Me on Network Intelligence, Lifelong Learning, and Beginner’s Mind

I did an on-site video interview with The Cube after my keynote speech last week in Orlando. It’s 20 minutes long and we open with the Start-up of You and then cover topics like network intelligence, optimism vs. pessimism, and cultivating the beginner’s mind. Check it out.

Millennials in the Workplace

Last week, I was quoted in an article in the Wall Street Journal about companies that seek to retain millennials:

Some managers think companies should stop trying so hard. They cite “The Alliance,” a book co-written by LinkedIn Corp. co-founder Reid Hoffman that proposes a different model for the employer-employee relationship—one based on mutual expectations and the possibility of the employee leaving.

At LinkedIn, managers often segment an employee’s career into “tours of duty” that last a couple of years. The employee and manager agree on specific goals to be met during that period. At the end of a given tour, both parties understand that the employee might leave.

“By talking openly about the fact that an employee might leave, you actually increase the likelihood” that he or she will stay on, said Ben Casnocha, a co-author of the book and Mr. Hoffman’s former chief of staff. Employers should make clear that “if it makes more sense for you to leave [than stay], that’s OK,” he added.

A client of Allied Talent, our consultancy that works with companies on talent management, is featured in the article as well:

Toby Murdock, CEO of Kapost, a Boulder, Colo. marketing-software firm, said he has adopted that mind-set. “It is a very fluid marketplace for young people,” said Mr. Murdock, 41. “Let’s be honest about that instead of trying to deny it.”

He wants young workers to consider his company a career accelerator, rather than a parking lot. That attitude has given Kapost a reputation as a career launchpad, Mr. Murdock said, and helps the company attract a stream of ambitious young candidates.

The next day I went on Varney & Co on Fox Business to discuss the topic. Here’s the clip:

There’s a lot more to say on the millennial topic. More to come soon.

Turkey: Impressions and Lessons

Istanbul feels like a city on the verge of cracking into the A-list of tourist destinations in Europe/Middle East. I was lucky enough to have a week to check out whether the city lives up to the hype. It did, and I learned quite a bit. Here are some high level thoughts on Turkey followed by a more touristy blow by blow of the trip.

  • Turkey is a modern, secular republic that in theory embraces freedom of religion. Yet its population is 99.8% Muslim, its land is home to a tremendous amount of religious history, schools teach only Islam in religion class, and a call to prayer in Arabic that blankets the city five times a day serves as a reminder of the religiosity of the place.
  • It’s one of the world’s oldest civilizations. America seems so very, very young when compared to much of the world, but especially in places like the former Ottoman Empire. Yet, Istanbul as a city feels modern, hip, energetic. It’s that guidebook cliche of a city “blending old and new”—a cliche that stands true for Istanbul.
  • Given its long history, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the country’s far-reaching cultural and commercial exports. Think of the number of words before which the preface “Turkish” adds unique meaning: coffee, towels, desserts, carpets, baths.
  • Istanbul seemed eminently livable. The Turkish people are quite friendly and helpful, the city struggles with traffic but taxis and public transit seemed ample, there’s obviously a lot of physically beauty to take in throughout the city, and the food is solid. (There’s virtually no ethnic food in Turkey, so it’s solid Turkish cuisine.) Istanbul’s geographic location and full service airport means it’s easy to go anywhere in Europe or the Middle East. The government has announced it intends to build the world’s largest airport outside the city. All this to say: to live in Istanbul for a spell of time would be a lot of fun for anyone.
  • This past week was the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. It’s unfortunate that the Armenian issue captures so many headlines in the U.S. media when the topic is Turkey, given how much else is going on the country. But it’s high time for Turkey to acknowledge the issue so everyone can move forward.
  • I like to say that entrepreneurship is everywhere. “Everywhere” includes Turkey — very much so. There are a few good VCs in Istanbul who are backing many bright, ambitious Turkish internet entrepreneurs who are creating meaningful companies. Despite the fact that today’s Turkish internet entrepreneurs seem focused on the local domestic market, I could imagine the country eventually becoming a launch pad for globally ambitious startups given Turkey’s quasi-European, quasi-Middle East status.
  • Cultural quirks. I’m a sucker for small cultural quirks that remind us of just how arbitrary our own customs are. I often notice these quirks in restaurants. In Korean mid-tier to low end restaurants, for example, I love how a pitcher of water is often kept near the front and you can go and re-fill your water cup as much as you want. In Turkey, the restaurant quirk was the moist toilette: each restaurants has their own branded toilettes and you get one with almost every bill.

