Last week, I saw a tweet by Ryan Kulp highlighting predictions by Gonz Sanchez on the 2020 European startup ecosystem. The predictions, while interesting, weren’t what caught my attention. To me, the shocking thing was Gonz literally put monetary stakes on his predictions. Take a look at this screenshot from the Seedtable newsletter:Continue reading “Talk is Cheap”
Entertainment Isn’t Dumb
If you watched the Super Bowl this year, you probably saw Microsoft’s heartwarming commercial about children with disabilities using an adaptive Xbox controller to play games with their friends. In case you missed it, here it is:
First of all, these kids are absolute heroes for what they are living with and somehow doing with a smile. Nothing makes you more aware of your own fragility, mortality, and good fortune than observing someone, especially a child, with a major health issue. Owen (in the commercial), for example, is only nine years old and has already had to endure 33 surgeries.
There are many forms of entertainment: movies, music, TV shows, sports, video games, board games, books, and more. It is very, very easy to dismiss all of these things as a luxury or even a waste of time. You’ve heard the argument before: “Imagine if all the money and energy that goes into the entertainment industry were put into something productive, like curing cancer”. This is a seductive, but wrong, argument.Continue reading “Entertainment Isn’t Dumb”
Compensation and Blame: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Last week, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers signed the largest contract in NFL history, worth up to $180 million over the next six years, with about $70 million being paid out by March 2019. As a Packers fan, it’s a relief to know that Rodgers is signed until he’s 40. At the same time, reading the specifics and comments about the contract got me thinking about what it means to be the “highest paid” person on a team, in a league, or even within a company.
Being the highest paid is, in large part, not a function of your financial needs but instead a recognition that you are the “most valuable” player on the team or in your industry. It’s also a function of what the competition is paying for similar players – it is no accident that Rodgers’ contract came mere months after Kirk Cousins’ record-setting $84 million, three year contract.
But there is a flip side to being paid the most. The highest paid person on the team – whether the quarterback, the star basketball player, or the CEO – will also be the first one blamed if things take a turn for the worse. Compensation and blame are two sides of the same coin. You can bet that if the Packers have a bad season, commentators and fans will be blaming Aaron Rodgers’ contract for the team’s lack of talent.
Everything else being equal, we’re all trying to make as much money as we can. But it’s important to recognize that the more you get paid, the more you’ll be blamed if things go badly. And this is a fair, reasonable, and ethical reaction – and an essential point of Nassim Taleb’s Skin in the Game.
Anger over executive compensation happens most often when there is a separation between compensation and an executive’s skin in the game. This anger is most obvious when the CEO of a badly performing company makes millions of dollars, despite their lackluster results. Most of us don’t have much issue with Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk being billionaires – they took enormous personal risks to build their respective companies. On the other hand, most people would have problems with a Congressperson becoming a billionaire while in office.
Of course, this rule doesn’t just apply to CEOs and quarterbacks. It’s true at all levels, whether you’re a team lead at a software company or a store manager at McDonald’s. Being compensated better automatically means you will have a greater share of the blame if your team performs badly. And that’s how it should be.
I retweeted something last night that I’ve been thinking about ever since. Here’s the tweet:
Eight years ago Uber CEO @travisk was staying at the Econolodge for CES https://t.co/FnDodx020c Anything can happen child, anything can be.
— Alexia Tsotsis (@alexia) January 4, 2017
I strongly recommend reading the blog post linked to in the tweet. It’s Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s guide to attending CES as a bootstrapping (also known as ‘broke’) founder. The guide itself is interesting but more important is the idea that Kalanick, with an estimated net worth of over $6 billion, ever needed to think about how to go to a conference for under $100/day. The fact that this post was written only eight years ago seems incredible, not to mention that Kalanick hadn’t even founded Uber yet. That didn’t happen until March 2009.
But I’m thinking about that eight year number for other reasons too because exactly eight years ago, I turned 18. And thinking about that birthday and all that’s happened since makes Kalanick’s change in circumstances more understandable. Now to be clear, my net worth isn’t even a rounding error for Travis Kalanick so that’s not what I’m talking about here. Here’s what I am talking about: it’s insane to think how much – good, bad, and ugly – has happened in the past eight years. Some things off the top of my head:
- Self-Awareness: (sort of) figured out what makes me tick and what motivates me
- Started my first company the summer between high school and college. Got bit by the startup bug – it hasn’t left me since.
