Sales teams are more than that

I heard a story once that stuck with me, about the nature of experience.

A small girl walks through a garden for the first time. In the garden are green things of all kinds, which she has never seen before. She is overwhelmed by the scents, the colors, the sheer magnitude of the experience. She spins, feeling the sensations in her outstretched arms as they brush against the various plants. She has not felt more alive than at that moment.

She runs back into the house to tell her mom about her experience. Her mom says “I saw you running about in the flowers. Those are pretty, aren’t they?”

She goes back into the garden the next day, and smiles at the “pretty flowers.”

We label things with concepts and words out of necessity–it’d be impossible to navigate the world if we didn’t know the concept of food or shelter–but the labeling creates a distance between us and the garden, such that we don’t see the garden in its entire complexity and majesty any longer, instead seeing it as simply “garden.” The label strips away the nuance and flattens something that is inherently three-dimensional and five-sensual to a mental concept. It turns the profound experience of Life into an idea that can be filed away along with millions of others. Nothing special.

I see myself doing the same thing in business. With a simple label, a complex group of wonderful and mysterious people, with tremendous, multifaceted value to add to the organization, become simply a “sales team”, or an “engineering team.” And thusly, I limit their contribution to merely that.

It’s not wrong to abstract the world this way. Again, it’s necessary. But every once in a while I’ll find myself in the woods or on top of a cliff and experience that rush of Existence once more, and in those moments I’m reminded that that’s our default state. That wordless, free place is reality, not the endless list of concepts we shuffle and categorize to make sense of things. The words “cliff” and “forest” and “engineering team” are useful, but they’re an inadequate substitute for the real thing.

I am doing my utmost to remember this, both in business and in life.

My mechanical thinking machine

When I’m paying attention these days, I can sometimes see the causal chain of my thoughts.

I’ll think or say something, and in real time can trace back to the specific experience, conversation, book or whatever was the original source of that thought, as well as watch the various other ideas and worldviews that influenced that thought on its way to finally occurring in my head.

It’s most apparent in conversation. For example, I’ll be talking with a friend or colleague about a business idea and I’ll find myself paraphrasing a passage from a book I read on a similar topic, only it’ll be slightly tweaked and I can see how my bias toward assertiveness or my desire to produce an outcome in the conversation has modified the original statement. The statement looks like the result of that passage having passed through a big algorithm of conditional statements.

It’s a mechanical process that works like this.

  1. Inputs come in to my mind. These are experiences; conversations, books, movies, everything external.
  2. Those inputs are processed through a series of ingrained biases, beliefs, traditions and opinions, whether learned or innate. The noteworthy part here is that all this processing is, for the most part, focused on the input’s relevance to me. Apparently I can be a bit self absorbed.
  3. The input multiplied by the biases results in an output; either a thought pops in my head, or I say or do something.

I used to think I was in control over all this, my thoughts, my actions. But when put under a microscope, turns out, nope.

Most of us haven’t looked at this process, and so are easily “lost in thought”, which I would suggest is an intentional phrasing. Having spent most of my life there, as well as much of the present, I empathize. Thoughts are chaotic and usually not pleasant.

But I’ve found it’s possible to see this process for what it is, if you look closely, and thereby demystify your thoughts and short circuit their ability to control you.

It’s possible to gain a freedom from their relentless pull, neuter your inner-critic, and maybe become a bit less self-centered in the process.


If this all sounds a bit far fetched, and it still seems like you have control over everything, I invite you to ask yourself: did you decide to think of that pink elephant?

How I learned to feel again

“But I want to be passionate,” my friend said. “I get the whole search for Enlightenment, but I don’t want to be disconnected from life and stop feeling.”

We were sitting in a coffee shop, at a corner table discussing my practice. I had described, to the best of my then current ability, both the work I’d done and the results it had produced. I said that meditation in my experience, when practiced for some time, produces, at least, two results.

First, it teaches you just how little you control. Stare at a wall and try to hold everything still; it doesn’t take long to see that there’s nothing you can really control, not your breath, your heartbeat, and definitely not your mind. If you don’t control your body or your mind, how on earth can you control producing XYZ result in your life?

