Book Review: Henry Kissinger by Walter Isaacson

A young Walter Isaacson in 1992 published a wonderful biography of Henry Kissinger, which I read this week. It’s a sweeping history of Kissinger’s life and his consequential years in public service. Despite its level of detail, Isaacson writes lucidly with the skills of a journalist, so there’s good forward momentum over the course of the 800+ pages even for a hobbyist like me. You walk away with a deep view into both the man and the era he shaped. Highly recommended. (The Richard Holbrooke biography is another compelling look at a statesman who shaped our current foreign policy.)

I came to this biography after spending time in Cambodia and Vietnam, where Kissinger’s legacy looms large. His decisions with regards to both countries play a central role in the biography. My other personal interest here is Chile, where I lived more than a decade ago — another country where Kissinger exercised arguably problematic moral judgment.

The biography is balanced, according to people more expert than me who reviewed the book when it came out 20 years ago. And, all in all, it’s devastating to Kissinger. It’s obvious why Kissinger refused to speak with Isaacson for several years after the biography came out.

The theme that would recur throughout Kissinger’s career: the tension that often exists, at least in his view, between morality and realism. This is Isaacson’s bottom line:

But Kissinger’s power-oriented realism and focus on national interests faltered because it was too dismissive of the role of morality. The secret bombing and then invasion of Cambodia, the Christmas bombing of Hanoi, the destabilization of Chile—these and other brutal actions betrayed a callous attitude toward what Americans like to believe is the historic foundation of their foreign policy: a respect for human rights, international law, democracy, and other idealistic values. The setbacks Kissinger encountered as a statesman, and the antagonism he engendered as a person, stemmed from the perceived amorality of his geopolitical calculations.
…Kissinger’s legacy turned out to be one of brilliance more than solidity, of masterful structures built of bricks that were made without straw.

On the man himself and his mind and personality, a few excerpts from Isaacson:

“Kissinger came across as a chameleon—emphasizing different shadings to different listeners and attempting to ingratiate himself to one person by disparaging another. It was more than a negotiating tactic; it was a character flaw. His style with the Arabs and Israelis was not all that different from his style within the White House or at Washington dinner parties. In order to create a sense of intimacy, to hornswoggle as well as to charm, he shared denigrating confidences about other people. Intellectually he realized that people compared notes. But instinctively he never understood that swapping tales about encounters with Kissinger—and perhaps exaggerating the loose comments he made—was a prime amusement from Araby to Georgetown. In fact, rather than being a master manipulator, Kissinger seemed quite a maladroit one. If he had been better at it, fewer people would have accused him of it.”

“He had a fantastically strong ego,” said Professor Wylie. “Exceptionally pompous,” according to Schelling. “More arrogant and vain than any man I’ve ever met,” was Hoffmann’s first impression. Yet each developed complex, mixed feelings about him. He was, after all, a respected friend with a mind of undisputed brilliance. His personality, however annoying, was at least always worthy of fascination.

Rockefeller knew how to make people feel important, how to create an aura of fellowship, how to listen, and how to be frank and straightforward about his wishes in a way that put people at ease. Kissinger mastered none of these attributes, but respected them all.

Gelb would thenceforth consider Kissinger to be “the typical product of an authoritarian background—devious with his peers, domineering with his subordinates, obsequious to his superiors.”
With an acidic tone, Nixon spoke of Kissinger’s fascination with the celebrity set and his emotional instability when hit by good and then bad news.

I thought Kissinger’s own answer to the question “Are you shy?” was interesting, in his own words:

“Fairly so. But as compensation I think I’m pretty well balanced. You see, there are those who depict me as a mysterious, tormented character, and those who depict me as an almost cheerful fellow who’s always smiling, always laughing. Both those images are incorrect. I’m neither one nor the other. I’m . . . I won’t tell you what I am. I’ll never tell anyone.”

