Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ask. Then Ask Again.

I told the boys this morning about a research study I recently read about. The study found most people underestimate others willingness to help them. As a result, most people don't ask for help as much as they should. The study create a number of scenarios in which participants had to ask for help, e.g., asking a stranger to borrow their cell phone. Participants had to guess what percentage of the strangers would help them. They significantly underestimated the number. The reason is very interesting: when we ask for something, we consider the size of the ask in our guess about whether we will get the help we are asking for or not. However, when someone asks something from us, what first comes to our mind, in deciding whether to help or not, is the impact of not helping. How bad will it look if I don't help? How will it impact the person who is asking? With this factor driving the decision we are more likely to help...

Furthermore, the study also found that people incorrectly assume that those who reject our requests are likely to reject future requests. Turns out those who reject a request from us are more likely to accept a future request. Think about it. If the main driver of the decision is how the rejection will be perceived, then rejecting us twice in a row would have a very negative perception, thus people try to avoid it. On the flip side, those who have already done favors for us are more likely to turn us down in the future, as that wouldn't look so bad.

Ask for help. And ask from anyone who can help you.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Don't postpone your tough decisions

Paco spoke to us about people who postpone their decision to "come out of the closet". Most of them discover that things don't turn out as bad as they feared and that the delay was the worst part of all. I observed that this can be generalized to all tough decisions, such as leaving a job or breaking up with someone. While the time immediately following the event is usually very tough, things quickly get better (much faster and much better than people anticipate). And most people look back at these events and regret not making these tough decisions sooner. Just do it!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Rebalancing your portfolio

A few months ago I helped the boys invest the savings they had (from birthday presents, allowances, etc). I used it as an opportunity to teach them a bit about investing, and also, with the hope that their savings would grow. At the time I suggested that they put 10-20% of their savings into Bitcoins. I explained to them then that Bitcoins had a lot of upside, but were very volatile and could also go way down, but that I felt they were a good long term investment (at least for a small percentage of their savings). They all liked the idea and put about 20% of their savings into Bitcoin, with the rest in a couple of mutual funds. The price of Bitcoins then was $150. The price of Bitcoins today is $1150! I am afraid this experience might have turned them into gamblers!!! Seriously, I told them this morning that they should considering re-balancing their portfolios, because their Bitcoins now represent 70% of their savings.

I put it this way to them: if they were investing their savings today, would they put 70% of them in Bitcoins? Probably not. The fact that their Bitcoin gains come form the appreciation of Bitcoins is irrelevant. Similarly to when they first invested their savings they should allocate a small fraction of them to such a risky asset. If they sell some and keep some they can feel good about what they sold if the price goes down and good about what they kept if the price goes up. A win-win :-).

We also spoke a bit about time horizons and needs. Nico joked that Ale could now buy himself a car. I made the point that if getting a car was an important goal and the value of his investment was enough he should consider selling his investments and setting the money aside for the car. Sure, he might miss some additional upside, but that is OK if he secures his objective. Ale is not interested in a car at this point though, but he might put some money aside for a nice bike :-).

Some people, of course, don't like to "play it safe" but prefer to make big bets.  We often read about these people in the news - at least the ones whose bets pay off. I actually like being bold and taking big risks. That is often how fortunes are made. But you must have conviction on your bets. If one of the boys understood Bitcoins well and had conviction their value would go up, I would be supportive of their investing the bulk of their savings in them. But not just because they "might" go up. That would be gambling.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Ale sold his old iPhone to a nice Nigerian lady... Not!

Ale was very happy yesterday because he had sold his old iPhone on eBay for a great price. Last night he asked for my help to send the buyer an invoice. I was about to do it when I realized the buyer's address was in Nigeria. Oh, oh. Not good. Did the buyer have a credible reputation on eBay? Nope. Brand new account. A quick online search exposed the scam: buyers from Nigeria send sellers fake PayPal receipts asking for shipping tracking numbers in order to clear the funds. The products are shipped and the money is never sent. Fortunately we caught this one in time.

What are warning signs of scams?

- Deals that are too good to be true often are... The buyer had offered to pay the full price plus a generous shipping premium.
- Lack of reputation. Try to do business with people you know or whose reputation you can somehow validate. 
- Unusual stories should arise suspicion: in this case, the buyer was supposedly sending the iPhone to her aunt who worked at the US embassy in Nigeria.
- I often sell my used kitesurfing gear online. Sometime scammers contact me and they usually use language like "I am interested in your item". No legitimate buyer would say that. Legitimate buyers ask questions about my kites and boards, their use and other such things.

I mentioned to the boys that iPhones and kites are relatively trivial things - worst case we lose a few hundred dollars. But the stakes can be MUCH higher. Plenty of people have lost their life savings to unscrupulous scammers, and not just from Nigeria. Remember Bernie Madoff & Allen Stanford...

Friday, November 15, 2013

We are too Picky

As I mentioned a few days ago, Cindy and I are trying to purchase a second home. We are negotiating with the sellers and have a serious disadvantage: we are picky. We are only interested in houses that meet many criteria.There are VERY few houses that meet all our criteria. When we find one, we are willing to pay a premium for it because it would take us a long time to find another one. The more special something is for you, the less negotiating leverage you have.

Contrast our situation with someone who would be glad with any of dozens of possible houses. This person could negotiate more aggressively and pass on many houses because he has many alternatives. But, can you "become" less picky? We've tried without success. We like what we like... Fortunately, we are not picky at everything, so we can "pick our battles". We optimize those things for which we are not picky and focus our resources on those things for which we are. And, needless to say, when we find that special something that meets our "pickiness", we go for it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


One of Paco's friends told him he didn't think allowances were a good idea. Why should kids get "free money"? They should learn to work for their money. Ale said that allowances taught kids how to manage their money. How much to save, how much to spend.

I asked Paco if his friend received an allowance. He doesn't. So how does he buy an afternoon snack or a movie ticket? His parents pay for it. The point of allowances, I explained, is not to give kids "free money", but to teach kids to manage their own money. Instead of paying for all their expenses, like his friend's parents do, we give them a modest allowance that they must manage. I agreed, though, that we are sometimes guilty of paying for too many of their expenses anyway, so that their allowance ends up being like free money. But we can easily correct that ;-).

