Monday, December 13, 2010

The Curse of Knowledge

We were reading research showing that people who speak a tonal language (such as Chinese) have better pitch than those who speak other languages (such as English). They often notice even the slightest defects in pitch, such as a guitar which is slightly off. This can be a great musical asset, but it can also be a curse: while most people enjoy a slightly off tune song by the fireplace, those able to recognize small variations in pitch are annoyed by what can amount to noise for them.

I've experienced similar situations (not related to pitch, as I am almost tone deaf!). I learned to scuba in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. That became my "reference point" for diving and now most other places feel pretty bare in comparison. Or, take sushi: after discovering and frequenting some truly amazing sushi we have a hard time enjoying sushi anywhere else. I imagine wine connoisseurs have similar experiences: a slight problem with a wine ruins it for them - while most of us don't even notice. Of course the positive side is the tremendous enjoyment we get from superb things that we are capable of appreciating: a perfectly played violin solo, an extraordinary wine or a perfectly prepared piece of fish.

I do believe there is a takeaway, or at least so I told the kids: try to build up your experiences so that you culminate on the best one. In other words: save the best for last!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Pursue your top choices first, even if they seem unlikely

I got a call from C yesterday morning: "You wont believe what just happened to me... I dropped my car keys down a storm drain! Can you please bring me the spare key?". Sure. I started driving to where she was but a few minutes before I got there she called me again: "I got the key. Someone saw what happened and figured out how to recover the key". When the key dropped down the drain, Cindy simply assumed it was lost - as did I. So we immediately went into Plan B: get the spare. Yet sometimes Plan A works, even if it seems far fetched. Don't jump into plan B without giving Plan A a fair trial...

Other examples I discussed with the kids: when I first applied to my top choice school for graduate school I was rejected. Instead of going to my second choice school I applied again - and got in. Of course sometimes Plan A is unattainable, and we need to know when to give up and move on to Plan B.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A personal matter

N was late to school yesterday and was embarrassed to tell his classmates the reason. So, he made up an "acceptable excuse" that he felt was a "Green Lie". I argued most such excuses are unnecessary, risky and plain wrong. Unnecessary because it is usually possible to provide a generic explanation such as "I was late for personal reasons". And leave it at that. "What personal reasons?". "I would rather not discuss". End of the story. No lie. No embarrassment. No risk of being caught lying. While yesterday's example was trivial, it is easy to get into the habit of making up excuses to justify our behavior. I see people who do this all the time. Instead, I encouraged the kids to get into the habit of always providing truthful explanations that contain just enough information, but not more than they want to share.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Put your oxygen mask first...

P woke up early this morning and before I had had a chance to make my morning coffee he asked me if I could toast a bagel for him. I told him I would do it after I made my coffee, as I am not fully human before my morning coffee... This reminded me of the emergency instructions on airplanes, about puting your oxygen mask on before helping kids. Spoke with the kids about this today. What are other situations in which you have to help yourself before helping others? If someone is sad or depressed, you probably need to be in a good mental state to cheer them up. Or, sometimes you have to set a good example to help others. For example, if you want to help someone do more exercise it probably helps if you do exercise yourself...

Then there are situations in which you might put yourself at risk in trying to help someone else. A few months back I was kitesurfing under the Golden Gate bridge with a friend who lost his board. I helped him recover it - which was not a big risk. Then he lost it elsewhere, and again I got his board. But when he got into a wind hole and dropped his kite I decided the smart thing to do would be to call the coast guard on his behalf - rather than get stranded with him. These decisions are not always Black & White of course... Sometimes you do need to take risks to help others (although ideally not before your morning coffee).

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Avoiding Unnecessary Risks

P mentioned yesterday morning that he was taking his wallet with him to school to buy books at the school's book fair. In addition to some cash, he said he had a bunch of gift cards that he had gotten. I asked him why he would carry the gift cards with him. No good reason. That is where he stored them and he didn't feel the school was a dangerous place to take his gift cards to. I said carrying those gift cards around was an unnecessary risk. Hundreds of people attend his school every day, including many strangers. Why take the risk? He continued to argue that nobody in his school would steal them, but the next day told me he had taken the gift cards out of his wallet :-).

I told the boys that when I travel, I make a point of leaving at home unnecessary things that would be problematic or expensive to lose. And when I go on excursions, e.g., a day hike or bike ride, I often just take a bit of cash with me and leave my wallet in a safe place.

You do have to think carefully about what is a "safe place". I mentioned to the boys that soon after graduating from college I decided that my apartment was not a safe place to keep my college ring and nice watch (since I was concerned the cleaning person might steal them). So I decided to store them in my desk at work. Well, that was not very well thought out as they were stolen from there - probably by the cleaning person from the office!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Penny WIse & Pound Foolish

We usually put a lot of effort into our trips: hours of research into destinations, flights, hotels, etc. Packing tons of stuff to make the most of the trip: kitesurfing gear, board games, musical instruments, computers, books, movies, clothing... Then of course there is the expense. We try to save money where we can, and spend it where we have to. Yet sometimes we screw up and miss something important - or spend a lot on something that turns out not to be worthwhile. I was thinking about this over the Thanksgiving weekend because I put a lot of effort into having all the gear I might need in the event that the wind cooperated and we could kite. I ended up packing seven kites and two boards (not counting the two kites and board we took for my brother in law). Excesive? Maybe, but imagine going through all the trouble of this trip to Florida (hours on planes, hours in the car, etc., etc) and not be able to kite because the wind is light and I didn't bring a large kite? Sometime the little things can get you. For example, not bothering to pack the wetsuit (who needs one in Florida anyway) but then there is a cold front and you are miserable.

