Removing the mask that hides you

Photo by John Noonan on Unsplash

I can only consume limited quantities of Brené Brown at a time. Because she writes things that cut so close to the emotional core that they can leave me feeling naked and afraid. But I truly hope you read this article of hers.

She speaks about the two halves of our lives where the first half is about trying to be perfect instead of human:

“it seems as if we spend the first half of our lives shutting down feelings to stop the hurt and the second half trying to open everything back up to heal the hurt

She says the second half can start as early as one’s thirties and as late as one’s fifties, if at all. As a fifty-something, count me in the “late to the party” club.

In the last three years or so, I’ve been lowering my mask to certain people in my life. You know, the mask we use to project a more perfect version of ourselves to the world. The mask that says we have our shit together as a colleague, parent, spouse, friend, sibling and child of our parents. We wear the mask because we crave acceptance and recognition that we think can only come by wearing it in the first place.

Of course, lowering the mask starts with one’s self, by admitting all the ugly truths about ourselves. Our flaws. And the shame that Brené Brown writes so well about. Shame about our past failures. And especially the shame of traumatization which so many, if not all of us, bear.

As I became more aware of my truths, I began to share them with others. By “getting real”, as they say. Slowly, carefully. Only to a couple of friends at first, by sharing raw emotions such as how I was on a path to divorce.

The fear of lowering one’s mask is visceral, especially at first. But as Brené and other wise people say, the reward can be exceptional. And so it was.

Next was to start a partnership with a therapist. It doesn’t get more real than that, at least if you’re committed to that process.

Fast forward to today. I’ve let many people in my life see the me behind the mask.

Yesterday, I told my life story to a new-ish friend during a rideshare to a hike with our club. I told her the real life story, not the version of wearing a mask. It was matter of fact and contained the hard truths. No lump in my throat emotions welled up as I described my dad’s apparent PTSD from World War II and the effect it had on me and others.

What I’ve found is that taking off the mask causes others to take off theirs. I’ve learned some profoundly moving truths about those I’m closest to. Recently, a former colleague and friend of 20 years was in town. I shared some of my “unmasked” story. In turn, she shared something with me that only a handful of people know about her. What a privilege and an honor to be allowed to know her in that way.

Without exception, my relationships have deepened through these mutual disclosures. And you kind of get addicted to the high of intimate connection. This has the effect of sustaining the vulnerability and sharing over time.

I’m not done with this journey. Not everyone is allowed to see me fully unmasked yet.

Work is especially tricky. Unmasking oneself takes time and time at work is limited and fragmented across a lot of people. You have to invest in relationships in order to be known and understood. This isn’t a briefing document you hand out and expect people to “get you” as a result. I’m still trying to figure this one out. I suppose every incremental disclosure moves me towards an unmasked state.

I’ve started the work journey with how I talk to my own team. I talk about the importance of their mental health. I told them about my own mental health and depression, and welcomed them to learn more on this blog.

Scott Galloway inspires me in this regard. Even as he writes about topics like business, politics and world affairs, he weaves in personal truths like few others do. It appears that he’s his authentic self at all times including in the public domain.

I imagine that if I could reach a destination like Scott, life will be at its richest. Thankfully, we have role models like him and Brené to inspire and guide us.

Inspired by three elders

Photo by Norbu GYACHUNG on Unsplash

Given the propensity of the media to focus on the negative, I find it helpful from time to time to remind myself of all the good in the world. This weekend, I asked myself, “who are the men who inspire me”? I didn’t have to look far.

I was at the dentist office on Friday. I asked about Dr. Keller and how his retirement was going (he had tried and failed to retire multiple times in his 70’s).

“Retired? He’s not retired. He moved to the Philippines with his wife to serve the poor with his dentistry. His faith called him to do it.”

I was blown away by this news. Dr. Keller had built an amazing dental practice here in Palo Alto. Surely he could enjoy retirement in his mid 70’s after such a long and successful career?