We spoke a bit about the importance of saving for large purchases. For example, Ale mentioned that if he were to get a car, he would love a VW Beetle. I told him that a new Beetle costs $20K, not an amount he will accumulate with allowances and birthday presents alone. But some work and investing his savings carefully should get him well on his way.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The important things in life

Last Monday I woke up in an existentialist mood. I asked they boys what they thought were the most important decisions in their life. All agreed that choosing their significant other and their profession were the top two. Ale & Paco also included where to live.

How do we know if we've made the right choices? We check. Periodically. Are we still enjoying our job? Do we still love our spouse? Do we still wake up every day happy with our choices? Of course we all have bad days, but if we start having more bad days than good ones it is probably time for a change. And the sooner the better. Leaving a job, girlfriend or town might seem "undoable". Yet if it is the right thing time only makes it harder. Furthermore, most people find that, after the initial shock, things are not as hard as one imagined and are often much better, e.g., you find a better job or meet a new person. People who make major life changes rarely regret them, but often regret not making them sooner.

That was a bit heavy... Oh well, these conversations can't all be "fun and games"!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Buying a house

For many years Cindy and I have been on the hunt for a weekend/vacation home. We recently discovered a promising property. We love the location but the house has numerous "issues" that need to be investigated. For example, part of the deck is on the neighbor's land  - and there is no formal agreement about this. There are also limitations regarding the ability to remodel the house (which desperately needs work).

After viewing the house with our broker I told him that I would be up for making an offer for the house before any of the issues were resolved. I would simply factor the issues into the offer price, and tell the sellers that I would make a higher offer if the issues were addressed. My broker suggested a different approach: making a (higher) offer that assumes the issues can all be resolved, but make it contingent on resolving them. I explained to the boys this morning why I preferred my approach:

1) Offers have inertia and create "anchors". If I start with a high number it would be difficult for me to negotiate a lower one, even if some of the issues remain unresolved. Much easier to start with a low number and raise it as issues get resolved. In negotiations you are better of if the other party is the one that needs to work to change the offer - while you are OK with the terms as they are.

2) Related to the last point, I want to put the onus on the seller to resolve the issues so that I raise my offer.

My broker argued that a higher offer that is accepted would lock out other potential buyers while we look into the issues. Yet this would likely put me in a weak negotiating position. Why? In all likelihood some of the issues will be resolved and some won't. So I would be faced with the option of paying the higher price even though not all issues were resolved, or withdrawing my offer altogether. Much better to be ready to raise my initial offer when issues get resolved.

Unfortunately a real estate broker's compensation is not aligned with the interests of a buyer. Since they earn a commission based on the sale price their economic incentive is for the sale price to be as high as possible. Furthermore, since they only get their commission in the event of a transaction, their economic interest is for a transaction to occur, regardless of whether it is good or bad for the buyer. When someone is helping you, it is important to keep in mind their motivations and incentives, particularly when they might not be aligned with yours...

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Family Challenge & Foiling Tacks

Earlier this year I learned to kite-surf on a hydrofoil. After plenty of hours I've figured out how to go upwind and downwind. I've been doing my races on it and really loving it (I am the second from the right on the photo below).

But I haven't learned how to tack yet. Instead, when I need to change tacks upwind, I do a gybe (which is very slow and hurts me during the races). The very top racers do roll-tacks while on their foils. This is world champion Johnny Heineken in the middle of a foiling tack:

So, I should just learn to foil tack, right? Well, problem is, I don't know if I can. What??? Sure if I devote enough time I can do it, right? Well, have you ever seen a circus performer juggle knifes while riding a unicycle on a tight rope? Do you think anyone can learn to do that if they just devote enough time to it? I am not sure... 

I was discussing this with the boys this morning and their response was: sure you can learn it. So, I had an idea: how about a family challenge? Each member of the family must establish a challenging goal and a timeline. Then we can all work on our goals. They escaped from the car before responding :-).  To be continued...

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Stuck in a bus with a weirdo

A few days ago Nico came with me to a party at our yacht club. He went for a stroll around the club while I chatted with my kiter friends. Then I realized Nico was back in the room having what looked like a very engaging conversation with an adult I didn't recognize. I imagined the adult was a windsurfer or some other club member, and thought that it was cool that he was so engaged with Nico. They were just a few meters from me but I couldn't hear what the were saying. I figured I would leave them alone and kept chatting with my friends. Ten minutes or so later Nico came by and asked if we could leave. It was getting late so I agreed.

As soon as we left the club Nico told me the guy he was talking with was crazy, drunk or both. He was talking to Nico about Satan, Nazi cruelty and all sorts of inappropriate things. I was stunned. They had been just a few meters from me, in the safety of our yacht club! I asked Nico why he didn't leave. Nico found himself in an uncomfortable situation. He knew the conversation was inappropriate yet he was somewhat paralyzed. Didn't know what to do, so did nothing. Just let the guy keep talking while nodding.

I spoke with the boys about the importance of stopping situations like this one. There is no need to be rude, confrontational or to make a scene. A simple "excuse me but I have to go" usually works - particularly when your father is a few meters away. Other situations are more challenging: imagine being in a crowded bus with someone right next to you saying inappropriate things. You could try saying that you have to do something, then focus on your phone or a book. If you can, you could move to a different part of the bus. The less you say the better. Be polite but firm, then disengage. Worst case, get off the bus and catch the next one. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Hold Your Horses

I recently got custom kite board for a racing hydrofoil. The board arrived before the foil and I discovered the holes for the screws to attach the hydrofoil were misplaced. I was upset with the board maker - particularly since his explanation was that one of his measurement tools can sometimes be a bit off. He said I should file the holes on the hydrofoil when I receive it. This seemed like a bad idea: filing my brand new carbon hydrofoil to make up for the mistake of a board maker? Fortunately, I decided to wait until I received the hydrofoil to decide what I could do. When I got the foil the holes were indeed off, but filing them to make them fit to the board was very simple and didn't compromise the foil as I feared.