I realize this topic is only tangentially related to the title, but the pennies and pounds refer not just to money, but to effort as well. Besides, I almost left the boards behind to eliminate the risk of having to pay for excess luggage (I didn't). But that would have been penny wise and pound foolish: save a hundred bucks on what might deliver tons of pleasure while spending thousands the rest of the trip (air, hotel).

So kids, remember to look at the big picture: don't skip on the little things that might end up making a big difference. Don't sweat the larger expenses if they are necessary, e.g., airfares, but don't go crazy on the stuff that is unlikely to matter much...

Monday, November 29, 2010

Trou Du Cul

This summer the kids learned a French card game while at summer camp. It is called President and it has the particular characteristics that, after each round, the person who came in last in the previous round, the Trou Du Cul, must give his two best cards to the person who came in first, the President. In return he gets the President's two worst cards. The person who came in second-to-last, the Vice Trou Du Cul, gives his best card to the Vice President, in exchange he gets the VP's worst card.

We were playing this game over Thanksgiving break and I told the kids the game reminds me of many situations in life in which those who get ahead have an easier time staying ahead, while those who fall behind have a harder time catching up. Some examples? Almost in any profession, if you are involved with a successful project you are more likely to have the opportunity to work on good projects in the future - even if you just happened to be lucky about being involved with the initial successful project. Or take school: do well during the first day of the year and the teachers will assume you are a good student and cut you some slack in the future. On the flip side, do poorly and they might asume the contrary... And one a more personal (and physical) example, start a sailboat race ahead and you block the wind from the boats behind. You can stay ahead even with a slightly slower boat.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Pain to Pleasure Ratio

I recently spent many hours in planes, airports and cars to go kite for a couple of days. I've been thinking about the ratio of "travel time" to "fun time". So I asked the kids this morning for their opinions: how many hours and how much effort is justified for a few hours of fun?

No easy answers but a good discussion... We concluded that it depends on how special the fun is. For example, some people will train for months and spend millions of dollars to go to space for a few hours. But going into space is obviously VERY special. The other factor is the nature of the effort. For example, C trained for months to climb Mount Whitney (a 16 hour ordeal). But the months of training were part of the experience, a net positive, as opposed to being stuck in planes and airports, which is obviously a huge pain.

We also spoke about the risk that all the effort might be wasted, such as when there is no wind in a kiting trip or bad weather in a climbing expedition. The same principle applies: if the end goal is really worthwhile it is worth the risk.

I asked the boys to think of something special they would be willing to spend a lot of time on planes to do. N said going to Yosemite. Then Cabarete. P said snowboarding. A said doing an awesome free climb.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Shades of Grey

P was upset because we allowed N to do something then didn't allow him to do the "exact same thing". The reality was that the circumstances were very different, but he was only looking at the similarities. I encouraged them to look at all the factors and circumstances when comparing situations. For example, N recently played his favorite song of the moment on the home stereo. P complained he was sick and tired of hearing that song and asked N to change it. Because we had already heard that song several times that day, and it is a song that can indeed be annoying (So Long and Thanks for All the Fish from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Soundtrack) I sided with P and changed the song. However, when A played a song and N asked him to change it I sided with A because it was not a song we had heard recently and it was not a particularly long or annoying song.

Another example: a complaint from one of the kid's teachers might result in the loss of computer privileges if it follows poor grades or other complaints. A similar complaint might not have consequences if it is isolated. Similar complaints, different circumstances.

Of course certain situations are "Black & White". And we sometimes establish some very clear rules. But it seem more often than not, there are shades of Grey to consider...

Thursday, November 18, 2010


A recently decided to sell his ipad. He put an add on Craigslist and got a few inquiries. Initially he replied to all and had some serious potential buyers. He thought that a particular buyer was going to work out but when the buyer backed out, A did nothing for days. The other potential buyers cooled off. He lost his "momentum"...

I spoke to the kids about the importance of maintaining momentum. Be it in a negotiation, a tennis match, a painting, a homework or a relationship. If things are going your way don't lose your momentum. It is often just like in the physical world: once you get that heavy object moving it is much easier to keep it moving than it would be to get it moving from a standstill. I told them that the formula for momentum was weight times speed. So, the heavier the object (or the bigger the task) the harder to change its velocity, and the more important it is to take advantage of any momentum we might have.

The flip side is that when things are not going our way, e.g., losing a sports match, a pause might help, as it might eliminate the momentum against us.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Deal with difficult issues right away

I told the kids about a recent situation in one of the companies I work with. Several months ago a board member asked the CEO to do something that the CEO didn't want to do. The CEO didn't want to argue either, so he made a compelling case for postponing that action for a month. After the month went by, the board member asked again. The CEO made another (different) compelling argument for waiting another month. Now two months have gone by and the board member has no more patience. The CEO calls me and tells me the bottom line is he doesn't want to do what the board member is asking for. Yet the CEO is in a very bad position. He had already agreed, twice, to do what the board member wanted. He had just asked for a delay. If he now says he doesn't want to do it he comes across as disingenuous - like he didn't really meant it when he argued for delays. Like he was just looking for excuses. He would have been in a much better position to make his case for not doing the action when it was first brought up.