- Got the opportunity to go to CMU and meet amazing people
- Went through the rollercoaster of startup life – twice
- Met, worked for, and co-founded projects with incredible mentors like Chaz Giles
- Had the chance to work at and learn how one of the world’s most iconic consumer companies evaluates opportunities.
- Re-discovered reading
I wouldn’t trade any of the experiences or relationships gained from the past eight years for anything. Not even the shitty experiences (or people). Despite what people tell you about life being short, eight years is actually a really long time. A lot of things happen and those things don’t have to be as massive as founding Uber for it to all be worthwhile.
The last eight years have been transformative in every way and I absolutely can’t wait to see what the next eight years brings – no matter if it’s ups, downs, or something in between. And with that, I’m off to drink some birthday beers with people I love. Cheers!
Staying In Shape While Traveling
Staying in shape, mentally and physically, is obviously important to overall well-being. Personally, I find my mind is sharper and more importantly, I’m a much happier person when I take care of myself physically.
Since last April, I’ve been traveling a ton for my consulting work, typically somewhere between 2-3 weeks every month. Traveling is something I love so I can’t complain too much about that buuuut it certainly makes staying in shape difficult. Before this travel madness started, I had a regular gym routine (3-4 days of lifting weights, 2-3 days of cardio) but that’s difficult to keep up when you’re in a different place almost every week.
Over the past few months, I’ve learned a lot about staying in shape while traveling. As is usually the case with me, most of these lessons were learned the hard way:
Skip the hotel breakfast
Free hotel breakfasts are almost always god-awful, especially if you’re staying at a road warrior hotel, like Homewood Suites or Residence Inn. Tell me if this sounds familiar: Soggy, somewhat rubbery scrambled eggs, breakfast potatoes that taste like they’ve been out for weeks, and some strange processed meat as a side.
Oh, I forgot about the waffle maker.
Do yourself a favor and skip most of that. Maybe grab some eggs and toast if you’re really hungry. But probably the safest items to consume in a hotel breakfast are the coffee, tea, and juice. With all the other stuff, you’re going to be consuming amounts of sodium and sugar that’ll leave you feeling exhausted for the rest of the day.
So if you’re not going to eat breakfast at the hotel, what can you eat?
Find a grocery store
Grocery stores are amazing places. Even in the middle of nowhere, you can find a grocery store that sells healthy food. My advice is to go to a grocery store the day you arrive and pick up a few things. Obviously food choices are somewhat dependent on whether your hotel room has a fridge/microwave. Here’s what I typically buy, assuming there’s a fridge:
- A few apples
- Some nutrition bars (I like Nature Valley Oat & Honey bars)
- Greek yogurt
That sounds like a solid breakfast to me.
Take advantage of free exercise
This is a concept I try to use all the time, not just when I’m traveling but it’s even more important on the road. The idea is this: if you have to do something, for example, go from the ground floor of the hotel to the 4th floor, there are two options available to you:
Option 1: Take the elevator
Option 2: Walk up the stairs
Even though option 2 is more energy intensive, it’ll take you to the same place as the elevator, you’ll burn a few calories, and you’ll probably save yourself the stress of waiting for an elevator that takes forever and the awkwardness of being in an elevator. Related question: aren’t elevators just the most awkward places ever?
Another great form of free exercise if you’re in a city is just walking to meetings instead of taking an Uber or cab.
Get good at hotel room workouts
Let’s face it: hotel gyms leave a lot to be desired. That said, there are some great workouts which don’t require any equipment and can be done in your hotel room (like this and this). Start doing them regularly when you’re on the road and add your own variations to keep it interesting. The easiest exercises to do in a hotel room, no matter what size, are:
- Pushups (all kinds)
- Bodyweight squats
- All sorts of ab exercises
Take advantage of real gyms when you’re home
On a related note, if you’re on the road regularly, it’s easy to get into a routine of laying on your couch and watching Netflix when you’re home. I love Netflix as much as the next person but make sure you squeeze in some “real gym” time when you’re home. A real gym is a place that has barbells, plates, machines, and space.
