“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.

###

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…

 

The School of Life Conference

I’ve been following Alain de Botton and his wonderful School of Life content for years. When I saw that they were hosting one of their weekend conferences in San Francisco, I signed up immediately.

The conference — best described as philosophical self-help programming focused on emotional intelligence — took place over Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday morning. It was mostly Alain de Botton himself lecturing charismatically from on stage, interspersed with short video clips, pair-up exercises with someone sitting near you, and line-up-at-the-mic exercises where one person in the audience spoke to the full of audience of 500.

The pervasive word of the weekend was pessimism. None of us is normal. A degree of loneliness is the norm. No one can fully understand anyone else. So walk through life, Alain said, with a kind of “cheerful despair.” Of all the topics covered, from self-knowledge to meaning, from work to sex, the topic that received the most airtime was romance and relationships. Love is the source of our deepest happiness and our deepest despair. Pessimism pervaded all discussion of romance at the event.

There’s an obvious alignment between Buddhism and the School of Life. Life is suffering. Life is unsatisfactoriness. The inevitability of death was remarked upon as frequently at this conference as at a Buddhist meditation retreat.

For the most part, I was in violent agreement with the ideas Alain laid out, and utterly captivated by the breadth of topics explored. Where I part ways intellectually, I think, is the School of Life’s intensive focus on psychotherapy, particularly as understood by childhood experiences. Many of the frames they use involve analyzing your parents. Childhood experiences matter, of course, though I’d submit not as much as psychoanalysts would have you think. Even then, there are a range of childhood influences beyond strictly parental.

One of the most poignant exercises of the weekend involved this prompt: “On a piece of paper, write down something rather personal and vulnerable that you are longing, in a way, to share with someone, if only they were trustworthy and kind.” People wrote down sometimes stunning confessionals. And then the confessionals were read aloud on stage anonymously.

One of the most difficult exercises was to pair up with a person sitting next to you in the audience — a complete stranger — and describe your sexual fantasies. Yes, your uncensored sexual fantasies.

One of the most amusing exercises involved writing down a long-held life dream you’ve maintained — perhaps to achieve a certain kind of change in the world, finally marry a soulmate, accomplish a professional goal — and then throw the piece of paper containing the dream in an oversized trash can that had been rolled on-stage. Relinquish your dreams!

Other nuggets I wrote down in my notebook:

  • “I’m a little broken” should be the first words on a first date with someone. “Hello, my name is… And I’m suffering because…”
  • Let’s all strive for “sane insanity.”
  • There’s no such thing as overthinking; only thinking badly.
  • Kierkegaard quote, which could be the modern Stoic manifesto: “If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both; whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret both. Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both. Believe a girl, you will regret it; if you do not believe her, you will also regret it; if you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both; whether you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both. If you hang yourself, you will regret it; if you do not hang yourself, you will regret it; if you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both; whether you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the sum of all practical wisdom.”
  • Manic cheeriness is an ill of modern society.
  • Many people’s #1 problem is they are too hard on themselves.
  • Think through the worst case scenarios
  • When lusting after someone new from afar, stare into their eyes, and think about all the ways s/he could annoy you over time.
  • Good sex involves decadance, roughness, immediacy, vulgarity. Good relationships involve respect, responsibility, patience.
  • Tip on humor to lessen the fights with your partner. Exaggerate the annoying tendency of your partner to make him/her laugh. For example, if your wife is obsessed with cleaning, try to out-clean her to such an extreme degree that she can’t help but laugh at your newfound obsession. If your husband is always panicked about getting to the airport early, pack your suitcase and propose leaving for airport the night before the flight–just to be safe. Make him laugh.
  • True love is the forgiveness of weakness; not the admiration of strength.
  • Interview question at job: In what particular ways are you crazy?
  • Hang a sign at the office that says, “No one who works here is entirely normal.”
  • Over-obedient adults are more problematic than under-obedient ones.
  • What are you most afraid of? Who are you afraid of letting down?
  • Frustration + Surprise = Anger. Frustration + Expectation = Sadness.
  • When you encounter a local frustration, instead of maintaining “local pessimism” around whatever happened try enveloping your feeling into a kind of “global pessimism.” For example, if your kid spills rice all over the floor, the local pessimist would say: “My kid isn’t neat.” The global pessimist would say, “Children are lifelong punishment for a few moments of sentimentality.”
  • As a child you cry when angry or wronged. As an adult you often cry at tender moments or when encountering profound beauty.
  • To have a meaningful life, become skilled at cultivating meaningful moments. Hardship can be meaningful when it’s a byproduct of your search for something meaningful.

Thank you, Alain, for all you do. And thank you to the School of Life for being a fount of ideas and inspiration.

“That Doesn’t Surprise Me”

I’m always on the lookout for how people try to signal high status.

Here’s a subtle example I’ve discovered recently. Tell someone a fact they don’t know, and listen for the answer: “That doesn’t surprise me.”

The other day I told a guy who’s well connected in tech: “Did you know that Joe had a falling out with his cofounder, and so he has moved on to a new project?”

The other guy’s reply: “That doesn’t surprise me.”

The alternative answer would have been: “Huh, I didn’t know that.” By saying “That doesn’t surprise me,” he conveyed that he did not, in fact, know the thing that was just said to him, but rather than stop there — which would have lowered his status relative to me in that moment — he simultaneously conveyed the fact that he would have guessed the fact to be the case had he been asked. All done in one tidy sentence.

As another example, Donald Trump’s first quoted response to the Harvey Weinstein news was: “I’m not surprised.”

Signaling status in this way is not necessarily good or bad or even that important. It’s fun to notice it. And, sometimes, it can be a useful data point as you build psychological models of how the people around you operate, and in particular, as you predict how status-oriented a person might be.