Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist

Corporate culture as illustrated by monkeys

September 9th, 2015

I was talking to a friend tonight about organizational culture. She was wondering about how one can institutionalize or productize culture. And I laughed out loud. And she asked me why I thought it was so funny. So I thought for a second, and told the story of the five monkeys.

The story is that an experimenter puts five monkeys in a cage with a ladder, and a bunch of bananas at the top of the ladder. One of the monkeys spots the bananas and starts climbing the ladder. The experimenter sprays down the monkey with cold water, and all of the other monkeys in the cage for good measure. A few minutes pass, and another monkey starts climbing the ladder, and every monkey gets sprayed with cold water. Soon, whenever a monkey starts climbing the ladder, the others drag him down and beat him to prevent getting sprayed.

The interesting part of the experiment is that the experimenter then swapped out a monkey in the cage. When the new monkey arrives, they start climbing up the ladder…and get pulled down and beaten. Tries it again, gets beaten again. Then the experimenter swaps out another monkey. The new monkey starts climbing the ladder, and all the other monkeys (including the previous new one) start beating him up. The experimenter continues until all five monkeys are “new” (none have ever been sprayed by cold water) but still all of them beat up any monkey that dares to start climbing the ladder.

That is organizational culture. Humans are primates that learn behavior from observing and copying others. No matter what rules and processes an organization puts in place, what people actually learn is what they see others do. And they will do that even if they don’t know why that behavior started – it’s just the way things are done around here.

So the answer to how to create a great corporate culture is not about getting the right tools, or making the right rules, or designing the right processes. It is about getting people in early who demonstrate the desired behavior. You can nudge people to exhibit the desired behavior by choosing defaults wisely or designing careful incentives (or by spraying your employees with cold water, I suppose), but mostly, you want to find people who instinctively behave according to the culture you desire.

One last point to make here – there is no such thing as a “right” corporate culture. In a high-functioning organization, the culture should be aligned with the goals of the organization and with the people in that organization. But different organizations will have different goals and cultures. For instance, if you were designing a culture for a tax accounting company, you would want to emphasize following the rules, not skipping any steps, and always showing your work in excruciating detail. If you were designing a culture for an innovative and experimental product design organization, you would want to emphasize the exact opposite of those traits (“move fast and break things”). Neither culture is “right” … but you have to match the culture to what the organization is trying to do, and then find the people who exemplify that culture as your primate trendsetters.

So think about what your organization is aiming for – do you have a culture that is congruent with those goals? Are you hiring people who behave in ways that advance the organization towards those goals? If not, it’s time to consider how to bring goals, culture, incentives and people into alignment.

The Leadville experience

August 19th, 2015

[This is a long post with my experience in riding the Leadville 100 mountain bike race. If you want to just look at pretty pictures instead, go here.]

“You are better than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can.” – Ken Chlouber, creator of the Leadville race series

I finished the Leadville 100 mountain bike race last Saturday in 11 hours and 23 minutes (Strava track), beating the 12 hour cutoff time and earning myself a sweet belt buckle. It was hard. It was really hard. But I pushed through the pain and exhaustion to finish, and it was incredibly satisfying.

It was also great to be part of the World Bicycle Relief team, raising money for a great cause. Thanks to all of you who donated – between your donations, my matching, and the eventual corporate matching from Google, we will have supplied nearly 80 bikes to those in need in Africa, including students, doctors and entrepreneurs.

But let’s reset – what is the Leadville 100? I first heard about Leadville from Fat Cyclist, a bike blogger, who has raced it every year since nearly the beginning (this was his 19th start of the 22 times it has been run). But he just described what it was like to ride Leadville – I didn’t learn about the race’s origins until this past week.

Ken Chlouber was a shift leader at the Climax Mine in Leadville when it was shut down in the early 80s. Looking for a way to keep Leadville from economic collapse (basically the entire town was employed by the mine), and as an avid marathoner, he wondered about starting a race as a way to bring in tourism dollars. While talking to a consultant about his idea, the consultant said that to make money from tourism, the tourists had to stay overnight. So Ken thought to himself, “If it’s a 100 mile race, they’ll have to stay overnight!” and thus the Leadville Trail 100 Run was born. Yes, I said run. The 100 mile foot race came first, in 1983 – the mountain bike race wasn’t added until ten years later in 1993. The Leadville races were little known until two things brought them into the public eye: the Born to Run book which talked about the Leadville 100 trail run, and the Race Across the Sky documentary, filming the attempt of Lance Armstrong to win the 2009 mountain bike race. Now, thousands of people descend on Leadville each year for these events, and it is what Leadville is known for.

When I first read Fatty’s stories of riding the Leadville 100, it sounded mythically hard, but I also had this itch to find out if I could do it (similar to doing the Death Ride this year) after my year of biking last year. I applied for the lottery, but didn’t get in. And I was somewhat relieved because I wasn’t sure I could finish the race. But then Fatty announced that he was looking for people to raise money for World Bicycle Relief, and if they agreed to raise $5,000, they’d get an entry into Leadville. So I applied for his WBR team, and was accepted. And so it began…

If I thought I was all into biking last year, it was nothing compared to the training I did this year for the Death Ride/Leadville 100 combo. As I mentioned in my Death Ride post, I had ridden more miles and climbed more hills in the first 6 months of 2015 than I did in all of 2014. Training for the Death Ride had gotten me the legs and lungs I needed to finish Leadville, but riding on pavement is easier than riding on dirt and trails. And I had only 5 weeks to adapt.

