Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Getting real about gender issues

There’s been a lot of talk recently about female founders, discrimination in the start up world, and what we can do about it.  There have been countless articles, studies, and op-eds talking about what are the challenges for “female entrepreneurs”.  Those who have the courage to express their opinions and personal experiences are simultaneously praised for their bravery and viciously criticised for their skewed interpretation of the issues at hand.  There is no obvious answer for, “Why do only 13 percent of venture-backed companies have at least one female co-founder?” or “Why do women make up only 4.2% of partner level VC’s in the US?”  It’s dumb and unfair, and I want to be part of changing those numbers.  In order to do that, though, I have to stop walking on eggshells and own up to something important.

Regardless of my opinion on these issues, I must admit I often find myself holding my tongue and not saying what I really think. Not because I’m afraid of disagreement - I’m fine with that. It’s much more shameful to admit than that.  Mostly, I am afraid to let go of the idea that I can be totally objective.  That’s the ideal, isn’t it?  I don’t want to be seen as “biased”, “sexist”, “unsupportive” or “overly supportive”.  Especially when I am making decisions to invest or not invest on behalf of our partners, the last thing I want them to think is that my analysis may be skewed by prejudice.  

However, it is precisely this fear that is keeping these unbalanced statistics firmly in their place.  Forget the numbers themselves, the conversation about minorities and entrepreneurship is not going anywhere until we all get real, acknowledge where we are coming from, and start saying what we really think.  

Let’s face the facts — absolutely every single person is biased when it comes to gender issues.  Except for a very small subset of the population who have experienced the world as both genders at different times (who we should all pay close attention to because they can provide the most accurate description of the differences between society’s perceptions of men and women), we are born either a man or a woman.  You can’t help how you’re born, or how you grew up, or the set of experiences that have formed your current mindset.  So, guess what?  You are biased.  I am biased.  We are biologically hardwired to be biased.  So why is everyone pretending that they’re not?  

Instead of striving for complete objectivity, we should all take ownership of our biases so we can fully embrace and benefit from diversity.  Diversity of experience, mindset, and purpose is a competitive advantage, but only if we allow it to be by being honest about where we're coming from.  Hello, I am a white American female in my late-20's. I went to an Ivy League school, worked on Wall Street, then at a VC-backed education start up in New York and Hong Kong.  I now live a privileged life of an expat in Asia.  Does that define who I am?  No.  Has it shaped how I see the world?  Absolutely.  

As a woman in VC, I want to support female entrepreneurs.  I really do.  But yes, sometimes I am unintentionally harder on them than their male counterparts.  I have experienced the disadvantages of being a woman in male-dominated industries like finance and tech.  I believe I have had to fight a little harder than a male in my position would have, and sometimes I take that out on other women by expecting the same from them.  I am very aware of this bias.  I’m owning it right here, right now.  I hope I can change that, but I’ll never have the chance if I don’t acknowledge it.  

As part of a team of two at Fresco, we come from different backgrounds, life experiences, professional capacities, and personal interests.  We communicate well, but most certainly approach problems in different ways.  Being aware of our differences and open to new ways of thinking has been a huge advantage for us in the investment process.  Out of our 28 companies, 50% have at least one female co-founder.  We don’t have quotas, and we never set out to encourage female co-founders, it simply happened as a byproduct of owning our biases and staying open to new possibilities.  I hope that through continued awareness and honesty, we can continue to peel back the layers of our own prejudices and create the space for diversity to truly flourish.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Starting from scratch

Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere. – Albert Einstein

In classic Hong Kong fashion, I have spent the last year living in an apartment that is cozy, convenient, and compact.  Yes, just like a shoebox.  Naturally, as I hit my two year mark in this bustling metropolis that I love so much, moving to a bigger apartment that can actually fit furniture inside of it feels like a rite of passage.  As much as I love my Murphy bed and the cabinets that are pre-built into my walls, I'm thrilled to finally have enough space that I can actually choose what it might look like.

Well, I was thrilled until I realized that "possibility" also means "responsibility", which really means "work".  All of a sudden I have to figure out what fits where, how big it can be, what it will look like, whether or not it will match everything else, what if it gets spilled on, how much of our budget can we allocate to it, when it is available vs. when we need it and how the hell we will get it to the 17th floor. Starting from scratch starts out feeling like the ultimate freedom of a blank canvas, but shit starts piling up pretty quickly, and all of a sudden you don't feel so free anymore.

