Sunday, August 8, 2021

Supportive Partner: Quantified

I believe there are 5 levels of “being a supportive partner” for any interest/ desire/ value your significant other may have. Partners’ level can vary between topics (which is common), and over time (more on that below), but usually still fits these categories. I’m assuming the partner is aware of the importance of this interest/desire/value (either via direct communication or because it’s very obvious by just looking at your weekly time/effort allocation) - if that’s not the case, it’s unfair to expect the partner to support you.


  • As always, the real world is more complicated than any model, and this is just a thought framework that gives names (or numbers) to feelings.

  • I’m writing about a female partner, simply because all the partners I ever had are female and it’s easier for me to think in these terms, but the ideas (and expectations) are completely unisex.

  • The examples are intentionally somewhat provocative. Why would she support a workaholic husband? Why would gaming be an encouraged activity? Why would anyone allow their partner to have other sexual partners? It wouldn’t be support if it was trivial...

Level 0: She is opposed. Not supportive at all. She might say “you should get a real job” to the struggling artist/entrepreneur. She can ridicule your passion for a game (“You play Magic: The Gathering every weekend?? Are you a 12-year-old nerd??”). She can be judgmental of your belief in sexual openness, maybe use rude phrasings as micro-aggressions (“you want to stick your dick into everything”).

This really sucks.

Level 1: She is accepting, but not really supporting. She won’t say anything as long as whatever it is you’re doing doesn’t interfere with her and doesn’t require any active effort on her part. It’s fine that you’re working long hours at your startup with little pay, as long as it’s not on your date night, and you can still go with her to that expensive restaurant she likes. Maybe it’s ok for you to sleep with other women - as long as it doesn’t affect your relationship in any way (maybe she doesn’t even want to know).

This might look acceptable, but remember that if you truly value the goal or interest - the clash will always come eventually. Perhaps it’s better to expedite the clash to see if she’s actually a level 0 or she cares enough to become level 2.

Level 2: She is understanding and positive, but isn’t an active participant. She understands that this is important for you, even if she herself doesn’t share this passion or interest. When you have to fly on a business trip at short notice, she will not be upset with you (even though it changes your plans, maybe leaves her with extra responsibilities). She’ll come with you to a professional gathering - even though it’s not her field - and stand patiently by you while you’re pitching your startup to an investor. She will be truly happy for you when you win the local Magic: The Gathering tournament, even if she barely knows the rules. She’ll applaud your romantic or sexual conquests, even though she’s not into casual sex herself.

Please be nice to level 2s. Don’t take it for granted or be condescending about it (“obviously it’s super important so of course you support it”). In a sense, this is the purest form of support and love: honoring your goals and values even though she doesn’t share or participate in them.

Level 3: Not only is she supportive and positive, she actively helps you achieve some of your goals. This can be listening and giving advice about complex work issues. Reminding you that you should practice for that upcoming Magic tournament (maybe even organizing your play group to meet tonight, or booking the trip to the tournament). Maybe suggesting date ideas for you and your new partner. Perhaps on that same professional gathering you can ask her to start a conversation with the targeted investor, bringing you in for the actual pitch (this might be level ~3.5).

Note that it’s usually possible to shift level 2’s to level 3’s simply by involving them more, sharing, asking for feedback, ideas or help. They usually even want that - as long as you don’t abuse their good will. If you do abuse it - don’t pull your weight on your projects, use her support as an excuse to avoid responsibilities etc - then her support level can (and should) drop.

Level 4: She shares your value/interest/desire. And she’s actively and enthusiastically pursuing it. Maybe she’s in the startup ecosystem herself - even if not an entrepreneur, she knows the lingo, she knows some people, she understands the social dynamics and company growth stages etc etc - and gets you an intro herself to that investor. When you come together to such an event, you both mingle and expand your professional network, and can pitch not only your own startup/resume/skills - but also each other’s. You are as close to being doubly efficient as possible without cloning yourself - but can still push back when you’re wrong or stupid.

At a party, not only does she know who you’d like to bring home tonight for a threesome - because she knows your taste and noticed that glance which lingered a second longer than usual - but she is already hitting on her, maybe even without you. And it’s not just for you, she wants it to happen as well - because she also values sexual openness and diversity.

Before that Magic tournament, you’re practicing and theory-crafting together, she’s an avid player herself. Maybe even she was the one who found the tournament in the first place and pushed both of you to go. She of course also participates, and you excitedly tell each other all about your matches - sharing the excitement or frustration not just out of empathy but as fellow gamers/competitors.

This might sound too good to be true - and usually it is. Note that, in principle, no amount of love for you can make her something she’s not. Partners do occasionally pick up each other’s hobbies, and sometimes even really get into them (not just for the quality couple time - actually get into them and do it even on their own) - but it’s rare and should never be expected or counted on. Even rarer are career changes, or value shifts. When it does happen - awesome. Remember to appreciate your partner if she did it intentionally. 

Getting such alignment on even 1-2 core aspects of your life can be a game changer. 

I would treat a level 0 support on any goal or even hobby you have as a serious red flag. Even if you decide that “actually it’s not that important anyway” and give it up - supposedly solving the issue - your relationship starts off based on you trying to fit your round peg into her square hole (pun intended) and it rarely stops at "just this hobby".

