Saturday, August 21, 2010

Are Millenials self-absorbed punks, or are we just jealous?

Are Millenials self-absorbed punks, or are we just jealous? If I had a dollar for every story I read about today's coddled, entitled youth...I'd probably have enough money for a real blog design. In other words, the topic comes up a lot, usually from geezers like me. Just check out this lengthy article from the New York Times (plaintively titled, "What Is It About 20-Somethings?") that asks whether "Emerging Adulthood" is a valid stage of life, or simply another case of secondary affluenza.

I must admit that I've been tempted to whip out the punk label from time to time, but I'm starting to feel like it's largely a matter of jealousy.

I recently heard from a young fellow I know who apologized for taking a while to respond to one of my messages. "Sorry," he said, "I've been doing a lot of promotion for a blog post, and my boss was in a bad mood."

On the one hand, I sympathize with the boss, who is probably a geezer like me who remembers when young people who worked focused on their work, rather than on growing their list of Twitter followers. But on the other hand, if I had the same opportunities, would I behave differently?

When I was 21, my main concern after work was getting a date. Only professional journalists wrote articles, and it was a busy week if I spoke with more than five out of town friends.

Now, my 21-year-old friends have thousands of Twitter followers, hundreds of friends around the world, and have been building a personal brand since they were 12. Should I be surprised that they act differently?

One geezer's self-absorbtion is another Millenial's rational self-interest. Just as we no longer expect to marry at 15 and work in the fields until we die, who is to say that the expectations of youth are wrong or even undesirable?

Heck, I know that they are desirable, because I tell people all the time, "I envy today's youth." (More specifically, I envy Ben Casnocha, but then again, who doesn't?)

Sports may be the aspect of our society that is most obsessed with and protective of the past--just look at the interminable hand-wringing debates over steroids and baseball's home run records--yet even there, the envy comes out. As Charles Barkley put it, after hearing that Dirk Nowitzki was going to opt out of a $21 million annual salary to get an even bigger contract, "Mama, why did you have to get pregnant so young!"

Ultimately, "Because I didn't get to do it!" is an unconvincing argument for why today's youth should forgo opportunities we didn't have.

That being said guys, stop living with your parents. It's seriously creepy to bring dates home when Mom and Dad are sitting on the couch.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Chuck Jones and the Power of Scaffolding

I had the great pleasure the other day to see the Chuck Jones exhibit at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Chuck Jones was a legendary animator who worked on the great Warner Brothers shorts starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, the Roadrunner, and many more. He also created the classic animated specials for "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" and "Riki-tiki-tavi."

The entire exhibit is remarkable, including various films, scripts, sketches, and even one of Chuck's Oscars (it's bigger than I thought it would be). But what really struck me were the simple sketches he made, such as the one above.

Not only are they great works of art, they are a perfect illustration of the power of scaffolding.

When we see a great work, we often think of it as springing full-grown from the creator's mind, like Athena from the head of Zeus. Yet the real story tends to be longer, messier, and much more interesting.

Take a close look at Chuck's sketch of Daffy Duck, and notice how carefully he scaffolds the drawing with various lines to help him maintain proportions and draw the best possible picture.

Not everything that you do needs to be a part of the final work--in fact, you may want to sketch some things very lightly as you experiment--but your final work reflects every thing you've put into it.

For every final stroke, ten, a hundred, or even a thousand strokes of scaffolding have preceded it.*

(*In one art school class, a professor told Chuck that every artist had 100,000 bad drawings in them they had to get past before they could draw anything worthwhile. Fortunately for Chuck, he estimated that he had already done 200,000 such drawings--his father was an unsuccessful entrepreneur who bought pencils and stationary for each new venture; when the venture inevitably failed, he would turn the materials over to his kids and ask them to use them up as quickly as possible. Several of Chuck's siblings also went on to successful artistic careers.)

You could get a sense of Chuck's willingness to iterate by how little store he set on his in-progress drawings. Many of these priceless historical artifacts were covered with grocery lists, appointment times, and old phone he worked, he scribbled down the things he needed to remember on whatever was on hand--including his character sheets!

