Dr. Brilliant Vs. the Devil of Ambition

If baby boomers had their own Faust, he’d be Larry Brilliant, a man who’s found himself at the center of almost every defining moment of his generation. His biggest battle: taming the devil of ambition.

What happens when you’re the quintessential baby boomer? What happens when you’re raised according to the precepts of Dr. Spock? What happens when, every time you cry, you’re fed?


Here’s what happens: The devil of ambition starts raising you. You grow up impossibly demanding — and hating how demanding all of your fellow boomers are. You become ruthlessly competitive — and even more competitive about appearing noncompetitive. You aspire to be a superachiever — but you can’t appear to be an egomaniac, much less an asshole. You become ambitious. And you become even more ambitious about not being ambitious.

This is the story of an entire generation. It is the story of baby boomers raised on ambition and of a generation that is never happy with what it has. When everything comes too easily, all you want is more. Ambition is the longest unrequited love affair of boomers’ lives. It scrambles their brains, and leaves them empty and unfulfilled. No wonder boomers are reaching their forties and fifties and feeling as fried as the Colonel’s best.

This is the story of a man named “Brilliant.” Talk about a blessing and a curse. How would you like to live with a name like that? For starters, you would have to become nothing less than Dr. Brilliant, your generation’s answer to Dr. Faust. Then you would have to play a starring role in every generation-defining event in every decade from the 1960s forward.


You wouldn’t just go to Woodstock, you would star in the movie sequel. You wouldn’t just make a pilgrimage to India at the same time that Mia Farrow is being chased by a horny Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, or at the same time that the Beatles are just an ashram away, learning to meditate and siphoning sitar music into Rubber Soul; you would find your own yogi, a formidable guru who would send you on a mission to banish smallpox from India.

After spending a decade in India, you would find your way home, where you would invent the first — indeed the prototypical — online community, the WELL. You would try to get Zenny Baba Ram Dass to baby-sit your rambunctious kids. You would become the personal physician to Jerry Garcia, the quintessential 1960s icon. And still ambition would be an itch that you hadn’t scratched.

So, when you are 56, when all of your baby-boomer friends would be writing workplace exit strategies, you would take your first real job: dotcom CEO, of course. After 30 years of struggling to find God and your soul and the meaning of work, you would walk into the heart of the new economy, smack into the belly of the beast. Why? Because you know deep down that you won’t really kill off that itch of ambition. You won’t really be free of its nagging demands for more and more and more until you’ve gone one long round in the ring with Mephistopheles. You have to prove to yourself once and for all that even in the soulless world of Silicon Valley, a complete human being, an authentic leader, can survive.


This is the stuff of legend, the kind of confrontation that would be worthy of a work by Goethe or of an opera by Gounod: “The Soul Vs. The Devil of Ambition.” In the title role would be Dr. Larry Brilliant, his soul on the line in a contest for the soul of a generation.

To know your own soul — and maybe even to save it — it helps to understand Larry Brilliant’s.

Did Somebody Say “soul”?

Larry Brilliant steps out of the fancy dusk of Soho’s Mercer hotel, shouldering past media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his new Lolita wife, and the first thing that Brilliant says is, “Every day, I struggle with ambition. Every day, I try to understand the meaning of this line: ‘Live your life without ambition. But live as those who are ambitious.’


“On the surface, this ideal is preposterous,” Brilliant continues. “It means, ‘Don’t aspire to power or success. But live as those who are ambitious.’ It means that you can never tell when you are being sincere. Do I stay at the Four Seasons? Can I take a hot tub? Do I not try too hard at anything?”

Two years ago, Brilliant became CEO of SoftNet Systems Inc., a broadband company based in San Francisco that brings high-speed Internet access to small cities, airports, and rural towns. The SoftNet CEO looks like a great success. The company has 400 employees and a market value of $280 million. In February, the company partnered with CMGI and Compaq to invest more than $100 million combined to bring broadband mobile Internet services to global business travelers. During the coming year, the company expects to see the mushrooming of SoftNet Zones, local-area networks and computing-business service centers, complete with cyber-concierges in airports, convention halls, and hotels. Cisco Systems and Nokia have joined to provide the technical equipment and support.

