Digest: The Start-up Economy

This is Digest: A focused update on an undefined topic of my choosing. Published almost every Friday.

Ours is an economy in transition. From the work we do, to the place we work, to how we get our coffee, the music we listen to and the shows we watch, we’re redefining ownership and success to place an emphasis on freedom, choice, and well-being over monetary gain and lifestyles of excess.

So long sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Hello sex, yoga-or-something, and that-new-music-I-found-on-my-friend’s-Rdio-profile. (Something tells me the “sex” part will always be part of that equation, though apparently Japan thinks otherwise.)

So long home in the ‘burbs, with a white picket fence, a Sam’s Club membership, three kids and a golden retriever. Hello two-bedroom apartment, weekly trips to the farmer’s market, maybe a kid or two and a poodle-mix from a rescue.

Neither are quite as catchy, I know, but it’s who we are.

The Wolf of Wall Street may have been an incredible story, but nothing about that lifestyle actually appealed to me. The 80+ hour workweeks, popping quaaludes and binge-drinking just to get through the day, only to go home and have nothing of value to offer your family—all in the name of so-called “success.”

No thank you.
My generation doesn’t want much to do with that.
Even if it means living with lesswe’re focused on the ripple effect of bad decisions.

So the question for me isn’t whether or not our economy is in transition, but what we’re ultimately in transition to. After all, capitalism means better decisions don’t always mean a more profitable business. There’s a reason CVS got backlash for deciding not to sell cigarettes, even though cigarettes are responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the US alone: it will hurt their bottom line.

And capitalism, up to this point,

See, the industrial economy in America had an easily identifiable end game: factories, salaries, 401k’s.


The start-up economy—whether by happy accident, or design—often has none of those things. Instead it’s every man for himself. Overlaps happen organically. Traditional organizational structures and systems work well, and people collaborate with one another… until they don’t.


That’s fine: Most of us have the imagination and the work ethic to handle it. And, now that an estimated 33-ish percent of the US considers themselves “freelance,” or “temp,” it’s obvious we’ve taken full responsibility of our situation.

But what’s the goal?
Is stability in the cards in the start-up economy?
Is stability even something we’re after?
Or are we just looking to constantly prove everybody wrong with the next big idea, hopping from idea to idea, job to job, start-up to start-up?

Are we going to turn 40 and wonder how we’re going to survive without a steady income, because the new young guns have come in and hijacked the economy we built on a foundation of quicksand? As brilliant as we are, not all of us can be Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, or Barack Obama; not all of us will be millionaires.

And while, as I mentioned, I know fame and fortune aren’t the end-goal, I think figuring out what the long game is in this economy we’re building is just as important as making sure you land your next gig to pay next month’s rent.

I know we’re making the world a better place.
I know we’re making better decisions when it comes to health, wellness and lifestyle.
I’m excited about the general direction we’re headed in.

But I can’t pretend I’m not concerned we might not have a goal.

Here are some articles for you to read this weekend. Enjoy:


2013: Read All The Books

“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve always been a reader. For as long as I can remember, I’ve read whatever I can get my hands on. Magazines in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, instruction manuals for new computers, beer and wine labels, dust jackets and, of course, the books themselves. To be honest though, my track record is mixed. Sure, I “read” books but, in the past, it’s been pretty rare that I actually finish them.

You know how it goes: work gets busy, life gets crazy, date nights, friends, and all 25 seasons of The Simpsons are on Hulu, so… you know, d’oh!

Anyway, this year I decided to buck that trend and read two books a month—start to finish. In case you’re bad at math (like me), that’s 24 books total in 2013. As of today, I’ve read 36.

Reading more than my original goal wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t because of some highly regimented schedule or diet (“I only ate organic paper at 5am every morning, and suddenly I was able to focus all the time and I lost weight, ask me how!”), but I was somehow able to make reading an integral part of my daily routine. Part of what made it work, I think, is the fact that I only read certain topics while doing certain things.

For example, in the morning over coffee, I read something spiritual to take my mind off of the immediate and focus on something a bit deeper before I dive into the madness of the day. At the gym, I read business, politics, or psychology on my iPad to focus myself on the work I have to do during the day. And when I’m getting ready for bed on weekdays I usually read history or biography. Fiction is for weekends.

So, it seems my mind somehow subconsciously broke down the kinds of books I read based on the type of thinking I would need to be doing next. Since that was the case, I ended up reading three to four different books per day in addition to anything I read online (I also follow a number of blogs and publications, in addition to subscribing to a few magazines).

It’s exhausting just typing the “schedule” out, but it seems to work pretty well for me, and I know it’s a habit I’ll be carrying into 2014.

Before we jump into the New Year, though—and even if you decide not to follow along—I’d like to walk you through everything I read this year, broken out by genre. I read a lot of good stuff, and I’m sure you’ll be able to find something of interest for yourself in this list.

