Sunday, November 15, 2015

Paris, ISIL, Evil, Law Enforcement, and War

We stand with Paris.

Like everyone else, I was appalled and saddened by the recent attacks in Paris.*  One of the strange things about modern life is that the news media intimately acquaints us with vivid images of atrocities and suffering even as their geographical distance makes it nearly impossible for us to do anything to help.  We're human, and when events make an emotional impression on us, we feel the need to act.

After the attacks of 9/11, people around the globe lined up to donate their blood.  Blood banks in America collected an extra 600,000 units of blood after 9/11.  But since blood is a perishing commodity, more than 200,000 units were discarded, unused.

I'm no more immune to this urge than anyone, but I'm cognizant of how the hot surge of emotion can overcome reason, which is why I'm going to try to work out my thoughts about the attacks with as much caution as I can muster.  Hopefully this essay will help people think through these issues as well, rather than being discarded, unused.

The attacks seem obviously evil, but I think it's useful to examine why they seem so to us.

The first thing is that they involve killing.  It may seem obvious, but death is generally the greatest ill we can encounter in life, and it is permanent and irreversible.  This means that we should strive to avoid taking human life.

Indeed, the basic function of a government is to keep its citizens safe.  We grant the government a monopoly on the legal use of force, and in return, we expect fair treatment and protection.  This is one of the reasons why we react so strongly to police officers who murder innocent people.  It is a violation of the basic prohibition against killing and a breach of the implicit contract with the state.

As a side note, this principle explains why gun control is essential.  Giving citizens unfettered access to guns means giving people the power to kill other people.  I don't know about you, but I don't trust the average citizen with the power of life and death.  I'm not sure I trust any citizen with that power.  Most arguments against gun control boil down to the ability of armed citizens to deter crime.  Yet arming citizens to take on criminals is like swallowing a spider to catch a fly--it might work, but it's a pretty suboptimal alternative.

Thee second factor that speaks to the evil of the Paris attacks is that they targeted the innocent.  The people killed weren't criminals, combatants, or even aware of being targeted.  They were simply attending a concert, dining out, or attending a soccer game.

In a statement claiming responsibility for the attacks, ISIL said Paris was targeted because of France's role in the airstrikes against ISIL, and for being a "capital of adultery and vice."  These two justifications violate two different principles--the first being that military force shouldn't target innocent civilians, and the second that disagreeing with social mores does not justify violence.  We'll discuss the issue of war later on in this essay, so I'll focus on the issue of "morality" in general.

In a world with a multiplicity of philosophies and religions, it's difficult to talk about morality.  Difficult, but not impossible.  Whether you subscribe to Mills/Bentham utilitarianism, Kant's Categorical Imperative, or the teachings of Buddhism, the most fundamental right is that of freedom and self-determination.  You don't have to be an enthusiastic fan of Bitcoin or dream of owning your own island to appreciate the importance of freedom.

Groups and cultures that seek to restrict individual freedom are generally in the wrong.  It is wrong for certain cultures to require women to wear restrictive clothing.  It is wrong for France to bar women from wearing restrictive clothing.  Let people wear what they want, have sex and marry whom they want, and inhale what they want.  It's none of our business.  If there are externalities like the healthcare costs of alcohol or tobacco usage, tax the heck out of those substances to pay for those externalities.

Sometimes, freedoms come into conflict, as with abortion, where a woman's right to control her own body conflicts with the rights of the unborn child growing in her body (and those of the father).  Here, we have to decide on what we think is a fair process for making a decision (passing laws, judicial review) and accept that humans and their compromises are imperfect.  If you agree to the process (e.g. by remaining a citizen of the United States), but you don't abide by the resulting compromise, you're essentially like a spoiled child on a playground who tries to take his ball and leave.  This doesn't mean obeying every law, but it does mean accepting the consequences of civil disobedience in service of a cause.

Yet none of these careful nuances matter in the case of the Paris attacks because ISIL plays no role in the laws and behaviors of French citizens!  Using deadly force to punish the people of another nation for behaviors that have no impact on your own life is both meddlesome and foolish.  Any group or culture that believes in taking such action is irrational and evil on the face of it.

Law Enforcement and War

Given the evil of the Paris attacks, the question is, how should one respond?  The French government responded with airstrikes on ISIL's "capital" (more on this later) after President Hollande called the attacks "an act of war."

