Monthly Archives: December 2004

Looking back at 2004 – my accomplishments, disappointments, strengths, weaknesses

I like writing on this blog and the resulting catharsis. I ask that you indulge me in this reflective post looking back at 2004 where I will think about my accomplishments, disappointments (both generally and in relation to my ’04 resolutions), and newfound strengths and weaknesses.

Accomplishments – I am most proud of making a smooth transition of giving up most of the day-to-day reigns of Comcate and engaging at my school by forming tighter friendships, assuming captain responsibilities for the basketball team, and being an active editor at the school paper. I feel like I am striking a healthy balance that allows me the best of both worlds. I am proud about my participation in the intense political conversations in the fall.

I followed through on my two of my 2004 new year’s resolutions by “getting more out of each book I read; quality, not quantity” and “trusting new Comcate hires to do the right thing, less micromanagement.”

Disappointments – My academic performance in school has been the most disappointing part of 2004. I know my high school is very hard and that my attention is in a million places, but still, I feel like I could do a lot better. I’m disappointed that many colleges won’t give me a second look because of this fact.

I failed on my other three resolutions: “stay in B land for my grades,” “build solid relationships with females at school” (I’ve since concluded that high school ruins even the toughest girls, so I’ll wait to achieve this in college), and “meditate at least four times a week.”

Newfound Strengths – some are newfound, some not. I would characterize my strengths as a person as:

a) Communication – I believe I can communicate with anyone in most any situation including those “critical conversations.” My writing and oratory skills are at a very high level I think.

b) Relationships/Charisma – I think I can sell any reasonable idea or product to an open-minded audience which in turn means developing rewarding relationships with people (even if it means faking it).

c) Big Picture AND Details – I’ve been working on being able to switch between the minutia and big picture vision talk and I think this is a skill I am mastering. I feel like I can deftly move a conversation back and forth between these two lenses.

d) Mentoring – Mostly through my basketball experiences but in other areas as well I believe that my ability to be a good role model and mentor someone is strong.

e) Physical Fitness – I am proud that I have been able to get myself in great shape so I feel good, get plenty of sleep, and am attuned to my nutrition.

Newfound Weaknesses:

a) Numbers – I am frustrated by my inability to understand in real-time situations that involve rapid number crunching, percentages, etc. If anyone has any corporate finance 101 book recommendations let me know. I have been able to rely on others for this so far but I want to do better.

b) Giving and Receiving Feedback – Striking a balance when giving negative feedback between a hard-ass tone and positive reinforcement is tough. As is receiving critiscm, no matter how well-intentioned. This remains a challenge for me.

c) Sense of Direction – As a licensed driver I now realize that if you drop me in an unfamiliar location, I probably won’t be able to find my way. MapQuest has probably contributed to this.

d) Getting Past First Impressions/Stereotypes – I believe it’s really important to not let your impression of someone in the first two seconds of meeting them the one that sticks. Clearly a gut reaction is a good thing, but I think people take this too far. I need to work on this.

Some Good New Year's Reading

I was on a roll with my reading over Christmas, but hit a bump in the road when the power went out where we were staying near Santa Cruz and then a lot of basketball and meetings. But – I have gotten through a bunch of books, some good, some not-so-good.

First, I read Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience which opened my eyes to new ways to think about happiness and fulfillment. If you want to better explore that feeling of “being in the flow” and when time flies, I reccomend this book.

Next up was the best book I’ve read in a long time – Clinton & Me was a hilarious romp through the life of Clinton’s humor speechwriter. I laughed out loud many times at both the jokes and the process through which Clinton and Al Gore wrote their humor speeches. Highly reccomended for people who like laughing and politics.

After reading a positive review of Hackers & Painters I grabbed a copy. I read and loved Paul Graham’s essay on essays (and blogged about it here). His compilation of essays is pretty good, some more interesting than others. If you like his online stuff, you’ll probably like this book.

Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct only slightly scratched my itch of curiosity on the wonders of language and how our mind processes language. I decided to pass on the 400 pages in btwn the intro and conclusion because the writing was boring.

Keith Yamashita’s Unstuck is a quick read that had some useful tips for trying to get “unstuck” from a tricky business situation. I’ve always been intrigued about the attention this guy has gotten vis-a-vis his work with HP. Unstuck doesn’t tell that story as much as present a workbook that you can use in a very practical manner.

