What’s Your Big Decision? (My 27th Birthday Giveaway)

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So I turned 27 about a week ago.

Last year, for my 26th birthday, I had a giveaway where I asked you, readers, to share your biggest lesson you wish you learned when you turned 26 — or who you hope to be by then if you were younger than me.

That was a lot of fun, so let’s do it again!

The giveaway: Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath – a phenomenal book about making better decisions, not through a soulless spreadsheet, but with sound and proven psychological principles. One lucky commenter gets a free copy (closes June 6th)

The request: Leave a comment about an important decision you made in life and what you learned from it.

Here is mine:

Choosing to work at the Stanford Daily

When I was getting ready to graduate Stanford, I interviewed for and was offered the job as the Chief Operating Officer of the Stanford Daily. It would be a full-time, one year paid position for a recent grad to run business operations for our student newspaper. I was also in final round interviews with Teach For America and the Coro Fellowship in Public Service.

The role at the Daily was less prestigious and I had no particular experience working at the newspaper. It would be local. TFA and Coro could potentially take me far away from the Bay Area and would take me down the road of public service.

I spoke with a mentor of mine, Dan Gill of Huddler, and he told me something I’ll never forget: “It’s rare to get P&L (profit and loss) experience so early in your career, and that’s a really valuable experience. Since newspapers are struggling, if you fail, no one will blame you. And if you succeed, you’ll look like a hero. It’s a no lose proposition.”

Now I’m not saying you should always think about decisions in this way, but that advice made a lot of sense to me and I took the Daily job. It was tough and we did struggle, but I think I did make some lasting contributions to the organization. And I’m really glad I took the job – it put me down the path of business, lead me to working at isocket, and well, the rest is still being written. =)

Alright, well, that’s my story. What’s yours?

Ignore the critics: Lean In should be required reading for everyone, including men

Disclaimer: as a man writing about gender inequality, I acknowledge my privileged (and biased) viewpoint in this discussion. I’ve run this post by several smart, awesome women and incorporated their feedback, but I know I still run the risk of getting things wrong. Still, this topic is so important that I felt I had to try to add to the conversation.

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I recently finished Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. [1] Everyone from the New York Times, Slate, TIME and a host of bloggers has weighed in on Lean In — and many of the reviews are quite critical.

Among other things, people have said it blames women, offers unrealistic advice from a wealthy elite, and dismisses stay-at-home moms.

Ignore the critics. They’re wrong and they’ve missed the fact that Sandberg has produced a powerful book that should be required reading. [2]

Incidents like the disastrous PyCon/Adria Richards debacle underline the fact that some men have little understanding of the unique difficulties professional women face, and some female professionals have struggled to find effective ways of dealing with these challenges. We need to bring more constructive voices to the table discussion. Lean In is a nuanced and highly relevant read for anyone who cares about building a more equitable world in tech and beyond.

A short summary

Sandberg is a total badass, and yet she has struggled with significant hurdles to achieve professional success. Many of these struggles were with confidence, advocating for herself and balancing competence with likability, as well as overt sexism. I was forced to reconsider how to evaluate outward appearances of confidence between men and women and recognize there are no simple answers for ensuring a meritocratic workplace.

Sandberg cowrote Lean In with Nell Scovell, a professional writer, and acknowledges the help of many experts in refining her arguments. The collaboration made for writing that’s leaps and bounds above your typical business-buzz-book fare: paragraphs flow well, stories contain appropriate detail, research is cited and explained.

In the rest of this post, I’ll share some highlights, but I seriously encourage you to read the book for yourself.

More women in power

Sandberg makes the mission of her book very clear. She wants to see women in board rooms and the halls of Parliament, running companies and nations.

In the first chapter, she recounts hosting a dinner party for Leymah Gwobee, the winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize winning activist. Gwobee had helped lead women’s protests that toppled the dictatorship in Liberia and was asked what the best way to help her people and fight the mistreatment of women.

Her answer: “More women in power.”

Sandberg writes this book from a moral imperative. She wants to help ambitious women succeed, not just for their own sake, but to bolster the conditions of women across the globe.

