Larry Ellison

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I think there are two things that are important in life, and that’s self-discovery, and your relationship with others. I spend my entire life in those two areas. What is play? What is work? Is work something you get paid for and play something you don’t? I put a lot of work into my flying, and a lot of work into my sailing. I used to play tournament chess, I put a lot of work into that. They were all forms of exploration. I put a lot of work into my job, where I get paid. They’re all in pursuit of the same thing: self-discovery, the discovery of my own limits.

Larry Ellison Interview Photo

The best thing about my life is the people I get to meet these days. If there’s any advantage to celebrity, it’s getting to meet absolutely wonderful and fascinating people. Walter Cronkite and I went out sailing on Sayonara. We went from being casual acquaintances, to doing business, to being friends. He’s an extraordinary man, he’s lived an extraordinary life. I could sit for hours just listening to him and his wife tell stories.

There’s the balance between self-exploration and building relationships with others. Those are the important things in life. Winston Churchill said, “You don’t make a living by what you get, you make a living by what you give.”

I think we should think of altruism — giving — as a strategy for happiness. Forget the morality of it all: “It’s the right thing to do.” Think of it as something totally in your self-interest. If you can help others, you will feel great. The more you can help, the more intelligently you can help, the bigger lever that you can get on the world to make it better, the better you will feel about yourself. The more joy you will experience. That is the road to bliss. That is the intelligent pursuit of happiness. That is what we should do. That is my argument for giving, not simply that it’s the right and moral thing to do. It happens to also be that, but I don’t find that as persuasive as that it is the road to happiness.

The corporation’s primary goal is to defeat the competition in the marketplace. My primary function is to make Oracle successful, to make it a good and interesting place to work, because we don’t want people to leave.

people can change jobs, and people like to work with other intelligent and interesting people. They like to do interesting things. We have fantastic salary scales; I think we’re the highest paying company in Silicon Valley. We have wonderful benefits, but again, don’t mistake any of that for altruism. That is in our interest, to retain our employees. Their job, my job, is to build better products than the competition, sell those products in the marketplace, and eventually supplant Microsoft and move from being number two to number one. That is our reason for being.

There’s a mild degree of fear; a socio biologist would tell you that fear is the prevalent human emotion. I certainly feel a little stress, if I just bought a jet fighter and I’m flying it for the very first time, and doing aerobatics very low to the ground. I wouldn’t call it fear, but it’s a little bit of a rush. That gets the adrenaline going, and I thrive on it. I don’t really call that fear. That’s a somewhat pleasant experience for me. Extreme fear is awful, but out-on-the-edge a little bit, where you have a mild sensation of apprehension and concern, is something I actually enjoy.

We’re constantly testing ourselves(self discovery). We’re trying to understand our own level of competency; our ability to control our own world; our ability to put ourselves at risk, and then save our own lives. There’s always an element of risk. You’re risking your ego when you play in a chess match; you’re risking your ego, and sometimes your life, when you’re doing certain kinds of flying. But I really don’t do things that endanger my life when I fly.

I think most great achievers are driven, not so much by the pursuit of success, but by the fear of failure. Unless failure gets very close, that fear doesn’t reach profound levels, but it drives us. It drives me to work very hard. It drives me to make sure that my life is very orderly, that I’m in control of my company, or in control of the airplane or boat or what-have-you, so that I’m not at risk of failure. Whenever I feel even remotely close to being at risk of failure, I can’t stop working.

The most important aspect of my personality, as far as determining my success goes, has been my questioning conventional wisdom, doubting the experts, and questioning authority. While that can be very painful in relationships with your parents and teachers, it’s enormously useful in life.

Some of the teachers were wonderful, and some of the teachers were awful, but the awful teachers served a good purpose by being a bad example. All examples are good. Bad examples are useful; good examples are useful. It taught me to question experts, to question authority figures. Don’t assume they’re right just because they’re in authority, or just because they’re experts. In other words…

Think things out for yourself. Come to your own judgments. Don’t simply conform to conventional ways of thinking, to conventional ways of dressing, conventional ways of acting. A lot of things are based on fashion, even morality at times is based on fashion.

Slavery was once considered not to be immoral. People are shocked that the ancient Greeks had slaves, that we had slavery in this country as recently as one-hundred-and-thirty, one-hundred-and-forty years ago. You have to really go back to first principles, and think things out for yourself. Whether they’re scientific principles, or moral principles, or business ideas or product ideas, you have to think things out for yourself.

We’re born slaves to reason. It’s really reason that’s beaten out of us, through a process of trying to please our teachers. I think we have two fundamental drives in our life: we want to be loved and we want to please people; and we know how to think, we know how to reason. These are often quite at odds, because we’re asked to believe that certain things are correct, that we have to wear our hair a certain length, and dress a certain way. And if you want to be loved, if you want to be accepted by your peers, you want to be accepted by your family, there is a tension there. Sometimes we’re pleasing our parents, sometimes we’re pleasing our peers, but we’re often just conforming to some fashion, figuring out what the group wants from us, and then conforming to that, because we want to be accepted and loved.

There’s this other fundamental drive inside of us, and that is the ability to think, the ability to reason, the ability to come to our own conclusions as to what works and what doesn’t, what’s fair and what’s not fair, what’s right and what’s wrong. When fashion and the pursuit of love are in conflict with reason, fashion and the pursuit of love usually win. In my case, they didn’t.

