Creating products is about building great experiences for customers. But customers’ expectations for those experiences have changed over the years. My old boss, Raja Rajamannar, CMO of Mastercard, talks about how marketing is no longer about storytelling, but about storymaking. Similarly, Jeff Bezos says that at Amazon, “We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.” However you cut it, customers are now engaged participants rather than passive recipients of a company’s products with companies acting as facilitators. Continue reading “Creating Great Social Experiences”
At the end of last year, Bubbie, my last living grandparent, was fading away. She couldn’t see, could barely walk, and her kidneys were failing. It was becoming clear that we needed to savor each moment with her. So we created some great memories — like the last time we had a steak dinner with her and needed to push her on her walker around the corner to the restaurant. Or the last time she came to our house and Ari asked if he could snuggle her because he really likes snuggling people. We spent those last months finding special moments with Bubbie. And it was exciting because Bubbie was always up for some good fun.
I needed to focus on the quality of the time with Bubbie, not the quantity. You’d think that you could amass enough of something to make you happy, but it rarely does. Take ice cream for example. Bubbie loved ice cream. When I go to a great ice cream shop like the Sugar Factory I want to get the biggest and best thing they have. At Sugar Factory this would be an Insane Milkshake. On the menu, these milkshakes look awesome! They are the biggest most wonderful things on the planet. And I think that if I drink the whole thing, I will be happy forever. And then it comes. And the first sip is incredible. There’s even candy on top and chocolate covering on the outside of the mug. But as I eat it, it tastes less good and by the end, it becomes an unhappy challenge to even finish it. Eventually, through multiple visits, I learned that savoring a little bit of ice cream is far better than trying to eat all the ice cream in the world.
When I look at experiences I feel the same way. I think about all the places I haven’t been and adventures I haven’t tried. I want to pack them all into my bag of experiences and it just becomes overwhelming. But then I get excited at the wealth of possible adventures that I can explore every day. I just need to pay more attention. In my office building, there’s a skylight looking up at the Empire State Building that I didn’t even notice until my son pointed it out. I was always rushing by it to get lunch. There’s a great book on how dense the world is and how much we don’t see called On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation by Alexandra Horowitz. In the book, Dr. Horowitz takes us down the same street with 11 different experts and shows us how much we’re missing as we walk down the street.
I even ignore the truly glorious things that are right in front of me. I remember when Ari was in preschool next to Central Park. How lucky was I! I got to walk to work by Central Park after dropping him off! One day I realized that I’d walked by Central Park thinking about work and what I had to do. All of a sudden I’d be at the subway, having completely checked out from the experience. It struck me that this wasn’t going to last forever, Ari was going to graduate, and I wouldn’t be able to do this anymore. I thought about how I could make the most of the time I had left. Each day, I would take a full minute when I got to the park (I timed it) to just appreciate how lucky I was. A few times, I even took pictures of how pretty the landscape was because I knew that every day it would look slightly different. Finally, I played a game called, “Last Day” where I walked through the park like it was the last day of school. It’s an oddly fun game and it’s amazing how you can have that “Last Day” experience many times.
I’d forgotten about this Central Park experience for quite a while. Then I found myself in Japan at a work conference. I had some time to explore Tokyo one afternoon and ended up at the Imperial Palace. I ran around the place for a while seeing some amazing things like the burned down area where the concubines used to live. And the giant Tenshu tower that burned down in 1657 and was not rebuilt because one of the elders felt that the Shogunate had done such a good job protecting the peace that a proper tower was not necessary so it was never rebuilt.
As I walked through the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, things seemed beautiful yet familiar. I was kind of annoyed at first thinking “WTF. I’ve come halfway around the world to see this Imperial Garden and it’s not any better than the park down the street.” Then I realized that I can’t compare them. Even though the Imperial Garden isn’t that different from Central Park, it doesn’t make it any less wonderful. I need to really step in and appreciate it slowly and take a minute and really absorb the place rather than compare it to someplace else.
The way to really appreciate the Imperial garden is the same way to appreciate Central Park. I need to soak in the little things as much as the big ones — reveling in and appreciating the moment.
It’s a pretty amazing experience. The Emperor of Japan opened his private garden to the public so that laypeople like you and me can see what it’s like to be an emperor. And it hit me: WE ARE LITERALLY LIVING LIKE KINGS.
This was a profound experience. I was literally an Emperor for an hour and it didn’t make me happy. But when I took a step back to savor the moment, that filled me with joy. My friend, the Reverend Steve Singleton, likes to call out the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness (from the root “hap” meaning lucky) is what happens to you vs. joy is something that comes from you.
