I wish I could say I’d met Professor Stephen Hawking, a man of colossal intellect and great courage (apparently he was given just 2-3 years to live after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, whilst at university).
Right up to his death today aged 76 Hawking has been rocking our universe and it reminded me of two occasions when I came close to his ‘orbit’, as it were. Once was in a Cambridge cinema, when a frisson of excitement greeted his arrival for a showing of what I like to think was Home Alone or Total Recall.
The second was sharing a stage in 2010 with a former collaborator of Hawking’s, mathematics professor Sir Roger Penrose. It was a mixed theme conference (obviously!) and my flimsy talk on the importance of business relationships was eclipsed by Penrose’s somewhat weightier topic – the origins of the universe.
These rambling recollections bring me to the gist of this piece, namely three things (3 of many) that we can learn from Professor Hawking and perhaps apply in our business world.
Popularising a difficult topic
There’s a lot of expertise in the business world but that can be a curse for ‘technicians’ who find it hard to connect with lay people. They struggle to dumb down their knowledge and don’t like to leave anything out of an explanation. It always struck me that Hawking knew how to communicate with the broader public and thus popularise such arcane topics as relativity and black holes. Making the complex simple and adding depth afterwards (as required) is a valuable skill in business.
Measuring intelligence (and what we value)
When you’re Stephen Hawking people tend to hang on your every word and he will be remembered as much for his soundbites as his body of academic work. One of my favourite quotes came in response to a query about his IQ:
I have no idea. People who worry about their IQ are losers.
It reminded me of another much-admired academic, Sir Ken Robinson. His 2006 presentation on education is the most viewed of all the TED talks and he clearly shares Hawking’s disdain for the concept of IQ.
Rather than asking how intelligent someone is ask, “how are they intelligent?”
For Robinson, artistry is a form of intelligence and yet it’s valued less than academic qualifications. Similarly, business expertise in hard technical topics like accountancy or law is highly valued and often leads to well-paid positions. But the empathetic listener, creative thinker and relationship-builder is demonstrating high levels of (emotional) intelligence too, and we should recognise and value their contribution.
By all accounts Stephen Hawking didn’t take himself too seriously and his sense of humour undoubtedly helped him bring difficult scientific concepts to the masses. Masterful communicators like to have fun with serious topics, a form of ‘light and shade’ which makes tricky material more digestible for the audience.
I like to think the great man is now travelling the cosmos, testing out his theories with undiminished curiosity. What a legacy he leaves behind.