A key part of any such response is to decide if your actions are law enforcement or war.

Law enforcement consists of the state taking action to apprehend criminals and put an end to their crimes against individual citizens.

War consists of the state taking action against an enemy that represents a threat to the state.

Law enforcement officers should avoid the use of deadly force unless there is no alternative.

War is predicated on the use of deadly force, and assumes that diplomatic alternatives have been exhausted.

Given that ISIL claimed state-level responsibility for the Paris attacks, I think the French government has the right to consider it an act of war.  Yet the process of defending against such attacks has far more in common with law enforcement than war.  Terrorists aren't like armies massing on your border; they are hard to detect and often hide inside your own population.  Even the world's most powerful military struggles with nation building, as the US military has found at great cost over the fast 14 years.

The other problem with war is what is euphemistically called "collateral damage," because it sounds better than "innocent people killed in the process of trying to get the bad guys."  The desire for vengeance is deeply human and instinctive, but airstrikes are likely to kill innocent civilians, most of whom probably hate living under ISIL rule.

The reality of war is that lots of innocent civilians die.  The question is whether the alternative is worse.  During World War 2, the Allies didn't bomb the Nazi concentration camps.  Doing so would have killed innocent prisoners.  But doing so might also have prevented many deaths.

If President Hollande and other world leaders decide to invoke the concept of war, I hope they commit themselves to their chosen course of action and have the fortitude to see it through.  ISIL has done a remarkable job of making enemies of nearly all of the surrounding states in the Middle East, the United States, Europe, and Russia.  This gamble will pay off if ISIL's enemies content themselves to minor moves and overheated rhetoric; the resulting morass will let ISIL congratulate itself for standing up to "corrupt Western powers" and help it recruit more fighters.  I hope it turns out to be a bad gamble.

What You Can Do

On the one hand, I know that changing a Facebook profile photo is a small gesture.  On the other hand, millions of small gestures add up.  Each time someone sees a tricolored profile photo, they feel a sense of collective purpose.  I don't see anything wrong with that.

In addition, I think that one of the best things we can do in the coming days is to stay calm and try to act with patience and reason.  One of the great things about democracy is that it generally reflects the will of the people.  One of the awful things about democracy is that it generally reflects the will of the people.  ISIL is an evil force that we need to fight.  But we need to fight in a smart, disciplined, effective way.

* There is an entirely different discussion that we could have about why attacks in Paris have a global impact, while similar attacks in Beirut, and worse atrocities perpetrated by the likes of Boko Haram attract little comment or outrage in the Western world.  I suspect that the reasons are a combination of affinity and shock.  Affinity in the sense that most Americans identify more with Paris (especially those who have visited it) than Beirut, let alone Nigeria (this is part cultural and yes, part unintentional racism), shock in the sense that Paris is generally thought of a safe, cosmopolitan city, far from war and suffering.  Perhaps I'll take up this subject at greater length another time.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

What KRS-One Teaches Us About Silicon Valley

I am an unapologetic booster of capitalism in general, and Silicon Valley in particular.  It's even in the name of this blog!  Yet I've found myself playing the role of skeptic in an increasing number of conversations lately.

As our current bubble (yes, I said it!) reaches new heights, it seems like all anyone in Silicon Valley can talk about is how they're "crushing it," "killing it," and building the next great "unicorn."  Never mind the violence of the language (which deserves its own separate essay--is it any wonder that so many women have been repelled by the current zeitgeist?); what's striking is the monomaniacal focus.

That's why I enjoyed David Heinemeier Hansson's recent essay asking startup folks to "Reconsider" the standard unicorn-hunting model.  But while DHH makes some great points, I think he overlooks the psychological barriers to swimming against the currents.

Here's where I'm going to issue a content warning--I'm going to use a quote that contains slang terms that aren't family-friendly.  Stop reading now if you're concerned.

I know a lot of successful young people.  These are entrepreneurs who have achieved a level of success that 99.999% of humanity would trade their lives for in an instant, but aren't the subject of regular magazine covers.  Their material needs have been met, yet most of them are still casting about for their next startup, trying to become a venture capitalist, or in most case, both at once.  Yet when I talk with them, few of them actually want either of those lives.

The problem is that in Silicon Valley, if you're not an entrepreneur or investor, you're nobody.

