Monthly Archives: November 2008

You Just Have to Keep Breathing

Take a deep breath. Focus on your breath. Breath.

So have advised everyone from Eastern spiritual gurus to basketball coaches before the big game. Focusing on the breath, they say, grounds you in the present moment. Easier said than done, but I try to follow this wisdom as much as I can.

My brother pointed me to a scene from the 2000 movie Cast Away that articulates this spirit. For those who haven't seen it, Tom Hanks' character is the sole survivor of a plane crash that leaves him stranded on an island for four years. He survives thanks to some supplies in the plane and more importantly the memory of his girlfriend Kelly with whom he was in love. One day, the tide washes ashore the remnants of a portapody which Hanks uses to build a raft and ultimately get rescued.

He returns to Memphis to the shock of his friends and family who had held a funeral for him years ago. His girlfriend had mourned but then married another man and had children. In the below three minute clip Hanks talks about what he did, the sadness of losing Kelly all over again, and how he needs to just "keep breathing." Here's a shortened clip with only the end part.

There's elemental wisdom in those last words: "And I know what I have to do: I have to keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise, and who knows what the tide could bring?"

Where You Grow Up: Interestingness vs. Safety

Parents of young children often say they’re moving from a city to the ‘burbs because “Suburb X is a good place to raise a family.” I would guess the real reason sometimes is, “Suburb X is less expensive.” Though suppose cost were irrelevant and we evaluate the parents’ reason at face value.

It’s a good place to raise a family. What does this mean? At its core this usually means it’s safe, i.e., in the suburbs the kids can play outside at night and we don’t worry. (Sometimes parents say it’s for the schools but suburban schools are not widely better than urban ones.)

There’s a flip side to an ultra-safe environment: it’s less interesting. The interestingness of a place is inversely correlated with its safety. Somewhere, there is an optimal point, but parents seem to sometimes forget this tradeoff.

I’m biased. I grew up in a neighborhood (Haight-Ashbury) in San Francisco that at the time was fairly rough-and-tumble. The full range of human impulses were on display. My childhood activities were extremely urban: city parks and playgrounds, streets and noise and pollution, dodging crime-inclined juveniles.

While there were some less pleasant run-ins with homeless people or the neighborhood gang, in total, I think the diversity I got exposed to contributed positively to my upbringing. All the sights and sounds around me made me more interested in how those things came to be. It exposed me to a wider range of lives and behavior. It made me more curious.

Bottom Line: Life’s about tradeoffs. Safety is no exception. I’m not sold that suburbia is usually a better place to raise a family, if safety and stability are proffered as the reasons why.

Evisceration Quarterly

Aaron Swartz lists the blogs he wished existed, and includes this:

Evisceration Quarterly: A daily selection of the finest in insults, takedowns, and general argumentative evisceration. The motto: teaching you how to think by showing you how not to. And, to not be entirely negative, the occasional model of clarity. With special blogging consultant, Brad DeLong.

I agree this would be a hilarious and perhaps educational read. Someone should take up the task. We can't, for example, let gems from Lee Siegel fade into the abyss.

Regret Aversion

The best decision making tool I know of, and the framework within which I try to make most of my decisions, is the cost-benefit analysis.

The cost-benefit approach breaks down when you don’t have enough information to weigh all of the costs or benefits, or when the future costs or benefits are uncertain.

So my second framework is what I call “regret aversion.” My interest in the notion of regret started when I turned 18 and asked a few dozen adult friends what they regret not doing when they were 18. Interestingly, the #1 regret was not traveling more when they were younger. The regret question elicited an interesting set of responses and I followed up this idea with my post on asking questions in the negative.

Essentially, I have come to believe that many older people are haunted by the question “I wonder what would have happened if…” And that active 40 or 50 somethings regret not trying more things when they were younger. The regret can be as profound as “I regret not going to college” or as simple as “I wonder what would have happened had I mustered the courage to call that CEO I really respected and asked for help.”

While it’s no good being consumed with regret over a past you have no control over, it’s similarly no good to ignore the past and not try to learn from your decisions. Devoting an optimal amount of attention to the past is an elusive task indeed — I’m not convinced that complete detachment from the past is the best way to live. Most of the people I respect are reflective enough to have thought about their past and honest enough to harbor some regrets.

So, I regularly deploy the “regret aversion” rule of thumb: When in doubt, say yes. This will not eliminate regret from my life, nor is it a hard and fast rule (surely there are times when “No” is the right answer). But by doing more things, even relatively random things, if it doesn’t work out, at least I’ll know I tried (no “what if?”), and sometimes it actually does work out.

Let us remember in closing:

We regret the things we don’t do more than the things we do. – Mark Twain

Passive vs. Active Questions

When seeking information from busy people via email the little things matter. Quick, minor tip: use a question mark if you’re asking a question. Compare the following cases:

Case A: Do you have any feedback for me on this point?

