Shimon Peres’ Seven Lessons For An Eight-Year-Old Boy

It has been one year since the passing of Shimon Peres. Visionary, soldier, statesman, founder of the State of Israel, prime minister, president, Nobel laureate: no title, description or accolade can fully capture the immensity of his contribution — not only to Israel but to all who aspire to a better, more peaceful, more just world.

We now have President Peres’ story in his own words. Just weeks before his death at 93, he completed the memoir, No Room for Small Dreams, not only chronicling nearly seven decades of public service but exploring the principles and values that guided him in his life’s journey. His commitment to these principles was unwavering. As Peres’s children Tsvia, Yoni and Chemi recall in a moving introduction to the book, their mother would say to them, “Your father is like the wind. You will never be able to stop him or hold him back.”

Indeed, “No Room for Small Dreams” proves that Peres’ voice and vision are not only still with us, but as forceful and relevant as ever. Much has already been said and written of Peres, and this book will, rightly, launch a thousand new conversations. There will be dissections of his policies and their impact, debates about his legacy, and wide-ranging political analyses in the context of Israel’s past, present and future.

But what I want to share is a deeply meaningful personal encounter between Peres and my son Lev. Peres’s extraordinary career brought him into contact with the world’s most powerful people, but something special shone in him while conversing with a child. His message had an undeniable purity and simplicity, as well as a quality that mattered dearly to him — hope. As Tsvia, Yoni and Chemi explain, “his greatest tool of all, always, was hope.”

Lev was eight at the time of the meeting. I had taken him to Israel for his first of what I hoped would be many visits. Wanting his experience to be an indelible one, I brought him to meet Peres on August 31, 2016, the first day of our visit. For me, the president was the very personification of Israel’s hope, strength and spirit — its dreams, ideals and tensions. He was gracious enough to meet with my son and my wife and me at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Jaffa. We did not know then that it would be one of his last meetings.

At one point in the conversation, I asked Peres to share with Lev how, after 93 years of life, he stayed so young.

“Lev,” the president said, “every day I wake up and I count my achievements.” I couldn’t help interjecting, “And son, Peres has had countless extraordinary achievements.” We laughed, and then Peres continued: “And then I count the dreams I have in my head. As long as I have more dreams in my head than achievements, I am young.”

This story so much captured the essence of Shimon Peres the person – the youngest 93-year-old you ever met – that Thomas Friedman recounted it in tribute to Peres in his New York Times column, “Peres: 93 Years Young.”

As I said, I had wanted Lev’s first experience of Israel to be an indelible one. And as I watched them together I realized that even this hope had been exceeded. The significance in the room was palpable; something essential had been imparted.

Afterward, we stood in the lobby and Lev spoke with me about the exchange and what had most deeply resonated with him. But instead of shifting his attention to some new and exciting aspect of this strange new land, all he wanted to do was go back to our hotel. There, he sat himself at the computer and immediately began writing down as many details of the afternoon as he could remember, distilling the conversation into seven lessons.

As I read Lev’s reflections today, I can see that the president was trying to impart to him a set of insights that would become part of his core. And it’s remarkable to see a leader who knows he is speaking to a child communicate with such simultaneous simplicity and profundity. The result is a set of lessons that have irrevocably shaped Lev — by his own admission — and stayed with him in the years since that momentous encounter.

The impression was so deep that when I got together with Chemi Peres, Shimon Peres’ son and a good friend of mine, in New York last year, Lev asked to come along so that he could meet Chemi and present him with the paper he had written about his father.

I remember the way Lev watched with equal parts nervous anticipation and pride as Chemi read his father’s lessons through the young boy’s eyes, smiling to himself.

He looked up and directly at my son.

“If this were an exam on my father, I’d give you an A,” he said.

Lev beamed, his eyes bright with renewed hope and inspiration.

I, of course, experienced my own fatherly pride, witnessing the induction of the newest light-bearer of the torch of wisdom Peres had passed to each of the three of us.

In honor of President Peres and in celebration of his book, I share Lev’s lessons here — first in his own words, and then with my own elaborations and amplifications. For those who, like me, are reading them as adults, I think you’ll agree that they have universal relevance and value.

1.   When it comes to other people, you can rule or help. The world doesn’t need rulers but needs those who want to help others.

For Peres, the distinction of ruling vs. helping was not just a private conviction but one that influenced his policies and decisions.  As he writes, he was animated by a “moral code” that said that “Israel was not born to rule over other people, that to do so is in profound opposition to our heritage…Israel is small in territory, but it must be great in justice.”

As the world has gone from merely connected to globally interdependent, where increasingly we rise and fall together and so few can so easily affect so many so far away, the distinction between ruling and helping becomes ever more important.  The only strategy for leading, governing, and thriving in an interdependent world is to forge healthy interdependencies, so we rise and do not fall together. And for that important work, we need more servant leaders than rulers.

