Heroes and the Hard Thing about Hard Things

(Fade in) A movie screen.

A lot of great stories are built around heroes. 

A good example is the Indiana Jones blockbuster series. The archaeologist takes us on many adventures around the world, searching for precious idols, a Holy Grail, an Arc of the Covenant while overcoming evil villains, jungle tribes, snakes, etc.  He has to make some split second life and death decisions.  Should he jump across the ravine?  Should he hold on to the Grail as his dad is saying, "son, let it go."?

It’s damn hard, what he’s doing.

Let’s not forget the softer “hard things” he’s doing like finding resolution with loved ones - a girlfriend, ex-wife, his father and a son he never knew. Whether we want his life for our own or not, we admire and fantasize a life like Indy’s, the decisions he makes and the growth of his character over time. He’s a hero.

(Cut) To work life.

Working in a startup we're chasing something elusive and high probability of failure (like Indy) but getting there is about the thousands of different decisions we make along the way.

Which brings me to Ben Horowitz (startup entrepreneur and Andreessen Horowitz VC) and his book “The Hard Thing about Hard Things”. A person I know, said they read it every month. Wow, I thought, if something is worth reading over and over again, I better read it. And he was right, it’s an amazing book about running a company, and it’s not the traditional, this is how you do stuff. It’s a book about all of the hard decisions you have to make when things go south. The really hard stuff. Firing people, making decisions that won’t go over well with your employees, but are the right thing to do. Knowing when to cut and run instead of sticking it out till the end. It’s a fabulous book and one I would highly encourage everyone to read because it’s sobering about the ugly painful things that have no handbook, no guidelines for success. You have to just go through it and learn.

My point of this post is that the heroism we see on the big movie screen and what we decide at work is basically all the same. What makes it heroic is the growth that we gain from decision-making.  We love Indy for who he becomes, not necessarily the prize he's after.

Because when we add them all up, it’s the boundaries that we've pushed, the hard things we've experienced, and the growth that happened because of it, that makes it all heroic, and worth seeing it through to the end.

So pat yourself on the back. You're a hero. 

(Fade) back to the Movie Screen

Indy looks at his Father, let's go of the Grail, grabs his dad's arm and rides off into the sunset.







How Do I Get Back Those Five Minutes?

When was the last time you said, "I'm so glad I spent those past five minutes doing ______(fill in the blank here)". Speaking for myself, I don't tend to highlight the good five-minute things in I spent throughout the day, I tend to focus on the things that wasted five minutes.

For example, when my good friend repeats a story I've already heard. How do I get back those 5 minutes?

Or the time I’ve taken a wrong turn when trying to fight the Silicon Valley traffic through the 101 or Bay Bridge or GG or basically any roads in the Bay Area.

Or the small talk at the beginning of a meeting and of course the meeting gets cut short at the end...if only I had back those five minutes!!!

And let’s not forget about all of those five-minute slots of time that I'm on FB or Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter?!! How do I get back all those thousands of times of reading about something that will make very little difference to the betterment of my world…

So how did we get to this place? Thank the developers of the apps, news and social tools we use every day.

A New Commitment to Time Well Spent

I've recently committed myself to develop a deeper understanding of the concept Time Well Spent.  It's a movement that was started in Silicon Valley by Tristan Harris (ex-Google employee with the cool title Design Ethicist). http://www.timewellspent.io/

Tristan has taken on the humongous task of helping engineers at companies to be more deliberate and conscious of the time consumers spend on their technology. (Just look around, there is no small talk on BART anymore, it’s FIP (Face in Phone)).  Tristan is also making the speaking rounds on Ted, Charlie Rose and other shows to get the general public aware of what he calls a critical emergency in attention manipulation to the detriment of society. See his most recent Ted Talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/tristan_harris_the_manipulative_tricks_tech_companies_use_to_capture_your_attention

While success metrics at most of the big tech companies (FB, Twitter, etc...) use DAU and MAU (Daily Active Users and Monthly respectively) and/or other metrics to drive user engagement and attention, they are calculating a users’ willingness to stay on a hamster wheel in their product. And to sustain this quarter over quarter, product managers come up with new ways for users to remain in this trap.

Here are some examples of user manipulation:

Facebook: notifications that someone liked your comment so that you'll open up the app again and see who liked it and then maybe stay awhile longer;

SnapChat: Chat Streaks that keep track of how many chat conversations in a row you've made with a friend;

Youtube, Facebook, and Netflix: Video views in a sequential fashion (did you notice that one video rolls right into the next, even if you didn't ask for it?);

So to answer my original question, tech companies and their investors got us here. When you think about it, these are all things that the company wants (your attention), but at what cost to you? Tristan quotes a study by Gloria Mark (UC Irvine) that says that when we are distracted or interrupted it takes 23 minutes for us to regain our focus. And if in the next hour we are being interrupted many times, in the following hour, we'll self-interrupt ourselves. He calls this bulldozing our attention.

