Friday, March 15, 2013

Mortaliphobia

One of the interesting aftereffects of my meeting with centenarian Bob Teichner only happened as I lay in bed, waiting to fall asleep.

I was suddenly overwhelmed with an intense, almost unbearable fear of death.

On a daily basis, I happily ignore my mortality, assuming that it's far off in the future.  But if I'm lucky enough to live to be a feisty 100 like my new friend Bob, I won't be able to make that assumption.

The murky nature of the future also allows me to shunt aside these fears with vague hopes that the Singularity arrives in my lifetime, and that I'm able to upload my consciousness.

But in the darkness, by myself, I know that the odds are strongly that I will live and die like so many billions before me.

My mind was still troubled when I fell asleep.  But as the Russian saying goes, the morning is wiser than the evening.

For me, mortality is a faint bogeyman in the distance.  For Bob, it's a constant companion.  At 100, he's outlived friends and family alike.  He can feel the dimming of his powers.  And yet, despite it all, he perseveres and is happy.

At 100, he no longer has goals he needs to accomplish; he's already done it all.  But he can still appreciate the simple pleasures of reading his email and spending an afternoon with a fine detective novel.  Even if his mind and memory work at a slower pace than before, the words on a page are patient and constant.

I still fear death, but Bob gives me hope that as it draws nearer, my fear of the unfamiliar will fade into a smiling acceptance and serenity.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Life lessons in entrepreneurship from a 100-year-old man

Today I had the great fortune and privilege to meet Bob Teichner, age 100.

Bob took an "early" retirement package from HP in 2000, when he was 87.  I happened to meet his daughter, Andrea, while we were walking our dogs, and struck up a conversation.  When I found out about her dad's history, I immediately asked to meet him.

Bob graduated from college in 1937 which means he could have attended a 75th reunion last year.  He was recruited to Silicon Valley by Nobel Prizewinner William Shockley, the legendary inventor of the transistor.

Hale and hearty all his life (Andrea noted that Bob was running the track at Stanford well into his 90s), Bob calls himself "decrepit" now, but met me in his Palo Alto home with firm gaze and handshake, and a face that looked much younger than his 100 years.  He's hard of hearing now, and needs a little extra time to gather his thoughts, but he remains an active and animated conversationalist.  Here are a few of the highlights:

On why Shockley hired him: "He was looking for somebody he thought would be loyal, after Bob Noyce and his group [AKA the "Traitorous Eight"] left him.  So he hired me, along with a bunch of Germans.  He heard that Germans were loyal if you offered them a job for life." (I guess that's one approach to startup hiring!)

On getting along with the notoriously difficult Shockley: "We got along fine.  One time, I was visiting Bell Labs, and they asked how I managed to get along with him. 'Well, I'm not a physicist,' I told them, and they just laughed." (Teichner had a Masters in Chemistry, though most of his professional work was in semiconductors)

On developing new technologies: "I used a Xenon lamp, which provided the best resolution [for photolithography].  The only problem was that dust would get on the glass, so we eventually figured out that people needed to keep their hair covered."  In other words, he was there for the invention of the clean room!

On his other legendary boss, David Packard: "He would walk around checking on everything, and wherever he went, people were happy and excited to see him."

When I asked him what advice he'd give to young people, he answered quickly, "Luck. I got recruited out to Silicon Valley, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Back East, things were slow and based on tradition. Here, everything was new, and we were open to whatever got the job done."

Folks often predict the death of Silicon Valley. It's inspiring to hear that the same principles that built the Valley are still going strong today!

Bob continues to live by these principles; every day, he checks Gmail, and reads the New York Times, Washington Post, and Huffington Post. He even follows new trends like the Quantified Self, though he laughs and says he's not implementing those technologies in his daily life.

I asked him what he looks forward to in his daily life, and he answered with a chuckle, "Another day." May we all be so lucky and wise!

UPDATE:
I almost forgot one of Bob's best lines.  I asked him, looking back, what things had made him happiest.  He replied, "The birth of my children.   Having children is even better than sex!"  He then fixed with me with a wide grin.