A Human Connection

This past May found me at a hospital in Fort Worth for most of a week, watching my 80 year old mother die. During the hours that she slept and the morphine had its effect, I sought distraction by playing chess on my phone.

Sometimes I played against the app Play Magnus but mostly I played against people through an app called Social Chess. Independent of the result, what stands out is the difference in the emotional experience of playing with an actual person versus playing against a piece of software.

I’ve been reminded that there is something unique and precious about a human connection – even when it’s mediated through an unfathomable layer of technology.

When you play against a human opponent you have to wait for them to move, sometimes for days, almost always for hours. Playing at that pace gives you plenty of time to wonder what they’re thinking and to question how the game must look from their side of the board. You speculate on whether they meant to make a particularly questionable move or if they’re seeing something you aren’t. You find out where they live and often as not, learn that they’re on the other side of the world in Russia or Pakistan or maybe Norway. And when it’s over, if you both speak English, you thank them for the game and they thank you back.

By contrast, you don’t feel any of that playing against an app. Playing against a computer you never wonder about your opponent — who they are, where they live, what type of player they are. Win or lose the experience is sterile and seemingly predetermined, as though the game is some sort of slow moving math problem revealing itself over time.

Obviously chess is a game of calculated logic but it’s also more than that. Across the course of forty-plus moves there are dozens of times when two or more options are equally good choices and in those moments intuition, style, and personality come into play – the result being an expression of both subjective aesthetics and objective rationality.

I didn’t fully appreciate it in the moment but from the perspective of a few months later, it’s clear that those games and strangers are inextricably linked with the memory of my mother’s death. And it’s led me to realize that while it’s easy and perhaps comforting to isolate ourselves from one another through the distraction our technology offers – the moments we most cherish, the memories that carry the most meaning, the times we feel most connected – those moments require interactions with one another.

I’ve been reminded that there is something unique and precious about a human connection – even when it’s mediated through an unfathomable layer of technology.

And to whoever it was that played those games with me, thank you for spending the time.

Commitments Drive Us

It started with an email. The teenage son of a close buddy of mine asked if I’d be interested in giving a talk at a TEDx event he was organizing for his high school. The request sounded simple enough. A twenty-minute talk to maybe a hundred people. How hard could it be? Plus it was six months away and truth be told, I was a bit flattered by the invitation.

A couple of weeks rolled by and I was feeling pretty good given that I already had a general outline and so wasn’t totally starting from scratch. Five months to go. Plenty of time.

If you ever want to make a promise you really want to keep, make it to someone you don’t want to disappoint.

But then…well…as things tend to do…stuff happened. And almost overnight there were only three months to go. It was around that time that panic set in and I started to seriously think about bailing on the whole thing. In the end I obviously powered through it in no small part because I couldn’t stomach the thought of disappointing Nat. After all I known him from the time he was in Kindergarten and some part of me still saw him as a little kid looking to us adults for some sort of guidance about how to be a responsible grownup.

And so it was that on May 9th, 2015 I found myself on a stage at Los Gatos High School taking my turn on the Big Red Dot that is the centerpiece of the TED stage. It wasn’t the best TED talk ever but it was pretty good and I certainly enjoyed and grew from the experience.

The talk is titled, “Conditions, Constraints, and Conviction,” and it covers three slightly obscure stories. The first is about how Sputnik led to the invention of the modern GPS system. The second describes how Dr. Seuss came to write “Cat in the Hat”. And the third outlines the rather circuitous route by which an idea first considered by a Ukrainian visionary in 1916 became the method that led to 12 Americans eventually finding themselves walking around on the surface of the Moon.

It takes a bit of wandering but they do tie together. I hope you’ll have a chance to watch it.

Looking back on it now, the somewhat unexpected lesson was this: If you ever want to make a promise you really want to keep, make it to someone you don’t want to disappoint — particularly someone who is counting on you. Willpower comes and goes. Commitments however, those are the things that drive us forward.

Thanks again to the student organizers of the event — in particular my good friend and future billionaire Nat Redfern, without whom this talk wouldn’t exist.

Sometime in 1998, Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires took to the stage of Amsterdam Concertgebouw for an informal, lunchtime concert.

At the command of conductor Riccardo Chailly, the orchestra engaged Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466.

It is a stunning few bars and under any other circumstances would have been lost to all but those in attendance.

In this particular instance however, Pires, one of the world’s greatest pianists, was expecting to play something different.

Shock fails to adequately describe her reaction.

Captured by director Frank Scheffer in his documentary Attrazione d’amore, the salient moment can be seen on YouTube.

On first watch it is hard to see anything other than Pires as she visibly transforms from initial shock to school girl embarrassment to near panic to emergent resolution and finally to courageous action.

Close your eyes while listening and you’ll have no idea what is happening.

It is mesmerizing.

To hold confidence in others when they themselves are filled with doubt — along that path lies the possibility of greatness.

A second viewing however, affords an opportunity to focus on the conductor Riccardo Chailly.

Imagine how easy it would have been to stop the proceedings — a mere wave of the arm and the orchestra would have ceased, apologies would have been made, and a new piece would have shortly sounded forth. This was after all a rehearsal of sorts.

But he didn’t do that.

Rather he kept on, showing not a worry about Pires’ ability to recall and perform a piece she knew well though wasn’t prepared to play from memory alone.

Watch his face. He never flinches, never pauses, never stops smiling.

He simply keeps the moment alive. Encourages her to move forward and shows nothing but complete and utter confidence.

As she wades into the opening phrase, it almost appears that he himself is willing her to play.

And it is that moment which perfectly captures the essence of leadership — the ability to see, focus, and place into action the capabilities of others.

To serve simultaneously as an amplifier of talent and a beacon of clarity — that is the hallmark of a true leader.

It is to you to guide your team through the inevitable fog, doubt, and uncertainty that accompanies all endeavors.

To hold confidence in others when they themselves are filled with doubt — along that path lies the possibility of greatness.