And now Brilliant asks himself the question that measures his own ambition: “Where better could I test my soul than in the land of temptation, power, and money?”


Brilliant has found a new way to be ambitious, a healthy way, a way to act ambitiously without letting it sink into his sense of identity. Ambition, after all, is a basically healthy state. The word “ambition” shares a root with the word “ambient” — ambire, meaning “to move around freely.” That word originated in the 14th century, when politicians would travel broadly to get votes and support. Taken literally, and used correctly, to have ambition is to create your life’s journey. Ambition is not a single-minded focus, a career obsession, or rampant self-promotion at the expense of others. The true arc of ambition, as Brilliant has lived it, is a healthy one.

It shows. There are people in Silicon Valley who are more successful than Larry Brilliant. And there are people in Silicon Valley who are richer than he is. But there are few who have had more impact on the world at large than he has.

In truth, Brilliant has been ambitious for one thing only: his soul. How many of us would consider the soul a sufficient driver for success? The soul, after all, can be an annoyance when you’re trying to get ahead. But things are changing. The soul may be the next drilling platform to plumb the heart of the leader. As the new economy continues, each of us is going to be drilled down to our depths. And the only mark of difference between us will be in our deep identity, our soul. Everything else will be commodified.


That is why Brilliant has devoted his life to understanding that one simple, puzzling mantra: “Live your life without ambition. But live as those who are ambitious.” Do that, and you discover the discipline of living an authentic life — and of living hard, as if each day counts. That said, there is no mistaking that Brilliant is, well, weird. He is maybe three statistical variations from the norm, which he also fully accepts.

Where Did Goethe Find Faust?

“I have, alas, studied philosophy/Jurisprudence and medicine, too,/And, worst of all, theology/With keen endeavor, through and through — /And here I am, for all my lore,/The wretched fool I was before./Called Master of Arts, and Doctor to boot …”

So where does this tale of abnormal, sane, hyperactive ambition begin? With a kid growing up Jewish in Detroit, being raised on Dr. Spock — and switching to medical school when he learns that his father is dying of cancer. He has been studying philosophy and has been thinking, like almost everyone in his generation, that his mission is to change the world. His father’s death convinces him not to change the world but to save it.


Then, as the 26-year-old Larry Brilliant is finishing his surgical internship at Presbyterian Hospital in San Francisco in 1970, he learns that the first person he must save is himself: He is diagnosed with cancer of the parathyroid gland. The surgery he is headed for was his own. The salvation he must seek begins with his recovery.

“I took time off to heal,” Brilliant recalls. “That summer, a group of Indians took over Alcatraz. A woman named Tina Trudell, whose husband was John Trudell, the rap poet, wanted to have her baby on Alcatraz — the first Indian baby to be born on Indian-freed land in 200 years. She couldn’t get a doctor to come out and deliver the baby. I agreed to go out there. I wound up living on Alcatraz for a couple of weeks, the only white person there.”

The press started calling, and, without trying, he found himself being a spokesman for Native American rights. One time, the phone rang and it was Warner Brothers. The studio was making Medicine Ball Caravan, a sequel to the hit Woodstock Nation. How would he like to play a doctor in a film about a tribe of hippies who follow the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jethro Tull, and Joni Mitchell?


“Warner Brothers had agreed to give massive infusions of photos of dead presidents to free clinics in America, so Larry and his wife, Girija, signed on,” says Wavy Gravy, 64, another mythical figure of the 1960s who had just come back from serving as the “chief of please” at Woodstock. In Caravan, he was asked to serve a similar role, handling life support and security. “When we did anything cool,” Wavy recalls, “we had to do it once more ‘for Francois,’ the film’s French director.”

