Don’t Ask For Permission. Ask For Forgiveness.

I dropped out of college. I bought a car with the money instead.

And then when I saw everyone walking around campus I got jealous, returned the car, cancelled the check, and re-enrolled in college.

A day later, I met my first mentor (first of about 10 — and then 100s if I include the many wonderful people I have learned from along the way).

My first mentor was a professor. His courses were useless. I never used them for anything. And then I had to take remedial classes when I had a job to re-learn all the things I failed to learn in school.

But I learned from this professor things that were invaluable to later success: building businesses, helping others, writing books, giving talks, making an impact.

Our life worth is not our net worth but the impact we have on others. This is what I learned from him.

But let me reel it back a little. Because I studied this man and emulated him for decades.

1) He Chose Himself

He got a PhD in theoretical physics. When he was working on his thesis, Stephen Hawking said to him: “If you solve this problem, it will change the game in physics.”

Then, when he did in fact solve the problem, Stephen Hawking said: “Hmmm, I guess it wasn’t as important as I initially thought.”

Disappointed, he moved from Utah to New York, and became obsessed with computer science.

He would sit in on classes, read all the books, program, etc. Then he wanted to be a professor but the school said “No!”

So he found a classroom that was empty in the early evenings and put up signs that said: “Lectures on Programming Languages.”

At first a few people would show up. Then more. Then more. He was an excellent lecturer (more on that in a second).

Finally, so many students were attending his lectures that the school had to make him a professor. Later he got tenure. Then later he moved to a chaired professorship at another school where he still teaches.

He didn’t let the gatekeepers tell him “no” and he eventually worked his dream job.

Key Lesson: ASK FOR FORGIVENESS BUT NOT PERMISSION, if your heart is in the right place.

2) He Judged His Success by the Success of His Students

He was not a well-known professor. He never published any world-shaking papers. But all of his students have gone on to be very successful professors.

He told me specifically: “My success will be if I have successful students.” He always gave them full credit for everything and helped them in every aspect of their careers.

Key Lesson: SUCCESS IS MEASURED BY HOW MUCH YOU HELP OTHERS AND NO OTHER METRIC.

3) He Taught Me How to Speak

I was very shy. I couldn’t speak up. I was scared to give talks. I’m still scared to give talks. But…

One of the most worthless things I’ve ever done was write an academic research paper.

My professor and I were working on a project, wrote up the results, and it got accepted by the most prestigious conference in our industry. So we both flew out to Kaiserslautern, Germany and, true to form, he was going to let me do the presentation.

He said, “skip the conference dinner. It’s useless and you’ll meet nobody interesting.”

Instead, we went to the empty conference hall, where I was scared to death about the talk I would give there the next day. SCARED TO DEATH.

He said, Let me see your slides.

I showed him and he said: No. No. NO! No. No. He crossed them all out, made changes, showed me why, showed me how to keep an audience engaged with slides.

Then he said, “OK, let me see you give the talk.”

He was the only person in an audience that could fit about 1,000 and for three hours he watched me give the same talk over and over.

Constantly stopping me, telling me how to move across the stage, where to put in jokes, how to keep the emotional temperature as high as possible on a talk about an incredibly boring topic.

During the presentation, I had people laughing. People even came up to me afterwards and said, “I never understood that topic before. Can you give the same talk at our university?”

Which is saying something when I tell you the topic of the talk and the paper, “Automatically proving the adjoint-functor theorem in category theory.” VERY useless.

Key Lesson: HOW YOU COMMUNICATE IS HOW PEOPLE REMEMBER YOU.

4) He Always Gave Credit to Everyone Else

He never became a well-known professor but all his students loved him.

Using that principle, I learned to always give credit to people working for me, and even more importantly, to give credit to managers, shareholders, customers — whoever I could.

People remember when you give them credit. They don’t remember when you take credit and hoard it for yourself.

And guess what: other people see when you give credit. So it’s a double-win.

We walked through the streets of Kaiserslautern on our way to our respective hotels after he had me practice the talk.

Before we split off, he gave a final piece of advice: “Don’t go to any porn shops in Germany. They will rip you off.”

That’s the last I ever saw him. A year later, I was thrown out of graduate school.

But I remember the lessons and I’ve used them as an employee, an entrepreneur, an investor, and as someone who has repeatedly bounced back from the worst failures:

  • Give credit
  • Always improve your communication
  • Ask for forgiveness, not permission
  • When discouraged, the best way to advance is to help others

I’ve had many mentors since then. Unfortunately none of them still speak to me. Life takes each individual on amazing journeys, and they only intersect for a short time.

I also have had many virtual mentors through the books I read, the stories I hear about, even small encounters that barely register, but I try to learn.

Everyone in my life has become a mentor to me — from my wife, to my kids, to my favorite authors, to all of the people who have both dragged me down and lifted me up.

Our only mission in life is to learn from all of these people.

But I always remember walking through Germany at age 21 thinking how lucky I was to have learned so much from this one person.

  • Finola Howard

    I wish you would tell us who he is!

  • hey James, great post, and great lessons.

    If you professor reads this, I know he will be grinning, “Yeah! James is giving me credit for teaching him to give credit!”

    Your professor must love computer science as much as I love music, no “normal” people would choose themselves like that.

    I like really like the notion of success being measured by how we help people. It sounds like common sense, but it is not commonly practiced. This post certainly helped me realize some of my weaknesses, I better get started to fix them quickly.

    Thanks for the great post James. Cheers

  • Stan Martins

    Nice. Will do some digging and let you know who the mentor is shortly ;-)

  • Thanks for a great post.

    I used a method for preparing to a talk similar to the one you describe. Some years ago, I participated in a startup event. I had to deliver an elevator pitch (describe the idea) of 30 seconds. You weren’t allowed to speak any longer.

    I have a speech impediment (stuttering) and to keep the time constraint, me and the organizers of the event decided that I practice my elevator pitch at home as long as it fits the 30 seconds, then record it on YouTube and then this recording will be played instead of me talking.

    I recorded the video and sent it to the organizers.

    But then I decided that it makes sense to practice the elevator pitch just in case the Internet, the project or the laptop breaks down.

    So I went to places, where nobody could hear me, said that elevator pitch at least 30 times and listened to it on my voice recorder a couple of times. Eventually, I got a feeling for time and I also could say the pitch without memorizing individual words.

    At the startup event, the organizers tried to insert my video into a new presentation software and it failed. So I had to speak myself. I did and people, who saw me on stage and who saw the YouTube video told me that my “live” performance was better than the recorded one.

    Your method (practice delivery of a presentation until you can do it without looking at the paper, slides and without learning it by heart) worked for me.