michelle obama

I want my son to grow up to be like Michelle Obama.

OK, I have no childrens. But, still. The Obamas met while at a law firm in Chicago. Michelle was actually senior to Barack there. She’s Princeton and Harvard, and obviously so eloquent and brilliant. She’s taken a “backseat” to enable and partner with her husband on their journey to his being a two-term president. Similar to my affection for Robert Kennedy over his brother because of his loyalty and toil in the shadows, I can’t really articulate how much I appreciate Michelle Obama. Class.

I’m still looking for my Michelle Obama. Because I’ll make a helluva First Husband 🙂

the first driverless city

The World’s First Driverless City May Be In China

Longer-term, says Jing, the hope is that a successful all-autonomous city will provide an example not just to the Chinese government, but to any city. If the experiment works, then other cities may be more likely to try it for themselves.

Other cities are already experimenting with ways to reduce car use. Germany is building a car-free neighborhood designed entirely around pedestrian use, and Oslo will ban cars entirely by 2019. It seems that, finally, we’re collectively starting to realize that the car has no place in the modern city. Driverless cars are a great stepping stone, as are electric vehicles, but ultimately the best result for city-dwellers (currently half of the world’s population) is a city where we can go unmolested by cars, and the ridiculous amount of space that they waste, whether parked or on the move.

I still don’t see why this isn’t an American “university town.” At my alma mater, Rutgers (New Brunswick), this would transform everything.

Rutgers-NB is a series of several completely separate campuses (Livingston, Busch, College Ave, & Cook/Douglass) spread across different cities, bisected by a major highway, multiple huge parking lots, with huge traffic issues.

Why aren’t Rutgers and Google working together to make a hub and spoke system? Each campus has a major parking lot where staff/students/visitors would park their car and get into a driverless car/van. A huge increase in usable land, decreased congestion, decreased pollution, resulting in faster trips and a much better experience (and probably a lower net cost for all). What am I missing?

Sidewalk Labs, should be all over this.

back from hiatus

I’m back and hope to post regularly!

I’m switching it up. I’ll be posting my reaction to things on here. So my online presence will now look like:

Twitter: short-form reactions
This blog: longer-form reactions
Medium: my essays and formal blog posts
My email list (invite only, ping me if interested): personal long-form essays

 

🙂

expectations

What’re your expectations?

Steve Jobs was in this zone when he talked about dogma in his wondrous Stanford speech:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

I thought of expectation as I read about stereotype threat in this (fascinating) article about a school exploring whether racism can be “un-taught.” Our expectations for ourselves and other’s assumptions- their expectations of us- are such interesting, invisible, and powerful forces. I believe they quietly determine much of our lives. Almost the invisible puppet strings of a long life; the dots we only connect looking backward.

“Expectations” are complicated. Whose expectations? Ours? Others? If you don’t internalize, don’t notice, or just don’t give a shit about others expectations of you, do they even matter?

I remember many expectations: From family, kids I grew up with, and others in my orbit. Most importantly, I can, years after, see how they all resolved so insidiously and powerfully into the expectations I would form for myself.

I believe if we’re not careful our expectations wander off into the wilderness of our brain and return as the dogma that dictates our lives. The unspoken trappings of a life we never truly wanted. Accepting the more prestigious position instead of the more intriguing opportunity. Striving for a trophy spouse that validates our sense of worth instead of a kindred connection. Moving up into the house, cars, and vacations of your peers. Accepting a value system instead of consciously choosing one. It’s keeping up with the Jonses, writ large and internal.

What is choice, anyway? If I’m just this amalgamation of memories and experiences that form my unique perspective on the world, isn’t that just the dataset that trained my decision-making algorithm? Is that the me “choosing”?

I started this letter weeks ago and now have no idea why I started on this topic. Maybe it’s born of an existential longing to understand my current situation.

After the recent sale of my company, I’ve been asked “What’s next?” a lot. I guess it’s a nice logical point of transition to some next big thing. I’m asked by strangers and loved ones, alike.  My answer came quick and some variation of: No plan. I’m going to see how it goes. The one day, too many, I wake up unhappy, I’ll make a move. Until then I’m sated and committed to growing in the soil. I often say the right things to superficial questions because I both hate small talk (effective answers don’t prolong it) and because I’m a practiced bullshitter. But I was a bit startled when I realized I totally meant it this time. Then I wondered if some folks asked because of their expectations of me.

