Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My 20-minute secret to being insanely productive

I'm known for cramming a lot into my day. Here's a day in the life blog post from 2009 which describes a moderately busy day.

If anything, I'm busier now than I was then! But fortunately, I've been able to compensate with a simple system that makes me more productive.

At the beginning of the year, I started using the Pomodoro Technique:

Here's the official (or at least the Wikipedia) definition:

There are five basic steps to implementing the technique:

1) decide on the task to be done
2) set the pomodoro (timer) to 25 minutes
3) work on the task until the timer rings; record with an x
4) take a short break (3-5 minutes)
5) every four "pomodoros" take a longer break (15–30 minutes)

I've modified the technique to suit my life in a couple of important ways.

1) As I've noted before, I spend the first pomodoro of every work day figuring out what I need to accomplish that day.

2) I've set my pomodoro timer, the free Android app Pomodroido, to 20 minutes, not 25. My reasoning is that no matter how unpleasant the task, I can do anything for 20 minutes. But 25 sounds like a long time.  Oh what a difference 5 minutes can make!

3) For my longer pomodoro breaks, I either eat lunch or take a nap. No sense in wasting the time, eh?

It's a rare day that I don't get at least 90% of what's on my list done.

Besides being a time management technique, pomodoros are also an energy management technique. As the work of Jim Loehr has shown, it's more important to manage energy than time.

I don't work insane hours (unless you count all my blog posts), yet I get more done because for each pomodoro, I'm diving in and performing focused work, without hesitation or distraction.

Pomodroido is free, so it won't cost you anything to try it out. Let me know how it goes for you!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Whenever possible, begin the startup process with a problem

The startup world today loves hacks. Growth hacks. Venture hacks. Social hacks.

The result ends up being a focus on the means, rather than the ends. And I think that's a shame.

In one sense, hacking a startup is a great thing. Who doesn't want to get rich quick? I certainly wouldn't turn down easy money.

But in another sense, it's a terrible thing. One of the reasons so many people in Silicon Valley view Wall Street with contempt is that we see the hedge fund guys as arbitragers who don't add value, yet make buckets of money simply by pushing paper around.

Today, I was debating with a friend about a particular company. I was created in a blaze of hype, applied a lot of growth hacks (many of which I consider deceptive and bad for the user), and sold to a public company for a price that made its investors a tidy profit, and its founders wealthy. (Loyal Twitter followers can guess the identity of this company)

He admired their skill, which I freely acknowledged. But I feel like their startup is like the Wall Street idea of entrepreneurship--pull a bunch of levers and make a mint without ever creating value for users.

Om Malik approached this issue from a different angle when discussing Airtime and Color, two wildly hyped yet unsuccessful ventures:

Om sums it up very well:

Airtime suffers the same malaise as Color, the other liberally-funded startup: they don’t really solve a problem that is acute or hasn’t been solved before....It doesn’t matter who you were, how great your resume is and how many billions you have in the bank.
Both Color and Airtime seem like startups that were created to enrich their founders and/or keep them relevant, not to solve a real problem.

Silicon Valley is special because we sometimes manage to change the world. And that happens when we focus on real problems. When we get caught up in how much we raised, or how we were able to use hacks to drive growth without building a great product, we're no better than the people we revile as vampire squid.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Take Heart, Over-30 Entrepreneurs

I've written before about ageism in Silicon Valley:

It's a well-known fact that VCs prefer to fund young founders. In its summary of a recent Churchill Club talk by Vinod Khosla, Business Insider writes:

"[Khosla] explained that the older a person gets, the longer it takes to adjust to change. People over 45, he says, are noticeably slower in adopting new tech than, say, teenagers.

Because things keep changing faster, there's less time to adapt to each change. And that means that suddenly, the quick adapters are the smartest people in the room.

"With all this rapid change, more leadership is coming from much younger people," Khosla said. "I'm spending more time listening to people under 25 then I ever did before."

In many ways, it's tough to argue when the youth-worshipers can point to Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg.

Yet if you're over 30 (like me), there's no need to throw in the towel.

Think back to the startup that started the Internet boom.

Netscape (a name that seems as distant to entrepreneurs today as Osborne Computers did to Marc Andreesen back then) was founded in 1994. 50-year-old Jim Clark partnered with the 22-year-old Andreesen to start the very first Internet company.

The combination of youth and experience helped propel the company to a multi-billion dollar market cap barely a year later.

The ageists are right in this sense--I wouldn't trust a 40-year-old to have an intuitive sense for what 18-year-olds college students want in a product. But neither would I trust a 22-year-old who'd never worked at a "real company" to have an intuitive sense for what a 40-year-old IT manager would want in a product.

Whether you're young or old, your background and experiences provide strengths and weaknesses. It's your job to build a team that capitalizes on the former and compensates for the latter.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sometimes, the Internet surprises you with its sensitivity and grace

I don't listen to much current music, subscribing to the theory that listening to fossil rock and pretending it's still the 1990s keeps me young.  Therefore, I have no idea what Fiona Apple has been up to since releasing her debut album, Tidal, in 1996, which included her omnipresent hit, "Criminal."

But I was touched when I read that she had cancelled her latest concert tour to be with her dying pet dog:
"I just can’t leave her now, please understand.
If I go away again, I’m afraid she’ll die and I won’t have the honor of singing her to sleep, of escorting her out.
Sometimes it takes me 20 minutes to pick which socks to wear to bed.
But this decision is instant.
These are the choices we make, which define us.
I will not be the woman who puts her career ahead of love and friendship.
I am the woman who stays home and bakes Tilapia for my dearest, oldest friend.
And helps her be comfortable, and comforted, and safe, and important.
Many of us these days, we dread the death of a loved one. It is the ugly truth of Life, that keeps us feeling terrified and alone.
I wish we could also appreciate the time that lies right beside the end of time.
I know that I will feel the most overwhelming knowledge of her, and of her life and of my love for her, in the last moments.
I need to do my damnedest to be there for that.
Because it will be the most beautiful, the most intense, the most enriching experience of life I’ve ever known.
When she dies.
So I am staying home, and I am listening to her snore and wheeze, and reveling in the swampiest, most awful breath that ever emanated from an angel.
And I am asking for your blessing."
In itself, this beautifully expressed sentiment is touching.  But even more so is the reaction to it.

I ran across this story on UpRoxx, a network of crass, cynical, and snarky blogs that I discovered because of its satirical sports stories.

The regular commenters on the site seem to be constantly trying to outdo each other with scabrous expresses of disgust, intermixed with a genial crypto-misogynistic pervertedness.

And yet in the comments for the Apple story, these archly ironic hardasses admit their feelings and open up about their own experiences with their dogs.

Often, critics of modern culture see the internet as a cesspool of ignorance and hate (and that's just YouTube comments).  It's easy to believe that the bad will always drive out the good.  But sometimes, the internet surprises you with its sensitivity and grace.
I just can’t leave her now, please understand.
If I go away again, I’m afraid she’ll die and I won’t have the honor of singing her to sleep, of escorting her out.
Sometimes it takes me 20 minutes to pick which socks to wear to bed.
But this decision is instant.
These are the choices we make, which define us.
I will not be the woman who puts her career ahead of love and friendship.
I am the woman who stays home and bakes Tilapia for my dearest, oldest friend.
And helps her be comfortable, and comforted, and safe, and important.
Many of us these days, we dread the death of a loved one. It is the ugly truth of Life, that keeps us feeling terrified and alone.
I wish we could also appreciate the time that lies right beside the end of time.
I know that I will feel the most overwhelming knowledge of her, and of her life and of my love for her, in the last moments.
I need to do my damnedest to be there for that.
Because it will be the most beautiful, the most intense, the most enriching experience of life I’ve ever known.
When she dies.
So I am staying home, and I am listening to her snore and wheeze, and reveling in the swampiest, most awful breath that ever emanated from an angel.
And I am asking for your blessing.

Read more:
I just can’t leave her now, please understand.
If I go away again, I’m afraid she’ll die and I won’t have the honor of singing her to sleep, of escorting her out.
Sometimes it takes me 20 minutes to pick which socks to wear to bed.
But this decision is instant.
These are the choices we make, which define us.
I will not be the woman who puts her career ahead of love and friendship.
I am the woman who stays home and bakes Tilapia for my dearest, oldest friend.
And helps her be comfortable, and comforted, and safe, and important.
Many of us these days, we dread the death of a loved one. It is the ugly truth of Life, that keeps us feeling terrified and alone.
I wish we could also appreciate the time that lies right beside the end of time.
I know that I will feel the most overwhelming knowledge of her, and of her life and of my love for her, in the last moments.
I need to do my damnedest to be there for that.
Because it will be the most beautiful, the most intense, the most enriching experience of life I’ve ever known.
When she dies.
So I am staying home, and I am listening to her snore and wheeze, and reveling in the swampiest, most awful breath that ever emanated from an angel.
And I am asking for your blessing.

