Author Archives: Ben Casnocha

Speaking at San Quentin Prison

I spoke this week to a bunch of inmates serving very long sentences at San Quentin prison, which houses the largest death row in America. They had all read The Start-up of You. It was a very rich experience for me, and I wrote about it on Linkedin. Check it out.

Questions About Life from Jonathan Safran Foer

What’s the kindest thing you almost did? Is your fear of insomnia stronger than your fear of what awoke you? Are bonsai cruel? Do you love what you love, or just the feeling? Your earliest memories: do you look though your young eyes, or look at your young self? Which feels worse: to know that there are people who do more with less talent, or that there are people with more talent? Do you walk on moving walkways? Should it make any difference that you knew it was wrong as you were doing it? Would you trade actual intelligence for the perception of being smarter? Why does it bother you when someone at the next table is having a conversation on a cell phone? How many years of your life would you trade for the greatest month of your life? What would you tell your father, if it were possible? Which is changing faster, your body, or your mind? Is it cruel to tell an old person his prognosis? Are you in any way angry at your phone? When you pass a storefront, do you look at what’s inside, look at your reflection, or neither? Is there anything you would die for if no one could ever know you died for it? If you could be assured that money wouldn’t make you any small bit happier, would you still want more money? What has been irrevocably spoiled for you? If your deepest secret became public, would you be forgiven? Is your best friend your kindest friend? Is it any way cruel to give a dog a name? Is there anything you feel a need to confess? You know it’s a “murder of crows” and a “wake of buzzards” but it’s a what of ravens, again? What is it about death that you’re afraid of? How does it make you feel to know that it’s an “unkindness of ravens”?

— Jonathan Safran Foer, from his writing on the side of a Chiptole cup. At that Vanity Fair link are Toni Morrison’s and Michael Lewis’s two-minute entries. Worth reading.

Lessons and Impressions from Korea

koreaRecently, I spent a week in Korea to speak at the World Knowledge Forum in Seoul. It was fun spending time with the other speakers, such as David Epstein, author of the provocative book The Sports Gene, and friends Tyler Cowen, Jeff Jarvis, and Andy McAfee. Prior to the event in Seoul, I spent a few days in Jeju island on my own, just reading and hanging out.

My big picture, touristic impressions of Korea:

  • It felt very similar to Japan, which isn’t surprising given the country was ruled by Japan in the early 1900’s. Korea is wealthy and boasts advanced infrastructure—just like Japan, a rare thing in Asia. So it’s a super easy country to navigate, tourist-wise. I should note that Korea didn’t seem as weird as Japan, at least on the surface. Korea felt more Western in certain cultural respects whereas Japan is all its own.
  • 60 years ago Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. Today it’s one of the richest. Despite a jaw-dropping economic transformation, indeed one that’s notable in all of human history, today’s Koreans do not seem exceptionally self-confident about their economic future. Several folks I spoke to worried about whether their culture accommodates entrepreneurship. They see their famous tech giants as imitators more than innovators. These anxious attitudes may, of course, actually help explain their past and potential future success: Koreans are incredibly hard workers, they believe mightily in education, and they take success very seriously. It stands to reason that business leaders would not rest on their Samsung and Hyundai style national laurels and instead collectively stress about their economic prospects.
    • If there’s one reason for Koreans to stress, it’d be because of the demographic trends–it’s the most rapidly aging country in the world.
  • In terms of the local labor market, you might think ideas in The Alliance would not be relevant. It’s true that Korean companies have been “families” for most of recent history. The company-man, die hard loyalty, and so on were strongly held beliefs for decades. But it’s changing. As companies seek to adapt to the global economy, they’re implementing more flexible labor compacts. Most young Korean workers today, according to surveys, say they’d switch employers if there were a better opportunity, and most say they don’t feel particularly loyal to their current employer.
  • Some of the restaurant customs are interesting. Most restaurants have water dispensers that you use to re-fill your glass on your own or they put a pitcher of water on the table right after you sit down. For a water guzzler like myself, this is a great perk. Less fun is Korea’s default choice of napkins. They use the thin, small square napkins that are used in Chile as well. It’s so odd–the napkins are skimpy so you have to use three or four to wipe your hands of even the littlest bit of sauce. At least in Korea, unlike Chile, several causal restaurants will put a mini-trash can at your table so you can dispose of the dozens of napkins you use as you use them!
  • I do not like kimchi.
  • “Selfie sticks” — if that’s what they’re called — are all the rage. On Jeju Island, where I spent a couple days, everyone hiked with a selfie stick that held their phone camera out at a distance to take a nice selfie. One odd consequence is that nobody asks anyone else to take their picture, a usual moment of forced social interaction amongst strangers.
  • I didn’t make it to the DMZ on this trip. Next time.
  • A college degree is a commodity. 98% of young Koreans have degrees from a junior college or university–the highest rate in the world. Amazing.

