Lessons on Persistence from Dean Karnazes

What ultramarathon running can teach us about persistence at work

Photo by Alex Gorham on Unsplash

In college, I came across a book about long-distance running called Ultramarathon Man. The author, Dean Karnazes, was a runner throughout his childhood and into his teens, before taking a long break from the sport. More than a decade later, Dean found himself with an urge to run after work and covered 30 miles before calling his wife from a 7-Eleven for a ride home. For 25 years, he’s been a leading ultramarathoner, having won a 135-mile race in Death Valley and once running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days.

In my piece criticizing tech’s obsession with long hours, I suggested that perhaps Elon Musk could be the “Dean Karnazes” of our industry—an unstoppable worker cut from a different cloth. For us mortals, trying to be more productive by working 80 hours a week is like trying to be fit by running 20 miles a day. It just doesn’t make sense.

To my surprise, Dean actually got in touch with me and said that his own working and training habits have evolved over the past decade to avoid the “excruciating toll” that Musk and others have suffered. As a former collegiate gymnast, endurance racing is the complete opposite of my experience. I was intrigued and reached out. We arranged an interview, and I got a lot more than I bargained for. Here are five pieces of advice from an athlete who knows a thing or two about giving your all.

1. Earn your rest

On the topic of recovery, Dean’s stance is clear: you have to earn it. “I think most people haven’t pushed to the point where they’ve earned the recovery day,” Dean says. “It’s often a cop-out.”

He sees it when he goes to the gym—people who aren’t particularly dialed in. “You’re texting, you’re reading your Instagram feed. Why are you even here? You’re barely working out.”

For Dean, recovery is something that comes after a hard effort. That’s when the rest can actually do something for you. Which means we need to continually push ourselves and test our limits.

While this may sound harsh, it doesn’t have to be. Many of us have had the experience of working a short week, because of a holiday break or time off, and finding ourselves getting just as much done as usual because we’re working smarter and pushing ourselves further.

What if we gave that level of effort every day? “I think that most of the limitations that we have are self-contrived,” Dean says, “Sometimes, if you can just shut down your mind and just execute, you can do extraordinary things.”

2. Run your race

Long hours feel especially grueling if you don’t believe in the mission of your company or don’t feel a strong sense of purpose for your work. In order to do what he does, Dean says he couldn’t make decisions primarily on how they would impact his bank account. “I am 100% certain that I would be more financially well-off had I remained a business guy,” Dean says, “But I would be completely less fulfilled.”

Dean made a conscious decision to choose a line of work where success—e.g. winning a race—brings little more than a metal buckle. He’s had to get creative, generating income from writing (five books and counting), speaking, and corporate sponsors.

In the business world, it’s natural to see income and wealth as the primary metrics of your life’s success—and as a Bay Area resident, he says he sees plenty of folks who operate with that mentality.

“People give lip service to the idea that their life is more than just money,” says Dean. “But in the end, not many are willing to say ‘I’m not going to take this on because I know it will screw up my quality of life.’”

Even if we don’t fully buy into the idea that money equals success, our consumer culture makes it hard not to focus on making more money to support our spending. But in the past decade, the FIRE movement has won over many young people who seek to live well below their means so they can retire early and focus on their hobbies and passions. This doesn’t mean it’s realistic for everyone to save 75% of one’s salaries to retire early—but just remembering that we have choices can help us find the motivation to push ahead.

3. Work more effectively

Over the years, Dean has learned to handle his life and his training differently. Part of that has come with learning that trying to force himself to do something doesn’t always work. Getting rest is important so he can push himself fully when he is training—rather than going through the motions.

“I’m not afraid now to turn off all the alarms and just let my body wake naturally,” Dean says. “Before, if I was not out of bed before sunrise and working out, I was a failure.”

Rest is important because it allows us to recharge and bring our A game. Showing up at the office at a certain time or staying late but being tired doesn’t do anyone any good. This is something many of us, myself included, are guilty of. Of course some companies track hours aggressively, but hopefully if you get your rest in and produce better results, it will be hard to question your approach.

Switching between intense effort and rest is the idea behind programs like Pomodoro, where 25-minute work sessions are punctuated by five minutes of designated goof-off, relaxation time. Ultimately, we have to find systems that allow us to do our best work.

4. Don’t fear pain

Being a successful ultramarathoner is not glamorous. For Dean, it involves regularly running 70-80 miles in one go in training and powering through multiple days of running with no sleep in races. This life has given him a sober outlook.

