The Case for Optimism: The Gates Foundation 2018 Letter

This week the Gates Foundation released their 2018 Annual Letter. The letter has the following introduction:

“A decade ago, we started a new annual tradition: sitting down to write a letter about our work in philanthropy. This year we’re marking our 10th letter by answering 10 tough questions about our work that people often ask us.”

I’ve always appreciated how collaborative and transparent the Gates Foundation has been. The letter is a great read, and I strongly encourage you to read it in its entirety. But if you stubbornly refuse to do so, here are a few highlights to entice you to reconsider…


Deaths of Children Under the Age of 5:

This is a snippet I grabbed from a video embedded in the letter.  In the video, Melinda Gates points out that most of these childhood deaths are preventable.

Here’s a thought exercise: pretend the column on the left was labeled “2017” (indicating that 11M children under the age of 5 died last year worldwide) and the column on the right was labeled “2043”, and the presenter said “our goal is to decrease early childhood deaths by over 50% in 26 years”. What would you say?

You’d probably say things like “that’s a BHAG“, or “sounds like a great idea, but chances of success are slim”.

But that amazing leap is what has happened already.  Pretty powerful stuff.

How to Find a Peaceful Retreat Each Day

I recently went on a three day retreat. The retreat was silent, which basically means I didn’t talk for three days, but was also guided, with several group conferences which were run by a retreat director. Perhaps most liberating and challenging was the total detachment from my phone/computer/social media compulsions. I made a last call to my wife from the parking lot when I pulled up to the retreat center and then shut my phone off and walked in (five minutes later, as I instinctively grabbed my turned-off phone to check the time, I realized I would be struggling over the next three days to know what time it was). The retreat followed a common format offered by Jesuit retreat centers all over the world.

Three days later the retreat ended just a few hours before the Super Bowl started, but I would have happily given up the Super Bowl to extend the time. That morning, the idea of the Super Bowl, with it’s over-the-top hype, advertisers, and halftime Justin Timberlake concert, felt to me as so much fluff.

But the world beckons because life doesn’t happen in a retreat center, otherwise they wouldn’t be called “retreats” in the first place.

This reminds me, curiously, of something I experienced in the military and the challenges we face as we try to navigate he normal tensions that exist between the our “ideal” worlds and the messiness of our real worlds.

Most people will tell you that when they went into their initial training environment in the military (think “boot camp”), they were totally and completely immersed in the culture, values, expectations, sights, sounds and smells of their training experience. It is important to remember that the root word of culture is “cult”, which emanated from Latin and French words for “cultivation” or “worship”.

When you graduate from that training environment, you’re at your peak motivation. You leave for your first assignment convinced that the rest of your service branch spends their time yelling and crawling in the mud – just as you did during training. You are prepared. You can’t wait to change the world.

And then, in many cases, the unit you actually join feels less like the high-energy training environment of your recent past and more like (gasp!) a job. Your fellow service members don’t crawl through mud, don’t scream responses to questions, and might even engage in the sort of behavior – such as walking around with their hands in their uniform pockets – that would have gotten you dropped for pushups by the nearest drill sergeant a few weeks earlier.

Many of us have experienced this challenge of cultivating (there’s that root word again) an “ideal” existence during the imperfections and banality of daily existence. How can we find margins to reclaim at least some elements of this ideal focus, this sense of peace and mission?

In the past few years there has been an explosion in the number of books and other resources promoting “mindfulness”. Mindfulness can be expressed as meditation, prayer, or breathing exercises. The point is to find some quiet where you are and in the course of a normal day.

It doesn’t help to wait for some amazing vacation in the future (although those are good). Here’s what Marcus Aurelius had to say about people’s inclination to wait until vacation to renew themselves (from Meditations 4.3.1, written around 170 AD):

“People seek retreats for themselves in the country, by the sea, or in the mountains. You are very much in the habit of yearning for those same things. But this is entirely the trait of a base person, when you can, at any moment, find such as retreat in yourself. For nowhere can you find a more peaceful and less busy retreat than in your own soul – especially if on close inspection that is filled with ease, which I say is nothing more than being well-ordered. Treat yourself often to this retreat and be renewed.”

When I tell people about the retreat I went on, they tend to focus most on the fact that it was silent, which is understandable. But the “guided” part was equally or more valuable. Most of us lack the foundation and training to effectively use three days without conversation or external stimulus. I’m convinced that going to a cabin in the woods and sitting alone quietly for three days would be quite a bit more difficult, and less worthwhile, then what I did. The vast majority of us would certainly be climbing the walls and decidedly not at peace after just an hour or two alone (for perhaps the most prescient quote from the pre-mobile phone 17th century, check this out).

Even Marcus Aurelius would have applauded the occasional vacation or guided retreat. But his point holds for those who are trying to hold on to the motivation they experienced in some ideal training environment or contemplative retreat. We can’t cultivate a crop without tending to it regularly, and we can’t cultivate an inner peace without doing the same.

Good luck!

