Monday, April 21, 2014

Let's Not Lose Mentorship: What the Entrepreneurial Spirit Might Be Missing

Is there enough mentorship in business?

I worry that there isn't. In the course of my career, I've had very few professional relationships that I would put in the mentorship category. Very early in my publishing career, my boss was a woman who taught me all her principles of organization, which largely ground the theories and principles I wrote about in my book Get Organized: How to Clean Up Your Messy Digital Life, but in many ways, that teaching was unexpected. I'm pretty sure she saw it as procedural training, more along the lines of "this is how we do things" than "I'm giving you skills that you will grow and which will become the focal point of your future work."

The entrepreneurial spirit I see particularly in the technology sector values sandbox play. People believe they will be praised for experimentation and iteration. There's a shared cultural sense that trying something new by creating original apps, gadgets, services, and "solutions" (I hate that word used in that context) has inherent value.

But I also see entrepreneurs making tremendous mistakes by not paying attention to what came before, and I wonder if more mentorship would help.

Here's an example: An app developer designs and builds a wonderful productivity tool, but the interface doesn't conform to standards that have already been set by other very similar apps. That's a case where originality isn't the best route. The developer would have saved himself or herself so much time and effort by mirroring the best practices in interaction design rather than trying to create them from scratch, or riffing off them rather than just following suit. A good mentor would have advised, "Just steal the best of what already exists for this part. Don't waste your time trying to reinvent it. The problem has already been solved elegantly, and deviating from that elegance looks sloppy and rash--not inspirational." Perhaps giving advice at that deep level of detail sounds more like the work of a consultant or beta test group than a mentor, but maybe not.

I know of some acquaintances who have very formal mentorships. They meet with their mentors a few times a year, usually over lunch, to discuss the course of their career in broad strokes. Some companies have formal mentorship programs, although I've only ever heard about them. I've never worked for an organization that actually does it.

How do we foster more mentorship in a society that almost irrationally lauds anyone who has succeeded without help and by trying something radical and new? Those cases are extremely exceptional, and I don't think we should look to them as anything but that.

Do you have a mentor? How does the relationship work? Is it a formal or informal mentorship, and what have you learned, or how have you been guided?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Writers Get to Be Whatever They Want

When people ask me why I love my job so much, I always say, "because I learn. I learn every day. It never stops."

I think of myself as a writer first, and a writer covering technology second. The technology part is important, though. There are other fields of writing where I think I would learn less, or at least at a much slower rate, than I do now.

There are other reasons I gush about my job, of course, but I think learning is inherent to writing. Anyone who is averse to new ideas, or who doesn't like being challenged, or who prefers to stick within their comfort zones will be a rather poor writer.

Even though I write about technology primarily, I don't feel like my life course as a writer is at all set on that subject. I love the notion that writers aren't expected to be experts in their subject matter, at least not at first anyway. It may come later, though.

Take Steven J. Dubner, best known for writing Freakonomics and hosting the Freakonomics podcast. His co-author, Steven Levitt, is an economics professor. Plenty of the people Dubner interviews are experts in economics and psychology. But he doesn't have a degree in economics at all. He holds an M.F.A. in writing (if I recall, it's in creative writing, although I couldn't find a source confirming it) from Columbia University.

Another example is Joshua Foer, a writer who, in researching and drafting the book Moonwalking With Einstein, studied the art of memorization to the point that he tried it himself and won the U.S.A. Memory Championship. Would he now be considered a memory expert? To some extent, absolutely. Is that the be-all, end-all for him? Not by a long shot.

Alain de Botton, another writer I deeply respect, has become a semi-expert in more areas than I know. He often writes about the philosophy of something, although that "something" changes all the time. To research one of his books about travel, for example, he lived inside Heathrow airport for a week. But he's absolutely not "just a travel writer," as is evident by his other books, such as Art as Therapy and Status Anxiety.

I think about this concept any time someone says, "If I could do college/university all over again, I'd study..." I never suffer from undergraduate-major regret. I could write about architecture, or engineering, or sociology at any time, as long as I pitched it right. For writers, it's never too late to learn something new. We get to learn and be whatever we want.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Recipe: Italian Country Pork Ribs

Italian country pork rib braise and recipe
By far, hands-down, my favorite recipe of all time is Italian country pork ribs braised in red wine with orange peel. I got it from Lidia Bastianich, who has multiple variations on this recipe herself. The version she narrates in one of her PBS television cooking shows differs from what's in her cook books. 

It's a braising recipe, entirely tinkerable, so I don't mind the inconsistency. The orange peel makes it. Don't leave it out. The smell when they cook is mind-blowing.

The hardest part of this recipe is finding country-style ribs. Not everyone calls them the same thing, and few butchers sell them already cut. You need to find a butcher willing to make this special cut for you, in most cases. Country-style ribs are a cut of the shoulder or "butt" (named for the butt barrels in which they used to be stored, not "butt" as in gluteus maximus) that have very small rib bones at one end. The rest of the cut should be quite meaty. Again, not all butchers will know what the hell you're talking about if you ask them to cut you country style ribs, so hold out until you find someone who knows.