The final scenes were shot in Canterbury, England with Pink Floyd performing. The night before the shoot, Wavy ran through the quiet village banging on doors and shouting, “The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming!”

By the time that production wrapped, Warner Brothers had accumulated a fortune in rupees: The cast got paid in Indian Airlines tickets. When you’re a charter member of Woodstock Nation, what do you do with airline tickets? Several members of the group cashed them in and bought a bus.


“The idea was to drive around Western Europe spreading good vibes,” says Wavy. But in 1970, a cyclone hit Bangladesh. One of the century’s worst disasters, the storm claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. “Relief efforts were so slow to respond that we decided to go there to help the people and to embarrass the relief agencies. We wanted them to say, ‘My God, a busload of hippies is doing our job.’ We put together medical and food supplies, and we pooled our money. In Germany, we got another bus — 42 people from 17 countries. We thought it would take a couple of weeks. It turned into one and a half years.”

The film — which had started the whole journey — turned out to be the worst ever made until Ishtar came along. But Brilliant was hooked on learning the secrets of life that went beyond mere comfort and success. “We had never met so many people who were so poor, yet so alive,” Brilliant says. “Life didn’t just happen to them. They experienced life at a deeper level than I had ever experienced it. I had been a radical, a left-wing politico, and meeting the Indian people made me realize that the politics of the left and the right were so much less important than the politics of the heart and the spirit.” A year later, he wound up at the ashram of Neem Karoli Baba.

To Brilliant, this destination didn’t look like ambition — it smelled like Nirvana. It turned into a trip to the big time.


Apply Apples to Your Testicles and Call Me in the Morning

Brilliant was sitting under a bodhi tree at his guru’s ashram in northern India, content with doing nothing more than his daily meditations. There was just one problem: “Every time I sat and meditated, my guru would throw apples at my testicles,” Brilliant says. “I had to get up and get moving. I had no choice.”

The point of the apple throwing was to get Brilliant out of the lotus position and into work where he could do the greatest good. His guru, Neem Karoli Baba, was telling him, “There are people who get exactly what they want. You think they’re the lucky ones, but they’re not. The lucky ones are those who do what they are meant to do.” For Baba, that meant vaccinating people against smallpox. In the early 1970s, the disease was devastating India. Trying to eradicate it seemed like a fool’s errand.

That errand became Brilliant’s. At his guru’s insistence, he found himself on his longest journey yet: a bus ride from the monastery in northern India to the offices of the United Nations.


It is a measure of Brilliant’s unusual outlook on ambition that he never questioned his guru’s advice. “I had never seen a case of smallpox,” says Brilliant. “I don’t know how my guru knew that I could do this work. I had hair down the middle of my back, and I was wearing a white robe. Everybody in the United Nations was over 50 and wearing a business suit. I showed up at the United Nations office dressed as you would expect someone to be dressed in a monastery. I walked in and said, ‘My mystic sent me to cure smallpox.’ I was told to go home. I took the 17-hour bus ride back to the ashram and told Baba that I had failed. He said, ‘Go back.’ I did this two dozen times, making this trip back and forth. Slowly, the robe gave way to pants, then to a shirt, then to a tie, then to a haircut, and then to a resume. I learned to look like a diplomat.”

What was the lesson that his guru was teaching him? “The great thing about gurus is not that they make you feel everybody’s love,” says Brilliant. “It’s that they make you feel that you can love everybody.”

The nightmare wasn’t confined to the disease. “Mrs. Gandhi wasn’t allowing the UN to work in India on smallpox. Later, she changed her mind, and I became one of the first four people hired for the program — largely because I could speak Hindi and because I could type. It wasn’t until several years later that anyone remembered that I was a doctor. I ended up staying with the program for six years, and I was in India for ten years.”


