You Need to Have Secrets, and Have Them Known

“There’s the imperative to keep secrets, and the imperative to have them known. How do you know that you’re a person, distinct from other people? By keeping certain things to yourself. You guard them inside you, because, if you don’t, there’s no distinction between inside and outside. Secrets are the way you know you even have an inside. A radical exhibitionist is a person who has forfeited his identity. But identity in a vacuum is also meaningless. Sooner or later, the inside of you needs a witness.”

Jonathan Franzen in Purity

New Essay on Pros and Cons of Wealth

I just published a new essay on my personal web site titled The Godilocks Theory of Being Rich. It’s about the pros and cons of being “super rich” as I’ve observed it second hand, along with some other comments on the connection between wealth and happiness. Any and all feedback, as ever, is welcome!

Lessons and Impressions from Colombia (2016)

Panoramica_Centro_De_Medellin

I first visited Colombia in 2009 with about 15 other young leaders from North and South America. We met with then-President Uribe, then-minister Manuel Santos (the current president), former president Gaviria, and various other economists, business leaders, and journalists from around the country. The hot topic at the time, as it had been for years, was security. FARC, the guerrilla group that at one point controlled huge swaths of land in Colombia, was in decline, though still causing problems. Then-President Uribe got much of the credit for the improving security situation. Riding this popular support, he was petitioning the country to amend the constitution in order to enable him to serve a third term and continue implementing hard-nosed security policies. It was an interesting time to be there. After we left, the people ultimately rejected Uribe’s plan (much to the relief of those who cared about Colombia’s democratic institutions) and instead elected Santos, his defense minister, to succeed him.

In the years since, Colombia has continued to thrive. I visited again a couple weeks ago. To my delight, discussion about amending the constitution to enable strong-hand security didn’t come up once. Sure, security and drugs are still part of the country’s story but less and less so. Instead, there are other, more uplifting themes to talk about: an emergent middle class of 15+ million people (out of a population of 48 million); an economy that benefits from market-oriented policies (unlike some of its neighbors); a substantial regional entrepreneurship ecosystem; tight relations with the hemisphere’s superpower, the United States. On this last point, a local paper I saw in Bogota had the huge headline “Colombia’s New Best Friend” above a picture of a smiling Obama and Santos. (By the way, I believe the U.S. Embassy in Bogota is one of the largest in the world after Baghdad, Islamabad, and Beijing.)

On my most recent trip, the itinerary was heavier on entrepreneurs. Based on both anecdotal meetings/conversations and more comprehensive statistics and trend lines, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Colombia has established itself as a top entrepreneurship ecosystem in the region. There are meaningful businesses being built there and, like Dubai in the Middle East, talented entrepreneurs are using Colombia as a base to serve a broader regional population. That’s a critical dynamic: because the individual country markets aren’t large enough to sustain large enterprises on their own, the country/city that becomes a hub for regionally-ambitious entrepreneurs becomes very powerful indeed.

As is typical with emerging ecosystems, lack of capital is an issue. As one local investor put it to me, Colombians understand Colombia but are not in general as familiar with early stage, high risk entrepreneurship. Tech people — Silicon Valley people, say — understand high risk entrepreneurship investing, but do not understand — and do not care to understand — Colombia. Too few people fall in the middle of that venn diagram. More on these themes, later.

For now, here are some other quick impressions from my handful of days in Bogota and Medellin:

