Self-made

December 06, 2018

My coworker Addwittey (Addy), who is Indian, was eating lunch the other day. It smelled great. Everyone knows the guy can barely make a sandwich, so, there had to be some kind of story. New girlfriend, maybe?

"My mom made it for me", he said, smiling like a five-year old boy. His parents were in town, and as he tells it, his mom just couldn't help herself from taking care of her son. Nevermind the fact Addy is in his late 20s/early 30s, and does does PhD-level trajectory planning all day; he's still her son.

I overheard a different discussion at Farley's coffee yesterday: "If I asked my mom for a down payment on a house, she'd be laughing so hard, I could hear her all the way from Missouri." (I live in California.)

I'm not sure why we Americans have such an obsession with being "self-made". We have to "make our own way", and invent this sort of fiction that we can manage things ourselves, without help from others.

We all pretend this whole "city" thing, with water grids, roads, and hospitals, you know, it really could end at any moment. We could all go back to nature, till our own fields, chop our own firewood, and draw our own water, from the well.

My Indian and Chinese coworkers don't get it; they're happy to live with their parents rather than "wasting money" paying rent on a small place of their own. Gotta save money, after all.

They sit there, laughing as they watch us "pull ourselves up by our bootstraps", sipping their masala chais, and oolong teas.

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The many flavors of ambition

December 05, 2018

I wrote yesterday about the value of storytelling in movies. Another thing I've learned watching movies is the many flavors of ambition.

I love The Americans. The show is a high-budget period drama set in the middle of the Cold War. Through six ruthlessly-written seasons, it depicts the height of the cold war, showing the evil of both sides, set against the intimacy of love, and family life. The writing is shocking: killing off main characters by shooting them in the head, open-eye tooth surgery, slow death by chemical weapons, forced suicide by pills.

Despite being the single darkest piece of entertainment I've ever watched—maybe because of it?—I'm not at all surprised they won a Golden Globe; everything about the show is top-shelf, from the writing, to the acting, down to the period detail—real 1980s cars, TVs, and currency—A+ production value.

But Caroline doesn't care about any of that; to her, it's just a really dark, depressing show, and "I don't need to come home from work and watch TV so I can feel dark and depressed."

She doesn't know what she's missing.

But anyway, she's got me watching Madam Secretary, pretty much the polar opposite: fluffy, linear, uplifting. Ugh. And when I first started watching it, I was like, "What is this crap?" The acting and writing of the Americans is in a whole different league.

But as I watched it, I realized they weren't going for high production value or Golden Globes. When they did the episode where Téa Leoni, as Secretary of State, stood side-by-side with (real-life) Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton, and Madeline Albright, I realized I was watching an entirely different type of show. Madam Secretary is a network drama, watched by an audience maybe 10x that of the Americans.

And they're trying to remind Americans that we live in a great nation, that it's OK to have faith in your elected leaders, and that better government is possible. The show won't win a Golden Globe, but as the federal government shutdown—the longest in history—enters its 25th day, it's nice to be reminded that it wasn't always like this, and doesn't have to be.

I'm not sure whether the differences causing the shutdown are reconcilable. But I'll try to be mindful of peoples' differences; some want high-powered executive careers, others quiet family lives, still others, to make great art. And that's OK.

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Storytelling

December 04, 2018

I started watching one of the Kingsman movies yesterday. Caroline came home about 40 minutes into it and I stopped watching it; I'm not sure whether I'll finish.

What I did get through yesterday was All the President's Men—the story of Woodward and Bernstein's investigation of the Watergate scandal, which played a big part in Nixon's resignation, in 1974.

I also watched Trading Places a few weeks ago for the first time, the Eddie Murphy classic where a homeless guy trades places with a rich securities broker, part of a bet to see what effect environment has on peoples' behavior.

Sometimes I just want a cheap action movie, and that's OK. And some action movies are truly great—the Die Hards and The Matrixes.

But increasingly, my personal favorites from the past few years—The Incredibles, Green Book, Coco, Inside Out, Detroit, Driver, First Man—are the ones with the best storytelling. They hold my interest and stay with me years after watching them.

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50 Years of Service

December 03, 2018

50 Years of Service

I saw this plaque in the Marshall Fields building in Chicago. It was one of those things that, when you see it, immediately strikes you as being from a different moral universe.

**

Silicon Valley doesn't believe in employer/employee loyalty; how could it, given how quickly things change? Nobody's thinking about the "gold watch" for 25 years of service when the company won't even exist in five years.