I hate to admit it, but this is an uncomfortably familiar feeling.  Graduating from college initially feels like the ultimate freedom - no classes, no semester schedules to juggle, no reason not to live anywhere you want.  Leaving a traditional career path for a start up initially feels like the ultimate freedom - you can create something new, craft your own product, team, and vision.  Oh, but what about paying your bills?  Generating revenue?  Wanting to live close to your friends?  Need to find the right people to hire?  People keep talking about this Lean Start up thing and agile methodology, aren't you supposed to work that in somehow?

When faced with such an overwhelming challenge, a natural first step is to start gathering information.  In the tangible case of furnishing my apartment, I gained a new appreciation for how much money furniture stores must pay brand agencies, because they seem to have successfully manipulated me into believing that where I buy my furniture really says something about what kind of person I am.  Seriously, I have used way too much of my brain capacity wondering if I am still an IKEA person, or does that mean I have commitment issues?  I'm drooling over the clean lines, translucent smoked glass, and trendy gray felt fabrics at BoConcept, but the price range is slightly above my means.  Or, maybe I should stay true to my inner scrappy entrepreneur by scouring GeoExpat (Hong Kong's functioning version of Craigslist), where I can bargain my way to underpaying for high quality, only gently used items that may or may not fit together.  Do I care more about my money or my time?  Go ahead and try to analyze that.

Then the hunt begins - gathering information, comparing dimensions, weighing priorities.  Nothing fits quite right - if the dimensions are perfect and we love it, it can't be delivered until 2015.  Maybe the fit isn't quite right, but it's within our budget, and available immediately, but what if the color doesn't match the other things we have picked out?  No matter what the context, it's excruciatingly frustrating to have a vision of what you want things to be like, but the path to getting there is cluttered with a million uncontrollable variables blocking your way.

Frustrated and teetering on the border between a panic attack and completely shutting down and giving up, we finally stumbled upon some furniture stores in Wan Chai.  We wandered in and started asking about the pieces they had in the showroom. We braced ourselves to mentally prioritise delivery time vs. design vs. price.  The little team working in the shop, a soft spoken yet quietly eager young man and an older more portly Cantonese woman with a designer's eye, patiently watched us debate the numerous variables.  The English speaking young man quietly interrupted and suggested, "Well, we can make it any size you want."  I was so dumbfounded, I asked for clarificaiton multiple times.  Apparently, you can choose literally everything about the furniture you order: the color, dimensions, wood, glass type, door type, fabric color.  It would then be manufactured just across the border in China and delivered to our doorstep for literally one third of the cost of any fancy, Scandinavian furniture store.  Fuck you, IKEA.  Ah yes, I fall deeper in love with Hong Kong every day.

The scariest and most empowering part of this particular metaphor is that when faced with unlimited possibility, we are the ones holding ourselves back.  In some ways, we need these restraints to avoid the sheer panic that comes with truly starting from scratch.  So instead, we search from the existing set of options, trying so hard to fit everyone else's designs and specifications into our own space.    Sure, you can have this job, use this type of methodology or job description template, go to this or that type of furniture store.  Price points, salaries, dimensions, hours, office locations may vary, but really it's all pre-determined.  We just assume that these are the only options available to us, because subconsciously, we think it will be easier that way.   But is it?  As Einstein so wisely put it, we resort to logic to get us where we need to go, but what we really need is just a bit of imagination.

What we forget to embrace is that literally anything is available to us.  Don't see it at the store?  Doesn't matter.  You can decide exactly what your life, your business, your home will be like.  It may take some work, you may have to go to Hong Kong to make it happen, but there's no reason why you can't have things exactly how you want them to be.  You may just need to stumble upon this store in Wan Chai to realize that it's actually possible.  So, there you go.  For Forrest Gump, life is like a box of chocolates.  For me (right now, at least), life is like an unfurnished apartment.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Keeping the lights on

I was recently asked to speak at the opening event of Baker & Bloom, an innovative education center in Hong Kong that aims to empower young people with confidence through courses like social entrepreneurship, creative writing, and many others.  The topic was, “How can we create entrepreneurs and innovators?” A pretty powerful question that I am sure millions of people would love an answer to.  If we could just figure out how to effectively teach our youngsters to be gritty, driven, creative, and innovative, we could transform generations!  No pressure at all...