Yet it is precisely that willingness to build and discard disposable scaffolding that allowed Chuck to create timeless works of art.

How can you apply the power of scaffolding to what you do?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Focus and Serendipity: You Need Both

Technology critics like Nicholas Carr often complain that the Internet is hampering our ability to think. Facebook, and even more so Twitter, exemplify this trend.

Back during the ancient days of my youth, when dinosaurs roamed the planet, and shortly after fire was invented, I would communicate with my Stanford friends over the summer by (gasp) writing letters. As hard as this may be for some of you to believe, I would sit down with a pen and paper, and write out a lengthy message, usually over several pages--hey, if you're going to go through so much trouble and pay $0.25 for a stamp (yes, stamps cost that little then), you might as well get your money's worth.

By doing so, I was tapping into an epistolary tradition that goes all the way back to antiquity, and one which still generates sales for things like "The Collected Letters of Edgar Allen Poe."

Today, however, I suspect that people keep in touch with their college friends via Facebook and Twitter, with short messages and quick quips being the rule of the day.

And while this enables more frequent and casual conversation, I can't help but feel some agreement with the Carrs of the world--something is being lost, and I don't think I'm going to feel the same satisfaction picking up a copy of "The Collected Tweets of Scobleizer." (No offense, Robert! You're a great guy, but you're no Edgar Allen Poe. Then again, what the hell did Poe know about social networking?)

What's being lost is focus. Want an example of the power of focus? Think about how much you get done when you're on a long plane flight.

The work conditions are awful--you're stuck in a cramped, far from ergonomic seat. The tray table bangs into your knees, and if you have a 14" laptop like me, it barely fits, even with my elbows glued to my sides. There's a constant drone of engine noise, punctuated by screaming babies and random announcements.

Yet I find that I can get more done on a cross-country flight than just about anywhere else.

The key is focus--that horrendous environment offers few distractions to tempt me away from the matter at hand. I'm literally belted in and unable to move, and the process of visiting the lavatory (without tampering or disabling the smoke detectors) is so arduous that I avoid it as much as possible. I have no choice but to focus.*

* This effect is so strong that I'm considering rigging up a closet as a workspace--just enough room to sit and work, no windows, no distractions. And cheap too!

And that is the truth behind Carr's argument. The Internet is a good thing. Having the collective knowledge of humanity a single search away is a good thing. Staying in touch with the people in your life is a good thing. But as my youthful letter writing and the cross-country flight effect demonstrates, sometimes constraints provide a discipline and motivation that choice does not.

But while Facebook and Twitter are bad for focus, they are very good at providing something else which is just as important: Serendipity.

Creativity and insight often come from the unexpected, and few things provide better raw material for serendipity than the massive firehoses of data that are our Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Through these tools, I can follow the activities of far more people than ever before. I've made tons of great discoveries through these tools. For example, if I hadn't set up a Conversely Twitter group for my HBS class, I never would have discovered that my old classmate Lindsey Mead has jettisoned the corporate world to focus on her writing, and is producing intensely introspective and fascinating work. After seldom speaking during our two years in school, we're now corresponding on a regular basis.

The same holds true for business as well. As my friend TK puts it, "I know that whatever I need to know or do, Chris has a contact that can help." I'm far from a professional networker. But as I've noted before, simply meeting and staying in touch with interesting people tends to produce good results. Serendipity + Persistence is a powerful combination.

And so we face a paradox; technology makes us smarter by providing more opportunities for serendipity, but technology makes us dumber by impairing our ability to focus.

As usual, the answer lies in Aristotle's Golden Mean. Both focus and serendipity have their place, and we need to take advantage of both by alternating between the two.

