Dr Phil Pizzo: Founder of Stanford University’s Distinguished Careers Institute

Phil PIf Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, two of the founders of PayPal and still two of most influential Silicon Valley investors, believe life extension technologies are the next wave of hot Silicon Valley start ups, then it’s a good thing that other forward thinkers in Silicon Valley are spending their time focusing on how to improve the quality of our longer lives.

As a medical doctor, researcher, and educator, Phil Pizzo has always been drawn to the transformative power of research.  Earlier in his career, he led changes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the treatment of children with cancer and AIDS, pioneering techniques that are still used today. And he used those examples to persuade a new generation of aspiring doctors to consider the field of pediatric research when he served as Pediatrics Chair of Harvard Medical School and then Dean of Stanford Medical School.

Pizzo attributes his mission-focused approach to his fundamental belief that anyone can produce great change when it’s needed. As a child of the sixties, he witnessed significant cultural transformations take place, and he believes we are on the cusp of yet another — we are no longer living in the era of a single career that leads to retirement at 65, but rather people can live two or perhaps even three professional lives. And at 69 years, Pizzo has launched his own second act, leading the charge to help people, corporations, and educational institutions make that cultural transformation a reality.

The brainchild behind Stanford University’s Distinguished Career’s Institute, Pizzo has foreseen his own reinvention for nearly four decades. “As a young intern in Boston, I met some extraordinary people in medicine who had had great careers but weren’t really ready to move on or in other directions. But they had nowhere else to go; so they were hanging on, and it was then that I vowed I was never going to do that.”

Born in the Bronx, NY into a working class family – his mother was a part-time beautician and his father worked two jobs, selling women’s coats and as a check out person at the race track – Pizzo was the first person in his family to graduate from high school. “So I was immediately a success,” he jokes “a relative success of course.”

He earned full scholarships to undergrad at Fordham College in New York City, and then another full ride to the University of Rochester Medical School.  He moved to Boston for his clinical training, and it was there that he became much more interested in the fundamentals of research as he specialized in hematology/oncology and infectious diseases. In a few years, he was recruited to work at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland.  It was a supposed to be a 2-year stint but ended up lasting 23 years.

“That was a big part of my life. I had the opportunity to put together the pediatric department at NIH, and we played a large role in developing AIDS and cancer treatment protocols in children. And it provided a significant imprinting for me about the power of research to improve lives.”

Pizzo loved his work in Bethesda and could have stayed for longer, but a new  challenge was concerning him in the mid-90’s…the lack of pediatricians who were focused on careers in science.

“Everything I’ve done in my life has been mission oriented. I’ve always been led by the question, ‘how can you do something that’s going to change the world in some way?’”

So for the first time, Pizzo sought out a job rather than being recruited into one. He decided to return to a medical school teaching assignment, and wound up in Boston as chair of the Pediatrics Department at Harvard.

Happily ensconced at the ivy league university, a call in the Spring of 2000 came totally out of the blue asking if he would be interested in becoming the Dean of Stanford’s Medical School.  “I said no at first. It seemed so foreign to me.”  But he eventually agreed and served as Dean for the next 12 years. “It was a terrifically exciting time — leading a medical school and center that was going through a lot of transitions.”

Stanford was an exhilarating change for Pizzo. “It’s a very exciting and entrepreneurial campus and the acceptance of failure around trying new things is very much in the culture. It’s about trying to be transformative.”

But even as Pizzo loved Stanford, he remained committed to his own career 2.0 always remembering his pledge as an intern to acknowledge when it was time to move on. We spoke with Pizzo about his decision to finally take the leap.

Phil P_2You loved your role at Stanford, so how did you decide to leave?

After 10 years there I made the decision that I wouldn’t go beyond 12. Even though I had stayed in medicine and science my whole career until that point, I had moved around a lot. I like change and I like to engage in new activities and challenges whether it’s in research, academia, advocacy or public policy.

Going back to my time in Boston, the seeds were sown for my career transition early on.  I witnessed incredible individuals being moved aside and I made a resolution at that point that I would not let that happen.

How did you figure out what that transition would be?

When I began thinking about it a long time ago, I thought I would do a PhD in history. So for 40 years, I have read history as a hobby. But fast forward to when I really began thinking about it more seriously, I had this epiphany that I probably wasn’t alone. When your career has run that 20- to 30-year gamut, which is the traditional amount, you oftentimes don’t have a clear path to follow next. And that’s what really led to the formation of what is now Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute.

Why do we need a program like the Distinguished Careers Institute?

