On Marc Andreessen’s Plan to Win the Future

Tad Friend, writing in The New Yorker, pens a fascinating profile of the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (and the firm which he co-founded and is currently a general partner, a16z). A representative snippet of the man:

Something of the transporter beam clings to Andreessen, a sense that he just rematerialized from a city on the edge of forever. He’s not great at the basics of daily life: directions confound him, because roadways aren’t logical, and he’s so absent-minded about sunglasses that he keeps a “reload station” with nine pairs on his hall table. Perhaps Edison haunts his conversation because Andreessen is a fellow-tinkerer, except that his gadgets are systems and platforms, and his workshop is his own mind. He regularly reprograms his appearance and deportment—his user interface—to suit his present role, and friends refer to chapters in his life as versions of an operating system: “Marc 1.0,” “Marc 2.0,” and so on. A charismatic introvert, Andreessen draws people in but doesn’t really want them around. Though he has a crisp sense of humor, it’s rarely deployed at his own expense. He hates being complimented, looked at, or embraced, and has toyed with the idea of wearing a T-shirt that says “No hugging, no touching.” He doesn’t grasp the protocols of social chitchat, and prefers getting a memo to which he can e-mail a response, typing at a hundred and forty words a minute. He didn’t attend Netscape’s twentieth-anniversary celebration, because it combined two things from which he recoils: parties and reminiscing.

Curious what would have become of Facebook if it weren’t for Marc’s advice to Mark Zuckerberg:

In 2006, Yahoo! offered to buy Facebook for a billion dollars, and Accel Partners, Facebook’s lead investor, urged Mark Zuckerberg to accept. Andreessen said, “Every single person involved in Facebook wanted Mark to take the Yahoo! offer. The psychological pressure they put on this twenty-two-year-old was intense. Mark and I really bonded in that period, because I told him, ‘Don’t sell, don’t sell, don’t sell!’ ” Zuckerberg told me, “Marc has this really deep belief that when companies are executing well on their vision they can have a much bigger effect on the world than people think, not just as a business but as a steward of humanity—if they have the time to execute.” He didn’t sell; Facebook is now worth two hundred and eighteen billion dollars.

I empathize with this philosophy for the world:

“I could never tolerate not knowing why…You have to work your way back to figure out the politics, the motivations. I always stop when I get to evolutionary psychology, and why we have tribes—oh, O.K., we’re primates cursed with emotions and the ability to do logical thinking.”

This is a key paragraph on how venture capitalism is more about errors of omission:

In venture, it’s not batting average that matters; it’s slugging average. Boldness is all. When Google Glass appeared, a16z joined a collective to seek out investments, and Andreessen declared that, without the face shield, “people are going to find they feel, basically, naked and lonely.” Google withdrew the product in January. But, he would argue, so what? His thesis is that such a16z failures as Fab and Rockmelt and Digg and Kno are not merely a tolerable by-product of the risk algorithm but a vital indicator of it. It’s fine to have a lousy record of predicting the future, most of the time, as long as when you’re right you’re really right. Between 2004 and 2013, a mere 0.4 per cent of all venture investments returned at least 50x. The real mistakes aren’t the errors of commission, the companies that crash—all you can lose is your investment—but those of omission. There were good reasons that a16z passed on buying twelve per cent of Uber in 2011, including a deadline of just hours to make a decision. But the firm missed a profit, on paper, of more than three billion dollars.

A must-read all the way through if you’re at all interested in tech, Silicon Valley, or entrepreneurship.

On Happiness and its Opposite

This is a fascinating, must-read piece in The New York Times in which the author, Arthur C. Brooks, posits that the opposite of happiness is not unhappiness, and the things we can do to elevate our levels of happiness:

So when people say, “I am an unhappy person,” they are really doing sums, whether they realize it or not. They are saying, “My unhappiness is x, my happiness is y, and x > y.” The real questions are why, and what you can do to make y > x.

