Here is the full transcript of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s fireside talk on Life and Leadership Lessons at Stanford GSB on Thursday, January 26, 2017.
INTERVIEWER: Marissa, it’s such a pleasure to have you here today.
MARISSA MAYER: Thank you for having me.
INTERVIEWER: Welcome back to Stanford.
MARISSA MAYER: I’m very excited to be here.
INTERVIEWER: I’d love to start out with your time at Stanford here. So, you came in pre-med with ambitions to become a physician, and you transitioned over to symbolic systems. What was that pivot like?
MARISSA MAYER: Well so, I was very precise in what I thought I wanted to do. I had looked at a lot of schools before picking Stanford and in those travels, I had met this really fascinating woman, very famous pediatric heart surgeon who works at Duke. And her name is Marjorie Tripp. And I talked to her, and she said, I’m a doctor, I do extraordinary cases, but I also teach at the med school and I thought, that sounded so great. So, I realized that I wasn’t interested in hearts, but I was like, I’ll be a pediatric neurosurgeon, I love kids, and I’m very interested in the brain, how it develops, so I came here very intent on that.
And through my freshman year, I took the chemistry course started getting going on, the biology core, went home for the summer after my freshman year and kind of compared notes with all of my different friends, I’m from Wisconsin, who’d gone to different schools. And I realized that we were learning very much the same things all over. And I thought, I’d had the opportunity to go to University of Wisconsin Madison, it’s a great school. And, because of various scholarships and things, that would have been a nearly free option. Stanford, on the other hand, is very much not free.
INTERVIEWER: It’s still that way.
MARISSA MAYER: And I thought to myself, wait, I’m taking my parents retirement accounts. We’re investing a lot here, and I should do something at Stanford that’s really unique to Stanford. And something that can be done just especially here, and so I started thinking about the fact that I would have a lot of time later in life to specialize, and go on, probably do other degrees. And, so I was thinking of what I wanted to do. And as I was flying back that fall to come back to my sophomore year, I was going through the course catalog and I found this department called Symbolic Systems and it had Philosophy, Psychology, Linguistics and Computer Science all wrapped into one.
And I knew that Stanford was very strong in psychology, very strong in computer science. I had taken CS 105A the previous year, which is funny because it’s the computer science course for non-majors. And the fact that the lecturer opens the class the first day and says, studies have shown that exactly two of you will go on to do anything additional in computer science ever.
INTERVIEWER: In a sea of 400 people.
MARISSA MAYER: Yeah. And so, and I knew I liked computer science though and I had done well in that class, and interested in philosophy but didn’t know a lot about linguistics. Came back, took the introductory syntax course from Professor Tom Wassau. And when I saw him because he was also the director of the Symbolic Systems program, and I knew he would try and sell me on changing my major. He was probably like, okay, look, there’s a special program, most colleges don’t have Symbolic Systems. It combines some of the departments whereas Stanford is really strong. It was something that was of interest to me.
And, the idea of Symbolic Systems is really, how do people learn and think? So, that interest I had in neuroscience was carried over because I realized I was less interested in cutting up brains and more interested in how do you learn, how do you think, because it’s cognitive psychology. How do people learn? Logic, how do people reason? Linguistics, how do people express themselves? And then computer science, can you have a computer that does the same? So AI was of a real interest. But anyway, I want to talk, Professor Sir Wassau, when I walked in and I said, I’m thinking about Symbolic Systems, I’m taking your intro to syntax course. And he said, you should absolutely become a Symbolic Systems major. And I knew he would say that, but then he kind of did this interesting kind of reverse psychology twist where he said, you should absolutely be a Symbolic Systems major.
And I thought he would say because the classes are so good, the lecturers are so good, the professors are so good. But he said, you should absolutely be a Symbolic Systems major. All the most interesting Stanford students are. And it was almost like if you weren’t, you weren’t interesting. But I have to say, it was one of the things that I learned in that, and also went on to learn it at Google and other places at some of my internships, etc, is the Symbolic Systems major, that time and I believe it’s true today, it’s obviously true here at GSB, was just filled with really, really interesting students. And I learned as much from the people around me as I did from my professors, the people in my study groups, the people I went on to do an honor’s thesis, there were five of us in that major that year that did an honor’s thesis, we met every week. And people were doing musical puppets, and could you do Stereovision with cheap web cameras, and they were just doing really interesting things. And so, it was a terrific decision. I will say it was a little bit scary, because at the same time, people are like what is Symbolic Systems. And still to this day, I have to tell everyone what a Symbolic Systems is, why does it make sense?