Lex Fridman Podcast - Lex Solo #3 - In Memory of My Grandmother

I’ve been at a loss of words but not at a loss of thoughts and memories when I learned that my

grandmother passed away several days ago. I thought I would try to use this microphone,

use this podcast, to try to find the words to honor the woman who’s responsible for much of

who I am. Who taught me, silly might be to say, but taught me how to be a man.

Taught me about strength, about wisdom, about compassion, love, and that I could do anything

that I set my mind to in this world. That anything was possible and that I, of all people, can do it

and not to let the world tell me otherwise. She passed away in Moscow, Russia. She was 91 years

old, soon to be 92. If you’re listening to this, maybe the first words I can say is,

at any moment, life can end. So tell your friends, tell your family, your loved ones,

that you love them. So I tried to write the words. I couldn’t. I have some disparate notes,

but I decided to just speak about some lessons that she taught me,

and I hope that it’s useful to some of you, to anyone who might be listening.

The first lesson is to be mentally strong, never to complain. And her life was one heck of a life

to test that lesson. She was born and raised near Kharkov, which is a Ukrainian city close to Russia.

In her childhood, she lived through and survived Galdamor, which is a famine in the early 30s,

1932, 1933, that Stalin had inflicted on his own people, where millions of people have died.

One of the great atrocities of the 20th century. Just to give you some context,

the famine that we’re talking about led to cannibalism.

One historian has written that the good people died first, the people who gave food to others,

the people who refused to participate in cannibalism, the people who gave everything

they have to their children for the survival of their children, and therefore died before

their children did. I’ll leave it at that. My grandma survived it. She was a very good

woman. My grandma survived it. And as a teenager, she lived through and survived World War II.

Imagine a young teenage girl, a beautiful young woman in fascist-occupied city.

She rarely spoke of those times, but there were stories of no food, desperation,

and tragedy. And once again, I’ll just leave it at that. My grandmother survived.

And in her eyes always remained this glimmer of hope amidst the suffering.

It’s a glimmer that I’ve seen in the eyes of others that I’ve met in my life.

And it’s just always inspiring to see that triumph, that triumph over tragedy. And there’s

something that kind of experience does to the human heart. It hardens it, it protects it from

the outside world, but it also softens it to allow a deep connection with other human beings.

And maybe you’ve seen that I’ve done a few things with David Goggins,

and I’m drawn to that kind of mindset. In him, I see my grandmother,

the toughest human being I’ve ever known. The second lesson she taught me was physical strength.

There’s all kinds of images throughout my childhood of my grandmother doing incredible

feats of manual labor, carrying logs, just carrying heavy things without complaining,

just getting the job done. I was a huge fan in Russia, there’s something called Bogatiry Bogatyr.

I guess similar to America, that would be… America doesn’t have centuries of history to

where you can go to the period of knights or Vikings. So in America, I guess for a little

kid, that would be like a G.I. Joe. But in Russia, Bogatiry were kind of like the knights

or maybe the Vikings, the warriors of ancient history. And I’ve always loved the stoicism,

the power, the fearlessness of the stories told about Bogatiry. I mean, as a little kid,

that’s all I wanted to be is one of those guys. And I remember at a certain point in my childhood,

I can’t quite place exactly the time, but I remember realizing, looking at my grandmother,

that women could be those warriors as well. My little boy’s brain and whatever toys we had,

I’d play with. And I always imagined that Bogatiry were boys, men going out to war.

And when they return as victors home, they’d be celebrated by the women, the children of their

family. But my grandmother made me realize that women could be Bogatiry too. But more than that,

she was this figure in my life that planted that Eastern European seed of admiring strength and

physical power and just toughness in a very basic sense that’s required to carry heavy things

and to fight. I think if I were to really psychoanalyze myself at that early age is when

I fell in love with martial arts, with the whole concept of martial combat before I ever, ever

practiced anything like it. The kind of sports I played as a kid with soccer and tennis and

swimming, all that kind of stuff were very far away from martial combat. But she planted the

seed that when I first stepped on the wrestling mat, it felt like home. And even for the first

couple of years when I really had my ass handed to me on the mat, the fire that got me to train

harder, to work harder, that was my grandmother. The third lesson is to think deeply, to be quiet

and think until you know the situation, you know the right thing to say. And the right thing to say

is the one that internalizes, considers, and thinks through the big picture of the situation.

So the emotion you feel, especially when you’re young about a particular situation,

the desire to be sort of a crybaby about things, about me, me, me, about being upset about this

situation or that situation, there was something about the way she was quiet and the way she looked

over the world. And the moments when she spoke were words of wisdom, of calm and patience.