And second, it creates a space between your Self and your thoughts. Between You and your emotions. With a quiet mind you get to actually see your thought patterns, and see the emotions running through you. And if you can see those things, then you by definition are not those things. You are the viewer, and therefore cannot also be the viewed. You are the awareness within which your thoughts and feelings arise.

It was the second realization that my friend took issue with.

“I don’t want to disconnect from my feelings,” he said. “I want to live, fully!”

It’s a logical concern, but only from the perspective of one who has not yet experienced those things. Once you do the work to create that space between your self and your thoughts/feelings, you realize that actually the opposite is true.

“I do too,” I said. “I didn’t feel, really feel, for about 15 years. I got so caught up in what I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to feel, that I suppressed all of it. But now, I’m crying on airplanes.”

I was referencing a time months ago when I connected so hard with the movie Rocketman that I had to compose myself in the airplane bathroom. But I could have just as easily been referencing today, as I write this on yet another airplane, days removed from Kobe’s death, all nine of those people, three kids, and still tearing up. I’ve never met Kobe, and part of me feels selfish crying over something that other people are so much more closely affected by than I am, but I feel everything, now. In a way I never did before.

“You’ve got it wrong,” I explained to my friend. “Once you realize your thoughts and emotions aren’t you, they are no longer a threat to your sense of yourself. You stop resisting them, and you feel way more.”

RIP Black Mamba. More than that, RIP Kobe Bryant

Sometimes I feel so significant. I’m on top of the world, and sure that I’m doing Important Things, or have Big Events ahead. When I’m significant the rest of the world fades away, and I’m all about me.

I’ve accomplished much through this type of singular focus, but I’ve missed a lot along the way. When I’m significant, my family, my health, everything else gets deprioritized. I don’t miss those things in the moment, as I’ve Important Things to do, but after those Things are done sometimes there’s a quiet, and in that quiet I see the cost of my significance. I see the preciousness of the people around me, the relationships, of Life. But too often I see these things only in retrospect, before inevitably getting caught up in my next significance.

Yesterday something awful happened. 9 people died horribly, including a hero from my childhood and his daughter.

This hero, to me, personified that singularity of focus that has gotten me so far, as his professional career was second to none. The Black Mamba. He was the inspiration for my late nights in the driveway, far beyond a reasonable hour because “somewhere, someone is still working, and someday, when you meet that person, they will beat you.” Mamba wouldn’t be beaten by anyone. Neither would I, but whatever sacrifices I made in the aim to succeed, I’m certain the Mamba’s were greater. He was a transcendent basketball player.

As I’ve grown older, the quiet gaps between my significance have grown larger, and I’ve been able to appreciate the awe-someness of Being, of connecting with what Is in the moment. It’s humbled me, put into perspective my drive to achieve, and I don’t want to imagine the possibility that I might have died before ever having found this peace. Before ever really connecting with the world.

I cried for the Mamba yesterday, for his family, Vanessa, his kids, and for the other 7 passengers on that helicopter. I cried for the little piece of my childhood that died along with them. I wasn’t the only one. It was a sad day. I can’t imagine what the families and friends of those people are facing today. I don’t want to. It’s inexplicably awful.

But I read Bill Platschke’s column in the LA Times, recalling a conversation the journalist had with Bryant recently, and within the overwhelming sadness a new part of me connected with my hero again, for the first time. No longer the Mamba, Kobe, in his retirement, seemed to have overcome his own significance, and found his own quiet.

The edge was gone. The arms were open. He urged acceptance of LeBron [passing him in career points scored]. He preached calm for Lakers fans. He said greatness wasn’t worth anything if you couldn’t share it.

Deep within the grief, I’m grateful the Mamba found his inner Kobe before he left us.

I’m sad. We are all sad. But I’m also committed, as I wake up today, to really paying attention, to really connecting, as it could all be over in a breath.

Why I quit Twitter, and why I’m back after 2.5 years

I’m back on Twitter for the first time since August of 2017.

I don’t remember the exact moment I left, in fact I imagine it had been brewing for some time. In essence it had to do with finding tangible connections between my thoughts and feelings, and what I was reading on social media (I’ve been off all the “social sauce” since about that time, not just Twitter).

