The Best Thing I Read In 2013: Going To Seed


A friend recently shared with me an incredibly moving essay. I read a lot and this is by far the best thing I read in 2013. The essay is written by John Gardner, a rather interesting and impressive individual in his own right.

“It is a puzzle why some men and women go to seed, while others remain vital to the very end of their days.  And why some people stop learning and growing.  One must be compassionate in assessing the reasons: Perhaps life just presented them with tougher problems than they could solve.  Perhaps something inflicted a major wound on their confidence or their self-esteem.  Perhaps they were pulled down by the hidden resentments and grievances that grow in adult life, sometimes so luxuriantly that, like tangled vines, they immobilize the victim.

I’m talking about people who—no matter how busy they seem to be—have stopped learning or trying.  Many of them are just going through the motions.  I don’t deride that.  Life is hard.  Just to keep on going is sometimes an act of courage.  But I do worry about men and women at whatever age functioning below the level of their potential.

We can’t write off the danger of complacency, of growing rigidity or of imprisonment by our own comfortable habits and opinions.  Look around you.  How many people whom you know well—people even younger than yourselves—are already trapped in fixed attitudes and habits?  The famous French literary historian Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve said, “There are people whose clocks stop at a certain point in their lives.”

If we are conscious of the danger of going to seed, we can resort to countervailing measures.  You don’t need to run down like an unwound clock.  And if your clock is unwound, you can wind it up again.  You can stay alive in every sense of the word until you fail physically.  I know some people who feel that that just isn’t possible for them, that life has trapped them.  But they don’t really know that.  Life takes unexpected turns.

We build our own prisons and serve as our jail keepers, but I’ve concluded that our parents and the society at large have a hand in building our prisons.  They create roles for us—and self images—that hold us captive for a long time.  The individual who is intent on self-renewal will have to deal with ghosts of the past—the memory of earlier failures, the remnants of childhood dramas and rebellions, accumulated grievances and resentments that have long outlived their cause.  Sometimes people cling to the ghosts with something almost approaching pleasure, but the hampering effect on growth is inescapable.  As Jim Whitaker, who climbed Mount Everest, said, “You never conquer the mountain.  You only conquer yourself.”

The more I see of human lives, the more I believe that the business of growing up is much longer drawn out than we pretend.  If we achieve it in our 30s, even our 40s, we’re doing well.

There’s a myth that learning is for young people.  But as the proverb says, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”  The middle years are great, great learning years.  Even the years past the middle years.  I took on a new job after my 76th birthday and I’m still learning.

Learn all your life.  Learn from your failures.  Learn from your successes.  When you hit a spell of trouble ask, “What is it trying to teach me?”  The lessons aren’t always happy ones, but they keep coming.

We learn from our jobs, from our friends and families.  We learn by accepting the commitments of life, by playing the roles that life hands us (not necessarily the roles we would have chosen).  We learn by growing older, by suffering, by loving, by taking risks, by bearing with the things we can’t change.

The things you learn in maturity aren’t simple things such as acquiring information and skills.  You learn not to engage in self-destructive behavior.  You learn not to burn up energy in anxiety.  You discover how to manage your tensions.  You learn that self-pity and resentment are among the most toxic of drugs.  You find that the world loves talent, but pays off on character.

You come to understand that most people are neither for you nor against you; they are thinking about themselves.  You learn that no matter how hard you try to please, some people in this world are not going to love you, a lesson that is at first troubling and then really quite relaxing.

Those are things that are hard to learn early in life.  As a rule you have to have picked up some mileage and some dents in your fenders before you understand.  As writer Norman Douglas said, “There are some things you can’t learn from others.  You have to pass through the fire.”  You come to terms with yourself.  You finally grasp what playwright S.N. Berhman meant when he said, “At the end of every road you meet yourself.”

You learn the arts of mutual dependence, meeting the needs of loved ones and letting yourself need them.  You can even be unaffected—a quality that often takes years to acquire.  You can achieve the simplicity that lies beyond sophistication.

