Venture Capital Scout Programs: FAQs

The Sequoia scouts program recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. The founding of that program kickstarted a trend in the venture capital industry. As Jason Lemkin once asked: “Anyone not a scout these days?”

Over the past two years, my Village Global partners and I have spent a ton of time studying this trend and indeed building our own effort around it. Here are some frequently asked questions and answers about VC scouts based on our experiences.


What are “scouts”?

People who are empowered to invest money in startups (usually in ~$50k increments at the seed stage) on behalf of a venture capital fund, sometimes with full decision making autonomy.

What are the differences between the scout programs?

There are two broad types of scout programs.

Some scout programs are run by venture funds that for the most part focus on Series A or later investing. For example, Sequoia Capital is commonly credited with inventing the scout program. Sequoia invests the vast majority of its capital via its full-time GPs at Series A stage through IPO. Some of their investments at seed stage happen through independent scouts who write $25k-$50k checks. It’s an active program but in the grand scheme it’s minor part of Sequoia’s reported $8 billion global fund.

Then there are independent, newer firms like AngelList Spearhead or my firm Village Global. At Village, a network strategy is a central part of our firm strategy. We thrive based on our ability to execute our scouts strategy. At the independent venture firms, you’ll generally find more innovation, resources, and community around scouts.

Why the blossoming of scout programs inside legacy firms?

Over the past 10 years, some venture funds have ballooned in size. Lightspeed, A16Z, Sequoia, Accel, Greylock, Founders Fund, Thrive, Spark, and others are all now deploying billion dollar+ funds, a substantial step up from their historic fund sizes of $200–400 million. Suppose one of these firms employs 6–10 GPs to invest that billion dollars. To get leverage on their time, GPs need to be writing minimum $10M+ checks — ideally bigger.

The problem is, at the seed stage, founders don’t want or need a $10M investment. The round sizes are smaller. Small check sizes don’t move the needle for the VC when they’re trying to allocate over a billion dollars. So should these mega funds just get out of the seed stage business altogether and focus on Series A, B, and later? Some firms have done that, but many have decided they can’t. They need to be seeing seed deals because that’s today’s seed deal is tomorrow’s great Series A — it’s the pipeline.

Hence their scout programs. Big firms perceive them as an efficient way of scanning seed stage flow to feed their main Series A or Series B business.

Why are there independent, network-driven firms?

The existence of firms like Village Global represents a different macro phenomenon. At Village, we aren’t trying to lead Series A’s, B’s, and growth rounds. Our scouts aren’t lead gen for later stage investing. We’re taking a network approach to executing on our core seed mission.

Why a network approach? It used to be that a few full time men on Sand Hill Road could wait for the best founders in the Valley to parade into their office and pitch their businesses. Today, that passive approach doesn’t cut it. There’s an explosion of software-driven, diverse entrepreneurship around the world and across almost every industry. We believe this explosion of opportunity requires a fundamentally different approach to sourcing, selecting, and supporting. We believe a wide sensor network (i.e., a network of dozens of scouts) is more likely to discover a talented founder on day zero.

What’s more, the way founders socialize and develop their business ideas has changed. Thanks to online communities and social networks, founders are increasingly able to connect with fellow founders, professors, authors, or other people they know or respect. These days, when you’re brainstorming a business idea, your first stop may not be the VC’s office — and all the intimidation and nervousness that might entail. You might instead call a founder friend to ask for advice.

We want to ally with the people who are that first call, whose expertise makes them valued resources to founders who are just getting going. We empower those people — our Network Leaders — with our Village Global capital to back their smartest friends. And then we bring to bear the full resources of our network to make those companies more successful post-investment.

Can non-professional, non-full time people make good investment decisions?

At the earliest stages of company formation, you’re mainly evaluating whether the founders are unbelievably resourceful and persistent, and whether they’re attacking a massive problem that, if solved, could produce a large business. There aren’t metrics to analyze. There aren’t customers to interview. So at this stage, we think it’s very possible for someone who’s not full time, or even not terribly experienced at investing, to back her smartest friends, and for those friends to end up creating huge businesses.

Chris Sacca, one of the most successful angels ever, backed Ev Williams and Travis Kalanick, before he had any investing track record or sophisticated framework for investing. It worked out pretty well for him — and eventually for the LPs who backed his angel-stage funds. Who’s the next Chris Sacca?

Do the scouts make money themselves?

The sharing of economics differs from program to program. Almost every firm — including Village Global — shares economic upside with their scouts.

For us, we also focus on non-economic benefits. We cultivate a community between and among our Network Leaders. We expose them to and connect them with our luminary LPs. For example, several of our Network Leaders have had intimate interaction with people like Bill Gates, Bob Iger, Abby Johnson, Eric Schmidt, Ben Silbermann, and others.

Most great scouts — most great angels in general, I’d argue — are not doing it for the money. They’re doing it for the love of the game. Making money is a happy coincidence if you find yourself in luck’s way.

Do scouts invest their own personal money alongside the venture fund?

At Village Global, we ask most of our Network Leaders invest money alongside us commensurate with their net worth or whatever would constitute skin in the game. We think it makes for better decision making.

Are scouts exclusive to one firm?

Some venture firms try to insist on an exclusive relationship with their scouts.

At Village Global, we eschew a zero sum, exclusivity mindset. We’re fine with our Network Leaders working with multiple venture firms so long as there’s good communication and transparency around the deals they’re doing.

As it turns out, most of our Network Leaders prefer to just work with us because of our focus on them and the network strategy that’s in our DNA.

Should founder/CEOs really be angel investing on the side? What about focusing on their business?

Different sorts of people can be scouts. At Village Global, we have professors, full-time angels, big company execs, retired GPs, and active founder/CEOs in our network.

The most famous archetype — popularized by Sequoia — is for founder/CEOs themselves to be the ones investing the scout capital.

Some people worry that founders who invest on the side are too unfocused:

Here’s my question: Is any hobby outside of work a dangerous distraction? Should founders who work 80 hours a week and spend 20 hours a week on an intellectual, artistic, or athletic hobby, cut out the hobby time and increase to 100 hours a week of pure focus on their startup? Some people believe that. If that’s you, then it’s true that being a scout (i.e., investing on the side) as a founder is just one more distraction from your day job…along with playing tennis, or writing short stories, or occasional travel, or volunteering, and any other hobby one might pursue.

Myself, I don’t think working 100 hours a week is healthy or sustainable, and I don’t think it increases the odds of success. I also don’t think your team will respect you more if you work those extra 20 hours a week like a heartless robot.

If we’re open to the idea that even founders ought to be able to spend some precious hours each week not directly working on their startup, then I’d argue that of all the hobbies one could have (and who are we to judge?), angel investing is comparatively high value.

When you invest in or advise startups as a CEO, you learn. You learn how other CEOs make decisions, especially around fundraising. You grow your network of fellow CEOs and of VCs. You intertwine yourself with a community of people who will likely be more loyal to you, or at least have no choice but to stay in touch with you as you’re on their cap table for life! Among other reasons, this is why Sequoia Capital encourages many of its founders to be scouts.

And sometimes angel investing can actually benefit the CEO’s main focus: her startup. Adam Nash recently tweeted about how Reid Hoffman’s angel investing in Facebook and Zynga (while he was CEO of LinkedIn) helped LinkedIn:

Here’s Falon Fatemi, who’s a scout and a founder/CEO of Node.io (which has raised ~$40 million):

Should you start angel investing as part of a scout program?

The great Elad Gil, in his post on scouts, frames the pros and cons this way:

The positives of investing include giving back to others, broadening your network, information access (for example, what new distribution approaches are working for others), and the potential for financial return (although you should plan to lose any personal money you invest — so do not invest if you can not afford to lose the money).

The cons include investing can become a big distraction, can irritate your cofounders or employees if a lot of your time goes to it (and your startup is not working), and the potential to lose money.

Well summarized.

Is being a scout a good way to become an investor?

Maybe!

Per Bryce, it’s true that in today’s venture industry that best path to a job is to be a really successful founder with a big exit. VC firms tend to favor successful former founders. So if you’re deciding between focusing on your startup or focusing on investing, focus on your startup.

But a lot of VC firms, and all venture capital LPs (they matter if you want to found your own VC firm), care about your angel investing track record. They’d prefer to see some experience at finding deals and investing in the good ones. If you’re cash illiquid, investing scout money — in a time-boxed, hobby kind of way — is a good way to begin to build that track record.

How do you become a scout at a venture firm?

Lots of ways. If you’re interested in working with us at Village Global, feel free to reach out and say hello.

Book Review: Our Man by George Packer

I wasn’t expecting to read a 600 page biography of the late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, but after reading Walter Isaacson’s excellent review of George Packer’s biography, I one-clicked the Kindle purchase of Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.

It’s extraordinary. On several nights the past couple weeks, I climbed into bed exhausted by the day and expecting to read for just a few minutes before falling asleep. Instead I stayed up past my bedtime, riveted by the historical sketches of far-flung places, the complex shades of grey of each of the Beltway cast of characters, and the compelling portrait of the man at the center of this biography: Holbrooke.

I learned a lot about Vietnam, Bosnia, and Afghanistan — and America’s foreign policy record in each place. I learned about the “American century” of foreign policy, as Packer calls it, the 50-60 years after WWII when Pax Americana ruled and there was a sense that no humanitarian or democratic cause was too small for America — that American diplomatic, cultural, and military might could right wrongs in every corner of the earth. And most of all, I learned a lot about one man — Holbrooke — who embodied the idealistic values of his generation, and who became a one-man wrecking ball whose energy and intellect and doggedness and arrogance and unapologetic ambition really did change the world in several concrete ways.

Holbrooke was of a class: “These were unsentimental, supremely self-assured white Protestant men—privileged, you could say—born around the turn of the century, who all knew one another and knew how to get things done. They didn’t take a piss without a strategy.”

He set his ambitions high from the outset of his career, where, shortly after joining the Foreign Service and heading to Vietnam, he openly predicted that he’d one day become Secretary of State. Packer’s description of how Holbrooke manifested his ambition — so sweatily transparent it was repulsive even to those inclined to affection for the man — reminded me of Caro’s description of Lyndon Johnson’s early political years. “Ambition is not a pretty thing up close, Packer writes. “It’s wild and crass, and mortifying in the details. It brings a noticeable smell into the room.”

