Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Wreck of Hewlett-Packard

An early Hewlett-Packard Oscillator
Hewlett-Packard is sort of The Rolling Stones of Silicon Valley.

The early HP was a groundbreaking, innovative company that didn't just kick out great products, they helped create and validate a whole new way of doing business.

They were the original "garage-based start-up", a scrappy pair of guys who had some incredible hits in the early days. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard had impeccable tech cred. They were also smart people who studied under Frederick Terman (whose father, Louis Terman, is a pioneer in gifted education).

They espoused The "HP Way", a noble and empowering mindset which many successful Silicon Valley companies still emulate.

But much like the Stones, middle- and old-age haven't been kind to HP, and they've never been the same since the founding members left.

The company went from cranking out its own innovative products to slapping a brand on mediocre-at-best Windows boxes. It has made some incredibly bad decisions over the last few years, and despite (or perhaps due to) being enormously large and recognized, HP seems locked into a long-term death spiral.

I heard today from one analyst "the company is just too big for any one person to comprehend". Yet there are other big companies that are more successful and still comprehensible.

HP used to be awesome. What happened?

Partying in 1999
HP was founded in 1935. It went public in 1957, after a long slow climb. Its early decades were somewhat unfocused, but the company managed to bang out enough success to keep going.

It missed a few great opportunities (Steve Wozniak designed the Apple I while at HP, offered it to them, and they passed), but by the mid-80s was going strong. They did manage to get on the internet very early (1986!).

The 1990s marked a big shift for HP, as they moved into consumer markets, instead of just professional tools and devices. This culminated in 1999.

1999 was a big year for HP. They spun off all of their tech businesses not directly related to computers, storage, and imaging. That spin-off (Agilent) was the largest IPO in Silicon Valley history.

They also appointed Carly Fiorina as CEO. Carly Fiorina was the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company. Her most notable achievement at HP was the acquisition of Compaq, which helped establish HP as the largest shipper of personal computers - most of them being middling Windows boxes.

She was quite controversial and not very popular at HP, and eventually shoved out the door with a $20 million severance package. The stock price dropped 50% during her tenure, though much of that was arguably due to overall market conditions and not her leadership. Regardless, she's been called one of the worst CEOs of all time by Conde Nast Portfolio (whoever they are).

Making a Small Fortune on WebOS (out of a large one)
Once upon a time, there was a company called Palm Computing. They created something called the Palm Pilot, which was a pretty kick-ass little "personal digital assistant", or PDA. It was stylus-based and an excellent combination of (then) state-of-the-art technology and solid product design. It did what it was supposed to, reliably, and quickly displaced the paper Fil-o-fax as the weapon of choice for biz people.

It was a big hit. But like many companies (and bands), after the first big flush of success, Palm sort of lost their way and became complacent. They stopped worrying, even as other devices came after them aggressively.

In a few short years, Palm was the worst-performing PDA manufacturer on NASDAQ, despite having revitalized the category. Their stock lost 90% of its value in a single year. Many corporate shenanigans ensued, but the end result was a "new" Palm dedicated to building a new OS and new devices to compete with the now-dominant Blackberry and iPhone in the smartphone market.

The new thing would be called WebOS. The OS was highly thought-of, even if the hardware it was initially presented in was lacking.

But good reviews alone don't matter. A little over a year after WebOS launched, the struggling Palm sold to HP for over a billion dollars.

And then, in a single phone call, HP destroyed much of the value of the ecosystem. Once then-CEO Mark Hurd said HP "didn't buy Palm to be in the smartphone business", pretty much every independent developer working on the platform threw in the towel.

Without 3rd-party apps, platforms don't make sense for users, especially as Apple developers kept cranking out hit after hit.

Less than a year after the sale, HP backed out of offering OS updates to devices in the field and then turned around and announced a bunch of new devices.

6 months later, HP would announce they'd be selling their consumer devices group, and not shipping any new devices for users.

