A Life of Confidence without Ego

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This morning I stumbled upon the image above by an undergraduate student at MIT regarding the passing of Professor Robert Silbey. The story is quite charming, and I recommend that you click on the image above to learn what Taylor Swift and an internationally acclaimed scientist might have to do with each other.

Bob came to mind for me by accident yesterday. Yesterday, like many of us out there, I was trying to make sense of the tragic events in Newtown. President Obama’s words about the victims struck hard, “They had their entire lives ahead of them—birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own. Among the fallen were also teachers—men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children fulfill their dreams.”

Much is being said about how this event is being covered by the media — so I will not go into it further. Yesterday I didn’t post anything on Twitter or the likes because I wanted to fully reflect, and I am still doing so. What I will say is that by the end of the day, my attention eventually turned to what President Obama spoke to in his words above — namely, what can happen in people’s lives when they are blessed with the opportunity to flourish and grow. Or in other words, what we get to do when we live a fulfilling life that inevitably fulfills all of those around us — what it is and what happens, is something profound, beautiful, and everlasting. And for those individuals affected by another loved one’s life, even if that life ends up unexpectedly short, there is beauty that remains and resonates interminably.

A Google search yesterday to check on a mentor of mine started in sadness, and then ended in happiness. That mentor, as you can guess, was Bob Silbey. He died last year — and I didn’t know it. And that fact made me reflect how important it is, everyday, to not lose the chance to reflect on what is truly important — which is the great encounters you often get to have with people. So I try to do so here and now.

Bob was the person that made me believe that becoming a leader might be something I wanted to try in my lifetime. As a professor at the Media Lab, I had served on the MIT Core Curriculum Task Force along with 20 other faculty across MIT that Bob led as the Dean of Science for three years, and it was my absolute *favorite* meeting to go to because I’d get to watch Bob in action. He ran each meeting masterfully. With real conviction and force, but also able to be generous and humorous at the same time. I truly loved watching him in action. At the Media Lab we had nothing like him … I knew that when I was at his meetings that I was getting to see a true Michael Jordan of academia in action. And I loved every minute of it.

I wrote to Bob, I think once, shortly after I moved from being a professor at MIT to becoming president of RISD. And had the chance to thank him — I remember him writing me back, and how thrilled I was to read his message. I wish I had a second chance to write him, but realize I am too late. I have quoted Bob time after time in my role as president here at RISD in expressing the epitome of a great academic and administrative leader — in the subtle, gentle, powerful way he always held himself. He truly, profoundly changed my career.

When I read online all the kind words about Bob from his students and colleagues in the sciences at MIT, I know that I am one of many, many people outside the sciences who encountered Bob — for even just a few hours a term — whose life was forever changed.

I especially loved this comment about Bob as a leader:

Bob was a truly singular person who had such deep abiding confidence without ego, if one can imagine such a combination that he was always there for others in personal transactions. He didn’t need the response to fill his soul, it was so secure and thus could be so generous.

To know someone who could show me, and others, generosity without needing or asking for or wanting reciprocation, and to carry himself with “confidence without ego”, speaks to me of the fortune I have had in my life to have known Bob. What a lucky life we get to live to know and learn from the amazing teachers, students, women, men, and children on this earth through the examples of their lives, and through the chance to live our lives with their lives intertwined. You are one of those people — a person that took a circuitous turn on the Internet to arrive here. Thank you for reading this, and for motivating me to share my thoughts of Bob, and for you to think of your Bob somewhere out there. -JM