Case B: I would be interested in hearing your feedback on this point.

The question mark in A will yield a higher response than the passive Case B. Another example I learned when doing sales:

Case A: Will you be in town on Nov 5th for a meeting?

Case B: If you’re in town on Nov 5th, I would love to meet.

Again, I think the question mark yields a higher response. When I receive an email from someone I don’t know, I immediately search for the question mark.

Bottom Line: If you want a response, use question marks. Present active not passive questions!

Splatch of Assorted Musings

Scattered, mostly trivial musings. Just need to get these thoughts out of my head and out of my "drafts" folder….

  • An audience member gets nervous if he senses the speaker is nervous. Hence, as a speaker, the best way to put the audience at ease is to yourself be and appear at ease.
  • Annoying: people who talk slowly most of the time. Talking slowly at times can be a great way to emphasize something, or to occasionally come across as profound, but a default pace of slowness I find insufferable.
  • Without wanting to further the "brilliant guy who hasn't showed in three days" stereotype…men I know who are metrosexual or spend lots of time thinking about their fashion / grooming are usually not very smart. Similarly, people who make spiritually a big part of their identity tend to be fuzzy thinkers. (I know, I know, generalizations are dangerous, plenty of exceptions, etc etc.)
  • Like every other sentient being, I find excessive name-dropping annoying and a sign of insecurity. But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't effective at conveying success or importance — someone's proximity to power does usually mean something.
  • Why do pilots always announce the direction of the wind? Any regular flyer knows what I'm talking about: the pilot comes on with about 20 minutes left in the flight and says, "We're about 20 minutes away from San Francisco's International Airport. It's a beautiful day there, about 68 degrees and winds out of the west at 6 miles an hour." It's always those two facts: the temperature and the wind. Why do they say the wind? This is irrelevant to the passengers. I understand why the pilot wants to know this info. But passengers, inasmuch as add'l info is going to be given, would be more interested in tomorrow's forecast, temperatures of other neighboring cities, what the weather has been earlier in the day, or chance of precipitation. Anything. Wind speed and direction, not so much.
  • Side projects needn't make money. The experimental value alone is worth it.
  • People with learning disabilities should get extra time on tests but their special status ought to be known by the evaluators of the results. Currently, a college does not know which SAT scores came from an extra-time exam.
  • Gossip is a form of social bonding. To tell someone a secret, or something juicy, is a way to build closeness with the person. Of course, it's an awfully lazy way to bond!
  • Why don't people wear shorts in India or Ecuador? In both places, even on hot days, no locals were wearing shorts when I was there.
  • How the hell do people deal with time zones on their calendar? I schedule all events in local time and keep my computer time zone on Pacific Time. If I schedule a meeting in Denver next week, I enter it under the setting Pacific Time but at the local time the actual meeting is happening. E.g.: 2 PM MT meeting on Tuesday goes in my calendar as 2 PM and I don't change my time zone as I travel (otherwise all entries would be knocked up an hour).
  • Ever had this happen: you describe your position to somebody you respect, and they reply, "I agree!" and go on to "reinforce" your argument…except that you discover during their reinforcement that they don't actually agree. They misunderstood you. Do you correct them and say, "No, actually, wait, you don't agree" or simply move on? Oh, the high stakes of social interactions!
  • Many big companies interview potential candidates by having 5-6 employees interview the candidate for a half hour or hour each. If a candidate has a set of talking points, he can dish them out each time. I prefer one trusted person going deep with the candidate for a couple hours.
  • Even in this advanced state of civilization, when I'm on the road, I find my days animated by the primal hunt for food, water, and a bathroom. I feel I'm always hungry, thirsty, or needing to pee. And yes, I understand these things are connected!

Thanksgiving Time: Thanks Dad and Mom

In this post I'm going to do something I've been meaning to do for a long time: express gratitude to my parents and articulate some of the things I've learned from them during my brief existence. Why now? First, Thanksgiving will be soon upon us and expressing thanks is the name of the game. Second, when Tim Russert tragically died a few months ago, there were plenty of touching articles about his relationship with his father (documented in his book Big Russ and Me) and on that day I vowed to write this post. Third, over the years my mentor Brad Feld has written movingly about his father and mother and inspired me to do the same. What follows are informal comments which seems appropriate given that the learning is not over!

Dad

Dad has taught me the value of hard work. So many people talk about hard work. Yet actions speak louder than words. There's no better way to internalize the hard work habit than to witness it first-hand as a kid every day growing up. In building a successful career and life for himself, Dad embodies the value of focused perseverance.

In addition to work ethic, Dad's writing and speaking skills have taken him far, and he's shared those gifts with me. Dad taught me how to write. In the early days of my fledgling business career, I showed him literally dozens of drafts of business plans, memos, brochures. On each page, he deployed his red pen to suggest ways to make the writing more economical and precise. Dad prized clarity above all, and so from age 12 on I have been pushed to articulate my thinking in as straightforward a manner as possible.