LBJ of course achieved his ultimate ambition (the White House) whereas Holbrooke never quite did. He served key roles throughout the State Department and ultimately was named Ambassador to the UN by Bill Clinton, but never reached Secretary of State. In this sense Packer suggests Holbrooke was “almost great”– and the “almost” ate at Holbrooke till the day he died. Packer writes, about himself, “As a member of the class of lesser beings who aspire to a good life but not a great one—who find the very notion both daunting and distasteful—I can barely fathom the agony of that ‘almost.’ ”

One corollary to Holbrooke’s ambition and frenetic workaholism was a complete lack of an inner life. Packer suggests that whatever introspecting Holbrooke engaged in served his ambition more so than a search for truth or identity. “So much thought, so little inwardness. He could not be alone—he might have had to think about himself,” Packer writes. Packer elaborates:

Except in fiction, the only inner life you can ever really know is your own. With others we might get flickers, intimations of the continuous parallel hidden experience that’s just as alive and rich in contours as the visible, audible person. Some of us have a talent for projecting it outward—detailed dreams and memories, Tourette’s-like eruptions, self-analysis. Holbrooke was not among these translucent souls. For most of his life, in almost every situation, he kept the parallel experience under heavy guard.

After romping through Vietnam and Bosnia — the Dayton peace accord being Holbrooke’s signature diplomatic achievement, of course — the final fifth of the book takes place in Obama’s White House. We see Holbrooke fail miserably to connect with Barack Obama or the inner circle of the Obama foreign policy team, a team very self-conscious about breaking from the foreign policy establishment and which had little interest in lessons from Vietnam. Packer suggests Obama saw his role as “managing America’s decline wisely” — from the sole superpower with an ambitious idealistic agenda — to that of a more humble player on an increasingly crowded global stage, chastened by the catastrophe of the Iraq war. Of course, the Obama philosophy of restraint and humility cut against Holbrooke’s more idealistic instincts and revealed the generational divide between the two: one who came of age during a time of American greatness and the other rose to power during the clear decline of American power. Nonetheless, Obama and Holbrooke should have gotten along more than they did: Holbrooke actually shared Obama’s perspective on America’s involvement in Afghanistan, which was to send fewer troops than the generals were requesting. But interpersonally, they clashed, and Holbrooke was sidelined.

Packer was granted exclusive access to Holbrooke’s diary entries, Holbrooke kept dutifully throughout his career, ever attentive to his legacy. The entries are wonderfully written. Certain chapters in Packer’s book are entirely Holbrooke’s diary. He’s a wonderful writer; indeed, Holbrooke spent considerable time as a writer/journalist/ghostwriter. So you can really see his mind come alive. For example, here’s Holbrooke’s private diary entry on Bob Woodward’s book on Afghanistan decision making in the Obama White House:

It’s a very poor book in terms of explaining how policy is made. It’s full of meaningless and trivial little factoids and anecdotes that are irrelevant to the larger theme. Woodward would argue that those illustrate the personality of the president, and in that sense he’s right. But he doesn’t have the ability to distinguish between what matters and what doesn’t matter, and because he writes as he gets the information, the information is out of context. A minor dispute that was resolved quickly but with great intensity might take precedence over a major policy dispute which is resolved in a different, more orderly way.

By the end of this biography, you get a sense of a man so rich in strengths and yet so hobbled by weakness. So beloved, and yet so hated by so many people. Packer writes: “I used to think that if Holbrooke could just be fixed—a dose of self-restraint, a flash of inward light—he could have done anything. But that’s an illusion. We are wholly ourselves. If you cut out the destructive element, you would kill the thing that made him almost great.”

Below are some other highlighted sentences from Our Man from my Kindle. Here’s my report from traveling to Bosnia that includes highlights from Kaplan’s the Balkan Ghosts. Here are my notes from Joseph Epstein’s book Ambition. George Packer is a gifted writer. Here’s a previous post on George Packer commenting on Andrew Sullivan; here’s my quick recap of Packer’s earlier book.


[Holbrooke would say:] “I feel, and I hope this doesn’t sound too self-satisfied, that in a very difficult situation where nobody has the answer, I at least know what the overall questions and moving parts are.”

The only problems worth his time were the biggest, hardest ones.

How he lobbied for the Nobel Peace Prize—that kind of thing, all the time, as if he needed to discharge a surplus of self every few hours to maintain his equilibrium.

Holbrooke had invoked his father and it nearly undid him. If those few words were enough to break his formidable public control, imagine what else lay breathing in his depths. Throughout his life, the person whose approval he needed most was no longer there to be impressed. If you want analysis, that’s the best I can give you.

Today it’s impossible to imagine someone his age, aglow with molten ambition, choosing the Foreign Service. But in those days it was different. Business wasn’t entrepreneurial and heroic—it was corporate and dull.

Years later, when his students at Georgetown would ask him how to become secretary of state, he would answer: “If you eat turds for the rest of your life to become someone, either 1) you’ll achieve it and discover you’re not happy, or 2) because you’re eating turds and your ambition is so obvious, you won’t get it.”

[In his youth] His ambition still had a clean smell, and youth was working in his favor—physical courage, moral passion, the boundless energy and enthusiasm and sheer sense of fun, the skepticism, the readiness to talk straight to ambassadors and generals.

After the evacuation of dependents and the arrival of ground troops in 1965, South Vietnam became a vast brothel. But even before there were half a million Americans, sex was an elemental part of the war. “I have the theory that if the women of Vietnam had big copper spoons through their noses and looked like Ubangis,” a reporter once said, “this war wouldn’t have lasted half as long, and maybe wouldn’t have even started.”

Inaction, inactivity is as much an action as action itself; it is as much of a decision to do nothing as it is to do something.

“You have a brilliant future ahead of you,” an administrator at the embassy told Holbrooke, “but you will move faster if you slow down.”

The process of disenchantment was excruciatingly slow. Later on, people would backdate their moment of truth, their long-deferred encounter with the glaringly obvious. [On Vietnam]

She was an intelligent woman, Phi Beta Kappa at Brown, but his brilliance sapped her self-confidence. There was nothing in her life she could be proud of, except the boys and the occasional canard à l’orange. She felt that she bored her husband when she tried to confide in him, and so she was lonely even when they were together.

While she slept, there had been a revolution in the lives of American women. In 1964 she was expected to be her husband’s helpmeet. In 1971 she was a loser for having no career of her own.

If Holbrooke found you interesting but not threatening, he could be the best company in the world.

So there’s a mystery. And maybe there should be. We like to think that truth lies in details, the more details the clearer the truth, like the cumulative pages of a trial transcript, but this piling up of facts only gives us the false assurance that we’ve gotten to the heart of the matter when in fact we understand almost nothing. There’s a kind of injustice that goes by the name of thoroughness. Who could hold up under trial by biography? None of us. I’ll try to stay clear of testimony, verdict, and sentence.

Deng’s sixteen-day “lesson” in February 1979 killed twenty thousand people—ten thousand Vietnamese soldiers and civilians and an equal number of Chinese soldiers—while destroying a large swath of northern Vietnam that had been spared American bombing.
Blythe couldn’t stand Washington. Her reasons weren’t original—it was full of self-important bores who made no distinction between work and personal life—but you can imagine her particular frustration as a young woman.

But it wasn’t enough to rescue people at sea—they had to be given permanent homes somewhere. Neighboring countries announced that they were full up, tugging boats back out to sea and even threatening to shoot the desperate passengers. In June 1979, Holbrooke flew on Air Force One to Japan for the G7 summit meeting, and during the flight across the Pacific he badgered first Vance and then Carter to double the number of Southeast Asian refugees admitted into the United States from seven to fourteen thousand. It was not a priority issue.

The next year—the last of his presidency—Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, which tripled the annual number of refugees allowed into the country. By 1982 the United States had admitted half a million Indochinese, by far the most of any country in the world. The number eventually reached one and a half million. Holbrooke had a lot to do with it.

It’s strange to remember that there were no bigger celebrities in the eighties than the men and women who read news scripts on TV. Everything about them—their seven-figure salaries, their rivalries, their haircuts—was a story, often bigger than the news itself, as when ABC and NBC tried to steal Sawyer away from CBS (ABC finally got her).

Not because he ever closed a deal—he didn’t—but because bankers who knew their own deficiencies were as dazzled by his political intelligence and worldliness as he was by their money. No matter how rich and successful, bankers tend to be narrow and gray, and Holbrooke was polychromatic company.

Ever since the acquisition of Lehman by Shearson/American Express, Holbrooke had been star-fucking the CEO of AmEx, James Robinson (in spite of finding him intellectually incurious and self-absorbed),

Ghostwriters are a tolerated literary scandal, but their presence lingers like the echo of another voice that confuses the sense of true verisimilitude.

Holbrooke considered the scandals a late-life lapse that didn’t lay a glove on the great man.

His shameless hunger made him more vulnerable than his heroes, and, to me at least, more human.

Something went wrong. The speakers were improvising and trying to top one another, paying back the high cost of being in his life. They didn’t know how to be witty, the jokes cut too deep and true, and the smell of blood turned the play savage. Holbrooke, who could never laugh at himself because he didn’t know himself, was laughing now from his table by the podium because it was the only way to survive the disaster, and he kept looking around for others to join him. But no one else was laughing.

SHE WAS INDISPUTABLY BEAUTIFUL, with the middle coloring he liked. Magyar cheekbones. Brown eyes keenly, you could say acquisitively, fixed from earliest childhood photos on the object of their desire. European style of elegance—she could get away with a trench coat and foulard. Breasts larger than he expected—he liked that too. Her beauty wasn’t the kind that sat back and waited to be unveiled. It was acutely conscious of its power, and when she walked into a room not only did every man think, She looks great, but they felt, in some subtle way that they didn’t understand, compelled to tell her, as if the price of not doing so would be too high. She elicited admiration and fear, leading men and women alike to cast themselves as obliging extras in the drama she created.

And in fact you could easily imagine her as the passionate and calculating Comtesse de Marton in a novel by Stendhal—the quick wit, the love of books and talk, the shrewdness about other people, the machinations.

