Monthly Archives: October 2007

Why Do Beautiful People Have More Daughters?

The basic idea is this: Whenever parents have genetic traits they can pass on to their children that are more valuable for boys than for girls, then they have more sons than daughters. Conversely, whenever parents have genetic traits they can pass on to their children that are more valuable for girls than for boys, then they have more daughters than sons. Physical attractiveness — being beautiful — is good for both boys and girls, but it’s much more advantageous for girls. Physical attractiveness of a woman is one of the most important considerations for men when they select both long-term and short-term mates, but a man’s physical attractiveness is important for women only when she’s looking for short-term mates. Women like to have affairs with good-looking men, but they don’t necessarily want to marry them, unless of course they are also rich and powerful.

That’s from this worthwhile interview with Satoshi Kanazawa, author of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire– Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do.

(hat tip: Ryan Holiday)

Emotions in Business: Failure

If you start a start-up, chances are it won’t last for more than a few years. Failure — however you define it — is part of the process.

My friend Andy Sack’s start-up — Judy’s Book — is closing up shop, and Andy is writing openly about the emotions of letting go. He’s right: you don’t hear much about the emotions that accompany business. We should be grateful Andy is bucking that trend publicly, especially at such a vulnerable and difficult time.

Sadness is where I’m at today. Many people including myself worked hard for a long time to try and make this business work.  It didn’t work the way I/we had all hoped. Now people are working hard to wind things down responsibly and they’re starting to look for other jobs. In situations like this, employees move on fast — no one wants to be the last one not to find a seat with another company. It’s a bit like an adult version of musical chairs.  At times, I can feel some of the angst as they look for work.  I’m struck by the realization that there are a whole host of relationships with people I like — that I used to see everyday and now I know that I won’t see them. That’s a bummer! I’ll miss them. I’ll miss my investors and our die hard customers. I’ll miss Judy’s Book. It’s sad to see all that come to an end. Yep — Sadness is where I’m at today. 
I’m glad it’s been sunny in Seattle…reminds me that everything is going to be ok in time.

Disaster Mythology and Californian Identity

Meghan Daum had a great column in the LA Times the other day about how Californians help make sense of themselves and their state through disaster mythology.

Money grafs:

This hip mix of dread and sang-froid, especially when it comes to natural disasters, is crucial to our regional literary and cinematic identity. In hard times, New Englanders may have their flinty stoicism, Southerners their gothic rhapsody and Midwesterners their sandbags. But when it comes to the way we appear to respond to apocalyptic tragedy, citizens of the Golden State seem marked by a grim nonchalance. As bad as things get, we never entirely let go of the idea that a Californian watches his house burn down while standing in his driveway in a pair of Ray-Bans, drinking gin and humming a Doors song.

Such caliginous images are not just a mythology we impart to the outside world, they’re integral to the cliches that remind us why we live here. In the same way that New York City dwellers wear the hassles of their daily lives as a badge of honor, Californians like to view their proximity to impending disaster as a direct reflection of their toughness; evidence that they’re more interesting, more glamorous than everyone else — and the closer they live to the precarious edge, the more quintessentially Californian they are.

She ends:

Didion called Los Angeles weather "the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse." Chandler, for his part, described windy Santa Ana nights when "meek little wives feel the edge of a carving knife and study their husbands’ necks." This is sexy stuff, but it’s also what we use to deny our own role in the mess.

Yes, Mother Nature is mercurial, and yes, the winds that blow in from the desert have certain otherworldly qualities. But to become over-reliant on our disaster mythology, as poetic as it is, is to carry on a heedless romance with California rather than the respectful, mature relationship that ought to develop at some point in the love affair.

A Geographically Rooted Childhood

When I meet sons and daughters of diplomats or globetrotting CEOs, they tend to have a complicated answer to the question, “Where ya from?” They’re not from any one place, really. First Chicago, then Singapore, then Beijing, then Sydney, now Los Angeles. Wherever their parents’ work took them.

I’m an example of the opposite. Same bed, same house, same neighborhood in San Francisco the first 19 years of my life. When someone asks where I’m from, San Francisco is the easy answer. I’m unequivocally rooted from a very specific geography.

Usually, after the “Where ya from?” conversation, both of us envy each other: I envy the son of a diplomat for his travel experience, his worldliness, the comfort he must have in knowing he can be dropped anywhere in the world and make it home. He envies my rootedness, my sense of belonging, my strong sense of identity.

Neither upbringing is objectively better than the other.

But I must say, from my own biased perspective, the college students I’ve met who had a geographically rooted childhood tend to be more confident and happier, if less interesting. The diplomat’s son has an attractive cosmopolitan veneer; but the insecurity which stems from a lack of true “home” somehow also comes through.

Book Short: Microtrends by Mark Penn

Mark Penn, the longtime Clinton pollster and advisor, has a new book out called Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes. It’s a fun book — every few pages is a new tidbit gleaned from polls and demographic data. For example:

  • Splitters: A growing number of middle-class residents are shuttling between two homes, creating new communities and dynamics in the real estate market.
  • Sun Haters: Environmentalists, skin cancer survivors, and parents concerned about the impact the sun is having on our health.
  • Philo-semites: A growing number of people want to date Jewish men and women.
  • Sex Ratio Singles: With gay men outnumbering lesbians by approximately 2:1, the female-to-male straight sex ratio has tipped all the way to 53:47, leaving more women than ever single. No wonder they’re raising their own children and buying their own homes.
  • Classical Music Dads: Older men who are fathers in their 40’s and 50’s and taking on a larger role in the nurturing of their children and becoming an important factor in consumer culture for kids.

