At the end of each How I Built This podcast, the host Guy Raz asks his guests whether their success is based on hard work and skill or luck. I don’t understand how anyone can believe that their achievements were anything but primarily lucky.
I have been overwhelmingly lucky:
I believe that the world would be a better place if "successful" people appreciated how important luck was in their journey. Since those people have outsized power, more gratitude should breed more empathy which should result in policies that would be better for those who are less lucky.
The venture capital-backed startup world is a bubble. People outside of it think we're risk lovers, which is reasonable since the our failure rate is so high. I think that the best entrepreneurs are risk managers.
Most people are enveloped by the emotion of risk, and it freezes them. They think about how terrible it will be if they fail, how awful every conversation with be explaining what happened.
It's better to separate the emotion from the risk. Separate the fear of consequences from the consequences themselves. I do that by asking myself "What's the worst thing that can happen?" I explore that outcome, imagine the conversations I dread, think about what would come after the worst thing. Having fully considered the downside, I almost always conclude that the worst thing isn't really that bad.
This same thinking works when I'm at the top of a steep ski slope, or at a cocktail party and have to make small talk, or when I need to have a hard conversation. All of those things feel riskier than they are.
An emotionless view of risk allows entrepreneurs to make better decisions and take bolder action.
My 17 year old daughter is a sophomore in college, studying computer science. She is one of <5% in the major who are women, and he loves the work but her male peers make her wildly uncomfortable. She shared an NPR story with me (go listen!) that got me thinking about my own start in the field.
I graduated from high school in 1981. We had a computer area in the student lounge with a couple of TRS-80s. Only a few socially awkward boys used them. That was the era when the computer field was transitioning from a relative balance in genders, including pioneering women, to male domination. (Read or listen to the NPR story for why–it is not that women aren't good at it). I had no interest in computers at that time.
I have two men to thank for changing my mind.
Between my freshman and sophomore years in college I worked as a girl friday (yes, we still had those then) at a small architectural firm called Peter Woll Architects. It was in NYC, across from the Brooklyn Bridge on Dover Street, near the Fulton Fish Market. This is what it looked like then. Drafting was all done by hand still and the firm was a very early adopter of CAD. Peter Woll gave me the job of implementing the system. The most difficult, and fun, part of the project was physically connecting the necessary pieces of technology–one might call it networking, but not in any way we'd recognize today. I spent many hours at Cables & Chips, which I am trilled to discover still exists! At that time, it was located on the second floor of a tiny building in the fish market (get the pun?). I'd walk up the steps, slippery with fish scales, and have a long conversation with someone who would hand solder whatever I needed. It usually took a few times before the component would work properly. In retrospect, I don't know if Peter figured that there was minimal risk in giving me this assignment since I wasn't earning much or whether he had some intuition that I'd be good at it. Regardless, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity and for the perspective that early experience gave me: the best way to approach new technology is to try it. I gained a level of comfort and confidence in dealing with technical unknowns which has been invaluable, particularly as a non-technical person in the field. Thank you Peter.
The second thank you goes to Dr. Jonathan Baron. In my sophomore year in college, I took a cognitive psychology course with him. Dr. Baron was doing work related to that of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversy, who were pioneering behavioral economics. I was fascinated by the coursework and did very well, and Dr. Baron gave me a job as a research assistant. There were Commodore 64s in his lab, and I taught myself to program, consolidating data from a very large study of Alzheimer's Disease using cassette tapes as storage medium. I loaded the data into the University's DEC VAX and taught myself SAS from a manual so I could run multivariate regression analyses. This all seemed natural at the time, but after listening to the NPR story, I realize that it is extraordinary that Dr. Baron gave me, a girl, this project.
Flash forward 30 years, and I have had a successful career in technology, the last 20 at the helms of a series tech companies, a role that is held <5% of the time by a woman. I don't think any of that would have happened without Peter Woll and Jonathan Baron. I hope that there are many men like them today, assuming that a girl or young woman can do it, and giving them the shot.
p.s. My 14 year old daughter, after reading this, said " Wow Mom, you sure did get a lot of lucky breaks in your career." Yep.
sometime around 2000 i gave up using capitals in most emails. lots of people mention it, and some people are annoyed by it. no one has ever asked me why i do it, which i find curious. regardless, i want to go on the record explaining myself.
1. it was really hard to write on early pdas (i used a series of treos.) dropping the capitalization made it a lot easier.
it turned out that realized that skipping capitals had other benefits as well.
2. i have an array of odd learning/information processing deficits. i didn't read until i was 8, but was then able to read the new york times a week later. i have a very hard time with the order of digits. and i have terrible recall of proper nouns, dates, and numbers. my short term memory is only 5 digits long. i can't tell my left from my right. i can't alphabetize, and i can't learn the multiplication table. i struggle to read any extended text in Title Caps. i literally cannot see typos, mine or others'. all of which means i have to process a lot more than most people, and i'm prone to errors. skipping the capitals to reduce complexity simplifies and reduces error while speeding my email processing. this seems like a good tradeoff.
3. i could pay homage to one of my favorite poets (e.e. cummings) who used unconventional syntax expressively (and subversively?).
4. finally, it turned out that no caps has become a trademark look. when people see no-caps text, usually in an email, they suspect it is from me. it fits my direct, casual, results-oriented approach to things.
of course, when communication is more formal–an email to a client, a bio, any other blog post–i use full capitalization. and full sentences. that's my story!
This is my favorite story about my mother.
She is 84 and lives in NYC. Recently, she was running cross-town from her job (yes, she still works) to meet a friend for lunch (the woman has more friends than anyone I know). She is tall and thin and wears enormous sneakers, which hit a divot in the sidewalk, right near the curb and sent her flying into traffic on Madison Avenue where she landed, face first (don't worry–she's fine.) She wanted to get up, but a "sweet woman" told her to stay there, another called an ambulance, and three waited with her as she bled profusely (her word) until she was strapped onto the stretcher, loaded up, and off to the hospital. At which point, she refused to give the EMT my phone number. "I'm perfectly fine and don't want her to worry." The admitting nurse at the hospital eventually convinced her to share it by promising they wouldn't call me, which they didn't. She was cat scanned and given four stitches, and pronounced perfectly fine though badly cut and bruised bruised. She waited a long while before being released.
Then she got around to calling me. "Hi Lucinda," she began, in her typical sing-songy phone voice, "I am so lucky! And people are so kind. I was running to have lunch with Lynn when..." Of course, she doesn't understand why I love this all so much.
I want to be my Mom when I grow up.
I've started and/or run too many venture capital-backed software companies, plus one ill-fated food startup.