  • Gone are the days of being fleeced by a crooked taxi driver who sees Gringo Dollar Sign when you get in the car. Uber is a game changer: cheap, plentiful, safe, convenient. And talking to my Uber drivers revealed some of the more interesting conversations with locals I had during my stay. One driver was the local sales partner for Box. Another was an entrepreneur attempting to start the Kayak of Colombia. Another was a pop singer. They all knew Uber was based in San Francisco (“Where ya from?” “San Francisco” “Oh, where Uber is!”). They loved Uber as a force for good in helping them make ends meet.
  • Colombia offers dollar holders predictable lifestyle arbitrage. I took UberX for 10 mins and it cost me $1.50 USD. A reasonably upscale hotel (24 hour room service, modern fitness center equipment) will run you $85 USD a night.
  • There are five countries that drive the economic conversation in Spanish-speaking Latin America, it seems: Chile, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, and Colombia. (Brazil is its own category.)
  • Speaking a foreign language that you’re not fluent in can be thrilling and depressing — sometimes within the same conversation. When I would complete a full conversation or transaction in Spanish, I beamed inside with pride. When the conversation or context switched out of a predictable hospitality zone or polite chit chat, and the other speaker realized my language limitations, it was depressing. The intensity of the depression depended on whether the other person’s English was better than my Spanish; so long as my mediocre Spanish was better than their English, I had some consolation. All in all, after Cuba for New Year’s and then Colombia the other week, my tourist Spanish is pretty proficient (I navigated some travel hiccups perfectly in Medellin airport, where no gate agents or airline reps spoke English!), and I suspect a couple months of focused study would get me to business proficient.
  • Over the past decade, Colombia has benefited from Argentina’s political instability (and economic stupidity) in terms of talent, trade deals, and the like. I met and heard about several Argentines who had made their way to Colombia to build their careers. That said, with the new government in Buenos Aires, there seems to be something of a revival of hope about Argentina. We’ll see if some of their exported talent returns home.
  • Why are Medellin women supposedly the most beautiful in the world? I asked a local that question and he gave me two reasons. First, breast implants. Like in Korea, teenage girls in Medellin are encouraged quite openly by friends and family to think about “enhancing” themselves. Second, Medellin was historically the base for some of the more powerful drug cartels. The drug kingpins imported the most beautiful women in the country (and region?) to Medellin to keep them company.
  • The Mayor of Medellin is a charismatic fellow, and in a speech to an entrepreneurship delegation of the Global Entrepreneurship Congress, he reminded us of a pretty startling fact: in 1991 Medellin was the most dangerous city in the world. One year, Pablo Escobar killed 4 out of the 7 presidential candidates. Today, Medellin is an innovation hub. Anyone who thinks the fate of a city or country is pre-determined should visit Medellin. The end is not fixed.
  • Travel is a constant learning opportunity. I love taking note of little cultural nuances. It’s a reminder of how arbitrary any one country’s norms are. Little of what we do in our native country is The Right Way to do something; it’s just the way somebody way back did it and generations since have copied it. In Colombia, as one small example, people send tons of audio messages via WhatsApp. Look around in a crowd of people and you’ll see somebody holding the phone to their mouth (but not to their ear) recording audio messages. I can’t remember the last time an American sent me an audio message; in Colombia, after 24 hours on the ground, I had already received three.

A Little-Things Agenda

Josh Barro’s review of a new book about America’s physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, airports, etc.) touches on the idea that “small thinking can be a virtue, because the history of infrastructure is a series of experimental and incremental improvements.” The book under review “brings an eye for the little things: what kinds of guardrails are best, how roads can be made safer through better signage, which paving materials last longest.”

A little-things agenda is not sexy, as is highlighted in the discussion of one of the most disastrous public works projects in recent history: The Bay Bridge in San Francisco-Oakland:

Petroski devotes one chapter of his book to the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which opened in 2013, nine years late and $5 billion over budget. “With uniqueness also come uncertainties — of complications during design and construction and of cost,” he writes. Replacing an old bridge with seismic problems could have been done fairly easily and cheaply by building a simple viaduct. But politicians wanted a “signature span,” and for a variety of aesthetic reasons they chose to build a single-tower, self-anchored suspension bridge — a relatively rare design. The proposed bridge would be the longest of its kind in the world.

But self-anchored suspension bridges lack the massive anchorages at each end that are typical for suspension bridges. Instead, the cables would be anchored to the deck itself. Because of the desire to add a cantilevered bike lane, the bridge would also have to be wider on one side than the other.