My most recent read has been one of the best – How Would You Move Mount Fuju? Microsoft’s Cult of the Puzzle. I’ve heard about Microsoft’s interviews and brain teasers and this book sheds light on this increasingly popular practice. In addition to outlining some fun (but hard!) puzzles and answers, it had some great tips in interviewing candidates, being the interviewee, and also some random bits on problem solving in general.

Now, time to get to the periodical reading stacked on my bedside table. David Brooks recently published his top non-NYTimes articles from 2004 a few of which I have printed out and will read. Among the more interesting articles include Faculty Clubs and the Pews, The Global Baby Bust, World War IV, High Prices: How to Think About Prescription Drugs, and An Argument for New Liberalism. They’re sure to be thought-provoking.

Friends of Ben: Greg Prow

Network: Ben Casnocha > Mike Patterson > Greg Prow

Google: “Greg Prow”

Greg Prow was up until recently a managing director and COO at Mobius Venture Capital and was one of the first people in the business world I met 3 or 4 years ago. He is now moving on to new endeavors, but I thought of him recently after an email I got from someone very successful who told me to abandon my involvement in business and focus exclusively on school.

Back in the day, I wrote up a 10 page business plan on an idea I had for a company based on my first dot-com that resolved citizen complaints about local governments. When my close mentor Mike Patterson – who at the time was just a neighbor down the street, I’m sure he didn’t expect to be this deep into it! – took a look he offered to introduce me to a friend of his (Greg) for add’l feedback. I had no idea what to expect – after all, I had never met any adult in any sort of business setting. I think I was 12.

When I arrived at the offices of what-was-then-called Softbank, I recall my palms being sweaty and very nervous. The bubble was just bursting and from what I had read about VC firms everyone was in the dumps. To my surprise, I walked in and was instantly printed a name tag and led to the back where there were tons of drinks and food. It seemed the bubble hadn’t burst yet for this firm.

I met Greg and I was surprised again – he actually read the business plan in detail. He had detailed feedback, he went to the whiteboard and drew up numbers. He said, “Ben, I want you to go out and find three beta testers for this product. Second, I want you to find quality tech support folks who can stabilize the product and answer the phone 9-5. I’ll help you find these people. Third, this is most important: as you embark on this journey, most people are going to tell you to give up, to just be normal, to quit being a dreamer. I want you to never listen to any of them and keep pounding away at your vision. Good things come from the desire to make them happen.”

Those were his parting words, applicable to any entrepreneur, and they echo in my mind every time someone tells me to quit. Thanks Greg, for inspiring me to start on this incredible journey.

A Lot of Laughing This Christmas

I laugh a lot. In school, that’s my favorite thing to do. When my two brothers are home from college, you can’t go more than a few minutes without one of the famous Casnocha Lines coming out. One of us will take a really good line from a movie or TV show or just come up with our own witty line and then say it over and over until it spreads throughout the campuses of University High School, Middlebury College, and Amherst College. Besides myself of course, I consider them the funniest people I know.

When I first signed up for Orkut, I remember it asked what sense of humor I had for my profile. I chose: dry/sarcastic, clever/quick witted, goofy/slapstick.

For Christmas, among the five people in my family, we gave each other: the Seinfeld DVD Gift Set which includes the complete first three seasons on DVD plus a deck of cards and salt shaker w/ the Senifeld logo plus the Best of Steve Martin on SNL and the Best of Will Ferrell on SNL DVD sets. In addition to these funnies, among various other books, I got a book off my wishlist: Clinton & Me which is the story of the joke writer for Clinton at the National Press Dinner.

So – amidst any holiday stress this year, don’t forget to laugh.

Socrates Cafe and Socratic Citizenship

My first two reads this break were Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy and Socratic Citizenship. I have been really intrigued by the whole notion around an “examined life” and asking difficult questions despite, as Cornel West says, our “anti-intellectual, market-driven civilization preoccupied with comfort, convenience and contentment.”