I started racking my brain for an answer and initially found nothing by a bad case of impostor syndrome.  What could I possibly have to add to this conversation?  However, as I reflected upon my own journey, it occurred to me that perhaps this problem of "creating entrepreneurs and innovative thinkers" is actually a false choice.  Perhaps we don’t need to create them at all.  I would argue that all children are born with a natural light inside them.  A natural penchant to create, to innovate, to affect positive change in the world around them.  Our job as educators, investors, parents, friends, and members of society is simply to figure out how to keep that light from dying out, to fan the flames of entrepreneurship within each child, and to empower them with the tools and the confidence to pursue their unique passions.   

Of course, I’m not going to even pretend that I know how to do that, because I do not.  But I can share my own experience of how that light of entrepreneurship within me died out, how I was able to turn it back on again, and what I am doing now to keep the lights on for as many people in the world as possible.

When I was a child, I was incredibly creative, eager to try new things, and always trying to find a way to be different.  In second grade, I boldly proclaimed to my friends that I LOVED homework. I wrote a series of books about a cartoon aardvark named Dixie and her best friend, Missy the Chicken. I started a custom pillow business where I sold basketball shaped, heart shaped, and animal shaped pillows to literally anyone who would buy them, from my extended family, to my neighbors, to my computer teacher, Mr. Gilhooley.  

But somewhere between the social pressures of trying to fit in, wanting to look cool but also wanting be successful, between attempting to work hard, play sports, be editor of the Yearbook, and study for the SAT’s, between getting into Harvard, wanting to be the “perfect student”, daughter, friend, or girlfriend, I forgot how to be weird, crazy, and to try new things.  Instead, I simply learned how to be the best according to other people’s standards.

As a sophomore at Harvard, I was recruited to work on Wall Street, within the Sales & Trading division at Goldman Sachs.  I had no idea what a “derivative" was, but I knew that it was an exclusive world that was very competitive and fast-paced, filled with smart people, and that I should be grateful for such a sought after opportunity.  Throughout my four years at University, in spite of career counselling, academic advisors, and a diverse group of friends, I can honestly say it never even once occurred to me to do something else.  So, after graduating with a degree in Economics and Film Studies, I joined the Equity Derivatives team at Goldman in New York.  

My parents were extremely proud, people were always impressed by my business cards, I was able to support myself and even save a little money, and a lot of people wanted to have my job.  I felt lucky, but I was sad.  I was busy, but I was stressed.  I absolutely hated myself for not just being grateful for what I had, but there was no spark. I had no idea what it was, but something was missing.  Somewhere along the way, that crazy pillow saleswoman had closed shop and that little light inside me had gone out. 

In 2012, I decided to do something about it.  I took a leap of faith and left Goldman to join an early stage education start up in New York City called General Assembly. I was an early member of the team and saying I got thrown into the deep end is putting it lightly.  I was tasked with building out their long-form courses for practical digital skills for entrepreneurs - programs to teach people how to code, digital marketing, data science, user experience.  All amazing skills, none of which I knew how to do.  It was completely overwhelming, but all of a sudden it was like someone turned on the lights and the world had gone from black & white to full colour.  I was learning new things, solving problems, creating completely new possibilities for myself and for others, I was engaging with other incredibly talented individuals in ways that came very naturally to me, but I had completely forgotten how to do.  

Not only was I experiencing a change within myself, but by creating education programs that empowered others with the same experience, I was watching that light turn on within each and every student we had.  Our programs were geared toward adults, toward working professionals who, just like me, had been jaded by the real world and somewhere along the line, their lives had lost their spark.  I could see their eyes light up and their worlds turn to full color as they found themselves building their own websites, launching their own marketing campaigns, making their own dreams a reality.  All things they had always said they wanted to do, but had forgotten were completely within their reach.

Once I got a taste of my childhood back, the entrepreneur within me came back with a vengeance and I haven’t looked back since.  People tell me I am crazy all the time, but I can’t help that I just keep thinking bigger and bigger.  After seven months building out the education programs and team at General Assembly in New York, I decided I was going to move to Hong Kong and launch their business in Asia… they just didn’t know it yet.  I pitched the founders on why they should let me give it a try, they told me I was insane, that I was completely inexperienced, but I didn't care.  I wouldn’t take no for an answer.  They finally said yes, and in 2013, I incorporated General Assembly Hong Kong.