The Unstoppable TouchPad Crash-and-Burn
Despite having irreparably damaged tech faith in WebOS, HP announced the TouchPad: their "tablet" computer based around the now-irrelevant and unsupported WebOS. You may have heard how that turned out: The company launched it on July 1, 2011 and 7 weeks later, on August 18, 2011, announced they were going to discontinue it and all WebOS devices.

This was only 5 weeks after launching in the UK and other Euro countries, and only 3 days after launching in Australia.

They started blowing the inventory out at $100 (for a device that had been priced at $500 and which, by most estimates, cost over $300 to build, not including the costs of developing and designing).

Even after the company canceled the product, I kept seeing lavish TV ads appearing everywhere I went. Apparently the marketing juggernaut was unstoppable, even after the head had been cut off.

But it gets better.

Not even 2 weeks after announcing they were killing all WebOS products, HP announced it would do another production run of the TouchPad. This might be a way for HP to mend relationships with component vendors, but it sure looks like a poor business move.

Rotten at the Top
Mark Hurd was CEO for 5 years. He resigned in 2010, not because he had totally blown up WebOS or mismanaged the company. He resigned because "expense account irregularities" were uncovered and sexual harassment alleged.

Of course, a company's culture comes from the top. That doesn't just mean senior management - that also means the board of directors. If the board is wise, they choose good management and provide appropriate feedback, controls and guidelines. If the board is foolish, they let management run unsupervised, or micro-manage product details based on their own preferences and whims.

The behavior of HP's board of late is appalling. Not that long ago, HP's board engaged in activity that was not just immoral and unethical, but illegal. That should have been enough to clean house.

But the culture was set. A new HP way, I suppose. That culture is ultimately responsible for the wreck that HP's become. To give you an idea of how that negligent culture manifests, HP's board didn't even bother to interview the CEO they hired a year ago and then dismissed.

Now, the board is supposedly considering Meg Whitman as the new CEO. One hopes they'll actually talk to her this time.

Bad Products
My own experience with HP shows what happens when marketing passes innovation:

In the late 90s, I needed a fax machine, scanner, and laser printer for my recording studio and record label businesses. I went to my local Fry's electronics and purchased a multi-function HP device. It did everything I needed, it was compact, and it carried the HP brand. And it was the right price - about $400 if I remember correctly. A tiny bit more than I wanted to pay, but it seemed like a substantial investment.

Took it home, installed it. Worked great.

For about a year.

Then it stopped properly feeding paper through, either to scan or print. The roller just slid over the paper. I started trying to track down issues on HP's disaster of a website. It became clear many other users were having the same problem. HP's response was to shrug and say it wasn't built to last.

There was a class-action lawsuit. HP agreed to ship out a "fix kit" to all users who jumped through hurdles. I jumped through the hurdles. I got my fix kit. I carefully, properly installed it. It sort of worked, though not reliably. Still better than junking the thing.

About 2 years after that, Microsoft released Windows XP, a big step up from Windows 95, 98, and 2000. I upgraded. My HP device no longer worked. Back to the website.

Turns out you had to BUY a driver disc from them for about $20 in order to get XP drivers. So I bought it (since I couldn't find the drivers online anywhere). I used that device for a few more months until the toner cartridge ran out. HP charges a lot for toner and doesn't want any competition in that market.

I was happy to be rid of the device, and I vowed I'd never again purchase anything from HP.

What can you say? HP is huge and profitable, for now. Companies that big achieve a kind of failure-proof critical mass. They'll be around for a long time barring complete catastrophe, but it's hard to see them ever innovating again, or ever having hits again. They're just another big, dumb, slow company.

There's worse things for a garage start-up to end up as. There's better, too.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Uniform Motion, Subscriptions, and Lady Gaga

The band Uniform Motion has attracted some attention in digital media circles over the last couple of days by posting a list of how much they're getting paid by various digital sources.

The message seems to be "Spotify is bad for artists"...and by extension, so are other subscription services like Rhapsody and MOG.

