I'm Surya

I ran for Congress, was on reality TV, was once a brand manager, and have worked at various startups. I just finished my book. I'm active on Twitter. Full bio here.

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Jul
19

taking punches & lessons learned.

For company book club, we just read Creativity, Inc. A particular passage had special resonance:

Hindsight is not 20-20. Not even close. Our view of the past, in fact, is hardly clearer than our view of the future. While we know more about a past event than a future one, our understanding of the factors that shaped it is severely limited. Not only that, because we think we see what happened clearly— hindsight being 20-20 and all— we often aren’t open to knowing more. “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it— and stop there,” as Mark Twain once said, “lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again— and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.” The cat’s hindsight, in other words, distorts her view. The past should be our teacher, not our master.

This dovetailed with an insight from a really sappy movie I watched on my way back from China, Labor Day. That insight was the importance of treading carefully in the lessons that we take away from experiences. From the quote above, hindsight is *not* 20-20. I wrote about this idea a few months ago, from the movie, Her: “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” Just this week I was absolutely blown away when I learned that someone I had to come to care for had constructed a story of the past few months that was diametrically opposed to my own. Now, with a bit of space, I’ve chalked it up to their past history + the stories they needed to construct to just get by. The far bigger and more important implication are the lessons we take away when something impactful happens. Given that hindsight isn’t 20-20 and that we each construct stories to cope, and get by, there’s this huge danger that we learn lessons imbued with the wrong takeaways. We’re not even aware of the subtext, our baggage, the invisible layers that we’ve constructed from our past and the origin of our lessons. One day in the future,  maybe we look back, and in a moment of clarity see the truth for what it actually was. It’s a very sobering thought that we can’t trust our past– that we can’t trust our memories.

I had breakfast with one of my board members on Thursday. Due to a number of factors, he was giving me a pep talk towards the end of our meal. One of the things that he said was the importance of taking punches. He’s an amateur boxer, and he was explaining to me the strategy of boxing and how one of the most important things can be to take punches, because you know it’s setting you up to be open for the shot that you’ll need to end the fight. I guess it’s not dramatically different from the trite “roll with the punches,” but it struck a chord. I’ve always had a tough time with losing. I don’t love winning, I just like it . But I absolutely *hate* losing. It eats at me. I have a set of questions for how I parse people, and this is one of them. Most people I know love winning more than they hate losing. I’m not sure I could be more the opposite. Anyway, this trait runs in the face of taking punches well. I’ve always chalked it up to my passion, intensity, and competitiveness. But for the first time, I’m thinking about how I can take the punches better and, maybe even accept losing, if possible. Like everyone, I want to win the war, and sometimes you have to be OK losing battles along the way to do so.

I felt like I got punched in the face this week. I have to keep reminding myself that my challenge is to not take away the wrong lessons. My challenge is to take the punch and set myself up for what’s next. I don’t want to be the cat who doesn’t sit down on a cold pot. I hate even the idea that the past could be my master vs just my teacher.

So, go read Creativity, Inc. Be careful not to draw the long lesson from a painful experience. Maybe take some boxing lessons. Sit on a cold pot.

*Standard disclaimer: This post is unedited so that I’d actually post it vs keeping it in draft for the next 12 months. I’ll remove this once I do a quick pass on it.

Jan
11

stimulus withdrawal.

A few days ago I decided that I’d start 2014 with a pretty simple change: To seek less stimulus. I wrote a blog post and a status update explaining my impending Facebook absence. I sent an email at work to no longer expect immediate email responses. The changes ended up being:

  • No more Facebook.
  • Conditions allowing, moving to limited windows of checking & responding to emails.
  • Limiting  Twitter + daily consumption of news, RSS, etc  to a couple of slugs a day.

Why? Listed in order from most tangible to the most abstracted:

1) Productivity – I’ve chosen to give up these things so that I can be more productive. I feel like I can use time better, specifically towards more directed tasks and projects. I end every year not accomplishing as much as I would have liked and with a vague notion that I’ve left “opportunity on the table.”

2) Stillness – Reducing noise. Constantly checking email, twitter, facebook, espn, techcrunch, et al, satisfied my curiosity and staved off boredom. I was never allowing my mind to sit still, instead constantly feeding it stimuli, which was causing me to feel ubiquitously rushed and frenzied.

