If You Can’t Do Anything Else

Every theatre kid has a moment (or many moments) when they consider pursuing a career in acting.

I had my moments. Every few months or so for the decade between middle school and college graduation (the heyday of my theatre career, as life would have it), I would threaten my parents with pursuing acting. I even declared a second major in Theatre second semester of freshman year (which I later demoted to a minor).

I remember the popular maxim that often accompanied these ambitions: “You should pursue a career in acting if you can’t do anything else.” It wasn’t until several years post-college that I learned there were actually two interpretations of this adage.

I had always interpreted the phrase to mean that you should pursue acting if you couldn’t breathe without it; if you felt as though you would truly perish from asphyxiation, choked by your own unfulfilled potential on the screens and stages of the world. (I was a little bit of a drama queen, and perhaps prone to hyperbole.)

Another friend interpreted it more literally: you should pursue your thespian ambitions if you simply have no other skills with which to barter in the game of Life. If that is your one talent, then you may as well play your hand. If you can do something – really, anything else – definitely do that instead.

I still like my version better. It has poetic conviction: give me the Backstage listings or give me death!

In any case, my theatrical ambitions didn’t pass muster by either definition – I loved (and still love) theatre, but felt I could be happy leaving it as a hobby. In fact, I feared the opposite: that I would rely too heavily on the art as a meal ticket, take parts I didn’t love in shows I didn’t believe it, and slowly start to resent it altogether, the way people spoke of being sickened at the sight of ice cream after a summer scooping sticky globs of the stuff. And supposedly, after four years of a good college education, I had other marketable skills to lean on. (Time will tell, I guess.)

I spoke to a young(er) entrepreneur-in-waiting last week, and he told me he had a list of about a dozen business ideas he was thinking about pursuing. Without seeing the list, I told him none of them was the right one. He asked how I knew, and I said that when he found the right problem to solve, he would unquestionably know it to be the one to pursue. He wouldn’t be able to do anything else.

Two years ago, that is how I felt about a problem that I later started Allovue to solve. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I felt certain of my impending death, crushed by the weight of regret (there’s that hyperbole again!) It’s a feeling not so unlike lovesickness. I couldn’t do anything else.

I think founding a business is a pursuit worthy of hyperbole. There’s plenty of rejection, the odds are not ever in your favor – it’s really not so different from a career in acting, when you think about it. For every break-out celebrity, there are thousands of people getting typed-out all day. For every Uber, there are thousands of wantrepreneurs honing their “Uber for X” pitches. Unless you’re Richard Branson or Elon Musk, you probably can’t just pick an idea off a list.

You should only pursue your business idea if you can’t do anything else.

The Last 5 Years in Baltimore

I never believed I was in Baltimore by accident. I woke up one morning in my senior year of college with the sort of impulsive conviction to move here that can only be attributed to fate. When I met a guy a matter of weeks after moving here, I was sure he was the reason I was here. When it fell apart the following year, I questioned all of my instincts and shook my fists at the fates and desperately wanted to run very far away and never look back.

And yet, here I am.

In the winter of 2011 I had been living here discontentedly for a year and a half and gave myself 6 months to find my people or pick up and go. Of all places, I started to find my people on Twitter in the technology community. I have to credit Kate Bladow for being a connector extraordinaire. It was on Twitter that I learned about Create Baltimore, and having declared to Crystal that I was going to Do Things and Go Places and Meet People, I went. Something clicked that day – I found a community of people that inspired me. I decided to stay. Relying on instinct again, I put an offer on a house the very next week.

I found myself in a dark place a year later, feeling completely at odds with my career, which was essentially my whole adult identity. We’ll call this a quarter life crisis. I made a sharp turn into the world of venture capital, which didn’t quite fit me, either. There were a lot of restless nights in the fall of 2012 as I wrestled with the spark of an idea that would not leave me alone. I saw it, but I didn’t know how to build it. I didn’t even know where to start. It was an utterly absurd, terrifying notion. I considered the worst case scenario and imagined abject failure, humiliation, bankruptcy. In this case, I supposed I would book a one way ticket someplace far away and open a waffle stand on the beach. That sounded pretty ok, actually. For a third time, I trusted my instincts.