That was so inspiring to a mind that was impatient. She helped me understand that the

immediate emotional response to particular situations, the ups and downs of how you feel,

influence the perception, the cognition of how everything’s interpreted, and taking your time,

thinking, being quiet, and speaking when you have something to say is the kind of man I should be.

Fourth lesson she taught me was to believe in myself. She made me believe that I’m the most

special person in the world and that I can achieve anything. And then she would tell me that

since I was a little baby until I was a big baby. And her excitement about the little successes in

my life really made me fall in love with the successes of others. She inspired me to enjoy

the success of others, to believe in the people around me, to encourage them to dream big,

to dream big, to work hard, to accomplish anything, because she did that for me.

And you know, it’s heartbreaking to think that very few people in my life believed in me.

I was always a dreamer. I reached for the stars. And most people, even people who loved me,

gave me what they thought was wise advice, to stick to the safe path, to be reasonable, to

find stability, comfort, all those kinds of things that seem wise in the grand scheme of life,

to be normal. And she didn’t. She told me to go big, to dream big,

to dream big, and that I could accomplish anything I wanted to.

Everyone is different. And I’m not a parent. And I think that kind of over-the-top encouragement can

perhaps spoil some people or give them a false sense of ego. But for somebody like me,

who was genetically full of self-doubt, and forgive me for saying, even disliking myself,

she was a breath of fresh air. And so whatever dream I have now that still stays with me

stays with me, is the fire she kindled, is the fire she kept going, and a fire that

will never die because of her. Over the past several years, it’s been many days that

I’m grinding to a halt with self-doubt. I feel that in all kinds of ways, I’m a fraud

for daring to dream, to go outside of what I’m supposed to do, what other people much

smarter than me are telling me I’m supposed to do. In those moments, when I say I listen to my heart,

I listen to my gut, I really listen to the thing that my grandmother left me.

It’s that fire, the belief in myself that I can do anything, that the dreams I have

are not just silly dreams. They’re visions of a future that I can create. If I work hard,

I can create.

And finally, the fifth lesson she taught me through words, through her actions,

is about love, is to put love out into the world.

Her husband, Grandpa Gregory, died when he was 58.

Grandpa Gregory died when he was 58 in 1986. She loved him her whole life. She loved him

after he passed away. And that love, while quiet in terms of her not talking to me about it,

was always there in the background, was always in her eyes, the unshakable love.

So that’s the love between her and her husband, my grandfather. There’s something about loyalty,

about deep, unshakable human connection in that, that stayed with me. I seek that kind of love with

friends, with really close friends. I seek that kind of love with the world around me,

and I definitely seek that kind of love with a life partner.

With a person that I could, how does the saying goes, ride or die with. I can bury the bodies

with them. It’s kind of a bond that’s stronger than any other thing in this world, a bond that’s

stronger than any fundamental force of physics. I could see it in her, and something in that

stayed with me. But bigger, just love, love of life, love of the ups and downs of life,

love and gratitude of everything around me. She had that, this glowing joy. That’s not a simple

joy, but a deep joy that acknowledges that life is suffering, that life is hard, and that love is

hard, but to appreciate it anyway, the whole of it, not just the ups, the whole of it.

She taught me to love people, love life, love the world, no matter what the world does to you,

and to love unconditionally, simply, and to not be afraid to be cliche, to be

simple, naive, because that’s what love is. It’s quite simple.

Love is the answer, as some guy on some podcast once said.

So, I wanted to honor this woman that was a great human being in my life and the life of many others

with these words, and the few folks who listen, I hope, can draw some inspiration from the lessons

she’s given me, to be strong mentally and physically, to dream big, to work hard,

and to put a little bit of love out into the world. And on that point, let me, if it’s okay,

read a poem in Russian that my grandmother enjoyed called Любовью дорожить умеете, loosely

translated to Learn to Treasure Love by Stepan Shapovalov.

Любовью дорожить умеете, с годами дорожить вдвойне. Любовь — не вздохи на скамейке и не прогулки при луне.

Все будет слякоть и хороша, ведь вместе надо жизнь прожить. Любовь с хорошей песней схожа, а песню нелегко сложить.

It’s a simple poem that a couple of Russians listening out there right now

perhaps could appreciate, but the gist of it is that love is not easy, life is not easy,

and the best we ought to do is to learn how to treasure love, to treasure the few years of life

we have on this earth. My grandmother’s name is Anne, and my brother and I in Russian would

call her affectionately, бабаня. So, бабань, я уже скучаю.

Я уже скучаю. I promise I will work hard and hope that your strength,

your brilliance, your love lives on in my thoughts and in my actions.

This drop of vodka is for you.

You know, I have shot glasses, but I think she’s looking down and

knows I’m drinking in her memory, so she would want me to drink it out of a real glass. So,

бабань, I miss you, I love you, I hope to make you proud one day.

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