Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot is not a “beach read” in the metaphorical sense, but it was a terrific beach read in the literal sense for me a couple weeks ago, when I was in between scuba dives in Cozumel, Mexico. 500 pages of tightly spun goodness; a classic love triangle story told by one of the living masters in Jeffrey Eugenides; a reading experience where you enjoy both the plot and the random life philosophy thought-bombs; and, for the writerly inclined, plenty of “what a sentence!” moments.

One of the things I’ve learned about myself, as far as reading fiction is concerned, is that I tend to like fewer protagonists and a relatively straightforward plot line. When dozens of characters surface and when the timeline keeps jumping around, I can easily lose my place and my momentum. Partly this is a function of not always being able to read large chunks of the book in consecutive days; if a few days pass in between reading, I’m prone to forget what’s going on. It might also have to do with brain works, apparently: I can’t keep track of dozens of fictional side characters in novels.

The Marriage Plot works to my style, then. There are three main characters, they graduate from university, and they go on to experience love and work and complications in the big bad real world. The chapters alternate between characters. Among the more captivating threads for me involved the manic depressive highs and lows of Leonard’s character.

I’m not informed enough to grok the literary inside baseball that pops up throughout this novel. I’m a mere surface reader of Eugenides and this novel — i.e. there are emotions in here about “real life” and I believe the stories and emotions to be realistic enough that I can enjoy the absorption. I’m not looking for or reflecting on some deeper meaning that’s being portrayed — commentary about other novels, literary trends, or sly references to Eugenides’ contemporaries. The relationship dynamics between the characters are provocative enough!

Some of my Kindle highlights are pasted below. Paragraphs appear as I pasted them in, they are not actually in sequential order in the book.


Phyllida, holding her handbag protectively against her chest, had paused to peruse the student art on the walls: six paintings of small, skin-diseased dogs wearing bleach-bottle collars. “Isn’t this fun?” she said tolerantly. [“Tolerantly” as a way of describing the tone of a statement.]

That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical—because they weren’t musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.

But after three solid years of taking literature courses, Madeleine had nothing like a firm critical methodology to apply to what she read. Instead she had a fuzzy, unsystematic way of talking about books. It embarrassed her to hear the things people said in class. And the things she said. I felt that. It was interesting the way Proust. I liked the way Faulkner.

Even Madeleine, who found all the reading hard going, could tell that Zipperstein’s contribution to the field was reformulative and second-tier.

The pleasure Madeleine got from looking at Dabney was reminiscent of the pleasure she’d gotten as a girl from looking at sleek hunting dogs. Underneath this pleasure, like the coals that fed it, was a fierce need to enfold Dabney and siphon off his strength and beauty. It was all very primitive and evolutionary and felt fantastic. The problem was that she hadn’t been able to allow herself to enjoy Dabney or even to exploit him a little, but had had to go and be a total girl about it and convince herself that she was in love with him. Madeleine required emotion, apparently. She disapproved of the idea of meaningless, extremely satisfying sex. And so she began to tell herself that Dabney’s acting was “restrained” or “economical.” She appreciated that Dabney was “secure about himself” and “didn’t need to prove anything” and wasn’t a “showoff.” Instead of worrying that he was dull, Madeleine decided he was gentle. Instead of thinking he was poorly read, she called him intuitive. She exaggerated Dabney’s mental abilities in order not to feel shallow for wanting his body. To this end she helped Dabney write—O.K., she wrote—English and anthro papers for him and, when he got A’s, felt confirmed of his intelligence.

Leonard did sound a little nervous. That wasn’t good. Madeleine didn’t like nervous guys. Nervous guys were nervous for a reason. Up until now Leonard had seemed more the tortured type than the nervous type. Tortured was better.

As he stood on the platform, Mitchell wondered if Madeleine’s wearing her glasses indicated that she felt comfortable around him, or if it meant that she didn’t care about looking her best for him.

