Q4. Done.

The fourth quarter of 2013 was a doozy. Starting in late September, life got hectic on all fronts. So hectic that I feel like I haven’t had time to reflect on all that’s been happening, or process/clarify all the ideas swirling about in my head.

Reflection and idea development happens when I write. And while I’ve been doing a lot of writing of late, I haven’t done enough on personal topics.

So one goal for 2014: Write more on this blog. Write more personally.

I’m celebrating New Year’s in Hong Kong and Thailand. Wherever you are, Happy 2014!

Left-Handedness With a Touch of Righty

A few years ago, I wrote a post titled Damn It Feels Good to Be a Lefty, in which I described life as an oppressed left-handed person in a right-handed world.

In a recent New Yorker blog post titled Are Left-Handed People Smarter? Maria Konivka does a nice job summarizing the history of research on the various contradictory studies about whether lefties enjoy cognitive advantages. It does seem so:

But a growing body of research suggests another, broader benefit: a boost in a specific kind of creativity—namely, divergent thinking, or the ability to generate new ideas from a single principle quickly and effectively. In one demonstration, researchers found that the more marked the left-handed preference in a group of males, the better they were at tests of divergent thought. (The demonstration was led by the very Coren who had originally argued for the left-handers’ increased susceptibility to mental illness.) Left-handers were more adept, for instance, at combining two common objects in novel ways to form a third—for example, using a pole and a tin can to make a birdhouse. They also excelled at grouping lists of words into as many alternate categories as possible. Another recent study has demonstrated an increased cognitive flexibility among the ambidextrous and the left-handed—and lefties have been found to be over-represented among architectsmusicians, and art and music students (as compared to those studying science).

Part of the explanation for this creative edge may lie in the greater connectivity of the left-handed brain. In a meta-analysis of forty-three studies, the neurologist Naomi Driesen and the cognitive neuroscientist Naftali Raz concluded that the corpus callosum—the bundle of fibers that connects the brain’s hemispheres—was slightly but significantly larger in left-handers than in right-handers. The explanation could also be a much more prosaic one: in 1989, a group of Connecticut College psychologists suggested that the creativity boost was a result of the environment, since left-handers had to constantly improvise to deal with a world designed for right-handers. In a 2013 review of research into handedness and cognition, a group of psychologists found that the main predictor of cognitive performance wasn’t whether an individual was left-handed or right-handed, but rather how strongly they preferred one hand over another. Strongly handed individuals, both right and left, were at a slight disadvantage compared to those who occupied the middle ground—both the ambidextrous and the left-handed who, through years of practice, had been forced to develop their non-dominant right hand. In those less clear-cut cases, the brain’s hemispheres interacted more and overall performance improved, indicating there may something to left-handed brains being pushed in a way that a right-handed one never is.

The bolded text most intrigued me. While I identify as left-handed because I write lefty, eat lefty, and brush my teeth lefty (among other things), I also do a number of things righty. In all sports, my right arm is the strong arm. Randomly, I use scissors with my right hand.

Growing up, I was told I was a “sit down lefty” — as if that were a type of lefty, someone who is left handed when sitting, but right handed when standing. In fact, I think what happened is that I was born left handed, and through instruction and social pressure, I took on some activities with my right hand. My grandmother, upon seeing me incline to my left hand as a baby, supposedly told my parents that they should train me to use my right hand, and my parents agreed. In The New Yorker post, I learned that historically lefties were stereotyped as especially wicked and prone to committing criminal acts, so perhaps my grandmother’s stance was influenced from a previous era. More practically, since we already had right handed baseball gloves lying around for the rest of the family, my parents rationally figured it’d be easier for everyone if I were right handed at sports. I was taught to throw right and shoot a ball right, and the rest is history.

So I am not ambidextruousness in the sense I am equally strong with both hands. In fact, my natural leftyness combined with socially-taught rightyness has resulted in me lacking a decisively strong hand altogether. Maybe this explains my poor motor skills. For example, I’m not good at tying knots or getting keys off of keychains or similar types of activities.