We are often tempted to find easy excuses for not doing things we don't want to do - instead of confronting people. "I can't go because I don't have an umbrella"... "Don't worry about it. I have an extra umbrella". Much better to "bite the bullet" early on, be truthful and deal with the situation before we have gotten ourselves into a corner.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Speedy Boarding

I recently flew on EasyJet. One of EasyJet's options is to pay an extra $10 to get on the plane before other passengers (thus pick a better seat). I find this offer very appealing and am surprised so few people take advantage of it. On this particular flight we had to board using a bus that would drive us to the tarmac in front of the plane. When they called the "Speedy Boarding" passengers to the bus (maybe 15 of us) I thought "great! I get to board the bus before other passengers but that wont do me much good getting on the plane before them". Yet EasyJet did something very clever: after the 15 of us boarded the bus the driver came and told us which gate he would use to let passengers into the plane. "Get close to this gate and you'll be the first ones onto the plane". A very low tech solution but one that worked :-).

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dead Fish

I told the boys about a speech I once heard from a pioneer of the PC industry (Fred Gibbons, the developer of the first desktop publishing software for PCs). A very humble individual Fred said that he succeeded simply because he was sailing in a fast rising tide, i.e., the early days of the PC industry. He said, "when the tide rises, even dead fish go up with it". I am sure there was more to it to his success, yet his point is a good one. When deciding what to do, and this is not just professional, it can be about a sport, a hobby, music, politics, etc, picking a "rising tide" can be a huge advantage.

It is not always obvious which tides are rising and which sinking, particularly early on. It usually pays off to wait a bit to be relatively sure. You might miss the benefits of being super early, but big tides often go up for a while.

Of course the top priority should be to do whatever we enjoy and believe in. I don't subscribe to the philosophy of picking the fastest riding tide regardless of how we fill about it. But often we can sail the boat we like in many oceans, so we might as well pick a rising one...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Delivery Crabs

I had the funniest dream ever! We had ordered chinese food and it was delivered to us by specially trained crabs. Yes, big & Red crabs! They came with the white boxes of food hanging from their claws. They then waited patiently for me to pay them (cash only). As I was sorting our the cash I dropped several bills to the floor and the crab picked them up. "No, no. That is not it. I don't even know how much money there is there. Please give them back". The crab dropped the bills on the floor and expectantly waited again for the money. Whifff...

Has to be the funniest dream I've ever had.

Note: Sorry to C for waking her up to tell her my dream. Wanted to make sure I didn't forget it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

RED Weekend in LA

We went to LA for the weekend for a weeding. I ask the boy this morning which things they enjoyed the most and the least. Not surprisingly, going to see the movie RED was at the top of the list. I used to feel bad about "wasting" time at a movie when traveling, but I've realized what matters the most is not seeing the most tourist attractions, but having a great time. And kids love going to the movies no matter where they are. Besides, LA is "movie town" so it felt appropriate :-). N enjoyed the hotel's pool, even thought he only used it for 10 minutes. P enjoyed seeing C's old lab at UCLA (and crystal through the microscope). They all enjoyed rollerblading on Venice Beach and in generale just "going to LA". The didn't like not being able to attend the wedding (it was adults only), and having no weekend left in SF.

What about me? I mostly enjoyed seeing friends & eating at our favorite Cuban restaurant. And I hated the traffic and the flight delays.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Getting Ahead of Ourselves

A spent a bunch of time researching the computer he plans to buy on his birthday (in 4+ months). I told them we should be careful about getting ahead of ourselves. For example, spending a lot of time planning an event that might not even happen. Or spending a bunch of time planning a purchase so far in advance that our research might become obsolete by the time we are ready to purchase (or, we might change our minds and not purchase anything eventually). Or, planning how to spend some money that we might not even get...

Of course, sometimes these things can be fun. I remember spending two years doing research into which sailboat to buy. I didn't want to purchase anything because the shopping was so much fun! And the research often pays off (it did in the case of the boat). But fun aside, it can be a big waste of time (and sometimes worst) when we get ahead of ourselves.

[Update: a month after this conversation A decided he wont buy a new computer after all]

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Decisions, Decisions

I am grappling with a small "dilema" and asked the kids for advice: I need to purchase new kites (for kitesurfing). After a lot of research I chose a brand and model only to find out that they just released their 2011 models and have a 3 month backlog. Problem is we have two holiday (Thanksgiving & Christmans) when I was hoping to use the new kites. I tracked down some 2010 kites still available, but the cost would be comparable to the newer ones, which I would get in January. So, do I buy the 2010 kites to have them for the trips? Do I order the 2011a and find some alternative for the trips, e.g., rent something, or, do I order my second choice kites, which do have 2011 units available? Life or death stuff...

N thought I should get the 2010s so that I could have them for the trips. P thought I should wait for the 2011s, since whatever I buy I will keep for a long time, so better to be very happy with them. A wasn't paying attention to me (he will have to go on the back seat for the next week as a consequence!).