The old-school rapper KRS-One has said, "Capitalism is a pimp and ho system.  You are either a pimp or you're a ho."  In Silicon Valley, if you don't fit into one of the two standard buckets, no one knows what to do with you.

As shallow as it may sound (and make no mistake, it is shallow), if you go to any event that features "networking," if you're not an entrepreneur or investor, you might feel like a leper.  People you meet instantly start looking over your head for another, more valuable target, and disengage from the conversation as if you were radioactive.  It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to ignore what everyone else seems to think is important.

Yet that's precisely what you need to do to be happy.

Don't let the trade press and social media tell you what is and isn't important; all they care about are clicks and shares.  By that logic, Donald Trump is the most important person in America.

The funny thing is, when you stop trying to be something you're not, the right kind of people--thoughtful, interesting--will gravitate towards you.  "Whew," they'll say, "Finally, someone I can talk with!"

And if, after you decide that you don't need to chase unicorns, you find that you actually do want to start a company or invest in startups, more power to you!

My hope is not that you'll become an entrepreneur or investor, or that you'll reject those labels.  It's that you'll figure out what you actually want to do--not what others want for you--and do it.

Friday, October 30, 2015

You're not indispensable (except when you are)

When Jesse Noller's essay explaining why he had essentially left his software community made it to the top of Hacker News, I read it with great interest.

Noller was one of the pillars of the community, but by pouring all his time and energy into the community, he neglected his marriage and family, and ultimately lost both of them.

Here's a passage that really struck home for me:
"You can’t be emotionally all in on everything. You can’t make another 24 hours appear to be “present” for everything. Instead, I stole time and ran my emotional credit card like it was limitless. 
I stole time from my family, from work, from everything. I stole it from me, I gave time, emotion and empathy freely to anything and everyone. 
My values - what I should have been caring about - were, putting it bluntly, completely and totally fucked.
Online communities are an interesting animal; they’ve given me so much, and I’ve made friends all over the world. It’s opened career doors and more for me, it’s supported me when I’m or my family was down. 
However, “community” is not the gift that keeps on giving, it is the gift that keeps on taking and taking and taking. If you don’t set clear and absolute boundaries, it will drain you dry and move on. 
I see the warning signs that were posted all over now, looking back. A good friend and mentor warned me, Dusty, my now ex-wife was telling me. The fact I had a rough relationship with my oldest daughter was telling me. All the signs were there. 
Take, take, take, give, give, give - for what? To change the world? Can a programming community change the world? Can it hug you when you’re sitting alone at night on the couch staring at a black TV? The friends you make, if you can touch them, can. 
Otherwise, No. 
Will it raise your daughters or be there for your wife? 
That was my job; and I bombed."
When I was a young employee of D. E. Shaw, I never took any vacation time, despite having an unlimited vacation policy.  I always felt I was too "indispensable" to be away from the office.

Of course, when I got the chicken pox, and was quarantined at home for two weeks (several of my co-workers hadn't had the disease, and during the Dark Ages, there was no chicken pox vaccine), the company somehow managed anyway.

It is very rare that you're truly indispensable at work, even if you're a founder CEO.  If you are, you've done a piss-poor job of building your management team.

In contrast, you truly are indispensable at home.  No number of nannies, cleaners, tutors, and other helpers can substitute for having a husband, a wife, a father, or a mother present.

There is a famous quote that most of you have heard that seems appropriate here.  It was spoken by Brian Dyson as part of a graduation speech at Georgia Tech in 1991:
"Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends and spirit … and you’re keeping all of these in the air. 
You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same."
You're not indispensable.  Except when you are.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Fighting the Imposter Syndrome

The great Eric Barker just wrote generally about fighting the effects of the Imposter Syndrome, in which successful people are convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve the success that they've achieved.

Imposter syndrome is extremely widespread, affecting 70% of successful people, according to a study by psychologist Gail Matthews.  If it affects you, you might think you're alone, but it probably affects your successful friends as well.

I believe that entrepreneurs are especially prone to imposter syndrome, in part because their press clippings tend to paint a glowing picture of them and their companies that would make the most outrageous Facebook-brag look modest.

Eric's post offers some great advice for those who find themselves feeling like frauds:
"Focus On Learning: Forget appearing awesome. You can get better if you try, so focus on that.
“Good Enough” Goals: Stop trying to be prefect. (Yes, that was a typo. I’m not fixing it. It’s good enough.)
Take Off The Mask: Talk to someone you think is facing the same issue. You’re not alone."
Let's take each of these in turn.

