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?