Growth

In my country, every day we hear on the news how growth is critical to our economy. It makes sense when you think of it in the small: when I invest in the stock market, I’m hoping to grow my money, and that requires growth in the companies in which I invest.expon.png

And every time I hear a newscaster talking about the benefits of economic growth, I wonder, how exactly is this sustainable?

Once all restaurants become Taco Bell, how does that company continue to grow? We aren’t going to start eating two lunches a day. There must be more customers, which requires population growth. Of course all those new customers also want to live the dream, so they invest in the stock market just like me. More investors demanding more growth leads to yet more investors demanding even more growth. This is exponential, but even if it were not, we live on a finite planet, and this can’t go on forever.

I have witnessed this personally both in a boardroom and on an executive team. Enterprise value (more specifically, the growth of it) has traditionally been viewed as the key to success.

I’m left thinking about my kids and their great grandkids, and what kind of world we’ll be leaving to them. Because this growth-based economy is quickly eating up the planet.

The aim of the economy in my country is growth. But there are other aims that would be healthier. One example is what Deming proposed.

Searching for Bobby Fischer

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I remember watching this movie back in the ’90s when it first came out. And I just watched it again today. Funny, I didn’t recall that Bruce Pandolfini was a character in the film, but he taught me how to play chess via his books: I studied the game for many years. And now I see that I relate in an important way to this movie.

Like many boys, I grew up in an abusive household. Separated from my biological father before I was five years old, I found myself with a stepfather who abused me both physically and psychologically. Once he got over his hatred of me, he did his best to masculinize me, and I think that, at his best, his lessons were designed to help me survive as a man in our culture.

Searching for Bobby Fischer faces the masculinization of men head on. You see a very sweet and sensitive kid (Josh) being raised by a father who knew no better than to do this for his kid (although at some point you have to wonder if all the trophies were for Josh or for his father). And of course we see the mother pushing back against all this and being dismissed by the father. I’ve been guilty of that too. My stepfather is inside me, like it or not.

Josh was wise for his age and taught his father and his chess teacher some things about being human – we don’t have to give up our sweetness and sensitivity, our compassion and kindness, to become men. Indeed we lose half of ourselves when we cut that part out of us; this is what’s led to an epidemic of hidden depression in men in our culture. Sadly this is something men don’t want to talk about. And so we continue the legacy and pass it down to our boys, generation after generation.

Ironically, I remember at some point making a conscious decision to halt my study of chess because I imagined what a life of chess would be like – very lonely. And I was tired of being lonely. I wanted to have a life filled with friendships. But I wasn’t very good at them back then. Just ask my kids and my ex wife.

I was that sweet and sensitive kid when I was little. And for a time in my life I thought I had lost that, but looking back over the last decade of my life, I realized that in reality, I’d just buried it deep inside of me in order to survive. I’m delighted beyond belief to see it flourishing again. Life is good.

 

What you practice, you become

I’ve been thinking a lot about aims and methods, and I think it’s important to note that how you go about achieving your aim matters. The method matters, more than just in the sense of being effective or efficient. There’s an old saying, “All’s fair in love and war.” You may have also heard that, “The end justifies the means.”

Walter White, from the blockbuster mini-series, Breaking Bad, is a perfect example. Walt, in his quest to provide for his family after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, uses his knowledge of chemistry to dabble in making methamphetamine, and with each episode, we watch him slowly turn into something abhorrent. I’d be curious if Walt would have chosen this method if he’d been able to foresee the misery and disaster that he left in the wake of his journey.

The means matter, because what you practice, you become.

Quick coherence technique

A friend recently mentioned she had a panic attack on an airplane and was looking for something to help. I’ve personally experienced anxiety attacks and I was taught a technique that works well – it was developed by the HeartMath Institute and allows you to get your heart rate under control very, very quickly, which is the first step toward controlling your emotional state. It’s an easy three steps:

  1. Move your attention to the center of your chest. It really helps to put your hand over your heart. This helps remove you from the swirling thoughts in your head and starts to center you. Keep your focus centered there, and if it drifts, gently and kindly bring it back.
  2. Breathe rhythmically. This is key to the technique and I recommend practicing this from time to time when you’re relaxed and able to concentrate so that you’ll be able to do this on command. For example, try five seconds of inhalation, followed by about a second of a pause, then a five second exhale. For me this felt pretty slow, so in order to get enough air to be comfortable I found myself breathing more deeply than normal, which is likely also helpful.
  3. Experience a positive emotion. It helps to prepare ahead of time – have an image ready in your mind that you can jump to that will remind you of a happy time. Even better, try to feel appreciation for something or someone in your life. You might not think it’s possible to change your emotional state just like that, but, surprisingly enough, it is. Steps 1 and 2 ease the way into it by getting your heart rate into a more coherent state.

