Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hard Choices Are An Opportunity

I'm a big podcast listener because I like to multi-task while I'm cooking and washing dishes (something I do a lot on weekends, since that's when I prepare our family's food for the week).  Today, I listened to a fascinating TED Talk by philosopher Ruth Chang.

It's worth listening to the entire talk, but for the impatient, I wanted to relate the key insight that I took from it.

Chang's talk is called, "How to make hard choices."  Her point is that hard choices are often hard because they aren't quantifiable.  Indeed, deciding whether to become a lawyer or philosopher (the very choice Chang faced when she was in college) is difficult precisely because the options are almost impossible to compare, and thus are "roughly on a par."

Chang's insight is that hard choices are actually an opportunity.  If you can't use reason to logic your way to a "right" answer, a hard choice gives you the opportunity to say something about yourself.  Choosing law school says something very different about you than philosophy grad school (though I would argue that depressed prosperity and angst-ridden poverty are both rather unattractive options!).

I've faced plenty of hard choices in my life, and will no doubt continue to encounter them as the years roll by.  But thanks to Chang's talk, I'll be able to frame the process of making those choices in a way that empowers me to choose my own identity, rather than paralyzing me with trepidation about the future.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Values, Performance, and Hard Boundaries

Here, in Silicon Valley, I've noticed that we like to talk a lot about values and culture.

Yet many of these discussions make a very dangerous mistake: They attempt to justify values and culture based on business performance.

This is a very natural impulse.  When I'm trying to persuade people, I always try to speak their language.  Most business people feel most comfortable when decisions are phrased in terms of profit and loss, rather than right or wrong.  (In fact, in business, talking about right and wrong can earn you dubious glances; at best, hard-charging managers are instructed not to break the law)

Yet using utilitarian arguments to support a matter of principle represents a fundamental disconnect.

In his book, The Joy of Work, AES CEO Dennis Bakke wrote, "I kept saying that our values were not responsible for the run-up in our share price and should not be blamed for any down-turns in the future."

I've always heard that when the 2008 crisis hit, Zappos' investors told Tony Hsieh that while his emphasis on values and culture worked during good times, now that the business was struggling, he needed to ditch them and focus on the bottom line.  His response was to sell Zappos to Amazon, since Jeff Bezos wanted Zappos for its culture, and promised to take a hands-off approach.

As a CEO or Founder, you need to decide on your core values and make them non-negotiable.

This represents what I call the "hard boundaries" approach.  It's a lot easier to enforce a ban on eating bread, than it is to cut your bread consumption by 75%.  Everyone--including yourself--is more likely to respect a hard rather than soft boundary.

Your vacation policy is up for negotiation; your fundamental values are not.

(This post was inspired by an even better post by Joel Gascoigne of Buffer, on his company's transparency policy).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

I'm a founder, and I'm feeling down. What should I do?

As a founder, your own emotional health is another key metric you need to manage, and you need to treat it as such.

I rely on three simple interventions:

1) Get a good night's rest.  Failing that, take a nap.

On days when I haven't had enough sleep, every problem seems like a mountain, and every setback makes me want to curl up into a ball.

On days when I've slept well, every problem seems surmountable, and every setback is just another opportunity to overcome.

Get sleep.

2) Eat healthy and regularly.

Your body is a machine.  You wouldn't expect your laptop to perform well if you stopped charging the battery and repeatedly dropped it on the ground, so why do you treat your body that way?

A study of Israeli parole boards showed that these very tough customers (Israeli, remember?) granted parole to less than 10% of prisoners who appeared right before lunch, and over 60% of those who appeared right after lunch.

Saving a few minutes by not eating is insane.  Keep the machine fueled.

3) Talk with friends who energize you.

We all have friends who make us feel happier and more energetic.  Taking the time to enjoy those relationships and their company isn't selfish--it's the cheapest form of therapy the company could buy for you.  Sometimes, the best way to solve a problem is to set it aside to rejuvenate yourself.

TL;DR: Sleep, eat, and spend time with the friends who energize you.

P.S. If you are experiencing actual clinical depression, for goodness sake, seek professional help.  Nothing is worth risking your health or your life.  I wish my friend Jody Sherman had done so.

P.P.S. A version of this post first appeared as a Quora answer.

Monopolies Are A Consequence, Not A Benefit

My friend Peter Sims recently wrote about how he disagrees with Peter Thiel's "Competition is for Losers" editorial.  Thiel argues that monopolies are good for society, and Peter respectfully disagrees.

My own take is fairly nuanced--monopolies are a sign of a healthy market, because they tend to result from innovation in "winner-take-most" markets, but they shouldn't be viewed as a positive.

