Unwaivering faith

Recently, Katie and I went to Yosemite for a wedding.  It was my first time, and I can’t believe I haven’t gotten up there before.  Places like Yosemite make me realize how insignificant we all are when compared to nature.

The morning of the wedding, we hiked up to a waterfall at Hetch Hetchy (the source of SF’s water supply).  Along the way to the falls we walked through a dark tunnel (it reminded me of the Goonies), and through the darkness, I could see the proverbial light at the end.  This light continued to get closer and closer, but I could never quite tell how much further I had to travel until I reached the end.

It turns out the cave is pretty short, only a few hundred yards at most.  So no big deal, but the misleading distance to the light reminded me of the Stockdale Paradox which Jim Collins discusses in his book Good to Great.

Based on the story of Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale’s time as a prisoner in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during Vietnam, the Stockdale Paradox suggests that “an unwaivering faith in the endgame” while also confronting “the most brutal facts of your reality” is what helps us prevail.  In my case, the brutal facts weren’t so brutal, but let’s get back to Admiral Stockdale…

Admiral Stockdale was a prisoner in the “Hanoi Hilton” for 8 years.  He not only survived, but also, according to Stockdale, was stronger coming out then he was going in.  Regarding how he came out of the camp with strength, Stockdale replied:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life…”

And who didn’t make it out?  According to Stockdale, it was the optimists:

“Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Often we are in dark places and can see the light…but many times we don’t know how far away that light is.  Stockdale’s story suggests that it’s those that know they will reach the light, but don’t how or when, that succeed.  An unwaivering faith.

Discovering happiness is a continual path.  It’s important that we all know that we’ll get there, and Traba is trying to help shine some light in your path along the way.

June 23, 2013 at 12:10 pm 2 comments

Airplane Mode

Over the summer, Katie and I went to Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico for a little rest and relaxation. It had been years since I’d gone on a vacation, and I’m not sure Katie ever has. It was time to recharge the batteries.

Katie turned on her international calling plan, I didn’t. So for the entire trip my phone sat idle…in Airplane Mode. Not off, just Airplane Mode.

We had a great time. We read great books, we ate great meals, we met great people.

Something I love to do when I travel is watch soccer. The energy, the spirit, the enthusiasm. It’s invigorating. And it’s a time when I can be “that guy.”

In Mexico, in typical American fashion, I beat my chest and declared supreme dominance as the US led Mexico 2-0 at half time during the Gold Cup…only, again in typical American fashion, to be completely embarrassed as Mexico came back to win 4-2 during the second half. For one Mexican fan, this became a running gag. Every time he saw me, he would hurry over to someone nearby and say, “Por favor, tratarlo bien. Podría llorar porque el partido de fútbol” (Please treat him well. He might cry because of the football game.) All in all, terrific time. But I digress…

As we prepared to depart and head back to reality, I noticed that my phone had nearly the same battery life as it had when we arrived 4 days earlier. Surprising. I hadn’t charged it. It just sat in Airplane Mode – disconnected from the world. The iPhone battery typically lasts me less than a day so this made me think.

Connectedness can be empowering. I can be reached by anyone, at anytime, anywhere, in many different ways. Email, phone, Facebook, blogs, LinkedIn, Twitter, SMS, Foursquare, you name it. At one point, I even had a phone number for my Second Life avatar – that’s a true story. Empowering? Yes. Draining? Yes. My phone told me so (as did my avatar).

The world is moving faster than ever, and the natural inclination is to follow its pace. Maybe it’s best to slow down to speed up. At least sometimes. Observe, reflect, relax. All good things. I’m reading 4 books right now. Where’s the reflection in that? Unlike my phone, I don’t have a slider for Airplane Mode, or at least I haven’t found it yet. Maybe soon. Until then, I’ll just have to keep an eye on my battery life.

December 21, 2011 at 8:10 am 5 comments

Lesson from McKinsey: setup for success

Despite the sleepless nights, 48-hour workdays and endless travel, I’m glad to have had my time at McKinsey & Company. There are a lot of reasons, but let’s focus on their pre-interview process.

As for the interviews themselves, they can be tough.

For example:

I walk into 555 California in San Francisco, go to the reception desk to get my visitor badge, and head up to the 47th floor.

In the elevator, I look down at my polished Kenneth Cole shoes, straighten my $250 tie (which I couldn’t have afforded, but was donated by a supporter), and I pat down my recently laundered suit to get off any rebellious lint.

