Posts from life lessons

Fifty Five

I am fifty five years old today.

I have always loved having a birthday in late august.

It’s a time of year when things slow down.

It’s a time of year to be surrounded by friends and family.

It’s a time of year that begs for reading a good novel on the beach.

And I am doing all of those things.

What I am not doing is letting the aging process get me down.

I am enjoying getting older.

I particularly enjoy watching things I helped create grow into amazing things.

I am mostly talking about our three children.

But I am also talking about the companies we helped get started over the past twenty years.

And I am also talking about philanthropic and civic efforts we have helped get off the ground.

Time has a way of revealing who you are and what matters to you.

And, at age fifty five, I have put in enough time on planet earth to have those revelations.

And that feels great.

Fun Friday: First Seven Jobs

William suggested this to me last night and I was dismissive, but like many things, a good night’s sleep changed my mind.

There’s been a meme going around Twitter called #firstsevenjobs, in which you list your first seven jobs.

These are mine:

  1. Test taker. Yes, I got paid $5 to take a standardized test on sat afternoons in fourth grade. Practice makes perfect. I’m a fantastic test taker.
  2. Hot dog vendor at Michie Stadium, the home of Army Football. You had to buy them and then sell them. You could end up “eating” that last one if you weren’t careful.
  3. Caddie. Usually for the women golfers. But I did get to caddie for the club pro in the NYS Open once. That was great.
  4. Hot dog vendor at Palisades State Park. I know hot dogs.
  5. Product quality analyst for Gillette Cricket Lighters. They sold the business a couple years later. Quality, it turns out, was a big issue.
  6. Lab Assistant, MIT Water Tunnel. This is where I learned to maintain, and then write, software.
  7. C0-manager, Lobby 7 Coffee/Donut shop. I made so much money doing this. And had a free breakfast every day too.

What were your first seven jobs?

Sleeping On It

I like sleeping on decisions. I think it leads to better decisions.

I am not in favor of delaying decisions, particularly hard ones. I want to make them and move on.

But making a decision and giving yourself 12 hours to “sit with it” really helps. Sleeping on it does that for you.

It also does something else, which is it lets your subconscious brain work on the problem overnight and you wake up with more clarity than when you went to bed. At least that is how it works for me

So “sleeping on it” literally means sleeping on it as well as buying a short amount of time to sit with the decision and make sure it feels right.

There are certainly times when you don’t have the luxury of taking the night to sit with a decision. In those moments, you need to deliberate with whatever your team is and make the call and execute. These are crisis driven decisions, war time stuff. There is no sleeping on them.

But when you have the luxury of a night to sleep on something, I would encourage everyone to take that time. It really helps.

AFSE Commencement Speech

Four and a half years ago, in January 2012, I announced on this blog that New York City was opening a new high school called the Academy For Software Engineering (AFSE).

Yesterday, AFSE graduated its first class. 110 of the 120 students who enrolled four years ago made it to graduation. And each and every one of these students took four years of computer sciences classes on their way from enrollment to graduation. It was a proud day for me as it was for them and their families.

Seung Yu, AFSE’s founding and current school principal, asked me to give the commencement speech. That was an instant yes.

So I stood in front of the graduates yesterday and talked about three things that have helped me in my professional life.

Here is the draft I wrote. As I got into it, I ad libbed a fair bit, but this is certainly the gist of what I said to the graduates yesterday:

Now for some parting advice for all of you graduating seniors. Listen up, I am going to tell you my secrets of success in business. This speech isn’t really about your family life. I could go on and on about that too but I would just say that you need a balance between your work life and your family life. You need to focus on both and they support each other. A healthy home life makes for a healthy work life. You need both.

So with that, I am here to tell you that the secret to success in your career comes down to three things, take risks, work hard, and get lucky.