All in all, Korea doesn’t have any show stopping tourist attractions. But because of its importance to the global economy, it’s a country and culture worth understanding.

Flying there, I read a great general survey book on all things Korea by Daniel Tudor called The Impossible Country. The perfect pre-read for anyone visiting who needs to brush up on their basic history and culture. Below the fold are my extensive highlights from the book.


 

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“Waking Up” and My On-Going Meditation and Buddhism Explorations

Sam Harris has written an excellent new book called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion that I highly recommend to anyone interested in a hard-headed take on spirituality and meditation. This post contains highlights from the book combined with updates on my own evolving understanding Buddhism and meditation.

Meditation feels like it’s at the peak of the hype cycle right now. The new Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco attracts flocks of suit-wearing business people, not spiritual loonies. Calm.com raised over a million bucks to bring a guided meditation app to the masses. Arianna Huffington’s recent book Thrive articulated meditation’s many benefits with great mass market appeal. As a fan of meditation, I’m excited by how many new resources there are. There’s no doubt that folks who’ve turned away from organized religion still need a kind of purpose that’s hard to develop on your own, and meditation can be seen as a tactical tool in the quest for developing a higher understanding about life. But it feels inevitable that there’ll be a backlash, as people take up the practice expecting a cure-all. As Rupert Murdoch tweeted, “Meditation said to improve everything!” Yup — that’s a recipe for disappointment. Eventually, we’ll end up somewhere in the happy medium in terms of meditation delivering on the realistic expectations of its practitioners.

I first learned about meditation a decade ago. I distinctly remember the moment. I was sitting in my bedroom and felt a twitch in the tiny muscle below my left eyebrow and above my eyeball. I walked into the bathroom, put my face close to the mirror, and waited. Sure enough, a minute later, the same muscle spasmed. Some quick research that night revealed that this is a classic sign of stress. It figured: I was exceptionally busy with entrepreneurship and school, and I was exceptionally unskilled at managing busyness. I hopped on Amazon.com and bought the first book I found on stress reduction. That book introduced to me to meditation.

For several years thereafter, I meditated sporadically, in search of stress relief. I sat in a chair, closed my eyes, and focused on the inhale and exhale of my breath. After 10 or 15 minutes, I opened my eyes, and felt calmer. There’s a growing literature that suggests that what I felt was real: simple mindfulness meditation generates positive health benefits such as reduced blood pressure and etc.

Even though meditation is an essential component of a Buddhist practice, I’ve never known much about Buddhism. As a bit of personal history, I was baptized Catholic but was atheist by my teen years. I remained open to the idea of “spiritual” experiences, though. I’d had some experiences in nature that induced feelings of awe, which is the most concrete, secular type of spirituality I can think of. For example, staring up at the stars in a rural village outside Beijing or hiking in Kenai Peninsula in Alaska and stopping on a mountain of shale and looking out over the vast land. I’ve also experienced moments of extreme present-ness: I vividly remember hearing a teacher tell a story once of returning to his native war-torn Lebanon as a child on Christmas eve, driving through the rainy streets in his parents’ car on the way to his childhood home, and during that drive, looking out the window and seeing the reflection of Christmas ornaments in the puddles of water. It was the happiest moment of his life, he said. When I heard the story, I got goosebumps.

For a time, I began to identify as “spiritual but not religious” without really knowing what it meant. The designation pained me because of how irrational so many “spiritual” people tended to be. Many people I encountered who talked about their spirituality did not seem very rigorous in their thinking. In 2009 I wrote a post somewhat backing away from the label. I’ve since come back around to the word “spiritual,” for reasons Harris describes in his book:

Yes, to walk the aisles of any “spiritual” bookstore is to confront the yearning and credulity of our species by the yard, but there is no other term—apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative—with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.

Over the years, I’ve gotten increasingly curious about — and have taken steps to understand — more advanced forms of meditation and the Buddhist ideas behind them and the connection between the two.