But like the last time this argument was made, this is an unfair comparison, presented with an incomplete analysis.

So let's look at a few points:

1. It's far easier to get someone on a subscription service to listen to your album than it is to convince someone not on a service to buy your album.

Subscribing fans have already paid their subscription fee, so trying something new costs them nothing but their time and attention.

On the other hand, getting people to buy music without having heard it first is extremely difficult. This difference in effort/risk is partially why the pricing or payment structures are different between downloads, CDs, and streams. (It also has to do with "just listening" as opposed to "getting a copy").

2. Subscribers still buy music, and they buy more than non-subscribers!

Subscription listening and purchasing aren't mutually exclusive. Research shows that subscription users tend to buy more music than non-subscribers. Individual subscribers frequently talk about how they use services to decide what to buy.

3. What's a "fair" per play rate?

Let's assume the quoted "Spotify rate" is too low. So what should it be? What's a fair price to play a song once? The 25 to 50 cents a jukebox charges? A penny? What's fair to the artist and to the fan?

One of the bits of data that guided my thinking when developing Rhapsody was a NARM statistic:
The average CD is listened to fewer than 10 times after purchase.

So taking that, let's look at a single track. You can buy it on iTunes for $1. So let's say you'll play it 10 times. How about 10 cents for a single play?

Well, had that model, charging users 10 cents to "buy a stream" (which actually gave you infinite plays for 10 cents), and they went out of business and sold themselves to Apple for peanuts because they couldn't make a profitable business at those rates. So charging the fans 10 cents (and paying the artist less than that) wasn't workable, at least for Lala.

Sirius XM satellite radio pays about $0.002 (1/5th of a cent!) per play. Pandora pays about $0.001 (a tenth of a cent). Other Internet radio stations pay similar, or even lower rates. Both Sirius XM and Pandora had to spend substantial sums and took a long time (nearly a decade) to get to massive scale, and even now they're both just scraping by. So it would seem either all those radio stations are badly managed businesses, or those rates are still on the high side.

If you get played on terrestrial/broadcast radio, you get nothing unless you wrote the song, and then it depends on whether or not your PRO was sampling that particular station, and how the arcane math of the PROs happens to shake out that distribution period. Broadcast radio has been a strong business for a long time, but its listenership has eroded and now the sound recording owners (artists and labels) are starting to think they should get paid.

But at a payment rate of "nearly nothing", not only was FM radio a successful business, artists and labels would literally break federal law repeatedly to pay radio to play their songs. (I will note here briefly that "payola" laws do not apply to internet businesses, and I have speculated in the past that it is possible artists and labels would pay Pandora or other services to slip their music into programming it wouldn't otherwise be in. This may already be going on!)

So my takeaway is a realistic rate for businesses to pay today is somewhere between zero and $0.002 per play, and potentially the artist should be paying the business for exposure. In that light, Spotify's rates don't seem unreasonable.

Of course, it also goes without saying that piracy - what people will turn to if there are either no alternatives or only alternatives they think are unreasonable - pays the artist nothing.

4. Music has different values to different people, or even the same people at different times.

If you're a fan of Coldplay, you might pay $50 to be the first person to hear their new song.

If you're not a fan of Coldplay, you might have to BE paid $50 to listen to it. And Coldplay might be willing to pay you to try it to see if you like it.

If you've heard the song hundreds of times, you might want to value it less than the first time you've heard it.

Or maybe you didn't care for it the first time you heard it, but now, after 10 plays, it's started to click with you.

Or it reminds you of college, and the added nostalgia makes it valuable.

The song remains the same. Should the pricing? Plenty of other businesses charge different prices for the same product to maximize profits (it's called price discrimination).

It's Up To The Artist To Decide

Ultimately, every artist looking to distribute their art has to decide if what they're getting paid for it makes sense to them.

