Monday, September 28, 2009

Last Child in the Woods

Last Friday, my wife and I went to see Richard Louv speak.  Richard is the author of Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder.

His book and talk center on a series of alarming developments in the lives of America's children:
  • increasing divide between the young and the natural world
  • loss of freedom and time alone for children to explore the woods, local creek, etc.
  • growth in structured "play dates" and the decline of time to create play, particularly play outside
  • fear of traffic and strangers that keeps kids inside rather than outside running around and exploring
The talk mirrored an article I read about a study in the UK.  A few stats follow to set the tone:
  • Less than 10% play of children play in natural settings compared to 40% of adults when they were young.
  • Three quarters of adults claimed to have had a patch of nature near their homes and over half went there at least once or twice a week. 64% of children reckon they have a patch of nature near their homes but less than a quarter go there once or twice a week.
 What are the costs of the children losing access to time in nature?

Louv notes research that links nature deficiency disorder with very real mental health challenges (ADD, ADHD) and physical fitness ailments (childhood obesity, diabetes).

For many, time in nature is therapeutic and calming. For parents and adults, it is important that we are aware the growing loss of access to the outdoors that many children face and that we work to lead or sponsor day hikes, fishing trips, camping outings, and other means that allow children the joy that comes from freedom to play, catch frogs, get the great outdoors.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Living History: Larry Ellison

Last night, Ed Zander (ex-CEO of Motorola) interviewed Larry Ellison at the Churchill Club.

The interview proved to be fascinating, with Ed Zander a perfect choice to push and prod Ellison on topics ranging from ORCL's early years, his motivations for buying Sun, to politics, sailing, and the prospects for the US economy.

The title of the post "living history" hit home last night. We are fortunate to not only live in a place where monster companies are born and scale, but also to work in an industry where many of the pioneers remain active - Ellison, Jobs, Ballmer, Dell....

While the story behind ORCL is well-known, Ellison made a few very interesting comments worth sharing.

First, he argued that the reason behind the Sun acquisition is to move into the systems business. He believes that the tech industry treats customers like "computer hobbyists." Customers are forced to buy components - servers, storage, switches, databases, app servers, applications....- from a long list of vendor and to then spend vast sums integrating systems to address a given application. His goal is to leverage Sun to create systems - billing systems, airline reservations systems....where engineers optimize the integration not customers and service providers. He envisions building the successor to Tom Watson Jr's IBM, which he views as the most successful enterprise company of all time.

The systems vision is an interesting one and one that flies in the face of conventional wisdom - ie that the industry and customers are best served via a focus on horizontal specialization. Components rather than systems, the industry long argued, delivered the greatest innovation at the lowest total price. His systems vision challenges orthodoxy that specialization trumps integration.

Interestingly, Steve Jobs is also driving a systems based approach. Rather than follow the PC model of separation between hardware, software, peripherals, applications...., Apple provides integrated solutions - systems - that despite the significant price premiums are trumping the PC approach to consumer marketing and strategy. The integration of software, hardware, applications, and services (iTunes) provides greater consumer utility than the "computer hobbyist" the PC industry espouses. The Mac vs PC ads hit this point time and time again.

Second, Larry Ellison is bearish on the US economy. Rather than seeing a W, V, or U shaped recovery, he humorously called for an L-shaped recovery - ie a decline to a new equilibrium from which we will not see any meaningful recovery for at least five years. His logic - 70% of the US economy is premised on consumer spending and US consumers are so overwhelmed by debt that they will be forced to save, not spend, to service massive debt obligations.

Finally, he reeks of competition. He cannot go five minutes without commenting on IBM or SAP. He clearly takes tremendous energy from focusing on an competitor and on rallying the company to take share, to win accounts, and to out market the competitor in question. He made one comment that really struck home - "pick your competitors carefully for you will quickly come to resemble the companies you compete with."

Thanks to the Churchill Club for a great event.

Friday, September 18, 2009


There is a real challenge in being present - that is enjoying right now, this moment. Modern technology and life makes it very easy to be distracted and the stress and pressure of Silicon Valley provide ample opportunity to ponder the past or project the future.

The problem is that such ponderings and projection limit the ability to enjoy right now and sap your energy and effectiveness.

Books on wisdom share a common refrain - the past is the past, the future is uncertain and a projection of anxiety or fantasy, and the only sure thing is right now. Too often people live in their heads - thinking about lost opportunities in the past or making up stories - both good and bad - about the future.

The lack of being present exhibits itself in many ways - chronic BlackBerry checking, the inability to listen, eyes that wander or a blank look that lets you know the mind is somewhere else, conference calls or meetings where it is clear half the attendees are 20% "there" at best.

In many ways, I am far from immune from the risk of living in a fog of yesterday/tomorrow, rather than the very real moment of the now. It is very hard not to be seduced by distraction or to walk around in a fog of thoughts that make it hard to focus or be truly with other people - actively listening and engaged.

When I get home, I try to clear my head and really be home. When I sit in a meeting, I try to clear my head and be there for that meeting. Over a coffee, talking to your wife, your colleague, focusing on the present is laughably hard to do.

But when you can - the ability to enjoy becomes so much greater.

My friend Paul Levine told me that the best you can do is wake up every day and focus on that day - not the day before, the month before, or two weeks from now. But rather, today.

As a CEO, I have found that advice to be very empowering and a great way to handle the ambiguity of tomorrows to come and the anxiety that comes from worrying about missteps in the past.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Healing of America

T.R. Reid's book, The Healing of American: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, is an important read.

Reid, a Washington Post correspondent, explores health-care systems around the world and asks and works to answer the following questions:
  • why is American the only developed economy that does not provide health care to all its citizens?
  • why does American spend 2x per capita on health care while leaving 45m uninsured?
  • should health care be considered a right or a privilege?
  • why are administrative costs 4% of spend in France and 20% of spend in the US?
  • why is the US 23rd out of 23rd in life expectancy over 60 amongst developed nations?
  • hows does health care work in Germany, France, Spain, the UK, Japan....?
Health care reform is a very complex issue, and the cacophony of sound bites from both parties only serves to raise, not answer questions. In my effort to come to a personal, informed decision on the issue, I turned to Reid's book after hearing him interviewed on Newshour.

The transcript of his interview with Betty Bowser can be found here.