Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why I'm bad at making decisions

I just got back from the Wild Goose Festival, or what I've been endearingly calling "the Christian hippie fest." It's an inspiring three-day festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina, with the goal of  providing "a space for courageous, imaginative, and participative social justice work, creative expression, spiritual practice, and astonishing music."  Perhaps most "astonishing" was my attempt to join in on the free-spirited dancing to Native American flute music. I managed only a very subtle wobble as I self-consciously watched people around me flail joyously like puppets on strings.

At the heart of who I am, I'm someone who wants other people to understand each other and to find some way to get along. I want the hippies and the conservatives to dance together even if it is uncomfortably awkward.  My parents have always said I would make a good judge or college president because I like to fairly weigh the opinions of every side. The problem with this seemingly nice trait is that it takes me forever to form my own opinion (e.g. who to vote for, what I believe) or to make any type of decision at all (my college roommate used to make me practice being decisive by holding up different brands of toothpaste to choose from).


I've learned that indecisiveness is not exactly a virtue valued by our society. Once, I was out to dinner with a group of Harvard psychology PhD students and our professor, and we were discussing the upcoming election between McCain and Obama. One student exclaimed that he couldn't understand how some people still hadn't made up their minds one month prior to the election. As if grasping for some explanation he finally said, 

"They must just be less intelligent!" 

Stunned and feeling a flash of courage I interjected and said, 

"Well I actually haven't decided yet." 

The professor, likely a little embarassed, tried to come to the rescue and fumbled, 

"Oh I'm sorry, we just assumed that since you were at Harvard you were a Democrat."  

For full disclosure, I did end up voting for Obama (I hope that doesn't keep my more Republican friends from reading the rest of this post), but the truth is I never did have very strong convictions, and I continued to resent the assumption that fence-sitters were somehow lesser than people with strong opinions. In fact, all through school and through church I've felt pushed to argue for a side, often before I was ready.

We grow up trained that strong thesis statements make for the best papers, and definitive hypotheses make for the best science experiments, and deep convictions make for the best evangelists. I can't help but wonder if this societal pressure to have a firm and consistent stand is part of the reason why we struggle so much to have dialogue, why we can feel so easily threatened by other viewpoints, why we sometimes stuff opposing evidence under the rug, and squirm uncomfortably in the presence of uncertainty and the unknown. 

I find this bias toward certainty most difficult when it comes to faith and religion. At the Wild Good Festival during a Q&A session, I went up to Frank Schaeffer, the son of a well-known now deceased evangelical, Francis Schaeffer, and I asked him the following: 

"The last few years I've been going through a time of great questioning of my faith. And during this time I've found it very hard to go to church. The rituals at church are centered around affirming belief whether it's through reciting creeds, singing songs, prayer, or communion.

What are the rituals I can do as a seeker that reflect searching and mystery rather than certainty and defending?"

As someone who has also struggled deeply with his faith, he responded by encouraging me to keep trying, to keep saying the words and doing the rituals even if at times I felt like an atheist.

While I do think there is a time for persistence, a time to keep saying I love you to your wife when you don't feel like it, and a time to keep exercising when it hurts, I also think there is a time to sit in painful silence while your lips don't move and your head doesn't bow. Maybe you begin to see this silence as necessary, like a rest in a song, not to be rushed through, filled, or fixed, but just experienced as part of the music. Maybe you begin to see doubts not as a disease to be quickly cured but as a pruning tool and your beliefs not as brick and mortar but as temporary scaffolding that we continually re-position as we catch glimpses of reality. And maybe you even let go for a little bit, unclasping your grip on certainty, shifting from defending to discovery, and you dangle, now untethered, finally fully trusting that God will still hold you as you flail awkwardly and dance through life as best as you can.


A Glimpse of the Wild Goose Festival

We gathered... 

We camped...

   We brought diverse viewpoints... 


  We listened to wonderful speakers like Philip Yancy and Phyllis Tickle...

 We were inspired in various ways...

We made cool art...

We were curiously provoked (?) ...

We partied to fabulous bluegrass music...
And we were hippies...

 All in all, a good time :)

Monday, August 5, 2013

Why I quit my job today


According to The New York Times, the theme of this year's graduation speeches was "be bold and take risks." For the Millennial generation this is the ultimate pep talk – it's what Uncle Sam's call to war was for the 1940s or what Woodstock's call to peace and free love was for the 1960s. Young people across the globe have been heeding this advice, dropping their paychecks and healthcare benefits and picking up their Ramen noodles and curbside couches to pursue the start-up dream.