From nothing, we started launching all types of education programs to empower entrepreneurs in Hong Kong. After just nine months (and very little sleep), we had dozens of amazing teachers on board, 2,000 students had come through our doors, we had formed countless partnerships, and I even had a full-time team of six people.   Then, in January of this year, I took on a whole new challenge when I handed off the business to a new Director and joined Fresco Capital, a seed stage fund investing in entrepreneurs around the world. 

I have been learning a lot as an early stage investor but I just couldn’t stay away from the power of education and the magnitude of the work that needs to be done to make sure that everyone has what they need to keep the lights on and to see the world in full color.  Again, I can't pretend to have any idea how to do that, but I know I can contribute.  So, now, we are raising a new fund at Fresco specifically to invest in entrepreneurs who are starting businesses in education technology.  The goal of this fund is to scale our impact as much as possible - to leverage our capital, experience, and network to help change the system, one business, one entrepreneur, one student at a time, one light at a time.  

I share my experience here to highlight that the challenge of encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship is not about shaping our children as individuals.  They are already filled with infinite capability and wisdom.  Our challenge is banding together to shape the system so that it fuels their passion instead of stiffing it.   

Thursday, July 24, 2014

3 Life Lessons from a Hong Kong Summer

When I decided to move to Hong Kong, there were plenty of things about this lovely little place that had never occurred to me.  In particular, my Midwestern pea-brain did not fully comprehend that although it is part of China, Hong Kong is technically in Southeast Asia and it is a tropical climate.  I’m not sure what I expected, but oh boy was I surprised by what I got.

I may brag about the 70 degree and sunny December days, but now that it’s July, I’ve got my tail between my legs.  Don’t get me wrong, I still love Hong Kong, but after two summers here, I figured it was time to stop complaining. I’m finally ready to face the heat and the humidity with humility and see if I can find meaning in my temporary physical suffering.

Perhaps it is just my deluded desire to take the negative and turn it into something productive, but I realised that dealing with summers in Hong Kong actually has taught me a lot about life.  I thought I would share a few key lessons I’ve learned recently and what they might mean outside of the weather forecast.

1.  Just because the sky is blue doesn’t mean it’s not raining.

First of all, I mean this completely literally.  Summer in Southeast Asia is rainy season, which means no matter what colour the sky is or how many days in a row it has been raining, there are absolutely no guarantees.  The sky’s determination to secrete water is unpredictable and undeniable.  The clouds move swiftly and vindictively, so if you aren’t prepared with an umbrella at all times, you will get soaked.  The good news is, there are 7/11’s on ever single corner and every half block in between, and there’s a Circle K across the street from every 7/11, so there’s usually a solid backup plan if you get caught protection-less.

What has this really taught me?  Never take things at face value.  Always be prepared.  And if you’re not prepared, know what your options are (7/11 or Circle K?)  Just because things are going swimmingly now, doesn’t mean there isn’t a T10 typhoon waiting for you around the corner… 

2.  You don’t actually want it to be sunny.

Having lived through a lifetime of brutal winters in Chicago, Boston, and New York, I have been conditioned to believe that sunny = good.   What could be bad?  Summer sun evokes romantic images in my mind of playing in the sand on the beach, frolicking in the grass, soaking up rays with friends, laughing over picnics and bonfires and sunsets.  

Early in the erratically cloudy Hong Kong summer, I found myself resenting the rain and yearning for blue skies and sunny days.  Then, I got what I wished for and I learned my lesson:  When its 100 degrees fahrenheit and 100% humidity, you do not want it to be sunny.  A day at the beach in the HK summer sun is a recipe for skin cancer, multiple days of dehydration, and intense fatigue.  

Especially when it comes to startups, traveling, and relationships, we always have romantic notions in our mind of what the ideal experience would be like, if only the conditions were perfect.  Sometimes, we are lucky enough to get what we want, only to quickly discover the reality is far from what we had imagined.  