Having transitioned to the startup world and a founder of software at Promontory Brands, I feel a huge responsibility to help people get off of our web app, Sky. Of course, success will be measured by the number of people who adopt our tool but at the same time, we are challenging ourselves to design features that are accountable to "Time Well Spent" and "Human Centered Design" -

Some examples we might ask our users to evaluate themselves against might include: 'Am I doing my best work?' 'Am I proud of my contribution?’ 'Am I making others better?'.

Other examples of questions we'll ask ourselves include: 'Are user choices transparent and beneficial to them' 'Can users control their attention in positive ways' 'Will a user consider this time well spent?' And how can we get people there by spending LESS time in our tool, not more? 

What if engagement could be gauged another way - like how much someone says they really like using the app? Or the fact that they got to spend more time with their family because the app saved them one hour of their day?  These are mushy at best and hard to quantify. Yet, if developers and tech startups re-imagined their product to do more than saving time, to make a user happy - so that they can say it was time well spent, wouldn’t we all be saying, that was a great way of spending the last 5 minutes? Shouldn’t we be asking these tech companies, what are you doing to value my time? At the heart of customer empathy or user centered design should be the value of your time. Right?

I know, I know, you’re asking yourself as you’re reading this, how do I get back those 5 minutes? 

Why we need more compassionate empathy in 2017

It is December 4, 2016. Three days ago my mother-in-law passed away, at 92, after a very long, slow degrade from a number of ailments. We celebrate the life she lived, the friends and the emotional connections she made with just about anyone she came in contact with, albeit in the grocery store line or as a volunteer at the White Elephant Sale in Oakland. But what made her most special was her empathy gene. I always joked she was a hypochondriac, but in reflection, she was sick about the people that suffered around her - she was special in that way. Her husband (my husband Dave's father) was killed by a train when Dave was 8 years old (imagine raising two boys by yourself, working to put them through private school, and college and watching them succeed and raise their own children and grandchildren). Through her working life at Kaiser, until aged 65, Betty spent the remainder of her retired life as a volunteer via many organizations and taking care of those that ailed. That was Betty, she was a student of empathy and compassion.

I stumbled upon an essay in the Dec 2nd Wall Street Journal titled "The Perils of Empathy" by Dr. Paul Bloom. I'll admit an excellent and timely headline, his thoughts dove into the perils of empathy and how compassion is actually the better way to approach the world. Dr. Bloom defined empathy into two types: Emotional and Cognitive Empathy. Cognitive is the kind one feels to understand another person's viewpoint (we do that all the time in marketing - account planning, etc...). Emotional empathy is when we actually feel someone else's pain. I felt that way seeing immigrants in Aleppo (for example). Dr. Bloom makes the point that emotional empathy, although a very important ability to feel for others and vitally important to understanding others, can also lead to bias in how we feel for others. Through many examples he explains that depending on which side of the coin we sit, which perspective we bring to the situation, our empathy can incorrectly bias us about others. To quote Dr. Bloom:

"As a candidate, even Donald Trump asked Americans to identify with the suffering of others, from displaced Rust Belt factory workers to the victims of crime by undocumented immigrants. Though there are obvious ideological differences over who deserves our empathy, it is one of the rare political sentiments that still command a wide consensus. And that’s a shame, because when it comes to guiding our decisions, empathy is a moral train wreck. It makes the world worse. When we have the good sense to set it aside, we are better people and make better policy."

Dr. Bloom makes the strong case in this article that empathy can lead to biases and ultimately it can wear us out, emotionally and physically. I see a lot of that in my Facebook feed specifically with the outcome of the Presidency, where the sadness and anger continues to play out. He notes there are studies that prove that compassion instead of empathy is a more powerful construct. Compassion is the idea of forwarding good will, good thoughts and positive energy versus needing to feel people's pain. We gain compassion through a meditative state as we reflect on ourselves, versus the empathy of putting ourselves in others' shoes. To quote Dr. Bloom again:

"These studies also revealed practical differences between empathy and compassion. Empathy was difficult and unpleasant—it wore people out. This is consistent with other findings suggesting that vicarious suffering not only leads to bad decision-making but also causes burnout and withdrawal. Compassion training, by contrast, led to better feelings on the part of the meditator and kinder behavior toward others. It has all the benefits of empathy and few of the costs."

