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‘What You Can Be, You Must Be’: Advice for Interns We All Can Use

Charles Koch and Chase Koch share advice in virtual Q&A for interns

September 24, 2020

min read

Every year, Koch interns have an opportunity to pick the brains of Koch's leadership. The 2020 group, which convened virtually this year, submitted questions for both Koch Industries CEO Charles Koch and Koch Disruptive Technologies President Chase Koch that covered topics ranging from A.I.-driven transformation to finding fulfillment. Following is a collection of their advice.


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What advice would you give to young adults headed into the workforce during this uncertain time?

Charles: My advice is to be the best “you” you can be. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Don’t go after shiny objects; find something that fits your gifts and your nature. Because, as Abraham Maslow said, “What you can be, you must be.” If you evade your capacities and your potential, you will be unhappy the rest of your life. You have to believe in yourself and the journey to have a fulfulling life.


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Do you consider self-actualization a group effort or an individual effort?

Charles: Self-actualization is to create, on a personal basis, your own virtuous cycles of mutual benefit. Become a lifelong learner. This never ends. If you stop, I quote a Bob Dylan song: Those who “ain’t busy being born are busy dying.” What you want to do is help people find something they’re passionate about, look forward to, and are pumped up about. This keeps them “alive” and contributing. If we had a whole society of this, think what it would be like if everybody is helping others in a way that’s rewarding to them. What a wonderful world we’d have.


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As business moves toward AI and automation, where will the jobs be for employees?

Chase: That’s a great question. It’s a tough question. What I would encourage you to do is – just like what we’re experimenting with in automation and artificial intelligence – you have to understand what’s happening in the marketplace and where the pace of change is accelerating. I’d be thinking about, “OK, what’s my role, and then what technology is out there for what I do that can make it more efficient? How does it transform my role and how I can add value to my customer?” It’s more of a mindset than “you need to go be in A.I.” There are so many different technologies, you have to have the right mindset to discover what is specific to your role or business.


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In the first week, we learned a lot about Koch’s risk philosophy. What do you believe was the greatest risk that led to the greatest reward?

Chase: I had an amazing opportunity to run Koch Fertilizer when we expanded into energy. I’d been in the group for six years, where I’d worked in smaller leadership roles. It was a great opportunity for me to jump in and learn. When I did, I immediately knew that the job wasn’t for me. I needed to really understand the guts and drivers of the business, and I didn’t have all the leadership chops to do that yet. So it was a huge risk for me to go into my boss’ office and say, “This role isn’t for me. It’s bad for me, it’s bad for the team, it’s bad for business.” But that set me on a completely new course that I wouldn’t have found otherwise — my idea for Koch Disruptive Technologies. And doing what I’m doing now really speaks to my passion and where my gift is.

Charles: See, that’s what I meant when I said: “Don’t go for the shiny object!”


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Who have been your most influential mentors?

Charles: I’ve got three categories. The first would be people I’m personally associated with. Those would be Sterling Varner (president of Koch Industries from 1974 to 1987) and my wife, Liz. Liz and I share vision and values, but we have completely different capabilities, so we are dedicated to helping each other be better. Then I must mention two more role models, Frederick Douglass and Viktor Frankl. And then, two authors who have helped me the most, Abraham Maslow and F.A. Hayek.

Chase: I’ve got a lot, but I will boil it down to three. The first are my mother and father — the biggest influences on my life. All the ideas that I’ve talked about, the decisions that I’ve made, the struggles that I’ve had, have benefitted from them helping me with mental models and frameworks on how I can be a better person. And then the ideas of Abraham Maslow, “What you can be, you must be.” That really hits me hard and has influenced me. Another one would be a recent influence — a guy named Ryan Holiday. I think he’s like a modern-day Maslow. He studies stoicism and has written 10 books. The guy is only 33 years old, and he’s just brilliant.


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Considering the current climate of communities, the country and the world, what are you most excited about for the future of civilization?

Chase: I go back to the story about the Phoenix, a group of fitness centers and programs that help people recovering from drug addiction [started by Scott Strode and funded by Koch through the Stand Together Foundation]. Where are the other Scott Strode stories? We can remove the barriers so people like Scott can create innovations to solve these huge problems – and do it with technology, because there’s so much out there now, so many options and tools for us to accelerate progress for everyone. The way we’re going to do it is to let Scott and other people that have these ideas flourish and then improve other people’s lives.

Charles: Technology, if properly applied, will be taking the drudgery out of people’s lives and give more and more people the opportunity to self-actualize. We need to move more to a bottom-up society rather than a top-down society. And what’s particularly encouraging to me is this concept is reaching people across the whole political and ideological spectrum — the great majority of people are open and see this.