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Larry Ellison
Larry Ellison
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Larry Ellison Interview

Founder & CEO, Oracle Corporation

May 22, 1997
Baltimore, Maryland

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  Larry Ellison

Looking back on your childhood, can you see the Larry Ellison of today taking root when you were young?

Larry Ellison: I don't think my personality has changed much since I was five years old. The most important aspect of my personality, as far as determining my success goes, has been my questioning conventional wisdom, doubting the experts, and questioning authority. While that can be very painful in relationships with your parents and teachers, it's enormously useful in life.

I was born in New York City. My mother was 19, she wasn't married, and really was unable to care for me. She tried until I was nine months old, and then I was adopted by my maternal aunt and uncle in Chicago. I moved to the south side of Chicago. I'll never complain again about living in a bad neighborhood, after moving from the lower east side of Manhattan to a still worse neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. After my ninth month, I kept my mouth shut about the neighborhood.

How did this affect you?

Larry Ellison: I believed until I was twelve years old that I was not adopted. I had no idea that I was adopted within my own family. I don't attribute very much of my life, my personality to my adoption. I attribute an awful lot to my relationship with my father, who was a Russian immigrant. He came here and was very, very poor. He dearly loved this country as only an immigrant can, loved our government as only an immigrant can. He was a pilot in World War II, bomber pilot. He really had the philosophy of "my country, right or wrong." He never questioned the government's policies, never questioned authority, and he didn't really want me to question authority. I had some teachers when I was very young that I thought were telling me things that weren't true. When I tried to ask questions, they basically wanted me to parrot back what they said. They really weren't interested in a discourse with a child, or a debate with a child. They said this was true, and "You are smart if you can repeat back to me exactly what I said to you." I had a real problem with that as well. I had very strong authoritarian figures, both in school and at home, which served as wonderful examples of how not to be.

Was there anybody who was supportive?

Larry Ellison: Oh sure, my Mom was supportive, and I had a mixture of teachers. Some of the teachers were wonderful, and some of the teachers were awful, but the awful teachers served a good purpose by being a bad example. All examples are good. Bad examples are useful; good examples are useful. It taught me to question experts, to question authority figures. Don't assume they're right just because they're in authority, or just because they're experts. In other words...

Think things out for yourself. Come to your own judgments. Don't simply conform to conventional ways of thinking, conventional ways of dressing, conventional ways of acting. A lot of things are based on fashion, even morality at times is based on fashion. Slavery was once not considered not to be immoral. People are shocked that the ancient Greeks had slaves, that we had slavery in this country as recently as one-hundred-and-thirty, one-hundred-and-forty years ago. You have to really go back to first principles, and think things out for yourself. Whether they're scientific principles, or moral principles, or business ideas or product ideas, you have to think things out for yourself.

What was it about your dad that you rebelled against? Was it just his pat acceptance of the American value system?

Larry Ellison Interview Photo
Larry Ellison: I don't know if you watched the movie Independence Day, but there's a scene between a father and son where the father says, "The government knows everything. The government has experts for everything." It's this notion that we really can't understand anything, that the government is always right, that our teachers are always right, that our clergymen are always right. Use them as your sole beacons in life, and don't try to figure these things out on your own, because you're not smart enough. Just find the appropriate experts, and follow their light."

It's interesting that you had the insight to realize you could let yourself be brainwashed or not. I don't know if many kids question those things at such an early age .

Larry Ellison: I think an awful lot of kids are incredibly bright.

An awful lot of kids, I think we're born slaves to reason. It's really reason that's beaten out of us, through a process of trying to please our teachers. I think we have two fundamental drives in our life: we want to be loved and we want to please people; and we know how to think, we know how to reason. These are often quite at odds, because we're asked to believe that certain things are correct, that we have to wear our hair a certain length, and dress a certain way. And if you want to be loved, if you want to be accepted by your peers, you want to be accepted by your family, there is a tension there. Sometimes we're pleasing our parents, sometimes we're pleasing our peers, but we're often just conforming to some fashion, figuring out what the group wants from us, and then conforming to that because we want to be accepted and loved. There's this other fundamental drive inside of us, that there is often tension between the two and that is the ability to think, the ability to reason, the ability to come to conclusions as to what works and what doesn't, what's fair and what's not fair, what's right and what's wrong. When fashion and the pursuit of love is in conflict with reason, too often fashion and the pursuit of love usually win. In my case, it didn't.

You're known for speaking your mind and not following the norm.

Larry Ellison: It is true. I do not give fashionable answers to questions. That's what shocks people because when they ask you a question and expect everyone to answer it exactly the same way. In fact, you really don't need to ask the question, because this is the fashionable answer. Whenever you give your own answer, what you really believe to be true, rather than the fashion answer, people are sometimes shocked, amused or even horrified depending on the question.

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