Cronyism is alive and well (or why relationships matter)

presidents laughing

We tend to imagine that we live in a Just World. Especially in the field of technology and startups, we want to believe that the skilled, insightful and dedicated are rewarded and the suckups and sycophants are weeded out.

But people do not sit rows on a giant spreadsheet, with the best ones easily identified via a quick “sort-by” function. We are social creatures and treat those we know and like, better than strangers. Relationships matter.

And when considering people we don’t know, we are more likely to favor people similar to ourselves, often because we share the same race, social group, alma matter, or membership in a particular group, among other qualities.

I know someone who was hired a while back in an exciting new role at a large technology company in Silicon Valley. The guy who hired him was in member of a certain fraternity and confided that he was planning to fill his entire team with fraternity alumni. [1]

Is this fair? No. It’s complete bullshit. Do things like this happen all the time? Yes.

You can respond to the fact that cronyism [2] exists in two ways:

  1. Rail against it as unfair and stupid. Refuse to play games or get involved in politics. Struggle to gain influence over others and limit your potential.
  2. Realize that this is human nature, and make it work for you. Have coffee meetings with influential people, build social capital by making great introductions, create weak ties by working at companies like Google or joining startup communities like Hacker Dojo.

When I was younger, I fell into the first camp, hoping to avoid gamesmanship and stay ‘principled’. I eventually learned that to be effective with people, you have to enter the fray. Favors, friendships, fame — these things matter if you wish to enlist the support and involvement other people.

Lest someone misunderstand this article, let me be clear: the more we can operate in a world where positions are filled with the most qualified people, the better. We should do our best to bring about this kind of a world and avoid perpetuating corrupt practices. However, I believe that by refusing to play any kind of politics, one writes oneself out of the opportunity to gain any sort of power and thus will have little ability to influence the system toward becoming better.

Play the game, but don’t let the game play you.

[1] Now this newly hired person could be a fantastic fit and the best qualified person for the job. But because the hiring manager indicated a clear bias for an arbitrary quality in his team, the true qualification of the entire team could be called into question.

[2] The appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority without regard to qualification

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

How Coffee Meetings Power Silicon Valley

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Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Diego Sevilla Ruiz via Compfight

I just had a coffee meeting with a friend in San Francisco today.

Well, he’s not quite a friend, more like a guy I find smart and interesting, who I’d like to stay connected to. We first met when he was working at Twitter and applied to work at Ridejoy. While we mutually decided it wasn’t a good fit, he’s since left Twitter and started freelancing at some cool companies.

In our meeting we talked about how Ridejoy was doing, the value of teaching a Skillshare class, the power of long form writing and the mechanics of freelancing as a marketing/social media person. We finished the meeting without any particular takeaways, but I’m certain that deepening our relationship will pay off greatly in the long term (many times the value of $6 + 1 hour + 3 weeks of scheduling)

I have these kinds of coffee meetings 5-10 times a month and I think it’s one of the magical things about Silicon Valley.

These meetings are an opportunity to meet new people, build existing relationships, get advice, learn insider news/gossip, recruit new members and more. While blogs, forums, social media, phone calls / Skype and meetups can also achieve these things, they are not a replacement for the in-person, one-on-one, casual coffee meeting.

It’s one of the big reasons why startups should really consider moving to Silicon Valley – many of the smartest/ most influential people are here, and you’re going to build the strongest and most worthwhile relationships with them if you can connect in person.

Preferably over coffee.

Everything Men Do is For Women

And probably vice-versa too, although I’m not as qualified to say.

Some men and some women recognize this truth, others will disagree vehemently.  But I believe that those people have just a lot of cultural baggage.  In the end, in a primal, animalistic, and yet human way, everything men do, is for women.  The three main points: Men want to show they can provide, they will provide and they are better than other men.

Men work to get money, because money impresses women – superficially some might say, but the international survey that shows that on of the top attributes that women find attractive in men is the ability to provide material benefit, and you will see that it is more than superficial.  Women want, deep down, a man who can take of them, who can provide for them and their children.  It is genetically built in.  When a man has a lot of money, he is demonstrating he can take care of a woman.

Men are nice, because they often think niceness is how they can get girls.  Or that girls deserve to be treated well, especially the very beautiful ones.  Chivalry, the fairer sex, as much as feminists might say this is men trying to put women down, it is also men putting women on a pedastel.  Saying they deserved to served and pleased and protected.  Niceness is also a toply desired attribute by both men and women, because that means that the partner is willing to share, and work together.  Niceness demonstrating willingness to provide, while money demonstrates ability.

Consider chimpanzees, one of our closest relatives.  Their society operates in a male hierarchy where the dominant male gets access to all the females.  You have to fight off and often kill the alpha male to become the new dominant male.  This explains a lot about sports and competitions and agression in general.  Why do men love to compete, why do they like to fight, to see who is the best?  To show who is dominant.  Because the dominant male gets the women.  From baseball to rugby, from darts to a druken bar fight.  Competition reveals who is dominant.  Aggression shows who is dominant.  And winners show that they are clearly better than the other men they beat.  It proves they are worthy of women.  Related to dominance is prestige.

Senators, doctors, lawyers, airplane pilots.  These jobs bring in the cash, but they are also well respected, unlike drug dealers, restaurant owners, large farm owners.  Guys want to have prestigious jobs, because that shows they are dominant and it shows they have power.  Someone I know wants to be a neurosurgeon, because they are the most respected of surgeons and other people have to accomadate them.

Power is another way of demonstrating ability to provide.  I think that’s one of the reasons why men aspire to be powerful.  Some men might say they enjoy the feeling of power and respect simply for what they are.  They like feeling in control and able to influence people or events.   But what is this power, this influence for, if not to show women ”I can make things happen for you”.

Of course, this thesis is too ambitious. Of course someone might play the violin just because they enjoy the sound.  But the guy who picks up the harmonica or guitar because “chicks dig a guy who can play”, or rock stars who sleep with groupies after the shows.  I’m sure there’s something to do with it.

And yes, some people really do want to help others simply because they believe its the right thing to do, but is it not also to demonstrate to a woman how sacraficing and noble they are, in hopes of gaining their respect and admiration?

And finally, sure studying quantum physics is not easy and maybe it is thrilling to finally work through that gender identity paper, but is it not also to show women “I am an intellectual, I posses something that others do not: brains.  And that will help me provide for you”.

So I lied. Men don’t do everything for women.  But behind many of the acts of men lie the desire for women.  (Even this essay itself, is a way of me showing other women that I am smarter or more thoughtful than other men).

It is not always clear, and men themselves may not be aware of it.  But evolution is powerful.  And the reason why we exist as a species is because the men and women were good at sleeping with each other.  Think about it.