His relationship with critics was interesting: “He was drawn to his detractors like a moth to a flame. He craved their approval and felt compelled to convert or charm them.”

Overall, the theme is an unbelievable level of paranoia and secrecy coupled with high IQ brilliance and a historic grasp of grand strategy and negotiation.

On his legacy….

The secret bombings of Cambodia, kept from congress and the American people, were clearly bad, and it’s stunning that Kissinger hasn’t profoundly apologized for his role in this:

  • “In the history of civilization, few countries have ever endured a greater hell than the holocaust that engulfed Cambodia in the 1970s. The blame falls foremost on the genocidal Khmer Rouge communists, who took power in 1975. But the creation of the killing fields had many causes, and there was more than enough blood to stain many hands. The American share of the blame, and Kissinger’s, arises not from insidious intent, but from a moral callousness that placed America’s perceived needs in Vietnam above what would be best for a vulnerable neighboring nation.”
  • “Even in this most genocidal of all centuries, the Khmer Rouge stand on a par with the Nazis as being the most murderous of all. When they took over Cambodia in 1975, its population (after five hundred thousand or so deaths in the war that began at the time of the 1970 invasions) stood at about 8 million. By the time they were ousted in 1979, more than 3 million had died, many of them brutally, in a land turned into killing fields.” (Angelina Jolie’s film is a good one on this topic.)

The Christmas bombing in Vietnam – another moral atrocity: “The December 1972 decision to bomb targets in the urban areas of North Vietnam was an action that should and does haunt the United States, and Kissinger, to this day.”

The Middle East is a different story. Kissinger’s success at cultivating the Egyptians and the Israelis, among others, was remarkable, and Isaacson tells those stories in great detail, too.

Some other descriptions of other characters I enjoyed:

  • “He is the compleat cosmopolitan, urbane without swagger, self-centered without smugness.”
  • “He was equally at home in philosophic sweeps, historical analysis, tactical probing, light repartee”
  • “Discreet yet forthright, unflappable and able to keep human foibles in perspective, with a balanced and wise mind rather than a brilliant conceptual one, the air force general was decidedly different from his boss, which made both of them comfortable.”

Other random highlights from Kindle:

Kissinger’s ego, combined with the seriousness with which he took himself, enhanced his reputation for arrogance. He always seemed busy with something gravely important, impatient with such trivialities as making small talk in the halls or advising his students.

When challenges arose, Kissinger became intellectually engaged, almost obsessively so; Nixon became detached, almost eerily so. Kissinger’s mind mastered details; Nixon remained aloof from even some of the major components of issues he faced. Kissinger’s analytic lucidity took him straight to the core of any problem; Nixon’s more intuitive approach led him to roll a problem around for hours on end as he brooded on various conflicting options.

During his five and a half years in office, Nixon’s admiration for Kissinger would gradually become more infected by jealousy and suspicions of disloyalty. With no personal affection to serve as a foundation for their relationship, what had been a love-hate alliance eventually tilted toward the latter. As the president’s dependency on Kissinger grew, his resentment and bitterness increased.

William Safire was summoned back to write the speech. He was in New Orleans watching Dallas beat Miami in the 1972 Super Bowl when suddenly, as if he were an obstetrician, the public address system paged him to call his office. “This has to be absolutely top secret, but get back here fast,” said Lawrence Higby when Safire called. If it was so secret, Safire asked in response, why had he been paged before eighty thousand fans? Worse than that, Higby conceded, the page had been picked up on television, so 60 million others had heard it. Safire later noted: “We agreed that nobody would suspect I was being called back for a secret assignment because not even the Presidential staff of a banana republic would bumble like that.”

The line between diplomacy and duplicity, like that between charm and hypocrisy, is a fine one.

Impressions of Singapore

I spent a bunch of time in Singapore this summer. What a wonderful city state. And a remarkable achievement by its founders to build such a thriving metropolis over the 58 years it has been independent.