Even some of the famous monopolies of the past, such as J.D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust resulted from innovation in a new industry.  Yet as the case of Standard Oil illustrates, Lord Acton's axiom that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," applies to corporations as well as people (after all, corporations are people too!).  Counting on the benevolence of a Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Larry Page is a risk I'd rather not take.

Yet we can't simply say, "monopolies bad, Hulk SMASH!"  It's a delicate balance.  Regardless of how much we like to pretend that entrepreneurship isn't about the money, it plays a significant role. The returns of winning a "winner-take-most" market help convince many others to start their own companies.

On the other hand, competition is what keeps people honest. Apple innovates because of Google, and vice versa. Microsoft was able to avoid innovation because it lacked real competition in the desktop OS market.

Bottom line: Monopolies are a sometimes unavoidable consequence of healthy market structures and innovation, but ironically enough, they aren't good for innovation (or the consumer).

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Value of Investors: Why I Focus On Helping Entrepreneurs

From Peter Thiel's recent Reddit AMA:
"As an investor, I think one must always maintain a certain amount of humility. There is only so much we can do to help the companies in which we invest. And because of this, the act of making the investment (rather than the ability to fix things later) remains by far the most important thing we do."
I think Peter's statement is largely right, but the nuances are important.

1) "There is only so much we can do to help the companies in which we invest."

When it comes to startups, the founders and employees have far more impact--positive and negative--on the chances of success than the investors.  Great investors have great track records because they have demonstrated great judgment, not great company-building skills.

On the other hand, I do think that investors could and should (but don't) help entrepreneurs more than they currently do.  A lot of folks like to talk about how hard it is to be an entrepreneur, and how depression is common among startups.  Yet far too few investors show any interest in helping their entrepreneurs deal with these issues.  Part of this is that the entrepreneurs don't always feel comfortable revealing their concerns about the business, but entrepreneurs feel that way because they don't trust their investors (which is largely rational, considering how often founders get ousted by investors).

As an investor, I certainly want to help the company, but I think it's far more important to help the entrepreneur.

2) "The act of making the investment (rather than the ability to fix things later) remains by far the most important thing we do."

I would argue that this statement applies far more to the Peter Thiels of the world than the Chris Yehs of the world.  What I mean is this: Top-tier investors have the brand and financial wherewithal to focus on those entrepreneurs and companies that are obviously great.  They can pay the high prices for quality, and have the ability to beat out other investors for the right to invest.

This is absolutely one of the best investment strategies from a risk/return standpoint, given Silicon Valley's unicorn economy.

Unfortunately, peripheral players like me can't play this game.  I don't have the money or the reputation to play.  My strategy has to be to invest in deals that top-tier investors won't even consider.  If the deal is one a top-tier investor would consider, I'll either never get in, or I'll only get into their rejects and dregs.  (Note that there is one exception, which is being allowed into deals by personal friends or by an investor who wants my particular expertise, but this is hard to scale)

Instead, I need to find deals that are off the radar, either because of stage, geography, or both.  These deals usually require a lot more work to find, and a lot more coaching to develop.  Being a "fix it" guy is a harder road to travel, but it's the one that's available to me.  And if I make a transformative investment (like Peter did with Facebook) that then unlocks the other investment path.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Fungible Work Will Always Become Low-Paid Work

Many advocates of the sharing economy love to extoll its ability to enable a new kind of work.  The dream is that rather than slaving away at 9-to-5 jobs, people can earn a living by driving for Uber fares, completing TaskRabbit gigs, making Diner Dash deliveries, and who knows what else.

There's no doubt that the rise of the sharing economy has been a boon for people looking for micro-gigs.  But the fundamental issue is that the same characteristics that allow collaborative consumption services to scale are the very ones that make that work into a low-value commodity.

In a recent blog post, venture capitalist (and old friend) Josh Breinlinger of SigmaWest described the most valuable types of marketplaces as "Supplier Picks":
"A typical workflow: Buyer posts job.  Approved suppliers see available jobs.  Supplier claims job.

These marketplaces require the highest degree of job standardization and quality control by the marketplace.

The key emphasis here is on maintaining an active and curated pool of suppliers so all jobs are done quickly and effectively.

I think whenever possible, you should try to be a supplier-picks marketplace.  They have the highest potential growth rates and can have the best overall user experience (highly correlated with low effort and high quality)."
The power of the Supplier Picks model is that it uses job standardization to make it easy for suppliers and buyers to transact.  In other words, it maximizes fungibility.