Focus On Learning
The entrepreneurs I admire most are the ones who admit their lack of omniscience and focus on learning.  This doesn't have to mean following the advice of others; rather, it means keeping an open mind, yet taking a skeptical and experimental approach to the world.  If you focus on the status you've achieved, you'll worry about losing it.  If you focus on learning, you'll realize that no one can take away what you've learned, and that there is always more to learn.

“Good Enough” Goals
If you measure yourself against others, you'll never be happy.  There's always a bigger fish.  Even Mark Zuckerberg, who has achieved more at a young age than anyone since Alexander the Great, could still be disappointed.  Adopting modest goals doesn't mean that you cut off achievement; at one point, Larry Page and Sergey Brin offered to sell Google to Yahoo! for $1 million, and were bargained down to $750K by Vinod Khosla.  The deal only fell apart because Excite refused to pay that exorbitant sum.  Oops.

Take Off The Mask
This is where having real friends and loved ones comes in.  In my own life, I have been the subject of both adulation and scorn.  But I never let either affect me that much because I am fortunate to have a spouse that loves the real me (and married me long before either the adulation or the scorn) and true friends who don't really care about who thinks what in the Silicon Valley bubble.  For goodness sake, maintain relationships with people outside the Valley.

You shouldn't feel bad if you find yourself falling into the imposter syndrome.  But you don't have to suffer alone, and in silence.  Follow Eric's advice, and you'll be able to see yourself as you truly are, and understand that what others think doesn't matter that much.

The Implied Assumption of Success

One of the mental traps that I try to avoid is what I'm going to term "the implied assumption of success."

This trap occurs when entrepreneurs say something like, "If I raise $2 million instead of $500K, I'll be able to get much farther, so I should raise $2 million."

The issue, of course, is that the implied assumption of success glosses over the fact that your chances of raising $2 million are probably very different than your chances of raising $500K.

I was struck by another version of this when I read the seemingly contradictory facts that mobile browsing traffic was 2X that of native apps, and that native apps accounted for 80-90% of our time on mobile devices.

The punchline is that both are correct.  Far more people visit mobile websites than use mobile apps, but people spend far more time on the few mobile apps that they bother to use.
"Deepest engagement for the longest period of time happens in apps, so apps matter, and they matter desperately for brands who want to connect to customers. But since, as we’ve seen in our research, apps-per-smartphone users is maxxing out at an average of 50-60, and no-one besides Robert Scoble is going to install an app for each company, service, or site he or she interacts with, your mobile web experience has to be good, and it has to be strong."
In other words, a person who downloads and regularly uses your app is way more valuable than someone who just visits your mobile website.  But this doesn't mean you should invest all your efforts in your mobile app.  Indeed, consider the plight of major retailers--of the top 30 US retailers, only 2 of them drove more than 50% of their mobile usage via app: Amazon and Walmart.

The implied assumption of success tricks us into investing in desirable, but lower-probability initiative.  When you are considering several alternatives, make sure that you account for the probability of success, not just the magnitude of potential benefit.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Entrepreneurs who slack off after raising money aren't entrepreneurs

Paul Smith recently wrote about the phenomenon of entrepreneurs who slack off after raising their seed round:

"Here’s what I see three quarters of startups doing immediately after they raise a seed round: 
  • After months of working 60 hour weeks (and the rest, usually) to launch and demonstrate early growth to convince investors they’re worth it, the founders start working 9am til 5pm, five days a week — they’re taking it easy before the hard work starts;
  • Because raising money offers a financial opportunity to address their work/life balance, their Facebook feed slowly fills up over the following weeks and months with snaps from weekends away on city breaks, at parties and gigs;
  • They almost certainly find the time for a holiday, or a trip home to see the family, because they deserve it;
  • A new apartment or house is high on their priorities since they can now pay themselves proper wages;
  • There’s finally time to make amends to a long-suffering partner — perhaps they can finally plan that dream wedding they’ve talked about for months.
If this is still occurring in the weeks after the raise has happened, these startups will likely be dead before they raise Series A.
I agree with Paul that these are terrible signals.  What is mind-blowing to me is that this even needs to be said.

