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Last night I had the pleasure of talking at a dinner at Emily White’s house. Emily is on the board of the National Center of Women & Information Technology with me, is ex-Google, currently at Facebook, and with her husband Brian are amazing hosts. We had a fascinating group of NCWIT board members as well as a bunch of local entrepreneurs and members of the bay area entrepreneurial ecosystem who had a connection either to Emily or to me. The environment, food, and evening was delightful, and I led a discussion about a wide variety of topics after doing a 30 minute space jam in answer to Emily’s lead off question of “So Brad, what’s on your mind?”
We covered a lot of stuff around entrepreneurship, creators, the magic of doing things, the importance of asking “why”, and my belief that we are in the midst of a massive societal behavior shift. One of the questions that a long time friend asked was something like “My daughter is in high school and worries about the path she needs to be on to make sure when she gets out of college that she gets a good job. If you were me, what would you tell her?”
I don’t have kids so I don’t really feel qualified to answer this from a parents perspective, but I answered it with a story of three key things my dad said to me between the ages of 10 and 17 that had a profound impact on what I’ve done and how I live my life.
Age 10: You can do anything you want: My dad is a doctor. He came home for dinner every night but would often go back to the hospital in the evening (and on weekend) to do rounds and visit patients. Until I was 10 I’d often go with him. I loved hanging out with him, would bring a book, and plop down at the nurses station and read while I waited for him to go about his business. At 10, I decided I had no interest in being a doctor. I didn’t like the way hospitals smelled, I didn’t like the noise and the chaos, and I lost interest in all the doctors I was meeting. I remember telling my dad that I didn’t want to be a doctor. I blurted it out – think of a very nervous 10 year old just spitting out “Dad – I don’t want to be a doctor.” I remember my dad looking me in the eye and saying very clearly, “Brad – that’s ok – you can do anything you want to do.”
Age 13: We didn’t want to discourage you so we were supportive: When I was 10 – 13 I was a serious tennis play. I played all the time and was on the Texas junior tennis circuit. I was pretty good – consistently getting to the quarterfinals in singles and occasionally the semifinals. When I turned 13 I bought a computer for my bar mitzvah. I also hit puberty and discovered girls. I lost interest in tennis. Recently I was talking to dad about this and wondered what he thought at the time. He said that he and my mom were supportive of my tennis, but were relieved when I decided to quit playing. They were sick of schlepping me around Highway 80 and other places in Texas to spend the whole weekend watching me play, scream and yell, throw my racket, and then mope when I eventually lost. He said “I didn’t want to discourage you, so we were supportive, but we were relieved when you went down a different path.”
Age 17: Give it a year: My first two months at MIT were awful. I was homesick – all my friends, including my girlfriend, had gone to UT Austin. I got a 20 on my first physics test and went in my room for an hour and cried. I was completely overwhelmed by Cambridge and Boston – the people, the dirt, and the hustle of the city. The fraternity I lived in was filthy. The early winter chill startled me. And I thought Dallas, where I grew up, was the greatest place on early. My parents came and visited me in mid-October for a weekend. We were walking around on a crisp fall day in Concord, MA when I told them I hated MIT and wanted to drop out and go to UT with all of my friends. We talked to for a while – with my parents mostly listening – and then my dad said “You’ve only been here two months. Give it a year. If you still hate it after a year, switch to UT. But give it enough time to really understand it.” I ended up staying at MIT, getting two degrees, dropping out of a PhD program (I finally got to achieve my desire to drop out), and – while many of my days at MIT were brutal, I ended up loving the experience and treasure the impact it has had on my life.
I’m really lucky to have parents who have been awesome and incredibly supportive of me. When I reflect on the things that shaped the path I’ve taken, it was often short little one liners like these at a critical moment. My dad was just magical with his timing and his message. I can only hope I can be as good as he is.
My friend Dov Seidman, the CEO of LRN, has a new edition of his book How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything out. In this copy, the forward is by President Bill Clinton, who has firmly embraced Dov’s philosophy of HOW.
We’ve been investors in Dov’s company LRN for the past decade and over the last five years I’ve gotten to know Dov and his wife Maria pretty well. They are a dynamic entrepreneurial couple, as Maria is founder / CEO of a new company called Yapp. In addition to being hard at work creating their companies and raising a family, they both live incredibly principled lives. How they do this is embodied in Dov’s philosophy about HOW.
Ever since I’ve know Dov, he’s talked about the importance of HOW. Not what, not why, not how much – just simply HOW. We’ve had our share of long conversations about a variety of topics, but they all come back to the HOW of things.
Dov believes that HOW is everything. It’s not what you do that matters, but how you do it. LRN exists to help businesses understand and incorporate this concept, as the historical approach to business has been all about “how much”, and if you read, ponder, think carefully about, and internalize Dov’s writing and philosophy, you quickly realize that “how much” is irrelevant when lined up against HOW as a construct.
While this applies to business, it also applies to life. My favorite part of working with and talking to Dov is just letting our conversations go wherever they want. While we occasionally stay focused on business, we often drift into wide ranging discussions about our individual lives, HOW we address things, and HOW it all works, and HOW we think about it.
Sure, there is plenty of why and what and where and who in our conversations, and I continue to be a very strong believer in the use of the five whys (continually asking why to get to the root cause of things), but I’m also a deep believer in asking about and focusing on the HOW.
I have dinner with Dov on Monday night and am looking forward to it very much. In the mean time, I encourage you to get a copy of How, read it thoughtfully, and think hard about the HOW in everything you do.
