Monthly Archives: January 2005

Losing and the Myth That Hard Work Always = Success

My basketball team is losing a lot, more so this year then the program ever has in recent memory. Being at the helm of the ship, I will take a lot of personal responsibility. Among the thousands of definitions of leadership, I think the one that is most applicable to team sports is “to allow and promote team members to fulfill their potential.” Unlike any other team activity, sports is the only one where the team truly needs each and every member of a 12 man squad to contribute. You occasionally will hear of a player who “took over the game” but those instances are rare. From the seemingly trivial – making sure water is ready on the bench during timeouts – to the very real and practical on the court, everyone needs to be giving 100% or else the whole thing falls apart. Unlike, say, cross-country, a basketball team lives and dies based on every person’s effort. This makes the experience both exhilarating and frustrating.

Losing – be it games, deals, employees, or whatever – can always be taken in two ways. Do you learn something from it or not. In my opinion, you can’t be an entrepreneur without being competitive. If you don’t feel nervous before something important, and don’t temporarily feel like shit if you don’t win, then you don’t care enough. True competitors, though, do not let the emotions of a win or loss overtake the most important thing which is careful attention to why certain things turned out they way they did.

A hard lesson that my team and I are discovering is that hard work doesn’t always equate to success. A lot of adults tell kids “Keep on working hard and you can be/do anything.” Ding ding ding – it’s REALITY time! Working hard is a critical factor and should be framed as the only factor that YOU can control. If something outside your control goes haywire, well, shit happens.

Last night, I watched a DVD for pleasure for the first time in awhile – Friday Night Lights – based on the popular book and true story. It is a must-see for anyone who is interested in how crazy high school football in West Texas is. The movie put my athletic experiences in perspective, as my life (unlike the students in the movie) does not start and end with basketball.

Dare To Be Mediocre (Time/Energy Management)

Nothing is more hip then being busy. Never have I ever encountered an entrepreneur or business-person who wasn’t “crazy busy.” If you aren’t running around closing deals, meeting people, firing off emails, or taking care of office work, then surely you aren’t successful, or so it goes. Several months ago I posted on a study that showed that some people intentionally delay responding to email so people don’t think they are too available. In the majority of cases, I think this whole “up to my eyeballs” is BS and people just like the “cowboy” approach of running around fighting fires as they come up.

The most common question I get from people I first meet is “How do you manage school, business, and everything else?” I’ve never had a good answer, but recently I distilled my three time management techniques into one simple sound bite: a) Don’t watch TV, b) For every new commitment you take on, drop one other equal commitment, and c) If it can be done in under a minute, do it NOW.

A teacher mentioned another one to our class today – dare to be mediocre. Being a perfectionist in everything is silly. Dare to be mediocre in some things, and your total value added will be extraordinary. I like it. Dare to be mediocre. Now I have a fourth sound bite.

A couple good journalism articles

Salon has a free, well-written review of Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media. It touches on a number of important issues about how “every morning’s edition of the Times defines what the terms of discourse will be on that day for the political, intellectual and media elites of the United States.” (Hat tip: Jesse Berrett).

In this month’s Columbia Journalism Review, there is a thoughtful essay called Let’s Blame the Readers which articulates how the changing notion of citizenship has affected newspaper readership. “The traditional and primary collective goal of public schools building literate citizens able to engage in democratic practices has been replaced by the goal of social efficiency, that is, preparing students for a competitive labor market anchored in a swiftly changing economy.” The essay cities a recent study of citizen education which described three different varieties of citizenship: the “personally responsible citizen,” the “participatory citizen,” and the “justice-oriented citizen. The first contributes food to a food drive, the second helps organize a food drive, while the third explores why people are hungry and acts to solve root causes.” (Hat tip: Tim Porter.)

Paul Graham on What You'll Wish You'd Known (High School)

In his book Hackers & Painters Paul Graham spent a surprising amount of time talking about high school and college and the education system. Today, he published an essay on his web site called What You’ll Wish You’d Known written in second-person voice directed to high school students but applicable to anyone interested in youth or the education system.