Here are some assorted impressions. I incorporate a few quotes from Jeevan Vasagar, author of the excellent Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia.

Most of the stereotypes are true. It’s spotless — just impeccably clean. There are lots of laws and people follow the laws. Everything works, from baggage claim at the airport to trash pickup to public transit. The food is incredible. It’s insanely humid all the time. And so on. Stereotype accuracy strikes again.

Startups set up HQ here and then serve the region. They do so to take advantage of the rule of law and investor-friendly atmosphere of Singapore. But one challenge with this approach is that, for regional companies, their labor costs, office space, etc. are absorbed in Singapore (expensive!) even as their revenue comes from much poorer markets like Indonesia. Grab, for example, pays thousands of people in Singapore who help support a business that generates a lot of revenue in neighboring, poorer markets. (Overall, the startup ecosystem is thriving in Singapore, with several very good VCs who are actively investing.)

Food. One of the best food cities in the world, obviously. Peranakan cuisine is tasty (beef rendang FTW!) and I wasn’t as familiar with it before. The malls have great restaurants and locals eat there all the time, though good luck trying to navigate through the gazillion escalators and elevators connecting literally 50-100+ distinct restaurants in some of the larger buildings. Hawker centers, while famous and cool, are not quite as awesome as advertised IMO. They’re not air conditioned and that, combined with all the on-site cooking, means it’s a sweat fest. It’s also hard to eat healthy at hawkers. That said, it’s tasty and cheap (because the government subsidies them). Singaporeans don’t cook much so the eating out culture is best in class.

If you’re talented, you work for the government, and government works stunningly well. If you graduate at the top of your class out of university, you land a job in the Singapore government apparatus. The public sector is exceptionally well staffed with the best and brightest in the country. In fact, a private sector VC who’s Singaporean told me that some of his classmates who now work in government look down upon him as not having “made it” — because he works in the private sector! To resist corruption, government workers in Singapore are among the highest paid in the world; the head of state earns a $2.2 million USD salary, the highest paid of any president.

The immigration/visa office in Singapore is one example of the how all this talent makes government work well. When you walk into the office, you’re greeted by a wall of “customer testimonials” — legit quotes from residents attesting to their positive experience working with the immigration office. They’ve also posted their KPIs and goals for timeliness and an update on how well they’ve met their goals. The contrast with a DMV in America couldn’t be starker.

Moral nudges are ubiquitous. The signage around the city is quite amusing, constantly extolling proper moral behavior. Give up your seat on the metro. Don’t play your music so loud. Pick up your trash. Etc. In Singapore, the nudges are explicit and enforced and threatened with the force of law (caning, death, etc). Another example of the government thinking about morality: it’s okay for foreigners to go into casinos but more expensive and harder for locals to do so. They’ll gladly take tourists’ money but they want their own people free of those vices. Also, alcohol is taxed heavily. Vasagar: “Like an overprotective parent, Singapore’s rulers have constantly fussed over their people, alternately cajoling or threatening in order to tip them in the desired direction.”

A/C infrastructure is legit. The planet is warming. But Singapore has been warm forever and is warm year-round. This means its air conditioning infrastructure is legit. You’re never a few steps away from A/C. Yes, Singapore becoming even hotter will present challenges in the decades ahead. But as compared to parts of the world newly dealing with warmness (see the heat waves in Europe this summer), I’d say Singapore is well positioned to offer a comfortable quality of life. By the way, you can get used to the humidity. It still sucks but you grow accustomed to it and adapt accordingly.

Trees and greenery everywhere. Trees here, trees there, trees everywhere in Singapore. Lots of hotels and office buildings buildings sport cool greenery/bushes/shrubbery built into their architecture. And the law is that if you remove a tree somewhere, you have to place one in its place. (I think.) The greenery of Singapore is underappreciated!

