Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Technology

Note: This is the talk I gave at Startup School Europe, which was held last Saturday in London.

You've heard a lot of great startup advice today. This is going to be a little different.

I often advise startups that it's better to seek deep appeal, to create something that a few people love, even if most people don't get it right away. In that spirit, I've decided to share the technology and dreams that matter to me, with the hope that it will be very appealing to the right person. This is, after all, a business defined by outliers. Someone in this room is going to create something very important. That's the person I'm hoping to reach.

We talk a lot about technology, and its ability to transform and improve the world. But technology is more than just transistors and algorithms. Those are just patterns on silicon. The technology that really drives the world are the patterns in your head. Those are the patterns that give rise to the patterns in silicon, the patterns in our society, and our whole concept of reality. Change those patterns, and you change your world. Maybe not overnight, but like steering the rudder on a great ship, a small change now makes a big difference later.

We often sweat life's big decisions, but it's the little decisions that matter the most -- the ones we make thousands of times a day, often without even realizing it. The big decisions are the inevitable result of those small decisions. They steered the ship into port, created the conditions that gave rise to the situation. And then perhaps we feel that our hand has been forced, the big decision must be made, but really it was made by the thousands of small decisions leading up to it.

We all know the power of defaults. This is about my defaults, the things I keep top of mind and return to when I'm stuck, confused, or doubtful. It's an effort to tune and improve my patterns, my technology.

First, I don't know anything. That's a warning. If you take this all on my authority, then you're missing the point. You must own your own programming.

It's also the first pattern.

If I believe that I already know the answer and possess the truth, then I'm not genuinely open to learning larger truths.

This is the danger of experience. We already know better, we already know that an idea or business won't work. This is one reason that naive, young founders are often the ones who start the most successful companies -- they just don't know any better, and they're often too arrogant to listen to those who do.

I don't want to downplay the value of experience. This whole event is about sharing and learning from the experiences of others. But don't be limited by our experiences. Just because it didn't work in the past doesn't mean it won't work in the future. Likewise, what worked before may not work again.

This is especially important for startup founders. The best opportunities live in our collective blind spots. To most, they appear to be bad ideas, or simply unimportant. If everyone could see the opportunity, someone else would have already taken it.

In 1997, Larry and Sergey tried to sell Google for a million dollars. Fortunately, they were unable to find a buyer. The conventional wisdom of the time was that search was neither important, nor valuable.

Of course experience isn't the only danger. Dogma and ideology are even worse. They provide us with the answers, and put boundaries around our thinking. Ignoring the dogma invites ridicule, or even punishment. I suspect that's why more ideological societies are less innovative. If we aren't free to wander outside the realms of conventional thinking, then we won't happen upon the opportunities that others have missed.

Escaping dogma is hard. From the inside, it simply looks like truth and reality. Watch out for any belief that limits the range of your thinking and exploration. This includes logic and reason. They are useful tools, but just as often work to keep us trapped inside of exclusionary belief systems. If you believe yourself to be a rational person, then you're in the trap.

To be innovative in our work, we need to evade the limitations of established thinking.

Which brings me to the second pattern: Kill all daemon processes.

For those of you who aren't familiar with operating system internals, daemons are computer programs that run in the background performing various services, often invisible to the user. Sometimes they get out of control and start consuming all of the machine's memory, processor, or other computing resources. This is one reason why your computer or phone often works better after a reboot.

I like using this as an analogy for the same kinds of loops that operate in our brains, like when a song gets stuck in your head. The more insidious loops are the voices of doubt, anger, and self-loathing that infect our minds. Often they are the internalized voices of our parents, peers, the media, or just random people on the Internet. Other times, they pose as our own voice, possibly one that has been there for as long as we can remember. Either way, these loops are often parasitic and limiting. Anytime we take a risk or move in a new direction, they are there to doubt and criticize us. Anytime we seek to escape dogma, they are there to ridicule and condemn us.

Creating an innovative new product often means spending years working on something that most people doubt the value of. It's hard to do that with a head full of noise, voices telling us that we're being foolish and should just cut our losses.

Before we launched Gmail, many people inside of Google thought that the whole project should be scrapped. One notable executive predicted that we would never even get to a million users. We can't let those voices drag us down.

In order to grow, be free, and reclaim our mental resources, it helps to clear out these voices. It's simple, yet very difficult, because they'll keep coming back. But with practice, we get better.

Right now, stop, observe your breath, and enjoy a moment of stillness in your mind. The voices that keep interrupting the silence are the runaway processes. Keep dismissing them until there aren't any left.

Our days are full of spare moments. Instead of filling them with Flappy Bird or Facebook, take the opportunity to find a calm and clear mind. Even if you don't always succeed, it's the practice that matters. Walking in nature also helps.

The voices will resist of course. Continuing to assert their own importance is one way they survive.

My response: Yes, and thank you. That's the third pattern.

Life rarely goes the way we want it to. When we're taking risks and trying something new, we should expect that it often won't work out the way we had planned. And even if we try to keep our lives narrow and risk free, things still won't work out the way we had planned. We can get angry and frustrated and stuck, or we can accept and move forward, assuming that whatever happened is somehow for the best.

I've found that this is a great predictor of success among startups. They all face setbacks, but some are able to take those setbacks and use them to their advantage. Others just keep slamming their head against the same wall, never making any real progress. Uber has been rather masterful at this. Here in London, they turned the taxi strike into a huge growth opportunity for themselves.

In my own life, I've observed that many of the best things are rooted in some of the worst events, and that I would not have one without the other. But this about the small decisions more than the big ones. Every day is full of setbacks and disappointments, but I do my best to say, "Yes, and thank you", accepting it as a gift, however improbable that may seem at the time. This pattern has an almost magical way of transforming reality and maintaining the forward flow of life.

The ability to accept a greater range of outcomes opens the door to pattern number four: Choose the more interesting path.

People often ask how I decide which startups to invest in. There's no simple answer, but this is a big part of it.

When I heard about Justin.tv in early 2007, my first response was to laugh and ask if they were serious. They said yes, so I offered to invest. The plan at the time was for Justin Kan to attach a camera to his head and stream it live on the Internet, 24/7. It seemed a little insane, but I was very curious to find out what would happen. I've found that that kind of interestingness is a very useful signal.

The immediate answer to, "What would happen?", was a lot of people trolling Justin. Next they added the ability for anyone to stream their lives. Most of it was boring, or possibly illegal, but one thing really caught on: video game streaming. Eventually they changed their name to Twitch.tv to focus exclusively on competitive gaming. They are now one of the most valuable properties on the Internet. Their average daily viewer watches over 100 minutes per day, and they are the 4th largest source of US Internet traffic after Netflix, Google, and Apple.

I had no idea that would happen. I mainly invested because it sounded like an interesting experiment, and the founders seemed to genuinely believe that they were on to something.

Interestingness is a sign of unexplored or under-explored territory. If I already know what the outcome is going to be, that's not very interesting. If it's completely random, like gambling, that's also not interesting. But I find that great startups exist in a space of productive uncertainty. Regardless whether they succeed or fail, I'm likely to learn something interesting.

That was my logic when joining Google in 1999. I expected that they would likely get squashed by the much larger Alta Vista, but the people were really smart, so I believed that I could learn a lot in the process.

In fact, I can guarantee success by simply redefining success to include learning something interesting. In this way, I've always succeeded, and also learned a lot :)

If your startup has only one definition of success, then you're setting yourself up for failure.

It's tragic how many people are sacrificing their lives on some startup that they don't really care about, in pursuit of some external success they'll likely never achieve. Personally, I think it's a mistake.

Which leads me to pattern number five: Love what you do.