Meanwhile, frameworks, calculations, and the populations of many of the world’s countries (Indonesia = 220m, Japan = 125m, UK = 60m…) are racing through my brain.

I’m nervous.

I get to the 47th floor, walk to the receptionist and introduce myself. She instructs me to sit, and I wait as calming music plays out of an old school boom box in the corner.

The partner comes out, introduces himself and we step into his corner office overlooking the San Francisco Bay. After getting over the view, I sit in a chair across the desk from him and he decides to calm my nerves by saying “So, Terrence, I hear you’re smart. Let’s see if it’s true.”


McKinsey Partner: Apple comes out with the iPod. It’s a success. Microsoft decides to do something similar.

He pauses and about 10 seconds pass….

Me: And…

McKinsey Partner: That’s it. Walk me through it.

I ask him a clarifying question and he responds with “I’m giving you nothing,” so I guess was on my own.

Within it about 5 minutes I’d sketched up what Microsoft should be thinking about, what types of facilities they might likely need and where they should be located (making it all up, of course). Then I was doing Net Present Value calculations in my head.

All stuff I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do today.

As I think back, I wonder how I got to that point. Before I started the interview process, I couldn’t have done most of this, and as I just said, I likely couldn’t do it now.

Truth is, my brain functioned this way during the process because McKinsey set it up that way. McKinsey doesn’t use the interview as a mechanism to trick or confuse (though it happens). Rather, they want to know how far your brain can stretch, and whether you’re effectively able to structure problem sets.

Before your first interview, they make sure that you have everything that you’d need to go through the entire process and get the offer.

Every candidate is given a “buddy” who explains the interview process and provides case coaching. You meet with your buddy 2 or 3 times before your first interview, and in-between rounds. Even on their website, McKinsey provides sample cases and interview tips.

Their goal is to ensure that the only reason that you don’t make it through is because you shouldn’t make it through. You have coaching, you have tips, you have insights, you have the freedom to ask all the right questions. Now it’s up to you.

This is a rare approach, but one we should all keep in mind.

For organizations:

  • When an initiative is launched, is it set up for success, or destined failure?
  • When an employee is promoted, do they have all the tools and resources to succeed?
  • When criticizing management, have you provided them with enough information to make effective decisions?

Outside of business, I see friends enter relationships where they’re not giving their boy/girlfriend any remote chance of success (baggage!).

For something to succeed, it has to be given more than just a chance. Take this lesson from McKinsey: we can all learn from it.

March 26, 2011 at 2:05 pm Leave a comment

Shout out to NFTE

In previous posts I’ve mentioned my involvement in NFTE (Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship), an organization that focuses on youth entrepreneurship education around the world.

It’s an amazing experience and I’m privileged to be involved with this program. The strength of NFTE has really hit home over the past few weeks as I’ve been helping to lead a digital classroom initiative in two Bay Area public schools.

For the first time, two NFTE schools in this area are connecting and sharing ideas using technology. And I’d say that it’s the first time these students are getting a glimpse of what entrepreneurship is really all about.

NFTE developed an incredible curriculum that guides students through the ins and outs of entrepreneurship – marketing, finance, networking, etc. A very powerful and unique tool. However, it’s in school, so at the end of the day it’s still academic.

Students are encouraged to form sole proprietorships because the program wants to ensure that individuals are learning the basics of everything and receiving individual grades. Therefore, much of the focus is on opportunity recognition and getting the idea right, rather than teamwork and execution.

Makes sense, but that’s not entrepreneurship.

The base of successful entrepreneurship is getting the right people involved, and being able to execute with those people. It’s not about ideas, it’s about people and sharing. Sole proprietorships have almost no business in this type of learning environment, and I think that this is beginning to come through with the students. It’s incredible and inspiring to see.

Every other Wednesday we bring in guest speakers, via webcam, to provide insight into a different part of the startup world. One week is funding, one week is pitching to investors, etc. Students see that this “entrepreneurship stuff” that they’re learning about is real. People actually do this!

On the Wednesdays between speakers we focus on connecting the students. Here they see that their peers are hitting the same hurdles that they are, and they can work together to solve issues.

They’re learning that collaboration is key, and they’re seeing how technology can be used to enable and enhance collaboration without geographical boundaries. The world may be flat, but it’s nearly impossible to see that in high school.

Inspiration can come from anywhere, and the way that I’ve been inspired by the NFTE students is like nothing that I’ve felt before. I’m glad that I can help them, and I’m grateful for the help and inspiration that they’re giving to me.