[Diary entries:] I talked to Les Gelb tonight, who said that he had had the worst conversation of his life with Tony Lake, a thirty-minute screaming match which had basically torn what was left of their friendship. … Entering the Oval Office for the “pre-brief” with Christopher, Berger, and Gore, I was startled when the president looked up from his desk at me and said, “I didn’t know that you were dating Peter Jennings’s ex-wife.” Then, looking right at me, he said, “She’s lovely—really lovely.” I said I agreed and thanked him, and he said, “Shows good taste on your part, but I don’t know about the women.” I wanted to say, “I’ll tell you my secrets later, Mr. President,” but looking at his watch Sandy pulled the discussion back to the reason for the meeting.

If Holbrooke had told Clinton that a certain Lieutenant Colonel Randall Banky—not a Rhodes Scholar, not on the call, not on the president’s peace mission—had gone down the mountain, rescued the wounded, and found the remains of the dead, there would have been a subtle deflation over the line, and the origin myth might have never been born, and with it the American drive for peace. Holbrooke, who loved history, told the kind of story that history loves.

Banky knew that this wouldn’t happen, and it didn’t happen, and in 2002, having been passed over for promotion, he retired as a lieutenant colonel, unable to lay to rest the suspicion that his army career ended because “Colonel Banky had disappeared.”

They were cut from similar Foreign Service cloth—cerebral and mordantly witty.

As for Izetbegovic, Clark was more his kind of American—solid, respectful. Holbrooke’s intensity seemed to bring out the madness in Bosnian leaders, and Izetbegovic didn’t trust him. He and Holbrooke talked by paying each other false compliments—“Mr. President, you are absolutely right, but…”—so they could never become partners like Holbrooke and Milosevic.

But she knew many Serbs who helped Muslims, including the man who dragged her sister over a bridge across the siege line to safety. When her neighbors on the rooftop cheered the air strikes, the woman pointed out that innocent people would also be killed.

Holbrooke let him go on, enjoying the parley, and then always brought them back to the war. He would step out to take calls—taking calls during meals was one of his favorite shows of status—and come back to say that it was the White House on the phone, though Hill and the others thought the calls were probably from Kati.

And yet this mix of the outsized and drab—this American, specifically midwestern atmosphere, at once banal and imposing and earnest—it told the gilded palaces of Europe: you have the history and the beauty, but you failed to end this war on your continent. Nothing happened until the Americans got involved—until the uncouth, sleepless Holbrooke barged in.

Washington, which has an animate and collective mind, considered Madeleine Albright more solid than brilliant, a politically savvy tactician rather than a serious strategist.

Pax Americana began to decay at its very height. If you ask me when the long decline began, I might point to 1998. We were flabby, smug, and self-absorbed. Imagine a president careless enough to stumble into his enemies’ trap and expend his power on a blue dress. Imagine a superpower so confident of perpetual peace and prosperity that it felt able to waste a whole year on Oval Office cocksucking.

Holbrooke met one-on-one with more than a hundred members of Congress. Most of them had never sat down with a cabinet member and were flattered by the attention of a diplomatic star.

And they were happily married. At least he was, and in his case an affair didn’t disprove it. The younger woman merely aroused an appetite in a class where affairs were practically expected. He was still gone on Kati.

Holbrooke didn’t quite fall in love with Afghanistan. He was too American to go native anywhere. The only foreign language he ever learned was French, which he spoke fluently with a heavy New York accent, and when he bought local artifacts it was to give them away as gifts, not to furnish his own houses. He fell for problems, not countries, and it was the problem of Afghanistan that began to consume him.

They called themselves Taliban—“students.”

Karzai began to sound like a nationalist—not an aggressive one like Milosevic, but more like Diem, proud and resentful, with the humiliated anger that a poor man feels toward a rich man whose help he sought.

“I am deeply torn about this,” he wrote in his diary. “An undefined job is like entering a room in which all the seats are taken, then insisting that everyone move to make room…Everyone says I must take this job, and I probably will. But with no great enthusiasm or hope I can make much of it, given its difficulties.—My ability to get something done will depend on H + BO willingness to listen to my views—and I am worried on that score.”

Haqqani would set about to teach Holbrooke how to see through Pakistan’s deceptions and self-deceptions.

“Your problem is you care about substance,” Holbrooke warned Rubin. “Government is all about process.” And he told Nasr, “I want you to learn nothing from government. This place is dead intellectually. It does not produce any ideas—it’s all about turf battles and checking the box. Your job is to break through all this. Anybody gives you trouble, come to me.” Once their security clearances came through, Nasr would advise Holbrooke on Pakistan and Rubin—who knew Karzai well—on Afghanistan.

But if Rubin condescended in any way to Clinton, she wouldn’t listen to a thing he said. Holbrooke had noticed Rubin’s habit of speaking arrogantly to people he thought knew less than he did. “Okay, I get it,” Rubin said. “Funny, I heard exactly the same thing about you.” “See—that’s just what I’m talking about.”

He wasted no time on greetings or small talk. He was, Holbrooke thought, the opposite of Bill Clinton—disciplined like a corporate boss, comfortable giving orders, impatient, sometimes cold. Obama had the remoteness of an introvert who didn’t pretend affection any more than he’d lie about having read your book. His sense of integrity depended on refusing to backslap. He saved his warmth for the few who really generated it—his family, his old friends. The distance he kept from his advisors gave him a power Clinton never had. Still, Holbrooke wished he’d smile or laugh now and then.

But in fact Obama had a distaste for Holbrooke, almost a physical repulsion that made him go cold.

Government had grown specialized, compartmentalized, and that suited Obama, who was a stickler for orderly process—a technocrat disguised as a visionary.

Every president needs a loyalist who doesn’t care what anyone else thinks as long as the boss has his back, which gives his actions a higher blessing than ordinary morality.

If his interlocutor is another American not in his chain of command, his lack of patience when he isn’t speaking is palpable.

Lessons and Impressions from T-Group Retreat on Interpersonal Dynamics

Recently, I participated in a 12-person t-group modeled after the “touchy feely” interpersonal dynamics class taught at Stanford GSB. We followed a brutally intense schedule: 9am to 10pm Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday (ending at 5:30pm on Sunday), with a one hour break in the afternoon plus meals. It cost many thousands of dollars. There were 12 participants—6 women, 6 men. 2 facilitators. 4 days. One goal: Improve our ability to express emotions, give and receive honest feedback, and interpersonally connect with others.

I learned a ton. It was one of the more intense, emotional experiences of my life. Below are reflections on which principles from the Touchy Feely workshop resonated and which did not, and what I learned about myself.

I want to say at the outset that there are many people who teach in the t-group format, many of whom are currently or were previously affiliated with Stanford, through various for-profit and non-profit enterprises. I understand there are differences in style and sometimes substance between these different approaches. These are reflections from my particular experience (which we decided, as a group, to keep completely anonymous).

In our format, each day began with a lecture on some topic related to interpersonal connection, followed by an activity to “generate data for t-group.” For example, pair up with one person and share something you’re struggling with in life. Or share something that’s been bothering you about someone else in the group (“Jake rambles on and can’t get to the point!”). Then, we convene as a group.

12 participants and 2 facilitators organized in a circle in a windowless hotel ballroom for a 2.5-3 hour session of conversation. After the initial lecture, what happens in the conversation is up to the group to decide. There’s an intentional void—the facilitators don’t offer a prompt, or jump in ask anyone questions. People can say whatever they’d like, to whomever they’d like, about whatever they’d like—so long as their comment relates to something that’s happening “in the room.”

You sit in this circle 2-3 times a day. You end up spending 8-10 hours a day, for 4 days, sitting in a circle, starting at a group of strangers, talking about your feelings and talking about your feelings with respect to the other people in the circle.

As time went on, people increasingly began to share stories of their life that were affecting their presence in the here-and-now in the room. It would be something like: “I feel anxiety being here and being part of this conversation, because my partners at work are trying to push me out of the firm, and I feel inadequate sitting next to all of you because you all seem to be thriving.” The stories were often quite vulnerable.

Often people would deliver “feedback” to others in the group. E.g.: “John Doe, when you shared the story about your mother, I felt sadness, because it reminded me of my mother…” Or “Jane Doe, my intention in sharing this feedback is to help you understand how your comment landed on me, and to better understand myself the point you were trying to make. I feel angry at the comment you made earlier. It sounded me to like a massive gender generalization…” Then the other person would reply, “I’m disappointed you feel angry, as that was not my intention…” After a couple more back and forths, one person might say: “Thank you for that. I feel closer to you as a result of this exchange. I appreciate it.” The other person would reply: “I feel closer to you, too.”

If these back-and-forth snippets sound a bit contrived, that’s because they were–by design. The facilitators framed the t-group container as a “learning laboratory”—designed with specific conditions not necessarily to maximally mimic real world conditions but to maximize the opportunity to practice very specific habits and ways of feeling and thinking. To practice being highly attentive to how you’re feeling, moment to moment. And to practice giving feedback to someone else and to experience a feeling of heightened connection after an exchange of feedback.

The overall experience was incredibly emotionally intense for me. It’s exhausting to spend hours each day sharing vulnerably, hearing others’ stories, giving tough feedback, receiving tough feedback, and trying to adapt to a group dynamic.

Here are some of the principles from the retreat that resonated with me positively:

Noticing and naming feelings. The overarching ideas of the retreat: Feelings matter, feelings are integral to how we connect with other humans, feelings can range in type and intensity, and—finally—by noticing, naming, and disclosing our feelings, we can connect more powerfully with others. 100% agree.

The facilitators gave us a laminated sheet that listed dozens of different words we could use to describe different shades of feelings: irritated, unsettled, serene, peeved, curious, etc. The world of feelings is richer than happy, sad, angry, confused. Noticing these nuances—being present with them, in the mind, heart, and body—and then naming them appropriately, feeds a deeper self-understanding.

Growth happens when you’re out of your comfort zone. I was uncomfortable for a huge percentage of this retreat. For hours and hours at a time my heart beat a little more quickly than normal—talking about feelings and emotions with complete strangers. It’s rare for me to be so uncomfortable for so long. And I grew a lot because of it.

Jumping into the deep end of the pool—even if not normal reality—can teach you some things about normal reality. Nothing about this retreat resembled normal, default real life. But sometimes you learn fastest by operating in an extreme environment that prioritizes one thing above all else—in this case, the primacy of feelings. While hardly a 1:1 simulation of real life, some lessons can transfer to real life.