Read more:

Does being a psychopath help you start a company?

I recently wrote about how being a jerk isn't the best way to maintain high standards:

Yet this isn't to say that bad behavior is always detrimental to starting a company.

Indeed, given the odds, some level of delusion is a necessity for entrepreneurs--after all, only 6 out of every 1,000 entrepreneurs who seek angel funding are going to make money for investors.

Now comes a study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that many of America's best presidents displayed psychopathic behavior patterns.

"Psychopath-like characteristics, especially fearless dominance, are linked to low social and physical apprehensiveness — personality traits that have been correlated with better-rated presidents in terms of their leadership skills, persuasiveness, crisis management and Congressional relations.

The analysis found that Theodore Roosevelt ranked highest in fearless dominance, followed by John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Rutherford Hayes, Zachary Taylor, Bill Clinton, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson and George W. Bush."

Interestingly enough, all the well-known presidents on the list (we'll leave aside Hayes, Taylor, and Van Buren for now) were and are both incredibly loved and loathed, depending on your political bent.  That "fearless dominance" translated into aggressive and transformative policies, including the Apollo project (Kennedy), the New Deal (FDR), a massive military build-up (Reagan), destroying the Bank of the United States (Jackson) and so on.

Fearless dominance also comes to mind when considering startup leaders like Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, as well as recent entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg, all of whom pursued their businesses with ruthless (and often frightening) dedication.

That being said, don't run out and start taking lessons from Season 6 of Dexter just yet--note that our two greatest presidents, who are universally loved, don't make the list.

You could hardly find better models for non-psychopathic leadership than George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Similarly, the history of Silicon Valley includes great leaders like Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett (the founders of the Valley!) who excelled as human beings as well as leaders.

To me, the key seems to be figuring out how to disentangle the "fearless" from the "dominance."  The truly great leaders are fearless, and that gives them the courage to lead by authentic persuasion, rather than fiat.

George Washington famously quelled an incipient revolt by his army's officers with a single speech:
"Before reading the letter, Washington, in an almost apologetic tone said, "Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown old in the service of my country and now find that I am growing blind." The eyes of most of his audience filled with tears. The content of the letter became irrelevant as the assembled officers realized that Washington had given as much or more in the service of the new nation as any of them. Within minutes, the officers voted unanimously to express confidence in Congress and their country."
If the only way for you to feel fearless is to exert dominance, it may be that "fearless dominance" is your path to psychopathic success.  But if you have true courage and wisdom, you'll be an even greater leader.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The value of a signal is inversely proportional to its frequency

In recent months, a host of startups have arisen that help keep me informed about my friends' information habits.

We've gone far beyond the days when we could simply follow people via RSS or our RSS readers and Twitter homepages are so choked with information that we generally only view a tiny subset.

I regularly visit only three of my Google Reader folders: People, Delicious, and Basketball. The ironically named "High Priority News" hasn't been visited in years. Same for "High Priority" and "Daily Reads."

What do my three lucky feeds have in common? Through very different mechanisms, they provide a high signal-to-noise ratio in a low-volume setting.

The People folder includes only a few selected friends; this allows me to actually read all of their posts.

The Delicious folder includes links from my two good friends, Ben Casnocha and Ramit Sethi, and are a great source of interesting information on some of my favorite topics.

The Basketball folder feeds my obsession with my favorite sport.

The first generation of aggregators simply created a firehose...and it's apparent this isn't sustainable.

The second generation includes things like Summify (bought by Twitter) which sends me a daily email digest of the links and tweets that are most popular with my friends. I actually find these very useful, and they are a part of my daily information diet.

But I'm starting to see some third generation aggregators that are going down precisely the wrong path. These products put the emphasis on discovery, and are even more of a firehose than their first-generation predecessors.

Privacy concerns aside, I don't want to know all the articles my friends are reading--I only want to know the ones they care about enough to save to Delicious or tweet about.

Giving me direct access to their reading habits is a bug, not a feature. I want less information, not more.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Obama uses science to beat Romney

The anti-science bent of certain elements of the Republican party (Creationism anyone?) is obviously repugnant to many people, including me. Now it appears that stance came back to bite Mitt Romney during the presidential election.

The Obama campaign secretly assembled a team of famous experts in psychology, persuasion, and behavioral economics to plan out campaign strategy and messaging:
This election season the Obama campaign won a reputation for drawing on the tools of social science. The book “The Victory Lab,” by Sasha Issenberg, and news reports have portrayed an operation that ran its own experiment and, among other efforts, consulted with the Analyst Institute, a Washington voter research group established in 2007 by union officials and their allies to help Democratic candidates.

Less well known is that the Obama campaign also had a panel of unpaid academic advisers. The group — which calls itself the “consortium of behavioral scientists,” or COBS — provided ideas on how to counter false rumors, like one that President Obama is a Muslim. It suggested how to characterize the Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, in advertisements. It also delivered research-based advice on how to mobilize voters.

“In the way it used research, this was a campaign like no other,” said Todd Rogers, a psychologist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former director of the Analyst Institute. “It’s a big change for a culture that historically has relied on consultants, experts and gurulike intuition.” 
This team of scientists provided concrete, actionable strategies to the Obama campaign:
For example, Dr. Fiske’s research has shown that when deciding on a candidate, people generally focus on two elements: competence and warmth. “A candidate wants to make sure to score high on both dimensions,” Dr. Fiske said in an interview. “You can’t just run on the idea that everyone wants to have a beer with you; some people care a whole lot about competence.” 

Mr. Romney was recognized as a competent businessman, polling found. But he was often portrayed in opposition ads as distant, unable to relate to the problems of ordinary people. 

When it comes to countering rumors, psychologists have found that the best strategy is not to deny the charge (“I am not a flip-flopper”) but to affirm a competing notion. “The denial works in the short term; but in the long term people remember only the association, like ‘Obama and Muslim,’ ” said Dr. Fox, of the persistent false rumor. 

The president’s team affirmed that he is a Christian. 

At least some of the consortium’s proposals seemed to have found their way into daily operations. Campaign volunteers who knocked on doors last week in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada did not merely remind people to vote and arrange for rides to the polls. Rather, they worked from a script, using subtle motivational techniques that research has shown can prompt people to take action.
I recently wrote about the Obama campaign as the heir to Lee Atwater's mantle of ruthless, decisive campaigning; it seems that the team there also inherited his mantle of applying science and technology to winning elections.

There's an old saying, "Don't bring a knife to a gun fight."  The Republican Party better start focusing on applying science, or it will be doing precisely that in its campaigns.

Psychology is the Physics of the 21st Century

"It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives."

A few months back, I was asked, "What do you think we'll look back upon centuries from now and marvel that we didn't understand?"  There are plenty of things we know are bonkers, but which were considered normal in the past--the value of bleeding the sick, for example.

After thinking about if for a few minutes, I concluded that future generations will look back upon our era and marvel at our ignorance of human behavior.  The rise of positive psychology and behavioral economics represent a new human science that promises changes as vast and impactful as physics in the 20th century.

I even created a slideshow summarizes the principal findings for newcomers to the topic.

This morning, I ran across a David Brooks op-ed that argues that emotional intelligence has dramatically increased in the past 50 years as our conception of manliness and family has changed.  We no longer expect or even praise cold, distant fathers who ignore their families.
The men who grew up in homes with warm parents were much more likely to become first lieutenants and majors in World War II. The men who grew up in cold, barren homes were much more likely to finish the war as privates.

Body type was useless as a predictor. Even social class had a limited effect. But having a warm childhood was powerful. “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”

In case after case, the magic formula is capacity for intimacy combined with persistence, discipline, order and dependability. The men who could be affectionate about people and organized about things had very enjoyable lives.

The big finding is that you can teach an old dog new tricks. The men kept changing all the way through, even in their 80s and 90s.

Over the past half-century or so, American culture has become more attuned to the power of relationships. Masculinity has changed, at least a bit.
Not only have our values changed, but even people who grew up under the old system have the ability to change and improve.

I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing how the world changes when we begin to remake the world to fit how our minds work, rather than vice versa!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I actually have something good to say about Occupy Wall Street

I'm not generally a fan of ill-defined protest movements, but I'll make an exception for a new initiative from Occupy Wall Street.

OWS is holding a benefit concert tomorrow that's called "The People's Bailout."  What's interesting is how the proceeds will be used:
OWS is going to start buying distressed debt (medical bills, student loans, etc.) in order to forgive it. As a test run, we spent $500, which bought $14,000 of distressed debt. We then ERASED THAT DEBT. (If you’re a debt broker, once you own someone’s debt you can do whatever you want with it — traditionally, you hound debtors to their grave trying to collect. We’re playing a different game. A MORE AWESOME GAME.)