Yet once work is fungible, a marketplace tends to remorselessly funnel demand to the lowest-cost suppliers.  Once CRM and automation made call centers and customer service fungible, companies moved these functions offshore to lower-cost countries.  Increasing market efficiency is a wonderful thing, unless you're a redundant worker, or an unemployed lawyer with crushing law school debt.

I'm no Barbara Ehrenreich; I have no illusions that it's possible to put the genie back in the bottle.  Making work fungible creates value--the losses incurred by the laid off workers are far exceeded by the smaller benefits that accrue to a vastly larger number of consumers.

It hurts to see a small-town widget factory shut down, costing that town hundreds of jobs.  But moving that manufacturing to China allowed orders of magnitude more consumers to save 20% on their widgets.  If I lose a $100,000 job, but 1 million consumers each save $1 per year, value has been created, though it will be little comfort to me and my family.

Instead, the warning I'm sounding is for suppliers to understand the Faustian bargain they make when they turn to the Sharing Economy to make a living.  If you can do it, so can the other 1,000 people like you in your town.  Over time, being a perfectly replaceable cog in a machine isn't a good bet, no matter how shiny the machine.

Rather than relying on the collaborative economy to let anyone make a living, develop the unique skills that allow you to attract buyers that will pay for you, rather believing that any cog will do.

To Savor Time, Be Aware Of It

I've written before about how I use the Pomodoro Technique for my work.  What may be less obvious is how I use the Pomodoro Technique for savoring life as well.  Splitting my life into 20-minute increments is as useful at home as it is at the office.

For example, it's very easy for me to let my attention drift on Fridays evenings and weekends.  After all, it's my time "off".  Yet if I spend the weekend on aimless pleasantness rather than with a purpose, I feel dissipated and vaguely guilty when Sunday evening rolls around.

Spending endless hours on Cracked and TV Tropes is certainly fun, and arguably educational.  But the way that "I'll just take a quick peek while I drink a glass of water" can turn into a multi-hour binge leaves me feeling like a man acted upon rather than a man of action.

In contrast, using 20-minute Pomodoros to punctuate my free time forces me to be intentional about how I'm spending my time, and what I'm buying with it.  Every 20 minutes, I force myself to think about how I would like to have spent my time (which, by the way, is different from thinking about how I would like to spend my time).

In his essay, "The Mercy of Sickness Before Death," writer and critic D.G. Myers writes about the mercy he finds in having terminal cancer and knowing that he will soon be dead:
"If you are ignorant of the suffering that awaits you when you are first diag­nosed, you are equally ignorant of the changes that cancer will work in your thinking and emotional life, some of which may even be improve­ments in old habits of thought and feeling.

You may, for instance, become more conscious of time. What once might have seemed like wastes of time—a solitaire game, a television show you would never have admitted to watching, the idle poking around for useless information—may become unex­pected sources of joy, the low-key celebrations of being alive. The difference is that when you are conscious of choosing how to spend your time, and when you discover that you enjoy your choices, they take on a meaning they could never have had before.

You no longer waste or mark time. You fill it, because now you can see the brim from where you are lying."
I want to fill my time.  And I'd rather not wait until I'm diagnosed with a terminal illness.  Using tools to make me more conscious of the passage of time and how I'm spending it helps me savor that expenditure.

P.S. Hat tip to Russ Roberts and EconTalk for bringing Myers and his essay to my attention.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Being Hot Doesn't Negate Your Right To Privacy

This week, the internet worked itself into a frenzy over leaked naked celebrity pictures.  I haven't looked at these pictures, and you shouldn't either.  Being hot doesn't negate your right to privacy.

Earlier this year, a political activist was arrested for breaking into a nursing home and photographing Rose Cochran, the wife of Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran.  The photograph was posted online as part of a video attacking Senator Cochran.

This act was roundly and rightly criticized as reprehensible, including by Cochran's political opponents.  I didn't hear anyone saying they had a right to see the photograph.

Or imagine if someone hacked into Stephen Hawking's iCloud account, and leaked nude photos of the former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics.  Would people give that leak a nickname and write about their eagerness to see the photos?

The bottom line is that people who seek out and look at these photos are voyeurs who consider their own curiosity and lust more important than others' fundamental right to privacy.

P.S. Some like columnist Nick Bilton tweeted that people shouldn't take nude selfies.  That's hogwash.  I don't have any nude selfies, but what consenting adults choose to do in private is their own business unless it endangers someone or breaks a law.

P.P.S. Heck, I wish I had some nude selfies of when I was young and had muscle definition.  Back in those ancient days, we used 35mm film in analog cameras, and taking nude selfies would have exposed me (pun partially intended) to the photo lab technicians.  You can darn well bet those guys kept extra copies of any photos they found particularly interesting.  A friend's mom worked as a nurse at UCLA Medical Center, and she admitted that when movie stars came in for surgery, they all popped by to take a look, especially at the male sex symbols.