I analogize this to silent meditation retreats. Being silent for 10 days hardly resembles real world. But some of the lessons I learn on meditation retreat transfer helpfully to the noisy real world. I don’t need to become a monk in order to apply the lessons of mindfulness meditation.

Feedback is a gift. Hearing tough feedback can be hard. But it’s the only way to improve. Such a simple idea; so hard to truly embrace.

Vulnerability can increase connection and perceived strength. If you’re a leader of team, you will seem more multidimensional and relatable if you seem more “human.” All humans deal with struggle and weakness and insecurity and uncertainty. Acknowledging those universal challenges helps you connect with a wider range of people.

(I wondered aloud on Twitter if sharing positive experiences in your life can count as vulnerability; there were some wise responses. In short: maybe, but sharing the positive experience has to involve feeling embarrassed or vulnerable in some way. Alternatively, if there’s a chance someone who’s receiving your story would try, in reply, to steal your joy or downplay it (“That doesn’t sound too special; everyone has that experience”), then sharing positive vibes could count as a vulnerable act.)

Share your intention upfront when communicating hard news. How you intend for something to land is not always how it lands in the mind of the recipient. In other words, how you encode a piece of communication is not always how it gets decoded by the recipient. Literally saying, for example, “My intention in sharing this is to help you grow at public speaking, because I know you’ve said that’s one of your top priorities…” at the beginning of a difficult statement or piece of feedback about a person’s public speaking ability can clarify and strengthen interpersonal connection.

The same comment can land differently on different people. Most of the comments people make in t-group are directed to a specific person around the circle. But everyone else is watching, listening. This leads to a common, fascinating moment: After an exchange between two people, a third person jumps in and says: “Wow, that comment didn’t land to me in the same way that Jane said it did for her. I heard Joe’s feedback as rather compassionate, not arrogant like Jane did.” It’s a vivid reminder that the same words and intonation can land differently on different people. Humans are diverse.

 

Some ideas I’m reflecting on, prompted by my Touchy Feely experience, that I’m struggling with:

Personalizing and then sharing feelings with others can make them more permanent. Mindfulness meditation and Touchy Feely both prioritize noticing—“remembering to recognize the present moment’s experience” in words of dharma teacher Steve Armstrong—notice what’s happening in your mind and heart. Moment to moment.

But there’s a crucial difference between how I’ve been taught Buddhist meditation and how the facilitators of this Touchy Feely workshop taught feelings. In my meditation practice, I was told to eschew personally identifying myself to a feeling. You would say to yourself “There is pain” (not “I feel pain”) or “There is anger” (not “I feel angry”). I can hear the voice of S.N. Goenka ringing in my head as I write this: “No ‘me’, no ‘my’, no ‘mine’.”

The Buddha said to minimize the ego and to notice phenomena as separate from the mind that’s doing the thinking. By contrast, in Touchy Feely, “I” dominated. Every feeling you notice was supposed to be preceded by “I.” If a participant attempted to abstract a feeling into the voice of an omniscient narrator (e.g. “Some people might get angry with what you just said”) a facilitator would correct the participant and instruct him to personally identify the emotion with “I.”

Moreover, in Buddhist meditation, the truth of anicca (impermanence) runs through all teachings. If you notice a feeling, the instruction is to keep noticing it – and eventually it’ll probably fade away; after all, emotions (along with all other phenomena in life) are impermanent. By contrast, in the Touchy Feely framework, after noticing and naming, you’re supposed to share it with the person who caused the feeling in you: “Joe, I feel angry at you.” You’re now on the record with a codified feeling!

In summary, Buddhist instruction: Notice a feeling, name it impersonally, observe it. The end. Touchy Feely instruction: Notice a feeling, name it personally, and share it with the person who caused the feeling.

My worry with the Touchy Feely approach is that it accidentally promotes personalization and permanence. There were times in our retreat when I felt pressured to name and then share a feeling in a particular moment (“Ben, what are you feeling right now?”). By doing so, I think I endowed the feeling with more power than had I said nothing and let the feeling pass on by.

Group therapy sessions can create a “Vulnerability Olympics”. When people take turns sharing stories of vulnerability, there’s a natural one-upmanship dynamic where you try to one-up the person who spoke before you with an even more epic story of vulnerability.

At its best, this enables a person to build on the psychological safety established by their predecessor and thus go even deeper. If one person shares a story about contemplating suicide, it’s easier for the next person to share a story about a deeply embarrassing personal failure. At its worst, sharing in a group in this way feels performative and thus less authentic.

When authorities define rules and status markers in a group, it’s natural for group members to approval-seek even if they don’t believe what they’re saying. The facilitators modeled how we were supposed to speak. They showed what makes a good Touchy Feely participant and what makes a bad one. In other words, there were clear rules for winning the kudos of the facilitators. This can cause participants to say or do things they don’t actually believe, simply to earn their approval. (This is not unique to this retreat; I think in any system where rules are clearly defined, people will try to game it.) I sometimes wondered whether other participants—or myself—believed the things coming out of their mouth (“I feel more connected to you”) or whether they were saying that to earn the approving nods of the teacher. Of course, this may be the flip side of my earlier point about the benefit of jumping into the deep end of the pool—only by fully embracing instructions and format can you maximize the experience. If this is true, then I worsened my fellow participants’ experience by occasionally doubting the format, which I feel guilty about. It’s complicated. 🙂

Tears are perceived as an authoritative display of emotion. Crying is powerful. First, it’s an unambiguous display that you’re actually feeling emotion—don’t take my word for it, just look for the tears! Second, tears are contagious – seeing someone else cry increases the odds that I cry, and thus makes me feel more in sync with that person.

I’ve never been a big crier. And while I teared up several occasions listening to others’ stories in the retreat, I never fully cried during my own share.

I believe crying is not the only way of conveying deep feelings. The person who’s crying is not necessarily experiencing deeper feeling than the person who’s not crying. It’s true that many people who don’t cry are repressing their feelings, but not it’s the case all the time for everybody.

I wonder if I would have received a different reaction had I more outwardly cried. For example, I shared what I considered a vulnerable point–that I think of myself as rather brittle more than resilient, which may be problematic when I encounter unexpected catastrophe in my life. I didn’t receive a lot of affirmation for that exercise of vulnerability. If I had delivered the same point with tears streaming down my face, would the reaction have been different?

Vulnerability is tricky. It’s possible IMO to be too vulnerable as a leader. It’s a spectrum, of course. If your life is too much of a mess (relative to mine), I may feel sympathetic but not necessarily inclined to deepen a personal or professional connection. Vulnerability is a no-brainer among close friends or family. If you’re still getting to know someone or it’s a workplace setting, it’s murkier water. There is such a thing as over-sharing. To be clear, the retreat leaders did not suggest otherwise; this is more a general concern on the broader topic of vulnerability and business.

Sometimes, do let sleeping dogs lie. One phrase uttered in the course was “don’t let sleeping dogs lie”—if you have feedback, share it. This didn’t ring true in my experience. Lots of people are bad at receiving constructive feedback, even if they say they appreciate it. In my own life experience, sharing critical feedback with someone who told me he desired it has sometimes pulled us farther apart. I have frequently withheld constructive feedback for fear of creating more distance with someone close to me.

There’s no singular “authentic” self—especially not in a “learning laboratory.” The self that comes out in t-group is naked and vulnerable—but is it your most “authentic” self? I happen to believe it’s masks all the way down. There is no one authentic self. The self that emerges on a Touchy Feely retreat is definitely on nodding terms with my workplace self and my family self and my Saturday-night-with-old-friends self. But differences persist. Authenticity is complicated. IMO, it’s possible to be authentic even if you wear different masks in front of different audiences.

Here are some of the most interesting pieces of self-knowledge I gleaned from spending four days in the lab:

Rebel. I’ve always been a bit of a rebel. In middle school, I started an underground, unauthorized school newspaper (later banned) that was taglined: “The things we think but do not say.” I’ve been starting companies since I was a teenager. And I dropped out of school before Peter Thiel made it cool. Seeking the approval of authorities has never been an aim; indeed, it’s my nature to often incline to the opposite, for better or for worse.

While currently a VC by trade, I consider myself more entrepreneur than VC, and this disposition does separate me from a lot of VCs who have strictly finance or engineering backgrounds. Rebels sometimes rebel harder the more they’re being pushed to do something.  The more you ask me to do a thing I don’t agree with, sometimes the less I might want to do X (proportional to the strength of your ask). It’s not a rational response. But it may have partly informed my response when participants in the retreat challenged me.

Principled (or Stubborn). At the end of the weekend, we all exchanged 1:1 feedback with each other. The most consistent piece of feedback I received was: “I appreciate how principled you are.” I.e., I didn’t say things I didn’t believe; I stayed true to what I thought was right, regardless of social pressure. It was true for me during the retreat. And I hope it’s true in life more generally.

The flip side to being admiringly principled, of course, is being annoyingly stubborn. I hope I’m more often on the right side of that coin; it’s a work-in-progress.

I don’t naturally connect with everyone and I prioritize “natural” rapport. Several people on the retreat told me they didn’t naturally connect with me; or worse, they felt—at times–rejected by me. I was isolated at times.

In the real world, I have an abundance of rich, intimate, emotionally deep relationships in my personal and professional life. So, insofar as I was failing to connect with certain folks on the retreat, the story I tell myself is that it must have been because of the unique conditions of the retreat more than any personal foibles of mine or the other person.

All things being equal, I’d rather connect deeply with everyone. I’d rather have more deep connections than fewer, and I’d rather be able to connect with a wider range of people than a narrower range. The question comes down to effort. I often fail to generate sufficient motivation to connect–in a personal context–deeply and emotionally with someone if there’s not early, easy rapport. (Business is different. I like to think it’s easy for me to develop basic, minimal transactional relationships with almost anyone.)

So I’m not sure how important of a problem this is. If there are a lot of people I want to connect with who do not want to connect with me, it’s a problem. If there’s in fact symmetry, it’s less of a problem. At present, it’s mostly symmetric.

When I shared this particular reflection with someone who knows me well, he shared something back with me that was interesting and amusing. He said that when I (Ben) participate in group retreats or trips with people I don’t know already, few people leave the trip thinking like they’re about to be my best friend. Expectations are set low. (Ha!) And I have, on occasion, wildly surpassed that low expectation and become really close with people I met randomly on group outings where natural rapport did not—initially—flow easily. In contrast, my friend who was telling me this–for him, he more quickly and easily connects with strangers in group settings. As a result he sometimes inadvertently amps up expectations with people he meets — they expect a close emotional friendship will blossom in the weeks and months following. He then has to “let people down.” In this regard, he envies me. “You set the expectation low, and then you can surpass it,” he told me. The grass is always greener on the other side, right?

