Scuba Diving in Roatan

During a dive descent

Roatan, Honduras has more Americans than Hondurans, it feels like, and the Hondurans who are there have stunningly good American accents on their English.

That is to say that Roatan is a super easy Caribbean getaway (2 hour flight from Houston) for Americans who want world-famous scuba diving and snorkling. Last year, we went to Cozumel, Mexico for July 4th scuba. This year, Roatan. Very similar destinations.

I preferred the scuba in Roatan. Both places are stunning, but Roatan’s current isn’t as strong so it’s not all drift diving. Either place is good for beginners like me. The food in Cozumel, Mexico is better, likely because it’s an overall more developed country and likely maintains higher standards for quality food sourcing and prep.

Scuba diving continues to enchant. It’s a whole ‘nother universe down there. I’m not yet committed to climbing the ladders of higher and higher dive certifications but being a casual amateur is fun and provides an obvious adventure outlet on trips to warm destinations. I continue to struggle with equalizing my ears; if I ever stop diving, it’ll be because of my ears.

July 4th week also continues to be a good week to travel out of the States. When the holiday lands in the middle of the week, tons of people seem to take the week off. I think getting out of town for a few days during the week of the 4th is a new tradition…

Finally, I read Blake Couch’s latest novel Recursion on the trip. It’s a page turner that reminded me of Stephen King’s time travel book. I preferred Crouch’s previous book Dark Matter but this one was still sci-fi provocative.

Book Review: The Second Mountain by David Brooks

Some people love to hate on David Brooks. And his latest book, The Second Mountain, offers opportunity for his haters to hate: It’s a book about morality and values, in large part fueled by his own personal transformation over the past decade, including a decision to split from his wife and then, later, to marry his research assistant 20 years his junior. His critics are making hay over this aspect of his personal story. Personally, I find Brooks’ personal life not essential to understanding and even agreeing with the arguments in the book. Further, I’m not sure why divorce and re-marriage (even to someone younger than you) ought to subject someone to ridicule. So, I both enjoyed the book, and do not judge Brooks’ personal life.

I find the “two mountains” premise simple yet deep: The first mountain you climb in life is about worldly success, career achievement. You get to the top of the mountain and realize it’s not totally satisfying. “Is this all there?” you wonder. So you begin to climb a second mountain in life–a journey of searching for deeper meaning in life:

You don’t climb the second mountain the way you climb the first mountain. You conquer your first mountain. You identify the summit, and you claw your way toward it. You are conquered by your second mountain. You surrender to some summons, and you do everything necessary to answer the call and address the problem or injustice that is in front of you. On the first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate, and relentless.

This resonates personally, not that I’ve necessarily conquered any mountain yet in my life. It also resonates when I think about my friends later in life who are very much at the top of a career mountain but are still searching for…something. The Buddhist idea that getting what you want won’t make you happy — this truth, if indeed true, is incredibly profound. And it seems true.

Brooks lays out a bunch of interesting researched stories, personal anecdotes, and research snippets to make his case that leading a more purposeful life requires intentionality if you are to overcome the natural order of shallowness. For Brooks, part of the journey to a deeper life involved religion, and becoming a “confused Christian” in addition to his Judaism. The most compelling stories to me were about people who prioritized service and volunteerism in their lives.

Here are some of my highlights from the Kindle edition.


There are temporary highs we all get after we win some victory, and then there is also this other kind of permanent joy that animates people who are not obsessed with themselves but have given themselves away.

It’s all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, and so on. Then something happens. Some people get to the top of that first mountain, taste success, and find it…unsatisfying. “Is this all there is?” they wonder. They sense there must be a deeper journey they can take.

I’ve written this book, in part, to remind myself of the kind of life I want to live.

We can help create happiness, but we are seized by joy. We are pleased by happiness, but we are transformed by joy. When we experience joy we often feel we have glimpsed into a deeper and truer layer of reality. A narcissist can be happy, but a narcissist can never be joyful, because the surrender of self is the precise thing a narcissist can’t do. A narcissist can’t even conceive of joy. That’s one of the problems with being stuck on the first mountain: You can’t even see what the second mountain offers.

This is the sudden bursting of love that you see, for example, on the face of a mother when she first lays eyes on her infant. Dorothy Day captured it beautifully: “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure, I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms….No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.”

As Haidt notes, powerful moments of moral elevation seem to push a mental reset button, wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and moral inspiration. These moments of elevation are energizing. People feel strongly motivated to do something good themselves, to act, to dare, to sacrifice, to help others. When people

All of this points in one direction: into the ditch. The person who graduates from school and pursues an aesthetic pattern of life often ends up in the ditch. It’s only then that they realize the truth that somehow nobody told them: Freedom sucks. Political freedom is great. But personal, social, and emotional freedom—when it becomes an ultimate end—absolutely sucks. It leads to a random, busy life with no discernible direction, no firm foundation, and in which, as Marx put it, all that’s solid melts to air.

If this sense of lostness can happen to a Tolstoy, then it can happen to anybody. After all, the rest of us can be haunted by the idea that we haven’t accomplished as much as we could. But Tolstoy was one of the greatest writers who ever lived and knew it. Wealth and fame and accomplishment do not spare anybody from the valley.

This is a telos crisis. A telos crisis is defined by the fact that people in it don’t know what their purpose is. When this happens, they become fragile. Nietzsche says that he who has a “why” to live for can endure any “how.” If you know what your purpose is, you can handle the setbacks. But when you don’t know what your purpose is, any setback can lead to total collapse.

A lot is gained simply by going into a different physical place. You need to taste and touch and feel your way toward a new way of being. And there are huge benefits in leaving the center of things and going off into the margins.

The wilderness lives at the pace of what the Greeks called kairos time, which can be slower but is always richer.

