Ed Zschau: The Polymath Professor Who Changed My Life – The Tim Ferriss Show

Check out The Tim Ferriss Show Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • “You don’t get a quick return creating value for the world, you get a quick return doing something that doesn’t matter. If you’re going to make a difference in this society, changing the world for the better, you better be geared for a long journey.”
  • If you’re failing to prepare, you’re preparing to fail
  • You learn best by doing
  • “Entrepreneurship isn’t about starting companies. Entrepreneurship is an approach to life.”
  • Entrepreneurship = innovation + implementation
    • Implementation is the most important
  • “I’ve had, from the time I was in grade school, an overarching goal, and that is to live a life that matters, to make a lasting and positive difference in the world. I call it ‘leaving footprints.’ That’s what drives me.”
  • “The most important thing you can do is to do it your way. Don’t just follow what’s recommended. Don’t just pursue what others are pursuing. Do what you enjoy doing. Do it the best you know how and good things will happen.”

Books Mentioned

Intro

The Background

  • Tim reached out to Ed via email in the spring of 2000 begging Ed to let him into his high-tech entrepreneurship course at Princeton (even though registration was closed), committing to clean the blackboards/erasers if Ed budged
  • Ed grew up in Omaha, Nebraska where he fell in love with figure skating as a kid
    • He went on to have quite the string of success competing in multiple championship events throughout his teens 
    • “It taught me the value of practice, of dedication, of persistence, and determination – each of them valuable life and character-building lessons”
      • “When people ask me how I plan to change the world – it’s through learning those values”
  • Ed went to Princeton planning to be a physicist, but in his sophomore year discovered philosophy and fell in love
    • This led him to bridge the two degrees together

BOOM

  • “You don’t get a quick return creating value for the world, you get a quick return doing something that doesn’t matter. If you’re going to make a difference in this society, changing the world for the better, you better be geared for a long journey.”

Ed’s Knack for Preparation

  • Tim notes one thing which always stood out about Ed was his meticulous attention to preparation
    • “I’m a strong believer in Murphy’s Law – whatever can go wrong will go wrong”
      • Ed would always come to class 45 minutes early to to prepare/make sure the projector was working, etc.
    • Benjamin Franklin has famously said – “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail”
      • Never be surprised by things that go wrong – you prevent this through preparation

The Case Method

  • Ed’s preferred teaching style involves going over business case studies/putting the students in the exact situations that the founders faced, as opposed to just lecturing
    • Tim notes – “It struck me as a pragmatic way to allow people to be active in the way that they’re going to have to be active if they’re ultimately going to be entrepreneurs”
    • “When you’re teaching and learning about starting enterprises or creating something new, you learn by doing”
  • Many people think entrepreneurship can’t be taught,but rather it’s something you’re born with
    • Ed disagrees – “It’s all about pointing out to the students that this is a possible life path, that you can create something from scratch and create value. What great satisfaction you can get from that.”
    • Ed claims the Case Method gives students the confidence that they themselves can be successful entrepreneurs

What’s an “entrepreneur” to Ed?

  • “I believe everyone is born with the desire to do something beyond themselves. As an entrepreneur, starting something from scratch, making it real, and impacting the world – it fulfills that desire.”
  • “Entrepreneurship isn’t about starting companies. Entrepreneurship is an approach to life.”
    • You can be an entrepreneur in any area
    • It’s all about starting things from scratch and making good things happen that haven’t been done before
    • Entrepreneurship = innovation + implementation
      • Implementation is the most important (ideas are like belly buttons)

The Role of Optimism

  • “I’m a chronic optimist”
    • “When people say, ‘That’s going to be hard.’ I say, ‘That’s going to be more fun.'”
  • Ed says optimism is important for doing anything that’s never been done before
    • “I don’t think you do things that haven’t been done before and succeed in that by being negative”

How Teaching Came Into the Picture

  • “Career planning is overrated”
    • Why? – Opportunities unexpectedly happen 
      • “These opportunities only matter if you take advantage of them and commit yourself to doing something you’ve never done before”
  • “I find I learn the most the fastest when I don’t know what I’m doing”
    • It’s a long story, but Ed found his way into teaching an MBA course at Stanford to second-year students without ever teaching a university course prior

How did Ed learn to teach?