Level 1 is also not great - and should be transitioned into level 0 or 2, then reconsider the relationship if it’s a 0.

Level 2+ on everything is a sign of a caring and considerate partner, at least in my view. Congrats - she loves you :)

Goes without saying, but you should strive to be a supportive partner yourself: giving the same treatment you would want to receive. Be her level 2+ on everything :)

As with any other aspect of a relationship - it’s complicated. The level of support/alignment from your partner is very important - but it’s only another piece in the complex puzzle of long term relations. Don’t over-optimize!

Until next time, may you find your level-4-across-the-board unicorn.


Monday, March 9, 2020

WTF Is The Deal With Jealousy

Invoke in your memory a situation when you were jealous. Perhaps your partner went out to meet with a friend of theirs - maybe someone they may find attractive. Perhaps it was a new person in their life - to whom they were getting closer. Perhaps they were doing something fun or exciting or meaningful. Perhaps they were old friends, reconnecting after years of silence - or (god forbid) ex-lovers.
Or perhaps you saw them being flirted with? Perhaps it looked like your partner was flirting back?
Or maybe you met your recent ex - all happy and cheerful and cute and cuddly with their new partner - instead of feeling as horrible as you about the breakup?

Can you remember the physical sensation? That pit in your stomach? Perhaps a wave of heat, or the fight-or-flight adrenaline rushing through you? In extreme cases - perhaps your hands were shaking? 
Not to mention the wonderful blend of pain, anger, sadness and helplessness...

I hope you did not get to experience this too often in your life - but if you did at least know that you're in the good company of most humans... 
Unlike popular belief, jealousy is not restricted to romantic relationships. Children - coveting parental love and attention - sometimes exhibit signs of jealousy, even hatred, towards newborns. Close friends sometimes feel it when one party drifts away - often due to a new romantic relationship.
Jealousy is such a big deal in fact, that many social norms - and even some laws - are in place to protect us from it (not very successfully).

As humans we get to experience quite a large range of emotions, yet few are as strong and as destructive as jealousy. Sometimes it manifests in the form of a controlling husband that tries to distance his wife from her friends. Sometimes it's the wife who starts a fight every time her husband smiles at a woman. Sometimes it's the guy who becomes a stalker after 3 dates. 
So what's going on here? 

It's commonly claimed that jealousy is "natural" - in the sense that there's an obvious evolutionary advantage for "protecting what's yours". The man (presumably) wants to be certain that the children his mate bears and he helps feed are actually his, and the woman tries to ensure the man to invest most of his resources into her and her young. Both maximizes the chance that "jealous genes" propagate - and everything we see today is a result/adaptation of that basic primal drive.
Though this explanation has some merit, it doesn't seem to give a full picture. First, our ancestors spent most generations living in various tribal/group structures (even as apes) - so the 1-man-1-woman framing is false. Second, it doesn't explain jealousy unrelated to propagation. Third, seeing your partner flirt in front of you (or even online - perhaps in a Facebook group) is more painful than knowing they did it but not actually being exposed - which goes against "making sure the offspring is mine". 
We are long past the point where some interaction between my girlfriend and a random guy at some event would realistically lead to me raising someone else's children - and if I'm so worried about it then I can do a DNA test. But you’ll probably agree, that it doesn't help at all with the pain in the stomach...
Let's go deeper. 

Jealousy and Loss

By definition jealousy is related to losing something you already have/had before (that's the fundamental difference between envy - wanting what someone else has - and jealousy). 
That's why it's scary to watch as new people enter your partner's life - even if it has no romantic "danger". What if they get close? What if you'll lose your "the first one to call when sad" status? What if they can give your partner something you can't?
Not to mention the "classical" fears - "what if she's more attracted to that new guy?", "what if she'll leave me?" etc.

{A moment of hard truth: these are actually good things. You want your partner to have close friends, a strong and supportive environment, to experience new things (especially those you can't give), and being attracted to random handsome guys is just a sign of a reasonable sex drive. And you're an asshole if you try to prevent it. I know it's hard and painful - it's hard and very painful for me as well - but I try to remember that I want her to be happy even more than I want to keep her all to myself} 

This loss of "status" or intimacy, whether real or imagined, can feel like rejection. Like your partner is wrongfully taking away your "property".
The fallacy is of course that your partner isn't actually choosing a friend over you - though some resources have to be divided (like time), it's not a zero sum game and you fulfill different roles and needs. Unfortunately jealousy is far from rational...

Jealousy and Insecurity

Jealousy is tightly knit with insecurity. Whether it's about the relationship as a whole or specifically about your place in your partner's life regarding the "challenged" area (who does she call first? who does he find most attractive etc.) and even with the general sense of self-worth you have. The stronger you feel, in general or about the relationship, the easier it is for your subconscious to not freak out - interpreting the same events as benign rather than horrible.

To be honest, this point makes a certain amount of sense. If he screams that he's going to leave you whenever you fight, then it's hard to believe him when he says that the new girl he's flirting with doesn't pose a threat to your relationship. Or even as simple as when you're at an event and she doesn't pay attention to you all evening but does talk a lot with a few other guys.
In both cases the initial issue is already a destabilizing problem, the second part invokes jealousy - and together they form a corrosive mix.

