We contain multitudes

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

This is absolutely not a political post, but it was inspired by some recent discussion around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the high school she attended, and what that says (or doesn’t) about her “true” roots. In a nutshell, she was being criticized for not really being “from the Bronx” because she went to a fancy high school in Westchester. This got me thinking about the complexity of people, my own complex narrative, and how the complexity of one’s personal narrative is something to be celebrated and explored, not explained away.

Walt Whitman, steel engraving, July 1854
Walt Whitman, steel engraving, July 1854

My own story is complex. In some ways, the version of me you might know if you don’t know me well personally — me as “tech person” in various incarnations — started when I got to the Bay Area in 1998 at age 26. When I landed there back then, I didn’t really know anyone there. I didn’t have family money or family connections. I arrived in California hopeful and excited but nearly flat broke, with quite a bit of debt from “chasing my dreams” (an expensive and debt-ridden proposition if you weren’t born into money). California was to become a turning point in my life in a lot of ways and my time there laid the groundwork for so much to come.  The people I met back then received me as I was at that moment — professionally accomplished for a 26-year-old and coming there for a cool job — but inside, I was a wide-eyed kid from North Carolina who never imagined he would visit California, much less live there. My time in California was a rebirth of sorts for me where I started to really build the life I always wanted. But the North Carolina kid remains to this day and shapes my world view considerably.

Much later, I learned via someone close to me in my time in the Bay Area that there was a perception that I was born into wealth! After all, I graduated from Duke, I studied Shakespeare, I had worked in senior positions at CNN, I was joining the company in a VP-level position. (And my name was Chad, a name that has since been become a meme identified with nothing good!) At a glance, I sounded like a well-heeled Southerner with life-long training for the big time. But that wasn’t really me.

This perception of growing up with wealth and privilege really surprised me because it was so different from how the person who told me about it eventually saw me as we got to know each other and it was also very different from how I saw myself given my lived experience. My family was never poor, but we certainly were not rich. My parents moved out of a mobile home park and into a house just before I was born. My mom named me Chad after Chad Everett, her favorite actor who played Dr. Joe Gannon on her favorite TV show, Medical Center. It was a big deal in my extended family to move from a trailer into a house like that. When I hear George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s song “Two Story House,” I still connect with that feeling expressed in the song in a visceral way many years after I got the two-story house myself:

We always wanted a big two story house
Back when we lived in that little two room shack
We wanted fame and fortune and we’d live life the way the rich folks do
We knew somehow we’d make it, together me and you

My maternal grandfather was an illiterate farmer and as a 5-year-old just learning to read in kindergarten, I was tasked with reading him his birthday cards because he couldn’t read them himself. I’ve done my share of manual labor in life and to this day love the feeling of doing hard physical labor and getting work done. I grew up Southern Baptist and the Bible and church hymns are burned into my psyche. My family was touched by extreme mental illness throughout my childhood and that created all kinds of intense and devastating disruptions in our lives.

It’s possible to be a person with all of these experiences at the same time. You can be a kid barely removed from a trailer park with an illiterate grandfather and disruptive mental illness in your family and go to Duke and study Shakespeare and build a successful career and eventually go to New York City and take a company public as a CEO. I actually think we would be better served if we had more people in leadership positions in public and private life who have known what it’s like to be broke, to see the tragedy of a grandfather reaching the end of his life not knowing how to read, to win admission to a fancy school and feel like you shouldn’t be there at first but then dig deep and carve out your place there and in the world beyond. Any leader of any organization of sufficient size will employ and work with a diverse group of people and having a diverse set of experiences can only help build empathy.

In my personal life, I get invited to fancy dinners and such. Sometimes when introducing themselves, people lay out their professional accomplishments and I find myself wanting to know the real person, not the LinkedIn profile. I’m wondering: what were your struggles? What were your parents like? When did you feel uncertain and how did you overcome it? How did you get here? I realize that no one is obligated to share those things with me and I never press. But some of my best conversations at those kinds of events have come when I’ve let my guard down and told the person beside me a little about my real not-LinkedIn-profile self. Quite often, that person opens up in some way.  We laugh about the first time we went to a dinner like this and had to figure out how the place settings worked, or about how we felt when we interviewed for our first big job in a strange city. Or the person beside me might have grown up wealthy but suffered difficult challenges in life that wealth can’t address and overcame them (note that the ultimate message of George and Tammy’s “Two Story House” is that wealth and sadness can go hand-in-hand). Some of these conversations have become the basis for deep loving friendships that I treasure.