I’m more okay than average at being disliked. I like being liked. Who doesn’t? I like praise over criticism. Who doesn’t? That said, I’d say it seems I’m more comfortable being disliked by someone than the average professional. I don’t love conflict, but if conflict results in someone not liking me, it doesn’t kill me. It causes me stress + anxiety, no doubt. But perhaps less so than it does other people, which is why I frequently find myself playing “bad cop” roles on professional teams.

“Saying no” often means being disliked by someone, at least a little bit. This is why so many people struggle to say no. I’ve always been pretty comfortable saying no. As an author, I get a lot of inbound meeting and call requests from people who’ve read my stuff. I say no—or more often, simply don’t respond—to the vast majority of these inbounds. I’m inoculated to people feeling annoyed at me for not being responsive.

I’ve been very lucky / privileged so far in my life. As I’ve written about, no one close to me has died. I haven’t experienced severe trauma in my life. I’ve got issues and problems and insecurities, but on average, I’ve been really blessed. At some point that will change.

Specific useful nuggets/frameworks/acronyms I learned during the retreat:

  • “Fist to 5” for gauging group buy-in on values/norms/a plan/a decision. You ask a group of people, “Are you in?” People display their level of commitment by showing a closed-finger fist—which means “not over my dead body”—or the number of fingers that represents their buy-in, where 5 fingers for complete buy in.
  • Be careful of sentences like “you really need to” or “people think X.” If you’re expressing a personal opinion, use the I pronoun. If I watch myself, there are tons of opinions I express where I substitute “you” or “people” for “I.”
  • “I feel that…” is not the start of a sentence that describes a feeling. The word “that” negates the feeling emotion. “I feel…” should be followed by a feeling like sadness, irritation, confusion, unsettled, etc. Otherwise, it’s a thought: “I think.”
  • “Where I am in the question is…” — this is a handy way to disclose your own biases. For example, if you ask someone, “Did you father force you to go to soccer camp as a kid?” then you might follow-on by saying, “Where I am in the question is that my father forced me to participate in such camps, so I may be projecting.”
  • Asking someone the plain question “Why?” can generate a defensive response if the topic is sensitive. For example, “Why did you say that thing to Nancy?” Softer approach would be: “What was going on for you when you said that thing to Nancy?” Another example is the difference between: “Why are you going to London next week?” (if the decision to do the trip is particularly sensitive/delicate) versus “What’s going on for you, or what feelings do you have, regarding the London trip?”
  • AFOG = Another Fucking Opportunity for Growth. An acronym to use after making a mistake or enduring a difficult/uncomfortable moment.
  • Anger is a secondary emotion. If you’re feeling anger, look for the emotion behind anger.
  • “Feedback is like clothing — you have to try it on to see if it fits.”
  • The handiness of the phrase “I feel seen and heard” after someone connects with you with empathy.
  • “Whatever is omitted, is not only unspoken but unspeakable.” – Adrienne Rich
  • Sometimes you feel emotionally “unfinished” with another person — that’s the precise feeling. It’s not that you’re conclusively angry or conclusively thrilled with the person. You’re not conclusively anything. You’re just unfinished. The story is not yet finished.
  • A 1-7 scale can be helpful in conveying the intensity of an emotion. If you feel irritated, how intensely do you feel that emotion on a scale of 1-7?

I feel grateful for the opportunity to have participated in this workshop and I want to thank the facilitators and other participants for their contributions in making it such a provocative, mind-expanding experience for me.

Burning Man 2019

I’ve been meaning to go back to Burning Man ever since my 24 hour stint four years ago. But each year since then, a few months before the event I’d start doing my research and quickly become overwhelmed by the complexity of it all: Finding a ticket, finding a camp, figuring out transport, etc.

This year, I was fortunate to find a last minute ticket and camp via a friend (under 10 days before the start!), so I pulled the trigger, spent more money than is probably rational, and managed to squeeze in three full days on the playa. It wasn’t the full week experience but it was enough time that I feel like I have a richer and more accurate understanding of the Burning Man project.

Here were my impressions from my first trip — about awe, hardship, and values.

Overall impression this year: A good time! A couple highlights followed by other smaller scale impressions:

Late night bike ride to the temple

At 10pm one night, the guys in my RV and I went to a dance party, which was fun and populated with people I knew, but after an hour I realized it was like any other dance party (except worse because it was only electronic dance music!). Yet the rest of the playa boasted only-in-Burning Man art and people and crazy costumes.

So I bailed on the party and went to find my bike to go explore.

To combat the nighttime gusts of wind and playa dust, I wore goggles over my eyeglasses. In general, dust-in-eyes challenged me more than dust-in-mouth, so I wore goggles more than my mask. A friend helped strewn flashing lights on my bike. On my body, I wore white basketball shoes, tall green teenage mutant ninja turtles socks, long white tights as underwear, cat shorts, a cheap fur vest over my open chest, an Arabic style scarf wrapped around my neck that I could pull up to cover my mouth when needed, and colorful flashing bracelets wrapped around my upper arm. Finally, a headlamp to guide my way. Don’t bike at night without a headlamp.

I proceeded to bike solo around the playa from 11pm – 2:30am. I passed art cars firing blames of fire out of pipes, I passed stationary sound camps blasting thumpin’ EDM for the enjoyment of revelers who were likely enjoying an LSD trip in turn, and hundreds of other cyclists randomly meandering the playa. As I went further out into the desert and away from the formal camps, I stumbled upon the temple, a regular structure on the playa (newly and differently built each year) where people write mini-obituaries onto the walls and tape photos of loved ones who died in the past year. Here’s more about the temple and a short 5 min video overview.

In the front of the temple this guy, a guy was playing on a full sized piano. He was hitting the keys, but it was silent to the naked ear. I took in the sight: a guy, caressing a piano, in front of a temple — enveloped in a desert at 1am. I routinely tried to remind myself that nothing I was seeing was in any way normal: recognize the absurdity and then let it give way to awe… Anyway, a woman in front of the temple was handing out wireless headphones. I put a pair over my ears, and in beamed the live sounds of the piano player in front of me. I walked through the temple, hearing the piano music in my ears, and started reading the obits. Some postings were quite moving. I was especially taken with the love letters that people posted to their now-deceased dogs. I spent an hour reading, absorbing, resting, and reflecting at this beautiful monument erected to honor past lives. Really touching.

Sunrise

On morning #3, I woke up at 4am and headed out on bike to deep playa, near the small fence that represents the outer border of Burning Man territory within the vast, identical desert that’s all federal land. It was about a 30 minute bike ride from my RV to the outermost fence of the playa.

By 4:45am or so, I noticed the “first light” as the sun ever-so-slightly woke up, and by 5:30/6am it was a full sunrise serenade, in which I saw the glowing ball rise up from the ground above the desert landscape, in a matter of minutes it transformed pitch darkness to perfect brightness. After another 30 minutes, that clear, crisp brightness settled into a shiny, blistering brightness that persisted for the remainder of the day.

Many people had assembled to watch the sunrise. You could tell who had stayed up all night versus the people who just woke up early, like me. People’s attire varied: Some were dressed for the chilly night, some were dressed more modestly knowing that by 8am it’d be hot as hell and you wouldn’t want to be lugging around a heavy jacket in the sun. And of course one couple near me was fully nude, both man and woman, the man sitting and hugging his partner from behind to stay warm.

Tycho, the electronic music artist (who I ended up meeting again in the airport flying home later in the day), DJ’d a set of “sunrise” music, and people danced. From there, we wandered over to the 747 — half of a real-life 747 airplane stationed in the desert — where there was more music being played, and being dancing and milling about outside the aircraft.

I can’t remember the last time I’ve been awake for and consciously attended to a sunrise. While it wasn’t a kind of spiritual experience for me in the way others have described it at Burning Man, I’m glad to have done it. Definitely memorable.

Some other scattered impressions:

Bike is a game changer. First time around, I had no bike. This time, I had a crappy, way-too-small-for-me bike, but it worked. Being able to do what 99% of people at Burning Man do — bike around the playa — unlocked all sorts of new experiences. Next time I’ll try to get an electric bike.

Scheduled workshops/sessions. I didn’t go to any scheduled workshops. There are a ton every day on all sorts of topics, from the G rated to the X rated. But I didn’t feel like I had time to do more than serendipitous drop-ins at a couple camps. I also lacked the confidence that I could actually reach specific destinations on time given my shoddy bike and uncertain geographic sense of the playa. But had I stayed a couple more days, my grasp of how the city was organized would have been better. I was feeling like I had picked up on the layout by my last day…

Picking up food on offer. Hot dogs, smoothie, tacos. All offered by different camps as I biked by. It’s hard to go hungry on the playa. I made friends by offering hand sanitizer to the people in front and behind me in line while waiting for food.

People are aware of the irony of Burning Man. No one I spoke to denied the highly capitalistic elements of Burning Man; the lack of racial diversity; the humor of the principle of “self-reliance” when people truck in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of technology to survive for a week. I probably haven’t spent time with true hardcore burners, but from my conversations, people don’t take themselves or the “mission” of Burning Man irrationally seriously.

It’s more fun with friends. You can only do so many hours outside in the heat; as a result, there’s plenty of downtime, chill time, etc. in the RV or camp area. When I go again, I’m going to try to organize several friends to go at the same time and coordinate being in the same camp. Makes a difference.

Surprisingly asexual. Sure, there’s a lot of nudity at Burning Man. Plenty of topless women and a fair number of guys letting it all hang out — especially in the gay neighborhood. But I found the nudity weirdly unerotic. Maybe because you’re in a constant state of feeling disgusting at Burning Man — sweat, dust, sleep deprived, etc. The nudity feels practical more than sexual. To be sure, I didn’t go in the orgy tent or attend the other adult-theme sessions (see earlier point about not being confident in my ability to get anywhere on time).

Money makes it all more comfortable. An RV with functional air conditioning is infinitely more enjoyable than an outdoor tent that’s exposed to the elements. Flying in or out to Black Rock City airport (the landing strip right on the playa) also shaves hours of time of the journey into the desert. Neither an RV nor a plane is cheap. Duh.