Of course failures are a part of the story, too.  Everyone fails.  When Joe Louis was world heavyweight boxing champion, he said, “Everyone has to figure to get beat some time.”  The question isn’t did you fail, but did you pick yourself up and move ahead.  And there is one other little question: “Did you collaborate in your own defeat?”  A lot of people do.  Learn not to.

One of the enemies of sound, lifelong motivation is a rather childish conception that we have of the kind of concrete, describable goal toward which all of our efforts drive us.  We want to believe that there is a point at which we can feel that we have arrived.  We want a scoring system that tells us when we’ve piled up enough points to count ourselves successful.

So you scramble and sweat and climb to reach what you thought was the goal.  When you get to the top you stand up and look around, and chances are you feel a little empty.  You may wonder whether you climbed the wrong mountain.

But the metaphor is all wrong.  Life isn’t a mountain that has a summit.  Nor is it, as some suppose, a riddle that has an answer.  Nor a game that has a final score.

Life is an endless unfolding and, if we wish it to be, and endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves.  By potentialities I mean not just successes as the world measures success, but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.

Perhaps you imagine that by age 45 or even 55 you have explored those potentialities.  Don’t kid yourself!

There’s something I know about you that you may or may not know about yourself.  You have within you more resources of energy that have ever been tapped, more talent than has ever been exploited, more strength than has ever been tested, more to give than you have ever given.

You know about some of the gifts that you have left underdeveloped.  Would you believe that you have gifts and possibilities you don’t even know about?

It isn’t possible to talk about renewal without touching on the subject of motivation.  Someone defined horse sense as the good judgment horses have that prevents them from betting on people.  But we have to bet on people, and I place my bets more often on high motivation than on any other quality except judgment.  There is no perfection of techniques that will substitute for the lift of spirit and heightened performance that comes from strong motivation.  The world is moved by highly motivated people, by enthusiasts, by men and women who want something very much or believe very much.

I’m not talking about anything as narrow as ambition.  After all, ambition eventually wears out and probably should.  But you can keep your zest until the day you die.  If I may offer you a simple maxim, “Be interested.”  Everyone wants to be interesting but the vitalizing thing is to be interested.  Keep a sense of curiosity.  Discover new things.  Care.  Risk failure.  Reach out.

For many, this life is a vale of tears; for no one is it free of pain.  But we are so designed that we can cope with it if we can live in some context of meaning.  In the stable periods of history, meaning was supplied in the context of a coherent community and traditionally prescribed patterns of culture.  Today you can’t count on any such heritage.  You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments, whether to your religion, to an ethical order as you conceive it, to your life’s work, to loved ones, to your fellow humans.  Young people run around searching for identity, but it isn’t handed out free anymore—not in this transient, rootless, pluralistic society.  Your identity is what you’ve committed yourself to.

It may just mean doing a better job at whatever you’re doing.  There are men and women who make the world better just by being the kind of people they are.  It matters very little whether they’re behind the wheel of a truck or running a country store or bringing up a family.

We tend to think of youth and the active middle years as the years of commitment.  As you get a little older, you’re told you’ve earned the right to think about yourself.  But that’s a deadly prescription!  People of every age need commitments beyond the self, need the meaning that commitments provide.  Self-preoccupation is a prison, as every self-absorbed person finally knows.  Commitments beyond the self can get you out of prison.

For renewal, tough-minded optimism is best.  The future is not shaped by people who don’t really believe in the future.  Men and women of vitality have always been prepared to bet their futures, even their lives, on ventures of unknown outcome.  If they had all looked before they leaped, we would still be crouched in caves sketching animal pictures on the wall.

But I did say tough-minded optimism.  High hopes that are dashed by the first failure are precisely what we don’t need.  We have to believe in ourselves, be we mustn’t suppose that the path will be easy.  It’s tough.  Life is painful, and rain falls on the just.  Mr. Churchill was not being a pessimist when he said, “I have nothing to offer, but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”  He had a great deal more to offer, but as a good leader he was saying it isn’t going to be easy, and he was also saying something that all great leaders say confidently—that failure is simply a reason to strengthen resolve.

