For many years I was often the youngest person in the room. I started my first company at 19 and had already had several bizarre “too young” experiences by the time I was 21. I vividly remember almost losing our largest client at the time because they had taken my partner Dave out for drinks (he is three years older than me) and they somehow pried out of him that I was only 21. That generated a lot of anxiety for a week or so.
I’m at the Big Omaha Conference today for the first time. I’m a big fan of Jeff Slobotski and have been semi-gracefully dodging his invites for years. This year I thought I’d come hang out for a day. So here I am.
Last night I went to the VIP pre-opening party. I hung out and talked to some folks and then realized I was hungry. They only food at the party was meaty stuff (other than some creamy artichoke dip) so I went for a walk around the part of downtown Omaha we were at (11th Street-ish) looking for dinner. I found a Mexican place and sat down for a nice quiet meal before the event started. About half way through I was joined by two others – both locals – who are at the conference and recognized me. Both are younger VCs so we had a nice conversation that was hopefully helpful and interesting to them. I learned a little about the scene in Omaha, so that was useful to me. And I enjoy small dinners a lot, so three people was perfect. And the cheese enchilada was exactly what I wanted.
We wandered over to the opening party around 8:30. I was already tired but I figured I’d give it a try. The entryway was subdued and pleasant as people were checking in and getting name badges. They were all a lot younger than me.
We then walked down a long hall and up some stairs into a huge room throbbing with music. Over the next 30 minutes, I said hello to a few folks I recognized, had a few others introduce themselves to me, and noticed that the room had filled up a lot. The music must have gotten louder because I could no longer hear anything anyone was saying to me without leaning over and putting my ear next to their mouth.
At one point I looked around and noticed that I was one of the oldest people in the room. It was 9:30 and I was tired. So I went home, did email for a little while, and went to sleep.
I’m heading out to the conference now and I’m looking forward to it. But I’m very aware of the age shift today for some reason. Interesting …
I changed my sleep pattern in October. Three months later, I feel like a completely different person. A much better one.
Since I was in my early 20’s, I’ve been getting up at 5am from Monday to Friday. I generally would go to sleep between 10 and 11. An alarm clock would wake me up. By Thursday or Friday I would often snooze or even reset it for 6am or 7am. But most of the time I pried myself out of bed at 5am.
This became a very rigorous routine in the last decade. I would get at most six hours of sleep each night during the week. Then I’d binge sleep on the weekend – often sleeping 12 to 14 hours. My world record is 15.5 hours – I’ve done that a few times.
When I was younger, I’d sleep through the night. Now I wake up two or three times in the night to pee. I fall back asleep immediately.
Three months ago I stopped waking up with an alarm clock. I use my Fitbit to track my sleep (and make my data public) so I noticed that my sleep pattern during the week naturally settled down at between 8 and 10 hours of sleep a night.
It took me about a month to get my mind around this, but I now go to sleep with Amy and wake up with Amy. So – there’s a triple bonus – I’m getting a lot more sleep AND I crawl into bed with my wife, and then wake up slowly with my wife. Yeah – that’s really awesome.
I had developed this attachment to the idea that I only needed six hours of sleep a night. And, given the actual time to fall asleep and the restlessness in the night, I was only getting 4 to 5.5 hours of sleep a night. I’m able to sleep on airplanes so I had rationalized that 100% of my sleep on them counted and that’s how I was catching up. I realize that’s total bullshit – while my eyes where closed, it was unlikely that I was getting deep or REM sleep on the plane, so my sleep hygiene was lousy. I knew this, but I didn’t want to deal with it.
After three months of sleeping “they way my body wants to” I feel so much better. I’m not tired all the time. I’m in a much better mood. I’m quickly adjusting to a different work style, where rather than getting up at 5am, I’m getting up between 7am and 8am. I shifted my meeting schedule from starting at 9am to starting at 11am, so I still have the four hours of “morning time” that I crave. But I feel so much better.
It took me until age 48 to figure this out. Amy has been telling me for years that I’m not getting enough sleep. She’s also been encouraging me to sleep more so that I live longer with not so subtle hints like “women live longer than men because they get more sleep.” At least she hasn’t been turning all the milk in the house pink.
Are you getting enough sleep?