Buddhism: What Resonates, What Doesn’t

Yes: Happiness Must Come From Within

Modern Buddhists talk a lot about the unhappiness of rock stars, CEOs, and others who’ve won fame and fortune in today’s world. It’s an idea that resonates strongly: many of the people I know who have it all seem not much happier than those who lead lives of average material existence. Harris offers a helpful re-frame of the famous Buddhist line that “life is suffering.” It’s not “suffering” we all must deal with. It’s the unsatisfactoriness of more and more external success, as those successes — and everything in life — is ultimately impermanent. “Everything changes” is Buddhism summed up in two words. Thus, true happiness and purpose must come from within. Here’s Harris:

our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for an hour, or perhaps a day, but then they subside. And the search goes on. The effort required to keep boredom and other unpleasantness at bay must continue, moment to moment. …

The Buddha taught mindfulness as the appropriate response to the truth of dukkha, usually translated from the Pali, somewhat misleadingly, as “suffering.” A better translation would be “unsatisfactoriness.” Suffering may not be inherent in life, but unsatisfactoriness is.

And this:

Most of us could easily compile a list of goals we want to achieve or personal problems that need to be solved. But what is the real significance of every item on such a list? Everything we want to accomplish—to paint the house, learn a new language, find a better job—is something that promises that, if done, it would allow us to finally relax and enjoy our lives in the present. Generally speaking, this is a false hope.

Agreed. Good things happen, bad things happen, everything arises and passes away. True harmony must be something steadier.

Yes: Self-Transendance (Or, Using a Window as a Window, Not a Mirror)

The more important idea of many Buddhist teachings — and the primary emphasis on Sam Harris’s book — is the illusion of a separate ego. Harris focuses on the quite secular project of “self-transcendance”:

The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by “spirituality” in the context of this book.

I need to re-read these passages of the book and do quite a bit more practice to fully understand this idea. It’s not simple! But it feels potentially quite profound, and an area I’ll explore in the years ahead.

Yes: Understand via Experience. Observe Yourself. There is No Book with Answers.

Buddhism asks its students to observe themselves and come to their own answers. You learn by experience. As Larry Rosenberg wrote in Breath by Breath, another good book on the topic, Buddhism isn’t about beliefs — it’s about first hand knowledge. By observing the impermanent sensations on your body, for example, you learn about the impermanence of thought patterns. The historical Buddha was a man who woke up and offered thoughts on the illusion of ego and the path for true harmony. Contrast his life story to the Christian narrative of Jesus — who’s billed as the son of the creator of the entire freakin’ universe. There’s a humility to Buddhist teachings that’s attractive. Although there are celebrity spiritual gurus alive today, in the Vipassana retreats I’ve been on there is a kind of disavowal of higher spirits or gurus. The unpaid “civilian” teachers wear sweatpants and t-shirts. There are no candles and no prayers. Only attention to your breath and your body.

Not So Much: Reincarnation and Other Claims About the Cosmos

The Buddha made several claims about the cosmos that are fanciful. E.g. Reincarnation, karma, and so on. Harris argues that you can ignore them and still profit (spiritually, that is!) from the other claims about self-mastery. I’m persuaded that’s the case.

Not So Much: Focus on Self to the Exclusion of Needy Others

Buddhism strikes me as self-absorbed. In a Christian church, there’s wonderful emphasis about how Jesus taught us to help those in need. You never hear that theme in talks about Buddhism. To be sure, there are teachings about compassion and a type of meditation called metta that promotes loving kindness, but it’s never felt as foundational to me as the idea of liberation of one’s self, transcendence of one’s ego, and achieving “perfect equanimity,” as S.N. Goenka says over and over again. Here’s Harris on this point:

The fact that your mind is all you have and that it is possible to be at peace even in difficult circumstances can become an argument for ignoring obvious societal problems. But it is not a compelling one. The world is in desperate need of improvement—in global terms, freedom and prosperity remain the exception—and yet this doesn’t mean we need to be miserable while we work for the common good.

Being wisely selfish and being selfless can amount to very much the same thing.

Okay, but it’s hard to do both at once.

Not So Much: Apathy and Passiveness, Instead of Passion

Can you really change the world and still be Buddhist? Is making the world a better place even embedded in the idea set? Harris again:

There is nothing passive about mindfulness. One might even say that it expresses a specific kind of passion—a passion for discerning what is subjectively real in every moment. It is a mode of cognition that is, above all, undistracted, accepting, and (ultimately) nonconceptual. Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves

We crave lasting happiness in the midst of change: Our bodies age, cherished objects break, pleasures fade, relationships fail. Our attachment to the good things in life and our aversion to the bad amount to a denial of these realities, and this inevitably leads to feelings of dissatisfaction. Mindfulness is a technique for achieving equanimity amid the flux, allowing us to simply be aware of the quality of experience in each moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant. This may seem like a recipe for apathy, but it needn’t be. It is actually possible to be mindful—and, therefore, to be at peace with the present moment—even while working to change the world for the better.

