Book Review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy is a memoir from lawyer Bryan Stevenson about his work fighting against the death penalty and mass incarceration in Alabama. A couple months ago the book got turned into a Hollywood film featuring Michael B Jordan (which I haven’t watched). There’s also an HBO documentary about Stevenson (which I did just watch), and the TED talk that brought Stevenson’s work to the mainstream for many in the tech community a few years ago.

I found his memoir incredibly inspirational. And of course sad and infuriating at the same time. Stevenson details numerous instances of injustice; some of which are never rectified prior to the alleged criminals’ execution. Some injustices are innocent men dying (or about to die, were it not for Stevenson’s intervention) for crimes they did not commit. Others are guilty men who were subject to excessive punishment (e.g. the death penalty) or suffered from a failure of due process that is inhumane.

Separate from the stories of specific stories of justice denied, Stevenson argues for proper historical understanding of the current state of affairs in the American justice system. He starts with the settlers’ genocide of Native Americans –> slavery –> lynching –> the mass incarceration of today. It’s all connected. The inequities in today’s justice system find their roots in racial discrimination of the deepest sort dating back centuries. I was rather persuaded by his argument that truth & reconciliation needs to occur in America about the Civil War and slavery and Jim Crow in the same way that other countries have reconked with grand scale injustices, e.g. South Africa, Rwanda, Germany, etc. As Stevenson says, you have to first deal with the truth, then address reconciliation.

Of my Kindle highlights, here’s one paragraph: “We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people to carry out legally sanctioned executions. Thousands more await their execution on death row. Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.”

Stevenson as a human is something to behold. The passion, the relentless, the desire to serve a purpose larger than self. Bryan has never married or had children. There are no close personal friends who receive routine mention in the memoir. He doesn’t appear to have any hobbies outside of work and playing the piano. He is consumed by his mission and it’s a very admirable mission at that. We owe people like Stevenson a debt of gratitude for sacrificing so much for the greater good. I frequently ask myself, when I read memoirs or biographies about men and women of this disposition (Lyndon Johnson comes to mind), whether I could ever see myself so subsuming my own desires and personal needs in service of any sort of mission, be it a noble one such as Stevenson’s or a purely selfish one. I usually conclude I cannot. The single mindedness and complete subjugation of the individual to the mission — the dissolution of the ego, if you will, but not in the Buddhist sense of that phrase — is something I don’t see in my past, present, or future. But who knows. There’s a purity to life purpose that’s appealing. There’s no question as to how to spend your time when you wake up in the morning. You go and do the work, day after day after day.

What I’ve Been Reading


1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I spent the holidays reading this epic Russian tome, my first Russian novel. It was a good book to read while on Christmas break — being able to sink into it for a few hours each day allowed me to stay grounded in the plot and keep track of all the characters over the course of the 800+ pages. I had the expectation that I’d get lost; I don’t tend to do well when the character count exceeds a handful. But now, with a couple months of distance from the experience, I still have a vivid sense of Levin and Kitty and Vronsky and Anna, which shows the depth of the

2. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. A compelling memoir of a therapist reflecting on the act of being a therapist and going to therapy herself. Lots of excellents nuggets into how therapy works and doesn’t work. A few highlights:

Therapists use three sources of information when working with patients: What the patients say, what they do, and how we feel while we’re sitting with them…

“We’ve talked before about how there’s a difference between a criticism and a complaint, how the former contains judgment while the latter contains a request. But a complaint can also be an unvoiced compliment…

Anger is the go-to feeling for most people because it’s outward-directed—angrily blaming others can feel deliciously sanctimonious. But often it’s only the tip of the iceberg, and if you look beneath the surface, you’ll glimpse submerged feelings you either weren’t aware of or didn’t want to show: fear, helplessness, envy, loneliness, insecurity…

As Andrew Solomon wrote in The Noonday Demon: “The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but vitality.”…

Sex comes up with almost every patient I see, the same way that love does. Earlier on, I’d asked John about his sex life with Margo, given the difficulties in their relationship. It’s a common belief that people’s sex lives reflect their relationships, that a good relationship equals a good sex life and vice versa. But that’s only true sometimes. Just as often, there are people who have extremely problematic relationships and fantastic sex, and there are people who are deeply in love but who don’t click with the same intensity in the bedroom.