If you ask an unhappy person why he is unhappy, he’ll almost always blame circumstance. In many cases, of course, this is justified. Some people are oppressed or poor or have physical ailments that make life a chore. Research unsurprisingly suggests that racism causes unhappiness in children, and many academic studies trace a clear link between unhappiness and poverty. Another common source of unhappiness is loneliness, from which about 20 percent of Americans suffer enough to make it a major source of unhappiness in their lives.

The tangible advice comes near the end:

More philosophically, the problem stems from dissatisfaction — the sense that nothing has full flavor, and we want more. We can’t quite pin down what it is that we seek. Without a great deal of reflection and spiritual hard work, the likely candidates seem to be material things, physical pleasures or favor among friends and strangers.

We look for these things to fill an inner emptiness. They may bring a brief satisfaction, but it never lasts, and it is never enough. And so we crave more. This paradox has a word in Sanskrit: upadana, which refers to the cycle of craving and grasping. As the Dhammapada (the Buddha’s path of wisdom) puts it: “The craving of one given to heedless living grows like a creeper. Like the monkey seeking fruits in the forest, he leaps from life to life… Whoever is overcome by this wretched and sticky craving, his sorrows grow like grass after the rains.”

This search for fame, the lust for material things and the objectification of others — that is, the cycle of grasping and craving — follows a formula that is elegant, simple and deadly:

Love things, use people.

This was Abd al-Rahman’s formula as he sleepwalked through life. It is the worldly snake oil peddled by the culture makers from Hollywood to Madison Avenue. But you know in your heart that it is morally disordered and a likely road to misery. You want to be free of the sticky cravings of unhappiness and find a formula for happiness instead. How? Simply invert the deadly formula and render it virtuous:

Love people, use things.

Advice on Writing from Susan Cain

I heard Susan Cain, author of Quiet, speak in person in 2012. I like her advice on how to quit your job and become a writer:

2. You Need a Safety Net. People are always celebrating the courage of those who chuck A in order to do B, but I am not a brave person and maybe you aren’t either. You probably need an alternative source of income. When I first quit law, I made writing the beloved hobby – but not the career — around which I centered my life. In the meantime, I set up a small consultancy, training people in negotiation skills. This gave me the chance to do meaningful work, pay the bills — and still have plenty of time for my “hobby”. That took the pressure off. (Taking the pressure off is a recurrent theme with me. )

3. In the Age of Social Media, Resist the Urge to Share: For many people, the things most worth writing about are also, inconveniently, too painful or embarrassing to talk about. The only solution to this tension is to write in your diary – to write as if no one will ever read it. Write exactly what you think and feel, with no fear of judgment. Eventually you’ll produce something so important that you’ll feel compelled to share it, despite your trepidations.

4. Writing is Not Supposed to Be Hard. You have probably heard that you’re supposed to leave drops of blood on every page. This is not true. Well, it’s sort of true. Writing does require tons of discipline and perseverance and concentration. But it should not be unpleasant. It should be the thing you itch to do every day. You can train yourself, in Pavlovian fashion, to feel this way, by making sure that you always write in conditions of pleasure. For me, that means writing in sunny café windows, with a latte and chocolate on hand. For you, it might be something completely different. But sunny windows and chocolate are a great place to start.

I think point #2 should be #1: it’s that important, in my opinion.

The Way to Be

Beautiful post by Leo Babauta on the way to be: accept others as they are, because we can’t (really) change someone:

I want to control something that scares me, but I can’t. I’m not in control of the universe (haven’t been offered the job yet), and I’m not in control of anyone else. I want to help, but can’t.

So I melted.

Not melted as in “had a meltdown”, which sounds wonderful if you like melted foods but actually isn’t. I melted as in I stopped trying to control, stopped trying to change him, and instead softened and accepted him for who he is.

And guess what? Who he is? It’s wonderful. Who he is — it’s super awesome mad wonderful. He’s funny and loving and wise and passionate and crazy and thoughtful and philosophical and did I mention crazy?

I melted, and accepted, and only then could I actually enjoy his presence instead of worrying about losing him or changing him.

And this, as I’ve learned, is the best way to be.

Thank you for writing this, Leo.