Singaporeans love deals, upsells, and unique discount structures. Almost every gym/fitness club (of which there are many — fitness culture is big in Singapore) offers some sort of “starter package” of discounted pricing. Many restaurants offer set menus and different deal combinations. When stores or restaurants offer pop up deals — often advertised via Instagram — queues form immediately from locals looking for a deal. Relatedly, many beauty shops will try to upsell you on whatever you’re buying in real time. “Pay $10 and get XYZ!” While I wouldn’t say Singapore buzzes with hustler energy in general (relative to a place like Ho Chi Minh), there is a persistent quest for deals.

Lee Kuan Yew is legendary yet invisible in the physical world. There are no statues of the man anywhere. Only one public policy school is named after him. By design, there are no homages to the man on the streets of Singapore.

Democracy slowly coming? I read the local newspaper in English every day. It was more critical of the government than I expected. “Its democracy may be hemmed in, but it does hold meaningful elections. And in recent years, a substantial political opposition has emerged. The PAP has won every election in Singapore since 1959. In 2020, it took eighty-three of the ninety-three seats in parliament. But the Workers’ Party, which criticises the PAP from the left, won ten seats in that year’s election, the biggest gain ever made by an opposition party.”

Does it deserve its high economic freedom rankings? There are low taxes in Singapore. It’s business friendly. And open to trade. So Singapore frequently ranks as one of the most economically free in the world. At the same time, ~80% of people live in government owned housing. And this: “Singaporeans are forced to contribute a fifth of their salaries to pay for retirement, as well as healthcare and housing purchases. The savings, along with contributions from their employer, go into a personal fund, known as the Central Provident Fund (CPF). Unlike other defined contribution pensions worldwide, which are typically invested in the stock market and a range of other assets including bonds and commercial property, the funds are invested in government bonds which have been specially issued for that purpose.”

No-shame Instagram culture. In workout classes, many of the younger folks would whip out their phones at the end of class and take sweaty selfies. Sometimes teachers encouraged it! “Time to take your photo for Instagram!” Plenty of attractions throughout the city would have signage to indicate a particular place was Instagrammable.

Hong Kong’s decline is Singapore’s gain. So many have re-located from Hong Kong to Singapore the past couple years. The prices of apartments have surged as a result. Singapore is the new capital of English-speaking, capitalistic Asia.

Tourist attractions/advice: Botanic gardens, Marina Bay Sands, and Gardens by the Bay are lovely. The zoo is overrated, I’d say, and this is coming from someone who’s probably visited 15 zoos around the world. Wandering through the malls of Orchard is worth a spin. Cultivate awe at how clean everything is and how everything just works. Make each meal special.

Raising kids in Singapore is attractive thanks to live-in help and cultural norms. The ability to secure relatively inexpensive nanny help is a game changer for the parents I met in Singapore. It’s not just the cost compared to America, though that’s a big part of it. It’s also the cultural norms around getting help — in America, “outsourcing” parenting tasks is more greatly stigmatized. In Singapore (and much of Asia and Latin American ad perhaps beyond, to be sure) it’s very much the norm. No one judges you for having a nanny work long hours every day, including weekends. In Singapore specifically, beyond nanny culture, parents love knowing that their kids can run around and it’s totally safe and clean and they can lick the ground in the subway station.

The airport is the best in the world. I’ve had the opportunity to fly through most of the larger airline hubs in the world, for most on multiple occasions: Frankfurt, Doha, Dubai, Tokyo, San Francisco, Chicago, Hong Kong, Toronto, Dallas, Seoul, Atlanta, Amsterdam, Paris, Los Angeles, New York, London, Istanbul, and others. (Haven’t been to Abu Dhabi.) Singapore’s airport is the best. The immigration procedures/lines are exceptional. Baggage claim, wayfinding, food opportunities, the way the gates are organized, water dispensers and bathrooms, etc. are peerless.