Maybe if we all gave each other the space to be complex people — not reduced to public perception, our professional bios, our LinkedIn profiles, others’ narratives of who we are — we might understand each other better and give ourselves the room to be messy but wondrous human beings. As Whitman wrote:

I am large, I contain multitudes.

We all contain multitudes. Or as George and Tammy sang together on “Two Story House”:

I’ve got my story [Tammy]
and I’ve got mine, too [George]

And so do you. We should all tell them proudly and in their full complexity.

 

Going old school: how I replaced Facebook with email

In November 2017, I deactivated my account on Facebook. I didn’t leave Facebook for moral reasons back then but more because it was starting to feel like a waste of time and valuable brain cycles that I wanted to focus elsewhere. (I realize some people can’t leave Facebook completely for work or other personal reasons.) There were aspects of Facebook that I thought I would miss — the relative ease of use, keeping up with what is going on in lots of people’s lives, etc — so I decided to work out a new way of communicating that was completely Facebook-free after using Facebook heavily for many years. I haven’t missed it at all. This post is about what I did and what I learned.

My history with Facebook and why I left

I had been on Facebook for a very long time (11 years) and had accumulated hundreds of “friends” on the platform. In the early days, it was fun and I enjoyed keeping up with people. But I kept noticing a great paradox in my life: I felt like I didn’t have enough time for the people I cared about (including myself) yet I found myself scrolling through Facebook for hours each week peering into the lives of hundreds of people, some of whom I honestly didn’t know very well and never knew very well. My brain got unwittingly wrapped up in their dramas, their political arguments, their triumphs and tragedies. I saw children fighting with their parents in the comments, political battles, people working out places to meet up — activities usually reserved for the private sphere. When I really thought about it, observing all of this seemed like a really odd way to spend significant time and energy. There are many people out there who I like and would love to get to know better but it doesn’t mean I have to keep up with all of them at that level of granularity.

The Facebook “privacy” model is also maddening and can be surprisingly dehumanizing. I remember once commenting on an old high school friend’s post to gently point out a factual error on a topic of which I had first-hand knowledge (note to self: never worth it on social media) and got attacked by someone I didn’t know for being a “fancy New York CEO.” I had developed a thick skin at that point (um, from being a CEO) so that specific incident didn’t bother me so much — but I it reinforced something I had been thinking: “This environment is incredibly WEIRD. It’s supposed to be about human connection yet so much of what occurs is dehumanizing. Why do we do this to ourselves? This whole thing is very unhealthy.” So I decided to step away. (I stayed on Twitter because I find it fun, I learn a lot from smart people, following doesn’t have to be reciprocal, and there is zero pretense of intimacy, but that’s another story.)

Keeping up with close friends and family post-Facebook: a simple email list

People in my life didn’t have much to say about me leaving Facebook but I did get a few
plaintive emails. How will we keep up with you? How will we see photos of your child? The implication was that without Facebook, all would be lost and we would lose contact forever. I’m exaggerating a little but I was legitimately surprised at the sense of finality that some people seemed to feel, as if there would be no other possibilities for us to connect to each other once I left. email_shiny_iconSure, Facebook might be the most convenient way to connect but I never thought of convenience as the hallmark of good relationships. That said, there were people I did want to stay in touch with so I came up with a plan: start a very small mailing list via Mailchimp’s Forever Free plan to stay in touch with very close friends and my family.  I’ve sent three emails this year and it’s been a great overall experience. Here’s what I learned:

Lesson 1: Quite a few of the people who mattered most to me were not on Facebook.