P.P.P.S.  Fortunately, even though no nude selfies of my 22-year-old self exist, there is a decent substitute, which is to Photoshop my head onto Channing Tatum's body.

UPDATE: Apparently, some people still go to photo labs for prints.  Yikes!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Yeh Family East Coast Vacation

Each year, we take the family on the road to explore America.  Some of our past trips have included driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, and visiting all the museums at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

This year, Alisha had the opportunity to take a two-month sabbatical, which allowed us to take a longer (and gulp, more expensive) vacation than usual.

The planning for the vacation was complicated by the fact that The Alliance was published on July 8, which meant that I was insanely busy up until we left for vacation later that week.  As a result, I wasn't able to go through my usual pre-vacation ritual of scheduling every day and printing out a small book of maps to cover each stop.  Nonetheless, we ended up having a great time, as I'll relate.

Monday, July 14:
We flew from Los Angeles to Boston.  We flew out of Los Angeles so that my parents could watch over Misty during our trip; at the end of the trip (as you'll read), I flew back to LA by myself, and then drove Misty and myself back to Palo Alto.

Upon arriving in Boston, we hustled to the Colonnade Hotel in Back Bay, right by the Prudential Center.  While we might have preferred to stay in Cambridge, the Colonnade ended up being very convenient, with a Green Line T stop about 50 feet from the hotel, and the Prudential Center shopping complex just across the street.  My one complaint about the Colonnade is that they had the temerity to charge for WiFi!  What is this, 2009?  I just used the tethering feature on my phone, but it was less convenient.

Despite weather warnings, the only time during our trip that the weather impacted our vacation was this day.  When I went out the Prudential Center to buy supplies (water, snacks, etc.), I was caught in a downpour.  The rain was coming down even harder when I exited Shaw's supermarket, carrying a massive package of bottled water and other foodstuffs.  By the time I got back to the hotel, my arms were exhausted from carrying 50 pounds of water, and I was drenched.  The only other time any other member of the family got wet the rest of the trip was when we went on the Kali River Rapids at Disney World.

After changing, I headed off to meet up with Peter Boyce of General Catalyst and the Dorm Room Fund.  Peter started an incredibly cool outfit that encourages student entrepreneurship.  Not for the first time, I concluded that I was born way too early.

For dinner, the family and I met up with the Kuegler family for dinner.  Amazingly enough, even though I've known TK since 2000, this was the first time both our families had been in the same place at the same time.  Alas, Jake had already left to start at the Air Force Academy, so we didn't get a chance to continue our debate over the inevitability of US victory in the Pacific during World War 2.

Tuesday, July 15:
Despite the jet lag, we got out of bed and headed on over to the world's best children's hospital, Boston Children's Hospital.  This was both my first chance to give a talk about The Alliance *and* the first time that Jason and Marissa got to see their old man give a public speech.  The talk got good reviews from both the audience and the kids; Jason particularly liked how I commented on Pixar's incredibly run of hits...with the notable exception of Cars 2.

After the talk, we walked to the Museum of Fine Arts, which marked the first of our many visits to world-class museums during the vacation.  A kind lady approached me and gave us her family's audio tour equipment (special iPods and headphones), which allowed us to learn a lot of additional information.  I enjoyed the exhibit on Pictorialist Photography; Marissa, who has a mercenary soul, preferred the Jewels of Ancient Nubia.  One of the most amazing items was an ancient pair of earrings which included solid gold chariots with wheels that actually turned.  Even more amazing?  At one point, the earrings were stolen from the museum by a mental patient, who buried them in a soup can by the Charles river.  The earrings were recovered by schoolchildren the next spring, after the snow melted.  I would have liked to spend more time at the D is for Design exhibit, but at that point, the kids were getting tired of all the culture!

We took the T back to the hotel, and I got us tickets on the famous Boston Duck Tour, which conveniently enough, embarked right around the corner.  The "duck" refers the amphibious DUKW, which dates back to the D-Day landings.  This allows the tour company to provide a tour that combines driving through the streets of Boston with a leisurely cruise up the Charles River.  This was a big highlight for the kids, who both got to drive our DUKW (video to come).  It was also a highlight for Alisha and I; despite having lived a combined 14 years in Boston, neither of us had ever taken a Duck Tour!

