Archive for October, 2007

I read a lot when I was younger. I know people who still read religiously, and they, of course, have read more than me. Reading really changed my life though. It is one of the few things I can honestly say did. Most of my life would’ve happened anyway. I’m wired a certain way. But the way I see the world was changed by books. I think about them all the time. They are my story when my life has no parallel.

I think of Ivan’s “Everything is lawful” speech in the Brother’s Karamazov, the morality play in Crime and Punishment. I think of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra…..with the concept of Will to Power, and the famous “God is Dead” passage. I remember Ayn Rand and the harsh but inspiring concepts of Objectivism. I remember the book of Luke in the Bible and the soaring visions of the Sermon on the Mount. I remember Herman Hesse….I read alot of his books: Narcissus and Goldmund, The Glass Bead Game, Siddhartha….the duality of human nature. There were those inspiring little books like Johnathan Livingston Seagull, The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. Steinback…the tragedy of the Grapes of Wrath, and the struggle of good, evil, and an individiual’s destiny in East of Eden. I read Dickens, Twain, lots more Dostoevsky. The tragedy and passion in Anna Karenina, the scope of War and Peace. Two that hit really close to home for me were The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde and The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad…everyone has their demons. Candide by Voltaire is one of the finest books ever written…period…and its also really funny, which is something I can’t say about many other great books. Except for Catch-22 by Joseph Heller…shit. That was funny and true, and tragic all at the same time. Vengeance and Hate…they never look as beautiful as in The Count of Monte Cristo. I read Machiavelli, Plato, Shakespeare…ok. That’s enough I suppose. My memory has run out…even if the effect of those books on me has not….doesn’t matter that I can’t remember them.

The point is that with a set of maybe less than 50 books, most available for under $10 apiece as Barnes and Noble Classics, I literally changed my life. I used to read them, and think I’d re-invented the world…only to read another book and find someone else had already thought it before. I took small solace in the fact that I would come up with the ideas and then read them a year later in some other book. I searched for some idea that was mine and mine alone….but I think not. I just haven’t read the right book yet. Its all out there.

Anyway, these books shape my thoughts…they allow me to live a life that I will never live. They allow me to experience tragedy, loss, crime, hate, vengeance, love, evil, and every other range of emotion…without ever having to do it myself. It enriches my life.

A note too about writing:

With a decade of writing under my belt I start to shape my world by my own previous comments. In this case I have said, “NASA can send a man to the moon….only a book can send a plumber.” I actually didn’t say that…but I did say something similar.

Writing is useful in framing your world, just as reading is useful in shaping worlds that you haven’t visited yet, but soon might.

This is a true story: Someone once asked me how to make the world a better place. My reply: Read a book.


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I went to my 5 year MBA school reunion this weekend in Columbia. I hadn’t seen many of them since graduating, although I knew more or less what folks were doing.

Graduate school isn’t like high school or even college. People don’t get fat. People don’t look significantly older. People don’t change much/any. They are doing largely what they said they wanted to do when we graduated.

No one was really a surprise. I guess we were all adults when we started….we were the weight we were going to be….our personalities were already largely developed…we already knew what we wanted. Some people had recently had kids….still, they were the same.

They were not any less fun than I remembered. They still drank and laughed and hadn’t become too serious. They were responsible, yet relaxed. Those who had significant others with them had picked someone who allowed them to act just as they had when they were single. No one had toned it down to please the opposite sex.

One person was a little off, but she was off even when we went to school…nothing really different.

What I really learned is that I can’t drink like I used to. I can still put them away w/o getting drunk…but I am worthless the next day. I don’t get hangovers much, and that is still true. I just get tired, and useless.

I did it up on Friday, as the business school picked up the entire group ‘s (20+ alumni) bar tab. We drank for about 6 hours. I can’t imagine how much it was. On the flip side I can imagine how much money we gave the school for the degree.  I should’ve drunk more.
I started drinking again on Saturday in the morning for the football game (like you’re supposed to)….and I ended up falling asleep in a fold-up chair watching TV. After a quick nap I was up again, and drinking….but I got tired again, and thankfully the game was over and I had to go back to the hotel to change for dinner. I took a nap (again) and was about an hour late. Everyone else was too (maybe they’re all having the same problem I am?)….so I ate a yummy dinner and had a good time talking to Victor and Maria.

Then we went to some bar next door. My steak and cheesecake were sitting heavy on my stomach, and I decided I couldn’t hack it….back to the hotel and I was asleep before my head hit the pillow. That’s pathetic.

