Friday, November 22, 2013

Lessons Learned

Since my son's diagnosis with high-functioning autism, I have been thinking non-stop about what I could have done differently, and of course, what I should do differently going forward. It's been over a year now. People say that hindsight is often 100%, and it's true.

I know quite a few successful people being very open about their kids' issues, and in turn, they make the most heroic effort, leaving no regrets behind on helping their kids. That's one thing I learned - looking for excuses to refute the diagnosis only could be harmful to the kids. It's often insecurity and vanity rather than love for the kids that leads to the denial. 

Of course, the excuse made is often along the lines of "making the kid feel that he's normal". This cop-out never works in real life, in that only when we help the kids become normal can they truly feel normal in the society. We hear often that some parents get defiant when the teachers complain about their kids making trouble, as if they were protecting their kids. In reality, they are hurting their kids terribly by not helping them to grow, develop, mature and gain the tools and skills to function well in the society. 

In my life, any time I looked for an easy way out, I always ended up having regrets. You reap what you sow. Excellence happens when everyone else has given up or it seems that everything has been tried - that applies to work, but I think it applies to raising a kid even more. For a while, I thought that I had done enough for signing up my son for lessons and therapy, and I told myself, "okay that must be good enough." As a result, I was heartbroken and shocked when I saw some regression. Then after talking to specialists and reading about what other parents do, I realize that nothing short of constant vigilance with the goal of nipping everything in the bud is enough. No wonder - I fell short. 

Raising a kid is the most humbling thing I have done in my life, and will no doubt continue to be. 

The Extra Mile

Today I read an article on autism. In the article, Karen Siff Exkorn alked about her son recovering from autism. Apparently, the boy was fine until he was 17 months, and suddenly he displayed almost all symptoms of autism, to the point of losing all speech by age 2. The parents went into full-blown action and engaged a team of therapists and became adept at  therapy themselves, and taught their babysitter. Essentially the son was at home engaged in 24/7 therapy. By the age of 4, he was all recovered.

This reminded me of the book that Jon Stewart heavily promoted on his show, a book written by an autistic boy named Naoki Higashida "The Reason I Jump". Naoki's autism is actually on the severe side, but his mother and his clinician went absolutely beyond the call of duty and figured out a key to "unlock" Naoki. As a result, he could write a book, explaining autism in a way that's totally insightful. 

Often, I hear about parents resisting a diagnosis of a kid, presumably in the name of protecting the kid. However, now that I think about it, resisting a diagnosis often is the result of the parents' vanity, as if the labeling of the kid is somehow a reflection on themselves. The wishful thinking that the kid will outgrow is in actuality avoiding having to do much work or making any investment. After all, if we simply say "oh he will be fine", we are absolved of any responsibility. When the kid does not turn out to be fine, they can also say, "oh well, I have done my best by getting him therapy." What Naoki's mother and Karen Siff Exkorn did was to not shun responsibility and leave it to others to address their sons' issues, but to do the real hard work and go the extra mile. I bet that their kids would have been in much worse shape had they simply "done their best by engaging the therapist and be done with it".

We often read about troubled kids making dramatic progress when a teacher "unlocked" their potential, or when somehow a hidden issue was addressed. I can't help but think that Helen Keller would have stayed the same monstrous kid without any ability to speak or write, if Anne Sullivan had not shown up. In fact, she could have had a very diligent tutor who "did her very best" and still ended up far short of what she became. 

The difference is all about the "extra mile". It is the extra mile that is the hardest – harder than all the previous miles combined. But the extra mile is what delivers results, and sometimes miracles in the cases of Naoki Higashida and Helen Keller. Real love is the willingness to run the extra mile. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Kennedys

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago on November 22, 1963. Since then, his brother Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, a few of his nephews died in various accidents, and his only son died when the plane he piloted went down in a bad storm over Martha's Vineyard. The Kennedys have fascinated people as if they were royalty, and no other political family has come close to projecting the same public allure. 

The other day I watched a documentary film on the Kennedys. While it did not provide any unique insights, it reminded me of two things that characterize the Kennedys. One is the emphasis they placed on the "family" with near Mafia-like fervor, a la "Godfather". And the other is their relentless drive for excellence and victory – "win or lose, the Kennedys don't cry, and of course, a Kennedy never loses." 