This is a simple, powerful way to help folks in need — to free them from heavy debt loads so they can focus on being productive, happy and healthy. As you can see from our test run, the return on investment approaches 30:1. That’s a crazy bargain!
Now that's what I call a sensible approach to philanthropy--one that leverages the tools of capitalism.  If only all protest movements were smart enough to adopt high-leverage market-based mechanisms for change!

The Chicago Way: Obama as the heir to Lee Atwater

"They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. *That's* the *Chicago* way!" (The Untouchables

Not that long ago, the Republican Party was a ruthless election machine.  You may not have approved of its tactics (Willie Horton, anyone?) but you couldn't deny its results.

Now there's a new sheriff in town.  Republicans have tried to paint Barack Obama as a Chicago politician.  And they're right.  Obama's presidential campaigns have been masterpieces of electioneering.  And I'm not just talking about things like tapping into grassroots over the internet.

At every stage, the Obama campaign has showed a ruthless willingness to exploit any possible advantage, especially in terms of money.  In 2008, Obama turned down public financing so he could take advantage of his fundraising machine, and buried the much poorer McCain campaign.  McCain was likely to lose anyways, but no sense taking chances.

This cycle, the Obama campaign did something similar to Mitt Romney:

One Sunday in May, Mr. Messina, the manager of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, went to the president along with other top advisers and proposed an unorthodox strategy. The campaign, he said, wanted to spend heavily, starting immediately, on ads blasting away at Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

The idea, explained to the president in a PowerPoint presentation in the Roosevelt Room, was to shape voters' impressions with a heavy expenditure before Mr. Romney had the money to do it for himself. The plan defied conventional wisdom, which said a campaign should start slowly with a positive message and save money for the stretch run. And it could leave the president exposed later.
"If it doesn't work, we're not going to have enough money to go have a second theory in the fall," Mr. Messina said, according to people in the meeting.

The strategy also caught Mr. Romney at his most vulnerable time. The Republican nominee had been damaged by the bruising primary season. He limped out of it in mid-April battered and short on money to defend himself.

His top advisers faced the harsh reality that no matter how much money they raised for the general election, they couldn't, under election law, spend it until Mr. Romney officially claimed his party's nomination in late August. Mr. Romney would have to weather months of negative ads without the financial resources to respond forcefully.
This is tough-minded, hard-nosed campaigning.  Obama's campaign broke with conventional wisdom and attacked when the opposition was fiscally vulnerable.  It's like kicking a guy when he's down, and if you've ever been around me when I'm watching an action movie, you'd know how much I favor that strategy.  If there's a woman in peril who kicks her assailant in the groin and runs while he's on the ground, you'll hear me shout, "No, you idiot, kick him when he's down!  You don't have to run if you fracture his skull and kill him!"

You don't have to admire the tactics or even the candidate to appreciate watching a master at work.*

* As one friend (who voted for Obama) noted when I described my admiration, "Too bad his team doesn't bring the same competence to governing!"

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Is Manliness Hazardous to Your Health?

"Well, I'm not the world's most masculine man / But I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man"
--The Kinks (singing about a transvestite homosexual lover)

I am not noted as a totem of masculinity.  I don't repair cars.  I let my wife program the VCR.  I eat arugula almost every day.

And yet, when I tore the ligaments in my pinkie earlier this year, I refused to go to the doctor.  Instead, I asked my other basketball playing friends for their advice, and bought a splint at Walgreens.

Just last week, Sean Glass asked me about my splint, and after hearing the explanation, showed me his own mangled pinkies.  We laughed, and not one of the other men at the table said something like, "You know, maybe you should go see a doctor."

Later in the week, I suffered a concussion at work, then drove home afterwards.  I didn't tell my wife until I got home because I figured she'd insist on coming to pick me up if I told her about my injury.

I like to consider myself a rational and enlightened man--practically a SNAG (Sensitive New-Age Guy).  I'm okay with asking for help and showing vulnerability.  Yet even I behave in bizarrely masochistic ways, as illustrated above.  Why?

And while these minor injuries may not seem like a big deal, is our pursuit of manliness costing us in other ways?  I was struck by a recent piece from Michael Schwalbe, "The Hazards of Manhood," about the consequences and politics of manly stoicism:
Most American men know perfectly well the qualities they must display to be considered fully creditable as men: power, competitiveness, and toughness. This turns out to be enormously useful for generating profit. Just give men opportunities to display manhood in these ways and they’ll do things that add to the bottom line, even if it’s to their own detriment.

Like John Henry, a working-class man’s desire to appear strong and tough will often lead him to lift more weight, keep working despite pain, and forgo safety measures that slow him down and suggest fear or vulnerability. To appear competitive, he may strive to outdo his fellow workers, bringing a smile to the boss’s face.

Middle-class and upper-middle-class men do the equivalent. To display toughness, they work long hours and exalt efficiency over conscience and compassion. They compete for promotions, putting work first in their lives, lest they be seen as wimpy or wussy—sexist code words for “feminine” or “womanly.”

This kind of manhood striving is driven by a contradiction: To be a real man in U.S. society, one must have or display power—the capacity to exert control over one’s self and the surrounding world—but the fact is that most men in a capitalist society have little or no power. For most men, striving for manhood status is an attempt to evade this contradiction, to escape the psychic pain it causes.
I'm reminded, curiously enough, of the movie "Sin City."  Mickey Rourke plays Marv, a tough ex-con who helps avenge a murder.  At one point, a voiceover notes, "Most people think Marv is crazy. He just had the rotten luck of being born in the wrong century. He'd be right at home on some ancient battlefield swinging an axe into somebody's face. Or in a Roman arena, taking his sword to other gladiators like him."

According to Schwalbe, in some sense, all of us men are like Marv (even those of us who make our living with our words, rather than with our fists).  We still feel the atavistic desire to demonstrate our masculinity with toughness, even to our own detriment.

We can't change who we are; millions of years of evolution are at work.  But we can be aware of the dangers of manliness, and work to ameliorate its effects.

Now if you excuse me, I have to start stretching my pinkie so I'll be able to play basketball this morning.  It gets pretty violent in the paint.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Boosting Brainpower Without the Carbs

I'm a low-carb guy, thanks to my buddy Dave Asprey, who assures me of its benefits.  But one of the things that's worried me about the diet is the role of glucose in willpower.

Baumeister's work seemed to indicate that exercising executive function depletes levels of blood glucose--the famous example of Israeli parole boards comes to mind.  Simply drinking a sugary soda seemed to restore the executive function.

But for someone dedicated to the low-carb lifestyle, the thought of chugging a Sprite is anathema.  Even an orange juice seems like a remarkable indulgence.

Fortunately, it turns out that the brain is even stranger than we think.  It's not the sugar in the's the mere taste of sugar that restores our brainpower:
Crucially, half the participants completed the Stroop challenge while gargling sugary lemonade, the others while gargling lemonade sweetened artificially with Splenda. The participants who gargled, but did not swallow, the sugary (i.e. glucose-containing) lemonade performed much better on the Stroop task.

The participants in the glucose condition didn't consume the glucose and even if they had, there was no time for it to be metabolised. So this effect can't be about restoring low glucose levels. Rather, Sanders' team think glucose binds to receptors in the mouth, which has the effect of activating brain regions involved in reward and self-control - the anterior cingulate cortex and striatum.
 In other words, I can chug all the soda I want, as long as I spit it out.  Now if we could only do something about the cavities that would result....

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Change is the friend of the new

I was listening to the Longform podcast interview with Janet Reitman.

In the interview, Reitman talks about how in the world of journalism, there are journalists that everyone knows are past their prime. Yet because of their popularity and reputation, they continue to get the plum assignments and (unintentionally) block the path of the young journalists behind them.

This accounts for some of what we often view as gender bias in the workplace--the old boy's club is full of old boys, because that's who was allowed in during the 1950s.

There's a valuable lesson to be learned--if you want to advance, and you don't qualify for the old boy's club (perhaps because you're not a boy!), find a field where change is happening.

When change upends an industry, it creates an opportunity for new winners to emerge, since the power of incumbency is reduced or even reversed.

This factor is behind Silicon Valley's belief that it is a meritocracy. The irony of course, is that any meritocracy in Silicon Valley springs from the pace of change, not the people who believe themselves unbiased.

Every generation of Silicon Valley believes in meritocracy, but then recruits people based on similarity. 30 years ago, it was young white men from Stanford. Today, it's young white and Asian men from Stanford.

But the constant change wrought by technological advance doesn't play favorites. It scrambles the playing field in ways that often penalize incumbents.

