Beg for forgiveness

A good quote, Grace Hopper, John Calhoun. Also, 7 other things worth your time

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I caught myself recently using one of my favorite quotes of all time: “It’s easier to beg forgiveness than get permission.”

Today’s story is about the woman who supposedly coined it—Grace Hopper—and someone else who lived a century and a half before.

We’ll talk about the other person first: John C. Calhoun. Nobody cares too much for him anymore. Born in 1782, he was the 7th vice president of the United States.

He was also a senator, and served as Secretary of State, and Secretary of War. Oh, and he was also a die-hard defender of slavery (and a slave owner himself) and a vehement white supremacist.

When he died in 1850, Calhoun was much more fondly remembered in his native South Carolina than in the rest of the United States. Exception: Yale University, his alma mater, which in 1933 named one of its eight residential colleges for him.

This decision increased in controversy starting about 30 years later, during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, culminating in 2016, when there was a push at Yale to rename the college.

Yale considered and declined that idea at the time—but then the trustees did a complete 180, and stripped his name from it the following year.

The new name? Grace Hopper College. (Hopper had earned her Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale in 1934.)

Hopper, you might know, was a computing pioneer who worked on the military's Mark I proto-computer project at Harvard during World War II. Then, she developed the first compiler.

Nicknamed “Amazing Grace,” she also went on to become one of the first women promoted to rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.

She had an amazing story. Women weren't exactly embraced as academics, or as mathematicians, or as military officers during her time. Heck, 99.9 percent of Americans had never seen a computer.

In between Yale’s decision (a) not to rename the college and then (b) to rename it, President Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom (posthumously; she died on New Year’s Day in 1992).

There’s also a Navy destroyer named after her, the USS Hopper, and she’s also received what I like to joke is our society’s true highest civilian honor, a Google Doodle.

But it might well be her get-stuff-done attitude, and the impact she had on achievers of her own generation and later, that are really her most important legacy.

I was using her “forgiveness over permission” quote long before I knew anything about her. It's a popular mantra now, among high-performing entrepreneurs (and those around them). Mark Suster, writing at Both Sides of the Table:

I have always believed in the saying, "It's better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission." 

It's a way of life.  It's not about abusing situations but about knowing when to push the boundaries.  It's about knowing that the overwhelming number of people in life are naysayers and "no sayers" and sometimes you gotta just roll the dice and say WTF.

Anyway, the only links between Calhoun and Hopper that I’m aware of are that they earned degrees at the same institution about 170 years centuries apart, and that they each, sequentially, had the same residential college named in their honor after their deaths.

But it’s funny to think how they’re sort of tied together now. We live in a time of so-called “cancel culture,” but I’m just going to go ahead and say I’ll take a Grace Hopper over a John Calhoun any day of the week.

You can agree or not. Your call; you have permission. And if not: forgiveness.

7 other things worth your time

  • Interesting story about what happened to Bill Clinton’s post-presidency “fixer,” Doug Band. Short version: a ton of money and exile from Clintonworld. Ben Smith of the NYT pointed out this telling passage: “Because Clinton didn’t carry a cell phone or use email, anyone who wanted to speak to Clinton had to go through Band. … Most petitioners didn’t get through the door. Not surprisingly, this pissed off a lot of people.” (Vanity Fair)

  • You know what people are doing right now? Buying and refinancing houses. Applications are up 28 percent from one year ago. (CNBC)

  • There’s so much Covid news — basically, vaccines are on the horizon but the road to that horizon looks pretty dark. In North Dakota, 954 people have died as a result of Covid-19. The state only has a population of 762,000, so that means 1 out of 800 state residents has died of the disease. It also means if it were its own country, North Dakota would be the third deadliest for Covid on the planet. (Forbes)

  • More than half of the money from the Treasury Department's coronavirus emergency fund for small businesses went to just 5 percent of recipients. Also, at least 600 large companies, including dozens of national chains received the maximum amount of $10 million. (The Washington Post)

  • OK, one more Covid story. A couple who tested positive but flew from California to Hawaii anyway, have both been arrested and charged with reckless endangerment. Also relevant, although not enough of an excuse, probably: they actually live in Hawaii, and were trying to get back there with their 4-year-old son. (NBC News)

  • Earlier this year, Boston became the first city on the East Coast to ban police from using facial recognition technology. Now, the entire state could outlaw it, if the governor signs a bill that passed the legislature this week. (TechCrunch)

  • This one is for fans of The Godfather: Did you hear about the re-edit, by Francis Ford Coppola, of Godfather Part III, which debuted 30 years ago this month and has a reputation of being OK, but nowhere near as good as the original and first sequel? I guess it’s different enough to justify a new title: The Godfather, Coda. There’s a big change at the end — I won’t spoil it here, but if you click through to this link at the NYT, it explains it. (NYT, $)


I’ve written about Grace Hopper before at Inc.com. If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, what are you waiting for? Please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter, with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. You can also just send an email to signup@understandably.com. 

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