Some bands will play night after night for little more than 2 cheap beer, $20, 4 guest list slots, and the hope they'll make a few fans. Some don't tour at all. Some only do it if there are minimum guarantees.

Some, like the aforementioned Uniform Motion, even let people set their own prices to own the band's music, including ZERO DOLLARS. If Uniform Motion is willing to give their own music away for nothing, does it seem reasonable for them to complain about how "bad" Spotify is for paying them so little? At least Spotify is paying them something, and providing accounting.

Uniform Motion admits they produced more physical product (250 units) than they believe they can sell. They don't expect to break even, but so far, they're also not planning on dropping the price to move the inventory. This is their third album, so they've manage to get this far somehow.

Even looking at how Uniform Motion values their own music, one walks away confused. The band themselves seems to think their music is worth something between zero and 15 Euros. The pricing seems to be largely determined by the packaging it comes in, rather than any intrinsic value in the product itself. (I will also note I haven't purchased or heard any of their music, so I can't comment on the quality of the packaging or the art).

Ultimately, the pricing isn't the issue. The issue is a disconnect between what the artist thinks their work is worth and what the audience thinks it is worth.

Lady Gaga "sold" her new album on Amazon for $1. What does that say?

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I'm a bit uncomfortable joining the ranks of people and organizations "looking back over the 9/11 decade", because it's an extremely depressing exercise. As practiced by most, it's also excessively sweetened and adulterated with an insincere and shallow analysis of how the USA has reacted, and what it's all meant.

Where Was I?
I had been working late. Very late. Rhapsody was racing towards its initial launch. My small team (myself, another product manager, a developer, and a designer) were working hard to complete an HTML-powered demo of Rhapsody for a presentation to the board of directors. We'd been working late all week, and on September 10, 2001, we worked until about 3 AM.

As I rode my motorcycle home, I thought about how long it had been since I'd stayed up that late working, and I wondered how I would function the next day. I got home, slept until 7 am, and then stumbled into the shower. As I was getting dressed, I checked my e-mail. This was before RSS feeds, so I had set up CNN to e-mail me about any notable events.

One email headline said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I figured it had to be a hack, a joke, or spam. Then, scrolling up, I saw a message about another plane. And another about the Pentagon. I turned on the TV as I finished getting dressed. I watched the news for about 20 minutes, seeing the footage of the crashes and the shock of the anchors.

I left for work.

At the office, people were mostly standing around in shock. One of my coworkers came in the front door, saw everyone milling around, and asked me what was going on. I said "someone has crashed jets into both towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon." He laughed. I said "no, really. I'm serious. This is bad." He took off for the TV room.

I sat down at my desk and started working.

Around 10 or 11 am, the CEO gathered the company together and told everyone to go home and be with their families. Except me and my team. We were supposed to keep working to finish our demo.

At lunchtime I walked several blocks, trying to find a place open to get food, watching the empty skies for planes. I was listening to the quieter pieces on "Drukqs" by Aphex Twin, and that album continues to summon a kind of desolate, fatigued, melancholy when I hear it.

We kept working. Around 7 or 8 pm my girlfriend called me. She was upset and wanted me to come home. I told her I had to finish up and I would be a few more hours. I'll never forget how scared and alone she sounded, and how bad I felt when I hung up the phone. I left about 3 hours later, told the team to knock off for the day.

We finished the demo the next day, and of course found out the board meeting had been cancelled since no planes were flying.

While at work during those next few months, however, I'd spend a lot of time thinking about what had happened. I was moved to tears several times watching the footage, looking at photos of the reactions from around the world, and hearing various stories of the survivors, the people around the world. I was fortunate in that I did not have any direct connection with anyone killed in the attacks - surprising given how many people I know in both DC and New York.

History and The Gulf War

My family has a strong connection to the United States military and government. My paternal grandfather fought in many wars for the USA and devoted his life to advanced military technology for its benefit. 

My father worked for intelligence agencies, helped stabilize the nation's faltering economy in the 70s, and worked to clean up many of the USA's most toxic sites in the 80s. 

