Monthly Archives: March 2010

Sonia Sotomayor Has Pursued Her Calling

Last year David Brooks wrote a column about Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor's life and career, pointing out the personal sacrifices that accompanied her amazing professional journey. It's good follow-up to my post last night:

As a young woman, she earned a reputation as a fanatically driven worker, who lived on caffeine and cigarettes….

Her marriage broke up after two years. She was quoted as saying, “I cannot attribute that divorce to work, but certainly the fact that I was leaving my home at 7 and getting back at 10 o’clock was not of assistance in recognizing the problems developing in my marriage.”

Later, during a swearing-in ceremony in 1998, she referred to her then-fiancé, “The professional success I had achieved before Peter did nothing to bring me genuine personal happiness.” She addressed him, saying that he had filled “voids of emptiness that existed before you. … You have altered my life so profoundly that many of my closest friends forget just how emotionally withdrawn I was before I met you.”

That relationship ended after eight years, and her biographers paint a picture of a life now that is frantically busy, fulfilling and often aloof. “You make play dates with her months and months in advance because of her schedule,” a friend of hers told The Times….

These profiles give an authentic glimpse of a style of life that hasn’t yet been captured by a novel or a movie — the subtle blend of high-achiever successes, trade-offs and deep commitments to others. In the profiles, you see the intoxicating lure of work, which provides an organizing purpose and identity. You see the web of mentor-mentee relationships — the courtship between the young and the middle-aged, and then the tensions as the mentees break off on their own…. You see the way people not only choose a profession, it chooses them. It changes them in a way they probably didn’t anticipate at first.

… Sotomayor’s life also overlaps with a broader class of high achievers. You don’t succeed at that level without developing a single-minded focus, and struggling against its consequences.

(thanks to JP Adams for the pointer)


Soon I'm giving speeches in Milwaukee, WI; outer Baltimore; Reno, NV; Riverside, CA; outer Philadelphia; and Jakarta and Surabaya, Indonesia. If you live nearby and want to come, email me for info. Same goes if you would like to invite me to speak at your organization, university, or conference.

Do You Want a Family or a Calling?

From the "Personal Life" section of Ralph Nader's Wikipedia page:

Nader has never married. Karen Croft, a writer who worked for Nader in the late 1970s at the Center for Study of Responsive Law, once asked him if he had ever considered getting married. "He said that at a certain point he had to decide whether to have a family or to have a career, that he couldn't have both," Croft recalled. "That's the kind of person he is. He couldn't have a wife — he's up all night reading the Congressional Record.

I would say the choice is between a family and a calling.

First, let's review Michael Lewis's distinction between a "career" and a "calling":

A job will never satisfy you all by itself, but it will afford you security and the chance to pursue an exciting and fulfilling life outside of your work. A calling is an activity you find so compelling that you wind up organizing your entire self around it — often to the detriment of your life outside of it.

If you have a job / career you have plenty of time and energy for your own family, but it's maybe harder to change the world with your professional work. If you want a calling, you don't have time for a family.

To me "family" means kids. If you are parenting children, it's virtually impossible to have a professional calling as Lewis defines it. "Family" can also mean having a spouse who's pursuing his or her professional calling — then, even without kids, it's impossible for you to do the same. (Power couples rarely work out.)

People who start a company and work obsessively to make it go are usual suspects for following a "calling." And how many of them have children or a spouse who's also doing something equally immersive? Few.

I believe the unvarnished reality about work-life-balance is this: the only people who successfully follow an all-consuming, high-impact professional calling are: a) either single or married to a someone who has a "career" (or less) and not a "calling" and, b) do not have kids.

The most effective men and women of this variety tend to be married to a comparatively passive partner (this does not mean objectively passive) because marriage boosts happiness, and do not have kids.

Yes, there are plenty of exceptions, but that's what they are: exceptions. Yes, Lewis's distinction is too rigid, but it's to make a point.

Many men, including some of Silicon Valley's most famous, do their "calling" early in life and then "career" later in life with kids. Men have the luck of being able to organize their lives in a way that this can work. Women, not so much. Damn biological clock.

Of course, what do I know? I don't have kids, and I don't have much experience with either career or calling, and I'm not backing these claims with data. I could tick off examples of people I know or have observed, but I don't want to publicly characterize their family or spousal arrangements. So for now I offer only Ralph Nader's candor and my intuitions based on observing people in the world.


A male reader of Andrew Sullivan's blog writes:

When I came to LA, I left behind a wonderful relationship with a woman who was much too good for me. In the intervening four years, I've gotten on a path towards a high-earning career. However, I have also felt more emotional pain than in the rest of my life combined.  I've hardly even had a date since working 70-80 hours a week. I recently tried crawling back to my old girlfriend, but she wanted nothing to do with me.