At dinner last week, my long time friend Dave Jilk (we just celebrated our 30th friendship anniversary) tossed a hypothesis at me that as people age, they resist adopting new technologies. This was intended as a personal observation, not an ageist statement, and we devolved into a conversation about brain plasticity. Eventually we popped back up the stack to dealing with changing tech and at some point I challenged Dave to write an essay on this.
The essay follows. I think he totally nails it. What do you think?
People working in information technology tend to take a producer perspective. Though the notion of a “lean startup” that uses both Agile and Customer Development approaches is ostensibly strongly customer focused, the purpose of these methodologies is for the company to find an maximize its market, not specifically to optimize the user experience. The following is an observation more purely from the perspective of the consumer of information technology.
On average, as people age they resist adopting new technologies, only doing so slowly and where the benefits compellingly outweigh the time cost and inevitable frustrations. This resistance is not necessarily irrational – after a number of cycles where the new technology proves to be a fad, or premature, or less than useful, we learn that it may behoove us to wait and see. We want to accomplish things, not spend time learning tools that may or may not help us accomplish something.
Consequently, for many decades the pattern has been that technology adoption is skewed toward younger people, not only because they have not yet built up this resistance, but also because they are immersed in the particular new technologies as they grow up.
But something new is happening today, and it is evidence of accelerating rather than merely progressive technology change. Discrete technology advances are giving way to continuous technology advances. Instead of making a one-time investment in learning a new technology, and then keeping up with the occasional updates, it is increasingly necessary to be investing in learning on a constant, ongoing basis.
I will provide three examples. First, application features and user interfaces are increasingly in a state of continuous flux. From a user perspective, on any given day you may connect to Facebook or Gmail or even a business application like Salesforce.com, and find that there are new features, new layout or organization of screen elements, new keystroke patterns, even new semantics associated with privacy, security, or data entered and displayed. This is most prominent in online systems, but increasingly software updates are automatic and frequent on mobile devices and even full computer systems. On any given day, one may need to spend a significant amount of time re-learning how to use the software before being productive or experiencing the desired entertainment.
My mother is 86 years old. For perspective, when she was 20, television was a new consumer technology, and room-sized digital computers had just been invented. She uses the web, Yahoo mail, and Facebook, impressive feats in themselves for someone her age. But every time Yahoo changes their UI, she gets frustrated, because from her perspective it simply no longer works. The changes neither make things better for her nor add capabilities she cares about. She wants to send email, not learn a new UI; but worse, she doesn’t really know that learning a new UI is what she is expected to do.
Middle-aged people like me are better prepared to cope with these changes, because we’ve gotten used to them, but we still find them frustrating. Perhaps it is in part because we are busy and we have things we need to get done, but it is interesting to see how much people complain about changes to the Facebook interface or iOS updates or what have you. We can figure it out, but it seems more like a waste of time.
Young people gobble up these changes. They seem to derive value from the learning itself, and keeping up with the changes even has a peer pressure or social esteem component. Yes, this is in part because they also have fewer responsibilities, but that cannot be the entire explanation. They have grown up in a world where technology changes rapidly. They didn’t just “grow up with social media,” they grew up with “social media that constantly changes.” In fact, not only do they keep up with the changes on a particular social media service, they are always exploring the latest new services. Several times a year, I hear about a new service that is all the rage with teens and tweens.
A second example that is more esoteric but perhaps a leading indicator, is the rise of continuous integration in software development, not just with one’s own development team but with third-party software and tools. No longer is it sufficient to learn a programming language, its idiosyncrasies, its libraries, and its associated development tools. Instead, all of these tools change frequently, and in some cases continuously. Every time you build your application, you are likely to have some new bugs or incompatibilities related to a change in the language or the libraries (especially open source libraries). Thus, learning about the changes and fixing your code to accommodate them are simply part of the job.
This situation has become sufficiently common that some language projects (Ruby on Rails and Python come to mind) have abandoned upward compatibility. That’s right, you can no longer assume that a new version of your programming language will run your existing applications. This is because you are expected to keep up with all the changes all the time. Continuous integration, continuous learning. Older coders like me view this as a tax on software development time, but younger coders accept it as a given and seem to not only take it in stride but revel in their evolving expertise.
