Monthly Archives: July 2013

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

1. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer. Few writers could produce brief character sketches of about a dozen or so people, break up each sketch into five or six different parts, and then spread those parts out across different Unknownchapters. Somehow, Packer manages to paint vivid pictures of his subjects — who range from a tobacco farmer to a Washington lobbyist to a Silicon Valley icon. Collectively, these portraits lead to a vivid image of what’s happening in America today. As David Brooks wrote in his thoughtful review of the book, the “unwinding” that Packer refers to has to do with three large transformations:

The first is the stagnation of middle-class wages and widening inequality. Depending on which analyst you read, this has to do with the changing nature of the information-age labor market, changing family structures, rising health care costs, the decline of unions or the failure of education levels to keep up with technology.

The second is the crushing recession that began in 2008. Depending on which analyst you read, this was caused by global capital imbalances, bad Federal Reserve policy, greed on Wall Street, faulty risk-assessment models or the insane belief that housing prices would go on rising forever.

The third transformation is the unraveling of the national fabric. Depending on which analyst you read, this is either a gigantic problem (marriage rates are collapsing; some measures of social connection are on the decline) or not a gigantic problem (crime rates are plummeting, some measures of social connection are improving).

2. Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food by Jon Krampner. I love peanut butter. When I return home from trips, one of the first things I do is eat peanut butter. I eat it before going to bed. If that’s not comfort food, I don’t know what is. So skimming this history of Jif and Skippy and the other brands was fun. Hard core fans only. I did like these sentences: “More than Mom’s apple pie, peanut butter is the all-American food. With its rich, roasted-peanut aroma and flavor, caramel hue, and gooey, consoling texture, peanut butter is an enduring favorite, found in the pantries of at least 75% of American kitchens.”

3. How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. This book is high end self-help — it asks “How to live?” and each chapter focuses on a different theme, with the insights all derived from Michel de Montaigne’s classic Essays. It’s a stimulating collection and an accessible introduction to Montaigne’s work.montainge

If you fail to grasp life, it will elude you. If you do grasp it, it will elude you anyway. So you must follow it — and “you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow.”

The trick is to maintain a kind of naive amazement at each instant of experience — but, as Montaigne learned, one of the best techniques for doing this is to write about everything. Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window, opens your eyes to how marvelous such ordinary things are. To look insidey ourself is to open up an even more fantastical realm. The philosopher Maurice Merlau-Ponty called Montaigne a writer who put “a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence.” More recently, the critic Colin Burrow has remarked that astonishment, together with Montaigne’s other key quality, fluidity, are what philosophy should be, but rarely has been, in the Western tradition.

4. Philanthrocapitalism by Matthew Bishop and Matthew Green. A solid introduction to the new generation of philanthrpists like Gates and the mega giving they are undergoing. Some good coverage of corporate philanthropy, too. Two random lessons:

  • People are motivated to give in large part due to religious faith; this explains why Americans are more charitable than Europeans (Americans are more religious) and why people on the political right give more than those on the political left.
  • Government aid usually requires broad consensus and adheres to political correctness; private philanthropy, Mike Bloomberg suggests, is unique in that it can pursue a diversity of agenda.

5. Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It by Kamal Ravikant. A very short and simple book that has generated some buzz amongst some Silicon Valley insiders. How simple? The point of the book is to tell yourself “I love myself” over and over and over again. That’s it. It’s almost laughably simple and almost certainly narcissistic. And I’m not sure I’d recommend the book. Then again, I tried it, and with some sheepishness, I must admit it does make me feel better when I’m feeling blue….

6. Fuck It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way by John Parkin. “Fuck it” is the Western expression of the Eastern idea of “let it go.” Let it go. Fuck it. Move on. Another extremely simplistic book I’m not sure I’d recommend, but kind of amusing to read in parallel with Love Yourself.

7. Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia.

consciousThis is an important book. Mackey and Sisodia present a framework for thinking about capitalism that involves multiple stakeholders and a do-good mission embedded in a for-profit structure. Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, believes we need to “liberate the heroic spirit of business” by letting free market enterprise flourish, because the businesses that themselves flourish are the ones that maintain elevated values, pursue a noble mission, and satisfy a variety of stakeholders (not just the shareholders). I expect we’ll see more and more books that seek to explain the default moral arc of capitalism.

The Power of the Word “Yet”

Suppose your boss pulls you aside and tells you: “You don’t have the right skills for the project.”

Then suppose a different situation, where your boss tells you: “You don’t have the right skills for the project, yet” or “You don’t yet have the connections to make this deal happen.”

The word yet makes all the difference in the world. In the first example, you feel like a dud. In the examples with “yet,” you feel like you may not be ready now, but you could be in the future.

Carol Dweck, the Stanford professor who’s researched the idea of a “growth mindset,”elaborates:

By [using the word “yet”] we give people a time perspective. It creates the idea of learning over time. It puts the other person on that learning curve and says, “Well, maybe you’re not at the finish line but you’re on that learning curve and let’s go further.” It’s such a growth mindset word.

As Chris Yeh points out, when you’re mentoring or helping someone, you want to emphasize the idea of on-going improvement. He offers two more “yet” examples:

“You haven’t been able to find a replicable sales model…yet. But each program your startup tried has taught you something, and you’re refining your approach.”

“You haven’t been able to play that violin piece without mistakes…yet. But every time you practice, you’re getting a little better.”

Bottom Line: Next time you need to criticize or offer feedback to a colleague, add the word “yet” — and you’ll be encouraging a growth mindset.

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A single word can carry an entire thought. In a previous LinkedIn post, I noted that basketball coach Gregg Popovich inspired his players to work hard with the phrase “I want some nasty.” The word “nasty” brings the idea to life.

(Originally posted on LinkedIn)

We Flit About Joyfully in the Light

Imagine a vast hall in Anglo-Saxon England, not long after the passing of King Arthur. It is the dead of winter and a fierce snowstorm rages outside, but a great fire fills the space within the hall with warmth and light. Now and then, a sparrow darts in for refuge from the weather. It appears as if from nowhere, flits about joyfully in the light, and then disappears again, and where it comes from and where it goes next in that stormy darkness, we do not know.

Our lives are like that.

Those are the opening words of the introduction to The Upanishads as translated and collected by Eknath Easwaran, a classic of Indian / Hindu spiritually.

From where we came and to where we go afterwards — who knows — but for minuscule amount of time that we’re alive, we are like the sparrow that emerges and follows the light, darts around playfully, and then before long returns to the vast darkness outside, never to be seen again. I like this image.

Knowledge & Networks Enabling More Youth Entrepreneurship

Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurship, practiced around the world, is hot. There are several reasons why starting a tech startup is easier and cheaper and therefore as popular as ever today: the vanishingly low costs of laptops, storage, video conferencing and other technology tools; talent marketplaces like Odesk and Linkedin; cloud computing infrastructure like Amazon Web Services; distribution platforms like Facebook and Twitter for spreading consumer internet apps; a more structured and accessible angel financing market (facilitated by AngelList and others); and so on.

The entrepreneurship boom is particular pronounced among youth. High school and college kids, when surveyed, are clocking in at record highs in terms of expressed interest in entrepreneurship, and as far as media reports and VC whisperings go, it’s no longer unusual to hear about a teen who’s starting a company or setting up some sort of organization or leading an entrepreneurial cause. Youth benefit from all the aforementioned forces that enable more entrepreneurship generally — especially the tech advances that have made everything cheaper.

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But there’s one category of change that, to me, is as important an enabler of entrepreneurship as any other: in the past few years, the body of knowledge about how to start a company, how to code and work with technology, and how to thrive as a businessperson in general has gotten extremely well organized and of course is freely accessible to all.