I don't want to address any specific person whose email you printed, because maybe some of them have encountered legitimate sexism – which does exist. But, while women have a lot of avenues to address potential earnings gaps, men like me have no means to seek recompense for the emotional toll taken out on us by the expected focus on our careers.

The general point of the email is that the emotional needs of men are mostly ignored. Especially around this business of careers and family.

Make a Trivial Concession That Allows Other Person to Feel Like the Winner

Recently I had the bad luck of flying through Philadelphia “We Lose Bags So You Don’t Have To” International Airport and as I waited in the gate area I witnessed an argument break out between a passenger and the gate agent. The passenger wanted to carry on his bag, the gate agent told him it was too big and he had to check it. The passenger resisted and started yelling at the gate agent, shouting, in essence, hell no you won’t check my bag! Everyone started watching. The passenger insisted his bag would fit in the overhead and the gate agent said, no, it’s too big. People stared and laughed and egged on the passenger. Neither party gave ground. Voices were raised. Screaming match ensued. Eventually security came and apprehended the guy for unruliness in the terminal. As the carry-on-bag-martyr was escorted out, I may have even heard him channel Newman from Seinfeld: “Tell the world my story.”

Bravery notwithstanding, the passenger made two obvious tactical mistakes.

First, by yelling he escalated the dispute to become a public spectacle. If people generally do not like admitting they are wrong or ceding ground in a negotiation, they hate making such an admission in a public or group setting.

Second, he did not make any concession that would allow the gate agent to claim victory and permit the bag as a carry-on. For example, he could have taken a kleenex out of the outer pocket and then said, “Ok, you’re right, so I’ve taken some stuff out so it will fit. OK?” No guarantees, but it increases his chances.

Remember, issues like this are rarely about the actual technical details as much as they are about power, status, and psychology.

Bottom Line: People hate admitting they are wrong or that they “lost.” So in stalemated negotiations give the other person an opportunity to be “right” by making a trivial concession that allows him to emotionally feel like the winner.

The Murky, Complicated Reality of China

The one man everyone should read on China — Peter Hessler — posts on the New Yorker blog about Google's decision to withdraw from the mainland and run an uncensored search engine from Hong Kong.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, told the Wall Street Journal that China has "made great strides against poverty and whatnot, but nevertheless, in some aspects of their policy, particularly with regard to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see the same earmarks of totalitarianism, and I find that personally quite troubling."

Hessler writes:

“Totalitarianism” is not the right word; China’s current form of authoritarianism is a world apart from Mao or Stalin. “Whatnot” might be more useful—when Brin speaks of China’s strides against “poverty and whatnot,” he touches on the great gray zone that has occupied the energies of most citizens over the past two decades. The whatnot includes vastly improved literacy, unprecedented freedom of movement, the ability to start businesses and change jobs, and the sudden availability of cell phones and Internet. But it does not include political freedom by any definition of the term. This is one reason why China is such a difficult place to do business, or even to analyze accurately: it’s hard to define what it is, and even harder to tell where it’s going.

He goes on to say:

As a personal decision, Google’s stance toward China is admirable, because the company turned down profits in order to make a statement. And it’s an effective way for Sergey Brin to express valuable lessons that he learned during the past in the Soviet Union. But his statement might have less relevance to the China of today and especially to the China of tomorrow. It reflects a frustration that is common among more idealistic foreigners, who have always hoped to provide a guiding light to the Reform years. By now it’s obvious that the Chinese reality is far murkier—all that whatnot, the great gray zone of personal improvement without political advancement. And the country has shown a strong and stubborn tendency to resist following any political model imported from abroad. Outsiders might have a great deal of influence, but it’s often indirect; foreigners can provide key tools, but the Chinese are determined to figure out how to use them on their own. And now, when it comes to the Internet, there’s one less tool out there.

The murky, complicated reality of China. The great gray zone of personal improvement without political advancement. If there's one theme that emerges time and time again when reading the dispatches of the most thoughtful commentators on China, it's the complexity of it all.

As I've said before, I am net net pro-China (whatever that means) and I believe the most virulent anti-China sentiment in the west is uninformed at best and racist and xenophobic at worst.

Here's what I learned on my three week trip there last year. Here's Robin Hanson on the China bashing that takes place in the Western media. Here's Christopher Hayes' astonishingly good (for a two week trip) long-form piece in The Nation.