I recommend Socrates Cafe as an entry level book for one who doesn’t know a lot about philosophy and philosophers. The author tells his story as he traveled around the country setting up Socrates Cafes in community centers, coffee shops, libraries, etc. where members of the community came and asked deep questions. It’s a quick and fun read, though the repetition of his stories at all the various stops gets a little tiring. If you went a refresher or intro to Socrates and the Socratic method, or if you are thinking about setting up a Socrates Cafe in your neighborhood or office as a way to relax and think deeply, check out this book.

Socratic Citizenship is dense and academic and I only recommend if you have some general background information on the five political thinkers he dissects – John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, Hannah Arendt, and Leo Strauss. The introduction really captivated me. He presents the tired idea that good citizenship has to do with turning away from the false gods of materialism and toward the more meaningful life of community or political engagement. He presents his skepticism of how giving time and energy for a “cause,” having a rich associational life (churches, charities, etc), and doing active service for something bigger than the self, all mean you are a good citizen. Fundamentally, the idea of this book is that you can be both skeptical and morally serious, even though this form of negativity is often dismissed because moral seriousness is often identified with a positive conviction of political causes or positive moral doctrines. After a great intro, his detailed chapters and analysis of the various thinkers completely lost me. I’ll put this book in the “Read in 5-10 years category.”

I’m still looking for a great book on morals and citizenship, so I’d love recommendations in this area.

College Commiserations

It’s become a tradition at my high school for the seniors to post all their college rejection letters online or physically on a wall in school. To see all the letters it is at once amusing, sad, and exciting. I know next year I will be partaking in the same process. (One of my very first posts on this blog was titled Opt Out of College Admissions Mania.)

So far, a bunch of my senior friends have heard about their early decision applications. For any of you readers who weren’t in college recently or don’t have a kid who is going through the process, it is more competitive that you could ever possibly imagine. One friend of mine had 1600 SATs and a 4.0 GPA (at my school a 4.0 is amazing) and just got deferred early from Harvard. EVERY applicant is packaged in way to make him or her look perfect.

Starting in January I will be starting to meet with our college counselor and doing some thinking. At this point, my mind is wind open. I expect to visit colleges starting in the spring or summer. I DO know that given where my grades and board scores are, and given my dislike for the traditional approach toward education, the traditional “top” schools are probably not in my future. My #1 goal is to find a college that would be a good fit for me and that I could learn a lot while pursuing my other interests.

At the moment I’m still high on the idea of taking a year off after high school to either work at my own company, work at another company or entrepreneurial-like organization, and travel.

As I go through this process, I will blog my thoughts and experiences along the way. I will also be looking for specific feedback or suggestions or any “insider” tips from alumni.

I Survived – A Winter Break of Books

I just got through the toughest time of the year for me – basketball tournaments, work, and final exams for the semester. Sorry to say I did get sick and my eyebrow started twitching ever so slightly which is the sign for me that I’m stressed and too busy. But now it’s over and I can look forward to a few weeks of break over the holidays.

What am I most looking forward to? My reading. I have 20 days off from school starting tomorrow and my goal is to get through 15 books. I have a few books lined up and am sure to get several more for Christmas. Some of them I know are going to be really interesting so I will blog as I go.

Keeping the Faith in My Doubt

I continue to try to hone my daily information intake. Instead of plowing through three daily papers like I did over the summer, I now only read the NYTimes, local and sports sections of the SF Chronicle, and have given up the Wall Street Journal. Despite my belief that bundled services are headed downhill, the best bundled service in the world remains the Sunday New York Times. Page by page, I get more value out of the Sunday New York Times then most every other information outlet I consume.

Today, there’s an op/ed Keeping the Faith in My Doubt that is packed with a lot of punch and it spoke to me. The writer talks about "Universists" asking the tough question, "Who will fight for the faithless?" Excerpts:

I have no plans to sign up with the Universists or any other areligious group….An organization for freethinkers – one of the Universists’ self-definitions – strikes me as oxymoronic, like an anarchist government. Isn’t the point of being a freethinker eschewing categories like Satanist, Scientologist or Universist?

I’m also disturbed that these areligious groups have exhibited the same sectarian squabbling that they deplore in religious believers. When Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and director of the Skeptics Society, was invited to speak at an atheism convention in Florida last year, some organizers objected because he is agnostic – a mere doubter of God’s existence rather than a denier.

