Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Contradiction in Steve Jobs’ Famous Commencement Speech

In Steve Jobs' famous commencement speech at Stanford he said:

You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.

Pretty standard advice: figure out what you love and then go do it.

Yet, earlier in the same speech, he talks about how he happened to go to Reed College and happened to take a calligraphy class and then happened to put his honed design eye to work when designing the Mac computer. In hindsight it fits together but as a college student he had no idea where it would lead. He says you can "only connect the dots looking backwards" — you have to live life and then find the connective meaning later.

So which is it? Should you live and do whatever is immediately available and then connect the dots looking backwards to create a personal narrative? Or should you focus out-of-the-gate on finding that golden thing that you love?

Does Jobs now love what he does? Yes. Was he telling himself at age 22 that he should focus on doing something he loves? No. Does Jobs love what he does because he's really, really good at it? Probably. Should his advice to young people be instead "get really, really good at something"? Maybe.

Bottom Line: Even though Steve Jobs' own life is a testament to randomness and stumbling upon a line of work around which he developed strong competence and then developed passion for it, to young people he puts the passion imperative first: "Go find out what you love to do and then do it."

(Thanks to Cal Newport for his on-going inspiration on this topic)

A Smattering of Impressions from Chile

Santiago_de_Chile
(Santiago in the morning)

I have been living in Santiago for about two months and I've learned a great deal about the country. Below are a smattering of impressions and lessons.

Chile as Catholic country. Abortion is still illegal here and divorce was too until only recently. Gay couples do not even have domestic partnership rights. But it's not as Catholic as people think. The elite are Catholic, but "the masses" are not as much. I have not yet met a Chilean under 30 years old who fervently believes in religion. Most go to church to appease their parents. The current president Bachelet is technically agnostic (read: atheist) and she's been separated three times and has three children from two men. I foresee a continued weakening of the church which is good thing inasmuch as it paves the way for more liberal policies on social issues and a more entrepreneurial, free-thinking culture.

Historical legacy. How do you feel about Pinochet? Ask an educated Chilean this question and be prepared for a range of answers. Pinochet's legacy in Chile is complicated and it is hard to find sources who can assess his pros and cons objectively. Older folks sport scars of his brutal military dictatorship. When you personally know someone killed by the dictatorship, you don't much care about economics — Pinochet is evil. Younger people, enjoying the economic success of the past few decades, tend to be more sympathetic to Pinochet, whose free-market economic policies are frequently cited as the cause of today's prosperity. Here's Tyler Cowen's solid analysis of how good Pinochet was, really, for the Chilean economy.

Santiago. It's a top-notch city. My neighborhood, Providencia, is probably my favorite of any neighborhood I've been in, ever. The metro is world-class. Drivers are sane. It has gotten a great deal more cosmopolitan in the last 10 years and as such you can find cuisine and culture from all over. Where Santiago falls short is night life, or so I'm told — to me the night life is plenty good, but there are probably a few less all-night clubs than in Buenos Aires. Santiago is just as beautiful as B.A. and of course it is much safer and less corrupt. Colombians and Mexicans I know call Santiago "boring." It is less chaotic than Mexico City and more predictable than Bogota but it is not boring.

Food. Chileans eat more bread than anyone else in the world. A local told me this and I believe it. One kilo of bread a day. It is hard to get vegetables or decent salad at a cheap restaurant. Chileans have the best mashed potatoes in the world (puré). Peruvian food is the best in the Hemisphere and there are many good Peruvian restaurants in Santiago. Tres leches might be a cliched Latin desert but it is so tasty. It is impossible to buy fresh milk in Chile which is a disaster. Traditional Chileans do not eat breakfast or dinner (other than bread and butter); they eat only a very big lunch. Avocado accompanies everything, including the delicious McPollo Italiano at McDonald's.

Not being in control. Traveling and living abroad requires ceding a lot of control in day-to-day life. Even if you want to exercise control, you can't, because of language problems or cultural barriers. I like to be in control, but I don't mind being forced to go with the flow from time-to-time, especially if it results in greater cultural insight. I'd say a good 60% of the time I do not know what I am ordering at restaurants. Thankfully I eat anything. When in doubt — which is often — I answer questions in Spanish that I do not understand with "No." When someone asks me when I do, I say escritor because it's easier to pronounce than any other word that would be appropriate.