Presently, Billy had one hand sensitively in the back pocket of Madeleine’s jeans. She had her hand in the back pocket of his jeans. They were moving along like that, each cupping a handful of the other. In Madeleine’s face was a stupidity Mitchell had never seen before. It was the stupidity of all normal people. It was the stupidity of the fortunate and beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable.

Mitchell felt guilty for fantasizing about his friend’s girlfriend but not guilty enough to stop.

He was looking at her with his big eyes. He reached out to take her hands. “I love you!” he said. And Madeleine had surprised herself by replying, “I love you, too.” She meant that she loved him but didn’t love love him. That, at least, was one possible interpretation, and, on Bedford Street, at three a.m., Madeleine decided not to clear up the matter further.

He was defective, and she wasn’t, and there was nothing she could do about it. The cruelty of this thought felt rich and sweet and Madeleine indulged in it for another minute.
Suddenly the dog sped past again, ripping up sand. “I don’t know why it makes me so happy to watch my dog run,” MacGregor said. “It’s like a piece of me gets to hitch a ride.” She shook her head. “This is what it’s come to. Living vicariously through my poodle.” “There are worse things.”

Larry was in a good mood. The speed with which he’d gotten over Claire was stunning. Maybe he hadn’t really liked Claire all that much. Maybe he disliked Claire as much as Mitchell did. The fact that Larry could get over Claire in a matter of weeks, whereas Mitchell remained heartbroken over Madeleine—even though he hadn’t gone out with Madeleine—meant one of two things: either Mitchell’s love for Madeleine was pure and true and earthshakingly significant; or he was addicted to feeling forlorn, he liked being heartbroken, and the “emotion” he felt for Madeleine—somewhat increased by the flowing chianti—was only a perverted form of self-love. Not love at all, in other words.

At one point, in his sleep, Larry rolled on top of Mitchell, or Mitchell dreamed this. He had an erection. He thought he might throw up. Somebody in his dream was sucking his cock, or Larry was, and then he woke up to hear Larry say, “Ugh, you stink,” without pushing him away, however. And then Mitchell passed out again, and in the morning they both acted as if nothing had happened. Maybe nothing had.

“Wow. Most people don’t know that. I’m impressed.” She leaned toward him and said in a quiet voice, “Are you a Christian?” Mitchell hesitated to answer. The worst thing about religion was religious people. “I’m Greek Orthodox,” he said finally. “Well, that’s Christian.”

Our relationship has always defied categorization, so I guess it makes sense if this letter does too. Dear Mitchell, I don’t want to see you anymore (even though we haven’t been seeing each other). I want to start seeing other people (even though I’m already seeing someone). I need some time for myself (even though you haven’t been taking up my time). Okay? Do you get it now? I’m desperate. I’m taking desperate measures.

All of this, as Leonard later learned from his therapists, amounted to emotional abuse. Not to be made to live in a house where a murder had taken place but to be the go-between in his parents’ affairs, to be constantly asked his opinion before he was mature enough to give one, to be made to feel that he was somehow responsible for his parents’ happiness and, later, their unhappiness.

It was like having a wild party in your head, a party at which you were the drunken host who refused to let anyone leave, who grabbed people by the collar and said, “Come on. One more!” When those people inevitably did vanish, you went out and found others, anyone and anything to keep the party going.

There was something about tennis—its aristocratic rituals, the prim silence it enforced on its spectators, the pretentious insistence on saying “love” for zero and “deuce” for tied, the exclusivity of the court itself, where only two people were allowed to move freely, the palace-guard rigidity of the linesmen, and the slavish scurrying of the ball boys—that made it clearly a reproachable pastime.

That was when Leonard realized something crucial about depression. The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up. As he was speaking, for instance, Leonard noticed Wendy Neuman cross her arms over her chest, as if to defend herself against the blatant insincerity of what he was saying. To win her back, Leonard admitted to this insincerity, saying, “No, I take that back. I’m lying. Lying is what I do. It’s part of my disease.” He eyed Wendy to see if she was buying this, or if she regarded it as further insincerity. The closer Leonard monitored her reactions, the further he got from telling the truth about himself, until he trailed off, feeling embarrassed and hot-faced, an eyesore of denial.