March 25, 2011 at 10:20 am Leave a comment

Are the Smartest Guys in the Room?

Photo courtesy of SFO CP on Flickr Some rights reserved

A couple months ago I was scanning LinkedIn Answers and came a across a classic question:

What do you think of meetings? Mostly useful or mostly useless?

My response included: “make sure only necessary attendees are present.” Good thought, and mostly right. However, “necessary attendees” is too ambiguous. It’s true that meetings must be pruned down to the bare minimum number of attendees, but who are they?

The brief non-answer is necessary attendees = anyone responsible for the intended decision. Fair enough, but it’s really hard to get that list right. Most people just choose the obvious.

The common recipe goes something like this: throw a bunch of VPs in a room, sprinkle in a Senior Director or two and you’ve got the right mix, right? Probably not.

Those in the room must include those with decision-making authority, as well as those that have a firm grasp on the basis for that decision.

This became vividly clear during my recent marathon extravaganza of Fox’s 24. 24’s CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit) nails the decision making process in meetings.

24’s rules of decision making:

  1. Make it 100% clear who owns the decision – the Director of CTU
  2. All decisions are to be completely data driven (time-permitting)
  3. Everyone is clear on their role in the meeting
  4. No throwing around of superfluous opinions (there’s no time for it – the world’s on the brink of destruction!).
  5. Those closest to the data are always in the room

I get that sometimes decisions must be made without the inclusion of all those close to the data. However, this must be the exception, not the rule.

We’ve all seen decisions made without the person (or people) with the most knowledge of that topic even aware that the decision was happening. This does not end well. It mostly leads to a loss of credibility for, and a general distrust of, management. <—to be avoided

This is not to be confused with "Why Wasn't I Consulted" (Paul Ford recently wrote a great post on WWIC). It’s more like HWIC (How Wasn’t I Consulted). Or, more simply stated, WTF.

In the end, the decision maker always has the last say. However, without the input of those that understand the content, how much is that decision really worth? Invite only the necessary, but make sure all the necessary are there. In short, before your next meeting ask yourself, “Are the Smartest Guys in the Room?”.

March 15, 2011 at 1:51 am 1 comment

Empower, don’t encourage

Photo courtesy of Kapungo on Flickr Some rights reserved

To risk, or not to risk, that is the question.

Empowerment is a buzz word thrown around a lot. I’ve seen it used too lightly in most circumstances, generally being defined as allowing someone to make their own decision. Technically, that may be an appropriate definition of the word, but it’s a weak one.

Empowering someone means setting them up to succeed. It does not mean simply telling them “you can do anything you set your mind to.” It’s about support, knowledge, resources, tools, guidance, confidence, and faith. All of the above.

Encouragement is not empowerment, and confusing these notions is careless and dangerous.

I’m all about empowering youth. And I’m all about entrepreneurship among youth. I’m not all about young people taking misguided risks. If you’re in the business of helping young entrepreneurs, then make sure they know the potential costs, as well as benefits, of what they’re doing.

Don’t get me wrong. I love risk…I thrive on it. Throwing myself to the wolves is what makes me happy. So I’m not trying to tell young entrepreneurs not to accept, and even embrace, risk. Rather, I’m sending a message to those supporting these young entrepreneurs to ensure that they are truly empowering them to succeed.

Successful entrepreneurship is as much about knowledge and learning as it is about hard work and persistence. Learn from mistakes, and learn from failure, when they happen (when…not if).

Ideas will fail. Ideas come and go. People are what matters. And my goal is to empower people so that they can succeed with any idea, not just the one that their current business plan is built around.

I work with young entrepreneurs everyday, whether at work, or in my side gig at NFTE. The most frequent mistake that I see is emphasis on the idea. How do I market this idea?…How do I project revenue for this idea…How do convince investors that my idea is worthwhile?

All valid questions and, of course, I guide them through this learning process. However, I add the most value by convincing young entrepreneurs that I’m not here to empower their ideas, I’m here to empower them as people. And part of that empowerment is educating them about the costs of both success and failure, and making sure that they’re ready for each.

Not all time is equal. This is why many will encourage people to start companies early in their careers. I support this, and it’s why I choose to call Silicon Valley home. However, as Vivek Wadhwa points out, those over 40 “are far more likely to be the founder of a successful technology company than most of you understand.”

The obvious reason is that they’ve led both successful and failed operations in the past. They’ve got that experience to build on. This is true, but it’s learning from that experience, and not just the experience itself, that makes the difference.