3) Substance – Finally, as explained in my previous post, I did this because I had a number of doubts as to the “realness” of these virtual relationships. Going further, I wondered if rather than being accretive to my life, whether they actually hindered the progress I’m trying to make in being a better, happier human.

Since the new year, I’ve read a few blog posts from others who are trying something similar. Clearly these feelings go beyond just me. I don’t think I’m doing anything complicated. I think it’s a combination of trying to increase the signal-to-noise of my everyday using the most basic of concepts: focus. I’m just trying to stay focused on being present in the moment. It’s an ancient and probably overused phrases + concept. My only resolution was to focus more on whatever I chose to experience and do each day. The way that I’m doing trying to live this resolution is through the above list of stuff I’ve given up.

I’ll end by noting that making this change obviously comes at a cost, since after all, nothing’s free. I’ll see many less news stories, pieces of market data, internet memes, and all the rest. I’ll be less well-informed. I always thought my consumption of this very broad firehose of information was a key strength. That my creativity was fueled by connecting the frameworks of disparate topics that were absorbed by consuming so much diverse stuff. But I think this is a tradeoff worth making. What I’ll gain from thinking more deeply on fewer projects, by being more present on each of my daily experiences, and having more whitespace, will result in its own kind of knowledge, creativity, and happiness. I guess we’ll see.

Jan
02

The past is just a story we tell ourselves.

Prodded by the overwhelmingly good reviews, I saw Her last night. The most positive reviews called it was the best movie of 2013. The concept of a human falling in love with a smarter version of Siri sounded kind of ridiculous. But since writer-director Spike Jonze is uber-talented and the trailer looked good, I went.

It’s actually not a movie about the future or technology. It’s a classic story about being human: Relationships, connection, loneliness, struggling with life, and, most obviously, love. It’s funny, beautifully shot, features terrific acting + pacing, and works off a great screenplay. Loved it.

There’s a particular line in the movie that I was really struck by:

The past is just a story we tell ourselves.

(after some googling, I’ve discovered that Chuck Palahniuk, among others have served up some variation of this insight for years).

Like all things, there’s great variation here. Some people are better than others at not being pre-occupied by their past and letting their today and tomorrow become derailed by it. I am not one of the better people. Anyway, I loved this line because it distilled the truth that the past isn’t merely a set of facts or past events that is black and white. We imbue the past with the weight of story. Like a wound in our mouth, we then incessantly tongue that story  - feeling its texture, its shape, its pain, wondering if it’s still there…if it’s still the same. We don’t realize it’s a story. We accept the past as fact — it already happened…it had implications…of course it is what it was — when the past is actually a concoction of fact and emotion. The past is merely facts, like you and I are merely atoms and molecules.

It felt so welcoming. To hear the line, was to ease into a warm, freeing embrace. I walked out of the theater mesmerized by it.

I’m looking forward to more people seeing it so I can discuss.

Dec
31

facebreak?

I gave up Facebook for the first few months of 2012. Cold-turkey stopped reading my feed + posting. In the lead-up to my summer of traveling, I got back on the Facebook-train and probably posted too frequently. Since then I’ve settled into a steady routine of trying my best to “like” pictures of friends’ children , important events, etc. I basically stopped posting, though. I found it hard to untangle my motivations.

I feel like I have reached a point of being paralyzed by self-consciousness: Why am I posting this? Who am I trying to impress? Why do I want/need people to “like” it?

I’ve loved and hated Facebook. I’ve hated the distraction of it. I’ve loved the quick hit of seeing a familiar face. I’ve hated that twinge of jealousy that might strike from a random post. I’ve loved feeling a bit more connected to distant family + friends.

Tonight at 11:59 PM, I’ll start 2014 on another open-ended Facebook break. I will miss the cute photos of my friends’ kids and such. I will definitely miss those “in-between” moments and stories.

I wonder, though, if this might be a healthy thing for me. Maybe Facebook is like aspartame or saccharine. It feels sort of like a connection to the people I care about. Sort of like Diet Coke tastes sweet-ish. But without being lulled into this (false?) sense of connection, might I be more likely to try and create real connection? To send an actual substantive email? To make a phone call? To physically be present with the person? Is Facebook like the empty calories that just make me feel like I’ve eaten something filling and nutritious?

Like everyone else, I have hopes for 2014. I’ll use this arbitrary point as a reset for all the little ways I’d like my life to be different and that I think can be a better human. No big changes or promises for me. Instead, a handful of little tweaks, dropping Facebook among them.

Goodbye for now, Facebook friends.