Back to reality…at the airport. My flight out of the playa from Black Rock City airport was delayed for 3 hours. There were several charter flights to Oakland scheduled back-to-back; all delayed. When the staff person announced that a flight scheduled for 1pm was going to depart before a flight originally scheduled for 12pm, people on the 12pm flight flipped out. It was amusing to see all the groovy community-love vibes of the playa revert almost immediately to mainstream airport customer service outrage. It reminded me of a meditation retreat I went to many years ago. A couple hours after the retreat ended, a heated argument that broke out in the parking lot between two meditators — one of whom accused the other of blocking his car and impeding his departure. It was as if all the loving-kindness mentions from the previous 3 days had evaporated instantly.

The 747 on the playa at night

My notes from leading a session on Oral Communication

At the Village Global Founder Retreat 2019 this summer, we brought together 75+ of our founders for a couple days of networking, content sessions, and relaxation.

I moderated a session on oral communication and public speaking. Below are my rough notes/talking points for my facilitation.


Three premises from me:

  1. It’s an incredibly high leverage skill to develop. As CEOs, we are storytellers-in-chief. We’re always telling stories. Being good at it means adapting our storytelling depending on who’s around, who’s in the audience.
  2. Need to actually practice and develop this skill. It doesn’t come naturally.
  3. Storytelling per se is one element of effective oral communication. There are other elements to the broader skill set of oral communication.

A few principles for being better at oral communication, be it in a meeting with a few people and large presentation, much of it inspired from Own the Room.

First, content.

  • Eliminate weak language. RECORD YOURSELF on video and audio and you’ll hear weak language (ums and ah’s).
  • Paint a picture and evoke an emotion. Set a scene. A scenario. “Imagine…” as an opener…
  • Involve the audience with the content. Poll the audience. Body polls. Thumbs up. Thumbs down. Audience engagement is crucial. Prepare the points of engagement.

Second, tone.

  • RANGE. Change in tone creates energy. Speed differences. Voice modulation. You can talk quickly or slowly and be a powerful speaker. The key is to change it up.
  • Pause. Nothing as powerful as a well-placed pause.

Third, body language.

  • Big gestures that mirror what you’re saying verbally. Get creative.

Fourth, use space.

  • If giving a presentation, move your body with each point purposefully. For Point A, stand here. For Point B, stand over there. Don’t nervously pace aimlessly.

Misc:

  • Stories have beginning, middle, and ends.
  • Rehearse your jokes. Laugh lines should be prepared.
  • You’re not as good as extemporaneous speaking as you think you are. Prepare.

Keen on Resurfacing Interesting, Old Articles? Paid Internship

I’m not able to blog as much these days (busy with work and a bit more private than I used to be), though I hope that changes, and I expect it will over the next 6-12 months. In the meantime, I’ve got thousands of posts buried in the archives of this blog and on other platforms, and I want to re-surface and re-edit them for present-day consumption.

I’m looking for someone to help me do that. It’ll be a 2-3 month project, probably 10 hours a week, with very flexible work hours and fully remote. If you’re familiar with my writing over the years, that will be helpful, as you’ll be exercising judgement about which of my archived content to include in this project. Strong familiarity with Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin is required.

You’ll receive a paid retainer for this work, which includes the perk — if you view it as such — of sorting through and summarizing certain interesting blog posts and articles on the web.

If you’re interested, please email me at: [email protected] with a little about who you are and any links to your existing social media presence. Thanks.

Scuba Diving in Roatan

During a dive descent

Roatan, Honduras has more Americans than Hondurans, it feels like, and the Hondurans who are there have stunningly good American accents on their English.

That is to say that Roatan is a super easy Caribbean getaway (2 hour flight from Houston) for Americans who want world-famous scuba diving and snorkling. Last year, we went to Cozumel, Mexico for July 4th scuba. This year, Roatan. Very similar destinations.

I preferred the scuba in Roatan. Both places are stunning, but Roatan’s current isn’t as strong so it’s not all drift diving. Either place is good for beginners like me. The food in Cozumel, Mexico is better, likely because it’s an overall more developed country and likely maintains higher standards for quality food sourcing and prep.

Scuba diving continues to enchant. It’s a whole ‘nother universe down there. I’m not yet committed to climbing the ladders of higher and higher dive certifications but being a casual amateur is fun and provides an obvious adventure outlet on trips to warm destinations. I continue to struggle with equalizing my ears; if I ever stop diving, it’ll be because of my ears.

July 4th week also continues to be a good week to travel out of the States. When the holiday lands in the middle of the week, tons of people seem to take the week off. I think getting out of town for a few days during the week of the 4th is a new tradition…

Finally, I read Blake Couch’s latest novel Recursion on the trip. It’s a page turner that reminded me of Stephen King’s time travel book. I preferred Crouch’s previous book Dark Matter but this one was still sci-fi provocative.

Book Review: The Second Mountain by David Brooks

Some people love to hate on David Brooks. And his latest book, The Second Mountain, offers opportunity for his haters to hate: It’s a book about morality and values, in large part fueled by his own personal transformation over the past decade, including a decision to split from his wife and then, later, to marry his research assistant 20 years his junior. His critics are making hay over this aspect of his personal story. Personally, I find Brooks’ personal life not essential to understanding and even agreeing with the arguments in the book. Further, I’m not sure why divorce and re-marriage (even to someone younger than you) ought to subject someone to ridicule. So, I both enjoyed the book, and do not judge Brooks’ personal life.

I find the “two mountains” premise simple yet deep: The first mountain you climb in life is about worldly success, career achievement. You get to the top of the mountain and realize it’s not totally satisfying. “Is this all there?” you wonder. So you begin to climb a second mountain in life–a journey of searching for deeper meaning in life:

You don’t climb the second mountain the way you climb the first mountain. You conquer your first mountain. You identify the summit, and you claw your way toward it. You are conquered by your second mountain. You surrender to some summons, and you do everything necessary to answer the call and address the problem or injustice that is in front of you. On the first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate, and relentless.

This resonates personally, not that I’ve necessarily conquered any mountain yet in my life. It also resonates when I think about my friends later in life who are very much at the top of a career mountain but are still searching for…something. The Buddhist idea that getting what you want won’t make you happy — this truth, if indeed true, is incredibly profound. And it seems true.

Brooks lays out a bunch of interesting researched stories, personal anecdotes, and research snippets to make his case that leading a more purposeful life requires intentionality if you are to overcome the natural order of shallowness. For Brooks, part of the journey to a deeper life involved religion, and becoming a “confused Christian” in addition to his Judaism. The most compelling stories to me were about people who prioritized service and volunteerism in their lives.

Here are some of my highlights from the Kindle edition.


There are temporary highs we all get after we win some victory, and then there is also this other kind of permanent joy that animates people who are not obsessed with themselves but have given themselves away.

It’s all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, and so on. Then something happens. Some people get to the top of that first mountain, taste success, and find it…unsatisfying. “Is this all there is?” they wonder. They sense there must be a deeper journey they can take.

I’ve written this book, in part, to remind myself of the kind of life I want to live.

We can help create happiness, but we are seized by joy. We are pleased by happiness, but we are transformed by joy. When we experience joy we often feel we have glimpsed into a deeper and truer layer of reality. A narcissist can be happy, but a narcissist can never be joyful, because the surrender of self is the precise thing a narcissist can’t do. A narcissist can’t even conceive of joy. That’s one of the problems with being stuck on the first mountain: You can’t even see what the second mountain offers.

This is the sudden bursting of love that you see, for example, on the face of a mother when she first lays eyes on her infant. Dorothy Day captured it beautifully: “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure, I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms….No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.”

As Haidt notes, powerful moments of moral elevation seem to push a mental reset button, wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and moral inspiration. These moments of elevation are energizing. People feel strongly motivated to do something good themselves, to act, to dare, to sacrifice, to help others. When people

All of this points in one direction: into the ditch. The person who graduates from school and pursues an aesthetic pattern of life often ends up in the ditch. It’s only then that they realize the truth that somehow nobody told them: Freedom sucks. Political freedom is great. But personal, social, and emotional freedom—when it becomes an ultimate end—absolutely sucks. It leads to a random, busy life with no discernible direction, no firm foundation, and in which, as Marx put it, all that’s solid melts to air.

If this sense of lostness can happen to a Tolstoy, then it can happen to anybody. After all, the rest of us can be haunted by the idea that we haven’t accomplished as much as we could. But Tolstoy was one of the greatest writers who ever lived and knew it. Wealth and fame and accomplishment do not spare anybody from the valley.

This is a telos crisis. A telos crisis is defined by the fact that people in it don’t know what their purpose is. When this happens, they become fragile. Nietzsche says that he who has a “why” to live for can endure any “how.” If you know what your purpose is, you can handle the setbacks. But when you don’t know what your purpose is, any setback can lead to total collapse.

A lot is gained simply by going into a different physical place. You need to taste and touch and feel your way toward a new way of being. And there are huge benefits in leaving the center of things and going off into the margins.

The wilderness lives at the pace of what the Greeks called kairos time, which can be slower but is always richer.

Think about it: Almost every movie you’ve ever seen is about somebody experiencing this intense sense of merging with something, giving themselves away to something—a mission, a cause, a family, a nation, or a beloved.

Maybe some of us will learn these lessons while racking up success after success, or just being thoroughly loved, but for most of us the process is different: We have a season when we chase the shallow things in life. We are not fulfilled. Then comes hardship, which exposes the heart and soul. The heart and soul teach us that we cannot give ourselves what we desire most. Fulfillment and joy are on the far side of service. Only then are we really able to love.

I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of a dinner table. It’s the stage on which we turn toward one another for love like flowers seeking the sun.
It is a paradox that when people are finding themselves they often have a sensation that they are letting go and surrendering themselves. You meet a person in need. At first you just commit to help them a little. An hour a week. It’s no big deal. But then you get to know and care about the person, and the hooks of commitment are set. Now you’ll do what needs to be done. At this point you just let go of the wheel. You stop asking, What do I want? and start asking, What is life asking of me? You respond.