A slightly more tricky scenario is jealousy of the past. That's why it's considered bad manners to talk about how good your ex was in bed or (god forbid) the size of his genitalia compared to the current partner...
The guy from the previous example can stop flirting with the other girl - or even stop talking to her at all, the girl can spend the event with you instead of the other guys, but the ex is always there - nothing (barring a mind wipe) will remove them from your partner's life.
This is one of the reasons behind slut shaming: if your girlfriend slept with 30 guys - what are the chances that you're the best she had in bed? Feels unlikely. It would be a much easier competition if you had less competitors - right?...

{I'm talking a lot about sexual insecurity and feelings of inadequacy compared to previous partners - because it really is a very large concern. If you feel or even know that your partner had sexual encounters better than you, remember:
1) Sexual compatibility rises over time - the more you get to know each other.
2) You can get better at anything in the world - sexual prowess included.
3) Even if you are "just OK", you have other qualities they must really like - since they’re with you and not the metaphorical “big-dick-asshole-ex”.}

Jealousy and the Dark-Bottomless-Pit-In-Your-Stomach

Recall the rush of fear and anxiety we often feel when exposed to a jealousy invoking occurrence. The physical response is similar to the fight-or-flight reaction we have when faced with a life threatening situation.
I'm sure your partner is scary when you're fighting - but not as threatening as a lioness in the savanna. And if my girlfriend never wants to talk to me ever again - it will destroy my world, but only metaphorically. Contrary to what I may feel at the moment - I will survive.

The problem is that it doesn't feel this way. Especially in long relationships, where you went through a lot together, grew together, built a life together. It's so hard to imagine a life alone. Starting again, from scratch. A breakup sometimes seems like death - of the life you know and the life that you could have had, the life you imagined and expected.

Is it really a surprise then that anything threatening the relationship and the life it stands for invokes a life-threat reaction?

{A moment of hard truth 2: losing a long relationship really is heartbreaking - but almost always it's because of the relationship itself - not due to an overwhelming external factor.
The relationship doesn't end because you break up, you break up because the relationship died.}

And at a certain point we already know how strong that reaction is, how horrible it feels - and become scared of the jealousy itself. 
Which only makes it worse of course - since now we have an emotional response to the situation (let's say house parties - like the one your girlfriend ignored you and talked to others instead) - even before anything actually bad happens. You're now scared of going to house parties with your girlfriend. Congratulations...

Even worse, sometimes we really do need our partners - perhaps to help us through a rough patch or to stabilize our life against the turmoil of reality. It's somewhat logical to be terrified of this loss.

So whether the threat is logical or only emotional - the pain is very real. We get a stress response to the pain - and the only way I know to deal with it is to lessen the pain. 


The combined feeling of loss, inadequacy and insecurity - and the huge emotional power people in love have over one another - is an extremely volatile mixture. It leads to anger and hatred and heated arguments about the smallest things and explosions of emotion in benign situations. It's very hard to be with a very jealous or insecure partner.

The heartbreaking part is that they actually do it because they care so much. It's a horrible feeling when you realize that you act in a toxic pattern towards the person you love, because you can't control yourself, because of your irrational thoughts and emotions, because of how much you're in pain, because you care and love and need your partner. Perhaps you should love them less - for their own good? Maybe they're just better off without you? 

Honestly, who knows? But remember that this type of thinking is part of the initial problem: "I'm not good enough" -> insecurity -> jealousy -> being an asshole. So, if you can, just try to do your best for your loved ones, and focus on the thought that you truly are giving everything you can (without hurting yourself or other people in your life too much) - and striving to improve every single day. That alone usually makes you "good enough".

In case you're wondering, despite the analysis I still haven't defeated jealousy. My only advantage is that I'm well acquainted with various types of toxic emotions - so I try to recognize them in time and handle them well, in a rational and controlled fashion.
And sometimes I feel like a piece of tossed away garbage that's being stepped on.
Results may vary...

Until next time, may your loved-ones safeguard the special place they have for you in their heart.


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Monday, February 17, 2020

Relationship Math III: When Equal Isn't Fair

Imagine a young couple. The guy, who likes movies, wants to take his partner out to a movie theater tonight. The gal (which is the female form of 'guy' - in case you didn't know :)) doesn't like movies or movie theaters, and doesn't want to go.
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the guy's pleasure from their date (if it will happen) is about as strong as the gals displeasure from the same event (Movie: guy +5, gal -5). The gal does like wall climbing, but unfortunately the guy hates it (Wall: guy -5, gal +5). So what should they do? 

In a perfect world they wouldn't do either, and find a common hobby that would make them both super happy (Fairy-tale: guy +9000, gal +9000). Some people like the same things, or find that perfect date activity - and I'm very happy for them - but often it doesn't really work this way. People don't just choose to change what they like and who they are to better fit the partner (actually sometimes they try - and it's horrible). 

A more realistic and common (in healthy respectful relationships) option would be a compromise. They can divide their evenings equally: half the time do what he wants (movie), half the time do what she wants (wall). What could be more fair? 
Perhaps if movie dates were super important to the guy and the gal didn't suffer as much (Movie: guy +10, gal -2we would suggest some different proportion. 
Note that they'd have to be honest and have no manipulative intentions for such considerations to work - otherwise the guy could say it's +1000000 important for him to watch movies and -1000000 to climb walls - effectively rendering her feelings and desires irrelevant. Not seeing her - only seeing how big is his need.
Don't be that person...