I've also learned from Dad what it means to be serious about something. You can't be "serious" about everything, so choose wisely which things deserve your focus and then hold yourself to high standards when pursuing them.

Dad's taught me intelligence matters but effectively communicating the fruits of your intelligence matters more, that dreams and imagination are nice but one must be grounded in the messy realities of life, that most any scenario can be analyzed by evaluating options, costs, and benefits, and that, through it all, you must never surrender your sense of humor. Seinfeld, after all, was the one TV show that we were encouraged to watch growing up.

Dadbensandiego_small (Dad and me in San Diego, December 2005.)

Mom

Mom was the central figure in my childhood. As a kid I went to museums and parks and the library with her. Throughout the adventures she imparted valuable life skills. She taught me how to shake someone's hand and look a person in the eye. She taught me how to sit at a dinner table and be courteous. The little things.

When I began expressing business interests, Mom didn't push me back to "normal" activities, but neither did she irrationally cheerlead like many moms I see. She was happy if I was happy, a sentiment that's easy to talk about but extremely hard to believe, let alone convey, as a parent.

Mom has taught me about frugality, about doing more with less, about how to use coupons at the supermarket and find wearable clothes at Goodwill.

An intellectual through and through, Mom has showed me the pleasures of unleashed natural curiosity. She reads more than anyone I know and brings to bear an outstanding command of history, art, and literature. As a student, she lived overseas and through her example I took an interest in traveling, now one of my greatest passions. Together we delight in the mysteries of other cultures.

The life of the mind aside, above all, Mom has taught me that heart is more important than brain and that who you are matters more than what you know or do. She's taught me that a rich interior life can sustain a person through stretches of solitude. And that a strong family is the best way to feel a little less alone in the world.

Dad, Mom: I love you. Thanks for being there for me every step of the way for my first 20 years on this planet.

Momandmejapan_blog  (Mom and me in the Japanese alps, June 2006.)

In Praise of Feeling Utterly Confused

I’m in the (freezing) midwest this week to keynote a couple of events and see friends. During Q&A someone asked whether I feel confused about what’s happening on the macro-economic and political front and how that affects how I plan for the future. Here’s the essence of what I tried to say:

I distrust anyone who says he can predict the future or anyone who is overly certain about anything. I am uncertain about most things that are going on around me — especially at a macro level, but also on a personal level, where almost daily some of my intuitions about what will happen get mugged by reality. I plan and think about the future a great deal, but no matter how much I plan, shit happens. As Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” I think we lie to ourselves about how in control we are. Chaos rules. Randomness rules. Emotions grip us. I’d like to think I posses a kind of inner calm that helps me make rational decisions day-to-day. I know I’m stable and confident (sometimes too confident) and, most of the time, relentlessly optimistic and happy. But I’d be lying if I said this amounted to a high degree of certainty about where the world is headed or even what in God’s name I’ll be doing in five years. I suppose I see the more enlightened among us as having achieved a certain comfortableness with uncertainty / confusion.

I would add that if you don’t regularly feel utterly confused, if you don’t occasionally feel like you’re treading just above water, if you don’t ever feel misunderstood, then you probably aren’t living in life — you’re just observing it.

The “living in life” concept comes from Joan Didion, whose quote to this effect I reproduce in the Introduction of my book. It’s from her UC Riverside commencement address:

I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is ncessarily part of the package, I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.

Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”

Just finished Gladwell’s latest book Outliers. It was a fun read but not sure I would have bought it on my own (I read the pre-pub galley).

I would say more but I cannot match Tyler Cowen’s very interesting review, do go read it.

Here’s my delicious tag for Malcolm Gladwell.

Main Side Effect of Some Drugs: Identity Confusion

It’s astonishing how effective pharmaceuticals are today with only very minor side effects.

But there’s one side effect yet solved and I suspect it’s the most potent for some drugs: the identity confusion of whether the you on drugs is really “you.”

For drugs that deal with personality issues or depression, I imagine even a successful patient must grapple with whether their newly improved state is artificial. (Artificial in a more serious way than the effect of myriad everyday things like coffee.) Am I really happy or is it just the drug that’s tricking me into thinking so?

If the goal is to have people take medication that can help them while also minimizing in their own minds the fact that they’re on medication, maybe these drugs could induce temporary amnesia immediately after swallowing the pill? The problem is that you need to know you’ve actually taken it!

Bottom Line: We’ve made remarkable progress in eliminating the biological side effects of anti-depressants and other mind-altering drugs, but still have to figure out how to deal with the assorted identity and self-understanding issues that can bedevil medicated patients.

(Note: I have never been on any these drugs so I’m speaking from observation not experience.)