Laura noticed it first. Around 2012 I remember lamenting a missed opportunity to her, something I could do instead of banging my head against the wall of building VNN, as I was surfing through my Twitter feed lying in bed. Another Tuesday for us, as VNN was hard work at the time. She ignored the subject of my comment, and said “you have to stop reading that shit.”

With distance, it was easy for her to see the impact that reading about someone else’s accomplishments (so helpfully curated at the time on my feed) had on my feelings of self-worth, and she graciously called me on it. I remember being righteously indignant at the time; it would take more time for me to come around.

The realization evolved organically into a sort of vague connection between my use of social media and an existential sense of inadequacy, which I was compelled to address through working myself even harder to get the next gold star. It was helping my business (I was certainly productive), but destroying me. And over time, as I got more accustomed to watching my thought patterns, I began to see clearly a causal relationship that looked something like this:

  1. Read about someone else doing something cool =>
  2. feeling of dread in my chest =>
  3. thoughts diminishing my self worth because I didn’t do that cool thing first

I’ve heard it said that “you see your competitors through their press releases, while you see yourself naked in the mirror.” It’s always an unhappy comparison, and at the time I viewed the whole world as competition.

From there, it was like buying a Volkswagon. Once I noticed that pattern, couldn’t stop seeing it. It got to the point at which every time I would check Twitter, whatever mood I was in would persist until I saw something awesome that my mind convinced itself I should have done, and then I’d feel like shit.

Getting off social media was hard, and not entirely because it is addicting. Besides that, in the startup and business world, there’s a lot of practical value in maintaining a broad and deep network, and social media is, by far, the easiest way to manage that. But, like any addiction once you realize it’s causing problems but before you decide to stop, it gets worse, and worse, like an elevator that only goes down, until eventually I quit cold turkey. The process of quitting social was actually pretty similar to that by which I quit drinking, back in 2007.

I didn’t see the pictures of my nephews during my time away, and I didn’t know much of what was going on in the world, but I found a sense of peace that had eluded me before. My tendency to measure my self worth by my accomplishments relative to others didn’t go away entirely, but at the very least it wasn’t triggered every day by a deluge of people humble-bragging.

That sounds awesome to me still, as I write this a day after rejoining the Twittersphere (is it still called that?). So why the hell am I back?

Well, that sense of peace, that space where the noise of the world used to be, gave me an opportunity to do the serious internal work of first solidifying my awareness of, and then slowly letting go of (or maybe even rewiring), my internal thought patterns. I’ve had the opportunity to spend significant time in contemplation and reflection, an opportunity that regrettably not everyone gets, and in doing so there’s been a fundamental change in the perspective through which I view the world. My sense of self has decoupled from my thoughts, and therefore my self-worth decoupled from value judgements about my relative accomplishments. So far as I can see, this realization is both foundational and irreversible, even though sometimes I forget in the moment.

I still catch my thoughts getting hooked by cool stuff other people are doing, but it’s easier for me to now dissociate with those thoughts, let them be just the random noise that they are, and move on. My thoughts have become, in most cases, pretty much irrelevant noise to me, much less capable of inflicting the kind of turmoil they once did.

So the danger that social media once posed for me has been neutered, or in any case lessened significantly, which has changed the calculus for me around participating. The bad aspects which once tipped the scale have decreased to the point at which the good shines through, not only in the human connections that I can build with family and friends, but also in the opportunity to help others; I look around me every day and see people caught in their heads, the victims of their own chaotic, self-focused thinking, and I know first hand how profoundly that can suck.

I’ve enjoyed my time on the mountaintop, away from digital society, and it’s helped me grow immensely. But all that time I was up there, I was sacrificing my one and only opportunity to connect with the other 8 billion humans in the world. From where I stood in 2017, that was a fair trade. But upon gaining that equanimity I sought, or at least some version of it, I feel better prepared to engage, and, hopefully, help.

I’ve missed you all, and I look forward to seeing what you’ve been up to.

Seeing the wave

“We need to talk,” my Controller said. A controller never does that when it’s good news.

He had knocked on the doorjam and waited by my open office door for me to give a signal. When he spoke I felt a rush of dread wash over me. A tangible feeling of all the times we’d almost run out of cash, cresting over me in a wave of heat and adrenaline. My heart beat in my ears. My face flushed.

