Monthly Archives: November 2006

Superb Article on the State of Youth Education in America

Paul Tough had a superbly written article in Sunday’s NYT magazine on the state of youth education in America and, more specifically, the troubling achievement gap between the poor and the well-off.

My favorite quote, on the subject of differing parenting styles between poor and middle class parents, was:  "As Lareau points out, kids from poor families might be nicer, they might be happier, they might be more polite — but in countless ways, the manner in which they are raised puts them at a disadvantage in the measures that count in contemporary American society."

If you want to spend 15 minutes and get a solid briefing on the state of U.S. education, the succeses and failures of charter schooling, parenting styles that work, and what various people are trying to do about our problems, print out the article and read it carefully. Excerpts:

The academics have demonstrated just how deeply pervasive and ingrained are the intellectual and academic disadvantages that poor and minority students must overcome to compete with their white and middle-class peers. The divisions between black and white and rich and poor begin almost at birth, and they are reinforced every day of a child’s life….

There had, in fact, been evidence for a long time that poor children fell behind rich and middle-class children early, and stayed behind. But researchers had been unable to isolate the reasons for the divergence. Did rich parents have better genes? Did they value education more? Was it that rich parents bought more books and educational toys for their children? Was it because they were more likely to stay married than poor parents? Or was it that rich children ate more nutritious food? Moved less often? Watched less TV? Got more sleep? Without being able to identify the important factors and eliminate the irrelevant ones, there was no way even to begin to find a strategy to shrink the gap.  

Researchers began peering deep into American homes, studying up close the interactions between parents and children….

They found, first, that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class and that the gap between the classes opened early. By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children’s I.Q.’s correlated closely to their vocabularies. The average I.Q. among the professional children was 117, and the welfare children had an average I.Q. of 79.

When Hart and Risley then addressed the question of just what caused those variations, the answer they arrived at was startling. By comparing the vocabulary scores with their observations of each child’s home life, they were able to conclude that the size of each child’s vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parents spoke to the child. That varied greatly across the homes they visited, and again, it varied by class. In the professional homes, parents directed an average of 487 “utterances” — anything from a one-word command to a full soliloquy — to their children each hour. In welfare homes, the children heard 178 utterances per hour.  

What’s more, the kinds of words and statements that children heard varied by class. The most basic difference was in the number of “discouragements” a child heard — prohibitions and words of disapproval — compared with the number of encouragements, or words of praise and approval. By age 3, the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children, the situation was reversed: they heard, on average, about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements. Hart and Risley found that as the number of words a child heard increased, the complexity of that language increased as well. As conversation moved beyond simple instructions, it blossomed into discussions of the past and future, of feelings, of abstractions, of the way one thing causes another — all of which stimulated intellectual development.  

Hart and Risley showed that language exposure in early childhood correlated strongly with I.Q. and academic success later on in a child’s life. Hearing fewer words, and a lot of prohibitions and discouragements, had a negative effect on I.Q.; hearing lots of words, and more affirmations and complex sentences, had a positive effect on I.Q. The professional parents were giving their children an advantage with every word they spoke, and the advantage just kept building up…

Another researcher, an anthropologist named Annette Lareau, has investigated the same question from a cultural perspective. Over the course of several years, Lareau and her research assistants observed a variety of families from different class backgrounds, basically moving in to each home for three weeks of intensive scrutiny. Lareau found that the middle-class families she studied all followed a similar strategy, which she labeled concerted cultivation. The parents in these families engaged their children in conversations as equals, treating them like apprentice adults and encouraging them to ask questions, challenge assumptions and negotiate rules. They planned and scheduled countless activities to enhance their children’s development — piano lessons, soccer games, trips to the museum.  

The working-class and poor families Lareau studied did things differently. In fact, they raised their children the way most parents, even middle-class parents, did a generation or two ago. They allowed their children much more freedom to fill in their afternoons and weekends as they chose — playing outside with cousins, inventing games, riding bikes with friends — but much less freedom to talk back, question authority or haggle over rules and consequences. Children were instructed to defer to adults and treat them with respect. This strategy Lareau named accomplishment of natural growth.  

