These days I’m sitting at home thinking about jetting off to Florida and entering the fantasy land of Disney World. We could walk around meeting the characters in Toy Story, travel to the past, or visit countries from around the world. Of course, these experiences are not the real thing but theme park adaptions of them. While we can’t have the real-world experiences of Disney World, there’s a new, and in some ways better, version of theme parks that I can experience at home.
When I was the Head of Banking at Amazon Web Services, I was able to peek behind the curtain and learn how Amazon really works. While there are some things Amazon keeps close to the chest, I was surprised that many of the most wonderful things about Amazon are available to the public.
This is a guide to the open secrets at Amazon that you’d hear during orientation or at a high-level customer meeting. Amazon makes these things public to build stronger relationships with customers, and since almost everyone is an Amazon customer, you can find them all online. But you’d only know about these things if you had a friend at Amazon. So I invite you, my friend, to examine some of my favorite secrets.
Here’s a recap of our ski trip to Breckenridge from 2018. There were some hiccups on the trip, like the way the Griswalds had some hiccups in the movie Vacation,(1)BTW, National Lampoon’s vacation was based on director John Hughes’s magazine article Vacation 58: If Dad hadn’t shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been our best vacation ever. but it was still the Best Vacation Ever.
When we got to the JetBlue Terminal at JFK we were feeling really good. My wife and kids were going skiing in Breckenridge with some friends. This was going to be the best vacation ever. We’d been planning this trip for months. We found an affordable rate on the flight to Denver during Christmas week which was quite an accomplishment. Even though it landed at 2 in the morning, but we were going to be fine. That night we were staying at the Westin right next to the airport. As we sat down to eat our overpriced but surprisingly tasty cheeseburgers, my wife Abigail said, “What’s the confirmation number for tonight’s hotel?”
“I don’t have it. You made the reservation didn’t you?” I said.
“Nope,” I said, as we scrambled to book the closest hotel available, which turned out to be an extended stay hotel a half-hour from the terminal. At this point thought to myself, “This vacation isn’t going as planned.”
And we’d planned so well! I thought that landing at 2 AM wouldn’t be so bad. The kids would sleep on the flight. But we’d forgotten that JetBlue had TV’s to keep them rapt with cartoons until about 1:45 when they nodded off 15 minutes before landing. So we were dragging two kids through the airport on rolling suitcases.
When we finally got to Breckenridge it was amazing. It has the highest chairlift in North America. Abigail and I spent one afternoon in an enormous empty snowscape. The base of the mountain is over 10,000 feet, taller than the summit of many nearby mountains. This height gave us these incredible vistas but it also meant there was little oxygen which leads to altitude sickness. Our friends couldn’t sleep and missed most of the skiing, coming to breakfast with bloodshot crazy eyes.
Abigail wasn’t doing so well either. The altitude sickness had gotten to her so my eight-year-old son Blake and I went to get her some comfort food. Blake came back with a bottle of wine, beaming, and said, “Mommy, I have some wine for you.:
And she looked at him, lying in bed with a splitting headache, and said “Why would you get me wine? It’s just going to dehydrate me and make me feel worse.”
And he hung his head low and said, “I’m so sad. Wine always makes mommy feel better.”
I make it sound like a string of bad luck but that’s not totally true. Like when Ari asked us how to pee when encased in a snowsuit, I should have realized that this wasn’t an informational question. Because we didn’t take his question seriously and didn’t show him how to do it, I ended the day with a child covered in pee because he didn’t know how to take off his snowsuit.
We ended the trip with one final run on the slopes. On the way up the chairlift, Abigail and I discussed the dangers of the last run. I said, “Remember, the last run of the day is when people get injured. They are tired and try to milk everything out of that last run.” We agreed that we wouldn’t be those people.
She nodded her head in agreement saying, “Absolutely! We need to be extremely careful.”
Now Breckenridge has awful signage, kind of like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz who told Dorothy that both ways are very nice. So when we saw a sign, Abigail went one way, I went another way, and we smacked into each other, knocking into each other and turning into two big snowballs. When we stopped rolling, a ski patroller in a yellow jacket appeared from out of nowhere and asked us if we were OK. Looking back we were more than OK.