Lidia Bastianich's Italian Country Pork Ribs (with red wine and orange peel)
Yield: a lot of fucking food. Like, easily dinner for 4-6, and leftovers for 4.

Note: I usually cut this recipe in half and make it in a 5.5 quart Le Cruset oven, and it barely fits. If making the full recipe, you'll need a significantly sized pot, or two 5.5 quart Dutch ovens.

1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms, steeped in water (reserve the water)
6 lbs country style pork ribs, in one or two slabs (not cut to individual ribs)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup minced bacon or pancetta
2 large onions, diced
1 1/2 cups carrot, grated

1 bottle dry red wine
3-4 cups chicken broth
1/3 cup tomato paste
2 cups crushed tomatoes *in some versions of the recipe, the crushed tomatoes are omitted

2 springs rosemary
4 bay leaves
6 whole cloves (no big deal if you leave these out; I don't always care for them)
1 orange peel, pith removed

The short directions: Braise for 3 hours.

The long directions:
Remove the ribs from the refrigerator and let them come to room temperature, 30 to 60 minutes. Salt and pepper them liberally.

Meanwhile, steep the poricini mushrooms in about a cup of scalding water. Set the chicken stock on another burner to keep it just below boiling.

Preheat the oven to 275F.

Heat a Dutch oven over a medium flame. Add some of the oil and brown the surface area of the ribs.

Remove the ribs to a platter and set aside. Lower the heat significantly.

Add the bacon or pancetta to the pot. Add more oil as needed, and then add the onions and carrots. Cook on low heat until the onions sweat out. 

Make a well in the pot by pushing the ingredients to the side so you can "toast" the tomato paste
and let it caramelize a bit in the pot. Once the tomato paste has browned a little, toss it together to coat the other ingredients. 

Raise the heat to medium-high for two minutes. If using crushed tomatoes, add them now.

Drain the mushrooms, reserving the liquid. If there is any sand or grit that has settled to the bottom of the mushroom water, or "tea," try to leave it behind. You don't want to eat it.

Deglaze the pot using the mushroom tea. Keep the heat high. Now deglaze using about half the wine. Bring the whole thing nearly to a boil.

Add about half the chicken stock. Gently place the ribs into the pot, nestling them well into the liquid. Add more wine and chicken stock to practically over the ribs, though it's fine if some of the pieces stick out a little. 
Add the herbs and other aromatics, being careful with the orange peel.

Cover the pot and move it to the oven. (You can cook the whole thing on the stove top if you prefer, but keep the flame very low.) Let it braise for one hour, then turn the ribs, and check the level of the liquid, adding more chicken stock to cover as needed. Cover tightly and return to the oven. Let them braise for a total of 3 hours.

It's best to let the ribs sit over night, and then reheat them before serving. Be sure to fish out and discard the orange peel, rosemary twigs, and cloves if you see them. Cut gently into ribs and serve on a platter with some sauce slathered on top. This dish is excellent with skillet cauliflower (olive oil, bread crumb, garlic), and make sure to tell your guests there will be some bones.

Save leftovers to shred with rigatoni. The sauce becomes thicker on the second  and third days.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The 'I'm Awesome' Problem: Why Men Should Behave More Like Women and Not Vice Versa

"If you ask men why they did a good job, they'll say, 'I'm awesome.' If you ask women why they did a good job, what they'll say is: someone helped them; they got lucky; they worked really hard." -Sheryl Sandberg

If you're familiar with Sheryl Sandberg's project, or have seen her talks, maybe that quote sounds familiar. 

Sandberg does not go on to say that women should say, "I'm awesome," more, but she does say that "no one gets to the corner office by underestimating their own success or not understanding their own success."

In my view, there's a big problem with the "I'm awesome" answer. It's cocky and very likely unrepresentative of the truth. People who attribute their success at least in part to luck, help, and hard work are being honest with themselves, their peers, and their bosses. 

Rarely does someone succeed without help and hard word, and certainly an ounce luck always plays into it. My partner likes to remind me that we're "lucky" to have been born U.S. citizens. We both reap a lot of privileges for being in the just 5 percent of the global population who are in North America. 

Sandberg often talks about what women as individuals can do to change the gender disparity in leadership and C-level jobs. She doesn't spend as much time on what men should do. 

In the "I'm awesome" case, I think men need to act more like women, and not vice versa. I believe more men should attribute their success to hard work, luck, and help, especially when that help comes from women. In politics, I think men need to act more like women, too. In fact, in many cases, I think the presence of more women alone helps men act with less extreme versions of their "maleness." By "maleness" I mean what research in behavioral studies has found to be how men do act and how men do think about themselves differently from women, the kind of research findings Sandberg alludes to in her talk. (You can view her book's notes, which contain references, on Amazon.)