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July 17, 2013 » 6:20 am

Doug Engelbart

My friend, mentor, and hero, Doug Engelbart, passed away a few weeks ago.

I first met Doug 15 years ago. He was 50 years my senior with a list of accomplishments I will never match. I was a feisty, curious kid in my early 20s, desperately seeking purpose in my life.

From the beginning, Doug treated me with kindness, respect, and humility. He never tried to put me in a box, as so many people — even close friends and colleagues — often do. He took the time to get to know me personally, to see what I was capable of and what I cared about, and he encouraged me to tap into those things.

For a while, I wondered why he treated me so well. Then I realized that he treated everybody that way. He did so because, more than anything, he cared about people. He cared about his family and his friends, and he cared about humanity.

People. That’s what Doug was about. It’s that simple. He devoted his life to making sure that we, as a society, didn’t forget our essential humanity. Unfortunately, he saw us heading in that direction, and he tried desperately to veer us away from the “cliff.” He was absolutely convinced that he had failed.

He was wrong. I don’t know if there’s hope for humanity, but if there isn’t, it’s despite Doug, not because of him. As he himself understood — at least intellectually — it will take a collective we to prevent such a failure. None of us can shoulder that burden individually. And — maybe as he didn’t understand, but as he practiced to a wonderful extreme — the way we treat each other is at the heart of any grand solution. It’s that simple, and — as recent events continue to underline — it’s also that hard.

The day after he died, my friend, Joe Mathews, asked me if I would write a tribute to Doug and to say a bit about why I thought he was important. I said I’d need a few days to collect my thoughts. I took two weeks, and I still don’t feel like I did him justice. You can read what I wrote here.

As powerful and prophetic as his ideas and his language were, and as important a role as they play in my life today, they were the least significant things that I got from Doug.

His biggest gifts to me were people and permission. He not only blessed me with his friendship, he introduced me to a larger community of like-minded, like-hearted thinkers and doers. Last weekend, at a celebration of his life organized by his friends, I was reminded of how many wonderful people I met through or because of him.

He also made it okay for me to make doing good my life’s purpose. He had chosen such a path for himself when he was 25, which was how old I was when I started working with him. If it was okay for him, it was more than okay for me. I wouldn’t be doing what I’ve done for the past decade if not for him.

I’m not intimidated by the professional bar that Doug set. Maybe that’s my gift… or my folly. I feel overwhelmed by his personal bar. Do good, be good, care about others, treat them well. Simple, but not easy. Regardless, I’m determined to try. It’s the least I can do to honor my friend and everything he did for me.

Doug's 85th Birthday Party

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5 Responses to “Doug Engelbart”

  1. Eugene, thanks for the eloquent and heartfelt about your friend and mentor. I wish I could have met him, and am sorry for your loss.

  2. Thanks Eugene. "And — maybe as he didn’t understand, but as he practiced to a wonderful extreme — the way we treat each other is at the heart of any grand solution. It’s that simple, and — as recent events continue to underline — it’s also that hard. " I know it's hard to see the grand impact, but this is a powerful lesson and remembrance of an invaluable person. I'm so lucky to have received just a fraction of his lessons through you.

  3. […] Aaron Swartz, someone I barely knew. Obviously, his suicide was big news, and rightfully so. But my tribute to Doug Engelbart — someone whom I knew well and who was more famous than Aaron — didn’t even crack my top […]

  4. […] I’ve written a lot about Doug and his work over the years, and it represents only a fraction of what I learned from him. For a high-level overview of his work and why I think he’s so important, start with my tribute to him when he passed away in 2013 (“Inventing the mouse was the least of it”) as well as my more personal tribute. […]

  5. […] was depressed for most of the time I knew him (he passed away in 2013), and he spoke often about how he was a failure. That didn’t stop him from his […]

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