And so, here I am.

Since I’m a big nerd, here’s a little infographic of some Life Olympics highlights from my last 5 years in Baltimore.

Cheers, hon.

The Last 5 Years in Baltimore (1)

Remembering Michael

In the pre-Facebook days, Penn had a separate online portal for newly admitted students to gossip about dorms and classes and clubs, and other pre-college chatter. Michael and I were both admitted early decision and we quickly progressed our friendship from Penn portal to AIM to the regular old telephone. We were 17 and it seemed impossible to wait 9 months to become in-real-life friends, so we decided to rendezvous at his house, just about 45 minutes north of mine. I met his lovely parents and then we made our way to the Wendy’s drive-thru and took our cheeseburgers to a nearby park to listen to all our favorite music. Ok, Michael’s favorite music, which became my favorite, too. It was the most ordinary thing for a bunch of high schoolers to do, but it was a memory made extraordinary by virtue of being with Michael.

Photo by Raymond Colon

I was shocked when Michael told me before winter break freshman year that he wouldn’t be returning to Penn in the spring: he was joining the Navy. I balked at the idea. You? The Navy? The same guy who fiercely debates the merits of the Oxford comma at 4am? Michael made the case that he didn’t really know what he wanted to do, and couldn’t see the sense in spending all that tuition money figuring it out. Well. That may sound like a well-reasoned response, but Michael had gone to the same kind of parochial high school as I had, so we both knew he was supposed to graduate from an ivy league school with honors and settle into something suitably professional. He was deviating from The Plan. 8 years later, I found myself in the same situation, and I found myself channeling Michael’s courage to carve out a different path. He was one of the first people besides my parents that I told about leaving my job to start the company, because Michael had a way of making you feel like you were destined to make all the big decisions you were making, and he’d just been patiently waiting for you to figure them out.

For the 7 years that Michael served in the Navy, he was mostly based in far-away places. Somehow, we knew our friendship was special, and diligently kept in touch with letters, emails, phone calls, Facebook, and a visit whenever he was on the east coast. He came to speak to my class during my first year teaching in Baltimore, which I think was an enlightening experience for all parties involved.

Getting older and moving around makes staying in touch with old friends harder. There’s an illusion of intimacy since we’re all constantly aware of each other on Facebook. It’s easy enough to say, “We should totally get together the next time I’m in your city!” But Michael really meant it. If we were within 200 miles of each other, we would find a way to see each other.

We said we loved each other a lot. As a society, I think we’re bashful about loving too much. We get wrapped up in the implications and insinuations and we treat each other so casually. Michael did nothing casually and we were unabashed in our mutual expressions of love and affection. Imagine if we were all so unapologetic about loving our friends? Just big, bold, audacious love. If anyone is afraid that too much love would make it any less special or intimate, trust me that Michael’s whole existence was evidence to the contrary.

A strong theme has emerged in the dedications to Michael over the past few days: It didn’t matter if he knew you for 10 minutes or 10 years, he made you feel special. Michael had some sort of super power in that he could immediately pinpoint all of your insecurities, gently make you face them, and just dissolve them, leaving only the beautiful parts. This gift for seeing the beauty in every person he met made him a remarkable photography, and a truly extraordinary human.

“You know when you’ve found it, that’s something I’ve learned, cause you feel it when they take it away.”

Love you, Michael.

2013 Life Olympics

2013. I don’t want to tempt (or limit) the fates by awarding this year any premature superlatives, but I have a suspicion that I will always look back on 2013 as a pivotal year in my life.

It’s a little surreal to think that so much of what brings me daily joy and fulfillment didn’t even exist a year ago.

For the past few years, I have come think of adulthood as the Life Olympics: the constant striving for balance between Career, Home, Relationships, Health, and Wellness.