The first step was riding the Tahoe Trail 100k, a Leadville qualifier, a week after the Death Ride. Run by the Leadville team, it was conveniently located, and gave me an idea of what to expect, but was shorter and easier than Leadville (only 62 miles, lower altitude, less climbing). I pushed hard in that race, and was able to finish in just less than 7 hours, which was a solid qualifying time for Leadville, even if it put me in the bottom 20% of finishers.

Then I had exactly 4 weeks to get ready for Leadville itself – in addition to the course, I had to get ready for the altitude – Leadville is at 10,200 feet, and the course goes up to 12,500. I rode my mountain bike when I could get to the trails, and also climbed hills on my trusty Surly Long Haul Trucker loaded with baggage to simulate the extra effort it would take to climb at altitude, including doing a steep 5 mile, 2000 foot climb while biking back from a camping weekend, loaded with all of my gear.

Finally, the week of the race arrived – I flew out to Leadville on Sunday, since it takes me a few days to adapt to high altitude. I also wanted to be there to do the pre-ride clinics with Fatty and four-time-winner Rebecca Rusch – each day they were riding different sections of the course, and getting to know the course and what to expect was super helpful. It also gave me confidence that I could do these climbs I’d only read about (Columbine, Powerline, etc).

So let’s talk about the race itself. It’s a 103 mile out and back course as you can see from my Strava track. There are 5 major climbs – outbound, it is St. Kevins, Sugarloaf and Columbine, and inbound it is Powerline and Carter. The rest of the course isn’t flat, but not nearly as much effort as those 5. We’ll take the course (and my race experience) in order:

  • St. Kevin’s is about 1,000 feet of climbing up a bumpy dirt road. The hardest part of this climb is that it was at the beginning, so we were all crowded together, 3 across on this dirt road, and you had to hold your line or risk crashing into other riders. Every now and then, somebody would lose their momentum and have to dismount their bike, and this would cause a chain reaction of people swerving and trying to get around.

  • I unfortunately got a flat just over the top of the St. Kevins climb. I’m not sure what happened, but I think I hit a rock wrong and got a pinch flat. And so I had the frustrating experience of changing a tube on the side of the trail while hundreds of people rode past me – I had what I needed to fix the flat, but it took me a while since I hadn’t changed a tube on this bike in a while, and by the time I got everything back together, I was basically in last place. For those of you that use Strava, you can check out the flyby – click “Select All”, and watch as I start out in the middle of the pack, end up in last place after my flat, and then spend the rest of the race slowly working my way into the back part of the pack.
  • Sugarloaf was the most pleasant climb – it’s another 1,000 foot climb, but it’s up a wide gravel road that’s not too steep, so it just involved pedaling along and enjoying the beautiful scenery, looking out over Turquoise Lake and the mountains. Admittedly, it was pleasant in part because I was all alone after losing so much time because of the flat tire.

  • After the Sugarloaf climb is the Powerline descent. Steep and technical, I just wanted to survive this – I knew I wasn’t going to gain time on the descents, so I just took them slow to avoid crashes.
  • Then there’s the long “flat” section called the Pipeline. There are still hills here, and the only single track on the course (a one mile descent outbound), but this was my chance to gain time as my road biking experience means I’m good at pushing myself on the flats.
  • After the Pipeline section (and the Twin Lakes aid station), we get to the biggest climb, Columbine – it is a 7.5 mile climb that ascends from 9,500 to 12,500 feet. The top of that climb is the halfway point and turnaround. The fun part of that is that you get to see everybody in the race, either flying down while you’re climbing, or climbing slowly while you’re descending. The annoying part is that because of my early flat, I was stuck back among slower people on this climb, and there was no safe way to pass, because there were racers descending at 30mph a few feet away. I passed when there were opportunities but I definitely lost time here, especially towards the top when most people were walking their bikes and there was no way around (although I did run with my bike to pass people a few times when there was a break in the line of descenders).
  • Heading back after Columbine on the “flat” Pipeline section, we had headwinds, which is common. Fatty and Reba had recommended working together with others to form a paceline in this section. It’s a little tricky because you need to find somebody who wants to go the same speed as you, but I found one guy, and we took turns trading pulls for several miles to the Pipeline aid station, which helped a great deal. And after Pipeline onto the pavement, I worked with another guy to catch up to a bigger group, but when I pulled past them, they latched on to me. After a minute or two, I tried to drop off the front and gestured for one of them to take the lead, and they said they couldn’t because they were too tired, so I was stuck pulling on my own. And then, of course, they blew by me a few minutes later when we hit an incline since they’d gotten a few minutes of rest by drafting off me. That was annoying.
  • You might think that Columbine is the hardest climb, since it’s the longest and hits the highest altitude. But it’s the Powerline climb (4 miles, 1500 feet of climbing). Fatty says that the Leadville course is 80 miles of riding to soften you up to get smacked by the Powerline. It starts with 0.6 miles of a very steep (20+% grade) rutted dirt road climb. Even after that, it stays pretty steep and technical. In the pre-ride, I rode most of it after the first half mile and did the full climb in 50 minutes; on race day, I walked most of it and it took me 65 minutes (even while walking, I was pushing hard). Also, it was in the blazing sun (this was around 3:30pm).
  • There’s the long easy Sugarloaf descent after Powerline, which was great to drink water and eat and rest a bit. And the final Carter Summit climb is actually all on a paved road, which made it a little easier, but I was really struggling by that point. I was coughing a lot from all of the dust I’d inhaled, my stomach wasn’t feeling well after eating only gels and sports drink for many hours, and it was sprinkling rain by that point. But I pushed through, even though tears were literally coming down my face at one point because I was hurting bad.
  • The final descent down St. Kevins wasn’t too bad, and then back out onto the flats for the final 8 miles to Leadville. But there’s one more climb to go – the last 3 miles into Leadville are on a dirt road nicknamed the Boulevard. On the pre-ride on Thursday, I flew through that section and thought it was super easy. After 100 miles on the bike, it was a little harder. But I pushed through and finished strong!

