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There has been a cliche going around the last decade or so that goes “hope is not a strategy.” It inspired a book titled Hope Is Not a Strategy: The 6 Keys to Winning the Complex Sale and is repeated often by VCs in boardrooms when they are confronted with companies that are flailing, especially when trying to reach their revenue goals. I’ve been guilty of saying it a few times although it always left a funny taste in my mouth and I didn’t know why until this morning when I read a great essay (unpublished at this point) by Dov Seidman, the the Founder and CEO of LRN. In it Dov has a great punch line.
“No doubt you’ve heard the old business cliché that hope is not a strategy. During the recent presidential election one candidate in fact said this very thing in an attack ad against the other. It’s an expression usually used to belittle someone and to exhort them to deliver a linear plan. And while they are right that hope is technically not a strategy, inspirational leaders understand one final thing: that without hope there is no strategy. “
He is so absolutely correct.
I’m an optimistic, hopeful person. I think things will turn out ok. I don’t deny reality and I live by the words of John Galt when he said “It’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering.” I suffer plenty, I have plenty of things fail, and I’m sure I disappoint a lot of people. But I never give up hope, never give up trying to do better, and never give up learning from my mistakes.
We are coming to the end of a calendar year that has had a lot of crazy, bizarre, hostile, and negative stuff in it, especially in the past two months. I measure my years by my birthday, so my new year started on 12/1 when I booted up v47 of me. I was in pretty rough shape physically and emotionally because of the preceding few months but I was on the mend and optimistic. Other than struggling through a nasty cold (which is clearly linked to a completely trashed immune system from a pile of antibiotics and the past few months of system stress) I’ve had a great few weeks with Amy, some friends, and very little travel.
As I look forward to the next year, I have a clear strategy – both for my work, my personal life, and my health. A bunch of friends have said mildly cynical things like “you say that every year” or “I just read the annual ‘Brad broke himself” blog post” – mostly in an effort to be supportive, but clearly with the view that no matter what I try differently each year, the outcome will be the same and I’ll melt down somewhere in October or November.
Part of the beauty of an annual cycle is the opportunity to try again. To revisit your existing strategy or to create a new strategy. To shift your mindset from “this is inevitable” to “having hope for a different outcome.” Now – if you only have hope, but no strategy, you won’t make any progress. But if you have a strategy, but no hope, you are dooming yourself to failure before you begin.
So take advantage of this time of year. Do whatever you need to do to hit reset. Purge your brain of all the angry, negative, cynical, defeatist crap. Accept that context in which we are living. Then, create a new strategy for yourself – for work, for yourself personally, for your relationship, for whatever, and inject a good dose of hope into the mix.
Do something new. And be extraordinary at it. Remember Yoda – do or do not, there is not try.
As they wheeled me into surgery, I thought to myself “If this is the end it has been pretty amazing.” This is a photo my brother Daniel took of me just after they wheeled me out of the recovery room and back into my little cubby hole where Amy and Daniel were hanging out. While I don’t remember any of this, probably due to being under the influence of Versed (a truly amazing drug) at least I had the right attitude in response to Daniel saying “take that kidney stone!”
I had an 8mm kidney stone removed using Laser Stone Surgery using Flexible Pyeloscopy on Friday 11/16. While not a major surgery, I still went under general anesthesia for two hours for the first time as an adult. Amy describes this as “they take you to death’s door, open it a crack, let you peer in for a while, and then pull you back and close it.” I probably didn’t need her to tell me that description prior to the surgery.
On Sunday 11/18 I went to Cabo San Lucas for a two week vacation which included my 47th birthday. I don’t remember much of the first week – I was stoned on Vicodin and in a happy, warm, cuddly, very constipated, fields of golden retriever puppy haze. I stopped taking Vicodin on Thursday 11/22 but it still took a few more days to start feeling normal. I dropped off the grid entirely for the week of 11/8 but resurfaced to do some email and writing the week of 11/25. By 12/1 (my 47th birthday) I felt about 90% and was very relieved to have the surgery, and the prior three months behind me.