Day and night, smallpox, like a war, ravaged the villages of India. Rivers stopped flowing, dammed by the dead bodies that filled them. Crows were seen flying overhead carrying tiny arms and legs that were spotted with the disease. Entire cities were decimated. Smallpox is a virus that forms lesions carried through the bloodstream. The lesions can attach themselves anywhere: to the stomach, to the eyes, to the lungs. Then they consume the whole body. Quickly, they consume whole villages. A win had to be total: If one person were left untreated, smallpox could reemerge even more virulently. Even if the UN could inoculate each of India’s 600 million people, an impossible task, how could it cope with each year’s new wave of 25 million unvaccinated babies? The solution was to quarantine whole villages in order to contain the outbreaks.

One night, Brilliant and his team set up camp in one of the most devastated villages — and got no volunteers for the inoculations that they were offering. Desperate, they ambushed the village leader. They broke into his house as he slept and then vaccinated him. Believing that faith in God meant surrendering to all suffering, the tribal leader considered it his responsibility to resist the doctors. He tried to suck out the vaccine, and he attacked members of the UN team when they vaccinated his wife.

When the battle was over, the leader, exhausted, went into his garden, plucked the single ripe cucumber from its vine, and presented it to a young Indian doctor whom his wife had bitten as she had struggled. The tribal leader had been firm in his faith, he said, but now it was time for truce. As a crowd of villagers gathered to witness the struggle, Brilliant’s Indian colleague refused to accept anything less than total victory. It was Brilliant’s dharma — his destiny — to fight the disease, the doctor explained. Brilliant had come 10,000 miles to this village to save lives because it was his guru’s wish that smallpox should be eradicated. The village leader gave the project his blessing, and the entire village lined up for inoculations.

But even that moment came at a price for Brilliant, who had been on the Michigan board of the American Civil Liberties Union and had worked for civil rights. How do you justify breaking down a person’s door to vaccinate him, even if that inoculation saves his life?

“I used to spend weekdays in New Delhi, working at the World Health Organization, and weekends in the monastery,” Brilliant recalls. “I would travel 17 hours by public bus to get to the monastery. I was having a very rough time, and I asked Baba how I could deal with this amount of corruption and contradiction.

“It was like the answer to the question ‘How do I deal with such ignorant officials as the tribal chief?’ I had externalized the problem by asking, ‘How do I deal with these corrupt authority figures?’ My guru said, ‘It’s not them, it’s you. If you live in a world of sense objects, you’re not at peace. You are not thinking clearly. When you are not thinking clearly, the mind is behaving like a drunken, crazed monkey in a cage.’ “

Two-Thirds Dalai Lama, One-Third Chauncy Gardiner

Here’s the problem: You begin to develop attachments to meaningless things, to sense objects. From those attachments, you make choices. From those choices, you find preferences. From those preferences, you identify with the best or the worst attributes of some of them. That identification takes you directly to the land of illusion, because those attributes are meaningless. From that identification comes cognitive dissonance. As a result, your desire for one thing versus another is based on illusions in your own mind — illusions that cloud your ability to see what is really worth doing, what would truly make you happy.

Here’s how it plays out: “Say you decide that you like Chevrolets and not Fords,” says Brilliant. “Or you decide that you like Yahoo! and not Lycos. It’s all the same. In my case, I felt that it was more important to stay in the monastery and to become noble than it was to do common work. But in the long run, preferences don’t matter to your success or to your happiness. They distract you from seeing what is most important to you. The point of life is to transcend the smallness of the finite self by identifying with things that last. Preferences, or attachments, lead to forgetfulness: How can I really remember why I like Chevys and not Fords, why Yahoo! is better than Lycos? Why, in my case, is study better than action? From my preference for a certain path comes confusion, and from that confusion comes inability to reason, and from that inability to reason comes pranashiti — total destruction of the cognitive process.