Dr. Keller is a kind and gentle man. Every time I saw him I came away with a glow in my heart. I couldn’t exactly explain why, but he touched me with his kindness as I’m sure he did others. I got the sense he was beloved by his staff.

How does Dr. Keller inspire me? To acts of service. I think about my future and how I might emulate his servitude.

Example two: Dr. Frank Flagg. Dr. Flagg was an adult neighbor when I was a child. He was a family medicine practitioner into his 70’s. He was also a renaissance man. He landscaped his property beautifully. He built all of his poolside furniture and even the pool house next to it. He painted lovely murals of nature scenes on the side of that pool house. He grew grapes on the trellises he made, and made wine from those grapes. He and his wife were hospitable to the extreme. Their pool became a neighborhood gathering spot almost every day of the summer.

How does Dr. Flagg inspire me? Generosity. And, he’s a great example of how we can have many, many more facets than the work of our careers.

Example three: Wayne Willis. Wayne is a friend and a mentor who built a distinguished career in the technology industry. Even in his retirement, Wayne is forever in learning mode. He stays current on technology. He’s also actively working on practical solutions to the global warming crisis.

How does Wayne inspire me? He never stops learning. He constantly nourishes his mind. He follows his passions and beliefs by investing in his causes.

These men touch my heart with the ways they live rich, kind and authentic lives. They inspire me because they didn’t stop being who they were as they grew older. Whereas some people might retreat from life as they age, these men leaned in.

Dr. King and our unfinished business

Racism is alive and well. For a time, following Dr. King’s passing, racism was more in the shadows. Something people might have believed but many feared expressing as socially unacceptable.

No longer. Spend some time watching media and observe all the anger and outrage of white people as a barometer.

Let’s assume neither you nor me are racist. Let’s assume we want equality for all. Dr. King wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to us. We’re the silent majority. Neither overtly racist nor violently protesting against racism.

His letter challenged us “moderates”. This passage says it all:

“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Dr. King taught us about justice. He taught us about non-violent confrontation. He taught us about the need to be comfortable with confronting injustice over maintaining the comfort of “order”.

He did not encourage “disorder” such as destruction of property or violent acts. No, Dr. King encouraged us to do the uncomfortable. Stand up and be counted. Confront racism as we encounter it. Distance ourselves from those who don’t share our values.

Racism is metastasizing in our country right now. There are ample objective measures of this, including the volume of restrictive voting access laws passed recently.

What are we going to do about it? If not now, then when? If not us, then who?

On the stigma of mental health

I sat here the other day, appreciating nature and reflecting on my own challenges. A form of therapy.

People in positions of influence and leadership are beginning to write about mental health. My friend Ann Johnson is one inspiring example. So I’m inspired to do the same.

Mental health care providers are saying we’re in a mental health crisis at present thanks to Covid-19. It’s time to talk about this topic openly so that all of us can get the help we need.

I have lived with depression on and off for most of my life, starting in my early teens. Depression in my teens was as acute as I’ve ever felt it, which is the case for many who experience it. While my depression was surely evident to my parents and those around me, it was never acknowledged. And therefore neither addressed nor treated.

This is the mental health stigma in action.

I think back to that time and all the ways I could have been helped and suffered less. Acknowledgement would have gone a long way. Having an adult to talk with, such as a counselor or therapist, would have been helpful too.

In my twenties and thirties my depression subsided as it does for many, but returned under times of duress. Breakups, job challenges, any form of setback could trigger another cycle. I developed some coping mechanisms.

I’ve recently experienced personal losses. Depression made its familiar entrance again.

But today, I’m so much better equipped to ward off depression or at least to minimize it. I have healthy habits that I re-commit myself to. I reach out to and activate a network of friends with whom I’ve learned to be vulnerable with when it comes to times of struggle. I have years invested in therapy to better understand myself, my upbringing and ways to navigate life’s challenges.