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I added a twitter widget to my sidebar.  I think the concept is interesting.  Its not enough to have email, or a blog, or telephone #, or RSS….now there is a way to feed your whole life….every mood, every action.  The next step would a webcam that streams a picture of my room to the website at all times.  Ever see that movie Ed TV?

The final step would be to steam your entire day…..actually, there is a guy that wears a webcam around his neck at all times and is basically broadcasting his whole life….like the Truman Show.  Justin.TV is designed specifically for that.

I like the blog so I can write; however, all this connectivity makes me wonder how far it can/should go.  Sometimes I wonder too whether it is altering us in some way; actually, in this case not so much altering as reflecting changes already happening.

The reported rise in Autism Spectrum Disorders makes me think.  For the past 100 or so years society has really rewarded “systemizers”.  These are people that see patterns well, are accurate (like a computer), and task focused.  On the flip side, they miss social cues, obsess on insignificant details, and are unable to form meaningful (from a normal point of view) relationships.

I know that in basically 2 or 3 generations you wouldn’t expect to see natural selection at work…but maybe it does work that fast, or at least fast enough for us to see the uptick in “systemizer” disorders.

For a systemizer, something like twitter would be a way to interact.  It could really replace human interaction based on their rules.

There are other explanations too…like 30 seconds of fame, a genuine desire to keep friends/family apprised of what you’re doing, or even “I would’ve done it before if it were technologically possible”.  I think a combination of all that is the likely explanation….there are too many people interested in micro-feeds (twitter-like apps) for them to all be systemizers.

Regadless, the term “disorder” to refer to over-systemizers is interesting…because there are a number of folks with Aspergers and other Autism spectrum disorders that are saying, “We don’t have a disorder.  We don’t need to be treated.  We’re just different from other people.”

Its true but odd.  They live fine.  They just don’t relate in a “normal” way to other people.

I could envision a future full of systemizers where all people interacted transactionally….there would be no Aspergers, or other “non-emotive” disorders…because everyone would be on board.  Those with disorders would be the “emotives”…..people who were overly sensitive or obsessed on insignificant social cues that didn’t affect the overall outcomes…people who were “dumb” (which means they were unable to see obvious patterns, and were prone to inaccuracies).

Why can’t you have both?  Why can’t you be emotive and systemize?  I suspect its a trade off brain wise.  Not everything can have the driver’s seat.  The brain is metabolically very costly (consumes 20% of our energy).  If you focus that 20% on systemizing…you’ve got a lot of resources at your disposal…however; you can’t do both, as it would require a rework of the brain circuitry to pay attention to more things and require you to consume even more energy.

I read recently the “smart” people aren’t those who are better able to remember things, but those who are better able to forget.  They have basically the same resources at their disposal (a brain with a 100 billion plus neurons) as “dumber” people, but they are better able to forget the non-significant and remember what they need to:  ie.  they focus on the important stuff.

What’s important?  Well…that depends.  If you’re a systemizer, then details and patterns are important.  If you’re an emotive, then people are important.  It depends in which direction you want to wield your metabolically costly, 100 billion neuron brain.

What about my brain?  Hehehehehe.  I am an emotive systemizer.  I do have a special talent for being right in the middle…but that does mean that I am annoying to both the systemizers and the emotives as I’m not enough of either for them to totally identify with me.

There is actually a researcher (Simon Baron-Cohen) who divides the world between systemizers and emotives (he calls them empathizers) as well.  I don’t know the guy but I bet he’s a lot like me.

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Making goals and working towards them is good right? Everyone says so. It is true that the goal oriented “get” more than others…that makes sense. Purposefully going in a direction will more likely get you in that direction that not trying at all. You’ll never accidentally end up with exactly what you’ve always wanted…right?

Well….maybe. It depends on where you want to go. Ever hear “You’re never lost if you don’t care where you are going.”? Travellers used to say that, and it worked quite well for me in those days.

I rarely fretted over how to tackle a new city; I didn’t worry whether I would see everything. In fact, a lot of times I didn’t try to see anything at all. In Paris, it is true I made a point to see the Louvre. But in Valencia, for instance, what exactly do you need to see? Most cities are more like Valencia than Paris.

I usually ate, and drank some coffee and when I felt good I would start walking and talk to people when they looked interesting. I didn’t miss anything in Valencia, because I never knew what there was to see. I just walked down a street and when it ceased to interest me I would turn and go down another street. Years later someone would ask, “Did you see La Catedral de Valencia while you were there?” My reply: “I don’t know. Show me a picture.” I haven’t the slightest idea what I saw and what I didn’t….although I likely saw alot (or maybe not).