3 Fox News Stats That Doom the Republican Party (as we know it)

In the wake of Barack Obama's victory in the presidential election, as well as the Republican Party's weak showing in the Senate races (largely due to self-inflicted candidates), it would serve the party's leaders well to consider a number of statistics which I got from Fox News, of all places:

Regardless of how one feels about Fox News' "fair and balanced" approach to news, I think it's safe to say that it is one outlet that is unlikely to present poll results that are biased against the Republican Party.

The statistics that caught my eye centered on demograhics:

Non-whites made up 28 percent of the electorate, up a bit from 27 percent in 2008.  This group largely backed Obama:  71 percent of Hispanics (it was 67 percent last time), and 93 percent of blacks (down a touch from 95 percent).

Republican challenger Mitt Romney won among white voters by 20 percentage points.  That’s up from John McCain’s edge of +12 points in 2008.  In addition, the share of votes cast by whites was lower (72 percent) than it has been going back to at least 1992. 
The Republican Party is winning by a landslide among white voters...and it's not enough.  White voters set an all time low in the percentage of voters, and given demographics, that number is only going to keep heading down.

Meanwhile, despite a generally better election performance by Romney than McCain, Romney somehow managed to do even worse among Hispanics.  Guess which population group is the fastest growing?

Meanwhile, age also played a major role:
Young voters were important to giving Obama his first term.  Voters under age 30 showed up again this time:  They represented 19 percent of all voters, one point higher than the 18 percent in 2008.  Even so, they didn’t back him as strongly this time: 60 percent -- down six points.
Seniors backed Romney by 56-44 percent, mostly unchanged from 2008.
As one article I read noted, every four years, a new cohort of young voters replaces the older voters who died during the intervening years.  It's impressive that Mitt maintained his party's strength among seniors, but the passage of years is likely to reduce that group's relative conservatism.

And then there's gender:
Women, a traditional Democratic voting group, backed Obama by 11 points -- about the same as by 13 points in 2008. Even so, married women backed Romney by 7 points (an improvement from McCain’s +3 showing).
Men backed Romney (52-45 percent), and married men backed him by an even wider margin (60-38 percent).
The good news for the Republicans is that they have the support of married men and women.  The bad news?  Guess what, yet another group whose numbers are in decline.

So to sum up: The Republican Party is strong among groups that are on the decline or dying.  In four years, the country will be browner, seniors will be more liberal, and there will probably be even fewer married couples.

If an entrepreneur or CEO came to me and said, "My marketing is going to appeal to shrinking demographic groups, while alienating growing ones," I'd fire them immediately.  What does that tell you about the leadership of the Republican Party?

Sunday, November 04, 2012

bukowski on writing

so you want to be a writer
if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don't do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don't do it.
if you're doing it for money or
don't do it.
if you're doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don't do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don't do it.
if it's hard work just thinking about doing it,
don't do it.
if you're trying to write like somebody else,
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of you,
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.
if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you're not ready.
don't be like so many writers,
don't be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don't be dull and boring and
pretentious, don't be consumed with self-love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to sleep
over your kind.
don't add to that.
don't do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don't do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don't do it.
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.
and there never was.

(H/T Brain Pickings)

When people ask me, how can you tell if someone is a writer, I answer simply, "They write."  Everything else is window dressing.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

If you don't succeed with your startup. It's not your fault. If you're not successful, it is your fault

When startups fail (and the vast majority must, by the laws of probability), it's hard not to search for a scapegoat. After all, doesn't everyone deserve a glowing profile in TechCrunch?

Often, embittered entrepreneurs fall back on two explanations: Luck, and connections.

The luck-blamers take the position that startups are a crapshoot. "It's all a matter of luck. If we weren't unlucky, I would be Mark Zuckerberg."

The connections-conspiracy theorists take the opposite position--"they" are rigging the game. "Everyone knows that she'd buddies with Arrington. That's why they get all that coverage."

They're both right.

Luck plays a huge role in startup success. Out of every 1,000 startups, only 6 succeed in making money for investors. Do you think the right 6 always succeed?

Connections are also key. A VC can't fund a firm she never meets. It's no secret that the best way to get a meeting is to know the VC already.

But what gets me is that the blamers and haters don't take the next logical step--turning what they perceive as the world's unfairness to their advantage.

If you think it's all about luck, why aren't you trying more things?

If you think it's all about connections, why aren't you out trying to make those connections?

If you think you know the formula for success (getting lucky, knowing the right people), why not follow it?

If you don't succeed with your current startup. It's not your fault. But if you're not successful in your career, it is your fault.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The only ways hype helps startups is to a) raise money b) attract customers c) recruit employees

At TechCrunch Disrupt, legendary venture capitalist (and Sun Microsystems co-founder) Vinod Khosla warned entrepreneurs against the dangers of hype:

"During his TechCrunch Disrupt talk, Khosla explained that the key role of early investors is not funding, but personal attention and guidance. But generating buzz too early can inflate a startup’s market cap and make them a less lucrative investment of time and money for the top-tier advisors they need. That leads to critical missteps like poor hiring decisions that can doom a startup."

Hype has its place, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

The only ways hype helps is to a) raise money b) attract customers c) recruit employees. Before you stir up hype, make sure you know how it's going to help you with those three things. Because hype carries a lot of downside as well.

To paraphrase Peter Parker's Uncle Ben, "With unrealistic valuations come unrealistic expectations." The poster child here is Color, which was lambasted solely because of the amount of money it raised.

During the dot-com boom, fashion startup was similarly raked over the coals for raising (and squandering) $135 million.

I get a lot of entrepreneurs who want me to help them stir up hype. I always refuse to help them until they can explain exactly what they hope to accomplish with press. Far too often, people pursue hype for hype's sake.

Like dynamite, hype is a powerful tool. It can also blow your hand off. Use it wisely.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The real reason we wrongly worship workaholics

I hate it when the press worships workaholism.

The latest example is this Business Insider piece titled, "16 People Who Worked Incredibly Hard To Succeed.":

The article is filled with glowing praise for people who seem to spend all their waking hours working. Here are just a few of the headlines:

"Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz continues to work from home even after putting in 13 hour days."

"GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt spent 24 years putting in hundred hour weeks."

"Apple CEO Tim Cook routinely begins emailing employees at 4:30 in the morning...He used to hold staff meetings on Sunday night in order to prepare for Monday."

The message seems to be that the rich and successful got that way by working insanely long hours.

In a nutshell, this is insane. I used to believe this. In fact, I even wrote a blog post about this in 2006:

I'd had dinner with Ray Lane of KPCB, who acknowledged that he'd been a bad husband and father...and said he do it all over, because it helped him succeed.

Yet all the science now suggests that these insane levels of overwork are counterproductive.

Effort alone doesn't produce greatness; deliberate practice does, and it can only be practiced for about 4 hours per day:

Meanwhile, studies have shown for decades that sleeping less than 8 hours per night produces sleep deprivation, which is the equivalent of being legally drunk:

Meanwhile, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz's work on full engagement suggests that alternating brief bursts of intense work and recovery time better manages your energy levels and drives better results:

So why do we still worship workaholics? I think it boils down to our ambiguous relationship with success.

Attributing success to a punishing work schedule supports several beliefs:

1) It helps justify the disproportionate wealth that accrues to the successful--after all, they worked hard for that money, right? (Never mind that we never see pieces about immigrants working 2 jobs to support a family)

2) It gives us a built-in excuse to explain our own lack of success. We could be successful--if we were willing to work like a maniac. But it's just not worth it.

I appreciate hard work; I wrote the first draft of this post at 11:15 on a Friday night! But we'd be better off if the press focused on people who are successful at their career and in their broader life.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

An Evening With Frans Johansson & Chris Yeh (October 29)

I'll be interviewing my old friend and HBS classmate Frans Johansson at a special event on the evening of October 29.

The event, a joint production of the Brown and HBS alumni clubs, will give 40 lucky people the chance to hear Frans speak and get signed copies of his bestsellers, The Medici Effect and The Click Moment. (If you don't already own copies of the books, shame on you, but copies will be available for purchase at the event)

And did I mention that the event is free (though the books are not)?

Date: Monday, October 29th
Time: 6:30pm - 8:30pm
Place: Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Building
401 Quarry Rd., Rm 2209, Stanford, CA 94305
Cost: Free for Everyone

To RSVP for the event, email Mai Manchanda of the Brown alumni club and claim your spot.  HBS alumni should be sure to include your class year for our attendance records.