On Growing Up Feeling Unattractive

In a post titled “I Was Not a Pretty Child,” Hannah Dale Thompson reflects on what it was like growing up feeling unattractive and being made fun of by peers:

Being unattractive in your youth forces you to develop positive personality traits. That’s why comedians are not sexy. Relying on something other than appearance for attention breeds a larger-than-life personality. It breeds a confidence that is more than superficial. It breeds humor, and a social awareness and empathy that, I think, can only be developed from the outside. I am more charismatic, confident, interesting, and funny because I was an ugly sixteen-year-old. I am slightly less superficial and marginally more open-minded. I can stand up for myself. Three days after the best first date I have ever been on, my half-drunk suitor called to tell me I have more moxie than anyone else he’s ever met. I am proud of all of these things; people should take pride in overcoming obstacles and developing better personality traits. Even if the obstacles involve bushy eyebrows and the personality bonus leads to self-diagnosed histrionic personality disorder.

Being unattractive in your youth separates you from even the other awkward, unattractive kids. I never had a real date to a high school dance. The entire concept of “Sadie Hawkins” terrified me. I never made anyone’s “top five girls” list. I never made anybody’s “girls” list. By the age of eighteen, I had approximately zero experience with games or manipulation or difficult social interaction. 

It’s interesting to read about how she developed as a person as she grew more attractive in her twenties:

Sometime around my twentieth birthday, I became reasonably good-looking. I started dating lawyers and financiers in their late twenties and early thirties. I became the kind of girl other women approach. I live with a model. All of my friends are beautiful and interesting. If I’m being very honest, I’m always a little angry when I have to purchase my own drink. At the grocery store last November, a boy who was mercilessly cruel to me in high school approached my mom and told her that he was “sorry for being so mean to HD in high school” because he “saw on Facebook” that I was “pretty hot now.” My mother, God bless her, pointed out to him the ridiculousness of that apology.

But what of friendship?

Women my age, particularly the bright-young-thing-in-a-big-city set that I am lucky to be a part of, are inundated with advice. About sex, careers, feminism, children, boyfriends, hook-ups, grad school. Lean in, but not too far. You can do anything a man can do, as long as you’re well put-together and relatively inoffensive. Ask for more, but don’t get cocky. No one tells women my age about the importance of friendship.

In the end, these two sentences dig deep:

This wound is new, but feels familiar. It’s something I remember being used to.

I’ve gotten used to being ignored as well…

Becoming Better Through Practice, Leading to Transformation

This post by @saulofhearts titled “I Was A Pretty Strange Kid: Or, How I Became An Expert in the Things That Scared Me” is timely for me. It’s about becoming better at things through practice, iteration, failing, and persevering. Here’s a passage on improving his dating skills:

Around that same time, I decided to get serious about my dating life. I’d grown up in a pretty repressed environment — thirteen years of Catholic school, a virtually non-existent dating life, and a family who never talked about sex, much less suggested I have it.

In college, I went straight into a long-term relationship. While my college friends were dating casually and having one-night stands, I was happily monogamous.

When my girlfriend and I broke up, I thought it would be just a matter of time before I ended up in another relationship. I’m not a virgin, right? I know what I’m doing….

What I didn’t realize was that my long-term monogamous relationship had covered up the fact that I was terrible with women.

I didn’t know how to ask a girl out, or meet someone new at a party.

So what did I do? I went on a billion dates. I set up an OK Cupid profile, sent out a bunch of messages, and arranged to have dinner with some of the girls that I clicked with.

I was scared as hell, terrible at making small talk — was it OK to mention Burning Man? weed? sex? — and most of the dates were awkward.

But over time, I got better. And I continued to challenge myself.

I went to workshops: tantric yoga, cuddle parties, an S&M club. I grewcomfortable talking about subjects that would have embarrassed my 10-year-old self.

This is the key takeaway that I need to repeat, repeat, repeat:

We’re not defined by the identity that we grew up with. We’re not defined by the expectations other people have of us.

It’s time to start becoming a better human.

