Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Fantasy That There’s Always Someone Better Just Around the Corner

Yesterday's Modern Love column was one of the best. A great example of how a short story can convey some of the key dynamics of dating / romance better than lengthy exposition. Hard to excerpt, so read the whole thing, but here's the ending:

In the months that followed, I was determined to become a better version of myself — prettier, smarter, more ambitious — and looked for the same in new boyfriends. As it turned out, though, they were looking for someone better, too. In New York, and especially in the movie business, it’s hard to dispel the fantasy that there’s always someone better just around the corner.

Yet by embracing this notion, I had allowed my life to become an ongoing cycle of shallow disappointments that left me longing for someone like my Tim Donohue, who could be satisfied with exactly what he had and who he was. Even more, I longed to be that kind of person again, too.

Why “Sputnik” Doesn’t Fire Up Americans

Will Wilkinson on Obama's state of the union address and the follies of telling Americans that this is our "Sputnik moment":

I'm lucky to have been in the last cohort of American children to grow up with the living fear of total nuclear annihilation. That "the world's fastest computer" now chugs away in China hardly leaves fourth-graders contemplating the futility of ducking under their desks as a widening ball of atomic fire races to melt their helpless flesh. Nor does the swiftness of Chinese microprocessors excite my competitive spirit. It makes me eager to buy a new ThinkPad.

Here's the essence of the Lexington post Will links to:

It is not hard to see why the Sputnik era appeals to Mr Obama. For all the talk they hear about China’s headlong investment in infrastructure, American voters are lukewarm about their own government’s spending, especially if debt or taxes must rise to pay for it. A new Sputnik moment might change their minds. But in the 1960s Americans were sure their system could deliver the goods. Today they are perplexed by the success of China’s model and divided on how, if it is even possible, to restore the health of their own. They should resolve that quarrel on its merits and keep the China scare out of it. 

Agreed.

Despite what polls and pundits say, I think most Americans are not terribly anxious about America the country "falling behind" China the country. When a person's job gets shipped overseas, he cares. When a product is cheap or not cheap on the shelves of Wal-Mart, he cares. Abstract talk about American exceptionalism and the importance of the U.S. being number one, as if there were one ultimate ranking? Hard to get fired up.

I'm obviously pro-innovation, pro-growth, etc., but I'm not convinced that the marketing effort undertaken by Obama and many pundits — namely, declaring now a Sputnik moment, implicitly vis-a-vis China — is the going to effectively galvanize the average American to innovate or in some other way feel extra inspired to help grow the economy.

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Programming note: All comments left on this blog require a first and last name, and email address. Your email address will not show up on the site but it does show up to me in email. In the past I have usually deleted any comments that are not fully attributed, and will be more consistent about doing so going forward.

Skeptoid’s Skeptical Take on Myers-Briggs

Skeptoid by Brian Dunning is my favorite podcast. I download episodes onto my iPod and listen to them while driving (earbud in one ear).

I recently enjoyed his take on Myers-Briggs Personality Test. I've seen personality tests used to detrimental effect in the workplace. For example, employees getting pigeonholed by their bosses based on the results of their test. So I was already skeptical (notwithstanding the fact that every McKinsey person I know swears by Myers-Briggs). Listening to Brian's report affirmed my skepticism. Here's the bottom line:

I do find one common theme among mainstream psychotherapists where the use of the MBTI is advised, and that's as a conversation starter. It's a fine way to give people a quick snapshot of what their strengths and weaknesses might be, and of those with whom they interact. To get the dialog going, this is a perfectly valid tool. But as a tool for making career decisions, relationship decisions, or psychiatric assessment, no. Although it would be nice to have a magically easy self-analysis tool that can make your decisions for you and be your crystal ball, the Myers-Briggs test is not it. It is interesting and it does have value as a starting point for meaningful dialog, but that's where the line should be drawn.

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Last year I donated to two non-profit content providers: Skeptoid and the Wikimedia Foundation (which oversees Wikipedia, my favorite web site).