My mailing list had to start somewhere. To assemble it, I looked at three things: 1) my list of Facebook friends, 2) my personal address book, and 3) the past couple of years people I emailed (by looking at my Sent folder). I have been obsessive about keeping contact info over the past 20+ years so my address book has about 3000 entries in it. As I looked at all of these sources, I ran across names of people who I had had meaningful relationships at some point in my life but had never been on Facebook. One example was one of my aunts who is in her 80s who lives in Durham, NC who would bring me homemade sausage biscuits at my dorm when I went to Duke (as a native Southerner, there is literally nothing more comforting than biscuits from a family member). Using Facebook had given me a false sense that “everyone is there” but she wasn’t. I didn’t realize until I asked around in the family that she had an iPad and was a regular email user. There were more like her than I thought. Some of the entries I had in my address book were outdated but I emailed some of those people with the address I had and heard back nearly every time. I had to track down a couple of people through mutual friends. All of this took more time than clicking “yes” on a friend request on Facebook but the effort was its own reward as it led me to very deliberately reconnect with people along the way. Put simply, using Facebook skews your contact towards other people who use Facebook and that can leave a lot of people you really care about out of your life.

Lesson 2: Email is more intimate and leads to better conversations.

On Facebook, I think most people realize that their posts can be seen by many people so a lot of thought goes into what they post. We’ve gotten so used to it that it seems unremarkable but there’s definitely a performative aspect when you are constantly communicating in front of all of your friends at the same time (seriously, isn’t this a weird way to communicate when you think about it?) Also, you never really know who is going to read what you write given the wacky permissions on Facebook (see my “fancy New York CEO” anecdote above). There is very little performative aspect to writing an email to a known list of people since you’re not (consciously or subconsciously) fishing for “likes” or other comments.  My email list is broadcast-only but any replies go directly to me. The replies I get are much more personal and informal than what I used to see on Facebook. There are no unwanted ads shoving themselves into the conversation. It’s more like old-school letter-writing: intimate, no outside observers, letting your guard down. I don’t sit there and think about what other people might think about what I’m writing — just the person who emailed me. To me, this is closer to what true friendship is like.

Lesson 3: You control the narrative completely in email which provides a much better opportunity for story-telling.

Social media platforms have algorithms that control what you see and the order in which you see it. As I put my emails together, I didn’t realize just how much control I had given up on Facebook until I experienced the absolute control of a personal email. Facebook pushes the cognitive overhead of piecing together the specifics of your friends’ lives by parsing a constant stream of posts, news, and ads. There is no beginning, middle, and end with Facebook. If as Shakespeare wrote all the world’s a stage and we are the players in the story, Facebook is a play where the actors are constantly interrupted by the blare of news headlines or the urgency of advertising messages. Every word and pixel in the content of my email is controlled by me (with the minor exception of a few items in the Mailchimp footer, but no big deal). No ads, no news headlines. It’s hard to read things out of context because the email itself is the context.

Lesson 4: With email, I’m completely free to switch platforms and have lots of choices

Mailchimp is a great platform and a company I trust but if something changed, it would be very little hassle to migrate my list to another platform and company. Email has been around a long time and exporting and importing a list are very easy. I never need to export the content I put into the system because it’s in my email inbox.

Lesson 5: Occasionally, I didn’t know what people were talking about in social situations

I’m occasionally in group conversations at parties and gatherings where people are talking knowingly about some experience most people in the group saw on Facebook already. I can usually figure things out by listening or asking questions. It’s also more fun not to know sometimes so you can, you know, talk about it in person like people used to do.

Lesson 6: It’s somewhat complicated to do it this way, but ultimately worth it

The overall setup and technical aspects are definitely more involved. I don’t assume that anyone wants email from me so I initially sent out an email to people with a link inviting them to the list. Following that link led to a double opt-in process that was difficult for some less tech-savvy people so I had to do some tech support along the way. (Some people either didn’t get the invite email or didn’t want to get my emails, and that’s cool, too!) I’m very comfortable with tech issues but I hadn’t done a lot of hands-on email work in a long time so I had to learn how to use the various features of Mailchimp, which is “easy” but still work. I had to have some sort of design and that required some work, but Mailchimp has reasonable templates you can use to start (besides, great design isn’t that important in this context). Writing the emails takes a lot of work in an absolute sense but pales in comparison to the time I was wasting on Facebook. I’m not subject to aggressive “growth hacking” from Mailchimp to send out my email and I completely forget about it for months at a time (as opposed to Facebook, which was always trying to burrow into my lizard brain to try to make me think about it).

