Saturday, May 31, 2008

How can a person strive for success and excellence while simultaneously trying to be content?

In this week's Ask The Harvard MBA post, I tackle the serious question of whether contentment is incompatible with striving for success.

"I have friends who are never content and are always paranoid, and whose self-inflicted misery makes them extremely successful and productive workaholics.

I was chatting with one of them yesterday; I asked him what he had planned for the weekend, and he replied that he was probably going to be working. “I’m doing a consulting job for a friend, and I’m not satisfied with my report, so I’m going to work hard this weekend to bring it up to my standards.”

This is the sort of fellow many have in mind when they wonder if contentment will blunt their edge. According to this mindset, motivation is like hunger. The drive to strive for success and excellence results from the gulf between desires and reality.

The logical corollary to this is exactly what you imply with your question–if I’m happy with what I have, and there is no gulf, will I still be motivated to succeed and excel?

As I mentioned before, there are people for whom this is true. I spent many long hours trying to convince my friend that being happy wouldn’t destroy his productivity, but I’ve since given up. Being a pessimist is part of his fundamental character, and if he didn’t feel his constant misery and worry, he’d become disoriented and, ironically enough, unhappy (albeit in a different way).
But for most of us, motivation is intrinisic, rather than extrinsic. We don’t strive for success and excellence because we’re dissatisfied with what we have; we strive because it is human nature to do so."

Quote of the Day: Trying and Failing

"If you decide that you’re going to do only the things you know are going to work, you’re going to leave a lot of opportunity on the table. Companies are rarely criticized for the things that they failed to try. But they are, many times, criticized for things they tried and failed at."

--Jeff Bezos

Friday, May 30, 2008

Individualism and Collectivism Aren't Polar Opposites

My buddy Ben wrote recently: "Last night, at my favorite cafe in San Francisco, I said to a friend that Obama's speech at Wesleyan kind of made me squirm."

He felt that Obama's words implied a collectivist (read: socialist) mindset that subordinated the individual to the group, and indicated a disdain for the invisible hand of capitalism.

I don't hear anything in Obama's speech that is anti-capitalist or anti-individual (and given that I write "Adventures in Capitalism," I like to think that I'm sensitive to these issues).

Here's the offending passage from Obama's speech:

"Now, each of you will have the chance to make your own discovery in the years to come. And I say "chance" because, as President Roth indicated, you won’t have to take it. There's no community service requirement in the outside world; no one's forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and the other things that our money culture says you should buy. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America's.

But I hope you don't. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although I believe you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get to where you are today, although I do believe you have that debt to pay.

It's because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role that you'll play in writing the next great chapter in the American story."

1) While I am a big believer in profit and the individual hand, it is the case that science consistently shows that the pursuit of money and the pursuit of happiness are two very different goals, and that the rampant materialism of our country has a corrosive effect on our character.

Note that Obama is not trying to fix the problem with punitive taxes or by mandating service; rather he is trying to persuade people to make a voluntary choice.

2) It is also true that positive psychology shows that humans generally crave a sense of transcendance and connectedness. This is one of the major reasons that religion exists, as well as sports and other affinity groupings.

Seligman writes about the tyranny of individualism. We are all individuals, and our freedom of choice should be sacrosanct. But people should be encouraged to recognize that living simply for ourselves is most likely a recipe for an unhappy and unfulfilling life.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Do You Need A Killer Instinct To Kick Ass?

After reading SI's profile of Kobe Bryant's incredible drive, Ben asks, "Are the big time CEOs freakishly competitive, mind-blowingly arrogant, and singularly focused on their business goals even at the cost of "balance"?

In a word, yes. History is pretty clear on the fact that most great men (and women) are bastards.

Even Gandhi was a philandering jerk.

But, and this is an important but, there are exceptions.

Chekhov was a living saint. Bill George at Medtronic always coached his kids soccer games. I've heard from many that Richard Branson is actually a pretty decent dude.

And certainly, being an asshole doesn't guarantee sustained success. Just ask Al Dunlap.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that for most people, being likeable is a better career strategy than being a jerk. Bob Sutton has all the details in "The No Asshole Rule." So if you don't suffer from the ambition to be king of the hill, you'll probably do fine.

This issue is this: If you scorn balance, work like a machine, and devote your entire life to excelling in one area, it's going to be tough for "nice guys" to match your performance. If the balanced guy works 40 hours per week, and you manage to work 100, and at a monomaniacally greater level of focus, you'll probably climb that ladder that much faster.

Moreover, there's no insurmountable reason that you can't be insanely driven and focused (to the exclusion of having any kind of personal life), and still be polite and likeable. Warren Buffett is just as obsessed as Kobe, but because he comes off as warm and funny, we like him AND worship him.

If, like Warren Buffet (or Chekhov, or Bill George), you can carry off this achievement mania without making everyone around you think you're a weapons-grade prick, you *can* avoid the asshole penalty. It's just rare as heck.

So if you do have that crazed, burning drive to be #1, and you consider that achievement worth any cost, go for it. Just don't be a jerk or complain about your lack of family or happiness.

Go Lakers!