From a tourism perspective, there’s so much to see and do in Istanbul.

To start, it’s pretty easy to get there. Turkish Airlines now serves a non-stop from San Francisco (in addition to LA, Boston, Washington, Houston, Chicago, and New York) and introduced passengers to Turkey from the moment we took off. For example, the flight attendants spoke minimal English — just like most people in Turkey! — and moist toilettes were included in every meal.

Upon arrival, there are a few blockbuster tourist attractions that everyone does on their first jet-lagged day: head to the Sultanahmet district and visit the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The history behind the Hagia Sophia is singular; it’s striking to see both Christian and Islamic iconography in the same building, as it served as both a church and a mosque at different points in history before recently being converted into a museum. The Blue Mosque was massive and beautiful. Every time I step in one of these buildings I behold the power of religion: religious passion has compelled so many thousands of people in so many parts of the world to labor for so many years on end in order to build enormous, architecturally stunning monuments to their gods.

Side note: One can’t help but notice the sexism when you enter a mosque: women must put on headscarves and they are not to pray in the main praying area, which in the case of Blue Mosque holds 3,000 (!) people. Instead they must organize themselves in a small, off-to-the-side “women’s area.” When you examine the sexist story of creation and the present-day customs/rules of many religions (Christianity, Judaism, and most others I’m aware of) it’s not hard to understand the origins of sexism today.

There are plenty of cool things to do in Istanbul that aren’t at the front of the guidebook. Two highlights.

First, a hamam — a Turkish bath. The hamam near the Hagia Sophia is the most famous, most expensive, and oldest (created in 1556!) in Istanbul and for my money was very much worth it. In the men’s side of the building, I was led to a locker room where I changed into nothing but a Turkish towel. From there I walked through the beautiful marble building into a bath area where I was told to use a deep, gold colored dish, dunk the dish into a bin of hot water, and pour it over me. It was all quite elegant in fact, and with steam escaping from the marble under and enveloping me, I felt immediately relaxed. After 10 mins, my therapist showed up to conduct the scrub and massage. He said, “This is best hamam and I am a very good server. I will take good care of you.” With speed and forcefulness, he poured more water over me and then wrapped a loofah-like mitt around his hand and began scrubbing me all over. My back, my arm, my hand, my legs, my chest, my forehead. It was a massive skin exfoliation exercise. Then, he led me to a marble table and instructed me to lie on my stomach. From there, he poured lots of soapy water all over. Big soap suds expanded in size and rose up over my body, kind of like a bubble bath carpet rolling out over my back. He took his loofah mitt and scrubbed more skin. The hamam was physically  intense. The scrub was thorough and at different intervals the therapist slapped me to indicate the close of one segment of the scrub. Although utterly relaxing and an amazing culture experience (in contrast to my Beijing massage some years ago), it’s not for the physically unfit and or for those men made easily uncomfortable.

Turkish breakfast

Second, a food tour. I don’t know why I haven’t done a food tour before in all my travels. It was a highlight of Istanbul and an amazing way to get to know the city geographically, culturally, and even economically. Five of us and an expert tour guide from Taste of Two Continents went to 12 restaurants and street vendors and tasted traditional Turkish food, winding our way through back alleys and less trafficked areas of the Asian side of the city. It wasn’t high end foodie food — it was the food Turks actually eat at home and at restaurants. For breakfast, we bought a simit and a number of different local spreads. The guide explained that traditionally such an expansive spread of breakfast options was prepared by the woman of the house. As women have been integrated into the workforce, they don’t have the time to prepare such a breakfast, and so the “classic” Turkish breakfast is going the wayside of quicker on-the-go options. One example of appreciating economics and demography through food. While Turkish coffee is famous, it’s tea that actually dominates. The average Turk drinks four cups of tea a day (Chinese black tea) and you’ll see people drinking it at all hours of the day. For desserts, the baklava is as delicious as advertised. Their special blend of ice cream requires a fork and knife to eat. But it’s Tres Leches, Latin America style, which wins as the most popular dessert in Turkey right now for some reason.