I am still trying to get a 2011 in time...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Courtesy of a "Heads Up"

A missed an afternoon of school last week to got tour a prospective high school. We asked the previous day to send an email to the teachers' whose classes he was going to miss giving them a heads up. He refused, saying there was no need, as his classmates would just tell the teachers, if they asked, that he was gone to check out a high school. Today I talked to the boys about the importance of giving people a "heads up". People really appreciate it if at the beginning of a meeting (or class or phone call) one says "I might need to leave early because...", or "I might need to take a phone call". A simple heads up lets you get away with stuff that would be pretty rude otherwise, such as taking a call in the middle of a meeting, or leaving in the middle of a class.

The same principle applies to delivering bad news. The more heads up the better. For example, if you do poorly in a test but don't tell your parents. Then don't share the test results with them. But wait until the teachers drops the bomb at the parent-teacher conference, your parents are likely going to be very upset (and probably take away some of your privileges). If instead, you give your parents a heads up the day of the test "mom, I had a math test today in which I think I did poorly", then the consequences once you share the test results with your parents are likely to be much less severe. By sharing the info early you showed you cared. You were honest, and, you lowered expectations...

Friday, October 8, 2010

X Prize

Met someone from the X Prize Foundation last night. Very cool organizations. They create $10MM prizes to encourage research and development into worthy goals that might otherwise not be financially viable e.g., space vehicles, affordable genomes, fuel efficient cars. This "prize" approach has being gaining popularity because it is highly leveraged: instead of giving the $10MM to directly fund research and development, the prize generates many times that amount of work funded by those who want to win the price. A bit like a lottery (which as we all know, is such a profitable model only governments can do it!). Another analogy the kids are familiar with is Threadless, which pays a few thousand dollars each week to the winning design for a t-shirt, but gets dozens, if not hundreds of designs for free...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bring the t-shirt if it is warm

P was wearing a long sleeve shirt and asked me to tell C to bring him a t-shirt to soccer practice "if the day got hot". I called here, in front of him, and told her to bring him a t-shirt. No conditionals. P said, she only needs to do it if it gets hot. I told him that it was better if she simply brought the shirt. Otherwise, what if he thought it was a hot day but she didn't? In general, it is a bad idea to agreements based on subjective criteria, like whether the weather is hot or not. And even some apparently objective criteria van become subjective. For example, is it night or day during the sunset hours? Is it raining or not when it is drizzling?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bad Referees...

Over the weekend P had two soccer matches. I watched the first on which his team played great and won. I didn't watch the second one in which the referee was so biased he made them lose 3 to 1... Or so P says. I wasn't there, so I don't really know. Still, I spoke with the kids about not blaming external factors for their failures. Even if those factors are true, it is usually better to focus on the things we could have done better. Why? Well, for one, we might learn something and do better in the future when faced again with a bad referee. But also we avoid coming across as "sore losers". We cause a better impression on others when we show humility and openness to learning than when we blame others for everything and don't acknowledge ant faults on our end.

P said the problem with my suggestion was that people would think we were bad (soccer players). I answered that most people can assess how good or bad we are without our explanations as to why things went the way they did. Our explanations have a much bigger impact on people assessments of our character than our skills. P insisted that wasn't always the case. For example, what if I am interviewing a candidate for a job and he blames himself for a past problem. Wouldn't I think he was weak and not hire him? I explained that before hiring people I do reference checks, and that a candidate who blames external factors for something he had responsibility for wont do well once I check his story... On the other hand. someone who shows me he has learned and improved will do much better.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Provide the right level of detail for your audience

P started to tell me about the latest video game he had played. A complained and asked if we had to listen to this. My initial reaction was going to be to say "yes, P wants to tell us about this so we should listen" but P was giving me some very detailed information that was not very interesting to A. So I actually spoke about the importance of being brief and focus on the "important" stuff. It obviously depends on the situation: I am sure some of P's friends enjoy hearing every last detail of the video game, but one must asses one's audience and provide the appropriate level of detail for it. In this situation, P was giving more details than we cared to hear... Imagine a neurosurgeon talking with some non doctors. It would not be appropriate for him to get into the scientific details of his latest surgery. His audience would probably not even understand. Yet if he was talking with a fellow neurosurgeon, then obviously more details would be appropriate.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Getting Unbiased Advice

We spoke about how to make sure that the advice you are getting is unbiased:

- If the person would benefit from your decision then you should watch out. Some situations are pretty obvious, e.g., a salesman. But others less so. For example, I would benefit from great families joining my kids school, so anyone getting advice from me about schools needs to consider that.

- If the person doesn't provide a balanced view, with pros and cons, but only gives your pros (or cons) that is a Red flag.

- If they don't have real experience in the subject matter. How well do they really understand the issues? I mentioned that how confident and authoritative someone sounds is not correlated that how knowledgeable he is. Yet, unfortunately, we tend to assume it is. Don't let those who sound the most confident about their opinions influence you more than others.

- Try to get a large enough sample of opinions.

- Try to find people who share your values and points of view.

