#126 Larry Ellison The Billionaire and the Mechanic

Summary Notes


In a thought-provoking conversation, Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs, two titans of innovation, debate the qualities of history's greatest figures, contrasting their views on the balance between moral purity and world-changing impact. Jobs champions Gandhi's nonviolent revolution, while Ellison admires Napoleon Bonaparte's sweeping reforms and military prowess, reflecting their differing perspectives on leadership and change. The discussion extends to other influential figures like Lincoln, Churchill, and various artists, revealing their shared admiration for those who push boundaries and reshape society. This exchange is an excerpt from Julian Guthrie's "The Billionaire and the Mechanic," which delves into Ellison's mindset as an extreme winner, his competitive nature, and his deep friendship with Jobs, spanning 25 years and marked by mutual respect, intellectual sparring, and a shared disdain for conventional wisdom. The book also explores Ellison's personal life, his voracious reading habits, and his relentless pursuit of victory, whether in business, sailing, or personal endeavors, highlighting his philosophy that life is an unending cycle of competition and learning.

Summary Notes

Greatness and Historical Impact

  • Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs discuss the definition of greatness, focusing on individuals who significantly changed the world.
  • Ellison differentiates between moral perfection and world-changing impact.
  • Jobs returns to Apple and engages in discussions about historical figures with Ellison, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Gandhi.
  • Larry Ellison admires Napoleon Bonaparte for his revolutionary actions and societal contributions.
  • Jobs contrasts Gandhi's moral approach with Napoleon's military actions.
  • The debate includes the merits and demerits of using violence to achieve change, citing examples of Lincoln and Gandhi.

"I'm talking about greatness, about taking a lever to the world and moving it, Larry said, walking the grounds of his new woodside property with his best friend, Steve Jobs. I'm not talking about moral perfection. I'm talking about people who change the world the most during their lifetime."

This quote encapsulates Ellison's view on greatness, emphasizing the ability to enact significant change rather than moral perfection.

Historical Figures and Their Contributions

  • Jobs places Leonardo da Vinci and Gandhi at the top of his list for their contributions to art, invention, and nonviolent revolution.
  • Ellison argues for Napoleon's greatness, citing his overthrow of tyranny, establishment of public schools, legal systems, and ending religious discrimination.
  • The discussion highlights the complexity of historical figures and their legacies, considering both their positive contributions and associated conflicts.

"Napoleon invented modern public education, public art, museums, and the modern legal system, and ended state sponsored religious discrimination."

Ellison's quote highlights the various societal advancements attributed to Napoleon, presenting him as a transformative figure in history.

The Role of Violence in Historical Change

  • Jobs and Ellison discuss the necessity of violence in historical change, referencing Lincoln and Gandhi's experiences.
  • The conversation explores the idea that some historical achievements required violent actions, challenging the notion that violence never solves anything.
  • The discussion reflects on the moral complexities faced by leaders in times of conflict and the difficult decisions they had to make.

"Even the sainted Lincoln was willing to resort to violence to purge the nation of slavery and preserve the union. He couldn't talk the south out of succession or slavery."

This quote underlines the harsh realities faced by leaders like Lincoln, who resorted to violence to achieve goals deemed necessary for the greater good.

Personal Philosophies and Management Models

  • Jobs and Ellison share their personal philosophies and models for management.
  • Jobs cites the Beatles as his management model, emphasizing the balance and productivity achieved by the band.
  • Ellison admires figures like Galileo and Winston Churchill for their contributions to science and the preservation of Western civilization.

"Steve liked to say the Beatles were his management model, four guys who kept each other in check and produced something great."

Jobs's quote reflects his belief in the power of collaboration and mutual accountability within a team to achieve greatness.

Larry Ellison's Reading Habits and Historical Interests

  • Ellison is described as a voracious reader with a particular interest in history and biographies.
  • His favorite history book is "The Age of Napoleon" by Will and Ariel Durant.
  • Ellison draws inspiration from historical figures, particularly those who challenged the status quo and achieved greatness against the odds.

"Larry's favorite history book was Will and Ariel Durant's the age of Napoleon, which he had read several times."

This quote reveals Ellison's admiration for Napoleon and his desire to learn from history, which he considers more informative on human nature and leadership than business books.

The Friendship of Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs

  • The book "The Billionaire and the Mechanic" by Julian Guthrie is discussed, revealing insights into the mindset of Ellison and Jobs.
  • Their friendship began in the mid-1980s and was marked by commonalities such as adoptive parents, OCD, and anti-authoritarian views.
  • Both founders started companies with ideas not originally their own and overcame skepticism to achieve success.

"Steve and Larry found they had much in common. They both had adoptive parents. They both considered their adoptive parents as their real parents."