Dec
02

Drone Wars: Amazon’s First Strike

Last night on 60 Minutes, Jeff Bezos unveiled Amazon’s plans for 30-minute drone delivery.

I’m guessing my reaction of “woah…COOL!” wasn’t uncommon. It feels totally in sync with how I imagine ‘the future.’

After watching the segment, I asked myself the obvious question: Why announce now? Tech companies (and Amazon, surely) are notoriously secretive, so why this public relations splash? I have a theory:

Winning hearts and minds. The segment obviously succeeded in capturing the attention and imagination of the public. I awoke this morning to a ton of news coverage about Amazon Drones and last night my social media streams were flooded with techies and non who were astounded at how cool this was.

This was Amazon’s Opening Strike in the Drone Wars. Why Drone Wars?

  • Delivery companies are surely not thrilled. This threatens to disintermediate them from a large chunk of business and drive down costs on the remaining.
  • Delivery employees/unions will also see this as a big threat. Both unions and companies will likely lobby the FCC, FAA, public, etc to slow this down a ton.
  • Government administrations have never been pioneers and typically need to be pulled into the future.

Bezos+Amazon needed to own the narrative here. They nailed it. It’s all awe and delight right now. Left unsaid for now are the implications of a future where there is a constant stream of drones flying over us. With the kerfuffle over NSA domestic warrantless spying, is this the natural next step in data collection? Is that a delivery Drone or an NSA drone made to look like an Amazon Drone? Is that drone following me…I feel like it’s been there all day? Dear Abby, I was changing this AM and then I saw a Drone out the window…could it have taken photos? Or at least, that’s what privacy advocates will ask.

Amazon succeeded in painting a picture of the technology that captured the imagination and covetous desires of consumers. That was crucial. If stories leaked out about Amazon’s drones and the meme spread among those who don’t want to see it come to pass (above), the public’s initial exposure could have been safety and privacy concerns instead.

The opening gambit in Amazon’s drone wars was last night. Amazon 1, their various enemies 0.

PS – Think it’s a happy coincidence that everyone is talking about Amazon on Cyber-Monday? Cue Jeff Bezos laughing maniacally in the background.

Nov
16

Healthy campaign; Sick government.

I just finished reading Double Down: Game Change 2012. It’s a tick-tock of the last presidential election.  As you might expect from someone who ran for Congress (and is a geek), I’m fascinated by the behind-the-scenes stuff. (Yes, recommended for those w/a similar mindset.)

One of the sharpest points in the book was just how finely-tuned the Obama campaign was, both in 2008, and, again, in 2012.  On strategy, on tactics, on adjustments, and discipline they were off the charts.

I found this spectacular performance particularly grating when placed up against the actual Obama administration’s execution. The most current, and glaring, demonstration of which is the disastrous rollout of the Accountable Care Act (aka ACA, aka Obamacare).

The failure goes much deeper than simple procedural errors or stupid technical decisions. The botched implementation is a reminder and reinforcement of everyone’s worst belief: that the government is incapable of executing, and left to its own devices, will screw up pretty much everything. The central “argument” among the most vocal critics of health reform was that the government getting more involved would just make things worse.  Hmm.

The book makes what’s plainly obvious, all the more glaring: the Obama election had a life-or-death accountability attached to the planning and executing of the election campaigns. In the implementation of a program that touches all Americans and has consequences measured in the trillions? Not so much.

The practice of politics is a true market exercise, giving us ugly, painful to experience campaigns and sometimes it creates ruthlessly efficient machines like the Obama campaign. The knock on government execution is exactly that – there is no accountability, no market forces, no stimulus leading to course correction. The rollout of ACA apparently embodies this.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Health reform was a mess from the beginning. It started with Republican intransigence, leaving Democrats to moderate the legislation themselves. There was the fundamental focus on the political palatable instead of an intellectually honest dedication to addressing the fundamental issues of the existing system. Then there was the standard opposition-driven hysteria abetted by a generally clueless public, and the “required” back-room deals which weighed down the legislation further. Now, after surviving a Supreme Court challenge,  triggering one of the biggest wave elections in 100 years (which I was knocked on my ass by as a candidate), and all other theatrics, here we are: The crowning indignity. The public launch basically coudn’t have gone worse.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

The president and his administration, I hope, are ashamed. And, look, I’m not saying the bill is doomed: Not saying that we won’t bend the cost-curve long-term and end up with a more humane system. But since it only gets more complicated from here, why should we believe that this screwup was the aberration and not the sign of things to come?

