Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Stay Thirsty, My Friends

My friend Jonathan has a new hero. As is the case with most heroes, even the corporeal ones, Jonathan's hero is fictitious. He appears in commercials for Dos Equis beer; he's The Most Interesting Man in the World.



The ad campaign is fun and, in many ways, inspirational. Here are some statements that describe the world's most interesting man...
  • He’s been known to cure narcolepsy just by walking into a room.
  • His personality is so magnetic, he is unable to carry credit cards.
  • He lives vicariously... through himself.
  • Even his enemies list him as their emergency contact.
  • He is the only person to ever ace a Rorschach test.
  • Every time he goes for a swim, dolphins appear.
  • The police often question him, just because they find him interesting.
  • Alien abductors have asked him, to probe them.
  • He speaks fluent French, in Russian.
  • If he were to give you directions, you would never get lost, and you’d arrive at least five minutes early.
  • He once had an awkward moment... just to see how it feels.
  • He’s a lover, not a fighter... but he’s also a fighter, so don’t get any ideas.
Each of the commercials makes reference to the world's most interesting man along with video clips showing him conducting remarkable feats of skill, courage and daring. Each of the commercials concludes with the man saying, "I don't always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis" and then the tag line, "Stay thirsty, my friends."

I think the commercials are great fun. The actor calls to mind notions of Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, but this time he's playing Earnest Hemingway. The notion that what makes a man interesting is his breadth and depth of accomplishment is amusing and yet, as I think about it, for most people, probably true.

What I find most inspiring about the commercial is the tag line, "Stay thirsty, my friends!"

Start-Up
Since I first began working in technology, I've always been involved in start-ups. In some cases, the start-ups were Skunk Works projects within larger companies like Bell Labs; in other cases, I worked with small companies that needed to turn around quickly; and then, there have been classic, venture-backed start-up companies.

A critical success factor in any start-up is staying hungry. In a start-up, you typically receive less compensation than you might in a larger company in exchange for stock options that will provide significantly higher compensation if and when the company succeeds. Ideally, the compensation is enough to get you by, but not enough for you to "live the life" as it were.

The two-fold implication of the compensation model has a singular effect. First, with enough money to cover your necessities, but not enough to spend on travel and entertainment, you end up spending more time working. Second, knowing that, when the company succeeds, you'll have more than enough money for travel and entertainment, you spend more time working.

The stay-hungry model results in start-up companies running circles around, larger, well-fed organizations: more, better, faster and cheaper.

House-cuffed to the Company
Alternatively, large companies tend to attract people who want to be well-fed. They don't necessarily want luxury accommodations and world travel, but they also don't want to live in a rented room, eating macaroni and cheese.

I remember interviewing with a senior executive for a position with his very large company. During the interview, he explained that the company would help me to secure a mortgage that was much larger than anything I would have ever considered. When I asked him why the company did this, he explained to me, "We like employees with large mortgages and big car payments."

We used to call the phenomenon getting house-cuffed. You race home to tell your partner about the amazing job that you've been offered halfway across the country; to make the offer enticing to your partner, you show him or her a picture of the kind of house you'll be able to "afford" because the company is going to "help" you.

As you sign the mortgage papers, another, more subtle transaction takes place. In the process of helping you purchase your home, the company has effectively purchased you.

Hungry Either Way
The funny thing about either scenario is that, in both cases, you remain hungry. The start-up person hungers for the day that he can take a "real" vacation or afford to shop at Whole Foods (known to many in the start-up world as Whole Paycheck) The house-cuffed person hungers for the freedom to pursue more interesting work, to escape bureaucracy and politics, to not be part of the corporate machine.

The hunger drives each us differently; how we respond to that hunger defines who we are and who we are defines how we respond. Most house-cuffed people surrender quickly, filling their lives with even more acquisitions and looking forward to the days when they can retire. Midlife crises abound and occasionally, after a late night of drinking or a week's vacation, they may consider escape. However, the question is one of "escape what?"

I've known many people who've made the house-cuffs even tighter by escaping something other than the house-cuffs, most typically, their primary relationships.

The Hunger that Feels Good
The thing that I believe escapes most of us is that hunger can feel really good. You've probably heard the phrase, the thirst for knowledge. Have you ever experienced it? Have you ever participated in an activity that you loved so much, you just couldn't get enough of it?

These are the experiences of hunger and thirst that satisfy and fulfill us. We don't want to be filled up; we want to stay hungry.

Remember the first time you rode a two-wheeler without help and without training wheels; you just wanted to ride and ride and ride and ride. What about those first warm evenings of summer, hanging out with your friends until well after dark, wishing that the night would never end. Can you remember the first time that you kissed someone romantically; did you want to stop or did you want it to last forever? There are so many experiences where the hunger and thirst for more are what make the experience so wonderful.

Hungry for What You Have
The key to making hunger and thirst wonderful is being hungry for what you have. I feel really blessed to be paid for activities that I would do whether or not I were being paid. Lately, I've been working on the a next generation of a device that detects and alerts people of impending heart attacks. I could easily spend twenty hours a day working out the algorithm in software, refining it and making it better; sometimes I do.

As it is, I typically sleep five to six hours per night, and yet, I find myself wanting to sleep less so I have more time to work. When I'm not working on software, I'm playing music with Iris and friends. When we're not playing music, we get to hang out and converse with amazing people, even if the amazing people are just the two of us.

The other day, as Iris and I contemplated what's next in our lives, we considered the idea of selling our house to support a friend who's in the midst of a significant life-challenge. My first response was of the fear-based variety; I started to run calculations in my head and work through all the implications of potentially having no house and no money. However, within moments, I was filled with an amazing sense of peace and comfort. None of that mattered.

I exhaled, looked at Iris and said, "Baby, if I'm with you, then I'm home."

When we thirst for what we have, everything else is easy.

Stay thirsty, my friends.
Teflon

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