Edition 5: Life at the seams

Hunger in America, Chinese-American identity, Netflix's culture, and more.

This week’s Edition is a grab bag of readings that I’ve found particularly relevant and interesting. Themes on my mind have been ranging from inequality to career growth and entrepreneurship, which you’ll see reflected in the links.

A distinctly 2020 sight. #nofilter

Last week a serious heat wave gripped the Bay Area, with temperatures in my neighborhood in San Francisco reaching 105 F. Combined with the ever present smoke (which was so bad one day that it actually blotted out the sun), we have now experienced a full month of “spare the air” days.

It’s beyond debate that climate change is going to inconceivably alter our way of life. “Wildfire season” was simply not something we encountered growing up in the Bay Area, but now I believe that it’s here to stay. Countering and adapting to climate change will absolutely be the challenge of our time - not that we don’t already have a plate full of challenges to overcome.

America At Hunger’s Edge

Food insecurity is as much about the threat of deprivation as it is about deprivation itself: A food-insecure life means a life lived in fear of hunger, and the psychological toll that takes. Like many hardships, this burden falls disproportionately on Black and Hispanic families, who are almost twice as likely to experience food insecurity as white families.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on in the United States, this photojournal of scenes in everyday American households puts a starkly human face on the ever-widening divide between America’s haves and have-nots. For myself and the vast majority of people I know, going hungry is not a pressing concern; the most difficult decisions are what to eat as opposed to whether we can eat at all.

From such a position of privilege, it’s all too easy to forget that every day, millions of Americans, particularly people of color, live with the fraught reality of food insecurity. In July, in the supposedly most developed nation on Earth, nearly 10% of the population reported that they did not have enough to eat. While food banks and charity programs can step in to provide essentials, it’s also practically impossible to maintain a semblance of a balanced diet on grab-bag giveaway boxes, putting the needy at additional risk for obesity and diabetes.

The causes of chronic food insecurity are many: unemployment; low wages; unaffordable or unstable housing; rising medical costs; unreliable transportation.

As America faces the pandemic, it continues to struggle with ongoing hunger and homelessness epidemics. Social programs are often designed to alleviate problems at their peak, but rarely at the source. Without significant strides in the conditions underlying chronic poverty: affordable housing, affordable (or free) medical care, accessible transportation, livable wages - millions of Americans will forever live at the total mercy of circumstances beyond their control.

It’s a grim picture to be sure, but that isn’t to say the situation is beyond hope. For the more than 14 million American children who live at the cusp, policies enacted today in response to the pandemic and ongoing health crises will determine their chances at escaping the cycles of inequality and hunger. For now, the rest of us can donate to food banks and, even more importantly, vote.

How My Mother And I Became Chinese Propaganda

At the beginning of the pandemic, I had read that a virus is neither dead nor alive, and replicates only in the shelter of a host organism. I began to think of “Jiayang Fan” as viral not in a social-media sense but in a biological one; the calamitous state of the world and certain random mutations in the story had made it unexpectedly contagious. My original posts had served their purpose; now they were serving the purposes of others. I had unwittingly bred a potent piece of propaganda.

This is a heart-wrenching, beautifully written, deeply personal reflection from Jiayang Fan on the complicated and tragic circumstances that led to her and her mother being lambasted on Chinese social media. It’s difficult for me to do the piece justice, but as a Chinese American many of the driving themes - the hopes and dreams of immigrant parents, struggle for identity between Eastern and Western cultures, and concern with 面子, or “saving face” - resonated with me. I’ve had a decidedly easier life than the author and her mother, so I can’t claim to have struggled to their degree. The themes, though, seem common to most all Asian Americans I know.

Speaking broadly for children of first generation immigrants who have grown up surrounded by American cultural values, there is a never ending balancing act between the expectations of our “grandfathered” culture with the realities of our upbringing. Sometimes the balancing act is natural and intuitive, as we fluidly code switch between schoolyard chatter and conversations with family. But when worlds collide in a more unpleasant, idealogical way, navigating the beachheads becomes increasingly difficult.

