It takes moxie to be a student and later teacher at the most celebrated universities in the world.
It takes moxie to imagine, develop and launch complex scientific theories about the origins of the universe, the nature of space and time and how everything works.
It takes moxie to translate those complex scientific theories developed in the hallowed halls of academia into books that can be consumed by the masses.
And Stephen Hawking had the moxie to do all those things and more. The early onset of the devastating motor neuron disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) might have taken his ability to walk, move and even speak, but it only served to feed Hawking’s moxie and make it grow.
Hawking recently passed away at the age of 76 after a long, productive and fruitful life. Diagnosed around the time of his 21st birthday, doctors advised he would live only a few more years. He beat their predictions by fifty years, living decades longer than the typical ALS patient. He leaves behind a remarkable body of work and a family legacy memorialized in the award-winning film The Theory of Everything. A few lessons from his life:
Moxie doesn’t always show up in test scores and report cards
Hawking was the son of intelligent, well-educated parents who valued education for their children. Hawking was clearly a smart kid – his nickname was “Einstein” – but didn’t necessarily perform well in school. He found his studies at University College, Oxford (his father’s alma mater) “ridiculously easy” and unchallenging. As a result, he didn’t study much, and struggled on his final written exams before passing oral exams with flying colors.
Hawking might not have had the discipline to apply himself to his studies, but when his mind was unleashed it was clear he was brilliant.
Moxie can’t be contained
Hawking’s moxie was well established before he was ever diagnosed with ALS. As a university student, Hawking joined the Oxford rowing team as a coxswain. He developed a reputation as a daredevil, and steered his crew into risky positions that occasionally resulted in damaged boats.
The same impulse showed up later, when ALS had advanced enough to make a wheelchair necessary. Hawking developed a reputation for wild steering.
Hawking wasn’t meek by any stretch of the imagination. He was spirited and sharp. While he later became a powerful advocate for the disabled, early on he was criticized for not taking on a visible, vocal role.
That suggests to me that Hawking didn’t primarily identify himself as disabled. He primarily identified himself as a scholar, a husband, a father. His example made it possible for others to see the inherent worth of the disabled, and the value of empowering all people to reach their full potential.
Moxie tries, fails, and tries again
Marriage is a challenge under any circumstance, and it was certainly a challenge for Hawking. His first marriage to wife Jane lasted 30 years and produced three children before ending in divorce.
He ended the marriage to marry his nurse, Elaine. During the marriage, his relationship with his first wife and children was strained. That marriage lasted just a shade over ten years before it, too, ended in divorce.
The end of his second marriage opened the door for some measure of reconciliation with his first wife, children and grandchildren.
Family can be a messy business, and Hawking’s life is no fairy tale in that regard. But he had the moxie to make the best of it.
What do you admire most about Hawking’s moxie?