Personally, I always find that I work *harder* after raising money than when I bootstrap or self-finance.  My mentality is that once I raise money, a bunch of people have put their trust in me, and I am going to work like a maniac to avoid letting them down.

Yes, the investors are typically professionals who can afford to lose their investment, but that's not the point.  If it's not okay to discriminate against people for not having money, it's not okay to discriminate against people for having money.

As a founder, you've agreed to become a good steward of your investors' money.  If you don't treat it more carefully than you treat your own, you've abdicated your founder's responsibilities and become an employee.

I can still vividly remember the moment I realized this distinction.  Back at my very first startup, during the height of the Dot Com boom, I asked my employees to do some work to avoid wasting money.  One of my product managers said, "Why are we going through all of this hassle just to save $25K per month?"

It was all I could do to keep from launching myself at him.

Founders have a higher duty than employees.  In the book, "The Horse and his Boy" from the Chronicles of Narnia, King Lune of Archenland describes the duties of the king to his long-lost son, the crown prince:
"For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land."
You could hardly come up with a better definition of what it means to be a true entrepreneur and leader.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Extreme Altruism and You

This morning, I read a long profile of an extreme altruist, who believes in a) giving away as much as possible and b) focusing on whatever will provide the greatest benefit, regardless of whether that means helping loved ones or strangers.

In one passage, she worries that she'll have to give up her dream of becoming a mother:
"But once Julia opened herself up to the thought that children might not be necessary – once she moved them, as it were, to a different column in her moral spreadsheet, from essential to discretionary – she realised just how enormous a line item a child would be. Children would be the most expensive nonessential thing she could possibly possess, so by having children of her own she would be in effect killing other people’s children. Julia talked about this with Jeff and she grew very upset. Once the prospect of giving up children felt real to her, it felt terrifying and painful."
In the end, she agrees to her husband's logic:
"He calculated that if the child gave away around 10% of its income, then they would likely break even – that is, the money their child would donate would be equal to the money they did not donate because they spent it instead on raising the child. Of course, this did not take into account that it was better to give money now rather than later, especially to urgent causes such as global warming and Aids, so some discounting would have to be factored into the calculation. All this made Julia feel better for a while, and even though she realised that it would be pretty weird to tell a child that they expected it to pay for its existence in the world with a certain percentage of its income, she figured she was going to be a weird mother anyway, and her child would probably be weird, too, and so perhaps to a child of hers all this would seem perfectly sensible. Finally, Julia decided, sometime before her 28th birthday, that she would try to get pregnant. Their baby, Lily, was born in the early spring of 2014. The thought of leaving Lily in order to go back to work upset her, but she knew that she had to start earning again so she could keep donating. She felt that there were people in the world who needed her money as much as Lily needed her presence, even if their need did not move her as Lily’s did."
For people like me, who are wired with a "normal" level of altruism, this kind of thinking seems batty at best, and monstrous at worse.  I'm not ashamed to admit that I care a heck of a lot more for my kids than anyone else's, and that I pour a disproportionate amount of money into rendering their childhood safe, health, happy, and fulfilling.

My guess is that the instinctive revulsion most of us feel to the idea of extreme altruism is based on the basic principles of evolution.  Natural selection favors those who pass on their genes; people who agonize over whether or not to have children, and then refuse to care more for their children than strangers are pursuing a losing strategy as far as Darwin is concerned.

That revulsion I feel is billions of years of self-preservation taking one look and doing the cartoon "cuckoo" gesture.

But, our modern environment is radically different than what existed for most of human history.  The challenges that face most of us these days aren't figuring out how to scratch out enough food to avoid starvation.  It may be that extreme altruism, while individually maladaptive, is what our species needs to survive, since our own essential instincts will cause us to consumer more than our environment can support.

While it may be tempting to dismiss extreme altruists as wack jobs, I seem them as a useful experiment--an insurance policy that explores on way that human behavior may need to evolve to suit a new environment.

Just as long as they don't ask me to join them.  I'm running a different experiment!

UPDATE: Slate's Laura Miller did a great job of encapsulating most of my feelings in a single passage:
"Do-gooders take something we all want to believe is quintessentially human—the willingness to extend ourselves to strangers—and place it in direct conflict with something that is even more fundamentally human: caring for our own.
The result is a bit like a reverse version of the famed Uncanny Valley effect, in which a representation of a human being becomes more disturbing as its resemblance to an actual human being increases.
Do-gooders are already human, of course, but as they ratchet up their selflessness, they begin, ever so slightly, to depart from the fold. They look like us and talk like us, but they abide by rules that we understand we could only adopt were we to abandon something that feels essential to ourselves."

