How Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity, Inspires me to Have an Impact

How do you have an impact?

That is the question that I have been repeating to myself for the past several months.

A while back, I started feeling pretty existential. I asked myself: “I have a very short amount of time to live on this Earth, so what exactly is the point of my existence”? Death is a part of life, and we all have to grapple with the reality that one day, we will die.

I felt pretty awful, thinking that my existence had no point. But then, after a lot of late-late-night philosophical research, I came across people on Reddit who suggest I consider characters like Beethoven, like Einstein.

Impact Means Serving Humanity

Why is it that we still remember the names of two German men, both of whom are no longer alive? Because of the mark that they left behind on the world. Both of these men changed humanity forever, and for the better, so we remember them.

This thought seemed to help me a little bit. Maybe, if I left behind something when I die, then my existence will not have been without purpose. Even without being remembered by all, I still would have done something to help the rest of humanity.

I tried to internalize what this means entirely, and to be honest; I’m still trying.

I knew that I wanted to do something that could help a lot of people, something that people would view as a game-changer, something innovative, something revolutionary.

How does one make an impact on the world with the short time they have? Hell, how did Einstein and Beethoven do it!?

Impact Means Being an Innovator in Your Field

In the modern-day, we have seen the rise of technology and entrepreneurship. We will remember Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Elon Musk and Steve Jobs for what they built.

Recently, I came across an individual who was having a unique impact who truly inspired me.

Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity is having an impact through transforming and democratizing education.

Let’s talk a little bit about what I learned from Sebastian and how exactly he is doing impactful things.

Impact Means Think 10X

Throughout the years, Sebastian was (and still is) a “10x thinker”. His passion for computer science started when he was a child. This passion led him to pursue computer science at university. I was fascinated by something Sebastian said in an interview. He was speaking about human interaction.

He said that computers do precisely what they get told, but humans are completely different.

What he said is a great truth that we should carry with ourselves as we progress into the 21st century: technology is not what impacts the world, people do. Through our thoughts and interactions with others, we have an impact.

This fascination with human interaction, coupled with his interest in computers is what initially led Sebastian to start building a career in Artificial Intelligence.

Impact means having a purpose

Sebastian had a very impressive career. Over the years he has:

  • Conducted research at universities such as Carnegie Mellon and Stanford
  • Worked for Google, first launching their ‘Street View’ project,
  • Pioneered Google X, an innovation factory, along with Google’s self-driving car project

Sebastian was having an impact. He was doing innovative things, changing the field of autonomous vehicles, but even after this, he had a higher calling.

It all started when Sebastian was teaching an “Introduction to AI” course at Stanford. Around this same time, he saw a TED Talk given by Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy. This talk introduced him to the emerging world of online education. So, as an experiment, Sebastian decided to offer his AI course online, to anyone who wished to sign up.

The course’s popularity exploded. 160,000 people registered for the course. Just like that, Sebastian saw online education as a game-changer: a way to make education accessible to everyone.

Impact requires you to take risks

Sebastian was leading a great life. He was having an impact, building amazing things, but he saw an opportunity that allowed him to do even more.

Once he saw the impacted he could have pursued education instantly. He gave up 97% of his salary and left behind his fantastic career and took a huge risk which would ultimately pay off.

The company he started is called Udacity. Udacity had the mission of “democratizing higher education.”

Our search for impact and innovation should be never-ending. Over the years, I have learned that we should always go where we think we can create the most value for ourselves and the rest of the world.

Udacity’s initial failure was something that they learned from. What I internalized, is that when trying to be impactful: failure is inevitable.

After he launched, The New York Times called Udacity a flop. Regardless of the negative reviews, Sebastian was able to pivot to something that worked.

He focused and dedicated themselves to teach people about exponential technologies that they could apply. That teaching in and of itself wasn’t enough.

Failure is inevitable in all disciplines, whenever we are trying to do something big: if your idea doesn’t work out, be smart. Figure out why it is not working and do something different.

“At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment.”

— Sebastian Thrun

Sebastian was working on building a platform that differentiated him from all the other teachers and professors in the world. His goal makes sense: education that will provide people with jobs in the 21st century.

Impact can empower people to impact others

Rethinking education is one of the reasons why he is having such an enormous impact. Building a platform that empowers people continues to to to allow him to stand out from the crowd and pioneer something new in the field of education.

In an interview, Sebastian said about his journey making Udacity:

“If you could predict what’s going to happen, then don’t do it, so let’s do it again.”

This quote resonated with me because I make a lot of mistakes, just like every single human being makes a lot of mistakes. It sounds cliché, but one of the most important things that I have learned over the years is that making mistakes is the best way to learn. 

If we can precisely predict what is going to happen when we try to do something, then what are we gaining? More importantly, what are we learning in the process? Nothing, in my opinion.

Sebastian has internalized this and articulates it perfectly.

Let’s return to the idea of an impact once more.

“I was educating more AI students than there were AI students in all the rest of the world combined.”
— Sebastian Thrun

Learning about Sebastian’s story taught me about how I might have an impact. Not only through the story of how he was able to overcome early failures, but also in the way he had an impact. He was teaching others in a way that hadn’t excited before. I want to do new things and impact the world in different ways. And what that will take is bravery.

Impact is brave, and selfless

He gave up everything to chase innovation, to chase impact. The quote from Sebastian that resonated with me the most was the following:

“I could be at Google and build a self-driving or I can teach 10 000 students to build self-driving cars, and then, I serve humanity so much better.”

Sebastian Thun

There is wisdom, and truth to this quote that resonates with me. This quote reflects the depth of Sebastian’s impact: he is innovating by creating people who will innovate. Udacity can drive innovation on a massive scale because they are empowering people. When someone learns a skill from Udacity, it enables them to change their lives and the lives of others.

Sebastian had a passion, a vision, and a drive to do something that could serve humanity. When asked what his optimal day looked like, he responded:

“When I am afforded the ability to do something for somebody else without the other person, even noticing I’m doing it.”

Sebastian Thun

What Sebastian taught me about Impact

We have an impact by understanding our vision. It starts with understanding what we can do best. We use those skills and those ideas to help as many people as possible. The impact itself can have broad outcomes. It can come in the form of revolutionizing a field, building something big, or creating people that will impact the world in some way.

Despite all of this thinking, despite all of these people making an impact, I still feel some existential threat. I continue to fear that I won’t do enough to make an impact, to truly change the world.

That being said, seeing people such as Sebastian helps. The fact that he was passionate about something, and that he channelled that passion into innovation is incredibly inspiring.

My passion will be to pursue the great impact

Just as Sebastian was passionate about making an impact on education, I’m passionate about discovering how I can have an impact.

What I hope is that my continuous passion for one of these things will help me to achieve my goals. Hope I will continue to hold and carry one word with me as I go about my life: impact.

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