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My daughter – a perfectionist
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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India, whenever she did something, she would concentrate on it until she perfected it. And it killed her to have any tiny little mistake. And so for example, when she learned to jump horses, she really was just fantastic at it and practiced it and she actually became one of the very best pony jumpers in California. And in fact she was in the finals in picking the very best pony jumper. And at the last minute, she pushed the horse just a little too hard, and it stumbled a little bit, and she lost by one point to somebody else. And it just absolutely killed her that she wasn't the perfect... that she'd made this tiny little mistake or the horse had made a tiny little mistake. And I could just see that she was all ready to double down on it, and I have to get more serious about training. And I just... and I thought, well, this is really probably not the very best thing for her to be spending her time on right now, so I let a day or two go by and then I asked her if she'd go for a walk with me, and we went for a walk. And I said, 'I know how upset you are about coming in second in California.' And she's, like, 'Well, no, it was my mistake. I'll just do better next year. I'll...'

I was like, 'Okay, well, I'm sure you could do that, and certainly you can do that if you want to, but I just want to say that I think you can do more important things in life, and you need to choose how you spend your time. But being the very, very best pony jumper is maybe not the most important thing for you to do.' And she's like, 'No, Dad, this is important to me.' And I was, like, 'Okay, well, you decide what's important to you.' And then about a week later, she said: 'I've decided to put aside pony jumping for a little while.' And she started working on graphic arts and something else that became important to her.

I hope she does go back to horses sometimes, because she was really good at it, but she had sense enough to realise that maybe that wasn't the thing to double down on. But it wasn't her natural instinct. Her natural instinct was always just to get it perfectly.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: perfection, instinct, perfectionism, pony jumping

Duration: 2 minutes, 45 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017