Friend and follow away on Facebook and Twitter, and let the stream of serendipity wash over you. But don't forget to book that flight to Singapore (or empty out that closet in the hallway) so you can refine the raw material of serendipity into something original and powerful through the application of focus. The two concepts should feed into each other as yin and yang to produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Which reminds that I've put in 30 minutes of focus on this post, time to hit Hacker News Daily for some serendipity!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Happiest Man In Silicon Valley

I recently did a happiness interview with Gretchen Rubin. In case you didn't catch it, here is a link, and here are some of the highlights:

Q: Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

A: The biggest thing that I see that detracts from people’s happiness is the tendency to compare themselves with others. But the subtlest thing that most people miss that detracts from their happiness is the tendency to "check the boxes" and half-ass things. As Yoda said, "Do or do not, there is no try." When you half-ass something just to say you did it, you’re putting yourself in a subservient mentality--"I have to do this because someone told me to." Decide what you want to or need to do, and then do it with all your power.

Q: Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn't--or vice versa?

A: When I introduced myself to people, and they asked me, "What do you do?" I would reply, "I am an unemployed bum." And that willingness to accept reality and acknowledge helped me recover both my happiness and my career far more quickly than anyone might expect.

Liked what you read? Read the entire article.

Why Admire LeBron? For Pursuing Happiness.

I've written at length about LeBron's unpleasant summer, but to be fair, I do want to point out a reason to admire LeBron. Here's an excerpt from an interview with a GQ reporter who followed LeBron around during "The Decision" process:

"[LeBron James] thrives, he's happiest, he does his best when he is surrounded by friends. He just didn't feel like that was happening in Cleveland. It seems pretty clear that Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh aren't just the best talent he can surround himself with, but they're a combination of talent and friends. He's looking for camaraderie. That's the formula that has worked for him -- and the only one that has worked for him. And that comes out of his early childhood when he was completely alone in the apartment he shared with his mother, not knowing his father, not knowing when or if she'd come home. It seems to me these were formative scarring moments that created this need for constant intimate contact. It came across to me watching the documentary. It came across to me reading Buzz's book. And it especially came across to me when he was introduced to the fans in Miami with Wade and Bosh by his side. He's not just looking to win. He's also looking to be happy, and he's only happy when he's surrounded by people he cares for and trusts. He's at his best when he has his brothers in arms around him and he's at his worst when he's completely alone."

While there's a lot to criticize in how he implemented his decision, at its core, LeBron had the self-awareness to know what kind of situation would make him happy, and decided to prioritize the relationships that matter to him over money or his reputation. And that I cannot criticize.

VCs, Dipshit Companies, And Super Angels

There's been a predictable furor over the brewing feud between super angels and VCs, especially with folks like Mike Arrington fueling the fire by quoting a VC as saying, "An entire generation of entrepreneurs are building dipshit companies and hoping that they sell to Google for $25 million."

While I'm sympathetic to both sides (I have been fortunate to be involved in many VC financings, and I count both VCs and super angels as personal friends), and while I have stated that I think angel investing is going through a bubble, the fact remains that the super angel phenomenon is not just a fad, but rather a reflection of important structural factors.

The core issue is that the startup environment has changed. It used to be that the model was for companies to take VC, grow, and IPO after 4 quarters of profitable growth.

Then the dot com boom came and ruined it for everyone.

Today, IPOs are practically non-existent, which means that we all have to deal with the reality of smaller exits.

To a VC, many startups are "dipshit companies" because they can never get to a scale that will generate "VC returns"--defined as a 10X return on a $5 million investment that buys you 1/3 of the company. For that to work, you have to sell for at least $150 million ($5 million X 10 X 3) and probably more.

But for a founder with a majority stake, a $25 million exit is life changing. Hell, a $10 million exit is life changing.

Layer in the fact that VCs go for a home-run strategy that results in no money to the founder in a super-majority of cases, and it's no wonder that entrepreneurs are flocking to super angels like Dave.

One super angel I know put it to me this way: "I invested because I knew that in the worst-case scenario, Google would still buy the company for a few million just to get the founders as employees, which would allow me to make my money back."

Finally, the other reason why entrepreneurs are flocking to super angels is simple: They provide VC-style help without most of the BS. This distinguishes them from traditional angels, who provide very little help, and even more BS than the VCs.

In the old days, no one wanted to deal with angel investors. They were a pain in the ass, didn't get new business models, and were likely to cause more hassle than VCs. They were funding of last resort.