It's often said that you should "Do what you love", but that's mostly bad advice. It encourages people to grind away their lives in pursuit of some mostly unattainable goal, such as being a movie star or a billionaire startup founder. And even if they do make it, often the reality is nothing like they imagined it would be, so they're still unhappy.

Do what you love is in the future. Love what you do is right now. As with the other patterns, it's meant to guide the small decisions that we make every moment of every day. It's less about changing what you do, and more about changing how you do it.

One of the problems with having a goal-oriented, extrinsic mindset is that it treats the time between now and task completion as an annoying obstacle to be endured. If you're doing something that is difficult, uncertain, and takes a long time, such as building a new product or company, and you have that mindset, then you're likely gambling away a big chunk of your life. Subconsciously, you may also compensate by choosing smaller, more realistic goals, and that's unfortunate. Plus, it's unpleasant.

When I was working long hours at Google, it wasn't because they were whipping us to work harder. I would have quit. I was doing it because I genuinely love building things. It wasn't all fun of course, but I typically enjoyed at least 80% of my day.

"Do what you love" treats "what you love" as a fixed thing, but it's not. I used to hate running. I would sometimes force myself to run a few miles because it's supposed to be healthy, but I never liked it. Then I read a book that said we are born to run, and that it can be fun. Inspired, I decided to try running just for fun, focus on the quality of every step, and forget about the goal completion aspect of it. Very quickly, I learned to enjoy running, and over time I've transformed my entire relationship with fitness and exercise to be oriented more toward enjoyment.

Naturally, this more intrinsic approach ultimately improves the quality of our efforts, which generally leads to greater extrinsic rewards as well. Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation are best when they are both pointed in the same direction.

Real work always seems to involve a certain amount of unpleasant, grinding effort though, and startups often have a lot of it. It's like having a baby. It's 5% cute, adorable moments, and 95% dirty diapers and vomit.

The key to loving these more unpleasant moments is meaning. If we genuinely care about and believe in our mission, then those difficult times begin to take on a more heroic quality.

Although it's critical for a startup to have very immediate and actionable plans, such as write code and talk to users, I believe it's also important to maintain a meaningful and inspiring vision.

The sixth, and final pattern for today is one that I borrowed from Google: Maintain a healthy disregard for the impossible.

I think Larry Page learned this as a kid at summer camp, and to me it represents the true innovative spirit of the company. Now that Google is huge and many have grown cynical about the company, it's easy to dismiss such things. But I remember when it was a tiny startup that nobody had heard of, and I had to explain to people that it was like Yahoo minus all of the features other than search. People would just give me this sad look that seemed to say, "I'm sorry you can't get a real job".

But inside the company there were these absurdly ambitious ideas that made it feel like we were going to take over the world. It was an exciting place to be.

Larry wanted to store and search the whole web in memory, even though our machines only had 1/4 GB of RAM. It was unrealistic at the time, but Moore's law moves fast and very soon we were doing it, but only because everyone's thinking was already oriented in that direction.

He also wanted self-driving cars that would deliver hamburgers. That hasn't happened yet, but I bet it will.

For me, potentially impossible goals are much more inspiring than realistic ones. I'd rather fail at something awesome, than succeed at something inconsequential.

As with many of the other patterns, this one is about continually shedding the limitations of outdated thinking.

When I decided to write the Gmail interface in Javascript, pretty much everyone who knew anything about Javascript or web browsers told me that it was a bad idea. It had been tried in the past, and always ended in disaster. But times change fast, and fortunately I was in an environment where doing impossible things was not just permitted, but encouraged. After we launched, the impossible quickly became the new normal, completely changing how we think about web apps. That's fun.

For me, startups are more than just a clever way to make money. They are machines for harnessing the fire of human self-interest, creating a self-sustaining reaction capable of rapidly transforming the world. Self-interest is often treated as if it were dirty or wrong, but NASA didn't get to the moon by vilifying gravity.

It's often assumed that business is all about money, but to me that's like saying that rockets are all about rocket fuel. On some level it's true. You won't even make it off the launch pad without fuel. But that myopic view misses out on the larger purpose and mission of the machine. Certainly some businesses really are about nothing more than making money, but among the truly significant founders I've known, there's always a larger purpose. It's not just a nihilistic pursuit of rocket fuel.

Before I finish, I want to mention my impossible goal.

We now, for the first time ever, have the technology and resources necessary to make the world a great place for everyone. We can provide adequate food, housing, education, and healthcare for everyone, using only a fraction of our labor and resources. This means that we can put an end to wage-slavery. I don't have to work. I choose to work. And I believe that everyone deserves the same freedom I have. If done right, it's also economically superior, meaning that we will all have more wealth.

We often talk about how brilliant or visionary Steve Jobs was, but there are probably millions of people just as brilliant as he was. The difference is that they likely didn't grow up with great parents, amazing teachers, and an environment where innovation was the norm. Also they didn't live down the street from Steve Wozniak.

Economically, we don't need more jobs. We need more Steve Jobs. When we set everyone free, we enable the outliers everywhere. The result will be an unprecedented boom in human creativity and ingenuity.

And now the impossible part. First we have to learn how to get along with each other, and with ourselves.

I'm looking for full-stack hackers. People who understand that technology is more than just patterns in silicon. The same patterns and systems of patterns exist everywhere. Capitalism is a technology. Like the internal combustion engine, it's tremendously valuable and transformative, but it's not beyond improvement. The same goes for government, religion, and everything else. We have an incredible future ahead of us, but we won't get there by clinging to obsolete patterns.

As founders, we must start small, and work with the grain of what is. The path is never obvious, and innovation happens in the most unexpected ways. The personal computer was originally dismissed as a toy. If you think Instagram is just a collection of photo filters, you're missing the big picture. Maybe photo sharing won't lead directly to world peace, but helping people to see the world through the eyes of others looks like a step in the right direction to me. And they grew to over 200 million users in less than four years. That's larger than most countries. That's the power of a startup.

As Richard Feynman said, "The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to." Don't be discouraged by people who dismiss your efforts as trivial just because you aren't curing cancer or traveling to Mars. The patterns I've presented today are about developing an independent mind, unburdened by the limitations of other people's thinking. Then you can judge for yourself what is worthwhile, and move forward with the conviction necessary to do something great. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.


Thank you.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Help me distribute $100,000 to new entrepreneurs in Africa

I love the idea of microlending, small loans of a few hundred dollars made to entrepreneurs in impoverished areas so that they can start or grow businesses of their own, helping them to achieve financial independence. The unfortunate reality though is that many microlending programs charge surprisingly high interest rates, pushing entrepreneurs deeper into debt. This is because early microlending sites such as Kiva outsource loan management to local banks, which charge interest rates that average 35%, and go as high as 88%! I would be uncomfortable charging those rates to wealthy Americans, but asking poor people in Africa to pay that makes me feel like some kind of third-world loan shark.

That's why I'm excited to have Zidisha as one of our most recent Y Combinator funded non-profit organizations. Zidisha uses modern technology and a global network of volunteers to enable direct person-to-person lending, cutting out the middle-man and bringing loan overhead down to a more affordable 5% interest rate. Just as Airbnb connects travelers directly to hosts, Zidisha connects lenders directly to borrowers, providing not only an affordable loan, but also a personal connection, so that people are able to exchange progress updates, photos, and more. I'm a big believer in the idea that personal connections across economic and cultural divides can go a long way towards uniting all people in peace and prosperity. It's one of the big reasons that I've invested in AirBnb, Watsi (our first non-profit startup), and now Zidisha.

Zidisha is already changing lives and transforming communities. Here's a photo of Pherister Ndoge, who used a loan from Zidisha to help expand and improve her school in Kenya.