But the story doesn't end here. Imagine the gal's preferred past time is not for them to go climb walls together, but to do nothing. Spend the evening separately. 
"That's weird", you might think, "what kind of a date night is that?". "Doesn't she want to see him? Doesn't she love him?" etc. etc.
Maybe, but usually that's wrong. 
You see, the gal really likes learning, improving and advancing her career. 
Or maybe she likes seeing more of her friends. 
Or maybe she's a gamer.
Or maybe she just likes more alone time than the guy.

If we follow the same line of reasoning as above, since there is no date, we can probably write: Home: guy 0, gal 0 - right? Seems like a legitimate past time - with a  sum of 0 satisfaction to guy+gal - just like the other options - hence should be done 50% of the time. We shouldn't frown upon the possibility that spending more time separately is at the very least fair.
Actually, it's even better.
For the gal, spending time on her own interests is very satisfying, and the guy doesn't have to endure anything he doesn't like: Home: guy 0, gal +5. That's already better than any "compromise-date".

FAQ1: "But Michael, you have a false assumption. The guy wants to be with the gal, he will miss her and be sad that she prefers coding (or whatever) in her free time instead of being with him. Hence guy -5 or maybe even guy -50"

Let's break it down into 2 aspects: emotional and practical.
Practically, the guy has an opportunity to do something he likes - maybe watch the movie on his own or with some friends. Perhaps it's not as satisfying for him as Movie, but it's still nice - definitely better than nothing: Home: guy +3, gal +5An amazing date night. So amazing, in fact, that if the guy asks for a 50-50 equal time division between Movie and Home - that would be unfair to the gal.
If the guy is incapable of doing anything of value without the gal then there is something wrong - and it smells like unhealthy dependence.
Emotionally, it is good and reasonable that the guy enjoys being with the gal, especially when they are doing what he likes to do. It makes sense that he would prefer Movie over Home. But, and it's a crucial distinction, if the guy feels -5 or god forbid -50 whenever he doesn't get what he wants - that's extremely unhealthy and somewhat childish. Besides, usually the real reason for a -50 is not the immediate effect ("I miss her tonight") but some underlying triggers/traumas/insecurities ("she doesn't love me anymore"). That's a symptom of deeper issues in the relationship or in the guy himself - which are bigger and more important than pastime selection and must be resolved (either fixing it or breaking up) - but it would be unjust to include them in our math. His -50 insecurity - though completely authentic - once again effectively renders her feelings and desires irrelevant. Not seeing her - only seeing how big is his need.
Don't be that person...

FAQ2: "Michael, I respect you, but this whole debate is stupid. What are these crappy guy +5, gal -5 dates? All my dates are Epic Date: guy +10, gal +10. Yes, like in the fairy-tale you mentioned before. Why would we ever do anything that one of us doesn't really want to do?"

First - I'm happy for you, hypothetical reader, I really am.  
Second - as you've probably guessed - we are using the movie date example as a toy problem. We're actually talking about any decision in the relationship that affects both partners and has to do with time or other resource allocation (from family dinners to who's doing the dishes). Usually if you are in a relationship and don't ever compromise at all you are either extremely lucky (and your partner is your clone) or an extreme asshole...
Third - you are actually on to something. If we assume a healthy relationship of 2 stable, self-sufficient people, we saw above that the Home option sets a pretty high bar for any Date option. Partners have to be at least as satisfying as independent life.

FAQ3: "I don't get it. If it's so great for them to Home - why should they ever meet? Why are they together?"

Great question. 
First of all, perhaps they shouldn't.
But let's dig deeper. Note that we made a hidden assumption - that the values of a specific evening pastime do not depend on other choices - like what the couple did the night before. That is false. The guy probably doesn't actually want to Movie each and every evening (even the tastiest pizza will kill you eventually if that's the only thing you eat). The gal probably does want to spend time with the guy as well, and if they wouldn't meet for a couple of weeks would probably miss him and even a movie night would become valuable just to see him (Rare Movie: guy +10, gal +2).
A more realistic model would be to imagine the values we assert to pastimes as the values under the chosen time allocation. So if every other night they go to the movies it would be Movie: guy +5, gal -5 ; Home: guy +3, gal +5 (and the 50-50 choice doesn't make sense), but if they only meet once a week the values might be Movie: guy +8, gal -1 ; Home: guy +2, gal +4 (still doesn't seem like a good deal for the gal), and once every 2 weeks could be Rare Movie: guy +10, gal +2 ; Home: guy +2, gal +4.
Yes, that does mean that the rational conclusion in this (simplified) case would be for them to have a low-intensity relationship. If, for example, the guy wants a more total commitment or ownership - and the level she can give without unhealthy self-sacrifice is not enough - it's completely legitimate, and he should break up.

In general, when considering whether you should be in a certain relationship at all - remember to consider not only whether it does more good than bad, more pleasure than pain, more love than anger - but also the opportunity cost of everything you're giving up to make room for it in your life. It better be worth it. Don't be in a relationship because "that's what you're supposed to do", or out of inertia. It's destructive for everyone involved. A decade ago I used to be that person.
Don't be that person...