(thanks to Seth Roberts for the Hessler pointer)

The Difference Between Banality and Profundity

Generally a few billion dollars, Daniel Gross says, in a short Slate piece:

The real alchemy of finance is to endow those skilled at finance to wield authority in adjacent or even unrelated areas. That's the general theory of Davos, bankers sharing their theories about nonbanking subjects. Stick around and you'll hear a lot of conventional wisdom on globalization, climate change, poverty reduction, financial crisis, but it somehow sounds deeper and more weighty because it's delivered by an extraordinarily wealthy CEO, a private equity executive, or hedge fund manager rather than by a journalist.

His case-in-point is George Soros, who we listen to on topics ranging from U.S. politics to philosophy, even though his views in these areas may not be unusually insightful.

The truth is we listen to rich people on a range of issues not for their insights but because a billionaire is in a position to actually implement the conventional wisdom. Is Bill Gates the most original voice on education reform in America? No, but whatever he does believe, banal or not, matters, because if he wants to make a difference he can.

Still, Gross's point is well taken: expertise is context-specific, and billionaires rarely have the most interesting things to say.

The Wisdom of Magnus Carlsen

Der Spiegel did an interview with the #1 chess player in the world, Magnus Carlsen. He's 19 years-old. He comes off as incredibly normal. And very wise.

On the downsides of being too smart:

Of course it is important for a chess player to be able to concentrate well, but being too intelligent can also be a burden. It can get in your way.

On the advantages of being young and curious today — you have so much info available at a young age:

my success mainly has to do with the fact that I had the opportunity to learn more, more quickly. It has become easier to get hold of information. The players from the Soviet Union used to be at a huge advantage; in Moscow they had access to vast archives, with countless games carefully recorded on index cards. Nowadays anyone can buy this data on DVD for 150 euros; one disk holds 4.5 million games. There are also more books than there used to be. And then of course I started working with a computer earlier than Vladimir Kramnik or Viswanathan Anand.

On his thinking style, which will resonate with anyone who doesn't like formal schooling:

I’m not a disciplined thinker. Organisation is not my thing; I am chaotic and tend to be lazy. My trainer recognised that and as a rule allowed me to practise whatever I felt like at the time….When I am feeling good, I train a lot. When I feel bad, I don’t bother. I don’t enjoy working to a timetable. Systematic learning would kill me.

And perhaps the perspective that shows he will remain king of the hill for awhile:

Chess should not become an obsession. Otherwise there’s a danger that you will slide off into a parallel world, that you lose your sense of reality, get lost in the infinite cosmos of the game. You become crazy. I make sure that I have enough time between tournaments to go home in order to do other things. I like hiking and skiing, and I play football in a club.


George Friedman's clear overview of the U.S. geopolitical interests in Israel is an example of why I subscribe to his weekly newsletter.

Here's a good overview of the effectiveness of nutritional supplements. I take fish oil and a multi-vitamin.

Here's a "how to write" post, including: "Find the weak points in your argument and acknowledge them. Hell, celebrate them." 

The Rice Cooker

The first thing to know about a rice cooker is that it knows more than you.

It knows when the rice is done.

ItBlack-&-decker-20-cup-stainless-steel-rice-cooker knows when the shrimp is cooked.

It knows how to keep food warm for hours on end.

It probably knows more about your emotional state of being in the kitchen than anything or anyone else.

How? "It's a mystery of the orient. Don't ask questions you don't need the answer to."

So, take it from me, a man who has challenged the Cooker's authority two too many times: be deferential in its presence.

The second thing to know about rice cooker is that it is arguably the most versatile piece of kitchen equipment yet invented. How versatile? Think of how versatile peanut butter and cottage cheese are: it's that versatile. Think of Kobe Bryant now with a post game. Think Philip Seymour Hoffman doing the Big Lebowski, Capote, and Doubt.

Want to cook white rice? Done. Brown rice? Done. Banana nut bread? Done. Steam vegetables? Done.  Korean BiBimBap or Chicken Biryani? Done. Want to liberate women in Iran? According to the New York Times, thank rice cookers.

Roger Ebert, in the face of such variety, just calls it "the pot." Me? I'm a religious man. I call it "El Padre."

Bottom Line: Love the rice cooker because the rice cooker loves you.

The “It” Quality

In the business world investors are looking for TheGuy, according to Randall Stross:

The guy. No special emphasis on either the or guy, but no intervening pause, either. TheGuy. That’s the person needed to head a start-up once it has grown beyond a seed. To wit, a stud, ideally, a big honkin’ stud or a total fuckin’ stud. He (or yes, she) will not lack for balls, at least in one sense, but in another will work his nuts off, or his ass off. A high-hustle guy. A total can-do guy. A winner. Smart. Someone with integrity off the charts. Scrappy. A kick-ass dude, a nail-eatin’, nut-crushin’ decision maker, a competitor with killer instincts. Someone who attracts and hires A’s, unafraid to hire above himself. A player. A hitter.