Monday, September 07, 2015

A Capitalist Visits Burning Man

"You?  And Ben?  Going to Burning Man?"

When my friend, co-author, and business partner Ben Casnocha and I announced that we were going to Burning Man, the reactions we received, both in person and on social media, ranged from disbelief to shocked disbelief.

My typical in-person response was, "Why are you so surprised?  Is it because I hate the outdoors?  Despise hippies*?  Don't do drugs?  Avoid parties?  Enjoy sleeping?  Dislike electronic dance music and any dancing outside a ballroom?"

* It's important to understand the context of my allergy to hippies; I grew up in Santa Monica, with classmates who had names like Rainbow, Cinnamon, and Blaze.  Wealthy hippiedom was the dominant culture, and was less focused on generosity and giving and more on ostentatious self-righteousness.  Throw in the fact that hippiedom during this era was anti-science and anti-technology, and you can understand how my feelings developed.  Spending the summer in Santa Cruz in 1999 didn't help.

The irony is that I believe that many of Burning Man's attendees go for the hedonism, cloaked in the guise of community.  Since I don't have any vices that Burning Man satisfies, the only reason to go was for the art, community, and experience.  I can't speak for Ben, but judging from his own Burning Man post, we went for the same reasons.

When people ask me to describe Burning Man, I've taken to calling it, "a crowdsourced bizarro Disneyland where the attendees run the attractions."  What I mean by this is that Burning Man shares a couple of crucial characteristics with Disneyland, but differs in almost every other way.

How Burning Man is like Disneyland:

  • It's a safe environment.  I wasn't worried about anything, other than choking to death on the omnipresent dust, or getting run over by an art car.  Part of this may be due to the Burning Man spirit; more cynically, I'd argue that the price tag and inconvenience make Burning Man unattractive to criminals.
  • It's clearly distinct from the everyday world.  Just like Disneyland, passing through the entrance takes you to another world.  Money isn't allowed.  Normal rules of behavior don't apply.  You expect everyone to be friendly.
  • There's an endless array of things to do.  Everywhere I went, there were exhibits, ranging from the half-assed to the breathtaking.  With 70,000 attendees, there were probably thousands of camps that welcomed visitors.
How Burning Man is not like Disneyland:
  • No central organization.  There's no helpful cast members who ask if you need help if you look confused for a couple of seconds.  In fact, the least friendly, least helpful person that Ben and I met the entire time was the volunteer who was staffing the central information building.  When I asked him how to find the "Geek and Greet" dinner for BRC's tech staff and vendors.  He answered gruffly, "Look on the map."  When I couldn't find it and went back, he said, "Try harder."  If that happened at Disneyland, he would have been summarily executed.
  • Constant hardship.  The dust is an enormous pain.  Even on the rare occasions when there isn't a dust storm blowing, the dust gets everywhere and makes any and every activity difficult.  I can't even imagine trying to have sex while covered in dust!  I also spent the entire time carrying a heavy backpack (to make sure I had enough water) and futzing around with my goggles and scarf to make sure they weren't leaking dust.
  • Wildly varying standards of quality.  Camps and exhibits ranged from carefully engineered to slapdash, and from awe-inspiring to profoundly lame.  The highs are higher, but the lows are lower.
  • Not family-friendly.  Duh.
I'll post my raw notes at the end of this piece (written down at 7 AM in the driver's seat of a Toyota Avalon, which is where I slept the night), but I'll focus on the highlights, lowlights, and lessons learned.


