Tillerson and the businessman-as-politician fallacy

Over the weekend, the Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper and published his weekly essay on the ‘businessman-as-politician fallacy.’ Over 800 words, mostly laid out in bullet points (the preferred format of the modern-day businessman, though not our President), Kuper attempted to clearly lay out the vast differences that exist between managing a business and managing a nation / government. He points to Trump’s experience as the head of a privately owned family business as amongst the “simplest” of executive management positions, in structure, ease of maneuverability (both in terms of the ability to remain nimble in business strategy, and fire/restructure at will), and ultimate aim of “making profits, usually in one sector.” Kuper continues: “Running the government is a little like running a large publicly quoted conglomerate, or the US military. But in fact, the presidency itself is unique, so the candidate’s character and intelligence matter more than his experience.”

This article has stuck with me despite our neverending news cycle transitioning from North Korea’s “entreaty” to Trump’s firing (over Twitter) of his first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Upon selection, Tillerson was thought to be among the few sensible picks within Trump’s cabinet, someone with established relationships in many of the world’s most pivotal theaters (Russia, the Middle East, Africa), as well as strong organizational leadership as Chairman and CEO of Exxon for 10 years.

Unlike the Trump organization, ExxonMobil is one of the largest companies in recent history (#7 largest globally as of 2017, per PWC, but the largest in the aughts, during Tillerson’s tenure as chief executive) with more than $200 billion dollars of annual revenue and ~75,000 employees operating across the globe, and has been publically traded since 1920, just 9 years after being broken up from Rockefeller’s Standard Oil monopoly. In fact, considering both countries and corporations, ExxonMobil would be the 21st largest economy in the world, per the World Bank.

Further, Tillerson is hardly the byproduct of hand selection or nepotism – he rose through the organizational ranks beginning as an engineer (notably, without a MBA), and even more notably does not have any formal or familiar connection to the Rockefeller family. If there ever was a political appointee who could determine the cross-applicability of running a business with running the government, it would be him. The near consensus among Democrats, traditional Republicans, and the financial markets was that Tillerson was a calming and steadying presence to counteract Trump’s chaotic and improvisational style. An “adult in the room.”

Instead, Tillerson’s (shortened) term was puzzling, and mostly without accomplishment or major incident. Tillerson’s most consequential actions as Secretary of State were his handling of the Saudi/Qatari blockade (though this may have led to his ousting), and his characterization of the President as a moron (which almost certainly happened.)

In fact, Tillerson’s management of the State Department seems to have reflected the shortcomings of the corporate management of large firms – a lack of creativity and new ideas, a reliance on outsiders to make decisions, poor coordination and communication, and most consequentially, a starling amount of micromanagement and inefficiency.

At the onset of his term, Tillerson hired a group of management consultants to evaluate the current state of the Department and to help identify areas of excess spend or waste across the 30,000-employee, $50B annual budget Department, spread across 250 posts across the world. Either through the conclusion reached by his mercenary advisors (keeping in mind that his predecessors, Republican or Democrat, were a phone call away), or himself, the “strategy” that he seemed to devise for his stewardship of the State Department was the radical act of “doing nothing” (I can almost see the business book cover now.) For months, undersecretary and other consequential subject matter- and regional positions were left unfilled, and tenured career diplomats were left without direction, leaving many of the most senior (and well paid) diplomats and undersecretaries to resign, oftentimes ahead of anticipated pension or retirement dates, as they felt that they were phased out and therefore serving little-to-no purpose, if not a harmful one, with no discernible diplomatic policy or departmental aim.

While the State Department remained noticeably barren (again, a toxic, of not deliberate, attempt at cost cutting), Tillerson restricted the chain of information to himself and his Chief of Staff, as if they two alone could capably manage our global order in an office over conference calls. Further, Tillerson was quoted as aiming to make the diplomatic portion of the State Department more “efficient” (a particularly classic businessperson doublespeak), with no explanation or coherent aim for how one makes the act of diplomacy more efficient (less plane rides? No international calls?)

The minimalist approach stood in stark contrast to Trump’s maximalist approach — throwing a ton of shit against the wall (little of which stuck), and holding meetings so chaotic that newly installed Chief of Staff John Kelly’s first action in his new role was to restrict access to the President and limit the size of meetings. In both cases, the publicly traded corporate leader and the private tycoon, these business leaders have proved themselves to be wholly inept in the management of their respective organizations and environments. And while a hindsight historian could argue that Tillerson was hamstrung by Trump’s chaotic and oftentimes usurping management of US international relations, it is inarguable that Tillerson managed the State Department for over a year without any discernible strategy or focus, and left the department a less efficient and functional place than he found it (though maybe overall expenses were cut by 5%, at the literal expense of our standing with much of the world.)

Tillerson, more so than Trump, reflects a true argument against the corporate leader as a worthy candidate for public service on the strength of his private sector experience alone. The notion of the business manager as a “generalist,” capable of managing any industry or organization capably, from petroleum to toys (petroleum byproducts), or even the diplomacy of our country, must be thoroughly debunked.

Jobs, Hobbies, and Diversions

At what point in one’s life does one decide, with some level of certainty, what they want to do with their life? Presumably throughout history, people and their lot in life were defined by their professions, and these professions were gained via hereditary means, caste, or education. However, in even those cases, diaries and letters recount a sense of yearning, that there’s more to life than the future that they’ve been allotted. And then there are hobbies, which many throw themselves into with abandon – the things that bring people joy, that they would be willing to do regardless of compensation or reward. There’s a classic exercise employed by guidance counselors which involves the act of the counselee imaging a rack of magazines at your local bookshop or newsstand, and imaging which of these infinite choices you’d choose amongst the many. In this thought experiment, the resulting selection is what you should pursue in your life. Despite the predictable outcomes of this exercise – sports, fashion, cars/horses/guitars/music, etc. – we in fact see very few people ultimately reaching the heights of general manager of a sports team, or designer of a fashion label, and many more becoming consultants, nurses, or social media coordinators (who maintain their passions for these interests in their spare time.)