The bias of these kids was that Western religion was responsible for everything bad in the world, the rape of the earth, slaughterhouses, animal testing, whereas Eastern religion was ecological and pacific.

Madeleine’s excitement about the future seemed all the more vibrant against Leonard’s sudden lack of it. He was more or less sane now, more or less healthy, but he felt none of his usual energy or curiosity, none of his old animal spirits.

The logic of his brilliant move rested on one premise: that manic depression, far from being a liability, was an advantage. It was a selected trait. If it wasn’t selected for, then the “disorder” would have disappeared long ago, bred out of the population like anything else that didn’t increase the odds of survival. The advantage was obvious. The advantage was the energy, the creativity, the feeling of genius, almost, that Leonard felt right now.

It was like plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure.

All her life she’d avoided unbalanced people. She’d stayed away from the weird kids in elementary school. She’d avoided the gloomy, suicidal girls in high school who vomited up pills. What was it about crazy people that made you want to shun them? The futility of reasoning with them, certainly, but also something else, something like a fear of contagion. The casino, with its buzzing, smoke-filled air, seemed like a projection of Leonard’s mania, a howling zone full of the nightmare rich, opening their mouths to place bets or cry for alcohol.

What I’ve Been Reading

Recent books.

1. Principles by Ray Dalio. In the category of “books worth reading since a lot of smart people are currently reading it.” I enjoyed it. I didn’t know a lot about Dalio / Bridgewater beforehand so it was a handy way to get up to speed.

The advice in this book that I hear referenced most often is about sharing blunt feedback with colleagues — i.e. if you think someone on your team screwed up, share that feedback with them without a sugar coat. Ray shares several vivid examples of colleagues more junior than him saying to his face (remember, he was the CEO) that his performance in a meeting was disastrous or that the quality of one of his presentations was C+ in quality. It’s the best way to improve, Dalio argues.

I’m a bit more cautious on this advice. No doubt that candid feedback is necessary to improve as an individual and as an organization. But I question how many people are truly interested in constructive criticism even if they ask for it. They know they should be asking for constructive criticism but deep down they don’t want to hear it and will resent you afterwards (without ever admitting the source of the resentment, of course). A resentful colleague may be less effective than a colleague who’s not addressing their weaknesses as quickly as they could because they’re only getting the “nice” feedback.

The other question I’m left asking myself after reading Principles is whether we should audio/video record more of our meetings at work, like Bridgewater does, have them transcribed, and then keep a searchable text archive of all meetings so that colleagues who weren’t in the room can quickly sync up at their convenience.

2. Emerald City by Jennifer Egan. After devouring Manhattan Beach, I’m now working my way through the rest of the Egan canon. This collection of short stories is terrific. Out of the 11 stories, at least 7-8 of them held my attention all the way through; indeed, I was disappointed when they came to an end.

My favorite story is “Letters to Josephine,” which is about a woman named Lucy’s complicated feelings about becoming wealthy (via marriage) relative to her childhood and to her childhood friends. Lucy’s reflections on the blur of luxury travel that she indulges in with her aloof husband are spot-on. An example exchange between her friend Josephine and her:

“What does it look like from an airplane, when you land at night?” Josephine asked. “I always try to imagine it, how cities must look from above with all their lights blinking. Is it pretty?” Lucy pictured herself and Parker in an airplane, both of them tired and eager to land. “Well, it’s…” she paused, wondering what Josephine wanted her to say. She longed to say the right thing, to acknowledge the beauty without dwelling on it in a way that would seem self-satisfied. “It is pretty,” she said. “But you get used to it.”

From other stories, on feeling preemptively nostalgic in the *present* moment:

Bernadette notices the breeze, the limp water washing her toes. She feels an ache of nostalgia. Jann’s hand presses against her back. Between them all is a fragile weave of threads, a spider’s web. Bernadette longs for this moment as if it had already passed, as if it could have been.