My final example, a little different from the others, is the pace of client device change. From 1981, when the IBM PC was introduced, until about 2005, one could expect a personal computer system to have a lifespan of 3-5 years. You could get a new one sooner if you wanted, but it would have reasonable performance for three years and tolerable for five. By then, the faster speed of the new machine would be a treat, and make learning the latest version of DOS, and later Windows, almost tolerable. Today, five years is closer to the lifespan of a device category. Your recent smartphone purchase is more likely to be replaced in 2017 by a smart watch, or smart eyewear, as it is by another smartphone. You won’t just have to migrate your apps and data, and learn the new organization of the screen – you will have to learn a new way to physically interact with your device. Hand gestures, eye gestures, speaking – all of these are likely to be part of the interface. Another five years and it is highly likely that some element of the interface will take input from your brain signals, whether indirectly (skin or electromagnetic sensors) or directly (implants). When you say you are having trouble getting your mind around the new device, you will mean it literally.
The foregoing is primarily just an observation, but it will clearly have large effects on markets and on sociology. It suggests very large opportunities but also a great deal of disruption. And this transition from generational learning to continuous learning is not the last word. Technology will not just keep advancing, it will keep accelerating. As the youth of today, accustomed to continuous learning, reach their 40s and beyond, they will become laggards and slow to adopt in comparison with their children. Even continuous learning will no longer be sufficient. What will that look like?
I’m turning 45 next week and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. For some reason this seems like a more significant birthday to me than 30 or 40 was. I know some of my thoughts are a result of a few colleagues dying recently (in their 50’s and 60’s), me completely wearing myself out this fall, and spending about half the year struggling with a back injury, but I think something deeper is going on.
At my core, I’m profoundly happy with my existence on this planet. I’m married to an amazing person who I’ve been involved with for 20 years. My direct family is healthy and very functional. I have three superb partners who I get to work with on deeply satisfying activities. I’ve structured my life so that I get to spend most of my time on really interesting things. I get to work with fascinating entrepreneurs on long term projects that I care about almost as much as they do. Finally, I live in what I think is the best town in the world (Boulder) and spend plenty of time in several great cities in the US (New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston.)
When Amy and I talk about turning 45 the phrase “mid-life” comes up. Both of us want to live a long time but are realistic that living until 90 based on our family histories is a long shot, the singularity notwithstanding. So I think we’ve accepted that this is the pivot point where we can start viewing our lives as “at least half way finished.”
Reflecting back on the last 45 years, I’m really pleased with how I’ve lived my life. If I died tomorrow, I wouldn’t have any regrets. Of course, I’d be dead, so that’s kind of an odd phrase. I believe when it’s over, it’s over, but my inner editor refuses to change the sentence.
In some way, that liberates me to think about the next 45 years with a freshness that I wouldn’t otherwise have. I love my work and my daily life so I don’t feel like I’m in need of any fundamental changes. But there are plenty of tweaks, especially when I look back at the last year of injury, illness, and fatigue. For example, I got an email from a blog reader a few days ago in response to my Death and Dying post with the following key paragraph:
“So, what do I do differently now that I’m zooming towards 50? While the work load peak-to-average (crest factor) will always be high in our businesses, I now try for a healthy mix of work, exercise, eating right and relationship building on a 2-7 day window instead of the 30-90 day window. The “week off the grid” model seemed to work in my 20’s and 30’s, but the swings from low and high (energy, mental acuity, happiness, etc.) would be unsustainable today.”
My engine has always run hot – I work and play hard until I run out of gas, and then I crash for a while. I’ve solved this for the past decade by taking a quarterly week of the grid to recharge and spend focused time with Amy, but I’m starting to feel like the 90 day tempo isn’t working as it’s too much physically and emotionally. The idea that I should shift to a weekly or some better defined monthly rhythm is appealing.
There are plenty of other things, both physical and mental, that I’ve struggled to change such as trying to lose 25 pounds for several years, learning a new programming language like Python, trying to stop using the telephone except for family, partners, and CEOs, and trying to back off of being completely scheduled from Monday to Friday.
Fortunately, next week is one of my quarterly weeks off the grid (although I have several things going on that will keep me a little engaged) so I’ll have plenty of time to ponder this. But, for any of you out there that have read this far and are willing, I’m interested in the suggestions, ideas, and tweaks you might have for me as I turn 45.