For dinner, we met up with my old friend and D. E. Shaw colleague, Chris Musto, his wife Moriah, and their adorable son Callum.  Chris and I have known each other since 1995, and has helped introduce me to the arcane world of the East Coast gentry, including the requisite wedding announcement in the New York Times.  I may have to re-familiarize myself with this culture in another 15 years or so; Callum was quite taken with Marissa.  Not only did he insist on sitting next to her, when the meal ended, he had to be pried off her after he desperately tried to prevent their parting by wrapping his arms around her waist.  A disturbing sign of things to come.

Wednesday July 16:
For our third day in Boston, we got an even earlier start by hustling over to the Museum of Science at 9 AM.  There, we met up with our old friend (and Alisha's old boss) John Kochevar.  To avoid confusion with another family friend, we told the kids to address him as "Doctor John," which I think John enjoyed.  After a fun couple of hours at the museum (including a favorite of Jason's, the "Grossology" exhibit on belching and flatulence), John led us to a North End legend, Antico Forno, which is actually on a list of the Top 10 Italian Restaurants Around the World (I assume that restaurants in Italy are excluded from this list!).  After a fine lunch of gourmet pizza and cannoli, we split up our party.

Alisha took the kids off to visit Harvard (perhaps a future alma mater?) and its museums.  John and I made a pilgrimage to Brooks Brothers, where I spent an exorbitant amount of money on a blazer and slacks combo.  For some reason, Alisha believes that I shouldn't wear my usual uniform of black V-neck and khaki cargo pants to my appearances as a New York Times-bestselling author.  I took advantage of John's services as a fashion consultant, which will have my looking far better (if poorer of wallet) at future speaking engagements.  From there, I headed up to Harvard Square to meet up with the estimable Ilan Mochari, reporter, novelist, and basketball enthusiast.  We discussed his great novel, Zinsky the Obscure.  Zinsky, which I read and loved, is like Portnoy's Complaint, if Portnoy had been a tall, bald, sports enthusiast and Internet entrepreneur.  Sadly, we ran out of time before we could really get down to the business of discussing our respective basketball skills, but hopefully the future brings us a chance to actually play together!

After reuniting with my family, we trekked down to Chinatown, where Alisha bought some Chinese slippers (almost impossible to find!), after which we met up with my old friend TJ Keen, who still refuses to join Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.  The thing is, TJ is no Luddite; in fact, he fits into the category of people who are so advanced technologically that they refuse to use unsecure consumer-grade services!  TJ and our family had dinner at the very Chinese restaurant where Alisha and I had our wedding banquet in 1998.  After lobsters and dinner, we even took a photo in front of the traditional dragon and phoenix design.

Thursday, July 17:
We finished our time in Boston by focusing on the historical.  We began by taking the trolley around the entire city, which allowed us to see the various sights, including the U.S.S. Constitution, which is the oldest ship in the U.S. Navy (and still undefeated in battle).  We hopped off the bus at Faneuil Hall and joined a Freedom Trail tour, where we learned an awful lot of things we never knew about John Hancock.  Sadly, we had to cut our tour short and head to South Station to catch our bus to New York.  I'll cover the details in another blog post, but the key information is that I used Wanderu to get bus tickets for the trip.  The total cost?  $6/person, and it was only that high because I sprang for the deluxe reserved seats.  Four and a half hours (and $24) later, we disembarked in the Big Apple.

During our time in Manhattan, we stayed at the Hotel Beacon on the Upper East Side, just blocks from Central Park and the museums.  The Beacon ended up being a great choice, largely because of the location.  Not only were we close to Central Park, we also had a subway station less than 2 blocks away, as well as restaurants, supermarkets, drug stores, and every other convenience within a similar 2 block radius.  And, free WiFi (back to civilization!).

Friday, July 18:
Our first morning in New York, we took the subway down to the Empire State Building and made our pilgrimage up to the observation deck.  Though I'd been advised that Top of the Rock had an even better view, we went with the Empire State Building for its history and iconic status.  As with the MFA in Boston, we paraded around using iPods and headphones to learn about the history of the building.

Afterwards, we split up, not to find clues, but so that Alisha could go out to lunch with her colleagues in her company's New York office.  I took the kids to visit Times Square, and then to meet my friend Rajesh Anandan.  Rajesh, whom I met at the Unreasonable Institute earlier this summer, is one of those incredible folks who fill one with envy, yet are such good people that you feel sheepish about that envy.  Not only is Rajesh helping the world at UNICEF, in his spare time, he's created a company, ULTRA Testing, which employs adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders as QA testers.  Not only is this a great service for the employees, their incredible attention to detail allows them to find 20% more bugs.  If your company outsources QA, use ULTRA for an onshore alternative that produces better work and a double-bottom-line.