This period started off on 9/5 in Kobarid, Solvenia with a bike accident. I broke a tooth, got some stitches, and badly bruised my ribs. It was entirely my fault and my partner Ryan McIntyre, who I crashed into, saved me from much more severe damage. I then proceeded to spend the next three weeks on the road, totaling a month away from home. That was mistake #1, as I underestimated how tired I’d get from it. Mistake #2 was underestimating the damage from the bike accident. I ended up running the Detroit Marathon on 10/21 and did fine, but I was completely wiped out physically by the end of October. I continued to spend a lot of time in October and November on the road and found myself exhausted and depressed by the end of it. And then our dog Kenai died.
Oh – and Amy and I wrote the bulk of Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur during this time period (it’s done – we submitted the final page proofs over the weekend.) I recognize the irony of completely burning myself out during the writing of this book – fortunately we talk about this challenge plenty in the book and we communicated extraordinarily well as a couple during this time frame about what was going on. Finally, I do have a full time job and spent the bulk of my time working on that, so all of this other stuff was the extracurricular activity that filled in the cracks around the 60+ hours a week of VC work I was doing during this time.
I had a lot of time to reflect on this last week after I came out of my Vicodin-induced haze. At 47, I realize, more than ever, my mortality. I believe my kidney stone and depression were linked to the way I treated myself physically over the 90 days after my bike accident. While the kidney stone might not have been directly linked to the accident, the culmination of it, the surgery, and my depression was a clear signal to me that I overdid it this time around.
I’m back in Boulder and very refreshed. I’m also determined to learn from this experience. Amy and I spent a lot of time last week talking about changing the tempo on some things, including adding in some new daily habits like yoga that prioritize higher than other things. And I’ve accepted that part of my travel pacing has to include being home over the weekends to so I can recharge my extrovert.
Thanks everyone who gave me well-wishes and support the past few weeks. It means a lot to me. I leave you with the sunrise from Cabo that I saw each morning during the past two weeks.
I was going to write something about a new book I’ve just published but I woke up this morning and that felt trivial so I’m going to save it for next week. Instead, I’m going to talk about my day yesterday.
My long time friend (dating back to the mid-1990′s) Andy Sack has testicular cancer. Before I get into things, he’s in the middle of chemo, has a 95%+ cure rate, is open and public about what he’s going through, and has an incredibly positive attitude.
I’ve tried to call or write Andy every day since his diagnosis. I’ve probably done it 80% of the time (I know I’ve missed a few days.) Every day at 5pm my iPhone gives me a reminder to “call Andy Sack.” Most of the time I get his voice mail and leave a message, other times we talk for a few minutes. While I was off the grid last week in Hawaii I sent him a postcard every day. Either way, I get a chance to tell him that I’m thinking of him and give him some additional energy from out in the universe, wherever I am. But this was the first time I’ve been able to get to Seattle to spend time with him.
I took the early flight from Denver to Seattle and we met up at the Kinect Accelerator where the program has just started. We found a room to just sit and talk for about 45 minutes. After a hug and a heart felt welcome, we started talking about how things were going. Our first 15 minutes were filled with lots of tears and emotion as I gave Andy a gift from a few of his friends including me and Amy and we connected physically for the first time since he was diagnosed.
I was curious about the experience he was having and he was very open about chemo, how it impacted him, and what the process was. We talked some about the dynamic of a loved one being sick or hurt since Amy’s had a broken arm for the past few weeks. While the broken arm isn’t in the same category as cancer, it has changed the way I’ve thought about caregiving as it’s the first time I’ve had to be – in Amy’s words “her man servant” – in our relationship. Amy called during this time and when the Imperial March (Amy’s personal ringtone) started playing on my iPhone Andy laughed a good belly laugh. I put Amy on speaker, the three of us had a nice talk, and then we wrapped up and had a TechStars related meeting.
We went to lunch with David Cohen, the CEO of TechStars. We talked about work, but we also talked about life. Andy was total present – he was having a good day physically and emotionally – and it was great to be around. After lunch David got in an Uber and headed to the airport to go back to Boulder; Andy and I walked around the corner to his office and BigDoor’s office (he’s on the board of BigDoor with me, their office is on the first floor, his is on the second.) I said hello to the BigDoor folks, hung out for a while and caught up on email while Andy had a meeting upstairs, and then he drove me to my hotel and we said goodbye for the day.
