Why “figuring it out after thirty” is a terrible idea

jacketI just finished reading The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them by Meg Jay. My friend Jason Evanish has written about how much he enjoyed the book, but I didn’t get around to it until I had a conversation with Jonathan Gurerra about a few days ago.

The book is written from the perspective of a therapist who has seen many twenty-somethings make good and bad decisions and has been doing her practice long enough to see how those decisions pan out. I’m 26 today (turning 27 in two months) and this book is very relatable, with detailed conversations between the author and her clients that will definitely sound familiar.

Her basic points are this:

  • The idea that our 20′s are just a time to fool around, find ourselves and delay the real-world till 30 is a myth
  • Twenty-somethings need to be deliberate about their choices – what work they do, who they love, where they live
  • In regards to work: do something to build “social capital” vs being a barista, even if you’re not sure it’s your “true passion”
  • In regards to love: do the math. If you want to be married with two kids by 35, you can’t keep dating bad-for-you people into your late twenties

I feel that I’ve done pretty well in my career so far. Despite starting work a year later than my peers (I stayed for a 5th year masters at Stanford) and not working at any blue chip companies, I’ve developed a strong set of skills, experiences, connections and assets. The future is by no means assured, but I’m confident my efforts in the working world will serve me well.

Where the book really hit home was in the love/relationships section. I’m currently in a monogamous long-term relationship with a wonderful lady, but I’m not thinking about marriage anytime soon. While I do want to start a family some day, it’s always been something I thought I’d figure out “after thirty”.

But the book makes it clear: things don’t just magically fall into place when you turn thirty. For instance, doing the math: if I want to get married and have two kids in my mid-thirties, how much lead time do I need?

  • 1 year of engagement
  • 1-2 years of childless marriage
  • 3 months (if you’re lucky!) of trying to get pregnant
  • 9 months of pregnancy
  • 1-2 years between children
  • 1 year of trying + being pregnant
  • Total: 5-7 years

So if you want those two kids by age 35, you must be proposing no later than age 30. The math does not lie.

Certainly the timeline could be made shorter, you could cut the engagement shorter or post-marriage childrearing etc, but it could also go in the other direction: the girl you propose to (or marry) doesn’t work out, you have a miscarriage, etc.

Anyway, the author is not advocating that everyone just marry the next person they meet or commit to a corporate stooge job they hate, but she is saying that twenty-somethings need to face the hard truths of reality in order to prepare/choose a future that will make us happy in the long run.

The book is an easy read and pretty short. I finished it in a weekend and highly recommend it for anyone under 30. If you are over 30, I would recommend you DO NOT read it, unless you feel particularly good about how life has turned out, and you want to see what you did right.

You can buy The Defining Decade on Amazon here.

Note: this post contains affiliate links

Learning to Code: Lessons From Building a Rails App with Treehouse

Learning to Code: Lessons from Building a Rails App with Treehouse

Last night I pushed my first Rails app to production – you can find it at (oops! It looks like all the traffic has crashed the app. Hiding the URL for now) Here’s what it looks like.

It’s like a super stripped down version of Twitter – you can create an account and post statuses. It uses Twitter Bootstrap for some basic styling and Gravatars for profile pics. One obvious area for improvement (among many) is that right now, you can post a status as any user (not just yourself) and edit anyone’s status.

Despite this issue, I’m still very proud of it. Deploying the app to Heroku was a very satisfying moment and feels like a real milestone in my quest to learn how to code. I have a long way to go, but I thought I’d stop and share some lessons I’ve learned so far as a business guy venturing into web development.

Note: My friend Bevan is starting a Ruby on Rails Newbies Meetup in SF if you’re interesting in connecting in meatspace.

Learning to Code: Lessons From Building a Rails App with Treehouse

1) Have a learning plan

I signed up for Treehouse (referral link) in late December and have been going through their modules for the past 6 weeks . You can see my progress here. Treehouse was recommended to me by a non-technical friend (thanks Tony!) who found it very accessible and I completely agree.

Having a program or system, especially an interactive one that’s designed for newbies, is incredibly comforting. I know I can work my way through the modules and learn the basics without missing something important or getting too stuck. Obviously there are many options beyond Treehouse. CodeSchool and Lynda are paid subscription based models, and the Ruby on Rails Tutorial are other learning plans that would be worth checking out.