I’m not so sure these two can be squared. The classic change-the-world entrepreneurial vision requires a huge amount of passion, often with extraordinary highs and extraordinary lows along the way. It requires commitment to goals.

Advanced Meditation: Beyond the Retreats

More serious meditative practice intrigued me because I was interested in achieving a higher degree of self-possession beyond simple relaxation — being able to better control what I think and when, to cut short unhelpful thought cycles, to be present in a new moment even if something lousy happened just prior, to quiet the monkey mind in bed so I could sleep better, and perhaps ultimately achieve some of the higher Buddhist ideals of harmony. Breathing for 5-10 minutes certainly calms you down, but doesn’t sculpt the mind. It doesn’t shift your “doggy mind” to the “lion’s mind” of deep steadiness. Occasional breathing exercises is like going on the occasional jog in the park: the result will be positive but very different than lifting weights in a gym under a trainer’s watchful eye.

Harris writes, “No one hesitates to admit the role of talent and training in the context of physical and intellectual pursuits. But many people find it difficult to acknowledge that a continuum of moral and spiritual wisdom exists or that there might be better and worse ways to traverse it.” Exactly. I needed to train.

To more seriously train my mind and jumpstart a regular practice, a couple years ago I attended a 10 day silent Vipassana retreat, followed by a 3 day silent retreat. I wrote extensive blog posts about each retreat. As I wrote in my 10 day retreat reflection, the peak of the experience came around 80 hours in, when I began to understand the difference between being “lost in thought” and being hyper observant of what thoughts I was having. It wasn’t that I had no thoughts; I had thoughts because I was fully conscious, but I felt in control of my thoughts.

This is one of the most helpful analogies I’ve come across about what it means to be totally present in meditation, via Harris:

 Joseph Goldstein, one of the finest vipassana teachers I know, likens this shift in awareness to the experience of being fully immersed in a film and then suddenly realizing that you are sitting in a theater watching a mere play of light on a wall. Your perception is unchanged, but the spell is broken. Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives.

The power of your mind:

Become sensitive to these interruptions in the continuity of your mental states. You are depressed, say, but are suddenly moved to laughter by something you read. You are bored and impatient while sitting in traffic, but then are cheered by a phone call from a close friend. These are natural experiments in shifting mood. Notice that suddenly paying attention to something else—something that no longer supports your current emotion—allows for a new state of mind. Observe how quickly the clouds can part. These are genuine glimpses of freedom.

Since the retreats, I’ve maintained a regular practice, meditating for 4-5 days a week for on average 20 minutes each sit, totaling about 500 hours of meditating in my life. For the first year after the 10 day, I was obsessed with not skipping a day. “Daily practice” is an idea pounded into your head by meditation teachers, and most apps that track your sits (I use Insight Timer) display how many days you’ve consecutively logged time. I sought to do it daily — even if it was for a throwaway 3 minutes at 11:57 PM. My reasoning was that if I focused on daily practice eventually it would become so ingrained that even if I did miss a day, I’d be conscious of the skip, and pick it up the next day. Today, that is indeed the case: when I’m getting ready to sleep, if I haven’t meditated, I’ll think about it, and sometimes choose not to meditate. That, to me, is the habit formation I was looking for. Missing a day here or there isn’t a big deal and having that attitude relieves yourself of the practice feeling like a burden. If I’m traveling and exhausted, and I know sitting for 10 minutes won’t work very well, I’ll just skip.

Everyone should do a 10 day retreat at least once in their life, even if you never meditate again. A silent retreat will almost certainly be a mind bending experience. No using any technology, not reading, not writing, not speaking — that alone will be hugely impactful, even if you get nothing out of the meditation aspect. Being alone with your thoughts for such a length of time is an experience unlike any other.

My meditation practice has certainly promoted a greater degree of mindfulness (being intentional with my attention) in my day-to-day life when I’m not on the cushion. With a subtle attention to my breath and bodily sensations, I can return to the here and now more easily, and calm the monkey mind more than I could before. But has it made me happier? In this worthwhile, skeptical take on the meditation boom on NYTimes.com, Tony Schwartz, author of the excellent Power of Full Engagementreflects on his years of meditating and says:

Building the capacity to quiet the mind has undeniable value at a time when our attention is under siege, and distraction has become our steady state. Meditation – in the right doses — is also valuable as a means to relax the body, quiet the emotions and refresh one’s energy. There is growing evidence that meditation has some health benefits. What I haven’t seen is much evidence that meditating leads people to behave better, improves their relationships or makes them happier.