If you’re a data junkie, like quirky facts, or think that there’s something to the thesis that we can understand the future by understanding lots of little trends, I recommend this book highly.

One Difference Between College and Real World

How much does college prepare you for the real world? That’s a question I’ll be thinking about in the coming months and years.

One big difference between college and the real world is that college is an information-rich environment which makes it very easy to track your progress (and be motivated) day-by-day.

In college you constantly receive reports on your progress. You turn in assignments, you receive grades. Rarely does a week go by without some affirmation or refutation of effort from an all-knowing expert (professor, advisor, whoever).

In the real world, best I can tell, the information you receive from your “market” (customers, boss, whoever) is far more ambiguous. Anyone who’s built a company knows that months can go by without clear feedback about whether you’re on the right track. Indeed, sometimes it takes months of unyielding effort with your head down before you figure out whether you’re creating something of value.

The most successful people I’ve met in the real world have a tolerance for ambiguity and are self-motivated enough to take care of business even if there aren’t routine, external validations or challenges.

So do college students get spoiled by the constant information delivery and assessments that’s part of structured education? Is there a risk that such an explicit reward system will retard a student’s ability to be intrinsically motivated? Will a student, upon graduation, be able to apply consistent effort without receiving a decisive “A” or “B” for each of his tasks?

(thanks to my friend Cal Newport for sparking this idea)

Topics to Avoid If You Don’t Want to Be a Bore

My friend Gretchen Rubin, who writes the must-read Happiness Project blog, did a post today on topics to avoid in conversation if you don’t want to be a bore.

Unless you get a truly enthusiastic response from your interlocutor—which is possible—be very wary of recounting…

1. A dream.
2. The recent changes in your child’s nap schedule.
3. The route you took to get here.
4. An excellent meal you once had at a restaurant. 
5. The latest additions to your wine cellar.
6. An account your last golf game.
7. The plot of a movie, play, or movie—in particular, the funny parts.

What do these subjects have in common? The listener has nothing to add. He or she must just hear you describe your experience.

I’m always surprised and disappointed that more people don’t ignore sunk costs and abort the telling of a story when it’s clear it’s headed for the ground.

Note that Gretchen’s advice and most literature on conversation techniques apply more to the "dinner party with strangers" situation than a conversation with close friends.

Here’s my post on Keys to Great Conversations. Here are notes from the Junto discussion Chris Yeh and I led on the "Art of Storytelling in Business".


Belated (public) congratulations to Gretchen for selling her Happiness Project idea to HarperCollins for a forthcoming book. I will pre-order the moment it appears on Amazon!

The Red Sun Above SoCal

  San Diego Fire 
  Originally uploaded by Armida the Diva

Claremont has not yet been affected by the fires in the San Diego and Malibu area, though the sun did look like this yesterday. Ash in the pool and haze everywhere.

After the fire is under control, the debate over emergency preparedness and response in California and America will once again dominate the news as it did after Katrina. It won’t be pretty.

The Humorlessness of Idealists

Caitlin Flanagan is one of the funniest, most penetrating writers on feminist issues. And she has range. See her on MySpace predators, or on the supposed oral sex epidemic on college campuses.

In the latest Atlantic ($) she rips into Hillary Clinton. Along the way she says Hillary has the "worst of the traits that often mark idealists (humorlessness, sanctimoniousness) combined with the worst expediency and hypocrisy of her husband."

Her point about the humorlessness and sanctimoniousness of idealists caught my eye. I consider myself optimistic but not idealistic.

College is full of idealistic 20 year-olds. Particularly the activist variety. You know, people who walk around with "Save Darfur" t-shirts, drinking "Fair Trade" coffee (what a joke), munching on organic nuts from Trader Joe’s.

One of the reasons I dislike stereotypical activist types is the holier-than-thou aura they project. Whether fighting for Darfur or racial equality here at home, the leaders of the local movements I’ve been exposed to take themselves (and their movements) way too seriously.

Barraging the audience with statistics, gruesome photos, or heart-wrenching stories is not enough, and may even be counterproductive. Expressing intense moral outrage and expecting others to feel similarly guilty automatically is naive. I remember a National Organization for Women assembly at my high school — everyone left feeling depressed about the oppression of women. But it didn’t move us to act or think hard about how to change anything.

With so many just causes competing for the average Joe’s attention, I would recommend that the social activist idealists of the world spend more time thinking through specific communication tactics, among them the implicit suggestion from Flanagan: loosen up.

Questionable Quote of the Day

From The Atlantic‘s 150th Anniversary issue on "The American Idea," novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe writes:

Even today, in the 21st century, an era of political democracies throughout the West, the great mass of ordinary citizens in Europe remain resigned to their ordinariness because they still feel the presence of “that certain class,” that indefinable but nevertheless eternal status stratum forever destined to be their superiors. In England, France, Italy, Germany, rare are the parents who urge their children to live out their dreams and rise as far above their station as they possibly can. As a result, such dreams, if any, don’t last long. Only in America do visitors to other people’s homes routinely ask their hosts’ children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In every other country on Earth the question would seem fatuous, since it implies that the child might have a world of choices.