  • Merilee, Ken’s wife and the race director, puts a medal around your neck immediately as you cross the finish line on the red carpet. It’s pretty satisfying!

After the race, I was completely exhausted. I just lay on my bed staring at the ceiling, unable to form coherent thoughts or focus on anything. I had gone all out for over 11 hours, with no easing up. Even at the Death Ride, I had taken breaks at the aid stations, and I could kind of zone out on the climbing and on the flats because they were on pavement. At Leadville, I was going all out the whole race because I had to push hard on the flats to get my average speed up, had to pay attention on the descents to not crash, and had to work hard on the climbs because of the altitude. I even had super-efficient aid stops, thanks to my friend Jess crewing for me (I spent about 5 minutes in the aid stops the entire day – of my total stoppage time of 40 minutes, 20 was because of the flat, and the rest was when I needed breaks during or after climbs).

It was quite an experience. I’m glad I did it. I’m also glad it’s done. It was by far the hardest physical feat I have ever done. To put it in perspective, I did a week-long mountain bike tour from Durango to Moab last year that covered 220 miles and 23,000 feet of climbing over 7 days. And I thought that was really hard at the time. Leadville is half of that week’s riding in one day. One of the Leadville mottos that Ken repeats is “You can do more than you think you can!” A year ago, I didn’t think I could ever finish Leadville in 12 hours. And now I have.

But even after all my training, I just barely beat the 12 hour cut-off for finishing. I have no chance at a sub-9 hour finish to earn the big gold belt buckle, so there’s no temptation to come back for that so I don’t think I’ll be back next year. I’ll find something else to do. Maybe even return to blogging! :)

My first Death Ride

July 13th, 2015

As I mentioned a couple months ago, I have been training for the Death Ride, a 125 mile bike ride near Tahoe that does 5 mountain passes for a total of 15,000 vertical feet of climbing. Training has taken up most of my weekends doing long training rides, as well as “shorter” (2-4 hour) rides before work on weekdays, so basically, that’s been my life for the past few months.

I am pleased to report that I completed the Death Ride, finishing all five mountain passes in just over 12 hours.

It was particularly fun because despite not planning for it, I ran into a few people I know on the ride. It’s not entirely surprising that the guys I trained with were at similar speeds to me, so we ended up leapfrogging each other throughout the day, but it was super fun to get to the top of the last pass and be able to celebrate with people I knew – of the 5 of us that had gone on an 8 hour training ride together 2 Sundays before, 4 of us were hanging out at the top together.

I don’t know if I have the will to ever do it again. It is a beautiful ride, but I had to train so hard for it. According to Strava, I had done more climbing and riding by July 4th than I did in all of 2014, and 2014 included a week-long mountain bike tour, two climbing centuries, and the training for both of those. Kind of insane.

But dang, it is satisfying to have finished. I’m pretty proud of myself.

Some other random thoughts and observations:

  • The layout of the ride is to ride south ~10 miles, turn east, climb to the top of Monitor Pass (pass #1 – 8,314 foot peak), descend the other side, turn around and climb back up Monitor Pass (pass #2), descend back, turn left, climb to the top of Ebbets Pass (pass #3 – 8,730 foot peak), descend halfway down the other side, turn around and climb back up (pass #4), then descend back to the main road, ride 15 miles (past the starting point where it was oh so tempting to just get into my car), and climb 15 miles to Carson Pass (pass #5 – 8,580 foot peak) before the final descent back to the start. The first four passes are particularly nice because they close the road to cars, so it’s just lots and lots of bikes (3,000+ riders on the course).