The family reunited at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).  While I can draw upon my old SLE knowledge and faint recollections of The Shock of the New to construct meaning from the exhibits, the rest of the family was pretty glad when we took off for dinner with my old friend Frans Johansson.  We took the subway to Brooklyn and had a fantastic evening of Carribean food, good wine, and good company.  I was surprised to learn that Brooklyn actually had neighborhoods, trees, and yes, even back yards!  Perhaps if I had known this many years ago, I wouldn't have been so dead set against ever living in New York.

Saturday, July 19:
That morning, we checked out of the hotel and headed to Grand Central Station to catch the commuter rail to Westchester County.  Alisha's oldest and best childhood friend, Nancy, lives in Westchester County, along with her husband Mark and their daughters Rye and Lia.  (Nancy and Mark's wedding is actually one of the first events that Alisha and I attended as an "official" couple back in 1996!)  I was amazed to find that Westchester County is less than 30 minutes from Grand Central by train.  Yet while it is incredibly close, it's a completely different world of small towns with plenty of greenery.

Staying with Nancy and Mark was a welcome respite from both the activity-filled days and hotel life.  We actually got to relax and just as important, do some laundry.  The highlight of the day was when we walked to the town's belated July 4th fireworks show, which offered a closer view of the pyrotechnics than I've ever seen in my life.  After a long, mosquito-filled wait, the kids were duly impressed!

Sunday, July 20:
Yet even in the Edenic/bucolic world of Westchester County, we somehow ended up walking several miles.  The families visited the Bronx Zoo for a day of animal-watching.  As usual, Rye, being a little girl, glued herself to Marissa for the day.  Marissa is going to make so much money as a babysitter someday.  After stops at the Butterfly Garden and the Congo Gorilla Forest, the smaller kids went home, and I went on alone with Jason and Marissa to see the JungleWorld exhibit.

Of course, the animals that Jason and I spent the most time viewing during our vacation were the Kribensis cichlids in Mark's fish tank!  After their eggs hatch, the mother and father actually watch over the babies until they grow.  Mark has been breeding them for generations for brighter spots and bigger tails.

Monday, July 21:
Taking our leave of Nancy, Mark, and the girls, we took the commuter train back into Manhattan.  After checking back into the Hotel Beacon, we began the even more museum-intensive portion of the trip.  First, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met).  The Met's collection is so huge that we easily could have spent several days there.  In particular, Marissa enjoyed the fashion exhibition, while I liked the arms and armor exhibit--some of the katanas on display were over 1,000 years old, yet still gleaming and sharp.  The kids both enjoyed the video game exhibit, even playing a bit of Pac-Man (I had to resist the temptation to shout out instructions).  We also enjoyed the rooftop garden and the Egyptian exhibit.  And of course, as we do with every museum, we visited all the jewelry exhibits so Marissa could have her fill of gold and gems.

From there, we proceeded up the street to the Guggenheim, with its iconic spiral design.  Of course, since the Guggenheim only has one main exhibit at a time, your enjoyment may depend a lot on the subject of the exhibit.  As it turns out, the rest of my family are not big fans of Italian Futurism.

Tuesday, July 22:
We set aside an entire day for the main event--the American Museum of Natural History.  This museum, which is now most famous for those Ben Stiller movies, was Alisha's favorite as a child, and she was eager to give the kids a chance to see it for themselves.  They loved it, of course.

First, we got our dinosaur fix in at Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs.  The kids also discovered a new game by continually referring to the various fossils as "Daddy's old classmates" or "Daddy's childhood pets" to emphasize my extreme age and frailty.  We also visited the other dinosaur halls and made a green screen movie with the dinosaurs.

We also visited the various halls of various peoples.  This was almost Marissa's favorite part, since many of the exhibits included miniature dioramas of people and homes.  Of course, Marissa's favorite exhibit was the Morgan Memorial Hall of Gems!

We finished by exploring two special exhibitions: The Power of Poison, and the IMAX movie, Great White Shark.  I was too cheap to pay for all of us to see the poison exhibit, so I loitered in the bookstore while the rest of the family went through.  And by the time we had walked all those halls, getting to sit for a 3D movie was a nice change of pace.

Yet somehow, the day wasn't yet done...that morning, I had walked down to the Pier to get us tickets for a sunset sightseeing cruise around Manhattan.  After finishing up at the museum and grabbing a quick bite, we took a cab down to the U.S.S. Intrepid and spent 90 minutes cruising around Manhattan, seeing the sights including the Statue of Liberty.

Wednesday, July 23:
We took it easy on our last day in New York.  I met up with Ramit Sethi for coffee while the family went shopping, and then we caught the bus down to Washington DC.  Despite the fact that I hadn't been able to purchase reserved seats, the bus wasn't crowded at all, which allowed us to sit in the same premium table space as on our trip from Boston.  All this for $3 per person, which ended up costing less than the 1-mile cab ride to our hotel in DC.

