Robert Hacker
7 min readApr 26, 2023

“Unlocking Your Potential Through Self-discovery”

It is a pleasure to be here for the Honors College (HC) graduation at Florida International University (FIU). The topic of my talk tonight is “Unlocking Your Potential Through Self-discovery”. The title was graciously provided by ChatGPT, but the remainder of the talk is my work.

A story to begin.

About 7 years ago — I had an HC student in class — very, very smart woman. One day I asked her what she wanted to do with her life and she answered, “be a pharmacist”. I asked — how do you study pharmacy? — if FIU does not have a pharmacy school. She answered, I study the pre-med courses. Why not become a doctor I asked innocently. She said, “I could never be a doctor”. Hmmp. For two semesters I kept coming back, gently, to talk about studying to be a doctor. One day she told me she had applied to med school and been accepted. Today she is a doctor. We all tend to self-limit our opportunities because we underestimate our potential.

I am by inclination a futurist. I study technology, economics and culture as the means to predict the future. My predictions shape my teaching and my life. My predictions help me to spot the best opportunities, whether I am working in the mountains of Peru, implementing an MIT edtech project in Uruguay, consulting to F500 companies in Japan, or building a billion-dollar company in Indonesia. I realized a few years ago I have lived my life and done all these different things — to not be bored. I have worked in sixty countries not to be bored.

New opportunities have always been the basis of my self-discovery and my lifelong learning. My self-discovery helped me to realize that learning and teaching are my passions, which serves me well as a professor at FIU, MIT and everywhere I have taught. First and foremost, I believe a professor’s responsibility is to prepare the students for their future. So, today to prepare you for the future — What are the lessons, what part of my self-discovery, do I share in this last lecture at FIU for many of you.

First lesson — Self-validation

We are taught from a young age to do what our parents tell us. Then we go to school and we are taught to learn the right answer to satisfy the teacher. Then we start dating and again we worry about what someone else thinks. In all these cases we seek external validation. But, the path to self-discovery and wisdom is self-validation. You must learn to find the truth within yourself. Those of you who have studied or practiced Buddhism will recognize this lesson. If you have studied quantum mechanics or the founders of existentialism, again you might see this lesson.

Why do you need to be self-validating, so you can learn to fail faster. Yes, fail faster. The good news is we are programmed to fail fast. The principle from evolution is called explore — exploit. Explore is the information gathering phase, the testing of a hypothesis or assumption. Exploit is not something evil, but simply the act of deciding to realize the expected benefit, hopefully at scale. Explore — Exploit is illustrated by every animal. The ant, the slime mold, the elephant — all get up in the morning and begin the search for food. They are programmed by evolution to keep looking, keep failing and failing until they find the food. Then they switch to exploit mode, invite their whole colony or family and eat the food. Did you notice that every day the animal goes out and fails and fails until it finds the food. How can they sustain this constant, daily failure — self-validation. The ant knows its job is going to involve failure, missteps, and periods of hunger, but the only thing that is important is not to kill yourself or the whole colony of ants. So my second lesson is explore-exploit. Iterate until you have the information and confidence to decide to exploit — to take the decision.

This process of constant iteration also provides the third lesson — Don’t take yourself out of the game, or if you are running any type of organization — don’t run out of cash. When I teach entrepreneurship, I tell the students they should all get a tattoo on their left arm right next to their watch — Don’t run out of cash! Don’t take yourself out of the game means never put yourself in a situation where you cannot iterate or restart. That is the only real risk in life — you cannot iterate or restart. And managing that risk of not being able to restart, that brings us to lesson four.

Lesson four is — we have to know what our key assumptions are. In every social project, research project, new business — in fact for any decision in life — there are always three key assumptions — first, to understand correctly the key assumption about the problem, second, to understand the key assumption about the solution and third, to understand the key assumption to achieve scale — to have significant social impact. The key assumptions are what you absolutely must be right about to have a chance at success.

This is a really valuable tool so let me give you an example. Suppose we are introducing a new device to diagnose heart valve sounds to predict the likelihood of a heart attacks. Great business idea, enormous social benefit. So, what are the key assumptions about problem, solution and scaling where we have to be right. Take a minute and think about your answers — key assumptions about problem, solution and scaling. Answer — key assumption about the problem — will the device diagnose correctly the heart sounds? Key assumption about the solution — will doctors use the device and change how they do diagnosis? And third key assumption — will it scale. Will Medicare and FDA approve the new device, that’s the biggest risk to scale and helping millions of people in the U.S.

What you probably realize by now is that the assumptions represent the risk. The assumptions represent the risk. A famous economist, Frank Knight, defined risk as having sufficient information to calculate expected value — the statistics concept you learned in introductory statistics. If you never knew why you took statistics — it was to measure risk and uncertainty. If you lack sufficient information to determine the probability, then Knight says you have uncertainty. If you are not a genius like Einstein or maybe Bezos or Musk, avoid problems where you cannot quantify risk and you have, by definition, uncertainty. Lesson four restated is, the risk in any project is in the assumptions. Assumptions are the tool to realize what you do not know and that brings us to lesson five.

Lesson 5

When analyzing problems, always look for the asymmetry of information. Michael Spence, the Nobel economist, won the prize for applying information theory in areas such as social problems. What Spence showed, for example, is that poverty is caused by a lack of information. People are poor in part because they lack the information to prevent their being taken advantage of. People in dictatorships are intentionally prevented from accessing information. All of you originally from Cuba and Venezuela understand this point. I think that eventually we are going to realize that all social problems are caused by an asymmetry of information. If we took such an approach, governments would focus a lot less on policy and a lot more on education. The famous dictum — you don’t know what you don’t know — it means look for the absence of the information — look for the asymmetry of information to understand a problem or new situation.

Up to this point, my lessons have been very rational, logical even quantitative. Now let’s consider two emotional lessons based on fear and passion.

Most of us have fear because we seek external validation and fear failure. I would say, as the Buddhists teach — fear is a decision. Fear is a decision is Lesson Six. The Navy Seals early in their training teach to remain calm in all situations so they can communicate with each other and provide the needed resources. Same idea as the Buddhists. Two great organizations advocating the same principle — fear is a decision.

Once you adopt this principle, then you train yourself to spot your own personal signals of fear — perspiration, can’t sleep, anxiety, etc. — and that helps you learn to control yourself and not be fearful. Do not do self-analysis of why you have fear. Much easier to just stop being afraid. And, don’t forget to also work on self-validation. If you stop worrying about what other people think of your ideas and results, you will see much fear go away.

Once your fear starts to go away, then I would ask what are you passionate about — a problem, a research project, or helping people. Does this issue get you up every morning, excited to go to work. Teaching has been my passion since I joined the Honors College, I think 13 years ago. The students in the Honors College have taught me much more than I have taught them, which, of course feeds my desire for both self-discovery and lifelong learning. Freud said that where we get our energy, we find our passion. Jean Piaget, the seminal thinker on child development, said that passion fuels the discovery process — the explore-exploit, Lesson 2 — we are all programmed with. Find your passion.

In closing: Former first Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in “You Learn by Living”, said:

“Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”

And when we stare down the fear, when we become exhilarated — follow your passion, create your opportunity and create social impact — at scale. Hopefully you will save the planet and make a better world for everyone.

Thank you Dean Espinosa and the Honors College for having me. Thank you to all the Honors College students who have been my best teachers. Good luck to all the graduates. Thank you.

Robert Hacker

Director StartUP FIU-commercializing research. Entrepreneurship Professor FIU, Ex IAP Instructor MIT. Ex CFO One Laptop per Child. Built billion dollar company