This combination of specifications led to a variety of unforeseen complications. The addition of the asymmetrical bike lane required a counterweight, which would increase the load on the bridge cables, which would pull on the deck, which therefore had to be built stiffer to resist the stronger pull. But the stiffening would make the deck heavier, further increasing the load on the cables, requiring further stiffening, and so forth.

These shifting specifications added greatly to time and cost, obliterating the justification that had led politicians to choose to build a new bridge in the first place: that it would cost about the same amount as retrofitting the old span to be safer in earthquakes. And in the end, the single tower wasn’t built quite upright, and the technique used to straighten it after construction weakened the steel rods inside it, calling into question how seismically sound it was anyway.

Politicians aren’t drawn to megaprojects just because they believe the initial rosy cost projections and therefore underestimate the risk of complications. They also see an opportunity to build their legacy: It’s more fun to say “I built that bridge” than “I retrofitted that bridge.”

In this case, the hubris of politicians and civic leaders got in the way of a less-sexy and less-complicated plan.

There’s a lesson for business leaders in here, too, I think. So many new initiatives at companies are big, bold, sweeping, inspirational. You rarely hear a CEO announce to his or her employees a “yearly theme” or new cultural initiative that focuses on the corporate analogs to “making sure the signage is still up on the roads” or “putting down lane markers that won’t come off when snow plows drive over them.” In other words, initiatives that are small and incremental but perhaps surprisingly impactful — e.g. shaving 15 minutes off every scheduled meeting, or double-checking every email to a customer to make sure the tone is just right.

“Close Friends” Who You Don’t Talk To Often

friendship-a-z-comp

How much emotional sustenance do you get from friends you don’t talk to very often?

Suppose the following. You go to college with someone and become very close to the person. After graduation, you each head on your own path — different careers, different cities. You stay in touch, seeing each other 2-3 times a year in the years after graduation at weddings and reunions. As time goes on, wedding and bachelor party phase over, 2-3 times year becomes more like once every year or two. By your 40’s, you each have families, obligations, new work friends, and general life busyness.  You’re seeing each other when you can but it’s rarely more than once a year and sometimes a few years slip in between meaningful calls or visits.

When you do see each other, it’s fantastic. You pick up where you last left off. You build upon all the memories you’ve formed over many years and even decades. And you both know that, if there were ever an emergency, you could call the other person and they’d be there for you.

My question is this: With this hypothetical friend, how much emotional energy is this person adding to your life in the present moment?

Some people I know respond: Plenty. They may not see such-and-such a friend very often, or talk to him often, they say, but “he’s a very close friend.”

They note that they have a deep reservoir of memories and emotional energy that’s built up over time. Yes, I respond, but does that emotional reservoir produce emotional energy here and now? What activates it? Just thinking about your friend? I have friends I’ve known for 10+ years and when I think about the good ole days, there are warm feelings. But it’s nothing compared to the warm feelings of spending meaningful time with a friend in the here and now.

They note that when they do see their age-old friend, it’s like just like old times: the trust that’s been built up enables immediate intimacy. Yes, I say, but if you’re rarely seeing or talking to the person, that intimacy rarely is actually activated.

They note that in an emergency, the friend would be there for them. Yes, that’s amazing. But the worst-case scenario — while useful — is not often our day to day experience. Knowing there’s someone who will come help you if you’re suicidal doesn’t help combat loneliness during most of your days.

And I suppose this is my main point: Life is the day-to-day experience, moment to moment. For example, when I ask people about their profession, I try to ask them what they do “on a day to day basis.” Job descriptions can sound fancy and people have their personal brand talking points. But it’s how they spend their time that reveals what the job really is. Your calendar doesn’t lie.

I believe that if you’re not talking to someone on a somewhat regular basis — seeing them in person, talking on the phone, or emailing/digitally communicating in some other way that involves substantive give-and-take — that person is not a close friend who’s providing emotional sustenance. Sure, they’re on your friend list, maybe even they’re still classified as a “close friend” given the historical relationship, you care about the person, and you’ll be there for that person in a time of need.

