Posts from life lessons

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.

LeBron

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.

Balance

Since we came back from Los Angeles six weeks ago, I have been going harder than any time that I can remember. I’ve had many days when I start with a breakfast at 7am and end with a dinner that wraps at 11pm. Two weeks ago, I gave speeches at three evening events. Last week, I had dinner functions four nights in a row. My workout routine is in shambles and I am not getting enough sleep. I am posting less thoughtful stuff here at AVC. I am three weeks behind on email. Even the CEOs of our portfolio companies are not getting replies from me. That never happens and cannot happen. This weekend I got the notice from my body that I need to slow down. It always happens to me when I’m going too hard. I feel like I’ve got the flu even when I don’t.

Some of this is because I put off a number of things when we were in LA and I’ve been trying to make them up now that I’m back in NYC. I’ve been doing a lot more meetings at USV, I’ve been doing a lot more fundraising for CS4All. I’ve been catching up with business relationships that I didn’t see when I was in LA.

Some of this is because I’ve taken on a bunch of new projects without closing down any. I’ve done this a number of times in my career and it always bites me. I should say no to new things unless and until I can wrap up old things. But I have a bias to say yes and I sometimes break this rule. And then I pay the price.

Finding balance is hard for me. I have tried blocking out slots in my schedule. And then I override them and use these slots to book last minute meetings that come up. I have tried working from home on fridays. And then I allow myself to get scheduled back to back to back on calls and videoconferences. I have tried to not work on weekends. But then the stuff I couldn’t get to during the week finds itself on my to do list on the weekends. I have tried to not do work stuff at night. And then I get talked into doing it.

I am committing myself to getting things back in balance. I am going to get back on my workout routine. I am going to cancel a bunch of evening events. I am going to cut down or cut out public speaking. I am going to sleep longer and better. And I am going to start going to the beach where I always find and keep down time.

I tell you all of this because writing it down publicly will help me commit to it. And because you may get a no from me when you ask to meet me or get me on a call. And because you might see less of me out and about, talking, speaking, being.

My friend (and AVC community member) Kirk calls dieting “lockdown”. I am going on lockdown on work/life balance and I’m going to find more life and a bit less work. I need to.

The Maternal Instinct

It’s Mothers Day, a time to celebrate motherhood and moms. I woke up thinking about the maternal instinct and it’s effect on business.

I was talking to a friend last night about the challenges of working on troubled or failed investments. We were debating whether it is even worth the time to try and save a troubled investment versus moving on and focusing on a new one. This is the endless debate in venture capital. It can be applied to managing people as well. Should you work to develop a talented employee who is struggling or just move on and find someone new for the role?

As we were debating the point on whether to fight for a troubled investment or just move on, the Gotham Gal walked by. And I turned to my friend and said “she never gives up on any of her investments and she has 10x the number that I do.” I’ve cautioned her many times that she can’t fix every company, every CEO, every business plan. But she just keeps trying. It’s why I love her so much.

There is something about the maternal instinct. It’s a powerful thing. It is about protecting and caring for someone or something. It is innate in women and they do bring it with them into the world of business. This is one of many reasons why gender diversity in a team is important. Men and women bring different perspectives and instincts to a situation. Debating it out and finding common ground can be quite valuable.

Surely there is a limit to the maternal instinct in business. You can’t make every hire work. You can’t make every project work. You can’t make every investment work. That’s what I frequently tell the Gotham Gal. But that doesn’t stop her from trying. And I understand why.

Happy Mothers Day to all the moms out there. You care for us and we love you for it.

The Meltdown

I was watching The Masters golf tournament on Sunday when Jordan Speith melted down on the 12th hole, hitting not one but two balls into Rae’s Creek. It was hard to watch. It was gut wrenching.

Jordan is the most talented young golfer that has come along since Rory McIlroy emerged five years ago. And Rory had a similar meltdown in the 2011 Masters.

My friend Bob sent me an email yesterday and said “No matter how bad you might feel today, I guarantee Jordan Spieth feels worse.”

To which I replied “you have to fuck up to get better.”

I have been playing the game of golf since I was 12. I took it up on my own. Neither of my parents are golfers. I don’t really know why golf was something I wanted to do at the age of 12. And I regularly curse the day I took it up. But I will say this about the game – it is a microcosm of life. You cannot master it. You can be brilliant one minute and god awful the next. That’s how the arguably best player in the game puts two balls into Rae’s Creek on two consecutive swings. Golf requires a mental toughness to be great. I see it in my friends who are way better than me. They have the ability to hit a horrible shot and completely forget it and just focus on the next shot as if nothing happened. I cannot do that as hard as I try. That’s why they are single handicappers and I am not.

Going back to Jordan and Rory, I think it is great that they had these meltdowns so early in their professional careers. These meltdowns teach you something important. It teaches you that you are not infallible and that you can fail spectacularly and get up the next day and continue to be the best player in the game. That leads to the mental toughness that is required to play the game of golf at the highest level.

And because golf is a microcosm of life, you can extrapolate this to everything that matters, your marriage, your family, your career, your reputation, etc. We are humans. We fuck up. And when we do, we have to get up the next day and keep plugging away at the game of life. And the sooner we figure that out, the better off we all are.

Write It Down

I woke up at 3am last night and tossed and turned for an hour. That has been a thing for me since my work life started getting interesting (and stressful) in my early 30s.

After about an hour of tossing and turning, I walked into my home office and wrote down the four things that I was tossing and turning over.

Then I went back to bed and quickly went back to sleep and slept for another two hours.

It’s an obvious move. Trying to keep things front and center in my head is just a recipe for being awake. Putting them down on paper allows me to let them go and get back to sleep.

If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night and thinking about work and not able to go back to sleep, I highly recommend the writing it down trick. It works well for me and I suspect it may work well for you too.