The country is not very diverse. Yet I'm told there are low levels of trust among the people. This is counterintuitive: usually diversity means less trust, homogeneity more trust. While there's probably no safer place in South America in terms of violent crime, petty crime has been on the rise in Chile, and this may engender some of the mutual distrust.

The power of a model. A Chilean soccer trainer is now working for Real Madrid. Before no one would have believed a Chilean could be training an elite European soccer team. Now, with even just one example, they see it to be possible. This is what the country needs in the way of entrepreneurs: models. Examples. Some big exits. In America you can dream of being Steve Jobs or Larry Page or Dave Packard. There are no such entrepreneurial icons here.

Chile is far, far away. I can get to Asia faster than to Chile from San Francisco. Chile is surrounded by the Andes to the east, desert to the north, Antarctica to the south, and ocean to the west. Before air travel the country was fairly isolated (it still is). This might contribute to the country's relatively few immigrants (other than Germans in the south) and general close-mindedness to foreigners. Chileans paint a charitable picture of how isolation built national character: the people who did get here suffered and endured more than usual to arrive in Chile and they are used to working hard and overcoming obstacles.

Sometimes when I meet long-time expats I think about my post Urban Nomadicism. I recently met an American ex-pat who's been here for 15 years or so. I could feel the emptiness of someone without roots. He said he recently visited the U.S. and when he called a tech support number he got transferred to someone in India! Shocked! (By the way, here's an outstanding piece on how hard serous romance is with someone who speaks a different native language.)

The country needs better branding / marketing. Economists know about Chile's economic success, but beyond that the only thing that comes to mind to uninformed Americans I talk to is that Chile's the place with that funky, lanky geographic shape. Buenos Aires is the hipper Southern Cone capital city; Patagonia is not seen as uniquely Chilean, and it's not; the Atacama desert and Easter Island are low-profile; and other than wine there are no famous Chilean exports. (Yes there's salmon and copper and others but people don't know about them.)

Sebastian Piñera: He was elected President a couple weeks ago. It marks the end of 20 years of rule of the concertacion in Chile. Piñera is of the right-wing and made billions in the credit card and airlines industries, and yet strengthening the social safety net and accounting for the lower and middle class figured prominently in his campaign. Likewise, the left-wing candidates did not propose altering the fundamentals of Chile's numerous free trade agreements or its privatized industries. So none of the candidates would have brought major changes to Chile.

Here are two other posts of mine on Chile summarizing lessons and impressions. Here's a good Weekly Standard piece on Piñera's victory.

Book Review: The PayPal Wars

The PayPal Wars: Battles with eBay, the Media, the Mafia, and the Rest of Planet Earth by Eric Jackson is an excellent account of the founding and rise of PayPal through to the eBay acquisition.

As an early employee, Jackson provides an inside perspective on the company’s ups and downs, strategic decisions, in-fighting, and more. The word “Wars” in the title is intentional — PayPal faced an astonishing set of challenges not only from eBay and other competitors but from the Russian mafia, a relentlessly skeptical business press, and the tumult of the dot-com bubble bursting. Jackson lays out the triumph story well, “showing not telling” the key lessons for other entrepreneurs.

It’s no secret that PayPal alumni are currently dominating Silicon Valley and for this reason it’s fun to read a close-up account of these personalities.

In addition to the start-up story and entrepreneurship lessons, Jackson’s libertarian views emerge by the end of the book as he discusses how various government entities tried to halt PayPal’s progress through useless regulatory actions. He also links the PayPal vision to a broader libertarian vision about a more open and global currency.

The book is only $3.99 on Kindle and $10 paperback. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: Boomsday by Buckley

A few years ago I watched the movie Thank You For Smoking, based on a Christopher Buckley novel, and loved it. I vowed to read Buckely in print and last week finally read the utterly hilarious Boomsday.

It’s a satirical novel set in Washington, D.C., with the protagonist Cassandra leading a “voluntary transitioning” movement to solve the social security crisis: she proposes that older people off themselves to reduce strain on the system. There are many juicy side plots: congressional delegations abroad gone horribly wrong, a PR firm founded on the premise that “those with a debatable claim to humanity will pay through the snout to appear even a little less deplorable,” a billionaire bribing Yale admissions officials, celibate priests fucking Russian prostitutes, and, of course, passionate bloggers burning the midnight oil to spin the latest scandal. (“When the going gets tough, the tough get blogging.”)