It’s a good read. The first part of the essay is golden (the second half he starts rambling a bit). He talks about how high school kids are freaking out about what their life work is going to be – so true – and how every May graduation speakers tell us “don’t give up your dreams!” What that means, he says, is that we are encouraged to pick a goal 20 years out and work backwards from it. But this means that we’re bound by some plan we made early on and can lead to a disaster. He has lots of other thought-provoking nuggets, so stop reading me, and go read his essay if you a) have kids, b) are a kid, c) interested in young people, d) interested in how we approach education and teaching.

Beyond a "Flat Hierarchy" in Business

I had an interesting lunch with Don Yates and Chris Yeh the other day. Don is an HBS grad and UCLA PhD in Management Science who’s now a management consultant with an admittidly radical philosophy. I described Chris here. Don’s fundamental premise is this: command-and-control, hierarchical, boss/subordinate management is dead wrong. The culture of an "extraordinary organization" embraces:

  • freedom
  • equality
  • community
  • individual fulfillment

replacing the current culture of:

  • command
  • control
  • hierarchy
  • class structure
  • people as means to organizational ends

He recently profiled an organization embracing this culture, and this was the bait that got me interested in Don. The Sudbury Valley School is a charter school in MA that has no "teachers" or "principal," just independent kids from ages 4-19 who show up each day and decide what to do. They can fish all day if they want or they can ask an adult to teach them math. Every school rule is decided at a School Meeting in which each student and adult has one vote. When a student feels like s/he is ready to move on, he writes a thesis and paper explaining why he thinks he’s ready to graduate. The Assembly (Board of Trustees) considers the thesis and may issue a diploma. 80% of the students go on to college. Talk about changing the paradigm. Don wants to spread this model to more for-profit companies. He scoffs as the recent trend of "empowering" employees because that indicates that there is someone who is in power to do the empowering! He scoffs at the idea of "flat hierarchies" – indeed, he sees no middle ground. Either the paradigm shifts or it doesn’t. Either self-managed work groups and a workplace where everyone is equal becomes the culture, or it doesn’t. How in the world do decisions get made in an environment like this? Majority-rules, consensus-based decisions with an emphasis on retaining the hearts and minds of the minority. How do you ever find consensus? By getting at the core of a person’s belief system. Don believes that by asking "why do you believe that?" four times you arrive at someone’s core beliefs which probably unknowingly drive everything. It’s hard to get your head around a totally radical way of thinking about management, but it makes you think. And that’s a good thing.

Preliminary College Questionnaire

By Tuesday I need to turn in a preliminary questionnaire to my school’s college counseling office and indicate some preferences. Is college/university size important to you? If so, rank preference of a) small college (3,000 or less, e.g. Pomona, Amherst, Trinity, Macalester, Kenyon), b) medium sized college (3-7,000, eg. Yale, Dartmouth, Stanford, Columbia, U of Chicago, Dartmouth, Tulane), or c) large university (6,000+, e.g. Northwestern, Cornell, U of Pennslyvania, USC, NYU, Boston U, any UC campus). Is geographic location important to you? Is the size of the surrounding college community important to you?

I really have no idea what my preferences are. I’m thinking I like being in a big city and want to be at least near a big city, but also like the idea of an enclosed college campus. Geographically, I’m game for anything other than the deep south I think. West coast, midwest, or east are all attractive for different reasons.

There’s plenty of time but over the next several weeks I’ll need to firm up my preferences around these topics and I’ll also get a sense as to which schools are “hard” “medium” or “easy” for me to get into. I am open to any and all feedback from anyone on anything college related. Once I have a better idea of schools I’m looking at, I will be requesting specific feedback!

Blink vs. Wisdom of Crowds

Slate is running a fascinating dialogue between Malcolm Gladwell of Blink and Jim Surowiecki of The Wisdom of Crowds which weaves together the concepts of rapid cognition gut-based decision making with deliberate decision making as well as the value of one expert’s decision versus a group of average people’s decisions.

So far, entries for Monday and Tuesday have been posted, it looks like their dialogue will run all week. Go check it out.

