John Stepper

What Hamilton, an immigrant, thought of immigration

For a person as ignorant of American history as I am, reading the biography of Alexander Hamilton is like reading a thriller. I turn the page in rapt attention, unsure of what might happen next.

I was shocked, for example, when I read about the Founding Fathers’ vicious personal attacks in the press; the passing of outrageous infringements on free speech (“the Sedition Act”); the jockeying for power and influence in the government from the very beginning, when whole departments might consist of only one man and his desk.

One of the most surprising things was Hamilton’s view on immigration, and how that view changed over time.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

In favor of immigration…

Alexander Hamilton was one of America’s most famous immigrants. He was born in Nevis, in the British West Indies, in 1755. Looking back, America was unimaginably small.

In 1790, there were only 32,000 people living in Manhattan. Today it’s about 500 times that. Two centuries later, over 50,000 people worked in the World Trade Center towers alone, with another 200,000 passing through as visitors. From 1790 to 1890, America’s population soared from 4 million to 63 millionClearly, America was and is a land of immigrants.

So it’s no surprise that Hamilton, both as an immigrant himself and someone who foresaw the growth of America, fought for immigration. For example, in 1776, at the Constitutional Convention, there was a debate on limiting membership to Congress to native-born Americans. Hamilton opposed it – “The advantage of encouraging foreigners is obvious…” – and a residency requirement was put in place as a compromise.

In 1790, Hamilton foresaw the need to shift from agriculture to manufacturing, and how Britain in particular had experts and expertise that the US did not. It was clear to him that the best way to achieve industrial parity with England was “to procure from Europe skillful workmen,” and as Treasury secretary he successfully commissioned plans to do so.

…until he wasn’t

Yet as America grew, and as Hamilton’s circumstances changed, his views on immigration shifted. And he wasn’t alone.

In 1798, as Hamilton’s Federalist felt it was losing power, the debates shifted to trying to preserve the current order. Once congressman declared America should no longer “wish to invite hordes of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly parts of the world, to come here with a view to disturb our tranquility.”

Hamilton went even further, and his biographer points out the striking irony.

“‘My opinion is that the mass [of aliens] ought to be obliged to leave the country’ – a disappointing stance from America’s most famous foreign-born citizen and once an influential voice for immigration…

He predicted that “the influx of foreigners” would “change and corrupt the national spirit.” Most amazing of all, this native West Indian published a diatribe against the Swiss-born treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin. “Who rules the councils of our own ill-fated, unhappy country? A foreigner!” Throughout his career, Hamilton had been an unusually tolerant man with enlightened views on slavery, native Americans, and Jews. His whole vision of American manufacturing had been predicated on immigration. Now, embittered by his personal setbacks, he sometimes betrayed his own best nature.”

It’s that last sentence that has stayed with me. Hamilton never forgot that he was an immigrant. (He was repeatedly reminded of the fact in scathing articles in the press.) He saw the value and necessity of bringing in people from other places to help America develop and grow. Yet, “embittered by his personal setbacks, he sometimes betrayed his own best nature.”

Knowing a bit of history makes me view current events with a different lens than I might have otherwise.

The Appreciation Test

I thought this one would be easy, but I was wrong. Try it for yourself.

Imagine someone just paid you a compliment on something you did, perhaps a presentation at work or something else that evoked a “Nice job!”

What would you do?

  1. Wonder if the person was being sarcastic.
  2. Reject it. “Oh it was nothing.”
  3. Smile awkwardly.
  4. Graciously accept the compliment.

You might think the answer is obvious. But it has taken me decades to get to a comfortable answer, and that’s only after working  through all of the possible responses.

The M&Ms Incident

I was about 5 years old when this happened, maybe younger. It was such a trivial incident and yet it stuck with me.

My mother, older siblings, and I visited a neighbor up the block. Her home seemed so neat and orderly. To my mind they were rich, though it was just a one-bedroom home in the Bronx. The woman had M&Ms in a glass bowl, something extraordinary for me because a) in my house the M&Ms would be devoured immediately, and b) we would inevitably break the glass bowl.

She held the bowl out to me. “Would you like some?” My mother gave me a look and shook her head. Afterwards, she explained (or this is how I remember it), that even if people offered something, I wasn’t supposed to take it. My young mind interpreted it as somehow impolite to accept what was offered. Perhaps the person didn’t really mean it, or I didn’t deserve it, or both.

Of course, it’s nice to receive compliments. And yet, for most of my life, each compliment is like that bowl of M&Ms being offered to me. I look at it awkwardly, wondering whether I’m allowed to accept it.

The Appreciation Test

“You look nice today!”

I much prefer to give compliments than to receive them. “You look nice today!” “What a great outfit!” I thought offering such genuine praise was an unambiguously nice thing to do. One day, though, a woman I knew responded with, “So I don’t look so nice on the other days?”

I never expected that. I guess she focused on the word “today” more than “nice” and interpreted it as a kind of insult. It taught me two lessons: to be more thoughtful of how I offer a compliment, and to realize that other people, like me, may not be comfortable when they get one.

I still offer positive feedback to people, but I try and practice empathy before I do it. How would I receive this if I were them? It makes me more mindful of what I say and how I say it.

