Ties That Bind

Each of us can look back on our lives and pinpoint individuals whose influence shifted our course for the better. It might have been the teacher who gave you a book of MC Escher drawings and talked to you about the interconnectedness of things and ways of seeing. Maybe it was a workplace mentor who taught you that tenacity is as important as a well-turned phrase. I have been lucky to have many such forces in my life, not the least of which was my grandmother, who showed me the power one woman had to make her life what she dreamed, that it is never too late to reinvent yourself, and that hard work will take you where you want to go. As she aptly explained, "Nobody ever told me life would be easy, so I don't mind hard work." She valued knowledge gleaned in the classroom but placed experiential learning on an equal plane.

About a year ago, she lost the love of her life. These two were so inexorably intertwined that his passing took with it some parts of herself she could not go on without. Too soon after, she also died. When I think of them, I see two trees, roots tangled after decades of growing side by side, sharing soil, light, and water. While I was not a part of this, as a leaf would be, I was privileged to sit in their dappled shade, to witness the way they weathered drought and storm and found themselves, more often than not, leaning toward the sun together.

Now both have gently fallen, first one, then the other. As the metaphor goes, their passing makes way for new growth, but to me it feels like they have fueled infinite possibility, just as they did in life. In me, at least, their influence runs deep and feeds a love of knowledge and a belief in an exponentially connected understanding of things.

My grandmother was one of the only people in my family who was not initially disappointed when I chose to study journalism. The entire family had hoped I would study law, but she worked in that field herself and told me that it would be a difficult and unhappy road if it were one I did not want to travel. I think about the impressive people who taught me in college—Rolling Stone, Village Voice, and Wall Street Journal alums—and still it was she who gave me the courage to take necessary risks to test my resolve. It may well have been her devil's advocacy—do you really want it, so much that you're willing to give up lesser things to get it?—that so instilled in me a love of this work. And I know I'm not alone in taking this route to my career.

I recently read John Battelle's book The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture. It discusses how the relationship between founders Larry Page and Sergey Brinn, who met at Stanford, started with an argument. Page thought Brinn was arrogant and Brinn thought Page was obnoxious. The two "argued incessently" but they were drawn together like "two swords sharpening each other."

Page began to work on his dissertation, speculating that, while it was trivial to follow links from one page to the other, it was nontrivial to discover links back—like in academic publishing, where publishing is good, but being cited in others' works is much better. So Page started his BackRub project, in which he divined a method to count and quantify backlinks on the Web. Well versed in the ranking indices of academic publishing, he theorized that he could build a crawler that would reveal not just who was linking to whom, but more importantly, the importance of those links based on site attributes. Page realized that a raw count of links in a page would be useful for ranking a page, but he also saw that each link needed its own rank, based on the link count of its originating page. That approach, however, creates a difficult mathematical challenge, to say the least.

Fortunately, the mathematically gifted Brin, who had looked at a variety of research projects at Stanford, was lured to his quasi-nemesis' project because "it tackled the Web, which represents human knowledge." The rest, as they say, is history: the two not only became friends, but they developed the PageRank system of prioritizing search results, which led them to found Google and launch the search engine by the same name. To do so, the two made the difficult decision to abandon their PhD programs. Brin's advisor told him, "Look, if this Google thing pans out, then great. If not, you can return to graduate school and finish your thesis."

Without a doubt, this was a fortuitous meeting of unlikely minds. But in each other they found a new way of recognizing the connected nature of amassed knowledge, and founded a company that wants to do a lot more than search, to do no less than "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Lofty, yes, but also inspired. Godspeed.