Back when I got interested in tech entrepreneurship in the year 2000 (I was 12 years old), I harbored a boatload of raw interest but knew next to nothing about technology and business, and didn’t have relationships with any tech/business entrepreneurs, either. There were no entrepreneurship bloggers. Information on the web was scattered and of uneven quality. I remember posting questions about market segmentation on the low-tech forums of IdeaCafe.com and being confused by the answers I got back.

So from day one, I hustled relentlessly to chip away at my ignorance by doing things that seem positively old school by today’s standards.

I went to the San Francisco Public Library and loaned out books on marketing.

I looked up local event listings in Silicon Valley, tracked down the bios and email addresses of the speakers, and, rather than physically attend each public event, the day after the event was scheduled to have happened I emailed the speaker and requested a copy of their PowerPoint deck. The speakers assumed I had attended, and were happy to send me their decks, on everything from pricing strategy to customer service to internet trends.

I lobbied my 7th grade history/economics teacher, who had a collection of Harvard Business Reviews stacked up on his reading shelf, to allow me to copy a few articles in the school’s Xerox machine. I ended up copying thousands of pages of HBR articles into a custom binder that I kept for myself. I had to stop when a school administrator caught me using the copy machine and insisted, kind of incredibly, that I should buy the re-print rights to articles I wanted for myself instead of photocopying them.

I cold called the business school dean at Golden Gate University and asked if I could audit their business classes, and they agreed. I sat in several classes on management and marketing for free.

I went to Goodwill and bought cassette tapes of Tony Robbins’ original classic Personal Power — my first introduction to the self-help genre. (I have agency in the world!)

I attended a “tech camp” at the University of San Francisco to learn Basic (but switched to HTML and CSS). It was okay. There were no good online classes for on-going instruction; I had to teach myself basic HTML by viewing the source code on web sites, copying the code into BBEdit, and then deleting and editing lines of code line-by-line until I figured out what each command did.

I met with volunteer SCORE counselors at the local SBA office and they taught me about income statements, balance sheets, and cash flow statements.

And I reached out to businesspeople in the community to begin building a professional network. The very first person in my network was my neighbor Mike, to whom my first book is co-dedicated. He was the first node, and he introduced me to a few people, and it grew from there.

Today, on each of these fronts, one has a much easier go of it. For example, sites like VentureHacks and Ask the VC and Mark Suster’s blog and Quora threads explain every aspect of the startup process. LinkedIn is now a directory of most people in white collar industries, and there are many groups there and on Facebook for young entrepreneurs to meet each other and connect. On the tech side, CodeAcademy and several others teach basic tech skills in a structured manner on the web.

It’s not only that there’s more information easily available today, but there’s refined curation. While I learned a bunch hustling about in my teens, I also wasted untold cycles of time. I read bad books; I met people who, in hindsight, weren’t worth the time; I read irrelevant articles while overlooking relevant ones; etc. By contrast, today there are various “best of” lists and other crisp navigational guides to finding very best content related to your business challenge.

I should say I’m aware that the “paucity” of free knowledge and resources available in year 2000 that I’m describing (when I began my quest of self-education) far exceeded what existed in years prior. So I had a huge advantage getting started, from a knowledge-perpsective, than prior generations. Even as we’re now all lapsed by the current teen cohort, as they whiz by us at faster and faster speeds…

Bottom Line: Democratized, free entrepreneurship-related knowledge and networks is the game changer for facilitating ever more youth entrepreneurship. It’s a great thing for the world. It’s a great thing for the young, ambitious, and inexperienced. Even if it makes me a little jealous of today’s teens!

Map of the Day

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(via Reddit)

Book Review: Sum by David Eagleman

There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.

