RIP Seth Roberts

seth-roberts-headshot-colorNews came today that Seth Roberts, the UC Berkeley professor of psychology, collapsed during a hike near his home. I met Seth through our respective blogs and shared a few meals with him in the Bay Area over the years.

I’ve blogged about him several times. Seth taught me about self-experimentation and science. He taught me about nutrition and fish oil. He taught me about innovation and creative thinking.  Most importantly, he taught me the value of appreciative thinking, which I once summarized thusly:

School teaches us to be proactively skeptical and critical. We’re taught to immediately look for the flaws in experiments or theories. An appreciative approach, by contrast, simply asks, “What’s redeeming about this experiment or idea? What’s done right?”

Some VCs are naturally appreciative, others naturally critical. After an entrepreneur pitch their first feedback will either be, “OK, here’s what I like about what you’re doing” versus “Here’s where I think the problems are.”

I am trying to take a more appreciative approach to people. When I meet someone new at a cocktail party, I am trying to ask myself more regularly, “What’s cool / impressive / interesting about this person?” as opposed to dwelling on their imperfections.

Like many who knew him or read his stuff, I’ll miss Seth. He was a one-of-a-kind thinker. And a deeply compassionate person.

What To Do If You Worry Too Much

Some tips from Ad Kerkhof, a Dutch pyschologist who has worked in the field of suicide prevention for 30 years. I found them in the book Time Warped and quote below from the book.

  • Deliberately imagine the worst-case scenario concerning your worry, followed by the best possible scenario. The real outcome probably lies somewhere in between.
  • If you find yourself awake in the middle of night worrying, with thoughts whirling round repeatedly in your head, imagine there’s a box under your bed. This is your worry box. As soon as you spot thoughts that are worries, imagine taking those individual worries, putting them into the box and closing the lid. They are then to remain in the box under the bed until you decide to get them out again. If the worries recur, remind yourself that they are in the box and won’t be attended to until later on.
  • Your worries relate to real and practical problems in your life, so you cannot rid yourself of them altogether, but you can learn to control when you think about them. Set aside 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening to do nothing but worry about the future. Sit at a table, make a list of all your problems and then think about them. But as soon as the time is up you must stop worrying, and whenever those worries come back into your head remind yourself that you can’t contemplate them again until your next worry time. You have given yourself permission to postpone your worrying until the time of your choice. Remarkably, it can work. It puts you in control.

The Problem With Walking Meetings

Walking meetings are all the rage.

Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, best friends for years, went on walks together around Palo Alto. Jeff Weiner wrote that he’s converting many 1:1 meetings to walking meetings. Brad Feldsays his best meetings are walking meetings. Mark Zuckerberg supposedly walks with key candidates he’s recruiting to Facebook.

Walking meetings are awesome for obvious reasons. Exposure to sun and fresh air lifts your mood. Walking counts as exercise, which is important for health and cognitive function. A physical atmosphere that’s different from the normal white walls of an office — trees, sun, a beautiful landscape — can spark creative trains of thoughts.

My favorite reason for walking meetings? They enable a different kind of social bonding. People open up more outside the office. You can cover personal topics more easily.

Yet walking meetings involve trade-offs, and before you propose them, you should be sure the topic you want to discuss is well-suited to a walking format.

See, while some walking meeting proponents pitch the activity as refreshingly distraction-free, there are distractions while you walk. Namely, having to put one foot after the other and undergo the physical act…of walking. You have to watch where you’re going, even if it’s a familiar path. You have to control your speed and match it with your meeting partner’s pace: not too fast, not too slow. These distractions are cognitively taxing — they draw away your attention and deplete your well of self-control.

See Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

It is normally easy and actually quite pleasant to walk and think at the same time, but at the extremes these activities appear to compete for the limited resources of System 2. You can confirm this claim by a simple experiment. While walking comfortably with a friend, ask him to compute 23 x 78 in his head, and to do so immediately. He will almost certainly stop in his tracks. My experience is that I can think while strolling but cannot engage in mental work that imposes a heavy load on short-term memory. If I must construct an intricate argument under time pressure, I would rather be still, and I would prefer sitting to standing….