Having done so much random stuff, were they wondering if something exciting… something big, maybe even important was next? I’m not really sure. It’s a subtle, self-inflicted pressure I’ve felt before. The creeping notion in the back of my brain wondering if I’ve hemmed myself in by a limited view of the future and of possibility. It yearns to not suffer from a failure of imagination (or courage) and pushes me to be bolder, more ambitious, to realize some untapped potential within. For now, that voice is quiet and maybe held at bay. It’s been replaced by an internalized expectation both simple, yet powerful: I should be happy each day, however that looks to me.

For now I accept this as a reasonable, acceptable, and (maybe even) wise expectation.

little aliens

Growing up, I was always aware of how different my parents were from everyone else’s. It’s not just that we ate different food at home, that they dressed differently, or even just that they had accents. It was all of it; this feeling that they could never understand me. I now recognize this as the universal and quintessential trait of adolescence, and not unique to having immigrant parents. Every kid feels this way.

There’s more to it, though. I first saw it expressed by Jhumpa Lahiri. She captured this sense of what makes growing up the children of immigrants so different: Parents’ fear that they’ve made a terrible mistake leaving their homeland and that their children will pay the price. There’s a sense of being lost in time — as much as they come from a different country— they more importantly, came from a different time. It wasn’t just living in India that my parents were thinking of when they evaluated my behavior, it was of living in an India of 30 years ago. It’s a yardstick frozen in time and vulnerable to the same malleability that afflicts all memories.

All of this adds up. It’s why, at a certain point, I realized that my brother and I probably seemed like little aliens to my parents. They grew up in small villages in India spanning the 1940’s-60’s. As relatively spoiled kids growing up in the 1980’s-90’s in America, we were pretty far afield. I won’t list out what differed in our relative experiences, because it’s probably everything. We were their little alien offspring.

I recognize that this cycle will repeat. While I’ll have the shared experience of an American childhood with my kids, there will be a huge difference. My youth was so marked by scarcity and my parents’ fear of not attaining upward mobility for their kids. There weren’t really vacations, we didn’t go out for meals, no new cars, clothes were out-of-fashion and ill-fitting, braces that came too late, and all the other dressings of the working class. As important, I always felt the ominous cloud of worry — that our position was precarious, that something worse was lurking — and it still lingers with me. While the expenses of my lifestyle are basically unfathomable to my parents, it’s also well below what I could spend. It’s the mark of upbringing.

My (imaginary) kids will grow up without this cloud of worry. They won’t suffer from without and they won’t be working class. It was such a defining part of my growing up, that I imagine in someways it’ll be hard for me to relate to them. Going further, back then I resented those other kids. My (still imaginary) kids will be those kids. As a kid I felt marked as an outsider due to my ethnicity, my parents being different than everyone else’s, and by our working class lifestyle. While my (still totally imaginary) kids will probably look different than other kids, that’s much less of a big deal in today’s post-racial America (ha!), and their parents will be culturally and economically similar to their peers. They won’t want. They won’t be outsiders. They’ll be little aliens to me.

In fact, I’ve seen this already. I have three cousins who I consider far more siblings than cousins. In my role as baby of the family, everyone’s much older. All married, there are 7 kids in this next generation. The eldest offspring off to college next year. As I’ve watched their whole gaggle of kids over the past decade+, I’ve always been struck at how stunningly different their adolescence is from mine. Aliens, indeed.

Originally sent via my weekly-ish newsletter

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.

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.

america isn’t free.

Freedom isn’t free is a more catchy title, but doesn’t bullseye my point.

America isn’t free. We like to pretend that it is. While we might hate to even approach the premise, but here goes:

1) Having a republic requires an informed electorate. While an autocracy like China gets results much quicker, a democratic republic is supposed to be superior in the long-term. A democracy serves the greater good and prevents “absolute power from corrupting absolutely.” As a tradeoff for this advantage, a democracy produces more mess and requires voters to pay attention. That’s the cost: We’re supposed to pay with our attention, so that when democracy is exercised it’s done in an informed manner. How badly have we failed in this regard? Look no further than our terrible soundbite-driven, billion dollar elections. (Shameless plug: MY BOOK.)