It’s a fair point.

All in all, I found Harris’s book super provocative and I highly recommend it. Below the fold are a couple other interesting paragraphs from Harris.

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The Wisdom and Wonder of Kevin Kelly

One of the most interesting people alive, for sure. Here are my extended notes from his epic book What Technology Wants. Here are his three appearances on Russ Roberts’ Econtalk.

And here’s his recent interview with Tim Ferriss on Tim’s new podcast. All three parts are worth listening to. Kevin is a very wise man, and his perspective on the good life resonates deeply. Find yourself by creating yourself. Think through writing. Be the best version of yourself. And much more.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

russbook1. How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts. An engaging summary and analysis of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith’s Wealth of Nations is more popular but Theory of Moral Sentiments is arguably just as profound. Russ quotes extensively from the original text and adds color on what Smith was expressing about human nature. If you struggle with old fashioned writing, as I do, this account is a great alternative or supplement to the original work.

Russ quotes a Venetian proverb: “The sea gets deeper as you go further into it.” And then adds, “The more you know, the more you realize how much there is to know. You really don’t have to know everything. Admitting ignorance can be bliss.”

In the conclusion, I enjoyed the distinction between the warm world of intimate family and friends and the harsh and cold world of commerce with strangers.

As F.A. Hayek pointed out in The Fatal Conceit, a modern person has to inhabit two worlds at the same time — a world that is intimate and a world that is distant, a world that is held together by prices and monetary incentives. Hayek argued that we have an urge to take the norms and culture of our intimate family life and try to extend them into our less-intimate commercial life…Hayek thought that extending the norms of the family to society at large would put us on the road to tyranny.

2. Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less by Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao. Chock full of management tips and tricks, informed by real academic research. Some useful observations about how to scale something that works as well. I enjoy reading Bob’s blog and following him on Twitter.

3. Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Self-Promotion by David Zweig. The people who make the world go round you who you haven’t heard of. Zweig does a nice job with the storytelling of unsung heroes: the structural engineers of office buildings, not the architects; the wayfinders at airports who design the signage that tells you where baggage claim and rental cars are; ghostwriters who help the rich and famous write memoirs. Zweig makes a case that pursuing work you excel at that does not lead to public accolades can actually be more satisfying than achieving success that results in celebrity.

4. Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips. There were some amazing paragraphs in the first chapter, but then I got totally lost as it descended into riffs on psychotherapy. Sample graph that originally intrigued me:

There is always what will turn out to be the life we led, and the life that accompanied it, the parallel life (or lives) that never actually happened, that we lived in our minds, the wished-for life (or lives): the risks untaken and the opportunities avoided or unprovided. We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason – and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason – they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. Indeed, our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live.

5. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Some fun lines certainly about corporate office life, and I know Ferris is talented, but I couldn’t get into this novel. Some winning paragraphs nonetheless:

We believed that downturns had been rendered obsolete by the ingenious technology of the new economy. We thought ourselves immune from things like plant closings in Iowa and Nebraska, where remote Americans struggled against falling-in roofs and credit card debt. We watched these blue-collar workers being interviewed on TV. For the length of the segment, it was impossible not to feel the sadness and anxiety they must have felt for themselves and their families. But soon we moved on to weather and sports and by the time we thought about them again, it was a different plant in a different city, and the state was offering dislocated worker programs, readjustment and retraining services, and skills workshops. They’d be fine. Thank god we didn’t have to worry about a misfortune like that. We were corporate citizens, buttressed by advanced degrees and padded by corporate fat. We were above the fickle market forces of overproduction and mismanaged inventory.

 And:

When someone quit, we couldn’t believe it. “I’m becoming a rafting instructor on the Colorado River,” they said. “I’m touring college towns with my garage band.” We were dumbfounded. It was like they lived on a different planet. Where had they found the derring-do? What would they do about car payments? We got together for going-away drinks on their final day and tried to hide our envy while reminding ourselves that we still had the freedom and luxury to shop indiscriminately. Invariably Tom would get drunk and berate the departing with inappropriate toasts. Invariably Marcia would find hair bands on the jukebox and subject us to their saccharine ballads while recalling the halcyon days of George Washington High. Invariably Janine would silently sip her cranberry juice, looking mournful and motherly, and Jim Jackers would crack dull, tasteless jokes, and Joe would still be at the office, working. “‘Every ship is a romantic object,’” Tom would blather, “‘except that we sail in.’” Concluding, he would stand and lift his glass. “So good luck to you,” he toasted, finishing off his martini, “and fuck you for leaving, you prick.”