Here's a bit more about the event:

The Click Moment is the highly anticipated second book from Frans Johansson, the most perceptive innovation thought leader of his generation. Johansson’s debut, The Medici Effect, was an international bestseller that shattered assumptions about how great ideas happen. It made BusinessWeek and Amazon’s year-end “best-of” lists, and was lauded by innovation legend Clayton Christensen as “one of the most insightful books about managing innovation I have ever read.”

The Click Moment exceeds The Medici Effect’s promise many times over. Randomness may rule, but tomorrow’s smartest innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders know how to harness it to their advantage. Part intellectual thrill ride and part success blueprint that no one whose livelihood depends on big, disruptive ideas can afford to miss. The Click Moment obliterates the idea that in business you can plan, strategize, and analyze your way to success.

About Frans Johansson
Frans Johansson is the bestselling author of The Medici Effect. Raised in Sweden by his African-American/Cherokee mother and Swedish father, he speaks to audiences worldwide, from the boardrooms of America’s largest corporations to villages in developing countries. He has founded a software startup, a healthcare firm, a hedge fund, and the strategy consulting firm, The Medici Group. Frans holds a B.S. from Brown University and an MBA from Harvard Business School. His new book, The Click Moment, was just released in September by Penguin Portfolio.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Do We Really Need To Think That Hard About Bigotry?

I like to tell jokes. I don't do a lot of setup-punchline material, but I do toss off quips and cracks whenever I can--which is a good thing when it comes to workplace productivity:
Read more ›

The point is, I love humor and levity, and consider it an integral part of a good workplace.

However, I don't believe there's a good reason for making racist, sexist, homophobic, or religions jokes at work. The tricky part is defining what crosses over the line.

A recent post on Kotaku highlighted a blog post from a game developer who accused a former employer of tolerating a wide array of off-color jokes:
Read more ›

According to the post, which has since been removed (on advice of legal counsel, I'll bet), the blogger (who is African American) brought up what he felt were instances of racist, sexist, and homophobic speech, only to be told that he was being too sensitive.

He alleges that he was even told (in a sentence that made my blood run cold), "Let me tell you, it's ok to make jokes about slavery because that's over."

I don't know the truth of the allegations, though as Kotaku points out, the company in question actively celebrated its "brogrammer" culture. But I do want to address the issue of "being too sensitive."

The folks who wield that phrase as a weapon are trying to get away with a false dichotomy--the implication is that if you judge humor based on whether or not people get offended, you're attacking free speech, and giving the easily offended unwarranted veto power. Their preferred alternative, wrapped in the First Amendment, is to allow any speech, and to ask people to "lighten up."

That's BS. Just because it's hard to draw distinctions between free speech and being an asshole doesn't mean we shouldn't try. And just because we get it wrong sometimes doesn't mean the effort isn't worth it.

I think a lot about company culture, and I have yet to find an example where bigotry helped improve the bottom line.

Here are some simple principles that you should always follow:

1) Try not to hurt people.
2) Err on the side of caution
3) Listen to people, even when you disagree

If someone at my company told me another employee's jokes were making him or her uncomfortable, I'd ask for an explanation. Then I'd ask the joker to stop.

Does it really need to be any more complicated?

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Best Time of Day For 10 Key Activities

When it comes to doing cognitive work most adults perform best in the late morning.

Most people are more easily distracted from noon to 4 p.m.

Alertness tends to slump after eating a meal. Sleepiness also tends to peak around 2 p.m., making that a good time for a nap.

For most adults, problems that require open-ended thinking are often best tackled in the evening when they are tired.

Sending emails early in the day helps beat the inbox rush; 6 a.m. messages are most likely to be read.

Reading Twitter at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. can start your day on a cheery note.

If you want your tweets to be re-tweeted, post them between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Posts to Facebook at about 8 p.m. tend to get the most "likes."

Physical performance is usually best, and the risk of injury least, from about 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

To keep from packing on pounds, experts say, limit food consumption to your hours of peak activity.

Summarized from the Wall Street Journal story, "Your Body's Best Time for Everything."

32 Things that remind me of Kobe

The effects of the passage of time on grief are both good and bad.

The good is that the more time passes since the tragedy, the less you think of it.

The bad is that the more time passes, the less you remember the good things.

While being reminded of Kobe caused a twinge of sadness every time, sometimes I worry that not being reminded of Kobe is even worse.

That's why I've been keeping a list of the random parts of my daily life that remind me of her:
  1. The kitchen table (which she would sit under, making it inconvenient to push in the chairs)
  2. Coming in the front door (she'd come running out to greet us)
  3. Exiting the front door (she'd come running over to go outside)
  4. The chimes on on the front door (which are forever associated with Kobe's clicking paws)
  5. Lying in bed (and waiting for Kobe's clicking walk)
  6. Lying in bed with the kids (and waiting for Kobe to come over and paw me to get let out)
  7. Washing dishes in the kitchen (she would come over and sit in the middle of the kitchen floor, lying on her side)
  8. Any time everyone was in the bathroom (she would come in because she didn't want to get left out)
  9. The way she would want to jump in the car any time we had suitcases or bags, for fear of being left behind)
  10. The way she would lie in the middle of the floor in the worst possible locations
  11. Kobe's corner of the couch
  12. The top of the couch where she would crouch, which still bears her claw marks
  13. Any time I look over at the couch and catch a flash of black (Marissa's head; the iPad case) and for an instant I think it's her
  14. The sound of her claws running on our porch and the cobblestones
  15. The front door, where we kept her leash and collar
  16. The sound of the front gate, which I heard every time I took her for a walk
  17. The strange urge to go outside for a walk at certain times of day (8 AM, 7 PM)
  18. Every time I talk with TK in the morning, which I've done while walking Kobe for over a decade
  19. The front porch in front of our home office, where Kobe would lie down while outside
  20. Kobe turning the corner towards the back yard, which she would do a dead run, pretty much every time, often accompanied by squealing children
  21. The fact that Kobe would use the holes in our fence to go roaming in the neighbors' yards. She'd take a long time to come back when called, and have a satisfied and unrepentant look when she returned.
  22. Brushing my teeth, then looking over at Kobe sleeping in the hallway
  23. For Alisha: Sitting in her chair, reading, and then reaching down instinctively to pet Kobe.
  24. Kobe greeting Alisha every morning when she got up, usually with a downward-facing-dog and a grunt.
  25. Kobe's absurdly loud yawns, which ended in a high-pitched squeal.
  26. Driving past Ohlone School, where I would take her for off-leash romps once the construction was done.
  27. The sound of Kobe's paws scratching on the glass of the front door to come in.
  28. The way she would loom over me in bed, breathing on my face, to slyly wake me up.
  29. Any time food falls on the floor, I realize I actually need to pick it up.
  30. Any time we have gristle, fat, and other table treats left over.  Now we just have to throw them away.
  31. Turning on the heat and getting ready for bed--I automatically glance around to make sure that Kobe's inside (a precaution we started taking after she was attacked by raccoons one night).
  32. When I make Marissa's sandwiches for her school lunch, I always cut off the crusts.  Now I find myself going to where Kobe's bowl used to be, then remembering and going to the garbage can.
By writing down all these reminders, I hope I'll have a key to continue unlocking many years of memories, even years or decades in the future.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Star Trek: TNG: Liberal or Conservative?

One of the most interesting insights I've read in a while comes in this Grantland celebration of the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which points out that the show is simultaneously conservative and liberal:
Conservatives — think in Jonathan Haidt–ish terms here — value tradition, authority, and group identity; liberals value tolerance, fairness, and care. Or whatever; you can draw the distinctions however you'd like. The point is, The Next Generation depicts a strict military hierarchy acting with great moral clarity in the name of civilization, all anti-postmodern, "conservative" stuff — but the values they're so conservatively clear about are ideals like peace and open-mindedness and squishy concern for the perspectives of different cultures. "Liberal" ideals, in other words. You could say, roughly, that the Enterprise crew is conservative as a matter of method and liberal as a matter of goal.
TNG has generally gotten a reputation for political correctness, largely because the very prim and proper Captain Picard cuts a very different figure from the green-space-babe-seducing cowboy that was Captain Kirk.  Yet this analysis rings true for me.  Unlike the later moral ambiguity of Deep Space Nine, the crew of the Enterprise-D were clearly the good guys, and didn't have any reason to be plagued by a guilty conscience.

In many ways, it's a novel solution to our partisan society--achieving liberal goals using conservative methods.

In this reading, Barack Obama is the cautious Picard and Joe Biden is more like the freewheeling Kirk.  I'll leave it to the reader to cast Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Life, Loss, Love

Recently Lindsey Mead Russell, my friend and business school classmate, and I both lost someone very dear to us.  Lindsey's 94 year old grandfather died in August and my beloved 12 year-old dog Kobe passed away in September.  What they had in common were long, full lives and relatively short illnesses at the end.