In her book “Unequal Childhoods,” published in 2003, Lareau described the costs and benefits of each approach and concluded that the natural-growth method had many advantages. Concerted cultivation, she wrote, “places intense labor demands on busy parents. … Middle-class children argue with their parents, complain about their parents’ incompetence and disparage parents’ decisions.” Working-class and poor children, by contrast, “learn how to be members of informal peer groups. They learn how to manage their own time. They learn how to strategize.” But outside the family unit, Lareau wrote, the advantages of “natural growth” disappear. In public life, the qualities that middle-class children develop are consistently valued over the ones that poor and working-class children develop. Middle-class children become used to adults taking their concerns seriously, and so they grow up with a sense of entitlement, which gives them a confidence, in the classroom and elsewhere, that less-wealthy children lack. The cultural differences translate into a distinct advantage for middle-class children in school, on standardized achievement tests and, later in life, in the workplace.    

…However you measure child-rearing, middle-class parents tend to do it differently than poor parents — and the path they follow in turn tends to give their children an array of advantages. As Lareau points out, kids from poor families might be nicer, they might be happier, they might be more polite — but in countless ways, the manner in which they are raised puts them at a disadvantage in the measures that count in contemporary American society.  


Common Knowledge + Uncommon Experiences = Success

"What’s the #1 key to business success?" What a dumb question that is, and I promise not to try to answer it in my forthcoming book.

As I’ve been writing and researching for my book, I have discovered how "common" virtually every piece of advice anyone could possibly give on virtually any topic related to business or life success has become. In other words: find me some original thinking!

I’ve read plenty of books or magazine articles on "the top 5 leadership keys" or "the three habits all powerful people employ." And I remember none of it. Sure, if you asked me what principles all successful people embody I could give you a laundry list of predictable answers: integrity, commitment, hard work, curiosity, and so forth. But how many times have you heard those now-meaningless adjectives?

So, the question for go-getter in hunt of insights about how to thrive in this wild and crazy world is: Do I search for un-common knowledge? That is, truly original insights by truly original thinkers? Or, do I try to bolster these tired advice adjectives with real meaning by supplementing the common knowledge with uncommon experiences? That is, can I produce a war-chest of experiences for when I acted with integrity and when I did not, and carry those lessons with me for the rest of my life?

I think you can tell which approach I favor!

I'll Endure Pain While Traveling, En Route to Pleasure

In a first-person reflection in the SF Chronicle Travel section, Sue Dickman misses India because there you never know what could be around the corner: "When turning a corner at home in the United States, I can be pretty certain that an elephant or a herd of water buffalo or a wedding procession led by a marching band will not be coming in the opposite direction, but there is no such certainty in India."

I see her point. The surprises and uncertainty of travel can make for some fun. But what I’ve learned in my extensive overseas travel is that I’m willing to tolerate cows wandering down the street, impoverished conditions, kooky toilets, and other odd surprises…assuming it’s a means to some other ends. That is, I have no interest in throwing myself into a shithole to "have an experience."

I’m willing to tolerate pain while traveling, assuming the pain isn’t supposed to be the pleasure, even if the pain provides a new perspective or a delightful surprise.

I was fine being stuffed in a smelly, rickety train leaving Bombay, because the pain of being in that train wasn’t the point. The point was to use the most efficient transportation possible to arrive at my next destination — which meant a smelly, rickety train.

The Emotional Messages of Email Closings

In March I did a post analyzing potential email closings (Best, Sincerely, Yours, etc). It seems like this obsession has hit the mainstream. The New York Times looks out how your email sign-off can send all kinds of emotional messages. I wouldn’t be surprised if this causes many people to opt-out of the madness and not sign their name at all, or simply preface their name with a hyphen.

Ben Casnocha

Life Entrepreneurs Are Always Trying to Help Other People Out

I was trading emails with my friend Ramit Sethi about his excellent feedback on my book, and he mentioned something in reference to my chapter on networking that I wanted to note here.

