Monthly Archives: June 2008

Not Getting Boxed In as a Do-Gooder

In Switzerland I met a bright, ambitious young man who has spent a couple years in consulting and is now trying to figure out what to do next. He’s intrigued by the non-profit sector and social entrepreneurship. But he’s concerned that excessive non-profit time on his resume, while he’s still young and trying to establish credibility, will make it seem soft; in other words, he’s afraid of being pigeon-holed as a do-gooder.

It’s a fair concern and relates to what seems like a massive challenge in the non-profit world: how to recruit the best and brightest young people into a sector that generally pays less and (exceptions notwithstanding) is filled with lower caliber people than in the private sector.

Teach for America has done a brilliant job at generating some caché around its jobs. My understanding is this is due to their ultimate effectiveness in the classroom (but since this is not enough by itself) it’s also due to their selectivity and how they brand this selectivity. However they do it, they have made it sexy for its young workforce to say they are a teacher for TFA at a cocktail party.

I can’t think of another non-profit which in so short a period of time has established itself as an elite, selective organization which will only hire the best.

All companies would do good to learn from TFA’s remarkable positioning / branding job.

“Those Sound Like Surface-to-Air Missiles”

My traveling companion made this comment after hearing howler monkeys scream after the crazy-loud thunder roared in Rincon de Vieja Park. The thunder here in Costa Rica is unbelievably loud — like bombs exploding.

Those Late Night Dorm Conversations!

I am in awe of the romanticization of higher education in America, mainly by its alumni who are probably rationalizing an extraordinary sunk cost of money and time but also from the media (especially those pesky soft focus, all-anecdotes higher ed stories put out monthly by the New York Times which pander to its well-to-do readers with teenage sons and daughters). We hear that going to a fine college in America represents the opportunity for unblemished intellectual pursuit. The one opportunity to pursue the life of the mind with no other distractions or obligations!

Or: The late night dorm conversations about the meaning of life! This — late night dorm conversations —  may be the most overrated thing ever. Slightly inebriated 18, 19, 20, or 21 year-olds (that includes me!) musing on the Big Questions with no preparation or structure is an absolute train-wreck. Yet these situations continue to get mythologized as formative intellectual or social moments that are not to be missed.

Based on my own experiences and those of my friends (who attend every college you’ve heard of and many good colleges you likely haven’t heard of), I think people vastly overstate the existence of an unadulterated intellectual life for undergraduates in the academy. Look to the plagues of multiculturalism and political correctness (anti-intellectual currents if there ever were ones) or simply the fact that drinking / drugs, obsession with grades, and power plays in pursuit of golden internships are the primary points of interest for most 20 year-olds at even the best institutions.

This doesn’t mean college is worthless. In fact, I think college offers many benefits to undergrads, such as the networking opportunities or just the fun factor of four years of summer camp. But a truly enriching intellectual experience of the sort that’s often "remembered" by alumni or celebrated by the media — those early moments where a worldview started to form, a love for books that was cultivated — this seems less likely, unless you’re a student at Reed, University of Chicago, Swarthmore, and perhaps a couple other places whose cultures do seem to take the life of the mind seriously. In general, I think a minority of students at good colleges leave infected with a love for ideas and a majority leave with knowledge that they will probably have to un-learn later in life.

I’d rather have our colleges either be more explicitly vocational — ie, be in the business of transferring practical career skills and not talk themselves silly with phrases like "teaching our students how to think" — or actually cut the bullshit / distractions and emphasize liberal arts for liberal arts’ sake alone. Floating somewhere in the middle, as most liberal arts schools do now, appeals on the surface for those like me who don’t want the suffocating seriousness of a University of Chicago nor the mechanics skills of a vocational institute, but ultimately the ever-elusive ‘happy medium" as currently practiced doesn’t offer enough of either to seem worthwhile.