So far we've seen the advantage of self-sufficiency over compromise in strictly practical terms - the average reward is just higher. But there is an additional, moral, argument for us to view Home as a superior option: Freedom is better than Compulsion.

Imagine we weren't talking about watching movies but about having sex. The guy wants it every day, the gal doesn't. At least not today/not yet/not as frequently. Would we suggest an "equal 50-50 division"? Of course not.
No one may assert their right over your body if you do not wish it, then why would they have moral grounds to assert their power over your time?
Not 50% of it and not 1%. 

Every meeting and interaction is, at its core, a transaction between the people involved. They invest time, resources, emotional energy - and hope to receive in return fun, intimacy, love, support etc. Like every other transaction - it can only be fair if it's done out of the free will and choice of both parties. 
At a grocery store you would not demand a discount just because that's your wish or your need - not 50% of the time and not 1%. You can ask for one as a favor, perhaps explaining that you can't afford shopping in this store otherwise (equivalent to the guy saying he cannot be in a rare-movie relationship), but the shopkeeper has full right to accept or refuse - both practically (the goods are theirs) and morally (no one should feel entitled to a favor).

FAQ4: "Ok Michael. I get it. You're right. But what do you suggest? Never do anything I don't fully feel like doing? Wouldn't that be selfish/not seeing my partner?"

When you buy flowers for your partner, you invest resources for no other reason than to make the partner happy (assuming they like flowers - personally I prefer pizza as a romantic gesture :)). That's not an act of self-sacrifice on the altar of their expectations or needs - it's a voluntary transaction that you've chosen to make:
thought + money -> partner happiness
If your partner demanded flowers, by claiming "you never do anything nice" or "the neighbor's partner gets flowers every week" etc. the transaction becomes:
guilt + fear -> flowers
Which sucks for everyone involved...

In a healthy, rational relationship, when the gal chooses to Movie it's as if she's buying the guy flowers - investing herself to do something nice for her partner. The decision should be hers, done out of her free will, with her at the steering wheel. And that's beautiful. 
This is what I suggest. A world where people give to their loved ones out of their free will, and their loved ones appreciate it - not demanding, feeling entitled to sacrifice or taking it for granted.

FAQ5: "Yes, that is beautiful. But Michael, you always preach for action and personal responsibility - if I shouldn't ask my partner for stuff doesn't it mean I'm losing a big part of my influence over the relationship?"

Well, if "influence over the relationship" actually means "power over my partner" - then yes you will lose some it and that's a good thing. But, assuming we're talking about a healthy and fair relationship, then you still have a lot of influence even if you never feel entitled. 
First, communicating your wants and preferences is still very important and positive - it let's your partner know what are the most cost-efficient ways they can invest resources into your happiness (pizza, not flowers). It still has to be their choice to do something with that knowledge but cost-efficiency is good for everyone in the long run.
(unless you measure your partner's love by how much pain they are able to endure for you. Don't be that person...)
Second, you can try to be better at "receiving favors". Back in high school I learned that lending support is not easy - and I should be appreciative of the friends who did. I should also be easier to support. Take only what I really need, no more. Show my gratitude during and after the fact. Spread the load over time and over people. Strive to get back on my own feet. And of course - when the day comes - return the favor.
The same concept can work for any sacrifice or compromise you receive. Do your best to make Movie: guy +5, gal -3 instead of -5. Show how good it felt to get those flowers. Try to do the same for your partner - not due to a "debt" that you must now repay, but because you love them and appreciate the effort they put into the relationship.

Remember, giving a gift feels better than paying taxes.

Until next time, may people choose to spend time with you out of their selfish desire.


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Saturday, September 21, 2019

Evo.Do - Good Idea, 10 Years Too Early.

As I'm writing this, Nataly Bendersky Shalem and I are in the process of shutting down our company, Evo.Do.

We started Evo ~15 months ago (it was called "Autoplay AI" back then) after a few months of brainstorming and talking to smart people. Nataly and I have known each other for almost a decade and worked on a bunch of passion projects over the years - we knew we wanted to build something together even before we knew what problem we'd be tackling. I quit my role as CEO of Aperio Systems and we hit the ground running.

Evo was based on a simple idea:
In 2017 Reinforcement Learning-based AI started beating top human players in complex video games. The AI trained on its own, through self-play, with almost no human help. And yet game testing (making sure there are no crashes, every level can be completed, you can't run through walls etc.) is still done manually, by disengaged outsourced workers. 

This can't continue. It's obvious that 10-20 years from now every game, app and website will be tested mostly by intelligent and adaptive bots. It just doesn't make sense to use humans for such simple tasks.

That's what our bot could do. Most of the time ;)

And we wanted to make it happen. Starting with game testing, then mobile apps, then VR applications, then websites, then the world :).
It fit us well as founders, with Nataly's deep background in game development and my experience with AI and data algorithms - and of course with both of us being avid gamers. 
We had an interesting idea, utilizing cutting-edge research and tech, and brought to the table industry expertise, experience leading a startup, zero-to-product know-how and a good track record of working together. Sounds promising, right?