If I get home before 8pm from a trip, I try to squeeze in a short, gym session the same evening.
Free meals aren’t really free
One great thing about work travel is being able to expense your meals. That’s amazing right?! Well, yes and no.
The good news is that you can take advantage of being in a new place and try types of cuisine and restaurants you typically wouldn’t go to. In some industries (like the one I’m working in now), work travel can also entail fancy dinners which gives you an opportunity to try more upscale restaurants you probably wouldn’t choose on your own.
The downside? Well, all those meals might be covered by your company/client but that doesn’t mean the calories don’t count. Just because dessert is covered doesn’t mean you should get dessert.
Remember the “freshman 15” from college? (I do…) You see a similar effect among new consultants for a very similar reason. I remember when I first started college, the “coolest” thing was being able to drink soda with every meal. A few months later, despite being a college athlete, I had gained 15 pounds and it was pretty obvious that the soda needed to go. Don’t make the same mistake as 18-year-old Neil.: try to eat the same way on the road as you’d eat at home.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the perks of going to fancy restaurants! Just be smart about it.
For someone who travels a lot, I still haven’t learned how to properly sleep in hotel rooms. Almost without fail, I find it difficult to fall asleep the first night I’m in a new hotel room. Knowing that allows me to plan for it. Most nights I sleep for about 7 hours so on my first night in a new room, I’ll try to budget 8-9 hours for sleep, which gives me some time to toss and turn and still get a normal amount of sleep. It doesn’t always work but it helps.
Skimping on sleep is a great way to get sick while traveling – probably the worst possible combination.
Avoid alcohol, especially late at night
Related to the above, drinking alcohol affects your quality of sleep and can also contribute to getting sick. If your travel requires you to fly, keep in mind that planes dehydrate you so drinking alcohol before, during, or immediately after a flight can be rough on your system (and on your skin). If you do choose to drink, just try to balance each drink with a glass of water and you should be able to avoid dehydration.
And yes, I learned this lesson in the worst possible way by going out in SF the night before a 6:30am flight (what the hell was I thinking?). Next time we’re in the same city, ask me for the story.
Buy a StandStand
If you haven’t heard of StandStand before, you need to check it out. Basically it’s a portable standing desk made of a three interlocking pieces of wood. Great product that travels nicely in a laptop bag.
Especially after sitting for a while in a plane/train, working on a standing desk instead of sitting down feels amazing. Trust me.
Traveling for work can sometimes (or usually) be rough but being smart about how you travel, eat, and move while on the road makes all the difference between a miserable trip and a productive one. I’ve been on both sides of the productive/miserable spectrum and believe me when I say the productive side is a lot more fun. Let me know if you have any other suggestions for staying in shape while traveling – I’d love to try it out.
Russell Wilson, Adversity, and Stoicism
“Why didn’t they run it from the 1 with Marshawn?”
It’s something nearly everyone has wondered aloud in the past few days. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock, here’s what happened: the Patriots had a monstrous comeback in the 4th quarter to go up by 4. The Seahawks then stormed down the field thanks to some crazy plays like this one. They were down 4, had the ball at the 1 yard line with 1 timeout, 26 seconds to go, and had the best running back in the league in their backfield. On the next play, they decided to pass, it was intercepted and that sealed the game. The Patriots won, Tom Brady/Bill Belichick get their 4th title, and the Seahawks are left wondering what happened.
For most of us, having anything like that happen, let alone on the world’s biggest stage, would be absolutely devastating. What shocked me the most since then, is Russell Wilson’s reaction. Here’s a quote from his press conference on Tuesday (less than 48 hours after the game was over):
“I always kind of write down stuff and I wrote down this, ‘Let’s keep the focus on the future, not what’s behind.’ I think that’s a really, really important thought in terms of staying positive. What can I do for the next opportunity that I have? What can I learn? Good or bad — if we had won the Super Bowl or if we had lost in the fashion that we had. I would still be thinking the same way and I think keeping that consistent approach to life in general and this is a lot bigger than obviously, losing the game is tough but any life circumstance — losing my dad. What do I do next? How can I learn from the lessons of losing him? And obviously losing a game is completely different than losing a family member. Those are the type of things that I think about. That’s how I try to prepare my mind for the next opportunity that I have — the next thing that I have in my life that comes up.”