Today, super angels are the funding of first resort. They make decisions fast (in Dave McClure's case, after one meeting), they have great connections, and they don't tell you how to run your company. What's not to like?

Okay, so maybe a guy like Dave is pretty busy--a typical VC partner might have 10 active investments, Dave does that many per month--but if you follow him, you know that A) He never sleeps, and B) He's always there for his entrepreneurs.

Side note: Ironically enough, I ended up proposing what amounts to a Super Angel fund back in 2005:

Yet another case of my seeing the future and saying, "But enough about that billion-dollar idea, what's for dinner?"

Monday, August 16, 2010

There Is No Upside In Being A Jerk

The world is full of jerks. But it must be some kind of innate instinct, because there is no upside to being a jerk.

One of the first questions I ever responded to on Quora asked if being nice was an advantage for VCs. The consensus was that success trumps affability, and that entrepreneurs would rather take money from an asshole with the Midas Touch than an ineffectual saint.

But while folks seem eager to write off the benefits of likeability, they seem to overlook the utter lack of benefits for jerkiness.*

* There is one famed advantage of being a dick--at least a according to pick-up artists, who claim that putting women down is the key to making them more vulnerable to seduction. Or, as my friend Andrew (no slouch in the seduction department in his younger days) put it, "Chicks dig two things. Monet, and assholes."

Just because it isn't always a crippling disadvantage doesn't mean that superdickery is the secret to success. Unless you've got a darn good reason for being a jerk (beyond "I'm Keith Hernandez!") you'd be wise to opt for kindness.

Just this summer, we've seen two major figures, one from the world of sports, and one from business, whose jerk moves cost them dearly.

Before this summer, LeBron James was the most popular player in the NBA.

In a single one-hour TV special, he turned himself into the most hated figure in the game by breaking up with his hometown on national television and revealing himself as a raving egomaniac who was "taking his talents to South Beach," rather than simply "signing a contract with the Miami Heat."

In retrospect, perhaps the giant "Chosen One" tattoo he wore across his back was a warning sign.

When he replaced Carly Fiorina as CEO of HP, Mark Hurd was considered the anti-celebrity CEO, a guy who would place company ahead of self. And he succeeded magnificently.

When he took over, HP was a printer company with a languishing computer business. Today, HP is the world's largest technology company (ahead of IBM) with leadership in computing and services, while HP's profit and stock price have skyrocketed.

But in a shocking turn of events, Hurd was forced to resign after a scandal involving a sexual harassment lawsuit, erroneous expense reports, and an unprofessional relationship with a "consultant" who also appeared on a cougar-oriented reality TV show.

It probably didn't help his cause that personal friend (and famed philanderer) Larry Ellison leaped to his defense with a very public rebuke of the HP board.

The funny thing is, if you strip away the jerk behavior, LeBron and Mark Hurd's actions weren't enough to justify tarring and feathering.

LeBron was a free agent, and had a right to choose where to play. In going to the Miami Heat, he accepted less money and a lesser role in order to maximize his chances of winning a championship. It was the way he announced his decision--a true jerk move--that brought down the scorn of the nation.

Similarly, Mark Hurd was cleared of the harassment charges by an internal investigation, and everyone involved seems to agree that there was no sexual relationship. Rather, it was the sin of erroneous expense reports--for barely $20,000, a drop in the bucket in comparison to his multi-million dollar salary--that lead to his downfall.

I have no idea why LeBron and Hurd did what they did. I suspect that it was a mix of entitlement (how often does an NBA superstar or Fortune 500 CEO hear the word "No"?) and hubris ("I'm LeBron James!"). But I do know this:

1) Being a jerk didn't provide them with any real benefits

2) Being a jerk did lead directly to their fall from grace

So the next time you're tempted to indulge your inner Keith Hernandez, ask youself, "What's the upside in being a jerk?"