Think about it: Almost every movie you’ve ever seen is about somebody experiencing this intense sense of merging with something, giving themselves away to something—a mission, a cause, a family, a nation, or a beloved.

Maybe some of us will learn these lessons while racking up success after success, or just being thoroughly loved, but for most of us the process is different: We have a season when we chase the shallow things in life. We are not fulfilled. Then comes hardship, which exposes the heart and soul. The heart and soul teach us that we cannot give ourselves what we desire most. Fulfillment and joy are on the far side of service. Only then are we really able to love.

I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of a dinner table. It’s the stage on which we turn toward one another for love like flowers seeking the sun.
It is a paradox that when people are finding themselves they often have a sensation that they are letting go and surrendering themselves. You meet a person in need. At first you just commit to help them a little. An hour a week. It’s no big deal. But then you get to know and care about the person, and the hooks of commitment are set. Now you’ll do what needs to be done. At this point you just let go of the wheel. You stop asking, What do I want? and start asking, What is life asking of me? You respond.

When they are working with the homeless or the poor or the traumatized, they are laboring alongside big welfare systems that offer services but not care. These systems treat people as “cases” or “clients.” They are necessary to give people financial stability and support, but they can’t do transformational change. As Peter Block, one of the leading experts on community, puts it, “Talk to any poor person or vulnerable person and they can give you a long list of the services they have received. They are well serviced, but you often have to ask what in their life has fundamentally changed.”

One task in life is synthesis. It is to collect all the fragmented pieces of a self and bring them to a state of unity, so that you move coherently toward a single vision.

Like T. S. Eliot, Orwell believed that good writing involves a continual extinction of personality. One struggles, Orwell wrote, “to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.” The act of writing well involved self-suppression, putting the reader in direct contact with the thing described.

“Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him,” Walker Percy observes.

Technical, book knowledge, Oakeshott writes, consists of “formulated rules which are, or may be, deliberately learned.” Practical knowledge, on the other hand, cannot be taught or learned but only imparted and acquired. It exists only in practice. When we talk about practical knowledge, we tend to use bodily metaphors. We say that somebody has a touch for doing some activity—an ability to hit the right piano key with just enough force and pace. We say that somebody has a feel for the game, an intuition for how events are going to unfold, an awareness of when you should plow ahead with a problem and when you should put it aside before coming back to it. We say that somebody has taste, an aesthetic sense of what product or presentation is excellent, and which ones are slightly off.

Eighty-three percent of all corporate mergers fail to create any value for shareholders, and these mergers are only made after months and years of analysis. When making the big choices in life, as L.A. Paul puts it, “You shouldn’t fool yourself—you have no idea what you are getting into.”

In most key decision moments, there are actually many more options that are being filtered out by that point of view. Every time you find yourself saying “whether or not,” the Heaths argue, it’s a good idea to step back and find more options. Maybe the question is not breaking up with Sue or not; it’s finding a new way to improve your relationship.

You can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but you can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.

Who you marry is the most important decision you will ever make. Marriage colors your life and everything in it. George Washington had a rather interesting life, but still concluded, “I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one’s life, the foundation of happiness or misery.”

“I don’t really know of many happy marriages. I know a lot of marriages where parents love their kids.”
J. B Priestley once observed that there is probably no talk quite so delightful as the talk between two people who are not yet in love, but who might fall in love, and are aware that each has hidden reserves waiting to be explored.

“He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love,” King wrote.

Neuroticism, Tashiro continues, is what you want to avoid. It seems exciting and dramatic at first, but neurotic people are tense, moody, prone to sadness. Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative emotions such as anger and anxiety with great force. “Neurotic individuals tend to have a history of turbulent and unstable relationships with others, including family and friends. They also tend to be prone to what looks like bad luck, but with time, one often sees that there are ways that their neuroticism evokes unfortunate

John Gottman, the dean of marriage scholars, grasped the essence: “Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship. By this I mean mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other’s company. These couples tend to know each other intimately—they are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams. They have an abiding regard for each other and express this fondness not just in big ways but in little ways day in and day out.”

Emotional knowledge, Roger Scruton argues, is knowing what to feel in certain situations—so that you can be properly disgusted by injustice, properly reverent before an act of self-sacrifice, properly sympathetic in friendship, and properly forbearing when wronged.

One morning, for example, I was getting off the subway in Penn Station in New York at rush hour. I was surrounded as always by thousands of people, silent, sullen, trudging to work in long lines. Normally in those circumstances you feel like just another ant leading a meaningless life in a meaningless universe. Normally the routineness of life dulls your capacity for wonder. But this time everything flipped, and I saw souls in all of them. It was like suddenly everything was illuminated, and I became aware of an infinite depth in each of these thousands of people. They were living souls. Suddenly it seemed like the most vivid part of reality was this: Souls waking up in the morning. Souls riding the train to work. Souls yearning for goodness. Souls wounded by earlier traumas. Souls in each and every person, illuminating them from the inside, haunting them, and occasionally enraptured within them, souls alive or numb in them; and with that came a feeling that I was connected by radio waves to all of them—some underlying soul of which we were all a piece.

Rabbi Heschel says that awe is not an emotion; it is a way of understanding. “Awe is itself an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves.”

Then, as now, I try to hire people who have some progression on their résumé that doesn’t make sense by the conventional logic of the meritocracy. I want to see that they believe in something bigger than the conventional definition of success.

There is a Muslim saying, Whatever you think God is, He is not that.

I experienced grace before I experienced God, and sometimes I still have trouble getting back to the source. But I find that as long as there are five or ten people in your life whose faith seems gritty and real and like your own, that keeps the whole thing compelling.