I had several conversations with entrepreneurs this week who were struggling with a specific issue that had plagued them for a while. In each case these are strong, capable entrepreneurs who I’ve known for a long time. As with all entrepreneurs (and humans), they have strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots. In each case, I felt like self-doubt had crept into their brains around the specific weakness they were struggling with.
On the way to the airport, I had call with another entrepreneur that I work with. Same tenor – something that he’s struggled with for a while was causing him to lose confidence. We talked most of the way to the airport and by the end of the conversation, it was clear that, while this is an issue that has been a struggle for a while, it’s one that this person has actually done a good job on, but just has never crushed it. The frustration – over a period of time – started to morph into self doubt.
When I realized this, I gave him some specific suggestions, using the frame of reference of “inquiry.” This is how I deal with my own self doubt. Whenever I find myself struggling with something that I think is important, I go on an inquiry to learn as much as I can about the issue, figure out what I’m struggling with, figure out a solution that works for me, and then implement it. I’ve done this numerous times in my life – sometimes the inquiries are short (24 hours); other times they last a decade or more.
When I thought about what might be generating this self doubt in otherwise successful, smart, and intellectually / emotionally strong people, I realized that the context that we are in is often a driver. Suddenly lots of companies are having what appears to be success and rapid growth. If you are an entrepreneur and you are not running one of these, even if you are experienced and successful, it’s easily to start to doubt yourself. This is especially true when you find yourself in a bumpy spot in your business.
Perspective matters a lot at these moments. I’ve had a lot of successes and failures. Whenever I fail at something, I just get up, try to learn something from it, and try again. But I don’t benchmark myself against others – I don’t care where I am on any particular list, I don’t care what other people are saying, I don’t care what is written about me (good or bad). I just try to learn from each experience and get better. And, when I realize that I’m doubting my ability to do something, I double down on the notion of figuring it out and use an inquiry to get me there.
After reflecting over the past few weeks on Turning 45 as well as Death and Dying, I’ve reached a conclusion that I’ve said out loud several times: “My life is most likely more than half over.” The singularity not withstanding, the chances, at least today, that I’ll live to be over 90 aren’t great.
Over the weekend, I saw two blog posts from friends – one from Joanne Wilson about her mom passing away titled Judy Solomon, Entrepreneur and one from Ken Smith (I’m actually close to Ken’s brother Keith, the CEO of BigDoor) titled A Eulogy for Elmer Smith. Both are beautifully written – Judy was 73 and Elmer was 97. Joanne starts off with a very insightful statement:
“Old enough to have lived a full life yet young enough to have had her life cut short. I always thought she would live to the ripe old age of 90 something, but life doesn’t always turn out as expected. “
Several of you recommended that I read Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy – Until You’re 80 and Beyond. It was one of the books I read during my week off the grid the first week of December and I enjoyed it a lot.
It had two key graphs in it. The first is the normal “human being decay cycle.” Basically, at the age of 45, most humans start a long, slow, gradual decay ending in death.
The second is the “desired decay cycle.”
The book talks about how to live your life from 45 forward so you experience the second curve. As Amy likes to say, there are usually only a few things you need to do to accomplish physical health (e.g. if you want to lose weight, (1) eat less and (2) exercise more.) In this case, it’s (1) don’t eat crap and (2) exercise six days a week, at least two of them with weights.
There’s a lot more in the book, including plenty of real medical, health, and physiology explanations from Dr, Harry Lodge (the co-author). But just internalizing these graphs along with the two tips from the book have enabled me to re-commit to the six-day a week exercise approach (at least two of them with weights).
I sure do like the second graph a lot better than the first graph.
Two colleagues have died suddenly in the past two weeks – one was in his 60′s and one was in his 50′s. Both shook me up. A close friend’s mother is very ill. And a close friend’s father died earlier this year.
I’ve had a physical challenging year. I ran a marathon in February and was geared up for a lot of running and then hurt my back. Seven months later I’m better, but I had five months of solid and consistent pain (never getting below a two on a 0 to 10 scale and often reaching eight or nine.) On top of that, I’ve had a few nasty colds, including a staph infection in my earlobe that scared the shit out of at least one doctor. Oh, and two weeks ago my extrovert completely burned out.
When I read the title to Fred Wilson’s blog this morning (Pacing Yourself) I thought he was going to talk about “personal pace.” His post ended up being about investment pace (and is a very important one), but it has deep roots in personal pace, even if they aren’t obvious on the surface.
I’m turning 45 in a few weeks and this is the first year of my life that I’ve felt any amount of sustainable physical fatigue. Every year I run extremely “hot” until I burn out, but then I recover in a week or so of deep sleep and rest. Suddenly, however, I’m feeling tired on a more regular basis. My binge sleeping on the weekend is reaching new levels. It takes me a few days to recover from a redeye (and, as a result I’ve decided not to take them anymore.) The periodic intervention from my partners about “pushing too hard” seems to be turning into an annual affair.
Fear of death motivates a lot of human behavior. I’d like to believe that I’m tranquil about death (when my number is up, it’s up) and when I read posts like Regrets of the Dying (thanks @djilk) I smile and feel good about how I approach my life. But this year feels like a transformative one for me as I am suddenly acknowledging that I’m probably not in the first half of my life anymore.
I had a couple of dreams that past few days about death and dying and good versus evil. I’m 99.9% confident these dreams are a result of me watching the Star Wars episodes over the past five days (Return of the Jedi is tonight – then I’ll be done). As I come out of my latest burnout cycle, I’m starting to ponder how and what to adjust so that year 45 if a healthier one than 44 and doesn’t have a burnout week (or month) in it.