It takes active thought to learn from what’s happening around you, and the most successful young entrepreneurs will be those that can absorb, learn and adapt the fastest.

So the next time you’re in a position to empower, don’t just give them the keys and a push out the door. Tell them what to do when the car breaks down, and make sure they know what alternate routes they can take. Empower, don’t encourage. It’ll go a long way.

March 12, 2011 at 6:38 pm Leave a comment

Will the real social media please stand up?

Photo courtesy of Leeks on Flickr Some rights reserved

The world is in some weird social spiral.

Social means interacting and engaging with other people. Going to dinner with friends is social. Reading about where my friends went to dinner last night is not. Chatting with a group of people is social. Leaving someone a note is not. Confusing these behaviors is going to create a more disconnected and passive society rather than a more connected and active one.

So called “social” platforms and applications have been sprouting up everywhere over the past decade. But very few improve an individual’s level of social engagement with the rest of the world – which is where the internet becomes really powerful. Twitter does. Facebook does. But Farmville doesn’t (asynchronous seed planting will never be social in my book). And Yelp doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong…services like Yelp are incredible. I just wouldn’t call them social. It’s like sticking post it notes somewhere to broadcast your likes and dislikes. That’s not social engagement.

To harness the power of the internet while we head into Web 3.0 (or whatever it will be called) we need to move away from passive communication. Crowdsourcing my friends and long-lost acquaintances may provide me with more relevant search results, but that’s still not social. Social requires real-time, or at least semi-real-time, interaction. We can use Facebook and Twitter for this purpose, but let’s not do it in a passive way.

To stick with the search example, let’s say there was a search feed in Facebook. I go to [insert your favorite search engine here] and type in “tango lessons san francisco.” This then gets blasted to Twitter, Facebook, and maybe something like a Quora or Hunch. My friends, followers, etc see this and respond with suggestions. You get the idea. This is not the most elegant UX for social search, but this would actually be social search.

The web is a dynamic, interconnected place that can be leveraged to bring the world closer together. It’s not meant to be purely consumed. It’s meant to be fed, engaged, and interacted with.

I’m excited for where the social web could go, but it’s sad to see where it seems to be going.

February 19, 2011 at 10:38 am 1 comment

Put your onions in the freezer

MIRIAM: Oh, Barney, put it in the freezer.
MIRIAM: Put the onion in the freezer for a few minutes before you chop it. Then it won’t make you cry.

Barney’s Version, 2010

People love pain. Christina Harbridge of Allegory Training once told me “people naturally do what’s in their worst interest.” Sad, but true.

A few weeks ago I went to see Barney’s Version with my girlfriend. I’m a fan of Paul Giamatti so I expected a great performance. Even still the movie was beyond my expecations. Terrific piece of work and I highly recommend it.

A great scene comes about halfway through when Barney (Giamatti) is cutting an onion in the kitchen with onion-induced tears streaming down his face. His wife, Miriam, comes into the kitchen and feeds him some classic advice: if you put an onion in the freezer before cutting it, then you’ll be tear free. Barney seems amazed and impressed by this discovery. However, a few scenes later, we find Barney chopping onions again, still crying…he didn’t do the freezer trick.

How many times do we find ourselves in the situation where we know how to stop the pain, but for some reason we go with what we know, even if we know it’s the wrong choice?

A former colleague articulated the business version of this to me a few years ago: “It’s like we’ve lost our keys, and we know we left them in the kitchen, but we keep checking the garage because the light’s on out there and it’s just easier.” Classic line. There was so much truth there.

While working with Jim Collins I found that, in most cases, this type of corporate behavior wasn’t an issue of vision, but rather one of execution…or maybe just the willingness to execute.

The trick: create a stop doing list. These serve as a consistent reminder of specific actions that hinder our advancement. They fight against our natural inclination to stick with comfortable, rather than successful, behaviors. Jim talks about it here, and it works wonders.

The common practice for building strategies for work (or for life) is to write down a plan of what action we have to take to hit our objectives. Makes sense. The problem is that this has strong potential to tack additional responsibilities on top of previous bad habits. Not a recipe for sustainable success. A stop doing list forces you to be explicit in what you’re no longer doing so that you can focus on, and likely achieve, your new goals.

Try it with yourself, and try it with your team. They will appreciate you taking some work off their plate, especially in cases where that work is no longer relevant. It’s a great exercise with huge payoffs.

Be SMaC (Systematic, Methodical and Consistent) with your stop doing lists. This way you can throw your onions in the freezer and clear some space for more rewarding behaviors.