Sitting at the Table

A phrase that frequently appears in Lean In is “sitting at the table.” Sandberg recounts a story of hosting a number of Silicon Valley executives along with Tim Geithnier, the Secretary Treasurer, and his staff at Facebook. While all the executives sat at the main table, Geithnier’s all-female staff seated themselves in chairs along the side of the room.

Sandberg was surprised and waved them over. They demurred and refused to “sit at the table”. Women often are unwilling to jump into the action, Sandberg claims, and this holds them back from moving their career forward and making their voices heard.

She says this not disparagingly from up high, but from the perspective of a woman who has sat on the sidelines herself more than once, and often feels doubts about her position as one of “the most powerful women in the world.”

Confidence versus Caution

There seems to be a disparity in how men and women value their abilities and approach job hunting. According to data from recent graduates at Northwestern, males were 8x more likely to negotiate their salary than women. At Hewlett-Packard, an internal report found that while men apply for open jobs if they think they meet about 60 percent of requirements, while women are more cautious and won’t apply unless they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria.

In the book, Sandberg shared her thoughts on negotiating once she received her COO offer from Facebook:

“My husband, Dave, kept telling me to negotiate, but I was afraid of doing anything that might botch the deal. I could play hardball, but then maybe Mark would not want to work with me. Was it worth it when I knew that ultimately I was going to accept the offer? I concluded it was not.” [3]

In discussing this post with a former female coworker, she told me how one time, after receiving a generous offer from a new employer, she made the decision to negotiate. However, her own mother actually tried to dissuade her from negotiating, saying “It’s already a such a high offer! Don’t push it!”

Ultimately she negotiated a better offer and accepted the position (woot!), but I thought this was a poignant example of how women are often discouraged from negotiating — a message rarely given to men.

Competent women lose points on likability

Sandberg cites a tremendous wealth of research around gender bias: the most memorable example is involved a real-life business case study about a take-charge entrepreneur/venture capitalist named Heidi Roizen. In 2003, some Columbia business school professors had their class read the case study, but half the students got a version of the case with “Howard” switched for “Heidi.”

When polled, students found both Heidi and Howard equally competent, but Howard appeared to be a more appealing colleague. Both men and women felt that Heidi was more selfish and “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” This is a very clear example of gender bias: the students read the exact same case!

“When a woman excels at her job, both male and female coworkers will remark that she may be accomplishing a lot but is “not as well-liked by her peers.” She is probably also “too aggressive,” “not a team player,” “a bit political,” “can’t be trusted,” or “difficult.” At least, those are all things that have been said about me and almost every senior woman I know.”

When you want to become C-level executive, having the support of your peers is crucial, and we must be aware of how competent women lose points for likability. This is the double whammy that makes it hard for women to advocate for themselves: because they’ll be docked points for seeming “too aggressive”.

When Sandberg finally did negotiate with Zuckerberg around her offer, she did it in a friendly manner, emphasizing that as COO, she would be doing Facebook’s deals and of course needed to demonstrate her ability to be a good negotiator.

Forming truly equal partnerships

“I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is. I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully— and I mean fully— supportive of her career.”

To get more women into power, they shouldn’t have to decide between raising families or advancing careers. [4] There has to be a way to do both.

On this point, Sandberg wants women to ask for truly equal partnerships (if they have a partner) and for men to respond and deliver on an equal partnership. In households where both men and women work full-time, women still do 30% more housework and and 40% more childcare than men. It is unsurprising then that women might feel more burdened by their jobs and struggle more professionally, as they just have a higher total workload than men.

And just in case you feel annoyed by Sandberg’s wealth and ability to hire nannies, note this anecdote:

“When I went back to my job after giving birth, other working mothers told me to prepare for the day that my son would cry for his nanny. Sure enough, when he was about eleven months old, he was crawling on the floor of his room and put his knee down on a toy. He looked up for help, crying, and reached for her instead of me. It pierced my heart…”

Being a working mom is hard, no matter who you are and while Sandberg has lots of money, it does not buy her unlimited maternal bliss.

Closing Thoughts

This book covers a lot of ground: Sandberg also discusses mentorship, taking initiative, seeking growth opportunities, stay at home dads, and a host of other topics. I’ve just scratched the surface with this blog post. I especially encourage men to read it because even if you think you’re “gender-neutral” [4] , I bet this book will led you to change the way you do things.