  • The spirit of radical inclusion.  I love welcoming communities, like Stanford or the Unreasonable Institute, and I found a similar feel at Burning Man.  One guy, Jeff, politely asked us to move our car (it was on top of his canvas tarp), then gave me a three-minute silent hug to welcome me to Burning Man.  I love this kind of openness (though as I noted to Ben, if he had started to move his hands down my back, I would have broken things off--not that there's anything wrong with that).
  • Enthusiasm.  Ben and I both noted that there's something incredibly appealing to us about sincere enthusiasm, whether from the scientist who told us about the geography and ecology of the Playa, or the burner who was getting ready to celebrate her 10th wedding anniversary at Burning Man.  She and her husband met at Burning Man, got married at Burning Man, and celebrated their anniversary every year at Burning Man.
  • The maker spirit.  Simon Fire Edition 2.0 was what people love about Burning Man--enthusiastic engineers who put their electrical, mechanical, and computer engineering skills to work to build a delightful and whimsical attraction.
  • The enormous scope of the event.  The playa is 2 miles across, making it the size of downtown San Francisco (but a lot more logically laid out and navigable).  I especially enjoyed the view from the 4th floor of the Altitude Lounge, which let me see nearly the entire playa.  I went in the afternoon, then went back at night to check out the night-time view.
  • The view at night.  When the sun goes down, the entire playa becomes a bizarro version of Disney's Main Street Electrical Parade.  Flashing colored lights and gouts of flame are everywhere, and rather than lasting 30 minutes, they go all night.
  • Did I mention the dust?
  • When a port-a-potty in the middle of the desert has been in use for the better part of a week, it's not a pleasant sight or smell.  Each stall contains a small mountain of human excrement which is all too visible and pungent.  I can only imagine the horror of being a woman in that environment.
  • For me, the nights, while visually stunning, are pretty unappealing.  It ultimately depends on how you feel about raves, drugs, and EDM.  The entire playa becomes a gigantic, psychedelic rave.  To me, this is the least interesting part of Burning Man.  The party sounds and feels like any other party, just in the middle of the desert.  Parties rarely offer the chance for thoughtful conversation or reflection.  (In fairness, if I were in the market for a Playa girlfriend, perhaps I would have felt differently, since then the vast quantity of gyrating, scantily-clad, intoxicated women would have been a feature, not a bug.  One of my campmates was incredibly affectionate with the woman who was obviously his girlfriend.  She was an interesting character, who was a circus acrobat from New York who did nude photography of other circus performers.  When we asked her how she'd met her boyfriend, she replied, "I met him yesterday night.")
  • Not truly a lowlight, but it did strike me that Burning Man is a remarkable case study in capitalism.  Rather than a monetary economy, it runs on an attention economy, and there is only so much attention to go around.  Attracting visitors to your camp is a winner-take-most affair; just like at a trade show, the biggest parties sweep up 90% of the party-goers.  Tons of camps were open for business, but were completely empty.  At one point, Ben and I walked past a puppet show, where the performers were performing without an audience.  (To be fair to the audience, the puppeteers weren't very good.)  When someone actually stopped, the performers were ecstatic.  Attendees who set up camps for visitors invest colossal amounts of money, time, and hard work with uncertain psychic return.

Lessons Learned for next time:
  • Rent a trailer with a toilet, sink, power, and air conditioning.
  • Noiseproof your sleeping area (if you're a light sleeper)
  • Treat it like Disneyland.  Get a copy of the guidebook, and plan out which camps you'll visit and when.  At the very least, mark the places you want to visit on the map.
  • Take advantage of the mornings--it's not yet hot or dusty, and there's still plenty to see and do 
Ultimately, I'm glad I went to Burning Man.  I freely admit that I optimized my trip to minimize downside, rather than maximize upside.  I kept the visit to 24 hours (which is actually up from my original plan of 8 hours, which would have allowed me to avoid trying to sleep in the middle of the desert).

Ironically, Burning Man was less of a physical challenge than I expected; the worst part of the trip was actually the charter flight back to the Bay Area, where I became ferociously airsick, and had to pull a Ziploc out of my backpack in case I needed an airsickness bag.

If I were to return, I'd follow my own lessons learned, and spend longer on the Playa.  We actually spent a little time in the trailer of an experienced Burning Man staffer, and it both incredibly pleasant and a huge relief from the external hardships.  Of course, renting a luxury trailer to eliminate the hardships of Burning Man is both a) expensive, and b) against the Burning Man ethos of self-reliance, so I don't know when I'll make a return trip.

Of course, if one of my readers is a member of a luxury camp and has an extra spot, let me know!  Same time next year?