I started this piece by contemplating how important it is to savor every moment when someone is dying. But I know that every moment dies once it’s over. I remember when Blake was at his second birthday party. He turned to me and said, “Are all of these presents for me?” I thought this was wonderful, I’d raised the perfect humble selfless child who would always be like that. But of course I hadn’t. He changed into a normal kid on his next birthday screaming, “I want more presents!” I learned that when the kids do something cute and I say, “I’ll take a picture of it next week,” they’ve already grown out of it by the time I get around to snapping a photo.
The key to living like a king is to savor life, sucking all of the marrow you can out of each experience. Anna Quindlen, in her book A Short Guide to a Happy Life, has a great quote from Gwendolyn Brooks that sums it up well:
EXHAUST THE LITTLE MOMENT.
SOON IT DIES.
AND BE IT GASH OR GOLD
IT WILL NOT COME
AGAIN IN THIS IDENTICAL
Focusing on the right thing is key to being successful in work and life. If you focus on one thing, you can accomplish anything. But, as a mentor once told me, “If you have 12 apples, don’t take one bite of each.”
But figuring out what to prioritize can be tricky. At my college reunion, my friend Lutz and I were spending the day with our families. We’d jam-packed the day with great activities. As we were walking down the street, I saw a sign for Ashley’s Homemade Ice Cream.
I said, “Lutz, I’d really like to buy my family some ice cream.”
Being the logical German, he said, “Yes. That would be nice but there’s no time left in the day. We need to go hear the President of the University speak.”
“Lutz,” I said, “you have to prioritize. You can always watch the video of the President’s speech or read a transcript. But how often are you able to spend time with your family on a beautiful spring day, sitting on the college lawn eating ice cream?”
He said, “You’re right. Let’s get the ice cream.”
And it was the best decision we’d made that weekend.
I was at my shul last week and got into an interesting argument with my friend Bill Schwartz. I said, “Bill, the reason you feel this way is that you’re older than me.”
“Than I,” he corrected me.
“No. I really think it’s ‘than me.’ It’s clearly the object of the sentence.”
“Let’s ask my wife Janet. She used to be an English teacher.”
“It’s ‘than I,'” said Janet.
“OK, I said. I’ll look it up and get back to you.”
“Great,” said Bill. “I love receiving email.”
So I looked it up and I found some interesting pieces. My favorite is this bit from Merriam-Webster:
Some people think they’re better than you because they say “better than I” instead of “better than me.”
They’re not, of course. They’re just among the select group of grammar enthusiasts who think that than can only be a conjunction. You, on the hand, recognize that it can also be a preposition.
That’s right: whether you say “better than me,” “taller than I,” or “more annoying than they” has to do with grammatical categories that we typically only consider when a teacher asks us to.
But the bigger issue is believing that there’s a “right grammar.” John McWhorter is a Professor at Columbia University who writes about how grammar is more a fashion than anything else. McWhorter writes:
An especially enlightening read is William Cobbett’s book-length lecture to his son called “A Grammar of the English Language.” Cobbett’s sense of what good English was in 1818 seems, in 2012, so bizarre we can scarcely imagine someone speaking in such a way and being taken seriously.
To Cobbett, the past tense forms awoke, blew, built, burst, clung, dealt, dug, drew, froze, grew, hung, meant, spat, stung, swept, swam, threw and wove were all mistakes. The well-spoken person, Cobbett instructed, swimmed yesterday and builded a house last year. In Google’s handy Ngram viewer, using data from millions of books over several centuries, one can see that builded only started falling out of disuse around 1920. Not for any reason; no one discovered that builded was somehow elementally deficient. Fashion changed.
So why was Bill Schwartz so insistent on “better than I?” Let’s use Google Ngram to see the historical trends of these two phrases. You can click on the graphic to interact with it.
As I think about the sensibility that I have in this blog and the stories I tell, there’s a certain Jewishness to it. After reading the book A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, I can see it clearly. There’s an ironic wit of the underdog in Jewish storytelling that’s been passed down for generations. If you’re unfamiliar with the Jewish storyteller, take a look at Eddie Murphy playing “Old Jewish Man” from the end of the Movie Coming to America.
Jewish folk tales to a great job of explaining how I think about my blog. For example, my goal in this blog is to use stories from my life to make interesting points. But there’s a much better explanation through the following folk tale.
The Preacher of Dubno, Jacob Krantz, was once asked why parables have such persuasive power over people. The Preacher replied, “I will explain this by means of a parable.”
“It happened once that Truth walked about the streets as naked as his mother bore him. Naturally, people were scandalized and wouldn’t let him into their houses. Whoever saw him got frightened and ran away.
“And so as Truth wandered through the streets brooding over his troubles he met Parable. Parable was gaily decked out in fine clothes and was a sight to see. He asked, ‘Tell me, what is the meaning of all this? Why do you walk about naked and looking so woebegone?’