Later in life, Buechner found himself amid young Christians who spoke confidently about God as if they talked to Him all the time, and He talked back. God told them to pursue this job and not that one, and to order this at the restaurant and not that. He was dumbstruck. He wrote that if you say you hear God talking to you every day on every subject, you are either trying to pull the wool over your own eyes or everybody else’s. Instead, he continues, you should wake up in your bed and ask, “Can I believe it all again today?” Or, better yet, ask yourself that question after you’ve scanned the morning news and seen all the atrocities that get committed. If your answer to that question of belief is “yes” every single day, then you probably don’t know what believing in God really means, Buechner writes. “At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and…great laughter.”

One of the signature facts of the Internet age is that distance is not dead. Place matters as much as ever, and much more than we ever knew. The average American lives eighteen miles from his or her mother. The typical college student enrolls in a college fifteen miles from home. A study of Facebook friends nationwide found that 63 percent of the people we friend live within one hundred miles. Americans move less these days, not more.

Hyper-individualism, the reigning ethos of our day, is a system of morals, feelings, ideas, and practices based on the idea that the journey through life is an individual journey, that the goals of life are individual happiness, authenticity, self-actualization, and self-sufficiency. Hyper-individualism puts the same question on everybody’s lips: What can I do to make myself happy?

 The tribalist is seeking connection but isolates himself ever more bitterly within his own resentments and distrust. Tribalism is the dark twin of community. The tragic paradox of hyper-individualism is that what began as an ecstatic liberation ends up as a war of tribe against tribe that crushes the individuals it sought to free.

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve got a long backlog of books to blog about. Here are some highlights from recent reads.

1. Ties by Domenico Starnone

A wonderful novel about marriage, affairs, and family life, written by the person who’s rumored to be have a relationship with Elena Ferrante.

Jhumpa Lahiri‘s introduction is worth the price of admission on its own. Here’s Lahiri:

Love is a key word in Ties, a term that is questioned, redefined, shunned, treasured, maligned. At one point Vanda says that love is merely “a container we stick everything into.” It is, in essence, a hollow vessel, a placeholder that justifies our behaviors and choices. A notion that consoles us, that cons us more often than not.

And then Lahiri goes on:

Ties looks coldly at the price of freedom and happiness. It both celebrates and castigates Dionysian states of ecstasy, of abandon. And though happiness often involves linking ourselves to other people—in other words, stepping outside the confines of ourselves—it is something, in the final analysis, that characters experience privately, alone.

From the book itself, now. How our busyness keeps memory and remorse at bay:

the tight mesh of the days—meetings, rivalries, permanent tensions, small defeats, small victories, trips for work, kisses and embraces in the evening, at night, in the morning: a perfect antidote for keeping memory and remorse at bay—slackened imperceptibly.

On how affairs start:

At every opportunity—I said to myself—I could have a lover: It’s like the rain, a drop collides randomly with another drop and forms a rivulet. All you had to do was insist on that initial curiosity, and the curiosity would become attraction, the attraction would grow and lead to sex, sex would call for repetition, repetition would establish a habit, a need.

…I’m not sure of the reasons why I behaved this way. Certainly the sport of seduction, sexual curiosity, and the impression (unfounded) that each flirtation reawakened lost creativity all played a role. But I prefer a motivation that’s more elusive, and also more true: I wanted to prove to myself that in spite of having reformed the old couple, in spite of having returned to the family, in spite of putting a wedding band back on my finger, I was free, that I no longer had real ties.

2. No One Tells You This by Glynnis MacNicol

A surprisingly engaging memoir from a woman in her early 40’s who’s unmarried and childless, and the swirl of emotions and decision points surrounding those two facts.

On motherhood:

Parents, especially women, have a habit of talking about motherhood as though it were an exotic mystical land where everything is dazzling; as if they’d walked through a closet and the world has suddenly gone Technicolor. Or at least that’s how it often felt, listening to them from the shores of childless land. With each breakfast rush and school run and nighttime snuggle, I was traveling further and further into that land, if only as a tourist. It did not feel mystical, unless you count the hallucinatory effect of having no sleep. But it was electrifying. There was a charge in this I could not deny, a sense of propulsion and deep, absolute necessity.

On having kids — it tells you what you’re going to do over 20+ years, and ensures you’ll always feel at least somewhat important:

“This is why people have babies,” I said, “because it’s exhausting not to know what you’re supposed to do next. A baby is basically a nonnegotiable map for the next two decades.

…Ambition is ambition; like running water it has to go somewhere, and this was a place I could understand it going. The truth was, there was some brief relief to that picture: on a very basic level I would know exactly what I was supposed to do every day, and it would always be important to someone. I’d never have to wonder over my own necessity or whether what I was doing was worthwhile.

On her close friend getting married, and how that upends their friendship, and what she would have liked to say — with all the attendant complexities — as a wedding toast:

I wasn’t envious of Mauri. If anything, I was envious of our past lives together, and I was mourning a life I was losing. The resentment, I’d realized, was rooted in the fact that I never had any control over this upending of my life. It had never occurred to me that I was allowed to do anything but silently accept it. The fact that no one acknowledged that I had anything to be upset about made it all that much worse. It was hard work to root yourself so deeply in life that you could still love people and rely on them, knowing at any point they could make decisions that would leave you scrambling to find solid ground again. This was the better or worse of friendship, undeclared. What I wanted was for there to exist some way for me to say I’m happy and sad and not jealous all at the same time, and also This is a loss and is still beautiful. Maybe that was the wedding toast. We are really the ones giving you away. And it’s hard. And I will miss our life. And I am still so happy for your happiness. And so proud of you.

No one knows what you’re missing when you pick one path over another:

But it seemed to me that going through life making decisions on what I might possibly feel in a future that may or may not come about was a bad way to live. I wasn’t going to have a baby as an insurance policy against some future remorse I couldn’t yet imagine. I had more respect for myself than that. The truth was, no one knows what they’re missing in the end. You can only live your own life, and do your best with the outcome when you roll the dice.

3. Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates has his lovers and his haters. I’m neither, by virtue of not having read his full canon. But I really enjoyed his most famous book. There are so many poetic lines it’s hard to do justice without pasting 50 excerpts below. Suffice to say it was one of the more powerful accounts of the role race plays in the American experience that I have ever read.

You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.

I have my work. I no longer feel it necessary to hang my head at parties and tell people that I am “trying to be a writer.” And godless though I am, the fact of being human, the fact of possessing the gift of study, and thus being remarkable among all the matter floating through the cosmos, still awes me.

Not long ago I was standing in an airport retrieving a bag from a conveyor belt. I bumped into a young black man and said, “My bad.” Without even looking up he said, “You straight.” And in that exchange there was so much of the private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers of this tribe that we call black. In other words, I was part of a world.

Through the windshield I saw the mark of these ghettos—the abundance of beauty shops, churches, liquor stores, and crumbling housing—and I felt the old fear. Through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets.

A little girl wanders home, at age seven, after being teased in school and asks her parents, “Are we niggers and what does this mean?”

4. Normal People by Sally Rooney

The acclaimed novel by the very young Irish writer. The dialogue simmers with authenticity and, in these exchanges between the few main characters, you are taken along in a basic growing-up-and-going-to-college story. The novel has an addictive quality.

Not for the first time Marianne thinks cruelty does not only hurt the victim, but the perpetrator also, and maybe more deeply and more permanently. You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget.

He’s aware that he could have sex with her now if he wanted to. She wouldn’t tell anyone. He finds it strangely comforting, and allows himself to think about what it would be like. Hey, he would say quietly. Lie on your back, okay? And she would just obediently lie on her back. So many things pass secretly between people anyway. What kind of person would he be if it happened now? Someone very different? Or exactly the same person, himself, with no difference at all.

There’s always been something inside her that men have wanted to dominate, and their desire for domination can look so much like attraction, even love.

5. The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

A brisk, informative, unadorned tour through the disastrous first few months of the Trump Presidency, overseen by one ignoramus after the other.

6. Lying by Sam Harris

A short e-book that makes the case for never lying, inclusive of white lies. I found it interesting, as always with Harris, but not totally convincing.

The Sacred Valley of Peru

“The reasons the Incas called this the ‘Sacred Valley’ are all around you. Discover them in each of our explorations.”

So read the welcome note left on a desk in our hotel room. It rang true: The mountains and fields and Incan terraces surrounding the hotel amounted to quite an awe-inspiring scene.

I’m not sure I was even aware of the Sacred Valley of Peru prior to this trip. I knew about Machu Picchu, and I suppose if you had mentioned the Incan empire, I would have had vague awareness of the history. But five days of hiking and biking around the valley guided by experts brought the history and culture to life. The history of the Incan trails is pretty interesting, and it’s cool to be able to still walk on many of the trails, many of which were built over 500 years ago.

Most intriguing to me was how the Incas saw God in nature. Mountains were God. Trees were God. Rain was God. Many of us feel a sense of awe in nature. Turning that sense of awe into a full religious fervor is something else entirely. Archaeoastronomy is apparently the study of “how ancient peoples incorporated the sun, moon and stars into their daily lives.” The religious connection to the mountains is multiplied by Peru’s insane weather. As someone told Mark Adams in his book below, “I was in the Sacred Valley in 1983 when a hailstorm knocked out ninety percent of the corn crop in fifteen minutes…So if your perception is that the mountains control weather, you’re going to try to make those mountains happy.”

Machu Picchu itself is a sight to behold. Of course, it’s famous, so it’s crawling with people, which distracts a bit from the sacred vibe. It’s still awe-inspiring to see a mini stone city nestled amidst the Andes. And it’s hard to imagine thousands of men carrying thousands of heavy stones to build the buildings, with no modern stone carving tools. The purpose of Machu Picchu is debated among archeologists and historians to this day. Maybe it was a mini temple. Maybe it was simply the home of the Inca. Maybe it was meant as a stop on a longer pilgrimage. Who knows.

In Johan Reinhard’s book — quoted by Mark Adams in the book I link to below — he suggests that “trying to understand places like Machu Picchu and Vitcos as individual, self-contained sites misses a larger point. These monuments were built in relation to the sun, the stars, the mountains—and to one another.”

There are many microclimates in the Valley, and hikes, bike rides, and car tours available at different elevations. On our last day, we climbed to 14,000 feet and experienced a moonscape-like set of lakes and paddies nestled in the the high Andes mountains. There were no other people; just alpacas and shepherds. The whole scene felt quite distinct from the river trails in the basin of the valley.

Overall, I’d rank this part of Peru up there in terms of outdoor activities combined with historical interestingness. (Note that the city of Lima is generally not a recommended stop for tourists and my one day there on the way home didn’t move me to challenge that recommendation.)

The book “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” by Mark Adams is a really engaging tour through Peru and the Sacred Valley from a modern travel writer. The first 20% is slow going, but the last 80% was excellent. Recommended reading if you’re traveling to Peru and aren’t aware of Hiram Bingham’s explorations. Here are some highlights from my Kindle reading of the book:


Measured in square miles, the country is not especially large. On a globe it looks like a swollen California. Within that space, though, are twenty-thousand-foot peaks, the world’s deepest canyon (twice as deep as the Grand Canyon), unmapped Amazon jungle and the driest desert on earth. Peru is an equatorial country that depends on glaciers for drinking water. It’s one of the world’s hot spots for seismic and volcanic activity. (Both Lima and Cusco have been leveled by earthquakes; the country’s second-largest city, Arequipa, sits beneath a smoking peak that could blow its top at any time.) Scientists have calculated that there are thirty-four types of climatic zones on the face of the earth. Peru has twenty of them.