In the wave were all the people who were counting on us, our investors and employees. In it were all my secret doubts as to my own sufficiency in managing the business. My core belief in the imperativeness of saving every penny, juxtaposed with the burn rate we’d been keeping up at the instruction of the board. I couldn’t believe how much of a failure I was that I had let it get to this point. I knew better. And now everyone would know how misplaced their faith was in us.

Whoa, it occurred to me as I considered the wave. That’s intense. And a bit over the top. Does this happen to me every time he wants to talk?

And then as quick as it came, it was over. Upon seeing the reaction clearly for what it was, a skill I’d been cultivating through meditation for about 6 months at the time, the wave dissipated on its own.

I invited him in, and we discussed how we didn’t have enough cash. And we made the decisions we had to make.

Paying attention

I’ve been on a lifelong chase for happiness, and until recently defined that as the feeling that I’d get from a peak experience. But I’ve chased and attained enough peak experiences at this point to have thoroughly convinced myself that none of them will ever match up to my expectations. I’ve put myself through hell for the chase, in business, relationships, sports, all of it. And while chasing something unquestionably serves as fuel to drive me to push harder, always harder, and achieve things that people respect and admire, attaining that thing at the end universally feels like a let down.

I can no longer convince myself that attaining that next gold star will bring me lasting happiness. I see the machinery working behind the scenes in my mind, and I know how to play the record all the way to the end. Everything around me, everything that is America with a capital A, tells me I should want that next thing, but I mostly don’t much care.

These days I’m finding that happiness comes from paying attention.

Learning to pay singular attention to the entirety of the present moment (all six senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell, and thought), through consistent practice for going on 5 years now, has unlocked a different type of happiness for me, one I didn’t even know I wanted, as caught up as I have been in the chase. A contentment, awe and gratitude that is accessible at any time and maintainable for sometimes hours.

The paradox is that there is only one sure way I’ve found to lose that contentment, and that’s by chasing it. Trying to pay attention in order to see something profound is a sure way to lose the thread. In fact, trying to get anywhere or become anything is the opposite to actually being where you are, and paying attention. The only way to really do that, totally, is to stop doing anything and simply observe.

Much of my life has been living my perception of the American ideal. Work your ass off, sacrifice the present for the future, take risks, make money and buy stuff, and reap the rewards in a stockpile of unique and impressive experiences. A war chest of memories and stories. I played that game for a long time, and have quite the collection.

But it wasn’t until I stopped chasing that I finally realized the profound, awesome beauty of the random tree on the side of the road.

Paddling

I sat in a coffee shop, discussing philosophhy over eggs and toast with my sixth grade english teacher. I’ve found that many people have a special relationship with one of their teachers from childhood, and this lovely bearded elementary educator-turned-supersubstitute-turned-thespian was mine.

We had each read “Iron John”, by Robert Bly, a 250pg analysis of the Grimm’s Fairy Tale of the same name that, among other things, taught me how shallowly I had always read fairy tales, and our conversation had meandered toward our unique relationship, as it sometimes did.

We had happened to see Finding Forrester together as I was entering the hardest years of my life (not that I knew it then), and the movie had become a touchstone of our conversations when they turned inward. As a metaphor it was perhaps a bit heavy handed, me the basketball player and he my writing teacher, but it fit us.

But that day, perhaps channeling Bly, he offered a different analogy for our relationship. He said he had always lived his life as a piece of driftwood, floating down the river and following the currents wherever they took him. But I, it seemed to him, charted a course down that same river in a canoe, navigating around any rocks or logs and furiously paddling as if my life depended on it.

At the time, I remember thinking: Damn right I’m paddling. I prided myself on doing more than other people, faster than other people. I was willing to do the things that others weren’t to get the things that others wouldn’t. I hustled as a rule, and that had brought me everything.

That was about a year ago, and now not so sure I should have taken it as a compliment.

I’ve pushed myself much further down the river than my sixth grade teacher. But the cost of all that pushing was that I never really looked around. I never bothered to see the current, the fish, or the shores. For a long time I accepted that as simply the table stakes of going somewhere in life. To go farther, you had to focus on where you were going, to the detriment of where you were.

But now, I wonder if it’s just more river as far as you go.