“Comparisons are odious,” Brilliant continues. “The more you think about that, the more it helps you to achieve your goal. The goal is to be equanimous.” Equanimity, balance, peace — so that you are yourself no matter what goes on around you, no matter what the world hurls at you. “If you are constantly making judgments based on superficial affiliations, your world gets to be pretty small.”

The exemplar of that attitude? That, in Brilliant’s estimation, was U Thant, secretary general of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971. “He was a great and spiritual man. Dag Hammarskjold had just been killed. There was a possibility of nuclear conflagration over a surrogate war being fought in the Congo, in which the West and the East were actually at war. U Thant was locked in a last-ditch meeting to avert disaster when he was handed a piece of paper, which he read, and he stayed in that meeting until the parties had reached a truce. Someone then asked him what was on that slip of paper. He said, ‘My son was just killed in a car accident.’

“The newspapers wrote about a cold-hearted Buddhist. But in that act was someone whose love of humanity allowed him to transcend his own narrow definition of family and to expand it into a greater definition. U Thant’s act was an act of a great, loving human being. That is equanimity, and it will probably see you through tougher times than passion or balance will.

“If you live a rich life of the spirit, you are not distracted,” says Brilliant. “You carry out your duty, your dharma, no matter what.”

This Just In: Your Soul Is Not Dead.

We advise you not to try stepping over it on your way to someplace else.

There is a little book of Hindu scripture that is called the Bhagavad-Gita. The book says, in effect, that work is a form of ecstasy — if you twist your mind into the right position. Think of the Gita as the Kama Sutra of work.

The Gita tells the story of a brilliant warrior named Arjuna who mysteriously loses his will to fight at the worst possible moment: the morning of battle. At dawn, he walks the battlefield and sees arrayed on the other side brothers, fathers, uncles. He has no appetite for killing them. But he is a trained fighter. It’s his dharma; he must fight. His guru, Krishna, reminds him that ambition must be focused on one thing only: duty. The satisfaction is in doing what you are supposed to do, not in doing what you want to do.

“I experienced Arjuna’s dejection,” Brilliant says. “It happens at the time that we confront why we exist, why you, particularly, exist. Not why we but why I exist. I exist to do this work? I felt that dark night of the soul so many times when I was working in the smallpox program. I would say to myself, ‘God, you have chosen poorly. You’ve chosen me, and I’m a piece of shit. Any god who would choose me for such an important position can’t be God.’ “

The Gita teaches you to think differently about ambition and about its unnecessary limitations. “Early on,” says Brilliant, “I had this problem with a government secretary. I placed an order for 200 four-wheel-drive Mahendra jeeps which would be used to deliver the vaccine into the most remote villages. It was the monsoon season, and many of those places were tough to reach. I went to see the secretary, who said, ‘You have to change your order. You have to have the two-wheel-drive jeeps.’ I knew the four-wheel-drive jeeps were the only ones that could reach the villages. He said, ‘But if you buy the two-wheel-drive jeeps, you’ll have my support. The two-wheel-drive jeeps are made in a factory that is owned by my brother.’

“I thought, now I’m carrying this burden of ‘Do I piss off this secretary? Or do I buy jeeps that can’t do the job?’ I’m 28 years old, I’ve never even bought a jeep for myself, and here I have to make such a big decision. I agonized over that, and then I read the Bhagavad-Gita, which says, ‘Don’t take yourself too seriously; don’t get attached.’ But I was carrying such a heavy burden. I wondered how I could detach myself from this burden in order to see clearly. I told my guru about my problem. On one hand, if I bought the wrong jeeps, hundreds of thousands of kids would die because we wouldn’t be able to get medicine to them. On the other hand, if I screwed up my relationship with this secretary, I didn’t know if we would ever get help from him. And if I bribed him, my hands would be dirtied.

“My guru sent me to Lama Govinda, who said, ‘Think things through very clearly. Ask yourself, number one, are you exaggerating? Are you exaggerating the importance of this decision and of your role in it? Are you milking the melodrama?’ Whoops! I thought to myself, ‘How does this guy know?’