3. Autumn by Karl Knausgaard. I love Knausgaard — search my blog for my other reviews. This one didn’t stick for me. I did like this paragraph though:

But if it were possible to see everyone who has retired to their beds in a great city at night, in London, New York or Tokyo, for example, if we imagined that the buildings were made of glass and that all the rooms were lit, the sight would be deeply unsettling. Everywhere there would be people lying motionless in their cocoons, in room after room for miles on end, and not just at street level, along roads and crossroads, but even up in the air, separated by plateaus, some of them twenty metres above ground, some fifty, some a hundred. We would be able to see millions of immobile people who have withdrawn from others in order to lie in a coma throughout the night.

4. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. A modern, funny, incisive novel that’s being widely read, apparently, by those in the in circles of Brooklyn lit, etc etc. I enjoyed it a great deal. I didn’t find it, in the end, as feminist a book as I was expecting.

He explained to Toby that presence in a yoga class, no matter your ability, was a shortcut to showing a woman how evolved you were, how you were strong, how you were not set on maintaining the patriarchy that she so loathed and feared….

She was now an inner ear problem, something affecting his balance…

I’d read those stupid blogs about Disney, and they all warned me that the character lunch at the Crystal Palace would fill up fast, so I should book at eleven A.M., but they did not warn me about the existential dread of being there. It was like I could finally see what I’d become, made clear through my presence among yet another entire set of women who looked just like me. I couldn’t bear being this suburban mom who was alternating between screaming at her kids and being the heartfelt, privileged witness to their joy. But the people around us—the haranguing mothers and the sexless fathers—I kept trying to find ways that I was better than these people, but all I kept landing on was the fact that the common denominator was me.

5. Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. Lots of interesting observations from one of the strongest non-fiction storytellers at work today, even if the big picture thesis eluded me, a bit. Still recommended.

And of every occupational category, poets have far and away the highest suicide rates—as much as five times higher than the general population…

In one national survey, three quarters of Americans predicted that when a barrier is finally put up on the Golden Gate Bridge, most of those who wanted to take their life on the bridge would simply take their life some other way. But that’s absolutely wrong. Suicide is coupled.

Light Suppression vs. Strong Suppression

Two and a half years ago, I went through a lightly traumatic, near death experience. When I recall the event in my own mind, or if someone who knows about it raises the memory with me, I usually begin to shed a few tears (my eyes well up within 10-15 seconds) and my heart rate increases. A couple months ago, I had dinner with a couple people who were there at the time of the incident, and they brought it up (“Do you remember that time…”). Light tears gathered almost instantaneously in my eyes. And, later that night, I tossed and turned and thought about the incident for several hours while trying to fall asleep.

To be clear, it’s not something I think about every day or even every week. I’ve only had one real “flashback.” And even when I do experience stress about it, it’s not debilitating. I usually cry lightly for 30-45 seconds, and then move on. Sometimes I don’t cry at all; I simply agitate mentally about it, quietly. For example, a few days ago, I was reading a book and came across the phrase “near death experience” (in a context that had nothing to do with the incident I went through). I stopped reading and I found myself, in my mind’s eye, going back to the incident 2.5 years ago and I spent 5 minutes thinking about it. So, I lost focus for a bit, but then let it go and was able to continue reading. Not a huge deal, all things considered.

I’ve considered seeking professional counseling or approaches like CBT to process my experience. But I think that’s overkill for what I’m experiencing.

So instead, I’m trying an old fashioned method: suppression. I’m simply trying not to dwell on it too much. I’m consciously aware of what’s happening, which makes this suppression instead of repression (which would refer to unconsciously suppressing feelings).

A doctor friend who thinks about these things pointed out to me the difference between “strong suppression” and “light suppression.”

Strong suppression would be establishing a rule with myself that I’m not going to think about the incident again. I’d also tell the 4-5 people who were present at the incident or know about it: “Hey, don’t ever bring up that incident again.”