But Zidisha is still relatively new, and although they now have a record number of fundraising entrepreneurs, most people have never heard of them. We need your help raising awareness, so I've offered to donate $10 for every tweet, retweet, or Facebook share linking to Zidisha and using the #zidisha hashtag, up to a total of $100,000. That $10 goes towards funding the entrepreneur of your choice, and all of the loan repayments will be donated towards continuing to grow the Zidisha platform.

Here's how to help:

Go to Zidisha and choose an entrepreneur you think deserves support, click on the entrepreneur's photo to open their profile page, then click on the Zidisha campaign banner at the top of the profile page to share the profile URL via Facebook or Twitter.

OR

Simply tweet: Help send $100,000 to new entrepreneurs in Africa with @ZidishaInc. $10 donated for every tweet or RT: http://bit.ly/1jMsV3P #zidisha

OR

View our post on Facebook, then click the "Share" link.


You should also check out the Zidisha website and read the inspiring story of why Julia Kurnia founded Zidisha.


Join the discussion on Hack News.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Gift

It's often said that you should live every day as though it's your last. That always seemed a little impractical to me. But when my brother died, I felt like I had missed my chance. Life could never be the same again. Part of me was already dead. I had always understood death intellectually, but now I felt it at a visceral level, and that's completely different. Death was inside of me now. 

Steve was 33 when he died, and I was 27. Statistically, there does not appear to be much of a genetic component to pancreatic cancer, but still, I worried. How much longer do I have? Could there be a tumor growing inside of me at this very moment? 

These doubts led to an interesting question. What would I do if I had only six year left to live? 

You can live a lot in six years, but you can just as easily waste six years doing things that don't really matter. I wanted to make the most of whatever time I had left. At first I thought that meant pursuing some audacious goal, like curing cancer, but over time I learned that it simply meant being mindful of how I'm living my life. The question evolved. It may not be six years. I could die at any moment.

Is this how I want to spend the rest of my life?

The answers can be surprising. Cleaning the kitchen is relaxing, and it creates a pleasant and healthy space for my family and friends to gather. Not a bad way to live. But sitting in a windowless conference room while people I don't really love debate things that I don't really care about? No, that's not how I want to spend my life. Of course others may find meaning in that. It's very much a personal decision.

Death strips away everything that doesn't matter. It's incredibly painful, but it also brings a kind of clarity. People matter. Everything else is noise. Several months after Steve died, we made a big life decision. It was time to have kids. 

The pregnancy went smoothly. My wife, April, seemed so happy that she glowed. I was almost envious of her. She was experiencing a kind of closeness that I never could. We were taking the opportunity to go on a couple of final vacations before the baby arrived. Then, around midnight, she started to bleed. We were in a small town in northern New Mexico. We went to the local hospital, then waited while they called for a doctor to come in (there weren't any there that night). The doctor immediately saw that she was in labor, and said that if there was any chance of saving the baby, my wife would need to be airlifted to Albuquerque.

The doctor also remarked that I seemed unusually calm. I didn't bother to tell him that I was still processing my brother's death, and that this seemed relatively small in comparison. I had never met the baby. April didn't even look that pregnant. I was a little surprised to hear that survival was even a possibility.

There was no room for me on the helicopter, so I had to drive several hours through the night, alone, not having any idea what I would find when I arrived at the hospital.

The nurses took me in to see the baby. There she was, 1 pound and 10 ounces, on a ventilator, her eyelids still fused, born 100 days early. But I felt her energy. She was a little ball of fire. The attachment came on like I never could have imagined.

The doctors said it was still too early to know if she would survive or not. Every time we saw her, and every time we left, we knew that it may very well be the last time we ever see our daughter alive. I never knew what it meant to live every day as though it's my last, but suddenly I was living every day as though it might be her last.

I finally understood the meaning of unconditional love. This little person couldn't even breathe on her own. She may not survive the day. The future was more terrifying than hopeful. All we had was now. All we could do was to love her, and to expect nothing in return.

A few days after she was born, the doctors did a head ultrasound to make sure everything was ok. The results were not what we had hoped for. There was bleeding in her brain. The doctors said that if she survived, she would most likely be disabled. The next week I noticed a disturbing trend in her charts -- her head was growing too fast. The bleeding in her head caused hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid in the brain. She would need brain surgery. 

The following months were the most terrifying ride I have ever experienced. The complications kept having complications. First she had to be flown to San Francisco, because there are no pediatric neurosurgeons in New Mexico. Then she had surgery. Then more surgery. Eventually she came off the ventilator. Then she got meningitis and stopped breathing. Then more surgery.

The hole was deeper than I ever could have imagined. Sometimes, the fear and darkness were unbearable. It felt like death would have been easier. It was all I could do to breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. The future was too terrifying to imagine. The past was a reminder of all that I had lost, a life of hope and joy. But most moments, on their own, were ok. I could sit in the hospital and hold my baby. I could appreciate every moment with her. I could love her unconditionally. We were together, for now, and we were both breathing. 

Eventually she was well enough to go home. The first year was very difficult, but in time she grew strong, and today she is a healthy, beautiful, and fiery seven year old girl. Every day, her presence is a reminder of what truly matters.

In every tragedy, there is a gift, if we are able to see and accept it. From my brother, I received a personal understanding of death, and a constant reminder to live my life as though it may end at any moment. From my daughter, I learned what it means to love unconditionally, without expecting anything in return, a true gift.

These gifts were delivered at great cost, but still I often struggle to retain them. Life gets busy, and I forget what matters. But the reminders are all around us, if only we can open our eyes.

When our lives are smashed to bits, and it feels like the ground has disappeared from under us, we look for guidance, for our North Star, for a light that can provide meaning and direction to what remains of our life.

For me, this light lies in unconditional love. This is something that I wish to remember not only at an intellectual level, but at a more visceral level as well. I want to feel truth.

So I made a simple story, a fable. Stories are powerful because they engage our imagination, bringing abstract concepts to life inside of us. This one uses the familiar characters of God and the Devil, but you needn't believe in anything supernatural to understand it.

Long ago, the Devil boasted that he could easily gather more followers than God. God's way of gathering followers was simple: give everyone Unconditional Love and Forgiveness, nothing more and nothing less. Naturally the Devil was more devious. He knew that most people would not knowingly follow the Devil, so his plan was to lie and claim that he was the One True God, promise his followers a great reward in the afterlife, and threaten that those who didn't worship him would be sent to hell when they died. God was betting on Love, but the Devil believed that Greed and Fear are stronger than Love, and therefore even good people could be tricked into following him.

The God of Unconditional Love and Forgiveness brings union through love. The false Gods bring division through fear and greed. If a God promises to reward you with 72 virgins in paradise in exchange for flying an airplane into a building, it's a false God (or a false image of God, if you prefer). If a God threatens to send you to hell for loving the wrong person, it's a false God. If a God tells you to coerce people into worshiping him, it's a false God. If a God promises protection in exchange for doing his bidding, it's a false God.

Genuine, unconditional love is a gift that must be freely given and freely accepted, with nothing expected in return. Love can not be delivered at gun point, or with the threat of eternal damnation.

In this winter of fear, suffering, and division, the God of Unconditional Love gives comfort and direction. His spirit is reborn in our hearts when we give the gift of unconditional love and forgiveness to others and, most urgently, to ourselves.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Eight years today

The car in front of me kept hesitating. The driver couldn't seem to decide where to turn. Up ahead I could see that the light was green, but that I wasn't going to make it through in time because this car was in my way. I started to feel slightly agitated, but reminded myself to simply accept the current situation. I can't even see the other timelines, maybe this one is somehow better. It's a practice that I had started while my daughter was in the hospital. Accept. Accept. Accept. Slow drivers are a rather minor stress relative to a having a baby that may not survive, but the practice is remarkably similar. And the key to practice is repetition, every day, every moment. Traffic provides me with plenty of opportunities to practice. 