We sometimes overreact to problems - particularly during our youth when we have "shorter fuses". Give problems "time"... Sometimes, they even sort themselves out on their own. Other times, like in the above situation, the solution turns out to be simple. And even in situations in which the problems remain big and serious, a cool head is a always good thing.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Capture Crissy Field

Until yesterday afternoon, the government shutdown was another act of government stupidity that we read about in the news. The closure of Yosemite and the Lincoln Memorial were far away events... But yesterday when I went to kitesurf I discovered that Crissy Field was closed. The parking lot entrance was blocked but the exit was open. There were people inside so I simply drove through the exit. Others did the same thing until a policeman showed up and started to stop those who drove in through the exit. The ridiculous thing was that the policeman didn't do anything about those of us already inside enjoying the park. His only issue was with those driving in through the exit. So, once you got in, you were fine. It was just getting in that was the problem. The term "loophole" came to mind. Alejandro thought of the game Capture the Flag.

The next day it got worst (or better depending on your point of view). The police blocked both the entrance and the exit so we had to park outside and walk in. The police had no problem with people using the park as long as we didn't drive into the parking lot. Not sure I understand their rationale. The whole thing felt like a silly show: the policeman had to pretend to close the park. And as a result we had to cross a busy street and carry our heavy kitesurfing gear for a few hundred meters...

Not a proud day for USA.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Don't Lecture Your Girlfriend

Ale spoke to us today about lecturing people. More specifically, about not lecturing peers, as that can often be inappropriate. I said lecturing is usually a bad idea for a variety of reasons, including the fact that, more often than not, the person you are "lecturing" already knows what you are telling them. That morning, for example, we lectured Nico about not wrinkling his homework. But he already knew he should take care of his homework. It would have probably been more effective to simply get him a folder and make sure he puts his work inside it so that it doesn't wrinkle in his bag.

As to whether one must be more careful with peers, I agreed that having no authority can make it harder to be critical, yet the best leaders don't rely on their authority to provide constructive criticism and get people on 'their side". Furthermore, peers recognize that some people are better than others at different things. For example, a schoolmate might defer to his classmate in matters of mathematics while his friend defers to him on matters of soccer.

I asked Ale what got him thinking about this topic and he said his girlfriend had told him the day before that he was lecturing her. Now, girlfriends and boyfriends are a TOTALLY different mater. A very sensitive matter... But one for another day ;-).

Monday, September 16, 2013

Spreading Your Bets

Nico asked us to think about the following hypothetical: five poor people need help. Each needs $5 to get cloth and have a chance of getting a job. You only have $5. Do you give it all to one person or do you give $1 to each? After a bit of debate we concluded the following: If giving $1 to each increase the likelihood that some could get the remaining $4, in other words, you contributed more than just 20% to their likelihood of success, then that was a better way to go. If you only contribute 20% to their chances of success, then both options were equivalent, and if your dollar increase their odds of success less than 20%, then better to give $5 to one person. How could giving them 20% of their needs increase their odds more than 20%? Maybe the first dollars motivates them to be more proactive about looking for the remaining $4. Or maybe the fact they already have $1 will make it more likely that others help them.

I spoke a bit about investing: $1 investments in five companies vs. a $5 investment in one company. The first approach is more diversified. You are less likely to loose all your money. You are also less likely to hit a home-run. And there are other factors to consider: if successful investments improve your reputation (like they do for venture capitalists and angel investors) then the diversified approach has an advantage: you have a higher likelihood of having a successful outcome that you can "advertise", while people wont find out about your bad investments. Furthermore, people won't know whether you invested $1 or $5 in your successes. Of course, if your priority is to increase the likelihood of a home-run you are better of making bigger bets on fewer companies...

Thursday, September 12, 2013

It is a serendipitous world

Serendipity is a huge factor in our life. You bump into an old acquaintance at a party. Turns out he just got involved in a very interesting project. Next thing you know you get involved with the project and your professional life changes drastically. Had you skipped the party or not bumped into him your life would evolve very differently. Or, even more significant: your old acquaintance introduces you to his cousin. You hit it off with her and end up marrying her and having children together! So what? Three things:

1) Pro-actively increase the likelihood of positive "random" events. If you go to the right events, spend time with the right people, and so on, there is a higher likelihood that these "opportunities" will knock on your door. Don't stay home watching TV...

2) When an opportunity comes up, jump on it. It is hard to know in advance which opportunity will be that special one in a lifetime one. If something looks special and promising, take it to the next level. Say you meet someone new that feels special. You might not know right away if she is your "soulmate". But if it seems that might be the case, look into it. Explore it. And, do it quickly. You never know when some other random event might take this person to Australia...

3) Eliminate the need for serendipity to achieve your goals. Take the example above, in which you bumped into an acquaintance involved in an interesting project, and that encounter changed your career. You could have pro-actively monitored what your personal network was doing, and reached out to anyone involved in something interesting that might be a fit for you. No need to bump into them on the street.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Too Drunk to Realize it

I recently read some research about the negative impact that multi-tasking has on our performance. It has been proven that multi-tasking deteriorates our performance, yet most of us think that it doesn't. This particular research looked into why we don't realize our lower performance. The bottom line is that one of the things that multi-tasking deteriorates is our ability to gage our own performance! Something similar happens to people when they are drunk: they underestimate the impact of the alcohol on, for example, their driving ability, because the alcohol impairs their ability to measure their own abilities.

Who knows Ruben Blades' song Decisiones?

El borracho está convencido que a él 
el alcohol no le afecta los sentidos, 
por el contrario, 
que sus reflejos son mucho más claros 
y tiene más control. 

Por eso hunde el pie en el acelerador 
y sube el volumen de la radio 
para sentirse mejor (bien chevere). 
Y cuando la luz cambiando a amarilla, 
las ruedas del carro chillan 
y el tipo se cree un James Bond, 
decide la luz del semáforo comerse 
y no ve el truck aparecerse en la oscuridad. 

Pito, choque y la pregunta 
"¿Qué pasho?" 
Pa’ la eternidad 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Influenced by Books, Movies & Conversations

Paco is reading Atlas Shrugged (required teen read ;-). He told us how he notices the influence the book is having on his day to day life, as different events and conversations make him think about the book. Last year he had a similar experience while reading Enders' Game.