(This post originally appeared as a comment on Ben's blog, and is also cross-posted to AskTheHarvardMBA)

Monday, May 26, 2008

Is growing up continuous or discontinuous?

Paul Graham has an essay out on lies we tell our kids. The essay is interesting (though a bit long as usual). What I'd like to do is to riff on one thing that struck me recently, which the essay reinforced:

Is the process of growing up continuous or discontinuous?

It strikes me that the conventions of American society are largely discontinuous, despite the fact that life is continuous.

By the time she's 30, I'm hoping that my daughter is married, and has given me a grandchild. This naturally implies that I want her to have sex.

On the other hand, I'd be horrified if she presented me with a grandchild when she was 15.

Somewhere in those 15 years, there's a major change, and I can't really pin it down to a particular point in time.

The same holds true for drinking alcohol. I certainly wouldn't mind if she enjoyed an occasional glass of wine as an adult, but I'd rather not have her start at age 13.

Yet policies such as a fixed legal drinking age and prohibitions on premarital sex seem to assume a much more discontinous approach.

It's wrong to drink alcohol until the day you turn 21, after which it's A-OK.

It's wrong to have sex before you're married, but once the vows are exchanged, you should feel free to get freaky all you like.

I'm not arguing for underage drinking and teenage sex, but I do think we need to realize that growing up is very much a continuous process that requires us as parents to be reflective and adaptable, rather than simply following a set of binary rules.

And kids, if you bring up this post in 2018 when you're trying to convince me to let you go to that party at the Playboy Mansion, you're grounded.

Song of the Day: Hallelujah

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan, I've spent much of today listening to and pondering Leonard Cohen's song, Hallelujah.

I have to admit, until Sullivan starting posting the links, I only knew it as "that sad song from Shrek." In my defense, I will say that when I heard it in the movie, I thought, "Gee, this seems waaaay too good to have been written for a movie about a Scottish ogre."

After listening to about seven different versions (in addition to the ones listed above, I also listened to version by everyone from Bon Jovi to Sheryl Crow) I have concluded that Sullivan's obsession is justified.

Hallelujah combines both a timeless quality and a modern sensibility, wrapped around the same core of primal yearning that makes the best Disney and Pixar cartoons so irresistable.

Compare the song to what I think is the greatest gospel song ever written, "Amazing Grace," and Hallelujah holds so much more richness and complexity.

Compare it as well to the greatest pop songs (the simplicity of "Let It Be" seems to come closest), and again Hallelujah stands apart.

Its greatness is such that it has been transformed time and time again, covered over 100 times, used in Scrubs and the OC (three times!), and it still has the power to evoke strong feelings even from cynical bastards like me. This essay does a great job of detailing the evolution of the song, from Cohen's original, to the John Cale version that established the slow, piano-driven approach that now dominates, to Jeff Buckley's famous version (which lasts an astounding 6:57).

The best explanation I can find comes from aforementioned essay, channeling Umberto Eco on the magic of Casablanca:

When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure, and the height of perversion border on mystical energy, so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime.

It's as good an explanation as any. Make sure to check out Allison's Crowe's cover before you go.

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this: The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

There was a time you let me know
What's real and going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

(with belated apologies to Andrew McClelland for always mocking his love of Leonard Cohen when we were undergrads)

Obama's Secret: Principled Transformation

Why Obama defeated Clinton is a curious and fascinating topic.

Most of the analyses that I've read point out his superior fundraising ability, or his campaign team's brilliant execution of a 50-state campaign plan that involved using caucus states to run up his delegate totals. Others point towards his soaring eloquence, or his status as a "post-racial" candidate.

While these seem correct, they are also insufficient.

It is also insufficient to point to the shortcomings of his opponent's campaign, or even to simply say, "People like and trust Barack, and they don't like or trust Hillary."

It seems to me that when you see a cataclysmic event like the defeat of an overwhelming favorite with nearly every factor in her favor, it's important to identify the true underlying factors.

My conclusion is that while the two Democratic candidates presented few policy distinctions, they represented two utterly opposite paradigms for leadership. Obama's paradigm offered a much better fit for the national mood, and it is this paradigm that is responsible for his victory, though his considerable skills as a candidate certainly helped.

There are two key distinctions between Clinton and Obama's approaches.

1) Principled vs. Positional

In terms of beliefs, Obama focused on principles, and Clinton on positions.

Since 1972, politics in the United States has ossified into a hardened set of opposition positions. Pro-choice versus pro-life. Gun control vs. the NRA. Evolution vs. Creationism.

What these all have in common is that the opposing positions view the situation as a confrontational, zero-sum game. And guess what, neither side is ever going to win over its opponents.

While this polarization has provided a short-term boost to certain politicians, these have generally been pyrrhic victories. Pete Wilson used Prop 187 to tap into anti-immigration resentment and win the governorship of California, only to destroy the long-term future of the Republican Party in his state (hint: which population group is growing the fastest?). Karl Rove used wedge issues to drive the re-election of George W. Bush, and may well have done the same thing to the Republican Party on a national level.

