to society. So mostly I’m trying to goal the 10% into what it takes if you want to be different, if you want to achieve unreasonable things. So only thing I would say to the 90% is there’s nothing wrong with being conforming, there’s nothing wrong with being a doctor, having a comfortable life, there’s many, many ways you can not be extraordinary and really enjoy life. So I’m not suggesting that everybody needs to be that. And society does a pretty good job of conforming you, especially if you’re self aware and know what’s driving you. It’s perfectly okay to say, I want to be an organic farmer in some slot/lot and I don’t need much in my life, perfectly acceptable. My favorite example is perfectly acceptable to say, I want to learn how to train a whale because it seems almost impossible. I think work hard at something you’re passionate about, like training a whale, or building a Facebook, both equally valid goals. Just know yourself and know your internal self.

I would also say and this is often a mistake young people make, they think about what they want today but not think in what they want in 10 years or 20 years or 50 years. It’s important because there are real tradeoff’s. Some people focus just on, hey, I just want to party the next two years, others focus on I want to get the grades so I have a great retirement. I don’t think either one is right. And your parents will tell you to plan for a great retirement but dying is the end stage for everybody and its what are the highlights of your life, what do you want every decade of your life. So in my 20s I actually laid out every decade of my life. And said, what might I want? And I allowed myself every five or 10 years to change what I assumed because nothing is set in concrete. Sorry. I’m sorry. Oh, I’m going the wrong way.

All of this is easier to do when you’re young. The younger you are the more risks you can take and recover. If you’re 45 years old and you have three kids in college, very hard to take the risks without meeting your obligation to your kids. So you’re young, this is the time you can take larger risks, get up and start again. Only thing you have to avoid is killing yourself. Don’t jump off a building because it’s worth the exploration. Again, I say, failures that don’t kill you will make you stronger. It’s a well known principle in biology. I also suggest getting outside your comfort zone. The most learning happens when you get outside your comfort zone.

Now I get outside my comfort zone all the time in some ways, even I have a hard time. I ask myself, what could be the most uncomfortable thing I could do? And I said, if I had white hair I could color it purple. And I’ve never had the guts to do that so everybody has limitation of how far outside their comfort zone they can get, but you learn more outside your comfort zone. So be on a learning journey. What you can do at every stage of your life to be happy is be on a rapid learning curve. I like to say, and let me stop here, I’m addicted to learning at age 66 even more so than I was addicted to learning age 16.

Anand Ashar:

Mr. Khosla it was really intriguing to learn about your unconventional but powerful insights and how embracing change can nurture legendary inventions. No it’s time for some Q&A. What were some challenges and obstacles that you had to overcome? Did you ever feel like quitting, but just powered through it?

Vinod Khosla:

Well, I’m very persistent. Look, none of this is easy. It is scary especially trying for unreasonable things. Trying for things that you know are more likely to fail than to succeed probabilistically. And you’re never sure of yourself, but if you wait for surety you’re never going to try something unreasonable. So it is a continuous process, it’s a scary process. I wrote a presentation that’s still on our website, but I wrote it in 1986 and I love the title still so many years later. It’s called, The Entrepreneurial Rollercoaster. I was mostly talking about entrepreneurship where the highs are high and the lows are low. And usually you get both together. The highs come from attempting and being hopeful about unreasonable things and the lows come when you can’t find a way out that necessity you create.

Anand Ashar:

So how do you remain resilient in the face of failure? What are some good tips and advice for high school students?

Vinod Khosla:

Well, I always tell myself, what’s the worst case? I can always restart. I sort of feel like whatever I want to do I can always restart. And reset isn’t as bad as it seems to people. You go back five years, so what? You are much smarter for all the ways in which you fail and hopefully you don’t make those mistakes again. I like to say, my biggest advantage is I’ve failed in more ways than anybody I have met because I’ve tried more times.

Anand Ashar:

So expand upon the nuances of a smart failure versus a foolish failure.

Vinod Khosla:

Smart failures first you have to makes sure that if it fails it won’t kill you. And if you’re a person, you don’t want to die. If you’re a company, you don’t want the company to die if you’re starting a company. So there are nuances even there. But you have to be thoughtful about why you might succeed and why you might fail. And ask the question, what are the consequences of success and are they worth the risks you’re taking? And lots of little risks that you learn at are sometimes the right kinds of failures.