We cannot dream of a Utopia in which all arrangements are ideal and everyone is flawless.  Life is tumultuous—an endless losing and regaining of balance, a continuous struggle, never an assured victory.  Nothing is ever finally safe.  Every important battle is fought and refought.  You may wonder if such a struggle, endless and of uncertain outcome, isn’t more than humans can bear.  But all of history suggests that the human spirit is well fitted to cope with just that kind of world.

I mentioned earlier the myth that learning is for young people.  I want to give you an example.  In a piece I wrote for Reader’s Digest not long ago I gave what seemed to me a particularly interesting true example of renewal.  The man in question was 53 years old.  Most of his adult life had been a losing struggle against debt and misfortune.  In military service he received a battlefield injury that denied him the use of his left arm.  He was seized and held in captivity for five years.  Later he held two government jobs, succeeding at neither.  At 53 he was in prison—and not for the first time.  There in prison, he decided to write a book, driven by heaven knows what motive.  The book turned out to be one of the greatest ever written, a book that has enthralled the world for more than 350 years.  The prisoner was Miguel de Cervantes; the book, Don Quixote.

I hope it’s clear that the door of opportunity doesn’t really close as long as you’re reasonably healthy.  And I don’t just mean opportunity for high status but opportunity to grow and enrich your life in every dimension.

Many years ago I concluded a speech with paragraph on the meaning of life.  The speech was reprinted over the years, and 15 years later that final paragraph came back to me in a rather dramatic way—really, a heartbreaking way.

A man wrote to me from Colorado saying that his 20-year-old daughter had been killed in an automobile accident some weeks before and that she was carrying in her billfold a paragraph from a speech of mine.  He said he was grateful, because the paragraph and the fact that she kept it close to her told him something he might not otherwise have known about her values and concerns.  I can’t imagine where or how she came across the paragraph, but here it is:

Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt.  Meaning is something you build into your life.  You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something.  The ingredients are there.  You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life.  Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you.  If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.”


Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose

I remember hearing about this talk on the puzzle of motivation by Dan Pink a while back but I finally got around to watching it. It’s definitely worth checking out if you haven’t seen it and I’ll be writing more on this later.

Macklemore: Restoring My Faith In Hip Hop

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are quadruple platinum with Thrift Shop and counting – I love to see the success of a local (Seattle) artist who was down and out and is now on the rebound in a big way. Conscious hip hop by this duo is a return to to music with a greater purpose for this genre. Can Sasha Frere-Jones over at The New Yorker do a piece on him already?

Who Took A Chance On You?

Inspired by a tweet linking to Bijan Sabet’s post, I thought I would reflect on those who took a chance on me.

I still vividly remember the day the big envelope showed up from Stanford. The university and some admissions officer took a chance on me and it has had such a tremendous impact on my life from the amazing people I met to the the opportunities it has created for me.

One of the amazing people I met in school who took a chance on me became my wife. We started off as dorm mates, then friends and she decided to take a chance on this slacker of a CS major that used to make fun of where she grew up. What a ride it’s been, nearly 11 years later. With the arrival of our son, it feels like we’re just getting started on a great journey.

Professionally, the first person to take a chance on me was a senior director at Aplix. When he brought me on to his team, it opened up a lot of new experiences for me. I traveled around the world to work on a standards body, learned and came to deeply understand the nuances of the mobile ecosystem and got an inside track on Android well before it hit the market.

That inside track on Android led me to T-Mobile, where I found a VP that was a fantastic mentor. He took a chance on me and supported broadening my experience by branching out from T-Mobile to working with T-Venture. The US managing director at T-Venture also took a chance on me to provide him with technical due diligence on a number of startup opportunities being reviewed while learning a bit about how venture capital works. This was critical to getting Mobilisafe off the ground.