We spoke about other things that influence us. Movies - although, with few exemptions, they tend to have shorter and less meaningful impact. And conversations. What probably makes books different is that we might spend weeks reading a book, and be influenced by that book during that entire period.

I mentioned to the boys the importance of being sensitive to how we might be influencing others. Particularly when we are in a position of authority. For example, when I am at a company meeting in which I am the most senior person, I often try to speak last, so that the rest of the people are not influenced by my opinion before expressing their opinions. Cindy and I do something similar with the boys, with who we like to think we have influence :-). For things that we believe there is a right and wrong, we'll tell the boys what we think very explicitly. But for more ambiguous things we try to be careful and let them come to their own opinions, e.g., religion, politics, art, etc.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Pat me in the back and make me feel good about my decision

A relative called me the other day for advice. She was facing an important decision and asked for my opinion. I started to share my thoughts with her but soon realized that she had already made her mind. She wasn't looking for my advice to help her decide what to do. She was looking for my approval to feel better about her decision.

What to do? Should I call her on it and try to have a proper analysis about her decision, or should I give her the approval that she was looking for? It probably depends on how strongly I feel about her choice. If I think either choice is fine and have no serious issues with her decision, probably best to simply make her feel better about her decision. But if I feel she is making a serious mistake then I should push back and try to change her mind-set into decision making instead of validation. But it is important to do this before getting into the specifics of the decision. I would be wasting my time if I start addressing the issues while in her mind the decision has already been made.

We should also be careful about doing this ourselves (often subconsciously). Are we really looking for advice or have we made our minds and just want approval or something else? Nothing wrong with seeking approval, but probably best to be explicit about it, i.e., I just decided to do X, do you think I made the right choice? As opposed to help me decide whether to do X or Y, when in reality you already decided to do X.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Optimizing Your Effort vs. Personal Fulfillment & Standing Out

An acquaintance suggested the opposite approach to what I suggested yesterday: spend little time on the subjects that you like and are good at, and focus on the more challenging ones. The premise of this approach is that it optimizes your grades. You'll probably get good grades on the subjects you like anyway but unless you work hard, you won't get good grades on those you don't. We discussed this today. 

The boys agreed the approach probably optimizes grades, and Paco mentioned that this is indeed what he does: spend a lot more time in French than in Math. But we found two problems with the approach.

1) It might optimize for "results", but it doesn't for personal "fulfillment". Ideally we should spend as much time as possible on the things that we enjoy the most. So I guess this is something to balance: results vs. fulfillment. Sometimes the two are aligned, other times they aren't.

2) GPA is important, but doing something extraordinary can be even more important. Say you like science and struggle with French. You do little work on science and still get an A. You work hard on French and get a B+. But what if you work a ton on science, do an amazing science fair project that wins the state championship, still get an A, work less on French and get a C. Winning the state science fair competition might more than make up for that C you got in French. It is probably a personal thing: some people tend to be more "well-rounded" while others tend to stand-out in one thing...

Friday, August 30, 2013

When to play to your strengths

Should you always focus on your strengths? Today we discussed some criteria for deciding when focusing exclusively on your strengths makes sense and when it doesn't.

One criteria is timeframe. Take soccer for example. During a single game you might be able to exclusive kick with your strong leg and use your best moves. Maybe the whole game goes by without the need for you to do something else, and focusing on your strengths will likely improve your performance. But consider an entire season and it becomes unlikely you will be able to avoid all your weak spots. So maybe you focus on your strengths during specific games, particularly important ones, but work on your weaknesses during practices.

Another criteria is wether a weak point can be ignored entirely or not. Staying with the soccer analogy, suppose you are weak at penalty kicks, but plenty of your teammates are good at it. You can probably go the whole season without needing to do a penalty kick - just let your teammates do them and focus on the strengths that will help your team - maybe your passes and your defense. But if your weakness is your kicks with your Left foot, you won't be able to avoid making some kicks with your Left foot during an entire season, so you better improve at it.

Then there are the circumstances: some require you to be well-rounded, others to be a specialist. Compare speed sailing versus course racing. For speed sailing, all you have to do is go very fast for 500 meters. No strategy, no endurance, no tactics, no maneuvers. In course racing you also have to go fast, but you need to be strategic (which side of the course to take), you need endurance (the race might last an hour), you need fast maneuvers (tacks, gybes), and you need to make quick tactical decisions (do I tack away from the incoming sailor or cover him). If your strength is your ability to go very fast and you like to do speed sailing, you can ignore your weaknesses. But if you want to do course racing, you need to make sure you don't have any weak spots. What you can do, though, is to leverage your strong areas to help you with your weak ones. If you start a race by going very fast and getting ahead of the fleet then your tactics get easier and your maneuvers don't need to be as fast. In other words, start by leveraging your strength to give you an advantage, then worry about not doing too bad on your weak areas.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Taking the Good with the Bad

First day of the school year... Boys are excited about seeing their friends and meeting their new teachers. They are also a bit nervous. Will they like their classroom assignments? Seems like a good day to talk about taking the good with the bad - or is it the bad with the good? Anyway, most situations, people and things have good and bad things. Teachers they like, some that they don't. Friends in their classrooms, and some "foes". Subjects that they enjoy, some that they hate. It is often a package and you have to take it whole. You can't skip the classes you dislike or ignore the classmates you don't like. What you can do is spent the bulk of your time and energy on the things you like. But recognize there is a "minimum" you need to do even for those things you don't like. Maybe you don't do the extra credit for that teacher you don't like, just the basics. No need to spend a lot of time with the classmates you don't like, but you are polite and respectful to them, and interact with them as needed. Pretty obvious stuff I guess... But sometimes it is good to state the obvious. Just in case.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Get as many facts as you can upfront before making decisions

Last Thursday I volunteered to do race committee for the kiteboard racing series I participate in. This means getting on an inflatable motor boat and helping set the marks for the course, rescue kiteracers who get in trouble, and in general help run the race. Since Paco had no classes the following day I asked him if he wanted to join me. He said he would let me know in the early afternoon. When the afternoon came Paco said he wanted to come. I was very glad to have Paco join me, even though picking him up meant I had to change my plans for that afternoon. I also contacted the race committee to double check it was OK for Paco to come.