“Don’t Compare Yourself to Others” – The Envy Problem

“Don’t compare yourself to others.”

It’s common advice. When you compare yourself to others, you are “comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides.” When you compare yourself to others, you’re more likely to become motivated by extrinsic, shallow reasons (fame/status/wealth) than intrinsic, sustainable reasons (meaning/purpose). When you compare yourself to others, you kill your joy.

Indeed, Leo Babuta says, “One of the biggest reasons we’re not content with ourselves and our lives is that we compare ourselves to other people.” He analogizes the issue to running in the park and seeing someone run past you. It’d be silly, Babuta says, to conclude, “Gosh, he’s a faster runner than me, and therefore better than me!” You have no idea how far he’s running, where he is in his particular run, what training plan he’s on, etc. Better to just focus on your own run. Learn about yourself as you run. Focus on your journey.

But it’s more complicated than this. You can benefit when you compare yourself to someone else. For example, what if the person who runs past you in the park sports a running technique that’s superior to your own and that you could adopt with success? What if the person running faster wears a certain kind of shoes that you could buy for yourself? What if his training plan offers valuable insight that you might incorporate into your own training plan?

When you compare yourself to others, you might be inspired to run faster in life. Better yet, you can get ideas for how to run faster. The best way to achieve expertise in anything is to study the masters, deconstruct their techniques (by comparing your techniques to their own), and consider adopting their best practices into your own routine.

I believe what people really mean when they say “Don’t compare yourself to others” is “Don’t let yourself get consumed by envy. Be the best version of yourself, not someone else.” It’s the second order effect of comparing yourself to someone else that’s the dangerous thing. Thus, the advice would be better stated: “Don’t let yourself get consumed by envy.”

Envy sucks. It really does cause unhappiness. It’s important to remember, though, that you don’t feel envy when Bill Gates has a big success. He’s so different from you and me. You also don’t feel envy as much when someone achieves great success in a wildly different life pursuit. So when do you feel envy? You feel envy when someone who is roughly the same age/location/life stage/life situation as you achieves something similar to your goal in your field of choice.

Hence, the dilemma: how do you learn from successful people without being consumed by envy for what they have?

Here’s a perhaps radical approach.

First, study the lessons from successful peers in adjacent fields. If you’re a development director at a non-profit, study the career of and compare yourself to a director of finance at a fast-growing startup. If you’re a young doctor, study the career of a peer at a biotech company.

Second, study the lessons of people in your direct line of work but who are way, way ahead of you. Compare yourself to him or her. If you’re a software entrepreneur, study Bill Gates’ life and career. Or anyone else who’s 10-15 years ahead of you. Learn, learn, learn by comparing, comparing, comparing to a party elder. Read biographies.

Third, if you find yourself nevertheless obsessing over your direct peers fighting in the ring next to you — and, because we’re wired to obsess with where we rank in our tribe, it’s a hard instinct to suppress — then create a tribe of one. Forge a life so idiosyncratic that it’d be silly to compare yourself head-on to someone else. Take the path less traveled. Adopt a unique life philosophy. Do something crazy.

If you do something common, you have lots of direct comparisons. If you go to law school and become a young attorney, there’ll be thousands of people right next to you, neck and neck in the race of life, and their success will almost certainly trigger biting jealousy. They are like you in every way…except they succeeded.

Do something uncommon, and it’s hard to make the case — in your own mind, anyways — that it’s an apples-to-apples comparison. When you compare yourself to someone who by strict demographics may be a peer — by age, race, location, etc. — you have a narrative in your head that’s envy-repellent: “I can’t compare myself to him. I spent two years in my 20’s surfing in Costa Rica while he climbed the corporate totem pole.” Or: “Unlike many, I’ve chosen a flexible work schedule so I can play with my kids and husband on the weekends. This comes with tradeoffs. No one else at my company has arranged their schedule in this way. ”

Bottom Line: Comparing yourself to others is a great way to learn. Just make sure you compare yourself to people who are sufficiently different or sufficiently ahead of you so that your drive to soar will come from genuine inspiration instead of envy. That takes imagination. Better yet, carve a life so unique that there won’t be reasonable direct comparison points. Then you can freely stitch together whatever you learn from others into a life that’s all your own. That takes courage.