Here are some very unflattering examples of how Lean In has been relevant for me:

  • When discussing the business career prospects of a girl I knew growing up, I made an offhand remark that “it probably doesn’t hurt that she is an attractive Asian female.” I’m mortified those words escaped by lips, but even more disappointed that this line of reasoning made any sense even in my head.
  • When having a coffee meeting (not a date!) with a female I had previously only talked with online, I found myself wondering if the meeting was going well because she wasn’t smiling or sharing very much. Then I wondered if I would have the same concerns if I was meeting with a man. Probably not.
  • When I’m in conversation with any group that includes women, I am much more cognizant of how often I interrupt/talk over men vs women.

Lean In is an important book that should be read by men and women, in tech and beyond. Having more women in power will help unlock the abilities and contributions of a significant proportion of society that is often under appreciated. And making sure that talent surfaces and worthy ideas are heard is good news for all of us.

Thanks to Winnie Kao, Christine Yen, Margot Leong and Kat Li for reading drafts of this and Christine Lan for helping shape my thinking on this subject.

Footnotes

[1] This is an affiliate link. If you buy this book on Amazon, I’ll get a few cents. [2] To address those claims directly:
  • Blaming women: Sandberg acknowledges there is a chicken-and-egg issue with gender inequality, with external barriers and internal ones. As a woman who’s struggled with these internal barriers and an executive who’s seen hundreds of women struggle as well, she’s chosen to focus this book on the internal ones, without denying there are significant societal problems that prevent gender equality.
  • Unrealistic advice from a wealthy elite: while it’s true that Sandberg has more money, power and connections than your typical working woman, she routinely discusses her own struggles before she became one of the most powerful women in the world, and she also shares stories from younger, “more typical” women she’s mentored and how they’ve leaned in. Additionally, she shares some of her more recent struggles of being a professional and a mom. In my opinion, the fact that Sheryl-fucking-Sandberg, the TED-talking COO of Facebook, still sometimes cries at work over issues that probably relate to her gender go a long way in underscoring the far greater difficulties that “regular” working women must overcome.
  • Dismisses working moms: simply not true. First she says she’s grateful to the many volunteers, who are mostly mothers, that sustain our schools, nonprofits and communities, and calls for working mothers to “regard mothers who work inside the home as real workers.” She describes many of the painful the trade-offs she’s made as a mother in order to work full-time and recognizes it’s not a path everyone would want to choose.
[3] Sandberg ultimately decided to negotiate only after her brother-in-law made a striking point about how no man at this level would ever accept the first offer. [4] Sandberg makes it clear that not every woman wants to be a working mom, and that some people find full-time motherhood deeply fulfilling and she honors that. She does point out though that the more you can achieve before stepping away to bear your child, the more likely you’ll want to return to the workforce because you could have an exciting career lined up. [4] Actually, people who claim to have no bias are actually more likely to be biased, according to research Sandberg cites in Lean In. So people who think they’re gender-blind may need this book the most.

“When evaluating identically described male and female candidates for the job of police chief, respondents who claimed to be the most impartial actually exhibited more bias in favor of male candidates. This is not just counterproductive but deeply dangerous.”

How to Avoid the Emptiness of Delayed Gratification

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Photo Credit: papalars via Compfight cc

As a Chinese-American immigrant, my parents ingrained upon me the idea of sacrifice. They sacrificed so much to uproot their lives and raise me in a foreign country where they knew no one. They both worked two jobs for a long time so we could live in a town that had great public schools. If I forgot my lunch, my mom would literally drive my lunch to school to make sure I ate, so I wouldn’t be tired and starving at gymnastics practice.

I appreciated my parent’s dedication, but at times it wore on me. Because their sacrifice meant I, too, had to make sacrifices. There was a path I had to follow and it went something like this:

  • Because my parents sacrificed for me, I would bust my ass to get good grades and get into a good college.
  • Then I could enjoy life. Then I would bust my ass in college to get a good job.
  • Then I could enjoy life. Then I would bust my ass in my job to rise through the ranks and increase my salary.
  • Then I could enjoy life. Then I would have children and bust my ass so they could have a better and brighter future than I did.