When it was time to leave Paco started asking me questions: how long would we be on the water, what exactly would we be doing. Upon hearing the details Paco changed his mind: he no longer wanted to come. I was very frustrated with him. I had changed my plans and spent time making sure he could come, all for nothing. But the issue wasn't that. We sometimes change our minds. That is not the problem. The issue is that Paco said he would come without really thinking about it. He should have asked his questions up-front, before saying he would come. To his defense, he wasn't aware I would have to change my plans or do any work for him to come, but then we are frequently unaware of the things people do for us - particularly relatives and friends who go out of their way for us but don't want to make a big deal about it.

This reminds me of situations in which I set up a meeting and discover 3 minutes into the meeting that nothing will come out of it, and that a bit of checking prior to the meeting would have shown that. For example, a job interview in which the candidate's salary needs are out of line with the job's compensation. Or, an investor meeting in which the geographic location of the company is incompatible with the investor. These examples might sound silly but I've been in more situations like these than I care to remember. I have gotten better though about asking as much information up front as possible to avoid them.

So remember, next time someone asks if you want to go somewhere or do something, get the facts up-front and before anyone has had to put much effort on your behalf.

PS: Paco changed his mind again and came. I think he had a good time...

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Look into my eyes

I frequently tell the boys (some more than others) to look at me when we are talking. So I was delighted to read recently about research regarding the importance of looking at people in the eyes. Not doing so sends negative messages, which, depending on the context, can imply you are untrustworthy, unknowledgeable, nervous or worst. Ideal time to hold people's gaze is 8 to 10 seconds in a one-to-one setting and 3 to 5 in a group setting. Be careful about looking at people in the eyes for too long: anything beyond 10 seconds can come across as creepy or agressive.

The boys mentioned looking at people in the eyes is difficult in some contexts such as cars. I agreed, particularly for the driver. Yet a passenger looking out the window or down at a book is sending a negative signal - as opposed to one looking in the direction of the speaker...

Somewhat related topic: I hate meetings that combine people in a room with people on a speakerphone. Those in the room end up looking at the speakerphone, which creates a poor meeting dynamic. If some people can't make it in person I prefer for everyone to be on the phone. That way nobody needs to stare at a speakerphone!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Silver Fleet, Gold Fleet

This week I've been competing the Kiteboard Racing North American Championship. After two days of competition they split the fleet into Gold (top) and Silver (bottom). There are 75 competitors including most of the top racers in the World. I was expecting to be near the top of the Silver fleet, and indeed after the first day I was on 42nd place. After the 2nd day I moved up the 39th place and thought I had nailed the very top spot on the Silver fleet. I was ecstatic and spoke with the boys about how sometimes it is good not to win. Had I done just a little better I would have ended up at the bottom of the Gold fleet, with the prospect of trailing the Gold fleet for the following two days (as opposed to leading the Silver one).

Ale reminded us of the great Iranian movie Children of Heaven in which a boy slows down to try to come second in a race because the 2nd place price was a pair of shoes he desperately needed. Paco thought of Hunger Games and the benefit of not attracting too much attention early in the tournament. We also spoke about how underperforming early in a competition can have psychological benefits if your opponent is later taken aback by your improved performance and a change of momentum in your benefit.

The boys were familiar with the term sandbagging, which refers to intentionally underperforming. I think sandbagging is acceptable in some situations but inappropriate in others. A good topic for another day... In the case of the kiteracing championship, I wasn't sandbagging. I sailed my best and ended up 39th... Or so I thought. A few hours after our conversation the competitor in 38th place got a scoring penalty which moved me to 38th and the very bottom of the Gold Fleet!!! I have to confess though that it feels good to be in the Gold fleet - even if I am trailing them around the course :-). And, who knows, maybe I'll have a lucky break today and beat a few people...

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Favors from a Crowd

Ale told us how his friends often ask for school related favors, e.g., what is English homework for tomorrow, on Facebook. He normally lets others respond, but today he woke up and saw a question for which he knew the simple answer. So he quickly answered it. When is it better to ask entire groups for things as opposed to specific individuals? A few rules of thumb we came up with:

- If the request is very easy to address and it is time sensitive, asking a group often works best. It is likely that someone will see it soon and be willing to answer it.

- If the request is a complex or difficult one, it is often best to ask a specific individual. Why? If you ask a group then nobody feels that they have to help you because you are not asking them specifically. But if you ask your friend William "can you please pick up my math homework today" William knows you are counting on him and will at least let you know if he can't do it - in which case you can ask someone else.

- In some circumstances you can separately ask multiple people. This makes the most sense when it helps to have several people helping. For example, if you need a recommendation for a music teacher, getting multiple recommendations would be a good thing. On the other hand you wouldn't want more than one person trying to pick up your homework!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Thinking Outside the Box

Cindy & I came back from a trip early Sunday morning. We knew the Bay to Breakers were that morning but assumed we would be able to get from the airport to our home. But as we entered the city we realized we simply couldn't drive home. The race cut the city in half and would do so for the following 4+ hours. I started to think about what to do for the following four hours... Check into a hotel, hang out in a park... Cindy then suggested that we drive to the point of the race closest to our house, park the car, cross the race on foot, take a taxi home, then go back to pick-up the car later. We did exactly that and it worked perfectly. Why didn't I think of that??? It is such a better solution than what I was thinking. My problem is that I was thinking inside the box. My box was my car and I wasn't considering separating from it. How do we catch ourselves from thinking inside boxes? Whenever the answer to a problem is not good stop and identify your constraints. Then reassess whether the constraints are real or artificial. Suggest "crazy" alternatives and ask "why not?". Your crazy suggestion might not be viable, but a variation might.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Little tips that make a big difference

Last week I learned to ride a foil kite-board. The first day I tried I could not even get started. As soon as I tried the board would tilt and prevent me from getting on it. Then a fellow kiteboarder gave me a simple tip: hold the board perpendicular to the water and get started while the board slowly becomes parallel to the water. With that approach I got going right away! I've had similar experiences learning other things: something seems very difficult until someone gives you a trick or tip to do it more easily.