Results of Independent Study on Blogs, Journalism, and Media

From September-December (first semester) I embarked on an academic study on blogging and the intersection of journalism, media, and the ‘net through my school’s Independent Study program. I thus received academic credit for this work (I know, I was elated too!). My faculty sponsor was Jesse Berrett – he’s the chair of our History department but well versed in a broad range of topics including popular culture and internet stuff. As a book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, and others on the side, and armed with a handy dandy PhD from Cal, he brought a healthy dose of skeptical perspective I needed. (His own blog is, for now, brief reviews of books he reads – all genres and types – and pictures of his baby. In 2004 he read 254 books, and he reflects on that year of reading here.)

Excerpts from the results of our research and work follows. If you’d like the whole document, email me.

Questions discussed:

  • Do all conversations lead somewhere? How effective are conversations with many talking compared with one person lecturing?
  • Is the “wisdom of crowds” always better than the opinion of one, and if so, how does that wisdom get “mined” on the web?
  • What process do people go through to change an opinion? Are opinioned-blogs and the ensuing spirited conversations changing anyone’s opinion? How often do blogs (or any conversation for that matter) go beyond “I think this” and “I think this.”
  • What role do blogs have besides the obvious one of being a watchdog/critic of mainstream media?
  • What is the future of “hyperlocal journalism” where neighbors and community members write local stories in an online format?
  • Is objectivity in media “a view from nowhere”? In covering any controversial story, the media tends to simply let whoever has been defined as “the sides” dictate their beliefs and just do an “X said, but then Y said” story.
  • What are the limits/constraints of the blogging form versus the future possibilities?
  • Does a lack of referees on the web tends to support an everyone-has-his-own-truth world where “truth” is up for grabs? Is it realistic to hope for a higher-up authority to separate truth from fiction either on the web or offline? How does the increasing lack of trust in institutions in America affect this?

Blogs At Their Best
After a semester of critically examining hundreds of blogs, blog posts, comments, and essays analyzing the phenomenon, the one conclusion everyone agrees on is that blogs are having a major impact – for better or worse – on journalism and media. In my opinion, the benefit of this impact is the turning of the tables. That is, instead of “professional” (or beautiful, in the case of TV news) journalists producing the news and the populace consuming the news, everyone has an opportunity to produce news and commentary through the simple use of a web browser. This enables more voices to be expressed and considered. As others link to, fact check, correct, comment and respond to these voices, credibility is established and a conversation is started. Such participatory journalism takes on a personal voice. As Jay Rosen, journalism professor at NYU says, “The cool, neutral, professional style in journalism says: get both sides and decide for yourself. The hotter, more partisan press says: Decide for yourself–which side?–then go get information. The weblog doesn’t want to be either of these, but it checks and it balances both.”

Jeff Jarvis, Entertainment Weekly founder and former columnist for various papers, uses the term “citizen’s media” to describe blogging at its best. The term was coined to promote the concept of the average citizen internet user becoming a creator of content and media, not just a consumer. In Jarvis’ vision, we all have a chance of becoming the Tom Paine of tomorrow.

There seems to be a “truth” coalescing about blogs in mainstream media, which is that they are usually good watchdogs, but tend to be prey to all sorts of crazy rumors, speculations, and conspiracies. Thus, “the jury is out.” This may not be true, but this is the account that most major papers run whenever there’s a story covering aspects of blogging—a couple good things, a couple bad things. In essence the “they say X, these others say Y” story.

One venture capitalist blogger I read a few days ago said that his bet for the “the next big thing” is around an emerging “architecture of participation” or as he put it, “the revolution of the ants.” Everyone getting into the action. The participatory nature of blogs versus the one-way lecture of mainstream media is crystallized for me every time I read a column in the New York Times or Chronicle that I want to talk to someone about. I may agree or disagree or want to learn more. How can I scratch that itch? I can write a blog post linking to the column with my thoughts and solicit feedback or read others who have blogged about that column. A perfect example was a September 21st column by Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders. She wrote an outrageous piece about Rathergate that I wanted to question. Despite knowing I probably would not receive a response, I wrote a polite email to Ms. Saunders saying why I thought her column was ridiculously shallow and unsubstantiated. I concluded my email saying “Chances are I will never hear back from you on this email and that you get hundreds of emails weekly from readers in a one-way fashion.” I never did hear back.