It is true. I do not give fashionable answers to questions. That’s what shocks people when they ask you a question and expect everyone to answer it exactly the same way. They really don’t need to ask the question, because they know the fashionable answer. Whenever you give your own answer, what you really believe to be true, rather than the fashionable answer, these people are shocked, or amused or even horrified.

It is my job to go out into the marketplace and win. We compare our products to the competitors’ products. We don’t lie about this, we just say, “We can do this; they can’t.” We name the competition, it’s fact-based advertising. We say very clearly that we’re faster, and these tests prove it. We’re more reliable, and these tests prove it. We’re more economical, and so we’ll name a competitor. Even if the facts are true, it’s considered a little bit rude by some people.

I don’t think it’s immoral. I think that we’re giving true facts to customers, giving valuable information to customers so they can make better decisions.

I could start writing a program, and within several hours, I could have a result. Freud defines maturity as the ability to defer gratification. The great thing about programming is you don’t have to be mature at all. You don’t have to defer gratification for more than a few hours. You get wonderful, tight feedback. It’s a lot of fun. That’s characteristic of games and sports. The reason why games and sports are so popular is because you win or lose very quickly. You get immediate feedback. It’s a very tight loop, you don’t wait hours or days or years before you find out if you’re winning or losing. You find out a second and a half after you release that basketball. You know whether it’s going in or not.

I don’t think it’s paradoxical at all. As human beings we are endlessly curious about ourselves. We find all sorts of arenas to test ourselves in. Right now, I have the fastest racing sailboat in the world, maybe the fastest racing sailboat in history. Sayonara has raced 26 times; we have 24 firsts and two seconds. I’m discovering all sorts of things about myself as I race that boat. I discover all sorts of things about myself every day as Oracle competes with Microsoft for supremacy in the software world.

There’s a wonderful saying that’s dead wrong. “Why did you climb the mountain?” “I climbed the mountain because it was there.” That is utter nonsense. It’s ludicrous and absurd. You climbed the mountain because you were there, and you were curious if you could do it. You wondered what it would be like. You wondered what the view was from the top. That’s how we explore the thing that we’re most interested in. We explore our own limits, and our relationship with others. We’re much more interested in each other, and in ourselves, than we are in everything else.

There are an enormous number of people in the world who really want standard answers. They want everyone to wear their hair the same way, everyone to conduct business the same way, everyone to dress the same way, everyone to go to the same church. And if you wander out of these norms, people are highly critical, because this is threatening to them. They’re living their life one way, and they believe that’s the proper way to live their life. If you live your life a different way, and you answer questions differently, that makes them feel very uncomfortable. They say, “Well this person’s different from what I am.” Then they seem to go a little further, and they say, “This person’s different and wrong, and I’m different and right.” So people have been very, very critical, and will be critical of you if you do things a little bit differently. It takes a certain amount of strength not to succumb to fashion.

I try to think things through. I try to always ask two questions about my personal policies in life. Are they fair, are they morally correct? And do they work? I try to reason things back to first principles. I try to think about things, and come to conclusions and make my own decisions. If anyone has a logical criticism and can explain to me why what I’m doing is wrong, and they can convince me, I’ll change. If they have good reasons, I’ll just alter my behavior. I love it when people point out when I’m wrong, and explain to me why I’m wrong. That’s great. I don’t want to be wrong. I would love to be right. If I am wrong, I love it when people stop me.

It depends on what they say. Most of the time I let it go. Sometimes people say things that are so hurtful and so offensive — or say things that are just patently untrue — that I feel like I have to defend myself. If someone says something that is factually an error, then I’ll defend myself. If it’s just calling me a random name, then I forget it.

Generally, for most people it’s important. I think academic success is an advantage, but it by no means assures success in business. If you’re an outstanding student you’ll probably be reasonably successful in business, but you might not be among the most successful in business, or even in science. The straight-A students certainly have talent, but maybe it would have been better if they’d flunked a sociology course where the professor was just awful, or got a C in a course when it didn’t make sense to put in the effort. When we’re hiring, we look for people with a strong aptitude in mathematics and physics and music (which is very highly correlated to mathematics), but who can also make judgments as to where they’re going to invest their time.

I have a wonderful story about a young man who was near the top of his class at Carnegie-Mellon, and quit the week before he was going to graduate. It was that judgment that he made that set him apart from a lot of the other very top grads that we had hired. He makes his own decisions, and that’s a very useful thing. I think corporations need a combination of people; hopefully all are talented. Some are people that really want to please and are easy to manage; others are driven by a drummer only they can hear. They will constantly question my wisdom, and won’t be the least bit shy about challenging me, and I hope they’ll keep me from making mistakes.

I think learning how to program is a wonderful discipline. Computers are unforgivingly logical, and will do exactly what you tell them. It’s a wonderful training to learn how to program a computer. I would encourage people to take this up.

what one man of modest birth can do with his life, and to see how history can distort the truth entirely. The job of historians is often just that, to distort history, because history is based on fashion. So we’re changing American history all the time, whatever’s politically fashionable. The school districts decide they want to emphasize this person in history, and de-emphasize that person. It’s illuminating to understand that even history is based on fashion. Even morality — popular morality — is based on fashion. Real morality is based on reason, and never make the mistake between the two.


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