Finally she turned in to the parking lot at Trader Joe's and I proceeded to the light, which was now red. It soon turned green, I crossed El Camino, and then stopped for the passing train, which was immediately in front of me. After it passed, I saw his body on the ground just to the other side of the tracks. I saw other things there too, but I'll spare you the details. I tried calling 911, but I got a recorded message saying that they were busy. Obviously I wasn't the only one calling. The police soon arrived, and directed us to turn down a side street, away from the scene. 

I then turned left on Waverley St, and slowly drove past my brother's old apartment, pausing to remember all that had transpired there. But my mind was still preoccupied with what I had just seen, and it didn't even register what day it is today. 

The winter of 2004 felt so cold and rainy, the coldest I can remember it ever being here in California. The cold had a kind of depth that you can't quite escape. But on March 9th it was sunny and starting to get a little warm. Winter was over, and my brother had just died that morning. We left the hospital and returned to his apartment in Menlo Park. It felt so wrong. He was gone, but his belongings were still there. Eventually we would have to pack them all into boxes, keeping some for ourselves, and donating the rest. It does not feel good to pack up the remains of your brother's life.

It had only been three months since he found out. We had dinner Sunday night at a Chinese restaurant in Mountain View. Afterwards, he was feeling a little nauseous and went home early. After a few days of not being able to keep any food down, he went to the doctor. He had an intestinal blockage. Caused by a tumor. Pancreatic cancer. The very bad kind. It eats you alive, and in his case, it also blocked his own food supply. Although his death was rather quick, it was also very slow. Three months of torture, but I'll spare you the details. He was only 33 years old. Steve was a very good person. He did not deserve that. Nobody does.

After the funeral, I returned to work. Sometimes, it's wonderful to be able to focus my mind on something simple, something I can control, like computers. A few weeks later we launched Gmail. Later that summer Google had its IPO. Life is unfair. Very unfair.

Eventually my parents finished packing up Steve's apartment and drove back home to New York. I didn't even begin to understand what they had gone through until the following year, when my daughter was born 100 days early. There were many complications, and it often seemed like she wouldn't make it, but I'll spare you the details. The pain is worse than you can imagine. It's worse than I can now imagine. Luckily she survived and is doing well. She has the strongest spirit of anyone I've ever met.

And that brings me back to today, March 9th, 2012. Eight years since Steve died. I keep looking for meaning, but all I've found so far is that in order to be at peace with the present, we must be at peace with the past, because the present is a product of the past. Accept. Accept. Accept. Learn to love the present moment. What happened, happened. It's difficult to understand the big picture when our lives are mere brush strokes on the canvas of reality. Trusting that it all fits together to form something beautiful is the purest form of faith. Anything else is a dangerous distraction. No contracts with God, no expectations of reward, just trust.

On a more practical level, what matters most in our day-to-day lives is that we're good to ourselves and to each other. It's actually not possible to only do one or the other -- we must do both or neither, but that's a topic for another time. Sometimes, when I write about startups or other interests of mine, I worry that perhaps I'm communicating the wrong priorities. Investing money, creating new products, and all the other things we do are wonderful games and can be a lot of fun, but it's important to remember that it's all just a game. What's most important is that we are good too each other, and ourselves. If we "win", but have failed to do that, then we have lost. Winning is nothing. This doesn't mean that we can't push ourselves or stretch our own limits. Those things can be very healthy, but only when done for their own sake. Ultimately, the people who learn to love what they do who will be the ones who accomplish the most anyway. Those who push only for the sake of some future reward, or to avoid failure, very often burn out, sometimes tragically. Please don't do that.

Please be good to each other, and your self.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

I am nothing

On a scale of one to ten, how good of a cog are you? How well do you function in your assigned role? How much of a man or woman are you? How do you rate yourself as a son or daughter, father or mother, wife or husband, heterosexual or homosexual, liberal or conservative, black or white, winner or loser, shark or sheep, introvert or extrovert, Christian, Muslim, atheist? How smart are you? How rational? How emotional? Do people like you? Are you getting ahead, or falling behind?

How do you know? Are you keeping an eye on the others in your category, comparing to see how you measure up to your peers? Is it more important for a man to be tall, or to have good hair?

This is, of course, the path of insanity, and not the good kind of insanity.

What will you do if you're too tough to be a good woman, too sensitive to be a good man, too selfish to be a good husband, too lazy to be a good employee, too shy to be a good friend, too caring to be rational, too fat to be pretty, too effeminate to be straight, too introverted to be a good leader, too smart to be kind, too young to be taken seriously, too old to make a difference, or too far behind to even get in the race?

These are all false standards and false dichotomies, but they are so common and so ingrained that we sometimes believe in them without even realizing it. And this leads to a mountain of insecurities, because nobody measures up to these crazy standards (and nobody should). But even if we don't believe in these things, it still matters what other people think, right? What will the neighbors think? Or how about our co-workers, or the people at church? And so everyone works to hide their insecurities, and they look around at their peers for comparison, and maybe they feel bad because everyone else seems to have it easy, to have it all figured out. The truth is, nobody can see the truth anymore. They are all working to hide the truth, because the truth is that they are afraid of who or what they really are. So they all put on a show, and they pretend to be a good whatever. Or maybe they rebel, and make a point of being a bad whatever, but then they are still under the control of that false standard, and they are still not being themselves.

That is all so exhausting. 

I am nothing. It's simple. If I were smart, I might be afraid of looking stupid. If I were successful, I might be afraid of failure. If I were a man, I might be afraid of being weak. If I were a Christian, I might be afraid of losing faith. If I were an atheist, I might be afraid of believing. If I were rational, I might be afraid of my emotions. If I were introverted, I might be afraid of meeting new people. If I were respectable, I might be afraid of looking foolish. If I were an expert, I might be afraid of being wrong.

But I am nothing, and so I am finally free to be myself.

This isn't license to stagnate. Change is inevitable. Change is part of who we are, but if we aren't changing for the better, then we are just slowly decaying. 

By returning to zero expectations, by accepting that I am nothing, it is easier to see the truth. Fear, jealousy, insecurity, unfairness, embarrassment -- these feelings cloud our ability to see what is. The truth is often threatening, and once our defenses are up, it's difficult to be completely honest with anyone, even ourselves. But when I am nothing, when I have no image or identity or ego to protect, I can begin to see and accept things as they really are. That is the beginning of positive change, because we can not change what we do not accept and do not understand. But with understanding, we can finally see the difference between fixing problems, and hiding them, the difference between genuine improvement, and faking it. We discover that many of our weaknesses are actually strengths once we learn how to use them, and that our greatest gifts are often buried beneath our greatest insecurities.

Letting go of your identity can be difficult and takes time, possibly forever, but as with any change, moving in the right direction is all that really matters (which is why you shouldn't compare yourself with others -- you didn't start in the same place or with the same challenges). Fortunately, we have a variety of emotions that can help us: pride, anger, fear, jealousy, insecurity, unfairness, embarrassment, bitterness, etc. These are sometimes portrayed as bad emotions, but there's no such thing as a bad emotion, just bad responses to emotions. (For example, torturing children is a very harmful response to fears about your own sexuality) If we instead use these emotions as a cue to remember, "I am nothing", let go of our identity, and examine why we are feeling the emotion (typically because something has threatened our identity) then these emotions are actually beneficial. They point us towards the buried truth.