Buckley paints many memorable and laugh-out-loud scenes. There’s the President of the United States talking in the oval office to a religious leader who wouldn’t dare utter an obscenity — the President refers to his political opponent saying, “We need to come out swinging. Crush this cocksucker. Grab him by the throat. Kick him in the nuts, cut off his dick, put his head on a pike…” There’s the President’s aide whose “BlackBerry began humming like an epileptic bumblebee.” There’s the President’s opponent during an official debate: “I don’t need 90 seconds to respond to the President’s [economic mumbo jumbo]. I can respond with only four words: Shut the fuck up.” Really, haven’t we all wanted to say such a thing after a politician delivers non-sensical pandering garbage?

Like the best satire, the comedy sits on top of serious themes. The Social Security scheme devised by Boomers is indeed collapsing and it’s young people who will be left holding the bag. The way to gain influence in Washington is indeed through savvy manipulation of the media. Congressmen do sleep with aides. CODELs are indeed boondoggles to the nth degree. The smart, young, and angry do tend to move the world.

Boomsday will remind you why you love America and why you hate America. Our national motto, accordingly to one character, ought to be: “Since 1620, anything possible, indeed likely.”

The Case Against Credentialism

More than 20 years ago James Fallows wrote an article in the Atlantic titled “The Case Against Credentialism.”

It is long and covers a lot of ground. I see two somewhat separate points.

First, he contrasts the “assortment of informal, outside-normal-channels, no-guarantee, and low-prestige activities that is glossed over and glamorized by the term entreprenurialism” with the “tremendous pull exerted by the security, dignity, and order of the professionalized world… how much more dignified is the sound of banker, lawyer…”

This troubles Fallows, even though he himself is a member of the professional world who attained top academic standing. Entrepreneurs innovate and create new industries and generate jobs for people beside themselves. Yet society still bestows higher status on the multitude of lawyers, consultants, and analysts for which the path to the top is through the corridors of elite academic credentialing institutions:

…Most of the real entrepreneurs I know lack the track record of impeccable schooling and early academic success that is supposed to distinguish the meritocracy’s most productive members. What kind of merit system is this, if it discounts the activity on which the collective wealth depends?

Second, he notes the failure of formal credentials and licenses at screening for workplace competence: “Because the credentialing and licensing process uses input measures, mainly years of schooling, to determine who gets into the field, we end up licensing people who are good at studying law or business, which is not necessarily the same thing as being good at the job.”

Example from the world of therapy:

In half of the “effectiveness” studies that Hogan surveyed, non-professional therapists did better than professionals in helping patients, despite their lack of formal education.

Example from he world of air traffic controllers:

Common sense might suggest that the better controllers would be more educated — but the FAA found that fully half the top-ranked controllers had no formal education beyond high school. Many of them had come directly to the FAA for rigorous technical training specifically related to the jobs they were expected to do.

Why are you allowed to go into business without an MBA yet you are not allowed to go into law without a J.D.? The J.D. credential does not seem to have much to do with being an effective lawyer, and the fact that many successful lawyers fail the bar exam after years of adult lawyering should be cause for concern about the credentialing process of the profession. Earning a J.D. and passing the bar exam seem to be retrospective tools about one’s success in law school; not predictive tools about one’s ability to be a lawyer. If I were God, no J.D. would be required to practice law, and the bar exam would be drastically reduced in scope and scale.

The question to ask about all credentialing schemes, whether JD, MBA, real estate license, CFA, etc, is this: Would the very best people working in the profession today obtain the highest possible scores on the license test? In the case of air traffic controllers and therapists, the answer is no. I bet the answer is no for lawyers, businesspeople, and real estate agents, too.

Fallows’s Bottom Line: “A liberal education is good for its own sake, and schooling of any sort can impart a broad perspective that can help in any job. Rather, the charge against credential requirements is that they are simultaneously too restrictive and too lax. They are too restrictive in giving a huge advantage to those who booked early passage on the IQ train and too lax in their sloppy relation to the skills that truly make for competence.”