Accelerating beyond my strolling speed completely changes the experience of walking, because the transition to a faster walk brings about a sharp deterioration in my ability to think coherently. As I speed up, my attention is drawn with increasing frequency to the experience of walking and to the deliberate maintenance of the faster pace. My ability to bring a train of thought to a conclusion is impaired accordingly. At the highest speed I can sustain on the hills, about 14 minutes for a mile, I do not try to even think of anything else. In addition to the physical effort of moving my body rapidly along the path, a mental effort of self-control is needed to resist the urge to slow downSelf-control and deliberate thought apparently draw on the same limited budget of effort.

Bottom Line: Walking meetings are fantastic. Beyond exercise, it’s a great format for social bonding and perhaps for creative thinking. Yet, I believe on average you are less likely to think big thoughts and solve difficult problems while walking. Furthermore, the faster and harder the walk, the worse the ideas you generate. So for serious analytical work or high stakes conversation, consider the old fashioned routine of sitting in an office or conference room.

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Some other musings on physical activity and thinking:

  • Our brains are associative. Associate certain physical places, positions, or activities with certain kinds of thinking. Have a desk where you do hard, analytical thinking; have a desk where you do light email. Have a walk you do where you’re trying to be as creative as possible; have a different walking route that’s more for social catch up. Train your brain.
  • Standing desks vs. sitting desks: There’s a parallel to walking meetings. Standing desks are great for “exertion” — it tires my legs, which helps me sleep better, and sleep’s the key to everything. I stand about half the day; while standing I do email, web browsing, and other lightweight tasks. But serious thinking and writing? I have to sit.
  • I generate some of my best ideas while on the telephone, pacing in a confined space (like a living room). Being on the phone while walking in an open yard is not the same; I need to be able to pace back and forth.

(Image: FlickrOriginally published on LinkedIn)

A Life Worth Ending

Michael Wolff wrote an incredibly honest essay over the summer about his mother’s last years in hospital beds, and having to endure endless sessions with doctors where no one was willing to confront the elephant in the room: his mother was a vegetable. Hers was a life worth ending. It’s a personal story I expect we’ll be hearing more frequently, as the rate at which we develop technologies to lengthen life outpaces the development of the corresponding ethics / norms / expectations within families and the healthcare system. Worth reading.

Book Review: Why We Get Fat

I found Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat to be provocative and persuasive. It challenged my long held assumption that the way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more. Taubes’ hypothetical exposes the oddity of the “eat less, exercise more” maxim:

Imagine you’re invited to a celebratory dinner. The chef’s talent is legendary, and the invitation says that this particular dinner is going to be a feast of monumental proportions. Bring your appetite, you’re told—come hungry. How would you do it? You might try to eat less over the course of the day—maybe even skip lunch, or breakfast and lunch. You might go to the gym for a particularly vigorous workout, or go for a longer run or swim than usual, to work up an appetite. You might even decide to walk to the dinner, rather than drive, for the same reason. Now let’s think about this for a moment. The instructions that we’re constantly being given to lose weight—eat less (decrease the calories we take in) and exercise more (increase the calories we expend)—are the very same things we’ll do if our purpose is to make ourselves hungry, to build up an appetite, to eat more. Now the existence of an obesity epidemic coincident with half a century of advice to eat less and exercise more begins to look less paradoxical.

I also liked this sentence:

To ‘explain’ obesity by overeating is as illuminating a statement as an ‘explanation’ of alcoholism by chronic overdrinking.