After emailing back and forth about this topic a few times, we realized that we should share the exchange.  Here is a rough transcript, including the introduction that Lindsey wrote on her blog.



Chris and I didn’t know each other that well at HBS.  We have developed a friendship since then that I prize highly, and it occasionally produces thoughtful exchanges like the one we had almost two years ago about optimism, the underrated virtues of melancholy, and the conundrum of memory.
Our recent conversation, about grief, the way it can derail even the most prepared people, and how we talk to our children about death, began when I commented on Chris’s thoughtful post about Kobe’s death.  Chris and I are the same age, 38 (Chris is still 37 for another three weeks, he wanted me to note!), and I think that’s relevant here, as we both careen into middle age and towards the inevitable passing of the generation(s) above us.  Our conversation was a powerful reminder that try as we may to prepare, life’s losses will startle and destabilize us.  Here’s what we shared:

So sorry, Chris. I love the way you describe Kobe, and in particular how you enriched these last few months. Xo


Thanks Lindsey!  As you know yourself, I find writing therapeutic.  Writing out my thoughts helps me get them out of my head.  It’s going to be a tough conversation with the kids tonight.


Oh, wow.  Yes, it is.

Talking to Grace and Whit about Pops’ passing was difficult because this is their first real experience of death.  I found they were interested in both the enormously granular details: what does the urn look like?  Do the bones burn when you cremate someone?  What happens to his clothes? And in the biggest of the big picture questions, also: where does Pops go?  Is he able to see Gaga (my deceased grandmother) now?

I love how you said that no matter what walls of rationality we erect, the experience of losing someone dear smashes through them.  I had this experience with my grandfather’s death last month.  Yes, he was 94.  And of course it was not a surprise, at least intellectually.  But it was still a loss, and still sad, and though I know people mean well when they point out what a wonderful and full life he had it somehow feels like they are denying the loss.  I hope that you aren’t feeling that way when people comment on how marvelous Kobe’s time here was.


It’s funny how kids fixate on the specific details.  Marissa, for example, saw one of those Discovery Channel specials on one of those services that stuffs your pets after they pass away.  She asked me if we could get Kobe stuffed.  In the end, I decided I didn’t even want her ashes.  I have many wonderful things to remind me of Kobe, including a host of photos and videos.  I don’t need some carbon atoms that happened to be in her body at the end.

I do appreciate all the well wishes from friends—it’s amazing how much you hear from folks on Twitter and Facebook as well.  The thing is, the people who point out what a wonderful life she had are right—she did have a wonderful life, a fact which I’m sure I’ll appreciate much more in a few weeks.

I remember writing about this at some point in time—like many people, I deceive myself into believing that I can fix anything.  Whatever the problem, I can pull some strings, or talk to someone, and I can make it go away.  But when cancer comes knocking, there’s no insider you can turn to, no secret treatments.  It doesn’t matter how much money you have, or how many people you know.
And that’s scary as hell, especially for folks who are used to thinking of themselves as bulletproof.
Life has a way of reminding us that we’re not, and that’s something we just have to accept.


I so utterly, absolutely agree.  And maybe this is just a classic thing to happen in your late 30s, this reminder.  I look ahead and I see so much mortality and stuff we can’t control ahead, just as I had started feeling like I have a vague handle on it.  And now I am newly aware that I certainly do not.

This year has been one long message from the world.  From Kobe’s death, to my friend Don’s successful fight with cancer, to my having to walk with a cane for two months because of my own misadventure.  While I’ve adamantly insisted that these are just freak occurrences, and not the signs of age, I’m starting to lose that conviction.

When I’m focused on other things, I can pretend that Kobe’s death was just a dream, and that she’ll return from a trip, same as ever.  But whenever I really think about it, I can’t escape the images and memories.  I notoriously hate hospitals.  And no matter how kind and helpful the doctors were, all I can remember is Kobe getting weaker and weaker until finally she couldn’t even stand.  That’s a concrete reality that changed how I look at the world.

I knew that Kobe would die someday, just like I know that my parents will die someday, just like I know that I will die someday.  But until a week or two ago, that was an abstract, far-off knowledge.  Now it’s all too real.

I’ll admit that in the past week I’ve thought about how it will feel when my parents die.  I’ve even thought about my own death.  I imagine that I’ll fight to the end, but if I lose consciousness, death may take me unawares.

But I’ve also learned a lot about grief and grieving.  Kobe was a daily part of our lives, which means we’re surrounded by reminders of her.  I decided that the best thing to do was to face them head on, and focus on the happy memories.

I placed a canvas print of Kobe above our kitchen table, so that we all see her at every meal.  Quite coincidentally, I had just ordered a photobook of Kobe’s pictures—the most recent was taken the week before her death—Marissa had dressed her in a bikini top and grass skirt, and she’s looking at the camera with the same expression of patience she always had with Marissa.  Both Alisha and I have taken to looking at the book every day.  While it brings up the pangs of grief, seeing all those happy pictures pushes those hospital images out of my mind and lets me focus on happy memories.


What you say about death being abstract until, suddenly, horrifyingly, it is concrete resonates with me.  I know that a large part of my grief about my grandfather’s death was my anxiety about advancing another step on the big board game of life.  Now my parents are the only generation above me.  And of course this has implications for them that scare me: thinking about my parents being ill or – devastatingly – passing away absolutely cripples me.  I can’t even begin to fathom what that will be like.  Some of it is more selfish, I suspect, too.  We grow ever closer to the top of that ferris wheel, as I often think of it.  Before we know it, it will be us and just us.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about moving into midlife, into the afternoon of life (as Jung called it), and how my children are coming into full bloom just as I begin to sense those ahead of me fading.  Not my parents, yet (and what a blessing that is) but others around me.  It’s a multi-layered thing.  It’s teaching my children about death.  It’s watching them deal with it for the first time.  It’s realizing that I can be distracted from my own grief because I’m so busy taking care of theirs.  It’s learning to sink into my role as the center of a family, and accepting the sometimes-heavy responsibilities that go with that.  It’s not easy, and sometimes – often – I just want to curl up on my grandparents’ couch, fall asleep, and have my young, vibrant father scoop me up and carry me to the twin bed upstairs that used to be my mother’s when she was a girl.


One memory that has always stuck with me is the day my grandfather died.  It was 1986, so I think I was 11 going on 12.  My grandfather passed away quite suddenly of a heart attack while undergoing dental surgery.  I was sad when my mother told me, of course, but what I always remember is when she told my father.  This was before cell phones, so he had no idea that his father had passed away until my mother told him.  She pulled him aside to their bedroom for privacy, so I didn’t see when she told him.  When I next saw him, it was clear that he had been weeping.   In my entire life, I had never seen my father cry until that day.  I’m sure that he knew his father would die someday, but it was still a terrible blow.

As we rise up that Ferris wheel, I think the greatest comfort we can have is our children, and our children’s children.  Think of the Bible, and its endless droning litany of descendants.  Yet as I get older, I begin to appreciate the power of that litany.

Scientists tell us that as we get older, time passes ever more quickly for us.   By the time we reach age 13, we’ve lived half of our subjective life (your 80th year passes a lot more quickly than your 5th).  Kind of depressing.  But life gives us a way to fight that passage.  When I’m with Jason and Marissa, time passes much more slowly (this isn’t always a good thing!).  As parents, I think we get great joy and benefit out of seeing the world through our children’s eyes.  Then, as the wheel continues to turn, we see the world through our grandchildren’s eyes, and if we’re lucky like your grandfather, our great-grandchildren.

When I talk to people about parenting, I tell them, “There is no substitute for having children.”  I always meant it in the economic sense of substitution, i.e. there is no equivalent experience.  But now I see that having children is probably the most common yet fundamental way we have of defying the passage of time, aging, and the inevitability of death.  To create life, however transitory, is the strongest statement we can make about our existence.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

To understand gamification, watch a 10-year-old

My son Jason, like many 10-year-old boys, loves video games.

He can happily spend hours playing his favorite games, working diligently to reach that next level.

Not every parent is a fan of letting their kids play video games, but I think it's great.

His passion has driven Jason to become a better researcher (he looks up online guides and watches YouTube run-throughs to improve his technique) and to develop greater patience (though I often hear the complaint, "This game is unfair!" towards the end of some of his longer sessions.

In fact, there's real science behind why these games are good for him.

Recently, Lifehacker ran a great video of Daniel Pink talking about what motivates us to work hard:

"Pink explains further that there are in fact just 3 very simple things that drive nearly each and everyone of us to work hard:

Autonomy: Our desire to direct our own lives. In short: "You probably want to do something interesting, let me get out of your way!"

Mastery: Our urge to get better at stuff.

Purpose: The feeling and intention that we can make a difference in the world."