I pose this question because I find myself at an interesting and potentially precarious point in my life, where I’m in the fortunate position to have several opportunities in front of me – some of which are of my own efforts / choosing, and others still invisible to me, still to be defined through chance encounters and continued efforts. Contending with this universe of potential choices is predictably exhausting. Similarly, the split between the short, medium, and long term, and how each decision made in the moment might impact one’s life, oftentimes sends me into a tizzy of self doubt and questioning.

In truth, the way that most would advise someone like myself in these types of situations is to “go with my gut” — to ask your own subconscious feelings govern what’s next. Others may draw you to your innate curiosity, asking if this is something that keeps you interested and engaged in your work – but that keeps you up at night thinking about it. And yet others might caution against putting too much stock or weight of one’s happiness in the job that they do – that as long as one is able to develop a healthy work-life balance, and enjoy oneself outside of work, that they will feel happier, more fulfilled.

I bring up these examples because over the past two months I’ve nearly heard them all. And while they all have merit, and all in some ways mean more to me now today that they ever have, I still find myself stuck at this point of gross uncertainty. And while it’s not necessarily a question of happiness – my needs are met, my health and that of people close to me is thankfully ok (if not stable), and I feel relatively valued and engaged in my work. And yet, I still don’t know, and that uncertainty continues to eat me up.

The conclusion that I oftentimes come to, if any, is to keep pushing forward, to continue making progress. In times of uncertainty and indecision, I must recognize the blessings in front of me, and continue to pursue what it is that interests me and will bring me closer to that fulfillment, rather than wallow in the indecision and continue to focus on the immediate present, or the choices and decisions that led up until this point. Moving forward consists of seeking out the texts, materials, and routines / practices (such as writing, here) that will set me on my path and unsure slow, but incremental progress. Identifying these things, and setting yourself on this course involves removing some layer of fear from the equation, acknowledging the inherent risk involved in taking responsibility for one’s own fate. I am committed to these actions and endeavor to remain emotionally present in the face of the inevitable up-ands-downs that will persist. But the act of incorporating these feelings in writing, and leaving them available for all to see (but mostly for me to come back to) is a positive step in that direction. Hopefully, I can continue to hold myself accountable, and continue to track my progress on (e-) paper. Onwards!

Who are the grownups in the room?

This week’s New Yorker profiles the leadership of Reddit and its efforts to “detoxify” the internet from behind the curtains of systems administration and human judgement. As the author recounts the experience of Reddit employees going through the manual process of identifying and banning reprehensible subreddits dedicated to murdering Jews, child pornography or beastiality, I couldn’t help but feel like there’s something seriously wrong with this picture – that the adults have somehow left the room over the past couple of years, leaving behind a cadre of underqualified, but technically-literate people to pick up the pieces and inherit our global order.

The current state of the internet, and in turn of society, is a failed experiment on the part of our leadership and governing bodies – full stop. Watching the highly trained general counsels of our foremost tech companies capably dodge the well-intentioned but ultimately ignorant questions of our legislature under oath, one can easily conclude that there is a real need for a true governing body, one that can take measured, well-informed action to regulate the internet, ensure that backdoors are accounted for, and manage the fallout.

While the answer certainly does not lie in Chinese mass censoring of content deemed objectionable by Chinese standard, it does show, with minor and isolated exception, that attempts to control and/or regulate the internet are not impossible, and can be done. We cannot leave this task to likes of the Zuckerbergs, Brin/Page/Pichais, and the Dorseys of the world, CEOs responsible for their publicly-traded companies’ financial performance and long-term viability at the expense of all else (it’s literally their job description). It is unrealistic and unreasonable to ask them to be the “good guys,” the individuals responsible for ensuring the safety of our democracy and the state of our discourse online (and increasingly bleeding offline). It’s like putting healthcare and pharmaceutical executives in charge of solving health care, or making car executives responsible for ensuring the health of our planet – regulations and their modus operandi are diametrically opposed.

One of my favorite blogs of late, ribbonfarm, wrote a post the other day that went to great lengths to try and document and taxonomize the culture war currently taking place on the internet, which the author characterizes as the key aspect behind an era “as consequential in reshaping the future of the United States and the world as the Civil War.” While the article is definitely a worth effort, it felt like a byproduct of a moment in time, rather than a permanent zeitgeist that will looked back upon by historians and consumers of history books generations from now.

However, where his article really began to resonate with me was its conclusion, where it sought to tackle the herculean question of “what is to be done?” The author takes on the individuals who claim that the culture wars are just cast stones of words hurled across the echo chamber of social media, and the way to win the war is to log off (but not drop out.)

The author responds:

My general conclusion is that the people who respond with denial are rationalizing a personal retreat by pretending that there isn’t an actual serious conflict underway. That even momentous events like the rise of Trumpism are one-off accidents and that we’ll return to “normalcy” once the damn millennials get jobs and settle down instead of wasting time tweeting and eating avocado toast.

I have no problem with people who feel they have to retreat from the fray simply as a matter of personal mental health (normalizing mental-health self-care is one of the good things that might come out of all this). Or those who find peace of mind by unplugging and meditating more. That does not mean there is no conflict or that those who stay in the fray are fighting an imaginary war that’s all in their heads, or that it won’t matter in the end.