You can abbreviate it: They’re looking for an entrepreneur who has “it.”

When businesspeople don’t have “it,” you can tell. From the Vanity Fair profile of Arthur Sulzberger:

Here, in a nutshell, in the words of a veteran Times staffer, is what is supposedly wrong with Arthur: “He has no rays”—rays, as in the lines cartoonists draw around a character to suggest radiance, or power. In the comics trade these lines are called “emanata.” The emanata deficit is a standard insider lament about Arthur, although most Times people need a few more words to make the point.

“It” means more than “very smart.” Besides suffering from word inflation, “smart” doesn’t capture energy, zest for life, incredible get-shit-done capabilities, and general radiance that seem to accompany these people. It’s the total package.

In the sports world, elite athletes who always take care of business often earn the “it” label. I once watched a football game and heard the announcers say the quarterback has “it.” They went on to say, He is a baller, He is a player, He is a competitor, He is hyper talented. But none of these things seemed sufficient. At a loss, they said again, “He just has ‘it.'”

Finally, the “it” quality lives large in the world of beauty. Supermodels seem just normally beautiful at first. Why do the cameras never tire of them, then? Supermodel beauty involves, among other things, “uncanny symmetry and harmony to their features so that once you start looking at them it becomes difficult to stop.” It’s regular high ranking beauty plus this other harder-to-describe stuff (“harmony to their features”?) that make it work.

You know it when you see it.

Spirituality Fuzziness and The God Within

A year ago I wrote a post about the in-vogue-but-fraught-with-ambiguity self-identification "Spiritual but not religious." My main criticism of this category is that it's so broad as to lack any specific meaning, and people who ID this way usually do not seem focused on adding clarity. Instead, they enjoy the ambiguity that seemingly absolves them from forming clear beliefs (even if a belief is "I don't know if God exists").

But there's another problem with "spiritual but not religious" and its New Age influence: it tends to devolve into a kind of self-worship. A great example is the GQ interview with John Edwards' mistress Rielle Hunter. Here's Hanna Rosin’s take on religion of the self: 

… I read Rielle’s interview and immediately thought of many yoga teachers I’ve met, the acolytes of Marianne Williamson and other devotees of what they call “Eastern” religion. The blossoming New Age/Buddhism lite that populates yoga classes talks about the toxic nature of the Western “ego” (you know, we work too hard, we value ourselves above others, etc.) But then it replaces this ego with something like a supreme inner deity residing in all of us whose dictates can never be ignored … you call it silly but to Rielle it’s so profound—divine, even.

Ross Douthat, who found the Rosin post, says it calls to mind this passage from Chesterton:

Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within.

The “Easy Out” Email Technique

Life is a sales call. Every day we're trying to sell something to somebody — from as little as convincing someone to join you for dinner to as big as selling a potential employer on your credentials. That's why it pays to study sales and psychology.

Most sales activity these days happens over email. So it's important to think through how you can craft emails that get the response you're looking for.

My friend David Cohen, executive director of TechStars (apply to Boulder now!), blogged about a good technique to use that he calls "the easy out." If you've been emailing someone who is not responding and you've followed up by phone and still are not getting an answer, try this:

You can send an email that says something like “It’s been some time and after several attempts, I haven’t received a response from you about my proposal. I realize this may not be a fit for you, but I was hoping you could just let me know for sure with a quick reply so that I can cross you off my list.”…

Magically, you’ll find that providing the easy out sometimes triggers action. Psychologically, it feels like a last chance to the recipient. I’ve noticed that the easy out is generally effective at separating the “maybes” into “No” and “I really am interested – I’ve just been busy.” Most people won’t ignore the easy out (if they receive the message), and their reaction can be telling of their true intentions.

I'll be writing about this topic more later in the year. Let me know if there are other situations where you are interested in how to get the attention of a busy person.


  • Imagine if the SAT lasted two days, covered everything you've ever studied, and decided your future. Welcome to China.
  • When things go wrong or when your expectations are not met, the first words out of your mouth should be: "Hmmm. Interesting."
  • Cool time lapse video of a guy who drove from Los Angeles to New York.
  • What's the difference between liberals and libertarians? Arnold Kling outlines the key points.
  • Long piece on Dave Eggers. "I need eight hours to get 20 minutes of work done…and seven hours of self-loathing."