I feel fortunate to have developed such tools and have such resources to turn to.

I’m sharing this in the hope that others can muster the courage to be vulnerable. Vulnerable enough to acknowledge to others their struggles. Vulnerable enough to seek help when it’s needed. Vulnerable enough to share the experiences that harmed them and left unhealed wounds.

Because in the end, mental health is, well, health.

Fear and the “Five Whys”

Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time and effort on self-improvement in the last couple of years, in the name of being happier with myself and being a better person to be around.

Much of the behavior I’m trying to modify seems to originate from a primal sense of fear. I’ve started to unpack this pattern using the famous “Five Whys” method of root cause analysis originated by the Toyota Production System. The Five Whys says that it takes, on average, five questions in a row to get to the actual root cause. (You may now roll your eyes at the nerdy reference).

Let me share an example.

I’m driving a major initiative at work that is foundational to our business growth strategy. It’s not going as fast as I want, or as my boss wants or probably as anyone wants. While the reason for the rate of progress is a typical one – limited resources – I still feel anxiety about the situation all the time.

First question: What am I fearing as a result of going too slow?

My company is owned by a private equity investor. At some point there will be a liquidity event; an IPO or sale of the company. I fear that my initiative will impede our ability to achieve this expected outcome.

Next question: why is that outcome important to me personally?

Well, I’m a shareholder and have a goal of saving more for my retirement with the proceeds of my stock options.

Next question: why is saving more for retirement important?

I want the security and the optionality of retiring “comfortably”.

Next question: what is a “comfortable” retirement?

We’re only four questions in and I’ve already exposed the fear and flaws in my thinking.

The reality is that I have already funded my retirement, at least to the point of being assured of having a roof over my head, food to eat and access to healthcare.

Yet I fear it’s not enough. “Not enough” simply means that constraints will exist on how I retire. Maybe I have to curtail the size and quality of the dwelling I live in. Maybe I can’t live in certain communities or even states. Maybe I have to live in another country to satisfy a criterion like being near the ocean.

Wanting something more than basic needs is fine to desire and strive for. But why is that connected to any present-day feeling of fear?

What makes this type of fearful thinking even more absurd is that we all know happiness is a function of the quality of our relationships. Will I have friends when I’m retired? Of course I will. All of us will.

This isn’t an essay about the evils of materialism. Money has a place in making us happy, at least as it relates to meeting our basic needs.

Rather, I’m trying to better understand where my own sense of fear comes from. I’m trying to name fearful thinking for the useless role it plays. I’m trying to reduce or eliminate fear in order to behave differently and better.

My belief is that fear informs many of our behaviors. We each have an opportunity to confront it, manage it and be more like the person we aspire to be.

Waiting on Covid

Photo by Ellen Auer on Unsplash

The pandemic has made all of us wait. And wait some more. And there’s more waiting to come.

My office is open again. For those who chose to return, they must wear a mask at all times. So now we have Zoom meetings that include people joining from the office in masks. What was already a medium that impaired communications just got more challenging with masked participants. So we wait for the time when we can have unmasked Zoom meetings, or better still face-to-face conversations in the office. Probably months from now. Waiting.

We’ve waited to get vaccinated, in order to resume normal things in life like dining indoors, meeting up with friends & family, or getting on an airplane. Except the vaccination isn’t (yet) a golden ticket. We wait to learn the risk of transmitting the disease while vaccinated, so that we can join the company of the unvaccinated. Or we wait until herd immunity arrives, if ever. Waiting.

Different people have coped differently with the waiting. Some have bent or broken the rules and engaged in pre-pandemic behaviors. The waiting was too much to bear.

Some have done what was asked, and curtailed their lives while waiting. Which means some good days and some bad days of waiting.

Some have used this as an opportunity to redefine their lives or take up new hobbies. I’m not sure how many have turned the pandemic into a fully positive experience, but I doubt it’s many of us. We’re too social as a species to retreat to a monastic lifestyle.