That’s an incredible quote, especially given the circumstances. He doesn’t throw his coaches under the bus. He doesn’t blame anything on his receiver (even though analysts say the receiver deserved a lot of the blame on that play). He looks at what he can learn and how he can apply it to future situations. I don’t know about you but when the Packers lost to the Seahawks a couple weeks ago (a game I wasn’t playing in, in case you were wondering), it took me a good ten days to even want to think about football again. And I’m just a fan! Wilson is already looking at what he can learn, less than 48 hours after what will surely be one of the biggest missed opportunities of his career. His capacity to handle adversity and learn from it has just left me in awe since reading that quote yesterday.
Dealing with adversity is something I’ve been trying to work on over the past few months. Packers game aside, one thing that’s been helpful is Stoicism. There’s probably a super technical definition of Stoicism online somewhere but essentially what it teaches is that we can’t control external events or the results of our actions. We can only control the actions we make and our reactions to external events. What this philosophical belief system results in is doing the best you can and then letting the chips fall as they may. There’s a lot more to it but that’s the gist. It’s been amazing in delivering peace of mind so far but clearly, I have a long way to go in my understanding and practice of Stoicism.
I have no idea if Russell Wilson considers himself Stoic or not but he’s been doing a great job of demonstrating the ideals over the past few days. His post-game reaction has shown me how much further I have to go in my ability to handle the ups and downs of my life, which are quite honestly nothing compared to what an NFL quarterback faces. And in turn, the pressure an NFL QB faces is fun and games (literally) compared to what someone living in poverty or under the rule of ISIS would face every single day. It’s all about perspective.
By the way, if you want to read more about Stoicism, definitely check out Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. If you read that and enjoy it, then pick up Letters From A Stoic by Seneca and The Discourses by Epictetus. And in case you thought all Stoics are ancient, some modern stoics include Bill Clinton, Arianna Huffington, and Ryan Holiday.
When Free Stuff Online Becomes Dangerous
Ask anyone if they want to get something valuable without giving up a single penny in return and they will definitely say “yes”. It’s a human trait – we really love free stuff.
On the Internet, we’ve gotten used to getting products and tools for free. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Some companies are using a freemium model where they give away part of their product for free to entice you to buy the full product. Game companies do this all the time as do companies like Dropbox. Other companies give away their product for free in an effort to build an audience and sell ads – Google, Facebook, and Twitter for example. Although the ads can get annoying sometimes, these are all perfectly acceptable business models.
Where things get more dangerous and scary is when tools that involve sensitive information, such as healthcare, personal finance, or security are given out completely free. I want to be clear here: I’m not talking about freemium or free updates. I’m talking about 100%, no strings attached, free.
Why is this dangerous? Because companies need to make money and the easiest way for these “free” products to do it is by selling your personal data. In its most innocent form, this simply involves lead generation – think Mint.com and all the credit card offers you receive through their site after making an account. At a more insidious level, personally identifying or user activity data could be sold to third parties.
Don’t believe me? StopDataMining.Me was featured in Lifehacker last year identifying 50 data brokers who store and re-sell your personal data to others. They all have ways to opt-out but let’s be honest: how many of us even know the names of all the companies reselling our data? Even worse, you have to opt-out from each site, one by one. The problem is so widespread that The Federal Trade Commission issued a report earlier this year recommending that Congress require data brokers be more transparent and give consumers greater control over their personal information. Not much has happened with that so far but the recommendation by the FTC is a step in the right direction.
At the individual level, there’s not much we can do about all this except be aware of it. I’m not saying we should stop using free tools. Just be sure to think through the business model of whatever tool you’re deciding to use. My one recommendation would be to opt for paid tools and services for things that involve sensitive data – the extra few dollars per month is worth it.
