The Man who Taught me the Real Meaning of Altruism

I’ve always thought “altruism” was bullshit.

I mean just look at the very definition of what it stands for. Almost every piece of it goes against human nature.

Altruism: The belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.

To me this concept never made any sense, how could someone really be an altruist. Maybe a person can have selfless concern for others so they help people out, but at the end of the day aren’t they just doing it to make themselves feel good? Where’s the altruism in that.

I remember reflecting on this concept a ton in the last few months, thinking about what gives someone the ability to truly care for others. I’ve been doing this because one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned this year is that emotion drives everything!

Everyone from Elon Musk to Peter Diamandis, people who are solving some of the world’s most difficult problems are all emotionally driven to do so. They’ve found attachment into what they want to achieve, and have committed to making sure it becomes a reality.

I love Elon Musk because of his ability to give zero shits and do what he wants.

Wants a colony on Mars? — Goes and creates Space X.

Hates climate change and humanities reliance on oil? — Goes and creates Tesla.

So if I couldn’t get myself to really care about people, especially strangers and people I hadn’t even met yet. Then I’d never have the ability to do something impactful, or solve a problem that really hurts people (because why would I care).

It wasn’t until the day I learned about Sebastian Thrun, that my heart grew three sizes bigger.

The amount of time I spend reading and fantasizing about entrepreneurs is insane. Growing up I read biographies written by Walter Isaacson to give me deep insights into what some really successful people were like.

My desire to learn about entrepreneurship was so large, I wanted to learn whatever I possibly could (I was reading Paul Graham’s essays as awestruck 13-year-old thinking I’ve discovered a secret gold mine).

Every few weeks I think I’ve learned about every entrepreneur, ever.

But then every few weeks I surprise myself. Out of nowhere, I hear about someone who completely blows my mind.

When I first read about Sebastian Thrun, I was like “Oh cool, Sebastian the Co-Founder of Udacity.” But after 2 hours of researching that thought quickly turned into “GOD DAMN, SEBASTIAN THE CO-FOUNDER OF UDACITY!” (My inner fangirl came out… believe me when I say that doesn’t happen often.)

Sebastian Thrun is a boss, he’s one of those individuals you can’t help but be impressed by. His willingness to set his personal desires aside for a greater, you could say “altruistic” good is something that really inspired me.

Since learning about Sebastian Thrun I’ve started introspecting on what really matters, and what my ambitions should be. His story has made me rethink what taking a big risk for something really important means.

I’ve learned that ambition is so much deeper than the length of the number in your bank account or a prestigious title you hold. It’s what drives you to wake up every day and work hard. Ambition is about impact and making a difference, something that gives you a greater purpose.

I still don’t have ambition figured out, but I do know if you’re not aspiring to change the world. Keep working on your ambition.

I remember for the longest time, my biggest goal in life was to make $1 Million dollars. Recently I’ve gotten myself into the position that I’m on track to do so.

When I finally got to this point, I was sad because I felt the same. No dramatic increase in happiness. No big change in emotion. Just static.

For a long time that was all I thought about, and now that I had it. It didn’t make a difference. So now when planning my long term goals, one thing I really prioritize is what kind of impact will I make.

The Story of a Man who Lives to Solve Problems

Imagine waking up only to hear that someone you loved was killed in a car accident? How would you react?

Maybe you’d cry. Maybe you’d pretend everything was okay until you had an emotional breakdown. Maybe you’d even go on a depressed shopping spree to mask the pain you were feeling.

For Sebastian Thrun it was different. When his best friend died from a car crash at age 18, it changed his life. He really questioned why we let humans be the ones in charge of driving vehicles.

Why? Because the amount of human error in the world is insane. And when humans are given giant hunks of metal that can be controlled to go over 200 Km per hour, the result is never good.

1.35 million people die due to car crashes every year, and the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5–29 years is road traffic injuries.

So to change this, Sebastian Thrun did what made the most sense. He decided to create a car that drives itself… If you didn’t catch that, let me say it again. THIS GUY CREATED A FUCKING CAR THAT DRIVES ITSELF!

At each step of Sebastian Thrun’s life, he was always wired to think logically and go towards whatever made the most sense. Even when he was making a crazy amount of impact like building self-driving cars. When something came along that he thought could be bigger, he went for it.

3 Lessons to Learn from the Founder of Udacity … and the creator of the self-driving car.

Lesson #1: Always strive for the greatest amount of impact.