But per the New Yorker post, perhaps being forced to develop my non-dominant hand has led to some unique cognitive strengths. What’s more, being lefty in school-related activities (like writing) caused me to have some social experiences that perhaps made me stronger. I have a distinct memory in grammar school asking the teacher if there was a left handed desk to use (there were only desks attached to chairs for righties) and having to walk down the hallway, grab the spare lefty desk, and bring it back into the classroom, as everyone watched. The chair was old and the table rusty. I felt like an outsider. I could have used more experiences like that growing up — feeling like an outsider.

Meanwhile, as an adult, being left-handed has had only social benefit. The enthusiasm with which lefties talk to one another about their left-handedness is fascinating. I’ve signed copies of my books at dozens of tables to probably more than a thousand people now, and without exception, at every signing, someone notices me holding the pen with my left hand and excitedly says they’re left handed, too. I look up, make eye contact with the person, and we have a moment. “Strength in numbers,” I say every time, “We gotta stick together.”

(Thanks to Amy Batchelor for the link.)

Aaron Swartz: He Inspired Me to Think in Public

Web pioneer and writer Aaron Swartz committed suicide yesterday. He was 26. Cory Doctorow’s obit is excellent, and the last sentence in Larry Lessig’s post is incredibly sad.

Many know Aaron for his breadth of political, legal, and technology interests and accomplishments.

Myself, I think of Aaron in a narrower, more personal sense, even though we weren’t close friends. I think of him as someone who wrote fearlessly and thoughtfully about trying to understand the world around him in his late teenage years. When he began his short lived stint as an undergrad at Stanford, he blogged jaw-droppingly honest minute by minute accounts of his experiences. Sitting in classes, going to parties, talking to people in dorm rooms. It was an extreme example of transparency, of living out loud. Here’s one example; here’s another. (It appears his old archive has been re-organized so it’s hard to find the gems but I’ll dig them out.) He also wrote confidently about books and politics and ideas and movies and whatever else was on his mind.

At the time, I was also a teenager and also getting into the writing thing. He was an age-similar role model. He taught me that one could be young and yet still have a voice in the blogosphere. I saw him grapple with the comments and criticisms on his blog and I learned the value of thinking in public.

All told, I read Aaron’s blog for almost a decade. I last met up with him in 2004 to chat about the pros and cons of dropping out of school, but we’d been in touch sporadically by email and blog comments since then.

In fact, Aaron invited me to connect on LinkedIn just last week. Today, he’s gone.

Aaron was a David Foster Wallace fan. In the weeks after Wallace tragically took his own life, Aaron said he re-read every single word DFW had ever written.

Everything is on fire. Slow fire.

Colin Marshall and Ben In Conversation

Colin Marshall, esteemed radio host and man of arts & letters, sat down with me for an hour do an interview for his new podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. It was fun to catch up with him and cover a range of topics. Colin’s description of the show is below.

Colin Marshall sits down in San Francisco’s South Beach with entrepreneur, author, blogger, traveler, and learner Ben Casnocha. His latest book, co-written with Reid Hoffman, chairman of LinkedIn, is The Start-Up of You. They discuss the advantages of hanging an IKEA world map on the wall; his ten days of silent meditation and the feeling of enlarged thumbs that resulted; the San Francisco Bay Area’s convergence of Californian spirituality and Californian technological intensity; the three Californias: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and everything else; “NorCal” pride and State of Jefferson stickers; being the average of the five people you spend the most time with, and how that got him involved in technology startups to begin with; how where you physically live now matters both more and less than it used to (and who still lives virtually on Livejournal); how loyalty now extends horizontally to your network rather than vertically to your company, and how your identity now comes before your role as an organizational component; his lifelong habit of reaching out to interesting people, and how it differs from the standard sleaziness of “networking”; his visits to Detroit and Athens, and how those cities may have strained his appreciative thinking muscles; his interest in underrated and underdiscussed places as well as people, such as those in South America; his adoption of “home bases” around the world, be they in San Francisco, Santiago, Zurich, or Tokyo; the pronunciation of Tegucigalpa; the loneliness he sees deep in the eyes of people who declare themselves “nomadic”; the necessity of acting consistently on curiosity, and of cultivating both a highly technical and a highly nontechnical mind; whether moving to a city means moving to randomness; and his sensory-deprivation experience floating in a saltwater pod.