It was early on at T-Mobile that my co-founder Dirk and I would joke about doing some kind of startup thing. While starting a company with a partner is a two way street, Dirk was taking the bigger risk. He had experience at startups shipping products, but I had never been a startup CEO, never fundraised, never done a lot of the things you need to do to get a company off the ground. And yet, he took a chance on me and we’ve had an amazing ride together.

It would be nice to say that Mobilisafe would have happened with or without investors, but at the time it was important for Dirk and me to have some investor validation. The teams at Madrona and Trilogy took a chance on me. We had something that resembled a prototype and a pitch deck when they committed to invest. With Mobilisafe’s exit, we provided a great return in a relatively short period of time.

I had been thinking about this concept a bit in the back of my mind in light of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book and some of the commentary around it regarding the importance of having sponsors. Bijan’s post really pushed me over the edge to write this post. Sponsors take a chance on you. They invest their time in you with the hope that you will be better for it, likely because someone did the same for them earlier in their career. I’m grateful for my sponsors and I hope to continue taking chances on others as well.

Mobile Security Guidelines: NIST vs. ITA

Last October, NIST published a draft of security guidelines that outline core security capabilities that mobile devices should have to protect the information they handle. These guidelines will inform how government agencies evaluate mobile security concerns from mobile device usage by their employees. Recently, the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) responded to these guidelines in a somewhat surprising way which merits investigating this topic a bit deeper.

Overview of NIST Guidelines

The guidelines boil down to the recommendation of including three key security components in every device:

  • Root of Trust – The combination of the BIOS and a trusted platform module (TPM) form a root of trust.
  • APIs to use the security functions of a root of trust
  • Policy Enforcement Engine to process, maintain and manage policies for a mobile device

The combination of these components can help provide strong security assurances that devices are trustworthy and have not been jailbroken or otherwise compromised.

TIA Position

The Telecommunications Industry Alliance is a large and powerful industry organization that counts major handset manufacturers and carriers among its members. Just a few weeks ago, they warned that NIST’s guidelines were too detailed and prescriptive and could consequently cause a fracture between products built for consumers and solutions built for government agencies that embrace NIST recommendations. They argue that today’s mobile platforms support equivalent capabilities while not adhering to the specific requirements in NIST’s publication.

While TIA is challenging the specificity of the NIST guidelines to achieve mobile security, there have been a number of implementations of elements of trusted computing that are available in the market today. The most recent example is the Platform Integrity Architecture that is shipping with Windows 8. (We are still determining if this shipped on the Microsoft Surface device and other Windows RT devices.) What is also interesting about the availability of this software implementation is the corresponding widespread availability of hardware that can potentially support it. For several years now, the majority of ARM chipset architectures that are utilized in smartphones and tablets have a trusted execution mode known as ARM TrustZone. TrustZone may be able to help meet the requirements of NIST.

Challenges and Benefits

Earlier in my career, I spent time in the defense industry researching and building solutions for DARPA that laid the groundwork for the NSA’s High Assurance Platform Program. All of our efforts were centered around trusted computing efforts that are also at the core of the NIST guidelines. Trusted computing techniques offer an extremely high level of security, but there is a corresponding infrastructure investment to make the technology effective. From dedicated hardware shipping in a device (TPMs) to a network attestation service, the end to end requirements to support a legitimate trusted computing architecture are not trivial. While the costs of TPMs have come down dramatically, leading to their inclusion in most laptops today, mobile TPMs for smartphones and tablets are not widely available. The specificity of NIST’s guidelines should be weighed against a possible solution with the widely available TrustZone capabilities.


Trusted computing initiatives were ambitious when they first kicked off nearly a decade ago but today we are starting to see widespread availability of some of the core infrastructure components to make these implementations viable. NIST’s recommendations reflect the critical importance of device trustworthiness but TIA’s pushback should be a cause for concern. NIST and government agencies will need to be sensitive to buy in from organizations like TIA to ensure they are not left behind on the ever accelerating mobile technology curve.

(Cross-posted at Security Street)