I had a few more meetings and then ended back up at the Kinect Accelerator for the Mentor Mixer. The program started on Monday and this was the first meeting of all the mentors. I gave a talk about how to be an effective mentor during the introduction to the program and afterward noticed Andy in the back of the room. This was a nice surprise as I didn’t expect to see him again on this trip. We hung out at the mixer a little and then took off to go have another meal together – this time alone. We talked about a few experiences in the distant past and I vividly remembered a dinner in Brookline in the 1990′s with Andy, Alexa (his wife), and Amy. I couldn’t remember the restaurant, but I had the visualization of the entire experience in my head and shared it with him (he remembered it also). We talked more about a wide range of things – some business, some personal – and just enjoyed being together.
I got more than my fair share of his time yesterday. And it was awesome. As I was laying bed at 11pm drifting off to sleep I thought of him some more, some of the ups and downs we’d had together, and how much I treasured him as a friend.
We’ve been through lots of things together. One of the first things he said to me when he saw me was “your support of me through this period eliminated any fears I had lingering about our relationship in the context of any money that I’ve lost for you.” I’ve invested in a number of things that Andy has done dating back to his first company (Abuzz, which was a success and acquired by the NY Times for about a 4.5x of my investment.) But we’ve also had lots of things not work (Bodyshop.com – 0.5x, Judy’s Book – 0.25x.) However, I never, ever have worried about it – my willingness to keep trying and working with great people trumps the specific returns of any individual transaction. And more importantly, my personal friendship and loyalty is built on trust and a long term arc of honesty, not transactional results. While we’ve both screwed up plenty of things along the way and had our share of disagreements, we always resolve them and move forward. I’ve told Andy this several times in the past, but when you face mortality you have a chance to really understand (and express) this.
I wore my Fuck Cancer shirt all day. Several people gave me positive comments on it and one stood out. Near the end of the day, a woman who I didn’t know said “great shirt.” She looked at me with acknowledgement and a real spark of connection occurred. I realized, at that moment, that cancer is a disease that defines many people at a profoundly deep level, especially when they survive it.
On Saturday I’m running a 50 mile race in Sacramento. I’ve been thinking about this all week as I try to get my mind into it. It’s been hard to get real focus on it because I’ve had a busy week and I know that Friday will be my transition day. But as I sit here, the 50 mile run doesn’t seem that hard. Sure – it’ll be a physical and emotional challenge, but it’s not surgery, a 64 day chemo regimen, and the emotional challenge of “beating cancer.”
Life is short. And uncertain. Live it every moment. Andy – thanks for being you and letting me be part of your life.
My dad is one of my best friends. His birthday is on Saint Patrick’s Day and it has been a bright green celebration for as long as I can remember. He turned 74 today and we had dinner tonight at Oak at Fourteenth with Amy, my mom Cecelia, my sister-in-law Laura, my brother Daniel, and their daughter Sabrina. We had a wonderful evening and it reminded me once again of the importance and delight of family.
I’ve learned many things from my dad during the 46 years I’ve been on this planet. Following are a few pivotal ones that have shaped my life.
Age 10: I told my dad I didn’t want to be a doctor like him. I didn’t like how hospitals smelled, I was bored when we did rounds together (I just wanted to sit in the corner and read), and I didn’t like being around sick people. He told me that I could do anything I wanted to do.
Age 12: I hated learning Hebrew and thought being Bar Mitzvah’ed was stupid. My dad didn’t fight me on how I felt, but he told me tradition was important and this was a seminal jewish tradition. I procrastinated as long as I could and then crammed over the last few weeks. He sat with me, coached me through it, and was patient with me when I continued to fight the process. My Bar Mitzvah was a powerful learning experience, and, while I eventually became an atheist, am glad that I participated in the key jewish tradition.
Age 17: After two months at MIT, I was ready to quit. All of my friends had gone to UT Austin, including my girlfriend, and I was homesick and lonely. As we wandered around Concord, MA on a beautiful October day, he told me to give it a year and if I still didn’t like it, I could go somewhere else. But he told me I’d be short changing myself if I didn’t give it a year. By spring time I had fully embraced MIT and never looked back.