It’s my belief that government is going to have an even more critical role in the not-so-distant future. Unfortunately, the general vapidness of political conduct and current execution of complicated policy, like the ACA, only shows how ill-prepared we are as a nation.

Forget China. We have the met the enemy and he is us.

Nov
15

RIP Alex Calderwood

About 18 months ago I was in the “green room” for the Charlie Rose show. I was in NYC working on a friend’s book launch. While he was out there taping with Charlie, I was backstage with the famous folks who were about to be interviewed, including James Fallows.

After a few minutes of excitedly chatting with James, I noticed a guy sitting alone, off to the side. He had a mop of curly hair and a quiet, unassuming presence.  I went over and introduced myself.

Turned out that unassuming guy, Alex Calderwood, had started the world-famous ACE hotel chain. He had been at a party w/Charlie and had mentioned it’d be cool to see the show being taped/sit in the green room. Charlie Rose, apparently, being great, made it reality.

We talked for a good 3o minutes. About how he started Rudy’s, the ACE, other projects. We talked about my run for Congress, working in tech, being on The Apprentice, and other randomness. It was a great easy, natural conversation. We exchanged cards.

I just searched my gMail and saw that we had seven emails chains since. He was looking at some potential deals in San Francisco, I was in town, and so we were able to get together for a drink (I had a drink. He apparently had given up alcohol some years earlier). Afterwards, he introduced me to someone who was doing cool things in education reform, so I could help, etc. We met up a second time, when he had me join a business dinner with a wealthy Asian investor, just because. Both times he was a positive, inquisitive, and awesome presence.

In the course of our few conversations, my love of tea and interest in possibly turning that passion into a business came up. This past summer, I got a ping from Alex because he remembered that and wanted to see if I was interested in working together on a tea store in a location he had, etc. My heart wasn’t in it then — I wanted to go back into tech — and so nothing came of it.

I sent Alex a quick note in July when I was in NYC interviewing for my current job. It was my first note to him that I didn’t get a response on. We obviously didn’t connect. As I’ve passed by or been at the ACE since, I kept meaning to drop Alex a quick note letting him know I was here, so we could catch up.

30m ago, while feeding my Twitter addiction, I saw the tweet pop up “Sad news: Alex Calderwood, the founder/owner of the Ace Hotel has passed away at the age of 45 according to the Ace Hotel blog.”

I’m not exactly in shock – I mean, I barely knew him – but I am sad and really, really thrown. I’ve been lucky enough to not have to deal with a lot of death (yet). Less than a handful of times in my life. That hangs over me a bit: it’s coming. Death visits us all. Death is the reminder of the impermanence of all things, most notably, our lives.

I might not get tomorrow. Next week. You  might not either. Act accordingly.

Live your life. Treat others as you will wish, in retrospect, that you had. Act accordingly.

To Alex, wherever you are: I’m really glad I got to meet you. I hope you’re in a better place, at peace.

Sep
11

september 11th

Today is a day of grace.

It’s my opportunity to give thanks for the life I’ve been given, the love I receive, the beauty I see everyday, the suffering I’ve endured & survived, and the bounty of waking up each morning  to a day of wondrous possibilities.

September 11th is my yearly reminder of how precarious this beautiful thing that is my life is, and a reminder to not take it for granted nor waste it.

Sep
09

never waste your suffering.

“Never waste your suffering. … Suffering just happens, constantly and randomly, and if you don’t make anything out of it, then it happened to you for no reason. But suffering can also be the greatest possible invitation to transform — but only if you accept that invitation, and only if you go through a complete catharsis, and only if you actually change yourself because of what you’ve experienced. But that part is up to you. Only you can execute a catharsis in your own life. Suffering without catharsis is nothing but wasted pain. And you should never waste your pain, never waste your suffering. It’s powerful stuff, the most powerful stuff there is. Use it. Transform from it. Learn. Grow. Be better.”

Elizabeth Gilbert (eat pray love!) references the quote from Jim Maclaren, a man whose story is so incredible that it can hardly be believed.