  • The picture to the left is from near the top of the second pass. Yes, that road below is what I just climbed (10 miles, 3,100 vertical feet, took me an hour and 25 minutes to climb after I descended it in 15 minutes – that’s 38 mph average down, 7 mph up). Unfortunately, my phone does not have the resolution for you to see the line of bicycles on the road below (they closed the road for the Death Ride, which was great). The picture below is from the official ride photographer as I hit the top of the second pass.
  • There were a bunch of Ellipti-gos out on the ride. Yes, those dorky vehicles that drive a bike train with an elliptical motion. And at least one of them was faster than me (he was speeding down while I was still climbing the the last pass) – I caught another Ellipti-go on the way up that last pass, though, so I think only one was faster than me.
  • I saw at least two single speed mountain bikes – I told both of them how impressed I was when I passed them. One of them responded “You just have to want it enough”. I don’t want it enough.
  • There was a kid (maybe 12 or 14) who I saw a few times throughout the day – his dad was with him most of the time, and I last saw him a mile from the top of the last pass as I was descending, so he finished. Amazing.
  • I leapfrogged a woman a few times who was wearing bright yellow socks that said “DO EPIC SHIT”. I approved and told her so. I might have to buy some.
  • The camaraderie throughout the ride was really pleasant. People were friendly and chatting with each other because we were all out on this beautiful day trying to do the same thing.
  • The last pass, Carson Pass, was kind of brutal. The first four passes are right next to each other, so I had finished 4 passes and 80 miles and was having lunch at the 8 hour mark. And I still had 50 miles and another pass to go. And when we started the Carson Pass climb, there was a strong headwind (about which there was much grumbling from the riders). And we had to deal with cars speeding past on 88 after the first four passes were closed to traffic. And then to add insult to injury, the road was being resurfaced about 3 miles from the top, so those last miles were effectively on cobblestones with not a smooth surface to be found. It started to crush my spirits, so I pulled to the side to regroup and have a snack and drink. Fortunately, a bit later there were some folks cheering us on, who yelled encouragingly that we only had one mile to go, which gave me the juice I needed to finish the climb.
  • Speaking of snacks, the thing I’ve learned about these longer rides is that it’s not about leg strength – it’s about managing food and water. I’ve got the leg strength, but managed to bonk pretty badly on a training ride a few weeks ago because I didn’t drink and eat enough. So I was eating at every opportunity on the ride, and i probably drank two gallons of water during the day (including putting an electrolyte tablet in every other water bottle). This kept me feeling good throughout the day.

P.S. I’m now feeling pretty good about my chances at finishing the Leadville 100 mountain bike century in a month. I am raising money for World Bicycle Relief for that ride, so please donate if you can.

Asynchronous Ask Me Anything

April 15th, 2015

I just got back from the wonderful Up to All of Us conference. The introductory exercise was to write down three things about yourself in a notebook, and then pass the notebook around the room and have everybody write a comment or a question on the page. It was fascinating to get that feedback from a group of people, some of whom I knew and some of whom I didn’t.

I went ahead and answered the questions asked in that exercise in a doc, and it gave me a good chance for self-reflection, so I thought I would throw it open to everybody else that follows me. Think of it as an asynchronous (non-real-time) Reddit-style Ask Me Anything.

Here’s the doc – it should be editable by anyone, so add any comments or questions you’d like to it, and I’ll answer when I get a chance. Note that I reserve the right to edit or delete comments and questions if I don’t feel they are appropriate.

P.S. My World Bicycle Relief fundraising campaign continues – please consider making a donation.

Raising money for World Bicycle Relief

April 6th, 2015

As my last post makes clear, I have been getting more into biking over the past couple years, and I now want to share my goal for 2015: finishing the Leadville 100 mountain bike century.

I first heard of Leadville through the bike blogger, Elden Nelson (aka Fat Cyclist) as he has finished Leadville 17 times! Elden is also an ambassador for World Bicycle Relief, an organization providing access to independence and livelihood through The Power of Bicycles. The money raised through this fundraiser helps to provide specially designed, locally assembled bicycles to students, healthcare workers and entrepreneurs in rural Africa, connecting them with education, healthcare and economic opportunities.

So I am incredibly excited to announce that I was selected to be part of the World Bicycle Relief Leadville team, riding my first Leadville 100 with Elden, and raising money for the cause of World Bicycle Relief.

Please consider donating to World Bicycle Relief through my donation page. As an added incentive, I pledge to match your donation, and with Google’s donation matching, that means your donation will be tripled in impact.

Thank you in advance for any donations you give, and please ask me if you have any questions!

I love my bike

March 28th, 2015

I’ve been riding my bike more to start training for the Death Ride in July (and because the weather is ludicrously nice in California – it got into the 80s this week). And I was thinking this morning that I love my bike.

From 2011 to 2014, my main bike was a Surly Long Haul Trucker, which I also adore. It is an indestructible steel-framed touring bike. I rode it on a six-day bike tour to Santa Barbara and several other weekend camping trips. I also used it as my road bike, doing long one-day rides on it. It can do almost anything – I’ve even ridden it on trails, as it has wide tires and can handle the pounding.

But as I started ramping up to do longer road rides, like the Marin century I rode in August, I realized that my touring bike was, well, heavy – indestructibility has a downside. And I decided that with all the riding I was doing and knowing I was thinking about doing the Death Ride, it was time to indulge myself and get a nice carbon fiber road bike. And after doing a couple weeks of test rides, I chose the Trek Domane 4.7c, which is about 12 pounds lighter than my Long Haul Trucker.

And, boy, it’s nice – it makes me feel fast. And bad-ass. I want to ride faster to justify owning this bike, so I push myself harder. And I go even faster and that makes me feel even better.