Cappadocia. We took this photo. Such a different landscape.After five nights in Istanbul, we headed to Cappadocia, the second most popular tourist destination in Turkey. About a 75 minute flight from Istanbul, it’s famous for a moon-like landscape, with huge rock formations jutting out of the ground that look like tall chimneys with “fairy” tops. Below the ground are vast underground cities, complete with rooms and tunnel networks that could hold up to 20,000 Christians who escaped underground they were persecuted by Muslim conquerers. We got unlucky with the weather and so weren’t able to hot air balloon — the most popular activity there — but hiking around the area, above and below ground, was still cool.

Bottom Line: Turkey is a great place to be a tourist — Istanbul is an awesome city. And increasingly, it’s an opportunity-rich place for technology entrepreneurship.

Blurring the Professional and Personal Lines at Work

I recently had dinner with a CEO of a fast-growing startup. He told me that he wants his employees to have deep, emotional relationships with each other, which often means becoming great friends outside of work. He wants his employees going to each other’s weddings. He wants to blur the lines that normally separate “colleague” and “personal friend.”

This value manifests at his company in at least two ways. The first is simply the language he uses, saying things like, “I want you all to be great friends outside of work!” or “It’s awesome that Joe went to David’s wedding.” The second is by the team activities he schedules. For example, “Let’s grab beers at the bar after work” or “Let’s all do a hike on Sunday.”

I wrote recently about the values that distinctively shape a culture. They aren’t values you see on official company press releases like “integrity” or “excellence.” Rather, they’re ideas that have both pros and cons. For example, transparency up and down the org chart has upside and downside, so as a value and policy it uniquely shapes those companies that embrace it. Consensus-driven decision making is another example of a value that has upside and downside.

This particular example — promoting social activities that blur the lines at work so that there isn’t as as strong a distinction between “friends” and “colleagues” — is another solid example of a cultural value with both pros and cons.

The pros to blurring the social lines among your employees are fairly obvious:

  • Stronger trust among the team. When you hang out in non-work settings, you tend to get to know other side of someone and this greater familiarity likely leads to greater trust when back at the office.
  • Improved communication. More time together, more time communicating. More communication is always a good thing.
  • Better employee engagement and retention if employees feel like some of their best friends are at work. For someone who has great friends at work, it’s more than a job and it’s more than the company mission. It’s about the deep relationships he or she is forming. Presumably, this translates into superior engagement on the job and higher overall happiness.

The cons to blurring the lines are more subtle:

  • Sexism and tricky gender dynamics. It’s exceedingly hard for women and men to be close personal friends in general due to sexual tension. This is a fact of life: see this famous clip from When Harry Met Sally. So there’s necessarily awkwardness in a work culture that promotes employees chumming it up in personal settings. Popular after work activities like “let’s all grab beers at a bar” can create awkwardness for female employees if they’re in the distinct minority. Sadly, some male leaders, recognizing potential awkwardness of co-ed out-of-office socializing, make it easy for themselves: they invite only other guys to the bar to watch the game. This greases a two-tier culture: the men are buddy-buddy, hanging out after work and on the weekends, and the women, with no company-organized outings to facilitate off-hours bonding, don’t forge the same tight bonds. By the way, the CEO whose blur the lines philosophy inspired this post has roughly 50 employees, 85% of whom are men.
  • Many employees prefer boundaries. Some people don’t want to grab beers with colleagues after work. Some people don’t want to hike with co-workers on the weekend, especially folks with families. Sure, it’s not a big deal for people to decline the weekend hiking invitation, but just receiving those invitations and feeling pressure to go on them can provoke guilt and light weight irritation. A culture where everyone is expected to be friends outside of work might repel prospective high-talent employees who want more work/life separation. Given the kinds of people who work at startups, entrepreneurs tend to promote a line blurring culture in the early days, but this is harder to maintain as a company scales and needs to draw on a more diverse and older portion of the professional population.

