In my dream, I enter a children’s playroom about the size of my daughter’s classroom. Everywhere there are little boys and girls playing together. Older women are standing around watching with beatific smiles on their faces. It takes me a moment before I realize these are the children we lost last Friday.
I walk over to each and every one. Some I pick up and some I squat down to hug. While I hold them in my arms I whisper in their ear, “Your parents love you very much. They can’t join you right now but they’ll be here. And they are going to hug you a hundred times as hard as I can.”
Allison, Ana, Avielle, Benjamin, Caroline, Catherine, Charlotte, Chase, Daniel, Dylan, Emilie, Grace, Jack, James, Jesse, Jessica, Josephine, Madeleine, Noah, Olivia - we miss you terribly.
The Problem With Gyms
Our local gym has almost as many members as town residents. If everyone who is a member showed up all at once, the place would look like a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. There would be no parking, streets would be clogged for miles around, and the line for the Stairmaster would stretch out the building.
But that never happens. Even at the beginning of the year when people are honoring their New Years’ resolutions, I always find parking available. Why is that? Because gyms get paid by getting members to signup and then not having members show up.
Given this framework, the couch potato who wants to lose weight, but won’t, is much more profitable than the dedicated bodybuilder. The bodybuilder is going to be there everyday putting wear and tear on the equipment. The couch potato, no. He’ll signup with the best of intentions and then never follow through. And the gym will not provide much motivation after the initial signup is done.
Obviously, there’s something wrong here. Gyms can very easily put in programs to encourage participation. Some examples include putting a “Miles Run” scoreboard
on the wall or, as my high school weight room had, a “How many pounds over your
body weight can you bench press?” name wall, or a “Member of the Month.” Gym
owners can do this but won’t until it makes good economic sense.
I’ve thought about this for awhile - how do you make it so gyms want to encourage their members to use the equipment? The best solution I can think of is to offer tax benefits either directed towards gyms or individuals. Gyms could be offered a “Get your members fit” benefit. Individuals could be given a fitness tax credit.
You can justify such a benefit in that the obese and unhealthy currently incur a
cost on me, a healthy person. The basic question is - shouldn’t society encourage its members to lead a healthy lifestyle? I see nothing wrong in using tax incentives to encourage people to do so.
Improved the Comcast remote by removing 20 buttons. Next up, the interface on my microwave.
Elizabeth Kolbert mentions “research [that] shows that people who have children are no more satisfied with their lives than people who don’t” as a factor in Christine Overall’s case that people should reconsider procreation (“The Case Against Kids,” April 9th).
But what does self-reported happiness really measure? Consider two hypothetical Saturdays: one spent sitting on the sofa, and another spent climbing a mountain. It is safe to assume that the couch-sitter would report higher levels of hour-by-hour happiness than the climber, as he would encounter none of the fatigue and pain experienced by the latter. But the climber would be able to report a sense of accomplishment and would have banked a memorable experience.
Put simply, happiness involves two dimensions: gratifcation and achievement. When some researchers purport to be measuring “happiness,” I think they are really measuring gratification. As the parent of a small child, I can attest to the fact that parenting at this stage is mainly an achievement activity, in that every day feels great, but often not until I’m sitting on the sofa with a glass of wine at the end of it.
Letter printed in the May 7, 2012 issue of The New Yorker
At my first real job out of college, I made a horrible mistake and hired the
wrong person for a job. It only took me two weeks to realize it. I went to my manager to ask that the person be let go. He took it up the chain to our COO. The COO said flat-out, “No.”
The reason he gave stuck with me. Our company, a small software firm in Harvard Square, was built to be sold. We didn’t entertain any notions of being the next IBM or Microsoft, we wanted to be acquired. The COO said simply, “Turnover looks very bad to acquiring companies.”
As a result, we kept turnover to an absolute minimum. Eventually we solved the problem of the bad hire by shifting him to an insignificant role where he could not screw anything up. I don’t think he did anything beside play World of Warcraft.
But keeping turnover low paid off. The company was eventually sold for $49 million. With only 24 or so employees (including the useless one), that was a pretty hefty sum.
It took me some time to realize but company quality is inversely related to level of turnover. Low quality company, high turnover. Nothing sends a clearer signal that a company is a bad one than lots of employees headed for the exits, forced or otherwise. Taking a good job at a company with lots of turnover is like buying a nice house in a bad neighborhood. All the square footage in the world will not make a difference when you get shot.