2) Setup is a big hurdle and something to be proud of

When I tried to learn Rails a few years ago, I struggled with correctly configuring Rails and Ruby. It was frustrating and embarrassing to be stymied by such a basic issue that I didn’t feel comfortable asking for help. That was a mistake. I am comforted by Michale Hartle (author of Ruby on Rails Tutorial) when he talks about getting up and running:

There is quite a bit of overhead here, especially if you don’t have extensive programming experience, so don’t get discouraged if it takes a while to get started. It’s not just you; every developer goes through it (often more than once), but rest assured that the effort will be richly rewarded.

So don’t be discouraged by the first hurdle of just getting setup. When you finally get it done, celebrate it – it’s a worthy accomplishment for a newbie. Continue reading…

Three Studies Find Ways to Get an Extra Boost of Willpower & Self-Control

Our ability to use self-control may be one of the most important things we can develop in ourselves. I’ve written before about how willpower is not enough and that developing habits is an important skill for sustaining the right behaviors.

But there’s more to the story.

In preparing to teach a course about willpower and behavior change, I uncovered new research revealing ways we can get an extra boost of self-control when we are running low. Here are some of the findings:

Choosing to exert self-control is less depleting than being forced to exert it

Mark Muraven, a Professor at the University at Albany, asked participants to resist eating a batch of cookies and tested them on an activity that required willpower both before and after resisting the cookies. Afterward, he asked participants their motivations for resisting the cookies and also examined their performance on the willpower test.

He bucketed the reasons into autonomous ones (e.g. “It was important to me not to eat them” or”It is fun to challenge myself not to eat them”) and external (e.g. “I wanted the experimenter to like me” or “I would feel guilty if I ate them”). In looking at the results (emphasis added)

“As compared to their baseline performance, participants who avoided eating the cookies for more autonomous performed better at the second measure relative to participants who did not eat for more extrinsic reasons. Mood, arousal, and demographic factors were not related to self-control performance and feelings of autonomy. Overall, it appears that feeling compelled to exert self-control may deplete more strength than having more freedom when exerting self-control.” [Muraven, Journal of Research in Personality, 2008]

So next time you’re faced with something that requires willpower, whether it’s staying late to finish a project or turning down that second slice of birthday cake, find a personally compelling reason to exert willpower, rather than placing the reason to something external. Continue reading…

Thoughts on Competition for Early Stage Startups

Photo credit: screen grab from Nike Free Commercial

I was recently speaking with a colleague of my father who works in education and had an idea for a product in the tutoring space. He specifically wanted to know where he could find someone with technical skills to help build out a prototype.

In Silicon Valley, we often take for granted the concept of “ideas don’t matter, execution is everything” and that “your greatest enemy is not the competition, but yourself”. But I think that outside of the tech world and outside of Hacker News, there are still a lot of misconceptions that exist around startups and starting/building a new idea.

So I figured I’d share some of the things I’ve learned about competition that might be a reminder for the experienced, and new to those just getting started in startups.

1) Don’t be afraid to tell people your idea. In fact, speak liberally about it.

When I asked my father’s colleague for details about his idea to get a better sense of what he needed to have built, he hesitated for a second and then told me more about it while stating “of course that everything that I tell you is supposed to be confidential”, suggesting that he was still concerned with people “taking” his idea. While understandable, this predilection for secrecy is mistaken.

The two reasons why you should talk to people about your idea are:

First, if the only advantage that you have is about having some idea that which if communicated to a certain person would give them everything they need to execute and produce this idea, you’re already screwed. You have already lost if the “idea” is the only advantage you have. Most good startup ideas start out sounding like bad ideas so it’s unlikely you’ll even convince anyone it’s a good idea.

It’s also likely that someone has already had this idea and is currently working on it, or has tried it in the past and it didn’t work. Both things were true when it came to Ridejoy. Your idea is not new, it’s the new insight, resources and ability to execute that matters.

Second, talking to people about your idea allows you to uncover new insights and resources far faster than keeping it a secret. We thought we knew a good deal about ridesharing when we got started with Ridejoy but we’ve learned so so much more because we’ve told lots of people about our ideas and gotten interesting insights about the history of ridesharing, or approaches that other people to take into building peer-to-peer marketplaces, or just small anecdotes about their own experiences or their friends experiences with ridesharing – we never would have learned all these things if we kept Ridejoy a big secret.

2) Don’t worry about the competition. You are much more likely to be beaten by the market or your own mistakes.