By the end of the trip we’d survived with no broken bones and everyone went home with approximately the same number of body parts as they came with. We had awesome scenery, great friends, and incredible skiing. And because our wonderful friends couldn’t leave the lodge due to altitude sickness Abigail and I got to spend the most time alone since the kids were born.
We learned that having a great trip isn’t about making everything perfect. When we made mistakes, we were able to see the humor in each pratfall. We decided we were going to have an awesome trip and weren’t going to let anything stop us. So think about this the next time you take a trip. Remember that you have the power to make any trip into the best vacation ever.
Toastmasters notes for improvement from my first speech. (This is how we get better right?!)
- Overall people liked the speech and thought it was funny.
- I need to do a better job of raising the stakes. I need to highlight how we kept trying to have a great vacation and kept failing. I need to stay in the moment of failure and not keep saying “but that’s OK…”
- I could shorten the bit about Jeff and Debbie and altitude sickness. The story about Abigail and the wine is much better.
- Zoom is particularly difficult on hand movement. I had a nice full body shot and could let my hands hang but I kept them higher because I wasn’t sure they’d be in the frame. I need to be more comfortable here.
- I need to go bigger with my emotions. It feels big internally but it doesn’t feel as big on screen. Alternatively, I could step back and try to be more of a storyteller and less of an actor — because I’m not a very good actor.
- Possibly make the last line about “you” vs. about “me” to provide more of a call to action.
- The story about the Westin is the kick-off to this whole thing, I need to make it stronger. I can talk about the next closest hotel was next to the airport, but the airport is HUGE, requiring a 30-minute ride on the complimentary shuttle. Blake as also upset because we told him about this great hotel with a beautiful pool and now we are staying at an extended stay hotel. The end of the Westin story might be “This trip was not going well” or something similarly dark.
- Is the line “We’re going to have the best vacation ever” high enough in the story.
|1.||↑||BTW, National Lampoon’s vacation was based on director John Hughes’s magazine article Vacation 58: If Dad hadn’t shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been our best vacation ever.|
I’ve always thought that free time was the best thing in the world. What could be better than staying at an all-inclusive resort and sipping margaritas with nothing to do? But free time can be painful if it’s in the wrong context. Don’t believe me? Think about your last trip on an elevator.
Here’s one of my favorite speeches. It’s the story of how a woman named Amelia Earhart flew around the world. You may think you’ve heard it before but it’s unlikely.
I haven’t been posting much because I’ve been focusing more on refining my speechmaking with Toastmasters. You can see many of my speeches along with video. If you’d like to join my Toastmasters group, contact me. This is one of my favorites.
In 1937 Amelia Earhart was the most famous aviatrix(1)Aviatrix = female aviator. in the world. She was the first female passenger to cross the Atlantic by plane, the woman who’d flown higher than anyone else in the world, and whose solo flight across the Atlantic made her into female Charles Lindbergh. Then, on July 2, 1937, Amelia’s plane disappeared on its way from Papua New Guinea to Howland Island.
So imagine my surprise in 2018 when I was watching TV with my sons. A woman named Amelia Earhart told us that she just finished her flight around the world. This, of course, was a different Amelia Earhart. Amelia Rose Earhart was born in 1984. Her parents told her she was a long lost relative of Amelia Earhart, wanted to give her a strong female role model, and figured that no one would ever forget a woman named Amelia Earhart.
It was hard growing up with the name Amelia Earhart. If I were named Charles Lindbergh I bet people would spend a lot of time making flying jokes like, “Have you flown over the Atlantic any time soon.” And I would spend a lot of time saying, “Ha that’s funny. I haven’t heard that one before. I am Charles Lindbergh the dentist.”
I started looking into people who had unique names or uncommon names. I found this wonderful movie called The Strange Name Movie. They go around the country finding people with unusual names like James Bond or Harry Potter or Paul and Linda McCartney.(2)I’ve got pictures of all of them in the video. But many of these people, like Harry Potter, were going along through life when this giant truck of name Wizardry crashed into him. Now he can’t order a pizza without people snickering. But what about people that know what they’re getting into, like Donald Duck Jr. When he was dating his wife, he said, “Don’t marry me if you don’t want to name your first son Donald Duck III.”