More than anything, company loyalty is a cynical punchline to a joke; the sort of thing you laugh at after a few drinks, while shaking your head at the new "great idea" someone just had.

But as I reach my mid-30s, it occurs to me that there has to be something else. I can't speak for others, but for me, there has to be something more than climbing the ladder, or piling up as much money as possible. Something beyond living in some anonymous box of an apartment, angling for one promotion after another, trying to accumulate as much money and/or power as I can.

Being part of a great organization—an institution—the Church, the Army, a sports franchise, university, or great company—was something people used to aspire to. These days, it feels like something you'd be ridiculed for.

I suspect Paul Graham is right; company loyalty was probably a thing of the Duplo Economy, with few firms and limited competition. Perhaps in today's more competitive business climate, the conditions to make that possible no longer exist.

So the "Duplo Economy" is a thing of the past and on the whole, that's proably a good thing. But like pg, I'm not 100% excited for what's next. We will probably be richer, but I can't help wondering whether the world will become more like San Francisco: more and more billionaires, even as the ground becomes ever more littered with broken syringes, dropped by homeless drug addicts desperate for a hit.

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A recovering libertarian

December 02, 2018

I used to call myself a libertarian.

10-15 years ago, I realized:

  • At $3.8 trillion (21% of GDP), the federal government does way too much; lots of things from food certification to power generation could be done much less wastefully by the private sector
  • In business, quality and excellence are driven by competition; government undertaking has neither
  • Regulation usually doesn't work and even when it does, writing and enforcing it costs a fortune. Consider taxi medallions: a system whose very reason for existence is questionable, that takes money from drivers and makes it harder to hail a cab, but puts money into the pockets of well-connected insiders who benefit from proximity to government bureaucrats
  • The best way to determine what to produce is by looking at prices
  • Markets are the only way to set prices correctly

I've become less ideological, after a decade working:

  • Self-determination is a natural right; economists can rail all they want against closed borders and minimum wage hikes, but if it's what people want, democratic ideals demand they should get it. Law controls business, not vice versa.
  • Capital is tremendously powerful, yet amoral; it will remove every barrier it can to sell more and make more. Sometimes that means going around the crooked taxi medallion system (good), other times it means tripping over scooters, new addictive websites, or a lot of people displaced from their jobs by robots.
  • Some things (e.g. clean air, NOT healthcare) are inherently public goods, and the only way to ensure people get them is via government action
  • Though we have too much, regulation is a necessary ingredient to well-functioning markets
  • A lot of infrastructure spending is wasteful, but "blue states" are growing more quickly than "red" ones, and I believe public investment in education and physical infrastructure has a lot to do with why.

So I've moved a little left—a little more toward collectivism. I guess living on the "Left" (West) Coast has gotten to me after 9 years 😊

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Weak board, strong board

December 01, 2018

The Board's job is to make sure the right team is at the helm, not to be at the helm themselves...A great Board manages itself and treats the CEO as a peer and gives the CEO's opinion great weight. But a great Board is not a rubber stamp.

The Board Of Directors: Role and Responsibilities, AVC (Fred Wilson)

Last April, a dilemma hit our board: after 12 years of service, our general manager said he was quitting. He tendered his resignation and said he'd serve out a two month notice period.

I didn't realize it at the time, but looking back, I'm fairly certain he was angling for a raise; he thought he'd get us over the barrel, and dictate his terms.

He gambled and lost; we went out and found a new manager. Not pleasant, but as Stringer Bell reminds us, "you gotta be fierce".

There are eight people on this board and I'm proud we handled it how we did; past boards took the easy way out, letting too much stuff like this slide. You can get away with that once in a while, but do it too often, and you'll have the employees running the shop, ignoring the customers and stealing from the owners.

Related: Report: BART investigating spike in sick calls during holidays

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Hard mode

November 30, 2018

Life has two settings: easy mode, and hard mode.

My brother is in the middle of planning a wedding 300 miles from where he lives. That's playing the game on hard mode, if I've ever seen it.

It's a little flippant to compare your life to a video game, but it's useful.

Easy mode should be your default setting in work and in life. In sports and business in particular, results are all that matter: nobody cares about your struggle or your process. Get the work done, and move on to the next thing.

But hard mode has its place. If you practice running 50 miles, a marathon will seem easy. And there is a sense of personal fulfillment from doing things manually, or "by yourself".

The thing I have to keep telling myself is, play on easy when you can. Life is hard enough. Don't make it harder.