Smaller observations

  • There are rarely knives served at meals — just forks and spoons. Singapore also doesn’t usually serve “normal” thick napkins at restaurants. Bring your own napkins or make do with tissues. (As a funny little analogous example — in Tokyo, they only bring one menu to the table, even if you’re a party of two.)
  • Cars are taxed at very high rates so most people don’t have cars and those who do flaunt it as a status symbol.
  • Tap water is offered inconsistently at restaurants. Some restaurants offer it. Some claim they can only offer bottled water.
  • Locals support capital punishment for drug offenses. The issue that’s made Singapore the source of much global criticism remains popular among their own people.
  • Many coffee shops don’t open before 9am. Given the climate, it’s more of a nighttime city.
  • My favorite Singaporean expression: “Can!” Example: “Are you able to come back to fix my internet router later?” “Can”
  • Durian season is special — the local go nuts over it!
  • The Japanese occupation is loathed in history books and museum. Yet they worship Japanese design, “made in Japan”, Japanese quality etc. — it’s all over the local advertising.
  • Many expats I spoke to were nervous about their kids absorbing severe risk aversion attitudes in local schools.
  • Badminton is the national sport. Amusing.
  • Telegram is big in Singapore. Group chats occur on Telegram.
  • I loved seeing new local businesses receive bouquets of congratulatory flowers after they opened. Local businesses and construction firms would send “Congratulations!” gifts and they’d pile up outside the newly opened business. Is this a Chinese norm?

Other highlights from Lion City are below.

To understand modern Singapore, it is necessary to go back to the year it all began: 1965. Forget the Singapore of mirrored office towers, the city of elevators and air conditioning. Conjure a low-rise city with walls stained grey by cooking fires, bustling with street traders hawking their wares in a babble of Asian languages – a trading settlement with a cluster of colonial buildings surrounded by merchants’ shophouses and then a sprawl of shanty towns.


The island lacked natural resources, and was reliant on the neighbouring Malay peninsula even for its water. Its ethnic mix, a Chinese majority with Malay and Indian minorities, made it unique and conspicuous in a region with a history of anti-Chinese xenophobia.


The whole system bears the deep imprint of one man’s personality. There are no statues of Lee in the city he built, and only one institution named after him – a school of public policy – but anyone who wants to see his monument has only to look around them. Lee held power as prime minister from 1959, when Singapore was granted internal self-government under British rule, to 1990, when he stepped down. After quitting as premier, he remained in cabinet, first as senior minister then with the title of minister mentor, until 2011.


The Japanese occupied Singapore from February 1942 to September 1945, when the British officially resumed control a month after Japan’s surrender.


While both countries are made up of the same ethnic mix – Malay, Chinese and Tamil – their politics is very different. Malaya was dominated by Malays, the traditional inhabitants of an archipelago stretching across Southeast Asia, and in 1963 the country was predominantly rural. Singapore had a Chinese majority, many of them recently arrived in the region, and was largely urban. Under colonial rule, Malaya’s occupations had been roughly divided on ethnic lines; Indian immigrants and their descendants worked on rubber plantations and in government offices, the Malays worked the land. The Chinese worked in tin mines and factories, while some prospered in commerce.


The state would be vigilant about maintaining racial harmony. Its National Pledge, written in 1966, declares that Singaporeans are ‘one united people, regardless of race, language or religion’. It is recited in school assemblies, with a fist clenched above the heart. Singapore championed the ideal of meritocracy, in contrast with Malaysia’s approach to levelling up through affirmative action.


Singapore’s elite wanted to create a new kind of society which would absorb technical knowledge and skills from the West while remaining culturally Eastern. But many of the leaders were themselves products of English-language schools and elite overseas universities, and were most comfortable speaking in English. They could prophesy about a promised land that combined East and West, but could never be part of it themselves.


There’s a shorthand for this kind of aspiration – the 5Cs: career, car, credit card, condominium and country club. It’s not entirely clear where the expression 5Cs came from, but every Singaporean knows it. Each of the Cs represents a successive level of aspiration.