Raw notes:
  • Insanely dusty.  Dust storms are constant.
  • Hands are constantly dry and covered in dust 
  • Not as hot as expected (though this year may have been unusual)
  • Trailers are awesome (provide shelter, refrigeration, air conditioning, a toilet)
  • Port-a-potties suck, and fill up with excrement
  • It's easier to interact with people during the day, versus the nightly raves
  • Lots of EDM, especially at night.  Occasionally heard a little jazz or 80s music.
  • The Playa is visually stunning at night--colored flashing lights and flames everywhere. 
  • The radial structure makes it easy to navigate, but it's still hard to find stuff
  • It's an attraction where all the attendees *are* the attractions
  • People send vast amounts of time and money to set up free clubs, art galleries, restaurants, etc.
    • I speculate that they are seeking meaning, or at least meaningful connection
  • Attracting visitors is a winner-take-most affair; just like at a trade show, the biggest parties sweep up 90% of the party-goers.  Tons of camps were open for business, but were completely empty 
  • The view from the 4th floor of the Altitude Lounge was amazing. 
  • Simon Fire Edition 2.0 was what people love about Burning Man--enthusiastic engineers who put their electrical, mechanical, and computer engineering skills to work to build a delightful and whimsical attraction.
  • People meet at Burning Man, get married at Burning Man, and celebrate their 10th anniversary at Burning Man!
  • Silently giving and receiving a three-minute hug is a very interesting experience.  You are communicating with another human being in a very unusual way.
  • I can see the appeal of Burning Man to celebrities--you have the chance to be anonymous (especially during a dust storm) and yet still be treated well
  • A party at Burning Man still sounds like a party, and if you don't like drinking, drugs, and dancing to ear-shattering EDM, they still suck
  • Over and over again, we kept saying, "That looks like something out of Mad Max."
  • I actually wished I had worn a watch; I was afraid that the dust would kill my phone!

    Thursday, August 27, 2015

    The Odds Are Always Against Startups

    Y Combinator CEO Sam Altman just released a fascinating set of statistics about the firm.

    The numbers are pretty stunning; Y Combinator's 940 companies are now worth more than $65 billion.  That's an astonishing mean value of $69 million...and recall, that Y Combinator buys into those startups at a sub-$1 million valuation.  Now that's a great business!

    But while Y Combinator itself is a great business, I want to point out that embedded in those stats are the fact that the odds are always against startups.

    I'm fond of telling audiences that only 10% of venture-backed startups succeed, by which I mean achieving an exit of $100 million or more.

    Y Combinator estimates that 40 of its 940 companies are now worth more than $100 million.  That's 4.3%.

    Even if we double this number to account for the fact that many Y Combinator companies are too young to have reached their final stage of growth, we still only get 8.6%.

    Meanwhile, YC has produced 8 "unicorns," which implies a ratio of 8 / 940, or 0.9%.

    In other words, even if you get into the world's greatest, most successful accelerator (Y Combinator), your chances of building a unicorn are only 1-2%.

    This is one of the paradoxes of startups: Collectively, startups are a fantastic business that contribute greatly to society.  Individually, the odds against any individual startup and entrepreneur are incredibly long.

    Friday, August 21, 2015

    Ambition vs. Meaningful Goals

    Leo Widrich at Buffer recently wrote about how he has been reflecting on the dangers of ambition:
    "[Ambition] gets in the way of doing the great work of our lives, of living out what we’re already naturally gravitating towards. It also blinds my awareness especially of accepting things how they truly are—instead of making them fit my ambitions. It’s like trying to straighten something out forcefully that isn’t meant to be straight, which instead wants to follow its natural course."
    The key related point I'd like to make is that we need to be very clear about our implicit definition of "ambition."  I think it's telling that Leo never bothered to define ambition; we consider it so fundamental and common that it needs no definition.

    Google's quick definition of ambition seems to reflect the unsaid words in our heads: "desire and determination to achieve success."

    Yet this simply kicks the can down the road--what do we mean by "success"?  Again, Google does a good job of reflecting the common belief: "the attainment of popularity or profit."

    Put it all together, and I think you get an accurate definition of how people use the word ambition:

    "Ambition is the desire and determination to attain popularity or profit."

    The problem with ambition is that it combines a good thing (desire and determination) with a bad thing (allowing others to define what is important).

    When you focus on what others define as important--popularity and profit--you abdicate responsibility for your own life.  and even if your ambition is rewarded, and you achieve popularity and profit, it doesn't bring any intrinsic meaning to your life.  It just means you're good at playing someone else's game.

    Don't settle for being ambitious.  Instead, develop the desire and determination to achieve personally meaningful goals.  That's how you do the great work of your life.