“But if the mules do get in front, let them go because they’re stupid and they do stupid things. Of course you know not to stand within”—here he spread his arms wide—“of a mule. I saw a kid a few weeks ago with a hole kicked in the side of his head. He’ll probably get better because he’s a kid. I’ve seen adults with dented skulls that are never going to heal.”

When Bingham saw [Machu Picchu], it was largely in ruins, torn apart by Spanish religious fanatics infuriated by Inca paganism and generations of Andean treasure seekers looking for Inca gold.

“For two weeks out of every year, the sun comes straight down this corridor,” John said, sweeping his gloved hands backward as if he were a matador ushering in the solar bull. “It’s right on the June solstice line, the point where the sun rises on the shortest day of the year. And it’s a straight shot to Machu Picchu. The Incas probably hung some sort of golden sheet or reflector at the end of it to reflect sunlight back to Machu Picchu. Can you imagine how spectacular that would have been? Machu Picchu would’ve still been dark, waiting for the sunrise, when the reflection would just shoot across the valley! “And in that direction

The masonry, like that of most Inca masterworks, tilted slightly inward and tapered as it went up. “Owing to the absence of mortar,” Bingham wrote, “there are no ugly spaces between the rocks. They might have grown together.”

There’s an old kitchen maxim that squid should either be cooked for two minutes or two hours. A similar rule could be applied to Machu Picchu. With a good guide—there are dozens of them lingering by the front entrance—a visitor who’s short on time can see the highlights of Machu Picchu in two hours. A visit of two days, though, allows enough time to take in the site’s full majesty.

One of the major factors in the rise of archaeology had been the birth of the public museum.

“Of course. What’s the difference between Bingham and a huaquero at this point? Nothing. Bingham was very clever at marketing himself. He managed to make himself look like the discoverer. That’s a legend that needs to be completely thrown out.”

Aside from a small group of scholars, administrators, and lawyers at Yale, almost everyone with an interest in Machu Picchu agreed that the artifacts Bingham took should be returned. There has long been, however, some (politically incorrect) doubt about Peru’s ability to take proper care of its antiquities. The National Museum in Lima was notoriously robbed of hundreds of irreplaceable objects in the late 1970s. The Museo Inka in Cusco had twenty-two gold pieces stolen in 1993. One well-known explorer I spoke with recalled handing mummies and artifacts over to the INC, only to return later and learn that they’d been lost or stolen. In 2008, a pair of vendors operating a souvenir shop off the main plaza in Cusco was found with 690 Inca and pre-Inca artifacts; they’d been hawking them on the Internet.

Just now, when we thought there was practically no portion of the Earth’s surface still unknown, when the discovery of a single lake or mountain, or the charting of a remote strip of coast line was enough to give a man fame as an explorer, one member of the daredevil explorers’ craft has “struck it rich,” struck it so dazzlingly rich, indeed, that all his confrères may be pardoned if they gnash their teeth in chagrin and turn green with envy. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about that extraordinary sentence is that it happened to be true.

The irony of Bingham’s prosecution is that he really was smuggling artifacts out of the country, hundreds of them—just not those that Valcárcel had accused him of. The previous year, the historian Christopher Heaney has written, Bingham had negotiated the purchase of 366 Inca artifacts from Tomás Alvistur, the son-in-law of Huadquiña’s owners. After a bit of haggling, the antiquities were smuggled out of Peru and arrived in New Haven, where they outshone the pieces that Bingham had excavated at Machu Picchu. … “Frankly, Bingham didn’t find shit. He bought the Alvistur stuff.” This was the collection of 366 artifacts from the son-in-law of Huadquiña’s owner. “Machu Picchu was completely sacked before Bingham was born. Far and away the best stuff that Bingham got out of Machu Picchu he didn’t find—he bought. The funny thing was, Bingham snuck that stuff out and they wanted to keep it a dirty secret. But that stuff legally they can keep. It’s the other stuff that has to come back.”

The truth about Bingham, perhaps the only thing Paolo Greer and Eliane Karp-Toledo would have agreed on, is that he did something less romantic but ultimately much more important than discovering Machu Picchu. He saw the ruins, quickly determined their importance (if not their origin) and popularized them to a degree that they couldn’t be blown up with dynamite or knocked over in the search for buried gold, as Vitcos had been. Would Machu Picchu exist if Hiram Bingham had never seen it? Of course. Would it be the same Machu Picchu we know today? Almost certainly not.

Similarly, if he’d never published Lost City of the Incas, would Bingham have been accused of stealing credit for the discovery? No. Was he the original Indiana Jones? Not exactly. But if he hadn’t published Lost City of the Incas, would the character of Indiana Jones ever have existed? Probably not, at least not in the form we know.

Why Do So Many VCs Say They’re Introverted?

I wrote a tweet a couple months ago:

Who knew that introversion/extroversion was such a hot topic?! It generated a lot of replies from people I respect. Here’s one:

And this:

And this:

The three replies above, as I understand them, all make a similar definitional point: A person can be introverted and still be highly social; it’s just that the social interactions drain them of energy and they need to re-charge alone afterwards. Fair enough and I appreciated the clarification.

Now, if we accept the premise that VC is an extremely social enterprise, does this mean that VCs who consider themselves introverts by this definition — capable of being highly social — do these VCs find themselves drained of energy at the end of most days?

Mike Arrington replied and said yes:

Brad Feld has also written about how he is “fundamentally an introvert” and, similar to Mike, the venture work stream drains him completely once a year:

About once a year I completely use up my extrovert capacity.  I drain it completely to zero. … The last sixty days have been awesome but extremely intense. My ordinarily full days had the Do More Faster book tour layered on top along with a bunch of other public appearances, interviews, speaking engagements, and events.  About two weeks ago I started feeling a fatigue that I couldn’t get in front of and the last two weeks pushed me over the edge.