I’m not much of a material possession guy, so I was thinking this morning about why I feel so strongly about my bikes (and skis for that matter). I think it is because they make me feel powerful. When I get better gear, it makes me more capable and competent, and that increased skill carries over into me feeling more confident. And that’s why I’m willing to pay for the right gear.

And I realized that this is probably how others feel about clothes. Wearing the right outfit makes them feel more confident and they walk a little straighter and with a little more purpose. To some extent, they are not paying for the clothes themselves, but for that feeling of confidence and purpose.

It reminds me of Kathy Sierra’s question, “Who have you helped kick ass today?”. When designing a product, the goal isn’t necessarily the product itself, but the feelings it inspires in its users. Engineers often miss this point, wondering why a product that doesn’t measure up in the technical specifications is preferred by users (I had an Archos MP3 Jukebox over an iPod for this reason back in the day).

Anyway, I just wanted to share that I love my bike. And remind any product designers out there to think about how your product will make users feel confident and powerful, as that’s what inspires that sort of loyalty and emotional connection to a product.

Does Amanda Palmer’s model of asking scale?

February 20th, 2015

A friend asked in response to my last post whether I thought Amanda Palmer’s model of asking could scale. Could everybody find success that way? Do you have to be a rock star public figure to make it work? Does the “doing your work for free and then asking people to give you money” model generalize to housecleaners or programmers?

I think her approach does scale to many artists, and it’s getting easier with companies like Patreon allowing artists to make a livable wage from a relatively small number of supporters. It’s certainly much more scalable and democratic than the previous system of record labels for musicians and publishers for books – there are so many more ways for artists to get known and build their following now than there were 20 years ago. At that time, Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content wouldn’t have been able to support himself doing comics unless he gets a newspaper syndicate deal. Yes, it is very much the “do your work for free and then asking people to give you money” approach that he did, but it is more and more possible for artists to support themselves that way, which I think is a positive trend.

And I think it does scale, because we all have different tastes. I support Questionable Content, Pomplamoose, Amanda Palmer, Zoe Keating, etc. via these various crowdfunding platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter. Somebody else would support different artists. There are lots of dollars out there being spent on entertainment, and I think more artists have a brighter future in a world of democratized access, since now they can find fans who like their specific art anywhere in the world via the Internet. Again, Amanda Palmer’s label dropped her because her album “only” sold 25,000 copies, but that’s enough for her to be a massive success as an artist from her perspective, and we can support a lot of artists if that’s the necessary scale.

Does this model work outside of art? In some ways. “Do your work for free and then ask people to give you money” describes entrepreneurs starting a company. Or interns. Or programmers – the canonical advice for programmers trying to break in these days is to do good work on an open source project in github so that companies can see your work and then decide to hire you. Or even house cleaning – many services offer a discount on the first cleaning to get people to try them, in the hopes that they will stick around and be a recurring customer going forward. When breaking into a new field, the best way to get experience is to offer to do it for free and then parlay that experience into a job. It’s a little different than the artist model as it’s more about trying to get a job than to create a job, but I think similar principles apply.

Now, that doesn’t scale to everybody because you have to be in a situation where you can afford to work for free until you do find customers and/or investment, so it helps to have well-off parents or an understanding spouse to support you while you make that transition. But what most artists do is have a day job, and do their art (music, comics, sculpture) on nights and weekends, and try to build enough of an audience so that they can quit the day job. And that doesn’t happen for everybody, but I feel like it is happening more and more, and I see that as a positive trend.

I think one distinction that I didn’t mention in my previous post is that people can’t just ask without doing the work. She has a discussion in the book about the difference between asking and begging. But if one has found an audience that is getting value from one’s work, then asking for them to pay for that value is a reasonable step. And it doesn’t have to be in the flamboyant public way that Amanda does it. I am seeking out opportunities to mentor startups on strategy and business modeling these days. At some point, I will convince myself that I’m “good enough” to charge people for that advice and potentially start a strategy consulting business. That’s very different from what Amanda is doing as a rock star musician, but I see the processes as being similar – do what you love for free outside of your day job, but look for ways to turn it into something where people will pay you money (admittedly, as my friend pointed out, it helps to have a high paying day job). At some point, you have to take the leap of faith and trust that the people with whom you have built a connection will catch you. And that doesn’t require a huge audience – just a dedicated one (c.f. Kevin Kelly’s discussion on 1000 True Fans).

And part of asking in this model is figuring out who your audience is. Amanda decided she cared more about staying true to her artistic vision and to her eclectic fans than sticking with the label, writing pop songs and trying to make it big in a more traditional way. And she found success that way. In my own career, I spent years trying to be something I wasn’t (first, a specialist in physics or programming, and more recently, an operations/process guy in finance), because I thought that’s what I had to do to “be successful”. And it turns out I’m more successful (both professionally and socially) when I stick to the quirky generalist traits that differentiate me. I should also note that I’m inspired by Seth Godin’s work in Linchpin and his latest book “What to do when it’s your turn (and it’s always your turn)” (as an aside, I just ordered a 3-pack of Seth’s book, so if you want a free copy, let me know).