Bottom line, empathy allows us to feel "with" someone. Compassion allows us to feel "for" someone (cause us to take another action). Through his stated studies of the brain, empathy highlights the negative zones, compassion highlights the positive, reward side of our brains.

If compassion make us spread positivity faster than feeling empathy in a social media world that continues to get more vicious, judgmental and biased I'm all for it. And if we all start to meditate a little (my Yoga class today was a bit more meaningful than usual as I transferred my thoughts from body alignment to emotional alignment) we might produce a better collective consciousness than if we strictly hold true to feeling empathy.

But at the end of the day, and the end of 2016, I won't forget the enduring empathy Betty was driven by through her 92 years, because it made her someone that everyone loved and someone we'll miss every single day. Empathy + compassion seems like the right formula, versus one over the other. For 2017, this will be a top-of-the-list reminder for me that loving kindness starts with empathy but works toward a better place for both you and the person you are caring for, with a dose of compassion.

Here's the full WSJ essay by Dr. Bloom (inside a paid wall): http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-perils-of-empathy-1480689513

Thank you

The famous writer Robert Kabus once said to me, "Who you are is the sum of who you've known".  Okay, maybe he just made that up as I was writing this blogpost.

But it's true that it takes great people to find great people.  And those people are usually the ones who have been around the block more than once.  

When building a company, each person you add to the team feels like you're jumping over the Grand Canyon.  This metaphor applies for many reasons - one it feels as if you are taking the biggest risk in bringing that person into the team - will they make a contribution that takes you someplace average or someplace for the history books?  Will they help you transition into the vision you've been attempting to deliver or beyond your wildest dreams? Two, do you have the timing right for when they should come on board. When we're bootstrapping our company, every dime matters and bringing someone on too early can mean lost resources. Three, is there a good cultural fit? We're building a heterogenous team (look it up, it means we're all very different and add different skillsets). With this comes conflict, friction and at the end of the day, great results because we've looked at things through different lenses/perspectives/angles. But there's a balance here, we're all marching toward the end result, but we may get there via different pathways.

On our road to building our company we have found that the greatest source of inspiration is our past.  Because in our past we've worked at some of the best places, worked on some of the best pieces of business and met some of the finest people.  And we are thankful.

Because through this road we've been on, the people we know, know people that they know and so on...And through this beautiful and wonderful journey of acquaintances and friendships come new relationships.  

For those of you reading this that have been helping us along the way, you know who you are, and thank you.

Each and every add to our startup has made a world of difference from one day into the next. But at the end of the day, and at the end of this sprint, we know one thing Is for sure, it's great people who help you find great people for whatever endeavor you are on - building a company, building a marketing team, building a network to lean on.

We hope to pay it forward any way we can because we know great people, who know great people.

Why Bad Stacks Happen to Good Marketers

A messy desk.  A messy drawer.  A messy relationship.

We give many excuses for why things aren't as neat as they should be. But for the most part, isn’t it really about how much we care about the desk, drawer, relationship?  And how much time we put into caring for them?  

I have this little flat box that sits next to our phone (forever ringing with an irrelevant sales pitch that we never pick up) in the kitchen. I looked at it this morning and thought - why is that box a mess?  It's full of random items in varying stages of usefulness - muscle clay to strengthen your grip for rock-climbing; batteries whose life expectancies are secrets; super glue that might be viable underneath its dried up hole; spent checkbooks…etc. These things were all necessary at one point or another.  But now they are just sitting there screaming to be put to use, or put away, or put out to pasture.

I'm reminded that, even though I never pay much attention to this little box, it continues to evolve and take on a life of its own. 

I started to feel a bit like many marketers I've been speaking to. There's a love / hate thing going on with their ecosystems. Over time, they find themselves with a mix of indispensable, necessary, irrelevant and obsolete resources. Kind of like my messy box. It's full of things that made sense in the moment. But, now, it feels like something that's happened to me - not something I made happen.

Why? It seems like we're building our marketing stacks like a tactical arms race. As every new capability emerges, we deploy a new resource against it. On the plus side, it means we achieve "full chunnel" (every channel covered across the funnel). The downside is that your ecosystem becomes generic - it has little to do with how your specific brand adds value to your specific business in your specific category. 

It's time to take a more strategic view. A view that allows you to see the relative importance of each resource. To see how they collectively create value. To see how you can reduce some to bolster others. To see where time, money, technology and effort can be best spent. 

Maybe the question is: "is it riskier to continue as is or take a new approach"?

I guess it depends on whether or not you see your ecosystem as a tactical or strategic brand resource. 

What’s in your box and do you really like what you see?