On developing pleasure in observing others:

Lucy sits with a magazine in her lap and watches people. She has only recently begun to know the pleasure of watching others. For many years she could only worry that she herself was being watched, and would hide beneath wide hats and sunglasses and lipstick to avoid people’s stares. But lately she has grown more curious, less self-conscious.

3. Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Terrific. A collection of meandering essays written in the second person as direct advice to his daughter. Here are my other posts on Knausgaard. Note this is not part of the My Struggle series.

One of my favorite paragraphs near the end:

And perhaps the following is nothing but self-deception: the easy life is nothing to aspire to, the easy choice is never the worthiest solution, only the difficult life is a life worth living. I don’t know. But I think that’s how it is. What would seem to contradict this, is that I wish you and your siblings simple, easy, long and happy lives.

On how quickly we forget the generations before us:

Grandmother and Grandfather had been dead for more than twenty years, but were still vivid in my memory. To you they would be vague figures in the murk of history; you were born a hundred years after them, and when you entered your twenties, they would represent for you what people born in the 1860s did for me. Which is to say, practically nothing. The only ones who count are the living. That’s how it’s always been, and that’s how it will always be.

The paragraph continues with an original way of capturing the idea that the trivia and tedium of life is life:

Life clatters within the living, with all their mentalities and psychologies, and when they die and the clatter within them subsides, it continues in their children, and one comes to understand that the clatter was the main thing, the clatter was the point, the clatter was life.

And the final two sentences, from father to daughter:

Do you understand? Sometimes it hurts to live, but there is always something to live for. Could you try to remember that?

4. The Diversity Bonus by Scott Page. Some solid research arguing that the quality of decision making goes up for complicated decisions when there’s more cognitive diversity around the table. Very similar to Scott’s previous book, The Difference.

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In movie/TV land, the film “Sorry to Bother You” is terrific and truly original art, and set in my current city of residence, Oakland. The Netflix documentary series “Wild Wild Country” is pretty wild indeed and fairly binge worthy.

“Happiness Is Just Like This”

There’s a wonderful, brief piece in Lion’s Roar about the following truth: “We may believe that it’s the quality of the sunset that gives us such pleasure, but in fact it is the quality of our own immersion in the sunset that brings the delight.”

If you feel a positive emotion, be mindful of it. Mindfulness, as my teacher Steve Armstrong taught, is remembering to recognize the present moment’s experience. To wit:  “If you’re in the mind-state of contentment and want it to continue, place your attention on the emotional sensations of contentment.”

Attend to where you’re feeling the emotion:

So the next time you have a positive emotion, see where that emotion is experienced in your body. Any positive experience will do. Say, you’re walking down the street and you see a small child do something that makes you smile. Put your attention on your smile and any emotion you experience for at least twenty seconds

Just stay with the positive emotion. You might say to yourself something like, “Happiness is just like this.” Don’t start thinking about why you’re not happy all the time, or fearing that the happiness will end, or any of the countless other ways we mess up our positive emotions.

Hat tip to Bob Wright on Twitter.

Book Notes: Motherhood: A Novel

The question of whether to have kids or not is a difficult one for some people, including me. I find the opinions of those who were utterly certain when making their decision (be they parents or settled non-parents) to be relatively uninteresting. I like people who wrestled with the pros and cons. That said, while the new novel Motherhood by Sheila Heti portrays a protagonist who’s relatively set on not having kids, it still intrigued and stimulated me and kept me reading to the end. For those thinking about the kids decision, it’s a solid supplement to non-fiction like Meghan Daum’s collection.

The plot of this book is non-existent other than one character ruminating over and over again: Do I want to have kids? I don’t, right? Here’s why I don’t. Well, maybe I do. No, surely I don’t, and here’s why. Good nuggets throughout on this singular question. But if the question isn’t of interest to you, this book isn’t for you…

Highlights below.