In contrast, focusing on principles offers the opportunity for (though not the guarantee of) progress. Obama has focused relentlessly on common principles, rather than the right and wrong of particular positions. It is also for this reason that he has been able to win over the Obama Republicans, who disagree violently with his notional positions, but feel that Obama will act according to shared principles.

It is small wonder that young people, who have no desire to continue manning the trenches for the previous generation's stalemate, are drawn to Obama's focus on principles. It is also small wonder that the older generation, who can't stand the thought of abandoning their long-held positions , have tried to label Obama an appeaser or ingenue. To simply "abandon" the work of decades, including heart-rending sacrifices and stomach-churning compromises, is a difficult pill for anyone to swallow, regardless of their political affiliation.

Generals always fight the last war. Abandoning the trenches isn't surrender, it's simply sanity.

2) Transformation vs. Transaction

The second major distinction, closely related to the conflict between principles and positions, is that of taking a transformational versus a transactional approach to getting things done.

We have come to think of politics as transactional. Each bill that makes its way through Congressional committees is highly transactional. Give me this program, and I'll vote for your bill. I campaigned for you last year, and now it's time for you to pay me back.

This is the hard-headed reality that most accept, and most of the time, the majority is correct. Incremental change and compromise are generally the most effective approach. It is this kind of political horse-trading that is second nature to Clinton.

Yet backroom deals aren't always the best approach. In a time of crisis or change, the transformational approach gets more done. Lincoln, Roosevelt, Johnson, and Reagan all took bold transformational actions that their opponents (and many of their own party) thought naive at best, and were generally considered deranged and/or traitorous.

Obama has famously tapped into the desire for change, but dig a little deeper, and the shift reflects a desire to get away from the transactional, incremental approach of the past 20 years.

Clinton took her own stab at transformational politics when she spearheaded the campaign for single-payer healthcare in the 1990s, but her failure caused her to conclude that transformation doesn't work, and to focus instead on transactions. "Solutions for America," to quote one of her many slogans during the campaign. Hand out enough benefits to enough targeted interest groups, and you win.

The problem is that Clinton drew the wrong lessons. As I'm fond of telling entrepreneurs who object to trying something because it failed before, "I know it didn't work, but that's because you did it wrong. Let me show you how to do it the right way."

Clinton's healthcare campaign was arrogant and imposed from on high; rather than concluding that she needed to change her style and governing philosophy, she concluded instead that she should focus on small victories.

America is sick of being patronized, and sick of being bribed. It's becoming harder and harder to pander to interest groups because the Internet ensures that anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion.

Clinton learned this to her dismay, when her attempts to promote an ill-conceived gas tax holiday fell on deaf ears. The American people have decided that they are too smart to fall for short-sighted bribery (at least outside of West Virginia and Kentucky).

Can Principled Transformation Save America?

No one really knows. As I keep reminding folks, when George W. Bush was elected in 2000, he ran as a compassionate conservative, who had a sterling record of working with Texas Democrats to push through important reforms. At the time, he seemed like a principled and transformational leader. In some sense, he still is, though most of the country now disagrees with his principles and the transformations that his administration has wrought.

It's safer to fight from dug-in positions, and to seek small, safe victories.

But times of crisis call for bold action, and I, like the rest of America, am pretty sick of business as usual. Ultimately, Obama's victory came because the voters believed in his integrity, felt that they shared his principles, and that the country needed a good kick in the pants. Only time will tell whether he proves a liberal Reagan or a W.

I'll conclude with excerpts from the graduation speech Obama delivered this weekend for the Wesleyan Class of 2008, which illustrate perfectly his quest for principled transformation:

"You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should by. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s.

But I hope you don’t. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, though you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get here, though you do have that debt.

It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in America’s story.

You know, Ted Kennedy often tells a story about the fifth anniversary celebration of the Peace Corps. He was there, and he asked one of the young Americans why he had chosen to volunteer. And the man replied, "Because it was the first time someone asked me to do something for my country."

I don’t know how many of you have been asked that question, but after today, you have no excuses. I am asking you, and if I should have the honor of serving this nation as President, I will be asking again in the coming years. We may disagree on certain issues and positions, but I believe we can be unified in service to a greater good. I intend to make it a cause of my presidency, and I believe with all my heart that this generation is ready, and eager, and up to the challenge."

Geek Girls Are Easy, And Other Sexual Statistics

This is a study that simply cries out to be repeated at other schools across the country. A couple of statistics stand out:
1) The least shocking statistic is that 0% of studio art majors are virgins. The only major that might rival art for this distinction is drama. Not sure what it says about me that I always took lots of drama classes in college.
2) The second least shocking statistic is that the chastest majors lie in mathematics and the physical sciences. My guess is that it's not that these women are less attractive, but rather are too busy to waste their time on trying to find a worthy consort.
3) The biggest upset is that Computer Science majors rank high on the sex continuum, beating out other majors that I was sure would score higher (English, Psychology).
It might be that this is simply an artifact of the particular school. There is actually a bus that runs between Wellesley and MIT on weekend nights that is known locally as the "fornication bus" (you can guess for yourself what vulgar "F" term is generally used in that phrase). If not, however, it certainly suggests that the men of the world should take a closer look at the CS departments when searching for dates.