When was the last time you sat down and lost yourself in a book for two hours?

When was the last time you sat down and lost yourself in a book for two hours?“ Books and Business Model Generation for Stanford Entrepreneurship

This was the question Professor Campbell, one of Lantana’s resident fellows asked myself and a couple students during a serendipitous encounter at brunch this weekend on Stanford’s campus. Professor Campbell serves on a committee that surveys seniors on their experiences at the university. One of the questions he wanted to ask that did not make it into the recent survey was to ask graduating students how many times during their Stanford careers they had sat down and read a book uninterrupted for two hours or more.

He bets the median in their four years here would be zero.

Delving into my own experience so far at school, I frighteningly might have to agree with him. College is a fast paced place where we are always rushing to learn and do as much as we can. Our current generation takes a constant bombardment of information. Despite the many experts and studies that admonish it, multitasking is a way of life. Even after having locked myself out of Facebook for the last eight months, it is still all too easy to be distracted by “productive”  tasks. There are assignments to be done, emails to be attended to, friends who want to catch up, extra curricular meetings to attend, and errands that I remember, not to mention the buzz of Silicon Valley! How would I have two hours to read without a specific goal of cramming material, if I usually don’t have enough time to sleep?

Professor Campbell continued saying that students surfing the web in a lecture are about as cognizant of the material as they would be if they were stoned. Many educators of his generation, he explained, believe that a collegiate education is going to the library, sitting down with Tolstoy or Marx, and losing oneself in the material. ”We need to accept that your generation learns differently,” he told us.

Our residential fellow has a very forward thinking mindset wised by the retrospective depth of a history scholar. He concluded that the multitasking we do at Stanford might actually prepare us better for the kind of high achieving, ADD lifestyles that many of us will pursue in our later careers.  Teachers need to learn to adapt to the new way that students learn. However, we both agreed that we lose something inherently valuable in our education when we cannot recall the last time we have so wholly lost ourselves in a some material.

I started this week with an experiment. I finished all the commitments on my mind, cleared my schedule, put my phone on airplane mode, zipped my computer into my backpack, found a quiet dorm lounge, took out Alexander Osterwalder‘s Business Model Generation, and read. I was in my own world. When my alarm rang me out of my trance two hours and five minutes later, I didn’t want to stop.

I had an appointment with a friend scheduled right after, and I couldn’t wait to tell him how rewarding it had been to take the time to immerse myself in Osterwalder’s material. I look up to him as one of the most poignantly divergent thinkers I know in the Valley. I knew he had taken Professor Steve Blank‘s Lean LaunchPad class where the book in required reading.

But while I was bubbling with connections to various material, he stopped me: “I’ve never had the chance to actually read it,” he told me. He had only skimmed it! My mind was abuzz with all of the information he was missing that I wanted to share. I took a certain glee in the little depth I had gained in my short reading session. During the school year I sometimes forget how much I love the kind of unrestricted reading I only have the time to do during the summers – and sometimes not even then. I had just rediscovered it.

Two hours isn’t that long.

In the Valley, I am constantly coding, problem solving, and executing, but I think I owe it to myself to rekindle my relationship with paper and print. At heart, I am a technocrat with a conflicting nostalgia for the pre-information age.

When was the last time you sat down and lost yourself in a book for two hours?

Find a Problem to Find Happiness

Ernest Shackleton's Ship "The Quest" leaving under the Tower Bridge

Ernest Shackleton's ship "The Quest" leaving under the Tower Bridge

Since my last post, I have acquired a certain nostalgia for polar explorers of the early 20th century. These men saw a problem in the gap of human knowledge of the farthest reaches of the earth. In the most romantic sense possible they sailed off to fill that gap. Expeditions like Ernest Shackleton’s (above) met with some of the most trying conditions on earth. The realities of the expeditions were quite the opposite of romantic. Shackleton died before the completion of the case of the Quest Expedition. However, there is a reason that the same expedition is called the last of the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.”