So that is one extreme: The “you’re never lost if you don’t care where you’re going” camp.

The other extreme is: A goal achieved necessitates another goal planned….otherwise you have no goals. Ever read the myth of Sisyphus?

That’s the common wisdom: 1) State your goal to everyone that will listen, 2) make a detailed plan with a timeline including beginning, middle, and especially an end, 3) have short term achievable milestones that can be measured, and 4) find people to hold you accountable.

So I did that when I started the corporate life. I said I wanted to work in this Talent/HR Effectiveness consulting group. I told everyone, even the people I currently work with….which was weird to tell you boss and boss’s boss that you don’t really want to do what you’re doing…..but still, I didn’t care. I had a GOAL (which is what I’m supposed to have right?).

I slowly worked toward it, meeting everyone I could in consulting, asking them what kind of experience would help me, asking their story, trying to stay abreast of the business, learning when jobs came open, meeting the right HR people. I didn’t meet my original timeline, nor the next one…but I kept at it.

It is frustrating when most of it was out of my control: I can’t make positions open; I can’t make myself more qualified than the other candidates (since I can’t control what experience they have). In my current role I couldn’t get relevant experience (since the two businesses do very different things). I also cannot go outside the company to get the experience (if they won’t hire me within the company to do it where I know people and have a proven track record, what would make another company hire me without those things?). I was basically asking for a special favor (and businesses don’t often give out favors).

Regardless, I know how goals work. If you stick with them long enough, keep doing something/anything to move towards them, and are sincere in your efforts……something will happen.

And it did. After 3.5 years…..I caught a break. In January I’ll be transferring internally to work in consulting. The story of exactly how it happened after 3.5 years is actually a really good one…but I’ll save it for later, since that isn’t what this post is about.

Very, very few people have made the transition from what I do now (sort of tech project mgt) to HR Effectiveness consulting. Its like being a water treatment expert and wanting to move into politics. Not a logical jump. I had a lot working against me, and pretty much only persistence working for me. Also, I can’t recall ever having a stated goal like this and then it taking so long to achieve.

It should be all the sweeter then right? I overcame signficant obstacles. I’ve been wanting it for a long time. I got a little lucky. I get on a long term career path I think will suit me better.

Uhh…no. Actually, I don’t feel all that much better or different. I feel a bit anxious now that I have to “put up or shut up” so to speak. A lot of people stuck their necks out to get me the job over others who were probably more qualified on paper. I have to return to the bottom of the totem pole, which means working long hours, and getting all the shitty work. I didn’t really get a raise. It was a lateral move in that respect.

I also don’t think I will be any happier in a year or maybe even two. I might be a little happier; however, I could never be sure as I don’t know how happy I would’ve been had I stayed in the other job (I don’t know what the opportunity cost is). I think I will work with some smarter people (smarter in the way I want; I work with smart people now too.) and eventually do more interesting work, but again…there is no way for me to know the opportunity cost of what I left. My new line of business isn’t growing as fast as the one I’m in currently, so there won’t be as many promotional opportunities in my new job…..but its a great transferable skill to be in front of clients and have billable hours (you go from a cost to a profit center).

In short, there are some good things about it….and some bad things. That’s no different than life at most any juncture.

So what good is it to constantly struggle to achieve a goal if it makes you no better off? Well, it does sort of make me better off…in some ways…but what it doesn’t make me is any happier, or any more satisfied. And isn’t that what you’re aiming towards? I think it is.

When people say, “Yeah, but what good is your new car?” even if you answer something vacant like “It will get me hot women,”…the next question is “Ok, why do you want hot women?”…then you can say, “Because it’ll make me look cool (or whatever you want to answer),” then the next question is “Why do you want to look cool?”….the answer is “Because it makes me happy or more satisfied.” Happiness, contentment, satisfaction is at the root of most of your motivations (that don’t have to do with basic needs of food, shelther, etc.).

Happiness is a strange thing though. Everyone knows that I have a fascination with Happiness. I put it in capitals because I mean happiness as a science. My fascination stems from the knowledge that my life is pretty darn good, yet I seem unable to be happy with it….whatever “happy” might mean to me (which I’m not so sure about anymore….maybe I AM happy?). I think I can safely say I know as much about the study of Happiness as all but those who actually do research on it (psychologists, economists, sociologists, etc).

Happiness is circular in many cases. If you think a cool car will make you happy, then it likely will. It doesn’t matter that your motivations are shallow or even incorrect. It is a brain trick. Happiness is whatever you can tell yourself you’re happy with. Otherwise you’re on the hedonic treadmill and always keeping up with the Joneses.