It’s so easy these days to think you’re an expert at something. Read a few articles about a topic, look at a few Quora questions, maybe watch a YouTube video – and bingo, you’re an “expert”. Unfortunately, even though knowledge is more accessible today than ever before in human history, deep knowledge still takes the same amount of time and effort as it did before.
Maybe the reason I’m thinking about this today is that I made the mistake of watching the news for a few minutes this morning (blame my parents – they had it on). With election day coming up, they were trotting out source after source – all of whom had mostly no idea what they were talking about. For example, they brought out Richard Branson to explain the Virgin Galactic crash. Sorry, Richard Branson may be the head of Virgin but he’s not an engineer – he doesn’t understand what went wrong. Sure he can regurgitate talking points but that’s about it. The worst part is that people are going to watch that interview and walk away feeling like they’re “experts” on what went wrong – and share that opinion with others. You’ll see the same thing if you watch MSNBC/Fox News/CNN and listen to someone talking about any topic – healthcare, jobs, the economy, etc.
Reading a few Wikipedia articles is certainly better than knowing nothing about a subject but it doesn’t replace true learning. That’s why I recommend books over any other learning source (except real world experience of course). The knowledge necessary to write a great book about one topic requires such deep subject matter mastery – it just doesn’t compare to any other communication medium. The only exception I’ve seen to this rule are bloggers who write just as deeply as great authors. The only difference is they distribute their content for free on the Internet in short chunks (aka blog posts).
Deep knowledge takes time, effort, and experience, which is why I don’t consider myself an “expert” in anything yet. With some luck, maybe I’ll be close in 10 years.
Human Hubris and the Big Data Fallacy
I recently finished reading both The Black Swan and Antifragile by Nassim Taleb and find myself constantly thinking of the “Turkey Problem”. For those unfamiliar with Taleb’s work, the Turkey Problem relates to the fallacy of thinking that past results indicate future trends.
Taleb uses a turkey being raised for Thanksgiving as an illustration. The turkey is being fed and taken care of every day of its life from birth until the day it dies. A human is feeding the turkey, providing it with shelter, and protecting it from the harshness of the real world (predators, weather, etc). After the first X number of days, the turkey starts to truly believe that the world is a place where humans constantly help it improve it’s well-being. By extrapolating to the future, the turkey predicts (perhaps using Big Data techniques?) that this state of affairs will go on forever. Unfortunately for the turkey, on day 1001, the day before Thanksgiving, the plump turkey is killed and is used as the centerpiece for your Thanksgiving meal. Yum!
If the turkey were using modern statistical models, this event would’ve come as a complete shock. Extrapolation is dangerous territory but what makes this situation even worse is that the turkey is in the most danger exactly when the model says he’s safest! (after 1000 days of data)
Being in the SF Bay Area, naturally my thoughts drifted to the rise of “Big Data” and how it is being used in almost every industry now to “optimize” and make predictions about the future. In markets where there are physical constraints and well understood rules on things (bounds, defined odds, etc), there is definitely value to having a model and using it as a predictor. For example, a casino can model the behavior of gamblers to optimize profits. Fine. No problem with that.
Where things get tricky is when people take complex systems that are not well understood and try to build models on top of that. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with having models and using them to try to create a picture of the universe in some controlled manner. Where these models get dangerous is when people use them exclusively to drive company policy or worse, government policy to force people into their contrived version of “reality”. Prime examples of dangerous models include anything health, climate, or economy related.
In case you think the turkey example is only limited to poultry, remember that after every major global event in our lives, the people in charge said that “this couldn’t have been predicted”. They’re right. Everything from 9/11 to the 2008 economic meltdown to Fukishima, every major event that has shaped the present has been a surprise that went beyond anything that was modeled.
There’s a reason for this. A model simply cannot predict something that hasn’t happened before if it is only using past events as a basis for future events.
And to finish this post off, here’s a prediction by Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman made in 1998 about the future of the Internet:
“The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in “Metcalfe’s law”–which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants–becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s” (emphasis mine)
With a track record like that, you’d think people would stop listening to the forecasters. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Paul Krugman is still out there, making predictions and writing his weekly column in the New York Times. That’s human hubris right there.