I’ve avoided the temptation to bend the rules and take risks, keeping society and the safety of my very small pod of friends and family at the forefront of my mind. Therefore, there have been some good days and bad days trying to be patient. Mostly it’s exhausting to be waiting over a year with many months to go until one can lead an unfettered life.

Yes, I’ve focused on self care as a coping mechanism. Daily exercise, healthy eating, moderated drinking, reading & writing, even meditation. All of these techniques may have made things easier, but not easy.

What I hope is that with each progressive step towards normalcy, each of us gains an appreciation for what we gain back. The camaraderie of being on an airplane with 300 strangers to an exciting destination . The coziness of sipping a coffee in a cafe, surrounded by the hum of other conversations. The collective energy of attending a sports event or concert.

In this pandemic, we’ve learned how to be alone. Can we learn how to be better together?

Making sense of this election

Photo by Jon Sailer on Unsplash

I’m glad Joe Biden was elected President. But it wasn’t a massive repudiation of Donald Trump. Not given the 70 million votes that Trump received.

In trying to make sense of this election and what is means going forward, it’s important to distinguish between Donald Trump and his supporters. It’s one thing to dismiss Trump the person but you can’t dismiss his large base of supporters so easily.

I haven’t hidden my disdain for Trump the person. I think history will judge him in 50 years from now as the worst President ever. I predict he will be seen as:

  1. a criminal, both in his business affairs and while President
  2. immoral, or perhaps amoral
  3. a victim of psychological disorders, likely sociopathy and/or narcissism
  4. grossly incompetent

What’s more important is to understand his base of supporters. They represent a huge portion of Americans. And they will be here tomorrow.

In a two-party system, Trump’s base is by definition a coalition of multiple groups and reasons to support him.

For example, one faction is anti-abortionists who’ve been on a decades-long quest to overturn Roe v. Wade by altering the composition of the Supreme Court via control of the Presidency and Congress. They’ve been transparent about this for a long time.

Trying to make sense of all of Trump’s coalition is where I get confused. Even in my own family – comprised of smart, kind and accomplished people – it’s a mixed bag of pro- and anti-Trump support. I don’t understand it.

I watched Fox News this week. Not something I generally do. It was awfully different than the many centrist media outlets that I consume daily. I don’t think Fox taught me much. I saw a ton of evidence of how different my opinions are to their broadcasters and presumably their viewership. But I learned very little as to why those differences exist.

Yet understanding both parties’ coalitions is what’s going to keep this great country together and making progress. We must understand each other. We must have empathy for each other.

This doesn’t mean compromising one’s own values. Or unconditionally accepting the behavior of others. But understanding and empathy are required in order to find any common ground. And common ground is what we need most right now imho.

So my quest is to keep trying to understand what I don’t. Perhaps that quest would serve each of us well.

California: a love story

The Lone Cypress at Pebble Beach

I first traveled to California in the early 90’s. I was accompanying a girlfriend on a business trip to San Francisco. We stayed at the Fairmont Hotel on the top of Nob Hill. The views were breathtaking. We ate amazing food. We spent a couple days in Napa Valley drinking fine wine.

I was smitten.

By 1995, I was working for Pure Software in Sunnyvale even as I lived in Boston. I spent 25 weeks that year in Silicon Valley, traipsing around the region developing partnerships with other tech companies. For example, I witnessed the birth of Siebel Systems. At the time they were a group of maybe 20 people working from folding tables, on their way to becoming a billion-dollar juggernaut.

I often landed at SFO at dusk. I would emerge from the terminal and feel the cool Pacific breeze carrying the scent of eucalyptus trees down from the ridge above San Bruno. The smell of eucalyptus trees at dusk is forever a reminder of those magical early days traveling here.