The Global Talent Crunch

Michal Lev-Ram writes about The Global Talent Crunch in Fortune magazine, and quotes Reid and me discussing why The Alliance is part of the solution:

The coming labor shortage is being fought head-on by a new generation of talent innovators—Silicon Valley…

At LinkedIn, one of Setton’s former employers, the acknowledgment that employees won’t stay with the company forever starts before they even join and isn’t perceived as a negative. Kevin Scott, senior vice president of engineering at the company, based in Mountain View, asks an important question of every candidate he interviews: “What job do you want after you work at LinkedIn?”

 “Part of the reason Silicon Valley companies are so successful is that they’re a recombination of people who have worked in multiple companies,” says Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and co-author of a new book calledThe Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age.

“Historically, most companies don’t want to ask that question [what job does your employee want to have ,” says Ben Casnocha, an entrepreneur who co-authored the book with Hoffman. “But today your best people are not going to be lifers.”

Worth reading the whole thing.

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Here’s a half hour interview I did on Andy Kaufman’s podcast about The Alliance. Near the end, David Foster Wallace comes up…

When Someone Believes in You

Something powerful happens when a person who’s not a family member — and therefore someone you perceive as more objective — tells you, with their actions or their words, that he believes in you: You begin to believe in yourself.

I’ve known Brad and Amy Feld for a decade. Technology has made it easier to stay lightly in touch with a lot of people, but it hasn’t changed what’s required to maintain close relationships over a long period of time, which is good old-fashioned face to face time. And face time can be hard to come by. People get married, have kids, get divorced, change jobs, move around, move on. People get busy. I’m busy. I’m delighted it’s worked out that I’ve known them so well for so long.

A couple weeks ago, I spent a weekend at their place, which has become a cherished yearly tradition. It’s actually pretty simple. One weekend a year, I go to wherever they are, and we talk. Recently, I arrived at their home in Colorado late Friday night after they were already asleep. We got up at 8:30am the next morning and had breakfast. We talked from 8:30am until 4:30pm. I took a nap and Brad went for a run. Then we had dinner and talked from 6:30pm – 9pm. On Sunday I slept in, and we talked from about 10am to noon. What’d we talk about for more than a dozen hours? Everything. Yes, everything.

Each year when I drive back to the airport from their house, head full of ideas and heart full of energy, I think, “I’m going to write a blog post about the visit.” This time I am.

When I got started in Silicon Valley as a student, I knew exactly one person in the tech industry: Mike. He was a neighbor and family friend. Mike worked at PwC for years. He served as my all-in-one-MBA. He taught me that everything flows through networks — information, deals, opportunities. So he made some crucial early introductions for me. One of those introductions was to a partner at the venture capital firm Mobius named Greg. That partner (Greg), in 2002, introduced me in turn to one of his other partners — Brad.

The first time I met Brad, in 2003, my business partner Dave Richmond and I were pitching Comcate. It wasn’t right for his firm, but he made some intros to friends in the Bay Area. With him living in Colorado, and without a shared project, there wasn’t a natural reason for us to stay in good touch.

That changed in May, 2004, when Brad started blogging. I took a look at his site when he launched it and knew immediately that I had to do the same. The next month I started my own blog. These were the magical bygone days when you only had 30-40 feeds in your RSS reader and could read every post – we subscribed to each other’s feeds and found a new way to stay in touch. At one point, we both started sharing bookmarks in Delicious – a way to understand the “first derivative of someone’s thinking,” as he once put it. Eventually, with the virtual connection forged, we found time to see each other in person, and I got to know his wife Amy, and the annual visit tradition began.

They mentioned, last time I saw them, that it’s been cool seeing my own transformation over the decade. Indeed, when I think about inflection points in my life, they’ve been there for many of them. For example: (1) When I was building out my first company, Brad helped me think through various questions—he introduced me to Michael Porter’s work, for example. (2) When I took some time off after high school and wrote my first book, Brad wrote a guest essay in the book on mentorship. (3) Shortly before the book’s publication, I worked on some projects for he and his partners in Boulder for a few months in 2007. There, I had the opportunity to help David Cohen as he got TechStars off the ground. (4) When I brainstormed new venues for acquiring an education, I visited them in Alaska, and they—along with Chris Yeh—were the only friends of mine who supported my unconventional plan. (5) Shortly after my first girlfriend dumped me, I remember finding myself in Keystone, CO. Brad told me the story of his first failed marriage. (6) When I began talking to Reid about doing a book with him, Brad and Reid were on the Zynga board together, and Brad was helpful in greasing the wheels. When I published my second and third books, Brad — who’s been publishing several books as well — offered important perspective and advice.