You are all risk takers. You chose AFSE as eighth graders when the school literally did not exist. I remember what it was like back then. Parents would tell me “I can’t send my child to a school that doesn’t exist”. Guidance counselors would say “I can’t recommend that school to my students” I would hear people say things like “girls can’t go to a school like that” or “you can’t teach coding skills to every student”. And I am sure you heard the same things. But you came anyway. And standing here today, I will tell you that you attended and graduated from one of the top 25 high schools in NYC. I don’t know if there are actual rankings, but it is my belief that if you measure high schools on things like attendance, graduation rate, regents scores, AP scores, SAT scores, colleges attended, and reputation, AFSE would be an elite high school. One of the very best. And you went there and graduated from there. You took a big risk and it paid off for you. Keep doing that.

I have taken a bunch of risks in my life. I grew up in an army family and I broke ranks and decided not to go to West Point where my dad and his dad went. Instead I went to MIT, even though my parents could not afford to send me there. I worked in a research lab and sold donuts and coffee every morning to pay my way through MIT. I followed my wife Joanne and moved to NYC after college when my dad told me it was too expensive to live here. I went to business school and paid my way by teaching computers to my classmates. I took at job in venture capital when nobody knew what that was instead of going to work on wall street with the rest of my classmates. When the Internet emerged in the mid 90s, I left my safe job and started a new venture capital firm after my wife Joanne had quit her job to raise our three kids. When the Internet blew up and we lost most of our money, I started another venture capital firm and spent almost two years flying around the country spending money we really didn’t have trying to convince people to give me money again to invest in the Internet. I invested in social media when people said you could never make money in it. I invested in crowdfunding when people said that nobody would do that. I invested in Etsy when people said you could not compete with eBay. All of those risks paid off. Every single one of them. Thankfully my wife Joanne backed me every single time when I wanted to take those risks. She believed in me and believed in those bets. She hung in there when times were tough and made it possible for me to take these chances. We are an example of what happens when you hang together and take risks together.

I am not suggesting you take silly risks. I am suggesting you take calculated risks. Each and every time I took a risk there were people telling me not to do it. I listened to them. I did not disregard their advice lightly. I thought about it. And many times I have decided not to take a risk. But when, after listening and carefully considering the risks, my gut tells me to take a risk, i do it.

And then once you do that you have to work your ass off. I get up every morning at 5am. I have worked half a day by the time I get to the office at 9am. I still do that at age 55 when I have no need to anymore. It is what I do. I work hard. Because if you are going to take these risks, you have to work hard to make them pay off. This is not the lottery. You don’t just buy a ticket and sit back and see what happens. You take a risk and you work every day to make sure it comes through for you.

You all have worked hard. You have studied for the regents, the AP exams, the SATs, you have learned hard things like writing software. You have seen that hard work pays off. Keep working hard. It’s the only way to get somewhere.

But taking risks and working hard is not enough. You have to get lucky too. Luck is not just catching a lucky break. You have to be able to recognize it as such. You have to prepare your mind to recognize the lucky break when it comes your way. The Internet emerging as a massive financial opportunity in the mid 90s was my biggest lucky break. But I had put myself in a position to take advantage of that lucky break by deciding to work in venture capital ten years before that, by working hard to get better at my craft, and by paying close attention to the emerging areas of technology. I saw the Internet for what it was long before most people did. That was my luckiest break but I also knew it and jumped on it.

Everyone gets lucky breaks in their life. I can’t tell you when your lucky breaks will come. But I can tell you that they will come. You must be able to see them for what they are, you must be in a position to act on them, and you must not miss them. Pay attention, look carefully, and be prepared for your lucky breaks.

So that’s it. That’s my secret for a happy and productive career. Take risks, work hard, and get lucky. You have already done all three. Keep doing it.

Some Thoughts On Brexit

Clearly the UK’s decision to leave the EU is a big deal. The implications for the UK and Europe are large. And there is a feeling that similar politics will be adopted in other parts of the world. All of that is concerning. But my immediate reaction to the news when I woke to it on Friday morning was this:

I got some flack for being so “opportunist” and “financially minded” on a day when many people were dealing with the the reality that their world was going to change and maybe not for the better.

I realize that things like this are not all about money and financial opportunity. I realize that there will be a lot of pain for some in this transition.

But I am all for change. A static world is not a good world. And, as I said, with change comes opportunity.