Even today there are conspiracy theories around why there seems to be a "Kennedy curse", as the number of unnatural deaths seems astonishingly high in this family. When I think about it, I realize that the explanation may be rather simple. The Kennedys were taught to stop at nothing to achieve what they wanted, and to fear nothing even if their pursuits posed high risks. They were taught to live life to the fullest as if there were no tomorrow. Maybe in a way, they lived under the motto crystallized by the Jazz Age poet Edna St. Vincent Millay: 

"My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night
But ah, my foes and oh, my friends -
It gives a lovely light" 

The lovely light of the lives of the Kennedys continues to shine even today, 50 years after the death of President Kennedy, and I am sure that it will continue to fascinate future generations. 

There is No Short Cut.

"There is really no short cut." - I often hear people say. 

Usually, they refer to work. There are of course camps of people who advocate "working smarter". However, at the end of the day, there is no substitute for time and effort. It's not just time, and it's not just effort, but rather a combination of laser-sharp focus over an extended period of time with enormous effort. 

When it comes to raising kids, "there is really no short cut" but continuous effort with a focus on shifting strategy and tactics at the first sign of trouble. That's true for all kids. In fact, in the case of raising kids, what applies to work applies here even more. As Clayton Christensen mentioned in his latest book, if we say that kids/family are most important to us, it should take the most time and effort from us by comparison to other endeavors. If not, it is no wonder things may go wrong. 

A life science venture capitalist has decided to quit from her firm to focus on her son with autism, as she found out that nothing short of focused effort would be good enough. A team of nannies, therapists, and tutors will not substitute, just as a company can't run without constant/real leadership at the top. True – with competent people in designated tasks, it will go on for a while. But sooner or later, problems will arise in this vacuum of leadership, and troubles will multiply exponentially even at an initially healthy company. 

The analogy can be made of taking care of a kid. Even if it's a perfectly fine model kid, "cruising along" would likely result in problems that accumulate to the point of exploding in unimaginable dimensions one day. It might seem sudden, but in actuality, no problem emerges overnight. They all accumulate and grow quietly until they become deafening one day. Therefore, if there is no continuous effort to nip everything in the bud, as a leader should do in directing the efforts of people around, it's just a matter of time before things disintegrate. 

If it's a kid with issues, it's even more imperative for parents to guide strategy, change direction, address crises, manage efforts and correct mistakes, even with access to a team of specialists  and helpers around. The specialists and helpers are there to follow and execute, but they must have someone to follow, who assumes the ultimate responsibility. And lastly, people are only willing to follow people who are in the trenches together working day and night, as opposed to those who just show up for the pictures. 

The Cost of Brilliance

Whenever we read about someone with vision and brilliance, it is a good idea to read more. I have heard someone say that we all want heroes, but we don't want to have them in our families. 

Justine Musk, the ex-wife of Elon Musk and a writer, wrote an article in Marie Claire a while ago about her relationship with Elon Musk.

While each story has two sides, it is also often easy to spot certain truths from just one side, simply because there is just no other explanation. Indeed, if Musk could tackle multiple industries at once, he must have been obsessed with work as opposed to helping his wife recover from the loss of their first-born son. Indeed, if Musk could plow ahead with his ideas when few people agreed with him, he must have also ignored any different ideas from his wife, dismissed any criticism from her, or pushed her aside when she stood in the way of him having epiphany moments for work. Everyone's most prized asset is also often everyone's worst enemy and Archilles' heel. It is practically impossible to be decisive and impervious to criticism at work, while being a good listener at home. For one thing, there is just no time to listen. 

In the book "Steve Jobs", the writer correctly gave Laurene Jobs credit, as "behind every great man stands a woman". She stood behind him until the very end, when the same conviction that allowed him to go against conventional wisdom also let him go against medical advice, in the end killing himself prematurely. Musk will certainly not give credit to Justine for standing behind him at any cost, because she in the end could not do it any more. 

Yes, we all like to admire someone in the distance who has vision and brilliance. But none of us wants to incur the cost of brilliance. 

The Value of Ideas

I read with great interest the Fortune magazine article "The Shared Genius of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs".

Of the many insights offered by the author, I particularly like his analysis on the two traits that these two men share in common - system–level design thinking and extraordinary conviction. He pointed out immediately that Jobs and Musk were not inventors in the typical sense of the word, as numerous other people made the key technical contributions. But what they did was  to "imagine the broader ecosystems in which those products could become transformative". 