The Tel Aviv University Ventures Fund thought so and accepted us to the inaugural batch of the Xcelerator program (which included 7 deep tech startups) - less than 2 months after starting the company. We got our first pilot. Expanded the team. 
In October we got into Y Combinator (batch of winter ‘19) - the birthplace of giants like AirBNB, Dropbox, Twitch and many others. I heard about Y Combinator 8 years ago, via Paul Graham's (YC's co-founder) amazing blog, and participating was on my "life bucket list" - achievement unlocked :). We moved for a few months to the Silicon Valley, went through the YC program, got some more pilots, met tons of amazing people, heard a lot of (sometimes contradictory) advice. Met dozens of investors during the several weeks of fundraising (including the fabled Sequoia Capital), raised some money - less than we had hoped but more than enough to stay alive.

Our YC group

"Wait a second," you might say. “Why is this a postmortem? Didn't you just tell me about all the amazing progress you had?"
Well, things are never as perfect as CEOs make them sound :). We did get some good results and recognition - and in certain areas we were very strong. But other areas were moving too slowly.
Some of the bigger challenges were:
 - Initially I assumed that training bots to perform simple tests would be 100 times easier than training bots to play the game better than humans. In certain ways that's definitely true (amount of data/time of exploration needed, size and complexity of the neural network that contains the bot brain etc.), but in other aspects the challenges we faced were similar or as hard as OpenAI's (real-time integration with the game graphics engine, strong non-linearity of the action-response relation etc.). Don't worry if you don't know these terms - it's just crap that Reinforcement Learning professionals have to deal with to make anything work. The tech is still very rough and not mature - so unsurprisingly we had to find creative solutions or hacks to get the initial version of the AI working.
 - Since we really understood the technical details and challenges of our customers, once we got to talk to the right person in the game studio we always found common language and they usually ended up being impressed. Unfortunately, that's not at all the same as closing a paid contract. We got people excited - but weren’t good enough at converting that excitement into revenue. In addition, the initial product was technical and industry specific - so bringing a sales expert with no game development understanding didn't work.
 - Fundraising is really hard when you have the soul of a tech guy :). I can talk for hours about the tech and the vision and the future and how self-learning AI will revolutionize the world - because I have a pretty clear, basic-principle-based understanding why the future has to be this way - it’s inevitable. But when I need to convince a potential investor that Evo is going to have a 100M yearly revenue I am acutely aware of the uncertainty and variance of events leading to this specific future (despite the effort we put into planning and data collection). Although I still believed we were a good deal (despite the risk) - the crazy 4-investor-meetings-per-day weeks took a toll on me.
 - Evo's promise was a revolution in the way human-facing software is tested. That's both a blessing and a curse. It's hard to convince potential customers to radically change the way they define tests, how they think about what's considered "tested" and many other product issues.

So was it that bad?
It's hard to say - every startup is unique - but I believe we were somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of both success and hardship compared to companies at our stage. Not amazing, not bad. 
In any case - that’s not why we're closing.

When we got back from the valley, disaster struck. Due to a personal tragedy Nataly could no longer stay in Evo. She offered to give up her stake - so I can continue working on the company on my own - but I decided the right choice was to close the company altogether.

You see, unlike some “advice” you might hear in the startup ecosystem about how one should treat “other people’s money”, I feel very very (very) responsible - even a little guilty - for every investor dollar I spend (especially with much of Evo’s money coming from angels). To put Evo on track for (potential) massive success the company had to undergo a complete overhaul:
 - At least 1 (preferably 2) additional co-founders had to join - both with a background in the gaming industry (to replace Nataly - as it’s a very bad idea to build a product for an industry you don’t have experience with).
 - I would step down and become CTO (letting one of the new team members take the lead).
 - The product and value proposition had to be shifted and focused.
 - Some of the tech shelved - awaiting for RL algorithms and implementations to mature.
 - The marketing approach had to change from top-down to bottom-up etc.
Each part would have been hard - but possible. Getting all of them “right enough” to achieve meaningful traction and/or additional investment before running out of resources would have been very unlikely - but still possible. The thing is - I felt strongly that this is not what our investors signed up for.
It would have been a different team and leadership, a different product, different go-to-market strategy - and most importantly a much greater risk. I couldn’t tell them with a straight face “don’t worry, everything will still be ok”. I felt that the honest thing to do is give their money back.

Some random final thoughts:
 - Complete trust and compassion between co-founders are soooo important. That was (and still is) our biggest strength as founders.
 - Don't know how they do it in a 10 minute interview, but YC seem to choose way-above-average founders. Most batch-mates we connected with were super smart, driven and nice. I was proud to be in the room :).
 - I was surprisingly unafraid of the lack of stability, salary or clarity that came with being both your own boss and your own employee. I love planning for myself, managing myself and being mad at myself when I’m not up to my own standards :)
 - I don't regret the ~15 months I've "wasted" working hard on Evo.Do. I've learned a ton about startups, about the Valley, about sales and adoption hurdles, about family and partnership. Not to mention teaching myself enough Reinforcement Learning to actually apply it in a real product.
 - Despite the many challenges and imperfections I encountered while trying to build a real product based on Reinforcement Learning algorithms (and there are many such challenges), I still believe RL will have a huge impact on the world in the next 20 years. Hence I'll probably keep doing AI in the near future - because it's the single highest impact technology at the moment.