In fact, this kind of retreat is precisely the reaction many of the hardier combatants are looking to provoke among adversaries. To retreat without even realizing that retreat has been forced on you, rather than chosen by you, is to lose without even realizing you were in a fight. And cede access to public territory you didn’t know you had a right to (and need for).

This is a scary, but all too true, reality. When I read a column from NYTimes everyman tech columnist Farhad Manjoo on “subsisting” on print media for two months, my initial impulse was to agree with Mr. Rao, the author of the ribbonfarm post. While there’s definitely clarity to be gained from only subjecting oneself to the news of record, “all the news that’s fit to print,” you’re simultaneously minimizing the harmful and toxic reality of our current information consumption, spoon-fed to us by the purveyors of internet fast food and their slaughterhouse-esque subcontractors generating auto-playing videos that are paid per click because that’s what the system incents them to do.

As former Youtube engineer Guillaume Chaslot explains to NYTimes columnist Zeynep Tufekci, more extreme videos and opinions are the ones that maximize Youtube’s viewer retention, thereby its advertiser revenue, and thereby its search and recommendation algorithms. And yet we’re shocked by what our youth are able to find on the internet.

Watching the documentary The Final Year, which documents the final year of the Obama foreign policy administration, I was struck by the maturity and wisdom being deployed by Obama and his staff to the betterment of the World, using their lived experience (Kerry in Vietnam, Power in Rwanda and elsewhere, and Obama and Rhodes in Iraq and Afghanistan) to project broader values and rise above personal self interest or profit to greater aims. Call me starry eyed, naive, or nostalgic, but I am a huge believer in the power of government, and the power of individuals in service of a higher calling, a greater good.

It’s clear that President Trump and our legislature are ill equipped to manage the current state of the Internet. Maybe it’s the Europeans that can make some headway, as they already in have some ways via anti-monopoly efforts and legislation to reign in the power of the tech giants, or Tim Berners-Lee and a group of benevolent technocrats. All I know for sure is that opting out is no longer an answer, and the onus is on us as US and global citizens to take a stand against this cycle of pervasive and harmful hegemony – through our online activity, our voting power, and even our pocket books.

How to travel somewhere new

One thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as I move to a new city (São Paulo) in a foreign country (Brazil, for the geographically challenged / lazy), and begin to prepare to explore the corners of my newly adopted country, is how one “takes on” a city – how one transitions from a cursory knowledge of major neighborhoods and a general sense of the geography / layout to a more nuanced, appreciative understanding of a city / place, and then how one goes about prioritizing what to highlight in the even that you’re pitted with showcasing this city to visitors (or yourself) or via writing.

In writing this post, I’ve been inspired by the new show Ugly Delicious, which does a fantastic job of explaining the often complex ways in which local cuisines and cultures have come to be. I was especially entranced by its episode contrasting New Orleans and Houston — Houston’s welcoming of its Vietnamese residents and their cuisine, versus New Orleans strict traditionalist and conformist view of cajun cuisine and culture (maybe a French thing…) I wanted to quickly do a thought exercise on how I would approach being a travel guide / writer, on how to unlock and demonstrate the intimacy and/or uniqueness of a place you’re either living in or visiting, using my personal experience of places I’ve visited in the past, and places I’ve had the good fortune to call home.

Looking at this system with fresh eyes and all written out on paper, it strikes me that it mirrors some of the advice often offered by motivation or ‘visioning’ experts in their talks or literature – start with the big picture, and break down into component parts that are more easily tackled over a shorter span of time. To me, this process seems to mirror the unseen and arduous steps behind painting a beautiful picture – the oftentimes unknown, but numerous steps that bridge an idea or image in your head to the final result.


Sketching with Pencil – Motivation

Considering the hypothesis that the places you’re living in or visiting is a place that you have some level of interest / motivation in being there, oftentimes the first step is to channel that motivation into a brainstorming exercise of sorts, unlocking what is special about this place, to you? What types of things will you be upset if you don’t get the chance to do while in this country / city / place?

Oftentimes, these motivations are surprisingly apparent, and can be jostled relatively quickly by asking yourself and/or your travel partner what their hopes and dreams are associated with this trip, and then prioritize which of these hopes and dreams are the types of things that can’t be missed / avoided. Once you get comfortable with the understanding that your time in any given place is finite, you can brainstorm the major things/places/activities that are truly important, which serves the role of your rough outline of your stay.


Going over it with Ink – Geography

No doubt one of the major determinants of one’s trip / experience is the geography of the place you’re exploring — is it highly compact and walkable, or is it more spread out and requiring of studied day planning to maximize your return (as is often the case). One trick that I’ve developed over time is the use of Google’s Maps feature to help me frame the relative placement of the “must sees/dos/eats” of a given city, which then allows me to break up sections of a given city into smaller, more manageable blocks.

This exercise also helps with the prioritization aspect of trip planning – is there a single attraction or restaurant that’s considerably distanced from the rest of the list? If so, knowing that you’ll likely be visiting at the expense of other items on your agenda can help you determine whether or not this is something you truly want to do. Even the best public transportation systems in the world can’t help you with an one-hour-each-way detour (even Tokyo’s notoriously efficient subway/rail system will take you a long time to get across the sprawling metropolis.)


Visualizing from the conceptual to the specific

Once you’ve identified your motivations, and have gained a strong sense of the geography of the place you’re visiting, you have enough pieces to begin assembling the jigsaw puzzle and its possible permutations to begin the physical act of “planning” your trip. I do this by drawing my own Calendar of the days / duration of the trip, with markers identifying any existing obligations. At a minimum, this includes arrival and departure flights, but oftentimes other commitments as well – plans you’ve already committed to, intra-trip flights, or reservations already made (more on this below.)

