Don’t Worry, Be Happy

I Worry, Therefor I Am

Our brain is a simulator for experience. Try to imagine the taste of liver and onion ice-cream. I can guess the face of disgust you’ve just made. Have you ever tried any? You haven’t. Yet you know it is a terrible idea. You can simulate the taste in your mind.

We don’t drive the simulator*. It just buzzes in our heads. In many situations, it breaks down. So we skip ahead to the first thing that comes to mind. And we convince ourselves we were so clever.

*In Soviet Russia, the simulator drives you.

The BigCo Fallacy

After a few years at BigCo, I’ve managed to earn the title of a free electron. As a free agent, untied to any particular project, I was allowed to choose what I want spend my time on. That’s a sweet job if ever you can get any.

Anyway, convinced I can single handedly code BigCo into greatness, I’ve decided to build a framework for data visualization. Clients were really hot after this type of feature, yet almost none of our products had any visualization. It just wasn’t on the road-map for any of the upcoming releases. If no one has time to develop this, I thought, I should do it. For four months I coded at my desk, testing and documenting a generic framework for a feature nobody asked for. In order to increase chances of adoption, I focused on ease of integration. If it’ll be easy enough to use, wouldn’t they just add it to the next release as a bonus? And it really was easy. You could literally integrate with it and get it working in ten minutes or so.

So, I started showing it to people. A lot of them were very excited. One project manager listed visualization as a feature, until the project missed a milestone and the feature was cut out. With a couple product managers I’ve built demos for use cases, but couldn’t get them to document their excitement as features. This happened a few times and, finally, I abandoned the framework.

A few months ago, I got a phone call from someone in BigCo. Two years after I wrote it, my little framework finally made it to production.

The moral of the story is that we can’t predict the future. We waste a lot of mental capacity worrying about the future, but usually we’re really bad at predicting it.

The Pursuit Of Happiness

There is nothing stopping us from being happy, if we choose to be. Happiness is not a game of outcomes. It’s a game of process. Apparently, there are two types of happiness:

  • Natural Happiness, when we get what we wanted and
  • Synthetic Happiness, when we don’t.

Our society tries to convince us Natural Happiness is more real, but in fact research shows Synthetic Happiness is just as real and enduring. This short talk by Dan Gilbert, changed my perspective about life. It caused me to completely change how I look at decisions.

The Influence Of Decision Making

A few tips for predicting the future and staying sane:

  • You are overestimating – in many cases, the difference between outcomes of a decision are smaller than you imagine. Your mind is geared for life-and-death situations. Run-or-fight. Modern life, not so much.
  • Limit choices – the more options you have, the more likely it is that you’ll stall the decision. Having more options doesn’t make you happy. It makes you frustrated. Since outcomes are not critical for your (psychological) well being, limit choices as often and as soon as you can.
  • Decisions are temporary (but action speaks volume) – once you have made up your mind, don’t second guess. Act. When you wait, you learn nothing. When you act, you learn plenty. Correct your course when new information comes in.
  • Focus on what doesn’t change – the long run is what matters. 37 signals said it best: focus on what doesn’t change. You may be unhappy with your job in half a year, but at no point will you ever be sorry for not having cancer. Focus on the constants (work out, eat healthier, earn enough but don’t fret about optimizations).
  • Don’t worry, be happy

Bonus Track

Bobby McFerrin, singer of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, demonstrates the power of expectation.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Muscle Memory

There’s an old story about a boy who could fly. He just could, ever since he was little, and it was no big deal. One day, a scientist heard of the boy that flies. Quickly he packed his things and rushed over to the remote village to see the wonder with his own eyes. This is incredible, thought the scientist, if only I could understand how he does it!

So, the next day, the scientist approached the boy in the field. “Excuse me,” called the scientist to the boy, who was floating about 12 feet above ground. The boy floated down to earth and stood next to the scientist. “Can you tell me how you do this?” asked the scientist. The boy said he doesn’t know, he was always able to fly and it was no big deal. “But it is a big deal!” said the scientist, “you must think. When you lift off, what exactly do you do with your feet? Do you jump? Explain it to me, please.”

The boy thought about it. He tried lifting one leg, and then the other, but that didn’t feel quite right. He then tried to jump, but he couldn’t jump higher than a few inches. It wasn’t how he used to fly. Only now the boy couldn’t stop thinking about how he did it.