“Truth shook his head sadly and replied, ‘Everything is going downhill with me, brother. I’ve gotten so old and decrepit that everybody avoids me.’
“‘What you’re saying makes no sense,’ said Parable. “People are not giving you a wide berth because you are old. Take me, for instance, I am no younger than you. Nonetheless, the older I get the more attractive people find me. Just let me confide a secret to you about people. They don’t like things plain and bare but dressed up prettily and a little artificial. I’ll tell you what. I will lend you some fine clothes like mine and you’ll soon see how people will take to you.’
“Truth followed this advice and decked himself out in Parable’s gay clothes. And lo and behold! People no longer shunned him but welcomed him heartily. Since that time Truth and Parable are to be seen as inseparable companions, esteemed and loved by all.”
I also like to take examples and then write blog posts around them. The theory surrounding the example is subservient to the example itself. That’s an annoyingly complicated way of saying something better described in the following folk tale.
Once Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, said to his friend, the Preacher of Dubno, “Tell me, Jacob, how in the world do you happen to find the right parable to every subject?”
The Preacher of Dubno answered, “I will explain to you my parabolic method by means of a parable. Once there was a nobleman who entered his son in a military academy to learn the art of musketry. After five years the son learned all there was to be learned about shooting and, in proof of his excellence, was awarded a diploma and a gold medal.
“Upon his way home after graduation he halted at a village to rest his horses. In the courtyard he noticed on the wall of a stable a number of chalk circles and right in the center of each was a bullet hole.
“The young nobleman regarded the circles with astonishment. Who in the world could have been the wonderful marksman whose aim was so unerringly true? In what military academy could he have studied and what kind of medals had he received for his marksmanship!
“After considerable inquiry he found the sharpshooter. To his amazement, it was a small Jewish boy, barefoot and in tatters.
“‘Who taught you to shoot so well?’ the young nobleman asked him.
“The boy explained, ‘First I shoot at the wall. Then I take a piece of chalk and draw circles around the holes.’
Though I hadn’t thought of it, I’ve been using some of the wisdom of the ages to craft this blog. I guess I wasn’t just messing around and having fun.
I’m a very lucky boy. I had all four of my grandparents until I was 25. And I had one until this year when I was 41. Now that they’ve all passed away and I’ve become a grand-orphan, I wanted to honor their memory by reflecting on the lessons they’ve taught me. To paraphrase the great physicist Richard Feynman, “By the time they died, a lot of what is good about them has rubbed off on other people. So although they are dead, they won’t be completely gone.”
My Bubbie died in January. A couple of months before she died, she told me, “I’m a fighter.” At the time I didn’t want to tell her that the fight wasn’t going well. That an 87-year-old with heart and kidney failure was not winning the battle to live forever. She could hold on a little longer but eventually, as with everyone, death will win. Looking back, I realize she was fighting for something else. She wasn’t fighting for everlasting life, she was fighting to live a good life. It would have been easy for her to just go with the flow and coast off into the sunset—being that woman who just plays bingo and watches Jeopardy until she dies. But to really try to lead a good life—that takes effort.
David Foster Wallace gave a commencement address called This is Water (or more fully This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life) where he tells the following story:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
To me, this story is about fighting against the current of the water to live a good life. All of my grandparents showed me where the water is, how to separate myself from it, and how to focus on what’s important.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from my mother’s parents, Nana and Papa (Florence and Barney Liebman), and my father’s parents, Bubbie and Zaid (Connie and Norman Schlaff).
When my Bubbie died in January, I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. People kept telling me that, “She lived a good long life” and “Her memory will live forever” but this wasn’t helpful. I know that she lived a great life and I know that I was very lucky to be 41 when my last grandparent died. But how should I deal with her death? What do I do now?
I started thinking about a conversation I had 13 years ago with Mike McGill. Mike was the superintendent of the Scarsdale school district, one of the best school districts in the country. We were talking about what students should learn in high school to lead a good and productive life.
I thought I had the answer. At 28, I’d finally learned the key skills to be successful in the business world: analytics and communication. I’d spent two years in business school and then worked for two years as a management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the world’s most prestigious corporate strategy consultancies. Through this education, I learned to take data, analyze it, and communicate a story about it. Analytics and communication are also the skills needed to discuss issues and be a contributing member of society.
But Mike had a different perspective. He said, “Literature is the most important subject you can learn. It’s at the heart of being human. By reading a good book you learn key life lessons. There’s no better way to learn empathy and see things from someone else’s point of view.” Mike’s comment always stuck in my head and helped me understand how to read literature. So when Bubbie died I looked to literature for answers. Continue reading “Fiction Is the Lie That Tells the Truth”
Below is my eulogy for my Bubbie, Connie Schlaff, who died on January 9th, 2019 (1/9/19):
There’s a video of the great physicist Richard Feynman. In the video, his friend Danny Hillis said, “I’m sad because I realize you’re about to die.”