It may not be for everyone but I’m really happy with this new setup. If you have any questions about it, feel free to ask in this thread on Twitter and I’ll do my best to answer.

 

 

The air we breathe

I’ve been in the Bay Area since Monday. I had some work-related obligations but I had planned this trip to do what I loved most from my time I lived here: go mountain biking. It’s been over ten years since I had done this beautiful trail up in the East Bay hills. I had planned this trip so I would have significant breaks for that very purpose and I fell asleep in Brooklyn for a few nights before my trip thinking of the impossible juxtapositions on that trail — the entire bay spread before you to your left, cows grazing to your right, the Golden Gate bridge looking like an eternal occupant of the space even though you know it was created by people not that long ago in a relative sense.

But I haven’t been out on the trails. Instead, I’ve been been loading an ever-worsening air quality map and staying indoors. maskFor the first day or two, I didn’t worry too much about breathing the air. I wasn’t in one of the “sensitive groups” that were advised against breathing it. But as the air quality worsened, I started dragging. Headache, dry mouth, voice growing raspy. I got my hands on an N95 mask and it has become my steady companion. It is an anxiety-ridden companionship. I’ve gone from my usual this-too-shall-pass optimism to an unsteady when-will-we-be-able-to-breathe-like-we-used-to worry.

I’ve been staying in the Berkeley flatlands and the beautiful Berkeley hills that I used to wake up to in the distance every morning in the ten years I lived here have been ghosts on this trip. Every single morning for ten years and I still haven’t seen them once in five days. After a few days, I started to ask myself, “will I see them again?” Writing this now makes it sound more dramatic than maybe it should if you’re not here but there is something distinctly unsettling about not being able to see something you love because it is obscured by noxious smoke that is making it difficult for people around you to breathe, the most basic activity of living. The smoke represents the aftermath of an even greater set of tragedies that are even harder to comprehend. And the smoke keeps coming because the fires keep burning.

I remember the first time I came to the Bay Area and the first thing I noticed was that the light looked different. Everything was brighter and cleaner and the fog came in every night like a cosmic broom to sweep out the day. This is something that the great San-Francisco-born photographer Ansel Adams recognized, too.  I read that Ansel Adams’ earliest memories were of watching the smoke of the fires in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake at age 4. An aftershock threw him into a garden wall and he broke his nose. It was never set correctly and his nose remained crooked his whole life. From the destruction of the fire that formed his earliest memories and the very earth he stood on turning on him and smashing his face, Adams spent his life capturing the beauty of the landscapes around him and we were all lifted up by his work. Maybe there’s some larger lesson to be learned from that, but for now, I’m just waiting to see those Berkeley hills again.

California

Seal_of_CaliforniaI lived in Berkeley, California from 1998-2008 and the state made an indelible impression on me that leaves me feeling deeply connected. The many tragedies out there this week have had me thinking about how much California means to me and how much I’m hoping for the best for everyone out there on the west coast.

The people, the landscape, and the culture of California changed me in ways that are hard to articulate. On a fundamental level, living in California transformed me into a person who thought bigger, dreamed bigger, loved bigger. California opened me up in a million different ways and I will always love it deeply for that. It feels like a home to me, one of the handful of places where I feel in sync with life in a deeply fundamental way.

The landscape there is nearly beyond description. It is absolutely awe-inspiring and I never got used to it. I read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius when it came out just after I moved to California and it captured my excitement better than I ever could:

We run back across the highway, back into the red Civic and keep driving. Past the surfers, through the eucalyptus forest before Half Moon Bay, birds swooping up and over then back, circling around us—they too, for us!—then the cliffs before Seaside—then flat for a little while, then a few more bends and can you see this motherfucking sky? I mean, have you fucking been to California?