The boy was never able to fly again.

It’s Like Riding A Bike

After working in a place for a few years, it becomes part of who you are. Your body remembers the place. It remembers the shortest way to the cafeteria (and the longest way as well). It remembers how to get to the conference room or the bathroom or the cafeteria. It knows to avoid the loose tile in the lobby and the trashcan that keeps the emergency exit from closing. It does all this so that you don’t have to. Your muscles remember so your brain can think of something else.

Muscle memory is short termed and highly adaptable. Your muscles get tuned to any repeated activity, but they have limited capacity. If you change your habits, even for a few weeks, you lose it. What was second nature needs to be relearned.

Information Overwhelming

I went back to visit BigCo this week. It has almost been a year since I stopped working there. It doesn’t feel that long. A lot of the memories are still vivid in my mind. After all, I was there for five and a half years. This is the hallway I used every day to get to my office. Here are the people I’ve sat in boring meetings with. Oh, and there’s an old friend I used to go to lunch with. Nothing is new, but everything is different.

Something happened. I’m now an outsider. My brain is now busy dissecting the environment. Little things are different. A photo on the wall was replaced. The loose tile is no longer loose. Offices were shifted around.

People are still busy, still troubled by the same things. Project Titanic is too big and will miss the deadline once again. Project Awesome just shipped a second version. There’s still a lot of talk about how bad management is and how hard it is to retain employees without bonuses. There’s still a group of dedicated individuals who work 20 hours a day and another that drop the pen at five sharp and head home. I know all of this. I was here for so long. Yet it is alien to me.

“Living here day by day, you think it’s the center of the world. You believe nothing will ever change. Then you leave: a year, two years. When you come back, everything’s changed. The thread’s broken. What you came to find isn’t there. What was yours is gone. You have to go away for a long time… many years… before you can come back and find your people. The land where you were born. But now, no. It’s not possible. Right now you’re blinder than I am.”

- Alfredo, Nuovo Cinema Paradiso

You were my people for very long. I had to step back to notice how fast things change. I am delighted to see that projects we’ve dreamed together are now reality. Thank you.

Social Media Vs Social Commitment

If a million people join this group, it will have a million people in it

It’s easy to start a group on Facebook. It’s easy to join. But does your group have meaning? Does it move people to action? Opening a new group is easy, creating a movement is hard. Creating a movement requires commitment.

Most people are afraid of failing. Some think they will lose the respect of their friends and families. Some can’t risk the financial costs. So we need validation from the group for everything. That’s why most Facebook groups use weak language. The creators don’t want to link their reputation too tightly with the failure to achieve the goal.

If X people will join, Y will happen – the creators of these groups leave themselves a nice exit route. If X doesn’t happen, we’re off the hook. We don’t promise to do anything. Oh, and we really don’t have much contorl over Y either, we just kind of hope Y will listen.

Example: If 100,000 people join this group, Nike will stop child labor in China. The language sends a message, and the message is: we’re not serious about child labor. Instead, try Help us stop Nike from using child labor in China. Now we have to be active. Now we are about change. Now we have started a movement.

What’s in a movement?

There’s a video going around the internet about a guy dancing at some music festival. This video is used as a perfect metaphor for a movement in three minutes. It depicts all the stages of a movement, from inception to full blossom.

  1. The Leader – every movement needs a leader. The leader is not afraid to stick out, to be different, to do what he believes even if he has to do it alone.
  2. The True Fans – the first to join the leaders are true fans. They believe in the movement, they just aren’t willing to take the risks. The risk of no-one joining. The risk of failing. They are not alone. They have a leader. This is very important. We’re not all fit to be leaders. If you believe in something, find who else does, and join them. You don’t have to open a new movement to make change.
  3. The Tipping Point – notice what happens after the third guy joins in. This is the tipping point, the critical mass. This is the point where change begins. Suddenly, there’s enough energy in the movement to challenge the status-quo, to be noticed.
  4. Change Complete – as more and more people join in, it becomes riskier not to join. As change builds, which were once the heretics are now the in-crowd, and those still sitting on the sidelines are conservatives, holding on to a fading life-style.

Notes from the trenches

In 2008 a group called Improv Everywhere created an event in New York’s Grand Central Station. The 200 or so participants of the event froze in place for five minutes in the midst of one of the busiest places on earth.