Which brings me to Amelia Earhart. After people asking her for years “Are you going to become a pilot?” or “Are going to fly around the world?” In 2004 she started taking flying lessons, in 2011 she realized she could get sponsors to help her fly around the world, and in 2014 she flew around the world.
Some people looked at Amelia Rose Earhart and said that she was taking advantage of the name. But the Amelia Earharts are very similar. Both got women excited about doing the impossible. Both Amelias used the media for publicity and funding. But Amelia Rose Earhart wanted to do more. She started the Fly with Amelia Foundation to help 16-18 year old girls become pilots. While over Howland Island where the original Amelia disappeared, she gave out the first $120K of scholarships. And in a true finishing touch, Amelia Rose Earhart won the Amelia Earhart Pioneering Achievement Award.
So clearly she’s the heir to the legacy of Amelia Earhart. Plus, she’s the long lost relative of our initial aviatrix. But wait, there’s something I left out earlier. I told you that Amelia’s parents told her that Amelia Earhart was a long lost relative. About a year before the flight, she hired a genealogist and found out that they weren’t related.
She was devastated. She felt like her whole life had been taken away from her. She was thinking of just scrapping the whole flight. Why do it if she wasn’t related to Amelia Earhart. But then, after some serious soul-searching, she realized that the original Amelia Earhart could only take her so far. Having the same name got her to fly and she found out she loved it. It inspired her to take on this fantastic trip around the world. But now it was up to Amelia Rose Earhart to finish the journey.
Amelia Rose Earhart inspires me. We’re all born with gifts and challenges. Some things that look like challenges are can be made into gifts and vice verse. Here’s the story of a woman who started with a name that was incredibly hard to live up to and used it to inspire others. She grew into the name and surpassed it. She completed the goal of the original Amelia Earhart—the flight around the world—77 years after it started.
|1.||↑||Aviatrix = female aviator.|
|2.||↑||I’ve got pictures of all of them in the video.|
I’m a devoted husband and father to an awesome family. For work, I’m a Product Manager who looks at the goals of the business and uses technology to deliver those business and customer goals. I’ve driven transformational change at Citi, AIG, and Amazon Web Services. For more information about what I do at work, please visit my LinkedIn profile.
- Disney and the New Digital Theme Parks
- Six Amazonian Secrets You Can Use (from an Amazon Insider)
- The Best Vacation Ever. Thank God We Survived.
- The Key to Happiness: Focus on One Thing
- Amelia Earharts’ 77-Year-Long Journey Around the World
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. Some of these ideas are so powerful that they hit me like a bolt of lightning. It’s my job to capture that lighting and put it in a bottle to share it with you. I want to capture that feeling that Archimedes had when he had an insight sitting in the bathtub screamed “Eureka!” and ran naked down the street. I know that I’ll rarely if ever make it there, but that won’t keep me from trying!
I wanted a place to put all the stuff I think is awesome. Growing up, I always wanted to have a great library in my house. I remembered the excitement when I learned that I could buy the entire collection of The New Yorker in bound volumes and put them in my house. I’d imagined that I would collect great encyclopedias from the past to peruse whenever I pleased. They would live in mahogany bookcases that looked like they’d belonged to JP Morgan. Then I realized that a New York City apartment doesn’t have the space for a physical library. So I did the next best thing. I’ve created a virtual library that includes lots of the things I enjoy, like my favorite books, words, and humor. You can check it out on the menu at the top of the page.
Things I’ve Built
- When a Book Gets Caught Up in the Story. The Art of the Book in the Digital Age. I picked up a book at the New York Public Library with a big purple stamp that read, “The Author of This Book Committed Suicide.” I quickly discovered that this book doesn’t just tell a story, it’s part of a larger conversation.
- 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.
- How I Replaced the Ads on My Website with My To Do List. I figured out how to make an early version of Google Contributor replace my advertisements with my To Do list. Here’s a video of me presenting this at New York Tech Meetup. Unfortunately Google Contributor doesn’t work like this anymore.
My Adventures and Explorations
- Six Amazonian Secrets You Can Use. When I was at Amazon, I learned some open secrets about the company, like behind the scenes view into its culture, great discounts, and real world tours.