Parents have something greater than I’ll ever have, but I don’t want it, even if it’s so great, even if in a sense they’ve won the prize, or grabbed the golden ring, which is genetic relief—relief at having procreated; success in the biological sense, which on some days seems like the only sense that matters. And they have social success, too.

There is a kind of sadness in not wanting the things that give so many other people their life’s meaning. There can be sadness at not living out a more universal story—the supposed life cycle—how out of one life cycle another cycle is supposed to come.

I brought up my worries over paths not taken, and she said everyone had those, but often when you looked back on your life, you saw that the choices you made and the paths you went down were the right ones. She said it wasn’t a matter of choosing one life over another, but being sensitive to the life that wants to be lived through you. You need tension in order to create something—the sand in the pearl.

A lot of time is wasted in thinking about whether to have a child, when the thinking is such a small part of it, and when there is little enough time to think about things that actually bring meaning. Which are what? Nobody completely expected it to go the way it went—their life. Nobody is completely happy with the way things turned out for them. But most people manage to find some pleasure in it anyway.

What I need is so small: to eradicate any sentimentality from my feelings and to look at what is. Today, I defined sentimental to myself as a feeling about the idea of a feeling. And it seemed to me that my inclinations towards motherhood had a lot to with the idea of a feeling about motherhoodIt’s like the story my religious cousin told me when we were at her home for Shabbat dinner—of the girl who made chicken the way her mother did, which was the way her mother did: always tying the chicken legs together before putting it in the pot. When the girl asked her mother why she tied the legs together, her mother said, That’s the way my mother did it. When the girl asked her grandmother why she did it that way, her grandmother said, That’s how my mother did it. When she asked her great-grandmother why it was important to tie the chicken legs together, the woman replied, That’s the only way it would fit in my pot. I think that is how childbearing feels to me: a once-necessary, now sentimental gesture.

Will you one day feel about the mothering instinct the same way you now feel about the sex instinct, which also suddenly turned on? Like that other passage, you’ll resist it, but in retrospect, it took you.

Are the fantasies that visit us, of living other lives—like living with children if we don’t have them, or living without if we do—taboos? yes Are we supposed to build a conscious relationship with these taboos, so we might feel more at home in the world, on a macrocosmic level? yes How are we to do that? By challenging these taboos with our behavior? no By challenging them conceptually, in thought alone? no Instead of challenging them, should we be trying to bind the taboos with our lives, and so create a synthesis in our living? yes

Living one way is not a criticism of every other way of living. Is that the threat of the woman without kids? Yet the woman without kids is not saying that no woman should have kids, or that you—woman with a stroller—have made the wrong choice. Her decision about her life is no statement about yours. One person’s life is not a political or general statement about how all lives should be. Other lives should be able to exist alongside our own without any threat or judgment at all.

Some people try to imagine what it’s like not to have children—and they imagine themselves without children, instead of picturing a person they might never be. They project their own potential sadness over not having this experience on those who don’t want it at all. A person who can’t understand why someone doesn’t want children only has to locate their feelings for children, and imagine that desire directed somewhere else—to a life that is just as filled with hope, purpose, futurity and care.

Of course raising children is a lot of hard work, but I don’t see why it’s supposed to be so virtuous to do work that you created for yourself out of purely your own self-interest. It’s like someone who digs a big hole in the middle of a busy intersection, and then starts filling it up again, and proclaims: Filling up this hole is the most important thing in the world I could be doing right now.

All the times I’ve listened to myself, has it ever been a mistake? Often, yes. But wasn’t the freedom to make those mistakes greater than all the advice in the world?

I don’t have to live every possible life, or to experience that particular love. I know I cannot hide from life; that life will give me experiences no matter what I choose. Not having a child is no escape from life, for life will always put me in situations, and show me new things, and take me to darknesses I wouldn’t choose to see, and all sorts of treasures of knowledge I cannot comprehend.