Practice helps! Practice doing this when you’re not under stress so that when you experience an anxiety or panic attack, you’ll know exactly what to do.

Then consider doing this on a regular basis. Coherence is a helpful book by Dr. Alan Watkins for building emotional regulation and resilience. Watkins teaches the same technique, but he calls it BREATHE (which is an acronym for Breathe Rhythmically, Evenly, and Through The Heart Everyday), and it’s especially important for those of us who sit behind a screen all day to avoid screen apnea.

Magic words

“I don’t know how to do this. Will you help me?”

These are words as magical as Open Sesame, I believe. Humbling yourself in front of another and asking for help. Let me tell you a story to illustrate.

I arrived on an autumn day at JFK for a Pluralsight board meeting at Insight’s headquarters in Manhattan. I’ve never flown into JFK before – on my earlier trips to NYC I’d fly into one of the outlying airports and cab it into the city. Generally I prefer riding the subway and being with the locals instead of hiding away in the cabs. So I took the opportunity to do just this. Only it wasn’t at all clear to me how to even get started once I was in the terminal at JFK.

So when the idea presented itself, I looked up and the first person I saw, I walked over to. He didn’t appear that approachable, but I was testing a theory and I was determined not to cherry pick who I asked for help. So I walked up to him and said, “Excuse me, sir. I’d like to ride the train to Manhattan but I’ve never done this before and I’m not sure how to get started.” Then the unexpected happened. His face brightened and he immediately sprang into action. It was almost as if he grabbed me by the elbow and personally escorted me to the proper train stop, along the way telling me everything I needed to know in order to get to the subway station. It turns out he was taking a different train, and as he boarded it, he shouted to me, “Not this one! The next one, to Jamaica station!”

His instructions were spot on, and I made it to the subway station without any trouble. But when I arrived there, I was faced with another hurdle – the ticket kiosks. It was quite busy and each kiosk had a queue of five or six people. Once again, I felt fear stirring in my gut. I wasn’t sure what train or stop I needed, but even worse, I had no idea how to use the kiosk. I watched over someone’s shoulder and quickly learned that the kiosk was designed for regular users, not newbs like me. I almost turned around and hailed a cab. But I stuck to my guns and got in line behind a well-dressed businessman. Once he had purchased his ticket and turned around to leave, I stopped him. “I’m trying to get to Manhattan, but I’ve never done this before. Will you help me?”

This time I didn’t get such a helpful response. I watched as his face turned from rushed, to annoyed, to incredulous, “I don’t have time to help you. I am a busy man, can’t you see that?” Shaking his head in disbelief, he walked away. As I watched him leave, I started to doubt the theory I was testing about people who help. But about ten seconds after that interaction, once the annoyed businessman had walked out of earshot, the denizens of the underground descended upon me from both sides. I couldn’t believe it. “What a jerk!” I heard from one side. “He should have helped you,” from the other. People were literally competing with one another to help me out. They must have remembered what it was like when they were in my shoes. Suffice it to say that I got the help I needed without having to ask a second time.

So many times we need help but are afraid to ask for it. How many paths have we chosen not to walk down because of fear? I have seen it confirmed time and time again that if you humble yourself and ask for help, people will come to your aid. And it’s a gift you are giving them, because people like to feel helpful, and it brings joy to someone’s life to care for another in need.

I don’t ask for help unless I’m really stuck, but I’m much more bold about doing it now than ever before. And I’m convinced that it’s a critical component for maturity.

The impetus to try this experiment in New York came after I was introduced to Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey. When you start taking responsibility for your life, following your dreams, putting yourself out there, and acknowledging your weaknesses, magic starts to happen. For one thing, helpers appear to assist you.