For those for whom this is true, who am I to judge their career decisions? It’s hard to perfectly match career to personality; no job will ever be 100% perfect. And this dimension of social/energy is just one consideration on whether VC is the right fit. Both Mike and Brad have been extremely successful in tech and venture capital. I don’t know Mike personally, but I do know Brad, and I know that on balance Brad loves what he does. The VC job, on balance, appears to be a great fit for him.

My point is that, in general, most of the VCs I know are highly extroverted. And this would be logical, because people tend to gravitate to jobs where a primary piece of the job description energizes them, not drains them. So with respect to VCs and introversion/extroversion, I believe there are not as many Mike Arringtons out there as we may think — i.e., people who are “painfully introverted” who do the job well even though it leaves them “exhausted.”

Among this crop of extroverted VCs I know, some still call themselves introverted, which perplexes me. They’re highly social and do not seem — at least to me — not very drained by all the socializing. Yet they nonetheless refer to themselves as introverted.

What’s going on?

First, as mentioned in my original tweet, the “introvert” label has come to be associated with adjectives like thoughtful, intellectual, wise, evolved. Introversion may be a higher status description than extroversion. Extroversion is associated with smarmy networkers. I don’t read many extroverts declaring themselves proud extroverts in public. I do routinely read about people proclaiming their introversion.

I’m fascinated by the evolution of terms and connotations. As “networker” has evolved from being a cutting edge business skill in the Dale Carnegie era to now being term to describe the worst excess of that original skill, so too has “introvert” evolved from formerly describing a shy, awkward minority to now being a broad term that connotes a refined, thoughtful, intellectual air about life that seemingly a majority of people now claim.

Second, the comparison set. VCs in general are among the most extroverted humans on the planet. They (we) are professional meeting-takers, emailers, phone callers, conference attenders, deal makers with others humans. (To be sure, I appreciated the point in the reply tweet embedded above that 1:1 founder meetings is a different type of “social” activity than big group meetings, and VCs do a lot of 1:1 small meetings.)

When you work in venture, you’re comparing yourself to other VCs. I know VCs who take 7-8 calls/meetings a day and then a long dinner, and they do this 4 days a week. But, they look around and see another VC who does all of the above PLUS post-dinner drinks followed by an all-weekend conference, and the first VC thinks, “Gosh, I’m an introvert compared to that guy.” It’s LeBron James comparing himself to Steph Curry and concluding, “I’m not a very good three point shooter,” when LeBron’s 3 is better than 99% of all humans’ 3 point shot. So, it’s a comparison / frame of reference issue.

So, to recap my thinking here:

  • You can be introverted and be highly social. If this is the case, you probably find those social interactions draining. But you can do it successfully.
  • Some VCs are introverted, successful, and are simply drained by the social part of the job.
  • The vast majority of VCs in my experience are highly extroverted, which makes sense in terms of trying to align career with personality.
  • Many more VCs describe themselves as “introversion” than who probably are. Perhaps because of status considerations. Perhaps because of their comparison set.

Thanks to everyone who replied to the tweet and emailed me about it. Definitely pushed my thinking. Happy to hear any additional feedback on these points in the comments.

Village Global: Hiring, Network Catalyst, Founder Retreat

A few Village Global updates:

– We’re hiring a full time GM of Network based in San Francisco. Job description here. Wonderful opportunity for someone looking to break into VC in a non-investing role. A good fit for supreme operators who also understand the startup/venture game. Former bankers, consultants, startup CEOs/COOs, or VC ops people could all be a good fit.

– We run an accelerator program called Network Catalyst. Think Y Combinator, but more personalized, more intimate, more about connections than content. Application deadline was  couple days ago but if you’d like to be considered, email me.

– We hosted an awesome retreat for 80 of our founders near Yosemite last summer. Here’s a video recap of what went down. It highlights some of what makes the Village community special:

How I Officiated a Wedding

I was honored to officiate a wedding recently for some friends.

As I prepared for the duties, I reflected on the number of weddings I’ve attended where, by the end of all the festivities, I couldn’t answer two basic questions:

  1. Who is the other person in the marriage? I know one person in the partnership really well, presumably. What’s the life story of the guy/gal who’s marrying my friend?
  2. Why are these two people getting married to each other? What’s the essence of their dynamic?

Based on this, I structured my remarks to make sure everyone in attendance could at least nominally answer both questions by the end of it. The three-part structure was:

  1. Describe the bride and groom each as individuals: their childhood, basic attributes/personality, professional activities. [This required interviewing the bride and groom beforehand and collecting stories/anecdotes/nuggets.]
  2. Describe who they are as a unit: why they’re marrying each other, how they’re similar (the hallmark of friendship), how they complement each other (the hallmark of partnerships).
  3. Look toward the future and offer some general perspectives on marriage, love, and life.

There were no other speakers or readings during the ceremony, so I ended up speaking for about 18-20 mins and could cover all these points. It worked pretty well.

Of course, no matter what you plan to say, if the audience can’t hear you — literally — it doesn’t matter. I’ve witnessed my fair share of wedding ceremonies where the house A/V doesn’t work, or more commonly, the people speaking don’t know how to use or hold a microphone. With handheld mics, 99% of people hold the mic like an ice cream cone instead of a toothbrush, and so the audio quality oscillates. (Hold it like a toothbrush very close to your lips!) A lav mic is almost always better for this reason but even still it can poorly positioned on the shirt such that as people turn their head when they speak, you start missing words. Anyway, in this ceremony, the mic situation worked fine, thank the Lord!

Below is an excerpt of my closing remarks from my officiating.


We know there will be moments of joy for you both, we just don’t know what, when, or how. Will they occur at predictable intervals, such as at the birth of a child or the realization of a huge professional goal? Or will joy sneak up on you, will it happen when the two of you are going on one of your regular walks around New York, and for whatever reason you see something that reminds you both of an inside joke and you both laugh uncontrollably?