- On Amazon – A Peculiar Company. Amazon is a self described peculiar company, doing things differently than your standard company.
- When Millions of Eyes at Amazon Were Wrong. How I fixed the punctuation on Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles.
My Adventures and Explorations
- Taking the Red Pill of Art. Here’s my love letter to art. It’s a story about the red pill and the blue pill, opening your eyes, and what art means to me.
- The Joy of the Hunt. While I haven’t been outside on any new adventures in the last few months, I wrote about some of my favorite adventures, from finding a hidden castle on top of a library to discovering an old historical text from one of Yale’s secret societies.
- What a Wonderful Word. Names are magical things. In the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie said, “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” This is my talk about words and concepts that don’t have a name in English.
- Carpe Diem! How to Live Like an Emperor. I realized that no matter where I am or where I go, I can live like an Emperor by seizing every moment.
- Capture Better Memories Without a Camera. How technology is preventing me from building great memories and some techniques I’ve come up with some ways to use my brain to capture special moments instead of my phone.
- My Ideal Retirement Plan. How I’ve realized that my goal in life shouldn’t be to retire early but to live well, now and through retirement.
- Thank You for Being a Friend. Friendship is about being there for other people. Anyone can celebrate with you when it’s convenient. A true friend stands by you when things are tough and just be with you.
- Fiction is the Lie That Tells the Truth. When dealing with really difficult problems in life, I’ve realized that fiction often has the best answers.
- 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.
- 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.
Product and Design
- How Much is That Really Worth? The Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Valuation. A product gets its value from the job that it does. When I look at things this way, something that seems like garbage, like a crushed penny, can be surprisingly valuable.
- What a Wonderful Word. As a Product Manager, it’s important to understand what populations have in common and how they differ. Even though there are unique words in different languages, there’s a strong commonality across the human experience.
- 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.
- 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.
- Guest Post: Blake Schlaff on Fortnite Friendships. My 10-year-old son Blake is an avid Fortnite player who often plays with his friends. I thought it would be good for him (with my help) to tell everyone about the world of social gaming.
- “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.
I have officially become a Grumpy Old Man.(1)Try to read this piece in Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man voice. It’s too easy for people to find things online. Back in my day, things were different. People should work hard to discover things. Kids today can just Google things online and pull it up right away. There’s no adventure anymore. There’s no joy in the hunt.
|1.||↑||Try to read this piece in Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man voice.|
When things get boring, I try to add some dramatic flair to everyday activities to spice them up. When I worked at Citibank, I’d picture myself as an adventurer. I’d imagine I was a quest to solve a large complicated problem, getting clues from various people on the way. Sometimes I’d come across a treasure chest with some tool in it. I wouldn’t know exactly what the tool was for, but I’d file it away in my toolbelt for later use. I didn’t do it every day, but something fun came up every month or so. It made daily tasks more interesting and provided motivation for my team. I learned that I can add excitement and drama to things that aren’t inherently interesting by changing the way I look at them.
Human beings want more of everything. We are on a hedonic treadmill that says, “What I have now is OK, but I really want more—more stuff, more money, and more friends. That would make me happy.” From a societal perspective, the hedonic treadmill has some benefits. It keeps us on our toes and moves society forward. It also gives lots of people jobs. If people didn’t want more Oreos, no one would have jobs selling Oreos at the grocery store, or stocking the Oreos on the shelf, or making new kinds of Oreos.
I don’t know exactly when I took the red pill.(1)Red pill and blue pill: I’m referring to the red pill in the movie The Matrix. Neo takes the red pill to see the world for what it really is. He had a choice to take the red pill or the blue pill, which would have left him in blissful ignorance. It’s much easier to talk about a time when I’d taken the red pill and was talking to someone who hadn’t. I was at the Whitney Museum of Art with my friend. We saw the exhibit fruits, vegetables; fruit and vegetable salad.
|1.||↑||Red pill and blue pill: I’m referring to the red pill in the movie The Matrix. Neo takes the red pill to see the world for what it really is. He had a choice to take the red pill or the blue pill, which would have left him in blissful ignorance.|