“Struggle and suffering are the essence of a life well-lived,” Dean says. “If the point is to run a race, run the damn race. Make it hurt; that’s why you’re there.”

We often live in fear of discomfort and pain. But for Dean, that’s something to be embraced. Like when the water’s cold and we’re scared to go in. Diving in is a shock, but we quickly acclimatize and move on.

Whether it’s starting a company, switching careers, or having kids, when we accept that it will be difficult—instead of pretending it’s not—we end up in a better place.

5. Pursue adventure

At 56, Dean has been running ultramarathons for quarter of a century, completing the 100-mile Western States back in 1994. Ten years later, he won the Badwater Ultra, a 135-mile run described as “the world’s toughest footrace” and recently was awarded a lifetime achievement award from the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition.

Usually these kinds of awards are bestowed on someone who’s starting to slow down, but not for Dean. He’s got a 135-mile run from Sparta to Athens later this year and just published a new book called Running for Good that collects 101 feel-good stories of runners from all walks of life.

Whether it’s through his training or just his nature, the man is persistent. And along the way, he’s always pursuing things that call to his spirit.

“The challenge of running 50 marathons in 50 states and 50 days, I mean that was a grand adventure,” Dean said. While physically grueling and logistically complicated (with landing sponsors and acquiring race permits), it was all worth it, he says. “The people I met, the food I ate, the sights I saw, were all so fantastic.”

That two-month adventure in 2006 inspired him to want to run a marathon in all 203 countries on earth in one year, a project he’s been pursuing for five years. An idea of that scale requires serious coordination with the U.S. State Department and the UN to pull it off, which is understandably a challenge. “That’s a goal that I’ve been failing at for five years,” Dean admits, “and I’m going to continue failing at it until I succeed.”

Dean was meant to be an endurance athlete. From his joyful long runs in childhood to his lack of running injuries—or even a single bout of cramps—he has found an endeavor where he can flourish.

Ultimately, most of us don’t have the desire to run 100-mile races. Nor do we see the value in plowing through evenings and weekends for a company or project we don’t believe in. That’s okay. But in Dean’s eyes, the problem isn’t the effort itself; it’s where the effort is applied. One of his favorite maxims, adapted from songwriter Kinky Friedman, is “find what you love, and let it kill you.”

He’s got a point: We’re all dead in the long run. But meanwhile, what pursuits would we be excited to channel our full selves into?

This piece first appeared in Fast Company

My Op-Ed in Vox

“Why Always Be My Maybe’s Asian American underachiever is groundbreaking”

Writing milestones don’t come often. I’ve been blogging since 2009, have had pieces blow up on Medium or hit front page of Hacker News. I’ve been interviewed for places like The Atlantic and NYTimes. I’ve had my writing republished on Quartz and I contribute pieces regularly to Fast Company‘s Leadership / Work-Life section.

But I’ve never straight up pitched a mainstream publication and had an editor take my piece. Until last week, when Vox published my op-ed in their First Person section: Why Always Be My Maybe’s Asian American underachiever is groundbreaking.

As you may know, I’ve been writing about Asian American issues for a while and this is a big milestone in my writing career. It took a long time to make happen but I definitely want to do more of these. Anyway, go check it out and let me know what you think.

33

Developing a new mantra

I turned 33 a few weeks ago.

I remember when my gymnastics coach turned 33 and told me about it. I was 12. He was not only my first serious gymnastics coach, he was one of the owners of the gym. He was in charge and he seemed to know everything.

I replied by saying that he had run through a third of his life. Probably not what he wanted to hear and but given he was a smoker, it was actually a pretty optimistic forecast.

Turns out of course that you don’t have it all figured out at 33, 43, 63, or whenever. And you definitely don’t have it all figured out when you’re trying to invent the future as a startup founder. The experience is very much a rollercoaster.

“I’m a total genius.”

“I’m a colossal failure.”

“We’re going to change the world.”

“We’re never going to amount to anything.”

And especially when you have to present your ideas out to the world and put them in front of really smart people, you get all kinds of feedback. It can be hard to sort out what you believe and what’s right.

I wrote about this a few years ago: Listen to everyone, then make up your own mind. And I’m revisiting these ideas again.

33 is a great age. I’m experienced enough to have good perspective but still full of vitality and energy. As per usual, I try to reflect on what the past year has taught me.

I think this year has been about trusting my gut again. For sure I don’t know everything, or even most things. But somethings seems, after thoughtful consideration, to be a good idea or plan, then I’m just going to go for it.

Being a founder means having a lot of people question your ideas and I know I’m not going to be right all the time. But I won’t let anyone make me feel stupid either or that I’m doing it wrong.