I could go on. Point is, at moments of consequence, both good and bad, they’ve been a stream of encouragement and advice. At key decision points in my life, they’ve believed in me.

Brad and Amy themselves have transformed over the last decade as well, of course. In the time I’ve known him, Brad co-founded Foundry Group, which has emerged as one of the leading venture firms in the world, and TechStars, a leading tech accelerator. Amy joined the board of Wellesley and co-authored a book with Brad about how to be in a relationship with an entrepreneur (the best book on the topic). Together, they’ve entered mid-life, confronted looming signs of mortality, and grappled with meaning-of-life questions. You can find many inspiring, honest blog posts on these topics on Brad’s blog.

Equally striking about Brad and Amy, though, is what has not changed over the past decade. Their values. Their personalities. Their intensity. Their playfulness. Amy once told me your romantic partner is going to have certain idiosyncrasies and they won’t change. You’ll love them at first, and maybe forever. But if and when they begin to annoy rather than amuse you—you know you’ve got a problem. It’s safe to say they are still eminently amused by each other’s idiosyncrasies. And they’re still committed to their deeply held beliefs.

I’m incredibly grateful that I have them in my life. I’m also grateful to have befriended some of the people in their ever generous network, such as my good friends Stan James, Wendy Lea, Dave Jilk, and Heidi Roizen. It’s their multiplier effect.

I dedicated my first book My Start-up Life, which was about my first entrepreneurial adventure, to Mike the PwC neighbor, and to my parents, who supported me mightily in the process. For my second book The Start-up of You, about how to transform your career with entrepreneurial principles, I dedicated my portion to my 6th grade teacher who inspired me to memorize Apple’s Think Different ad, which helped kickstart my entrepreneurial verve. For my third book The Alliance, my portion of the dedication reads as follows: “To Brad and Amy Feld, for believing in me.”

Book Review: Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson

71AYbGJCoZL._SL1499_I loved Phil Jackson’s latest memoir, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, written with Hugh Delehanty. It’s full of interesting stories from his time coaching Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, amusing and at times inspiring riffs on his Zen spirituality beliefs, and smart advice on how to coach a bunch of individual talents to work together as a team.

Jackson is one of the winningest coaches ever. And probably the most spiritually inclined. I found plenty of insights on teamwork, leadership, and meditation that are broadly applicable. That said, if you aren’t interested in basketball, it’ll be a slog. There are many love letters to the triangle offense and blow-by-blows of seasons which will interest only those with an above-average interest in the game.

Here are some of the lessons and a couple direct quotes:

  • “After years of experimenting, I discovered that the more I tried to exert power directly, the less powerful I became. I learned to dial back my ego and distribute power as widely as possible without surrounding final authority.”
  • He didn’t call a time out when an opposing team went on a 6-0 run. He wanted his players to figure out a solution themselves — not bail them out.
  • Mix up practice routines by introducing novelty in a long season. He had the Bulls practice in silence once; another team they scrimmaged with the lights out. He broke the team into a stronger squad and a weaker squad and then didn’t call any fouls on the weaker squad during a scrimmage.
  • The Knicks coach, when Jackson was a player, wanted bench players to be actively engaged in the game so they were prepared mentally. He’d give them several minutes’ warning before putting them in the game so they could focus in.
  • Follow your breath with your mind as it moves in and out like a swinging door.
  • Practices for new NBA players would start with the basics, including footwork, dribbling, passing. Even at the professional level, re-visiting the basics was necessary. Most experts understand simple things deeply.
  • “At that time most coaches subscribed to the Knute Rockne theory of mental training. They tried to get their players revved up for the game with win-one-for-the-Gipper-style pep talks. That approach may work if you’re a linebacker. But what I discovered playing for the Knicks is that when I got too excited mentally, it had a negative effect on my ability to stay focused under pressure. So I did the opposite. Instead of charging players up, I developed a number of strategies to help them quiet their minds and build awareness so they could go into battle poised and in control.”
  • On road trips, he selected a book for each player to read. He assigned Michael Jordan Song of Solomon.
  • Jackson orchestrated a meeting between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan during a Lakers’ trip to Chicago, with the hope that Michael could help Kobe understand the value of selfless play. After shaking hands, the first words out of Kobe’s mouth to Jordan were “You know I can kick your ass one on one.”