Oh, yes, I have fucking been to California. And it really is grand. A glorious mess in so many ways — just like some of the people I love most — but just stupendous. I’ll leave it to other people to lay out their critiques but I’m thinking of California with love and the feeling of wonder that never waned, wishing the best for everyone out there during a difficult time. I love you, California.

p.s. couldn’t resist including another passage from Eggers’ book, describing the magic of many places I know and love from my time in Berkeley:

To our right is the Pacific, and because we are hundreds of feet above the ocean, often with nothing in the way of a guardrail between us and it, there is sky not only above us but below us, too. Toph does not like the cliff, is not looking down, but we are driving in the sky, with clouds whipping over the road, the sun flickering through, the sky and ocean below. Only up here does the earth look round, only up here does the horizon dip at its ends, only up here can you see the bend of the planet at the edges of your peripheries. Only here are you almost sure that you are careening on top of a big shiny globe, blurrily spinning—you are never aware of these things in Chicago, it being so flat, so straight—and and and we have been chosen, you see, chosen, and have been given this, it being owed to us, earned by us, all of this—the sky is blue for us, the sun makes passing cars twinkle like toys for us, the ocean undulates and churns for us, murmurs and coos to us. We are owed, see, this is ours, see. We are in California, living in Berkeley, and the sky out here is bigger than anything we’ve ever seen—it goes on forever, is visible from every other hilltop—hilltops!—every turn on the roads of Berkeley, of San Francisco— We have a house, a sublet for the summer, that overlooks the world, up in the Berkeley hills; it’s owned by people, Scandinavians, Beth says, who must have some money, because it’s all the way up there, and it’s all windows and light and decks, and up there we see everything, Oakland to the left, El Cerrito and Richmond to the right, Marin forward, over the Bay, Berkeley below, all red rooftops and trees of cauliflower and columbine, shaped like rockets and explosions, all those people below us, with humbler views; we see the Bay Bridge, clunkety, the Richmond Bridge, straight, low, the Golden Gate, red toothpicks and string, the blue between, the blue above, the gleaming white Land of the Lost/Superman’s North Pole Getaway magic crystals that are San Francisco . . . and at night the whole fucking area is a thousand airstrips, Alcatraz blinking, the flood of halogen down the Bay Bridge, oozing to and fro, a string of Christmas lights being pulled slowly, steadily, and of course the blimps—so many blimps this summer—and stars, not too many visible, with the cities and all, but still some, a hundred maybe, enough, how many do you need, after all? From our windows, from our deck it’s a lobotomizing view, which negates the need for movement or thought—it is all there, it can all be kept track of without a turn of the head. The mornings are filmstrip white and we eat breakfast on the deck, and later we eat lunch there, we eat dinner there, we read there, play cards, always with the whole thing, the postcard tableau, just there, all those little people, too much view to seem real, but then again, then again, nothing really is all that real anymore, we must remember, of course, of course. (Or is it just the opposite? Is everything more real? Aha.) Behind our house, not too far, is Tilden Park, an endless expanse of lakes and trees and hills, mohair hills touched by patches of shrubs—as in, mohair hill, mohair hill, mohair hill, then an armpit of dark green, then the mohair hills that go on and on, like sleeping lions, as far as— Especially when you’re on your bike, starting from Inspiration Point (No. Yes.), pedaling into the wind on your way in and with the wind on the way back, the hills going on until Richmond, miles away, where the factories and power plants and big tanks full of deadly or life-giving things are, and the bike path goes the whole way there, all the while with the Bay visible in the distance to the left, the hills on and on to the right, until Mount Diablo, the biggest of all of them, king of the mohair hills, twenty miles east, northeast, whatever. The paths are paralleled with and perpendiculared by wood and wire fences that hold cows, and sometimes sheep, and all this is minutes away, all there, from our house, our house behind which there’s even a hiking trail that reaches, just about reaches, the huge rock, Grotto Rock, that juts out twenty feet beyond our back deck, and on some days, when Toph and I are eating our breakfast out on the porch, with the sun crazy and happy for us, smiling and teary-eyed with pride, there will suddenly appear hikers, male and female, always coupled, in their khaki shorts and brown shoes and hats on backward, who will step up from below the rock, and then be atop it, and then be there, holding their backpack straps with their thumbs, at eye level with us, as we eat our breakfast on our redwood deck, twenty feet away. “Hello!” we say, Toph and I, with compact waves. “Hello,” they say, surprised to see us there, eating our breakfast, at eye level. It is nice, this moment. Then it’s awkward, because they are at the the top, the end, of their hike, and want only to sit down for a while and admire the view, but can’t help be conscious of these two people, impossibly handsome people, Toph and I, who are sitting not twenty feet behind them, eating Apple Jacks from the box.