But it turns out pretty much everyone is just making shit up as they go.

What people say and what they do are often contradictory. Experts overestimate themselves. An orange clown is President. I’ve seen my well-laid plans screw up, and I’ve seen my instinctive decisions play out beautifully.

In my early twenties, I was ambitious and optimistic. I had taken some hits but shaken them off. I believed talent and enthusiasm was enough and I would just rise like a rocket.

In my late twenties, I experienced failure, loss, and defeat. I learned a lot about psychology and how easily we delude ourselves into thinking we’re smart and right. I started to doubt and second guess myself.

This wasn’t all bad – I learned to analyze data more rigorously, developed better habits, became more patient, and planned things out more carefully. I met and married my one true love.

Now I’m regaining my strength and confidence. My family came here with very little. I’m a first generation immigrant turned NCAA champion turned serial entrepreneur. I have come a long way. 

I know I’m not invincible. But I’m definitely resilient and resourceful, and ready to push hard on what I believe in.

Here’s to 33.

Starting Over

Due to an unfortunate combination of bad actors and my own neglect, I’ve had to do a full reboot of my blog. I should be able to recover / republish many of the posts over time, but backlinks may be an issue, perhaps indefinitely.

While this is of course frustrating, there’s also a sense of relief. A fresh start. There’s something uplifting about a blank slate and having a chance to redefine myself and what I write about.

Early on, I tried to make everything I wrote a direct reflection of personal experience. My shield was always “this is what happened to me and what I got out of it”.

Now as I near a decade of writing, I’m more comfortable saying “this is what is true about the world and how I think it ought to be”. Of course that statement is still based on my own, limited experience, and it’s going to miss things. But that’s for others to consider and decide.

I’m excited to see what emerges from this new era. It’s never too late to start over.

Long hours are BS

Squaring tech’s penchant for long hours with elite athletic training

Lots of people in tech are obsessed with putting in long hours. Elon Musk once said that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week” and suggested that the correct number was between 80-100 hours. Freelance marketplace Fiverr, with venture funding to the tune of $111 million, came under fire for an ad campaign that described an aspirational lifestyle where lunch is coffee and sleep deprivation is “your drug of choice.”

Or there was the time when the cofounder of Coursera launched a machine learning company called DeepLearning.ai and in a job post suggested that the team had a “strong work ethic” and routinely worked 70-90 hours per week. (The post was later changed to 70-plus hours, as if that were better.)\

Why working long hours is counterproductive

Few would question that working hard is essential to success. But the idea that working double a standard 40-hour workweek is just plain wrong.

Look, I’m no stranger to hard work. I’m a first-generation immigrant from China who earned a scholarship to attend Stanford, where I helped the men’s gymnastics team win the NCAA championship. I’ve started multiple venture-backed tech companies while serving on the board of a civic tech nonprofit.

Have there been times where I was stressed and working long hours to get everything done? Sure. Has it ever been anything near 80 hours in a single week? No way. I can feel my mental sharpness decline in the late afternoon, and the best way for me to push past eight or nine hours of work in a single day is if it’s on a completely different project, like, say, a board meeting or an article for an outside publication. Long hours should be rare, because productivity always takes a hit afterward.

This isn’t just my opinion. Stanford economics professor John Pencavel found that the output of employees falls off significantly after 50 hours per week, and becomes basically insignificant after the 55-plus hours per week mark.

What it really means to work like an elite athlete

In a Twitter thread about the DeepLearning.ai job posting, someone asked, “Would you look at it differently if it were a sports team?” And then said that working with the founder would be like being “in the Major League.”

That really ground my gears, because the comparison to high-level sports is so common in tech. But it’s also really wrong.

While at Stanford, I trained around 22 hours a week. Even factoring in the extra time we spent stretching, strength conditioning, icing, and physical therapy (on our own time), it was well under 30 hours. I wasn’t the star of our team, but some of my teammates were exceptional–representing the United States in world championships and other international competition. They trained the same number of hours as I did.

Training 70 hours a week would be a nonstarter. Even if NCAA didn’t regulate training hours, it would be such an obviously bad idea that any coach proposing such a schedule would be fired immediately. Great performance in athletics requires short bursts of concentrated, intense effort, followed by rest and recovery. That’s why using elite athletics to justify long hours is so foolish.

The Golden State Warriors have made sleep a huge priority. Mixed martial arts fighters take months between fights. There is a tremendous amount of rest and recovery built in, and a huge focus on injury prevention. Athletes nap between practices, get eight, nine, 10 hours of sleep a night, and wear blue-light-filtering glasses to ensure deeper sleep.