Anyway, lots of interesting thoughts inspired by my friend’s questions, so I thought I’d share. What do you think?

The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer

February 19th, 2015

Amazon link

Given my last post was about charity, I thought it was appropriate to follow up with my long overdue review of Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking. The book is an amplification of Palmer’s TED talk with the same title, discussing the connection between an artist and her fans. But it’s also a chance to curl up and spend some time with Amanda telling stories from throughout her life, from her music career to her courtship with Neil Gaiman to the remarkable ways in which she connects with her fans.

For those that don’t know of her, Amanda Palmer is a woman that defies description in many ways. She is known primarily for being a musician (she recently created the Amandalanda webpage to direct people who only know her through the TED talk and her book to learn about her music) (the picture at the right is when she spoke at Google and was asking the audience whether they’d rather hear a song or a reading), but she is so much more – I consider her a force of nature. She is unapologetically who she is, and she is fighting hard every day to make the world bend to her, rather than the other way around. She fought to get control of her music back from the label she originally signed with, she makes her music (and associated videos) according to her vision, and I think it’s interesting how she is experimenting with new ways for us fans to fund artists, from pay-what-you-want to her record-setting Kickstarter.

The central question the book addresses is why is it so hard for us to ask for help? One of the stories she tells over the course of the book is how difficult it was for her to ask for a loan from her husband, Neil Gaiman, even though he could afford it and wanted to help. And this is from a woman who has been supported by her fans all the way back to her days as a living statue in Harvard Square. But she couldn’t bring herself to ask her husband for help because of all sorts of voices in her head saying that it wasn’t right, that she was an independent woman, that she would find her own way, etc. Many of us have this narrative going in our head that asking for help is equivalent to giving up – it’s an admission of weakness, and a permanent stain on our character.

One of the passages she chose to read at Google was about discussing with another musician about whether they “deserved” the money that their fans were giving to them. And she related it back to Thoreau, whose story of Walden is well known as a story of living with nature in solitary self-reliance. Except that, according to Amanda, Thoreau was not in solitude at all. In fact, his mother and sister stopped by once a week to deliver fresh baked goods, including doughnuts. Amanda’s point is that we can all aspire to self-reliance, but when somebody wants to give you doughnuts, take the fucking doughnuts. In other words, don’t turn down help because you don’t feel like you deserve it – if somebody wants to help you, that’s their choice, and you should accept it gratefully and gracefully.

But it’s hard. There are cultural norms against getting help, especially in America, going back to the Protestant work ethic. It’s a little funny, considering that the Puritans wouldn’t have survived the winter without the help of Squanto and the Indians, which we celebrate each year at Thanksgiving – in that sense, you’d think that getting undeserved help would be literally as American as apple pie. But that’s not the case, as evidenced by the continued culture wars against welfare and food stamps – there is a strong feeling that people should have to “earn” money rather than being given it (a topic I’ve struggled with myself).

We have a similarly complicated relationship with artists in that some people feel that artists don’t “deserve” money because they should enjoy making art for its own sake. Money should only be “earned” by doing unpleasant “work”, which is why some people also take umbrage at athletes getting paid millions of dollars to play a “kid’s game”. I think such people are missing the tautological capitalistic assumption that that people are “worth” whatever others choose to pay them. In part, they don’t like that assumption because it forces them to confront what we actually value – if athletes are millionaires and teachers are not, then we as a society value athletes much more. This makes such people uncomfortable, forcing them to say that the athletes don’t “deserve” the money – that the money is not representing true societal value.

These are difficult questions to grapple with – Amanda refers to the voices in her head that she calls the Fraud Police, asking her “Do you really deserve this? Did you earn it?” and telling her to “Get a job!” And we all have those voices, which is why asking for help is so hard. And yet, asking for help is also an opportunity to connect in a real way with other humans. We all deserve help, so it is okay to ask for it. In fact, it is a gift to others.

In a coaching class I took a few years ago, the facilitator asked at the beginning of the class, “How many of you like to help other people?” Everybody raised their hand; after all, why would we be taking a coaching class if we didn’t want to help others? Then she asked, “How many of you like asking for help?” Nobody raised their hand. And she waited for us to make the obvious connection that none of us can get the desirable experience of helping others if none of us ask for help.

Palmer mentions Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift (my terrible review of this excellent book) which traces out the gift economy and the idea that gifts must continue to circulate. By giving more, you will get given more. But if you hoard a gift, the value disappears. I think that’s the attitude we have to have about asking for help – it is an ongoing network. You pay it forward and have no idea of how you will get paid back, and yet having that generous attitude will ensure that you do.

I loved reading The Art of Asking, and highly recommend it. Amanda Palmer does a great job of telling wrenchingly personal stories while weaving in these larger questions that many of us grapple with.

Dan Pallotta’s TED talk “The way we think about charities is dead wrong”

February 12th, 2015

A friend of mine had recommended I watch this TED talk by Dan Pallotta, titled “The way we think about charity is dead wrong”. I finally got around to watching it last night and wrote up my notes in an email to my friend and then figured I might as well post them on the blog as well.