February 18, 2011 at 7:37 am 18 comments

Sell what your customers value

A quality user experience is the most talked about but under-executed functionality of a product or service. It’s also the most important.

It’s true that many users will step through broken glass to use your product if the value proposition is strong enough to them, but this isn’t sustainable and will only a create a niche market of users with no visible growth prospects (granted these users will likely be more dedicated than most). Trust me, this is where my company has sat for quite some time, and it’s a struggle that we fight every day.

I was recently helping my girlfriend think through growth options for her printing company, and it all came back to two questions:

  1. Why do new customers purchase your service?
  2. Why do existing customers come back to buy again?

Simply put, understand what value new customers seek as well as what value returning customers want again.

An example of failure here is with hotel.com’s iOS app. The app’s main function is “Find Hotels Near Me.” I’ve used hotels.com for years. It’s my first stop when booking a hotel for an upcoming vacation. I could be wrong, but I would guess that most of hotel.com’s audience has the same use case that I do – upcoming vacations…not real-time bookings. Creating an app for the purpose that it serves makes no sense given the value that the site provides to its average user.

When thinking through the placement, price and delivery of your product or service you have to think about what value the user is buying, which may or may not be the same as what you’re trying to sell.

At Second Life we make a good chunk of our revenue by selling 3D land (kinda like 3D web pages). However, most of our users are buying 1) the ability to meet and engage with people that share common interests or mindsets and/or 2) the ability to create a world limited only by their imagination.

In many cases, buying land is the best way for our users get this value, but the land itself isn’t actually what they’re trying to buy. There is a fundamental disconnect. A tough problem to solve, but we know that this disconnect can’t persist.

In a recent TechCrunch article Alex Rampell provides a great framework for thinking through the value that your service offers. I’m going to be using it for a presentation I’m putting together this week, so thanks Alex!

Here are his 5 attributes to consider:

  1. Price (actual price to consumer + “friction” in ordering process)
  2. Geography (proximity to consumer)
  3. Selection (do they have X in my size, or sell rare item Y?)
  4. Service/Brand (do I trust/like them?)
  5. Experience (is it easy/designed to shop for X?)

Product or service value must be perceived first and foremost from the eyes of the consumer. Match what you’re selling to what your customers want to buy and other pieces of the business puzzle will come more naturally.

February 13, 2011 at 5:24 am Leave a comment

Learning when to drive

out car window
Photo courtesy of calico_13 on Flickr, Some rights reserved

Leading is tough. The vision of your department, your company, the completion of the next project, or the careers of those you’re leading can rest on your shoulders. Added pressure changes perception.

My girlfriend and I went on a Best Buy expedition this weekend to pick up a new TV, a WiFi-enabled Blu Ray DVD player (highly recommended), and the Windows 7 OS for a newly built computer that I dying to fire up.

She owns a car in the city and I don’t, so she’s typically driving everywhere. However, the adrenaline from knowing that I would soon be standing in the spectacle that is electronics heaven made me want to take the reigns, so I drove us around town.

San Francisco is a relatively easy city to drive in. It’s small and, for the most part, grid-like. However, I still managed to get us turned around a few times with what I called “short cuts,” and what my girlfriend called “the wrong way.”

Nevertheless, just as one of my short cuts seemed to be turning into a move of pure brilliance I looked over at my girlfriend for a well deserved bragging session. She was gazing out of the car window.

She’s from here and knows SF well, but the way she was staring you would think it was her first trip to the big city. It was an adorable expression (of which she has many), so I lovingly inquired, “What’s up?”

“Life looks so different when you’re the passenger. I’m always driving. Guess I miss a lot of this.”

She said a lot with those words. While I was getting turned around because I hadn’t driven in awhile, it seemed that she was seeing the city for the first time in a long time.

When leading, we see things differently, just like driving. We often get in the driver’s seat, hit the gas, aim and get to our destination as fast as we can. If it’s somewhere that we’ve been plenty of times, we throw it in autopilot and barely remember the trip.

From time to time let someone else drive. This is a growth opportunity for you and others involved. Like my girlfriend, you’ll see things that you’ve seen many times before, but it may just feel like the first time.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time”

– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

January 31, 2011 at 10:38 pm 8 comments

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About Me

I'm a San Francisco-based strategic thinker who believes that life is only as great as the people you choose to interact with. I love people, and studying business has given me greater insight into how to most effectively develop myself, and my personal relationships. I look forward to discussing people and business with those that find this area as fascinating as I do.

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