Light suppression would involve not proactively thinking about, not bringing it up with others, and generally trying to change the topic if the topic came up. But it would not be establishing a hard and fast rule. If I randomly thought about the topic, or someone else raised it, that’s fine — I would simply change the topic swiftly and not sweat it. I wouldn’t relive it, or analyze it, or dwell on it, or talk about it. If it happens to come into my mind, I let it be and let it pass on by and then get back to whatever I was working on / thinking about.

The challenge with a strong suppression strategy is it creates stress around compliance and enforcement. If I tell someone “Hey, never talk to me about that again” I now have to monitor compliance with that rule. The monitoring process itself is stressful in addition to the stress that arises when the incident becomes top of mind.

It occurred to me that there’s a generalizable lesson here, perhaps, about strong vs. light rules in other domains of life. The stronger held the rule, the more stress you’re putting on yourself to monitor and enforce compliance with that rule. For example, with habits, if you create a strong rule of needing to do something every single day (e.g. meditation), the stress of monitoring your own compliance with that rule can be more cost than it’s worth. It’s also the case that once you break a strongly held rule — or catch yourself not being compliant — it can be harder to re-capture the motivation to begin again from 0.

So I’m going with light suppression here. I’m not going to write about or think proactively about this incident again. When it arises in my mind, I’ll let the thought pass on by. And I’ll change the topic if someone else raises it with me.

Book Notes: The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison is a searing account of her struggles with alcoholism.

It’s long. I read the first 400+ pages and got distracted by something else and never came back to it. But the 400 pages I read were phenomenal, and gave me great insight into the mind of a super high functioning alcoholic and the nature of addiction. I’m no expert in the genre of addiction memoir but this one, apparently, is considered among the best.

Some of my Kindle highlights below. Bolded sentences my own.

In John Barleycorn, a novel published in 1913, Jack London conjured two kinds of drunks: the ones who stumbled through the gutters hallucinating “blue mice and pink elephants,” and the ones to whom the “white light of alcohol” had granted access to bleak truths: “the pitiless, spectral syllogisms of the white logic.” The first type of drunk had his mind ravaged by booze, “bitten numbly by numb maggots,” but the second type had his mind sharpened instead.

Life with Daniel was weird and ragged and unexpected. It tingled. He was a messy eater. There were bits of cabbage in his beard, patches of ice cream melted on his sheets, crusted pots and pans in his sink, tiny beard hairs all over his bathroom counter.

drinking and writing were two different responses to that same molten pain. You could numb it, or else grant it a voice.

My ability to find drunken dysfunction appealing—to fetishize its relationship to genius—was a privilege of having never really suffered. My fascination owed a debt to what Susan Sontag calls the “nihilistic and sentimental idea of ‘the interesting.’” In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag describes the nineteenth-century idea that if you were ill, you were also “more conscious, more complex psychologically.” Illness became an “interior décor of the body,” while health was considered “banal, even vulgar.”

My own pain seemed embarrassingly trivial, self-constructed and sought.

At a certain point we were on my bed and I didn’t want to fuck him—but I was too drunk and too tired to figure out how not to fuck him, so I just lay there, still and quiet, while he finished. The situation would sharpen into awareness, in fleeting moments, and I’d think, This isn’t what I want, and then it would dissolve into soft focus again.

In early drafts, there were no explicit traumas in the narrative that produced their self-destructive impulses. The mystery of these impulses was what I wanted to explore, the possibility that you might damage yourself to figure out why you wanted to damage yourself—the way exhaling into cold air makes your breath visible.

Being just a man among men, or a woman among women, with nothing extraordinary about your flaws or your mistakes—that was the hardest thing to accept.

A few scientists eventually wondered: What if they were given some company? What if they were given something else to do? In the early eighties, these scientists designed Rat Park, a spacious plywood habitat painted with pine trees and filled with climbing platforms, running wheels, tin cans for hiding, wood chips for playing, and—most important—lots of other rats. The rats in that cage didn’t press the coke lever until they died. They had better things to do. The point wasn’t that drugs couldn’t be addictive, but that addiction was fueled by so much besides the drugs themselves. It was fueled by the isolation of the white cage, and by the lever as substitute for everything else.

Their aliveness, their daily-ness, their back-and-forth energy, came like a sudden slap, a confirmation of my fears: He would always crave the sharp tingling sensation of falling for someone, rather than having her.