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Personal chemistry

November 29, 2018

A bunch of people asked how Caroline and I met this past weekend. Usually, I tell it as, I was visiting my parents in Chicago for the 4th of July and we met (not) playing beach volleyball.

What didn't happen is clicking on a profile. And I don't think it would've, for us; the things we love most about each other aren't answers to profile questions.

I'm not ruling out the idea that a well-trained prediction engine could predict that we'd be happy together. Someone will probably build that, sacrificing another ounce of serendipity on the altar of "the best".

I just don't think we would've found the match.com or okcupid versions of each other very interesting. Whereas when we met in real life, I thought, wow, she's amazing, she can draw, she has a great smile, and is sexy; I need this, sign me up right now. 😃

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Shoulder to shoulder

November 28, 2018

It's amazing what you can learn watching someone else do their job.

We just switched accounting systems at my HOA: 350 monthly invoices, 19 employees, hundreds of vendor payments flowing out from a half-dozen bank accounts.

All in Cantonese, English, Mandarin, even some Spanish. It's an operation.

One of the other board members stormed in. He seemed surprised I was sitting at the table with the staff, "wasting time" folding invoices—why wasn't I working on something higher-value?

I didn't want to get into a big argument, so I sort of ignored him, and he left. But it's been on my mind ever since, and I realized I've lived through a lot of these big change projects, and have learned a thing or two.

First, before you automate or change anything "broken" or "stupid", you'd better have a little humility and understand how things work now, and why it got that way. In my hotels work, I often found "stupid" things, that turned out to be clever workarounds for problems that came up doing the job. There's no way to see this stuff from behind a monitor; you have to get into the environment—go do the job. Before you make any kind of technology system, go stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your users; go experience the fast pace of a commercial kitchen, the noise of a construction site, or the chaos of a hotel's front desk. You'll learn more than you can imagine.

Second, once you understand the process, do it once or twice by hand. You'll learn a lot about what's hard and what's easy, and where the errors crop up. Often, things that seem "easy" are impossibly difficult, and those that seem hard almost never happen, meaning it's not worth handling them in code/automation; humans are slow, but they're great at dealing with weird cases you didn't anticipate.

And finally, as a leader, showing your face is powerful. In times of difficulty or stress, knowing the leadership has your back—seeing them shoveling right with you—can be a tremendous morale-enhancer. Management by wandering around really works.

Hard, important things take a long time and have lots of little steps. You have to play the long game, and sometimes that means taking a bit of time to thank people, and help them, when you know they're doing something hard. For my part, I make sure to notice when people go out of their way to help me, or make my life easier.

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Alternative medicine

November 27, 2018

"Alternative medicine" makes me sort of snicker; I think of unlicensed quacks performing voodoo with no scientific basis. A woman I met on a flight earlier this week made me question whether that was fair.

She'd grown up and worked most of her life in Michigan, but came out to Palo Alto to spend her twilight years making California money before she retired. Well into her 60s, she put up with 3-4 hours of commute time each day, to live cheaply while working in Palo Alto, putting as much as she could into her retirement accounts. She worked as a nurse practitioner.

Late-career professionals are always a little jaded, but often in ways that are very insightful. She echoed a lot of the criticisms from Catastrophic Care: namely, that today's health system suffers from minimal patient orientation, preferring to provide reimburseable procedures as quickly as possible, because that's where the money is. And that Medicare makes it worse by paying specialists so much more than primary care physicians.

It got me thinking: I haven't "gone to the doctor" for a general physical in years. I'm sure I could get a knee replacement if I wanted one, but who's ensuring I never need one in the first place? As the son of a clinical dietitian, I think about this often: what is the system doing to keep us healthy day-to-day? Who's looking after the big picture, ensuring not that quadruple bypass surgery is easy to obtain, but that we don't need such expensive, complicated procedures in the first place?

That's when I realized: the only health practitioner with whom I have a real relationship is my massage therapist, Mieze Steinberg. I see her once/month and whether it's helping with Caroline's plantar fasciitis or just getting me to sit straight in my chair, she's the only person looking after my health holistically. The mainstream, insurance-driven medical system completely neglects this.

Whether it's a dietitian, massage therapist, chiropractor, or someone else, these "alternative medicine" practitioners are filling an important role. They are the unsung army working to keep people healthy, keeping us away from diabetes and the operating table. It seems any long-term solution to the out-of-control price of care needs more "alternative medicine", and fewer $350,000/year anesthesiologists and surgeons.

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