Moments Thus Far That Have Stuck w/ Me

Some memorable moments so far:

  • Lathering my feet and legs in bug spray (97% DEET!) before going to bed, to prevent being ravaged by the endless bugs here.
  • The grandmother at my hostfamily addressing me, “Muchacho” and handing me some clean clothes. It was sweet.
  • Grandmother asks, “Le gusta chilli?” I hear “chilli” and think of the American dish (beans, means, tomatoes, mixed together, tasty). Apparently chilli in Spanish means “spicy” / peppers, which I hate. She gives me peppers to put on my food; since I said I “love” chilli I oblige and put a bit on the side of my plate, and move it aside when she’s not looking.
  • I tried to tell a girl “her laugh is distinctive” – I think it came out, “your smile is beautiful.” Oops.
  • Lying on beach, on beach lounge chair, to the left and right were palm trees, straight up was a big blue sky. iPod in my ears. Then, suddenly, a perfect V formation of birds flies across the sky. Magical. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Rice and Beans

I’ve had rice and beans for virtually every bfast / lunch / dinner I’ve been in Costa Rica so far (in addition to other stuff). It’s truly the staple of the cuisine here. Some complain, I don’t. I like hearty, square meals, even if they’re forgettable.

Those Dove “Real Women” Ads Were Re-Touched

Remember those Dove "real women" ads that showed non-models posing in their underwear? They were popular ads precisely because they did not feature stereotypically hot women. A clever approach.

In this thoroughly interesting article on the world of Photoshopping photos, there’s this nugget:

…Retouchers tend to practice semi-clandestinely. “It is known that everybody does it, but they protest,” Dangin [one of the leading re-touchers] said recently. “The people who complain about retouching are the first to say, ‘Get this thing off my arm.’ ” I mentioned the Dove ad campaign that proudly featured lumpier-than-usual “real women” in their undergarments. It turned out that it was a Dangin job. “Do you know how much retouching was on that?” he asked. “But it was great to do, a challenge, to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.”

Wow.

And for those writing nuts out there, here’s the obligatory "one paragraph physical description of the main character in the story" from the above-linked New Yorker story:

Dangin is on the short side, with a scruffy mustache and finger-in-the-socket frizz. He maintains the hours of a Presidential candidate; lately, he is a little tubbier than he would like. He was wearing, as is his custom, an all-navy outfit: New Balance sneakers, ratty cords, woollen sweater with holes in the armpits. He is not immune to the charms of things—he owns an Aston Martin, along with houses in Manhattan, Amagansett, and St. Bart’s—but, for someone who can pick apart a face in a matter of seconds (he once, apologetically, described his eyes as “high-speed scanners”), he is remarkably free of vanity. “I’m not a stud,” he told me one day. “I don’t have the six-pack chocolate bars, I have a belly. Would I want to look like that? Yes. Am I ever going to achieve that? No. Am I happy? Yes.” He has an earthy streak and a digressive manner of thought, but he issues orders commandingly.

Decent. Here’s an old post on physical descriptions that do or do not work.

The Art of the Job Offer

My friend Auren Hoffman has an awesome post advising organizations how to make a job offer. Anyone who’s in the business of hiring should read this. His starting premise is that "fit" matters with employees and therefore companies should try their hardest to communicate the company culture and allow the potential hire to decide whether such fit exists. Hence you don’t want to oversell; rather, you want to encourage the potential hire to opt-out if he has any doubts. Excerpts below. My favorite is the last one: make an offer slightly below market (to ensure that he really loves the company and isn’t just motivated by pay) and then give raises to pay him above market.

First, don’t use the offer as an opportunity to sell the candidate. Try to be honest and open with each candidate. Tell them your goal for all employees is for them to love their jobs and that they should not take the job if they have doubts. You’ve only been able evaluate the person for a dozen hours – but the candidate has known herself all her life. She will be a much better judge if she fits the culture.

Next, be completely honest about the culture. At Rapleaf, we take at least 15 minutes to spell out, in detail, the company culture. Tell them your organization’s quirks and what is expected of employees. Some of the many things that are particular to Rapleaf that we tell all candidates: 

    We’re frugal. We’ll wait until we’re very profitable before we pay for fancy   dinners.