But you can’t trick yourself into thinking that the person you haven’t talked to in a year is giving you what we tend to want out of close friends in our day to day life: support, companionship, truth-telling, laughter, collaboration, a sympathetic ear. Tricking yourself in this way can assuage feelings of guilt that you aren’t spending enough time with the people you say you care about. But it doesn’t address the underlying issue of forming friendships that are very much alive during the trials and tribulations of day to day life.

A final point. Your list of “close friends providing emotional sustenance” can change over time. Mine has. People can drop off it at times and come back on. People go through phases. Relationships evolve. People move away and come back. I don’t see the list as permanent. And there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that someone used to be a great friend, the relationship hasn’t been as active in recent years, and there’s intent to try to re-kindle it — or not. But seeing reality clearly — in the present moment — is an important prerequisite for something as emotionally and spiritually important as friendship.

Agree? Disagree?

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I’ve written a lot about friendship over the years. Here’s a link to some of those posts from the archives.

Update: Good comments from Andy McKenzie and Chris Yeh on this post. For folks who are especially down and out, the belief — even if it’s not entirely true — that they are part of some broader social network, or that they have friends who they think they could hang out with if they decided to, can be a valuable emotional balm. The especially lonely might require a different analysis, in other words.

Developing a Reputation as a Career Launch Pad

Common Ground Tuesday NEXT 2016

During a recent keynote speech, I made a point that is central in The Alliance and central to our consulting work at Allied Talent: If you develop a reputation — as a manager, as a team, as an organization — for being a career launch pad instead of a career parking lot, the best people in the industry will do anything to work with you.

The Wisdom of Jonathan Haidt

Jon Haidt has been an inspiration for a long time, and someone I’ve gotten to know a bit over the years. In a recent AMA on Product Hunt, he drops various wisdom, including answers to questions I pose, such as the following:

Ben: In the Happiness Hypothesis, you talk about how happiness comes from within and from without, and you are skeptical of elements of Buddhism that promote non-attachment. You write that the Western ideals of action and passionate striving play an important role in finding happiness in the modern world. Yet, so often our action and striving is never enough. We strive for something, we achieve it, and then we immediately want something more. It’s insatiable. How do we avoid the hedonic treadmill? How do we strive, but also feel content with what we achieve in our striving?

Jon: yes, we strive and it is never enough. But can you imagine a life without striving? it is not a human life. Maybe for an old person who looks back with satisfaction. But i would be very unhappy if my children took up the life of monks before the age of 60. “Joys soul lies in the doing” said shakespeare. The key is to get the right conditions of engagement with life. Then the striving is joyous. How many of you reading this feel that you are working toward something…. and it is pleasurable to work at it?

Ben: What my Buddhist friends tell me is that you can strive while also being non-attached (or “clingy”) to specific outcomes. This is hard to do, practically. I’d love to have a life where I am playing hard in the field — striving toward something — without checking the scoreboard every hour or even every year. When you’re enmeshed in social systems where everyone else is checking the scoreboard all the time and killing themselves if they’re not winning, it’s hard to behave differently…

Jon: well put; i think Buddhism is a constant reminder to loosen our group, don’t check the scoreboard so often, that makes us petty. and if our motives are extrinsic, that’s not good either. But when your work is a “calling”, and you really really want to achieve something, i think its appropriate to feel bad when there are setbacks, and to exult when you make progress.


His book The Happiness Hypothesis is an excellent summation of what ancient wisdom teaches about happiness, and his more recent book The Righteous Mind explains why religion and politics divide us so dramatically.

 

Situationally Competitive vs. Always Competitive

Line of Business
In Israel last year, our group of 50 — young leaders in tech — gathered on a beach and split into small groups. A few consultants led us on a team building exercise. They instructed us to build rafts using logs of wood and rope they had provided us. Once we constructed the rafts, we raced the other teams into the water, circled a buoy with the raft, and returned to shore as quickly as we could. The first team to return to shore was declared the winner. To the winner went…the pride of winning a team building exercise on the beach.