Brief Bits of Wisdom and Life Advice from Woody Allen

In the September issue of Esquire, Woody Allen, who will be 78 years old later this year, narrates some of the things he’s learned in his life. It’s a wonderful collection. Presented in almost in its entirety here:

What people who don’t write don’t understand is that they think you make up the line consciously — but you don’t. It proceeds from your unconscious. So it’s the same surprise to you when it emerges as it is to the audience when the comic says it. I don’t think of the joke and then say it. I say it and then realize what I’ve said. And I laugh at it, because I’m hearing it for the first time myself.

Without fear, you’d never survive.

My dad didn’t even teach me how to shave — I learned that from a cabdriver. But the biggest lesson he imparted is that if you don’t have your health, you have nothing. No matter how great things are going for you, if you have a toothache, if you have a sore throat, if you’re nauseated, or, God forbid, you have some serious thing wrong with you — everything is ruined.

Marshall McLuhan predicted books would become art objects at some point. He was right. [Editor’s note: see this.]

My mother taught me a value — rigid discipline. My father didn’t earn enough, and my mother took care of the money and the family, and she had no time for lightness. She always saw the glass a third full. She taught me to work and not to waste time.

I never see a frame of anything I’ve done after I’ve done it. I don’t even remember what’s in the films. And if I’m on the treadmill and I’m surfing the channels and suddenly Manhattan or some other picture comes on, I go right past it. If I saw Manhattan again, I would only see the worst. I would say: “Oh, God, this is so embarrassing. I could have done this. I should have done that.” So I spare myself.

In the shower, with the hot water coming down, you’ve left the real world behind, and very frequently things open up for you. It’s the change of venue, the unblocking the attempt to force the ideas that’s crippling you when you’re trying to write.

If you’re born with a gift, to behave like it’s an achievement is not right.

I love Mel Brooks. And I’ve had wonderful times working with him. But I don’t see any similarities between Mel and myself except, you know, we’re both short Jews. That’s where it ends. His style of humor is completely different. But Bob Hope? I’m practically a plagiarist.

We took a tour of the Acropolis late in the morning, and I looked down upon the theater and felt a connection. I mean, this is where Oedipus debuted. It’s amazing for someone who’s spent his life in show business or worked in dramatic art to look down at the theater where, thousands of years ago, guys like Mike Nichols and Stephen Sondheim and David Mamet were in togas, thinking,Gee, I can’t get this line to work. You know, I’ve been working on it all night. And that actor, he doesn’t know how to deliver it. Sophocles and Euripides and Aristophanes. The costumes are late, and we gotta go on!

It’s been said about marriage “You have to know how to fight.” And I think there’s some wisdom to that. People who live together get into arguments. When you’re younger, those arguments tend to escalate, or there’s not any wisdom that overrides the argument to keep in perspective. It tends to get out of hand. When you’re older, you realize, “Well, this argument will pass. We don’t agree, but this is not the end of the world.” Experience comes into play.

Back when I started, when I opened Take the Money and Run, the guys at United Artists accumulated the nation’s criticisms into a pile this big and I read them all. Texas, Oklahoma, California, New England… That’s when I realized that it’s ridiculous. I mean, the guy in Tulsa thinks the picture’s a masterpiece, and the guy in Vermont thinks it’s the dumbest thing he’s ever seen. Each guy writes intelligently. The whole thing was so pointless. So I abandoned ever, ever reading any criticisms again. Thanks to my mother, I haven’t wasted any time dwelling on whether I’m brilliant or a fool. It’s completely unprofitable to think about it.

You can only do so much, and then you’re at the mercy of fortune.

Me sitting down for dinner with Ingmar Bergman felt like a house painter sitting down with Picasso.

This last bit of wisdom is particularly eloquent and is a reminder of the fleeting nature of life:

It’s just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don’t have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we’re just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything that you value, whether it’s Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci, or whatever, will be gone. The earth will be gone. The sun will be gone. There’ll be nothing. The best you can do to get through life is distraction. Love works as a distraction. And work works as a distraction. You can distract yourself a billion different ways. But the key is to distract yourself.