Pallotta’s main point is that the metric of “overhead” in charity is a misleading one at best, and is actively damaging in some cases. Givers want their money to go straight to the cause they are trying to support, so they want “overhead” to be as low as possible. But he points out that if that money can be used effectively for fundraising, then there will be a multiplicative effect such that more money in total goes to the cause. He gives this example: “We launched the AIDSRides with an initial investment of 50,000 dollars in risk capital. Within nine years, we had multiplied that 1,982 times into 108 million dollars after all expenses for AIDS services.”

I think the idea of growing the pie is one that people tend not to instinctively get, not just in charity work but everywhere. People assume that if a job goes to an immigrant, that’s one less job for an American, as if there is a fixed set of jobs, and it’s a zero-sum game such that if you get a dollar, I don’t. But the world doesn’t work like that – we regularly see vast new sources of value being created, which have benefits for everyone (I recently read Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One, which makes a similar point). It is so much more powerful to think in a non-zero sum way, and realizing that by working together to grow the pie, everybody is better off. Play the infinite game, people!

I also think his point about how we expect people to work at non-profits to work for cheaper is fascinating. I loved his example of the Stanford MBA who makes $400k a year is better off donating $100k/year to charity and getting the tax writeoff than actually going to work for a non-profit where he or she would have to take a $300k/year paycut. It’s similar to the conflicted attitude people have towards artists making money, as illustrated in Amanda Palmer’s recent article.

At the same time, I also know how easy it is to waste money in fundraising and marketing – I was the finance manager for Google Offers, Google’s Groupon-like product. We definitely pushed marketing dollars into that, and…not so successful, despite those Stanford MBAs. He was very successful at multiplying the impact of his fundraising dollars exponentially but I don’t know how generalizable a case that is – it is _hard_ to gain visibility in today’s fast-moving complex world, as there are just so many entities competing for people’s attention.

I also thought it was funny that he cited the stat of giving in the US staying at 2% of GDP a year for decades, and says that they can’t compete with companies spending on advertising. One of the stats I use at Google is that the advertising business as a whole has averaged around 1.3% of GDP for a century, according to Bloomberg – nothing has moved that dial. It’s moved from radio to TV to the Internet, but the total pie has not grown despite everybody in advertising extolling the virtues of growing the pie. So I don’t think giving is doing as badly as he thinks it is :)

It was an interesting talk, and I agree with his point that we should treat charities more like we treat companies – give them the time and the resources to invest in themselves such that they can grow and be more effective. I’ll have to think more about how to choose which charities to donate to.

Stewart Brand and Paul Saffo at the Interval

February 11th, 2015

A couple weeks ago, I went to see Stewart Brand and Paul Saffo give a “salon talk” at the Interval (recap and audio of the talk here). It was a packed house – the talk had sold out in less than an hour, but I was lucky enough to be checking email when the tickets went on sale and bought one immediately, as these are two of my favorite thinkers. Stewart Brand is legendary for the Whole Earth Catalog, How Buildings Learn, the Long Now, etc. And I have been a fan of Paul Saffo since seeing him speak at Xerox PARC a decade ago.

The topic of the night was Stewart Brand’s framework of pace layers – he posited that change happens in civilizations at different levels and at different speeds. Fashion is changing all the time, as people try new things – most fashion trends are fads that we forget, but some get absorbed into the culture. At the other end, nature is relatively slow-moving which is why it is difficult for us to create urgency around it (e.g. global warming).

I was jotting down notes throughout the talk, especially quotes that were good soundbites, so I’ll share those below and annotate, but I also recommend reading the official recap.

Brand: “Like all good things, this was stolen.” (commenting that pace layers were inspired by Frank Duffy’s “shearing layers”)

Brand: “Why do architects keep making, at higher expense, buildings that people detest?” He went on to note that over the lifetime of a building, only one third of the cost is in initial construction – the other two thirds is from doing remodeling and reskinning – he has a friend who realized this and started a company to do remodeling, which turns out to be more profitable than doing the initial construction.

Brand: “The fundamental problem of buildings: they are always trying to tear themselves apart.”

Brand: “Architects want to design buildings to stay the way they designed it. So they make it hard to change without tearing down the building” by putting the infrastructure of the building like pipes and electricity in hard-to-reach places. Instead of designing the building to be modifiable so it can adapt as needs change, architects want the building to remain true to their vision, even if it no longer suits the inhabitants of that building. I think there’s a deep concept here as designers, engineers and architects too often will prioritize their ego (in the form of their brilliant design at a point in time) over the needs of their users, which can change.

Brand showed a great set of two photographs of San Francisco, one from the 1800s and one from today. And the street layout was the same, even though the buildings inhabiting those streets were much bigger. As he put it, “Huge skyscrapers have to dance to that choreography” (of the streets that already exist).

Brand moved on to talk about the pace layers framework itself.

Brand: “Fashion is about fashion – that’s why the curly line as it is about itself and is going back on itself.” Fashion is not for something – it is purely about experimentation and trying new things and commenting on itself.

Brand: “There has to be slippage between layers.” Layers are not independent – what happens in one layer can affect others. So when a big event happens, it has impacts on multiple layers – Saffo later gave the example of the earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco (a surprisingly big change in the Nature layer) which led to the chance to remake the city (the Infrastructure layer) but also, because it cost so much to re-build SF, led to the Panic of 1907 (the Commerce layer). So big events reverberate at different timescales among the different layers, making causality sometimes difficult to track.