My main objection to all these anti-religion, pro-science groups is that they aren’t addressing our basic problem, which is ideological self-righteousness of any kind. Obviously, not all faithful folk are intolerant bullies seeking to impose their views on others. Moreover, rejection of religion and adherence to a supposedly scientific worldview do not necessarily represent our route to salvation. We should never forget that two of the most vicious regimes in history, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin, were inspired by pseudoscientific ideologies, eugenics and Marxism.

Opposing self-righteousness is easier said than done. How do you denounce dogmatism in others without succumbing to it yourself? No one embodied this pitfall more than the philosopher Karl Popper, who railed against certainty in science, philosophy, religion and politics and yet was notoriously dogmatic. I once asked Popper, who called his stance critical rationalism, about charges that he would not brook criticism of his ideas in his classroom. He replied indignantly that he welcomed students’ criticism; only if they persisted after he pointed out their errors would he banish them from class.

Of course we all feel validated when others see the world as we do. But we should resist the need to insist or even imply that our views – or anti-views – are better than all others. In fact, we should all be more modest in how we talk about our faith or lack thereof.

For me, that isn’t difficult, because I’ve never really viewed my doubt as an asset. Quite the contrary. I often envy religious friends, because I see how their faith comforts them. Sometimes I think of my skepticism as a disorder, like being colorblind or tone-deaf. Perhaps I’m missing what one geneticist has called "the God gene," an innate predilection for faith (although I’m skeptical of that theory, too). But skepticism has its pleasures; I like the feeling of traveling lightly through life, unencumbered by beliefs.

The Long Tail

This may be really old news, but I finally got to the Oct 2004 Wired article The Long Tail.

It’s a must-read because of its clarity for anyone interested in niche-focused media and economics. It offers an excellent and simple (not simplistic, mind you) analysis of of why “the future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.”

The Business Off-Site, The Sports Team Dinner

The sports/business parallel world continues. Last night, my varsity basketball team had a team dinner after a 2.5 hour practice. Think of it as a business off-site: occassional in frequency, a lot of pleasure a little business, and a chief goal of team bonding.

In Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, a Leadership Fable, he emphasizes the value of off-sites in a big way. He makes it clear however that there is a right way to do them and a wrong way. I haven’t had experience orchestrating a business off-site because we haven’t felt it necessary to do one at my company. My experience last night was along the positive lines of Lencioni endorsement.

The team of 12 gathers at the house of someone who lives near school after a long and tiring practice. We sit around the dining room table and the joking begins immediately. For the first 30 minutes, laughter is the name of the game. I take my responsibility for comic relief very seriously. Most of the jokes bordered on the unappropriate (ok, all of the jokes) but what do you expect from a group of athletes. Then, my co-captain and I bring in the Team Shoes we all ordered that are customized with our number and name. More joking. The one person whose shoes do not arrive asserts that’s so “because he’s Jewish.” A black guy on the team asserts that he should have scouted an opponent because he won’t be recognized, and, after all, “what’s a black guy doing with a video camera anyway.” (In high school the tension around “diversity” is so intense that often the subjects of the diversity action will make jokes about themselves to try to defuse some of the political correctness.)

The pizza is delivered and as always I pay with my own cash, and then everyone else pays me back, and I usually end up a few dollars ahead. I feel it’s my right to do this because so far I have dipped well into my own wallet to pay for others’ YMCA memberships, shoes, videotapes, etc.

We start devouring the pizza, and someone tries to ask me something as we are eating. I say, “I’m not interested in talking right now because I’m focused on eating.” He fires back, “Ok Ben, then are you saying no one talks during business lunches?” I respond, “You never really eat in a business lunch, you just nibble, and have your real meal at another time.”

Everyone finishes eating and now the serious part comes in. I start by incorporating some of the helpful feedback Rauno Saarinen gave me after my Leadership post and our subsequent email exchange. “We can’t be afraid of winning.” We talked about process goals.

The evening finishes with everyone listening to our potential warm up music for our first home basketball game. It’s all rap, and I hadn’t heard of one of them. Further proof how disconnected I am from a side of pop culture. That doesn’t stop me from making one last joke, and then making a bee line for the door so I could go home and collapse in bed.