Age 21: Dave Jilk (another Saint Patrick’s baby) and I started Feld Technologies. My dad was our third partner, sat on our board, and contributed continuously as a mentor to us as we figured out how to create and build a company. He personally guaranteed a $20,000 line of credit with his bank which was our beginning working capital (which we stupidly used up immediately, although that made us realize we had to be profitable and cash flow positive from the beginning because there was no more money to tap.) Almost every year Dave, my dad, and I would go away somewhere for an annual meeting. I remember these weekends fondly as they shaped the path of our business. My favorite line from this period that I remember from him was “if you aren’t on the edge you are taking up too much space.”
Age 24: My father resisted the easy temptation to say “I told you so” when I got divorced. When I dropped out of a PhD program, he told me he supported any decision I made. When I was feeling sorry for myself, he’d remind me cheerfully that “everyone pees in the shower.” His unambiguous support of me, at a period of darkness in my life, was priceless.
Age 29: When Amy and I decided to move to Boulder, the first words out of my dad’s mouth were “that’s a great idea.”
There are many more like this, but this should give you the sense for it. In addition to being one of my best friends, he’s been an incredible mentor, business partner, and supporter. I love his sense of humor, his joie de vivre, and his endless curiosity. He always lights up any room he’s in, is always learning, and keeps on trying new things.
Dad – happy birthday. You are awesome. Green suits you.
Today is my 46th birthday. I’m hanging out with a bunch of friends and family, enjoying their company, and reflecting on the past year. 45 was a good, but intense year. Lots of ups, a few downs, and much learned. Following are some of the things I’m chewing on as I start being 46.
Mortality: I’ve had a lot of reminders of mortality lately. In the past year, several close friends’ parents have died and a few other friends have gotten very ill. When I think about being 46, I accept that even in the best case scenario I’m probably half way done with my time on this planet. I’m happy with my physical self – I’m probably in the best shape I’ve been in since I was in my early 20′s – but I’ve finally decided to really focus on dropping the 20 pounds I want to get rid of. Rather than being 210, I’d like to spend the rest of my life around 190.
Optimism: I’m an optimistic person – always have been. I’ve noticed an incredible amount of negativity around the system in the past year. Historically I’ve tuned out most of it because I ignore all non-tech news, but I’ve really noticed it in the tech news the past year. Clearly a switch flipped and the journalist / bloggers decided the best way to get attention – or at least links – was to be negative. Balanced is fine (not all is good), but the preponderance of negative trending toward nasty and hostile, especially without any facts or substance behind it, is a drag. I haven’t decided what to do about this yet, but I think I’ll likely just keep tuning it out the best I can.
Learning: I had another awesome year on this front. Between the companies and entrepreneurs I get to work with, TechStars, the books I’ve written, my running, and all the random stuff that I talk about and explore with Amy, I’ve learned more than I could have hoped for. I especially loved the experience of living in a new city for a month (Paris) – just living – not trying to be a tourist, or alter my normal work rhythm, but live in a totally different place for 30 days. Amy and I are going to do this in New York from mid-April to mid-May in 2012 as part of our “live for a month in a different city every year” experience.
No Assholes: I’ve worked really hard to get to a place where I get to spend almost all of my time with people who I want to spend time with. I’ve been able to do this while figuring out how to engage with lots of new, interesting people all the time. I’m going to work even harder at this at 46 – more great people, no assholes.
Travel: My greatest personal disappointment while I was 45 is that I sucked at managing my travel – again. At several points throughout the year I was completely exhausted from the endless cross-country travel. I’m taking a totally different approach at 46 – I’ve already locked down my entire schedule for 2012. With the exceptions of emergencies, I’m not making any trips that aren’t already scheduled. There will be a lot more video conferencing in 2012 and longer stays in cities when I do travel. Who knows if that tempo will work better, but I’m going to try.
For all of you who are part of my life directly, who know me through this blog, or have a relationship with me in any way, thanks for being part of my first 45 years. I look forward to spending time with you during the next 45.