This quote illustrates the deep personal connection and shared experiences that formed the basis of Ellison and Jobs's long-standing friendship.

Differences in Personal and Business Approaches

  • Despite their friendship, Ellison and Jobs had different approaches to business and personal life.
  • Jobs focused on designing products to be useful and beautiful, while Ellison pursued a variety of interests and sought to win.
  • Their differing philosophies are exemplified in their attitudes towards spending and consumption.

"What he loved was designing and redesigning things to make them more useful and more beautiful."

This quote encapsulates Jobs's passion for design and innovation, which was central to his approach to business and life.

Learning from History

  • Both Ellison and Jobs placed high value on studying history to gain insights into human nature and leadership.
  • Ellison's competitive nature is explored, with competition serving as a tool for self-testing and improvement.
  • The book highlights Ellison's use of competition in various aspects of his life, including sports and business.

"He learned more about human nature, management, and leadership by reading history than by reading books about business."

This quote highlights Ellison's belief in the value of historical knowledge for understanding leadership and decision-making in business.

Larry Ellison's Motivation for Sailing and Seeking Challenges

  • Larry Ellison participates in sailing races to test his skills and seek out "alternative stress."
  • He finds clarity in sports that is absent in the never-ending marathon of business.
  • Ellison uses stress as a tool for self-improvement and is driven by competition.
  • He survived a hurricane while racing, illustrating his pursuit of extreme challenges.

"There was a clarity to be found in sports that couldn't be had in business. At Oracle, he still wanted to beat his rivals, IBM and Microsoft. But business was a marathon without end. There was always another quarter. In sports, the buzzer sounds and time runs out."

This quote explains Ellison's perspective on the finite nature of sports compared to the continuous cycle of business. It highlights his desire for clear endpoints and measurable outcomes that sports provide.

The Concept of Alternative Stress

  • Larry Ellison embraces high-risk activities to experience alternative stress for self-improvement.
  • His lifestyle choices reflect his search for stress and competition as tools for growth.
  • Ellison's history of overcoming personal and financial adversity underscores his resilience.

"Most humans run away from stress. Again, Larry's going to use this as a tool for self-improvement."

The quote emphasizes Ellison's unconventional approach to stress, viewing it as an opportunity for personal development rather than something to avoid.

The Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race Experience

  • The race was a life-threatening event that resulted in a victory amidst a maritime disaster.
  • Ellison's team's survival and win were overshadowed by the loss of life and the severity of the disaster.
  • The race exemplified Ellison's constant search for alternative stress and his extreme approach to life.

"We are in the eye of a fucking hurricane."

Ellison's recognition of the dire situation during the race highlights the extreme conditions he willingly faces for the sake of competition and personal testing.

Larry Ellison's Philosophy on Competition and Improvement

  • Ellison's quest for competition is likened to a higher calling, a fundamental human drive to test oneself.
  • He rejects the idea that people strive for achievements simply because they exist; he believes it's about personal potential and curiosity.
  • Ellison's approach to life and competition is seen as extreme but full of lessons for personal growth.

"It's not because it's there. It's because we're there, and we wonder if we can do it."

This quote reflects Ellison's belief that the drive to undertake challenges stems from an internal desire to explore one's capabilities, rather than the mere existence of the challenge itself.

Ellison's Decision to Compete in the America's Cup

  • Ellison wanted to actively participate in competitions, not just be a spectator or owner.
  • He sought to buy an America's Cup team to fulfill his desire to compete and maintain control.
  • His approach to control is evident in his personal life and business decisions.

"Larry reasoned that he could buy the San Francisco 49ers football team and still not play quarterback; here, he could buy the team and hold the wheel."

The quote captures Ellison's determination to be directly involved and in control of his competitive pursuits, specifically in sailing.

The Partnership with the Golden Gate Yacht Club

  • Ellison partnered with a blue-collar yacht club to gain the control he desired for the America's Cup.
  • The club's commodore, Norbert, saw the mutual benefit of the partnership and pursued Ellison.
  • The partnership was a strategic move that aligned with Ellison's need for control and the yacht club's financial needs.

"This ain't rocket science. He needs a yacht club and we have one."

This straightforward assessment by a club member underscores the logical basis for the partnership between Ellison and the Golden Gate Yacht Club.

Insights into Larry Ellison's Personality and Drive

  • Ellison's determination is fueled by a fear of failure and the pursuit of success.
  • His commitment to Oracle is unwavering, placing it above personal relationships.
  • Ellison's reading habits during challenging times reveal his search for inspiration and strategy.

"Like most overachievers, he was driven not so much by the pursuit of success as the fear of failure."

The quote provides insight into Ellison's mindset, indicating that the avoidance of failure is a powerful motivator for his relentless work ethic.

