7 Lessons we can Learn from Professor Stephen Hawking

Mathematical Bridge, Queens College at Cambridge University — Copyright Tricia Levasseur

Cambridge physicist Professor Stephen Hawking has died. But his legacy isn’t just about proving scientific theories. He also showed us the power of the human spirit.

The man wasn’t just larger than life around campus at Cambridge, his work has been admired worldwide for decades. Throughout his impressive academic career Professor Hawking helped us better understand our planet, and at the same time, perhaps ourselves.

The world will remember Professor Hawking for his outstanding contributions to science and academia. There’s no question he was a tremendous ambassador for the University of Cambridge for over 50 years. But for his students and many people in Cambridge, he will be remembered as a charismatic and funny guy that they spotted out around town. He was respected and admired. Buildings, departments and clubs at the University bear his name.

In 2013 Hollywood overtook campus to film a movie about his life. I was around Cambridge myself during this time and many of my friends auditioned for a role as an extra because they wanted to be a part of sharing his heroic story. The Theory of Everything’ was not only a box office smash but the actor who played Hawking, Eddie Redmayne (also a Cambridge alum), went on to win the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Hawking’s life and journey with motor neurone disease.

The British physicist and author had a way with words. Here are seven life lessons we can learn from some of his greatest statements.

1. Stay curious:

“I am just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. Occasionally, I find an answer.”

Professor Hawking never stopped looking for problems to solve. No matter how much was going on in his life, and he overcame tremendous health challenges, he never ever quit being curious.

2. Be courageous:

“If I had to choose a superhero to be, I would pick Superman. He’s everything that I’m not.”

Call it what you want: guts, grit, gumption — Professor Hawking had it all in spades. It’s hard enough to earn a PhD at any university, but to do it while coping with debilitating motor neuron disease AND tackling a controversial doctorial topic took courage. Something he never let go of in his professional and personal life. He is the textbook example for students (in the classroom and life!) in never giving up.

3. Embrace uncertainty:

“The past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.”

Professor Hawking never took one day of his life for granted — the good, the bad and the ugly. He woke-up each morning and just went for it. While he wrote about the past, present and future — he lived in the now and he embraced uncertainty. He also famously said “intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

4. Communication is a powerful tool:

“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

Communication skills are an enabler of bringing ideas to life. But Hawkings reminds us that as much as it is important to talk, it is equally important to listen to other people and their ideas.

5. Laughter is the best medicine:

“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”

Professor Hawking was a bit of a philosopher on life. This quote reminds me of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous book ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ where early on he states that “most humor has its basis in trauma”. Hawking reminds us to never take ourselves too seriously and that we shouldn’t lose our sense of humor while pursuing success.

6. Give zero f*ks:

“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”

Professor Hawking was disagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21. Doctors told him he had about two years to live. He could have given-up on his dreams right then. But he didn’t accept that. Don’t live your life according to someone else’s standards and don’t be a prisoner to the opinions of others. Professor Hawking teaches us to give zero f*ks and write our own story. Anything is possible.

7. Never let the bastards get you down:

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

Professor Hawking accepted his fate but never ever let it (or the bastards) get him down. And neither should you.

Professor Hawking died peacefully at his home in Cambridge this morning at the age of 76. There will be a book of condolence for people to sign at the University’s Gonville and Caius College where Professor Hawking was a Fellow for more than half of a century. Today the College’s flag is flying at half mast.

Professor Stephen Hawking:

Born — 8 January 1942 in Oxford

Died — 14 March 2018 in Cambridge

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