The results are in for 2013:

Career – Gold Star
Founding and growing Allovue has been a thrilling and fulfilling journey, and I can’t wait to see what next year brings. Despite the popular myths about startup founders failing to sleep, eat, or do anything unrelated to business orders, I think I succeeded in striking a pretty fair balance with the other 4 realms of my life, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

I resigned from my job the first day back after the New Year holiday. I had come across this quote on Pinterest from We Bought a Zoo, and just kept repeating it to myself:

20 seconds of insane courage. Emphasis on insane. I had no plan, no funding, and no experience – just some gnawing intuition that I had to go bring this idea in my head to life, or feel the churning discontent of regret forever. So, into the abyss.
I woke up on Monday February 4 – my first day as an untethered, fun-employed entrepreneur – feeling an odd mix of liberation and terror. For the first time in my adult life, (maybe my entire life?) I felt solely responsible for myself. There was no one to tell me what to do or how to do, but then, there was no one to tell me what to do or how to do it. I was a bit paralyzed by the weight of my newfound freedom at first, and then at 9:49am, I remembered: “To begin, begin,” and so I began. I’m not sure what I did that first day, but I must have felt some vague sense of accomplishment, because I had this to say at the end of the day: 

I know it won’t always be this fun…But isn’t it ok to bask in the sheer exuberance of it – just for a little while? Just for today, I’ll relish in the joy that accompanies the audacity to live the very life I imagined. Just for a moment, I’ll play in that narrow intersection of pleasure and purpose, feeling infinite and electric.

Fortunately, that feeling lasted more than a day. The chaos of “startup life” feels oddly natural to me in a way that the routine of other jobs never had before. I think I worked on 8 different jobs this year to make it work, but I did it on my own terms, so I can finally read this speech without the nagging feeling of being slightly off center:

The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.

Steve Jobs

Relationships – Gold Star
Speaking of matters of the heart, two weeks before I started Allovue, I decided I was tired of eating dinner alone and revamped my online dating profile for what I promised would be the last damn time. I agreed to exactly one date the day after I activated my profile. On the way there, I reminded myself (aloud) that I was officially done compromising on my non-negotiables in relationships. Maybe the universe just wanted to hear me say it out loud, because I went into Brewer’s Art that night to meet the actual man of my dreams in real life. I don’t know if there’s ever a good time to start a new relationship, but I’m pretty sure it is not two weeks before you leave your job to start a company. I’ve heard it said that you find love when you find yourself – I just wasn’t expecting it all to happen, like, immediately, all at once, very fast.

Home – Silver
In the Home category, I include basic home maintenance, cleaning, and keeping personal finances in order. My home was probably cleaner than usual this year, because I was constantly hosting new AirBNB guests. Talk about an incentive to keep the house in order when people are literally rating your house on its cleanliness! Of course, part of my strategy was to just relegate the mess to my room, but even that’s had to change with the addition of our new kitty, Darwin, who likes to scratch, sniff, claw, and eat anything in reach. I’m running out of room to stash junk and mess, so it looks like I will finally have to be a grown-up and either purge excess or keep things tidy! #likeanadult
Health – Bronze

As it turned out, it was a good year to start dating a doctor/lawyer. At the end of January, I found myself engaged in a class-action lawsuit after it was discovered that my doctor had been allegedly secretly photographing patients with a camera pen and subsequently committed suicide. Feeling anxious about the care I had been receiving for the past 4 years, I quickly sought a new doctor and was diagnosed with endocervical adenocarcinoma in situ – stage 0 of a fairly rare form of glandular cervical cancer. My doctor said it was usually difficult to catch this type of cancer so early, but since we did, I was able to have a minor surgery to remove the cancerous cells. I just had my 6 month check-up, and my tests came back normal!

So this whole litigation/investigation process turned out to be a bizarre, potentially life-saving blessing. Unchecked, the cancer would have very likely progressed and I would have been facing far more invasive treatment options. This made me think about all of the men and women who put off visiting a doctor for routine check-ups because they lack basic insurance. If my father hadn’t harangued me about securing private insurance before I left my job-with-benefits, a health crisis would have been a financial catastrophe, too. Even my small surgery would have cost over $10,000 without insurance. This whole ordeal gave me a deeply personal lens with which to view the Affordable Care Act debate this year. I’m thankful our country is finally making an attempt to fix what I can attest to be a very broken system.