My maternal grandfather worked to supply military bases around Europe.

I remember turning 18 and driving myself to the post office to register for the draft. The woman behind the counter accepted my card, checked it over, and said "Hey, happy birthday!" I understood that part of the price of living in the USA was being prepared for military service.

I wasn't happy about it, but I naively felt the world (at least the USA) existed in a time beyond full-on war. But when I was attending college in 1990, President Bush attacked Iraq in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Operation Desert Storm, or The (Persian) Gulf War (I).

My fellow students and I were worried. We understood that "this aggression cannot stand", but there was a lot of debate about whether the USA (as opposed to the UN) was obligated to do something, or whether or not it was even worth doing anything. The USA was not in direct jeopardy, and Kuwait was hardly a top-tier ally.

The liberal professors were aghast. I was taking a video class at the time and the instructor was really upset about the US invasion, and the possibility of war. He had us write essays about it, and the possibility of us going off to Iraq to fight.

I remember this well because I felt it was somewhat inappropriate (this was a class on "creative video", after all), but I found myself moved by thinking through everything this meant. I wrote something to the effect of "I don't want to go to war, I don't want to kill people, especially under circumstances where our country is not in direct jeopardy...but it's part of the price of being a citizen. If I don't like it, I need to stand up and tell our 'leaders' and end the war. Not because I'm afraid of killing or dying, but because war is irresponsible and stupid."

I recall my peers saying "it's going to be Vietnam in the desert - the resistance will be dug in, and we'll be there for years. We won't win. "Victory" is impossible in those conditions."

Miraculously, though, the Gulf War was short and contained, and none of that happened. My peers and I figuratively and literally dodged a bullet.

After 9/11

The USA's societal and political responses to 9/11 have been depressing and frightening.

When I was in grade school, I read "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" by Mark Twain. I thought of that story repeatedly over the next few years as the USA, which had long prided itself on being tough, stoic, and fair, became frightened, emotional, and paranoid.

The passing of the PATRIOT act was unreal. The ensuing curtailing of civil liberties was made worse by the general attitude of "if you don't go along with this, you're supporting 'them'". What little we do know of what the government and private industry have done is positively Orwellian and chilling.

Hearing government officials actually say "watch what you say" was creepy. Hearing them suggest people be rounded up pre-emptively or put into internment camps was infuriating. But watching the rest of the country go along with all of it (either reluctantly or worse, with chest-thumping vigor) was heartbreaking.

I didn't want to go to war. I don't know anyone who did. People marched in the streets, wrote angry letters. Blogged. Called. I became more politically active than I have ever been in my life. It didn't do any good. Our leaders threw us into not one, but two wars. Changing Presidents and parties hasn't helped. The wars continue. Gitmo is still open.

I could write extensively about the minor inconveniences and idiocies we've imposed upon ourselves in airports, but they're ultimately insignificant. They're annoying and ineffective, but the net result has been making sure I have an extra hour at the airport instead of an extra 15-30 minutes.

What I've really noticed at all those airports is the soldiers. They're everywhere I go. And so very many of them are kids. 18 year-olds. They're not in a fancy college. They're going to, or coming from, the countries we're occupying. They will probably endure longer service and more tours of duty than any prior generation of soldiers.

I look at these...children, and my heart breaks. I want to approach them and say many things. I want to thank them for their service, and apologize for not being able to prevent them from having to endure it.

In the past, the hardship of war was shared and helped create a bond and common cause. That's no longer true in the USA of the 21st century. The Selective Service System hasn't been used to draft people. The country has chosen to deploy the National Guard. Instead of sharing the burden, we've extended the obligations of our "volunteer army" while denying them equipment, decent care, and benefits.

In the 21st century, the press is locked down and co-opted. The news media barely even reports on the wars, and the public is barely interested. If I were a reporter covering the White House, I'd ask every damn day "when will the USA leave Iraq and/or Afghanistan?" Instead, the reporters ask dozens of questions about the President rescheduling a speech on jobs. Neither party will take a stand.