Is it possible that the British Pound will be trading higher against the dollar and euro in a few years than it was before the vote? Absolutely. Is it possible that US stocks will recover from the losses they took on Friday and continue the eight year run they have been on? Absolutely. Is it possible that all the hand wringing over the potential for a global economic slowdown brought on by Brexit is overdone? Absolutely.

I am not saying all of these things will happen. But they could.

But more than that, going into a foxhole right now seems like the wrong idea. Some of the best companies have been created in times of great economic turmoil. And, because of that, some of the best venture capital investments have been made in times when everyone was risk averse. I am not for getting too excited when times are good and I am not for getting too conservative when times feel bad. I am all for looking for opportunity at every turn.

The Will To Win

Will is the word that comes to mind after watching the Cavs fight back from a 3-1 deficit and take the title last night. Of course, the Warriors did the same thing in the western conference finals against the Thunder. Those two series were two of the best NBA playoff series I’ve watched and I watched both cover to cover.

LeBron James is 31, at the peak of his career and capabilities, with six consecutive NBA finals appearances. He’s mature, seasoned, and understands what it takes to prevail. He’s left the court three times in those six finals with the same feeling that the Warriors left with last night. And although winning is what is celebrated, and rightly so, losing is what teaches you things. LeBron knows these things now. The Warriors are just learning them. They will be better because of this outcome although I suspect they aren’t feeling that today.

I think the Warriors are a dynasty in the making but they need to understand what LeBron has learned over the past ten years. Last year’s win came too easy in some ways. I think they will be better next year and I bet they won’t be as concerned by how many wins they get in the regular season.

I think this championship is LeBron’s crowning achievement in a career full of achievement. There may be more rings for LeBron but I don’t think there will be another that means as much as this one. And this image, which I’ve already posted once on this blog, will stay with me for a long time. It reeks of the will to win.


Father’s Day

So today is Father’s day. I will get a gift from my wife and kids and they always do a great job with that. And I appreciate it very much.

But honestly the greatest gift I have ever received is my three kids (and my wonderful wife who made them in more ways that one). I get so much joy from my kids. They make me laugh. They make me proud. They test me. They teach me. And it gets better and better over time. I don’t live with them anymore (our son does still live with us in the summer) but I continue to have meaningful relationships with them and as they mature and become fully productive adults they have become friends, confidants, and partners.

I know that father’s day is a day for my family to thank me but I honestly feel like I am the one who should be saying thanks today. And so consider this post just that.

Voir Dire

I am doing jury duty this week. I am not supposed to blog, tweet, or email about the cases and I won’t do that. But I thought I would talk a bit about the Voir Dire process which is the way the judge and lawyers select the jury.

In NYC, which is the only place I’ve ever served on jury duty, the judge calls up to the jurors room and a whole bunch of prospective jurors are sent down the courtroom. The clerk then selects twenty random jurors from the group that was sent down and they are seated. The judge and the two lawyers then ask the jurors a host of questions that will help them select the jury they want to hear the case. They are looking for life experiences, prejudices, and other situations that would make it difficult for the prospective juror to be impartial and fair in rendering a verdict.

It is a fascinating process. I’ve been through it a bunch of times now. It reveals a lot about people quickly and efficiently. I picked up a few really good tips for interviews yesterday.

Try as I might, and I have tried, I have not been able to convince any judges and lawyers to seat me. I’ll see if I can change that again today.

Critics, Haters, Voyeurs

Jeff Bezos had some great advice on critics, haters, and voyeurs who cover him and other tech luminaries:

I would say that as a public figure, the best defense to speech that you don’t like about yourself as a public figure is to develop a thick skin, because you can’t stop criticism. You are going to get it. If you’re doing anything interesting in the world, you are going to have critics. You can’t stop it. Move forward. It’s not worth losing any sleep over.

That is so good and I agree completely with it. When I find stuff written publicly about me that is hateful, spiteful, jealous, and/or mean, I often favorite it. I share it sometimes with my kids. We laugh about it.

I’m not saying I’m in Jeff’s league, or anyone else’s either. I am just saying that I have experienced this stuff personally. It can be painful if you let it be. But you don’t have to. You can laugh it off. And you should.

As Jeff said, there are many more important things to be thinking about, sleeping on, and obsessing over.