People love a certain kind of disaster preparation.  After Hurricane Irene’s lackluster rains last year and today’s Hurricane Sandy prep, New Yorkers are now well familiar with mayoral press conferences and impressive lines at the Trader Joe’s.  Twitter is abuzz with witty puns and prayers for safety (and the safety of satellite dishes, so that they can still see The Walking Dead).  Everyone is just a little bit jazzed, even if they’re evacuating.

We’re fascinated by a certain kind of pseudo-disaster for the same reason we like watching scary movies: it is a safe kind of fear.  Hurricane Sandy has already killed 65 people to date in the Carribean, but we can likely assume that the New York death toll will be essentially nil; even if someone does die, it will almost certainly be less than the loss-of-life suffered in the average heat wave.  So for most New Yorkers, we’re “in danger” but not in any way that is, practically speaking, dangerous.

But the trick is that our brain doesn’t fully believe the difference.  We still get a spike of generalized arousal, which makes us more alert and focused, so that we get the benefits of preparing for fight-or-flight but without actually having to run or fight anyone.

In other words, a hurricane is a scary movie but you get to actually be in the movie.  There are practical things you get to do (like food shopping); it engages in your brain, you can plan, you can execute.  And in doing so, you come into contact with other engaged people: you make friends in the supermarket line, schedule impromptu parties of neighbors for spontaneous hurricane parties, hop on social networks to exchange plans and jokes and tips.  So we’re aroused, we’ve got a place to channel it, and we get to do it while being around other people.  That’s a brain cocktail for happiness.

Until Day 2.  Arousal is long gone; your brain isn’t stupid, it has figured out that you aren’t actually in any danger, and now it goes back to sleep.  And its an even deeper sleep, because now its recovering from yesterday’s burst of activity.  You’ve got no practical things that need doing, having battened the hatches and filled the fridge.  And you already saw everybody yesterday and they are sick of playing board games with you.

And that’s par for the course.  For psychologists, there are two major components to happiness: satisfaction (the long term experience of happiness) and delight (the momentary experience of happiness).  Delight, what you feel on Hurricane Day 1, is intense and important, but it comes at a significant cost: by sharply elevating our brain chemistry and our expectations, we experience a bit of a gulf when it is gone.  With enough satisfaction, we can mitigate this by using our long-term base level to bring us back up, but there will still be a little dip.

So live large, New York, on the first day of Hurricane Sandy.  Because tomorrow, it will be raining, with no schools and possibly no subways, and you may all be just a little dreary.  Celebrate – and don’t party so hard that a few more board games don’t sound good for tomorrow.

There has been a lot of chatter in the press recently about intelligence augmentation, which can mean a variety of things but always gets instantiated for me mostly clear in the “software” of William Gibson’s Neuromancer.  The basic idea is that “always on” forms of computing (like Google Glasses) will fill in the gaps of intelligence by either proactively or retroactively providing information.

Put another way: you’re sitting at dinner with me, we start talking about The Beatles but can’t remember when they were formed, Google Glasses says “1960, asshole” and presto…our intelligence was augmented.

I’ve raised issues about Google Glasses before, but it is a little harder to know in advance the effect of this kind of change.  For example, we know that resolving ambiguity tends to make us happy – our brain gives us a little extra love when we solve a puzzle or see the pattern in something that seemed random.  But we don’t know what happens if someone gives us the answer: does that provide the same rush of pleasure?  Does Google Glasses filling in The Beatles answer count for as much as noodling on it for a few minutes and figuring it out ourselves?

It may not matter in the sense that, like cell phones, the technology will almost certainly find widespread adoption.  But knowing in advance the potential psychological implications of intelligence augmentation may prove key in helping with a smooth transition.

The calculator gives us a good example from history.  I remember even up until high school the degree to which some teachers felt like using a calculator was intellectually lazy, and banned or discouraged them.  More recently, however, most the math teachers I know don’t give calculator use a second thought; the emphasis is on the concepts and application of math, not its mechanics.

As Howard Rheingold and others have pointed out, technology often evolves to help us become smarter as a mass humanity (the printing press, for example).  What is different about Google Glasses is that we are now moving into areas of technology that interact with brain processes that are much more core to our own human evolution: information recall, perception, and choice.  Whereas the printing press and calculator have no doubt made us able to do more, they did not change the fundamentals of how we think, just what we do with our thinking time.

In the end, this may just be me wanting to start a lab at the intersection of psychology and technology to start experimenting with the future of these things.  But the next time you can’t remember something, think about what it would be like if you just instantly “knew” – you never had the frustration or the process of finding out.  Net good?  Net bad?  Net different?

I like introducing people.  Whether it is romantic matchmaking or a great bizdev partnership or finding the right person to fill a job, there is a certain rush you feel when you connect the dots in just that certain way and it all fits together.*

The side effect is that I spend a lot of time talking to people about what they want to do in life, since that forms the basis of figuring out a good pairing for them.  And this has a notable downside: I hear the phrase “be my own boss” far, far too often.  It sets my teeth on edge and the word “entitled” flashes from the sky like a lightning bolt.  If my blood were not bossed around by physics, it would instantly boil.

