Monday, December 22, 2014

The Dangerous Conflation of Money and Self-Worth

One of the big dangers that entrepreneurs (and everyone else) face in Silicon Valley is the temptation to conflate money and self-worth.  I was reminded of this by an entrepreneur that I'm coaching, who has been dealing with the whipsaw effect of fluctuating net worth and income.

Making money and/or getting a big payday through a liquidity event feels great.  And I'm not arguing that you shouldn't celebrate such good fortune.  I love to see hard work rewarded.  But you need to remind yourself that the money doesn't change who you are, even if it changes how other people treat you.

Tying your self-worth to your net worth feels great when your net worth is skyrocketing.  But it sets a dangerous precedent because net worth (and any associated adulation) are extrinsic motivators, rather than intrinsic, and people who focus on the extrinsic have been shown to be much less happy than those who concentrate on the intrinsic.  It also moves you towards a fixed mindset ("this result proves my worth") rather than the healthier growth mindset ("I'm glad that my hard work resulted in this financial success").

This is not to say that money is irrelevant; it is a tool, a useful metric, and something that eliminates a certain class of worries.  But it does not change who you are.  Even people who feel that money has “changed them” are simply dodging responsibility; they changed themselves in reaction to the money.

At a time when 50% of conversations in Silicon Valley are about "unicorns" and the other 50% are about the extreme cost of real estate, it's a good idea to keep reminding yourself that your self-worth has nothing to do with your net worth.

UPDATE: Now that I've gotten her permission, I can reveal that the entrepreneur who prompted this quote is Felicia Spahr, who is a wildly successful communications trainer who can help you be more charismatic and develop better social skills.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Spreading the ideas of "The Alliance" with Allied Talent

Dear readers,

I'd like to ask for your help.

This year, I realized a lifelong dream when Harvard Business Review Press published The Alliance: Managing Talent in a Networked Age, the book I co-authored with my friends Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha.  The book became a New York Times bestseller (on the advice list, but hey, it's still the Times!) and had a warm reception from critics, and most importantly, actual managers.  If you haven't had a chance to read it yet, you can download an excerpt for free (or buy a copy) at the book website:
http://www.theallianceframework.com

The gist of The Alliance is that employers and managers need to rebuild the relationship they have with their employees.  Rather than free agents, employees should be treated as allies, in a relationship of mutual trust, mutual investment, and mutual benefit.

To help leaders and managers adopt the ideas in The Alliance, I've co-founded a new consulting firm, Allied Talent ( http://www.alliedtalent.com ).  So far, we have developed two workshops to help build more adaptable, innovative organizations.

One workshop teaches managers how to strengthen their relationships with star employees.  We teach them how to have better career conversations and to organize each employee's work around a personalized mission objective with a specific expected timeframe.  Achieving the objective transforms both the company's business and the employee’s career, and provides a springboard for defining a follow-up mission.

The other workshop teaches managers how to coach their team to develop professional networks and leverage them both for career development and for solving business challenges.

In short, we’re developing managers for the 21st century, which my friend Reid has dubbed the Networked Age.

We're already working with a number of organizations, including several fast-growing startups, as well as non-profit organizations like the Wikimedia Foundation, to help them attract, manage, and retain the top talent they need to achieve their missions.

Now I need your help to change the way managers and employees think about work by spreading the ideas of The Alliance.

Of course we're looking for clients, but we are also looking for venues to build thought leadership: writing, speaking, interviews, webinars, etc.  I, my co-author Ben, and Allied Talent's CEO Chip Joyce are all available for these opportunities.

The ask:
  • Would your organization -- or an organization you work with -- be interested in learning more about The Alliance and our training programs?

I'd love any and all introductions, suggestions, and well-wishes you're willing to provide!  Here are a couple of resources you can share with folks who might be interested:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Risk and Race: A Modest Proposal To Encourage Investing In Minority Entrepreneurs

Fast Company put out a fantastic package of stories covering the role of race in Silicon Valley.  The centerpiece is a deservedly glowing profile of Tristan Walker, but my favorite was an interview with a group of African American startup folks titled "An Honest Discussion of Race in Silicon Valley."

One thing that I failed to appreciate before, and that this story made clear, is the interaction of risk and race:
In many African-American households—since we don't descend from centuries of wealth in this country—parents want their kids to be a lawyer or a doctor, or go to Wall Street to make a lot of money so they can come back and take care of the family. Is the African-American community too cautious for tech and its "fail fast" mantra?

Erwin: Black folks like me have to take care of family members at home, so jumping into a startup is very risky when you can make it either on Wall Street or do something more stable in finance. If my company fails, the people who are counting on me also fail.

T. Gauda: You have to have a very high risk tolerance, and we are traditionally risk averse. As it is, just being who we are is extremely risky.
The two key points are that a) simply being African American increases the level of risk in your life.  Logically, the principle of risk compensation would call for African Americans to take on less personal risk.  Layer in the socioeconomic effects of historical discrimination, and the magnitude of the effect would grow further.  B) Coming from a less-advantaged background, a potential African American entrepreneur might feel compelled to "play it safe," so that he or she would be in a better position to help the rest of the community.  The cost of failure is far higher for such an entrepreneur than for a wealthy Caucasian male.

Given these headwinds, it is all the more important that we encourage the minority entrepreneurs who take on these increased risks.

Another key passage tackles the issue of networks:
"I hear about bootstrapped rounds and angel rounds and friends-and-family rounds, and I just think to myself, Man! There are people who just know and are related to folks who can write $50,000 checks all around them! It's in their ecosystem."
As an investor, I take the stance that an entrepreneur ought to be able to be able to bring a product to market before raising money from professional investors, either by bootstrapping, or by raising a friends and family round.

But I'm guilty of unconscious bias in that filter--how can an entrepreneur bootstrap a company or raise money from friends and family if she comes from poverty and doesn't have any friends and family who can write a $50,000 check?

That being said, investing in pre-product startups tends to be a bad bet; I'd be hard-pressed to make money with that investment strategy.

Encouraging Investing In Minority Entrepreneurs: "Greed Is Good."

I believe the answer is to set up some kind of matching fund to encourage investing in underserved minority entrepreneurs; if my check were doubled or tripled by a foundation (and I got the equivalent equity to compensate for the increased risk), the financial incentives would encourage, rather than discourage investing in those entrepreneurs.  Investors would see investing in minority entrepreneurs as *less* risky, and minority entrepreneurs would see starting companies as *less* risky.

When it comes to getting people to change, I always bet on appealing to their sense of self-interest, not their sense of responsibility.  And the idea of using risk manipulation to solve a problem that's created by risk has a certain ironic appeal!

Now we just need someone to reach out to the appropriate funders to create this program....

Monday, November 10, 2014

What Entrepreneurs and Leaders Can Learn From Happy Marriages

As a happily married man, I can confirm what the latest research indicates: The secret to a happy marriage is kindness and generosity.

When I was a kid, I was mystified by altruism; I couldn't understand why my parents would always let me have the best share.  At the time, I just figured that they were suckers, and that I ought to take advantage of the situation (sorry, Mom and Dad!).  As far as I was concerned, they were "support staff," there to cater to my needs.

Needless to say, I was kind of a self-centered kid!

Today, while I'm still a self-centered something or other, I always try to be kind and generous to my wife and kids.  The key is consistency:
Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.

By observing these types of interactions, Gottman can predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples—straight or gay, rich or poor, childless or not—will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy several years later. Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility?

“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”
Any factor that has 94% predictive power is one hell of a lever.  So why limit it to marriages?

Barbara Fredrickson's work on the positivity ratio shows that the same effect can be found in the workplace.  Unless positive interactions outnumber negative ones by at least 3:1, the culture withers and dies.

Here in Silicon Valley, we focus an awful lot on hiring smart people and adopting fancy management practices like agile development.  I don't hear that much about being nice to each other.  Sometimes, it's almost as if being nice is considered a negative, because it prevents "honesty."