There's no "TV war", like Vietnam, on the news every night. It would hurt ratings. There's some great reporting going on outside of the evening news, but nobody's watching it. If it is put in front of you, it's so outrageous and sad, it's hard to not just shove it out of your mind. People compile their own news sources, and are able to choose those that reinforce, rather than challenge, their own assumptions and beliefs.

When knowledge, debate, and truth are no longer respected, learning anything becomes difficult.

As a nation, we're still reeling. I hope we will continue to learn and grow, to respond with the things that make us good and strong, rather than reacting with fear and anger. Like Hadleyburg, our values and virtue have been tested. How will we answer?

Personally, my relationship with work changed. I have a better understanding of appropriate priorities now in both my day-to-day life and in a bigger picture. I am grateful to be alive.

I am also more cynical about and disappointed with our government. It's difficult for me to envision a future in which things get markedly better. The current state of the 2012 campaign does not leave me particularly optimistic.

As bad as I feel about government, my feelings toward the electorate are worse. We cheer governors who execute people, even innocent ones. We focus on trivial issues around our candidates rather than focusing on their ideas and plans. We don't hold our leaders, and by extension, ourselves, accountable for anything.

At these debates, these town halls, these meet-ups, why are we not asking "when will the wars end?" I guess we're all too worried about when we're going to get paid.

I'd like to end on a happy note, somehow. Wouldn't we all? I'm just at a loss. How do you hang a happy face on an ugly event that bred more ugliness?

I still love my country, and I'd rather be here than anywhere else. As I look back over the last 10 years, I wish we all had more to be proud of.

I think of my grandfather. He was at Pearl Harbor on a destroyer when the Japanese attacked. I wonder what he would say about all this.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

TIP reunion, part 3: Precocious to Post-cocious

It's been over a month since the 30-year TIP reunion. I've had some time to reflect on my experiences and synthesize a bit of what I learned. I've managed to keep a few of the friendships I renewed at the reunion going and keep in touch with some of the people I saw there.

The reunion had a bit of a dark side, as most reunions do. In some sense, reunions are like going back to your childhood home - you are put into the mindset of being a kid again, or in this case, an adolescent. And that's not always pleasant, as there are parts of childhood best left behind. And of course, you're reminded of exactly how far from childhood you are...

One of the things I remember about being a gifted kid was a near-constant sense of inadequacy. No matter how smart or talented or bright or witty I was, there was always someone who exceeded my abilities, while making it look easy.

In a band? Some kids were in a better band. Putting out albums. Got a great score on the PSAT and SAT? Guess what? Only 2nd best, stud - that congressman's daughter scored 50 points higher and got the best score in the school. And so on.

TIP was the same way. I scored decently on the SATs as a 7th grader. But I met more than one kid there who got perfect scores on the SAT as a 7th grader. I was distracted, I goofed off, I didn't always do my best work. Other kids managed to focus and did. Even when I did do my best work, there were kids who just seemed to leave me in the dust. I taught myself geometry in about 2 weeks, passed the standardized test and got credit for it. But I did it while sitting next to kids who, in the same 2 week period, taught themselves algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus.

Part of me wanted to try harder, to excel, to be not just "the best I could be", but "the best", or at least "better than that kid over there". Part of me knew it wasn't going to happen, because of ability or will or both.

Over the years I learned to deal with that longing and frustration. Perhaps I simply got better at justifying why I wasn't the best at everything, or even best at anything.

And yet, there I was, at the reunion, and suddenly it all comes rushing back.

I'm in the hospitality suite. I'm talking to a former classmate. She's got a Ph. D., and a lovely daughter who is not even 8 years old and is already asking her mom questions like "does an electron have mass?" Her life is dialed in.