Achievement is the hedonic treadmill. It is Sisyphus pushing his rock.

Humans acclimate very, very quickly to a change in circumstances. On the downside we don’t appreciate our ever improving lives (or even winning the lottery). On the upside, those who are crippled or blinded in adulthood quickly return to their previous average happiness level. Again on the downside, though we don’t really appreciate the incremental improvements all that much, we do become stressed by constant un-improvements.

So what did I enjoy over the last 3.5 years? I enjoyed being good at my job (my current one which I will no longer have). I enjoyed some of the people I worked with (who I will be leaving). I enjoyed playing tennis. I enjoyed food, music, and doing things with my friends. I like ice cream and cheesecake. I like my computer. I like singing.

So is there a point here? Yeah, a little bit.

I remember someone asked me one time in an interview, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” (yes, apparently people really do ask that question).

I said, “I don’t believe in 5 years plans because I don’t think anyone can plan that well. Life has too many variables You limit yourself by focusing too much on one outcome and disregarding other opportunities that may be beneficial.”

He replied, “Do you not have goals then?”

(Of course I did have goals, but that isn’t what I answered.) I said, “I believe in heuristics. Life is more like chess than an engineering project. In chess you know your end game…its checkmate. But when you start the game, you don’t know how you’re going to get there. You make a few moves, and then do whatever is best from that spot based on your rules of thumb: control the middle of the board, attack pinned pieces, don’t attack early with your queen, etc. Life is like that….identify a few useful rules that work for you, and stick with them….always re-evaluating where you are currently based on those rules.”

I repeat the answer now because I think it is the right one: Forget about your long term goals. You will achieve them (and be no happier) or you will not achieve them (and be stressed by your failure). Better to focus on what you like, and what you’re good at….then do more of that. The rest will take care of itself.

Ok, enough of that. I have said all these things before and yet I still make goals, maybe because it makes life more interesting even if not more satisfying. It is also empowering to think I have a say in my future. It will not, however, make me any happier.

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Today I went to the bathroom to take a dump.  I thought back over the previous three and a half years I have worked in this building.  I have never seen a stopped up toilet here…ever.  How is that possible?  Toilets get stopped up.  It is a fact of life. 

The toilets here are the same as in other commercial buildings, bars, and restaurants.  It cannot be that these toilets get stopped up less than other toilets due to design or plumbing.

Also, I do not think that these toilets see less traffic.  In fact, due to the number of people I know work here and the fact that they are here all day (as opposed to a few hours for restaurtants, bars, shops, etc), I think these toilets see more traffic than most toilets that I see stopped up occasionally.

I do not think it is the case that these corporate toilets do get stopped up as often as other toilets in high traffic buildings…just that the maintenance crew cleans them up before I actually get to see the mess.  I would say toilets are paid more attention in bars, restaurants, shops, gas stations (unless you’re at the “lone highway” truckstop in the middle of nowhere.  These toilets are stopped up because people don’t care.  I think these types of gas stations are outliers.).  People who run restaurants, shops, and bars know that the toilets tend to get stopped up and check them often since an unusable toilet may mean a non-repeat customer.  For a corporate toilet, we have to use it everyday.  We have no choice.

I don’t think its that you eat or drink at other establishments (and so that causes messier toilets since your digestive system is involved).  People eat often before coming to work (both at breakfast and lunch).  They don’t drink before coming to work, but that really only causes puking, and so isn’t useful for other means of toilet blockage.

I also do not believe, and so am ruling out, other scenarios…like perhaps people are cleaning up their own mess in the corporate bathrooms, or that they call maintenance right after it happens because they are so conscientious.  I don’t think so.

I am left with only one plausible scenario:  Corporate employees are “better” shitters.  They do not stop up toilets.  They do not puke in toilets.  They do not use too much toilet tissue.  At least they don’t do so with the frequency of the people that habit the other establishments.

I am not really attempting to make a value judgment.  I can’t think of a great, compelling reason why corporate employees would be cleaner toilet users.  I’m not going to comment on the “why”s, just that this is the hypothesis that best meets the observed facts.

Perhaps its just at my company?  I don’t have the data for other companies.  Maybe if corporate employees went to other public restrooms they would be poor toilet users (that doesn’t sound right though)?  Do employees of private companies differ in any way in their toilet use (perhaps they are even better, although its hard to be a 3.5 year run of perfect)?  Anyway, the experiments needed to confirm my hypothesis are impossible to run and wasteful since it really doesn’t matter, but it is interesting.

I came to the conclusion that corporate employees are better shitters simply because I can’t think of any other conclusion that fits better.  Can you?

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