If you want your company to last like a successful marriage, ask yourself if your people bring kindness and generosity or contempt, criticism, and hostility.  If the answer is the latter, it's time to make a change.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Ditch The Swagger

Once upon a time, swagger was considered a negative.  Think of the phrase, "swaggering bully." Now, however, swagger has become a quality that many view as a major positive, and try to adopt for themselves.

Swagger-philia has proliferated across numerous industries and fields.  No longer just the province of entertainers and professional athletes, now even software developers call themselves "rock stars" and swagger about, accompanied by "hustlers" who brag loudly about being "ballers."

Is this a good thing? A bad thing? My gut says bad, but it's worth a closer examination.

First, we have to define swagger.  Is it simply confidence? I think swagger requires confidence, but it's certainly possible to be "quietly confident" without swaggering about.  If you're not sure what I'm talking about, consider two of Denzel Washington's iconic roles.  In "Training Day," Washington's character *is* a swaggering bully (albeit a mesmerizing, charismatic one).  In "The Equalizer," Washington plays a stone-cold badass who humbly works at a home improvement store.

Confidence isn't swagger.

Okay, so perhaps we should take a look at swagger from a different angle.  What  does it feel like to have swagger? I think the key here is that swagger is like an addictive drug.  When you swagger about, you feel cool, badass, superior, invincible, bulletproof...you name it.  It feels great.  But why? I would argue that it's because swagger is both completely self-centered and detached from reality.  Swagger gives you permission to focus on self-aggrandizement, and to ignore reality.  Joe Namath guaranteed a victory in Superbowl III; the reason we  revere his boast is that his team actually delivered.  99% of such guarantees go unredeemed.

So if swagger makes you feel good, focus on yourself, and ignore reality, it's essentially the cocaine of attitude.  A lot of fun until you crash.

And make no mistake, swagger usually leads to a crash.  Even Michael Jordan crashed when he returned to the NBA with the Washington Wizards.  Manic activity and ignoring the evidence might feel good in the short run, but it generally leads to feeling bad in the long run.

The amazing thing is that those with true swagger can crash time after time and never concede one iota to reality.  The NBA's Nick Young had the swagger to nickname himself "Swaggy P," and amazingly, even made it stick.  Despite being, objectively, a below average player (in his best season, he didn't even hit 45% of his shots), his propensity to take and make (a low percentage of) circus shots continues to win him fans.  This despite many of those same shot attempts ending up on YouTube, like his failed attempt at a 360 degree layup which sailed directly into the stands.  Of course, Nick is also a multi-millionaire who is in a romantic relationship with multi-millionaire, sex symbol, and #1 recording artist Iggy Azalea, so perhaps he is the one having the last laugh.

But for every Swaggy P, there are a million playground loudmouths, writing verbal checks their game can't cash.  And that's the problem.

Swagger is so outlandish and mesmerizing (remember Denzel in "Training Day") and feels so good (just ask any former SNL star/cocaine addict) that many people flock to its practitioners and imitate them.  But the lucky few swaggerers who can actually back it up are like the lucky few athletes or entertainers who hit it big.  Yes, the outliers have an amazing outcome, but the median outcome looks an awful lot like failure.

Swagger doesn't age well; even the swaggering playboy eventually runs out of young women witn daddy issues and low self-esteem.  Would you rather be Hugh Hefner or Nelson Mandela? (If you answered Hef, you should be ashamed of youself.)

Building quiet confidence based on the evidence and your experience with reality doesn't feel like doing blow, and doesn't sound good on a reality TV soundbite, but for the vast majority of people, it's a better path to a happy, productive life than the swaggerer's way.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Drivetime Consulting: Amr Shady

I just completed my first Drivetime Consulting engagement yesterday.  Amr Shady reached out to me via email yesterday afternoon, and we set up a call for my drive home last night.

The call was exactly what I was hoping for; Amr is a successful entrepreneur and all-around interesting guy, and he wanted my feedback on a new product that he's building, for which I would be a natural customer.  I was able to give him some very concrete feedback, and we also discussed some of his other activities, such as his involvement with Endeavor.

Hopefully, I'll be able to get more involved with Endeavor in the future, and we've made plans to meet up when he comes to San Francisco!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Why Reading Literature is Valuable

I was listening to the New York Times Book Review podcast (one of the little ways I stay connected to the literary world) when I heard a debate about the value of literature.  As is often the case with literary folk, the debaters were conflicted and ambiguous, pointing out the contradiction between arguing for literature's inherent value, and the frequent argument that reading literature prepares one for the world.

I've never been particularly good at angst--one of the main reasons I always struggled to write literary fiction (and to get dates with my fellow writers at Stanford, most of whom seemed to prefer darker, more brooding suitors).  To me, it's actually fairly easy to come up with a taxonomy of why reading literature is valuable:

1) Entertainment.  People pay money to be entertained; people find literature entertaining.  Ergo, literature provides entertainment value.  Beyond the simple power of page-turning, literature can also make you feel emotions that you wouldn't normally encounter in your everyday life.

2) Cultural fluency.  Reading the canon grants access to a broadly shared set of ideas and experiences.  In other words, reading literature provides cultural fluency.  Eric Cartman of South Park can say, "Captain Ahab has to get his whale," and we understand why.

3) Reading ability.  Literature tends to be a far denser read than, say, TechCrunch posts.  It acts as a training program that enhances both your reading speed and your ability to glean meaning from text.

4) Ideas.  Literature grants you access to other lives and minds.  Not only does it expose you to new ideas, those ideas can serve as models for your own decision-making.  I often use principles I learned from literature and history to make better decisions.

5) Authority.  When you seek to persuade others, citing classical sources seems to have a far greater impact than, say, children's cartoons.  Rightly or wrongly, the judgment of history grants literature authority that you can leverage for your own purposes.  (Though I'll note that I'm always a sucker for any argument that is based on DuckTales)

6) Branding.  Even today, reading literature is considered a key part of being learned.  If you don't know Shakespeare, Twain, and Austen, you won't be taken seriously as an intellectual.

Of course, I would argue that entertainment is the fundamental value.  If you don't find literature entertaining, you'll end up like the millions of American high school students who can't remember much about The Great Gatsby...and were born too early to simply watch the Leonardo DiCaprio movie.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Writing Feedback Loop


Like many things in life, the feedback loop on writing is long and uncertain. When I write a post, I don't know if it will quietly sink beneath the waves, get a reaction or two, or spark a week-long furor. Sometimes, the shortest and least effort-filled posts draw the best.

As a result, only people who love to write stick with it; the extrinsic rewards are too uncertain. You have to rely on intrinsic motivation.

(originally appeared as a comment on Hunter Walk's blog)

Monday, October 06, 2014

Drivetime Consulting

For years, I've been saying that I ought to set up a drivetime consultancy.  I'm in the car for 20-30 minute chunks each day, and I'd rather be talking with people than listening to the radio.

What's held me back is the work involved.  I figured I would need to build a fancy scheduling system, and I just never seemed to have enough time.

To heck with that.  If I can tell entrepreneurs to get gritty and make things happen, I should be willing to do the same.

Therefore, I'm announcing the Chris Yeh Drivetime Consultancy.  Anyone who wants to buy a 20-minute chunk of my time for drivetime consulting (either 8:30 AM or 5:30 PM Pacific, Monday through Friday) can simply send me $100 via PayPal.  I signed up for PayPal so long ago that my PayPal address is actually my old business school email: cyeh@mba2000.hbs.edu

Once you send me the money, follow up with me via email (that same business school email still works, amazingly enough) to schedule your call in the next week or two.

If this MVP works, maybe I'll go ahead and build that fancy scheduling system.  And while $100 for 20-30 minutes may sound steep, it's a pretty hefty discount over my Clarity.fm rate of $10/minute (I'm willing to discount for people who save me from the vagaries of drivetime radio).

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Economic Growth and the Rise of Religion

An intriguing thought, trigger by this Atlantic article, "A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Being Jewish":

What is religion is now a luxury good?

Consider the following: Marx called religion the opiate of the masses.  During an era in which life was brutish, nasty, and short, focusing one's attention on a glorious afterlife made a lot of sense.

