|My Philosophy as an Advisor
This document outlines my philosophy and values as an advisor and more generally in life. My hope is that younger generations, particularly my students and their students, will benefit by considering these thoughts.
We live rather limited life spans and I feel that for our lives to have a meaning we should all consider the question of what is important in life. Different people may give different answers, but I think it is critical, for every one of us to attempt to answer the question.
What is Important in Life?
This is a question that has occupied my mind for a long time. My experiences have led me to define what I consider important in life:
- To improve the human condition.
- To positively affect the lives of people, especially young people.
- To increase the human understanding of how the world works.
My life path, sometimes intentionally, sometimes accidentally has led me to seek to achieve these objectives through science. I have been associated with educational institutions all my life, the first 25 years as a student and the last 27 years as a university professor. The key methods I have been using are:
- Scientific research
- Building companies
In my opinion, research is serious business and is linked to what is important in life I outlined earlier. The key principles in research in my mind are:
As I reflect back on my life, the one thing I am very proud of is my graduate students. When I meet them they are typically in their early twenties, they have been among the very best in their undergraduate institutions, with high aspirations, exceptional ability, various degrees of maturity, a bit inexperienced, without often a clear vision of their future and direction. Not too different from the way I was at their age. It has been my great privilege and joy to serve as their advisor. I consider being the advisor of my graduate students far and away the most important aspect of my life as an academic. My graduate students have been and continue to be my first priority.
What do I aspire to help them learn?
The superficial objective is to teach them the principles of Operations Research, my area of expertise. I feel this is the minimal and not a particularly important objective. The most important thing I aspire to help them learn is why research is important and especially what research is important.
- Research can change the world.
- There is nothing that we cannot achieve if we put our minds into it.
- The only research worth doing has the following characteristic: Assume we succeed 100% in answering the research question we aim to address. Then, does something change in the world for the better among those things that are important in life? That is, does the human condition improve? Do the results of the research affect what we teach the future generations? Does the research increase the understanding of how the world works? If the answer to these questions is no, and in my experience it often is, then I do not think we should be doing this research on the first place. What is important is that these questions are answerable before we do the research.
It took me more than a decade to fully crystalize these principles. I see a lot of people, including myself in my early years, who aim to impress rather than change the world. More than the specific areas of research, my central aspiration is to help my graduate students learn these principles.
I have been privileged to be at MIT, a world class research university, since my early twenties. It is my aspiration to generate new knowledge that I consider important in life and teach the next generations by introducing new classes and writing books. I also believe that this responsibility is increasing with age, that is as the depth of my understanding and experience increases, I feel an increased sense of responsibility to transmit the understanding and experience I have achieved to help the young generation.
Money is not my primary motivation. I see money as an enabler for changing the world, as a consequence of being successful in changing the world, but not as the primary objective. In fact, I agree with Steve Jobs: "My aspiration was never to be the richest person in the cemetery," even though he is in fact.
I have been a serial entrepreneur in the last 20 years, and I intend to continue to do it with increasing intensity until I cannot do it anymore. Given my love of being a university professor, it is reasonable to ask why.
I believe that research and education can affect the human condition and influence a limited number of human lives. It is possible that others can take the research ideas scientists generate and create significant impact. My observation, however, is that the limited number of scientists who have produced research that is capable of affecting the lives of millions of people created the companies themselves. It is my belief that the major way to affect the human condition in large scale is to build a successful company. From my experience, the only way to build a successful company is to inspire a team of people, create a common vision and execute the vision successfully.
Values and principles
In the first half a century of life, I have formed a system of beliefs and values. I have tried to conduct my life in accordance to these principles. I aspire to continue to use these principles in all aspects of my life:
- Merit should guide decisions. MIT is by and large a meritocracy, and to a large degree, in my opinion, the reason it became a world-‐class institution during the 20th century. In my experience, merit in the end carries the day and the best way to achieve a merit based environment is to encourage an open ideas environment. In my experience, the best idea should be followed, not whose idea it was.
- Integrity matters. I learned from my father that honesty and the truth are how one should contact his/her life even if sometimes it is inconvenient. I feel it is important to do what you say and, independent of contracts and agreements, your word should matter.
- High aspirations matter. We should aim to change the world, if we have a chance to do it. I do not know of many examples of people who changed the world without aiming to do so.
- Be a master of your destiny. All my life I have tried to be in a position that I can affect my future. I have always put more weight on my own beliefs. I have also tried to form beliefs independently, judge people and ideas on their merits.
- Surround yourself with exceptional people. In my experience, first rate people surround themselves with other first rate people, but second rate people surround themselves with third rate people. In my experience, one cannot succeed to change the world alone. A superb team is necessary.
- Good judgment is critical. In my experience, there are few important decisions in life that have a first order effect in our trajectory and impact. Exhibiting good judgment during these decisions can affect our lives to the first order.
- Loyalty matters. I have tried to be loyal to the people who are close to me, especially my students. They have entrusted their future in my hands and I take this responsibility very seriously. I have also experienced that loyalty is reciprocated.
- Positive reinforcement. Especially with young people, it is critical to give them positive reinforcement: an encouraging word, a positive comment goes a long way to empower very talented but a bit uncertain young people to achieve their potential.