3.  You may think you don’t smell, but you do.  I 100% guarantee it.

I don’t care if you have never been “a sweater” or if you use investment-grade deodorant.  I don’t care if you just showered, or if you took a taxi here.  It is summer in Hong Kong, and you smell horrible.

I can say this because it is completely true for myself.  I used to be one of those people who could run for miles and barely break a sweat.  I never understood the difference between antiperspirant and deodorant, I just bought whatever had the best perfume.  Consequently, I spent one year in Hong Kong assuming that smell was not coming from me.  I spent another year thinking I was probably the only person that could smell myself.  Now, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I stink and everyone knows it.  And guess what?  You do, too.

I recently read a great post on the importance of facing your ego and acknowledging your own motivations for doing a startup (check it out here).  Besides our sometimes savoury scents, there are a lot of things about ourselves we are afraid of facing: we are selfish, we are mean, we are scared of failing, we want to be needed, we need to be valued.  The beautiful things about admitting these otherwise shameful realities is that you’re not the only one.    

Accepting your body odor, your vanity, or your selfish motivations won’t cure you of them.  It will, however, liberate you from dwelling upon them and wondering if they’re good or bad or relevant at all.  It will free your mind to move onto more productive tasks.  It will also remind you that sometimes if you want to get things done in Hong Kong during the summer, showering three times per day is just plain essential.  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Why education? Because I am selfish... but I'm not an asshole.

Several years ago, I was tentatively toying with the idea of leaving my job on Wall Street and someone forwarded me a job description for something called an ‘Education Program Producer’ at a young, venture-backed, NYC-based tech start up.  Not only did it not make sense (at the time, education + tech start up = oxymoron), I almost immediately deleted it mostly because I never saw myself working in education.  

Sure, I believed in education and I valued education, but I most certainly didn’t want to work in education.  The word conjured up images of slow-moving organisations, underpaid teachers, inefficient practices, endless paperwork, cruel bullies, and overly demanding parents.  Being a teacher requires being patient and kind, two virtues that were not exactly valued in my then current line of work on the trading floor. As someone who had come to love the fast-paced, no bullshit attitude of the finance world, education is the last place I saw myself going. 

I’m glad I didn’t let my obnoxiously judgmental attitude get the best of me and gave that job description a second glance because my experience at that NYC-based education start up changed my life forever.  Now, several years later and halfway across the world, I find myself doing everything I can to be involved in education.  I brought an education company to Asia, I joined a seed fund because they were involved in education, I am making investments in early stage education companies, and now look - I’m even writing about education.  

Since my obsession can, at times, feel out of character for an efficiency focused, mildly foul-mouthed, impatient individual like myself, I recently started asking, why the hell do I care so much about education anyway?  I mean, sure, if you ask someone if they care about education and they say “No,” they’re either ignorant, full of shit, or a psychopath.  But believe me when I say, I really fucking care about it.  True education is all about asking why, so I decided I would dig a little deeper and try to figure out what about it resonates so much for me.  

The word “education” itself comes with a myriad of connotations, but what I seek to do here is to minimise the emotional implications and figure out logically why it is so relevant and powerful.  Here’s what I came up with.  Three reasons: it is personal, it is sustainable, and it is scalable.  Hear me out.

1. Education is personal.

“It is personal.  That’s what an education does.  It makes the world personal.” - Cormac McCarthy
Everyone has either had an education, or not.  Formal or informal, public or private, too much or not enough, your education has had an undeniable impact on where you are today.  For these reasons, everyone cares about education, everyone has an opinion on education, and everyone knows how important it is.  When you ask someone what their education was like, they will tell you with words but more than anything, you will see it in their eyes and feel it in their heart.  Engaging with individuals on this level is powerful and incredibly energising.  The connections I have made with people when discussing this topic have moved me to my core.   
Education is personal for me, too.  I may be selfish in my desire to change the world and not waste any time doing it, but I’m not an asshole.  I am infinitely grateful for all the opportunities I have been given, and I believe everyone deserves not only the opportunity to get what they want out of life, but also the privilege of being able to figure out what that is.   
 2.  Education is sustainable.

Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  - Proverb
I care about the world I live in, mostly because I have to live in it for my entire life (unless space travel takes off, but that's a different topic).  I want the world to be a better place, because then I get to live in a better place.       
I also value my own time.  Call me crazy but I’d much rather teach someone to fish and then move on with my life, than have people bugging me every day to give them fish.  
The beauty of education is that it never goes away.  Its presence, or lack thereof, impacts an individual's every thought, word, action not just now but forever.   
 3.  Education is scalable.