Just because you’re doing something important, it doesn’t mean it’s the best thing you could be doing.

From any perspective, Sebastian Thrun looked like he was changing the world. After having his best friend die to a car crash at 18, he was passionate about creating self-driving cars. So while a professor of Robotics and AI at Stanford University he lead a team to win the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005.

This was the first time EVER, that someone was able to program a car to navigate a course by itself in the desert. This huge win caught the eye of Larry Page (one of the co-founders of Google)! As a result, Sebastian Thrun’s team was brought into Google to pioneer self-driving cars.

“Larry came to the race itself and … came disguised with, like, a hat and sunglasses so he wouldn’t be bothered by everybody. But … he had a keen interest in this. Larry has been a believer in this technology for much longer than I even knew. And so was Sergey (Brin). And they really want to understand what’s going on,”

Sebastian became the founder of a secret lab called Google X, a facility literally designed to think of ideas that could change the world. He ran the lab for 2 years until he saw Sal Khan (Founder of Khan Academy) speak about transforming education. Sebastian was convinced he could do something even bigger.

It occurred to me, I could be at Google and build a self-driving car, or I can teach 10,000 students how to build self-driving cars.

Why be the one building self-driving cars, when he could empower 1000s of others to do the same? So he left to go build Udacity.

I’ve always been told to find something you love, and focus on doing that thing forever. Now I’m wondering… well, that’s kind of stupid.

Sebastian was living his dream, from the age of 18 he was driven with the goal to create self-driving cars. Although he was happy doing it and getting all the glory for doing so, he wanted to enable others instead. Why? For the sole reason, it would lead to more impact.

That’s the equivalent of having all the ideas and skills for creating a billion-dollar company, but instead going on to teach 100s of kids to do it instead. (Actually, that sounds like two people I know)

Everyone I know when placed in this situation would rather have the glory for themselves, it takes a really selfless person to be able to say “This might lead to more impact” and go do it instead.

Lesson learned, be like Sebastian.

When life gives you lemons, somehow find diamonds and give those to everyone instead.

Lesson #2: Be prepared to give it all away to do something you care about.

To do great things you need to make sacrifices.

Sebastian Thrun had it all he was a Professor at Stanford (with Tenure), was running a secret R&D lab for one of the biggest companies on the planet, was in the media at least 2 times a week, and his life was to think of crazy ideas that could shake the world. BUT he gave that up so he could create some company to educate people.

That’s Alien language to me. One time my friend was short 10 cents for a McDonalds Junior Chicken, and I wasn’t even willing to give him that. Let alone leave one of the coolest positions on earth so I could be broke… *cough* I mean start a company.

I could be running possibly the coolest lab on the planet… and here I am, giving up 97 percent of my salary. — Sebastian on Leaving Google X

Today Udacity has over 4 million students and has helped many of them get jobs at top tech companies doing something they love. None of that would have been possible if Sebastian hadn’t left his job.

I think too many people in life become complacent, once they get to a certain level of achievement they plateau. The issue is not many people are willing to leave a comfortable lifestyle, even if it means doing something consequential.

Key Takeaway: Sometimes if you have a goal that’s big enough, you have to be willing to sacrifice everything to make it a reality. Who knows you might end up succeeding.

“I have this dream that if we can make education globally, universally available… then we can completely transform the world.”

Lesson #3: Be the inventor of change you want to see.

Don’t wait for others to create something, if you want to see something happen then DO IT. There’s a lot of opportunity for innovation in so many aspects of everyday life.

When asked “What’s your favourite Science Fiction Movie?” Sebastian said

“I don’t watch science fiction. I make ‘em.”

Which is true. He pioneered self-driving cars, something that people for decades had said was impossible. Today you can see the fruits of his labour driving around Phoenix, Arizona with Google launching their self-driving taxi fleet.

“To get ideas I just look at what bothers me. Why am I stuck in traffic every day? Why did my sister die of breast cancer if it can easily be diagnosed? All these problems have solutions. There’s a lot of opportunity for innovation in so many aspects of everyday life.” — Sebastian Thrun

Sebastian believes in creating the future. Whether that's cars that drive themselves, democratized education for everyone in the world, or flying taxis.

So if you have a big vision, don’t wait around. Get off your ass and work for it.

Most important of all don’t forget to give back.

What’s the point of climbing the mountain if you can’t admire all the people you helped and the world you saved at the top?

I take all day to climb mountains and then spend about 10 minutes at the top admiring the view.