True self improvement requires becoming a better version of our selves, not a lesser version of someone else. But without self acceptance and understanding, how can we even know what that looks like or whether we're headed in the right direction? It would be like putting the final touches on the Mona Lisa while picturing some celebrity you saw on the cover of People magazine -- the result would be a mess. Until we let go of our mental images of who we are or who we should be, our vision remains clouded by expectation. But when we let go of everything, open ourselves to any truth, and see the world without fear or judgement, then we are finally able to begin the process of peeling off the shell of false identity that prevents our true self from growing and shining in to the world. And it starts with nothing.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The two paths to success

The recent WSJ article on the supposedly Chinese style of parenting has generated a lot of interesting discussion. The most amusing commentary comes from The Last Psychiatrist, who also points out that Amy Chua, the "Chinese" mother, was actually born in America. There were also claims that the WSJ misrepresented her views, which may or may not be true, but is ultimately irrelevant since it's the ideas that are being debated.

Here's the part of the article that interests me:
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something -- whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet -- he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

She has two main points here: 1) Learning is not fun and 2) It's important to make kids dependent on praise and admiration.

One of the problems I've faced throughout life is that I'm kind of lazy, or maybe I lack will power or discipline or something. Either way, it's very difficult for me to do anything that I don't feel like doing. If I try to force it, my energy disappears, and I hate life. Furthermore, not only were my parents not Chinese, but they had five kids, so there wasn't time for Amy Chua's style of parenting. I kind of had to figure it out on my own.

My strategy can be reduced to two rules: 1) Find a way to make it fun and 2) If that fails, find a way to do something else.

For example, I didn't really like school, and I especially hated homework, so I turned it into a game to see how little time and effort I could possibly waste on it while still getting "good enough" grades. I barely made it into the top 10% of my public high school class, so I probably wouldn't be accepted into whatever college Amy Chua has picked out for her kids, but I find that I really don't care. Instead, I went to a "good enough" college, slept through most of my classes, then got a "good enough" job after graduation. Meanwhile, I taught myself how to program and build all kinds of things, which to me was much more fun than school.

I'm not going to claim that my approach is superior to Amy Chua's, or that it will work for everyone, but I do think it provides an interesting contrast.

Amy Chua's approach is based on extrinsic motivation. Children must do exactly what they are told to do, and they must not be happy unless an external authority gives them praise and admiration. They must learn that their own internal motivations and judgement are worthless and not to be trusted. They are successful when an external authority, such as an Ivy League school, tells them that they are successful.

The extrinsic path to success is to focus on being the person you are told to be, and put all of your energy and drive into fitting that mold.

The approach I stumbled into is based on intrinsic motivation. To the greatest extent possible, do whatever is most fun, interesting, and personally rewarding (and not evil). External constraints, such as the need to go to school or make money are simply obstacles to be hacked. Be skeptical of external authorities, as they are often manipulating you for their own benefit, or for the benefit of the institutions they represent (often unknowingly, as they were already captured by the same systems which are attempted to ensnare you). Your identity comes from within -- external recognition such as degrees and awards are only of tactical importance -- don't allow them to define who you are.

The intrinsic path to success is to focus on being the person that you are, and put all of your energy and drive into being the best possible version of yourself.

Of course this leads to the question, "What is success?" Someone who spent his life working 80 hour weeks, living in hotels, and fighting his way up the corporate ladder to become VP of toilet paper marketing would probably consider himself more successful than a sandwich shop owner who spends his nights and weekends playing with his kids and working on hobby projects, but maybe the sandwich shop owner would be happier and healthier. Ultimately, it is up to each person to decide what success means to them, but I think it's important that everyone be mindful of the decision they are making. 

It's often said that people become entrepreneurs because they can't handle a regular job. Perhaps these people are simply too "defective" to fit into any mold, or maybe they lack the extrinsic motivation necessary to care about bosses, performance reviews, and other things which are so important for success in the corporate environment. However, what they do have is the creativity and natural sense of direction necessary to run their own business. I doubt that this is a coincidence.

As explained in this TED talk by Dan Pink, extrinsic motivation is a great way to get people to do boring and repetitive tasks, but it actually harms performance on more creative tasks. Creativity is a surprisingly fragile thing. It comes from deep inside, and external concerns (most especially, "What will people think?") seem to scare it away. But that's a topic for another time.

Of course, intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation isn't a completely black and white distinction, and we probably can't survive entirely on one or the other (I aim for 90% intrinsic). I also doubt it's possible to simply "switch" from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. It's a skill like anything else. It takes time to find your internal voice, learn when to trust it, and stop fearing outside opinion (closely related: ego-fear).

Amy Chua's book was about parenting. Her style is based on extrinsic motivation. How do we raise successful, intrinsically motivated children? I'm sure someone will leave book recommendations in the comments -- Alfie Kohn comes to mind. However, I suspect that one of the most important factors is how we live our own lives. If we demonstrate that work and creativity can actually be fun and enjoyable, that at least sets an example. If we first solve the puzzle for ourselves, we have a better chance of helping others to find their answer.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Angel investing, my first three years

I started investing in startups with the assumption that I don't know what I'm doing (which is always true), but that the only way to actually learn anything is through experience. Therefore, my goal was to invest in a variety of startups, learn from the experience, help some startups, and hopefully not lose too much money while doing so. I don't have any single criterion for investing. Sometimes, the idea seems good, sometimes the people seem good, and other times I'm just curious to see what will happen. No matter what though, I want to be helpful and learn something interesting from the experience.

I've definitely learned a lot, but the recent Heroku acquisition (for a reported $212 million) made me wonder if I've also reached the point of "not losing too much money", so I did the math. From 2006 (when I started investing) through 2008, I invested about $1.21 million in 32 different companies. About half of those companies were either acquired or are dead/mostly-dead. The other half are still alive and seem to be doing well. The current acquisitions total about $1.34 million, only about a 10% gain, which isn't great, but at least I'm not losing too much. Fortunately, the "still alive" category includes a number of very promising investments, such as Meraki, Weebly, and Wufoo, so I expect the final return will be much better than 10% (which is all gravy anyway, since my primary goal was to learn more and be helpful).

Of the current acquisitions, only two have yielded a greater than 10x return: Heroku and Mint. Unfortunately they were also two of the smaller investments, proving that I don't know what I'm doing, or at least showing that I need to make a point of investing more money into the best companies (Mint was oversubscribed, but I don't remember why I didn't put more into Heroku -- edit: apparently it was also oversubscribed).

It's worth noting that the highest return was from a Y Combinator company (Heroku, winter 2008). I've been investing in the YC companies almost from the start (Wufoo was winter 2006), and they keep getting better. YC is attracting the best founders, and Heroku is just the tip of the iceberg. The more great YC companies there are, the more reasons there are for other smart founders to join YC, and I find myself asking non-YC companies why they aren't yet in YC. This trend definitely contributed to my decision to join YC as a partner.

There were also a couple of medium-sized acquisitions (AppJet/Etherpad and 280North) and several smaller but still nice (2x-3x) exits such as Auctomatic, Parakey, and Zenter. Sometimes people complain about these deals, but as much as I'd like to get a nice 10,000x exit, I'm certainly not going to complain when someone doubles my money!

A few companies (such as ScanScout) were acquired by other private companies, so I include those in the "still alive and doing well" category, since it was not an exit from the investor perspective (no liquidity). Only two companies are officially dead, but there are at least four "zombies" that still exist, but in a minimal form and are almost certainly worthless.

The two bits of advice that I always give to people looking to get started with angel investing are: 1) Assume you'll lose your money and 2) Plan on investing in a large number of companies. (my third bit of advice is to attend YC demo day) I think my experience so far validates this advice. It's important that investors have the right motivations (helping out startups and learning how to be a better investor) and the right expectations. Anyone doing it with the idea that they can simply find the next Google, invest a bunch of money, and then get super-rich is going to be very disappointed. That said, finding the next Google and buying a 1% stake is my current billion dollar plan :)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Four reasons Google is still Awesome

My recent predictions about which Google products will succeed (and which won't) are causing people to think that I'm anti-Google, which makes me sad since Google is probably still the best company of its size, and I really enjoyed my time there. 