Full list (along with some brief notes and links to buy—most are Amazon Affiliate, for your information—from me) after the jump.

Happy reading.


Mo’ Info, Mo’ Problems

Most people I know would say they hate politics. They’re cynical at best, unwilling to engage at worst. I say “at worst” because this is a democracy and democracies are dependent on an engaged electorate, but I understand why turning a blind eye feels better sometimes.

Politics can be infuriating for people who like to live their lives based on facts because politics—for all the numbers thrown around by politicians and pundits—is almost decidedly not based on facts.

Politics is based on tribal instincts and feeling.

This article by Ezra Klein, published on his new venture, Vox, delicately titled, “How Politics Makes Us Stupid,” sheds some light on this:

There’s a simple theory underlying much of American politics. It sits hopefully at the base of almost every speech, every op-ed, every article, and every panel discussion. It courses through the Constitution and is a constant in President Obama’s most stirring addresses. It’s what we might call the More Information Hypothesis: the belief that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings. The cause of these misunderstandings? Too little information — be it about climate change, or taxes, or Iraq, or the budget deficit. If only the citizenry were more informed, the thinking goes, then there wouldn’t be all this fighting.

It’s a seductive model. It suggests our fellow countrymen aren’t wrong so much as they’re misguided, or ignorant, or — most appealingly — misled by scoundrels from the other party. It holds that our debates are tractable and that the answers to our toughest problems aren’t very controversial at all. The theory is particularly prevalent in Washington, where partisans devote enormous amounts of energy to persuading each other that there’s really a right answer to the difficult questions in American politics — and that they have it.
But the More Information Hypothesis isn’t just wrong. It’s backwards. Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.


Imagine what would happen to, say, Sean Hannity if he decided tomorrow that climate change was the central threat facing the planet. Initially, his viewers would think he was joking. But soon, they’d begin calling in furiously. Some would organize boycotts of his program. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of professional climate skeptics would begin angrily refuting Hannity’s new crusade. Many of Hannity’s friends in the conservative media world would back away from him, and some would seek advantage by denouncing him. Some of the politicians he respects would be furious at his betrayal of the cause. He would lose friendships, viewers, and money. He could ultimately lose his job. And along the way he would cause himself immense personal pain as he systematically alienated his closest political and professional allies. The world would have to update its understanding of who Sean Hannity is and what he believes, and so too would Sean Hannity. And changing your identity is a psychologically brutal process.

Kahan doesn’t find it strange that we react to threatening information by mobilizing our intellectual artillery to destroy it. He thinks it’s strange that we would expect rational people to do anything else. “Nothing any ordinary member of the public personally believes about the existence, causes, or likely consequences of global warming will affect the risk that climate changes poses to her, or to anyone or anything she cares about,” Kahan writes. “However, if she forms the wrong position on climate change relative to the one that people with whom she has a close affinity — and on whose high regard and support she depends on in myriad ways in her daily life — she could suffer extremely unpleasant consequences, from shunning to the loss of employment.”

Kahan calls this theory Identity-Protective Cognition: “As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.” Elsewhere, he puts it even more pithily: “What we believe about the facts,” he writes, “tells us who we are.”

The conclusion they come to is that you don’t win in politics by crafting a better argument. A better argument often just strengthens your opponent’s will to prove you wrong. No, to win in politics, you craft a better system—one that people can experience firsthand. One that, even if people “disagree” with on a gut level, their experience tells them that it’s working. It’s better than the system they were in before.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare) seems to be a good example of that.

With 52.4% of the country disapproving four years out, the ACA is a wildly unpopular piece of legislation. One that Obama’s own approval rating is taking a beating over (foreign policy “blunders” like Syria and Crimea notwithstanding).

But approval numbers are politics. The effectiveness of the law, however, that’s policy. And policy is where that new system is being built.

So how’s Obamacare doing on the systems front? In short: really well.

The number of uninsured Americans is 15.6% this year—the lowest levels since 2008.
7.1 million people applied for health care through the exchange system (the goal was 7 million).
Health care costs have been growing at a record slow pace for the past four years (and seem to be continuing down that path).

Oh, and because of the combined effect of Obamacare’s individual mandate (it’s most unpopular provision), the state and federal healthcare exchanges, and Medicaid expansion, an estimated 13.5-26.6 million people have just gained access to healthcare.

So the politics say this is a bad law. The Democrats will probably take a “shellacking” in the midterm elections this year because of the law’s unpopularity, and Obama will be a lame duck in office for his last two years, making changes via executive order and ignoring the Congress, just like most other modern presidents.

That’s because, as Klein’s article on Vox illustrates, telling someone that 13.5 million Americans got access to affordable healthcare isn’t the same as being one of the people who got access to a system they were previously locked out of due to a pre-existing condition or a price barrier.