Despite attending more Bikram yoga classes this year than either of the past 2 years I’ve been practicing, I still didn’t get to as many as I had aimed for. This is an area of my life that I really to need to work on making it a permanent habit. It’s (sadly) looking like the best way to do that is to just get up at 5:30am to make the 6am class. I’ve gotten better at it, but it’s still going to take some practice to make it less of a struggle-fest in the morning.

Wellness – Honorable Mention
No surprises here. Personal wellness falls to the bottom of my priority list, year after year. I define personal wellness to include the things that feed my brain, creativity, and soul – probably not where I should be slacking off. This realm looks different for everyone, but for me it includes reading, writing, singing, cooking, taking pictures, and going to yoga. I fell woefully short of my book-a-week reading goal this year and abandoned my photo-a-week project in February. I did maintain my singing lessons every other week, which is a small victory, and I’ve started to carve out time for cooking delicious things on Sunday afternoons. This area definitely needs more work in 2014, and I think it needs to start with a shift in value judgment. In my gut, I know most of the inspiration for my “real” work comes from this personal creative time, but it’s so indirect and quiet that it’s easy to write-off these activities as less essential. No more! Wellness is essential.

You’ll Figure It Out.
In 2012 I wrote a lot about gender politics in the tech world. One day, I stopped and took a hard look at my own life. Technology, specifically as it related to solutions for education, was clearly a big passion of mine. Why wasn’t I doing work in that field? Why wasn’t I taking a leadership role in the very area that I was lamenting a lack of female leadership? The answers were all rooted in blinding fear. I was afraid I wasn’t appropriately “certified” to do what I wanted to do. I was afraid I didn’t know how to do what I wanted to do. I was afraid of what people would think, or say. Then, I realized that none of these were particularly good reasons to not do a thing that I wanted to do. So, I decided to just muster up that 20 seconds of courage, and force myself to figure it out. I surrounded myself with smart, helpful people, and asked a LOT of questions along the way. “Leap and the net will appear,” says an old Zen proverb. Sometimes, you just have to build your own net.

Women: Damned If You Do or Don’t

Lean in… but not so far that you become out of touch. That seems to be the critical response to Sheryl Sandberg’s new mantra to career women everywhere. Maureen Dowd’s op-ed in the New York Times this week, “Pompom Girl for Feminism” says:

“Noting that her Facebook page for “Lean In” looks more like an ego wall with “deep thoughts,” critics argue that her unique perch as a mogul with the world’s best husband to boot makes her tone-deaf to the problems average women face as they struggle to make ends meet in a rough economy, while taking care of kids, aging parents and housework.”

Elsewhere in the NYT this week, in “A Titan’s How-To On Breaking Glass Ceilings” Jodi Kantor writes: “Even her advisers acknowledge the awkwardness of a woman with double Harvard degrees, dual stock riches (from Facebook and Google, where she also worked), a 9,000-square-foot house and a small army of household help urging less fortunate women to look inward and work harder.”

For crying out loud. It’s not as though she skipped to the end of a rainbow and found a pot of Harvard MBAs and Google stock certificates. Sandberg isn’t an heiress to her wealth. She has earned everything she’s got – isn’t she exactly the kind of woman whose advice you should take?

At precisely what point in your career are you successful enough to have influence en masse, but not so successful that you have become out of touch with the everywoman? Sure, Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg “have it all” – including help, a luxury afforded by their self-made success, which ironically seems to strip them of their right to talk about being working women. Never mind the 15 years of their careers that led up to their C-suite positions – now they have stock options and huge salaries, so what do they know? 