“Then Govinda said, ‘Once you’ve satisfied yourself that you’re not milking the melodrama, then choose the decision that’s best for the kids — and don’t worry about your hands.’ And that’s what the Gita says: Use the tools of spiritualism to clarify the mirror of your mind so that it’s not fogged over, so that you see things as they really are. Don’t let the melodrama of how seductive your importance is, or of how great the power of your decision is, beguile you into losing your ability to think things through. Then do the right thing — and to hell with everything else.

“That’s all at a very rational level. But here’s the magic: I sat down alone and cleared my mind. I concluded that yes, I had psyched myself up, sipping my own whiskey and getting into it, as I’m wont to do. But I also decided that it really mattered that I get the government of India on my side. I could always raise more money for more jeeps, but if I antagonized that powerful secretary, he could kick the smallpox program out of India. I was prepared to give the secretary a bribe, which was something I had never done in my life. I drove to the secretary’s office, only to find when I arrived that he had been transferred two hours earlier. The new guy said, ‘Oh, four-wheel-drive jeeps? No problem.’

“That’s the magic part of it. That’s the inexplicable part of clearing your mind and of knowing just what to do. So now you can begin to sip your own whiskey again. Now you say, ‘God created this lucky incident just for me.’ “

When you sober up again, you remember that you’re entitled to the joy of work, you’re just not entitled to the results. “As long as you devote the outcome to God, and you don’t get confused about who the actor is, you’re going to be fine. This message is brutal.

“Lao Tzu says that the Tao — your life’s way, or path — is easy for one who has no preferences,” Brilliant says. “Your preferences get you into trouble. If you believe that there is no difference between going to the left and going to the right, you won’t have any trouble. You’ll find the right way. That’s fate, which is a good thing to accept.”

Fast Track to Enlightenment

After two years and more than 2 billion house calls, the Army declared a victory over smallpox. Brilliant had started off as the mascot of the UN team. All of the people who knew what they were doing had moved on or had died off, so Brilliant wound up running a program in northern India with an army of 100,000 workers. It was one of the largest peacetime armies ever assembled. So much for planning. No one could have planned a mission like that.

“Greater things have happened to me by accident than by planning — getting to India, meeting my wife, finding myself at the head of the India smallpox program. I could not have planned any of those things. And now, when I meet someone who can help me, I will have done all of my planning beforehand, but still I have to leave myself open to the unexpected.”

To explain the difference between responding to fate and driving yourself through ambition, Brilliant sings the words to a little song that he had once heard sung by a Sufi choir: “I love the sadhus [holy men]. I love the way they pray. When the wind blows their hair in their face, they go the other way.” Then he asks a rhetorical question: “Have I been passive, in the sense that life happens to you? Being passive is almost as bad as being indifferent. But accepting what happens, going with the flow — that’s a good thing.”

Where Do You Want to Put Your Dead Presidents?

Brilliant was deep into his love/hate affair with ambition. Every time that the conflict stirred, he directed his energy into something obvious and philanthropic. “How you get through this battle for your soul depends on where you’re going to stick your photos of dead presidents,” says Wavy Gravy. “You try and put your good where it will do the most.”

That was the guiding philosophy of Larry and Girija Brilliant. When the war against smallpox in India was over, they came back to the United States, enrolled in graduate public-health programs at the University of Michigan, and started their family of three children. They also created the Seva Foundation and its mission to eradicate blindness — a disease that they had seen firsthand while working in the smallpox program. Since Seva’s beginning, doctors have performed 1 million free sight-restoring operations in Asia. “Seva started primarily as a spiritual organization,” Brilliant says. “The work we did to alleviate blindness was a consequence of our spirituality. It was motivated by a desire to serve God by doing good.”