When learning something new and difficult, look for tips from those who know how to do it. But be careful about who you ask. Most people, particularly the experts, don't know (or can't communicate) the "trick". Often it is those who learned recently who remember what made it happen for them. Also, the trick is not always the same for everyone, so you might need to get several until you find the one that works for you. And, if you see someone struggling to learn something you know, tell them what what the trick is.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Bad Habits

Paco spoke to us about bad habits and how learning something incorrectly can make it harder to master than not learning it at all. He gave us the example of learning a piano piece incorrectly and then even though you find out the correct way of playing you keep playing it wrong. I agreed and suggested the importance of thinking carefully about how you first learn things that might be (or clearly are) important. For example, 90+ percent of olympic gold medalists in sailing learned to sail in a particular sailboat called the Optimist. I believe that is because this is a boat that teaches kids good habits for sailing. There are other sailboats where kids might learn to sail but they might generate bad habits and negatively impact their future sailing abilities.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Giving Up

One of the boys is having a hard time with one of his school subjects. He felt he had "blown it" this school and would do a better job next year. Cindy and I told him there was no reason to write the whole school year off (for this subject). There are still seven weeks of classes - which is plenty of time to turn things around. Besides, if he wants to do a better job next year he should start now, so that he starts next year with positive momentum.

In the car I spoke with the boys about when to give up and "write things off" and when to keep trying. We used several sports analogies: a soccer match that is going very poorly. If you have another match afterwards you might want to save some of your energy for the next match, so it might be smart to give up on the first match. But if not, you are probably better off trying your best until the end of the match. Even if the score is desperate, you might learn something or at least change the momentum of the game and end in a good note. This might also be a good situation to try something new, take some risks. Besides, you never know... I recently was in a kite race which seemed hopeless. I considered withdrawing but didn't. Then some of the racers in front of me tangled and I ended up doing well.

We also spoke about arbitrary constraints. For example, deciding to retake your diet "next week" because you already blew it "this week". What do the days of the week have to do with dieting? There is no benefit to wasting additional days and starting again next Monday.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Play your own game

Nico had his first tennis tournament last weekend. He did pretty well: won 2 out of 3 matches, and was winning the 3rd 5-1 before loosing in the tie-breaker. One of the other parents gave some advice to his daughter that I thought was spot on. He told her to just focus on the ball & the court, and forget that she was playing in a tournament. Easier said than done, but wise nevertheless. We often get distracted or defocused when we think too much. Our "flow"goes away. I believe that is what happened to Nico in the match he lost. A sailing analogy comes to mind: when approaching the upwind mark (on the layline) you sometimes find yourself a bit short of the mark. If you miss it you need to make two costly extra tacks. Yet if you focus too much on sailing to the mark you often sail sub-optimally and miss it. A much better approach is to ignore the mark - to remove it from your vision - and just sail as high and fast as you can. When you get close enough to the mark you'll know if you made it, and you maximized your chances by sailing at your best. Paco mentioned he feels the same way when playing soccer...

Of course, some people thrive in pressure and play extra well in competition. I guess you need to know yourself... Also, some moments are truly game changing (the point to break the serve, the crossing before the mark, the penalty kick to break the tie) so winning them is key. Some people can best do that by focusing on what is at stake - while others are better off ignoring the pressure and just playing their own game.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

When things change

We spent half of our drive today on the speakerphone with Cindy adjusting our afternoon plans... There is a school event that I was scheduled to attend because Cindy had to take Nico to tennis at the same time. A few days ago the time of Nico's tennis practice changed but we didn't asses, until the last moment, the impact that that had on the rest of our plans. Not a big deal today, but this reminded of more important situations in which circumstances change and we don't adjust accordingly.

A typical situation is when we make a plan based on certain constraints, some of the constraints later change, but we forget to adjust the plan optimizing for the new constraints. For example, we plan a trip on a certain day because something prevents us from leaving earlier (even though earlier would be better and cheaper). The constraint goes away but we leave the trip as is.

Sometime we overreact. We come up with a well thought out plan initially but at the last moment something changes. We then improvise a new plan which can often be worst than the original - due to the hastiness of the planning. Maybe the new plan was no longer viable, thus we have no alternative but to change it. Yet sometimes the original plan remains valid and we mess things up trying to over-optimize.

Takeaway? Think of the implications when things change. Make sure everyone who is involved is aware of the changes. Discuss whether the changes require a change in the plan, or whether a change is optional. Either way, if you need to make a new plan, try to put as much planning & thinking into the new plan as you did into the original one.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Selling Yourself in a World of Hyperbole

Paco recently applied to a very competitive summer program. He was not accepted. I reached out to the director of the program to try to understand which aspect of the application had been the weakest. Was it the grades (straight As)? the tests (#1 in his school)? the work samples? Turned out it was the essay in which Paco didn't convince the admissions committee that he was well rounded enough and a social enough kid that would contribute to the program. Real bummer because Paco is as well rounded & social as they come (soccer team captain, class delegate, jazz band player, competitive chess player, kitsurfer, etc, etc, etc). Yet he didn't do a good enough job at conveying these things in his essay. I actually read Paco's essay before he submitted it and remember thinking that it could be a lot better, yet the application instructions clearly stated that the parents shouldn't help with it, so I assumed they would factor in his young age when reading the essay. I wonder how many other parents did the same, and how many helped their kids...

The first time I applied to Stanford I got turned down. A friend asked me to see my application and his immediate reaction was: "of course they turned you down! you need to sell yourself better". I rewrote the application making a concerted effort at showing my accomplishments and strengths in the  best possible light and got in. This was just a matter of selling yourself. But what about exaggerating beyond the facts? Another friend who was applying to Harvard Business School shared his application with me. My reaction: "a) this is not you, and b) some of this supposed accomplishments are so outrageous I think they will realize they are not true". I was wrong. He got into HBS. Furthermore, I later found out that a very large percentage of the applicants who get into top programs stretch their accomplishments way beyond the truth.

