Sharpen your axe
Last week, my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (UT ECE), shared with me an incredibly flattering, delightful, and truly unexpected recognition of being inducted into their Academy of Distinguished Alumni. UT ECE is a Top 10 nationally ranked undergraduate and graduate engineering program that in its 100+ year history has produced exceptional, world renowned engineers including:
- James Truchard, co-founder and former CEO of National Instruments
- Hector Ruiz, former CEO and Executive Chairman of AMD
- Bob Mansfield, Apple hardware engineering legend
- Archie W. Straiton, IEEE Edison Medal winner
To see my name on a list with these industry legends and other luminaries that include IEEE Fellows, National Academy of Engineering members, White House Fellows, University Deans, mayors, civic leaders, and more is first and foremost a mistake. But secondly, it’s an honor that means so much personally because it reminds me of home (I grew up in Austin in the shadow of the University of Texas) and family (my father is a proud UT alum). My dad actually immigrated to the US to attend UT so if not for the university, this blog post might be written in Chinese.
The day of my induction, I was asked to give a short speech to some faculty and students (mostly graduating seniors). I just wanted to share in a blog post approximately what I said that day, to help me better remember a moment I never want to forget.
Thank you so much for this incredible honor. Just being associated with the University of Texas ECE Department is a privilege, and to now be associated in this fashion as a member of the Academy of Distinguished Alumni is something I will treasure for years to come.
Although it’s been two decades since I’ve lived in Austin, I’ve been grateful that UT has allowed me to stay connected with the school, not just because it’s been rewarding or interesting, but because it’s been really fun. During my day, I categorize meetings and projects I participate in into two buckets: those that are energy draining, and those that are energy giving. There are few things more energy giving than getting to interact with UT, the ECE Department, its incredible faculty, and most of all the amazing students here. I always leave those conversations more excited about the world and the role that engineering will play in its future.
Today, I wanted to share a story that my dad, another proud UT alum, told me when I graduated here. It goes like this:
A young man goes to work in the family business as a forester cutting down trees for lumber. He wants to make his father proud so the first day on the job, he works diligently and cuts down 50 trees. The second day, he challenges himself to do even better, puts in more time and effort, only to find out he’s cut down 40 trees. Discouraged, the young man goes to work the third day determined to work harder than he’s ever worked, but cuts down only 30 trees. Now he’s panicking.
So on the fourth day, the young man arrives at the forest before sunrise, works straight through the day and evening without stopping until he’s totally exhausted and can barely stand. And after all that, he’s cut down 20 trees.
Ashamed he goes to his father and says: “Dad, I tried my best but I’m afraid I’m a failure”.
To which his Dad replies: “Son, did you remember to sharpen your axe?”
That story has stuck with me my entire adult life. It helped me realize that accomplishments are not milestones, they are mileposts that you don’t reach, but instead you constantly cross. And to make it to the next accomplishment, and the one after that, will take new skills, new abilities, new experiences. It’s not enough to work hard doing the same thing over and over again. To succeed, you need to combine hard work with a lifelong pursuit of learning, improving, and bettering yourself for the future.
Going back to what gives me energy, I’m once again energized meeting with you all today, knowing what’s in store for the UT ECE students as they prepare to set off on new adventures. Because I know that this program and the time you’ve spent here has taught you all one shared lesson that I was taught to during my time here: how to learn.
What you’ve learned, the courses you’ve taken, the tests you’ve passed, the projects you’ve completed aren’t what will endure in the long run because that knowledge will change over time. Instead, you’ve been taught something far more important and that’s how to learn, how to solve a differential equation, how to calculate current through a resistor, how to sort a linked list. What you’ve learned is useful today. How you’ve learned it is something you’ll be able to rely on your entire life.
Think back to your first day at school and the knowledge you had then, compared to what you’ve learned since. That delta, that rate of increase, is the opportunity in front of you. Imagine what you can do if you learn at that rate every year for the rest of your life. Imagine all that you’ll accomplish and the mileposts you’ll pass as you speed on to the next one. Imagine the amazing ways you’ll be able to give back to others. Imagine the future you can help create.
All you have to do along the way is remember to keep sharpening your axe.