2013  March 28

Professor Herbert Simon

This morning I’m doing a bit of research on the work of a person I once used to study a great deal: the late Dr. Herbert Simon. In particular I’m looking for references on his work as defining design as “satisfice-ing.” As is often with a Web search, I found something completely different, as in this 2001 obituary where his former graduate student recounts two beautiful moments he had with his mentor:

Kotovsky, another former graduate student, said Dr. Simon loved to argue. When he would preface a statement with the words, “Look, friend ...,” that was a signal that he was about to put the kibosh on his opponent’s argument.

“You had to be sure your head was attached when he used the word ‘friend,’” said Kotovsky. He recalled the first time Dr. Simon directed “Look, friend” his way: “That was the moment I passed into adulthood.”

Dr. Simon enjoyed playing the piano and, particularly in recent years, used to gather with friends who played violin, viola and other instruments.

In addition to the Nobel, Dr. Simon was the recipient of virtually every top award in every scientific field he pursued: the A.M. Turing Award in computer science, the American Psychological Association Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contributions to Psychology, induction into the Automation Hall of Fame, the American Society of Public Administration’s Dwight Waldo Award and the National Medal of Science, among them. He was always appreciative of such honors, but maintained they were no big deal.

“The thing that he really cherished was doing his job as a professor,” Kotovsky said.

One night, for instance, Kotovsky had invited the Nobel laureate to speak to a group of freshmen at one of the residence halls.

After Dr. Simon spoke, everyone sat on the floor eating submarine sandwiches, while the students huddled around him. The conversation continued for hours until Kotovsky, worried that Dr. Simon might be getting impatient and tired, sidled up and asked, “Will you be ready to leave soon?”

“No, you go on,” Dr. Simon replied. “I’ll be fine here.”

“That,” Kotovsky added, “was who he was.”

It reminded me of a frame I reference in Redesigning Leadership on “Professor as Leader” -- I feel lucky to have had many teachers and mentors that quietly led with a similar eloquence like Dr. Simon. I am certainly, thankfully satisficed :-). -JM

Service to others is a lifetime habit, pleasure, and honor.

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