The video was so powerful it attracted many followers. In fact, there were over 70 similar events worldwide. I was lucky enough to help with the organization of the event in Tel Aviv (shameless plug). We weren’t the only group in Israel trying to create such an event. Why were we the only ones to succeed?

  • We made decisions. When you lead a tribe, there’s always a chance people won’t like your decisions. Do you take a risk and alienate some people? Do you put everything to voting? In a lot of groups, everything was up for vote and consensus was a must. Most of them couldn’t even choose a date. In our group, we’ve set the date up front. Even if your tribe is a democracy, the tribe elects a leader that has the power to make decisions in the name of the group.
  • We inspired confidence in the tribe. We had to communicate to the tribe that the event will take place as planned, and it will be a huge success. Once we earned the confidence of the first true fans, the tribe grew organically.
  • We engaged and empowered the tribe. Participants were asked to do whatever they could to improve the event. We asked them to bring friends. We ignited their imagination. We accepted their suggestions. We joined forces with others who wanted to help. We kept going until due date, and we came back to the group and published the results after the event.

The Tribes We Lead

We are bombarded with a contradictory message: You are unique, just like everybody else. We are supposed to express our uniqueness by buying branded shoes. We are supposed to wear our own style, as long as it’s skinny jeans. Brands spend billions shouting at people who don’t listen. They try to be noticed even though we don’t care. A lot of us go for it. It’s easy to be part a movement when someone else tells you what to do.

That’s OK. Most of us aren’t built to lead a tribe. Think about it. If we were all leaders, who would we lead? A tribe has leadership and followers. Followers don’t have to be passive. We can be passionate and active. We can recruit our friends. We can organize events. We will take risks for the cause.

We don’t need millions to create change. If we are a thousands active fans, we can reach a hundred thousand people, easy. Maybe even a million. That’s a lot of power, a lot of awareness, a lot of movement. In order to lead, find followers who are passionate and create a platform for them to spread the word.

Help us realize we can be part of a tribe that believes in something more than skinny jeans and branded shoes. Don’t be afraid. We need you to lead us. It is easy for us to find you, now more than ever. We are looking for you. We are connected. We want to help. We just need you to empower us.

Some Are More Equal Than Others

Same Basic Design, Novel Use

We are not as unique as we believe. The human mind is not a blank slate. The way we think and behave has a lot to do with our primal ancestors. A lot of what is commonly argued to be a human trait can be found in other animals as well. At most, we can claim to use the same basic principals, and take them to the extreme.

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others – Animal Farm

We are not the only species that goes to war to protect our territory. We are the only species who go to war to protect our ideology. We are not the only species with understanding of self and other. We are the only species that can understand multiple levels of other (“I know you know that I know he knows about…”). We are not the only species who practice Tit-For-Tat. We are the only species who understand the difference between the means and the end.

There is a lot we can learn from other species about ourselves.

Understanding The Dopamine High

Dopamine is

closely associated with reward-seeking behaviors, such as approach, consumption, and addiction. Recent researches suggest that the firing of dopaminergic neurons is a motivational substance as a consequence of reward-anticipation. This hypothesis is based on the evidence that, when a reward is greater than expected, the firing of certain dopaminergic neurons increases, which consequently increases desire or motivation towards the reward.

Or, in laymen terms, Dopamine what the brain pumps when it is anticipating reward. This is not unique to humans. What is uniquely human is the extent they can hold the Dopamine high. We can hold on to our dreams for years.

You work hard to get good grades, so you can get into a good university, so you can get a good job, so you can retire to the nursing home of your choice.

The Nursing Home Of My Choice

I'm With Stupid

I am a very competitive person, but I only compete with one person. Myself. In fifty years, I’ll be old and wrinkled. And I’ll smell of cabbages. There’s nothing I can do to stop it from happening. Nobody can (although, some try). One afternoon, as I sit in my rocking chair, wishing my grandchildren will holo-visit me more often, I’ll look back on my life, and what I have accomplished.

Although there is only one of me now, there are many possible outcomes to my life. There’s Lonely Wolf who never gets married. There’s Lucky SOB with millions of dollars in the bank. There are also Family Man, Poor SOB, Happy Hippo, Fat Bastard, and a lot more. Every choice I make moves me closer to one of these.