Fathoming People’s Emotions and Motives from Afar

Someone who works closely with Michelle Obama recently told me that Michelle is "a huge bitch."

In Lee Siegel's column about Elizabeth and John Edwards, which is stellar, he notes, "No matter how sophisticated we seem to get about social stereotypes, we fall right back into them as soon as their pleasure beckons. Elizabeth Edwards was a 'saint.' Now she’s a monstrous bitch. That’s how high-status women have been perceived for as long as anyone can remember."

Elizabeth Edwards is back in the headlines thanks to a new book about the 2008 presidential campaign where there's a chapter devoted to the Edwards' marriage. She comes off as…a monstrous bitch:

At one point during the 2004 presidential race, she “snarled” at the people who were scheduling her appearances: “Why the fuck do you think I’d want to go sit outside a Wal-Mart and hand out leaflets?”

To which Siegel offers the logical reply: Well, why the fuck would she?

Halperin and Heilemann [the authors] are veteran political reporters. Surely they know that such language and tantrums are as common in political campaigns as their opposite: sheer, calculated niceness.

Siegel says he doesn't defend Elizabeth's outbursts, but it's "appalling to tear her out of her context and turn on her now because we idealized her before."

What's more, deconstructing the dynamics of a relationship we have no part of is a fool's errand:

A friend of mine once said that the only two people who know what’s going on between a man and a woman are the man and the woman themselves. He was half right. The man and the woman—or man and man, woman and woman; it’s all the same—are the last to know. The idea that we can precisely fathom people’s emotions and motives is absurd. We can barely comprehend our own. Maybe pretending that we understand what makes our political figures tick is how we console ourselves for not understanding our politics at all.

Driving from Puerto Montt to Santiago

We rented a car in Puerto Montt, a medium-size city at the southern end of the lakes district, and drove north. It's about a 15 hour drive to Santiago and we did it over 2.5 days.

The Lake District is in the central valley of the country and it's where many Chileans go to do outdoor sports and trekking.

We stayed on the Pan-American Highway and didn't veer off the road much to look at the lakes. The sights from the highway were similar to those in California, except for the big old volcano forever in the horizon.

We stopped in Valdivia which is increasingly becoming a tourist town especially for those coming from southern Argentina. Still lovely with the lake and German influence.

We spent the night in little Osorno, which is not known for much, but it actually has some charm. We took the free city tour – 3 hours! – of this little town. It was great fun, if one hour too long. The tour stopped at very mundane places ("here is a gym in the city") and reviewed when certain stores opened and closed. One long-time resident joined the tour and tried to challenge the young tour guide's knowledge of the city. She stayed in the back and talked to us about the different sights. Some listened to the main tour guide, others to the renegade.

One observation: driving a car taught us that many streets in Chile are one-way! It's hard to drive around a city even if you know how to walk it. I'd say 50-75% of the streets are one-way. Some streets even turn into one-ways at different hours of the day…which makes Google Maps less useful. Wonder why this is…

Chilean Patagonia

IMG_0634

It's the end of the world, and it has a grip on many people's imagination: Patagonia.

My Mom and I traveled there for four nights. We flew from Santiago to Punta Arenas (4 hrs). Punta Arenas is two hours by plane north of Antarctica. From there we took a five hour shuttle to our hotel in Torres del Piene national park.

Torres del Paine is a park that contains glaciers, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, island formations, giant rocks. There are dozens of possible excursions within the park: hikes through treacherous terrain en route to a massive glacier; a gentle horseback ride through green grass fields; a stroll around a still lake and through fields of lupines (flowers).

The sights are stunning, of course.

On our first full day we hiked to the French Valley. It was in total an 8.5 hour hike, at times through fierce wind and pelting rain. We ate lunch on some rocks and watched an avalanche on the glacier in front of us. I didn't have waterproof hiking boots so my feet got soaked and that was a downer. But we felt adventurous, and now we can tell people that we hiked through fierce wind and pelting rain en route to a glacier, so all is well.

On our second day we ate Chilean barbecue (delicious) near Laguna Azul, and then walked around the lake. It was a gentle day as we were still recovering from yesterday's long journey.

