Archive for November, 2009

The "Aura Effect" or "Why Personal Transformation is so Hard"

Friday, November 13th, 2009

I’ve been using the term “Aura Effect” for years but, for the likes of me, I can’t remember where I picked up the phrase. Neither Google nor the Urban Dictionary turn up much that’s useful. Thus, before I get going on personal transformation, let me first explain the “Aura Effect”:

Have you ever read a book that you thought was so effective that you were sure that it would change your life? After finishing it, you gushed to your friends about it, bought copies for your spouse and father and vowed to incorporate its life lessons into your core being.

From watching Oprah, it seems like The Secret is such a book. I’ve incorporated The Secret into my search for good parking spaces and, I’ve got admit, it works. When I pull into a crowded parking lot, I immediately visualize a great spot, turn the corner and there it is! I’ve considered asking for permission to write a companion book, The Parking Secret but then, I figure, everyone’s positive visualization would be competing with mine in my search for the good spaces.

In my teenage days, the book  might have been Stranger in a Strange Land or The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. If not, maybe Siddhartha or Catcher in the Rye.  Oh, I suppose for some people its the Bible (New or Old Testament, Koran, Torah, The Upanishads, etc. Take your pick.)

After reading an inspiring book, for days, you continue to live “in its aura.” You try to see the beauty in human foibles or you tinker with your toaster or maybe take time to pay homage to Vishnu. Maybe you skip school and smoke too many cigarettes. Regardless, you positively radiate with newfound insights that you are sure will make you happy or a better person or a better friend or simply, like me, speedier at negotiating the parking lot.

A week goes by, however, and the effects of the book seem to start wearing off. Maybe you’ve read a new book or simply decide you can’t overlook the human foibles of the jerk who cut you off in traffic. Maybe you realize that the book isn’t completely applicable to your particular situation . Maybe your original excitement was simply excessive hubris. Regardless, in time, the original effect of the book has completely worn off and you’re back to where you were before reading it.

That’s the “Aura Effect”: basking in temporary enlightenment that inevitably fades.

The Aura Effect isn’t exclusive to books. If you saw Marley and Me at the movies, you were probably kinder to your misbehaving dog for a while. If you listened to the Dalai Lama on TV maybe you became more tolerant of mosquitos or noisy neighbors. For a while, anyway.

The Aura Effect doesn’t just apply to personal matters, either. I’ve been to numerous corporate offsites (“team building”, “strategic planning” and other flavors) that convinced my peers and me that we had solved all of our business and technical problems. I’ve written mission statements and jotted conclusions on numerous sheets of flip-chart graph paper. Inevitably, however, after a few days back in the office, no one can remember any key initiatives and we seem to be committing the same-old, same-old, mistakes. The Aura Effect applies to professional matters, too.

In time, there are few inspirational things that seem to survive the ravages of the Aura Effect. No matter how high a new drug or a new love takes us, in time, we eventually end up where we started (at best!). We is what we is and changing that is very difficult.

This is what makes personal transformation so difficult. Regardless of whether you’re trying to become a healthier person or a better husband or a better employee, it is hard to find any medicine that lasts. Breaking established patterns is difficult. Although something can temporarily push us up a slope of enlightenment, it is way too easy to roll back down.

Is personal transformation impossible? No. Certainly, drug addicts, criminals and those on America’s Biggest Loser seem to periodically succeed in fundamentally changing their lifestyles to get clean, law-abiding and thin. Note however that, in these examples, there are particularly strong motivations to succeed: staying alive, staying out of jail or winning lots of money.  A fire at the bottom of the slope and a beer at the top make it easier to navigate the metaphorical slope.

Good luck with your climb.

The 10 Best Things I’ve Ever Done

Monday, November 2nd, 2009
  1. Run for student government in high school
  2. Take “Lab Research” in 11th grade
  3. Go to Princeton
  4. Ask Sally to move out to California with me
  5. Go to work at Microsoft
  6. Have children
  7. Live in Spain for two years
  8. Start my own company
  9. Study Mandarin for two weeks in Shanghai

#1 seems pretty silly but when I ran for student government in high school two things resulted: I realized that people liked me (I won) and I met my oldest and best friend, Oscar (and, yes, he is like a brother to me).

“Lab Research” was a great program at Miami Senior High School that let kids get school credit for working with scientists. Mine happened to be an entrepreneur interested in these new fangled “microcomputers”. Working on an Altair 8800 pretty much set the stage for much of what followed.

Princeton was both heaven and hell for me. The heaven part consisted of three things: making great friends (one of which, Tom, appears later in #9), getting a great education and getting back together with Sally (after a long hiatus).

The “getting back together” part was so successful that it led to #4 and eventually #6. She is still the love of my life.

Working at Microsoft, of course, provided me with the means to live a very comfortable life (e.g. #7 and #9), but also taught me how to be a good engineer and, during my last four years in Research, the pure joy of learning new things.

If I had to pick the single greatest thing I’ve ever done, it would, of course, have to be having children. My time (well, my timing) at Microsoft allowed me to spend 6 years at home with my kids and these were, as-yet, some of the best years of my life. Changing diapers, driving them to school, teaching them how to tell jokes – I’ve loved every minute of it.

Two of those six years were spent living in Spain where I learned how much fun it can be to completely change your life just for the hell of it. In Barcelona, too, we made two more great friends (Chuck and Nar) whom we’ve chased (or been chased by them) all around the world (well, to Puerto Rico, Ecuador and Singapore) in order to spend time together with them.

In 2004, I joined a startup and realized how rewarding it can be to build a company from scratch and how much more real and intense work is when all the responsibilities fall on your shoulders. Again, my set of friends grew.

My now-concluding trip to Shanghai is my latest great thing and, again, the friendships I made (or strengthened, in the case of Tom) were the true found-treasures of the trip. Last night I went out for a final dinner with the people who’d meant most to me during my Shanghai adventure. As we ate burritos and washed them down with Margaritas (yes, Mexican food in China), we gossiped and told jokes and recounted silly tales. We walked the streets together one last time, avoided the beggars as best we could and said hello to the prostitutes. My roommates asked that I wake them before leaving for the airport (at 6:30am) and when I did, we hugged and promised to stay in touch.

There are some distinctly different things on the list: some are business related while others relate to education. By far the most common theme in this list, however, is the extent to which I value experiences that have yielded great friendships.

I think this is a pretty good list. It helps me to keep my perspective when I think about all of the things I still want to do. I may have a bucket list, but were I to kick the bucket early, I think just before I walked toward the bright light I’d look back, count my friends and consider my life a B+ if not an outright A.

PS: You’ll notice there is no #10. I like it this way. There is still plenty of time to do more great things and, who knows, maybe I’ll have to start knocking old things off the list to keep its length at 10.

Zàijiàn Shanghai

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

My two weeks in Shanghai are over. I’m on the plane flying to San Francisco. I keep thinking over my experience in China, but it’s too early for me to make any sense of it. Every time I close my eyes I relive a one minute clip but I still can’t piece it all together to determine what the plot was.