Polar explorers were problem solvers.

Those are exactly the type of people that Oliver Segovia recently wrote about in his blog post To Find Happiness, Forget About Passion in the Harvard Business Review. In his article, he writes about how the “jobless generation” is finding out that the lesson they have been taught of “following one’s passion” does not always lead to happiness.  Instead of worry about what makes us happy, he says, we should find large problems.

Working on large problems like those that Shackleton and his peers tackled places your focus outside yourself to others. Segovia says that solving large problems is more rewarding both financially and intangibly.

Many people tell me to follow my passions.  Even more people tell me to do what makes me happy. For the last year I have engaged in some deep introspection to find out exactly what that means to me.  While I agree with Segovia’s weight on developing situational awareness, I think internal awareness is an equally valuable asset.

However, an experience this past week reminded me of Segovia’s article. I had one of those weeks when you can’t sleep, you try to work, but everything seems to drag no matter how hard you grind. On top of it, I was trying to get a Linux operating system installed on a homebrewed computer for the first time. Almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

On Thursday night, after laying in bed for three hours straight I had had enough. I got out of bed, sat down, and started working. The Linux system had been eating at my mind. I just had to fix the problems with it. I started at 2:30am and by 6:40am, I had a fully functioning system. But why stop with one problem? I had some web coding that I needed to wrap my head around; in twenty minutes I whipped through 100 pages of an O’Reilly manual. I was on a roll! And I didn’t stop until 8pm that night.

I could barely walk straight, but in a single night I finished more work than I had completed in the entire week, and all I could think about was Oliver Segovia’s article. Fixing a Linux system and wrapping my head around Ruby code might not be problems that will save the world, but they are stepping stones. They are problems that when solved lead to the ability to solve larger things. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, one’s accomplishments grow and build upon each until they build large enough to topple any wall that stands in their way.

Finding something that one is truly passionate about is no trivial task. Neither is finding happiness, but if those two aspects of my life are driven by solving problems maybe I am in luck.

Amid my introspection, I am going to start looking for more problems.

Keeping a Dynamic Perspective

Roald Amundsen and his team viewing their flag planted at the South Pole in 1911

I recently read an article by Professor Morten T. Hansen (a pedagoge from that rival school up north!) published in the Harvard Business Review about the rivalry of the polar explorers Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott.  The former Norwegian explorer became the first person to conquer the South Pole.  The latter arrived at the South Pole only to see his rival’s flag and to die eleven miles from a supply depot on his return journey.

The article provides a number of interesting explanations for Amundsen’s triumph and Scott’s contrasting failure as they relate to business.  However, Professor Hansen’s most poignant gem seems to be added as barely as side note in his conclusion:

Like the best business leaders we studied, Amundsen “zoomed out” (what’s the new situation?), then “zoomed in” (redirect to the South). When a big change or opportunity came along, they took a step back, assessed the new situation, asked whether it called for a change, and if it did, then made the change and zoomed in to execute brilliantly.

In 1980, IBM managers visited a company called Digital Research to use its CP/M operating system for the new personal computer. But that meeting didn’t go well, and the IBMers turned to Microsoft in frustration, but Microsoft was not in that business. In that moment, Bill Gates zoomed out, recognized the opportunity, then zoomed in to deliver an operating system — which became Windows. Great leaders zoom out, then zoom in to confront disruption and change.

Amundsen conquered the South Pole and lived. Scott lost the race and died. Are you — and the leaders around you — an Amundsen or a Scott?

The best leaders, he says zoom out to see the big picture and then zoom in to execute upon it. The example he provides about Microsoft is especially illustrative.

In Silicon Valley, I meet a lot of people who wow me by drawing the most insightful observations from current events and society.  I meet others that can lock down in a little room and code something that might take me years in a matter of minutes. But it is the people who can do both or build teams that can do both who are the ones I see in the tech news.


Thanks to Kyle Wong for the article.