The fact that many people cheat doesn't justify cheating. That should be a VERY clear line.  We do need to make sure we present ourselves in the best possible light. And we need to work early toward goals such as attending a particularly competitive academic program, so that when the time comes, the application mostly writes itself.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Find your own directions

Last weekend Alejandro was meeting some friends for lunch. I asked him where and he said they had said that at the Bow & Arrow sculpture, so he had asked his friends for the exact address. I told him he could have found the address online in seconds and to try to avoid asking others for things he can easily get himself. A silly example of this is asking for the time. Nico doesn't wear a watch and frequently asks me what time it is. I almost always tell him to find out on his own. There are dozens of devices all around that show the time (phones, computers, microwaves, etc). By asking me to stop whatever it is that I am doing to look at my watch and tell him the time, instead of looking up the time himself, Nico is implying that my time is less valuable than his.

An entrepreneur once asked me to meet with me to get my advise. I agreed and suggested the lobby of a hotel. The entrepreneur responded by asking me for the address of the hotel. Either the entrepreneur didn't know that you can look up addresses online in a matter of seconds (hard to believe) or he felt that my time was less valuable than his (also hard to believe!). This was a particularly egregious example, sometimes the information you need is not as trivial to get as a street address. Still, before bothering someone else for it, you should give it a try on your own.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Evolutionary & Genetic Baggage

Paco was wondering where shyness came from (evolutionary wise). I said maybe shy people got into less trouble than extroverts... There are many traits that were valuable in the past but no longer are, e.g., eating as much as you can when food is available. It is useful to understand the origins of these thins so that we can do something about the ones we don't like.

At a different level it is also good to understand the genetic origin of our personality. What comes from mom? What about dad? It is sometimes easier to see traits in others than in ourselves... And yet at another level some of our traits might come from reacting to our parents. For example, we might be very quiet because we hated how loud our father was - and want to make sure we are not like him.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Broken Race Board

I recently traveled to a kiteracing competition in Mexico. Unpacking at the hotel I was devastated to discover that my raceboard had been badly damaged during the trip. We had traveled all the way to Mexico but without my raceboard I wouldn't be able to compete. Worst still, there is a year long wait to get a replacement board like mine. And, needless to say, the airline is not going to do anything for me.

Yet it turned out that things were not as bad as I thought... With the help of my fellow kiteracers (who fortunately include the best in the world) I was able to patch the board so that I could use it during the competition. I then remembered that my credit card had luggage insurance. I contacted them and they say that indeed they would cover my loss, but that I first had to file a claim with the airline. I filed the claim with the airline, not expecting anything but just so that my credit card could process the claim, but to my surprise the airline agreed to reimburse me the full cost of a new board (go Virgin America!). I do have to wait over a year for my new board, but in less than three weeks the board maker performed a pretty good repair to my damaged board, so that it is totally fine to use for now.

Couple of takeaways I shared with the boys: things are often not as bad as they originally seem. Give them a bit of time and be pro-active about making things better. I almost left my broken board in the hotel and gave up entirely on the competition, but the fact that I took it to my friends to see if there was something we could do made all the difference. And even if the odds of something might be long, i.e., getting a reimbursement from an airline for damaged luggage, you should always give it a try. Sometimes you will be pleasantly surprised.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Schools are Obsolete

This morning I watched with the boys one of my favorite talks from last week's TED conference: TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra talking about the future of education. I hope none of them end up in the principal's office today!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Incomplete Solutions Can Do More Harm Than Good

Laws requiring the use of a hands-free system for talking on the phone while driving are killing people. Why? Research shows that what distracts us is not the fact that we have the phone in our hand. We are perfectly capable of driving safely with one hand. The distraction comes from the phone conversation. To decrease accidents and safe lives we need to decrease the use of phone conversations while driving. Hands-free or no hands-free. Yet by requiring the use of a hands-free system these laws send the erroneous message that it is safe to talk on the phone while driving - as long as the phone is not in your hands. So more people end up talking on the phone while driving and more people end up in accidents. A perfect example of a well intentioned partial solution that does more harm than good!

Granted, forbidding phone conversations while driving would be very difficult. Most new cars now incorporate a hands-free system. And millions of people every day make their commute more bearable by talking on the phone. Still, governments should be discouraging ALL distractions while driving, not arbitrarily forbidding some and sanctioning others. More importantly, they should realize the best solution (maybe the only solution) is to remove humans from the equation all-together. Sure, self-driving cars will have lots of issues, yet these issues pale in comparison to the millions of lives they will safe. But I am getting off topic here...

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Secret to Happiness, Good Health & Fortune

A few months ago I wrote a blog post about routines. I gave that post the "catchy" title Routine Sex. After doing so I wondered if that title was going to have a significant impact on the number of people that read that post. What do you think? Sure enough, even though the content of that post is not particularly better nor worst than my typical post, it has now been read by more people than any other of my posts. Titles matter.

What about The Secret to Happiness, Good Health & Fortune? Well, after writing this post I couldn't leave its original title, Tittles Matter, alone. After all, who would read a blog post with such a boring title?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Speed Quarters

I went to a networking retreat this week. This is a common thing in Silicon Valley. A bunch of people who work in the same industry but at different companies get together around an activity such as skiing or kitesurfing. There were about 30 of us staying in four different houses. At one point I went to the main house and found five people about to start a game of Speed Quarters. They invited me to join them which I did. For those not familiar with Speed Quarters, it is a drinking game. You have to bounce a quarter on the table and into a shot glass. If those around you do it better than you you get to drink a  lot... I think the last time I had played Quarters I was in college, so I have to confess I was a bit apprehensive at first. Yet playing seemed like a better alternative than seating in a corner with my iPad. Anyway, we played for about an hour and it was good fun.

As I recalled the experience the next day I realized there was more to it than a bit of fun and alcohol. The experience, as silly and superficial as it was, created a stronger bond among the players than anything else that I did during the retreat. Imagine that at some point in the future I am involved in a business transaction with some of the retreat participants. With whom am I likely to be able to be more candid and direct? With the person I had a "business" conversation or with the person I played Speed Quarters with? I will soon forget most of the conversations that I had during the retreat, but I won't forget the game of Speed Quarters.