But as standards of living rose, the influence of religion waned in the developed world.  Rather than worshiping in temples, people worshiped at the altar of the vast entertainment complex (including sports and the arts).

All this makes sense if religion is an "Inferior Good" (an economic term, not a value judgment) where demand decreases as income increases.  In the 20th Century, Jewishness behaved like an inferior good; higher incomes and education were strongly correlated with Reform Judaism.

But perhaps religion is both an inferior *and* a luxury good.  As standards of living rise higher and higher (for example, even the poor now carry connected supercomputers in their pockets), the ability of religion to provide unique experiences makes it increasingly attractive to well-off consumers.

One might even consider things like Burning Man or TED as evidence of this theory; these secular events show a lot of religious characteristics, such as community and ritual.

Rather than viewing religion as a relic of the past, we might be wiser to see it as a once and future pillar of the human experience.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Gaming The System Doesn't Work, And Everyone Has Worries

One of the exciting things about Paul Graham handing over the reins of Y Combinator to Sam Altman is the fact that it gives Paul more time to write.

Paul has long been one of my writing inspirations, and his concise yet conversational style has always struck me a near-perfect fit for his topics.

I'm delighted to report that Paul's latest essay is one of his best.  For the most part, I'll simply quote some key passages, but I will add a few additional thoughts here and there.
"Gaming the system may continue to work if you go to work for a big company. Depending on how broken the company is, you can succeed by sucking up to the right people, giving the impression of productivity, and so on. But that doesn't work with startups. There is no boss to trick, only users, and all users care about is whether your product does what they want. Startups are as impersonal as physics. You have to make something people want, and you prosper only to the extent you do.

The dangerous thing is, faking does work to some degree on investors. If you're super good at sounding like you know what you're talking about, you can fool investors for at least one and perhaps even two rounds of funding. But it's not in your interest to. The company is ultimately doomed. All you're doing is wasting your own time riding it down.

So stop looking for the trick. There are tricks in startups, as there are in any domain, but they are an order of magnitude less important than solving the real problem. A founder who knows nothing about fundraising but has made something users love will have an easier time raising money than one who knows every trick in the book but has a flat usage graph. And more importantly, the founder who has made something users love is the one who will go on to succeed after raising the money."
Growing up, I was always a game the system kind of guy.  Offer me a game, and I'll try to figure out the best way to exploit the rules.  There's a reason why I'm the king of board game night.

When I started my first company, I did the same thing.  I quickly assembled all the markers of success, from my own academic credentials to my successful co-founder, and used my verbal agility and emotional intelligence to raise millions of dollars (in two rounds of funding, just like Paul wrote!) while I was still a b-school student.

The only problem was, nobody really wanted my product.  The sinking realization hit me when our receptionist, a young, recent graduate, asked me to show her the product.  She tried it out, then simply said, "That's *so* not worth it."  And she was right.  Everything after that was simply finding a way to get as much money back to investors as we could.

By the end, I felt trapped, but I also felt an obligation to get as much money as I could for the investors who had placed their faith in me.  I've had a lot more success since then as both entrepreneur and investor, and a lot of it comes from having learned a painful, expensive lesson my first time out.

P.S. Gaming the system is still a lot of fun...when you know that you're playing a game.  Feel free to challenge me!
"Larry Page may seem to have an enviable life, but there are aspects of it that are unenviable. Basically at 25 he started running as fast as he could and it must seem to him that he hasn't stopped to catch his breath since. Every day new shit happens in the Google empire that only the CEO can deal with, and he, as CEO, has to deal with it. If he goes on vacation for even a week, a whole week's backlog of shit accumulates. And he has to bear this uncomplainingly, partly because as the company's daddy he can never show fear or weakness, and partly because billionaires get less than zero sympathy if they talk about having difficult lives. Which has the strange side effect that the difficulty of being a successful startup founder is concealed from almost everyone except those who've done it.

Y Combinator has now funded several companies that can be called big successes, and in every single case the founders say the same thing. It never gets any easier. The nature of the problems change. You're worrying about construction delays at your London office instead of the broken air conditioner in your studio apartment. But the total volume of worry never decreases; if anything it increases."
There have been times in my life when I had enough so that I never worried about money.  There have been other times when I had so little that I constantly worried about money.  But the one constant is that I always had plenty of worries, regardless of the state of my bank account.  (The other fact is that it's not a constant linear progression from poor to rich--entrepreneurship is far more of a rollercoaster, with multiple steps forward and back, at least for most of us)

I have friends who have vastly more money than I do, and I have friends who have vastly less money than I do.  We all have worries.  And as Paul notes, one of the interesting things is that those who have a lot of money get very little sympathy, probably because most people would trade lives with them in an instant (something of which those very successful folks are well aware).

In fact, I've joked that I should set up show as a "First World Problems Counselor," and charge money to lend a sympathetic and understanding ear to Silicon Valley's 1-percenters.  Everyone has problems, and everyone deserves sympathy, no matter how enviable their overall situation.

So if you keep thinking to yourself that you'll finally stop worrying when you become "successful," I've got bad news for you.  No matter how "successful" you become, you'll never stop worrying.  The only way to stop worrying is to learn to stop worrying, regardless of your life circumstances.




The Manic Side of Entrepreneurship

One of my long-term projects is to write a book about the psychology of entrepreneurship.  One of the issues I want to write about is what I call the manic side of entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs are innately optimistic; otherwise, they wouldn't jump into a field of endeavor that has a 90%+ failure rate.  I can assure you that every company I've started or invested in, I've felt had a better than average chance of succeeding...and despite that certainty, plenty of them have failed.

HBS professor Howard Stevenson famously defined entrepreneurship as, "The pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled."  And therein lies the wonder and danger of entrepreneurship.

Being willing to pursue a goal whose achievement depends on resources beyond your current control is a massive leap of faith.  Yet it is precisely this leap of faith which helps change the world.  In the words of George Bernard Shaw, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Entrepreneurs are unreasonable.  They start sprinting as fast as they can, convinced they'll figure out how to fly before they run out of runway.

I'm not going to argue against optimism or risk-taking; these are essential ingredients for success.  What I am going to warn you about is the danger of manic overcommitment.

One entrepreneur whom I work with has an issue with chronic overcommitment.  The instant he has things under control, he starts taking on more commitments.  I joke that like the late Warren Harding, he simply can't say no (I bear more than a passing resemblance to the former President myself, having someone contrived to be a startup executive, venture investor, social entrepreneurship mentor, and author, all at the same time).  He sometimes dreams of the day when he'll be so successful, that he won't have to worry about how to meet all his commitments.

Well, I hate to break it to him, but that day will never come.  Not because he won't be successful (he almost certainly will), but because an entrepreneur's ability to make commitments will always exceed his or her ability to deliver on them comfortably.

Tony Hsieh is an enormous success.  While still in his twenties, he founded LinkExchange and became fabulously wealthy.  Then, he somehow exceeded that wild success when he founded Zappos.  As his third act, he plowed $350 million of his own money into turning Las Vegas into a startup hub.

While he's been able to generate enormous change, he also overcommitted, and recently stepped down as head of Project Downtown, and laid off 30% of his staff.  Even someone as rich and successful as Tony saw his ambitions outstrip his resources.

The manic side of entrepreneurship has its uses, but by making yourself aware of it, and taking steps to avoid overcommitment, you can tap its wild energy without plunging yourself into the depression that seems to be its unavoidable doppleganger.

What Entrepreneurs Should Do Differently To Stay Married

I recently dove into Jay Goltz's New York Times post, How To Be An Entrepreneur, and Stay Married.  I thought it was an insightful piece, but to me, it was missing the most important part: What entrepreneurs should do differently to stay married.

Having recently celebrated my 16th anniversary (and the 18th consecutive year in my career of not selling a company and becoming a billionaire), I thought I'd share some of my perspectives and strategies for staying married.

1) Make family the most important priority, and mean it.

Any of my entrepreneurs who has asked me what to do about family issues knows my consistent refrain: Family is always more important.

Note that this doesn't mean that family is the #1 place where you spend your time; entrepreneurship is time-consuming, and building a company requires sacrifice.  But no matter who you are or what your company does, you should never put your family's health and happiness at risk.