Monday, September 27, 2010


This week I spent a couple of days at an Endeavor ( event. Endeavor is a fabulous organization that supports entrepreneurs in many developing countries, e.g., Argentina, Chile, Jordan, South Africa. They had their selection panel to choose the entrepreneurs they will help this year and I was invited to be a judge. It is terrific to meet entrepreneurs from all over the world. I told the kids about it...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Saving Intangibles

Over the weekend we had a conversation with A about his grades and the need to at least match the class average. Obviously, it would be ideal if he was at the top of the class, but that is up to him. The conversation was about the "minimum" that we expected from him (long story for another post)... We mentioned that what mattered was his running average, so he should try to get more than the class average as often as possible so that if he had a bad day and got a lousy grade once, his average would still be above the class average. In other words, he should "save" points.

In the car I ask the boys about other "intangibles" that one can save. N said food, which didn't qualify as an intangible :-). P said friends, which is also not intangible, but closer. He said it was good to have many friends in case some moved out of town (his best friend moved to the East Coast last year). One of them said "love", and I said that giving lots of love, besides being great, probably accumulated "goodwill" for you. Which was a good things for that they in which you misbehave...

I mentioned that sleep was unfortunately something that apparently we can't save: sleeping fo 24 hours straight wont help you stay awake the next day! Other intangibles you can save? vacation days (or, in their case, lack of absences from school).

Monday, September 20, 2010

Don't use my board game!

We have been playing a cool strategy board game that P got for his birthday. The other night P came down to the kitchen and found C & I playing the game by ourselves. He immediately took the board away (ruining our game) and told us we had no permission to use his game. I am still trying to decide whether it makes sense for me to have to ask P for permission to use his board games. After all, the kids use the "common" board games without permission... But that is not my point today. Instead, I told the kids how P could have handled the situation much better in the following way:

- Calmly tell C & I that he would prefer if we ask for permission before we use his board game.
- Asking if we could put it away, or at least move it away from the kitchen table where he was worried it would get dirty.

Basically, being polite he would achieved his goal without alienating us and making us feel that next time he asked us to play the game we might refuse... No matter what you want from people, in general, a polite accommodating request generates better results - not to mentioned that it is the proper thing to do regardless

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Who created the Internet?

N asked me "Who invented the Internet?". Told him about universities connecting their mainframes, the military creating a redundant network, physicists at linear accelerators collaborating, Tim Berners Lee inventing the Web... N wanted to know how rich Berners Lee was. Told him I din't know but that I thought he was very happy working at MIT, being a knight, and hanging out with all sorts of interesting people.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Changing Behaviors with Tricks

N is training his new bird Martin. Spoke with the boys about using "tricks" rather than "brute force" to modify behavior (of either animals or people). Repeating "No, Martin. Don't bite my watch " rarely works. Yet keeping him away from your watch solves the problem. I had a German Shepherd when I was a boy. I got him to seat when I yelled "seat" at him, but I was having a really hard time training to get up when I yelled "stand". Until I heard of a trick: wait for him to get up on his own, and as he was doing so, yell "stand". It worked like a charm! After a while he associated "stand" with getting up and would follow my instructions :-).

What about people? Well, instead of lecturing someone about eating less, how about not having junk food around and serving small healthy portions in dinner plates? Oh, yes, and staying busy avoids the eating to fight boredom problem. No need for lectures...

If a "behavior change" is all you are after, there is no need to get the person (or animal) to internalize some deep principle. Just make it easy for the to "do the right thing".

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Little Things that Get You

A tiny cut in my pinky toe almost ruined a recent kiting trip. While I was very careful about the big risks (wore a helmet, launched the kite always over the water, etc) I initially ignored this tiny cut which got infected and made it really painful to ride. Fortunately, I kept it under control with lots of tape and local antibiotics, but it reminded me of the importance of paying attention to the little things. I told the kids the story of Al Capone, who was careful to cover his murders and bribes, but got thrown in jail for the much less serious offense of not paying his taxes. Great explorers and athletes have also gotten in trouble from ignoring little things: climbing high treacherous peaks only to die of infection from a small cut; bike riding a steep mountain only to fall in the parking lot and break a bone (or two).

Don't lower your guard during the "easy" periods and don't ignore the little things.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Unplanned experiences

One of the most memorable experiences of our summer occurred when a street performer asked N to help him with his act. N is a natural born actor and clown and pretty much stole the act from the street performer (proud parent perspective, of course ;-). It was a much more memorable experience than the carefully planned bike ride through the countryside. What is the takeaway? Some of the best things in life can be serendipitous and improvised. Yes the story is a bit more complicated than that... We didn't randomly encounter that street performer. We purposefully went to an interesting neighborhood and in particular to an area where we knew there were street performers. We then were fortunate to encounter a particular performer who chose and clicked with N. Had we just stayed home no amount of luck would have resulted in such a memorable experience... So, put yourself in situations in which interesting things are more prone to happen... And, don't give up entirely on planned activities. While not all of them live up to our expectations, some do - and wont occur serendipitously.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Back to School!

Kids are back at school so the driving (& blogging) resume. Do summer vacations need to be this long in 2010? Is it the teachers' unions that keep them this long? Don't get me wrong, summer vacations are great. I just think a couple of months would be plenty... Besides, teachers and children could probably use the extra time.

Anyway, I did a repeat topic today: first impressions. I know if was a repeat not because I remembered doing it, but because the boys immediately knew the importance of first impressions when I asked them about it. Seemed relevant for the first day of school...