Special and intimate experiences boost personal relationships. I imagine this is why fraternities, religions and other such communities have rituals and traditions that at first seem silly, or even backwards. They create lasting bonds... So boys, do silly things with your friends! Of course, be safe & respectful. Our Speed Quarters game was right before dinner and none of us drove there.

The boys only had one question for me: had did I do in the game? Well, I started very poorly. I couldn't get the quarter in the shot glass at all. But then I hit my streak and did pretty well. Only ended up drinking a bottle of beer (which as a lot less than the person who did worst drank).

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Bucket Lists

Alejandro wanted to talk about bucket lists. Are they a good idea? I had a few thoughts to share:

As much as possible we should do the things that we want to do now, not in some distant future. Who knows what the future holds? We might not be into the same things then or might not be able to do them anymore.

If you can't do something yet, maybe because of your financial situation or schedule, put a plan in place to do it as soon as possible. If you need money, save it. If you need time, make it.

The anticipating and preparation can be as much, if not more enjoyable than the goal itself. For example, if you want to buy a sailboat it can be great fun to research the possibilities, do sea trials and visit boatyards. Same applies to visiting a distant place or buying a house.

Another reason to act on your desires is that fulfilling them might help you discover your passions. You might initially think that going scuba diving is something you just want to do once, but after you do it you might realize you love it and want to do it more. You might become a professional scuba diver! You wouldn't want to wait 20 years to go scuba diving and then regret you didn't devote yourself to it. On the flip side you might realize the experience was not as fun as you thought, which would lead you to explore other activities sooner.

Be careful with goals you are unlikely to achieve in the near future. It can become frustrating to have a goal that remains unachievable year after year. I think it is fine to have ambitious long term goals but try to break them down into smaller more achievable components. Stepping stones if you will...

I asked the boys what each would put in his bucket list:

Ale: shave with an old fashion blade.

Paco: go skydiving.

Nico: act in a good movie.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Step Functions

Paco spoke about how some learning curves follow "step functions". You are flat for a while, then boom! you move up. Then flat for another while, and up again. He experience that when learning to kitesurf. I mentioned other learning curves: linear, exponentials, logarithmic.

Nico didn't know what a logarithmic curve was. I explained that you improved very fast early on but as you became better it took longer and longer to make incremental improvements.

These curves are easy to identify once you see them in perspective but if you just look at too small of a section of the curve you might mistake one for another. For example, exponential or logarithmic curves look like linear curves in some areas, and the time horizon is not always clear. It might be seconds or minutes for some things, e.g., some chemical or biological reactions, but centuries for others, e.g., climate change, evolution. And of course when we are learning in a step function it often feels flat and frustrating. So we need to remind ourself there is a step down the road that we will eventually climb.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Slippery Slopes & Tires

Nico spoke about slipper slopes. He had a friend over who wanted to exceed their allotted screen time by "just a couple of minutes" and Nico said no, it would be a slippery slope. I mentioned that some slopes were slipperier than others. In the example of the screen time, while a couple of minutes might be a short time, the fact that you are exceeding your limit is clear and absolut. The limit was 120 minutes and you are at 122. Yet other situations are much less Black and White. For example, what does it mean to avoid distractions while driving? Texting is clearly a distraction, but what about looking at the navigation system? How about changing the music? Speaking on the phone hands free? If you wanted to avoid slipper slopes you probably shouldn't do absolutely anything not strictly related to driving while moving. Don't adjust the climate control, don't talk to a fellow passenger. This might seem excessive, and I doubt anyone would go this far, but where to draw the line is not at all obvious...

The topic reminded of the myth about the Nordstrom customer who returned a set of car tires. Nordstrom was a pioneer of great customer service and would accept any return with no questions asked. Supposedly a customer once returned a set of tires even though Nordstrom doesn't sell tires! Maybe this was Nordstrom way of avoiding slippery slopes: if the customer says he bought something at Nordostrom and wants to return it, they would take it. If they start asking for receipts or checking inventory lists they would enter a slippery slope that might end up with some customers becoming unhappy.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

De Tal Palo Tal Astilla

Ale had a significant insight recently: he is, at least to some extent, the result of the genome that he inherited from Cindy & I. He realized that he has traits that come from Cindy and traits that come from me. He sees them. This also made him realize that he is probably more similar to his brothers than he thought - since they also inherited their genomes from Cindy & me. He asked Paco & Nico if they had realized this and both said no.

I thought this was very cool. We obviously see in our kids the traits that come from us, but I think most people don't see the flip side until they are adults. And the implication about Ale's brothers was great. I wonder if Ale will now have more patience with them and a greater realization that, in many ways, he was like Paco & Nico when he was their age - and still is like them in many ways.

Of course we have tens of thousands of genetic traits (or is it millions?) and many are only carried, but not active in our parents. So each person, apart from identical twins, is unique - to a point at least...

I asked Ale about the specific traits from Cindy & me that he recognized in himself but he wouldn't tell me. I am very curious...

[Spanish: De tal palo tal astilla. English: From such stick such splinter].

Thursday, January 10, 2013

No Explanation Necessary

I read a story in yesterday's newspaper about dealing with friends and relatives who invade our privacy. The author suggested establishing clear boundaries and stating clearly those things we rather not discuss with the "offending" friend or relative. A specific recommendation resonated with me: don't provide explanations for your requests. If you do, there is a good chance the conversation will become about your explanation rather than about your request.

For example, suppose a relative always calls when you take a trip. He probably wants to check to make sure you arrived OK to your destination. Yet you don't like this. You could simply say: "please don't call me when I am taking trips" and leave it at that. Or you could offer explanations such as "because I am tired when I get home, or, I have a lot to do after trips, or, the airplanes are often delayed". If you do, there is a good chance your relative will respond by suggesting you take fewer trips or use a different airline. Before you know it the conversation is no longer about your request for him not to call you. You are now discussing how to make you more amenable to talking on the phone after your trips!

Disclaimer: the above mentioned "relative" is totally fictitious. Any resemblance with an actual relative of mine is entirely coincidental.