Unfortunately, positive stories are never as popular as negative ones, but regardless, it's worth highlighting some of the things that continue to differentiate Google as one of the best companies in tech.

1 - They take big risks. People often point to projects such as Wave as evidence that Google has "lost its magic" or something. To me, it's evidence that they are still willing to take risks on new ideas and new ways of doing things (Wave was run as a completely autonomous project in Australia). If everything you do works, then you're not taking many risks and probably aren't innovating either. Obviously, if everything you do fails, that's not good either, but there's a sweet-spot somewhere in the middle. Google has enough big successes, such as Chrome and Android, to show that they are somewhere near that sweet-spot.

2 - They are willing to build new technology seemingly unrelated to the core business. When we started work on Gmail, many people said it was a distraction and that Google should focus on web search. Now nobody questions email, but they wonder why Google is developing self-driving cars. From a market perspective, this looks like a lack of focus, but that's a rather narrow way of viewing things. From a broader perspective, it can be seen as a focus on using technology to improve the world. Did people criticize Edison or Tesla for inventing too many different things?

From an employee perspective these non-core projects are also an opportunity for greater autonomy. Part of what made the Gmail project so fun was that we had a lot of independence and could pursue ideas that other people inside Google thought were "the wrong way to do it". Most other tech companies do not offer that kind of freedom.

3 - They compete in positive ways. Many companies compete in ways that actually destroy value, such as using patent lawsuits to slow down or kill competitors. Google's weapon of choice is more often open source and open standards. There's no question that projects such as Android and Chrome have strategic value and work to weaken Microsoft and others, but they also happen to be good for the world. Google has managed to keep their interests surprisingly well aligned with the interests of their users.

4 - They don't seem to mind honest criticism. I'm currently reading a draft of a forthcoming Google book, and was amused to find that it includes an email that I sent back in 2000 trashing our then most recent product launch. It's painful for me to not tell people what I think, so for the most part I try to find people who don't mind hearing the truth (or my take on it, rather). Much of my interaction with startups consists of me telling them everything that I don't like about their product (and then they thank me!). I've worked for a lot of different companies, and Google was the only one where me speaking my mind never seemed to cause a problem. I'm not claiming that I'm always right, because obviously I'm not, but systems (or individuals) that don't welcome negative feedback are doomed. Cultures that don't laugh at themselves are cults.

Talking about Google is always a little tricky for me given my background, but they continue to be a fascinating company and a great source interesting lessons, so I'm going to keep trying. Hopefully I don't come off as a hater or a fan boy, but simply an honest observer.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Cloud OS

My recent remark about the future of ChromeOS generated a surprisingly passionate response. Some said that my prediction was obvious and boring, but others disagreed, arguing instead that I am ugly and "don't get it". I won't disagree with either side, but I also noticed that my prediction was sometimes inaccurately characterized as me "hating" ChromeOS, Google, or The Cloud, all of which is false. Since there seems to be so much interest in this topic, and because people keep emailing me about it, I should probably explain my actual thoughts a little better.

First, what is a "cloud OS" and why should I want one? Actually, I don't even know if anyone calls it a "cloud OS", but I couldn't find a better generic term for something like ChromeOS. The basic idea is that apps and data all live on the Internet, which is has been renamed "The Cloud" since that sounds cooler, and your laptop or whatever is basically just a window into that cloud. If your laptop is stolen or catches fire or something, it's not a big deal, because you can just buy another one and nothing has been lost (except your money). Many people characterize this approach as using a "dumb terminal", but that's wrong. Your local computer can still do all kinds of smart computation and data manipulation -- it's just no longer the single point of failure.

To me, the defining characteristic of cloud based apps is "information without location". For example, in the bad old days, you would install a copy Outlook or other email software on your PC, it would download all of your email to your computer, and then the email would live on that computer until Outlook corrupted its PST file and everything was lost. If you accidentally left your computer at home, or it was stolen, then you simply couldn't get to your email. Information behaved much like a physical object -- it was always in one place. That's an unnecessary and annoying limitation. By moving my email into "the cloud", I can escape the limitations of physical location and am able to reach it from any number of computers, phones, televisions, or whatever else connects to the Internet. For performance and coverage reasons, those devices will usually cache some of my email, but the canonical version always lives online. The Gmail client on Android phones provides a great example of this. It stores copies of recent messages so that I can access them even when there is no Internet access, and also saves any recent changes (such as new messages or changes to read state), but as soon as possible it sends those changes to the Gmail servers so that they can be reflected everywhere else (such as my home computer). To the greatest extent possible, the information all "lives" in the cloud, and all other copies are simply caches which may be discarded at any time. (BTW, Apple is lame for not allowing a native Gmail app on the iPhone -- email is the one place where Android really outshines the iPhone for me)

Continuing with the Gmail example, it's not just your data that resides in the cloud -- the entire application lives there. This is the part that causes people to erroneously describe cloud based apps as a "return to dumb terminals". Just because an application "lives" in the cloud doesn't mean that your local computer isn't still doing work. When you use Gmail from your web browser, it downloads large chunks of Javascript code to run on your computer doing things such as rendering your inbox, handling keyboard and mouse events, pre-fetching messages, etc. The advantage of having this code run on your computer is that it can respond to your actions within a few milliseconds instead of the hundreds of milliseconds it could take to reach Google's servers (thanks to the relatively low speed of light). Which parts of the application run on your computer and which run on Google's computers? Ultimately, it does not matter, and can change over time (and in fact the split is different for different interfaces -- the basic html interface does not need any Javascript) As an end-user, you simply use the app, and let Google worry about making it all work, keeping it up to date, etc.

Because we're now treating the executable code and system configuration as data that lives in the cloud and is only cached locally, it also makes sense to do away with the old notions of installing and administering applications on your computer. And of course we also need a security and sandboxing system that prevents the code from breaking your computer (as is so common in the Windows world). In the web/Javascript world, this happened somewhat automatically because web apps evolved from simple web pages, and obviously you don't have to install or uninstall web pages -- your browser simply fetches what it needs to display, optionally caches parts of it for improved performance, and discards resources that it no longer needs (since it can always re-fetch them later on).

Cloud-based apps don't necessarily have to be written in Javascript and run in your web browser however. iPhone and Android apps behave in much the same way. Although they can be "installed" or "uninstalled", from a user perspective, that process isn't substantially different from adding or removing a bookmark, and in fact many of those apps are little more than a thin wrapper around an embedded web browser. A combination of technical and review policies prevent those apps from doing anything dangerous to your computer (unlike a Windows app, which could install a new device driver, replace a core system library, install a root-kit, etc). 

One way of understanding this new architecture is to view the entire Internet as a single computer. This computer is a massively distributed system with billions of processors, billions of displays, exabytes of storage, and it's spread across the entire planet. Your phone or laptop is just one part of this global computer, and its primarily purpose is to provide a convenient interface. The actual computation and data storage is distributed in surprisingly complex and dynamic ways, but that complexity is mostly hidden from the end user. For example, interacting with my FriendFeed page involves the coordination of thousands of individual processors and disks owned by a dozen different entities, including you, Facebook, Amazon, Google, your ISP, and many intermediate ISPs. The same is true of the services provided by thousands of other web apps.

This global super-computer enables us to do things that would have been impossible not long ago, such as instantly search billions of documents, access our email and other info from almost anywhere, easily share ideas with thousands or millions of people, collaboratively edit documents with people spread around the world, leak embarrassing diplomatic cables, etc. It also makes it easy to launch new services and applications with almost zero money, which has created a new generation of low-budget startups and expanded the world of high-tech entrepreneurship to many more people.

Inevitable, some curmudgeonly types will say this is all bad, and indeed it is not without some downsides and complications, but overall I believe the development of this global super-computer is one of the most important technological advances in history.