The creation of new land from the sea has been extraordinary; between 1965 and 2019, Singapore grew from 581.5 square kilometres to 728 square kilometres. Lacking its own supply of sand for this construction work, Singapore has become the world’s biggest sand importer. Marina Bay Sands, the landmark hotel shaped like a wicket, is built on reclaimed land, but so is much else in modern Singapore.


Admonishing the public not to drop litter was backed up with the threat of fines and public shaming. The names of adult litterbugs were published in the press, while errant children were reported to their schools. People caught dropping litter could be made to clean the streets under ‘Corrective Work Orders’, a punishment which remains in force. Offenders can be seen sweeping up while wearing luminous pink and yellow vests as a badge of their shame.


The policy of integrating races in each neighbourhood and public housing block ensures that Singapore does not have racial ghettos, but it also curtails individual choice of where to live.


But climate control has reshaped the city’s architecture, making it a less human place. Instead of arranging rooms around the natural ventilation of a courtyard, air conditioning has encouraged tightly stacked flats and offices. By blasting heated air out of buildings, it intensifies the heat on the streets, driving people to seek shelter indoors.

Marginal Revolution’s 20th Anniversery

The latest Conversations with Tyler podcast features Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok reflecting on the 20th anniversary of writing Marginal Revolution. Longtime readers Jeff Holmes, Vitalik Buterin, and I ask questions and offer our own reflections. Audio and transcript here. Video embedded below.

Some history: In the summer of 2006, I saw Tyler post on Marginal Revolution that he was giving a talk in Zurich the following day. I was 18 years old at the time, backpacking around Europe and Asia, oftentimes staying on the spare couches and beds of readers of this blog (!). I happened to be in Zurich that week so I dropped him a line and he invited me to attend the talk. We chatted afterwards (as I reported in this post) and we took the below photo, now 17 years ago:


We’ve followed each other online ever since and hung out in a wide number of exotic locales, from Seoul to Vienna, among others!

MR has exerted a formative influence on what I think and how I think. The golden years of the economics blogosphere — MR as well as Arnold Kling and Bryan Caplan and the Becker Posner Blog and Greg Mankiw and Russ Roberts’ podcast Econtalk, among others — taught me how to understand the world through the lens of economics. They’ve taught me how to cultivate curiosity about almost anything, and how to bring to bear a healthy skepticism when appropriate without giving into name calling or tribalism or, as one says, mood affiliation. They’ve also made me see the world with more wonder and hopefulness — especially as it relates to the power and mystery of market forces.

Tyler, also, has inspired me to indulge in my novelty-seeking intuitions with respect to food and travel. Alex, also, has made me think about innovation and globalization in new ways (his book Launching the Innovation Renaissance was full of excellent ideas).

I am grateful to them both for all they’ve done and it was a tremendous honor to be able to participate in their 20th anniversary recording! And to do so alongside Jeff Holmes, who’s capably produced every CwT episode, and Vitalik, one of the great inventors of our age.

India miscellanea

By the way, we recorded this podcast in-person in Chennai, India in connection with the Emergent Ventures India gathering hosted by the folks at Mercatus Center. It was great to be back in India for my third visit to the country but my first to Bangalore and Chennai. The regional cuisine was superb, as expected. I was surprised at how much richer the south of the country seems. As one anecdote, I saw almost no beggars on the main streets of Bangalore; quite different from my last visits to Mumbai and Delhi.

Despite the development, India is still a poor country. 300 million people do not have cell phones of any sort (flip phones or smartphones). Generally, the VCs I spoke to on the ground think there’s too much money flowing into consumer oriented startups in India in part due to investors’ failure to recognize the real size of the consumer market — the market of people who can actually pay for stuff.

Nonetheless, we at Village Global have invested in several talented teams in Bangalore and Delhi and elsewhere and we’re excited to continue to support the ecosystem. Opportunity abounds.