The response comes at a fairly predictable juncture, where people start talking about why they left what they were doing and what they are looking to do next.  It is especially prevalent among people who are thinking about going into startups, without really having any idea what one is.  They are often the same people that think “more freedom” means “more options” and I suspect them of having bad musical taste as well.

Put simply: you are never your own boss.  You could make an argument about how you always have a choice and you really never have to do anything, but back here in reality, most people need a steady source of income, which means a job, which means a boss.

Now, you may want your boss to be your customer, and that is certainly something entrepreneurship brings.  But if you couldn’t learn to please your boss at your previous job, chances are you’re going to both chafe and be bad at pleasing customers as well.  An orientation towards fulfilling needs is a stable, portable characteristic: quitting your job and starting a startup isn’t going to make you magically care about meeting the needs of others.

The important choice we do have is not whether or not to have a boss, but who (or what) our boss is going to be.  Because in the end, the ultimate boss is simply responsibility: whatever thing we need to do in order to fulfill our role in the machine.  Serving customers through entrepreneurship is still part of that machine and just like physics keeps my blood from boiling, the same rules apply no matter what the role.  Designers design, founders found, coders code, but it is always in service of an outcome.  So pick your outcome.

* As a complete side note, there is some great research that shows that we are evolutionarily wired to get a little burst of pleasure from resolving incongruity and ambiguity.  Which makes sense, in that the person who enjoys seeing the tiger in the trees is going to have an extra shot at running away.

Recently, a reporter was asking me about founders and failure. Is there anything I’ve noticed about how they handle it well or badly? Are there general trends that unite how founders psychologically treat failures?

My immediate reply was “Founder’s Disease”. Its a term I made up once in a conversation to describe the way that founders have trouble admitting bad news and it is best crystallized in the following example:

A founder I knew well and I were out to drinks with one of his best friends. Because I had a minor stake in the company, I happened to know that it was doing badly and was a month or so away from running out of money. Nevertheless, the founder has a smile on his face and when his best friend asked how the company was doing, he said “Everything’s great!”

Everything was not great. In startups, everything is often not great. And yet almost every founder you meet will tell you about the positive events: traction, press, funding, whatever is most likely to put a positive spin on their company. And that, right there, is Founder’s Disease.

It is totally understandable. Most founders are all-in on a startup and have both their own money (and often friend and family money) and their own reputation tied up completely in its success or failure.  Which makes saying “things are bad” take on the larger meaning of “I am in danger of losing my literal and figurative self-worth”.

And presentation of your startup as successful is also a key component of the business of startups.  Look at Mint, which turned its constant “look at all our users” message into a decent acquisition (5X), conveniently ignoring that only a tiny fraction ever came back again.  Both investment and acquisition depend on defining your metric for success and selling it, hard.

So then why is it a Disease?  Because it leads you to tell your best friend in a bar that everything is wonderful, when your world is crumbling around your ears.  Not only is this incredibly emotionally depleting, because now you’ve literally lied to all the people that would provide commiseration and emotional support, but it doesn’t make good business sense either.

If I’m your friend, and you say “X is not going well”, of course I’m going to think about whether there is anything I can do to help.  And maybe it is just some advice, but maybe it is introducing you to a reporter I know to get you some press traction or an investor who I think can help you with funding.  In trying to self-present as strong, we weaken our position.

UPDATE 2: Apparently, Dan Storms of Originate also sent me Jelly Bellys, but due to a mail miscalculation, I just got them.  Let the weight gain begin!

UPDATE: Julie Fredrickson of playAPI sent me 10lbs of Jelly Bellys!  My dream has been fulfilled.

I recently wrote about a CEO I advise who was having trouble reaching out to others to ask for things, because he felt like he was always taking and never giving.  That post was about the problem and some solutions to it; this post is more generally about how to give back.

The general premise is this: as the CEO, you want to set aside a specific hour sometime during the week to show appreciation for others.  I’m certainly not the most new age guy, so I don’t mean that in the fuzzy, meditative way.  I’m talking about actually doing things for other people and giving them the rewards that they find rewarding.

This hour should be sometime in the evening or morning, so that you aren’t being bothered by incoming email, etc.  And it should be relatively focused on people who have either done something directly for you that week or someone who has done something for you in the long term that you haven’t yet recognized.
And this hour should have a budget.  It depends on how well-funded your startup is, but $100 a week isn’t unreasonable; I guarantee that if done well, this will net your business more than $5K a year.

The seemingly easy part (the appreciation) isn’t as simple as it appears, in part because you want to tailor your rewards to the people themselves.  Some people like public recognition for being awesome on Twitter, others would prefer an endorsement on LinkedIn, others want to get some Jelly Belly’s in the mail (this is clearly my dream).