Nobody looks at a childless gay couple and thinks their life must lack meaning or depth or substance because they didn’t have kids. No one looks at a couple of guys who have been together forever, love each other, are happy in their work, have chosen not to have kids, are probably still fucking, and pities them; or thinks that down deep inside they must know they’re living a trivial and callow life because they’re not fathers. Nobody thinks that! The idea of it is ridiculous!..  It’s only straight couples people have these feelings about—how empty their lives must be. No, actually, it’s not even the man—people look at him like he got away with something. It’s just the woman—the woman who doesn’t have a child is looked at with the same aversion and reproach as a grown man who doesn’t have a job. Like she has something to apologize for. Like she’s not entitled to pride.

I had always thought my friends and I were moving into the same land together, a childless land where we would just do a million things together forever. I thought our minds and souls were all cast the same way, not that they were waiting for the right moment to jump ship, which is how it feels as they abandon me here. I should not think of it as an abandoning, but it would be wrong to say it’s not a loss, or that I’m not startled at being so alone. How had I taken all of us as the same? Is that why I started wondering about having kids—because, one by one, the ice floe on which we were all standing was broken and made smaller, leaving me alone on just the tiniest piece of ice, which I had thought would remain vast, like a very large continent on which we’d all stay? It never occurred to me that I’d be the only one left here. I know I’m not the only one left, yet how can I trust the few who remain, when I’d been so mistaken about the rest?

Trying a Gut Cleanse Diet

I spent a week and a half on a gut cleanse diet — a strict diet to “reset” my gut and “rebalance” the bacteria in my digestive system. Methodology delivered food four times over a two week period. No sugar. No carbs. No starch really. All pure protein (e.g. chicken and salmon), and non-starchy vegetables (e.g. broccoli not squash). I didn’t eat out at restaurants during this time period; I only ate from the jars in the fridge.

Some intermittent fasting was prescribed, too. No eating for 16 hours — which means, after dinner, I wouldn’t eat till lunch the following day.

Six fish oil pills a day. A probiotic pill in the morning. A vitamin D pill at lunch.

How’d I feel? A bit cleaner, I suppose. Something really was happening internally because the one “cheat” meal I had along the way — 6 days in, I ate a bunch of bread and a breakfast burrito — made my stomach feel upset for 7-8 straight hours. I did sleep well during the cleanse. Knowing that my diet was pre-set did relieve some decision making burden of having to choose what to eat and where for every meal.

The primary challenge was hunger. Even if I ate tons of greens and proteins, it was hard to ever feel full with no carbs.

The science of nutrition is maddening. There truly is no consensus. Show me any study on diet and I’ll show you a counter-study. In this case, some of the gut cleanse program’s descriptions of why such-and-such a technique is good for your “gut” seemed a bit farfetched. Indeed, in researching the various microbiome tests available online, it seems the science is still pretty sketch at this point. I understand the cool factor of receiving a personalized report that says “this food is good for you, that food is bad for you” — but it isn’t based in much, apparently. I’ll wait a few years till the science improves before mailing in my stool sample.

I’m happy I did the gut cleanse. I’m still mostly trying to avoid sugars and carbs. Not religiously, but when I can. And I’m wondering whether I should keep up intermittent fasting on a regular basis…

The Americans TV Show

The Americans wrapped up its sixth and final season this week. All 10 episodes were terrific, and the finale episode was among the best finales I’ve ever seen in a television series.

There are dozens (spoilers) of nuanced analyses of the show in general, and the twists that await viewers in the season finale (spoilers) in particular.

I have two simple non-spoiler reflections — in addition to the obvious, which is to recommend the show.

First, I’ve read many good novels recently (Knausgaard, Murakami, Jennifer Egan, others). But the impact of a high quality TV series is still singular. A book can’t create heart-thumping suspense in the way a TV show can, especially the 75th hour of a TV show, as is the case in the multi-season dramas that have created the golden age of television that we find ourselves in.

Second, in an era of on-demand binge watching a lot of TV consumption occurs over a period of weeks or months, not years. For example, if I ever end up watching Mad Men, and I enjoy it, I’ll probably watch it over a period of 3-6 months.