Some people will inevitably point out that the physical body of course requires rest, but that modern work is more mental. So? Our brain is an organ and is supported by our circulatory, nervous, and skeletal muscular systems. People who consistently get less than six hours of sleep are cognitively impaired, struggling as badly as if they had pulled multiple all-nighters.

Even in the world of competitive gaming, where 18-year-old players routinely train 10 or more hours a day, there’s been a recognition that less is more. The Overwatch League’s second season has prioritized player wellness after seeing the panic attacks and other mental health issues plague the community.

The dangers of ‘hustle’ culture

Our obsession with hard work is dangerous because it creates the narrative that if you don’t succeed, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. If you’re sitting around watching YouTube videos all day, sure, you’re not going to be successful. But just because something doesn’t work out, doesn’t necessarily mean you should have worked harder.

My first company, Ridejoy, went through the Y Combinator program in the summer of 2011. We were building a long-distance ride-sharing company, competing with Lyft back when it was called Zimride. We weren’t able to make the pivot into the city ride-hailing business. We worked hard and we still failed. Would it have made a big difference if we had somehow put in twice as many hours? I’m doubtful.

A YC founder once said to me that he found little correlation between the success of a YC company and how hard their founders worked. That is to say, among a group of smart, ambitious entrepreneurs who were all already working pretty hard, the factors that made the biggest difference were things like timing, strategy, and relationships. Which is why Reddit cofounder-turned-venture capitalist Alexis Ohanian now warns against the “utter bullshit” of this so-called hustle porn mentality.

There’s something especially insidious about higher-ups using their own extreme work habits as a model for their staff. I’m a big believer of leading by example, but most leaders have a support system and resources that allow them to recuperate from their hard work. They live close to the office, get frequent massages, have healthy food made for them, have really good childcare, personal assistants, and much more. That’s how they stay sane and avoid burnout.

But many of their employees don’t have the same benefits. And so after working 80 or 100 hours a week for months or years at a time, they burn out. And maybe they did productive work for a time, but they pay for it with their mental and physical health. Burnout hurts individuals, their families, their communities, and our nation.

Sometimes what our jobs or our companies need isn’t our our most brilliant selves. It’s just completing a pile of tasks. But there’s nothing glorious about that, and let’s stop pretending that working 80 or 100 hours a week is a righteous, practical, or sustainable practice.

Sure, there are outliers. Perhaps Musk is the Dean Karnazes of tech. But even he admits that stress has taken an “excruciating” toll.

There’s no denying that working hard is essential to success. But we need to stop worshipping at the altar of long hours and focus on getting things done in an intelligent, useful, and sustainable way.

This article was first published on Fast Company

How to Facilitate

Lessons from master facilitator Piper Anderson

Piper Anderson is no stranger to difficult conversations. As an educator and cultural organizer, she’s spent over 17 years facilitating discussions about some of the most hot-button issues facing U.S. society. In 2016, for example, she gave a TED talk about Mass Story Lab, her storytelling series focused on how the U.S. criminal justice system impacts communities of color. “Yes, I’m the person who brings mass incarceration into polite dinner conversation,” she quipped.

In a time when two black men can be arrested at Starbucks just waiting for a friend, it’s clear that these conversations need to happen. Yet as the coffee giant learned the last time it encouraged people to “race together,” discussions about race, social justice, and other sensitive issues often require thoughtful moderators like Anderson. To that end, here are a few of her top strategies for facilitating the most difficult conversations.

Need to build trust? Share stories

Trust, obviously, is essential. But it isn’t always easy for moderators to build it in multiple directions at once–both between themselves and the group, and within the group itself. Whenever Anderson kicks off one of her “story labs,” she asks participants to turn to their neighbor to tell a two-minute anecdote about a moment when they became aware of the prison system. “At first they’re like, ‘What, you want me to talk to someone?’” Anderson says. “And then, four minutes, five minutes go by and I can’t get them to stop because they just want to keep talking.”

Anderson believes sharing stories builds trust more effectively than discussing opinions. She finds that people often adopt and harden their beliefs about certain issues over time–typically without critically reevaluating the premises of those beliefs. While it’s easy to get defensive when someone challenges your opinions right off the bat, Anderson points out, it’s much harder to react as strongly when swapping stories. Storytelling fosters empathy, the crucial precursor to trust.