The worst thing about turnover is it’s contagious. Layoffs very quickly lead to resignations. With the erosion of trust, morale and loyalty, it doesn’t take long before a culture of fear sets in. You think work is hard? Try imagine doing your work and looking over your shoulder all the time to make sure you don’t get dumped. While managing by the stick is sometimes necessary, employees are more motivated by carrots.
With this in mind, when I was looking for a job in 2011 I went through a list of Boston’s Best Employers. It’s no accident that my current company is on the list and I’m extremely happy here. Let this be a lesson, life is too short to waste at lousy employers. The best workers want to work for the best companies.
Memories of My Father
Although he’s been dead almost 20 years, I still have a strong mental image of my father. In the image, he’s sprawled out on the couch. The TV is on, some news show, and he’s reading the newspaper.
Let me correct that, he’s reading from a pile of newspapers. His daily habit was to burn through three newspapers a day. The result was piles upon piles of newspapers throughout the house.
There was the pile littered over the coffee table. That was the “pending” pile. There was the scattered pile on the floor around the couch. This was the “read” pile. And at the top of the basement stairs was the stack that would reach the height of my adolescent waist . This was the “archived” or “ready for discard” pile.
When I asked him why he read so many newspapers, he gave a clear reply, “It’s important to know the full spectrum of opinion. I read the Boston Globe for the liberal side. The [Nashua] Telegraph for the independent take. And I read the [Manchester] Union Leader for the conservative side.”
He also counseled, “You should read the letters section of the Union Leader. They’ll publish anything, no matter how incoherent. It’s hiliarious.” So this kind of thing was drummed into me early - first, the importance of knowing all aspects of the argument and second, incoherent written opinion is hilarious.
Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I later majored in journalism. But it’s a shame my father passed before the internet arrived. If he were alive today, I have no doubt he would be an internet addict. And, like me, he would subscribe to a number of outlets that he disagreed with vehemently. If you look over my list of
Twitter feeds, you’ll see Ann Coulter, the National Review, and (my very special form of torture/entertainment) Paul Azinger.
You may not have heard of Paul Azinger. He’s a former golf pro who dabbles in denying evolution over Twitter. If there ever was a medium for futility, it’s arguing science in under 140 characters. Azinger is like the online version of the 1980s letters section of the Union Leader.
Every time I read Azinger’s posts I write some smart-ass reply and stop myself before hitting “send.” Then I laugh at myself as I remember Robert Frost’s quote: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper.” So I say, write on Mr. Azinger! Your buffoonery will continue with or without my comments and I thank you for bringing back this fond memory of my dad.
What Paul Graham Did Right
While I was working at Viaweb, a tiny software startup in Harvard Square, my manager asked me to find an “online contact manager.” This was way back in 1997 when the web was still a barren canvas, waiting to be filled with useful things. I looked for awhile until I gave him the sorry report - none existed.
But his request stuck with me. Obviously, an online contact manager would be a useful thing. And so, late one night, I got to work building one. I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time and, consequently, I had a lot more spare time than direction.
I called it ContactNet and I spent a lot of time designing the logo. I blatantly ripped off Hotmail’s design at the time. It didn’t have much functionality but I figured I could work on that later. The task was immensely satisfying - working late into the night in an apartment overlooking quiet city streets, listening to Mazzy Star while others slept.
And this is where YCombinator’s Paul Graham comes into the story. Before launching YCombinator, Paul was CEO of Viaweb and I was employee number nine. Paul was obsessive when it came to Viaweb. He knew everything that happened in the company and since ContactNet was on our company servers, it didn’t take him long to find it. He came up to me and asked “Did you make this?” I told him yes.
Paul immediately called a company meeting. He announced, “I am setting up a special corporate fund for people who want to work on projects outside of their regular work.” He held up an envelope, “In this envelope is $150. If you are here late at night working on a project and you want to grab dinner, take from it. I will make sure it is stocked, no questions asked.”
I dove into that slush fund a few times and, true to his word, it was always stocked. That was a good time, there were a lot of great restaurants in our area. But I’m sad to say that although Viaweb eventually was sold to Yahoo for $49 million, my ContactNet project went nowhere. Like many startups, it died.