The Game within a Game

  • Ellison and other successful individuals create "games within games" to maintain motivation and discipline.
  • This strategy involves setting up internal challenges to stay engaged and focused.
  • Ellison's dedication to winning in business and sailing illustrates his commitment to these personal challenges.

"The stakes are high, much higher than an America's Cup. Beating IBM is a lot more important to me than beating Team New Zealand."

This statement shows Ellison's prioritization of business competition over sailing, despite his deep involvement in both arenas. It reveals the "game within a game" mindset that keeps him driven.

Larry Ellison's Motivation and Competitive Nature

  • Larry Ellison's primary goal is to be number one, to win, contrasting with Steve Jobs' motivation to make the best technology products.
  • Ellison relies not just on product quality but also heavily on sales and marketing strategies.
  • He sustains his intensity by constantly picking enemies, similar to Michael Jordan's competitive tactics.

"Larry wants to be the number one. He wants to win."

Ellison's ambition is focused on being the top in his field, prioritizing victory as his main objective.

"He constantly pick enemies."

Ellison uses rivalry as a motivational tool, drawing parallels to Michael Jordan's approach to maintaining competitive drive.

Michael Jordan's Competitive Tactics as Inspiration

  • Michael Jordan created motivations, sometimes fictional, to maintain his competitive edge, which Larry Ellison also emulates.
  • Jordan's tactics included using perceived slights or challenges as fuel to enhance his performance in games.

"Jordan made it up. He made a game within a game."

Jordan's strategy of inventing challenges illustrates his psychological approach to competition, which Ellison finds inspiring.

"He understood that especially for the levels of intensity he operate on. He can't sustain that by himself."

The quote highlights the necessity of external motivations, even if fabricated, to sustain high levels of competitive intensity.

Setbacks and Learning from Loss

  • Ellison experienced setbacks with his racing team, leading to personnel changes and a focus on learning from losses.
  • The decision to bring back a disliked but skilled sailor was initially seen as a mistake but was part of Ellison's learning process.

"I think you always learn more from losing than you do from winning."

Ellison values the lessons that come from defeat, seeing them as opportunities for growth and improvement.

"Winning, that's my idea of fun."

This quote encapsulates Ellison's philosophy that success and enjoyment are intrinsically linked, with winning being the ultimate form of enjoyment.

Leadership and Team Dynamics

  • Ellison's leadership style involves making tough decisions for the sake of victory, even if it means facing team discontent.
  • Comparisons between team members and Michael Jordan highlight the qualities Ellison values in competitors and leaders.

"We will continue with the people who choose to stay on this team."

Ellison's willingness to move forward with those aligned with his vision of victory demonstrates his uncompromising leadership approach.

"Michael Jordan screamed at his teammates... but he had a burning desire to win."

The comparison to Jordan emphasizes the importance Ellison places on the will to win, even if it involves harsh team interactions.

Respect Among Extreme Winners

  • Extreme winners like Ellison and Jordan respect others who share their competitive spirit and determination.
  • The interactions between Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant exemplify the mutual respect between fierce competitors.

"Larry is going to do the same thing because he's realizing Dixon isn't Jordan."

Ellison's realization that not everyone shares the same level of competitiveness or desire to win shapes his decisions and respect for others.

"I love that guy."

Jordan's admiration for Kobe Bryant's competitive spirit mirrors Ellison's respect for those who do not shy away from competition.

Vince Lombardi's Influence on Larry Ellison

  • Ellison admires Vince Lombardi's focus on the will to win and the habit of winning, which he applies to his own pursuits.
  • Lombardi's speeches and insights into competition resonate with Ellison's philosophy on success and determination.

"Give me human will and the intense desire to win, and it will trump talent every day of the week."

Ellison believes that determination and the desire to succeed are more important than innate talent in achieving victory.

"Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing."

This quote from Vince Lombardi, as relayed by Ellison, underscores the belief that consistent winning or losing forms habits that can define outcomes.

Larry Ellison on Marriage and Personal Life

  • Ellison views work as a defining aspect of life and is skeptical of marriage due to its constraints on personal freedom and authority.
  • His approach to relationships is influenced by his prioritization of work and his desire to live life on his own terms.

"Work is ego. Work is selfish. Love is about others."

Ellison's perspective on work and love reflects his belief in the importance of self-definition through professional achievements.

"The idea that you would meet the one person in the world who's made for you is so statistically unlikely that it would almost never occur."

Ellison's rational approach to the concept of soulmates highlights his reliance on reason and statistical likelihood over romantic ideals.

Determination and the Will to Improve

  • Ellison's conversations with Rafael Nadal and his reading habits reveal his focus on determination and never giving up as keys to success.
  • His willingness to face challenges and improve by competing against professionals demonstrates his commitment to personal growth.