As tensions between the US and China continue to bubble to the surface, Chinese Americans find themselves forced to negotiate difficult stances between divergent ideologies. And as racial inequality and tensions once again reach a boiling point in the United States, our role as model minority places us between two worlds. We have been beneficiaries of elevated status among people of color, representing the aspirations of White America, but we are also inescapably outsiders who were never truly welcomed with open arms. Fearmongering around the Chinese origin of COVID-19 will only set us back further.

I don’t look forward to taking sides, but I’m concerned that increasing radicalization all over the political spectrum is shrinking the middle ground on which Chinese Americans stand. Our identity is a delicate one, threatened by tribalism on both sides.

Netflix’s Culture Explained

Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings: Focus on employees you'd fight to keep

This legendary slide deck (circa 2009) outlining Netflix’s culture is making the rounds again as Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, is releasing his book No Rules Rules, a tell-all exploration of how and why Netflix succeeds. There are a number of tenets here that were certainly innovative and controversial when first released, and it’s clear to see how Netflix retains its high performance culture when all the incentives are properly aligned.

Some key takeaways:

  • Netflix’s culture won’t work for just any company. In fact, it won’t work for most companies, because it necessitates attracting and retaining top talent - that means paying high performers absolute top-of-market salaries. By the law of normal distributions, very few companies can actually do this.

  • Netflix treats its organization like a sports team, not so much like a family. While they do retain superstars, their obsession with getting the absolute best person for the job means a high turnover rate is common, and performance goes further than loyalty alone.

  • People are constantly competing, not within the company (avoiding the cannibalistic practices that marked Ballmer-era Microsoft) but with the broader market for the role. This is a surefire way to avoid complacency, but also a track to burnout for all but the most gifted and driven.

  • Netflix avoids the overhead of process and bureaucracy by simply having better people, a “fourth option” that sounds a bit to me like “if all men were angels, no government would be necessary”, alongside the principle “we only hire angels”.

  • It also helps that the stakes are, all things considered, quite low; if something goes wrong at Netflix, your movie night may be interrupted, but livelihoods are not at stake. This is entertainment, not rocket science.

There are absolutely lessons that teams at other companies can take from Netflix, particular the focus on context (well informed and incentivized employees) over control (micromanagement). But many things that work for the culture at Netflix only work because it is Netflix, which gets to the broader point: every team should regularly undergo the sort of principles/values-first evaluation that brought Netflix to its cultural pillars, as these success stories are so rarely one-size-fits-all.

More tidbits

Everything you wanted to know about Elon Musk. This “profile dossier” by Polina Marinova has condensed just about every major article and writeup about the prolific entrepreneur and technologist for you to revisit anytime you need some otherworldly inspiration. I’ll be working my way through it for at least the next week.

The Wuhan I Know. A charming hand-drawn “profile” of the city of Wuhan by Laura Gao. Though it has entered the global spotlight by association with COVID-19, this cute portrayal of Wuhan’s history and culture is an ode to the “Chicago of China” that deserves recognition.

Wait But Why: The Fermi Paradox. Tim Urban, aka Wait But Why produces some amazingly approachable writeups of a vast variety of topics that I’ve been binging this week. The Fermi Paradox attempts to make sense of humanity’s place in the vast universe, and why we have yet to encounter other intelligent life. Though there are obviously no answers, this mind boggling, universe-level thinking always helps to put my own problems in perspective.

Note from me: as time goes on, I’ll be iterating on different formats and lengths for this newsletter. To be transparent, this is as much a way for me to organize my own thoughts as it is meant to be shared with others, so don’t expect too much consistency in how I operate. If you do like the content, please give me feedback and share it with more people who might find it interesting!

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As always, hope you and yours are staying safe.

- Lawrence