Some people took the competition very seriously. They strategized; played drill sergeant; pestered the facilitators to get clarification on the scoring methodology; and expressed joy or dismay at the results, depending.

I found myself not caring. At all. I marveled at how competitive others were getting about an exercise that had zero real consequences other than momentary pride. Yet, I think of myself as a generally competitive person. But the experience crystallized the fact that I am not always competitive all the time.

Some people always want to win. It can be in business, a board game, a sports match, or a team building exercise. Michael Jordan’s father famously said, in reference to Michael’s supposed gambling addiction, that Michael didn’t have a gambling problem. Rather, he had a “competition problem.” Put him in any scenario where there’s a clear winner or loser and Michael can’t stop trying to win.

In the group in Israel, there were many classically successful people, alpha males and females, leaders. For some of them, when the competition light goes on, their emotions soar. It’s not an uncommon trait in business leaders. Chris Sacca tells an anecdote of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick attaining the rank of second in the world in the global Wii tennis leaderboard. It’s not enough for Travis to be atop one of the world’s most valuable tech companies. He must win at everything — even video games.

Not me. I am situationally competitive. I’d like to think I get competitive when the stakes are high, my investment real, and the payoff meaningful to me. Although this is not as colorful a personality as someone who’s limitlessly ruthless — a Larry Ellison-esque archetype the business press loves to cover — I know many successful CEOs who cut a different, more restrained mold.

Of course, I don’t mean to come off too saintly (“I preserve my competitive energies for solving world hunger, thank you very much”). My reptilian, status-conscious brain gets triggered plenty. Indeed, I do care lightly about winning an informal game of pickup basketball, for example. It’s an activity as consequence-free as the raft exercise but I express more care perhaps because I am more skilled at it. I am not particularly good at helping build a raft: I can’t tie knots and generally don’t like to do manual labor. So maybe another lesson is I choose not to care about winning when I am not well positioned to win.

In general, though, one of the most important ways I’ve evolved over the past decade — as I wrote in a post seven years ago — is that I have shrunk the “stuff I care about” box. I don’t want to expend energy trying to win an inane argument. I don’t want to expend energy trying to win at some arbitrary competition I don’t care about. I just don’t care.

Except when I do.

Schedule Your Free Time

A quote from Mihayl Csikszentmihalyi of Flow fame:

Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.

As found in Deep Work by Cal Newport.

Cal suggests we more rigorously schedule our weekends instead of leaving Saturday wide open and figuring it out once we wake up. This doesn’t mean working all weekend, but scheduling your leisure like you schedule your work.

Travels in 2015

San Francisco is an amazing place to live in. But there’s so much in the world to see and so many interesting opportunities elsewhere that travel has become a big part of my personal and professional life.

2015 began for me in Maui. My first time in Hawaii, to ring in the new year with friends, proved to be as relaxing as Hawaii’s reputation promised.

Keynote speeches brought me to places like Cancun, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Nashville, Austin, and Seattle. For fun, I traveled to Turkey (amazing!), Egypt, Copenhagen, Tanzania (safari!), and the Balkans. No bad stops among them.

I was grateful to be included in the American Council on Germany’s Young Leaders fellowship and the Schusterman Reality Tech group in Israel. I got to know Germany and Israel well and became friends with young leaders from both countries. I hope to spend more time in each place.

I spent decent amount of time on the east coast of the U.S., for a wedding in Cape Cod (my first time there) and had extended visits in two of my favorite U.S. cities: Washington D.C. and New York. Closer to home, I was reminded of the never ending desert landscape of Nevada during my first Burning Man experience; the stunning beauty of the California coast at the Post Ranch Inn; and the perfect year-round weather of San Diego.

I’m on nodding terms with Dubai airport now, where I was twice in 2015, including an extended 8 day stint for work. Dubai airport now boasts more annual travelers than London Heathrow. And the city itself is unlike any other.

I ended 2015 — and rang in New Year’s 2016 just a few weeks ago — in Havana, Cuba. Have a great 2016, wherever your travels take you…