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.

Hiatus

Fishin

Blogging will be very light for the next couple months (until June or July, 2011). I will, though, be bookmarking web pages in delicious and occassionally tweeting.

I encourage you to subscribe to this blog by RSS or email, or bookmark the site in your browswer.

Posting will resume with gusto in the (northern hemisphere) summer!

I’m Hiring — Internship Opportunity

I'm hiring a paid intern to help on a few high-impact entrepreneurial and journalistic projects.

Projects will include research on topics similar to those I blog about, some IT / blog infrastructure stuff, help launching a new bricks and motar business, and some online marketing work. This is not an executive assistant job; however, there will be some duller personal tasks that accompany the more stimulating ones.

The ideal candidate probably is under 30 years old; possesses top-notch written communication skills; self-directed and proactive; broadly interested in business and technology; still has a lot to prove. You do not need to be an engineer or programmer but you should be above-average proficient with web technology.

Compensation will include a small cash stipend, a couple round-trip flights to San Francisco from anywhere in America for us to have dinner, and whatever value you place on learning and personal growth. In the past, people I've worked with in this capacity have been exposed to some really interesting people and ideas, and I think the experience accelerated their career. (That's also been the case for me when I've interned for other folks.)

This internship may expand or be terminated at any time, depending on how it's going. At the moment, you should be available for at least five months (starting now) to work at least 5-10 hours a week. Preference given to those who live in California, but you can live and work anywhere in the world, on your own hours. Email [email protected] if you are interested. Thanks!

Optimal Number of Embarrassing Shock Experiences

I remember standing in the parking lot outside the offices of potential client several years ago before a big presentation. I was shaking with nervousness. Palms sweaty, knees weak, arms heavy. I was nervous about how I'd win over a group of skeptical managers. I was nervous about not being taken seriously due to my age (14). Nervous about being mentally outmatched.

I remember arriving at a business networking function in San Francisco. I surveyed the room of strangers standing around small tall circular tables holding drinks and chatting. My muscles tightened as I contemplated having to penetrate seemingly closed circles, insert myself into conversation, and then make small talk with all the formally dressed men and women with many more years of experience.

So I made a bee line to the bathroom, went into a stall, locked the door, put the cover seat down, and sat on the toilet for 30 minutes. Eventually I left my self-imposed bathroom stall imprisonment and chatted with the other attendees at the event, but it was not easy-going. The whole while I asked myself questions like, "Am I saying the right things? Do they think I'm dumb?" This happened at most business social functions I attended.

I remember countless phone call screw-ups. One time I called a guy as part of a sales pitch. He was a big deal and I wanted to nail the call. I reached his voicemail, and started leaving a message, and when I was done with my bit I realized I didn't know how to close. I stumbled through a few "OK well look forward to hearing back from you" lines before saying: "thanks so much again Richard, talk to you soon, take care, thanks, thanks thanks." Then I hung up. I literally said "thanks, thanks thanks" three times in a row before hanging up the phone. Man, did I feel like an idiot and not at all on the level of the guy I was courting.

These were shock experiences. Two reflections:

First, as I experienced these embarrassing moments I did not attribute my missteps to social inexperience or immaturity but I instead concluded that I was less intelligent than the other people at these events. This may explain my drive to keep learning and improving so as to avoid this kind of embarrassment in the future.

Second, there is such a thing as an optimal number of embarrassing / failure experiences. Too many too young and it can destroy foundational self-confidence. Too few, and arrogance reigns.