When you’re trying to innovate in a space that has other players, it’s easy to get caught up in what the competition is doing. Living in Silicon Valley doesn’t help this, all your friends and the press know about the other players and they’re always asking questions like “so how are you different from X?” or “Well, I already use Y – what makes you better?”

There’s a strong desire to quickly differentiate yourself from the competitors, or obsess over their every move. But honestly, it just doesn’t matter. There’s certainly a lot of value in understanding how other players are approaching the market and their products, but it’s far more important to really focus on your own product, your own customers, and how you’re going to achieve your own goals.

When you’re doing a startup, you’re usually tackling a LARGE market, (and if you aren’t, you’d better have a really good reason not to) Large markets mean there should be plenty of new customers/users to go around. Your competition is not “stealing” customers from you. If you are having a hard time getting traction, it’s either an issue with the market (too early, too niche, hard to reach) or with your ability to penetrate this market (weak product, poor distribution). Neither of these things relate to your competition.

As for the advice that I gave my father’s colleague, it was essentially a modified version of the answer I gave on Quora to this question: I have a great idea for a business and the technical expertise to build it. Where should I start? except I skewed even more heavily to the customer development side as it would be even more expensive and time-consuming for him to get something built without a better idea of the exact product he needed and his distribution channels.

So those are my thoughts on competition, especially as it pertains to early-stage startups. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments!

What It Feels Like to Hit the Wall

“Hitting the wall” or “Bonking” is a term used by runners and bikers to describe glycogen depletion which leads to sudden fatigue and energy loss. In all my running, I had never experienced it – until recently.

Photo Credit: sebastien.barre

I was looking forward to the November trail race my girlfriend and I had signed up for at the China Camp Basin (she’d do a 10k and I’d do the half marathon).

Unfortunately, we suffered a brain fart and went there on Sunday rather than Saturday and missed the race. Whoops. It wasn’t all bad as we hiked the trail together for 2 hours instead and went oyster shucking at Point Reyes afterward.

Still, I was annoyed at missing the race. I had been looking forward to pushing myself, so I decided to run a fast 13 miles on my own instead. And that’s when I learned what it’s really like to hit the wall.

Getting to Empty

I went on my usual route that followed the Embarcadero along the water all the way to the Marina (the top of San Francisco) and back. I wasn’t feeling super rested that morning, but I was able to maintain around a 9:30-10min/mi pace which is faster than my usual long run, but slower than previous race paces.

I started getting hungry 40 minutes in but waited until the half way mark, 6.5 miles, to eat my one energy gel. As I headed back, I felt myself getting tired, but I really kept pushing hard.

“This is a race! Go all out and finish exhausted!” I told myself.

This pep talk got me through miles 7-11 but at mile 12 I started feeling really tired and hungry. I was frustrated but slowed, recognizing that I still had 2 miles to go.

The Bonk

That 12th mile took forever. I had my eyes closed for most of it (very bad idea, don’t do this) because I was so uncomfortable and just wanted to zone out completely.

When I finally made it to mile 13, I was basically shuffling. I didn’t want to walk because I knew if I did, I wouldn’t want to start up again. I was starving and it felt like the air had become thick and resisting my motions. Every step was a struggle.

Finally around 12.5 miles, I literally collapsed on my hands and knees. I couldn’t go any further. I walked the last .5 miles, just about finishing 13 miles (without the extra .1)

See my Runkeeper activity for this run.

When I got home, I stuffed my face with snacks and microwave meals (I know, the food of champions). It took a few hours of food, drink, shower and rest before I really felt myself again.

What It Means, Physiologically, to Hit the Wall

There’s a lot more science than I can touch on here but basically it appears I ran out of glycogen, which breaks down into glucose and is one of the primary forms of energy in the human body (the other is burning fat).

The more intense your activity, the more glycogen you use (compared to fat). During most long runs, I maintained a 11 min/mi pace, which is much easier on the body. During races, I would typically carbo-load, stuffing extra glycogen into my liver and muscles, and have several energy gels or drink lots of gatorade during the run.

Because I was running hard and didn’t replenish my energy sources fast enough, I ran down to nothing and crashed. Your brain uses a lot of glycogen too which might explain why I wanted to close my eyes – your mind starts working poorly when you’re low on energy, just like your muscles.

Additional Resources

I’m glad I had a chance to experience “the wall” but I don’t ever plan on doing it again. I found some resources on glycogen depletion that you might find useful as well.

Have you ever hit the wall? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments!