Modern Renaissance man Nathan Mhyrvold gives insight into his unique adaptability.
Directed / Produced by
Elizabeth Rodd and Jonathan Fowler
Nathan Myrhvold: You know, I’ve had the interesting career of training for many things and then having a career mostly in things I never trained for. After graduate school, I became a post doc with Steven Hawking, where we were working on quantum theories of gravity. Basically we were trying to understand the fundamental structure of space and time and where the universe came from. I took a leave of absence from that to work on a software project. It was supposed to be for three months and it turned out to be for the rest of my life.
After a couple of months working on the software project, we decided to start a company; I became the CEO of that company. We ran the company for two years. Then Microsoft bought us, and I became the first Technology Officer at Microsoft, where I was for 14 years. I worked directly for Bill Gates and was able to participate in the PC revolution. It was a magic time because software, through personal computing, empowered literally billions of people to take charge of the information in their lives, to be creative, whether it was with a word processor or a spreadsheet or an art package, leading up ultimately to the internet, which is the ultimate information distribution system for the planet.
Now, along the way, I’ve been interested in a dozen other things. I’ve always been interested in science. After training in many fields of science, I didn’t actually professionally pursue them, but I have been interested in dinosaurs, for example, for the last 15 years. I’ve done a lot of dinosaur research, published a number of papers on dinosaurs, and have been the main sponsor and co-led an expedition with Jack Horner, where we found more T-Rex’s than anyone else in the world’s every found T-Rex’s — and lots of other dinosaurs besides that.
When I retired from Microsoft, that was a difficult thing to do because I was very successful at Microsoft. I was Chief Technology Officer of the company. It was still an amazing time for the company and for technology. Now, of course, once I had been at Microsoft for a while, I had the resources where I could start over and it wasn’t like I was afraid of starving, but it is always an issue when you are good at something to say, “Do I keep getting better at that thing or do I switch to something else?” For me, it’s been pretty easy to switch to other things because I get interested in them. And once I get interested in them, there’s no turning back.
So it’s always difficult to leave something you know for something you don’t, particularly if you’re good at it. If you’re not good at it and you get fired or you screw up, it’s easy to leave. The world forces that on you, but if it’s your decision, it’s tough, but it’s also your life. And, if you don’t take charge of it, no one will take charge of it for you. The only institution in life where you get time off for good behavior is prison. You know, in most jobs or most careers, the better you are at it; the more you’re sucked into it. You get the big promotion, you get more responsibility, you get more success, and that tends to narrow your options, not increase them.
But, what’s the point of success if you don’t have your own options and you don’t make your own decisions? So for that reason, I decided I had to really make a decision and ultimately I decided I would leave Microsoft, and as great as that experience was for me at Microsoft, I’m thrilled that I left and I’ve made something of a life for myself since then.