Deep Work and Alexander Hamilton

Right now Alexander Hamilton is all the rage. The smash-hit musical that bears his name continues to attract and delight audiences. I don’t know what Hamilton would have made of his newfound notoriety in the 21st century, but I suspect he’d be shocked by the many forms of diversion available to sap our attention.

I have written before about the importance of balance (go here) and deep work (go here). Although I’m a huge believer in the importance of balance, it’s ok to be out of balance in pursuit of a worthwhile goal; but we have to know that we’re out of balance and snap back into balance when the short term need for exclusive focus passes.

Hamilton evidently felt that his son Philip‘s impending study of law after graduation from Columbia College was one of those times requiring balance to be set aside. His letter to his son below:

Rules for Mr Philip Hamilton(:) from the first of April to the first of October he is to rise not later than Six Oclock—The rest of the year not later than Seven. If Earlier he will deserve commendation. Ten will be his hour of going to bed throughout the year.

4 Tips to Help You Meet Your Resolutions

It’s January, so the internet is flooded with posts and articles about New Year’s Resolutions. We are all works in progress, and identifying opportunities for self-improvement is worthy of our attention. The problem is, we’re human and making changes can be hard. Instead of citing various studies, let me give you four practical tips that I have learned through experience.

One of Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits” is “Begin with the end in mind”. We often focus more time on what we intend to do, or how we intend to do something, rather than why it’s worthy. When we connect our goals to a deeper sense of purpose we are more likely to view the objective as worthy of our sacrifice and attention. I have a personal mission statement that I review each January. That statement makes it easier for me to identify what goals matter most.

My Year in Review: Books

As 2017 draws to a close and I review the books I read this year, I thought I’d share some of the highlights.

As usual, I read less than I would would have hoped. Like many, I would benefit from spending less time in the thralls of electronic media and more with the printed word (I read physical books). In addition to staring at my phone and computer too often during non-work hours, the advent of Wifi on domestic flights has lured me away from reading on the plane. Not good.

But such is the stuff that New Year’s resolutions are made of! So as we move forward into 2018, let me share some highlights from my reading in 2017.

In all, I read about 33 books this past year. I say “about” since I read a number of short stories which I count as one book. Without further ado, here are eleven that stood out:

Why Thinkers Should Think About Music

The holiday season is a season of music. We hear a specific version of a certain song and might immediately recall childhood memories with stunning clarity and completeness. In an era when homes have access to sophisticated sound systems and immediate access to almost any music that has ever been recorded, the art of Christmas caroling, as far as I can tell, has mostly gone away. But I remember last year being in a restaurant during the Christmas season and enjoying a local adult choir singing carols. It felt unifying and basic, as if it were a pause in our era of personal digital devices and on-demand entertainment.

The other reason the holiday season can be a season of music is that we don’t spend our time the same way we do the rest of the year. While often hectic, the holiday season can afford us time to experience new music and “stretch” our ears. I don’t regularly listen to classical music, a form of music that places demands upon a listener that the normal three minute popular songs do not. And so my annual intake of orchestral music is heavily skewed toward Tchiakovsky’s Nutcracker Suite or Handel’s Messiah during the month of December. The season, in this way, presents us with opportunity.

If I were forced to articulate my belief in the divine in a single word, it would be “music”. Kurt Vonnegut evidently felt the same way:

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:

– Kurt Vonnegut

I had music on my mind recently, and so enjoyed the timing of this great blog post from the incomparable Maria Popova (her weekly Brain Pickings blog is read by all sorts of influential people like Bill Gates). Among the quotes from great writers on the subject of music – like the one from Kurt Vonnegut above – was this gem from a letter to a friend written by poet Edna St. Vincent Millay:

I can whistle almost the whole of the Fifth Symphony, all four movements, and with it I have solaced many a whining hour to sleep. It answers all my questions, the noble, mighty thing, it is “green pastures and still waters” to my soul. Indeed, without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is. I find that lately more and more my fingers itch for a piano, and I shall not spend another winter without one. Last night I played for about two hours, the first time in a year, I think, and though most everything is gone enough remains to make me realize I could get it back if I had the guts. People are so dam lazy, aren’t they? Ten years I have been forgetting all I learned so lovingly about music, and just because I am a boob. All that remains is Bach. I find that I never lose Bach. I don’t know why I have always loved him so. Except that he is so pure, so relentless and incorruptible, like a principle of geometry.

My favorite part of that was “…I could get it back if I had the guts”.  Many of us have some basic musical training, or if not, then some interest in a particular form of music. No matter how dormant, perhaps the holiday season might be time to stretch your ears – and your brain – with something new.

Identify Your Next Ten Customers

Entrepreneurs and Intrapreneurs run on optimism. They get excited and see the possibilities. Like almost any positive trait, this inclination to get excited – and to excite others – can also have a downside.

The problem is the journey from the specific to the general. Typically, the flames of entrepreneurial passion are fueled by a single early customer story. The story is a big customer opportunity that not only is exciting on it’s own merits, but starts to look like one of many opportunities. In another blog post, I referred to this as The Golden Story – the story that is repeatedly shared around the company campfire and in front of prospects and potential investors so often that it attains mythic status.