Brand: “If you’re young or live in cities, you are focused on the quick stuff.” (Like fashion) Young people thrive on change and action, so they are focused more on the fast layers – I would posit this is why so many smart people go to Wall Street straight out of college, both for the Fashion layer of New York as well as the Commerce layer of Wall Street.

Brand: “We are now at peak children.” I thought this was interesting – he says that as birth control gets more widely spread, and as societies become richer, they will have less children. We have been relatively successful at reducing infant mortality, which means more kids are surviving now than ever before, and soon culture will reflect that and people will start having fewer children. I don’t know if I believe it, but it’s an interesting idea.

I liked this slide to summarize the difference between the fast and slow layers. It reminds me of my framework of learn and latch, where certain elements of society are off trying new things, and then the successful ones get built into society so that the next generation doesn’t have to re-learn the same things. If we were experimenting all the time, we’d never make progress, but if we only did what had been previously successful, we couldn’t adapt. It’s the balance between the two that has made humanity so successful.

Brand: “The layers are a sifting device to figure out what matters to people.” He noted that hula hoops and jogging started in the same summer, but only one lasted. Fast layers are about trying lots of things, and seeing what sticks around.

After Brand’s description of the pace layers concept, Paul Saffo came up to offer some thoughts.

Saffo: “Slow layers catch up to fast layers.” He gave the example of the Internet innovating fast (in the Commerce and Infrastructure layers), but then starting to slow down now that Congress (the Governance layer) has caught up and is starting to get involved. He commented that this is why exponential growth decays into an s-curve.

Saffo discussed the idea of “productive turbulence”. Not only is there slippage between layers, but there is friction and turbulence between layers. “The boundaries of pace layers are more interesting innovations and change than the layers themselves.” The boundaries are where we as a society decide what we value – these conflicts can sometimes take decades to work out.

Saffo: “Layers don’t just vary in speed but viscosity.”

Saffo: “Think of silicon valley as a standing vortex.” He posits that Silicon Valley is an interface between layers, where fashion, commerce and infrastructure are all iterating fast, and then coming into conflict with the governance and culture of the US. He also noted that the San Andreas Fault lurking beneath our feet brings an awareness of instability even in the Nature layer.

Saffo: “An early adopter is somebody who pays too much for something that doesn’t quite work yet.” He said that the government was the early adopter for the space race, which drove technology like digital computing.

In response to a question of where the governance layer is responsive, Brand said it was at the city level, especially with regard to services like fixing potholes. In general, Brand believes that cities and city states are the future of governance, as they are at the right span of control to be effective for their constituents. But he also noted that we need a global government to manage problems like global warming.

Saffo recommended the book “A General Theory of Bureaucracy”, by Elliott Jaques, as it describes the timespan of discretion, and whether decisions are made with regard to consequences of 20 minutes or centuries.

Somebody asked where technology fit into the pace layers framework, and Brand said that he originally had technology as its own layer, but eventually realized that technology was in all of the layers – it was a component of fashion, commerce, governance, infrastructure, etc. It was an enabler, not a layer in itself. He said that institutions are similar in cutting across layers.

I can’t remember the question, but Brand noted that he thinks there is a values crisis in China (a crisis of the Culture layer). For decades, the Communist party was both governance and culture, but people now see that the party is outmoded, so they have flipped to the opposite extreme of prizing capitalism over all else. Everybody is pursuing wealth because they have nothing else to believe in. Commerce has taken over the Culture layer.

Brand: “Bear in mind this is a data free diagram” (in response to whether the layers are logarithmic)

Saffo at one point got on a rant about exponential literacy. We don’t have a good sense for power laws and how quickly things can blow up in exponentials (the example of the rice on the chessboard). But he also noted that there is “great folly and error” in too much belief in exponentials – the population bomb never detonated because other factors (other layers) smoothed out the exponential. He thinks the Singularity is “exponential horseshit” for the same reason.

One question was “Why does some art end up in culture rather than fashion?” Brand quoted Brian Eno, who said “Art is doggedly nonfunctional, as is fashion” and went on to comment that “Surprise and innovation are things we need to be braced for. The way we get practice in dealing with surprises is by dealing with art. Art keeps us exercised with radical originality in a way that doesn’t hurt anybody.”

Interesting ideas. I think the pace layers framework can be helpful in thinking about how society changes. I’m not sure it makes much difference which layers one chooses to consider, as the essential idea to me is the friction between layers, where some elements of society are trying new things, and other elements are trying to preserve the way things are, and the conflict between them is where we decide (discover?) what we as a society value. Fun stuff – I’m glad I made the trek to the Marina for the talk.

RSS feed

LinkedIn profile


New post: Corporate culture as illustrated by the five monkeys experiment:…

Recent Posts

  • Corporate culture as illustrated by monkeys
  • The Leadville experience
  • My first Death Ride
  • Asynchronous Ask Me Anything
  • Raising money for World Bicycle Relief
  • Random Posts

  • nextNY and other NYC events
  • More on feedback
  • Pitching oneself
  • Customer service
  • Chief Culture Officer, by Grant McCracken

  • Archives

  • Categories