Sometimes the much bolder risk, like there was a high school kid I met a little while ago who was trying to eliminate the plastic patch in the ocean, that’s bold, that’s a huge contribution to society. For those of you who don’t know the plastic patch in the ocean you can Google it. But it was worth attempting. And he did spend a lot of time, he’s still trying. That’s what attempting adds but if he fails he’ll have learnt a lot. Both about the idea of eliminating or collecting plastic from the plastic patch in the middle of the ocean, but also about process, about people, people he interacts with, the learning will be large. So it’s really being thoughtful and looking at things from first principles. To me that’s smart failure, knowing what the consequences of failure are and what the consequences of success, what the probability of failure is, all the ways in which you can fail, looking for input on why you could fail or how to do things better that’s not failure.

Anand Ashar:

So how do you stop worrying about what others think?

Vinod Khosla:

Well, it’s easier than you think if you start getting internally driven. About the only religion that teaches that is Buddhism, sort of look internally. I’m not a religious person, I generally hate religion because it’s mostly about programming you. But looking internally at what you want, training your mind to do that is something that can be done. But it is hard and to do it you don’t have to be a loner, you don’t have to disassociate from your friends like Buddha did. I think you can be part of their ecosystem, acknowledge their values, whatever they will expect and say you’re trying to do something different. I think it’s possible.

Anand Ashar:

So as a venture capitalist, how do you grasp the intricacies of such a variety of fields?

Vinod Khosla:

I read more than almost anybody I know. I read more of the worst things than anybody I know. So I always have a large stack of things that can vary from can you read individual neurons in the brain to what’s the best biology for cancer. I read about everything whether in my area or not.

Anand Ashar:

So what are some of the –

Vinod Khosla:

By the way, I do think in the future breadth will be more important than depth. So as you contemplate high school, if your doing computer science also do neuroscience. Do something radically different at the same time whether you call it a minor or if you just take course, it’s worth doing very different things. If you love music get into a great book called, your brain on music, the science of a human passion, or something like that. So you can cover a wide range, the wider you are especially in college, the more prepared you will be when the unpredictable world happens in 20 years and you will be able to change from one area to another. That’ll be very important advice here.

Anand Ashar:

When did you realize that you needed to start breaking conventions?

Vinod Khosla:

I was very fortunate, I was always that way. I never accepted authority, I never accepted conventional wisdom. It actually started with me first challenging religion. When I was 12 I started to hate religion and I realized it was mostly mechanisms to exploit people in every religion whether you’re talking about Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, pick your favorite, they’re all the same. So I learned to be unconventional by fighting priests in India, starting aged 12. I refused to go inside a temple, I refused to respect priests, I’d mostly call them crooks and thieves which they were and still mostly are, or child molesters, or pick your favorite term, they are more prevalent in artificially constrained institutions than in general society. Sorry, I may offend some people but that’s never bothered me.

Anand Ashar:

So how can someone discern when to pivot?

Vinod Khosla:

Again, look every situation is different, every persons personal situation is different, how long they can stay at a problem is different, so one has to really customize it. What I would say is think from first principles. Don’t apply conventional wisdom to anything and take lots of input and use it to guide yourself and your internal compass. There’s no easy answer. Unfortunately life on the most important things there aren’t easy answers.

Anand Ashar:

How does a high school develop self confidence in themselves?

Vinod Khosla:

I think the first step is not to have self confidence. And in fact, self confidence isn’t as good a thing as most people assume it to be because mostly it’s false self confidence. I think tolerance from failure, not being embarrassed when you fail at something worth trying is probably the best way to get self confidence. Knowing why you’re doing something even if you might fail or it might not succeed is one very rational way to train your mind to be not necessarily arrogantly self confident because that’s a bad thing even though you’re told it isn’t. All people tell you to have more self esteem. Always question yourself and try and change the things you don’t like. I think it’s very, very important. Self esteem is overrated so your teachers now say to everybody, all of you are brilliant, all of you are great. No, that’s not true. Find what you’re good at, do experiment but be on a rapid learning journey to wherever you want to go, work from first principles.

Anand Ashar:

And as we wrap up –

Vinod Khosla:

But I think the tolerance for failure is absolutely a key part of this.

Anand Ashar:

As we wrap up, what are three prominent pieces of advice for high school students to create ground breaking change?

Vinod Khosla:

Explore the edges, don’t listen to conventional wisdom or conventional experts or the platitudes you hear about what’s expected and don’t be afraid to fail, but don’t be over confident either. This is possible even though some of it feels self contradictory, it’s not. Thank you.

Anand Ashar:

Mr. Khosla, a huge thank you for taking the time out this morning. You’re insights were super inspirational and it was great to learn from your experience. And thank you so much. And if you have some time come join our awesome attendees in our immersive 2D virtual world.

Vinod Khosla:

Well, good luck to everybody. And it’s always great for me to talk to young people or people who want to explore new things.

 

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