“Give a man a fish, he eats for a day.  Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.  Teach him how to learn, and he’ll own a chain of seafood restaurants.”  - Someone on the internet
Creating a sustainable solution is great, but sharing it with as many people as possible is even better.  Education is the most scalable solution to any problem simply because it empowers the individual.  This means its impact is not just lifelong, it can be worldwide.  
It’s very simple math, actually.  If I teach three people to fish, they each teach another three people, who teach another three people, who teach another three people, now 121 people know how to fish.  Definitely a lot more people will be eating fish than if I had just spent all day catching fish myself. And, selfishly, I don’t have to spend all day on a fishing boat.  Win, win.

The word “education” is socially, emotionally, politically loaded.  It means different things to different people and is undoubtedly scary and dangerous to try to tackle.  I don’t intend this post to make light of the weight of education, but instead to look at it from a practical standpoint and understand why it is a good place to focus one’s efforts.  Whether you’re a teacher, a student, an investor, or a business person, it’s hard to deny that education is the most efficient way to change the world.  And for what it’s worth, it sure is a hell of a lot of fun, too.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Pivoting... but still getting started.

Someone said to me once, “Everyone has one good blog post in them.  After that, well… it rarely lasts. One Post Wonders, I call them.”  At the time it made sense superficially, but I was determined that it would not apply to me.  I have always loved writing and this was my chance to challenge myself to be open, connect with people from afar, and feel the rush of being creative on a regular basis.  

Recently, however, I have found myself thinking back to this comment as I must admit that I’ve been finding harder and harder to write.  I spent a few weeks wondering why this is.  Is it because things are stable, so I find myself boring?  Do I not feel like I have anything to say anymore?  Have I simply gotten lazy and stopped questioning myself?  Should I just give it up and try starting something new?

When I began writing this blog, I was facing a tremendous amount of uncertainty.  Given the alternative was crawling up in a hole and not coming out, I decided to approach my complete lack of knowledge and experience as a journey of self discovery.  I was figuring out what I was good at, what I cared about, how I could relate to others and the world around me.  Almost completely overwhelmed by all the things I didn’t know, I felt the only thing I had the authority to write about was myself.  Having an opinion on anything else seemed uncomfortable, almost arrogant.  So I chose to put my questions about myself out there first.  And it has been an amazing process sharing those questions with anyone who cared enough to read what I had to say. 

But simply writing about myself has gotten harder because, well, let’s face it... I’m pretty damn boring these days.  But also because as I am diving deeper and deeper into the angel investing world, my confidence is growing.  The number of informative experiences are piling up, data points are accumulating, and I’m starting to form stronger and stronger opinions on what I am doing.  I want to share thoughts on these topics, but I’ve been holding back because I actually believe sharing what I think about the world is a lot scarier than sharing what I think about myself.

Many have told me it is bold to be as uncomfortably honest and open as I have been on the blog.  Sure, I get a little nervous about it sometimes, but overall I actually think I’ve been taking the easy way out.  Writing about myself is easy because even if I reveal too much, if you don’t get it, or you disagree with my approach…. you can’t really tell me I am wrong.  It’s like when mature people tell you to use “I feel disrespected….” statements instead of “You disrespected me ….” because the other person can’t tell you that you are wrong (tricky, right?)  

Semantics?  Maybe.  But my point is that I feel I’ve come to a point where I’m ready to start thinking and sharing about topics that are much bigger than just me.   I no longer want to be afraid that people might discredit me or disagree with what I am saying.  

So, in the interest of always getting started, this post is marking a pivot away from writing just about myself. From now on, I'll be blogging about bigger topics such as what it's like to be a young angel, why we believe in female founders, why I care about education, and lots of other things which will certainly continue to involve my regular rambling, lack of conclusions, new beginnings, and self questioning/reflection. 

When we invest, we look for entrepreneurs who love what they do and feel they are on a mission.  That means that they’ll keep going even if they see a bump in the road or things get a little harder.  Nobody likes a hypocrite, so here I am, refusing to give up.  Refusing to be a “One Post Wonder”.  I love to write, and I cherish nothing more than the connections I have made and strengthened through this blog thus far.  So, yep.  I’m still getting started.  Just in a bit of a different direction.  Stay tuned!