Iconoclasts

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At Cal Newport's recommendation, I've watched three episodes of Iconoclasts, a television series that runs on the Sundance Channel. Each episode is 45 minutes and juxtaposes two iconoclasts from a range of fields who engage in conversation about each other's lives and work. Instead of a one-way interview from a journalist, each all-star is eager to ask questions of the other. This creates a dynamic conversation that gives you a unique window into the lives and minds of accomplished people.

My favorite so far has been NBA star Steve Nash and uber-movie director Ron Howard. It opens in Chicago where Howard is shooting The Dilemma, and the two of them talk about the creative process of film making. They compare the thrill of victory and disappointment of defeat in basketball to filmmaking. They play a game of one-on-one hoops. Howard comes off as humble and thoughtful. Nash comes off as articulate and wise. Nash's closing lines about the meaning of life were especially impressive.

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, and Norman Lear, Hollywood legend, were also interesting, although less philosophical and more biographical. I'm looking forward to watching Steve Penn and Jon Krauker next.

You can buy episodes on iTunes. Some are free on Comcast On Demand. Easy to watch, stimulating, inspiring. Recommended.

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Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary that made me think a lot about the business of art. I recommend it highly.

Links from Around the Web

Quick link dump:

— Marc Benioff's riffs (20 minute video interview) on the future of work seem spot-on. Marc sees enterprise software looking more and more like Facebook — the changes in software should be accompanied by new management practices and compensation structures.

One way to inspire, NFL edition:

There were 65 yards between the Steelers and the end zone in their A.F.C. divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens, which was tied with less than four minutes remaining when [quarterback] Ben Roethlisberger entered the huddle.

The local train was leaving for the conference championship game on a cold, sleety Saturday night, and Roethlisberger, the Steelers’ quarterback, wanted to know if all his offensive teammates were aboard.

“I’m going down to score,” Roethlisberger said, according to Steelers receiver Michael Wallace. “Who’s coming down with me?”

— Chris Yeh thoughtfully assesses the different ways to be influential on Twitter.

— Arnold Schwarzenegger reflects on leaving office:

I can only operate to the utmost and to 100 percent of my potential if I have no safety net. Because it's only then that I'm at my peak. That's one reason I never did TV shows — I didn't want to have that security. What I liked about being governor was never knowing how a meeting would end. The legislative leaders could leave and destroy you to the press. Or they go out and compliment you. So you don't know. You don't know the way the people go. One year they like something, the next year it's number seven on their priority list. So you just never know. That brings excitement and spice to life. And that to me is the difference between living and existing.

Here's a piece in the Atlantic about why Arnold did more to save California than his critics think. Here's a piece about why California's financial problems are overstated. To California-bashers in the national media, the author notes: "In the quarter century through 2005 (the most recent year for which we have data), Californians bailed out the rest of America to the tune of about $620 billion in today’s dollars. In 2005 alone it came to nearly $50 billion."

— Here's a video of a robot harvesting strawberries — it knows which are ripe and which are not. What would we do without the Japanese?

— Is Andrew Mason the funniest big-time CEO alive right now? (Here are more examples.)

— Two girls order Indian food in Hindi over the phone…even though they don't speak Hindi. This is the future. (The Economist reviewed the recent book on whether English will someday not be the lingua franca.)

— Via Justin Rockefeller, this is a 60 Minutes report on people who can remember every detail of every day of their life. It's called "Super Autobiographical Memory." Fascinating.

— The would-be Times Square bomber was on a plane bound for Dubai that was seconds from taking off at JFK. Then the pilot got an urgent message from air traffic control. Here's the audio of the conversation.

— Steve Blank, expert entrepreneur and Silicon Valley leader, honestly assesses the state of entrepreneurship in Chile after a two week visit.

— This was the rap song I listened to while driving today. First few verses are epic. The opening line channels Steinbeck: "there's a thin line between anger and hunger my man / And I ride a unicycle down the middle, you might catch me touchin feet down on both sides." Later: "If you drop three crumbs, Ill eat one / Feed one to the family, rest I get invested in my freedom."