Personally, I blur the lines between professional and personal in many of relationships, which is to say some of my best personal friends I met originally in a professional context or are people with whom I still work professionally. But making this instinct a part of a corporate culture raises different considerations.

Bottom Line: Within a company, there are obvious benefits and less-understood risks to suggesting employees become close personal friends outside of work an explicit part of the culture. Male CEOs in male-dominated companies should be especially aware of the downsides, as should startup CEOs who need to attract an increasingly diverse professional population as they grow.

What Possessors of Maxims and Scriptures Can Teach Us

The first three paragraphs of William T. Vollmann’s ode to the Gnostic scriptures drew me in, both for the quality of the writing and the substance of the ideas.

Have you ever wondered whether this world is wrong for you? A death, a lover’s unabashed indifference, the sufferings of innocents and the absence of definitive answers — don’t these imply some hollowness or deficiency? For my part, the wrongness struck when I was 4 years old. I was at my grandmother’s house, and I saw a cat torture a baby bird.

Hoping to understand the purpose of our situation, I visit possessors of maxims and scriptures. Most of them are kind to me. I love the ritualistic gorgeousness of Catholic cathedrals, the matter-of-fact sincerity with which strangers pray together at roadsides throughout the Muslim world, the studied bravery and compassion in the texts of medieval Jewish responsa, the jovial humility of the Buddhist precept that enlightenment is no reward and lack of enlightenment no loss, the nobility of atheists who do whatever good they do without expectation of celestial candy — not to mention pantheists’ glorifications of everything from elephants to oceans. All these other ways that I have glimpsed from my own lonely road allure me; I come to each as a guest, then continue on to I know not where.

Baptized a Lutheran, I sometimes wander through the Bible, drawn in particular to those deep, strange stories that so many of us know after a fashion: the creation, the temptation in Eden, Christ’s execution and quiet return. As a reader and writer, I most love the tales that raise difficult questions: Why did an all-knowing God install Adam and Eve in a situation where they would surely disobey him? Why was eating fruit from the tree of knowledge a sin? Do I truly comprehend Christ’s enigmatic sacrifice? And why do cats torture birds?

Strengths and Weaknesses Are Connected

When people seek to define areas of potential improvement they often look to address weaknesses or build upon strengths. But thinking about strengths and weaknesses as independent attributes fails to recognize their inherent interdependence.

One day, while working with Reid Hoffman, I shared with him a self-evaluation of my work, my goals, and my strengths and weaknesses. When I discussed how to compensate for certain weaknesses, he told me, “Most strengths have corresponding weaknesses. If you try to manage or mitigate a given weakness, you might also eliminate the corresponding strength.” And if you try to expand upon a strength, you may also expand upon a weakness.

Reid shared a personal example about himself. He is not particularly well organized. But perhaps his day-to-day chaos partially enables his creativity. Creativity involves connecting disparate ideas. The man is a non-stop generator of ideas — perhaps the unstructured tempo of his life is a positive enabling force. How intensely organized you are and how creative you are may be two opposite sides of the same coin.

Another example from his life: His loyalty and generosity with friends is a strength. Friends are so important to him, and he to his friends, and the stellar results of his collaborations with friends are for all to see. But sometimes he gives too much and sometimes his friends take too much and it pulls him away from taking care ofhimself.

This two sided coin idea informs one of Reid’s classic strategy jujitsu moves: turn your weakness into a strength. For example, if you’re a startup and worry your lack of a track record is a liability to customers, instead of wishing it away, figure out how to turn your newness into a strength when marketing — perhaps it means you’re more agile or more personalized or more responsive.

On an individual level, if you worry that you’re not a good writer make a point to be great on camera and with video. You aren’t a fast thinker? Be known as deliberate, careful, detail-oriented. And so on. Here’s a good post on how to re-frame other limitations as potential strengths.

Bottom Line: Find the silver lining of strength in every weakness and remember that strengths and weaknesses tend to be connected — you cannot eliminate one without the other.