Relaxed Concentration Unlocks a Secret to Winning: Not Trying Too Hard

A few years ago I attended a silent “concentration” meditation retreat where we spent many consecutive days examining our breath in microscopic detail. The teachers gave very specific instructions we were to follow from the crack of dawn through to dinner.

About halfway through the 10 day retreat, I met with a teacher 1:1 to discuss my practice. It was going okay but not great — I hadn’t yet arrived at a place of deep samadhi. After hearing a bit about my experience, the teacher gently asked me if I felt “close” to the breath. I reflected for a moment on what he meant by the word “close” and then I nodded and said yes, I felt close to it — hovering, almost. He encouraged me to “back off a bit from the breath, don’t be so close. Be more spacious in your awareness of the breath. You’re overexerting.”

He then led me through an exercise. Take one hand and hold it out in front of you palm face up, he said. Take the other hand and hover it directly over the other hand, not quite touching. How much sensation do you feel in the two hands? Not much. Now take the top hand and squeeze the bottom hand tightly. Clench it. How much sensation do you feel in the two hands? Some, but it was muddied and overly tight.

Now, he said, gently rest one hand fully on top of the other. In that position, I felt all sorts of pulsing and heat sensations in my fingers. This is what you need to do in your practice, he said: gently rest your attention on the breath sensations, and you’ll know more. The action verb is: Rest.

In summary, he told me, you want to exert effort in meditation practice but not more than necessary: “A bird flaps its wings and then soars on momentum, and doesn’t flap again until it needs to.”

If you spend time in Buddhist meditation settings you’ll hear variants of this advice frequently offered to “achiever” personalities who mistakenly think the more fierce their effort, the more plentiful their likely results. “Don’t try so hard to make something happen” “Soften your gaze” “Ease up” All different ways of getting at the simple but hard-to-follow guidance: Just relax. 

Relaxation, as Tim Gallwey says, happens only when allowed, not as a result of “trying” or “making.”

“The art of relaxed concentration unlocks a secret to winning: not trying too hard”

In sports, you sometimes hear coaches tell players to ease up, to back off, to loosen their grip on the bat, to “let the game come to them,” to remember to have fun. There’s such a thing as applying too much effort: You get trapped in your head, you begin to overthink what you should say and do, you lose concentration when trying to swing the bat or shoot the ball.

Of course, it’s possible to bring too little focus and too little effort to meditation or sports or any activity and require the opposite advice.

But generally, for driven people in business who are performing in a high stakes setting, “backing off” seems to be the more commonly needed medicine: To soften our gaze, to let some of our emotional energy around the issue pass away. Less “I need to do a great job” and more “I want to have fun with this, I trust myself, I love myself.”

It’s counterintuitive to think that if we try less hard, if we quiet the mental self-instructions and stop trying to remember every last line and best practice…that somehow we could realize a better outcome in a business setting. But sometimes our intense focus on the outcome and conscious attempt to be perfect at every little piece along the way is the very thing that inhibits our ability to succeed.

The Inner Game of Tennis

Along these lines, I recently read Tim Gallwey’s Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, which reinforced the advice I received at the meditation retreat. It’s an awesome book especially if you’re learning to play tennis, as I am.

Gallwey’s argument is that relaxed concentration is the master skill — the “inner game”. It supersedes all other skills of tennis. While playing in a match, amateurs focus on the outer game of particular physical mechanics. Experts focus on the inner game and sink into a deep zone of relaxation.

The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills; he discovers a true basis for self-confidence; and he learns that the secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard.

So, it’s not about all the micro stroke feedback you get from your coaches. When you’re fully dialed in, you stop thinking about where your grip should go and how to move your feet, your mind is still, and you just play:

Perhaps a better way to describe the player who is “unconscious” is by saying that his mind is so concentrated, so focused, that it is still. It becomes one with what the body is doing, and the unconscious or automatic functions are working without interference from thoughts. The concentrated mind has no room for thinking how well the body is doing, much less of the how-to’s of the doing. When a player is in this state, there is little to interfere with the full expression of his potential to perform, learn and enjoy.