But the policy in effect—i.e. people’s firsthand experience—say this law is sticking around.

Politics is polling; it’s about being right.

Policy is about doing what’s right. And that’s nothing to be cynical about.


Digest: Just Lead

This is Digest: A focused update on an undefined topic of my choosing. Published almost every Friday Saturday.

After our lunch at the top of the Sierra Madre del Sur just outside Petatlán, Mexico, our ATVs pulled over on the side of the road about one-third of the way down the mountain. We got off and walked through the front yard of a family’s home. We were about to take a hike through the jungle to a waterfall somewhere in the middle of the mountain.

Johnny—our hotel bartender turned tour guide—sped to the front of the group, motioned a quick ¡hola! to the family who was sitting casually in the front yard, led us around the side of the house past an extremely proud rooster, and straight through to the back yard into an expansive field full of cattle.

While I toyed with Amanda’s camera trying to get formal portraits of the cows, I stepped in a cow pie or two (spoiler, if you’re not familiar with country lingo: cow pies aren’t like “apple pie,” you may not want to Google that), and tried to keep my eye on the bull laying near the edge of the creek that ran through the field. Thankfully, I wasn’t wearing red. Wouldn’t want to tempt Ferdinand.

“Left foot first, then right when you go around these rocks,” Johnny yelled out.

“You can take off your sandals and walk directly through the creek, or jump from that rock to that rock to that rock,” he said, perched on the side of the hill pointing at the rocks he was referencing.

“Walk on the thin dirt path through the field—it’s harder to see sometimes, but the big path leads nowhere.”

That last line sounds philosophical and I guess you can take it that way if you want to. But he meant it literally: the literal big path literally lead nowhere.


What caught my attention about how Johnny led is that he didn’t always stay in front of our fifteen-person crew: if anybody mentioned having trouble or he noticed they were hiking incorrectly, he immediately went to them to offer help or a suggestion.

He would always direct the group with his voice, but sometimes that voice came from the front, sometimes from the middle, other times from the very back.

Sometimes he was talking to benefit one person, other times he was talking to all of us.

But he was the leader, no matter where he was in line.
Not because he proved anything before we started hiking.
Not because of some title he held.

He was the leader

Leadership is hard to define because everybody leads differently, and everyone is led differently.

Leadership is also hard to accept because most of us are, rightly, skeptical of authority; we’ve all seen what happens when you trust somebody without questioning their motives or the integrity of their information, and it’s not always good.

But leadership is necessary and unavoidable, whether you’re part of a nation, a business, a hike, a family, or simply trying to better yourself.

It’s necessary and unavoidable because, as people, collectively and individually, we’re not stagnant. We’re always growing, for better or worse.

We grow when we rally behind a vision of the future, and that vision compels us to act. Yes, that vision is an aggregate and contains thoughts that come from all of us, but is typically channeled through somebody: that person is the leader.

I believe we’re all leading something, we’re all leading someone, and we’re all going somewhere, whether we know it or not.

I believe leadership doesn’t have to be a dirty word.

Here are a few articles and quotes about how “leadership” doesn’t always have much to do with your position or power, and about what good and effective leadership looks like.


A Privilege

Leadership isn’t a right. It’s a privilege. It must be continually earned. If you possess any sense of entitlement, that will work against you.

John Maxwell, on the money.


Digest: Experience Over Observation

This is Digest: A focused update on an undefined topic of my choosing. Published almost every Friday Saturday.

Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” As my wife and I sit side-saddle, opposite each other on an ATV going up a mountainside just outside a little town in Mexico called Petatlán, I couldn’t agree more.

Our driver’s name is Manuel and, though I took the required two years of Spanish in high school and have spent quite a bit of time in Mexico, I don’t understand much of what he’s saying.

“Something something this is where they grow the coffee.”
“Those are something something trees.”
“Something something pineapple something something.”

There are moments where I think I understand everything he’s saying, and moments where I know I understand nothing. Thankfully my wife has retained most of the Spanish she learned, so she’s able to translate between Manuel and I.

After spending an hour and a half holding on for dear life as we bounced around, always dangerously close to the edge of the trail, our fifteen-person crew and entourage of five ATVs made it to the top of the Sierra Madre del Sur to tour a rural farm and eat lunch with the family that tends it.

As we pulled up to what felt like it had to be the last house on the mountain, we were greeted by a gaggle of dogs, cats, goats, chickens, a rooster and a pig—some curious and craving attention, others very concerned (the pig was beside himself, trying, unsuccessfully, to hide underneath a few banana leaves). After the stampede subsided, the patriarch, Jesus (fitting name for a mountaintop patriarch, right?), made his entrance, walking up to each of us with a limp to give us a hug.