There is such a thing as an optimal level of insecurity in a person.

Predicative Index Behavioral Assessment

There are many different personality and behavior assessment tools. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and DISC assessment are two of the most popular. Managers use them to understand their employees better. Individuals use them to understand themselves better. The idea is you learn about personality traits and tendencies so that you can be smarter about matching those tendencies with situations which play to your strengths. In other words, these assessments tend to treat revealed tendencies as innate and therefore permanent.

One reason I've held off taking such a test is that I am intuitively skeptical of how effective any survey or test can be at accurately capturing the nuances of a person. Also, I've seen these tests be overinterrepted by managers. For example, manager adminsters a test to subordinate, the test suggests subordinate avoids exerting authority and is introverted, manager concludes he's not fit to be a leader, and the subordiate defers to the test and shelves any leadership aspiration. These broader concerns aside, I do think that if one treats personality test results with appropriate distance, they can be a useful check on intuitions and a good starting point for a conversation.

Yesterday I took the Predicative Index test. Frederic Lucas-Conwell studied all the various tests for his PhD and now administers and consults around the Predictive Index, which he believes is the best. He was kind enough to do my test for free. It is remarkably short — it only takes about 10 minutes to complete, as you check off adjectives that describe how you believe others expect you to act and then adjectives that you think really describe who you are. After entering my results into a computer, Frederic displayed the following three charts. They're meaningless unless you know how to interpret this particular test.

Piscreenshot  

Below the fold is the automated written report that accompanies my results (ie, "Ben" is plugged in a blank space for a pre-written report for my type). I think it underplays my introverted streak and underplays my interest in details and precision. Otherwise it emphasizes pretty typical entrepreneur traits. Note it focuses solely on professional and management issues, no "personal" situations or attitudes.

Continue reading

A Morning of Self-Consciousness…

Here’s a quick diary-esque blog post. Experimenting with the style.

When I wake up at 10:15 AM, as I did today, the first thing that pops into my head is whether or not I am a “morning person” and whether, by waking up late, I had missed out on hours that might have been enhanced by a more naturally alert cognitive state.

The fact that this is my initial thought leads me to wonder what it means that productivity-maximizing drives the day’s first neuron-firing on a blue beautiful day. Why can’t I just wake up, breathe, eat breakfast, and be passive? Which then leads me to wonder why I must take every thought to the meta level (ie, question the validity of the thought after thinking the thought) and whether one day it will be possible possible to somehow squash the little voice in my head that does play-by-play commentary on each thought as it develops. Like right now the voice is asking whether the prior couple sentences and this entire mini-exercise in raw stream-of-consciousness blogging are just amateurishly self-indulgent. Whether people might laugh at the perhaps implied assertion that the little voice who does play-by-play is unique or noteworthy. Might find it sweetly naive that I seem to see this internal peanut gallery commentator as on or off whereas wiser ones know the trick is controlling the volume and timing of self-consciousness? Fine, so how do you control the volume and timing? How do you really control what and when thoughts enter and leave your mind? (If only the mind could be partitioned into compartments like the Titanic was…) One more level up: on the premise that informs the last few sentences: the importance of what “others” think about you / me / our ideas. Don’t we all struggle to achieve the optimal point on the I’m-independent-screw-what-others-think versus I-am-a-slave-to-your-opinion spectrum? I laugh at those who claim to be wholly intrinsically motivated and who claim to lie unmoved in the face of external judgments / perceptions.

So it’s 10:15 AM and I have not yet figured out whether I’m a morning person. A gap in self-knowledge. A calamity of epic proportions! The diminishing returns of hyper self-awareness. Neuroticism? OCD-ish? The pleasures and perils of playing host to an in-the-head performance whose actors will perform, audience or not. (I.e., Boredom = impossible, regardless of external environment.)

I take a shower because I need to and because that’s where “living in the moment” seems to come pretty easily. Why else do so many good ideas pop to mind when standing under hot water?

And in the shower I am naked and alone.