These are three of the main things that video games provide to Jason. He's autonomous, in the sense that he directs the action, without any instructions or help from his parents.  He's developing mastery of his games, both in tactics and strategy.  And he feels purpose in that he wants to complete the game and share his triumph with his friends (I'll admit, it's not a particularly high purpose, but it is a purpose).

When people talk about gamification, too often they talk about badges and unlocking achievements. They focus on the symbols, rather than the meaning. The irony is that the master game designers have already tapped our deepest human drives--something all those people calling for "game mechanics" need to better understand.

Startups, lottery tickets, and the audacity of hope

Skeptics often refer to startups as lottery tickets. I suppose this is a natural reaction to amazing success stories like YouTube or Instagram, where a relatively young company with almost no revenue achieves a billion-dollar exit. "Amazing luck," the skeptics scoff.

The skeptics are wrong, but startups are like lottery tickets.  Just not in the way that you think.

Winning the lottery combines two key factors--amazing luck and massive overnight success. Ultimately, it's the latter that matters, not the former, when it comes to startups.

In traditional industries, it's hard to imagine a plausible scenario in which an individual person achieves massive overnight success.  You can't join McKinsey right after graduation, and find yourself a full Partner 12 months later.  You can't start at GE at 25, and be tapped as Immelt's successor at 26.

But in the startup world, you can achieve amazing success, seemingly overnight. Drew Houston graduated MIT in 2006. In 2007, he founded Dropbox. Today, he's worth an estimated $400 million, and is the most successful YC entrepreneur.

Yet while many might consider him lucky, few people in the Valley would attribute his success to luck.

That's what makes the startup world so special. The possibility of massive overnight success means that everyone who hasn't made it big (which is 99.999% of us) can dream of hitting it out of the park with our next startup.  It's like baseball--as long as you haven't made the final out, you can always rally.

Now the sad fact is, just like most of us won't hit the lottery, most of us won't start billion-dollar startups. But isn't it nice to work in an industry where that hope is always there?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Happier at Home: My Brief Reflections

I was grateful to Gretchen Rubin when she offered me a review copy of her new book, "Happier at Home."

Happiness is probably my favorite subject in the world.  I've been an avid reader of positive psychology books for over a decade (you can find a summary of some of the things I've learned in this slideshow), and have written about the subject on numerous occasions.  I even had the privilege of being interviewed by Gretchen on her blog.  I have a secret ambition of being referred to as "the happiest man in Silicon Valley."

In other words, "Happier at Home" is right up my alley.  I actually read most of the book while flying to and from Los Angeles for some business meetings, but things got so busy that it had been sitting on my desk for long enough that I was feeling guilty for not finishing it and posting a review.  So naturally, in the spirit of Gretchen, I set about finishing the book this week, and resolved to sit down and write my review as soon as I was done.

This explains why I'm writing a book review at 10:13 PM on a Saturday night.

The good news, for both me and Gretchen, is that I enjoyed and benefited from reading the book.  There are a few reviewers on Amazon who didn't like the book as much as its predecessor, "The Happiness Project."

The issue, I think, is that Happier at Home is a much more personal book.  Unlike "The Happiness Project," which has served as a best-selling introduction to positive psychology, this book places less of an emphasis on specific research and techniques, and more on Gretchen's very personal quest to apply principles of happiness to her home life.

For me, however, this makes it an even more important book.  Family is very important to me--you'd hardly expect less from someone who's favorite book is "Why Do I Love These People." And getting the chance to dive in much greater depth into Gretchen's relationships with her sister, her in-laws, her parents, her girls, and her husband was welcome.

Gretchen and I don't have very similar lives or even personalities.  But reading the book made me feel like I had lived a year with her.  And her specific experiences definitely triggered urges and responses in me.

For example, Gretchen's work on assembling photo albums convinced me to do the same for my family, something which has proved very important after the passing of my beloved Kobe. One of things I do to comfort myself is to look through our Kobe photobook, a process I go through on a near-daily basis.

The overall message I took away is the importance of tackling the concrete things in our lives, and that spending even small amounts of focused time being intentional about our home lives can have a major difference.

I heartily recommend Gretchen's new book, and hope to be reaping the harvest of its lessons for years to come.  As usual, you can buy it on Amazon.

The content continuum and why I'm worried about the direction of the online world

At the risk of sounding (even more) like a crotchety old man, I feel like the online world is moving in exactly the wrong direction.

I would argue that there is a direct correlation between the amount of effort a creator expends and the quality and value of that creation.

For example, I listen to both recorded books and podcasts. In one instance, I'm listening to words that an author has carefully honed to a fine edge with years of work. In the other, I'm listening to someone talk into a microphone. There's no question which is higher quality.

(This isn't to slam podcasts--the downfall of books is that they can't be current, and they have to focus on topics that are big enough for a commercial audience. I enjoy listening to niche podcasts--"Writing Excuses" and "The Kevin Pollak Chat Show" come to mind immediately.  But it's also the case that some of the best podcasts are as carefully composed as a book--podcasts like "The Moth," "This I Believe," and "The Tobolowsky Files.")

In my mind, I've assembled what I call the content continuum, from most to least creative effort:

News Stories
Blog Posts
Quora Answers
Reddit/HackerNews Threads
Facebook Posts

You could quibble over the placement of some of these; some blog posts are as carefully crafted as an Atlantic article, while YouTube comments generally have negative value. But I think the order is directionally correct.

My concern is that the modern social web is pushing people inexorably towards the lazy end of the continuum.

Blogging was great, because it democratized publishing. But fewer people seem to blog these days. Many bloggers freely admit that Twitter has siphoned off their writing. It's not because it's a better medium for expression--it's because it's easier, and provides a quicker dopamine hit.

Facebook Likes take this trend to the extreme--each individual Like provides almost no useful information, yet they proliferate because they take a single click, and still deliver that dopamine surge.

The great shame is that Web 2.0 made all of us authors. People who never thought of themselves as writers, and might not have written since high school or college, suddenly began to express themselves again.  It would be tragic if our pursuit of ever-more-efficient dopamine delivery destroyed that progress.

The Cockroach Theory: Why Little Things Matter (even for Apple)

When I was a young investor, I spent a lot of time listening to the wisdom of the old hands around me, like Don Allen and Curt Kittelson.  One of the things they taught me was the Cockroach Theory:

Stated simply, the Cockroach Theory is "there's never just one."  Investors apply the theory to stocks, especially when they hear the dreaded phrase, "accounting irregularities."  Whenever a company has accounting problems, it's rarely an isolated event.

Essentially, there are only two states, Clean and Infested, and all it takes to shift from one state to the other is a single cockroach.

I was discussing the Cockroach Theory with an experienced angel investor over breakfast yesterday, and we decided that it applied to Groupon, in spades.  Their accounting issues showed up before the IPO, and haven't ceased since then.  "They've killed that entire space," the investor said ruefully, especially since he had some investments in that area.

My insight today is that the cockroach theory applies to products as well.  Once something happens to shake the user's confidence, it's almost impossible to recover that confidence.  It's especially true in our app-centric world.  If Office crashes, you don't have much alternative.  But if a free or $0.99 app crashes, you just stop using it.

That's the danger that Apple faces with its faulty mapping software.

People call Apple a cult for good reason.  I doubt many of the people pre-ordering iPhone 5s can even name a single new feature of the phone (a fact hilariously illustrated by this Jimmy Kimmel video).

Apple depends on the faith of its fans--they buy because they believe that St. Steve is a reliable guardian of quality.

Apple may think that its fanboys will always buy its products, and a few mapping errors may have seemed acceptable.

But the danger of this attitude is that letting the customers see a cockroach is a phase change, not an incremental hit.  If people decide that Apple has lost its way without Jobs, its products will shift from Clean to Infested.

The same holds true for your own products.  Squash your cockroaches before they reach the user, or you may find yourself permanently in the "Infested" category.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Power Of The Unintentional

It's amazing how so many of the important elements of our lives are completely unintentional.

As my family and I grieve for Kobe, most of the sharpest pangs seem to be hitting us when we least expect it.

For example, I know that I'll be thinking of Kobe during the time that I would take her for walks. But because these times are predictable, I can prepare myself for them.

On the other hand, I felt a sharp grief yesterday when I was eating, and I accidentally dropped a piece of food on the floor. When we had Kobe, any time she hear someone say "Oops" at the dinner table, her claws would be scrabbling on the floor as she trotted over to claim her due. Yesterday, I had to pick up the food and toss it in the garbage, missing Kobe all the while.

The same principle was reinforced for me by the events of this weekend.