Recently I had the opportunity to be a panelist as students from an innovation class at a local college presented their end-of-semester projects. I’ve done this sort of thing a number of times and I’m always struck by how big of a challenge these students are faced with. In the midst of their other classes and school obligations, and in a fairly short timeframe, they have to team with others, identify a plausible opportunity for a new product, do some quick market research, product development, and all the other tasks one would associate with a start-up. Layer on top of this is the fact that the students likely have very little expertise in these areas, and you understand the immensity of the challenge they’re faced with.

But most of the time they produce a solid effort, and my role is to add a little stress to the proceedings by evaluating their presentation and asking them questions. And this leads me to notice a common problem almost all of these teams seem to have, and if makes them feel any better, well-established companies and well-funded entrepreneurs often miss this as well.

It is the inability to clearly identify the path from the first customer to the eleventh.

Rudy Sucked

I was visiting the HQ of the awesome company I work for shortly after the recent Astros-Dodgers World Series, when an impromptu office conversation about the series turned to the amazing play of the Houston Astros’ second baseman, 5 foot 6 inch dynamo Jose Altuve. His story is one of those amazing stories of perseverance. Due to his small stature, every stop in his baseball journey was supposed to be his last. He was constantly belittled (get it?) and told he had no future.

Jose and Rudy

But as the saying goes, it’s not the “size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.” Altuve used every inch of his small frame to slug seven home runs (including three in one game) during the 2017 playoffs as the Astros won it all.

Since Altuve is a model of a small guy persevering and overcoming obstacles in pursuit of athletic glory, it was perhaps natural for someone during the conversation to say “he’s just like Rudy”, to which I replied “No – Rudy sucked.”

Many of you recall the movie Rudy – the story of the undersized Notre Dame football worshipper who insinuated himself into the program as an undersized student, and eventually was allowed to suit up and be on the field for a play or two. The movie portrayed Rudy as someone with grit, perseverance and determination. The climatic play in the movie – a play that was meaningless in the context of the actual game – was accompanied by stirring orchestral music.  When I first saw it, I thought it was great.

My wife thought differently. She thought it was pathetic.

And Dan Sullivan agrees with her. Dan is the founder and president of The Strategic Coach, Inc, and has a podcast called The Multiplier Mindset (each podcast a short thought for entreprenuers). In this episode, Dan talks with Hollywood Talent Agent Joel Zadak about the importance of focusing on one’s “unique ability” (something Dan talks a lot about), when the subject of “Rudy” comes up:

Ideas for Maintaining Balance

It’s been while since I posted on the subject of maintaining balance, so I thought I’d provide a couple quick ideas for you to consider. As you can tell by the tagline of this blog (“Leaning Forward, With Balance”), balance is something I consider to be an important part of being human. For me, balance means investing time and moving forward in these areas of your life:

  • Intellectual: stretching our brain by reading and learning new things. This makes us more interested in the world around us and more interesting to the people around us.
  • Productive: creating something of value for someone else, which can include shipping software or doing the laundry. This can be known as “work”, but may serve a higher purpose. As the monks say, “laborare est orare” (to work is to pray).
  • Physical: activity, strength, endurance, flexibility, nutrition, sleep, good habits. 
  • Spiritual: investing real time contemplating the divine, seeking guidance from wiser travelers as well as centuries-old wisdom literature while also confronting our outsized ego (pride).
  • Creativity: as the saying goes, “we’re human beings, not human doings”. We’re here to do something other than answer emails. Make bad art, write bad poetry, perform bad music (or, if you’re talented, make good art/poetry/music). 
  • Social: the research continues to be overwhelming and conclusive: happiness is largely a function of the quantity and quality of our social relationships. 

As I’ve written before, sometimes it’s ok to go out of balance for a period of time for good reasons. Sometimes you need to sacrifice the social dimension to buckle down and get something done. This is fine, as long as it’s temporary and you seek to return to balance reasonably soon.

So, with that lengthy preamble aside, here are a few things I’ve been thinking about to pass along. I hope one or two resonate with you…

Remember “Why”

Like many Americans, I was transfixed and horrified by the multi-part Ken Burns documentary about the Vietnam war.  Among the failures of leadership during that conflict were the many instances of soldiers and marines suffering hardship, injury and death to take a hill, only to be ordered to abandon the hill a few days later and allow the enemy to re-occupy the hill – exactly as they had been doing a few days earlier.

I can’t imaging the grief felt by families who lost a loved one to such fruitless efforts. Many of them surely were watching the documentary, asking “why?”. Many soldiers and marines, as they were ordered to take a hill they knew they might immediately be ordered to abandon, had to ask “why?”. The answers were never satisfactory, giving a glimpse into the deeper pathology of the Vietnam strategy.

It reminds me of something I heard from a grizzled US Army Ranger sergeant during my young officer preparation training. He said: “remember, when providing orders to those you’ll lead into battle, to never forget the “five W’s”: Who/What/Where/When/Why”.