Embrace conflict, don’t downplay it

People often avoid tough discussions because they’re afraid of discomfort and the potential for conflict. When I asked Anderson how she handles situations when someone blurts out a controversial idea and brings conversation to a halt, her response surprised me: “I love those moments!” she said. “Those are usually the moments where the conversation really starts and really gets good.”

When you’re leading a discussion about something contentious, whether it’s the criminal justice system or annual budget planning, ask the group to lean into the discomfort. If people can stay in a place of “being curious and being open,” Anderson says–even when they hear something uncomfortable–they’re more likely to take the conversation in a constructive direction. “We need people who appreciate conflict as something that can be generative, that can build and deepen relationships,” she explains. “That is sometimes the right pathway to understanding and solving problems.”

Personally, at least, I often jump too quickly into peacemaking, and I’ve worked with plenty of people who share that instinct. Chances are we could all benefit from working through disagreements thoughtfully without getting combative–a mark of emotional intelligence as well as a skill that takes practice.

Adapt the plan to fit the people

Great facilitators need to have a plan, Anderson believes, but they also need to be ready to throw that plan out the window. In her experience, the true magic happens when the facilitator feels comfortable with ambiguity, rather than worrying that they’ve lost control of the room. “I taught theater to middle schoolers,” Anderson shares, “and what you learn from that experience early on is that you have no control. The more you attempt to control the process, the more resistance you’ll come up against. What you do is just follow the flow.”

To some facilitators, this may sound uneasily similar to winging it, but it’s anything but. If a group clearly isn’t connecting with the agenda she’s set, or failing to respond to a question she’s posed, Anderson will switch things up–moving on to a related idea or introducing a new question altogether. Alternatively, she’ll take a suggestion from the group about where to shift the conversation or even invite someone else to lead it while she hangs back.

This isn’t about ceding control, she says. “When people get a chance to integrate what they’re learning into their own experience–to practice it, to feel like what they bring and who they are is valid–they’re more likely to learn and use the information they gain,” she explains. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who’s at the front of the room or at the middle of the table; great facilitation–the kind that really leads to great conversations about difficult topics–is all about learning and understanding. And that, Anderson says, always takes active participation, not passive absorption.

This article was first published on Fast Company

32

Reflections on turning 32

I turned 32 a month ago and long-time readers know I try to use birthdays as opportunities to reflect and learn. The past couple years are here: 313029282726.

The past 13 months have seen a lot of change — I was part of a mass lay off, worked as a freelance product manager, got engaged, gave a TED talk, started a new company, raised capital, and helped people find exciting new job opportunities. As such, I have a new set of thoughts, sometimes a re-statement of prior lessons, but still meaningful for me to share again. While I do these mostly for me, I hope you find them useful as well.

Feel free to write me a note about which one resonates most with you!

  1. The way we see the world is shaped profoundly by the stories and lessons we learn in childhood and adolescence. Some people learn to recognize and shape those unconscious mindsets, others are utterly controlled by them.
  2. Achievement in any endeavor is about a combination of allowing things happen (being patient, exploring unknowns, being flexible) and making things happen (careful plans, disciplined execution, focus). Most of us lean towards one pole and must be aware that they should also leverage the other.
  3. If something really matters, you’ll find a way to get it done. That said, it’s important to continually revisit our schedules and list of tasks to ensure we\’re prioritizing the most important things (health, family, revenue-generating activities).
  4. Most things in life follow a power law, especially media and products. You have to work hard every time but only some of what you do will be a big hit. That said, when you find something that works, dig in deeper — you can often milk it for a lot more.
  5. Video games are far more satisfying (to me) when they have compelling characters and stories. In general, storytelling—real, actual storytelling—is one of the most underrated and underinvested skills.
  6. Having the right words can take you from awkward or unsure to confident and persuasive. Those who have mastered language and thinking on their feet can control a discussion and usually get their way.
  7. Slow and steady does not always win the race but consistency over time can lead to a massive long term advantage in data, insights, network, trust, skill, and wealth, among other things.
  8. Almost everything is both easier and harder than it looks. Easier in that getting started is doable for nearly anyone. Harder in that reaching a very high level takes an unreasonable amount of time and effort.
  9. Don’t be afraid to be wrong / dumb. Some people just care about sounding smart and being right, but the most successful people are willing to try weird things, take risks and occasionally look stupid in the short-term until they figure out a strategy that leads to massive long-term results.

Introducing Headlight

A Performance Hiring Platform

Editor’s note: Headlight was acquired by Woven in March of 2019.

In late 2017, I started a company called Headlight with my friend and former coworker Wayne Gerard. We’re building a performance hiring platform that helps employers screen candidates for their ability, not their pedigree.