“While she may empathize, does she really know what it is like for the single mom with a disabled child who has no choice but to work to put food on the table?” one commenter asks. If said-single-mom, by her own grit and brilliance, should find herself elevated to the sort of international soap-box necessary for a widespread audience and influence, it’s more than likely that her meteoric rise would be accompanied by the sort of paycheck that eliminates these economic burdens. Is she now forbidden to speak of her former struggles? On the path to success, does the arrival delegitimize the journey?
People seem to have forgotten that Sandberg and Mayer didn’t simply roll out of bed one morning and land in a giant pile of money. They both obtained bachelor’s and graduate degrees from top-notch schools (Harvard and Stanford), which means they have likely been busting their asses since grade school. And while Sandberg now has the luxury of leaving the office at 5:30, she undoubtedly pulled some all nighters earlier in her educational and professional career. Mayer has been famously noted for sleeping under her desk at Google and pulling 130 hour work weeks. (Side note: when I searched for that article to link, “Marissa Mayer, sleep_” auto-completed with “sleep her way to the top.”)

“Sandberg describes taking her kids to a business conference last year and realizing en route that her daughter had head lice. But the good news was that she was on the private eBay jet,” quips Dowd. Frankly, being trapped in an airtight space with a lice infestation seems like a nightmare, regardless of who owns the plane/train/automobile. Is the eBay jet equipped with professional delousers and a supply of RID and fine-toothed metal combs? Otherwise, it’s irrelevant, because all the Veuve Clicquot in the world couldn’t defeat those little demons. In another light, this might be seen as an example of how wealth and success do not immunize her to the common trials of motherhood, but instead, Dowd highlights her luxe mode of transportation. So what? She got an extra bag of peanuts while digging bugs out of her kid’s hair? Fancy.

Billionaire men throw money at cars, planes, yachts, hotels, casinos, and other obscure material luxuries, and people want to point fingers at Mayer for having a nanny? And Sandberg for having a cooperative husband? Does Jack Dorsey have a cleaning staff? Probably, but no one’s writing articles about how out of touch he is from middle-class bachelors everywhere.

Angela Benton wonders why more female founders are not accepting positions in the NewMe accelerator. Possibly, the sort of under-the-microscope analysis of “work-life balance” that accompanies female success gives women reason for pause.

Whether you marry or don’t, whether you have children or don’t, whether you hire a nanny or don’t, whether you breastfeed or don’t, whether you stay home or don’t, whether you have an “easy” baby or don’t, whether you speak up or don’t, whether you “lean in” or don’t, one thing’s for sure: you’re damned if you do or you don’t.

The Lynchpin of Suspension

This week, The Baltimore Sun’s education reporter, Erica Green, ran a story on a controversial Baltimore City Public Schools incentive program: teachers and principals are eligible for monetary rewards up to $9,500 for successfully reducing suspension rates.

Great, right? Educators can be compensated for reducing suspensions:  improving school culture and decreasing disciplinary issues to keep kids in school and safe environments.
Oh, logical fallacies are so sneaky!

Logical fallacy: A reduced number of suspensions are necessarily the result of improved school culture and/or a decrease in serious misbehavior.

Likely reality: A reduced number of suspensions are the result of assigning fewer suspensions.

If Destiny and Jaqueline get into a physical fight in class, the suggested disciplinary action in the Code of Conduct is a suspension, but the actual disciplinary action comes down to administrative discretion. If the principal is eligible for a monetary reward for reducing the number of suspensions, on which side of the disciplinary action spectrum do you suppose that discretion will fall? It doesn’t take a doctorate in behavioral psychology to imagine the negative consequences of this policy.

Unfortunately, the attention to the flaws of this initiative obscures the crux of the matter: suspensions don’t work. Suspensions have almost nothing to do with school and everything to do with home and parenting.

In 13 years of rigid Catholic schooling – where you could get detention for the wrong-colored socks, being one minute late, or wearing a flagrant hair accessory – I never got a single detention. Why? Well, because I was a goody-goody. But ALSO, because I did not want to even fathom the sort of wrath I would incur from my parents for receiving disciplinary action. Because I was terrified of even a single indiscretion on my “permanent record,” which I believed was very important because my parents told me so since forever. Because I knew the disciplinary action I received from school would pale in comparison to whatever my father deemed a suitable punishment. I did not worry about school infractions. I worried about what my father would say when he found out. I still shudder to imagine.

So what happens if this sort of disciplinary support doesn’t follow through at home? Nearly all of the punishing effect of detentions and suspensions are predicated on parents reinforcing the seriousness, legitimacy, and severity of these consequences at home.

In reality, many of my students viewed suspensions as a mental health day: a day of video games, Cocoa-Puffs, and Facebook.  At worst, they were bored. At best – vaaaaacation!

As a teacher, I had many students with incredibly supportive parents – we chatted frequently on the phone, via email, and at conferences. They checked homework, helped with studying, and monitored grades. Not so coincidentally, these students were never in danger of being suspended.
For fairly obvious (yet complex) reasons, it is the students who do not receive adequate support and attention at home who are usually the repeat offenders for misbehavior, violent conduct, and truancy. Suspensions won’t work, because the lynchpin of the punishment is missing. Unfortunately, sending a message that extreme or violent misbehavior will be ignored or downplayed is a recipe for school chaos – that message travels fast.

What to do? These students do need some form of disciplinary action to send a clear message that certain behaviors will not be tolerated. However, they are also likely in desperate need of additional support services. Unless you have an intensely Hobbesian view of human nature, it’s fair to say that students don’t generally go around cursing, punching, and threatening people without an underlying cause.

Without digging deeper to unearth and address the root causes of the misbehavior, those students (and their schools) will be caught in a vicious cycle of crime and punishment. Maybe they need therapy and counseling services, maybe they need a positive outlet for aggression (like joining a sports team), maybe they need a personal tutor… but one thing’s for sure: a mental health day won’t fix the problem, and neither will sending them back to class.

Show Them the Money? Why Merit Pay Doesn’t Work

Last week, Newark school district revived the debate on merit pay for teachers when the union passed a new teacher contract that awards $5,000 bonuses to highly effective teachers and up to $10,000 bonuses for highly effective teachers in low-performing schools and high-need subject areas like math and science. Proponents of merit pay argue for incentivizing effective teachers, while opponents of the measure claim that it will pit teachers against each other to the detriment of students. Merit pay doesn’t work, but not for the reasons cited by the opposition.
Schools are not businesses and school districts are not corporations, but like businesses and corporations, schools and school districts are operated by humans, which means that basic laws of human nature apply. Educational leaders would do well to explore some of the literature and research on motivation and leadership that has been so heavily marketed to the corporate world. Almost all of the business and social science research from the last decade on motivation, drive, leadership, management, retention, and job satisfaction agrees: it’s not about the money.
Again and again, research shows that the carrot/stick approach fails to motivate people. Daniel Pink, the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, draws on 50 years of behavioral science research to argue that external rewards like money are not motivators for high performance. Instead, Pink’s research shows that the best motivators are intrinsic: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. When implemented strategically, these motivators lead to increased job satisfaction, higher retention rates, and stronger organizations.
One of the most famous case studies illustrating this point is Tony Hsieh’s turnaround of Zappos. When Hsieh became CEO of Zappos in 2000, the company was worth $1.6 million and floundering. By 2009, Zappos was worth over $1 billion and cited as a world class example of corporate culture and growth.  Zappos achieved success by empowering every employee, down to call center representatives, to make whatever decisions necessary to make the customer happy.  Hsieh instilled a culture of delivering happiness (the purpose) and then gave every single employee the autonomy to achieve that purpose. He didn’t build a company of devoted employees on bonus checks.
In spite of overwhelming research to the contrary, education “reformers” still think waving a fat check in front of teachers will somehow lead to higher test scores. This is insulting. It indirectly suggests that teachers are not already doing everything in their power to teach students successfully. It implies that by sweetening the deal with a few grand, teachers will magically whip out a secret arsenal of teacher tools they’d been holding out on until the district ponied up the cash. Oh, there’s a check at the end of the line? Well, I guess I’ll teach Johnny to subtract, after all! Sound ridiculous? It is.
No, school districts aren’t selling shoes, and they’re not looking to make a profit, but there is (or should be) a uniting purpose to educate students and grow their academic success. That won’t be accomplished with a carrot/stick approach. It will be accomplished by giving teachers the autonomy to make decisions about how to teach their students and increase their own teaching mastery.
If you want a dog and pony show, then offer ribbons and prizes. Real, systemic growth and change can’t be bought.