"I never give up."

Ellison's succinct philosophy of perseverance is a cornerstone of his approach to success and overcoming obstacles.

"The real battle is won in the mind."

Ellison's note on mental fortitude emphasizes the importance of self-awareness and continuous improvement in achieving success.

Competitive Sports and Self-Deception

  • Ellison values competitive sports for their clear outcomes and the inability to deceive oneself about performance.
  • His maxim about the brain's primary purpose being deception relates to his enjoyment of sports as a means of honest self-assessment.

"In sports, you can't deceive yourself."

Ellison appreciates the transparency of sports as a means to measure oneself objectively without the possibility of self-deception.

"I learn a lot about myself when I compete against somebody."

Competitive situations provide Ellison with insights into his own capabilities and drive, reinforcing his understanding of himself through winning and losing.

Oracle's Competitive Advantage

  • Ellison's strategy at Oracle involved tackling difficult challenges to minimize competition, a mindset he applies to both business and sailing.
  • Building a hard wing for his sailboat that others deemed impossible exemplified Ellison's willingness to innovate and gain an edge.

"I know that most people think trying to build a hard wing of this size is crazy, but that's the beauty of the idea."

Ellison's pursuit of seemingly impossible goals is part of his strategy to outpace competition and achieve success.

"So we'll have a wing and they won't."

This quote reflects Ellison's focus on creating a competitive advantage by doing what others are not willing or able to do.

Understanding the Athletic Mindset

  • Larry Ellison's conversation with Jimmy Connors highlighted the importance of focus in sports.
  • Connors advised against playing tennis without a particular focus, equating it to sacrilege.
  • Ellison's understanding of the "charmed, tormented life" of athletes came from reading Jerry West's autobiography.

"Connors looked at Larry and said, oh, no, you do not want to do that."

This quote emphasizes Connors' belief that focus is essential in sports, and doing otherwise is a mistake.

The Importance of Focus and Obsession in Success

  • Ellison related to athletes and other high achievers like Steve Jobs in their obsession with perfection.
  • Jobs' attention to detail, like the color of screws in a computer, paralleled the athletes’ meticulousness.
  • Ellison resonated with a quote from the movie "Tombstone," reflecting on the insatiable drive to fill a void through achievement.

"They were like his friend Steve Jobs, who worried about the color of the screws inside a computer, who wanted one switch and not two to control the doors in his plane."

This quote illustrates the obsessive nature of high achievers and their relentless pursuit of perfection.

Legacy and Remembrance

  • Ellison reflected on Steve Jobs' legacy, foreseeing that Jobs would be remembered as a transformative figure.
  • The Apple "Think Different" campaign, which celebrated "misfits" and "rebels," inspired Ellison's own view of subscribers.
  • Ellison's personal losses, including his divorce and the deaths of Jobs and Tom Lantos, were profound.

"Larry was certain that decades now, there would be two guys walking somewhere talking about their icons, and Steve would be mentioned."

This quote shows Ellison's belief in Jobs' enduring impact and how he would be remembered as a visionary.

Strategy and Resilience in Business and Life

  • Ellison and Jobs discussed the potential acquisition of Apple and their different strategic approaches to saving the company.
  • Jobs was not motivated by money but by the desire to make a difference, a sentiment he shared with Ellison during a pivotal walk.

"My idea was simple. Buy apple and immediately make Steve CEO."

This quote outlines Ellison's strategic thinking and his confidence in Jobs' ability to lead Apple to success.

The Role of Humor and Friendship

  • Ellison cherished the humorous moments shared with Steve Jobs, highlighting the importance of light-heartedness amidst seriousness.
  • The laughter shared without knowing the cause was a treasured memory for Ellison.

"The four of us sitting together at Kona eating papayas and laughing for no reason at all."

This quote captures the essence of friendship and the simple joys that create enduring memories.

Reflection on Success and Identity

  • Ellison questioned Walter Isaacson's portrayal of Steve Jobs, preferring to view Jobs as an irreplaceable hero.
  • Ellison's own astonishment at his success reflected a sense of wonder and disbelief at how far he had come from his humble beginnings.

"Larry wondered why Isaacson wouldn't let Steve be a hero, why he wouldn't let him be the Edison of our time."

This quote reveals Ellison's disagreement with Isaacson's narrative and his own admiration for Jobs' unique contributions.

Overcoming Challenges and the Drive to Succeed

  • Ellison's and Jobs' resilience in the face of adversity was a testament to their characters.
  • Ellison's dedication to sailing and his America's Cup campaigns showed his relentless pursuit of excellence and learning from failure.

"My life has been all about testing my limits and learning from failure."

This quote encapsulates Ellison's philosophy of pushing boundaries and viewing setbacks as opportunities for growth.

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