2.   He offered a formula for determining if you are young. You add up all your achievements, and then you count all of the dreams in your head. And if the number of dreams is greater then you’re young. What is amazing is that Peres is 93 with countless achievements and he still has more dreams.

Of the many extraordinary passages in Peres’ “No Room for Small Dreams,” one of my favorites is an elaboration on what he told Lev about age. Peres explains that as a child, he had a boundless curiosity and energy; he especially loved making speeches and putting on shows for his beloved parents, Sara and Yitzhak, and their friends. This earned him a reputation among adults as a precocious child, but also set him apart from his schoolmates.

What Peres says next perfectly explains the connection he, as a nonagenarian, was able to forge with my eight-year-old son. “At 93, I am still that curious boy, enamored of hard questions, eager to dream, and unbowed by the doubt of others.”

3.  Technology without morality equals disaster. The solution for a better future is technology and science combined with morality.

Peres was deeply thoughtful about technology and innovation, and “No Room for Small Dreams” shares his thinking in making Israel a nuclear power and its implications for the Israeli people and for the world. He understood a fundamental truth about technology, which is that it is amoral.  It is incumbent upon human beings to use their own gifts of wisdom, reason and compassion to shape technology for moral purposes —quite simply, to use it for good, not evil.

Reading “No Room for Small Dreams,” we see that Peres’ life and work were animated by a belief in the power of technology guided by a moral vision. “By making investments in the cutting edge of science, by building talent and expertise at our universities, we believed we could invigorate the untapped minds of a nation.”

4.  Even though machines are more powerful and intelligent, they don’t have an imagination and they never will. They have great memory like elephants. But elephants can’t really hurt or help people or rule the world because they don’t have an imagination. If they had an imagination, we would all be in trouble.

I love the way Peres communicated this point to Lev — again we see his gift for speaking to a child in a way that resonates – colorful and evocative but not at all condescending. It also illustrates that Peres’ wisdom about technology extended to artificial intelligence. Over the course of the 20th century, the mature economies of the world evolved from being industrial economies to knowledge economies. Now we are at another watershed moment, transitioning to human economies.

The industrial economy was about hired hands. The knowledge economy was about hired heads. The technology revolution is thrusting us into the human economy, which will be more about creating value with hired hearts — all the attributes that can’t be programmed into software, like passion, character and collaborative spirit. These are all attributes that Peres himself embodied.

5.  Jewish history is about both kings and prophets. Kings were about the past and prophets were about the future. 

In his memoir, Peres recalls the animating forces of his childhood: “If Zionism was the center of our civic lives, Judaism was the center of our moral lives.” His deep engagement with Judaism and Jewish history informed every aspect of his life and work. When I reflect on his words to Lev about kings and prophets, I think of a man who was passionately and respectfully engaged with the past but never lost sight of the fact that his responsibility was to the future. He drew strength both from his reverence for what came before and from his hope in what was yet to come.

6. Businesses have customers, and if they do right by them, they will keep them. If they don’t keep their promises to their customers, they will lose them. In politics politicians try to rule people and stay in power. So that is why the system is broken.

Building on his first point, Peres illustrates a truth that applies just as much to businesses as to politicians: those in power are not just there to make a profit, or accumulate power, but to serve. And when companies, politicians or governments default on this responsibility, they — rightly and justly —lose the trust of the people. More leaders need to compete on how well they keep their promises, and those that serve others will be the ones who receive the most good will.

In his memoir, Peres shares a wonderful anecdote that underscores his lifelong commitment to service. In 2007, just after he was sworn in as Israel’s ninth president, a young man approached him and asked: “Mr. President, with due respect, after such a long career, why would you keep working at your age?” to which Peres replied: “Why do I serve? I suppose I never considered the alternative.”

7.  “Globality” is working because technology, science, and money can come together any place in the world.

As Peres recounts, his own life’s journey took him from the small Polish village of Vishneva to a truly global existence. His career unfolded as the world was becoming more interdependent. It’s only natural that a statesman so engaged with the outside world — including multiple positions in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs — developed an acute understanding of this interdependence.

It’s a worldview that is inseparable from his heritage and identity. As he writes, “The Jewish people have lived by the guiding principle of tikkun olam — the admonition to repair and improve the whole world, not just ourselves. We lived in exile for two thousand years, without land, without independence, held together not by borders, but by this simple set of values that have echoed throughout history — in Hebrew, in Yiddish, in Ladino —in every language of every country into which the Jewish people dispersed.” I think we can all agree the world is in need of a repair. Embracing Peres’ lessons is a meaningful first step on that journey. I’m sure my son will internalize these lessons. And I’m inspired to join him.

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