2) We tax like a small government, and spend like a large government*. Think back to the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. Or the prescription drug benefit for Medicare. Or, now, our sky high budget deficits. We have the lowest total tax rate in the world of all developed nations, yet spend massively on our military and all kinds of other programs. Do we complain? Yup. Do anything about it? Nope.

3) Some gave all. All gave some. I saw this phrase a lot during my campaign around Veteran events. It felt especially incongruous then, as it does today. Today, less than 1% of Americans serve in the military. We don’t share the financial burden through higher taxes when our nation is at war. We’re “spared” from graphic wartime photos and articles as the media barely covers injuries and deaths. We’re sheltered from all of it. Yet, it might be easier than any other point in history for a president to send Americans to war. Could this be because it impacts so few of us?

The idea of America as an exceptional nation is sacrosanct. We’re like all other nations, except we’re a cut above. We demand this as fact, yet do no believe we should pay any kind of price for it to be true. The irony is that this flies in the face of the most American idea of all: the egalitarian idea that only our sacrifice and hard work yields us results. You must earn it. From America’s earliest days, the new world was the land of opportunity. That’s what has me incensed. How we can believe in this concept individually (that we must each earn it), but forget that it also must apply collectively as a nation? It’s why I literally spent 5 years thinking of this book, and finally spit it out over 2 months. America is not free. If she’s going to stay special, we’ve got a whole lot of work to do.

Happy Election Day!

*I cribbed this perfect turn of phrase from the Economist presidential endorsement.

the brilliance of the thiel fellowship.

A pretty cool documentary airs tonight on CNBC, 20 under 20: Transforming Tomorrow. It follows the selection process for the inaugural class of the “Thiel Fellows”. I saw an early version and really liked it. Edited together in the style of a reality tv show, it manages to transcend the banality of that format to actually deliver substance.

As background, Peter Thiel, the cofounder of PayPal, started a fellowship program that grants $100K over a 2 year period to selected young adults under the age of 20 to do whatever they want. While the fellowship is not just about getting kids to skip/drop out of college, that is ostensibly its driving force. The kids are really phenomenal and its worth tuning in just to get to know them a little bit.

More than hyping the documentary a bit, I also wanted to highlight what I see as the hidden, under-appreciated  Continue reading

our anchors.

Traveling was a great chance for me to get lost in thought. Interestingly, the bulk of the threads in my head were long-simmering ideas that I now pulled on further.

I traveled alone for most of my trips. In practice, this meant that I was constantly surrounded by new single-serving friends in each new city. I’d meet them where I stayed, on tours, on lines, in bars at night — pretty much everywhere. Spending so much time, with so many new people, I often saw people at their best and worst. It brought me back to the concept of kindness and being gentle with each other that I wrote about a few months ago. Writing about my standard of kindness isn’t my goal here; I wanted to quickly write up this post because of this great quote* I came across:

We all carry these things inside
That no one else can see
They hold us down like anchors,
They drown us out at sea.

It perfectly captures this idea that, as much as we think we know about others, there’s so so much that we don’t. Earlier this year, I had a conversation with my friend David about how so much of the behavior we find confounding in others, is typically rooted in that person’s past, which we have no idea about. Their behavior doesn’t make sense to us, because their behavior is incongruous with the person that they are — that we see in front of us. The behavior taps into the person they might have been, and while circumstances have changed, it’s hard/impossible for people to change. We carry these things around inside us, no one else can see it, and unfortunately some of it holds us down, and in the worst case it can pull us away from the life we should be living.

As if I needed another reason to try a bit harder to be gentle with others, this quote perfectly captured it. We all have our own anchors. Our own weights that drag us around. That probably can’t be helped. But we can help each other.

*It’s actually not a quote, they’re lyrics from a really obscure, strange, sad, little song. I found the snippet of lyrics on Pinterest and then tracked down the song. I ended up finding a cover of the song, which I now prefer far more than the original. In fact, the song is totally stuck in my head. Give it a listen.