George Lucas wrote the screenplay for Star Wars based on Campbell’s work. Think about how many times Luke needed help along his path, and the unlikely places he found it. An old man, a little green dude with more hair sticking out of his pointy ears than on his head, a self-centered rogue with an unlikely looking starship, even a princess!

This is just one small part of what you’ll discover when you study Campbell’s work. Ask yourself, where am I on the journey? If you’re interested in learning more, a great place to start is the movie, Finding Joe. Joe’s work has given me the courage and determination to seek a fulfilling life for myself doing something that makes a real difference in the world.

Utility vs. Aesthetics?

It’s fascinating and powerful to reflect on your life. I remember years ago—seems like a lifetime ago, I was such a different person then—I used to have a little saying. “Utility over aesthetics” in the sense of “having regard to utility or usefulness rather than beauty, ornamentation, etc.

Whenever my wife and I would talk about arrangements in the house, I would often hear myself saying this. Basically what I was saying is, as long as it gets the job done, I don’t care what it looks like. When faced with a choice, I’d always choose utility over beauty.

It’s interesting to think about utility. It’s a bit like potential: this lever will help me move a big rock (sometime in the future when I need to move said rock). And yea, it’s not a pretty lever, but who cares? All I need to do is move this damned rock. It’s a bit like the bait that most organized religions use, convincing the flock to suffer today for a promised paradise in the future. This lever might be ugly, a pain to use, but it’s going to get the job done. So I may suffer a little bit looking and working with the ugly thing, but in the end I’ll be happy because I’ll get the result I was after.

As I learn to be more present in my life, I see the imbalance of such a viewpoint. What’s the point in living if everything around me is ugly? I remember getting a sense of what I was missing when I played a video game called World of Goo.  Why? Because of the aesthetics of the game. Everything from the soundtrack to the personality of the “goo” just drew me in. And I began to notice this in other little games I’d play. It was the little touches: the animations on the characters’ faces, attention paid to the smallest details in the environment, etc. It was just fun to be in these environments! It didn’t matter if you were winning or losing, just spending time there was a delight.

And it’s not just in the virtual world. I remember being fascinated when I’d travel to Europe at how it seemed as though they had my saying reversed. Often times things would be cute or even beautiful but sometimes might not work very well. Can anyone say Ikea?

Why am I writing this today? Because it occurs to me that in life we must strike all sorts of balances, and this is one that I really missed in my early years. Anyone who worked at Pluralsight and endured the ugly (but useful) internal dashboards that I created for our growing staff in the early years might resonate with this 🙂

Why retire?

Why do we have the notion of retirement? I asked this question recently and my grandpa Michael pointed out that during the heyday of the industrial revolution, people laboring in factories had very hard jobs, and their bodies would eventually break. The company needed a way to bring in fresh blood, so ‘retirement’ was born.

As we shift into more of a knowledge economy, many of these backbreaking jobs are being automated. But people still desire retirement. I was one of them – that’s why I ended up voting to bring in venture capital to a company that I helped build, because eventually as owners we’d need an ‘exit’ so that we could ‘retire’. But I’ll save that story for another day. Suffice it to say, I fell into the same belief trap, and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Imagine working for a company where there were no hierarchy, no departments, no barriers to your contributing where your passions lie. Imagine that you were paid enough so you didn’t have to be worried about money all the time. Imagine that the company provided not only for the physical health of you and your family, but for your development as a whole human being – physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. Imagine that the company’s ethics were based on caring, and the environment was one that nurtured the development of all of the staff. In such a workplace, coworkers would spend more time helping each other and less time blaming and shaming each other. There would be no question of ‘work / life balance’ because you’d not stop living when you walked into the workplace, and you’d have plenty of time to spend at home with your family. And if your passion turned toward something other than work that the company could provide, the company would help you start your own business and this model would thus replicate.

Sound like utopia? I believe that it can be done. But first you need to ask yourself, are you living your passion? Joseph Campbell spoke of following your bliss, and Sir Ken Robinson called it finding your elementIf you are waiting to retire to be able to do what you really want to be doing, maybe it’s time to rethink that strategy!

I’m starting to think of this as ‘organic business’, much like Robinson uses the term when he talks about what schools could be.