In order to do that, they both possess "an intimate understanding not just of the technology but of what would be necessary in design, logistics, and the business model to launch those products and make them truly compelling to potential customers". 

This reminded me of a discussion I recently had on the value of "ideas". Are ideas cheap or expensive? Indeed, if it's just a technical innovation on its own, or a simple idea (such as the concept of social networking), it does not stand out as particularly valuable. But if one has the vision to see where it's most applicable, how to make it really powerful, who it can appeal to, and what impact it would make in a broad sense, and most importantly, follows through with meticulous and relentless execution, it will shine as a brilliant idea. Frankly, by that time, it's no longer an idea, but rather a complete story. The comparison is like reading the synopsis of "Anna Karenina" versus reading the masterpiece by Tolstoy.

The Third Combination

Today a friend of mine alerted me to a Vogue article on the neuroscientist Cori Bargmann, and a few of us had a discussion on how often women have no choice but to make silent sacrifices.

In the article, when asked, Bargmann said that given the choices of a scientific life, a personal life and a family life, one could only have two out of the three, but not all three. She observed that it's true for men as well. 

When I thought about it, I think her observations are mostly correct, with one exception. It's possible for men to have any one of the three combinations, but women can only have two out of the three combinations. Hence the never-ending discussions, articles and books written on related topics. 

It's possible for women to have a thriving/satisfying career that is absolutely not compromised and a personal life. Maybe the personal life will not be as extravagant as that of Dr. Bargmann's, which includes operas and ballet every other week, fine dining every night and designer clothes plus many other luxuries. Nevertheless, it's possible to have both a career and a personal life to the maximum for a woman. It is of course also possible to have a family life and a personal life for a woman, whether or not she works full time or partime.  The key is to not treat her "job" as a career, but rather a job. A friend succinctly put it, "You just have to be willing to say who cares every time you are skipped over for promotion, when others advance while you are on maternity leave or taking care of kids."  I know plenty of women who raise kids nearly perfectly (even if their kids may not be perfect or even have serious issues to start with, the way they raise the kids is surely near perfect), and maintain a very lively personal life, complete with hobbies, parties, friends and interior decorating. 

But it's not possible, as Dr. Bargmann thinks, for a woman to have both a real career to the fullest extent of her abilities and a family life where she's happy. Obviously, she thinks so because there are examples out there in the public domain, such as Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer. However, as one of my friends observed, "maybe these women don’t' care if the kids are raised by nannies, or have issues or develop issues." And of course, vast majority of women don't have access to the resources available to them to enable such ambitious careers. 

It is, however, possible for men to have all three of the combinations, including career plus family, even if they don't have access to extravagant resources. I think it's largely because the expectations for a man to have a "family life" often implies spending a few evenings a week at home. Therefore, while family life with kids on its own may be net taxing for a woman, it could be net nourishment for a man, whose wife usually has chosen (either voluntarily or involuntarily) to put family life first. When women did not put family life first, as perhaps Anne-Marie Slaughter did not when her kids were younger, they were forced to pay the price later. And to be clear, Ann-Marie Slaughter's husband presumably took up most of the burden while she was busy with work for years. We don't hear that Jeffrey Immelt realized after many years as CEO of GE that he should not have neglected his daughter. These men have wives who put family life first, without negotiation. In summary, when there are kids in the family, someone has to put the family life first. When family life is put first, how can one compete on careers with others who put careers first? If Dr. Bargmann had a frustrating day at work (as she claims correctly that research often is frustrating), she would go on to a metropolitan opera to rejuvenate. The worst that could happen is that she might have to skip opera and ballet a few times because of deadlines. But that kind of sacrifice is totally manageable. However, if after receiving rejections of a paper she submitted and after a frustrating day at work, she went home to discover her kids with issues that are even more challenging than research, where would she get the rejuvenation? For men, often the assumption is that the kids' mothers would be there to do all the worry. But women can't leave it to others, because there are often no others who would care more. 

When women choose a career plus family as the combination, thinking (erroneously) that they could do both very well, they will be disappointed in either the career or how they are raising their kids, or perhaps both. Both are taxing, and require sacrifices, and the situation is exacerbated if it's a challenging and competitive career field, or the kids have issues. 

As a result, kudos to the enlightened men who are secure and selfless enough to put family first and determine to be the best fathers more than anything else! That's the only time when their wives are truly given the choice of the third combination – career and family life.