Most of my life I assumed I wasn’t going to live very long,” says 45-year-old Greg Shaw, who at age six was diagnosed with a progressive spinal disease. “They told me I would be paralyzed by the time I was 30 and wouldn’t live much beyond that.”

The diagnosis was wrong, but in the meantime, it spurred Shaw on to live life to the fullest. He went to MIT. Traveled the world. Dated a lot. Read voraciously. Attended personal growth and human potential workshops. And became a millionaire.

“I’m not one of those people who just hoards money. I tend to let it go as quickly as I acquire it,” says Shaw, who recently gave MIT $750,000, because he says, being generous is a great way to live. “One thing I’ve noticed is that life works better when you’re generous than when you just hold onto everything.”

“I think of it as giving away a large portion of your excess energy–always feeling like you have a luxurious amount of time, money, friends, and resources. I like to be sure I’m living a life that feels abundant so that when I give something away, it still feels abundant.”

Shaw says he discovered the value of generosity as a child.

“If you give away toys, you have many friends. People hear about it and their friends come and want to be friends, and you get lots of positive energy. But if you’re mean, people you never met have it out for you. Whatever you do in life, good or bad, it gets magnified a thousand-fold by word of mouth.

“It’s just been a habit of mine to be generous along the way, and I get huge rewards as a result. I have wonderful friends, and I always have the feeling that I am loved. It’s been ages since I’ve thought that I have an enemy.”

Gifts to MIT

Shaw is now a senior software engineer at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington.

A member of the MIT class of 1975, he earned a degree in electrical engineering and computer science. In 1979, he co-founded 3Com, a computer network consulting firm. He had no idea at the time that the company would grow so big so fast.

Shaw’s gift to MIT partly will support a chair for Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. The founders of 3Com established the chair to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary and also to give back to MIT’s Lab for Computer Science, from which 3Com originated. The chair will support research and teaching in computer networking technologies like Ethernet, the Internet, and the World Wide Web.

“I don’t know what Tim Berners-Lee has in mind to do, but I trust it’s going to be wonderful,” Shaw says. “He’s the kind of guy who will come up with ways of thinking that other people may not be so bold as to entertain.

“Who knows what will happen in the future, but the point is to give brilliant people the resources they need to be really creative, and to have them provide educational opportunities that serve their inner driven nature and creative genius.”

Actually, Shaw says, the idea to support a salary occurred to him when he was a child.

“When I was 11 and moved to a school system in San Jose, a lot of teachers were leaving the profession because the money wasn’t good. The fundamental problem with education still is that there isn’t enough money put into teachers’ salaries.”

Later, when Shaw was in ninth grade, a favorite English teacher left teaching to go into real estate. It nearly broke his heart. “That was a really painful experience. He was a wonderful teacher and made a huge impression on me.”

Another portion of Shaw’s gift to the Institute will go to support Comparative Media Studies, a new master’s program in the School of Humanities and Social Science. It is the first program of its kind in the United States.

MIT has been a leader in the development of new media technologies throughout the 20th century. With this program the Institute will take a leadership role in understanding the social, cultural, legal, political, and ethical implications of those technologies.

“The convergence of computers and literature is like two tectonic plates that have just collided, and they’re about to work together in amazing ways,” Shaw says. “We desperately need people thinking deep thoughts about what to do in this situation.”

Deepest passion

Apart from technology, Shaw’s deepest passion is music and composing. In fact, when he left 3Com in 1986, he went on to pursue music composition.

“I’d love to create a musical analog of a laptop connected to the Internet. I’d love to apply the technical idea to the music domain and make a device that could make any kind of music you could imagine with vocals, acoustic instruments, electronic instruments, or sounds you’ve never heard.”

At the moment, Shaw is working on a project at Microsoft to create a new programming language environment, and he is also at work doing more composing.

“Music is just the root passion of my life. Creativity in all its various forms is also just the most fun thing I can imagine doing. Creating something that didn’t exist before is just profoundly fun.”