The Dangers of Unrealistic Wallet Image

Every once in a while, I come across a blog post that suddenly crystallizes something I've always known but never consciously realized. This week, it was this post by Sasha Pasulka, drawing the analogy between the issues some women have with body image with the issues men have with wallet image:

"I know how it feels to walk into a room and feel like I’m the least attractive woman in it, to glance around and feel that all the other women are more beautiful -- skinnier, longer hair, perkier breasts, fuller lips, better skin -- to feel invisible and frightened and worthless in comparison, like everything else I’ve done and been in my life is meaningless because my thighs actually touch each other. But for every photo of a stunning, size-zero woman that runs on the cover of a magazine, a thousand articles are written about the physical expectations we have for women and what it does to their psyche. When I feel like I don’t measure up to a certain standard, I’m surrounded by media voices screaming at me: "She's airbrushed! She’s had plastic surgery! She had a team of twenty hair and makeup professionals! You have a million other wonderful qualities, and it’s a waste of your time to obsess on your appearance." We don’t do this for men. When Forbes runs a cover featuring a business tycoon, and inside he talks about his company’s success and his 22-year-old supermodel girlfriend and his eight homes in Europe, no one rushes to a laptop to bang out a piece about the pressure we put on men to make ridiculous sums of money, the pressure to provide generously for spouses and children that comes along with the male "privilege" of historically being a family’s sole wage-earner. No one’s screaming at men that they’re about as likely to start the next Facebook as I am to wake up tomorrow a dead ringer for Penelope Cruz. And I think that matters, and I think it's worth saying again: We put a lot of pressure on men to build empires and to get rich doing it. And men process this deeply, and it can be as insidious as a young woman's obsession with being thin. And we don’t talk about it."

I first noticed this when I was at business school. My classmates and I would eagerly read the latest Forbes or Fortune, and devour the puff pieces on entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and Michael Dell. I was talking with one of my friends (very successful, of course) who lamented that he felt like he was falling behind--at age 28, he still hadn't founded a major company or made a billion dollars.

I felt compelled to point out that the chances of becoming a billionaire were pretty darn slim. In fact, when I wrote my post "MBA vs. NBA" back in 2001, there were only 298 billionaires, in comparison to 384 NBA players:

"Entrepreneurs often beat themselves up for their lack of "success." Sometimes they're right to do it. But often, it's because they're comparing themselves against an unrealistic competitive set. For example, a budding retailer might compare herself to Jeff Bezos (or maybe not, given the current market!). A hardware entrepreneur might look at Michael Dell, and a budding software mogul might look at Bill Gates, or, god forbid, Larry Ellison (though if you feel inadequate because you don't a) own a Russian fighter jet, b) race in dangerous sailing competitions, or c) hire an endless stream of attractive young assistants, you've got bigger problems). The problem is, these success stories are six-sigma events--way outside the standard deviation. According to Forbes, there are 298 billionaires in the US (probably less by now--editor's note). In contrast, there are 384 players in the NBA. Let us consider the NBA, the world's most glamorous sports league. I've seen commentators cluck cluck about how terrible it is that thousands of underprivileged African American boys dream about making it to the NBA. It's like a lottery, they say, only the tiniest fraction succeed. How reasonable is it then, for the millions of entrepreneurs and dreamers who someday want to be billionaires to compare themselves to the mere 298 billionaires?"

Yet Sasha's post reframed the problem for me in a fresh and pointed way. What we're really talking about here, in its extreme form, is Wealth Anorexia--a disease of distorted self-image that causes even the wildly successful to pursue their obsession beyond a reasonable point.

And to Sasha's point, unlike the traditional form of anorexia, the plight of ambitious men doesn't receive Movie-of-the-Week treatment or its own PSAs. We don't have a Dove Beauty campaign to show what real men's finances look like (though perhaps we should--the closest thing is my pal Ramit's Money Diaries, and even there, the only two male diarists focus on showing how well they're doing, rather than confessing their financial sins--in marked contrast to the far more numerous female diarists).

Wealth anorexia is a problem for men. And until we come to look upon the business press puff pieces as the male equivalent of airbrushed cover models and breathless Cosmo profiles of celebrity bodies (Steve Jobs = Angelina Jolie; Mark Zuckerberg = Scarlett Johansson; who's Paris Hilton?), the problem will only get worse.