The thesis of the book is that what you eat determines weight loss. Namely, what kind and how many carbohydrates. Taubes advocates the Atkins diet — low carb, high protein, high fat. Taubes is a science journalist, not a researcher himself, so he positions himself as a syntheizer of the literature. Here’s his recent podcast interview with Russ Roberts on Econtalk. For a more skeptical take, here’s a blog post from Scientific American.

I reccomend Why We Get Fat to anyone interested in nutrition, diet, and health. Thanks to Saar Gur and Tod Sacerdoti for the recomendation.

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Also from the book: diet and disease:

Eat Western diets, get Western diseases—notably obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. This is one of the primary reasons why public-health experts believe that there are dietary and lifestyle causes for all these diseases, even cancer—that they’re not just the result of bad luck or bad genes.

To get a feel for the kind of modern evidence supporting this idea, consider breast cancer. In Japan, this disease is relatively rare, certainly not the scourge it is for American women. But when Japanese women emigrate to the United States, it takes only two generations for their descendants to experience the same breast-cancer rates as any other local ethnic group. This tells us that something about the American lifestyle or diet is causing breast cancer.

Colon cancer is ten times more common in rural Connecticut than in Nigeria. Alzheimer’s disease is far more common among Japanese Americans than among Japanese living in Japan; it’s twice as common among African Americans as among rural Africans. Pick a disease from the list of Western diseases, and a pair of locations—one urban, say, and one rural, or one Westernized and one not—compare people in the same age groups, and the disease will be more common in the urban and Westernized locations and less common outside them.

The Fragility of Health

I came down with food poisoning last night. Twice during the night, I got out of bed, went into the bathroom, and threw up.

I bent over the toilet, hands on knees, and did the violent act for 45 seconds.

After the second time, I looked up from the toilet and faced the mirror in my bathroom. My eyes were bloodshot. Face grey. I was shivering all over. In that moment, I felt frail and vulnerable in a way I hadn’t felt for many years.

Today, I’ve been reflecting on how a single piece of bad food, in a matter of hours, could make me go from youthful, energetic, and ready to do anything, anywhere to bedridden, weak, depressed. My physical health is so good most of the time that I take it for granted.

Jimmy V’s classic ESPY speech from 1993, delivered two months before his cancer killed him, talks about cherishing every moment of good health. Obviously, a simple bout of food poisoning is not comparable to life-ending cancer, but his message, which I re-watched tonight, resonated anew. Hopefully it will stick for longer this time.

Mike Moritz is Chasing Daylight — The Adjustments He’s Making As a Result

Mike Moritz, one of the most successful VCs in Silicon Valley history, announced he’s been diagnosed with an incurable illness and has been told his quality of life will likely decline significantly in the next 5-10 years. Very sad. Moritz says he will continue to do investing but also make some changes in his life:

I will use twelve to fourteen weeks – sprinkled throughout the course of each year – for various pursuits, diversions and trivial indulgences.

Reading this sentence gave me pause and caused me to reflect.

Among other things, I was reminded of the classic 2005 Alex Tabarrok post about travel. To paraphrase: If someone told you you were going to live for 10 additional years (say, living until 110 instead of 100) and ask what you would do with that extra time, you would probably say (among other things), “I’d travel more.” If someone told you were you going to die in the next 5 years and ask what you would do with your time remaining on planet earth, you would probably say (among other things), “I’d travel more.” Those were Alex’s answers, and mine too. As Alex says, “Given that I would travel more if I was to live either less or more, the probability that I was at just that level of mortality that I should not be traveling now must be vanishingly small.” And so he set off for Peru.

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The phrase “chasing daylight” from the title of the post comes from the touching book by the same name. I finished the book in tears. My book review is here.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger?

Whether you think of Nietzsche or Kanye West when you hear the line "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger"–you probably think of it as true. Or at least I did. Short term struggle builds long term strength. Even life's toughest experiences have a redeeming quality inasmuch as it instructs or inspires or hardens or softens a person in the right away. Etc.