We stayed at the Capitol Hill Hotel, which offered very spacious accommodations, including a walk-in closet and a breakfast nook.  The location was also quite convenient, with the restaurants of Pennsylvania Avenue just a block away.

Thursday, July 24:
In what you may recognize as a common theme on this trip, I woke up early and hiked down to the Washington Monument to get tickets to ride to the top.  To get tickets in advance, you generally need to book online at least 6 months before your trip.  Otherwise, it's an early morning wait in line to obtain up to 6 free tickets.  I had a good time chatting with the other tourists, grabbed the tickets, and hiked back to meet up with the family.

We killed a little time at the Museum of Natural History.  In particular, the kids really enjoyed the Qrius interactive exhibit, which allows kids to earn badges at computerized activity stations.  At the appointed time, we zoomed up the Washington Monument and took in the view.  It's also pretty amazing to see the interior of the monument, and the engineering required to build something so immense.

After lunch, we met up with the Sapoznikow family at the National Museum of American History.  While the kids really enjoyed seeing all the model boats (something I remembered from my childhood visits!), the three major highlights were A) seeing Julia Child's actual kitchen (relocated from Boston to the Smithsonian), B) checking out the gowns of the First Ladies (well, it was a highlight for Marissa at least), and C) viewing the actual Star Spangled Banner from the battle of Fort McHenry.

We did have to knock off early so I could attend an SVForum board meeting by phone--a call which I took from the spacious walk-in closet!

Friday, July 25 - Monday, July 28:
We woke up earliest of all and caught a 7 AM flight to Orlando (or as I like to call it, Greater Disney).  Since Walt Disney World's attractions are well covered by an entire cottage industry of blogs and guides, I'll limit myself to commenting on the highlights and insights I derived from our trip:
  • We stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge.  This is a heck of a lot more expensive than many of the Disney resorts (the All-Star resorts, for example, are an excellent value) but I decided to splurge because this is the last Disney World vacation we'll ever take before the kids become teenagers.  The Lodge is a beautiful property, complete with safari animals right outside the walls.  We also took full advantage of the pool, which included its own water slide.  In the end, I think it was worth the extra bucks, at least once.
  • Because we stayed at a Disney resort, we were issued Disney's new Magic Bands.  These RFID bands act as hotel key, park ticket, and wallet.  Once you enter the Disney kingdom, you don't need to carry anything other than your Magic Band.  Not only that, Disney knows where you are at all times...hmmm, not sure if that is truly a benefit.  The good news is, they do require a PIN to use as credit card, so I simply didn't give anyone else the PIN!
  • Disney has gone RFID-mad.  We also bought collectible mugs, which allow free drink refills at any Disney resort.  These mugs have embedded RFID chips, which actually track how many days of drinks you've paid for.  Each soda dispenser reads the RFID chip and confirms that you're eligible for drinks before it will dispense anything.  (This meant that I couldn't do what I did on our first trip, and collect abandoned mugs for free drinks, a fact for which Alisha was grateful)
  • As I've noted in the past, where Disney really stands out is their fanatical attention to the customer experience.  Many if Disney's lines are designed to be attractions in and of themselves.  And don't forget, the line estimates are always lies--they overestimate line length to exceed expectations.  Furthermore, during any stage show, every single performer on stage is playing their part and exerting 100% effort the entire time, even if they're not in the spotlight.
  • Disney's other strength is storytelling.  By tying everything to a story, they can make the prosaic seem remarkable.  For example, the Festival of the Lion King consists of a few basic elements: Singers, floats, and acrobats.  Essentially, it sounds like a bad French stage show.  But throw in tribal and animal costumes and the recorded voices of beloved Lion King characters, and all of a sudden, you have a premium extravaganza (that also happens to offer employment to an entire troupe of former college gymnasts).
  • In the Fantasmic show, Disney uses characters from throughout its history, going all the way back to Steamboat Willie.  At Disney, characters are truly timeless (which means that you can treat them as a perpetual interest-paying security!).
  • Disney is finding more and more efficient ways to entertain their visitors.  Increasingly, Disney doesn't even need to build rides.  A number of attractions consist of animated characters engaging with an audience using personalized dialogue.  Some of the popular attractions that operate on this model are the Monster's Inc Laugh Floor, Turtle Talk with Crush, and Enchanted Tales with Belle.  The Belle attraction even combines animation, sophisticated robotics, and human actors.  An even more extreme experiment is the Phineas and Ferb: Agent P's World Showcase Adventure.  This eliminates the need for any location; instead, kids get a smartphone with a pre-installed app that guides them through adventures in the various lands at Epcot's World Showcase.  As the kids go through the adventure, pressing the controls of the phone triggers various robotic animations.  (To save money, the phones are all Windows Phones--presumably no one wants to steal them...and even if you did, I assume the Magic Band would automatically inject you with a tranquilizer)  Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom is similar, but uses image recognition technology to do away with the smartphones--instead, simple cards trigger animations.  The nice thing is that the cards also serve as a free collectible for families.
  • Given the heat and humidity, one of my favorite tactics is to mix in a liberal dose of stage shows, which are A) air conditioned, and B) let you sit in comfort.  Plus, Disney's shows are incredibly good.  Finding Nemo: The Musical is particularly spectacular.
And now for the lightning round--cool rides and experiences!
  • Through an HBS classmate, I was able to get us access to the HP Lounge at Mission: Space.  If you can get access to any of these lounges (GM and Siemens also have loungers), do it!  They are comfortable, stuffed with cool toys and exhibits, offer free drinks and snacks, and give you additional Fast Passes.  If you're an HP, GM, or Siemens employee or alum, you may be eligible.  I love insider treatment!
  • We finally went on the Kali River Rapids.  Very fun, but you *will* get wet.  Go when you have time to dry off afterwards, and/or wear swimwear under your clothes.
  • Marissa really wanted to go on Space Mountain, despite all my warnings.  I guess she didn't believe me...until the ride started, and I could hear her screaming "Oh my God!" almost the entire time.  She really enjoyed it though!
  • The Japan showcase has a great homestyle Japanese restaurant which is actually very affordable as well.  Since Alisha studied Japanese in high school, was an East Asian Studies major at Harvard, and has traveled extensively in Japan, this is a knowledgeable recommendation.
  • Also at the Japan showcase, if you can catch their current manga exhibition, do so!  They show the ancient mythic roots of Japan's most popular art form.
  • The Chinese acrobats at the China showcase are amazing.  Definitely go if they're performing.
  • The Animation Academy is an awesome program that guides you through drawing one of your favorite Disney/Pixar characters.  We drew Carl from UP!
After three fun but exhausting days at Disney, we drove to Alisha's parents' place in the Orlando suburb of Lake Mary.  From there, I flew home to get back to work while Alisha, Jason, and Marissa spent another week with the grandparents, playing in the pool and letting grandma stuff them with food.  All in all, another successful Yeh family vacation!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Find Your Compass All Around You