Today, I became one of these 20-something risk-seekers. I went to my office for the last time, signed some papers, and officially handed over my lucrative job as a management consultant to [hopefully] find my passion and design my own job. However, unlike Mark Zuckerberg, who is my age by the way and can say in hindsight that risk brought him success, I have no clue whether this will be a good decision or a complete disaster. I know my dad, for one, is biting his fingernails.

So why am I doing this? What motivates our generation to throw caution and salaries to the wind and follow our idealism in chase of a better pot of gold, a better app, a better world? And what makes many of us so successful?

Here are 7 thoughts.

1. Work = purpose. It's become a cliché, but it used to be that you worked to live but now we live to work. Longer work hours have created a higher premium on getting the most out of your job. The attitude is "if I'm going to spend 90% of my waking hours at work then I better be doing something I love." Moreover, as the importance of local community, religion, and cultural traditions has tragically waned, work has filled the void, becoming one of the primary sources of meaning and purpose.
2. Education is overpriced. It's no secret that the price tag of a college or graduate education has been on the rise, a steep rise. So far, most students still seem willing to pay, but as more stories circulate about monstrous debt or about MBAs that give you little but a two-year party, many people are deciding to opt out. Not all become Bill Gates, but many do go on to learn arguably more than they would have sitting in a classroom. (You can read about The Leap Year Project for a great example). 

3. Capital is easy. Many believe we are in a venture capital bubble. There are more wannabe venture capitalists than good entrepreneurs and nearly any idea that sounds sexy, seems remotely feasible, and is backed by a 25 year-old will have a school of sharks ready to take a bite. Many young people are taking advantage - the good ones use the money to build great companies, the bad ones spend it on business conferences in Hawaii.  
4. Power is diffusing. A growing set of accessible, flexible platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Wordpress, Ebay, and, of course, smart phones is making this possible. A high school-aged Tweeter can beat The New York Times with a story that reaches millions. I can look-up on Skillshare how to build an app for a smartphone. Commercial barriers are also falling. With a few clicks and emails I can buy a thousand t-shirts wholesale from China through Alibaba and create my own online store on Ebay.  And soon 3-D printers will become real-life genie lamps, allowing anyone to manufacture products at home.  

Through all this, nobodies become somebodies, and Justin Biebers get noticed on YouTube. This ability for anyone to make a name for themselves fuels the egos of entrepreneurs, and perhaps even more so than the financial incentive, gives them the extra motivation to risk something new.
5. Businesses are becoming more modular. As networks expand and communication technologies improve, teams can be quickly assembled like modular blocks. In my network, for example, I can find an entrepreneur in India to partner with (a business school friend), or talk to a colleague who can recommend a good software developer (a work friend), or get advice from a Human Resources manager in Canada (a Linked-In connection). Moreover, many skills such as web development are becoming increasingly commoditized and sites like ODesk and Elance allow you to hire talent on an hourly basis.  

This, combined with the fact that Millennials enjoy jumping from project to project, means it's likely that businesses will start having an even more fluid staffing model.  They may begin imitating consulting firms, which quickly assemble and disassemble teams to match a client's need. The model will also help keep career-minded, high talent mothers and fathers in the workforce, enabling them to do stimulating work on a part-time basis. The key will be how to select for good talent and build team structures that work.
6. Failure isn't so bad. It's become common advice in the start-up community to "fail as fast as you can." Fortunately, failure isn't nearly as painful as it might have been for our parents' generation. Because Millennials are marrying later, having kids later, and getting mortgages later, we have less to risk by leaving our jobs or worse, going bankrupt. The one exception may be our higher student debt, but even this doesn't deter many people. And as I said before, it may turn out that a failed start-up is a better and cheaper investment than going back to school.

7. Doing good is cool. What is "cool" matters and shapes a generation. Fortunately for us, "doing good" has become the thing to do. Even just 30 years ago, when my dad was in his 30s, there was only one class on nonprofit management available to him in the country. Today there are hundreds of these classes. Social impact has increasingly become part of employers' pitches to recruits. At my firm, working with the Gates Foundation is more popular than working with some of the biggest banks. It's this drive to make a difference that sets us apart from entrepreneurs of the past. At our worst Millennials may have a naive savior complex, but at our best we develop platforms and disruptive solutions that flatten society and empower others to make the world a better place.