This short post cannot describe the full 15-month adventure that was Evo, but it does paint a rough picture of the ups and downs that we felt on a weekly basis. I still don't know if it was the RL technology that needed to be more mature, the market more open to autonomous software, or maybe the founders needed to be more experienced... Probably all 3 could use another 10 years of progress :)

I'd like to say thank you to all the friends and colleagues who listened to ideas, sometimes supporting and encouraging, sometimes telling me that I'm full of shit - I appreciate both. Thank you to the many fellow entrepreneurs - both in Israel and abroad - who helped us with advice, feedback and occasionally a useful connection. 
And last, I'm very grateful for the investors who believed in us at such an early stage. Though they are getting most of their money back, I'm still very sorry we didn’t make it work. I appreciate each and every one of them.

Until next time, may you take the leap. Even if you end up falling back to the ground - for a little while you'll be flying.


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Monday, September 16, 2019

The Math of Relationships II: Sometimes There Is No Right Answer

As a physicist, I love models. There's a certain beauty in capturing the essence of a phenomena, describing it in a super concise way. A model doesn't describe 100% of what's going on - it shouldn't be accurate in that sense - but it captures 80% of the core in 20% of the words/equations.
But sometimes I come across social dilemmas for which I do not have a good model or "rule of thumb" - they have to be judged on a case by case basis. When everyone are not exactly wrong but not exactly right either.
Let's dig into a few examples:

"Becoming a better partner"

Self improvement is perhaps the most admirable of aspirations. To be honest it's so admirable because it's an overarching concept containing many admirable sub-goals, and that's a good thing. The idea that I can become better than I am right now, both better at things and just a better person,  that it's possible to make the future better than the past via time, effort and will - is probably my most zealous belief.
And yet, sometimes the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.

One of the categories of "being a better person" is "being a better partner". Changing some behavior, doing more of what she likes, quieting a habit that was hurting the relationship etc. - we all do it to some extent. 
Sometimes it's just an extension of the "dressing up for a date" effect. We try to impress our partner - especially when the relationship is fresh - and being a little nicer and kinder than normal is just another form of putting our best foot forward. Hopefully that grows into being nicer and kinder on a regular basis - driven by genuine care and respect for the partner.
Sometimes it's more of an emotional conditioned response. For example, if every time you make a mess in the living room your partner gets really upset/annoyed/angry - it won't take long before messing up the living room is associated with the impending "punishment" of getting yelled at. The fear makes you tidy and neat.
Sometimes - at it's best - the relationship becomes a driving force for self improvement. Let's say you're smoking but want to quit. You've tried before but never followed through. If your smell or health degradation bothers your partner - you are now much more likely to actually quit, because you're doing it not just for yourself - but for both of you. When that happens I find it so beautiful - a true hallmark of a healthy relationship.
And sometimes - unfortunately - people lose themselves. They make so many changes, so many concessions, that the person they really are dissolves in the relationship. This is where stereotypes like the "whipped guy" and "clingy girl" come from.

Some give up a part of their core beliefs, living with a gnawing feeling of "wrongness" everyday. They are fairly easy to recognize. But sometimes there was no big clash, no core values were discarded "just to be with her". Sometimes it's just a long string of small changes - none of which are a big deal on their own. It can be as simple as "please be tidy", "please dress like this", "please shave like that", "please be available whenever I call" etc. etc. - and bit by bit a mask is constructed. They must "play" a different person within the relationship - who gradually becomes very different than who they are underneath the relationship mask. 
Perhaps the worst part is that the other partner is often not aware of the pain they're causing. They are not malicious masterminds that intentionally manipulate the "whipped" counterpart into becoming someone else - they just communicate their needs and wants and preferences, clearly and often. The mask grows out of love and good intentions, but eventually suffocates the real person underneath.

I've been on both sides of this issue. Trust me, it sucks for everyone - no matter if you're the suffocated or the suffocator.
So what's the answer?
Should we not change for our partner? Not be flexible or considerate, guarding our "true self"? Of course we should change! That's one of the fundamental rules for a healthy lasting relationship.
Should we not communicate our needs or wants, in fear of the change or sense of obligation it'll create in our partner? Of course we should communicate! That's literally the first thing marriage counselors will tell you.
The only advice I can offer is to be as attenuated as possible to yourself. Try to notice when you're pushing a square peg into a round hole, or when you are being pushed - and communicate your boundaries (preferably before the relationship feels like a chore...).

One of the most common "accidental suffocation" scenarios is:

In time of need

Being there when someone we care about needs help is considered one of the most "purely good" actions possible - "you're a true friend/loving partner". And it's true - for the most part. Even if we ignore the moral dilemma of how much help is too much (it might undermine the helped person's independence, individuality and confidence - like overbearing parents do), it's still not always that simple.

Do you remember the type of kids in kindergarten that were the first to cry or run to the teacher - no matter how small was their problem? And then there was the opposite type - the kids who were shut off, who never said anything to the teacher - let alone complain or demand help. Both were wrong, and a good educator taught the silent ones to speak up or ask for help and the loud ones to handle some of their problems on their own - or just suck it up.
Now that we've grown up, we don't have a teacher who cares if we cry - we go to our friends and loved ones when we are in need. Hopefully, the people you turn to have your back. They happily help you - grateful for the trust you've given them, and you truly appreciate them for it - never taking it for granted that they care. You all end up closer and happier than before. Hopefully.
When we are down, hurt, in pain, lost - we sometimes forget that there is a price our loved ones pay for being there for us. It might be obvious - the time and effort that they invest - or it may run deeper - the emotional or psychological price they pay. If they are holding our proverbial hand, then they are not at home with their family, they are not pushing their career forward, they are not having fun or resting. And that's ok - most people who care about you will happily take the deal, pay the price to be there for you - especially in time of need.

