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Max Erdstein

Dharma teacher in the Theravadan Buddhist lineage
Class of 1999

Thesis: "London Transported: Art, Industry, and Modernism"

"To know history is to know context; it gives depth, meaning and understanding to the present and has powerful implications for the future."

Current Job:

I'm a dharma teacher in the Theravadan Buddhist lineage, which mainly means studying, practicing, and teaching Buddhist (Insight) meditation, in classes and on residential retreats.

First Job after Graduation:

Right after graduating, I joined a small start-up in Palo Alto called Google, who were looking for a writer, preferably a witty one.  I brought my history thesis as a writing sample, to my one interview, with Larry Page.  He took it to read later.

At Google, at first I handled various writing assignments: text on the website, early press releases, and, mostly, responding to user and partner inquiries.  User email grew exponentially.  After a year, I joined a team that was building a text-based advertising program, to help write those ads for optimal usefulness and performance.  This developed into the famous AdWords program which now drives a lot of Google's revenue.  I enjoyed helping to grow the teams that supported all of this, in Google offices around the world.

At a certain point, with much appreciation for Google, I left to pursue a growing passion for Buddhist meditation.  I lived in monasteries and Zen centers in the US and Asia, explored service work through chaplaincy and volunteering, and delighted in immersing in the study and practice of dharma (a word that means both teaching of the Buddha, and in a more general way, the truth of how things are).

How did you end up pursuing your career? Do you have any advice for students contemplating similar career paths? What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were an undergraduate?

There's a Zen idea called "beginner's mind", meaning the mind that doesn't need to know it all, and figure it all out beforehand, is a mind that's open, ready, soft, flexible, and available to possibility. Google was only invented during my senior year at Stanford, so I certainly didn't grow up dreaming about working at Google.  I had also never encountered meditation until the opportunity arose during my sophomore year.  Who knows which interesting careers, companies, professions, opportunities haven't been invented yet, but will present themselves once one is actually looking.

My advice is to follow one's interests, not only because it's fun, but because it's much easier to develop depth and skills in something that one actually enjoys doing.  But to develop one's interests, it helps to try many different things and partake widely in the range of courses and opportunities that Stanford offers.  Be open to developing new interests, and growing and learning from everyone.  Form close relationships with professors and mentors you admire, and do activities that take you out of your comfort zone.  Ultimately the more connected one is to one's own heart, maybe all the details like career take care of themselves.

I would tell my undergraduate self to sleep more and worry less.

Has your History training helped you along the way - and if so, how?

Absolutely. I love that History, perhaps in its broadest sense as "change over time," has such a wide scope.  One can really study the history of anything.  And to know history is to know context; it gives depth, meaning and understanding to the present and has powerful implications for the future.  When we realize that causes and conditions in the past shaped this moment, we know that what happens now will determine the future.  So in order to take care of the future, we take care of now.  I find that a helpful way of looking at the world.

Through training in History, I learned how to read, write, think, listen, persuade; somehow it organizes the mind, which is very useful for all aspects of life!

Do you have any particularly fond memories of the History Department?

I enjoyed the discussion seminars most, and the experience of writing a thesis in all of its various stages. What drew me to the department ultimately was contact with faculty members who inspired me.  Mark Mancall in Structured Liberal Education (SLE) gave me the idea that to encounter and wrestle with significant ideas, writings, values, historical figures - this was meaningful and valuable work.  Modern British history with Peter Stansky and Geoffrey Tyack, including time abroad at Oxford - absolutely wonderful.  Paul Robinson, Richard Roberts.  I liked studying unusual things, and still do.