I have made plenty of decisions in my career that reduced my current income, and as a result, we don't live a lavish lifestyle.  But we've never been in danger of ending up on the streets.

And if a health emergency arises, drop everything else.  You'll never regret that decision, and you might regret the alternative for the rest of your life.

2) Spend time with your spouse every day, no matter how mundane the activity.

I don't care how busy you are, you can certainly set aside 30 minutes to do something with your spouse.

This doesn't have to mean a "date night" (though that helps).  Even chatting and watching television together at the end of a long day helps maintain the health of your marriage.

My wife and I often watch some of Conan O'Brian's late night show.  It's not really that funny much of the time.  But it is a ritual that helps end the day on a together note.

3) Take actual vacations.

There's something special about vacationing somewhere new.  Seeing new sights and learning new things helps renew our zest for life.  This is especially true when you vacation with your kids.

We've taken the kids on vacations all over this country, and every time we travel together, it helps build the happy memories to sustain us through the everyday grind of the endless setbacks of entrepreneurship.

This doesn't mean you have to go off the grid; even on vacation, I'm checking emails and taking occasional calls (activities that my wife doesn't relish, but tolerates).  But when you're actually doing something as a family, it means really being present.

Sadly, entrepreneurship is very stressful on a marriage.  But if you actually take steps to protect your relationship, my experience is that strong marriages can survive and thrive despite the stress.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hard Choices Are An Opportunity

I'm a big podcast listener because I like to multi-task while I'm cooking and washing dishes (something I do a lot on weekends, since that's when I prepare our family's food for the week).  Today, I listened to a fascinating TED Talk by philosopher Ruth Chang.

It's worth listening to the entire talk, but for the impatient, I wanted to relate the key insight that I took from it.

Chang's talk is called, "How to make hard choices."  Her point is that hard choices are often hard because they aren't quantifiable.  Indeed, deciding whether to become a lawyer or philosopher (the very choice Chang faced when she was in college) is difficult precisely because the options are almost impossible to compare, and thus are "roughly on a par."

Chang's insight is that hard choices are actually an opportunity.  If you can't use reason to logic your way to a "right" answer, a hard choice gives you the opportunity to say something about yourself.  Choosing law school says something very different about you than philosophy grad school (though I would argue that depressed prosperity and angst-ridden poverty are both rather unattractive options!).

I've faced plenty of hard choices in my life, and will no doubt continue to encounter them as the years roll by.  But thanks to Chang's talk, I'll be able to frame the process of making those choices in a way that empowers me to choose my own identity, rather than paralyzing me with trepidation about the future.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Values, Performance, and Hard Boundaries

Here, in Silicon Valley, I've noticed that we like to talk a lot about values and culture.

Yet many of these discussions make a very dangerous mistake: They attempt to justify values and culture based on business performance.

This is a very natural impulse.  When I'm trying to persuade people, I always try to speak their language.  Most business people feel most comfortable when decisions are phrased in terms of profit and loss, rather than right or wrong.  (In fact, in business, talking about right and wrong can earn you dubious glances; at best, hard-charging managers are instructed not to break the law)

Yet using utilitarian arguments to support a matter of principle represents a fundamental disconnect.

In his book, The Joy of Work, AES CEO Dennis Bakke wrote, "I kept saying that our values were not responsible for the run-up in our share price and should not be blamed for any down-turns in the future."

I've always heard that when the 2008 crisis hit, Zappos' investors told Tony Hsieh that while his emphasis on values and culture worked during good times, now that the business was struggling, he needed to ditch them and focus on the bottom line.  His response was to sell Zappos to Amazon, since Jeff Bezos wanted Zappos for its culture, and promised to take a hands-off approach.

As a CEO or Founder, you need to decide on your core values and make them non-negotiable.

This represents what I call the "hard boundaries" approach.  It's a lot easier to enforce a ban on eating bread, than it is to cut your bread consumption by 75%.  Everyone--including yourself--is more likely to respect a hard rather than soft boundary.

Your vacation policy is up for negotiation; your fundamental values are not.

(This post was inspired by an even better post by Joel Gascoigne of Buffer, on his company's transparency policy).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

I'm a founder, and I'm feeling down. What should I do?

As a founder, your own emotional health is another key metric you need to manage, and you need to treat it as such.

I rely on three simple interventions:

1) Get a good night's rest.  Failing that, take a nap.

On days when I haven't had enough sleep, every problem seems like a mountain, and every setback makes me want to curl up into a ball.

On days when I've slept well, every problem seems surmountable, and every setback is just another opportunity to overcome.

Get sleep.

2) Eat healthy and regularly.

Your body is a machine.  You wouldn't expect your laptop to perform well if you stopped charging the battery and repeatedly dropped it on the ground, so why do you treat your body that way?

A study of Israeli parole boards showed that these very tough customers (Israeli, remember?) granted parole to less than 10% of prisoners who appeared right before lunch, and over 60% of those who appeared right after lunch.

Saving a few minutes by not eating is insane.  Keep the machine fueled.

3) Talk with friends who energize you.

We all have friends who make us feel happier and more energetic.  Taking the time to enjoy those relationships and their company isn't selfish--it's the cheapest form of therapy the company could buy for you.  Sometimes, the best way to solve a problem is to set it aside to rejuvenate yourself.

TL;DR: Sleep, eat, and spend time with the friends who energize you.

P.S. If you are experiencing actual clinical depression, for goodness sake, seek professional help.  Nothing is worth risking your health or your life.  I wish my friend Jody Sherman had done so.

P.P.S. A version of this post first appeared as a Quora answer.

Monopolies Are A Consequence, Not A Benefit

My friend Peter Sims recently wrote about how he disagrees with Peter Thiel's "Competition is for Losers" editorial.  Thiel argues that monopolies are good for society, and Peter respectfully disagrees.

My own take is fairly nuanced--monopolies are a sign of a healthy market, because they tend to result from innovation in "winner-take-most" markets, but they shouldn't be viewed as a positive.

Even some of the famous monopolies of the past, such as J.D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust resulted from innovation in a new industry.  Yet as the case of Standard Oil illustrates, Lord Acton's axiom that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," applies to corporations as well as people (after all, corporations are people too!).  Counting on the benevolence of a Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Larry Page is a risk I'd rather not take.

Yet we can't simply say, "monopolies bad, Hulk SMASH!"  It's a delicate balance.  Regardless of how much we like to pretend that entrepreneurship isn't about the money, it plays a significant role. The returns of winning a "winner-take-most" market help convince many others to start their own companies.

On the other hand, competition is what keeps people honest. Apple innovates because of Google, and vice versa. Microsoft was able to avoid innovation because it lacked real competition in the desktop OS market.

Bottom line: Monopolies are a sometimes unavoidable consequence of healthy market structures and innovation, but ironically enough, they aren't good for innovation (or the consumer).

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Value of Investors: Why I Focus On Helping Entrepreneurs

From Peter Thiel's recent Reddit AMA:
"As an investor, I think one must always maintain a certain amount of humility. There is only so much we can do to help the companies in which we invest. And because of this, the act of making the investment (rather than the ability to fix things later) remains by far the most important thing we do."
I think Peter's statement is largely right, but the nuances are important.

1) "There is only so much we can do to help the companies in which we invest."

When it comes to startups, the founders and employees have far more impact--positive and negative--on the chances of success than the investors.  Great investors have great track records because they have demonstrated great judgment, not great company-building skills.

On the other hand, I do think that investors could and should (but don't) help entrepreneurs more than they currently do.  A lot of folks like to talk about how hard it is to be an entrepreneur, and how depression is common among startups.  Yet far too few investors show any interest in helping their entrepreneurs deal with these issues.  Part of this is that the entrepreneurs don't always feel comfortable revealing their concerns about the business, but entrepreneurs feel that way because they don't trust their investors (which is largely rational, considering how often founders get ousted by investors).

As an investor, I certainly want to help the company, but I think it's far more important to help the entrepreneur.