Top Performers Maniacally Prepare for Job Interviews

Ramit is killing it over at his blog. In his recent post How to ace the world's toughest interviews, he says top performers maniacally prepare and hustle in order to land jobs at competitive companies. Below is a story he recounts.


A few months ago, I met a college student at a conference. He was telling me about his job search. “I have a few companies I want to go after,” he said excitedly. “I’m pretty sure I can get a job offer from all of them. Then I'll have to pick! I just have to start working on my interviews. What do you suggest?”

I asked him if he’d researched the interview process. Had he done any practice interviews with friends? What about reaching out to older friends who worked there? He shook his head no impatiently. Then he told me he’d get to all that, but did I have any “tips” to share with him?

I didn’t know what to tell him. He had no idea what he was getting into.

The companies he named were some of the most competitive in the Bay Area. He had little experience (which is fine for college students) and a competitive GPA. But his communication skills were terrible. As we talked — with him talking at me instead of with me — I compared him to a group of friends I had in college.

During interview season, this group of friends and I sat around the dining halls and shared our best interview techniques on a regular basis. We shared the craziest questions we got, the best answers we’d given, and the strategies that alumni — the hiring managers — had let us in on. My friends from this group went on to get jobs at McKinsey, BCG, Google, Goldman, and other extraordinary companies.

This isn’t meant to brag. But let me share what was happening in these dining-hall meetings. Each of us was relentlessly focused on becoming the world’s best interviewees. We studied interview techniques — for hours every week. We tested our best material with interviewers. (Many students would schedule interviews with companies they have no interest in to use as “practice interviews.” Like it or not, it works.) Then we brought it back to the group, compared notes, practiced our cadence, rhythm, and tone, tore each other’s answers apart, and systematically improved our interview skills. Over and over.

So when this random guy at a conference was telling me his interview strategy, there was a game going on around him that he didn’t even realize. Serious applicants to companies like McKinsey were practicing their case-interview techniques for MONTHS before they ever stepped foot in the interview room. These same applicants that had talked to alumni/friends currently at their target companies to get the inside scoop on what really mattered in the interviews. They’d read books and Vault Guides and had attended info sessions. By the time they got to the interview, they were absolutely ready.

And, as with virtually any other complex transaction, 85% of the work was done before these serious candidates ever stepped foot into the interview room.

And the scary thing is, this is what most top performers do.

What does this mean for you?

Am I saying that you need connections and dozens of hours of interview prep to get a job with these companies?

Of course not.

But it sure stacks the odds in your favor.

James Franco and Matt Taibbi: Leading Full Lives

I recently read long-ish profiles of James Franco and Matt Taibbi. After reading each one, I thought, "They are both leading very full lives." In a good way.

From The James Franco Project in New York magazine:

According to everyone I spoke with, Franco has an unusually high metabolism for productivity. He seems to suffer, or to benefit, from the opposite of ADHD: a superhuman ability to focus that allows him to shuttle quickly between projects and to read happily in the midst of chaos. He hates wasting time—a category that includes, for him, sleeping. (He’ll get a few hours a night, then survive on catnaps, which he can fall into at any second, sometimes even in the middle of a conversation.) He doesn’t drink or smoke or—despite his convincingness in Pineapple Express—do drugs. He’s engineered his life so he can spend all his time either making or learning about art. When I asked people if Franco actually does all of his own homework, some of them literally laughed right out loud at me, because apparently homework is all James Franco ever really wants to do. The photo of him sleeping in class, according to his assistant, wasn’t even from one of his classes: It was an extra lecture he was sitting in on, after a full day of work and school, because he wanted to hear the speaker.