 

A book that changed me: A People’s History of the United States

columbus_landing_on_hispaniola_adj

Today is Columbus Day, a holiday that makes me think of one of the books that changed the way I view the world in a truly fundamental way (and a book not without its problems, which I note below). I first read this book when I was 19. The first pages were startling in their framing of Columbus’ “discovery” of the “New” World. From the outset, Columbus’ arrival is told from the natives’ point-of-view — something I had never considered up to that point:

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

They . . . brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. . . . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features. . . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. . . . They would make fine servants. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wrote:

As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.

The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold?. . . .

. . . Columbus’s report to the Court in Madrid was extravagant. He insisted he had reached Asia (it was Cuba) and an island off the coast of China (Hispaniola). His descriptions were part fact, part fiction:

Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful . . . the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold. . . . There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals. . . .

The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone. . . .” He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage “as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask.” He was full of religious talk: “Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.”

From here, the book’s nearly 700 pages cover American history all the way through the Clinton presidency. The book has its critics, like Stanford University School of Education Professor Sam Wineburg:

He says that Zinn’s desire to cast a light on what he saw as historic injustice was a crusade built on secondary sources of questionable provenance, omission of exculpatory evidence, leading questions and shaky connections between evidence and conclusions.

I’m not a historian so I can’t comment on the accuracy or inaccuracy of specific parts of Zinn’s book. From a layman’s perspective, though, the opening of the book appears to quote primary sources (Columbus’ logs) so I feel comfortable setting aside the core critique at least for this section. Zinn’s work has been so politicized that I looked for other sources to corroborate his point-of-view on Columbus’ arrival and found this story from the Smithsonian which also includes quotes from Columbus’ logs:

Columbus had no doubts about how to proceed, either with the lovable but lazy Arawaks or with the hateful but industrious Caribs [the Arawaks’ enemies]. He had come to take possession and to establish dominion. In almost the same breath, he described the Arawaks’ gentleness and innocence and then went on to assure the king and queen of Spain, “They have no arms and are all naked and without any knowledge of war, and very cowardly, so that a thousand of them would not face three. And they are also fitted to be ruled and to be set to work, to cultivate the land and to do all else that may be necessary, and you may build towns and teach them to go clothed and adopt our customs.”

It’s so easy to get into political/cultural wars when discussing these subjects but I think going in that direction can obscure an important lesson that should be universal. My takeaway from reading Zinn is that we can’t recognize Columbus without also telling the story of the Arawaks, even though it makes us uncomfortable. History provides no blank slates. In modern times, when we talk about the hot “new” neighborhood in town, we must also recognize and honor the people who have been displaced. When we lionize CEOs in the business press, we have to also recognize the stories of the workers in their companies and in the supply chains that enable their businesses.  It’s not always comfortable but any honest history should tell the whole story, and I’m grateful to Howard Zinn — even with his flaws — for opening my eyes to that perspective.

Oklahoma! at St. Ann’s

Oklahoma! cast

I serve on the board of St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn and it’s one of the most gratifying things I do. I’ve been involved since 2014 but have gotten much more deeply involved over the past 18 months. Live theater can be an antidote to so much of what ails society right now — one of the few remaining shared experiences in an on-demand world. Studies have shown that the shared experience of live theater is so powerful that it can synchronize strangers’ heartbeats. I have such respect and admiration for Susan Feldman, who as the artistic director for St. Ann’s has been bringing amazing theater to NYC for almost 40 years now (here’s a nice profile of Susan in the NY Times in 2015). Seeing each season develop from “we’re thinking about bringing this to Brooklyn” to the actors on the stage on opening night of a show is an incredible experience. Every production starts with major risks and obstacles that must be overcome and there’s a real “show must go on” mentality to the work.

