August 19, 2004. As Google’s CIO, I was among the company’s team members present for the Nasdaq stock exchange’s ‘bell ringing’ in New York, to begin Google’s life as a publicly traded company. It was an exhilarating day that followed months of incredibly hard work on everyone’s part.
Later that afternoon, two of my team members and I left for the airport, to fly back to the Bay Area. As I jumped into the back seat of a car, both women looked at me with unconcealed alarm. You’d have thought my eyes were bleeding. One of them passed me her compact mirror, so I took a look. My eyes, in fact, were bleeding. The blood vessels in both orbs had burst.
Back in California, following a couple of hospital visits, I learned I had an autoimmune disorder, which I hadn’t known and which the months of pre-IPO stress had pushed to the surface. Of course, there’s always a huge amount of stress when you’re involved in taking a company public, and Google’s IPO at the time was hugely hyped. But I brought on some of the stress, and health issues, myself, because at that time I still believed something no longer true: that knowledge is power.
Knowledge was power, back when knowledge wasn’t easily available or disseminated. If you lived in the 1600s and wanted to be a stonemason, you’d start off as a master’s apprentice. Instead of paying you, he’d teach you his trade. He could do this because he had the knowledge you couldn’t get elsewhere. He had power. You? Not so much.
Then movable type came long. Printing presses started cranking out books, a few at first, and they were rare and expensive. Over time, with the printed word, knowledge was no longer so easily contained or controlled, and it was transformative. Published information eventually became available on every imaginable topic. Publications grew less expensive, so that average people could actually afford to buy books. Schools began to proliferate. More children learned to read, and new opportunities appeared. You didn’t have to be a stonemason if you didn’t want to. You could be an airplane pilot instead.
Knowledge was spreading, and those who possessed it were no longer in the minority—which meant they weren’t as powerful as they used to be. Eventually came radio, TV, and the Internet. The more information we had available, the more people developed highly specialized knowledge—something they believed would give them power.
Today, when most people in developed nations have easy access to information from around the world, communication costs are cheap, and we have plenty of education options, even specialized knowledge doesn’t necessarily give you power. In fact, you don’t even have to go to great lengths to develop a specialized knowledge anymore. Just do a Google search and borrow someone else’s.
// Side note: I’m not talking so much about specialized skills or expertise. These come from knowledge, and they’ll always be of value. I’m talking about the acquisition of knowledge itself, which you can get today on any subject within seconds.//
In an era of widespread, inexpensive communications, knowledge spreads way too fast for it to hold power for long. So there’s no point in trying to cram tons of it into your head on the assumption it will make you special and give you power. It won’t.
If only I’d known that in the pre IPO days at Google. During a big meeting, I was asked to talk about what technology would be required as we moved toward going public. As I spoke, I started to believe that in this extremely important area, I had unique knowledge—and therefore power.
Over the next few months, I expanded my role in the IPO effort, working two jobs. I didn’t eat properly or exercise regularly. At least three nights a week, I’d crash, exhausted, in a hotel room near Google’s headquarters. I’d struggle to sleep, only to drag my exhausted self back to work first thing the next morning. I had lots of crazy-intense headaches and vertigo and I lost about 45 pounds (not a weight loss plan I’d recommend). I was a mess.
Finally, a colleague suggested I could use some help. He quickly assembled a small support team for me. In my heart, I still didn’t believe I needed it—until my eyes started bleeding, that is.
It was a hard lesson learned, but here it is: Knowledge is not power. The sharing of knowledge is power. It’s crazy to think you’re the only one in your company or organization with specific knowledge, and therefore power. Rather than trying to hoard something that can be easily acquired, share your knowledge. Two people will collectively know more than one. Three will know more than two. And when you have a room full of smart people sharing their knowledge, there’s very little you can’t accomplish together.