With The Americans, I began watching it via iTunes shortly after it began airing on TV. So it’s been almost 5 years since I watched Season 1, Episode 1. That’s a long time ago. When characters and plot lines are allowed to marinate in your mind over 5 years, it has a different effect than when a show is bingewatched in months.

I’m not sure The Americans is my all-time favorite TV show. But it is in my top 5 or top 10, and may be the only show that I’ve watched in small doses for such a long period of time. That makes it unique. I won’t forget it.

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Other lesser known TV shows I wholeheartedly recommend: Goliath (Amazon streaming), Catastrophe (Amazon streaming), Insecure (HBO). Big Little Lies (HBO) and Friday Night Lights (NBC) are better known but also awesome.

The Perils of Having an EA Schedule All Your Meetings

Feeling overwhelmed with meetings and calls? If you’re using an executive assistant to schedule everything, that may be the source of the problem. Execs heavily dependent on EA’s for scheduling can easily become over-scheduled with low priority appointments. For two possible reasons as I see it…

First, exec wants to say “No” but can’t. Busy people often know, deep down, that they don’t have time to do a random meeting or phone call. But they can’t say no because saying no to somebody will disappoint them and cause that person, at a subtle level, to dislike you in that moment. Most of us strongly desire to be liked. So replying “Sure” and handing the interaction off to an EA allows you to win social approval in the moment, and the interaction disappears into a magical scheduling queue. And then you get back to work. No social disappointment, no studying your calendar in the moment, no immediate cost.

Alternatively, exec wants to say “Yes” but it’s a momentary emotion. The exec genuinely believes the meeting request is worth doing in that moment. “Hey great to hear from you, it’s been a long time, yeah let’s definitely hang out soon!” The EA is immediately CC’d. But. If exec had only spent 2-3 minutes encountering logistical friction when trying to schedule it herself, she would realize that, upon reflection, the benefits do not outweigh the costs. If your desire to do something cannot withstand even the slightest amount of friction, it’s probably not something you actually want to do. I analogize this to seeing books for sale on Amazon. When I encounter a book on Amazon that looks interesting, I often want to buy it right away. Instead I add the book to my wish list. When I visit the book’s listing a day or two later, I oftentimes find myself less interested in buying it. The enthusiasm turned out to be temporary. Adding a little bit of friction to the buying process causes me to be more honest about my true interest level. Adding scheduling friction to your meeting requests has a similar effect.

To be clear, there are opportunities to get scheduling leverage out of an EA. For one, EA’s are great at helping you schedule internal meetings — regular calls or meetings with colleagues. EA’s also are great to introduce at Round 2 of the logistics ping pong game. What I tend to do when I say yes to an external meeting request is to personally offer a few times that work for me and see if I can just schedule it myself in one email. This helps me internalize the “cost” of the meeting as I’m saying yes — I’m having to spend a few minutes looking at my calendar, hunting for convenient open spaces, and offering those times in a message. If none of my times works and the thread turns into a ping pong game of dates and times, and I’m still motivated to do the meeting, and the status dynamics make sense (i.e. I won’t offend a higher status person who’s scheduling with me directly), I’ll hand it off to an EA to finalize the scheduling process on my behalf.

Bottom Line: EA’s can give execs leverage, especially around scheduling. But if not managed thoughtfully, an EA-only scheduling process can cause you to become quickly over-scheduled with appointments you would not, with full perspective, actually prioritize.

What I’ve Been Reading

Recent books.

1. Feel Free by Zadie Smith. Collection of her non-fiction writing over the past many years. Lovely as always, with Smith. Skip around and pick the topics that tickle your interest. It’s quite a diverse compendium. I enjoyed it. To be sure, Tyler Cowen said he “spotted several intellectual and emotional fallacies” in the collection. I read it for the quality of the writing.

2. Heartburn by Nora Ephron. A famous novel from the 80’s, I finally got around to reading Ephron for the first time. I found Heartburn consistently laugh out loud funny, and insightful too. Some highlights.