At some point I realized there didn’t seem to be a real payoff. It was some living version of MC Escher’s eternal stairs — always climbing and never reaching the top. I knew I had to get off the staircase.

Beware of the eternal staircase of delayed gratification

The ability to delay gratification is an essential willpower skill, and children who are better able to delay gratification score higher on their SATs and are more socially well adjusted as teens.

But delayed gratification can go too far. Here’s a refrain that many-an-entrepreneur has said:

“Once we launch our product, I’ll be able to rest and appreciate the success I’ve achieved  Until then, I’m basically failing and need to bust my ass like mad.”

Once the product launches, the goal posts get moved to hiring an important team member, raising another round of financing, getting profitable, getting acquired, etc. I fell into this trap and I often see a lot of other founders do the same. And of course, this mindset applies to not just entrepreneurs but ambitious people of all stripes.

The game never ends

When discussing this topic with a friend, (specifically in regards to personal growth), he asked: “When is enough, enough?”

I’m not sure this is the right question.  There will always be more work ahead. There will always be more challenges to overcome. You will never be completely satisfied (for more than a very brief period).

Living is about growing, conquering, stumbling, recovering, reflecting, learning and so on. Delayed gratification is important because most big projects require sustained commitment over a long period. But you have to learn to appreciate each and every day too.

Maybe a better question to ask would be: “How can I work towards the future while enjoying what I have?”

Moment-to-moment Happiness

It’s definitely possible to be busting your butt for a big future win, and appreciating and enjoying your life on a moment-to-moment basis. It may not be easy, but it’s possible.

Partly inspired by my friend Kevin Gao, I started jotting down little score cards for each day. Over time, I’ve figured out that my daily happiness is more or less governed by four things:

  • How healthy I felt (eating well, working out, feeling energized)
  • How productive I felt (getting worthwhile things done)
  • How much I got to socialize (hang out with cool people, talk to friends over Skype, spend time with my girlfriend)
  • How excited I am for tomorrow (Life is good if you’re looking forward to the next day)

Just tracking these stats makes me more cognizant of opportunities to eat healthier or see someone I like. Trends have emerged: I should to plan fun activities so I can look forward to them. These things help me be happy.

Happiness Makes You More Productive

I think that ultimately, giving yourself the space to enjoy the day to day actually allows you to work harder. I’ve sometimes seen my work as a burden —  something I’m resentful of, because it’s the ugly crap I have to overcome to get to the perceived gratification that lies on the other side. Thinking of work that way doesn’t make me want to keep trying harder.

But alternatively, if I give myself a little room to read a book, work on a side project, exercise, and see friends, then I feel fresh and alive and ready to drive harder on that long-term challenge that will bring the big, distant payoff.

That’s my take — I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you deal with delayed gratification?

Kevin Gao’s 6 Rules of Well-Being

My friend Kevin Gao is the founder and CEO of Hyperink, a YC-backed digital publishing company. He recently shared his findings of 6 “rules” (my term, not his) from reviewing 3 years of monthly data tracking his well-being from a variety of metrics. I thought this was a really cool idea and wanted to share it with you.

Here’s the post (reprinted with permission):

Kevin Gao Scorecard Findings

I’ll retype his answer here (with some basic formatting/punctuation added)

Kevin’s 6 “Rules” of Well Being

So for the last 3 years I’ve kept a monthly scorecard of how I do (and how I feel) on a variety of things like health, sleep, family, etc. Just reviewed all of it and here are the 5 main conclusions I came to, thought it was amusing to share!

  1. Don’t sleep past 9am (for some reason my days just get out of whack when I sleep late)
  2. Run more, even if just 15 min/day
  3. Call mom more (right now its usually once/week but when i talk to her more often in a week i feel a lot better)
  4. Meditate more, even if just 5 min/day (can’t handle a lot more)
  5. Stop binge drinking (which according to wikipedia is 5 drinks a night!!…ruins my next day)
  6. Take more weekend trips

Later in the comments he elaborates on the system:

“I got it from stevepavlina.com, he basically lists a bunch of categories and then every month, rates himself 1-10 on each and writes a few notes. Track through Google Doc”

What can we learn from Kevin’s rules?