Pool told me that he started shooting heroin after dropping out of college, operating under the notion, as she put it, that “writers needed conflict and adversity. So he deliberately went out to find some.”

Describing Dave to a friend, I invoked that scene from Out of Africa where another character explains what’s charming and infuriating about Robert Redford as a big-game-hunting, impossibly restless lover: “He likes giving gifts, but not at Christmas.”

When Dr. Chisolm told me that she sometimes attaches a warning when she encourages certain patients to seek out AA, it didn’t surprise me. “You’re really smart,” she tells them. “That might work against you.” The idea of being “too smart for AA” immediately resonated with the part of me that sometimes found its truisms too reductive or its narratives too simple.

At meetings, I hated when other people abandoned narrative particularity in their stories—I accidentally crushed my daughter’s pet turtle after too much absinthe—for the bland pudding of abstraction—I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I wanted crushed turtles and absinthe. Clichés were like blights, refusals of clarity and nuance, an insistence on soft-focus greeting-card wisdom: This too shall pass, which I once saw on a cross-stitch in the bathroom of a Wyoming meeting, followed by It just did. Long ago, I had learned that to become a writer I had to resist clichés at all costs. It was such accepted dogma that I’d never wondered why it was true.

Sauna Culture in Europe Over the Holidays

I’ve become quite taken with saunas recently — primarily dry, wood paneled saunas, but I’m not unhappy with steam rooms. I find myself more relaxed after a deep sweat; I also think it helps me sleep better. Taking a cold plunges after a hot sauna is especially effective at lifting my energy level in the hours following. Cold showers can serve a similar purpose. A friend once advised to “breathe” in the cold plunge if you feel like the cold is overwhelming. When the cold starts to feel too much, just keep breathing.

(For my interest in sauna, I must credit, in part, Bob Wright, for his encouragement here and for spreading the good gospel of sauna as spiritual practice over at BloggingHeads.TV.)

Over Christmas and New Year’s this year, I traveled through Munich, Zurich, Istanbul, and Ankara with friends and family. By some good luck, we ended up sampling a range of saunas that were just the thing for cold winter days in Europe.

In Germany, we went to the Therme Erding sauna complex just outside Munich, the second largest sauna complex in all of Europe. 4,000 visitors per day. 35 different saunas and steam baths. And dozens of different pools. It’s truly massive. You pull your car into a multi-level above ground parking garage that’s situated next to what appears to be an enormous mall and dome structure.

The adults-only sauna facility is in its own area within the compound. Unlike the kids waterslide area, teeming with children sprawling and splashing about, the sauna area is more quiet, more refined, and… completely nude. And co-ed. People wear towels and robes while walking around; inside each sauna or steam room, they sit on their towels. No bathing suits allowed. I saw more naked humans in a couple hours than at probably any other time in my life. Within a few minutes, the weirdness wears off, and truth be told it was kind of relaxing to be free of constraint or squeeze. The downstairs area, with its low ceilings and narrow, cave-like walls meant people were slinking past each other in the nude to get to their preferred destination. Through it all though, a remarkably wholesome atmosphere. No funny business in sight.

There was excellent variety across the 35+ different offerings. The traditional dry saunas varied in temperature, humidity, scent, and setup: some were in dungeon like underground caves, others were in huge glass paneled amphitheaters. The steam rooms offered the opportunity to scrub yourself in salts before entering. The outdoor thermal pools allowed you to float along with your head exposed in outdoor frigid winter air. An assortment of different jacuzzi-style jets were placed along the pool walls along with some built in “chairs” that you could lounge in with special jets propulsion. Nearby to all this was an outdoor cold plunge. Going from hot water to cold always revs the engines; especially so when the temperature in the air upon getting out of the cold plunge is also freezing.

In Zurich, we went to the Thermalbad. This is a chain of spa facilities throughout Switzerland; supposedly the Zurich location is the finest. It’s a beautiful, modern facility designed like Roman cisterns built inside of an old Zurich brewery building. As opposed to choose-your-own-adventure, this places encourages a sequential process whereby you start in Station 1 and end in Station 12, with signs suggesting the amount of time to spend in each station. It starts with a lightly warm steam, followed by a sequence of differently heated pools, then some hotter steam rooms and scrubs. My favorite pool was the “classic Roman pool” where the depth and temperature made it feel like I could almost float effortlessly, as in a sensory deprivation pod. Very relaxing. One station had me lie on my back on slightly warm stone floor, which I’ve never done before.

A TripAdvisor review of Thermalbad notes, “It’s a lot of money to spend to watch couples basically all but have sex.” That seems off. I didn’t witness anything X-rated, and this place, unlike the one in Germany, was all clothed. Even the locker room had curtained “changing areas” for changing into bathing suits. The Swiss: as buttoned up as ever.

Elsewhere in Zurich, we went to a neighborhood gym/community center that offered a large indoor pool for swimming, plus a medium size thermal pool that offered a range of jets and suggested a rhythm to the water massage. Every minute or so a light would flash (like one of those rotating lights on the top of a cop car but adhered to the side wall) to indicate it was time to move to the next set of jets. With each move in jet, the pressure moved up the body, from hitting your legs at first and ending with your upper shoulders. The propulsion of the jets — the forcefulness with which the water hit you — was intense. I’ve never felt jets pulse water so hard. Nor have I seen such precise instructions offered about when it’s time to switch to the next jacuzzi jet. The Swiss: as punctual as ever.

In Istanbul, we went to the Cagaloglu hamam — a 300 year old facility. Not quite as tourist-famous as the hamam next to the Blue Mosque where we went 5 years ago but just as ornate on the inside. The male and female experiences differ here. As I reported five years ago during my first trip to Istanbul, men receive quite a beating. Your therapist slaps you around, pulls your arms in every which way, attempts light weight chiropractiory, and with no warning, dumps buckets of hot water over your head. It’s fun and worth it but anyone with tender shoulders or backs should beware. I told my therapist at one point to be more careful of my back, and he replied, “Relax.” It turned out that that was the only word in English he spoke. Women, reportedly, experience a much gentler set of scrubs. Unlike the hamam in Morocco, the Cagaloglu hamam in Istanbul does less loofa scrubbing. There’s not the stunning pile of dead skin at the end of it. But you’re still relaxed and alert.

All in all, there’s great sauna culture in Europe. Lots of relaxing fun. And I haven’t even to Finland yet… that’s going to be its own trip!

Thinking About People Who Have Less Than You Before Writing/Bragging About It

If you’re writing about your life on social media and want to be considerate of the feelings of people who are not lucky enough to have what you have, be cautious about how you write about your highly desired, hard to obtain things and experiences like a second home in the country, a shiny new Tesla, beautiful well-adjusted kids, and a loving spouse.

Self-aware people tend to exercise this restraint when it’s about material wealth. I don’t see a lot of compassionate, aware people writing Facebook posts like, “It’s so glorious to have a second mansion in Napa. It just feels great to jet over there and relax in wine country.” The people I know who maintain multiple fancy residences either don’t write about it publicly at all, to self-express with subtlety: “Beautiful day in the Hamptons” might be the caption of a single photo of a beach; they choose not to include a 6 photo slideshow of their fancy kitchen and $5 million re-model.

Yet with respect to one’s personal life, people tend to be less restrained when writing — and bragging — about their triumphs.

“So blessed to be married to the most amazing man in the universe, who loves me every day, pushes me to be stronger, and makes me a better human. He’s my rock.” How do singletons feel when reading this? How do people in shitty marriages feel?

It’s especially noticeable when it’s about kids. Parents frequently post odes to their perfect offspring without regard to all the people who may be reading it who are unable to or cannot have children for whatever reason.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating how amazing your spouse or child is, or for that matter, how much you love that second home in Napa, or your thousand dollar bottle of wine, or brand new Tesla. But there’s a time and a place for those celebratory words and photos. Private journal? Private email to friends? Private iCloud photo stream group?

Our social media presences by default broadcast public to the world, indiscriminately. If it’s low cost to self-express without making those who are less fortunate feel badly, it’s worth doing, in my view. Many people already do this with their material trophies. If my Facebook feed is any indicator, people could do better when tooting their horn about their personal life wins.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books. Many of which I didn’t fully finish but I take pride in that (not finishing most/all books I start).