And Feynman said, “Yeah, that bugs me sometimes too. But not as bad as you think. By the time you get to be my age a lot of what is good about you has rubbed off on the people and so … although I will be dead, I won’t be completely gone.”
And that’s the way I like to think about Bubbie and all the little things she left us. Like some of her favorite things. I remember the last things that Blake and Ari did with Bubbie. These might have been Bubbie’s two favorite things. Ari did a crossword puzzle with her and Blake asked Bubbie if she would watch his new favorite show, Jeopardy, with him.
Disclaimer: I work at Amazon but this writing does not represent Amazon in any way. Opinions written here are strictly my own.
Who is Robert Schlaff?
I’m a devoted husband and father to an awesome family. For work, I’m the Banking Business Development Manager for Amazon Web Services. For more information about what I do at work, please visit my LinkedIn profile.
About This Site
I collect stories. There are so many amazing things happening every day. I need to spend some time writing them down before they slip away. Madeleine L’Engle said that every writer needs to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. But some of this stuff is too good to keep to myself. So I’m sharing it with you.
When I’m writing, I picture having a conversation with some of the world’s smartest and most interesting people — you, my readers. I picture us all sitting around a table telling stories and having fun. I’d like to think we’re a digital version of the Algonquin Round Table. Throughout the 1920s, some friends would meet daily for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. They included the founding editor of the New Yorker Harold Ross, the playwright George S. Kaufmann and the writer Dorothy Parker. This group, called The Algonquin Round Table, would meet to tell stories and share quips in a bustling city that was finding its place on the world stage. They were the original raconteurs of New York, getting together to share stories that would enlighten and entertain. In an age when we no longer have two-martini lunches, I wanted to humbly bring that sensibility online.
- How to be Happy — Yale’s Most Popular Class. Yale’s most popular class ever is on how to be happier. Now it’s available online.
- In Praise of Humility — The Forgotten Story of Edward S. Harkness. While we say we praise humility as a virtue, we rarely remember the people who practice it.
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at 40 — A writing exercise that I really enjoyed.
- Alexa and Google in Our Home. How Alexa and Google work with our family (vs. phones that work against it). I also have a post on specifically how kids interact with Alexa.
- How Airbnb Changed the Meaning of Hotel Branding. In the past, trusting a hotel brand meant trusting Marriott or Starwood. Now it means trusting Airbnb.
- The Hidden Thirteenth Floor. How my children found the hidden number 13 in our elevator.
- Design Challenge: Makeup Kits for Female Astronauts. How a bunch of male engineers decided on the makeup kits for the first female astronauts.
- How I (Re-)Built My Favorite T-Shirt. When I was in college I saw a T-shirt that was attractive, geeky and protested government policy. No one had produced it since 2000. So I recreated it.
- Alexa Blueprints: Personal Alexa Skills in Minutes. My history building Alexa Skills and how Amazon made this much easier with Blueprints.
- The Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Cloud Computing. I explain Cloud Computing through an analogy to retail checkout lines.
- The Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Software Testing. I write about two different ways to test software for errors.
- The Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Chaos Engineering. A guide to how Netflix and others plan for failure. I also dig a bit deeper into how software needs to be built to solve human needs — not just optimized for machines.
- “Saving Money” by Paying More for Netflix. With subscription pricing, some people feel like they’re getting a deal when they are actually paying more.
- What Do You Mean by “Film?” An interview with kids about film cameras from 2010. Spoiler alert: They’re confused.
- Prospect Theory: Losing Feels Bad More than Winning Feels Good. An example of how our biases in interpreting gains and losses cause us to make bad decisions.
Math and Logic
- How Numbers Work in the Real World. In school, we were taught that math is linear; however, in the real world, distributions are more likely to be exponential.
- Why Today Can’t Be an Opposite Day. How the statement “Today is Opposite Day” is mathematically inconsistent.
- Game Theory for Parents. Game theory provides some interesting lessons on how to equitably share a piece of pie.
Disclaimer: I work at Amazon but this writing does not represent Amazon in any way. Opinions written here are strictly my own.
Amazon has a very strong culture. At other places I’ve worked, culture is an aspiration at the senior level but took a back seat to more pressing concerns like making as much money as possible. Amazon’s culture is embedded in its 14 Leadership Principles that are a common language and framework that form the basis of everything the company does, from interviews to everyday decisions. You can get a good feeling of the Amazon culture by watching videos of Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. A few good ones are from the Economic Club of Washington, an interview by his brother Mark, the Axel Springer Award, and a 60 Minutes Story about Amazon from 1999.