The Trees and the Forest

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In the spring of 2019 I read The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner and was captivated by the descriptions of what it was like to work there. Here was a place set aside specifically for creativity and invention. People roamed around long intersecting hallways bouncing ideas of one another. And what ideas! As is often the case when I read a book on something, I want to be part of that something, and when I read Gertner’s book, wanted to work at Bell Labs, or someplace like it.

Sometime later I read Brian Kerighan’s wonderful book: Unix: A History and a Memoir, which also detailed life at Bell Labs. Kernighan takes a more personal approach based on his years working at Bell Labs where he and others invented the Unix operating system. My first introduction to Unix came long after I’d started using computers, sometime in 1994 and Kernighan’s book reminded me of the simplicity of its concept.


Walter Isaacson’s biography, Einstein, and later, George Dyson’s book, Turing’s Cathedral, painted similar pictures of the Institute for Advanced Study. Reading those books, I found yet another place where I wished I worked. I could be a mathematician or a computer scientist or a theoretical physicist, all of which interested me as possible careers, despite having crossed the half-century threshold.

Then in May of this year, I read Who Got Einstein’s Office? by Ed Regis, a history of the Institute for Advanced Study and his book made it sound idyllic–perhaps more than the reality. The concept behind IAS fascinated me: a place for people to think, with no other responsibilities. It reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.

Regis’s book went into more detail and covered many of the people who were residents of the Institute. Reading it, I again found myself think: wouldn’t it be great to work at a place where people were paid to think, to provide creative solutions to problems through rigorous research, bouncing ideas off colleagues, swimming in data, thinking, thinking, thinking.


Of course, sometimes it is hard to see the forest for the trees. For nearly 29 years I’ve worked at just such a place: the RAND Corporation. I spent my first 8 years in the headquarters in Santa Monica where from my office, I could look across the parking lot to the Santa Monica mountains, and the Getty Museum. If I looked across the hall and through the windows of my coworker’s office, I could see the Santa Monica pier and beyond that, the Pacific Ocean.

When I think about my time at RAND, I realize that I have been working at a place very similar to what I read about in Gertner’s and Kernighan’s and Dyson and Regis’s books. I’ve worked on interesting projects for nearly three decades. Whenever I get stuck on a problem, I could walk down the hall to talk to a colleague’s office, stand in their doorway, and spill my guts. Before long, we’d be hashing out the problem on a whiteboard, maybe bringing in one or two innocent passers-by to help us out. Every day I get to work with incredibly smart people. I don’t think a day has gone by in 29 years that I haven’t learned something new from them.

I have to remind myself when reading sometimes, that there are things I don’t have to wish for. Those wishes were granted long, long ago.

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