It’s this tendency for entrepreneurs to always try to help each other out. In daily interactions we’re on the lookout for companies, articles, people, events, or ideas that someone else in our network could benefit from. Contrary to the belief that much of “networking” is a greedy effort to accumulate contacts who can help you, I actually think, if you’re doing it right, it’s more soft-hearted and more focused on how you can help others.

The networking culture of Silicon Valley is intense almost to a point of absurdity — it’s a shameless quest to develop relationships, trade business cards, have “catch up coffees”, etc. I could go to a networking lunch and dinner every day of the week if I wanted (I don’t, since I don’t find them very interesting). Since it’s a region with really one game in town — tech — the incestuous interconnections among the people you meet makes for jolly fun. The intensity of networking seems unique to Silicon Valley, at least say my friends from other regions, but the general spirt of giving seems common across all entrepreneurs everywhere.

In my view, “Life entrepreneurs” anywhere in the world are always trying to help other people because they know if you want to help yourself, you have to help others, first. Give a little, get a lot back.

East Coast Kids Tuck In Their Shirt

Last night I asked a couple friends who go to college in Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut, respectively, how the east coast fashion culture differs from what we’re used to on the west coast. They said in unintended unison, "They tuck in their shirts!"

Most of us California folk who have never lived or studied in the east have a sense of shared fascination and horror at the ultra-preppiness that infects all private prep schools (and then the prestigious colleges and universities the prep-school kids attend).

While the fashion annoys me — popped collars, Polo shirts, button down shirts, khakis, Brooks Brothers blazers — I also hate the elitism / condensation that seems to come with it. I’m not sure which comes first: the clothes, then the attitude, or the attitude then the clothes. They feed on each other. It’s hard to blame the student for coming out of a prep school with a pompous attitude. Can you imagine being sent away from home at 14, living with tons of other old money rich kids who want to know what your father does for a living, having to obey insane rules about when you can interact with someone of the opposite gender, and on top of it all, comply with the intense academic pressure these schools project?

I’m biased, but I much prefer the San Francisco high school style. First, it was extremely casual by east coast prep-school standards. With a few exceptions, no button down shirts or loafers, no perfectly combed hair and suave mannerisms. Sandals, shorts, and t-shirts ruled. Second, even though 75% of my junior and senior year teachers had PhDs, we still addressed them by their first names. Finally, since it was a day school, you really got to know the families of all your friends. This gives you a deeper sense of the person and the issues at home that animate their life. At boarding school, you have nothing to go on but your friend’s performance in the high pressure environment of school.

I don’t want to seem too heavy handed — not all east coast prep school kids are fuck-ups. And surely there are good reasons to participate in an institution that has a long history and prestigious brand name. But I’m happy I’m headed to Southern California for college — I do plan on living on the east for some part of my life, but not for college.

Four Stages of the Creative Process

I enjoy the Tasty Research blog. For example, I learned: "Spontaneous trait transference is a phenomenon where people are perceived as possessing a trait that they describe in others. Telling others that your math professor is lazy will cause them to infer that you are lazy. This works the other way too — describing positive attributes about your friend may ascribe you those attributes as well." Another good reason to stay positive about people and about life.

They also recently posted about the stages of the Creative Process. I’m always looking for good tips to become more creative (here’s my tag). I found this outline helpful:

Stages of the Creative Process

Preparation: Becomes obsessed with the problem, collects relevant data and attempts traditional approaches.

Incubation: Does not actively attempt to solve the problem, but unconsciously continues to work on it.

Taking a shower is my most common incubation step. Programming bugs seem to reveal themselves when I’m lathering up in there.

Illumination: Possibilities surface to the consciousness in a vague and unpolished form.

Verification: The idea is worked into a form that can be proven and communicated to others.

Book Review: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

That’s the epigraph of Joan Didion’s latest book The Year of Magical Thinking.

Didion lost her husband to a heart attack one night at dinner and this is her account of grappling with grief. It’s a sparkling work that my poor words will never do justice to.

Didion is one of America’s best living writers so it’s not surprising that nearly every page is gripping, inspiring, and emotionally moving.