From Lost Exile in Vanity Fair, which is more an overview of a subversive English language newspaper Taibbi ran in Moscow:

Taibbi masqueraded as an executive from the New York Jets and tried to recruit Mikhail Gorbachev to move to New Jersey to become a motivational coach for the team. Later, reporting from Manhattan, he exposed Wall Street’s complicity in 1998’s disastrous ruble devaluation, bought a gorilla suit, walked to Goldman Sachs’s headquarters on Water Street, and sat down on the lobby floor for lunch, announcing to the security guards, “If Goldman Sachs can make a $50 million commission selling worthless Russian debt, then I can come into their offices in a gorilla suit and eat a sandwich on their floor.” The Exile took overt moral stands, too, vigorously opposing most American military actions, including the bombing of Serbia in 1999, when it published a Moscow city map showing the offices of American defense contractors contributing to the war, with the hope of inciting protests. Ames and Taibbi even staged their own protest near the U.S. Embassy. Taibbi held up a “free mike tyson” sign.

I recommend both in their entirety. (Thanks to Rob Montz and Jackie Danicki for sending.)

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I had never heard of James Franco prior to reading the article. So I went to YouTube, typed in his name, and watched a bit of his interview with Jimmy Kimmel. With YouTube, it's not about the video. It's about how idiotic and incoherent or otherwise hilarious the comments section will be. For the Kimmel clip, the comments didn't disappoint. The very first one from CrayolaBabez: "I WOULD HAVE CLIMBED THE SIDE OF THE FUCKING BUILDING AND RAPED HIM, HE;S SO BEAUTIFUL. OH MY GOD."

Cities Built Around Airports (and China Fact of the Day)

China is building 100 new airports by 2020. By the time that’s all done, 1.5 billion Chinese will live within 90 minutes of an airport.

That's from this review of the forthcoming book Aerotroplis: The Way We'll Live Next, which looks interesting.

The book's premise is that future cities will be built around airports as opposed to the other way around:

What rules in today’s globalized economy is accessibility and speed, and modern airports are its fastest connection points—the physical embodiment of our increasingly e-commerce-driven world. Yes, the vast bulk of trade still goes by sea, but already one-third of its value travels by air. Indeed, the value of air cargo has grown more than four times faster than global trade over the past several decades.

And more:

Individual companies don’t compete. Supply chains compete. Networks and systems compete.” Soon to join that global competition are planned mega-airports/cities right out of the Kasarda playbook: the “aerotropolis emirates” of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, where ambitious monarchs are “playing SimCity for real”; and South Korea’s stunning New Songdo City, a metropolis built around an airport built on a man-made island—a “pocket Manhattan” designed to rival Hong Kong for the cargo connectivity to mainland China that it offers the world economy.

The co-author is Greg Lindsay, who writes about "the intersection of transportation, urbanization, and globalization." For one article he wrote, Lindsay spent three continuous weeks in airplanes or airports.

As someone who has spent too much time looking up UPS and FedEx cargo routes and international commerical flight routes, and spent too much time perusing the message boards of flyertalk.com to read about airport lounges, mileage programs, and the business prospects of the new SFO-ZRH non-stop — I am looking forward to this book!

(On a related note, I reccomend this USA Today Twitter feed for the latest airline industry news.)

Twitter, Transience, and Tempo

Anil Dash notes the double edged sword of Twitter's transience:

Perhaps the most important psychological innovation of Twitter is that it assumes you won't see every message that comes along. There's no count of unread items, and very little social cost to telling a friend that you missed their tweet. That convenience and social accommodation is incredibly valuable and an important contribution to the web.

However, by creating a lossy environment where individual tweets are disposable, there's also an environment where few will build the infrastructure to support broader, more meaningful conversations that could be catalyzed by a tweet. In many ways, this means the best tweets for advancing an idea are those that contain links to more permanent media.

He's right that the guilt-free nature of Twitter is a delight. You can go a few days without checking it and it's "okay." But the downside of such a set-up is captured in Anil's post title: If You Didn't Blog It, It Didn't Happen. This is not just about the 140 character limit of Twitter (though obviously that's a major impediment to conversations). Tweets come and go, and if it's gone, it's (basically) gone. As evidence of this, I'd link you to a "debate" David Frum and Virginia Postrel had last week on Twitter about health care policy, of which I read bits and pieces, but alas, it's too hard to find and impossible to reference in full.