What is Performance Hiring?

We believe that the best way to understand someone’s fit for a role is to study how they respond to scenarios related to the job. This is not a new concept — athletes try out for teams and teachers do mock lessons when interviewing for a new school — and yet in the workplace, many companies have done little to capitalize on this wisdom.

We’ve only just begun a long journey of making performance hiring a standard practice and today our product offering falls into three major areas: take-homes, technology, and tournaments.

Take-Homes

We‘ve built a small and growing library of work sample assessments, commonly known as “take-homes” that hiring managers can use to evaluate the technical ability of their candidates.

For instance, prospective engineers might be given an open-ended prompt and asked to develop a solution that meets key criteria — and explain the trade-offs they made along the way. Meanwhile, prospective product managers might be asked to build product plans and troubleshoot problems for a fictional but true-to-life consumer or B2B company.

Over time, we hope our take-home library becomes a trusted and continually refreshed resource for thoughtful, interesting, and well-developed challenges across a wide range of roles in tech and beyond.

Technology

We’ve built workflow tools that help hiring managers assign take-homes to candidates and evaluate their work in a fair and unbiased way.

By setting standardized time limits, explaining grading criteria upfront, and making evaluators blind to the name (and thus gender and ethnicity) of candidates, we’re helping companies get better signal and save time, and address many of the issues applicants have with take-homes as they exist today.

Today our customers are having far more productive onsite interviews (and fewer bad ones) and they’re saving 4–8 hours a month that they use to spend administering take-homes. There’s so much more we still want to do. For instance, grading assignments can be time-consuming—could we potentially evaluate take-homes on behalf of employers? We’ve started a pilot with one firm to see if this makes sense for us, the employer, and the candidate.

Tournaments

Finally, we are developing ways to help companies source fresh talent by running fun and competitive tournaments for specific roles and matching top finishers with interested employers.

We recently hosted the NYC Product Tournament, where 140 PMs registered to engage with a product challenge where they had to help a company with an innovative product get back on track after a failed pilot launch.

This was the premise:

NYC Product Tournament 2018 from Headlight on Vimeo.

Each competitor had three hours to come up with a product solution to fix the pilot and continue addressing the original market, or pursue a new opportunity.

We recruited a panel of design, engineering, product, and marketing judges, who reviewed each presentation and awarded prizes to top finishers and we’re currently introducing them to interested employers, while providing feedback for all participants so they can improve their skills.

We plan to bring these tournaments to other locations and other roles in the near future. This model can also be deployed inside a larger organization to help identify existing staff who have the potential to step into a new role.

Why this matters

Most leaders know that identifying and recruiting the right talent to their organizations is one of their toughest and most important responsibilities. And yet they know that the main tools we use today — resumes and unstructured interviews — offer weak, unreliable, and often biased signals to a candidate’s true abilities and potential.

But they continue to use these tools because they’re familiar and they create strong feelings of certainty (even if that certainty is misplaced). Michael Lewis wrote about dealing with this reality in Slate.

Ten years of grilling extremely tall people had reinforced in Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, the sense that he should resist the power of any face-to-face inter­action with some other person to influence his judgment. Job interviews were magic shows. He needed to fight whatever he felt during them — especially if he and everyone else in the room felt charmed.

Most leaders are hungry to recruit high performers to their organization. And despite the effort and investment these leaders make in recruiting and interviewing talent, successful organizations miss out on people with incredible potential all the time, while expending resources on people they had to pass on.

My favorite story is of Brian Acton, a Stanford CS grad and long-time engineering manager at Yahoo who got rejected by both Twitter and Facebook in 2009 before cofounding WhatsApp, the mobile messaging platform that sold for $19 billion in 2014.

Like the VCs who passed on Stitch Fix or Airbnb, this was a big miss for the hiring managers who passed on Brian. Could it be that their process didn’t allow him to really showcase his abilities? Brian was a white man from a brand name tech firm and top-ranked university—imagine all the incredible but less credentialed people who never even got a chance to show what they could do.

Change is possible

We don’t have to just throw our hands up and accept things the way they are. History has shown how organizations can successfully implement new and better ways of identifying talent and potential.