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This was my favorite paragraph from Sum by David Eagleman, because I think the third death captures the key motivation behind so many “immortality projects” (I mean change-the-world projects) — people try to extend the time horizon by which people still utter their name on planet Earth. Your kids will, their kids will, but for how many generations beyond that will your name be spoken?

The book is a slim volume of short stories / riffs on what happens in the afterlife. With great imagination, Eagleman hypothesizes different situations, settings, interfaces. For example, perhaps in the afterlife you relive all your experiences — not chronologically, but rather grouped by the type of the experience. You spend two conesecutive months driving in front of your house; seven consecutive months having sex; four months taking out the trash; eight weeks experiencing intense pain, i.e. all the pain you experienced in your whole life condensed into eight straight weeks.  There’s nothing religious about the book. There are, though, embedded within, quite a few lessons and perspectives on how we lead our lives while still breathing.

Sum is some of the most inventive short fiction I’ve read in a long while. Recommended.

Experts Take Notes.

Recently, Mark Zuckerberg addressed a large auditorium of young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. He shared lessons from his journey and his perspective on the state of the internet industry. Every seat was taken, and the 20-somethings who aspired to entrepreneurial greatness were listening with rapt attention.

According to my friend who relayed this story, there were two older folks in the front row who stood out: John Doerr and Ron Conway. They are both legendary investors in Silicon Valley.

They stood out not just because their gray hair shimmered in the sea of youth around them, but because they were the only people in the audience taking notes.

Isn’t it funny, my friend told me, that arguably the two most successful people in the room after Zuckerberg were also the only two people taking notes?

As I wrote in the excerpts from the Five Elements of Effective Thinking, experts understand simple things deeply. They return to the basics, over and over again. eBay CEO John Donahoe is widely regarded as one of the premier execs in the Valley right now and I’m told is an avid note-taker to boot. He recently said on LinkedIn, “Great leaders are never too proud to learn.”

You could argue people have different approaches to capturing nuggets of wisdom and committing those nuggets to memory. Sure. But I’m skeptical of passive learning. If you don’t write down what you’re hearing and learning, what the odds you remember it? I take lots of notes in paper mole skin notebooks; every week or so I go back with a different color pen and circle the key sentences; I then transfer these ideas to Evernote files on my computer; and finally, I blog/tweet/publish/email out the crispest, most important ideas or quotes. And this is nothing compared to Tim Ferriss’s extreme “take notes like an alpha geek” system, which is worth learning about.

You might argue people like John Doerr and Ron Conway are old school. Most young folks today, you’d say, aren’t going to be using pen and paper in the first place. Fine. The actual technology/process is not as important as having a repository, and preferably having a system that reinforces retention.

I thought about this broader idea the other month when I visited the University of Washington business school the other month. I was giving the keynote talk in the afternoon, but I set my alarm clock early to catch the morning keynote from my friend Charlie Songhurst. I know from personal experiences that Charlie is unusually insightful. As he delivered his keynote to the MBAs in the audience I noticed something peculiar: almost no one was taking notes–on paper or on tablet or computer. Well, I was. A few other people were. But most weren’t. There was plenty to write down, to be sure. It was an insightful talk. What gives? My theory: The audience was mostly students. Experts — or those who have deconstructed what experts do — take notes. Novices don’t see the point.

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There’s an old rule of thumb that if you have something really important you need done, ask for help from the busiest person you know. Here’s an analogous rule: if you want to identify the most senior, knowledgeable people in an audience, look for the people who are taking notes and asking questions.

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While taking notes in a large auditorium in front a keynote speaker is a no brainer, note-taking in a 1:1 meeting is a bit trickier. A few years ago, I wrote about the pros and cons of taking notes in a 1:1 conversation. One risk is it can make the conversation seem more transactional than is ideal. And it can also introduce a power dynamic if only one person (and not the other) is taking notes. Still bias yourself to take notes in a 1:1, but tread a bit more cautiously.

(Photo credit: Geekcalendar)

(This post originally appeared on LinkedIn)