A spiritual teacher once taught me: Don’t miss the joy when it comes! Stay present with the joy as you experience it, he said. He said to tell yourself, “Oh, this is what joy feels like.” “This is what it’s like when I feel happy.” “This is what it feels like to see a beautiful bouquet of flowers.” “This is what it feels like to experience a beautiful sunset.”  We might even look around the room right now, at all our friends and family, and take a second to think to ourselves: This is what love feels like.

In addition to the joy, we also know there will be moments of serious hardship ahead, we just don’t know what, when, or how. Will there be a wave of expected grief at the death of a good friend? Or will malaise sneak up on you guys in a less expected moment, perhaps a pang of doubt on a cloudy day in late fall, doubt about whether you’re doing the right thing in your career or whether – god forbid – you married the right person.

Marriage, in my experience, brings more joy, and sometimes more pain, than if you were living life on your own. It adds dynamism and love and struggle. Amazing highs and sometimes really challenging lows.

The natural human thing to do is to try to hold onto the joyful moments, and avoid the unhappy moments.

But that’s impossible, because everything changes. In fact, someone once summarized the entire cannon of Buddhism in those two words: everything changes. The Buddha argued that everything in life is impermanent.

There have been so many joyful moments in your relationship so far. [Personal details]

So there have been some amazing moments. They’re now in the past. Marriage will be filled with millions more of these impermanent moments. The Buddha taught: Stay awake to the moments of joy that arise from being married to each other, and feel them.  Know that they will pass.

Also be aware of the moments of dissatisfaction that arise from being married to each other. Know that they will pass.

And do what you can to have more good moments than bad ones. That is what I wish for the two of you.


Photo Source: A Perfect Match Photography

Book Review: An American Marriage

“Everyone who reads novels has read An American Marriage,” she told me. I guess I’m behind, I thought.

So I downloaded the book on my Kindle, and got hooked. When I finished the book a couple weeks later, I stared off into the distance for about a full minute. Which I guess in the sign that something really sunk in.

It’s a wonderful story, compellingly told from different viewpoints. The primary theme is marriage and its discontents (and contents). Other themes include criminal justice and wrongful imprisonment (the main character Roy, wrongfully accused of rape) and the colors of the American South. The writing is straightforward but often beautiful.

A good chunk of the book is told via letters, sent from prison, between husband and wife. It’s an incredibly effective technique for conveying the intimacy of love — and doubt.

The final letter contains my favorite line: “My prayer for you is for peace, which is something you have to make. You can’t just have it.”

Other highlighted sentences below. Highly recommended.


Still, the truth is that there was nothing extra. If my childhood were a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread. We had what we needed and nothing more.

It was a wonderful feeling to be grown and yet young. To be married but not settled. To be tied down yet free.

“November 17,” I said before she could complete her thought. Other couples use safe words to call a time-out from rough sex, but we used it as a time-out from rough words. If either of us says “November 17,” the anniversary of our first date, then all conversation must cease for fifteen minutes. I pulled the trigger because I knew that if she said one more word about my mama, one of us would say something that we couldn’t come back from. Celestial threw up her hands. “Fine. Fifteen minutes.”

One of the hurdles of adulthood is when holidays become measuring sticks against which you always fall short. For children, Thanksgiving is about turkey and Christmas is about presents. Grown up, you learn that all holidays are about family, and few can win there.

But a man who is a father to a daughter is different from one who is a father to a son. One is the left shoe and the other is the right. They are the same but not interchangeable.

As I watched her walk away, I made note of everything about her that I didn’t admire. I ignored the devotion that she wore like a cape, I paid no heed of her strength or hardworking beauty. I sat there thinking of all I didn’t love about her, too angry to even say good-bye.

Smart Is Not Enough: What Marc Benioff Taught Me When I Was 15 Years Old

Many years ago, I cold-emailed Salesforce founder/CEO Marc Benioff. I was 15 years old and starting a CRM software company like his. Would he meet to give me some advice? I wasn’t the only one inspired by Marc’s vision of the “end of software” at the time. But I may have been one of a smaller group who was especially inspired by the fact that Marc had started companies as a teenager back in his day.

To my surprise, he replied, we met for breakfast, and it kicked off a series of meals that we shared over several years. He eventually wrote the foreword to my first book.

At one of our early breakfasts, Marc told me something I’ve never forgotten. I remember the moment exactly. I was wearing a suit and tie, which in hindsight was kind of crazy. (“I hope you don’t normally wear a suit and tie when you go to school,” he said with a laugh.) He ordered pancakes. He had been telling me about swimming with dolphins in Hawaii, what he learned from Larry Ellison, and riffs on spirituality.

He then told me: “Ben, people in Silicon Valley are ridiculously smart. Super, super smart. You’re not going to be able to out-smart people. You have to figure out how to win in some other way.”

I was not lacking in self-regard for my own intelligence at the time. But when he said it, I knew immediately it was true. I may be generally smart but general smarts is like vanilla ice cream. Vanilla ice cream is a fine dessert but it’s not going to win a chef any culinary awards. And IQ is IQ. No amount of study would allow me to compete head-to-head in an IQ contest with the highest IQ people in the tech industry. If you regularly feel like you’re the highest IQ person in the room, you’re hanging out in the wrong rooms. The tech industry may not be as intellectually intense as academic disciplines like chemistry but there are plenty of rooms with off-the-charts IQ people in them, and those are the rooms you want to be in — even if they make you feel a bit inferior at times.

As I contemplated Marc’s comment in the months afterwards, my first plan was that I could out-work everyone in order to be successful. I may not be smarter than everyone else, but surely I could out-work them, right? Then I realized that there were people who could work harder than me, and already were. Damn those people who only need 4 hours of sleep a night!