Self judgment can emerge with too much active thought as you try to perform your best:

 But judgmental labels usually lead to emotional reactions and then to tightness, trying too hard, self-condemnation, etc. This process can be slowed by using descriptive but nonjudgmental words to describe the events you see.

He offers a fun example of how to psych out your opponent — ask them to explain what they’re doing and why they’re having success:

To test this theory is a simple matter, if you don’t mind a little underhanded gamesmanship. The next time your opponent is having a hot streak, simply ask him as you switch courts, “Say, George, what are you doing so differently that’s making your forehand so good today?” If he takes the bait—and 95 percent will—and begins to think about how he’s swinging, telling you how he’s really meeting the ball out in front, keeping his wrist firm and following through better, his streak invariably will end. He will lose his timing and fluidity as he tries to repeat what he has just told you he was doing so well.

Here’s his advice to tennis players:

So before hitting the next set of balls, I asked Joan, “This time I want you to focus your mind on the seams of the ball. Don’t think about making contact. In fact, don’t try to hit the ball at all. Just let your racket contact the ball where it wants to, and we’ll see what happens.” Joan looked more relaxed, and proceeded to hit nine out of ten balls dead center!

For example, let’s assume it is your serve that you decide to focus your attention on. The first step is to forget all the ideas you may have in your mind about what is wrong with it as it is. Erase all your previous ideas and begin serving without exercising any conscious control over your stroke. Observe your serve freshly, as it is now. Let it fall into its own groove for better or worse. Begin to be interested in it and experience it as fully as you can. Notice how you stand and distribute your weight before beginning your motion. Check your grip and the initial position of your racket. Remember, make no corrections; simply observe without interfering.

In close:

When a player comes to recognize, for instance, that learning to focus may be more valuable to him than a backhand, he shifts from being primarily a player of the outer game to being a player of the Inner Game. Then, instead of learning focus to improve his tennis, he practices tennis to improve his focus. This represents a crucial shift in values from the outer to the inner.

(Thanks to Josh Hannah and Brad Feld for recommending the book.)

Fintech Preferences from the Unbanked of Cambodia

This is the yard of the tour guide who showed us around Angkor Wat yesterday:

He has 10 siblings. He’s the only one who graduated from high school and he makes by far the most money in his family. He sends money to his family members — most of whom are tuk tuk taxi drivers — when he can. As an English speaking tour guide in Siem Reap, our guide is likely among the top earners in the area. And yet, he still lives in tin roof shack surrounded by rubbish.

Point being: He’s better off than where he started in life but he’s still very poor.

I asked the guide which tour booking platform he prefers for leads — TripAdvisor, Viator, Airbnb Experiences, etc. He said he prefers Airbnb because they are willing to hold his earnings for up to $1,000 USD before transferring the money to him. Other platforms distribute funds to him after each tour, which is a problem because he pays a hefty Western Union fee each transaction. He’d prefer for the booking platform to hold the money as long as possible and transfer it in one lump sum.

Presumably, our guide doesn’t have an interest bearing bank account of his own nor an easy, low fee way of receiving funds electronically. So he’s effectively using Airbnb as a bank account to safely keep his earnings.

Of course, this all goes against the normal logic in fintech, where companies want to keep your money as long as possible and consumers want the money transferred to them as quickly as possible — each side sensitive to the interest-earning time value of money. “Playing the float” is the phrase that explains this dynamic.

Except, in poor areas with a vast unbanked population like in Cambodia, the consumer and company (Airbnb) are aligned. It’s a bit sad but it makes sense once you think about it.

It was a reminder of the lesson that it’s hard to understand certain on-the-ground consumer behaviors from afar. I highly doubt the product managers at Airbnb Experiences ever seriously contemplated that slow money transfer would be seen as a perk for some of their guides.