On being single versus married:

One thing I have never understood is how to work it so that when you’re married, things keep happening to you. Things happen to you when you’re single. You meet new men, you travel alone, you learn new tricks, you read Trollope, you try sushi, you buy nightgowns, you shave your legs. Then you get married, and the hair grows in. I love the everydayness of marriage, I love figuring out what’s for dinner and where to hang the pictures and do we owe the Richardsons, but life does tend to slow to a crawl.

On systems of thought that can simplify if you’re not careful:

When I talk about it I sound a little like one of those starlets on The Tonight Show who’s just stumbled onto Eastern philosophy or feminism or encounter therapy or any other system of thought that explains everything in the universe in eight minutes.

On loving versus hating someone you marry:

You fall in love with someone, and part of what you love about him are the differences between you; and then you get married and the differences start to drive you crazy.

On crying:

The first is that I have always believed that crying is a highly overrated activity: women do entirely too much of it, and the last thing we ought to want is for it to become a universal excess. The second thing I want to say is this: beware of men who cry. It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.

3. Bandwidth by Eliot Peper. Eliot’s new, widely heralded sci-fi novel got published today! Very timely. Eliot has his pulse on the Valley.

4. Be the Pack Leader by Cesar Milan. Great advice on how to think about how to relate to dogs. Recommended for first time dog owners. Cesar’s Netflix show Cesar 911 is also amusing and educational.

5. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. A bit repetitive. Sleep is vital, and the author manages to say this in 50 different ways. I’m convinced! I already was convinced. I did glean some practical tips though:

  • I’ve been turning off my bedroom light as soon as I get in bed and reading only by the light of my Kindle before sleep. He discusses the impact of light in the bedroom and the importance of getting into a dark room as quickly as possible as you try to fall asleep.
  • I now splash water on my face each night before getting into bed. “It is no evolutionary coincidence that we humans have developed the pre-bed ritual of splashing water on one of the most vascular parts of our bodies—our face, using one of the other highly vascular surfaces—our hands. You may think the feeling of being facially clean helps you sleep better, but facial cleanliness makes no difference to your slumber. The act itself does have sleep-inviting powers, however, as that water, warm or cold, helps dissipate heat from the surface of the skin as it evaporates, thereby cooling the inner body core…Consequently, you fall asleep more quickly because your core is colder. Hot baths prior to bed can also induce 10 to 15 percent more deep NREM sleep in healthy adults.”
  • I more aggressively use A/C or a fan. “A bedroom temperature of around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3°C) is ideal for the sleep of most people.”
  • I will ask doctors who need to perform work on my body how many hours of sleep they got the night prior. “If you are a patient under the knife of an attending physician who has not been allowed at least a six-hour sleep opportunity the night prior, there is a 170 percent increased risk of that surgeon inflicting a serious surgical error on you, such as organ damage or major hemorrhaging, relative to the superior procedure they would conduct when they have slept adequately.”

6. Reset by Ellen Pao. Powerful personal testimony and a call to arms about diversity in the tech industry. Required reading for all VCs, at a minimum, if not everyone who works in tech.

Lessons on Confidence, Criticism, and How to Thrive as an Underestimated Founder from Sara Blakely

We were honored to have one of our LPs, Spanx founder/CEO Sara Blakely, in Palo Alto for the Village Global event called Underestimated. Sara was joined by dozens of other remarkable female founders and VCs in Silicon Valley.

Here’s a writeup on some of the insights shared by the speakers.

Here are a bunch of photos from the event.

The energy in the room was electric. More to come!

Lessons from Ben Silbermann, Founder of Pinterest

Ben Silbermann is co-founder and CEO of Pinterest, one of the world’s most successful consumer internet companies.

Ben is also a Village Global luminary — a group of tech industry founders and executives who are backing the next generation of amazing entrepreneurs.

At a dinner recently with a small group of Village Global’s Network Leaders, Ben shared stories and lessons from the Pinterest journey. Here’s a writeup of some of my favorite nuggets that Ben shared. And below is a video with some of the highlights…