Monday, June 14, 2010

Vacations: having fun vs. checking sites off the list

The kids are on summer vacation... Last week a Spanish friend was in town. His second time in SF. He was comparing his first "touristy" visit with the current "hang out with friends" visit. I asked the boys what they thought would be more fun: visiting the tourist sites or simply hanging out with friends. They thought hanging out with friends would be more fun, and I agreed. On our recent trip to China our best day was probably the one in which we simply hanged out with friends... You still get to enjoy new places, but without the stress and in good company.

We also spoke a bit about vacation planning in general. We used to be more ambitious and try to pack a lot into our trips. But we've concluded the purpose of holidays is not to "check" places off a list, but to have a good time and enjoy new (or known) places. So we now don't try to do as much - and have a much better time...

A couple of years ago I was having a Skype conversation with a work colleague who was at the office in SF. I confessed that I was on a sailboat in the middle of a beautiful bay in the island of Menorca, and I sent him a picture of the place. His initial reaction was to ask "how can you be working in such a place?", to which I responded that "working" in such a place was a pleasure. I didn't have to "focus" on being on vacation to enjoy it...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Getting the advice that is right for you

I've been trying to learn to jibe on my kiteboard for a while without much success. I took a lesson but the advice I got from the instructor didn't help much. I then asked a pro rider and he gave me better advice, but still I fell down into the water most times I tried. Finally a third person, who had himself learned to jibe recently, gave me a few tips and I got it right away! Take aways:

- When learning something, it sometimes helps to hear different perspectives. What works for some people might not work for others. You need to find the approach that works for you.

- Experts are not always the best teachers. Sometimes the task at hand comes so natural to them that they have not really given much thought to the mechanics of how they do it. The instructor, for example, was telling me to do it one way but then I noticed that he was doing it differently!

- If at first your don't succeed... Keep trying. Perseverance usually pays off. But don't hit your head against the wall repeatedly. Look for new approaches.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Always have some margin for error

I drove the kids to Skyhigh in Santa Clara today, so plenty of talk time... The first conversation we had was about always having margin for error. For example, yesterday I picked up my friend E who came from Berkley via BART. I could have tried to pick him up right in front of the BART station on Market street, but, there is nowhere to park there, so it would have been a hassle if he was not right there when I got there. Instead, I asked him to walk a block to a place where I knew I would be able to park if necessary.

Another example: during the Vietnam War the Americans used M16s while the Vietnamese used the "inferior" AK47. The M16 was lighter and more accurate, yet it had no "margin for error" when it came to dirt and mud. M16s would jam due to all the dirt that got into them while AK47s worked just fine all dirty - as they were less "precise" machines with more room for error...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Don't give up right away

A was telling me a few days ago that he might have made a mistake by buying an ipad instead of a macbook - as he wants to get into programming for the iphone, for which he need a mac. I mentioned to him this morning that I found out yesterday that all Bay Area Apple stores are sold out of the ipad so that he can probably resell his ipad for the same amount he paid. I doubt he will do it - as he enjoys the ipad too much - but I took advantage of the occasion to tell the kids about the importance of not giving up right away when we think we made a mistake or can't get what we want. Turns out that he might be able to "return" the ipad and get a macbook if he wants. Just needed to make an effort (and have a bit of luck). I told them a couple of other examples: I recently bought a pair of waterproof headphones and found out a few days after I got them that the manufacturer had just released a headset version that would be better for me. Instead of saying, "bad luck, oh well", I contacted the manufacturer and asked if I could return the one I had bought (given the circumstances). They agreed. Another example would be to arrive to a store or restaurant a few minutes after they closed. Rather than turning around and leaving, knocking on the door and asking nicely might still get you in.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Subconscious Fiction & Emotional Music

As we got going this morning a very sad (classical) song was playing on the radio. I mentioned to the kids how amazing it was that instrumental music could convey such string emotions - I literally wanted to cry! A actually recognized the piece as one from Episode 2: Attack of the Clones (which the radio confirmed to be true). We couldn't remember the actual scene, but it must have been someone dying or leaving...

On a totally different subject: when P return from his trip to Catalina a couple of weeks ago he told me, and he was very upset about this, that he had lost his camera. He had it in his short's pocket where he was also storing rocks, and he left it open after adding some rocks, so the camera fell. That was that until this morning when we found the camera in a pocket of his suitcase (which we hadn't completely emptied). Turns out what we often "remember" is our subconscious filling the blanks. Paco remembered having his camera in his pocket and he remembered leaving his pocket empty and he remembered not finding his camera, so his subconscious filled the blanks with the camera falling from his pocket - and it made a tight memory that his conscious mind "remembered" totally unaware of his subconscious' fictional abilities... Not sure if this is true, but I said this was probably the result of natural selection: humans whose mind carefully recorded every second into an actual detailed memory were probably so busy dealing with memories they didn't react quickly when the tiger came... What was the benefit of recording in memory every second of a day hunting and gathering?