In 1995, I knew somehow that I would end up living here. Or at least I knew that I wanted to. When I decided to come here in 2012, I estimated I had visited the Bay Area over 80 times already. I was already deeply in love with California.

This year’s wildfires and pandemic have got me reflecting on why I love this place. Without the ability to travel elsewhere, I’ve been exploring the state, reminded anew what makes this a unique and special place in the world.

Natural beauty and conservation

It’s obvious to say, but we have a magical coastline. And towering mountains. And desolate deserts. And fertile valleys, remnants of ancient seas.

What’s truly special is the spirit of conservationism behind our natural wonders.

The Sierra Club was born here and wields great influence over how we now see and protect our natural gifts.

The laws behind the California Coastal Commission ensure the public’s access to our beaches. This is unlike where I grew up in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, where private landowners can severely restrict beach access.

The Peninsula Open Space Trust has dedicated huge portions of the Santa Cruz Mountains as perpetual wilderness trusts. Where else in the world can you access such a beautiful wilderness half an hour away from millions of people? What foresight and what a gift to us from a prior generation of settlers here.

Our mountain ranges are largely enshrined as National Forests, State Forests, trusts and other parks. Yes, you can still see the blight of aggressive logging but thankfully that era seems to have passed. The mountains are healing.

(I’m thinking about my beloved Santa Cruz Mountains a lot these days as they burn.)

CZU lightning complex fire August 2020, from Mountain View

Diversity

It’s a melting pot here. My son’s school found over 35 mother tongues in the student population.

Every race, country, religion and subculture is represented here. You can find a community of interest for anything. And you’ll be exposed to different people continually.

Are we free from bias and racism here? Not even close. But if you value diversity and strive to have it positively affect your mindset, this is a place for you.

Spirituality

There’s a lot of spirituality here. Maybe it’s inspired by the natural beauty of the place.

You’ll find spiritual practices like mysticism and quasi-religions. Which has informed negative stereotypes about the place.

But the majesty of our nature is real. And it moves many people, as it does me. There is a spirit to this place.

Industry

This one is almost too obvious to say. If you’re in the tech industry like me, it’s the world capital of what we do. Yes, other places have tech and successful companies. But not like here.

You can be an elitist here. Measuing yourself by how many millionaires (or billionaires) are in your social circle. And by your own financial worth.

You can do bad things here. Like Mark Zuckerberg, and his massive personal wealth derived from distributing and amplifying disinformation, propaganda and hateful speech. By the way: fuck you, Mark.

Or you can be humble and appreciate the amazing collection of smart people working as a community. Creating and building great things that benefit society. I know many, many people like this, who pay it forward.

All of these types of people are here at the same time: hubris, elitism, naked & craven capitalism. But magnanimity, humility and social purpose can easily be found here. I wake up in the morning proud of my work along with many others in protecting the world’s internet users from the bad guys.


It’s easy to put California down. We’ve got lots and lots of problems. Racism. Financial inequity. High cost of living. Pollution. Congestion. Global warming and natural disasters.

Despite all of this, there is so much to love and appreciate here. Now more than ever.

I leave you with some pictures of my beloved California in recent months.

Top of Windy Hill, Santa Cruz Mountains
Davenport, remnants of a fish pier
El Capitan, Yosemite
Half Dome from a distance, Yosemite
Half Dome, Yosemite
Moonstone Beach, Cambria
Fiscalani Ranch Preserve, Cambria
Golf at Half Moon Bay
Wilder Ranch, Santa Cruz
Pacific Crest of Sierra Nevadas, from South Lake Tahoe
Sunset at Lake Tahoe
Thousands of birds at Pismo Beach
Sunrise in Tahoe National Forest
Sunset in Tahoe National Forest
Tahoe National Forest

Black lives: an appreciation

I was listening today to a session at work where my Black colleagues spoke about their experiences with discrimination. It was moving in so many ways. Their courage to share with their colleagues. The profound and troubling stories they told. The empathy they helped me better develop.

