Friday, January 17, 2020

Beware Indian Summer

There was a point when Chowhound had experienced one of its early press blitzes and way more people were coming around than I'd ever planned for. Yet it was going okay. I'd learned how to handle things. I had developed procedures. Urgencies that had previously sent me into a panic were expected and efficiently handled. Despite the crazy scaling (hundreds of users!), I could breathe. I was spending most of my time at it, but it was still fun; it still felt like a hobby. And it was far more comfortable than six months earlier, when I was completely out of my depth. I was hitting my stride.

And, because I can be blindly stupid, I was blindsided when we doubled in size again...and again...and again....and again. I wound up spending years flailing (as cataloged in the series on the site's later days and sale, which starts here).
There is a biz-cliché retort to the scenario I've described: "Tons of scaling would be a good problem to have." To anyone who's ever said that, my suggestion is to never advise anyone on anything. We live in a real world, not in a pie chart, and if you can't tell the difference, you need to take your confident smirk and your coffee breath to some far-off cubicle where you won't do harm.
Once you're caught off-balance and the waves won't stop coming, balance will never be reestablished. But I figured my brief reprieve was the way things would always be. An endless summer!

Nope. I got punked. It was Indian summer.

When I was 48, I wrote about how Jon Stewart and Barrack Obama, both my age, had made it hip to be 48, boastfully titling the posting "The Hippest Time in History to be 48" (following up, chastened, a few years later with this.)

Previously, 48-year-olds seemed crustily avuncular at best, but these guys were cool. And, come to think of it, I felt pretty cool, too! Maybe this was a new normal. Endless summer!

It wasn't a new normal. Nothing's ever a new normal. Have a look at these guys now and tell me how cool they look:

Indian summer's over, kids. Indian summer always ends, and it's never pretty.

Both my parents hit their 70s feeling reasonably solid. They weren't running marathons, but my mom could walk a couple miles on the treadmill and my dad was viably doing his thing. They thought they'd hit a stride. Indian summers always feel like a new normal; the sweet perpetual upswing we'd always hoped for. "It's my time!"

They bought into the false confidence and narrowed framing of Indian summer. When it fades and the frost hits, you'll be caught in shorts and t-shirt, scrambling for cover. You will flail. Indian summers leave you more disoriented than unremitting declines. Indian summers are a sucker punch.

I always advise new entrepreneurs not to wait until they're overextended to start hiring extra help - or to efficiently delegate to the team they've got. Once you're overextended, there's no time to make these laborious moves (I'm a poster child for being crushed beneath the boulder of runaway growth). You can't recruit and train amid a hurricane; all you can do is drain your adrenal glands running around endlessly patching disasters (I actually figured this out as a kid; see "Heating the Entire Atlantic Ocean").

Once my parents began fading, they were too occupied with the exigencies of the fade-out - playing feeble whack-a-mole with each accumulating indignity - to deal with any larger-picture view.

You need to look ahead; to lead the football. And you need to plan and act while you still feel comfortable, perhaps even a bit invulnerable. Watch out for that invulnerability feeling! The moment you believe you've hit your stride and attained a new normal; that's your cue. See Indian summer for what it is, resist false assurance, and use the momentum! Jump into gear and plot smartly! Put up storm windows, recruit troops, inscribe protocols, and generally look out for the pathetic slob who's destined to find himself underdressed and overconfident in the howling frost. He will be in no position to take thoughtful action. 

The other day, as I was counting out my comical daily pill ration, aware of the chronic pain in my feet, my back, my neck, and my shoulders, I thought to myself, "I'm not actually doing so bad, considering." I don't grunt when I get up from a chair. I've got lots of energy. I run up steps. My avuncularity is low, but there's hardly any crust, at least internally #LowInternalCrust. Maybe I'm beating the clock. Hitting my stride. New normal. Endless summer!

That was the day I wrote my defiant (almost smug) tale of the fish, including this passage:
I've been blithely me the whole time. I've lived straight through it all, treating it like a ride, come what may. I’m fresh as a daisy (or whatever the non-fruity version of that expression might be).
Uh-huh. Sure you are. 

Indian summer, baby! So this time I've hopped into gear, and begun working out strategy for what I'm going to do and where I'm going to go 10 or 15 years from now (sooner if my health crashes). It seems oddly premature at age 57, but I won't wait for the hurricane to force me into a hasty expedient solution.


Display Name said...

Thanks for this Jim. I had a friend taking a graduate degree in hospital management or something down in Philly and I was shocked at how complacent he was about getting his first "C". I wouldn't have been able to stand it. He still goofed around in class a lot. used to watch something called Jacky the Jokeman instead of doing the work on the pc like the rest of the class. You can imagine how he was in group projects. He told me he might not do the work expected but at least he was fun! More than one of his group mates ratted him out and recommended that he not pass the class. He managed to squeak by and get his masters but yeesh. Dunno how it is now but back then second c was auto get kicked out. /gulp I got my masters a few years earlier and no c s for me but my motto has been don't get the first c if you can possibly help it.

Anonymous coward said...

My sympathies for the chronic pain. Are you able to get enough sleep?

Jim Leff said...

Thanks, yeah, no problem. With anything chronic, I just reframe. Easy trick explained (via soppy melodrama) in a movie clip here:

mom said...

This is brilliant. I'm remarkably healthy and fit in my 80s and, while I'm grateful for that, I didn't know how to understand it. Now I do. It's Indian Summer.

James Leff said...


But re-reading, maybe I went too negative. It’s easy to get falsely lulled by Indian Summer, but there’s no reason not to enjoy it to the hilt. In fact, it’d be a crime not to enjoy it to the hilt. But just remember, it’s not New Normal/Endless Summer. It’s Indian Summer. And Indian Summer is perfectly lovely, so long as you’re not inconsiderate to the poor slob who’ll emerge on the other side (bearing in mind that future-you-poor-slob will, in recollection, want you to fully appreciate it right now!!)

mom said...

Totally agree.
People always saying to me, "You're amazing." To which I answer, "Yes, until I'm not." Too many friends have faded for me to believe that Indian Summer lasts forever.

Jim Leff said...

But don't let your level-headedness constrain your joy and satisfaction by one iota. You can be exhilarated, it's fine! (see my related "Unhinged" posting: Don't constrain your emotions. Just clarify your planning!

People who achieve big-picture clarity tend to discombobulate. They needlessly constrain their enjoyment, while waving their hand at savvy planning/adjustment. I'd suggest the opposite! :)

Jim Leff said...

No one ever ran into a wall and thought to themselves "Geez, if I'd known this would happen, I'd have enjoyed myself less".

I know if sounds obvious and ridiculous when I put it this way. But human beings commit this fallacy all...the....time.

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