1. The Problem With Everything by Meghan Daum. I read everything Daum writes. I even took a writing workshop with her earlier this year. She’s one of the premier essayists around, in my view. This book is not a collection of essays, though, it’s a continuous narrative documenting her “lived experience” (the phrase of the moment) navigating the culture wars. I found myself sympathetic to many of her arguments about the extremes of modern left wing cultural norms.

2. String Theory by David Foster Wallace. Collection of old DFW essays about tennis. Always great and worth perusing if you’re learning to play tennis, as I am.

3. One and Only by Lauren Sandler. Excellent summary of the research on being an only child and excellent personal reflections on what it’s like to be and parent an only child. Refutes many inaccurate stereotypes about being an only. She points out that singletons are immune from modern political correctness culture — it’s still fair game to make fun of the self-centeredness of only children, even though that stereotype (among others) is unfounded.

Some quotes:

“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self,” May Sarton wrote—a musing that makes me want to pull on a coat, leave behind my cell phone, and take an indulgently long walk on a crisp day.

“Only children are well self-connected in their primary relationship in their life.” By primary relationship, what he means is that whether we like it or not, married or single, identical twin or only child, every relationship we have is secondary to the one we have with ourselves—nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide.

In their much-discussed analysis of a survey of 35,000 Danish twins, women with one child said they were more satisfied with their lives than women with none or more than one. As Kohler tells me, “At face value, you should stop at one child to maximize your subjective well-being.”

The University of Chicago’s Linda Waite, whose research focuses on how to make marriages last, tells me, “You’re better off to ignore your kids and focus on your relationship than to focus on your kids and ignore your relationship”

4. Recursion by Blake Crouch

Fairly compelling sci fi. I read it on a beach — a good book to get absorbed by on the road. That being said, I preferred Crouch’s other novel Dark Matter.

“His mind races. It is the lonely hour of the night, one with which he is all too familiar—when the city sleeps but you don’t, and all the regrets of your life rage in your mind with an unbearable intensity.”

5. Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream by Nicholas Lemann

Some big ideas that didn’t captivate me.

6. The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes by Frank Bures

Some fun stories about how culturally determined many diseases are. Eating disorders are uniquely American, for example. Penis snatching (the feeling that someone has stolen your penis) is unique to certain countries in Africa. Makes you wonder what other beliefs in life are so culturally influenced. I read the first half but didn’t finish. Here’s Nick Gray’s summary.

7. A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen. I love Keith’s writing. I eagerly dove into this novel. The writing is spare and expert…so spare, in fact, that at halfway I began to bore of the slow-moving “and today I woke up and helped my grandmother down the stairs” plot developments. I’m okay with micro observations but prefer more elaborate Knaussagardian flourishes.

There are, though, some touching scenes of the protagonist taking care of his aging grandmother, whose mind is going, memory flickering in and out.  Or of the grandmother trying to not go mad of boredom, as she never figured out a way of “doing leisure” in the late afternoon witching hour.

8. Open by Andre Agassi. A super well written memoir from the tennis legend — likely credit the same ghostwriter who penned Phil Knight’s renowned Shoedog, J. R. Moehringer.

The most stunning fact from Agassi’s memoir: he hates the game of tennis. Always has. His abusive father turned him into a tennis maniac as a child against his wishes, basically, and there was no turning back — from playing the game he became amazing at, or from hating every second of it.

I like playing tennis but I’m not that into the history of tennis tournaments to desire so much detailed blow-by-blows of matches and tournaments. I’d still recommend the memoir for any casual tennis player or fan to get inside the head of a world class sports champion and better appreciate the sacrifice and mental fortitude that made him so.

9. This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom by Martin Hägglund

I dipped into a few chapters of this one. Spiritual freedom is defined as being able to ask what you should do with your time — you possess a meaningful degree of autonomy with which to challenge norms and shape a life. And secular faith is defined as acknowledging the fundamental finitude of life, and consoling oneself over the unchangeable fact that no one gets out alive. Religious faith assumes the ability to live forever in the afterlife.

The loss of loved ones is the experience that is hardest to bear in a secular age. – Charles Taylor

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 (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?


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.