"I don't have any prepared remarks...and I'm actually not that rich" - Steven Chu mused at a University of Rochester dinner honoring a professorship in his name. Yes, he was Secretary of Energy during the Obama administration and a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997. From the get-go, you knew he was going to be funny and self-deprecating.
Chu shared that his parents were very disappointed that he was not accepted into any ivy league schools as an undergraduate, especially because his family is filled with PhDs and MDs from the likes of MIT, Stanford and Harvard. Instead, he attended the University of Rochester (my alma mater) and was "adopted by the physics and math departments" as an undergraduate. Like a true case study from Malcom Gladwell's David & Goliath, Chu's life proved that sometimes seemingly early disadvantages, like not getting into an ivy league, actually proved to be a blessing in disguise.
Gladwell actually lays out the argument that students who study hard sciences at non-ivy league schools are more likely to continue in their field and publish more in scientific journals. In a larger, more diverse pool of students, an aspiring scientist or engineer would actually experience and believe in their own successes, while in a smaller, elite pool, the same aspiring student could be a mediocre or failing student and never become fully aware of how accomplished they are in their field. Gladwell believes it's actually better to be that big fish in the small pond. Softer skills like confidence can encourage an aspiring student to stick to their field of study and continue to believe that their work can and will have impact in the world. When Chu arrived at Berkeley for his PhD, he was surprised when colleagues from some of the best universities in the world was asking him for help on their homework. Only then did he realize that he had received a comparable education and was in the right field.
"I turned down the opportunity to be on the board of Apple"
"What are the most transformative things in my life?!......getting born!", Chu quipped, to an outburst of laughter in the intimate room of 10 tables. He also added other transformative influences.. such as..."my parents... my undergraduate and graduate years." Chu emphasized that he gives back whenever he has the opportunity, especially because "my parents were poor and we all had to get.. scholarships." Chu says he gives about half of what he earns back to causes he believes in. He joked that when it came to wealth opportunities.. "I kind of blew it. I turned down the opportunity to be on the board of Apple one year before the iPhone."
Chu has received over 32 honorary degrees and is asked to be on numerous boards and associations around the globe. Chu serves on many organizations that helps businesses, ngos and governments sculpt and shape energy policy around the globe. Yes, he even serves on an energy advisory team for the Pope.
Before I ever heard Steven Chu speak in-person, I had the fortunate circumstance to hear about him through another notable speaker, Barack Obama. It was April of 2019 when I first heard Obama speak about leadership. Obama was offering some leadership advice to thousands of business attendees regarding his journey as the 44th president of the United States. He emphasized that leadership is about embodying humility and surrounding yourself with people smarter than yourself...because you never know when you have to deal with a real crises that urgently demands expertise.
"2.4 million gallons of oil gushed out into the gulf of Mexico per day"
Obama was referring to the largest marine oil spill in petroleum history and the largest oil spill in America's history, estimated at 210 million US gallons. It began on April 30, 2010 when an explosion caused a rip in a BP oil rig and 2.4 million gallons of oil gushed out into the gulf of Mexico per day. Over the next 89 days, over 68,000 square miles of oil contaminated the gulf of Mexico. Closing the leak was top priority for the Obama administration - and fortunately for Obama, he had Steven Chu, as Secretary of Energy. Obama recalls that after weeks of failed attempts by BP to stop the leakage, it was Steven Chu who provided Obama with a drawing on a paper napkin. It looked like a cone hat with some numbers on it...Obama recalled. With his usual self-deprecating humor, Obama said it was a good thing he was not in charge of coming up with a solution, as he would have expected a solution that looked much more complicated than a hat. But due to the trust and confidence he had in the experts like Steven Chu, they found a way to stop the leak on September 19, 2010.
"The secret to happiness is having less expensive taste"
My favorite part of Steven Chu's remarks came when he started talking about something much more complex and mysterious. "The secret to happiness is having less expensive tastes," Chu says softly. And he lives by the words he shares, by still driving in the car he's had for over 15 years and wearing some of the same shirts since his graduate school days. "Live like a graduate student", he adds. Because essentially, it is about giving back. It allows Chu to spend money on the areas that really matter to him and have a positive impact on the world. And that was the key to his most rewarding and fulfilling life. I look forward to hearing him speak again at his 50th reunion at the University of Rochester this autumn.