In my head, I hold dear to one of these old geezers, and I try to aim there. He is my competition, as he will have succeeded in everything I do, even though I will probably not. I don’t mind. I need a target to aim at.

Although my motivational source is very personal, I realize it’s easier to stay motivated by sharing stories with other. That’s why I was so happy to sit with a few entrepreneurs for a fascinating dinner, something I hope doing again. That’s why I’m writing here.

In It For The Long Run

One last point.

Our days are cluttered. We have too much work, too much dept, too many commitments and responsibilities. Keeping the target far in the future forces me to stop every once in a while, raise my head above the water and look ahead. I’ve learned this moment of self-awareness can do wonders for your sanity.

The Unseen History

The Black Swan Exists!

For a long time it was believed that all swans are white, at least in the western world. This, of course, was disproved with the discovery of the black swan (an ugly duckling, if there ever was one) in Australia.

Years later, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote the book by the same name, where he coined the metaphor of The Black Swan . A metaphor for unpredictable events. In his book, Taleb takes us through a series of anecdotes and examples of how our minds fail us (over and over again).

Seeking Positive Reassurance

One of the most common problems I have encountered is the search for positive reassurance and confirmation. We’re all lonely when we look in the mirror. We all have doubts and fears, because our future is unknown to us. Entrepreneurs, more than other people, have a tendency towards bigger risks and rewards. We lead our life expecting a black swan event (the IPO, the exit, big money and respect).

Most of us will fail. Some of us will fail multiple times. Only a small portion of us will ever make it. I’ve heard many statistics (1 in10,000 start-ups success, 1 in 10 funded start-ups succeed, etc.), but I don’t have any sources for these rumors (help welcomed). With such abysmal odds, there’s no wonder we seek confirmation. The problem, Taleb explains, is that we are, by nature, terrible at statistics and generalizations of extreme odds.

When filling a lottery ticket, most people can’t evaluate the difference between 1 in a 1000 chance of winning to one in a million. For the average Joe, they both seem just as likely. After all, we’ve all heard of lottery winners, right? So it must be possible to win, and the average Joe spends more on tickets than he’ll ever gain.

I do the same thing. I read blogs about start-ups, by Venture Capitals and Founders, successful people that share their wisdom. It was only when I’ve read The Black Swan that I realized I’m only looking at the visible history of entrepreneurship.

The History Unseen

The Unseen History is the story of failed start-ups and entrepreneurs. For reasons that should by now be obvious, these stories get much less attention than the successes. It is the same as you would never hear on the news the story of a guy who drove to work without having an accident. This is why I’m sharing my experiences in near real-time, because it’s rare to understand how things seem as they go along.

I’ll give you an example. Imagine you are going to MIT Bootcamp, where you will hear many (many!) success stories of young entrepreneurs who got magnificent deals from Sequoia and now have millions of users waiting in line to pay them large sums of money. Almost everyone on stage will try to stress how much hard work and effort is required, and how much doubt and frustration they have felt, while working on the product. They will all fail.

What the audience sees is two slides:

Programming in underwear


Huge piles of money

Million Dollar Baby

The audience can’t feel the frustration or see the passage of time. There are only two slides, and not enough story between them. In a twenty minute talk, the only take away seems to be:

  1. If I work very hard, then
  2. Huge piles of money

Just as a year ago:

  1. Real estate prices keep going up for a long time, so
  2. It’s a good idea to buy a house

The First Time Is Always Painful

While our new startup keeps making progress (prototype is working! first paying customer! a seasoned no-bullshit guy for our advisory board!), there are still many things on the roadmap. We’re talking with many potential customers. We are looking for a strategic investor to help us raise the seed capital we require. We plan to add employees #3 and beyond. Problem is, I don’t know how well (or ill) I’m doing. There is no scale, no measure, and no score card.

The average VC sees about a thousand entrepreneurs a year, but closes on ten deals. I have only one startup. I know I’m not #1 yet. I’m desperate to know if I’m #11 or #50 or #500 or last. Have I moved a few steps up this week? Am I closer to great success? I’m probably not supposed to think about it in these terms, but I can’t help myself.

  1. People compare themselves all the time, so
  2. Everything is a competition

So now I’m programming in my underwear, and on my way to huge piles of money. If you, like me, need someone to compare yourself to, you can compare yourself to me. In real time.