When exactly is this time of need? Let's say you broke up with a long-time partner. It'll probably affect you for months to come. Your loved ones will hopefully pay more attention to you during that period, probably call and visit you more often, lend their shoulder for you to cry on. But not everyday - right? A rough patch is not a concentrated event, even if each day something else goes wrong. No one person can carry your weight every day - or even every week. And it would be wrong of us to expect or demand it from someone - especially if we care and love them as much as they love us. Good people will usually keep giving, trying to hold us up as long and as much as they can - without much regard to the accumulating damage to their own lives and well-being. Until they break down. 
It's like over-exploitation of a piece of land for agriculture. You can extract more yield for a while but it'll become barren.
Don't over-exploit your loved ones.

Ok, so what should we do? Should we keep our pain to ourselves - feeling guilty for being a burden? No. I've been there and I can attest - it really sucks.
Should we turn down our friends if they need us too often? If they "have a huge crisis twice per day"? Probably also no - since they probably don't understand that you feel used, and for them each crisis may feel real.
If you are the supporter - try to find a way to keep your friend feeling safe, not alone, not abandoned. But keep yourself safe and healthy at the same time. Perhaps involve others to help your friend as well. Perhaps suggest professional help. Being there for a loved one should not become your second job. You are not a support character in their life, you have your own.
If you are the supported - try to be appreciative and respectful of the effort and availability of your friends. Perhaps try "spreading the load" over several loved ones. But don't feel guilty for not being perfect, having problems and asking for help.
In any case, it's a delicate balancing act - despite everyone's good intentions. If you're good at this - please teach me how...

Ignorance is bliss?

Imagine a scenario where you and your friend are unpacking boxes in your new apartment. All of a sudden you drop a heavy book on your toe. You curse while hopping on one leg all the way to the fridge to get some ice. Your friend could have helped you but - just your luck - he just stepped out for a phone call. When he gets back, sees you're in pain and asks what happened, you complain about the book, about your clumsiness, about the packing of that box - but you do not complain about your friend, obviously. 
Now imagine the same scenario but instead of being outside when the book hits your toe, your friend is right there next to you. When he sees you in pain he doesn't rush to your help or bring you ice. Whether he starts laughing, berates you for your clumsiness or just stands there with his arms folded - you would probably say something like "what the fuck man?". As most of us would. 
Note - the end result for you is the same: you limp and hop to the fridge by yourself. But from an emotional perspective it matters a great deal whether he didn't know you are in need or he knew and still didn't help. 
This scenario is intentionally exaggerated - I don't think anyone would just stand and look at you in pain - but we really do put a lot of emphasis on the distinction: "didn't know" vs. "didn't care".

Let's say you've done something that upset your partner. Unfortunately, they've decided not to openly communicate their feelings. Perhaps as a form of the infantile "if you don't know what you did wrong then I'm not going to tell you". Perhaps because they want to raise the issue in a calmer state. Perhaps because they don't trust you to react well, and are afraid that sharing will only make things worse. Perhaps, and it's super impressive when that's the case, they are not certain that their emotional reaction is warranted or timely - and want to shield you from it until they can figure out whether there even is a real issue to bring up.
The irony is that if you aren't aware of what's happening, you're often better off. If your partner is holding things inside for a good reason - then knowing will either make you worried and you'll quietly suffer until they do explain what's wrong, or force the issue and corner them into sharing - even though it's probably not the right time and place. If they're being intentionally vague about the reason but clearly push in your face how angry they are - then they don't deserve the response anyway. 
The exception is if they are afraid to say anything because they feel you won't really listen/care/give room for their emotions - then showing that you see their distress and want to hear them out, even insist on it, is the right thing to do. But once they do share - you really have to make sure you actually listen and care and don't dismiss them.

Things get even more complex if you know something that you weren't told, and they know that you know. Recently I had a situation similar to the previous paragraph. I wasn't sharing a certain pain because I didn't feel I'll be accepted, I feared my emotions will be dismissed. It didn't help that at the time I wasn't even sure myself whether I'm "making it up". I suspected she knew I was hurt, and maybe even understood part of the reason.
But she didn't ask about it. She didn't ask what's wrong or how I feel. 
And I didn't tell her.
I guess we were both expecting the other to make the first move.
But neither of us did. And we were both worse off for it.
If I thought she doesn't see or understand, I wouldn't be insulted by her apparent lack of interest, perhaps even brought up the topic myself. And she would listen, because despite how I felt at the moment, she actually does care - she just didn't show it in a way I could see.

So what should we do? Ignore our empathy? Our gut feeling telling us something is not right? "Play dumb" so they don't know you know? Personally I value knowledge and honesty too highly to believe in these solutions. The only thing I can do is be aware of the complexities and paradoxes in each situation.

Unlike most of my articles, there is no strong conclusion or call to action. The only takeaway is to always try to look at the story from all sides.

Until next time, may you navigate the sea of details into the safe harbor of clarity.


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