Marc’s advice is not obvious to a lot of people. These days I still meet many super smart and super hard working people in business who, deep down, are mystified as to why they haven’t been more successful in their careers. They really believe their raw intelligence and/or their work ethic should be enough to carry the day.

Anyway, in the years after that breakfast, in my early 20’s, I came upon two deeper insights that ultimately are how I answer and incorporate Marc’s advice to me.

First, I could get good at facilitating the intelligences of other smart people. You don’t have to be smarter than someone in order to enable that person to be all they can be. Most business efforts involve teams — multiple smart people interacting with each other. If you can develop the ability to work with different kinds of smart people, to bring them together, to facilitate all the IQ points sloshing about, you can be a really high-impact player. In fact, I’d argue this is what great CEOs do well. They’re not the smartest person in the company. But they get all the other smart people to play well together. Arguably, that’s the most important job of all on a team.

Some years ago, my friend Auren Hoffman emailed me and said there had been a cancellation at an event he was hosting in New Orleans and asked if I wanted to take the open spot. I said yes. As I reviewed the list of other attendees, it was obvious that I was the B-list invite to an event filled with other A-listers. I was excited but a bit nervous. Then, a few days before the event, Auren asked me to moderate a 90 minute session with 15 accomplished people at the event. At first I thought he had sent the email to the wrong person; I think I was 17 years old at the time. The people in my session were all much smarter and more experienced than me. But I accepted the task, and I did fine. I did good, even. And it emboldened me with the confidence that I could credibly be a participant in a large meeting even if on paper I wasn’t the smartest or most experienced person.

The second insight I internalized in the years after that breakfast with Marc Benioff was that I could get good at combining multiple skills in unique combinations. Scott Adams once wrote that to be successful you need to either be the very best in one field or the top 25% of skill in multiple fields. In other words, if you’re not world class at something but you’re really good at a couple things and the combination of those two skills produces a valued offering in the market, you can be successful. Example: You can either be one of the top pianists in the world and succeed through sheer singular talent, or be a really, really good pianist (if not world-class) and also be really, really good at marketing (or some other skill), combine the two really-good skills, and success will follow.

Given my curiosity and knack for synthesis, I saw a path for me that would involve getting really good a couple things and combining them in interestingly unique ways (versus becoming solely obsessed with one skill area). I could take basic intelligence and work ethic, and layer on top of that very strong — even if not truly world-class — abilities in entrepreneurship and written / oral communication, for example, and that could produce some interesting career opportunities. (That specific skill combination helped me be a complementary partner to Reid Hoffman over the four years I worked for him.) In the years since then, I’ve continued to hone different skills that in combination in an attempt to develop a unique competitive advantage in whatever market I’m playing in.

Like a lot of important wisdom, Marc’s comment to me at breakfast in San Francisco all those years ago sounded simple. The depth of its truth took years for me to appreciate.

I’ve Been Off Instagram in 2019 (and Book Review: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport)

This past New Year’s day I was sitting in the lounge of the top floor of a very nice hotel in Taipei, looking out over the green hills. I had a lot to be grateful for, on a number of levels.

I had been off the grid for the previous 10 days. I opened up my phone and went online for the first time. I opened Instagram and began to scroll through. The first photo was someone posing in a Happy New Year’s photo from a Four Seasons in Hawaii. The next photo was someone at an epic party at a different Four Seasons in Mexico. The next was a photo of a beautiful family having a great time in the Middle East.

I put my phone down. An odd feeling swept over me. Everyone else was living these ridiculously nice lives in ridiculously fun places for New Year’s…and what was I doing? Oh yeah, I was also at a nice hotel in an exotic locale.

It seemed absurd to be prompted to feel sorry for myself — in that ever-so-slight FOMO kind of way — given the circumstances.

I haven’t really used Instagram since. Seeing a stream of everyone’s most beautiful selves in their most beautiful exotic locales — and choosing to refresh that stream 10 times a day (thanks to the product’s dopamine producing qualities) — didn’t seem like it was making my life better.

It was in this spirit that I was excited to dive into Cal Newport’s latest book, the instant New York Times bestseller: Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.

I’ve been talking to Cal for years about his ideas here and he pulled it all together very nicely in this book. He discusses the philosophy of minimalism applied to technology; why he’s not wildly supportive of “digital detox” routines; the value of leisure time that doesn’t involve devices; and some practical tips to manage tech use, such as deleting addictive apps from your phone (even if you still access them on your computer).

So many of my friends are so incredibly addicted to Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. It intrudes on personal happiness (Cal’s topic) and professional effectiveness (the topic of Cal’s next book). This is rather urgent topic. I’m not much better. As I tweeted recently:

I recorded a podcast with Cal the other week about the book. It’s a 45 minute conversation. You can listen to it here. Show notes pasted below.

Show Notes

Cal starts out by defining what digital minimalism is exactly. He talks about why he refrains from using social media and explains how the mechanics of social apps create something resembling an addiction.

They discuss Henry David Thoreau’s philosophy of time management as explained in Walden, and why you should “think of your phone like the closet in the Marie Kondo show.” Cal explains why a 30-day reset is necessary and how exactly to use that time to find clarity around what is most valuable to you.

Cal talks about the kinds of offline activities that new digital minimalists start to engage in, his unique definition of solitude, and why solitude is so important.

They also give a sneak peek of Cal’s next book, on digital minimalism in the workplace.

Quotes From This Episode

“Minimalism says if you really want to maximize your quality of life, find the things that are really valuable, focus on those, and miss out on the things — not that are bad — but that are good but not that good.”

“The cost of the clutter is going to overwhelm the benefits that each of these things causing the clutter actually creates.”

“You can think about your phone like the closet in the Marie Kondo show.”

“Never before in human history could we get rid of every single moment of solitude in the day.”

“Clean out the proverbial closet and rebuild your digital life from scratch, but just do it much more intentionally.”