2) "The act of making the investment (rather than the ability to fix things later) remains by far the most important thing we do."

I would argue that this statement applies far more to the Peter Thiels of the world than the Chris Yehs of the world.  What I mean is this: Top-tier investors have the brand and financial wherewithal to focus on those entrepreneurs and companies that are obviously great.  They can pay the high prices for quality, and have the ability to beat out other investors for the right to invest.

This is absolutely one of the best investment strategies from a risk/return standpoint, given Silicon Valley's unicorn economy.

Unfortunately, peripheral players like me can't play this game.  I don't have the money or the reputation to play.  My strategy has to be to invest in deals that top-tier investors won't even consider.  If the deal is one a top-tier investor would consider, I'll either never get in, or I'll only get into their rejects and dregs.  (Note that there is one exception, which is being allowed into deals by personal friends or by an investor who wants my particular expertise, but this is hard to scale)

Instead, I need to find deals that are off the radar, either because of stage, geography, or both.  These deals usually require a lot more work to find, and a lot more coaching to develop.  Being a "fix it" guy is a harder road to travel, but it's the one that's available to me.  And if I make a transformative investment (like Peter did with Facebook) that then unlocks the other investment path.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Fungible Work Will Always Become Low-Paid Work

Many advocates of the sharing economy love to extoll its ability to enable a new kind of work.  The dream is that rather than slaving away at 9-to-5 jobs, people can earn a living by driving for Uber fares, completing TaskRabbit gigs, making Diner Dash deliveries, and who knows what else.

There's no doubt that the rise of the sharing economy has been a boon for people looking for micro-gigs.  But the fundamental issue is that the same characteristics that allow collaborative consumption services to scale are the very ones that make that work into a low-value commodity.

In a recent blog post, venture capitalist (and old friend) Josh Breinlinger of SigmaWest described the most valuable types of marketplaces as "Supplier Picks":
"A typical workflow: Buyer posts job.  Approved suppliers see available jobs.  Supplier claims job.

These marketplaces require the highest degree of job standardization and quality control by the marketplace.

The key emphasis here is on maintaining an active and curated pool of suppliers so all jobs are done quickly and effectively.

I think whenever possible, you should try to be a supplier-picks marketplace.  They have the highest potential growth rates and can have the best overall user experience (highly correlated with low effort and high quality)."
The power of the Supplier Picks model is that it uses job standardization to make it easy for suppliers and buyers to transact.  In other words, it maximizes fungibility.

Yet once work is fungible, a marketplace tends to remorselessly funnel demand to the lowest-cost suppliers.  Once CRM and automation made call centers and customer service fungible, companies moved these functions offshore to lower-cost countries.  Increasing market efficiency is a wonderful thing, unless you're a redundant worker, or an unemployed lawyer with crushing law school debt.

I'm no Barbara Ehrenreich; I have no illusions that it's possible to put the genie back in the bottle.  Making work fungible creates value--the losses incurred by the laid off workers are far exceeded by the smaller benefits that accrue to a vastly larger number of consumers.

It hurts to see a small-town widget factory shut down, costing that town hundreds of jobs.  But moving that manufacturing to China allowed orders of magnitude more consumers to save 20% on their widgets.  If I lose a $100,000 job, but 1 million consumers each save $1 per year, value has been created, though it will be little comfort to me and my family.

Instead, the warning I'm sounding is for suppliers to understand the Faustian bargain they make when they turn to the Sharing Economy to make a living.  If you can do it, so can the other 1,000 people like you in your town.  Over time, being a perfectly replaceable cog in a machine isn't a good bet, no matter how shiny the machine.

Rather than relying on the collaborative economy to let anyone make a living, develop the unique skills that allow you to attract buyers that will pay for you, rather believing that any cog will do.

To Savor Time, Be Aware Of It

I've written before about how I use the Pomodoro Technique for my work.  What may be less obvious is how I use the Pomodoro Technique for savoring life as well.  Splitting my life into 20-minute increments is as useful at home as it is at the office.

For example, it's very easy for me to let my attention drift on Fridays evenings and weekends.  After all, it's my time "off".  Yet if I spend the weekend on aimless pleasantness rather than with a purpose, I feel dissipated and vaguely guilty when Sunday evening rolls around.

Spending endless hours on Cracked and TV Tropes is certainly fun, and arguably educational.  But the way that "I'll just take a quick peek while I drink a glass of water" can turn into a multi-hour binge leaves me feeling like a man acted upon rather than a man of action.

In contrast, using 20-minute Pomodoros to punctuate my free time forces me to be intentional about how I'm spending my time, and what I'm buying with it.  Every 20 minutes, I force myself to think about how I would like to have spent my time (which, by the way, is different from thinking about how I would like to spend my time).

In his essay, "The Mercy of Sickness Before Death," writer and critic D.G. Myers writes about the mercy he finds in having terminal cancer and knowing that he will soon be dead:
"If you are ignorant of the suffering that awaits you when you are first diag­nosed, you are equally ignorant of the changes that cancer will work in your thinking and emotional life, some of which may even be improve­ments in old habits of thought and feeling.

You may, for instance, become more conscious of time. What once might have seemed like wastes of time—a solitaire game, a television show you would never have admitted to watching, the idle poking around for useless information—may become unex­pected sources of joy, the low-key celebrations of being alive. The difference is that when you are conscious of choosing how to spend your time, and when you discover that you enjoy your choices, they take on a meaning they could never have had before.

You no longer waste or mark time. You fill it, because now you can see the brim from where you are lying."
I want to fill my time.  And I'd rather not wait until I'm diagnosed with a terminal illness.  Using tools to make me more conscious of the passage of time and how I'm spending it helps me savor that expenditure.

P.S. Hat tip to Russ Roberts and EconTalk for bringing Myers and his essay to my attention.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Being Hot Doesn't Negate Your Right To Privacy

This week, the internet worked itself into a frenzy over leaked naked celebrity pictures.  I haven't looked at these pictures, and you shouldn't either.  Being hot doesn't negate your right to privacy.

Earlier this year, a political activist was arrested for breaking into a nursing home and photographing Rose Cochran, the wife of Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran.  The photograph was posted online as part of a video attacking Senator Cochran.

This act was roundly and rightly criticized as reprehensible, including by Cochran's political opponents.  I didn't hear anyone saying they had a right to see the photograph.

Or imagine if someone hacked into Stephen Hawking's iCloud account, and leaked nude photos of the former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics.  Would people give that leak a nickname and write about their eagerness to see the photos?

The bottom line is that people who seek out and look at these photos are voyeurs who consider their own curiosity and lust more important than others' fundamental right to privacy.

P.S. Some like columnist Nick Bilton tweeted that people shouldn't take nude selfies.  That's hogwash.  I don't have any nude selfies, but what consenting adults choose to do in private is their own business unless it endangers someone or breaks a law.

P.P.S. Heck, I wish I had some nude selfies of when I was young and had muscle definition.  Back in those ancient days, we used 35mm film in analog cameras, and taking nude selfies would have exposed me (pun partially intended) to the photo lab technicians.  You can darn well bet those guys kept extra copies of any photos they found particularly interesting.  A friend's mom worked as a nurse at UCLA Medical Center, and she admitted that when movie stars came in for surgery, they all popped by to take a look, especially at the male sex symbols.

P.P.P.S.  Fortunately, even though no nude selfies of my 22-year-old self exist, there is a decent substitute, which is to Photoshop my head onto Channing Tatum's body.

UPDATE: Apparently, some people still go to photo labs for prints.  Yikes!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Yeh Family East Coast Vacation

Each year, we take the family on the road to explore America.  Some of our past trips have included driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, and visiting all the museums at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

This year, Alisha had the opportunity to take a two-month sabbatical, which allowed us to take a longer (and gulp, more expensive) vacation than usual.

The planning for the vacation was complicated by the fact that The Alliance was published on July 8, which meant that I was insanely busy up until we left for vacation later that week.  As a result, I wasn't able to go through my usual pre-vacation ritual of scheduling every day and printing out a small book of maps to cover each stop.  Nonetheless, we ended up having a great time, as I'll relate.

