British physicist Stephen Hawking lived a fascinating life, and he left a void both in science and in popular culture that we’ll struggle to fill.
But while many people think of Hawking purely in terms of his scientific accomplishments and his quest to create a unified theory of everything, he left a legacy that’s so much richer than most people realize or could imagine.
And so with that in mind, let’s go ahead and take a look at a few of the things that we can learn from Stephen Hawking.
1) It’s important to have a sense of humor
One of my favorite Stephen Hawking quotes is, “Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”
Hawking knew better than anyone else that life has more than its fair share of tragedy. He was given two years to live when diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21, but he ended up living for another 55.
He could have given up and waited to die, but he decided to face his fate with humor and optimism.
Hawking’s humor was evident throughout his life, such as when he appeared on The Simpsons and when he made a bet with a fellow scientist where the winner received a year’s subscription to Playboy.
But personally, my favorite example is when he threw a party for time travelers from the future. He didn’t announce the party until after it took place and perhaps unsurprisingly, no one showed up.
2) Perseverance will get you everywhere
As we’ve said, Hawking could easily have just given up and waited to die, but he didn’t. He put his perseverance to work and continued his fight to understand the universe.
Some people attribute the quote “showing up is half the battle” to Hawking, but that sounds more like something that a personal trainer would say and is apparently generally attributed to Woody Allen.
Either way, Hawking’s life is a demonstration of what that concept looks like in practice. He persevered and showed up for every single day of his life, both physically and in terms of his intellectual output.
When he found himself facing a physics problem, he didn’t stop thinking about it until he had an answer.
3) Optimism will see you through hard times
The problem with perseverance is that it’s easier said than done. That’s where optimism comes in.
Optimistic people know that even when times are tough, they’re eventually going to get better. They find it easier to persevere because they have something to persevere for, and in many ways, the tougher things are, the more room there is for improvement.
This is something that I personally find quite difficult, but whenever I’m feeling sorry for myself and taking a pessimistic view of the future, I think of Stephen Hawking. If he could persevere and stay optimistic even when he’d been given a literal death sentence, I have no excuse not to do the same.
4) You should never stop being curious
The saying goes that curiosity killed the cat, but I believe that curiosity is what makes us human. It’s curiosity that drove the majority of Hawking’s discoveries and theories.
It’s also curiosity that ensured that his A Brief History of Time became one of the few non-fiction science books to become a bestseller.
We can practice curiosity every day, and I’d argue that we should. For example, when we see something on a social networking site, we should check the source before we believe it’s true. And if something interests us, we should go ahead and learn more.
Hawking put it best himself when he said, “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and hold on to that childlike wonder about what makes the universe exist.”
5) Teamwork can change the world
None of us lives in isolation, and we all need to work with other people if we want to be successful in life.
This is true no matter what success looks like to you, whether you want to build a family or whether you want to become a world-class astrophysicist. You’ll need people to help you along the way, and you’ll need to be willing to work with other people, too.
Hawking made most of his discoveries while working as part of a team, and he also had a team of helpers who were responsible for keeping him clean and well looked after.
If you’re suffering from ALS as Hawking was, you need a team. You can’t do the things for yourself that other people take for granted.
6) Anyone can build a legacy
You don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to build a legacy. We can all leave behind a legacy to be proud of if we’re willing to put the work in.
That’s true whether you want to be a bestselling author or whether you just want to leave the world in better shape than when you came into it.
Hawking himself said, “We’re very, very small, but we’re profoundly capable of very, very big things.”
One particular thing to remember is that even when it feels as though we’re making a small difference, those small differences all add up. It’s a bit like how compound interest works.
The more you work at building the legacy, the stronger that legacy will be. If you want to be a painter, if you make one painting each week, you’ll leave thousands behind by the time you pass away.
7) Knowledge should be shared
The Hawking quote that I relate to the most is probably, “Nothing is better than reading and gaining more and more knowledge.” But then, I’m a big reader.
But Hawking also showed that there’s no point in gaining knowledge for the sake of knowledge and then hoarding it like a dragon.
Knowledge is at its most powerful when it’s being shared, which is why a whole bunch of discoveries have been made when two people from different backgrounds have pooled their knowledge.
How you share that knowledge is up to you. Some people use blogging and podcasting to share knowledge, while others turn to teaching.
In Hawking’s case, he was a prolific author, sharing his knowledge in a number of bestselling non-fiction books.
8) It’s important to stay humble
Hawking says that one of the basic rules of the universe is that perfection doesn’t exist. If it did, we wouldn’t be here.
It’s always nice to have a reminder of our place in the world.
Now, just because perfection doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aim for it. However, we also need to stay humble and remember that while we can do our best, there will almost always be someone better than us. And if there isn’t, there soon will be.
Hawking never tried to claim that he was “better” or more intelligent or important than anyone else, even after his achievements showed that he was a truly remarkable man. It’s a true lesson in humility that’s rare in today’s social media age.
9) We all need to think about the future
Hawking knew better than any of us that we all need to think about the future. If we want to ensure the long-term survival of our species, we need to take care of the planet – after all, it’s the only one we have, at least at the moment.
He also likes to remind us that we’re masters of our own destiny. For example, he famously pointed out that even people who believe in predestination tend to look both ways before they cross the street.
We can’t expect someone else to arrange the future for us. We need to put the work in ourselves. We need to envision the future that we want to work towards and then make it happen. If we can imagine it, we can make it a reality.
These are just nine of the things that Stephen Hawking has taught us that have nothing to do with science, but there are plenty of other lessons on offer if we look out for them.
I’m going to leave you today with a final quote from the great man himself: “However difficult life may seem, there’s always something you can do and succeed at.”
And so the big question for you is, what are you going to do to be more Hawking?