In my own experience, my blog at its best evolves my thinking. I can post ideas, thoughts, and links, and get feedback. I can read other people’s ideas and commentary and comment on them to better understand or contradict their theses. I am learning how to think and what to think. One topic I have posted on a lot in my six months of blogging is religion. Through three or four posts on the topic in which I link to relevant articles, post my own at-the-moment thinking, or report on a book I read about religion, my eyes have been opened to new ways to think about religion – from the pithy to lengthier comments. As I post about things that interest me I also then meet people who are working in that area. After one post on emerging technologies I was invited to attend a local conference free of charge.

Finally, most blogs epitomize a new age of transparency. VC Fred Wilson said,

People ask me why I blog. I tell them that it helps me in my business. It allows me to reach more people and connect to more people (many of whom I know only through my blog) than I could ever do over the phone and email. It helps me get out ideas that I am interested in and foster discussion of them so that I can figure out where to invest. It gets me out ahead of the curve. But on top of that, it allows me to disclose myself; who I am, what I like, who I love, what I listen to, who I am going to vote for, and many more aspects of myself, to the world. If you are not going to like me, you’ll know it from my blog. If you are going to come see me, you’ll know me before you even meet me.

Some people I’ve met with recently ask me if I think it’s weird or funny that they “know” me from my blog a lot better than I know them. It doesn’t bother me. Blogging makes me transparent. And I like that.

Jeff Jarvis comments,

We’ve heard the jokes about candidates for President in years to come whose old opinions will be dragged up from their blogs. And I’ll just bet that will keep would-be pols from blogging. But that’s a bad thing, for transparency is just what is needed in politics. I spoke with a journ alist recently who said he couldn’t blog because he’d probably reveal some opinion that might keep him from, say, covering the White House someday. Organizationally, he’s right; that’s what his bosses would say. But that, too, is a bad thing, for transparency and honesty and candor are just journalism needs. Fred’s right: About the only business he can imagine where transparency is a bad thing is national security.

As for the rest of us: It could be the beginning of an era of honesty (or at least candor): the age of transparency. That (you’ll be sorry to know) is why I think Howard Stern is so appealing to so many; it’s his blunt honesty. That is also why reality TV is so big; we love seeing people stripped of their pretense.

Sadly, most of society is not transparent at all. You don’t know what goes on it the boardrooms of the companies whose stock you own. You don’t know what happens in most of government. You want to know more about how the news sausage is made.

If citizens’ media leads to any big social change — emphasis on “if” — it could be a drive toward transparency by example. If Fred Wilson and Mark Cuban and Margaret Cho and you and I are willing to stand out here naked, why isn’t the next guy? What does he have to hide? And if he isn’t willing to show us his after we show him ours, then do we want to trust him with our vote or our money or our news?

Blogs At Their Worst

“One of the biggest criticisms of blogs is that so many are self-absorbed tripe. No doubt, most are only interesting only to the writer, plus some family and friends,” writes Dan Gillmor in We the Media. He goes on to say that’s no reason to dismiss the genre, but it does raise an important question: does society need a lot more people voicing opinions or thoughts and does that create more produce intellectual, cultural, moral, etc. progress? I mentioned in the “best” section that my blog gives me a voice. It would be arrogant to argue that my voice needs to be heard, but not that nut-job propaganda-spreading conspiracy-theorist. The leading bloggers and pioneers in this field seem to agree that there should be virtually no restrictions or exclusivity in the blogosphere with a bet being placed on the notion that the best blogs will bubble to the top through links.