Monday, July 14:
We flew from Los Angeles to Boston.  We flew out of Los Angeles so that my parents could watch over Misty during our trip; at the end of the trip (as you'll read), I flew back to LA by myself, and then drove Misty and myself back to Palo Alto.

Upon arriving in Boston, we hustled to the Colonnade Hotel in Back Bay, right by the Prudential Center.  While we might have preferred to stay in Cambridge, the Colonnade ended up being very convenient, with a Green Line T stop about 50 feet from the hotel, and the Prudential Center shopping complex just across the street.  My one complaint about the Colonnade is that they had the temerity to charge for WiFi!  What is this, 2009?  I just used the tethering feature on my phone, but it was less convenient.

Despite weather warnings, the only time during our trip that the weather impacted our vacation was this day.  When I went out the Prudential Center to buy supplies (water, snacks, etc.), I was caught in a downpour.  The rain was coming down even harder when I exited Shaw's supermarket, carrying a massive package of bottled water and other foodstuffs.  By the time I got back to the hotel, my arms were exhausted from carrying 50 pounds of water, and I was drenched.  The only other time any other member of the family got wet the rest of the trip was when we went on the Kali River Rapids at Disney World.

After changing, I headed off to meet up with Peter Boyce of General Catalyst and the Dorm Room Fund.  Peter started an incredibly cool outfit that encourages student entrepreneurship.  Not for the first time, I concluded that I was born way too early.

For dinner, the family and I met up with the Kuegler family for dinner.  Amazingly enough, even though I've known TK since 2000, this was the first time both our families had been in the same place at the same time.  Alas, Jake had already left to start at the Air Force Academy, so we didn't get a chance to continue our debate over the inevitability of US victory in the Pacific during World War 2.

Tuesday, July 15:
Despite the jet lag, we got out of bed and headed on over to the world's best children's hospital, Boston Children's Hospital.  This was both my first chance to give a talk about The Alliance *and* the first time that Jason and Marissa got to see their old man give a public speech.  The talk got good reviews from both the audience and the kids; Jason particularly liked how I commented on Pixar's incredibly run of hits...with the notable exception of Cars 2.

After the talk, we walked to the Museum of Fine Arts, which marked the first of our many visits to world-class museums during the vacation.  A kind lady approached me and gave us her family's audio tour equipment (special iPods and headphones), which allowed us to learn a lot of additional information.  I enjoyed the exhibit on Pictorialist Photography; Marissa, who has a mercenary soul, preferred the Jewels of Ancient Nubia.  One of the most amazing items was an ancient pair of earrings which included solid gold chariots with wheels that actually turned.  Even more amazing?  At one point, the earrings were stolen from the museum by a mental patient, who buried them in a soup can by the Charles river.  The earrings were recovered by schoolchildren the next spring, after the snow melted.  I would have liked to spend more time at the D is for Design exhibit, but at that point, the kids were getting tired of all the culture!

We took the T back to the hotel, and I got us tickets on the famous Boston Duck Tour, which conveniently enough, embarked right around the corner.  The "duck" refers the amphibious DUKW, which dates back to the D-Day landings.  This allows the tour company to provide a tour that combines driving through the streets of Boston with a leisurely cruise up the Charles River.  This was a big highlight for the kids, who both got to drive our DUKW (video to come).  It was also a highlight for Alisha and I; despite having lived a combined 14 years in Boston, neither of us had ever taken a Duck Tour!

For dinner, we met up with my old friend and D. E. Shaw colleague, Chris Musto, his wife Moriah, and their adorable son Callum.  Chris and I have known each other since 1995, and has helped introduce me to the arcane world of the East Coast gentry, including the requisite wedding announcement in the New York Times.  I may have to re-familiarize myself with this culture in another 15 years or so; Callum was quite taken with Marissa.  Not only did he insist on sitting next to her, when the meal ended, he had to be pried off her after he desperately tried to prevent their parting by wrapping his arms around her waist.  A disturbing sign of things to come.

Wednesday July 16:
For our third day in Boston, we got an even earlier start by hustling over to the Museum of Science at 9 AM.  There, we met up with our old friend (and Alisha's old boss) John Kochevar.  To avoid confusion with another family friend, we told the kids to address him as "Doctor John," which I think John enjoyed.  After a fun couple of hours at the museum (including a favorite of Jason's, the "Grossology" exhibit on belching and flatulence), John led us to a North End legend, Antico Forno, which is actually on a list of the Top 10 Italian Restaurants Around the World (I assume that restaurants in Italy are excluded from this list!).  After a fine lunch of gourmet pizza and cannoli, we split up our party.

Alisha took the kids off to visit Harvard (perhaps a future alma mater?) and its museums.  John and I made a pilgrimage to Brooks Brothers, where I spent an exorbitant amount of money on a blazer and slacks combo.  For some reason, Alisha believes that I shouldn't wear my usual uniform of black V-neck and khaki cargo pants to my appearances as a New York Times-bestselling author.  I took advantage of John's services as a fashion consultant, which will have my looking far better (if poorer of wallet) at future speaking engagements.  From there, I headed up to Harvard Square to meet up with the estimable Ilan Mochari, reporter, novelist, and basketball enthusiast.  We discussed his great novel, Zinsky the Obscure.  Zinsky, which I read and loved, is like Portnoy's Complaint, if Portnoy had been a tall, bald, sports enthusiast and Internet entrepreneur.  Sadly, we ran out of time before we could really get down to the business of discussing our respective basketball skills, but hopefully the future brings us a chance to actually play together!

After reuniting with my family, we trekked down to Chinatown, where Alisha bought some Chinese slippers (almost impossible to find!), after which we met up with my old friend TJ Keen, who still refuses to join Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.  The thing is, TJ is no Luddite; in fact, he fits into the category of people who are so advanced technologically that they refuse to use unsecure consumer-grade services!  TJ and our family had dinner at the very Chinese restaurant where Alisha and I had our wedding banquet in 1998.  After lobsters and dinner, we even took a photo in front of the traditional dragon and phoenix design.

Thursday, July 17:
We finished our time in Boston by focusing on the historical.  We began by taking the trolley around the entire city, which allowed us to see the various sights, including the U.S.S. Constitution, which is the oldest ship in the U.S. Navy (and still undefeated in battle).  We hopped off the bus at Faneuil Hall and joined a Freedom Trail tour, where we learned an awful lot of things we never knew about John Hancock.  Sadly, we had to cut our tour short and head to South Station to catch our bus to New York.  I'll cover the details in another blog post, but the key information is that I used Wanderu to get bus tickets for the trip.  The total cost?  $6/person, and it was only that high because I sprang for the deluxe reserved seats.  Four and a half hours (and $24) later, we disembarked in the Big Apple.

During our time in Manhattan, we stayed at the Hotel Beacon on the Upper East Side, just blocks from Central Park and the museums.  The Beacon ended up being a great choice, largely because of the location.  Not only were we close to Central Park, we also had a subway station less than 2 blocks away, as well as restaurants, supermarkets, drug stores, and every other convenience within a similar 2 block radius.  And, free WiFi (back to civilization!).

Friday, July 18:
Our first morning in New York, we took the subway down to the Empire State Building and made our pilgrimage up to the observation deck.  Though I'd been advised that Top of the Rock had an even better view, we went with the Empire State Building for its history and iconic status.  As with the MFA in Boston, we paraded around using iPods and headphones to learn about the history of the building.

Afterwards, we split up, not to find clues, but so that Alisha could go out to lunch with her colleagues in her company's New York office.  I took the kids to visit Times Square, and then to meet my friend Rajesh Anandan.  Rajesh, whom I met at the Unreasonable Institute earlier this summer, is one of those incredible folks who fill one with envy, yet are such good people that you feel sheepish about that envy.  Not only is Rajesh helping the world at UNICEF, in his spare time, he's created a company, ULTRA Testing, which employs adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders as QA testers.  Not only is this a great service for the employees, their incredible attention to detail allows them to find 20% more bugs.  If your company outsources QA, use ULTRA for an onshore alternative that produces better work and a double-bottom-line.