On Friday, as word of Kobe's passing spread, I received many condolences, via email, Facebook, and Twitter. But my old Stanford friend Dave Sapoznikow called me up from Oregon. He had spent a lot of time with Kobe when he was still in the Bay Area (he's Jason's godfather) and we spent a good half an hour on the phone weeping and mourning, then another half an hour cheering ourselves up.

Then on Saturday, my old Stanford friend Rock Khanna came to town for visit. His wife surprised him for his 40th birthday by arranging a family trip, a surprise party, and tickets to the Stanford-USC football game. We all had a great time (including all the kids who were in attendance) and being in Stanford Stadium for the historic upset of USC will doubtless be a highlight in all our lives for decades to come. (We debated whether this was the favorite game we'd attended, versus Stanford's last-second victory over Cal in 1990, or Stanford men's basketball's upset of #1 Duke in 2000)

The funny thing is that these lifelong friendships are essentially a matter of accident; we all just happened to be assigned to the same freshman dormitory back in 1990. I'm the only member of our group who went into the startup industry, so we don't even have much in common professionally. Yet these are the bonds that last, and it's largely a product of all the unintentional experiences we share.

Sure, there are highlights like the special games we attended, but as with most old friends, we mostly talk about random events that only turned out to be special after the fact, like a particularly eventful night in San Francisco, or the time we set up a betting pool on who'd be the last to get married.

In our busy lives, it's tempting to focus on the intentional--to work on our "personal brand" or to attend the "right" events. But given how important the unintentional tends to be, I think it's wise to leave enough room in your schedule for the unplanned and unexpected, which often turn out to be the most meaningful and impactful.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Kobe Yeh (2000 - 2012)

It is with great sadness that I report that our beloved dog, Kobe, passed away this morning.

We've known this day was coming, ever since her cancer diagnosis back in March. At the time, her oncologist told us she probably had about a month or two to live, and we decided to love her as much as possible during her remaining time.

I'm glad to report that Kobe far exceeded her doctors' estimates; it's been nearly 6 months since her diagnosis, and until Wednesday night (roughly 36 hours ago) she showed no signs of illness. In fact, our calendar on the refrigerator has "dog food" listed on the Saturday shopping list; she'd just finished one of those 50-pound bags of kibble from Costco, and I was planning on buying another one for her this weekend.

We're also fortunate in knowing that we did all we could. When she struggled to walk yesterday morning, I carried her to the car, and we rushed her to the Adobe Animal Hospital in Palo Alto. They came highly recommended by both her regular vet and our neighbor who has been raising dogs in Palo Alto for decades. They did not disappoint--everyone on staff was kind, compassionate, and efficient. They did all they could, but even a great animal hospital can't cure incurable cancer.

At first, there was some possibility that the symptoms (high fever, weakness) were from a non-cancer-related infection. When we took Jason and Marissa to visit her last night, there was still a chance she might recover, but we made sure they had a chance to say goodbye, just in case. She was weak, but was able to go outside for a walk and to enjoy being petted by the kids.

As it turned out, that was a good decision. The antibiotic treatment failed to impact the illness, and she grew weaker and weaker. When the doctor called this morning, it was to tell us that there was nothing more they could do.

It doesn't matter how long you have to prepare, or that it's expected--the death of a loved one smashes through all the emotional defenses and rationalizations we erect to protect ourselves. No reason or willpower can prevent you from feeling the loss, and that was true for me as well.

I actually decided to go into my office afterwards; I wanted to be around other human beings, and not alone in a house where, for over a decade, anytime I was working from home, Kobe was there to keep me company. My plan is to write this essay to express the many feelings swirling around in my head.

I've avoided writing updates about Kobe's condition, causing many people who met with me in the past few months to ask about her. When faced with something like death, I found I grew superstitious, regardless of my pose as a man of reason. Hopefully, my friends at the Singularity Institute don't disown me for my lapse! I didn't want to "jinx" the good luck we'd had.

When the doctor first gave me Kobe's prognosis, I was worried that she wouldn't make it to Marissa's birthday in May, when my parents and sister could come up and see her. Since Kobe's birthday is in November (we don't know the exact date, since we got her from the pound, but she was 4 months old when we got her in March of 2001), I told the kids we'd celebrate her 11 1/2 birthday with a special cake (made with bacon):

This turned out to be a good decision.

Fortunately for us, Kobe's good health continued through the entire summer. Not only did she enjoy the kids' birthdays, she also joined us on a trip to Los Angeles to meet my family (and stayed with them while the rest of us visited Puerto Rico and Orlando). My parents spoiled her relentlessly, which honestly, all of us have been doing for the past 5 months.

In the end, I'm incredibly grateful to the folks at Banfield Pet Hospital, Kobe's regular vet. We had purchased a wellness plan which included regular checkups; it was one of these checkups that found the cancer. And while it was untreatable, I'm glad we had the past 5 1/2 months to really appreciate Kobe.

The first thing we did was spoil her like crazy. Table scraps, previously limited, were made unlimited. We started buying wet premium dog food in individual pouches to supplement her previous diet of 50-pound Costco kibble. I took her to the dog park all the time, whereas we hadn't taken her for years. I also took her to a nearby school's playground every weekend, sometimes twice, so she could romp off leash. She had enjoyed just such a romp last Sunday. Alisha sometimes pointed out that I was taking insanely long walks (sometimes as much as 45 minutes) but I wanted to cram in as much enjoyment into Kobe's life as possible.

I also made sure that we let the other people who cared for her get a chance to see her and make a few more good memories. I especially want to single out Richard Yen of Saban Capital. Richard actually came with Alisha and I when we went to pick out a puppy. Since Richard was enjoying life pre-business school, and had stopped working, he agreed to help watch the new puppy during the day, when Alisha and I were at work.

We went together to the Santa Clara County Animal Shelter. We expected to get a smaller dog, and had even brought a cardboard box along (not realizing that you can't just take a dog home from the pound right away). When we got there, Kobe stood out right away. As soon as we entered, she came running over, jumping up and down as if to say, "Pick me! Pick me!"

I was smitten. Alisha took more convincing, but Kobe took care of that. When we went outside to meet Kobe and decide if we wanted to take her, Kobe came running out and went straight to Alisha, rubbing up against her in an ecstasy of cuteness. Alisha didn't stand a chance.

Richard came to our house nearly every day to watch over Kobe when she was a puppy, and she certainly developed a potent fondness for him. When Richard found out about Kobe's illness, he drove down from San Francisco twice to visit with her, and helped me take a number of great photos and videos.

Here's the photo I still use as the background on my laptop:

And here's a photo of Kobe with her beloved Uncle Richard:

I also made a concerted effort to take photos and videos of Kobe. Early on, before my foot problems forced me to use a cane, I took videos of all the standard routes Kobe I enjoyed walking, including the off-leash romps at the nearby elementary school. I also took video of Kobe playing with other dogs at the dog park.

Ironically enough, I had just ordered both a canvas print of Kobe, and a photobook of favorite pictures. Kobe's canvas print arrived yesterday, of this picture:

It's almost certain that any pet you get will die before you (and you probably wouldn't like the alternative). My goal was to store up enough great memories to last a lifetime.

The hardest things are the ones that are almost impossible to record. Kobe has been a part of our lives since 2001. We chose our current house in part because it has a big backyard (which she used to the utmost!). Almost anything we do at home conjures up memories.

Simply opening the front door evokes Kobe rushing to the door to greet us. For years, she's slept in the shower of our guest bedroom--I think she liked the coolness of the surface. So when we got home with the kids (or when I got home by myself on rarer occasions), Kobe would come trotting out from the guest bedroom, down the length of the main hallway of the house, her nails clicking on the hardwood floor in time to her distinctive prance, concluding with a thud as she placed her paws on the door and stretched.

At night, while lying in bed, I could hear her click-clacking down the hallway to check on the kids, before returning to her preferred sleeping spot on the sofa, which she would lie down in with a satisfied grunt.

Even harder to preserve are the scents and feel. Kobe's fur had a distinctive smell--not doggy (since she hated getting wet)--but reminiscent of Nacho Cheese Doritos when she had gone too long between baths.

Petting her provided a host of different textures, from the smooth fur on the top of her head, the whiskers while scratching her cheeks, and the incredible softness of her ears, especially the two tiny flaps towards the back of her ears which were the softest of all. You could also scratch the coarse fur of her underside, or the smooth, short fur on her belly. And she was always shedding--you could pluck fur by the fingerful, and when I bathed her at Country Pet Wash, I measured the fur I removed by a unit I called the "mouseful." Sadly, we had just earned a free wash at Country Pet Wash, which we'll never be able to redeem together.

We will probably get another dog someday. The kids love pets, and since Alisha will be working from home a lot when her office moves to San Francisco, it won't be fair to make her stay home alone.

But no dog will ever replace Kobe in my heart. Goodbye, my much-loved little girl.