  • Google has been reducing their reliance on GPA and brain teasers to screen candidates since 2013 after former Chief People Officer Lazlo Bock acknowledged that they were poor predictors of who would succeed at the company.
  • Orchestras found that using a screen to conceal candidate gender during auditions lead to 30% increase in selecting a female musician. These blind auditions are what helped orchestras go from 6 percent women in 1970 to 21 percent women in 1993.
  • The analytics teams at the Oakland Athletics and the Houston Rockets have shown that a better, smarter model of human performance can be a decisive competitive advantage and sparking entire fields (i.e. Sabermetrics & APBRmetrics)

Better = more equitable

The systems and tools we’re developing not only help select the best candidates, but can help build more diverse and inclusive teams by removing some of the deeply ingrained biases we all carry.

For instance, research has shown that when Black and Asian-American job candidates “whitened” their resumes, they got 2x-2.5x more callbacks for an interview. Even for explicitly “pro-diversity” employers, the data found that changing their names to more American-sounding alternatives or removing ethnic information, candidates were more likely to be asked for an interview.

This is far from an academic exercise: both of us have parents who at one point used Anglicized versions of their name (Andyinstead of Anping and June instead of Junko) to seem less foreign and more approachable.

This sort of research led us to make evaluations on Headlight a name-blind process, removing one more variable that might unfairly impact a candidate’s chances. This is just one of the many ways, big and small, that we’re trying to improve the hiring process.

It’s not just business, it’s personal

In our own careers, we’ve seen how great hiring systems can lead to stronger teams, while careless or misguided ones can lead to discrimination, bad hires, and poor performance. We’ve also felt the sting of being passed over despite having the right abilities, because of a rigid and poorly developed process.

Look, we’re not trying to point fingers at anyone. Hiring great people is always going to be tough. We know most employers are trying to do the best they can with what they have—we just want to give them more.

Through Headlight, we hope to build a world that makes landing your next career opportunity a fascinating, rewarding, and equitable experience. A world where employers can more easily spot those diamonds in the rough, and where talented people are given an opportunity to truly shine.

If you want to partner with an organization to help you make more smarter and more deliberate hiring decisions — while reducing the time you spend managing the recruiting process, please get reach out. And if you want to help transform the way the world hires and finds meaningful employment, we’d love to work with you.

Book Notes on the Fuzzy and the Techie

A rebuttal to tech’s “STEM or die” mentality

I just finished Scott Hartley’s new book The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World. It is an inspiring read full of compelling stories and ideas about the rapidly evolving world around us.

The central thesis of the book is that instead pushing every last student to major in a STEM field, we need to recognize that the liberal arts provide a crucial human perspective in a world increasingly governed by machine algorithms.

As a venture capitalist who has served as a Presidential Innovation Fellow (we were part of the same round) and is a term member of the Council of Foreign Affairs, Hartley really covers the gamut in his book. From a founder who taught himself how to code and runs a law enforcement tech company to a charter school teacher using technology in novel ways to improve student outcomes to a military strategist applying human psychology to augment a threat warning system, we meet a cast of characters with degrees in philosophy, economics, political science, and other liberal arts majors, who are building or leveraging technology in important ways.

The end result is an expansive and inspiring look at how technology, when applied with consideration to how human beings think, feel, and behave, can be a powerful force for good. Hartley also takes on topics like the automation of jobs (in his view a smaller threat than many have argued), design ethics (where he largely advances the arguments made folks like Donald Norman and Tristan Harris), and the democratization of technology tools (where he touches on a litany of consumer tech tools and people who’ve used them, including his 71 year old dad!)

A couple other parts of the book I found interesting:

  • The clever and useful SMS-based messaging platform, Remind, that’s used by 35M students, teachers, and parents
  • How Hewlett Foundation used Kaggle, a platform for data science contests, to improve automated scoring of student essays
  • How Stitch Fix‘s founder Katrina Lake built a powerhouse team and a $250M business that uses machine learning to provide fashion recommendations
  • The McKinsey study on what jobs are at risk for automation which counters the larger numbers put up by the Oxford study
  • The task distinctions of routine/non-routine and manual/abstract (analytical vs interpersonal)

My own perspective on all of this is that college majors themselves no longer make sense. Though I hold two STEM degrees (a BS and MS in biology), my major did not grant me access to special knowledge or ability in understanding algorithms or building software. Nor do I think that an Art History or International Relations major has an exclusive claim to the critical “soft skills” that employers desire and that software programs need.

I think we should train / coach students to explicitly develop the knowledge, skills, and perspectives that are needed in the modern world. We need to give every graduate with both a firm understanding of the technologies and systems animate the world around us, and a nuanced appreciation for human needs, desires, biases, and behavior (both individuals and groups).