As you would expect for a mountaintop home first built in the early 1900s, its construction is rather sparse. A collection of buildings, really. One large building, a single room that serves as the family’s main living quarters. A large half-indoor, half-outdoor room that looks like it’s used as a church of some kind. A kitchen and dining room that’s indoor but surrounded mostly by chicken-wire screens so it feels like you’re outdoors. And what I’ll call—for lack of a better way to describe it—a siesta room full of hammocks, a card table, and the family’s stash of homemade wine (this was my favorite room, obviously). Jesus is quick to point out their new 18″ TV, DVD, and speaker system, though he’s also quick to point out that, because they’re so high up in the mountains, they don’t get much picture out of it, only audio. They’re just happy they can at least listen to fútbol at home now.

After a quick tour of the facilities, we walk to another corner of the grounds, where he shows us their coffee plants, explaining why he stopped selling to commercial buyers like Starbucks. Apparently, for Jesus, Starbucks tries to buy at a lower price than it takes him to produce and distribute, so the coffee is now only produced for family and friends that live on or near the mountain. Same goes for his cocoa; he makes over 100 kilograms per year, but has to be highly selective about where he sells it and who he sells it to, so he doesn’t spend more on distribution than he does on production.

It’s a lesson in basic corporate economics: Spend less than you take in, and only on a product you actually make, and can actually make you money.

A lesson most entrepreneurs I know could surely learn and thing or two from.

Turns out, this mountain is an entire economy of its own. Locals buying and selling to locals. Somebody tends the ganado (cattle). Another grows maíz (corn), another arroz (rice), another frijoles (beans). Jesus and his family are responsible for café, chocolate, medicinals and herbs.

And this is what I love about traveling. It’s one thing to walk into a conference and learn something about the world with your designer Nikes, your iPad in a DodoCase, and a name-tag slapped on your chest. It’s another thing entirely to be bone-tired, having practically dragged yourself out of bed at 6am, wearing some crappy old running shoes, chugging coffee, and being strapped to an ATV and driven up a mountainside by somebody you’ve never met and whose language you don’t speak.

Doing things you’ve never done is how you learn about the world, and doing those things in a culture you’ve heard or read about is how you learn that you don’t understand as much as you think you do.

Some people say travel is about finding yourself. I say it’s about finding yourself in other people. Culture is, in fact, made up of people who are just like you, but just different enough to—hopefully—teach you something.

Empathy is, after all, experience, not observation.

It’s experiencing firsthand
and the mundane,
and realizing that we’re all experiencing varying degrees of something that can only be described as… human.

You can’t learn that on the Internet.
You can’t learn that from somebody else’s experience.
You can only truly learn that by going.

After the tour we played a rousing game of dominos, then sat around the family table, eating homemade tortillas, beans, sopes, chicharones (fried pig skin) in tomato sauce, and a seasonal squash salad. We drank homemade wine, coconut water and coffee, and I ate like un cerdo feliz.

Bottom line: you (read: we) should get out more.

Last week’s Digest focused on the start-up economy and was a bit more on the serious side. This week, I think you should get out from behind your desk—or at least plan some time to make that happen this year—so here are some articles and quotes about the whimsical world we live in:


The year of doing, not thinking.

One thing I need to divorce myself of in 2014 – and to the extent I have any real influence, I would want other artists to as well – is the belief that the now ubiquitous act of studying the changing attitudes and behavior of a society when it comes to how they do or don’t consume music has ANYTHING at all do to with me or the kind of work I want to create.

It might matter to concert promoter or a record company or a journalist how people are consuming music, but it should never be a good enough reason why I wouldn’t want to make it. There is empirically nothing inside the autopsy of an attitude in listening habits that should change the music that someone’s heart tells them to make.

2014 is the year of doing, not thinking. I could live the rest of my life in the theoretical “idea space,” a fancy name given to what often should just be called “pure inaction,” but sometimes, it doesn’t come down to a rousing cerebral back and forth on why I should or shouldn’t make my next record here or there or with this person or that one. Sometimes, if you spend too much time debating between two places to go, you miss the flight.

This year I resolve to create more; write more songs, book more studio sessions with musicians I don’t have a master plan for the purpose of, take more photos, take more chances. For the past several years I’ve seen expression as a vulnerability, and certainly for some of that time it was necessary, but it’s not anymore. I want to use at least half the time I used to spend debating whether it’s worth doing actually DOING IT. If you’re an artist, and you want to do it, and that “it” exists inside your art, DO IT.  An artist should be able to make it now and let the audience tell them what it was or wasn’t without a TED talk-level of explanation before even trying to create it. The artist-as-strategist paradigm might be a compelling thought on some level, but one thing it isn’t is fun.

He may have written “Your Body Is A Wonderland,” but John Mayer is a smart man. Also this whole “2014 is a year of action” thing seems to be pretty pervasive across our culture.