I’ve long struggled to live in the moment. Still do. A perverse form of being present in the moment is to wallow in lows (or, I guess, to over-indulge in the highs). The trap of the lows is that it’s all to easy to feel like that is is all there is. The darkness, the misfortune, the cruelness, the pain, the suffering seeps into ever crevice and wraps itself firmly around every cell. It’s all-consuming. But, as Jim points out, it happens: constantly, and randomly. The choice is whether to examine it, to look at it, weigh it, and almost coldly have catharsis. Sometimes it’s to purge ourselves of the hate we’re feeling in that moment to get to forgiveness…to let go of self-pity to recognize the power we wield to change everything. Anyway: don’t waste your suffering. Don’t waste the doubt. Don’t waste your humiliation. Don’t waste your inadequacy. Don’t waste your fear. In a really perverse way, in a way that I barely understand, I think there’s as much beauty in it as any of the ‘good’ stuff.

Jun
20

Google, P&G, and Insidious Interviews

Interesting article in the NY Times about what Google has learned about hiring over the years. The highlights:

1) GPA & standardized test scores were uncorrelated with employee performance.

2) Ability to answer brainteasers was uncorrelated with employee performance.

3) Behavioral interviews were effective in predicting employee performance.

In 2007, I shared with Google my SAT scores, transcripts, and sat through multiple brainteasers. Given that experience, I was intrigued to learn they’ve since abandoned this approach. Three personal reactions:

1) Behavioral interviews have long been the gold-standard. My alma-mater, Procter & Gamble, used the behavioral framework as their interview centerpieces. “Tell me about a time when you…” I think it’s great that Google has come around to this method. I agree w/the Googler’s quote that they are a great view inside the candidate’s thinking process, standards, and past behavior. More so than pointing out that Google apparently eschewed a well-known practice in their early years, I wanted to tip my cap to P&G for getting this right since back in the day.

2) Interviews often reveal more about the company than they do the candidate. When Google asked for SAT scores, transcript, and brainteasers, they revealed a lot about their culture. In the past 6 years since I interviewed at the big G, I’ve come to know dozens of ex-Googlers. They’ve pretty consistently shared stories of a culture that valued intelligence above all else. At the time I thought it was kind of myopic/snobby how much they focused on where I went to school, my high school class rank (!), etc.  But based on what I’ve heard since, I guess that was part of the culture of the place; it reflected their view that they only wanted the smartest folks, and that those folks got the highest SAT scores, best grades, etc. By contrast, in interviews P&G obsessively looked for strong predictors of leadership and teamwork. Naturally, P&G paid attention to where you went to school and how you did,  but only as a minor consideration compared to what you had done. That very much reflected how the company worked. P&G cared much less about who the smartest person was, and much more about teamwork and running effective processes. (Of course, this rigorous focus on process is why P&G can also feel suffocating to some.)

3) Interviews should focus on asymmetric topics. “[Brainteasers] don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”  This is a key plot point in the article. Many interviewers focus on topics where there’s a large knowledge asymmetry. It’s natural for interviewers, like all humans, to prefer to feel smart. Ironically, this is something that I thought Google did well in my experience. In my phone screen, I was asked the classic Google question: “Teach me something.” I saw it as a good window to the candidates communication skills, how difficult of a task they chose to explain, etc. Personally, I like a hybrid approach: a lightweight case study merged with the candidate’s area of expertise. Interviewing a college student for P&G, I might ask: “If you were the Brand Manager of Cascade and wanted to target college market, how would you think about that?” Instead of using interviews as an opportunity to get confirmation of knowing more than the candidate, use as an opportunity to learn from them while assessing how they go about it.

Final thought: Square peg, round hole. The interview process is really just the endgame. When a company doesn’t really know what it’s looking for, it’s not going to know how or when they find it. Understanding that it needs a 2” round peg is the same as understanding what the desired employee needs to accomplish, the kinds of skills they’ll need, the personality traits to work effectively in that organization, etc. Else, the company ends up picking the shiniest square peg, in the coolest color, that has the right “feel” to it. Hiring can be random without a strong grasp of what’s needed. That’s probably why it’s so easy to cheat and focus on the person’s likability, or some other random criteria.

One reason P&G is so good at hiring is because it’s a completely known quantity: for close to 200 years they’ve looked for talented, driven folks to plug into a system. Since they know exactly what they need, they’ve close to perfected that process. In hyper-growth companies in rapidly changing industries, it’s a lot harder. That’s why Google is doing this analysis and why hiring seems like such a crapshoot in Silicon Valley. This makes Google hiring such strong talent, at massive scale, even more impressive. Always room for improvement, and the referenced article shows that Google agrees/is getting even better.