The family reunited at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).  While I can draw upon my old SLE knowledge and faint recollections of The Shock of the New to construct meaning from the exhibits, the rest of the family was pretty glad when we took off for dinner with my old friend Frans Johansson.  We took the subway to Brooklyn and had a fantastic evening of Carribean food, good wine, and good company.  I was surprised to learn that Brooklyn actually had neighborhoods, trees, and yes, even back yards!  Perhaps if I had known this many years ago, I wouldn't have been so dead set against ever living in New York.

Saturday, July 19:
That morning, we checked out of the hotel and headed to Grand Central Station to catch the commuter rail to Westchester County.  Alisha's oldest and best childhood friend, Nancy, lives in Westchester County, along with her husband Mark and their daughters Rye and Lia.  (Nancy and Mark's wedding is actually one of the first events that Alisha and I attended as an "official" couple back in 1996!)  I was amazed to find that Westchester County is less than 30 minutes from Grand Central by train.  Yet while it is incredibly close, it's a completely different world of small towns with plenty of greenery.

Staying with Nancy and Mark was a welcome respite from both the activity-filled days and hotel life.  We actually got to relax and just as important, do some laundry.  The highlight of the day was when we walked to the town's belated July 4th fireworks show, which offered a closer view of the pyrotechnics than I've ever seen in my life.  After a long, mosquito-filled wait, the kids were duly impressed!

Sunday, July 20:
Yet even in the Edenic/bucolic world of Westchester County, we somehow ended up walking several miles.  The families visited the Bronx Zoo for a day of animal-watching.  As usual, Rye, being a little girl, glued herself to Marissa for the day.  Marissa is going to make so much money as a babysitter someday.  After stops at the Butterfly Garden and the Congo Gorilla Forest, the smaller kids went home, and I went on alone with Jason and Marissa to see the JungleWorld exhibit.

Of course, the animals that Jason and I spent the most time viewing during our vacation were the Kribensis cichlids in Mark's fish tank!  After their eggs hatch, the mother and father actually watch over the babies until they grow.  Mark has been breeding them for generations for brighter spots and bigger tails.

Monday, July 21:
Taking our leave of Nancy, Mark, and the girls, we took the commuter train back into Manhattan.  After checking back into the Hotel Beacon, we began the even more museum-intensive portion of the trip.  First, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met).  The Met's collection is so huge that we easily could have spent several days there.  In particular, Marissa enjoyed the fashion exhibition, while I liked the arms and armor exhibit--some of the katanas on display were over 1,000 years old, yet still gleaming and sharp.  The kids both enjoyed the video game exhibit, even playing a bit of Pac-Man (I had to resist the temptation to shout out instructions).  We also enjoyed the rooftop garden and the Egyptian exhibit.  And of course, as we do with every museum, we visited all the jewelry exhibits so Marissa could have her fill of gold and gems.

From there, we proceeded up the street to the Guggenheim, with its iconic spiral design.  Of course, since the Guggenheim only has one main exhibit at a time, your enjoyment may depend a lot on the subject of the exhibit.  As it turns out, the rest of my family are not big fans of Italian Futurism.

Tuesday, July 22:
We set aside an entire day for the main event--the American Museum of Natural History.  This museum, which is now most famous for those Ben Stiller movies, was Alisha's favorite as a child, and she was eager to give the kids a chance to see it for themselves.  They loved it, of course.

First, we got our dinosaur fix in at Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs.  The kids also discovered a new game by continually referring to the various fossils as "Daddy's old classmates" or "Daddy's childhood pets" to emphasize my extreme age and frailty.  We also visited the other dinosaur halls and made a green screen movie with the dinosaurs.

We also visited the various halls of various peoples.  This was almost Marissa's favorite part, since many of the exhibits included miniature dioramas of people and homes.  Of course, Marissa's favorite exhibit was the Morgan Memorial Hall of Gems!

We finished by exploring two special exhibitions: The Power of Poison, and the IMAX movie, Great White Shark.  I was too cheap to pay for all of us to see the poison exhibit, so I loitered in the bookstore while the rest of the family went through.  And by the time we had walked all those halls, getting to sit for a 3D movie was a nice change of pace.

Yet somehow, the day wasn't yet done...that morning, I had walked down to the Pier to get us tickets for a sunset sightseeing cruise around Manhattan.  After finishing up at the museum and grabbing a quick bite, we took a cab down to the U.S.S. Intrepid and spent 90 minutes cruising around Manhattan, seeing the sights including the Statue of Liberty.

Wednesday, July 23:
We took it easy on our last day in New York.  I met up with Ramit Sethi for coffee while the family went shopping, and then we caught the bus down to Washington DC.  Despite the fact that I hadn't been able to purchase reserved seats, the bus wasn't crowded at all, which allowed us to sit in the same premium table space as on our trip from Boston.  All this for $3 per person, which ended up costing less than the 1-mile cab ride to our hotel in DC.

We stayed at the Capitol Hill Hotel, which offered very spacious accommodations, including a walk-in closet and a breakfast nook.  The location was also quite convenient, with the restaurants of Pennsylvania Avenue just a block away.

Thursday, July 24:
In what you may recognize as a common theme on this trip, I woke up early and hiked down to the Washington Monument to get tickets to ride to the top.  To get tickets in advance, you generally need to book online at least 6 months before your trip.  Otherwise, it's an early morning wait in line to obtain up to 6 free tickets.  I had a good time chatting with the other tourists, grabbed the tickets, and hiked back to meet up with the family.

We killed a little time at the Museum of Natural History.  In particular, the kids really enjoyed the Qrius interactive exhibit, which allows kids to earn badges at computerized activity stations.  At the appointed time, we zoomed up the Washington Monument and took in the view.  It's also pretty amazing to see the interior of the monument, and the engineering required to build something so immense.

After lunch, we met up with the Sapoznikow family at the National Museum of American History.  While the kids really enjoyed seeing all the model boats (something I remembered from my childhood visits!), the three major highlights were A) seeing Julia Child's actual kitchen (relocated from Boston to the Smithsonian), B) checking out the gowns of the First Ladies (well, it was a highlight for Marissa at least), and C) viewing the actual Star Spangled Banner from the battle of Fort McHenry.

We did have to knock off early so I could attend an SVForum board meeting by phone--a call which I took from the spacious walk-in closet!