I’d prefer to see majors go away and instead have every graduate create and present a senior project as their ticket to graduate. My sense is that the institution of college may be too rigid to really embrace this attitude and so the somewhat artificial debate between STEM and Liberal Arts majors will rage on but perhaps a new model of education someday will bring it to light.

Ultimately, I found The Fuzzy and the Techie to be a grand tour of thoughtful people trying to use technology to improve human life. Hartley has seemingly crossed the globe to get first-hand interviews with key players in his book and is just as comfortable explaining international ocean disputes in Asia as he is describing the approach that Google engineers took to program AlphaGo. It will encourage those who might feel that “the tech world” is out of their reach and compiles a wealth of meaningful people, ideas, stories, and statistics for those concerned that our world is being overrun by computers.

Goodbye Etsy, Hello World

Leaving Etsy and Starting Something New

I joined Etsy in August of 2015, five months after the IPO. I had admired Etsy from afar for years and I was excited do product at an established, publicly-traded technology company after leaving a privately-held B2B software company.

Over the past two years, I’ve built products and features to support our global seller community of 1.7 million creative entrepreneurs. I helped launch a marketing / promotional tool called Shop Updates, oversaw a major rewrite of the system we use to assess listing and transaction fees, and introduced powerful new functionality for Sell on Etsy, our seller-facing iOS and Android app used by over half a million sellers every month. I also had the opportunity to present at our internal mobile summit, write a Code As Craft article about how Etsy manages development over the holidays, lead a lunch-and-learn about the history of our seller mobile app, do a design sprint around new seller experience, and organize a strengths-assessment program with my team leads.

I learned a ton at Etsy (a full post on that to come) and worked with incredibly talented, down-to-earth people who really cared about making functional and accessible products and services. I’m proud of the work we did together and grateful to have been their teammate.

In a pretty big shakeup at beginning of May, Etsy announced the immediate departure of CEO Chad Dickerson and resignation of CTO John Allspaw, as well as the elimination of 80 employees. Josh Silverman, a former eBay and American Express executive who had been on Etsy’s board since November, was named the new CEO and started the next day. This all happened on the same day that an activist hedge fund, Black and White Capital LP, announced they had acquired a 2 percent stake in Etsy’s stock and had been expressing concerns about its slowing revenue growth, poor shopping experience, and overly high expenses.

I was really sad to see the company let go of those 80 people, especially Chad, the CEO, whom I’ve developed tremendous respect for. I did however hope that this change would lead to sharpening the company’s focus on projects and initiatives that really mattered for Etsy’s business health.

During that time of transition, projects were being cancelled or put on pause, new initiatives (known internally as “the vital few“) emerged with a special focus on revenue growth, and teams were being shuffled around to staff these new initiatives. People and teams who were not part of The Vital Few were tended to float in a bit of a limbo, but overall, this seemed like a good step forward.

A week ago, Etsy announced a second round of layoffs, this time letting go of 140 employees, including me. Combined with the earlier layoff, this means Etsy has now cut about 22% of the global workforce since the beginning of 2017.

While I was a little disappointed, I was not surprised either.

Consider this: my manager, who had been at Etsy for 7 years, left for Airbnb not long after the new CEO started. After several months of planning on one project, I was re-routed to lead two different tracks of work, with a new team of engineers, designer, and engineering manager. A few weeks later, both those tracks of work put on pause or cancelled, and there was no direction from leadership on what we were to focus on next. Then the engineering manager on my team announced he was leaving Etsy.

So when the announcement came last Wednesday, I understood.

There were simply more product managers than there were projects, and those “vital few” initiatives were concentrated on search, marketing, and buyer growth. Having worked on the seller side my entire time at Etsy, I wasn’t in a place to make a big contribution. While part of me feels annoyed that my ability to contribute was not being recognized, I’ve been on the other side too, laying off the employees we hired at Ridejoy when we needed to dramatically change course. These decisions are gut-wrenchingly hard and I believe the leaders made the best decision they could with what they knew.

I’m hopeful that the New York tech community capitalizes on this special moment to bring numerous talented individuals into new roles at the many tech orgs in the city (and of course I wish the same for the remote and international Etsy employees who were let go). I can’t wait to see what all our alumni go off and do. I believe there is still a lot of opportunity for Etsy and I hope the team that remains takes advantage of Etsy’s unique market position to strengthen and grow the core business, find new buyers, and support our sellers.

As for me, I’m using this as an opportunity to tackle an area I’ve been interested in for a long time: talent assessment, with a focus on tech hiring). I’m also developing a program to help people be more excellent at what they do and exploring some part-time product and marketing consulting work.

Stay tuned and don’t hesitate to reach out!