See my full essay 10,000 Hours with Reid Hoffman: Lessons on Business and Life for lessons and insights from Reid.

The Dangers of Empathy

Photograph: Samantha Stock

Paul Bloom makes a persuasive argument in the Boston Review about the dangers of empathy as a guide for making moral decisions. He begins definitionally: there is a difference between what is sometimes called “cognitive empathy,” the capacity to understand the thoughts and emotions of others, and “emotional empathy,” the capacity to feel what others feel. He’s referring to emotional empathy.

Everyone seems to think empathy is an unabashedly good thing. Bloom says no.

First, “Strong inclination toward empathy comes with [individual] costs.”

Individuals scoring high in unmitigated communion report asymmetrical relationships, where they support others but don’t get support themselves. They also are more prone to suffer depression and anxiety. Working from a different literature on “pathological altruism,” Barbara Oakley notes in Cold-Blooded Kindness (2011), “It’s surprising how many diseases and syndromes commonly seen in women seem to be related to women’s generally stronger empathy for and focus on others.”

Moreover, an individual who’s less empathetic may be a better professional in certain contexts. Bloom writes that in one-on-one interactions with doctors, we seek them to be cool, calm, and collected — not necessarily empathetic.

More broadly, empathy distorts wise policy making and philanthropy. Some think apathy makes us better altruists:

“the empathy-altruism hypothesis” is when you empathize with others, you are more likely to help them. In general, empathy serves to dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it is a force against selfishness and indifference.

It is easy to see, then, how empathy can be a moral good, and it has many champions. Obama talks frequently about empathy; witness his recent claim, after his first meeting with Pope Francis, that “it’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.”

And yet:

Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. As Mother Teresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Laboratory studies find that we really do care more about the one than about the mass, so long as we have personal information about the one.

In light of these features, our public decisions will be fairer and more moral once we put empathy aside. Our policies are improved when we appreciate that a hundred deaths are worse than one, even if we know the name of the one, and when we acknowledge that the life of someone in a faraway country is worth as much as the life a neighbor, even if our emotions pull us in a different direction. Without empathy, we are better able to grasp the importance of vaccinating children and responding to climate change. These acts impose costs on real people in the here and now for the sake of abstract future benefits, so tackling them may require overriding empathetic responses that favor the comfort and well being of individuals today. We can rethink humanitarian aid and the criminal justice system, choosing to draw on a reasoned, even counter-empathetic, analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences.

The best way to think about empathy, says Bloom, is how we think about anger: we don’t want none of it (anger protects us and can spur positive moral action) but we don’t want too much of it (we want anger to be subservient to our rational mind). He says: “If we were all constituted in this way, if we could all put anger in its place, ours would be a kinder and better world. That is how we should think about empathy too.”

There are various responses to the essay by people like Peter Singer, Sam Harris, and others, at the same link above.

(Hat tip: Tyler Cowen)

Book Review: The David Foster Wallace Reader

“A writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything.”

walacereaderThat’s what one critic once said of David Foster Wallace. Its ringing truth is on display in the recent anthology of Wallace’s writing, The David Foster Wallace Reader. The collection contains non-fiction essays, short stories, excerpts from his novels, class notes/syllabi from his time as a professor, and email exchanges with his mom.

It’s an essential addition to the library of any hardcore Wallace fan and a pretty decent introduction to his work for newbies, since it’s a curated and edited “greatest hits” collection. Buy the print edition not the e-book, as it’s the sort of thing you might want to flip through, not read every last word on every one of the 800+ pages.

One of my favorites in the collection, which I hadn’t read before, was “Little Expressionless Animals,” a story originally published in The Girl with Curious Hair. There’s a hilarious sequence about how one character was “reeling into Lesbiansism.”

I had also not read “Incarnations of Burned Children” before. It originally appeared in Esquire in year 2000. It’s three pages long, a single paragraph, and very powerful. A must read.