Even though ContactNet was a failure, I never forgot the generosity, support and trust Paul gave to us, his employees. Viaweb was a tremendous company. Within it Paul created a true culture of innovation.
It’s no surprise to me he is now so successful at YCombinator, recently called “the most prestigious program for budding digital entrepreneurs” by Wired Magazine. This innovative startup incubator is putting into practice things he already did at Viaweb. The best thing? There’s no reason managers can’t setup something similar within their own companies.
Dave’s PowerPoint Rules
Give great presentations by following these simple PowerPoint rules:
- Don’t use it
- If you absolutely must use it - use pictures, no words
- If you have to use words, no more than six words per slide
- No music
- No animations
- No fade-outs, swipes or similar effects
- Bullet lists belong on the paper you are reading from, not on slides
Great speeches move people, great slideshows do not.
Art is Hard
Once long ago, I loved to draw. I would spend hours by myself in my room, huddled over my desk turning out a stream of drawings of war, monsters, and other fantastic scenes.
My family was always drilling economy into me. So, in pursuit of this, all of my drawings were rendered torturously small. I would see how many people I could cram into the scene on a vast battlefield. I did this to save on paper. Also, it made it less likely people would see my mistakes.
Because mistakes were all I saw when I would draw and they drove me wild with rage. Accepting of my limitations I was not. Heads too big, legs too short, hands like lumps of clay - there were many times I would shriek aloud and tear up my work with my own hands. At one points I slammed my pencil into the desk in frustration and lodged the broken lead tip deep into the fat part of my hand.
Over time I chilled out and was less harsh on myself. I decided to silence the inner critic, not hold myself up to a perfect standard and let mistakes happen. And instead of beating myself up over them, I would accept mistakes and learn from them. I showed a lot of improvement when I made this leap in maturity.
Because that is the pain of art, of creating something great. To sit at a desk and make something worthwhile is daunting. Writers call it “writer’s block” when they can’t rise up to the challenge. And I can imagine painters think “God, I hope I don’t fuck this up” when they start painting.
It takes many hours of trying and failing at art to get good. It’s painful to look at work you’ve done earlier and think “God, that is such crap. What was I thinking?” But those moments when you fall into a groove and create something worth looking at, reading, using, or listening to - those are moments of pure ecstasy and it makes it all worth it.
Take the Long View
Recently I read an article that noted the song “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses was written in five minutes. According to the article, a throwaway piece from a junk website, Guns N’ Roses’ guitarist Slash was noodling around on a guitar and, bam, a hit was born. And I thought, “What a horrible way to perceive this event.”
Of course it took Slash five minutes to write this song, it took him twenty years to learn how to play it. Left unnoticed are the hours, days, and years he spent practicing. Left unnoticed are the hours of observation and tutelage from more skilled guitarists. Left unnoticed are the support and encouragement of friends and family. Left unnoticed are the patience and discipline required of all great successes. And left unnoticed are the years he spent laboring in quiet obscurity and the moments he spent in despair.
Thinking it took five minutes to write a monster hit like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is like watching a chicken hatch from an egg and to logically infer that the chicken was created in this one master stroke. To do so would be to disregard the months of incubation that preceded the event.
There is an intrinsic appeal to the mindset that it only takes a couple minutes of inspiration to create some enormous hit. It makes it democratic, all easily within our grasp if only, if only, we could get a couple minutes to get in touch with our muse. Given our obsession with convenience and time-saving technology, we like things that are easy. But this fantasy runs counter to reality. Big success in any field, outside of playing the lottery or becoming an internet meme, requires a massive investment of time and energy with no guarantee of success.
So I wonder if the people who flood YouTube with hateful and derisive comments have any concept of what is involved in producing the things they consume. Or how scary it is to take the stage in front of strangers. I don’t think they do. Real artists and successful people are aware of the work involved and know that this kind of commenting is a dead end. And they instead spend more time learning from and encouraging others.
Last year I went to see a Metallica cover band at a local goth club. Whatever you think of their music, it’s hard to deny the technical virtuosity required to play it. And this band brought it that night. In a performance recorded by no one, played by a band that is unlikely to sell millions of records, this band brought a crowd to their feet on a crowded dance floor.
At the end of the show I walked up to the guitarist, extended my hand and said, “You guys put on a great show.” His eyes lit up, he shook my hand and let out a relieved, “Thank you, that means a lot.”