  • We give each other a good dose of constructive criticism. We happily give and take criticism. We want to better ourselves and the   others around us.
  • We do not value our own ideas more than those ideas   generated by our teammates.
  • We work long hours. We believe great things are accomplished 5% inspiration and 95%   perspiration.
  • We believe the perfect is the enemy of the good. This means we focus on getting things   done, not on building the most perfect system. We strongly believe in rapid iteration.

Really talk through the culture during the offer. If you want your employees to work long hours, you better tell them that is expected before they accept the offer.  Conversely, if you believe strongly in a 40-hour workweek, tell the candidate because many people are looking to change the world and they want to work with people who really make the company mission a priority.  

The essential take-away is not to sugar-coat the experience. Be completely honest.

Then, tell the candidate your concerns about them. Tell them what you like about them and what they will need to improve upon to be a productive employee. And tell them not to take the job if they don’t think they can make those improvements. This is the toughest thing for a hiring manager to do but it is important because it really sets the expectations. 

Fourth, don’t give candidates a long time to make a decision. Two days is fair. If they don’t know they want to work for you in two days, then they should probably turn down your job offer.

And give a salary that is a bit below market. You want to make sure candidates REALLY want to work at your company. Then you should make sure you take care of your employees and give them frequent raises so they end up being paid above market. This way you get the both worlds – employees who are really excited about the company and who are happy that they are appreciated by management (because of the frequent raises).

Playa Samara Beach at Sunset


Playa Samara
Originally uploaded by costa rica beaches

Click the pic to enlarge…I didn’t take it but it’s exactly what this place looks like. Pretty damn beautiful.

Travel Doctors are a Scam

I’ve never been to one, but I now know two people who went to American travel doctors before going to Latin America. Of course they give you every medicine they can think of and tell you to avoid everything and anything once in the region.

A particularly amusing fun fact was the travel doctor a friend visited before coming to Costa Rica had only been abroad once in her life, to London!

My approach is to follow the CDC / State Dept recommendations on malaria, avoid tap water, and be smart about other types of food. Get your shots, etc. But do your own research and take action that will keep you healthy and make you less nervous (sometimes people say you don’t need to take malaria medicine in certain places like Guanacaste in Costa Rica — but I’d rather assuage any nervousness when I get molested by mosquitoes which inevitably happens).

Just don’t outsource this process to a "travel doctor"!

Staying with a Family in Rural Costa Rica

On Sunday I moved in with a local family for a week.

I’ve stayed with families in the past, but this is the first time I’m paying to do so. I pay the school, the school pays the family. For $125 I get six nights of lodging and two meals a day. This means the family is attentive to my needs but it also means the whole thing feels more like an economic transaction than a real cultural experience. The family hosts a student almost every week of the year, so the novelty has long worn off. The two kids haven’t asked me a question about anything, and the mother is very kind and sits with me at dinner in case I want to ask her something (in Spanish)…but being open to answer my questions is different than a conversation. All in all, though, even if only viewed through an economic lens, it’s still a helluva deal as the meals are hearty and bed comfortable.

Their house basic but livable. This is rural Costa Rica so hot showers, internet, a/c, etc etc rarely are found in homes (and hotels), including mine.

The TV is on all day and night (until they go to bed). They mostly watch cartoons or telenovelas. The kids eat all their meals in front of the TV. I hear this is how it works in most families here — the dominance of a TV in the house is a sign of being poor, I’m guessing, in any country.

The “neighborhood” is a mix of shacks and small houses, with dirt roads and the occasional paved road (which has potholes). Due to the rain, the roads are almost always flooded and more than once I’ve had no choice but to walk through muddy puddles which come up to my calves. In the distance I can see the beach and palm trees; it’s a beautiful sight.

Kids run around without shoes, socks, or shirts.