By chance, Bob Weir, 53, legendary guitarist of the Grateful Dead, read about Brilliant’s work in India. Wavy Gravy introduced Weir to Brilliant, and it wasn’t long before Weir and fellow band member Danny Rifkin joined the board of Seva. Board members often would underestimate the number of beds needed for those impromptu overnight meetings, and Weir often bunked on the floor. “At least they remembered to keep the heat on,” Weir says.

In the meantime, almost by accident, Brilliant continued to ricochet from generational icon to generational icon. He had crossed paths with Steve Jobs in India, and now he tried to recruit the young entrepreneur to head Seva. “Steve had just started Apple. I tried to tell him that Apple was a terrible idea. Why didn’t he become the executive director of Seva and do some good? He kept saying, ‘Computers are going to change the world. We’re going to take away the power of the priestly class that runs these mainframes.’ He wouldn’t lead Seva, but he did give us money and computers. We were trying to do Steve a good turn, so we bought shares in Apple.”

Another unplanned opportunity: With money earned from Apple stock, Brilliant built one of the first Internet companies, Network Technologies. “We put together one of the first online communities and eventually sold the company,” Brilliant says. He had under-estimated what it would take to build on the Internet, but the experience prompted his next brush with destiny: He conjured up the idea of the WELL. It became one of the first expressions of online community, a gathering place for many of the brightest minds, the fiercest pioneers, and the keenest explorers of the just-gathering new economy. “It was the first electronic community,” he says.

But, having had the initial idea for the WELL, Brilliant didn’t see himself as its keeper. “I went to see Stuart Brand, whom I knew in the 1960s to be one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. I wanted Stuart to run the WELL, which he agreed to do.” Brand ran the WELL for 10 years before he and Brilliant agreed to sell it in parts in 1993 and in 1995. The idea was to avoid entanglements with the world of business. But Brilliant’s younger brother, Barry, challenged him over a personal unpaid debt: Their father had died when Barry was only 17. Rather than acting as a surrogate father, Larry had gone off to India. Now Barry wanted his big brother’s help in starting a smart-card business. He got it. They dubbed the venture “Brilliant Color Cards,” ran it for eight years, and sold it in 1998.

Which brings us to Larry Brilliant’s current adventure. “I met the kid who wanted to turn SoftNet into an Internet company,” he says. “The company’s stock was at $4, and it had a market cap of $30 million. I was recruited for the board. Now our stock is at $10, and our market cap is at $280 million. I agreed to be the interim CEO and to stay only six months. That was two years ago. I recently told the board, ‘You’ll have to pry me out with the jaws of life.’ It’s fun. Bringing in people of color, building a company, building a team, making good products, bridging the digital divide — all of it is fun.”

In the meantime, Brilliant was still doctoring the Dead when one of its members had a sprained ankle or a cold. Perhaps the only clinical failure of his career was Jerry Garcia. “The advice that Larry gave him, which we all gave him, was to take it easy,” says Garcia’s bandmate Bob Weir. “And that finally killed him.”

In the Belly of the Belly of the Beast

Consider the parts of the body a person pays attention to. An inferior person, according to Confucius, pays attention to inferior parts of the body, while a superior person pays attention to superior parts of the body. In your choice of parts of the body is your destiny.

Brilliant chooses the stomach. He is not just in the belly of the beast: He is the belly of the beast. “I’m no different from most indulged CEOs,” he says. He wants to win. He wants everything. Appetite is front and center at SoftNet. From the minute that you walk in the door you are not only invited to act with ambition but also to think about your own desires. Right next to ther recepetionist is an 8-foot-tall bronze statue that dominates the entry: It’s Ganesh, the ancient, elephant-headed Hindu god. Ganesh is carrying a complete set of communications tools: a pen made from his own tusk, a book, a bird for sending messages.