First there are the rules themselves: clear, easy and actionable.

It’s easy to look at them and go “Duh! If you exercise more and avoid binge drinking, of course you’ll feel better.” On the other hand, how hard is it to get ourselves to do run a little every day when we feel lazy?

But still, keeping a regular sleep schedule, exercising a little, staying in touch with family, being mindful, avoiding harmful substances and decompressing more frequently are things most of us could stand to keep in mind.

But more importantly is the system. Do you track what makes you happy?

I already do a lot of reflection (daily journal, weekly blog posts, quarterly newsletters) but I’m considering adding this habit because even a 1% improvement over the 480 waking hours a month would be worth 20 mins of reflection.

I found this post on Steve Pavlina’s blog which might be a good place to start.

Do any of you track your well-being? What have you learned?

Take Advantage

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Michael Phelps recognized and took his advantages. Shouldn’t you?

At Startup School 2012, Jessica Livingston, a partner at Y Combinator, gave a talk on the challenges that founders face. It’s worth reading for anyone interested in or knows someone interested in early stage startups – you can find the full text here.

In the discussion of the talk on Hacker News, there was a rather spiteful comment that suggested Jessica’s success with her book Founders at Work, which helped establish her expertise in startups, was due in large part to her personal relationship to Paul Graham (then a successful entrepreneur featured in the book who eventually became her husband)

The comment was false, rude and was down voted to oblivion as it should have been, but there’s a dangerous suggestion contained in it that I want to address.

The World is Not Fair

Most people believe in the “just world” hypothesis, meaning that people get what they deserve and smart, hardworking and capable people are rewarded for their efforts. In the United States, and especially in technology, this is often the case. While this is a good belief to hold, it can also lead to sniping and cries of “not fair” when people see others move ahead of them for reasons that might feel “non meritocratic”.

The fact is that resources and talent are NOT equally distributed. People born into middle class families in the United States have a incredible social, educational and financial advantage over people born into impoverished families in Sub-Saharan Africa and have way more upwards mobility to boot.

Where you are born and what family you are born to are two factors that have nothing to do with merit, and everything to do with luck. And yet it makes such a big difference. Remember that the next time you complain about someone’s “unfair” advantage.

So what should you do instead of complaining?

Develop and Leverage Your Advantages

No matter who you are, you posses certain qualities and have access to certain resources that make you better positioned to succeed in certain fields than other people. Maybe you have a knack for a good turn of phrase. Maybe your father is well connected in an industry you’re interested in. Maybe you find that people you just met tend to trust you. Maybe you are willing to concentrate for hours to solve complex problems.

These strengths are your competitive advantage. Should you ignore them in the name of “fairness” and only pursue activities where you are more evenly matched against other people? It’d be foolhardy to ignore these advantages.

Instead, you should leverage the hell out of them.

Successful People Win Because They Leverage Their Advantages

  • Michael Phelps’s lanky body and double jointed ankles made him a record-breaking gold medal winning Olympic swimmer. But trust me, that body would have made him terrible gymnast.
  • JK Rowling’s introverted nature and whimsical creativity would have made her a poor candidate for Secretary of State. Similarly, Hillary Clinton probably would have had far less impact on society as a children’s author.
  • Warren Buffett is one of the wealthiest people on the planet and yet he admits he’s part of the “lucky sperm club” and that his analytical abilities would be worth nothing if he was dropped in the middle of Africa.

Know Thyself

This is why I think self-knowledge is so important. Understanding and leveraging your strengths/weaknesses and the resources you have at your disposal allows you to maximize your own effectiveness and impact.

Note: leveraging your advantages does not mean being unethical. I am by no means advocating lying, stealing and cheating – playing by the rules is the only way to go. But I’d bet good money that you’re not fully leveraging the advantages you do have at your disposal.

Paul Graham boils being a good founder down to two words: relentlessly resourceful. There is no doubt that people who are relentlessly resourceful make the most out of every advantage they have.

So don’t waste any time complaining about other people’s accomplishments, and focus on creating your own.