This act of visualizing the trip will quickly get you comfortable with the limitations that time oftentimes creates, as well as the idea that it will be truly impossible to do everything you want. From there, the challenge of seeing through your identified motivations becomes the mission. Sometimes, these facts, laid out, can restrict your timetable to the dates that will work to accomplish it all, and you can begin to “fill in the gaps” with the activities that you love, ideally mirroring the characteristics of the place you’re visiting.


Adding the Color – Culture, food, shopping, etc.

For me, food is often the most important aspect of my trip once you’ve rounded out the “must sees / dos,” but this can be expanded to shopping, drinking, or just generally, “culture.” What’s evocative of the area? Are there particular cuisines or dishes that are woven into the fabric of the place you’re visiting, that you would be remiss if you didn’t try (or at least try an authentic version of?) I try to be fairly relaxed and open minded when it comes to trips, but one thing that I can’t abide by is a wasted meal – a visit to a nearby, oftentimes middling and/or expensive restaurant chosen for its proximity, its convenience, the fact that it’s the only place still open at 4PM for lunch (or 11PM for dinner). With a little bit of planning, this horror can be avoided altogether, leaving only delicious meals and interesting and worthy flavors for your precious time and finite stomachs.

My initial step for finding the best food in a given area is to ask locals, and/or predecessors who have experienced the location before you. This will oftentimes weed out the tourist traps, the places that were deemed important once upon a time and have become ubiquitous, and with small exception are usually mediocre and overcrowded (think Sachertorte in Vienna, Pats & Geno’s in Philly, or any one of countless places in New York City.)

If you don’t know any locals, or don’t feel comfortable asking friends of friends (or friends of friends of friends – it’s been done), then scouring the internet can be a helpful next step. I tend towards message boards like Reddit, which are normally populated by locals happy to help out and ensure that visitors get it right. Unfortunately, Trip Advisor can be hit or miss – it’s become so ubiquitous for travelers to popular destinations that it often leads to overcrowded and expensive restaurants (which oftentimes become overcrowded and expensive due to Trip Advisor).

Once you’ve completed your list of interesting and indicative restaurants, you can proceed onto juxtaposing this with the “reality” of these places which can help further fill out your grid – most notably location, reservations required (is it the type of place that requires reservations a year in advance, or a reservation at all?), your budget (can you afford it?), hours and ambiance (is it a lunch place? Only open at night? Requires a dinner jacket?), and then plot out the surviving options on your map to plot against the prioritized activities / places previously identified.

Note that while I used food as the example here, food can be replaced by whatever cultural activity you particularly fancy and/or is indicative of the culture you’re in – shopping, drinking, art galleries, etc. To demonstrate that this method can actually be accomplished, I’m attaching my Japan trip map, which was compiled in advance of a solo trip taken in late 2016. While I definitely didn’t do close to everything listed on this map, each location identified had an inspiration or rationale behind it, and allowed me to maximize my visit to specific regions / neighborhoods of the city / country.

While I definitely think that Google could improve the functionality and ease of use of its custom maps (business idea?), I like how easy it is to share with others and be constantly iterated upon, reflecting the ever-changing nature of the place you’re visiting.


A brief word on serendipity / chance

Before anyone reads this and gets too carried away with their own color-coded, meticulously planned to the hour trip of their own, one word that I’d like to impress is chance. One of the mottos that I live by is maximizing serendipity – the belief that incredible things happen through chance and serendipity, but only if you actively take steps to put yourself in the best position possible (i.e., the right neighborhood / environment / people), and leave yourself open to the serendipitous occasion if it presents itself.

This is oftentimes accomplished by ensuring that you allow yourself to let your innate curiosity guide your actions and not constrain yourself to much by the limits of a timetable or set plan. To me, this is one of the essential elements of any trip, and the one that’s almost certain to result in the most stories and memories that will endure for years to come. Ultimately, your senses are your best guide – if you see, smell, or hear something that piques your curiosity and seems compelling, seek it out!

I’m definitely still learning how to best mix impulse with planning, the idea that a place or experience can be different than you imagined, conceived, or planned, and the ability to remain open to the broader environment and the experiences therein, even if it means staying up a couple extra hours and imperiling your plans for the next day. This is a muscle that I hope to continue to train and harness, and feel blessed to be able to indulge in my life. Hopefully I’ll be able to report back with some of these stories / experiences / sights in the future, with less stuffy words and more beautiful photos.

Questioning Content Consumption

Given a recent expansion / explosion of free time, the ever-increasing number of Netflix shows / podcasts / general media out there, and my lifelong struggle to climb mount tsundoku, I’ve been thinking a lot about content consumption lately, especially in relation to the act of writing / producing and as the realities of age (and limited time) continue to set in.

Given all the recent high profile investment taking place in the media and entertainment industries, and the ever-increasing need for subscriber counts and other KPIs to justify lofty (if not atmosphere-exiting) valuations, it increasingly feels like there’s a war going on for your attention – for your time – and if one doesn’t play an active role in this fight, one will succumb to choosing whatever’s available (or chosen for you) on Netflix / Spotify / Kindle Unlimited, as opposed to activating your personal, internal discerning critic to dictate the entertainment / education / diversion you want to consume in your precious time. This may sound simple or obvious, but for me this is a reality that’s very much still setting in – the need to be intentional and fairly selecting in your consumption.

VC, blogger, and constant inspiration Fred Wilson responded to an interesting user-submitted question several weeks ago related to his own content consumption, and how he manages to balance a “busy job with significant content consumption and some healthy time off.” Fred responded that rather than having any systemized curriculum or ruleset, he lets his routine, friends, and curiosity dictate his consumption. He uses the impetus of writing a daily blog (one with a loyal readership, no less), and the need to write, reflect, and share interesting and relevant content with his audience as a major driver of his consumption.

In addition, he points to a network of friends that are constantly sharing interesting news and content that they find around the internet with one another. The primarily commonality among these friends is not domain expertise (in Fred’s case, venture capital or technology), but rather curiosity and a wide breadth of interests. As someone who strives to reflect these qualities, this resonated with me. While I’m sometimes shamed for my propensity to share links “of interest” to a deliberately selected group of friends via email chain, I do enjoy the digital “salon” that sometimes evolves from the link, as well as the odd-reciprocal link or article sent back in exchange. It is truly interesting how much stuff on the internet can slip through your grasp if you’re not on social media and/or plugged into the various corners, cubbies, and sewers of the internet.

Related to this, Fred closes his response with what he deems to be his “most important” filter for consumption – now allowing technology to dictate the type of content to consume. Considering today’s prevalence of recommendation algorithms and Amazon’s scary-if-not-sometimes-hilarious correlations in your purchase history, this is nearly impossible as an overarching rule, but I do agree that the more you can manage the internet’s view-hungry apps and sites from running your life (last week’s NYTimes Magazine piece on the tiny red dots that run our lives was a helpful/scary reminder), the better.

As I write this post, I definitely feel like Fred’s post was a helpful reminder in some ways, and a wake up call in others, that prioritizing the content that you consume is very important and helps avoid wasting too much time or adding too much superfluous information to our already-crowded heads. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve slowed my reading down to make it through a particularly arduous book, or finished a movie that I was already “out” on, just for the sake of completion / conclusion. I know the different between reading an engaging, can’t-put-down, want to highlight/write in book and a book that’s an absolute pain to slog through, yet I feel like I don’t internalize this enough, or actively ask myself how this book is serving me and whether continuing it will continue to serve me. Removing this “tyranny of completion” is a continued struggle, but something that’s always helpful to identify and absorb whenever possible – after all, it’s my time.

One of the things that I’m grudgingly accepting in my adoption of the Kindle Paperwhite is its impact on my ability to truly discern what interests me and how I want to spending my reading time, and then attribute a truly non-meaningful amount of money behind it (often <$15 for most books, which comes down to less than $3/hour if you average a book’s completion time at 5 hours, a fairly conservation estimate.) In some ways, this has been counterintuitive and surprising to me. While I enjoy the sight of a room filled with books (curated by yourself or others, as recounted by the FT this weekend), I definitely have a familiar feeling of oppression returning to my bookshelf – books left purchased and unread, or books that were started and left to be finished, one day.

In comparison to this, the Kindle and Kindle Store experience has felt liberating. Don’t like a book that you’re reading? Well, you’re only 20% in, so you better stop now. Even more psychologically liberating is the ability to remove the book itself from your “library” (as opposed to the near-sacreligious, if not painful act of throwing away / donating books), and thereby removing any pangs of guilt associated with not reading it. After all, there’s a nearly-unlimited (sorry, Amazon) amount of books out there that are interesting and engaging and left to be read – no use slogging through a book that you’ll never have to explain to curious / nosy house guests.

I’m not sure if I’ve reached any concrete takeaways or conclusions as a result of this post, but do see it as a helpful reminder that our time on this Earth is limited, and there’s no reason to take on shitty content or hold off on the good stuff for a later date (when I shamefully admitted that I was holding off on reading Proust, Tolstoy, or even Gravity’s Rainbow to a friend yesterday, he looked at me sideways). Of course, there are always cheat days as well – can’t be helped, and oh, so delicious.

Writing routines

Since Google Reader shut down, my use of traditional blogs as a primary means of media consumption disappeared. However, the nifty architecture off RSS and utility of Google Reader has been replaced by something even stickier – the email subscription / newsletter. While Google Reader could be left unread for weeks at a time, email insists on action – address / read me now lest you face the wrath of the unread and/or inbox pileup.

The shift from GReader to GMail has made me even more attentive to sites of interest (at least those with subscription capability – notably the NYTimes daily and weekly digests, Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution early-morning missive, and the Economist’s weekly highlights, to give a special shout-out to a few). As a result of this shift, I’d argue that I’ve ceded even more control of my consumption habits than before. On the other hand, channeling my news- and interest-reading habits through the medium of e-mail has made me even more susceptible to sharing / forwarding / discussing (arguably the principal goal of these media sites), creating safer / more conducive forums than the often-/most-times toxic comments sections of sites, or the anonymous forums of Reddit, Hacker News, or other aggregator sites.

One of the email subscriptions that I’ve especially latched onto is Ryan Holiday’s project Writing Routines (obligatory mention of Ryan’s latest book, Conspiracy, out now via Portfolio / Penguin). While it ingeniously serves Ryan’s goal of increasing the exposure to his already impressive list of clients and expanding his network of writers, it also provides an intimate look into the lives of the modern day working writer – the Linkedin / Medium contributor, the copywriter, the film / television writer, the social media maven. While the now-defunct Daily Routines blog (now compiled into a nifty book) regaled us with the day-to-day lives of history’s great writers, and their often nocturnal / alcoholic / ambulatory lifestyles, Writing Routines provides a modern-day look at how productive, prolific writers tackle their writing amidst the realities of modern day life and its constant challenges seeking to pull you away from the page.

In addition to the “hacks” shared – like what type of music they listen to while writing, or what type of composition programs they use, the most impactful question to me deals with the writer’s routine – how they manage to fit in time for writing / thinking in their day-to-day lives – lives often consumed by day jobs, parenting, or other limitations.

Upon reflection, I’ve noticed how many of the writers seem to gravitate to the morning / pre-lunch hours as their most potent / important / productive time, often relegating the less thought consuming / intensive efforts for the afternoon (such as editing, taking care of errands, etc.) While I’ve long been aware of Haruki Murakami’s routine of writing at dawn, and then going out and running/swimming/biking a triathlon after composing countless pages of genius (looked this up after – not that far off), the Writer’s Routine advice seems more a great deal more relevant to me, and something that I’ve sought to heed of late as I try to turn my writing from an abstract “goal for one day” into a true habit.

For me, my love of reading and general proclivity for consumption, rarely leave me without new material to work through – even if it’s just today’s morning paper. However, I’m finding that if I forego any consumption in the morning, and instead devote myself to putting pen to page (literally – I don’t trust myself enough to be in front of a computer), the longtime fear of writing somehow dissipates, and the words flow. I’m not exactly sure why that is, but I suspect it has something to do with the “noise” that soon follows you into the day – as obligations, communications, and realities begin to creep in and distract you from that thought or action you had hoped to explore before going to bed last night.

I’m hopeful that by putting this to page, and publishing it on the internet as some sort of public shaming mechanism, I can stick with the habit of writing my thoughts down in the morning, making it one (of many) routines that I can stick to in this new year.

Then again, leave it to me to be posting about this conviction just two days in…

The case for/against an MBA

One of the primary criticisms levied against MBAs are their failure to produce post-graduate entrepreneurial activity, especially in the technology sector.

In fact, in Silicon Valley companies known to hire MBAs are those thought of as void of innovation, who have piqued in their innovation lifecycle, and transitioning into a “professionalization” stage of their company.

Gartner Hype Cycle of Innovation (Edited by Me in red)

garter innovation hype cycle

Selected quotes from tech leaders

“Never ever hire an M.B.A.; they will ruin your company”  – Peter Thiel

“When M.B.A.’s come to us, we have to fundamentally retrain them–nothing they learned will help them succeed at innovation”  – Scott Cook, Founder of Intuit

“As much as possible, avoid hiring M.B.A.’s. M.B.A. programs don’t teach people how to create companies … our position is that we hire someone in spite of an M.B.A., not because of one.” – Elon Musk

As part of my ongoing research on the pros/cons of an MBA, I came across a conversation between Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel and HBS lecturer and VC Jeff Busgang on how business schools can better prepare its graduates for tech entrepreneurship.

The conversation was initially prompted by a tweet sent out by Seibel, clearly demonstrating his frustration with MBAs when reviewing Y Combinator applications:

Constantly seeing smart MBAs conducting surveys, not committing, not recruiting technical cofounders, and not building and launching mvps.

Michael’s frustration was that it wasn’t necessarily that MBA students are lagging in entrepreneurial activity – moreso, the question was why MBAs were not disproportionately better than the field of YC applicants, many of whom had little-to-no ‘credentials’ to speak of – “no formal training, mentoring, or experience” dealing with start-ups?

Paralysis by analysis, or the profile of the typical risk-averse MBA student

One of the primary takeaways of the conversation is the concept of ‘paralysis by analysis’ – the idea average MBA student tends to be a more risk averse individual, one that is more susceptible to waiting on the sidelines waiting for the “perfect idea” to strike.


“I think it’s just that MBAs, because of their nature, may be more likely to fall into the spending too much research time mistake as compared to a tech founder who is gonna be more likely to jump right in and build something. So, I think it’s not that these lessons are not applicable to all entrepreneurs. They’re applicable to all entrepreneurs. It’s just that MBAs are more susceptible to these mistakes, I believe.”

The chasm that exists between building a ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP), often the first step on embarking on a startup, and ongoing research is a vast one, and I think this point resonsated with me. When you’re solely focused on your idea or future company, the role and need for a MVP becomes much stronger, if not essential. When you’re a MBA student, especially a sought-after one at a top ranked institution, there are many attractive opportunities at your fingertips, and the need to justify the startup journey becomes even stronger.

When you are contemplating many possible futures, there becomes a much greater psychological hurdle / need to ensure that the idea you’re moving forward with (at the expense of more lucrative opportunities from an expected value standpoint) is “the idea” — hence the research overload.

Similarly, Michael cites a lack of commitment as one of his primary complaints against MBA applicants – the idea that MBAs are oftentimes dipping their toes into the start-up ocean, or wading in, as opposed to walking directly into the ocean.

As an aspiring entrepreneur with a corporate / consulting background, this point definitely resonated with me. There’s definitely a sea-change in disposition between a person with a day job, or even someone hedging several potential post-MBA opportunities simultaneously, and someone without an office space, business card, or any means of credibility ahead of them expect the plans in their head. In fact, many of the feedback that I’ve received of late regarding future entrepreneurial plans refer to the need to “just do it” – the mere act of removing oneself from the day-to-day mental hedge that a wide swath of opportunities provide is a crucial, if not the most important step in setting out on an entrepreneurial journey.

“Some dude in India’s gonna build this thing for me”

Another key theme of the conversation centered around Michael’s observation that MBA applicants are disproportionately likely to “outsource” the technical aspect of their (often technical) startup ideas or business models.

There is a perception of arrogance on Siebel parts – the relegation of the technical backbone of a business to an outsourced / contract coder, or not having a technical co-founder, but also an acceptance that this is oftentimes due to the limited exposure to technical talent in most MBA circles.

The conversation turns to a brainstorm of potential actions to try and remedy this:

Busgang’s ideas, maybe unsurprisingly, center around the institution, and revolve around creating more opportunities to connect MBAs with technical talent on campus – through double-degree engineering programs, coding clubs, entrepreneurs-in-residence (and their networks.)

Siebel, on the other hand, brings a more out-of-the-box idea to increase the technical proficiency of MBA cohorts: actively increase the number of seats in any given MBA class to students with engineering backgrounds – going so far as to propose a strict 50/50 apportioning between engineers and non-engineers. I’d argue this is increasingly underway, especially as admissions continue to seek out ever-higher post-MBA employment statistics (pre-MBA engineers going into consulting is a particular “home run” outcome, I believe.)

While the campuses and surrounding areas of MIT and Stanford are pointed to as hotbeds of this type of collaboration, where the technical- and the business-minded are more collaborative and accessible to one another, other locations are deemed to require more “hustle” to achieve similar ends.

However, as documented elsewhere, Google, Facebook, and others are in an ongoing battle to acquire and retain technical talent, keeping them “on campus” and presumably off the job / start-up market. As evidenced by the continued growth in compensation packages (and inventive “perks”), there continues to be a huge undersupply of readily available technical talent willing to forego a salary for an idea not of their own, as well asa nearly-unlimited supply of cash in the pockets of the tech companies.

“Not a positive credential”

The conversation concludes with a subject that’s been a reoccuring topic for me of late — for those interested in building / starting their own endeavor — is an MBA necessary, or can it be replicated by more relevant experiences in areas that you’re hoping to pursue.

The representative of the institution, Bussgang, is unable to refute this assertion directly, and reverts to the long-term worth argument (otherwise known as the “unquantifiable argument”) often made by MBA graduates – that over time, as you grow in your career, the value of the degree increases exponentially as your peers and MBA cohort increasingly ascend to higher positions and greater success in the business world. In addition, he points to the applicability of the curriculum to managers of companies undergoing “hyper growth,” or in other words, the type of “professionalism” cited earlier.

Bussgang takes off his lecturer / representative of the institution cap, and exposes his bias as a venture capitalist, a bias that is clearly shared by the CEO of Y Combinator, one of the most treasured credentials in the start-up world:

“I say to students, “Look, go to the top five, which are cities who happen to be in the middle of startup land cities, you know, rich innovation ecosystems, and that’s it.” I’m not sure I would go to others if I’m in the middle of a startup. If I’m trying to transform myself, who knows, but if I’m in the middle of a startup that’s going well in New York, or in Tel Aviv, or in Austin or in Silicon Valley, between, I don’t want to name a school to be negative, but if it’s a non top five school then I’m not sure you should go.”

The entrepreneurial / start-up track record of non-top 5 schools notwithstanding (something to research in a future post), this is a shocking admission to be so openly expressed – that an MBA, even in the top five, but especially outside of it, is not seen as a positive credential to venture capitalists. However, in my research it’s something that’s increasingly thought of as a consensus for the type of aspiring MBA able to reach the ‘vaunted’ heights of the top five (or M7, by less self-selecting individuals / MBA circles).

I do think that this mostly has to do with the opportunity cost of these individuals – as well as the post-MBA goals that are much more common at the top schools. But even at your Harvards and Stanfords, the experience of individuals who may want to escape their pre-MBA lives as consultants or bankers, and succumb to the need for a short-term return on their MBA investment, or the pressures of the MBA recruiting environment, and find themselves either returning to similar positions post-MBA, or find themselves luring to middle management positions at already-successful / late-stage / listed tech companies in big, target cities (colloquially bucketed as start-ups in many MBA circles I’ve run across). This is not necessarily a criticism, but moreso a reality proved out by the publically-available employment reports of the top schools – these statistics, collected and compiled as far back as 2011 in the case of Stanford, may be the argument against a MBA for those committed to a start-up.

Call it a comeback

6 years later, I think it’s high time to revisit this page, and writing more broadly (ironic enough that my last post focused on my lack of contributions to this site.)

I’m inspired by the daily meditations offered by folks like Howard Lindzon, Fred Wilson, and the ever-prolific Tyler Cowen – all of whom I’ve followed more or less since this blog’s inception.  Their daily posts aren’t always serious, nor do they come with a ‘breakthrough’ every day (though more often than not there’s something of substance in each post). Rather, they exist as a diary and an internet whiteboard to work out ideas and invite the response / engagement of the communities they’ve created and cultivated.

In returning to this form, I don’t necessarily have any goals other than to limit the filter that exists between my thoughts and this page and reach a place where I feel comfortable working through ideas and my thinking openly and honestly.

It feels useful to return to using this blog as a home-base for my thinking. Hopefully this is the first post of many.


Lately, I’ve been thinking a bit about my lack of contributions to this site.

I created this blog as a landing page for long-form thoughts, establishing a voice as a writer outside of obligatory term papers and endless e-mails.

I can’t say that my lack of contribution is due to lack of contemplation. I continue to fill my notebook with assorted thoughts, and mark the hell out of books (now mostly done electronically, due to my newly-acquired Kindle), with the intention of expanding on these thoughts and recollections. The thoughts continue to fester inside my head, until I move on, ruing my lack of enthusiasm for putting pen to page.