William Deresiewicz has been writing a lot about the problems with an Ivy League education.  As someone in possession of two expensive degrees from Stanford and another expensive degree from Harvard Business School, I am both sympathetic to his points and terrified that he'll damage the value of the brands that I (and my parents) paid so much for.

In a recent interview that appeared in The Atlantic, Deresiewicz said something that made me pause for reflection:
"These kids were always the best of their class, and their teachers were always praising them, inflating their ego. But it’s a false self-esteem. It’s not real self-possession, where you are measuring yourself against your own internal standards and having a sense that you’re working towards something. It’s totally conditional, and constantly has to be pumped up by the next grade, the next A, or gold star."
The notion that praise and grade-grubbing are dangerous is well established--just look at the work of Carol Dweck.  But what interests me is the notion of self-possession.

The paradox of self-possession is that unless it is tempered with feedback from the outside world, it is self-delusion.  On the one hand, it's critical to find yourself.  On the other hand, without experiencing the outside world, you can't find yourself.

When I think about my own self-awareness, I difficulty tracing it to its origins.  How do I know that I love to write?  When I was a child, I loved reading, and decided I wanted to tell my own stories.  When I was older, I wrote a lot of papers, and professors gave me a lot of "A"s.  After I graduated, I wrote things, and people read them and enjoyed them.  Does that mean that I was measuring myself by external standards, rather than internal ones?

When I was young, I loved books indiscriminately, but as I got older, my ability to distinguish between "good" writing and "bad" writing increased.  Yet even now, it is hard to judge.  Some authors have amazingly interesting ideas, but indifferent prose.  Others have hackneyed ideas but are outstanding prose stylists.  Is Dave Barry a great writer?  Stephen King?

And when I judge my own writing, I'm applying an internal standard, but it is an internal standard that I developed by reading other works, as well as others' criticism of those other works.

Developing your internal compass is one of the essential parts of growing up (and something which not everyone accomplishes).  Yet people who tell you to "find yourself" are providing advice that is useless, or worse, actively harmful.  Self is not a treasure that you can find; it is a foundation that you lay, brick by brick, by experiencing the ideas and the world around you.