Yet I’m interested to work through a dilemma. How can racism and bias exist, when our American culture is so enriched by the contributions of Black artists?

Consider the extraordinary gifts we’ve been given:

Jazz

Jazz, the greatest American art form, wouldn’t exist without Black artists.

Ella Fitzgerald’s sweet and pure voice.

Billie Holiday courageously singing Strange Fruit in an era where addressing the topic of lynching might have gotten her killed.

John Coltrane’s saxophone; torrents of notes mixed with sustained wails that convey so much emotion and spirituality.

Art Blakey’s drumming. And his mentorship of young musicians, like Wynton Marsalis.

Charlie Parker. Sarah Vaughan. Louis Armstrong. Duke Ellington. Dizzy Gillespie. Miles Davis. Charles Mingus. Wayne Shorter. Herbie Hancock. Thelonius Monk. Joshua Redman. And so many more.

Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Funk

Otis Redding. Marvin Gaye. Every Motown artist. Stevie Wonder. Alicia Keys. Erykah Badu. Aretha Franklin. Diana Ross. John Lee Hooker. Howlin’ Wolf. Muddy Waters. Curtis Mayfield. James Brown. Tina Turner. George Clinton. Gary Clark Jr. Janelle Monae. Koko Taylor. Luther Vandross. Prince. Ray Charles. Sam & Dave. And so many more.

TV and movies

Jordan Peele. Sidney Poitier. Alfre Woodard. Viola Davis. Octavia Spencer. Denzel Washington. Morgan Freeman. Halle Berry. Angela Bassett. Forest Whitaker. Taraji P. Henson. Don Cheadle. Mahershala Ali. And so many more.

Journalism

Ed Bradley. Ta-Nehesi Coates. Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Gwen Ifill. Oprah Winfrey. Frederick Douglass. And so many more.

Humor

Richard Pryor. Dave Chappelle. Chris Rock. Eddie Murphy. Wanda Sykes. The Wayans brothers. Flip Wilson. Dick Gregory. And so many more.

This is just a sampling. These names are not Black artists. They are American artists. They have helped create the very fabric of our culture and society.

And so I keep asking myself; if these artists have contributed so much, why do we have racism in the face of their brilliance? I don’t have the answers. But I will keep asking the question.

Buh-bye, Mark Zuckerberg

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Photo by Renee Fisher on Unsplash

Today, I finally deleted my Facebook account. I agonized over this decision for months if not years. I knew that if I left, I would lose touch to some degree with the many friends I’ve met around the world.

However, I couldn’t any longer look past Facebook’s failures of content governance.

It’s a well established fact that nation-states have used fake accounts and Facebook advertising to spread misleading political content or worse. It’s a well-established fact that hate groups have disseminated their hateful content over the platform.

These things happen regularly and at meaningful scale. It’s not some anomaly that can be easily explained away.

The recent advertiser boycott was met by apparent defiance by Mark Zuckerberg, wherein he told large advertisers that Facebook will not work to block hate speech to its best ability. This was the last straw for me.

As hard a problem as governance might be, I can’t be part of a community that accepts “some” hateful or misleading content. There is nothing to “tolerate” here.

Facebook is hiding behind free speech as the reason they can’t or won’t deal with the problem. I call bullshit. They don’t want to be inconvenienced by the effort it takes, or perhaps the revenue loss they will incur by making it harder to publish content and ads on the platform. Other social media platforms like Twitter have acted, even as they can do much more.

Every other mass medium enforces content restrictions. Newspapers don’t publish hate speech. TV broadcasters don’t. Why is Facebook somehow exempt? They’re not, or at least they shouldn’t be.

You might not agree with me. And I respect that.

But for me, Arthur Ashe’s quote has resonated as I’ve been thinking about racial biases and injustices:

“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can”.

What I can do is disassociate myself with something I don’t agree with. So, buh-bye, Mark.