Don't trust your own memories!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Discoveries - Going on a Limb

Sunday was C's dad's birthday. The plan was to have a picnic and C vaguely remembered picnic tables near the Palace of the Legion of Honor. We headed that way but couldn't find the tables. Initially we were frustrated and somewhat upset at ourselves for not planning better. But after a bit of driving around, asking around and some Google searching we discovered a terrific place: Fort Miley. Awesome views of the ocean, no crowds, large grassy are next to the tables. The lesson? Sometimes you have to go out on a limb to discover great new things. If you just stick to what you know you'll miss out on lots of great things. It is like with food: you could just eat the few things you know you like over and over, but wont discover great new flavors. You'll strike out sometimes, but that is the price to pay...

Friday, April 30, 2010

Poker & Excuses

P was frustrated because a friend didn't invite him to his birthday party. Apparently other kids convinced the birthday boy not to invite P because P is the best poker player in his class and he would win the top price from the party's poker tournament. This statement from P prompted a bunch of feedback from me:

1) Don't say "I am the best poker player in the grade". Even if it is true, it comes across as arrogant. You can say you are a good poker player, or maybe one of the best.

2) Don't believe the reasons people give you for why they did something. Often people don't know themselves why the did something, yet when asked why they rationalize it and make up a reason that they often believe to be the truth - but it was conceived after the fact. And when people do know why they did something, they often rather give a more "comfortable" explanation than the truth.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Back Up Plans

Last week A was stranded in Italy on a study trip with his school - thanks to the Iceland volcano. His flights got canceled and they got rebooked for a few days later. A couple of days before the new flights it was still uncertain whether they would be canceled or not. I asked the school administration what their back-up plan was in case one of the new flights got canceled. They didn't have one. They were hoping the new flights would not get canceled and would work on a new plan if they were.

I discussed with the kids the value of having a "Plan B" in place ahead of time. A great example of when that might have helped was our trip to St Lucia over Spring Break. There was a storm in Atlanta where we had to change planes and as we waited for our flight to Atlanta and Delta said the flight was on time we were skeptical. Yet we didn't do anything about it. When half an hour before the departure time they all of a sudden told us the flight had been canceled we had to scramble to find an alternative. Fortunately we quickly found a Virgin America flight online and ran (literally) to their terminal to barely make the flight. Yet, we could have been looking at flight alternatives while waiting for the Delta flight and would have been in much better shape - and not have to run.

Hope for the best... But prepare for the worst!

Friday, April 23, 2010

It is not worth the risk...

During the weekend there were a couple of things that we told A he had to do that he clearly thought were silly: do his homework by the unfair deadline his teacher had given him and don't play games on his ipad during the week. Rather than trying to convince him that these were good ideas, or, I should really say, in addition to, I made the point that if he didn't do these things and we caught him, the consequences were very serious. It is not worth the risk for him. I used the analogy of driving where the speed limit seems ridiculously low. Great straight highways. No cars. Perfect weather. Yet the speed limit is 65 MPH. I might feel that I can safely drive at 90 MPH, but, it is not worth the risk. If I get caught not only will I waste tons of time, I will get a ticket and points of my license. I might disagree with the rule/law, and I might be willing to break it if I was certain I wouldn't get caught, but it is just not worth the risk...

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The No Contact Rule

N & P got into one of their typical arguments this morning. Each one convinced the other had started it and was primarily at fault. It made me think of the "no contact" rule in sailboat racing: regardless of what other boats do in a race, each boat has to do everything within its power to avoid contact. Even if another boat breaks the rules and gets in their way, if there is a collision that was avoidable, the boats that could have avoided the collision are disqualified - even if they did nothing else wrong. A boat that has to change its course to avoid contact with a boat that is fouling them can later ask the race committee for a redress, i.e., compensation for the time they lost avoiding the other boat.

I told the kids I would apply the same "no contact" rule to them: no matter what one of their brothers do, they must avoid a fight at all costs. They can come to me or C for "redress", but if they get dragged into a fight, they will be at fault too.

I love sailing analogies! I hope this made sense to non sailors...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Personalities & Wake Up Style

Our three boys are very different... One such difference is how they wake up. Every morning at 7am I turn on the music to get things going. P immediately wakes up and gets out of bed. But A & N need me to go to their room and touch them - or talk to them relatively loud. A & N are also different, though. A gets out of bed as soon as I wake him up but N stays in bed as long as he can (if I take his blanket away he'll recover it and get back into bed!). I am sure there is a correlation between these "wake up styles" and their personalities. I wonder if anyone has done research on this...

PS: I've been delinquent about writing in this blog. The good news is that we've continued to have good conversations - and hopefully they'll remember something... I might try doing shorter entries but doing them more consistently...

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Superwhat?

I mentioned to the boys this morning that this weekend was the Superbowl. I asked if they knew which teams where playing. N's answer was "the Superwhat?". I guess that since C & I are from Venezuela and they go to a French school it is understandble that they don't care much for (American) football. Ale asked if Stanford was one of the teams playing... P guessed the 49ers... I confessed that I didn't know who was playing either.

They were aware of the value of the half time commercials. I mentioned that such value was likely to decline, as now there were alternative ways of reaching tens of millions of users. A correctly guessed that Facebook was one such alternative.