Think about past people you’ve worked with, family and friends who have been supportive, anyone who has ever done you a favor (and if you’re doing your job properly, you should have plenty of those).  Think about everything you know about them and what would make them feel happy, honored, and remembered.  It doesn’t have to be time consuming or expensive, and you can probably get through at least 6 in an hour.

I’ll close with one of my favorites: cowboy boots and Dave Clarke.  Dave is a hell of a guy; he was our first hire at Churnless, where we literally just sent him an email address and said that he worked for us now.  He came onboard without having a clue what we were up to and who could possibly ask for more than that?  He does great work at the practice he founded (AuthenticMatters) and remains one of my favorite people in the world.

Now Dave lives in Philly, so he used to come up to the Churnless office every two weeks or so to work.  Slept on the couch, put in two good days, went home.  So one night, while he was out to a meeting, I stuck a pair of cowboy boots with a note expressing our gratitude for his badassery on the couch before I left.

It isn’t just leaving the gift that matters.  I wear cowboy boots every day, and Dave is a guy with a rustic edge (he’s from Virginia, listens to a lot of Drive By Truckers, and accepted a hatchet from me for his wedding present); giving him cowboy boots was a way of communicating how we felt.

And he felt good about them.  Still wears them when I see him.  And moreover, the next time I asked people in the office if they needed supplies, our lead engineer said “No supplies, but I want cowboy boots.”  Which he got, when he completed his first major product launch with us.

There is no substitute for appreciating people.  Set aside the time and budget and get it done.

The short lesson here is: don’t keep in features just because they were hard to build.  Good and bad are not the same as hard and easy, and even if worthwhile things were always hard (which they aren’t), that doesn’t mean that all hard things are worthwhile.

The longer explanation starts with the documentary a friend shot.  When I was watching the rough cut, I was marveling at how varied the footage was: some extremely high quality and quite moving, others less so.  My favorite was a city council meeting with the world’s worst audio; periodically, a door chime would come on while people were talking that made it sound like it was filmed in a 7-11.

Yet it made it into the final cut.  And as I was talking to my friend, I began to understand why.  Getting into the city counsel meeting, and filming it, was a tremendous endeavor that involved plenty of red tape and logistical challenges.  And because it was so hard, she was experiencing cognitive dissonance: it must be valuable because why else would I have put so much work into getting it?

I’ve seen people do this product development meetings over and over again.  Either a feature was hard to imagine or hard to execute on, and so when all those resources had been put it, it was immediately imbued with tons of value.  Acquisitions are a classic case: we paid so much for this, it must be really strategic and core.

Mistakes happen.  Sometimes we built parts of our product that just don’t belong, either because of poor fit or poor execution or just plain bad roots.  By leaving them in, we compound the mistake: it is like watching idiots in survivor movies.  You want to tell them to hurry up and build a shelter already, or get some food, but instead they just keep spending a bunch of time building showers.

Don’t let your mind win.  If a feature is bad, cut it.  This also goes for team members, marketing campaigns, and bizdev deals.  The biggest mistake you can make is holding on to bad ideas.

This post has a backstory.  When I was considering colleges, I was living in Hong Kong and it was really between two great schools: Lewis and Clark (which offered me a full-ride along with a stipend) and Swarthmore (which offered me some aid, but not really very much).  Lewis and Clark, in their extreme interest, also managed to track down an alumnist in Hong Kong (whose name I have long-since lost, which is a shame, since I owe him a great deal).

I told him about my options and he was prompt in his reply: “Are you kidding?  Go to Swarthmore.”  Probably not the pitch Lewis and Clark was hoping he’d make.

“It is simple.  Money is just money.  Life goes in stages: first you learn, then you earn, then you serve.  Go to Swat, no matter what it costs, then earn good money until you’re 45, are debt-free, and have money saved up, then go serve the ideals you really care about.”

There is plenty to dispute about that advice: the value of a particular college over another, how hard it is to leave a job that pays you well at 45, how easy it is to serve when your knees are going and you really like comfy beds.  But there is a core of simple truth there: that you don’t have to do everything at once and that you can have ideals without having them be the primary force behind all decisions.  Indeed, any notion of “balance” suggests that different forces have to guide you at different times and that single-minded pursuit of anything just makes you sick and tired and too poor to have the effect you want to have.

The reason this comes up tonight is a conversation with a friend who is choosing between a job that will likely result in about $5m in two years (as a company exits) as compared to a job that gives him the chance to have paradigm-shifting power and pay relatively well (just not $5m well).  As we talked, it became clear that he really wanted to take the $5m job, but hated having to admit to himself that money matters.

But money does matter.  I’m not suggesting it is easy to remember all your lofty goals  after you have a $5m check in your pocket; on the contrary, I think it is damn hard.  But I think it can be done. got built because we had enough money to do it.  If we had more money, it would be even better.  And it is just that simple: all the millions of extra dollars that we’ve helped women earn, all the narrowing of the gender wage gap, would not have been possible if we hadn’t made enough money to see us through the creation of the product.  GetRaise is a pretty strong argument for why sometimes, taking the money is not only not bad, its actually good.