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.