And what about ChromeOS? If my laptop is just one part of a much larger computer, what is the ideal design for my local node? It should be relatively cheap and reliable, secure (no viruses or anything), zero-administration (I don't want to be a sys-admin), easy to use, and fast. I believe this is roughly the design target of ChromeOS. They are building laptops that run the Chrome web browser and approximately nothing else.

I actually like the idea of ChromeOS, so why did I predict its demise? The answer is that we already have millions of devices that almost meet the same ideal, and they are running iOS and Android. In the 1.5 years since ChromeOS was announced, Apple launched the iPad, which quickly became one of the fastest selling new devices ever. Google will necessarily respond by building Android tablets, which means Android will be running on larger, more powerful devices. All of the benefits of ChromeOS (security, instant-on, etc) should apply to Android as well, and I expect that any new Chrome features (mostly under the umbrella of HTML5, but perhaps Native Client as well) will also be added to the Android browser, since platforms succeed by being as large as possible. Once Android has all the benefits of ChromeOS, the most obvious difference will be that ChromeOS lacks the thousands of native apps which are popular on Android. Android apps are closer to web apps than Windows apps in terms of security and manageability, so eliminating them doesn't seem like much of an advantage for ChromeOS. 

The other obvious difference between ChromeOS and Android is that ChromeOS assumes a mouse/track-pad while Android currently assumes a touch interface (many Android devices already have a keyboard). If my prediction is wrong and both OSs stick around, this will probably be the reason. However, I doubt that's enough of a difference to justify maintaining two separate OSs, and ultimately everything may end up with a touch screen anyway. Perhaps the tablet / laptop convertible will make a comeback.

Put another way, the ChromeOS laptops are awkwardly positioned between the established Mac/Windows laptop market, which isn't going away anytime soon, and the rapidly growing Tablet market, and it has approximately zero users. That's not a great place for a new platform to get traction and establish itself. But if it does, I will be happy for it. And even if it doesn't, it may still be a worthwhile experiment.



Friday, October 29, 2010

The quest for freedom and safety: Why I donated $100,000 to YesOn19

The common theme uniting most of my efforts is the desire to be free. One of the reasons I'm so interested in startups is that they give people the freedom to create, independent of the institutional limitations found in large companies. This is why unexpected new ideas and techniques (such as new languages or development practices) often appear first in startups. Of course the startups don't always succeed, but at least I'm free to pursue my own ideas, even if others don't believe in them. And when a startup is successful, it can provide a great deal of financial freedom to the people who built it.

Internal freedom is also very important, though often less obvious. If we are always held back by our own fears and self-limiting beliefs, then we aren't really free. That is why my previous post on serendipity is largely about escaping ego-fear and other negative limitations.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Philosophically, I agree with that. However, if we don't feel safe, if we can't go out in public without fearing for our lives and the lives of our family, then we aren't really free. Since becoming a parent, I've come to understand why parents often seem especially fearful. Our children are so precious to us, and we must keep them safe. I can understand the impulse to simply make more rules, to build taller walls, and to lockup anyone who seems scary.

I think the real point of Benjamin Franklin's quote is that when we destroy freedom, we are ultimately destroying safety as well. This is most apparent when we examine the disastrous effects of drug prohibition.

Not only is prohibition an attack on our basic right to control our own bodies and minds (a philosophical point which most people probably don't care about), but prohibition also provides a multi-billion dollar subsidy to violent criminal organizations that threaten our physical safety and security, something everyone cares about.

The drug cartels have already overrun much of Mexico, and that violence will inevitably spill over in to the United States if we continue subsidising them with one of the world's most lucrative monopolies.

The alternative path is to begin restoring individual freedom and responsibility, defund the drug cartels, and instead shift those dollars towards roads, parks, public safety, and other beneficial causes. This is the solution offered by California's proposition 19, the "Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010".

Some politicians have argued that proposition 19 is "flawed". To me, this seems like a weak defense of the status quo from politicians afraid to stand out on a controversial issue. Of course it's not perfect -- no law is perfect. However, the current system of drug prohibition is much, much worse. "Perfect" is not one of the options offered on Tuesday's ballot. We can either choose "much better" (Yes on 19), or "keep the current, disastrously bad, system" (No on 19). 

If proposition 19 passes, the immediate effect may not be that significant due to federal challenges and such. However, I believe the long-term effects will be enormous. Prohibition is a disaster. Many politicians will admit to this fact, however most of them have been too timid to actually do anything about it, to lead the country towards safer, saner policies. In this case, the voters must lead, and the politicians will follow. Even if 19 does not pass (Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gives it "even odds" of passing), it will still mark an important shift in the debate over drugs, especially if YOU vote for it.

And that's why I decided to donate $100,000 towards the Yes on 19 campaign. It's tempting to wait for the "perfect" solution to the drug issue, but meanwhile millions of lives are being destroyed by the current system. That's evil.

Here are a few more thoughts on the issue:

If you would like to be part of the solution, please share this or other articles, and encourage your friends and family to show up at the polls on Tuesday and vote "YES on 19" (assuming they live in California). Also, donate to YesOn19 -- it's not too late (ads are still being purchased).


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Serendipity finds you

Here is an interesting comment from Hacker News, on a story about someone turning down an early Google offer:
Similar thing happened to me in 1999. I realized Google was way cooler than alta vista and better at finding unknown things rather than Yahoo's directory. Truly the future, I thought. I sent in a resume to do some kind of work not development related; data center & sys admin stuff. They called me twice but I convinced myself that they would not have hired me anyways so I never called back.

Whether or not ignoring Google's calls was the right decision for him, his reason for not taking the call (fear of rejection) isn't great.

I don't have many positive memories from high school, but the one that has stayed with me more than any other comes from the first day of my 11th grade English class. My teacher (I believe his name was "Mr. May") shared a brief anecdote from the prior evening. He was driving home in the rain, and noticed two people on bicycles along the side of the road. He stopped to ask if they needed any help, and ended up driving them back to his house, where they dried off and had dinner with him and his wife. During dinner, the couple shared the stories from their ongoing bike ride across the country.

It's not a very dramatic story, but I loved the serendipitous nature of it, both on the part of the couple having adventures biking across the country, and my teacher who saw people along the road and invited them into his home. None of it was planned -- they simply allowed it to happen. It was inspirational to me because it felt like the right way to live, the fun way to live. I don't think that's how most people operate though.

My own story of how I ended up at Google in 1999 is rather boring. I was interested both in startups, and Linux (which was still somewhat fringe at the time), so I sent my resume to a few companies that I had seen mentioned on Slashdot (a rather lazy job search, in hindsight). Fortunately, most of them never even responded, and only one actually offered me a job, Google. I was skeptical of their business and didn't expect it to last long, but it seemed like it could be fun and educational, so I accepted.

Obviously that's an example of rather extreme luck, but I've noticed that most of the good things that happen to me follow that general pattern, and aren't part of any "plan". The story of how I met my wife is remarkably similar. Shortly after moving to California, I signed up for match.com, read a bunch of profiles, emailed three of them, and only one responded. I was very much not looking for someone to marry, but that's what happened anyway. As they say, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

My plans rarely work (unless they are boringly simple), but serendipity has been good to me, so over time I've tried to make the most of that. My theory of serendipity is still evolving, but from what I've seen, it's better to think in terms of "allowing" serendipity rather than "seeking" it or "creating" it. Opportunity is all around us, but we have beliefs and habits that block it.

The two biggest blocks to serendipity seem to be ego-fear and "other plans".