I asked them if they knew who was competing in the America's Cup next week, and to my disappointment they didn't. I told them that the defenders were the Swiss (Alinghi) while the challengers were from our hometown of San Francisco (Oracle BMW). Oh well, I am sure they will know who is playing in the Soccer World Cup final...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

mixing hobbies & work

N asked me how come I didn't work with a kiteboarding company - since I like kiteboarding so much and work with many companies. I told him that that could potentially be a lot of fun, but that mixing hobbies and professions had risks. Last year I met Neil Pryde, the founder of the largest providers of sails for the windsurfing industry. His company also built sails for sailboats and kiteboarding gear. I mentioned to Neil how lucky I thought he was to be able to build a company around his passion for sailing. He said, "not at all... the company almost ruined my passion". Turns out that what used to be pure fun, i.e., sailing, became work. So, they actually stopped making sails for yachts and focused on windsurfing and kiteboarding. And now Neil is happy that sailing remains purely about fun for him. Of course, if you can make it work, the combination must be terrific. But sometimes it might be better to keep hobbies and work separate.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Making an average apple shine

I watched part of the Grammys last night. One of the performances had Taylor Swift (who I believe is 21) with Steve Nicks of Fleetwood Mac (who I am guessing is ~60). It struck me how young Taylor looked next to Stevie. Don't get me wrong, she looks young on her own, but the contrast with Stevie made her look even younger. She seemed 15! By the same token, Stevie looked older than I think she would have on her own. I told the boys about this, and how one can make something look better (or worse) by showing next to something else. Take an average apple and show it next to a gorgeous one, and people will probably rate it worst than if they saw it on its own. Or, show it next to a rotten one, and people will rate it higher. The boys wanted to know how to make the rotten apple look good. We came up with a few ideas, but I think I'll leave them off the blog ;-).

Friday, January 29, 2010

Solar Impulse

I was attending the DLD conference during the past few days, so C had to take the kids to school. I am back at my job now! I was telling the kids a bit about my favorite presentation during the conference, by Bertrand Piccard, founder of Solar Impulse. You can see it here: And learn more about Solar Impulse here Pretty inspiring stuff.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Monty Python in SF

It was only A & N in the car today as P spent the night throwing up :-(. Not having gotten much sleep myself I turned the radio on and found a talk show that was interviewing Terry Jones from Monty Python. Switched to music but A & N asked me to switch back, so we heard Terry for a while. The kids are huge Monty Python fans - they know the dialogues from the Search for the Holy Grail by heart. We had a good laugh hearing his stories & his fabulous British accent & humor. Turns out he is in SF for a special Monty Python festival that starts in the Castro tonight. Did you know that while Search for the Holy Grail is their most famous movie in the US, in the UK Life of Brian is much more famous? I didn't...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


This morning we spoke about the earthquake in Haiti. We've been to the Dominican Republic so I think the boys can at least relate to where Haiti is located. I mentioned that disasters such as this one can help us keep things in perspective. How can we be too upset about the typical things that go wrong with our daily lives when we think about the poor people of Haiti? We need to remember how fortunate we are! And we need to help. Their school is very international and very socially responsible, so I am sure they are already working on something...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ultimatums, blackmail & negotiations

I was telling the kids about the book Ultimatum that I am reading. They wanted to know what the word meant. When I explained it N asked whether that wasn't the same as blackmail. I explained the difference... We then got into a conversation about negotiations and the importance of not negotiating with yourself. If you are negotiating and the other side doesn't respond, do not improve your offer. Wait for the other side to respond with something. Otherwise, you are negotiating against yourself...

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Business Plans

I told the kids that this afternoon I am going to Stanford to mentor a team in an entrepreneurship class. They wanted to know what kind of help I gave them. I explained that they had to write a business plan and that I helped them make sure it covered all the key aspects it had to. Also, I give the students feedback on the actual content of the plan... The kids were quite interested. N said that if he had to write a business plan it would be for a touch computer, "like an iphone, but a computer", A said he would do a game development company.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Butterfly Effects

I read a story this morning about the secondary benefits of exercise. Nothing too surprising, but I guess not entirely obvious either: less colds, less diabetes, less cancer... I told the kids about this and about second & third degree consequences. How most systems are very complex and unpredictable. We had a laugh imagining how a butterfly could create a tsunami (blow air that moves a small leave, that moves a bigger leave, that changes the flight pattern of a small bird...).

I gave them the scenario of the forest with sheep and wolves that lived in harmony until hunters killed all the wolves. Asked them what would happen and they immediately guessed "ecological disaster... the sheep starve". Gave them a few more examples: raise the minimum wage (had to explain what "minimum wage" was). A correctly guessed some employees might get laid off. I added that some businesses might shut down altogether...

How did we get from the health benefits of exercise to unemployment??? Oh, well...

Monday, January 4, 2010

What you do vs. Whom you do it with

I asked the kids what they thought was most important about a job. N quickly suggested having fund and making friends. I mentioned the stereotyped description that Americans decide WHAT do do, then find people to do it with, while Europeans decide WHOM to work with, then look for what to do with them. The boys thought the "American" approach was better. They said one could make new friends at work and continue to have fun with existing friends outside of work. I mentioned that while that was indeed ideal, time constraints sometimes mean one mostly spent time with those at work. I also mentioned how important it was to pay attention to whom one worked with. I mentioned that one criteria that I used before deciding whether I want to work with someone is whether I would like to have that person over for dinner at my place.