Another of my former classmates is an economist contributing to a famous economics blog. Another is teaching economics at the Ivy League school where I majored in economics. Nearly everyone at the reunion had an advanced degree. They just seemed so damn smart and accomplished. Maybe I need to go back to school, do something meaningful. I ruminated and compared my own meager achievements to these people and found myself lacking.

But I start talking to them, and it begins to dawn on me: we all feel that way.

A guy who has started 2 successful businesses on his own feels like he needs to get a Ph. D in physics just so he can have one. And some of the people with one Ph. D feel they need to get a second one, because they don't feel like they've done enough. The people in academia wish they were out doing stuff in "the real world" and the people in the working world all think they should be teaching or researching.

When you're identified as having great potential, people tell you outrageous things. They say "you'll rule the world" or "you'll change everything" or "you'll be rich". You don't have to hear that too many times to start buying it when you're a kid. You want to believe it. You want to be the hero of the story, just like in all the books you've read.

But those expectations are unrealistic, if not misleading, for many reasons.

The presentation by the TIP researchers unintentionally referenced and reinforced those unrealistic expectations and dredged up all this stuff for everyone. After talking about gifted kids and how we grew up and what we were like, the researchers showed us photos of some other notable "gifted" people: Sergey Brin. Lady Gaga. A lady who'd won a big-deal physics prize.

I could feel all of the formerly precocious around me wincing in their seats as they thought "how come I'm not up there? Where did I miss my chance? Is it too late? What's wrong with me?" I saw the parade of faces and research as a kind of indictment: "How come you're not running the world yet?"

It was something of a surprise to find I wasn't the only one who felt that way. It was also a relief. And it was sort of funny, too, in how predictably everyone continued to want to (over-)achieve. It was a subject that came up repeatedly over the next day.

Of course there's something to be learned here. If I can look at these other high achievers and say "Hey, look, a second Ph. D? Dude, you really need to recalibrate your expectations"...well, maybe I need to look in the mirror and take some of my own advice.

"Diminished expectations" was a phrase kicked around a lot from age 18-22. That was when I and some of my more cynical classmates began to realize that hard work and raw talent were insufficient to guarantee success.

There were other factors at play that were just as much or more important than aptitude and effort, and often those other factors are the ones that really matter. Things like "who you know" and "how you look" and "being in the right place at the right time".

That was also around the time we began to realize there was also more to life than just work. I think of "Real Genius", a movie that affected my outlook in many ways. There's a scene where the two main characters are discussing a mysterious third person:
Chris: So, I talked to him.
Mitch: You did?
Chris: Yeah, and he used to be the number one stud around here in the 70’s. (whispers) Smarter than you and me put together.
Mitch: So what happened? Did he crack?
Chris: Yes, Mitch. He cracked. Severely.
Mitch: Why?
Chris: He loved his work.
Mitch: Well what’s wrong with that?
Chris: There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s all he did. He loved solving problems, he loved coming up with the answers. But, he thought that the answers were the answer for everything. Wrong. All science, no philosophy. So then one day someone tells him that the stuff he’s making was killing people.
Mitch: So what’s your point? Are you saying I’m going to end up in a steam tunnel?
Chris: Yeah.
Mitch: What?
Chris: You are, if you keep up like this. Mitch, you don’t need to run away from here. When you’re smart, people need you. Use your mind creatively.
Mitch: (smiles) I noticed you don’t study too hard.
Chris: (smiles) Bingo.
You shouldn't compare your life, your self, or your achievements to anyone else. They are coming from a different situation, with different priorities. They make different sacrifices and are driven by different demons.

I will never forget the dark circles under the eyes of the girl who scored higher than me on the PSAT. She did very well in high school, but it was obvious she paid a substantial price for that success.

I think of my fellow TIP students, all of us considered precocious at one time, and now clearly "post-cocious". Potential is not a guarantee of anything. Achievements do not bring more than fleeting happiness. Aspire to being happy with who you are, not just what you do.

Use your mind creatively. Don't study too hard.