On our third day we explored a different part of the park. It looked very much like Yosemite at times, and at other times like the Marin Headlands. We ascended a tall mountain and enjoyed views of all of the park. So beautiful. It was a five hour hike in total.

Bottom line on Patagonia: It's very beautiful. The diversity of sights you can see is impressive. Downsides: You pay a premium for the "brand" of Patagonia and the sights are not unlike those you can see in the Southwest U.S. The glaciers are massive and some of the views one-of-a-kind, but the overall feeling didn't seem totally different from other places. Nevertheless, I highly recommend Chilean Patagonia if you are in South America.

Assorted Musings

Your monthly edition of quick thoughts, cheap shots, bon mots…


1. An ideal age: to be young enough to trade on your little-kid right to ask inappropriate questions, but grown up enough to know what the right questions are. (via Francine Prose)


2. It’s hard to separate personal taste from an assessment of objective quality. Have you ever read a book that you don’t like for personal taste reasons even as you see its objective literary quality? It’s hard to do that.


3. Sometimes people are more interested in “being a” certain person rather than doing the work such a title requires. I have an acquaintance who is more interested in “being a reflective person” than actually reflecting. Lots of folks are more interested in “being a writer” than committing to the difficult task of adhering ass to chair. They want the identity caché without the hard work.


4. Two survey questions to ask to youth in a society that indirectly reveal quite a lot about a population: In general, are people out to get you or help you? and Do you want to work for the government?


5. I like observing people do even simple things. On international flights, I like watching the person next to me fill out his customs form. I’m interested in how he chooses to fill it out: in what order, what he reads carefully, etc. I also like watching people work on their computer. It’s interesting to see how and where they click. I got to do lots of observing as a child staring out the window of my bedroom out onto the elementary school situated across the street. I have spent many hours watching children play and walk around and talk. Either this tendency is creepily voyeuristic or stimulatingly anthropological.


6. Litmus test: business men who wear digital sports watch instead of nice formal watch tend to be more down-to-earth and practical.


7. People who can learn from other people’s experiences have a leg up. Most people just learn from their own experiences. By understanding others’ mistakes, you yourself can avoid them. This is harder than it sounds, and has something to do with empathy…


8. Slowness to change somehow confers legitmacy onto institutions. Colleges, for example.


9. When your relationship with someone gets to the point where you don’t feel a need to prove you’re smart, and thus you can feel free to make mistakes and take conversational risks, the relationship expands to new dimensions.


10. When you tell an inside joke, you more intensely bond with those who get it, but exclude others who now feel more intensely left out. is it worth it to tell an inside joke? If you are a blogger, would you rather have 10% fewer readers but of those who remain, have them more engaged and active and engaged?


11. “Pragmatic” is one of the most overused words. It is not clear what the apparently negative alternative is to being pragmatic. Dogmatically ideological? Who would ever cop to this?

Say PETA takes a stand saying every dog should be saved. This is not pragmatic, right, because it’s highly principled and ideological and doesn’t afford room for compromise? But maybe it actually is stealthy pragmatic because it gets attention and moves the meter. Bleh.


12. Your first observation of the working class ethnic group in a city you fly into is who is pushing the wheelchairs off the jetway in the airport. In San Francisco, it’s Chinese. In NY, it’s black. In London, it’s Indian.


13. You order a bottle of wine at a restaurant. The waiter brings a bottle to the head of table. The head of table sniffs it, swhirls it, tastes it, and then says, “It’s good.” What percentage of people say it’s not good? 1%? 2%? The theatrics, I tell you.

Women’s Pornography

Nora Roberts has sold 400 million copies of her 189 romance novels in print. “She regularly outsells Clancy, Grisham, and King combined,” according to the San Francisco Panorama, “Romance boasts $1.5 billion in sales; 55 percent of all paperbacks; one out of four books sold; 60 million readers in the U.S. alone.” Incredible statistics.

Think of the women reading these steamy novels. What kinds of notions about romance are they absorbing? Are they developing wildly unrealistic ideas about relationships? Should men be worried about how romance novels can hurt relationships just as women worry about how pornography hurts relationships (or doesn’t)?

Robin Hanson asks why there is “so much more effort to regulate porn than romance novels.”

Should men have the option to select “Does not read romance novels” as an option when searching for women on Match.com? Would women want the same for pornography consumption when searching for men?