  • “I think I became a better teacher by not being smart”
    • For people who are smart, learning comes easy
    • “I believe you can be a better teacher when it’s more difficult for you to learn so you can better explain to somebody else how to master something”
  • A debate course in high school helped Ed learn to be a better public speaker
  • “I view teaching more about about nurturing, about personal values, about inspiration, about recognizing that you can have fun doing great things… It’s not so much the lessons or the facts, but rather it’s about building this optimistic attitude and understanding that if you can change the world for the better – that’s as good as it gets”

How to Differentiate Between Opportunities to Be Seized and Temptations to be Resisted

  • Ed has a one word answer – “Commitment”
    • “I had situations where I had opportunities to leave companies I was running. I would not leave until it was appropriate to leave or there was a successor.”
    • When you’re an entrepreneur and employees, customers, and suppliers are counting on you – you need to have a commitment to do the job until you’re no longer necessary

How Ed Stands Out Among the Crowd

  • “I may not be like a lot of other people. I don’t do things for me. I do things for others.”
    • What motivates Ed? – Finding something meaningful that needs to be done and recognizing that he can help do it
    • “I focus on where I can make a difference to the benefit of others rather than what’s in it for me”

Lessons in Parenting

  • Ed has 3 kids
    • All 3 of them played soccer at one time or another – Ed’s coached 13 different soccer teams!
    • Ed also served as a boy scout leader for one of his boys
  • “I believe the best way to help people find their way is through encouragement rather than direction”
    • Ed expands: “They’ve got to live their lives. You can’t live their lives.”
  • “Loving your kids, caring for them, and letting them know that you love and care is kind of the secret to parenting”

What drives Ed?

  • “I’ve had, from the time I was in grade school, an overarching goal, and that is to live a life that matters, to make a lasting and positive difference in the world. I call it ‘leaving footprints.’ That’s what drives me.”
  • “I’ve always wanted to be different”
    • This makes Ed stands out in the age of social media where everyone’s trying to fit in and be accepted by others

The Books Ed Has Gifted Most (and those that have had the biggest impacted on him)

Recommend Books for Entrepreneurs

What’s Ed most focused on these days?

  • Education – “But my years of teaching are just part of it”
    • Higher education today is very expensive
      • Kids come out of school with massive debt without being prepared for jobs/contributing to the real-world
    • In the last few weeks, Ed became the Interim President of Sierra Nevada College (as a volunteer)
  • Ed has also recently become interested in income share agreements
    • This is how Lambda School operates
    • Rather than taking out student loans, students agree to pay the school a % of their income after they graduate
    • Why is this an interest of Ed’s? – “Having students graduate with huge amounts of debt reduces their choices”

Quotes and Mantras Ed Lives His Life By

  • One mentioned earlier – “If you’re failing to prepare, you’re preparing to fail”
  • “Do what you enjoy doing. Do it the best you know how and good things will happen.”
  • Always try to get out of your comfort zone
    • Doing so allows you to learn and thus better contribute to the world

Parting Thoughts

  • Many entrepreneurs and past students of Ed’s claim any success they’ve had in business is due to him
  • As Ed said above – “I’ve had from the time I was in grade school an overarching goal, and that is to live a life that matters, to make a lasting and positive difference in the world. I call it ‘leaving footprints.’ That’s what drives me.”
    • “I concluded I wasn’t going to be able to change the world alone… I can better achieve my goals leaving footprints with your feet. That’s why I do what I do.”
  • “The most important thing you can do is to do it your way. Don’t just follow what’s recommended. Don’t just pursue what others are pursuing. Do what you enjoy doing. Do it the best you know how and good things will happen.”
  • And remember – “If you’re thinking more about doing something different that you’re currently doing, it’s time for a change.”

Additional Notes

  • There are only 2 courses Tim took in college he still has all his notes from
    • John McPhee‘s “The Literature of Fact”
    • And Ed’s course
  • “I wasn’t too good at being a venture capital investor. I’m too much of an optimist.”
  • “Engineers innovate, but in order for it to make a difference in the world that innovation then has to become real and commercialized”
  • “Writers aren’t just writers, they’re entrepreneurs”
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