When they are working with the homeless or the poor or the traumatized, they are laboring alongside big welfare systems that offer services but not care. These systems treat people as “cases” or “clients.” They are necessary to give people financial stability and support, but they can’t do transformational change. As Peter Block, one of the leading experts on community, puts it, “Talk to any poor person or vulnerable person and they can give you a long list of the services they have received. They are well serviced, but you often have to ask what in their life has fundamentally changed.”

One task in life is synthesis. It is to collect all the fragmented pieces of a self and bring them to a state of unity, so that you move coherently toward a single vision.

Like T. S. Eliot, Orwell believed that good writing involves a continual extinction of personality. One struggles, Orwell wrote, “to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.” The act of writing well involved self-suppression, putting the reader in direct contact with the thing described.

“Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him,” Walker Percy observes.

Technical, book knowledge, Oakeshott writes, consists of “formulated rules which are, or may be, deliberately learned.” Practical knowledge, on the other hand, cannot be taught or learned but only imparted and acquired. It exists only in practice. When we talk about practical knowledge, we tend to use bodily metaphors. We say that somebody has a touch for doing some activity—an ability to hit the right piano key with just enough force and pace. We say that somebody has a feel for the game, an intuition for how events are going to unfold, an awareness of when you should plow ahead with a problem and when you should put it aside before coming back to it. We say that somebody has taste, an aesthetic sense of what product or presentation is excellent, and which ones are slightly off.

Eighty-three percent of all corporate mergers fail to create any value for shareholders, and these mergers are only made after months and years of analysis. When making the big choices in life, as L.A. Paul puts it, “You shouldn’t fool yourself—you have no idea what you are getting into.”

In most key decision moments, there are actually many more options that are being filtered out by that point of view. Every time you find yourself saying “whether or not,” the Heaths argue, it’s a good idea to step back and find more options. Maybe the question is not breaking up with Sue or not; it’s finding a new way to improve your relationship.

You can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but you can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.

Who you marry is the most important decision you will ever make. Marriage colors your life and everything in it. George Washington had a rather interesting life, but still concluded, “I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one’s life, the foundation of happiness or misery.”

“I don’t really know of many happy marriages. I know a lot of marriages where parents love their kids.”
J. B Priestley once observed that there is probably no talk quite so delightful as the talk between two people who are not yet in love, but who might fall in love, and are aware that each has hidden reserves waiting to be explored.

“He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love,” King wrote.

Neuroticism, Tashiro continues, is what you want to avoid. It seems exciting and dramatic at first, but neurotic people are tense, moody, prone to sadness. Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative emotions such as anger and anxiety with great force. “Neurotic individuals tend to have a history of turbulent and unstable relationships with others, including family and friends. They also tend to be prone to what looks like bad luck, but with time, one often sees that there are ways that their neuroticism evokes unfortunate

John Gottman, the dean of marriage scholars, grasped the essence: “Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship. By this I mean mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other’s company. These couples tend to know each other intimately—they are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams. They have an abiding regard for each other and express this fondness not just in big ways but in little ways day in and day out.”

Emotional knowledge, Roger Scruton argues, is knowing what to feel in certain situations—so that you can be properly disgusted by injustice, properly reverent before an act of self-sacrifice, properly sympathetic in friendship, and properly forbearing when wronged.

One morning, for example, I was getting off the subway in Penn Station in New York at rush hour. I was surrounded as always by thousands of people, silent, sullen, trudging to work in long lines. Normally in those circumstances you feel like just another ant leading a meaningless life in a meaningless universe. Normally the routineness of life dulls your capacity for wonder. But this time everything flipped, and I saw souls in all of them. It was like suddenly everything was illuminated, and I became aware of an infinite depth in each of these thousands of people. They were living souls. Suddenly it seemed like the most vivid part of reality was this: Souls waking up in the morning. Souls riding the train to work. Souls yearning for goodness. Souls wounded by earlier traumas. Souls in each and every person, illuminating them from the inside, haunting them, and occasionally enraptured within them, souls alive or numb in them; and with that came a feeling that I was connected by radio waves to all of them—some underlying soul of which we were all a piece.

Rabbi Heschel says that awe is not an emotion; it is a way of understanding. “Awe is itself an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves.”

Then, as now, I try to hire people who have some progression on their résumé that doesn’t make sense by the conventional logic of the meritocracy. I want to see that they believe in something bigger than the conventional definition of success.

There is a Muslim saying, Whatever you think God is, He is not that.

I experienced grace before I experienced God, and sometimes I still have trouble getting back to the source. But I find that as long as there are five or ten people in your life whose faith seems gritty and real and like your own, that keeps the whole thing compelling.

Later in life, Buechner found himself amid young Christians who spoke confidently about God as if they talked to Him all the time, and He talked back. God told them to pursue this job and not that one, and to order this at the restaurant and not that. He was dumbstruck. He wrote that if you say you hear God talking to you every day on every subject, you are either trying to pull the wool over your own eyes or everybody else’s. Instead, he continues, you should wake up in your bed and ask, “Can I believe it all again today?” Or, better yet, ask yourself that question after you’ve scanned the morning news and seen all the atrocities that get committed. If your answer to that question of belief is “yes” every single day, then you probably don’t know what believing in God really means, Buechner writes. “At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and…great laughter.”

One of the signature facts of the Internet age is that distance is not dead. Place matters as much as ever, and much more than we ever knew. The average American lives eighteen miles from his or her mother. The typical college student enrolls in a college fifteen miles from home. A study of Facebook friends nationwide found that 63 percent of the people we friend live within one hundred miles. Americans move less these days, not more.

Hyper-individualism, the reigning ethos of our day, is a system of morals, feelings, ideas, and practices based on the idea that the journey through life is an individual journey, that the goals of life are individual happiness, authenticity, self-actualization, and self-sufficiency. Hyper-individualism puts the same question on everybody’s lips: What can I do to make myself happy?

 The tribalist is seeking connection but isolates himself ever more bitterly within his own resentments and distrust. Tribalism is the dark twin of community. The tragic paradox of hyper-individualism is that what began as an ecstatic liberation ends up as a war of tribe against tribe that crushes the individuals it sought to free.

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve got a long backlog of books to blog about. Here are some highlights from recent reads.

1. Ties by Domenico Starnone

A wonderful novel about marriage, affairs, and family life, written by the person who’s rumored to be have a relationship with Elena Ferrante.

Jhumpa Lahiri‘s introduction is worth the price of admission on its own. Here’s Lahiri:

Love is a key word in Ties, a term that is questioned, redefined, shunned, treasured, maligned. At one point Vanda says that love is merely “a container we stick everything into.” It is, in essence, a hollow vessel, a placeholder that justifies our behaviors and choices. A notion that consoles us, that cons us more often than not.

And then Lahiri goes on:

Ties looks coldly at the price of freedom and happiness. It both celebrates and castigates Dionysian states of ecstasy, of abandon. And though happiness often involves linking ourselves to other people—in other words, stepping outside the confines of ourselves—it is something, in the final analysis, that characters experience privately, alone.

From the book itself, now. How our busyness keeps memory and remorse at bay:

the tight mesh of the days—meetings, rivalries, permanent tensions, small defeats, small victories, trips for work, kisses and embraces in the evening, at night, in the morning: a perfect antidote for keeping memory and remorse at bay—slackened imperceptibly.

On how affairs start:

At every opportunity—I said to myself—I could have a lover: It’s like the rain, a drop collides randomly with another drop and forms a rivulet. All you had to do was insist on that initial curiosity, and the curiosity would become attraction, the attraction would grow and lead to sex, sex would call for repetition, repetition would establish a habit, a need.

…I’m not sure of the reasons why I behaved this way. Certainly the sport of seduction, sexual curiosity, and the impression (unfounded) that each flirtation reawakened lost creativity all played a role. But I prefer a motivation that’s more elusive, and also more true: I wanted to prove to myself that in spite of having reformed the old couple, in spite of having returned to the family, in spite of putting a wedding band back on my finger, I was free, that I no longer had real ties.

2. No One Tells You This by Glynnis MacNicol

A surprisingly engaging memoir from a woman in her early 40’s who’s unmarried and childless, and the swirl of emotions and decision points surrounding those two facts.

On motherhood:

Parents, especially women, have a habit of talking about motherhood as though it were an exotic mystical land where everything is dazzling; as if they’d walked through a closet and the world has suddenly gone Technicolor. Or at least that’s how it often felt, listening to them from the shores of childless land. With each breakfast rush and school run and nighttime snuggle, I was traveling further and further into that land, if only as a tourist. It did not feel mystical, unless you count the hallucinatory effect of having no sleep. But it was electrifying. There was a charge in this I could not deny, a sense of propulsion and deep, absolute necessity.

On having kids — it tells you what you’re going to do over 20+ years, and ensures you’ll always feel at least somewhat important:

“This is why people have babies,” I said, “because it’s exhausting not to know what you’re supposed to do next. A baby is basically a nonnegotiable map for the next two decades.

…Ambition is ambition; like running water it has to go somewhere, and this was a place I could understand it going. The truth was, there was some brief relief to that picture: on a very basic level I would know exactly what I was supposed to do every day, and it would always be important to someone. I’d never have to wonder over my own necessity or whether what I was doing was worthwhile.

On her close friend getting married, and how that upends their friendship, and what she would have liked to say — with all the attendant complexities — as a wedding toast:

I wasn’t envious of Mauri. If anything, I was envious of our past lives together, and I was mourning a life I was losing. The resentment, I’d realized, was rooted in the fact that I never had any control over this upending of my life. It had never occurred to me that I was allowed to do anything but silently accept it. The fact that no one acknowledged that I had anything to be upset about made it all that much worse. It was hard work to root yourself so deeply in life that you could still love people and rely on them, knowing at any point they could make decisions that would leave you scrambling to find solid ground again. This was the better or worse of friendship, undeclared. What I wanted was for there to exist some way for me to say I’m happy and sad and not jealous all at the same time, and also This is a loss and is still beautiful. Maybe that was the wedding toast. We are really the ones giving you away. And it’s hard. And I will miss our life. And I am still so happy for your happiness. And so proud of you.

No one knows what you’re missing when you pick one path over another:

But it seemed to me that going through life making decisions on what I might possibly feel in a future that may or may not come about was a bad way to live. I wasn’t going to have a baby as an insurance policy against some future remorse I couldn’t yet imagine. I had more respect for myself than that. The truth was, no one knows what they’re missing in the end. You can only live your own life, and do your best with the outcome when you roll the dice.

3. Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates has his lovers and his haters. I’m neither, by virtue of not having read his full canon. But I really enjoyed his most famous book. There are so many poetic lines it’s hard to do justice without pasting 50 excerpts below. Suffice to say it was one of the more powerful accounts of the role race plays in the American experience that I have ever read.

You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.

I have my work. I no longer feel it necessary to hang my head at parties and tell people that I am “trying to be a writer.” And godless though I am, the fact of being human, the fact of possessing the gift of study, and thus being remarkable among all the matter floating through the cosmos, still awes me.

Not long ago I was standing in an airport retrieving a bag from a conveyor belt. I bumped into a young black man and said, “My bad.” Without even looking up he said, “You straight.” And in that exchange there was so much of the private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers of this tribe that we call black. In other words, I was part of a world.

Through the windshield I saw the mark of these ghettos—the abundance of beauty shops, churches, liquor stores, and crumbling housing—and I felt the old fear. Through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets.

A little girl wanders home, at age seven, after being teased in school and asks her parents, “Are we niggers and what does this mean?”

4. Normal People by Sally Rooney

The acclaimed novel by the very young Irish writer. The dialogue simmers with authenticity and, in these exchanges between the few main characters, you are taken along in a basic growing-up-and-going-to-college story. The novel has an addictive quality.

Not for the first time Marianne thinks cruelty does not only hurt the victim, but the perpetrator also, and maybe more deeply and more permanently. You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget.

He’s aware that he could have sex with her now if he wanted to. She wouldn’t tell anyone. He finds it strangely comforting, and allows himself to think about what it would be like. Hey, he would say quietly. Lie on your back, okay? And she would just obediently lie on her back. So many things pass secretly between people anyway. What kind of person would he be if it happened now? Someone very different? Or exactly the same person, himself, with no difference at all.

There’s always been something inside her that men have wanted to dominate, and their desire for domination can look so much like attraction, even love.

5. The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

A brisk, informative, unadorned tour through the disastrous first few months of the Trump Presidency, overseen by one ignoramus after the other.

6. Lying by Sam Harris

A short e-book that makes the case for never lying, inclusive of white lies. I found it interesting, as always with Harris, but not totally convincing.

The Sacred Valley of Peru

“The reasons the Incas called this the ‘Sacred Valley’ are all around you. Discover them in each of our explorations.”

So read the welcome note left on a desk in our hotel room. It rang true: The mountains and fields and Incan terraces surrounding the hotel amounted to quite an awe-inspiring scene.

I’m not sure I was even aware of the Sacred Valley of Peru prior to this trip. I knew about Machu Picchu, and I suppose if you had mentioned the Incan empire, I would have had vague awareness of the history. But five days of hiking and biking around the valley guided by experts brought the history and culture to life. The history of the Incan trails is pretty interesting, and it’s cool to be able to still walk on many of the trails, many of which were built over 500 years ago.

Most intriguing to me was how the Incas saw God in nature. Mountains were God. Trees were God. Rain was God. Many of us feel a sense of awe in nature. Turning that sense of awe into a full religious fervor is something else entirely. Archaeoastronomy is apparently the study of “how ancient peoples incorporated the sun, moon and stars into their daily lives.” The religious connection to the mountains is multiplied by Peru’s insane weather. As someone told Mark Adams in his book below, “I was in the Sacred Valley in 1983 when a hailstorm knocked out ninety percent of the corn crop in fifteen minutes…So if your perception is that the mountains control weather, you’re going to try to make those mountains happy.”

Machu Picchu itself is a sight to behold. Of course, it’s famous, so it’s crawling with people, which distracts a bit from the sacred vibe. It’s still awe-inspiring to see a mini stone city nestled amidst the Andes. And it’s hard to imagine thousands of men carrying thousands of heavy stones to build the buildings, with no modern stone carving tools. The purpose of Machu Picchu is debated among archeologists and historians to this day. Maybe it was a mini temple. Maybe it was simply the home of the Inca. Maybe it was meant as a stop on a longer pilgrimage. Who knows.

In Johan Reinhard’s book — quoted by Mark Adams in the book I link to below — he suggests that “trying to understand places like Machu Picchu and Vitcos as individual, self-contained sites misses a larger point. These monuments were built in relation to the sun, the stars, the mountains—and to one another.”

There are many microclimates in the Valley, and hikes, bike rides, and car tours available at different elevations. On our last day, we climbed to 14,000 feet and experienced a moonscape-like set of lakes and paddies nestled in the the high Andes mountains. There were no other people; just alpacas and shepherds. The whole scene felt quite distinct from the river trails in the basin of the valley.

Overall, I’d rank this part of Peru up there in terms of outdoor activities combined with historical interestingness. (Note that the city of Lima is generally not a recommended stop for tourists and my one day there on the way home didn’t move me to challenge that recommendation.)

The book “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” by Mark Adams is a really engaging tour through Peru and the Sacred Valley from a modern travel writer. The first 20% is slow going, but the last 80% was excellent. Recommended reading if you’re traveling to Peru and aren’t aware of Hiram Bingham’s explorations. Here are some highlights from my Kindle reading of the book:


Measured in square miles, the country is not especially large. On a globe it looks like a swollen California. Within that space, though, are twenty-thousand-foot peaks, the world’s deepest canyon (twice as deep as the Grand Canyon), unmapped Amazon jungle and the driest desert on earth. Peru is an equatorial country that depends on glaciers for drinking water. It’s one of the world’s hot spots for seismic and volcanic activity. (Both Lima and Cusco have been leveled by earthquakes; the country’s second-largest city, Arequipa, sits beneath a smoking peak that could blow its top at any time.) Scientists have calculated that there are thirty-four types of climatic zones on the face of the earth. Peru has twenty of them.

“But if the mules do get in front, let them go because they’re stupid and they do stupid things. Of course you know not to stand within”—here he spread his arms wide—“of a mule. I saw a kid a few weeks ago with a hole kicked in the side of his head. He’ll probably get better because he’s a kid. I’ve seen adults with dented skulls that are never going to heal.”

When Bingham saw [Machu Picchu], it was largely in ruins, torn apart by Spanish religious fanatics infuriated by Inca paganism and generations of Andean treasure seekers looking for Inca gold.

“For two weeks out of every year, the sun comes straight down this corridor,” John said, sweeping his gloved hands backward as if he were a matador ushering in the solar bull. “It’s right on the June solstice line, the point where the sun rises on the shortest day of the year. And it’s a straight shot to Machu Picchu. The Incas probably hung some sort of golden sheet or reflector at the end of it to reflect sunlight back to Machu Picchu. Can you imagine how spectacular that would have been? Machu Picchu would’ve still been dark, waiting for the sunrise, when the reflection would just shoot across the valley! “And in that direction

The masonry, like that of most Inca masterworks, tilted slightly inward and tapered as it went up. “Owing to the absence of mortar,” Bingham wrote, “there are no ugly spaces between the rocks. They might have grown together.”

There’s an old kitchen maxim that squid should either be cooked for two minutes or two hours. A similar rule could be applied to Machu Picchu. With a good guide—there are dozens of them lingering by the front entrance—a visitor who’s short on time can see the highlights of Machu Picchu in two hours. A visit of two days, though, allows enough time to take in the site’s full majesty.

One of the major factors in the rise of archaeology had been the birth of the public museum.

“Of course. What’s the difference between Bingham and a huaquero at this point? Nothing. Bingham was very clever at marketing himself. He managed to make himself look like the discoverer. That’s a legend that needs to be completely thrown out.”

Aside from a small group of scholars, administrators, and lawyers at Yale, almost everyone with an interest in Machu Picchu agreed that the artifacts Bingham took should be returned. There has long been, however, some (politically incorrect) doubt about Peru’s ability to take proper care of its antiquities. The National Museum in Lima was notoriously robbed of hundreds of irreplaceable objects in the late 1970s. The Museo Inka in Cusco had twenty-two gold pieces stolen in 1993. One well-known explorer I spoke with recalled handing mummies and artifacts over to the INC, only to return later and learn that they’d been lost or stolen. In 2008, a pair of vendors operating a souvenir shop off the main plaza in Cusco was found with 690 Inca and pre-Inca artifacts; they’d been hawking them on the Internet.

Just now, when we thought there was practically no portion of the Earth’s surface still unknown, when the discovery of a single lake or mountain, or the charting of a remote strip of coast line was enough to give a man fame as an explorer, one member of the daredevil explorers’ craft has “struck it rich,” struck it so dazzlingly rich, indeed, that all his confrères may be pardoned if they gnash their teeth in chagrin and turn green with envy. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about that extraordinary sentence is that it happened to be true.

The irony of Bingham’s prosecution is that he really was smuggling artifacts out of the country, hundreds of them—just not those that Valcárcel had accused him of. The previous year, the historian Christopher Heaney has written, Bingham had negotiated the purchase of 366 Inca artifacts from Tomás Alvistur, the son-in-law of Huadquiña’s owners. After a bit of haggling, the antiquities were smuggled out of Peru and arrived in New Haven, where they outshone the pieces that Bingham had excavated at Machu Picchu. … “Frankly, Bingham didn’t find shit. He bought the Alvistur stuff.” This was the collection of 366 artifacts from the son-in-law of Huadquiña’s owner. “Machu Picchu was completely sacked before Bingham was born. Far and away the best stuff that Bingham got out of Machu Picchu he didn’t find—he bought. The funny thing was, Bingham snuck that stuff out and they wanted to keep it a dirty secret. But that stuff legally they can keep. It’s the other stuff that has to come back.”

The truth about Bingham, perhaps the only thing Paolo Greer and Eliane Karp-Toledo would have agreed on, is that he did something less romantic but ultimately much more important than discovering Machu Picchu. He saw the ruins, quickly determined their importance (if not their origin) and popularized them to a degree that they couldn’t be blown up with dynamite or knocked over in the search for buried gold, as Vitcos had been. Would Machu Picchu exist if Hiram Bingham had never seen it? Of course. Would it be the same Machu Picchu we know today? Almost certainly not.

Similarly, if he’d never published Lost City of the Incas, would Bingham have been accused of stealing credit for the discovery? No. Was he the original Indiana Jones? Not exactly. But if he hadn’t published Lost City of the Incas, would the character of Indiana Jones ever have existed? Probably not, at least not in the form we know.