According to one legend, Ganesh had a troubled past. He was the victim of his own appetite and of his own unsatisfied ambition. He once walked in on his parents’ lovemaking, and, as punishment, his father, the god Shiva, cut off his head. “Now, see what you’ve done?” Ganesha’s mother complained to Shiva. “Our son has no head.” Shiva was sent out to find the first head that he came across and to use it. He found an elephant’s head, put it on Ganesh’s shoulders, and, because the elephant was considered to be the wisest animal, Ganesh became the god of wisdom.

Ganesh is also the embodiment of desire. He’s the one god who has seen the mysteries of love. He looks like a clown, with his big elephant nose and with his many arms–and, because he has a great appetite, he boasts a very big stomach. But Ganesh also has wisdom. “He’s the god that people love to worship, not out of fear or out of respect but out of admiration,” says Brilliant, standing next to the statue. You’d think they were brothers.

So who’s going to win the battle for the soul: Briliant or Silicon Valley? Will the Valley corrupt him? Change him?

Every life takes the shape of this parable: an arrow coming home to the bow. True ambition is this: After you do something amazing, you do something ordinary–and you discover the importance in it. Compared with taking the slowest bus ride in the history of the world in order to save a country of victims, compared with curing smallpox in India, with inventing the WELL, with paying a family debt to your brother, compared with all of that, working as the CEO of an Internet company is nothing. But a man who is driven by ambition and by appetite sees it as more than that. If Brilliant can keep his soul alive here, his soul can survive anywhere. Silicon Valley is like a bad case of new-economy smallpox.

His mantra of ambition–to live ambitiously but without ambition–is the centerpiece of Nish Kan Karma yoga. “Yoga means ‘being yoked,'” says Brilliant. “in yoga, the individual self is liked to the larger soul, Brahma, which, in Hindu, means ‘the mind of God.’ You have one job: to find out who you are. Like the asymptote, the mathematical function, you are always approaching your goal, but you never achieve it. You are always reaching for the flame, but you’ll never be the flame. You always fail. You always aspire.

“Capitalism has wonderful lessons to teach us. I’m happy to be called a capitalist. To make a change in the world, you must creatively employ capital. You have to understand how the engines of commerce work. To lament that those engines concentrate wealth is not going to help you or anyone else.

“But as long as I have ambition, I will not have good judgment, because my ambition is based on trying to get something. That means I am attached to the results, to the fruits. That means I am violating a rule that I know is intuitively true. And that is the crucible. I need to be tested this way. I need to fail in the way that I fail. Every time that I get confused and see a person who works for me or with me as a customer, a competitor, a colleague, I fail. And every time that I am unable to see that person as a human being–and instead only see what’s useful to me–I fail. In those moments, I fall victim to my ambition. But in those moments when I see people as human beings, as real people, I inspire them.

“When I get confused and exploit someone for who they are, I’ll get something narrow or I’ll get a gift that’s not worth receiving. But my deepest and strongest relationships are in those moments when I see someone for who they really are. That’s when I join them in a moment to try to create something far more interesting.

“Handling ambition this way, I can moderate the amount of craziness that I feel. Things by which we measure success or victory or achievement are by and large banal. The thing that gives true and lasting satisfaction is giving things to people.”

“Larry takes his bedside manner where there is no bed, ” says Wavy Gravy. “We’re all in this big hospital, all of use people on the planet. The infusion of wealth, rightly directed, can cause great healing to occur. If he can activate more people to do that, he can create tremendous good.”

Brilliant is doing good by working with Seva, which runs eye hospitals throughout Asia. He is on the board of a summer camp for inner-city children run by Wavy. He is delivering broadband to all corners of the earth, including India. Weir calls him a “budding saint,” and says, “If Larry gets wealthy out of this, he will make it a manifest blessing for mankind.” But most of all, Brilliant is keeping his soul alive in the inferno. He’s still the poster child for a new way in which to be ambitious: deeply, spiritually. From Detroit to Silicon Valley, Larry Brilliant is still trying to save the world.