As she says, you never really know grief until it comes. It came to Joan Didion, and I doubt there’s a modern book that so poignantly captures the feeling. If, after reading The Year of Magical Thinking, you aren’t convinced in the power of human love and the sanctity, preciousness, and privilege each living day affords, you are probably not human.

Book Review: Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time

I’m fascinated with Starbucks.

First, they’ve done an amazing job building a luxury brand that people aren’t ashamed of consuming. Everything about their operation feels authentic.

Second, with the same brand, they’ve made it “aspirational” — middle class people go to Starbucks to feel like the upper class.

To attract both kinds of consumers is a good feat. Although I have not drunken a single cup of coffee my whole life, I still patronize Starbucks regularly at home and overseas. Why? The comfy chairs, the wi-fi, the drink and food options, and relaxing atmosphere. I know it is a totally manicured setting designed to empty my wallet….and I don’t care. I don’t resent it. I like it.

So it was with great anticipation that I read CEO Howard Schultz’s ’97 book Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time. It’s an easy read with no surprises: it’s Howard’s story growing Starbucks from nothing into a worldwide phenomenon that’s become the Third Place for millions. I learned Shultz was the first to introduce the Italian concept of buying a single cup of coffee (instead of coffee beans) at a store. This was revolutionary at the time and the first-mover advantage probably contributed to Starbucks’ early dominance. There are also good lessons here about figuring out what makes your brand tick and not messing with it. Shultz knew this, which makes some of his moves all the more gutsy: they introduced Starbucks on United Airline flights, they sold beans in supermarkets, they introduced Starbucks ice cream. All these arrangements were done with partners who didn’t have the same, intrinsic commitment to high quality as Starbucks.

At the end I still wonder whether Shultz himself truly understands why the Starbucks brand has proven to be so powerful. For example, he recalls Starbucks’ entry into the Japan market. With no apparent market research or cultural comparison (“We had no idea what ‘Starbucks’ would translate to in Japanese”), they nonetheless found the Japanese market too attractive to pass up, so they opened a test store in Tokyo to see would happen. Shultz remembers standing outside the store in Tokyo on opening day and watching customers stream in. He couldn’t explain it: the circular green logo didn’t lose its swagger overseas.

If you’re looking to start a retail store or if you’re trying to cultivate a luxury brand, Pour Your Heart Into It will be a nice read.

A Strong Mind Starts with a Strong Body: A Series

I just created a new category for future blog posts: Health & Fitness. In the coming months I will discuss the idea:

A strong mind starts with a strong body.

I firmly believe the entrepreneurial lifestyle must start with the living, breathing organism. As a Jamba Juice cup has said, "Your body is a temple. Respect it." Unfortunately, some people think the entrepreneurial lifestyle means disrespecting your body by depriving it of exercise, sleep, or proper nutrition.


I will argue that people who claim they are at their peak mental performance while not maintaining a healthy body are deluding themselves (and you). I’m assuming that the dualist "mind and consciousness is distinct from the biology of the body" argument is not credible with most readers, so I won’t address it in this series. I think: Our brain is a bunch of chemicals and subject to biology.

I’m not a personal trainer. I’m not a nutritionist. I’m not a sleep consultant. But I am someone who cares about each of those things and who has reaped the benefits of being physically fit in many ways.

This series of posts won’t target Iron Man or Marathon runners nor will be a dieting plan for the obese. It’s for people like me — casual enthusiasts who realize the importance of fitness. It also won’t be a attack against people who’d rather not worry about their body. As the former University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins once said, "When I feel the desire to exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes." To them I say, "Enjoy!"

Some of the topics I’d like to write about include:

  • Basic nutrition — the foods and liquids that elevate you to peak performance
  • The argument, "I don’t have time to exercise."
  • Different kinds of exercise
  • Physical fitness habits — how busy people make it a priority
  • Exercises to do at the gym
  • To gym or not to gym, that is the question
  • Sleep
  • Weightlifting — the joys of a beach without your shirt on (joking)
  • Hydration
  • Nutritional supplements
  • Fitness when traveling
  • The music of exercise — Is Kelly Clarkson as good as it gets?
  • Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

Anything else you’d like to see?