I'm using the term "ego-fear" to describe fears that go beyond rational concern. For example, you wouldn't run out into the middle of a freeway thanks to a healthy fear of getting run over by a car -- that's not ego-fear. However, the fear that often keeps people from public speaking, talking to strangers, interviewing for jobs, etc is typically driven by fear of embarrassment, humiliation, rejection, criticism, etc -- that's ego-fear. Sometimes it can be difficult to separate the two types of fear because ego-fear will rationalize itself as healthy fear, e.g. "I don't want to talk to that stranger because they could attack me, or waste my time."

The HN commenter quoted above who never accepted Google's calls because, in his words, "they would not have hired me anyways", seems to be experiencing quite a bit of ego-fear, fear of rejection and humiliation. That fear is probably blocking a lot of great opportunities.

It's tempting to try and think your way out of ego-fear, but I suspect that only makes the problem worse by generating a more complex tangle of rationalizations for the fear. Fear is defeated by confrontation -- avoidance only makes it stronger.

"You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do." - Eleanor Roosevelt

The program for eliminating ego-fear and unblocking serendipity is very simple: seek ego-fear. Hunt it down and soak in it. Steal its energy. This is, by definition, scary. That's good.

The other big serendipity block seems to be "the plan". Serendipity and luck are by their very nature unpredictable, and therefore not part of any good plan. When something unexpected happens, things are no longer "going according to plan", and there is a tendency to view the unexpected event either as a distraction, or as a frustrating obstacle to success.

The difference between a life full of frustrating obstacles, and a life full of serendipity, is largely a matter of interpretation. It can be difficult, but the most beneficial response to unexpected events is a sense of gratitude. Even seemingly adverse events can lead to something great. Accept what is given. (see Yes Man for a cute caricature of this mindset)

"Plans are worthless. Planning is essential." - Dwight D. Eisenhower

Planning in itself is not a bad thing, but picking a single plan and obsessively sticking to it doesn't allow for much serendipity. The world is very complicated, and we humans are very stupid, so it's good to be flexible and open minded about things. Instead of having one plan, have one thousand plans, and revise them as necessary. 

The desire to have "a plan" can also cause "paralysis of analysis" -- we put all of our energy into formulating the perfect plan, and consequently never actually do anything. The more effective approach is to simply pick a plan with the knowledge that it's flawed, set the plan in action, and then adapt, revise, or switch plans as the world unfolds.

I suspect the desire to have a definite plan is also partially rooted in fear. Uncertainty can be scary, and having a plan helps create the illusion of predictability in a very unpredictable world. However, if we actually manage to reduce risk and unpredictability, then we are also reducing serendipity. This is one reason why large organizations often have trouble producing innovation -- they want it to be planned and scheduled, but that just kills it.

The whole notion that plans are something that we should "stick to" makes them distracting enough that I prefer to call them "ideas" or "rough sketches" instead. Personally, I try to avoid having plans for my life, but I have many ideas. Which ones actually happen will be a surprise to me. It's more fun that way.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

What to do with your millions

There's another "I just got a bunch of money, what do I do now?" type post on Hacker News today, and much of the advice is from people who clearly don't know, though the current top comment is actually very good. Since this is a relatively common issue (ha ha) in the startup world, I think it's worth sharing a little of what I've learned from observing others who have this "problem" (yeah, cry me a river, right?). This is somewhat dangerous since money is a very delicate topic for many people, so if you have any strong feelings, please skip this post.

Although today's poster only asked, "What do I do with my money?", there's a second, related question that's also very important, "What do I do with my life?" In both cases, I think the right answer is, "start slow, and avoid making any big decisions now", though as always, there are exceptions.

The money question is the easier of the two to answer: First, don't lose the money!

Many people will naively tell you to immediately hire a financial advisor. What those people don't understand is that the only skill a financial advisor needs in order to be successful is the ability to sell you things. Their actual financial skills are almost irrelevant. Unfortunately, this means that you will need to learn something about money management, and that will take time. Fortunately, you have plenty of time. Read what Warren Buffett has to say about financial helpers. Spend a few years getting recommendations and talking to various advisors before deciding (intermittently, not full-time, of course). Avoid hiring this guy. Meanwhile, put your money in a very safe fixed-income investment, such as short-term CDs. You can circumvent the FDIC insurance limit by having the money spread accross multiple banks (think of it as "RAID for money") -- see CDARS for more info. Don't rush to invest it in the stock market -- that's risky and you could easily lose half of your money in a matter of months. Avoid long-term or illiquid investments, though it's fine to put a few percent into random things such as startups, but understand that you'll probably lose that money, so consider it an educational expense.

Edit: Many people have incorrectly interpreted my advice as, "don't hire a financial advisor". My actual advice is, "don't rush to hire a financial advisor -- just keep things very simple and take time to decide what is right for you." I personally have a bunch of advisors.

Longer term, you'll probably want to diversify into other types of investments. Unfortunately, there's no simple formula for how to do this, and the right answer will depend on your own financial particulars, emotional composition (how does losing money make you feel?), etc. Again though, the most important thing to understand is that you don't need to decide this now. If anyone pressures you to do anything right now (especially financial advisors), tell them that you are not presently interested in their services, only be less polite about it :)

Now for the hard question: What to do with your life?

First, it's important to understand that once you have the basics, happiness comes primarily from healthy social connections and a sense of purpose. If you quit your job and move to a new city where you don't know anyone or have a clear purpose, there's a good chance that you'll end up depressed or even suicidal. So unless your current life is very broken, don't do that. Take it slow.

Many people with jobs have a fantasy about all the amazing things they would do if they didn't need to work. In reality, if they had the drive and commitment to do actually do those things, they wouldn't let a job get in the way. Unfortunately, if given a lot of money, they are much more likely to end up addicted to crack, or even worse, World of Warcraft. (edit, since people are getting offended: there are, as always, exceptions, but the point is that actually doing stuff is about a million times harder than just dreaming about it, which is why 99% of people wouldn't actually do it even if money weren't an issue) If you've been institutionalized your entire life (school, work, etc), it can be very difficult to adjust to life on "the outside".

Again, don't make any drastic changes unless you really need to. Spend time building up new activities, interests, and social connections, especially ones that will give your life a sense of purpose.

Money can also mess with your identity in bad ways. It's important to remember that we're all made of the same shit -- some people are just a little luckier than others. The nice thing about money is that it gives you more freedom, but it can also be a prison if it takes over your identity, makes you fearful, or causes you to cut off connections with the people around you. True freedom comes from the inside anyway -- we're all still slaves to the larger system. (while searching for a story to illustrate this point, I ended up on Epictetus's Wikipedia page -- he seems to have had it about right, so I'll go with that, though The Matrix is also entertaining)

Sometimes, good fortune can also make people feel guilty. But if you find yourself in this situation, you were probably already very lucky (reasonably healthy, intelligent, well educated, etc) -- there's no reason to feel bad about getting slightly more lucky. Your luck is a gift. It's ungrateful to not make the most out of it (and also help others become a little more lucky).

Explore the opportunity. Do something remarkable. Go for a walk in the park. Appreciate the trees.


Saturday, April 03, 2010

Today is my wife's birthday...

For her birthday, she wants as many people as possible to donate to her cause, raising $55,555 for the Intensive Care Nursery (ICN) at UCSF Children's Hospital, where our daughter spent the first several months of her life. Proceeds will go towards funding hospital neonatal supplies and monitoring equipment, family-oriented support programs, and neurodevelopmental programs.

To donate, go to causes.com/ucsfpreemies. You can also contribute by: 1) Donating directly using UCSF's 'Make a Gift' page. 2) Making a contribution offline, by sending a check. Please write your check out to 'UCSF Foundation', indicate on the memo line 'UCSF Preemies', and mail to: UCSF P.O. Box 45339 San Francisco, CA 94145-0339 3) For those of you who are contributing through your Donor Advised Fund, please reference the foundation's EIN/tax ID#: 94-2829914