The people who inspire me share one quality: a commitment to expressing the truth clearly and without fear — and with a smile. Perhaps that explains my current quest.
Here are a few in whose footsteps I hope to follow.
Isaac Asimov. Asimov’s plain, direct, clever, and idea-filled prose captivated me in adolescence — and I mean his nonfiction, not his novels. His commitment to science and truth over superstition was relentless. He wrote about every topic from the Bible to the Roman Empire to mathematics. Like me, he was an incorrigible punster. I met him a few times, thanks to my first wife, who knew him through family connections (about the only positive thing about that marriage). I aspire to Asimov’s clarity, wit, and prodigious production: publishing over 500 books, he never stopped writing.
John Oliver. What I love about John Oliver is the way he relentlessly skewers our own stupidity — and then actually moves the debate. Some people can make you laugh, others can change your perspective, but it’s a rare talent that can do both. I aspire to Oliver’s ability to wield truth as a weapon, using ridicule to create actual change.
My father, Robert Bernoff. My dad has always inspired me with his intelligence, commitment to honesty, and optimism. Trained as a chemist, he became a college professor and then the executive officer (basically, college president) of one of Penn State’s largest campuses, Abington. He mastered computers in his 60’s and now, in his 80’s, continues to teach science with much of the same energy he’s had all along. I aspire to his integrity, humor, persistence, and commitment to uplift others.
Bill Bluestein. Bill was my mentor at Forrester Research. He was a fierce editor, shaping what we wrote with incisive commentary, never settling for the ordinary, and making sure that we only published kick-ass content. (He would circle parts of your draft and write “M.P.” — meaningless platitude — to indicate that you need to think of something more original.) Bill taught me never to compromise truth under pressure, and we pissed off a lot of people with what we wrote. While he died in 2001, the people he influenced, like Ted Schadler, Harley Manning, and James McQuivey, continue to keep his legacy there alive. I aspire to Bill’s ability to cut things down to what is essential and his unbending pursuit of the higher truth.
Charlene Li. Working with Charlene on Groundswell was a transformational experience. Her combination of optimism and brilliant insight came along with an extra ingredient — a warm friendship and personable nature. I aspire to her ability to balance intellectual excellence, clear expression, and professional and personal relationships without compromise.
Nate Silver. Silver turned being a stats nerd into a career. You have to admire that. At fivethirtyeight.com, his analysis ranges through every subject from sports to politics, but what unites it all is a commitment to profound, accurate analysis that’s free from bias. I aspire to his intellectual honesty and the way he promotes his work through truth.
Mary Roach. Roach is one of the world’s best nonfiction writers. She writes about everything from sex to space travel in the most straightforward and yet engaging and funny way. Read Bonk or Stiff and you’ll learn an awful lot about how to write. I aspire to the intimacy, vulnerability, and humor with which Roach relates to readers.
Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson has become America’s science teacher, ferociously defending scientific truth in a world filled with superstition. I like the way he pursues this goal across all media, all with a knowing smile, as if he knows what the rest of us do not. I aspire to Tyson’s persona of happy warrior in defense of the truth.