Friday, July 25 - Monday, July 28:
We woke up earliest of all and caught a 7 AM flight to Orlando (or as I like to call it, Greater Disney).  Since Walt Disney World's attractions are well covered by an entire cottage industry of blogs and guides, I'll limit myself to commenting on the highlights and insights I derived from our trip:
  • We stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge.  This is a heck of a lot more expensive than many of the Disney resorts (the All-Star resorts, for example, are an excellent value) but I decided to splurge because this is the last Disney World vacation we'll ever take before the kids become teenagers.  The Lodge is a beautiful property, complete with safari animals right outside the walls.  We also took full advantage of the pool, which included its own water slide.  In the end, I think it was worth the extra bucks, at least once.
  • Because we stayed at a Disney resort, we were issued Disney's new Magic Bands.  These RFID bands act as hotel key, park ticket, and wallet.  Once you enter the Disney kingdom, you don't need to carry anything other than your Magic Band.  Not only that, Disney knows where you are at all times...hmmm, not sure if that is truly a benefit.  The good news is, they do require a PIN to use as credit card, so I simply didn't give anyone else the PIN!
  • Disney has gone RFID-mad.  We also bought collectible mugs, which allow free drink refills at any Disney resort.  These mugs have embedded RFID chips, which actually track how many days of drinks you've paid for.  Each soda dispenser reads the RFID chip and confirms that you're eligible for drinks before it will dispense anything.  (This meant that I couldn't do what I did on our first trip, and collect abandoned mugs for free drinks, a fact for which Alisha was grateful)
  • As I've noted in the past, where Disney really stands out is their fanatical attention to the customer experience.  Many if Disney's lines are designed to be attractions in and of themselves.  And don't forget, the line estimates are always lies--they overestimate line length to exceed expectations.  Furthermore, during any stage show, every single performer on stage is playing their part and exerting 100% effort the entire time, even if they're not in the spotlight.
  • Disney's other strength is storytelling.  By tying everything to a story, they can make the prosaic seem remarkable.  For example, the Festival of the Lion King consists of a few basic elements: Singers, floats, and acrobats.  Essentially, it sounds like a bad French stage show.  But throw in tribal and animal costumes and the recorded voices of beloved Lion King characters, and all of a sudden, you have a premium extravaganza (that also happens to offer employment to an entire troupe of former college gymnasts).
  • In the Fantasmic show, Disney uses characters from throughout its history, going all the way back to Steamboat Willie.  At Disney, characters are truly timeless (which means that you can treat them as a perpetual interest-paying security!).
  • Disney is finding more and more efficient ways to entertain their visitors.  Increasingly, Disney doesn't even need to build rides.  A number of attractions consist of animated characters engaging with an audience using personalized dialogue.  Some of the popular attractions that operate on this model are the Monster's Inc Laugh Floor, Turtle Talk with Crush, and Enchanted Tales with Belle.  The Belle attraction even combines animation, sophisticated robotics, and human actors.  An even more extreme experiment is the Phineas and Ferb: Agent P's World Showcase Adventure.  This eliminates the need for any location; instead, kids get a smartphone with a pre-installed app that guides them through adventures in the various lands at Epcot's World Showcase.  As the kids go through the adventure, pressing the controls of the phone triggers various robotic animations.  (To save money, the phones are all Windows Phones--presumably no one wants to steal them...and even if you did, I assume the Magic Band would automatically inject you with a tranquilizer)  Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom is similar, but uses image recognition technology to do away with the smartphones--instead, simple cards trigger animations.  The nice thing is that the cards also serve as a free collectible for families.
  • Given the heat and humidity, one of my favorite tactics is to mix in a liberal dose of stage shows, which are A) air conditioned, and B) let you sit in comfort.  Plus, Disney's shows are incredibly good.  Finding Nemo: The Musical is particularly spectacular.
And now for the lightning round--cool rides and experiences!
  • Through an HBS classmate, I was able to get us access to the HP Lounge at Mission: Space.  If you can get access to any of these lounges (GM and Siemens also have loungers), do it!  They are comfortable, stuffed with cool toys and exhibits, offer free drinks and snacks, and give you additional Fast Passes.  If you're an HP, GM, or Siemens employee or alum, you may be eligible.  I love insider treatment!
  • We finally went on the Kali River Rapids.  Very fun, but you *will* get wet.  Go when you have time to dry off afterwards, and/or wear swimwear under your clothes.
  • Marissa really wanted to go on Space Mountain, despite all my warnings.  I guess she didn't believe me...until the ride started, and I could hear her screaming "Oh my God!" almost the entire time.  She really enjoyed it though!
  • The Japan showcase has a great homestyle Japanese restaurant which is actually very affordable as well.  Since Alisha studied Japanese in high school, was an East Asian Studies major at Harvard, and has traveled extensively in Japan, this is a knowledgeable recommendation.
  • Also at the Japan showcase, if you can catch their current manga exhibition, do so!  They show the ancient mythic roots of Japan's most popular art form.
  • The Chinese acrobats at the China showcase are amazing.  Definitely go if they're performing.
  • The Animation Academy is an awesome program that guides you through drawing one of your favorite Disney/Pixar characters.  We drew Carl from UP!
After three fun but exhausting days at Disney, we drove to Alisha's parents' place in the Orlando suburb of Lake Mary.  From there, I flew home to get back to work while Alisha, Jason, and Marissa spent another week with the grandparents, playing in the pool and letting grandma stuff them with food.  All in all, another successful Yeh family vacation!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Find Your Compass All Around You

William Deresiewicz has been writing a lot about the problems with an Ivy League education.  As someone in possession of two expensive degrees from Stanford and another expensive degree from Harvard Business School, I am both sympathetic to his points and terrified that he'll damage the value of the brands that I (and my parents) paid so much for.

In a recent interview that appeared in The Atlantic, Deresiewicz said something that made me pause for reflection:
"These kids were always the best of their class, and their teachers were always praising them, inflating their ego. But it’s a false self-esteem. It’s not real self-possession, where you are measuring yourself against your own internal standards and having a sense that you’re working towards something. It’s totally conditional, and constantly has to be pumped up by the next grade, the next A, or gold star."
The notion that praise and grade-grubbing are dangerous is well established--just look at the work of Carol Dweck.  But what interests me is the notion of self-possession.

The paradox of self-possession is that unless it is tempered with feedback from the outside world, it is self-delusion.  On the one hand, it's critical to find yourself.  On the other hand, without experiencing the outside world, you can't find yourself.

When I think about my own self-awareness, I difficulty tracing it to its origins.  How do I know that I love to write?  When I was a child, I loved reading, and decided I wanted to tell my own stories.  When I was older, I wrote a lot of papers, and professors gave me a lot of "A"s.  After I graduated, I wrote things, and people read them and enjoyed them.  Does that mean that I was measuring myself by external standards, rather than internal ones?

When I was young, I loved books indiscriminately, but as I got older, my ability to distinguish between "good" writing and "bad" writing increased.  Yet even now, it is hard to judge.  Some authors have amazingly interesting ideas, but indifferent prose.  Others have hackneyed ideas but are outstanding prose stylists.  Is Dave Barry a great writer?  Stephen King?

And when I judge my own writing, I'm applying an internal standard, but it is an internal standard that I developed by reading other works, as well as others' criticism of those other works.

Developing your internal compass is one of the essential parts of growing up (and something which not everyone accomplishes).  Yet people who tell you to "find yourself" are providing advice that is useless, or worse, actively harmful.  Self is not a treasure that you can find; it is a foundation that you lay, brick by brick, by experiencing the ideas and the world around you.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Real Reason You Need To Overcome Envy

Envy, to put it bluntly, sucks.  This isn't news; envy is one of the original seven deadly sins.  And the media is happy to tell us that envy is the most modern of sins, enabled by social media and the fear of missing out (FOMO; by the way, who decided that everything had to be abbreviated these days.  Are we really that short of letters?).

As a result, we're blasted with advice to stop comparing ourselves to others.  Yet while I acknowledge the corrosive effects of envy, I can't help but feel that all this well-meaning advice focuses on *avoiding* envy rather than truly *overcoming* envy, and that's a huge missed opportunity.

Comparing yourself to others can lead to envy, but it is also an incredibly powerful tool.

I started my career in personal finance and investing, and I still remember one of the key lessons of personal finance--90% of investment returns come from asset allocation, not asset selection.  In other words, what matters is the amount you invest in equities, not the individual stocks you pick.

The same principle applies to your life.  The categories you choose for yourself have a huge impact on what you achieve.

It would be easy for me to define a narrow category in which I could be the market leader--for example, independent angel investors who majored in Creative Writing and Product Design and have written a best-selling book.  But such a categorization only serves to make me feel good about myself; it doesn't actually give me useful feedback on how to get better.

In contrast, if I put myself in broad categories like "Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs" or "Early-stage Investors," I am decidedly not a market leader.  In fact, I'm a very small fish in a very big pond.

It would be very easy to feel envious of people who invested in Dropbox or Whatsapp (sadly, I didn't, even though I was introduced to Drew back in 2008, and was actually a Stanford classmate of Brian Acton).  And being human, I do struggle with envy at times.

But by struggling with, and eventually overcoming that envy, I'm able to define a successful peer group from whom I can learn.  Recognizing and acknowledging my own mistakes and failings, and learning from the success of others are two of the main ways I can improve.

Ultimately, success in my world, the startup ecosystem, is determined by the ability to learn quickly.  Comparing myself to others is one of the best ways for me to do just that.

This approach isn't for everyone; you need to feel secure in your own identity and worthiness, so that realizing just how many times you've f--ked up doesn't send you into a tailspin of depression.  But once you're able to overcome, rather than just avoid envy, the rewards are great.

Don't stop comparing yourself to others...stop feeling envy and start seeing opportunity.