Frankly, because everyone is out of sync with reality – not just traditional businesses but everyone. We’re caught up in the 20th century narrative that says you do something for a career, and then retire at 65. That may have worked when most people died at 68, but those days are gone. That’s not the narrative that the people living through the experience are having today. Many people have to continue working because they need the money, but – even if they don’t have to – many people want to keep working and they want to try new things.  They want the intellectual stimulation, the community and the sense of purpose.

What are the goals of Stanford’s program?

Well, I began formulating this idea about three years ago and then two years ago I heard about Harvard’s Advanced Leadership program. It’s a very seminal program that broke ground, but there are pretty big differences in the way the Stanford program will work. What we have in mind is much more about personal transformation. It’s a year-long program, initially for 20-25 participants or fellows. We’re going to take them on a scholarly path in a chosen field – there are nine potential paths to choose from like education, energy, engineering, health and healthcare, the arts and more—they cover a whole array. Once you pick a path, senior faculty members mentor and guide you to probe deeply into a field that is quite different from where you’ve gone in the past.

The other part of our program is community building. We will bring people together for faculty forums, transformation series, deep-dive think tanks and more and couple that with evening social events as well. We are really aiming to build a community among the fellows. And then we’re building into that counseling and career placement services with Stanford and external search firms. We will also look at ways of making this a multiyear experience. If we’re successful and personal transformation later in one’s career becomes a national effort, then you can envision that the dialogue can shift and change around this topic.

Why is a University the right body to spearhead this kind of cultural change?

The way I see it is that universities and higher education play a critical role for younger people today. And I’m interested in universities scaffolding that experience for midlife – meaning from the 50’s to early 60’s. If you look at it that way, people have almost as much time for their second career as they did for their first career.

But here’s where universities can and should play a role.  Without a path, many people panic and don’t know what to do, they hang on longer than they should in their current jobs, or they retire early and squander their time and just react to things that come at them rather than actively shaping the next path.

I’m really interested in the transformation of higher education at large, and the program at Stanford is just a start.

How can and should other educational institutions play a role?

By necessity, to begin with, the Stanford program will be very small and elite to a certain extent, but the bigger issue is how we can use what we learn at Stanford to engage community colleges and other institutes around the country. Most people will not have the opportunity to take a gap year at Stanford. I have many family members approaching retirement age who would be unable to do it.  But they ought to be thinking of other ways to approach retirement, and we should be thinking of how to use all kinds of higher education to help people reroute and recalibrate their thinking as they get older.

As a medical doctor, what role does your interest in public health and medicine play in this?

People are going to be living into their 90’s and beyond, and I’m interested in paving the way for what’s going to happen in 2050 when that’s the norm. I won’t be around then but I’m interested in creating a legitimate, clear path where people can say, ‘I’m going to take time and probe deeply and see where I’ve been and where I’m going.’ The second part of the Institute’s work will be to look at the public health angle or repurposing your life and career in middle age. If you couple a new direction of purposeful living, value-based and goal-directed, with a recalibration of health and wellness programs, you could potentially attenuate some of the chronology of things that occur over time.

So that’s the big question – is this the start of something that can have an impact on how people live and their health in old age?

That is the big question indeed. Will programs like this make life in older age happier, and healthier and less debilitating?   From a public health point of view, I think if we can change the paradigm, I believe it will have a huge public health impact.

Who else needs to be on board to really change the culture?

What we need to do is change the narrative for employers across the board and that’s the next phase of this. At DCI, we are now beginning to meet with corporations and having dialogues with them. Right now they are in the mindset of ‘we need to get rid of people at certain points to make room for new people.’ But what I’m envisioning is that these people will broaden the pie – they won’t take jobs from new entrants. They may create new jobs some of which we haven’t thought about yet. New opportunities will unfold and people will approach them with different needs.

What can you accomplish starting this at Stanford as opposed to somewhere else?

Stanford is a great place to be doing this… if I were at a state university in the middle of the country, the chances of having this kind of engagement with corporations, the public health world and others would be much different. Being at Stanford helps tremendously in the facilitation of that dialogue. We’re very fortunate to be a part of that. But we don’t want to limit these opportunities to just few places. We hope for novel programs emerging from those universities and colleges across the country and around the world.

So what’s next?

We are ahead of the curve right now. The way change happens is that ideas transform behavior and we’re currently already beginning that transformative phase. Twenty percent of the US population will be 65 by 2030, and that’s a plurality of people whose views are going to be important. I’m focused not on what happens in the next five or ten years but paving the way for what happens in 2050 or 2100. I’m obviously not going to be around to experience it personally but I’m interested in planting the seeds.

If you are interested in becoming a fellow at the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, the 2015 Class is now filled but positions are available for 2016. See  http://dci.stanford.edu/ for more details.

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