Blog posts are easily linked-to, archived, tagged. Lengthy conversations can ensue in the posts and comments section. And an RSS reader efficiently captures everything (though it could do a better job at tracking multi-blog conversations). I'd give up Twitter without much of a fuss, whereas you'd have to fight me to death to take away my RSS reader and blogs. I'd miss Twitter, to be sure — it's fun to see an on-going stream of gestures from people I care about. But it's not core to my intellectual experience on the web.

Stowe Boyd concludes on a philosophical note:

Lurking behind Anil’s practicality are the more philosophical issues of time and transience. Yes, we don’t need to retain every tweet ever read or written. We can accept the fast and furious impermanence of most tweets, and the up tempo pace of the Twitter bloodstream. But we want to also operate at a slower pace, dealing with deeper and abiding interests, ideas, and connections. We need to be able to shift tempo without missing a beat.

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Here's my post on the evolving uses of Twitter.

Book Reviews: The Personal MBA and What They Don’t Teach You at HBS

Josh Kaufman’s book The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business was just published. It is an exhaustive overview of the concepts and vocabulary that make the business world go round. If you’re new to business or early in your career and want to freshen up your grasp of some of the key words and ideas in systems theory, sales, marketing, and psychology, I recommend it. Josh’s skill is distilling complex topics into easily understandable chunks. It’s not narrative, easy reading — as he notes at the outset, it’s a skim, scan, and reference type of book to keep on your bookshelf and consult as needed. Also check out Josh’s library of the 99 best books on business.

Mark McCormack’s book What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School has been around for almost 30 years and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It’s a classic, and I only now got around to reading it. It has nothing to do with Harvard Business School. McCormack was the first “real” sports agent (founder of IMG Sports) and the book is 14 principles of business delivered via his personal stories and experiences. The book engaged me all the way through, and I learned a lot. However, it’s a little cutthroat at times and the advice on how to “deal with” people might be a turn off to the less aggressive among us. Highlights, direct quotes and paraphrases:

  • The importance of reading people and studying body language. Be wary when someone strikes a pose or when their casualness is a little too studied.
  • The most important question of all when assessing a person’s ego: How secure is this person?
  • People often reveal their innermost selves in the most innocent of situations. (E.g. dealing with a waiter.)
  • Business is a constant process of keeping your own guard up while encouraging others to lower theirs.
  • If I am presumed to be knowledgeable about a situation, I will often say something within the first minute or two of a meeting that might indicate otherwise. At the least it’s disarming; and generally the less knowledgeable one appears the more forthcoming and revealing the other party will be.
  • When a crisis occurs or is in the process of occurring, don’t react. Just say you’d like to think about it.
  • Once you’ve sold, shut up. And don’t try to dot every i and cross every t. Confirm the understanding later in writing but don’t dampen the enthusiasm once deal closes in person or on phone.
  • In sales, people have a need to say no, so let them say no to a few (trivial) things. A few well-placed no’s create the environment for “yes.”
  • Ask when we can meet and how soon — and then show up. The farther you have to fly, the more impressive it is.
  • A large group is more than one. Sell to one person. Find the key guy and sell to him. If you try to sell into more than one person at the same time, you are introducing into the sale the dynamics of their interrelationships, which can do nothing but detract from your purpose. The key guy will know how it sell it into the organization.
  • A woman approached Picasso in a restaurant and asked him to scribble something on a napkin, and said she would be happy to pay whatever he felt it was worth. Picasso complied and then said, “That will be $10,000.”  “But you did that in thirty seconds,” the astonished woman replied.  “No,” Picasso said, “It has taken me forty years to do that.”
  • 99% of the world should be working for somebody. Not everybody should be entrepreneurs.