P.S.  To mark the occasion, I also bought my own domain name.  #booya #bigtime #thelittlethings

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Working hard... whatever that means.

I have been formulating this post for way too long in my head, so let me just shut up and get started right with the point.  How do you know if you are working hard?  

Now, maybe you have a healthier answer to this question than I do, but I know I am working hard if… I feel exhausted.  I don’t have time to get enough sleep.  Even when I do, I probably can’t because I obsessively think about whatever I am working toward.  I don’t have very much time to spend with my friends, let alone by myself.  When I am alone, I crave an escape - a mental vacation.  In short, I’m basically miserable.  

But even with all of that, there’s something about that state of voluntary distress feels so fucking good, right?  The masochist within me smugly smirks at the fact that there’s no denying that I am pushing myself to the edge, being everything I can be. The narcissist within me also feels rewarded for the reinforcement I get for how hard I am working.  Friends and family take one look at me and say, “Oh, wow, you look so tired.  You are such a hard worker!”  I’m offended, but I also feel validated.

Whether or not we like to admit it, we glorify this state of working hard and the misery that ensues.  Whether it is comparing how many hours we spent on our homework in high school, how many all nighters we pulled in college, how little sleep we get as adults, emphasising your self sacrifice tells the world that you are disciplined, diligent, and driven - all positive indicators that you are on your way to being successful, or at least you have what it takes to get there.  This is especially true in the start up world, where all nighters and success seem to go hand in hand.  There’s no surprise there are lots of issues with founder depression and burning out.  

I’ve often heard it asked - If a tree falls in a forest, but nobody hears it …. did it really fall?  In other words, if you’re working hard, but you’re not miserable… are you really working hard?  

I have been asking myself this question for the past several months.  When I was at Goldman, I worked 12+ hours days in an extremely high pressure environment.  I was in the office at 6am every day, reading the overnight news so my superiors wouldn’t have to. Starting General Assembly in Hong Kong, I barely slept.  I only had three months to prove the business would have traction here, and I was doing anything and everything I could to make sure that happened.  There was no one in the world who could claim I wasn't working hard.

Now, since I joined the angel world, there’s not too much that is traditional about my job.  We are a start up, too — a distributed team of two, constantly in and out of meetings, in the process of setting our fund’s goals and metrics, creating our processes and scaling our modes of communication.  I still wake up for 6:30am conference calls with our teams in the States, answer emails on the weekends, spend time thinking about the infinite projects, meetings, teams, and tasks to take on.

But, the typical stressors, motivating “or else” factors inherent in any job are missing.  I am often too self conscious to admit this, but I occasionally go to yoga classes at 10am, I work from home, I run errands in the middle of the day, I meet friends for coffee or lunch or dinner.    I have the opportunity to spend time learning about areas that I am interested in.  For the most part, I get to proactively choose who I work with.  All of this is fucking awesome, and as I’ve said before has created the space for me to be happier than I have ever been before.

But I would be lying if I didn’t share that every day I go to sleep and wonder, am I working hard enough?  Shouldn’t I be trying harder?  Sometimes I imagine other people’s voices saying, “Oh that Allison, I saw her going into the office at 11am the other day.  Does she even work?!  She must be so lazy.”  Even after I force myself to forget what other people think of me, silencing my inner critic is difficult.  I don’t know if I will ever feel I am working hard enough.  I can’t help but think if I were really on my way to taking things to the next level, I should be way more miserable.  

But maybe not.  What if feeling happy and balanced is part of the long game?  As evidenced by the things that we let fall by the wayside when we are busiest, listening to your instincts, trusting your limits, and taking care of yourself is hard work in and of itself.  Maybe dialling things back and taking care to not burn out is what allows us to push ourselves to the limit in a macro sense.  Someone told me the other day that balance is actually about living the opposites.  Perhaps there are just times in life where we push ourselves to our limit and are a little less happy.  And that allows us to get to a place where we can recover and reboot and get ready for the next sprint.  

Or, maybe I’m just making excuses because deep down I’m actually just a lazy motherfucker who doesn’t have what it takes to change the world in the way that I aspire to.  I really, really hope not.  I suppose only time will tell...