This season kicks off this year with Oklahoma! (tickets) which the NY Times listed as one of five shows to see in NYC this October:

From the story:

The version that St. Ann’s Warehouse is presenting at its Brooklyn home (through Nov. 11) was first seen in 2015 as part of the Bard SummerScape series north of the city. Directed by Daniel Fish, it is not only inclusive but also communitarian, featuring a dark interpretation, a diverse cast, an immersive staging — and a chili dinner during intermission.

I saw early sketches of the staging at a board meeting several months ago and “immersive” is right. I won’t spoil it with more details but check out the huge photo in the NY story mentioned above. And, yes, there is the chili dinner at intermission.

The show features Rebecca Naomi Jones, who plays Laurey and was profiled in the Times yesterday:

Whether you love live theater or just want to try something new, go check out Oklahoma! Tickets are on sale now. See you at the show.

 

Advice to CEOs: digging out from a jammed calendar

My friend Lara Hogan published an email I had sent to her way back (“Advice for a new executive“) and it turned out to be super-helpful to a lot of people based on the engagement with her tweet about it. In a similar spirit, I’m publishing a previously-private email I sent to a startup CEO who was asking me for tactical guidance on how to dig out from a jammed calendar that he felt was preventing him from thinking strategically and focusing on bigger things. I was asked for similar advice multiple times since then so time to publish. I think this advice is generally useful to managers at all levels. Below is what I wrote, with only minor edits.


First, make sure you are prioritizing your core CEO duties first. I think Fred does a good job of articulating what those are in this post. In short, 1) keeping everyone on the same page with vision and strategy, 2) recruiting, and 3) making sure you have enough money in the bank (fundraising and revenue activities).

Some questions to ask:

  1. Are there meetings where you feel like you’re doing someone else’s job that isn’t filled? (example: you’re doing the work of VP of Engineering in addition to your CEO duties) If that’s the case, focus on filling that role. Start with the one that will give you the most leverage and save you the most time. The difficult part is that it is MORE work to fill a role than to “just do it” sometimes but waiting only means your life will suck longer.
  2. Are you holding meetings to compensate for the weakness of someone on your team? (example: you attend sales-related meetings that really should be run by VP of Sales but you don’t trust that person to do the meeting the way you want, so you attend).  Apply appropriate pressure on your VP of Sales to do the job (and I’m specifically referring to the “feel pressure / apply pressure” concept that Ben Horowitz has written about). If you don’t feel confident in that approach, it’s probably time to put a plan together to replace that person ASAP.
  3. Are there meetings you attend that you can delegate fully to someone else? Are there any high-performance people on your team who could take on more responsibility? Make that happen.
  4. Are you having any 1-on-1’s that aren’t essential? Everyone will want to spend time with you but make sure any 1-on-1’s are a good use of time for YOU. Kill the ones that aren’t a good use of your time.
  5. Are the meetings you have useful with clear agendas and followup items? (Nothing wastes time like useless meetings) This HBR article (“How to Design an Agenda for an Effective Meeting“) is a useful framework to evaluate whatever you are doing now. It outlines an overall approach and includes a sample agenda. Also see Ken Norton’s post “Meetings that don’t suck.”
  6. Do you have any recurring meetings that have outlived their usefulness? Kill them.
  7. Are there projects/initiatives that are low-value but take up a lot of your time? Consider killing them.
  8. Are you leveraging your executive assistant to the fullest? Do you have the right EA? It’s a bit of work but I suggest the “quarterly time analysis” that Matt Blumberg talks about in this post about how he works with his EA. The post overall is useful. Over time, you can teach your EA a rule set to enforce the way you want to spend your time.

Sometimes you’re just in a period where things are going to suck and you’ll be working a lot of hours for some period. You want to minimize the length of those periods but sometimes it’s unavoidable to have a packed schedule. In those cases, the best you can do is try to get a good night’s sleep every night, eat well, and exercise. Good luck!