Christopher Hitchens is dying of cancer. He's undergoing radiation. In Vanity Fair he reflects on the maxim that I took as fact–and finds it false.

In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.

On the pain he felt:

To say that the rash hurt would be pointless. The struggle is to convey the way that it hurt on the inside. I lay for days on end, trying in vain to postpone the moment when I would have to swallow. Every time I did swallow, a hellish tide of pain would flow up my throat, culminating in what felt like a mule kick in the small of my back. I wondered if things looked as red and inflamed within as they did without. And then I had an unprompted rogue thought: If I had been told about all this in advance, would I have opted for the treatment? There were several moments as I bucked and writhed and gasped and cursed when I seriously doubted it.

He ends:

So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.

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Here's a touching book trailer about dying. I've rarely seen someone on camera who appears truly at peace in life. Lee Lipsenthal does. He passed away a couple months ago. His book, Enjoy Every Sandwich, came out last month.

The Effects of Going Off the Grid and Exploring Nature

Is going off the grid and retreating into nature sure to be relaxing and rejuvenating? Not for Rob Horning, who spent some time in Idaho for a nature trip awhile back. He reports:

Contra Thoreau, retreating into nature, instead of bringing me back to myself, made me feel like less of a self and a bit more like one of the many undifferentiated bison one encounters out there. I don’t feel replenished for the assault on the backlog of posts I intend to read and write. Instead, as I was out hiking, I would think of this dormant blog and wonder how I’ll ever manage to catch upa nagging thought that filled me with vague, unshakable uneasiness.

Being adrift in the natural world had come to feel very unnatural; the serenity seemed like a taunt. This seems to me the inverse of the interconnected feeling I take for granted in the time I spend online, and I understood for the first time why people would do something as inane as Twitter their hikes from their iPhones or something. I tried to feed this anxiety by taking lots of pictures with the idea of sharing them later, but this only aggravated the feeling. I couldn’t possibly take enough pictures. Eventually I had to try the opposite tack and take no pictures at all.

There are two points here. The first is that if you take a vacation but spend the vacation time worrying about all the work that's piling up, it may cause more stress than you had in the first place. A valid point, which is why off-the-grid vacations need to be long enough so that you pass by that anxiety, so that you get you a point where so much work has piled up that you essentially say, "Screw it, time to relax." 6-7 days a couple times a year seems a good number for formal vacation; a couple days of stress, a few days of relaxation.

His second point is that being disconnected from technology–and out in nature–makes you feel adrift, perhaps lonely. I think this is a benefit from unplugging for stretches of time. Something that feels unnatural in the modern age is not necessarily a bad thing.

I wish I spent more time in nature and off-the-grid. That, and meditating, are two things I aspire to do more of in the year ahead in order to lower stress, improve health, and improve clarity of thought.

I Loved You, I Loved You, I Loved You

Derek Miller, a writer and technology thinker, passed away a couple days ago. He wrote a touching final post that was scheduled to publish upon his death:

Airdrie, you were my best friend and my closest connection. I don't know what we'd have been like without each other, but I think the world would be a poorer place. I loved you deeply, I loved you, I loved you, I loved you.

If you scroll through the most recent few entries (of his 10 year old blog), he writes about his decline with great eloquence, honesty, and clearheadedness.

It's a privilege (is that the word?) of the modern age to be able to read these types of blog posts — dying people documenting their decline in a public forum. There's something comforting in it, for me.

It's chilling when someone dies unexpectedly and their last blog post or tweet is especially banal or random.

Derek, long fighting cancer, prepared a thought-out goodbye post. Yet, a couple weeks ago he was tweeting about the the future of the iTunes store. He knew he was days or weeks away from dying…but in the meantime, why not link to a good commentary on whether iTunes will move to the cloud?

Perhaps it's not so chilling, after all, these sorts of seemingly trivial postings. Live each day of your life doing the things you like to do, tweeting about the things you always tweet about. Until there are no more days left to live.

RIP, Derek.