Second, just as the ease with which anyone can press “publish” for a written work or picture is good, it is also bad. The bar to publish something is greatly reduced and may lead to increased laziness on good, formal writing. The time/energy/resources it takes to publish a book is far greater than that to publish a blog. This should result in books being higher quality due to their filtered nature. The other altering – troubling? – aspect of the lowered bar to publish is the breakdown of the prestige system in academia. As information is disseminated online to the masses and as academics begin to blog, the economics of scarcity that fuels the prestige system in academia breaks down. You soon may no longer need to subscribe to the $1000/yr journal to obtain the latest from that field. You may no longer need to be in Richard Posner’s classroom to have a conversation with him. This dynamic will fundamentally change the DNA of academia, and may actually get at the “best” rather than “worst.”

Do blogs promote an opinion-first, evidence-later trend in our society? Jay Rosen sees a new trend unrelated to blogs pertaining to information-gathering: first get opinions, then analysis, then hard news. One could extend this trend to people first expressing opinions, then maybe finding some articulate analysis to back up their opinions, and possibly some real data supporting their points. It is easy to blog an opinion or rant. A good footnoter is also a good linker, hence the emphasis by respected bloggers to link to sources or other sites to back up posts. But without some sort of “authority” deciding what has some foundation versus simple crazy rants, the blogesphere can house bundles of unsubstantiated opinions.

Finally, bloggers tout the engagement or “conversation” that exists. A conversation is fine, but when it involves parties that disagree, an obvious question is, “Is anyone’s opinion being changed?” A meta-question is “how does anyone’s opinion changed, and is today’s priority simply to have an opinion (preferably a strong one) rather than keeping an open mind?” At a conference at Stanford, I asked Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media, if the conversations on blogs were changing people’s entrenched opinions, and he responded “probably not.” The “comments” on blogs vary in quality, with some of the more intellectually rigorous ones yielding a string of thoughtful replies and disagreements. The constraints of the medium probably prevent groundbreaking changes in one’s worldview.

Good Book Reccomendation: Mind Wide Open

I finished Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life by Steven Johnson (of Emergence fame) this afternoon and it was fantastic. I first heard about this book when NPR did this segment on it and was thoroughly entertained and intrigued by Johnson’s stories. The book is written for the casual reader and through a healthy mix of storytelling and well-written commentary, it keeps you engaged all the way through.

The fundamental premise of the book is this: how does the brain work (chemicals, structures, routines) and how do these systems affect/connect to the day-to-day realities of our lives. Johnson chronicles his visits with various scientists on the cutting edge of “neurofeedback” – an exercise where you’re hooked into a machine that takes pictures of your brain at work as you read, come up with an idea, assemble words into a sentence, etc. Various interludes offer a fun peek at why laughter has little to do with humor and how eyes are the most powerful communicator.

All in all, it is works like this that allow you to earn some capital in the most important department of personal development: self-knowledge and awareness.

Software Development is Hard

I spent about four hours today with the rest of the Comcate team mostly talking and meeting about our ’05 software development plans. Getting into the details and talking through things at length was exhilerating and reminded me of my freshman and sophomore years when I was spending a lot more time with the company.

In 2004 we spent a big chunk of money and time to re-do our product and make it the most rock solid piece of CRM software out there for local governments. From a functionality perspective and ease-of-use perspective, our solution kicks-ass. But it didn’t come easy, and this next year won’t be any easier.

Our CTO used a saying today “You can get it fast, cheap, or good. Pick two, but you can’t get all three.” This captured for me the on-going communication and expectation challenges between folks from the business side and the technology side. Throw in outsourcing, offshoring, complicated product requirement docs, and a never ending wish list from clients, and it gets a whole lot more complicated.

Over the summer I spent some time getting up to speed on the Agile development methods and learned about a cool, philanthropy-minded company called Rally Dev.

As a result of our meetings today, I’ve added Mythical Man Month to my Amazon wish list; I’m embarassed to say I haven’t read it.

One of my very early advisors once told me “Ben, the most successful people of tomorrow will be those who can walk the walk and talk the talk in both the hard tech AND business side. Know both, and you’re in a minority that’s valued highly.” Coding and pure geek doesn’t fire me up as much as the business side, but I am trying to stay as plugged in as I can to everything technology related (like open source) so I can try to strike that balance as best I can.