Some of my favorite excerpts from The Pale King are in here, including his extended riff urging the reader to ignore the disclaimer on the copyright page that what follows is fiction. Many other paragraphs to potentially quote in this post, such as:

The paradox of plagiarism is that it actually requires a lot of care and hard work to pull off successfully, since the original text’s style, substance, and logical sequences have to be modified enough so that the plagiarism isn’t totally, insultingly obvious to the professor who’s grading it.

Or this one, which I tweeted:

Many of the chapters have an afterword written by an academic or commentator. One of Kari Kunzru’s comments after one of the stories gave me pause:

If being expressionless is the result of trauma, as it is in this story, then self-expression must be healthy. But somehow, in the cities of the developed world, expressing yourself has started to feel like work. We’re constantly exhorted toward ever-greater feats of affect, to be that little bit more creative; to commit to our goals; to give service with a smile, feigning excitement like contestants on a game show. When life takes on this game-show quality — fake, regimented, spiritually exhausted — expressivity pulls in two directions, both toward and away from truthfulness. It can be another kind of mask, the kind that eats away at the face until you’re no longer sure what your off-camera reaction would be.

Book Review: The Unspeakable

daumbokI’ve been reading Meghan Daum’s columns for years. When I saw she had a new collection of essays out titled The Unspeakable — and that it received the high praise of Cheryl Strayed — I immediately bought it.

The theme running through most of the pieces is “sentimentality and its discontents.” In her words:

Collectively I hoped they’d add up to a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses.

In other words: We’re supposed to feel crippling sadness when someone close to us dies but we don’t. We’re supposed to have newfound insight on life after a near-death experience but we don’t. She writes with utter clarity, energy, and honesty about these sorts of gaps in emotion. It’s a pleasure to read her and it’s easy to recommend this collection. (For excellent musings on sentimentality from two other wise souls, see these two essays in the New York Times book review.)

The opening essay of Daum’s collection is about her being at the bedside of her mother as the mother dies and instead of being overcome with grief she’s preoccupied by a range of practical concerns, like how she’s going to cancel her mother’s apartment lease. Right out of the gate you know she’s going to be as honest as can be, even about the people closest to her.

In an essay on the pleasures of not being a foodie (hear hear!), she argues that she strives for contentment, not the mushy concept of happiness. Contentment doesn’t mean settling or just a “fine” life; rather it means

…feeling like I’m in the right life. Living in a place where I feel like part of a community, doing work that feels reasonably meaningful, surrounding myself with people I enjoy, respect, and in some cases love. It would mean spending as little time as possible doing things I don’t want to do.

What I’m saying is that contentment is a tall order. Not impossible, but formidable enough to elude most of us most of the time. But there’s a trick to it, a master key to all the dead bolts that lock us out of our inner peace. The key to contentment is to live life to the fullest within the confines of your comfort zone. Stay in safe waters but plunge as deeply into them as possible. If you’re good at something, do it a lot. If you’re bad at something, just don’t do it. Celebrate it. Be the best noncook you can be…

Of course, for some people, being outside their comfort zone is itself the comfort zone. I’m talking about people who backpack around developing countries with hardly any money, journalists who become addicted to covering wars, and soldiers who become addicted to fighting them.

There’s a piece on nostalgia and youth. I loved this graf:

Now that I am almost never the youngest person in any room I realize that what I miss most about those times is the very thing that drove me so mad back when I was living in them. What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead then nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have no tailwinds either. You hardly ever know what to do, because you’ve hardly done anything. I guess this is why wisdom is supposed to be the consolation prize of aging. It’s supposed to give us better things to do than stand around and watch in disbelief as the past casts long shadows over the future.

The problem, I now know, is that no one ever really feels wise, least of all those who actually have it in themselves to be so. The Older Self of our imagination never quite folds itself into the older self we actually become. Instead, it hovers in the perpetual distance like a highway mirage.

Here’s Meghan Daum’s interview on the Longform podcast, which was interesting.

What Makes America What It Is

I’m not particularly patriotic. Nonetheless, I was moved by the eloquence with which Barack Obama articulated the American creed at the march at Selma over the weekend. Likely one of the speeches that will highlight his presidency.

For the blow by blow analysis, see Fallows. (Always see Fallows for wisdom…)