As I see it, dedicated time for uninhibited thought is split between consuming (reading books, blogs, news, commentary, etc.) and producing (writing.) In my life, this interplay is almost entirely one-sided, as I’m seldom seen without a book in hand, laptop open, or headphones tuned to the daily batch of new podcasts uploaded onto my iPod. This accessibility of information, and the respective tools used to consume this gluttonous habit, seems to be both a blessing and a curse. Interesting and educated opinions are more accessible than ever before, and I develop peripheral knowledge on the day’s current events and debates along with the rest of the so-inclined technorati. However, I’m often found guilty of recanting the thoughts and opinions of these authors without having taken the time to develop my own point of view – I fear that these opinions come to the detriment of my own.

I continue to play the seemingly never-ending game of whittling down my Google Reader to a manageable state to this day. Although I enjoy being “in the know,” It leaves me unfulfilled, and my desire to create remains, to tip the producing/creating scale a bit to allow for right brain-encompassing, creative thought.

My relationship with writing is complex, to say the least. Although I love to write, my stubborn commitment to sentence-craft and my scattered thought process makes the process extremely arduous and time consuming. I have always considered writing to be a part of my future: at what capacity is another conversation entirely. As it currently stands, it’s safe to say that my romantic ideal of creative output idea through writing overshadows my actual writing. It is much easier to hide behind the infallible words of my books, acknowledging that my ability and knowledge isn’t anywhere close to the level and quality of media that I consume daily.

With the help of the excellent blog Daily Routines (now long defunct, in Internet years), I have come to realize that writers do not write on inspiration alone. My work on this site, and habits as a writer in general, has been almost entirely based on this inspiration, committing several hours to a single post, setting it aside for the next day for a second edit, before washing my hands from it entirely. Talented authors commit to their craft daily, honing their ability through an endless cycle of drafts and reappraisals – often ridding themselves of painstaking hours of past work in the process.

Roger Ebert posted an interesting piece of advice given to him by an acquaintance, recollected from a conversation almost 30 years ago:

“Begin with a proper sketch book. Draw in ink. Finish each drawing you begin, and keep every drawing you finish. No erasing, no ripping out a page, no covering a page with angry scribbles. What you draw is an invaluable and unique representation of how you saw at that moment in that place according to your abilities. That’s all we want. We already know what a dog really looks like.”

What I guess I’m getting at in all this is the acknowledgement that a change needs to be made. There are no limits on the amount of words you can put to page over the course of your life. The fact is, I need to begin treating writing like the art that it is: requiring technical proficiency, continuous revision and painstaking years of practice. 10,000 hours, here I come.

Learning, online: contd.

In the spirit of the scientific method, I begun a course on the internet: a truly positivist musing. Rather than rely on my own biased stance, or subjective analysis of players embedded in the argument, I have cast myself directly into the fray, to pursue higher learning, online.

Academic Earth is a website which features online courses from America’s leading universities, including Yale, Stanford, and MIT. The content comes from real classes taking place inside campus lecture halls. All participating students must fill out a waiver to allow their likeness to be displayed online. Prospective students have the option of choosing a particular lecture, or undergo the comprehensive course, as I am choosing to do. For the especially ambitious, a syllabus, in addition to copies of the course examinations and their respective solutions, are attached.

The title of my course is Game Theory, taught by Benjamin Polak, the Chairman of Yale’s Economics department. Game theory has been an personal curiosity for some time due to its many applications, seen across the realms of finance, politics, and behavioral economics.

Two lectures into the course, I have yet to find a notable difference between my “Yale” experience and that of any of my classes in large-capacity lecture halls, albeit with a better seat: the comfort of my own couch. What about the ability to participate, you may ask? As any college student knows, a very small minority regularly participates in these mega-lectures. I rarely (if ever) participate in the class discourse, preferring to use my notebook as a venue for revisiting and reviewing any particulars of the lecture I may have missed. In fact, Academic Earth’s lectures are malleable, with the ability to fast-forward, rewind, and pause as you wish. Try asking a professor to repeat himself in a class of 800 without feeling the collective glare of 799 annoyed cohorts.

Within the confines of the brick-and-mortar campus, I may be disposed to visit a teacher during his office hours. Yet, there are countless resources online that could easily assist me at any time online, which I use just as much when enrolled in a physical class. If anything, the open-source nature of the lectures are more tailored to me: I optimize my learning time by making sure that I’m not tired, distracted, or hungry during the online lectures.

I can unequivocally say that I am enjoying Game Theory. As I get to know Professor Polak better, I’m beginning to laugh at his jokes, and understand where his lectures are heading. Although he’ll never know my name, neither will the countless instructors who are commissioned to administer introductory knowledge to thousands of students each semester.

The primary caveat I see at the moment: I am genuinely interested in gaining footing in game theory, and have chosen this particular curriculum as such. Had the topic strayed dramatically from my interests, I imagine I would find myself hard pressed to remain immersed throughout the 1 hour, 20 minute lecture, void of supervision. Again, this follows my assertion of convergence above: my biggest lectures have mostly been a mixed bag, with the omnipresent variable being my interest in the subject at hand.

The crux of my argument remains: the discourse and argument seen in smaller lectures cannot possibly be re-created with Academic Earth’s recorded format. Although I’m sure the option exists to log onto live video streams, with an embedded chat function allowing for communal discourse, the opportunity for distraction and inability to truly engage in the Socratic method remains. Consider this version 1.0: I have no doubt that the model will continually improve.

In addition to these open-source classes, Academic Earth is a portal for the online bachelors and masters degrees, in addition to the ability to obtain credit for courses completed. I imagine this is Academic Earth’s main revenue stream. In an extreme example, one could theoretically obtain a Bachelor of Science in Economics from the London School of Economics in three years without ever stepping foot across the pond. Tuition is $5,000 USD, without the price of books. Room and board? Well, that depends on your home-country’s cost-of-living index…