How accepting a gift can be a contribution

Last week, I gave a talk at a conference and there were well over a thousand people in the audience. As I walked off stage, I wasn’t sure how it went. I had a sense of how well I did or didn’t do, but now how it was received. Then, some people came up and congratulated me, and over the course of the day different people would come up to me and say something nice about my presentation.

I thought about this appreciation test. My instinct was to respond with disbelief or some other form of rejection. “Really?” “Oh, it wasn’t my best effort.”

This time, though, I practiced just accepting it. Sometimes it was as simple as “Thank you. I really appreciate it.” Sometimes we would start a conversation and exchange contact information, or even get to know each other a bit.

If a person had gone through the trouble of walking up to me to say something nice, then the least I could do in return would be to graciously accept it. Now, instead of responding with my usual self-defenses, I practice reciprocating with my attention, appreciation, and vulnerability. As the write Stephen Donaldson has said, “In accepting the gift, you honor the giver.”

Even a famous 93 year old man still talks about this

I grew up watching his TV shows, but I knew little about him until this week when an interview appeared on

“All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons,” “One Day at a Time.” Everyone I knew watched them. Forty years later, I still remember the opening song for “All in the Family”.

Norman Lear’s shows shaped American culture, “giving the underrepresented members of society their first prime-time voice.” I knew they were successful but didn’t realize he had seven shows in the top ten at one time. Combined, 120 million people were watching his content each week.

I didn’t know he produced and financed movies, including ”Fried Green Tomatoes,” “The Princess Bride,” “Stand By Me,” and “This Is Spinal Tap.”

I didn’t know he founded a political activist group called People for the American Way, or bought an original copy of the Declaration of Independence for $8 million so he could show it at schools and museums around the country during a three-year tour.

He was also married three times, and has six children. Such a life. So many chapters.

And yet in the interview, the stories he told most vividly were about his parents, and his lack of connection with them.

He recounts calling his mother to tell her he had been inducted into the newly-created Television Hall of Fame, alongside such names as Lucille Ball, Edward R. Murrow, and Milton Berle.

“I tell her the list of names and me, and she says, ‘Listen, if that’s what they want to do, who am I to say?’ That’s my Ma. I think it earns that kind of a laugh because everybody has a piece of that mother.”

At 9 years old, his father was arrested for selling fake bonds, and his mother sells the furniture, preparing to move to flee from the shame.

“And in the middle of all of that, some strange horse’s ass put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Well, you’re the man of the house now.’ I’m crying, and this asshole says, ‘You’re the man of the house now.…And men of the house don’t cry.” And I look back, and I think that’s when I learned the foolishness of the human condition, and it’s been that gift that I’ve used.”

Then he tells a charming story about his grandfather, and how he used to write to the President of the United States, and take him to parades. It seems like a lovely memory. Until he says that he has told the story of his grandfather dozens of times and “This will be the second time I have said the whole story was a lie.” A few of the details were true, but

“all the rest of it, is a story I borrowed from a good friend whose grandfather was that grandfather who wrote those letters. And, I mean, I stole Arthur Marshall’s grandfather and made him my own. Always.

When I started to write the memoir and I started to think about it, and then I — I — I did a reasonable amount of crying, and I realized how much I needed the father. So much so that I appropriated Arthur Marshall’s grandfather…I needed the father.”

Relationships with our parents, our siblings, our friends, our mentors. So often it’s the relationships that we remember, that shape us, that frame how we deal with events.

Although I make my living now helping people build relationships, I’m just beginning to see how important, how fundamental, our relationships are to being happy.

By Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0

By Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0

The worst comment I ever received taught me a lot

This comment appeared on the most popular thing I have ever written, and it came about a year after I originally posted it.

“I personally hold you responsible for the dumbing down of humanity via the willful spread of idiotic misinformation. Please die in a hole.”



The post was about “The Five Monkeys Experiment,” a story I had heard at a conference and went on to write about. I had done a quick search to see if such an experiment actually took place and found several references to a study in the 1960s. One of those was in a best-selling book. “It did happen,” I wrote, and then went on to talk about the lessons to be drawn from it.

But a few readers dug deeper, and pointed out that the study I cited was different from my story in key details and even in its conclusions. Thus the comment that I was willfully spreading idiotic information.

My immediate reaction was defensive. It’s only a story! That wasn’t even the important part! But I knew he had a point, even if I didn’t love the way he made it. I tried to ignore the comment, but it gnawed at me, and after quite a few months I added an update to the end of the post explaining my mistake and what I should have written instead.

I thought that was the end of it.

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 8.35.31 AM

Two years later

This week, I read about an interesting experiment in a best-selling book. A study by Prof. Gail Matthews showed that if you wrote down a goal and shared weekly updates with peers, you would be 76.7 percent more likely to achieve it. That supported a point I wanted to make, so I was about to write about it.

Then I thought about the comment. Did it really happen? Maybe I should dig deeper.

I searched and found a wide range of citations to the study including articles in Forbes and Huffington Post, but  the links didn’t work. There was a description on the university website, but it just linked to a summary of one experiment with 267 students. Since there was no evidence of a published, peer-reviewed paper, I didn’t write about it. 

Later this same week, I was writing a guide that included tips about time management and I was about to cite a finding I had come across in an article in BBC News. The article cited a study done by Dr. Glenn Wilson at the University of London.

“Those distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ – more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana, said researchers.”

Again, I thought of the comment. Instead of finding research, after a few clicks I found this letter from Dr. Wilson:

“This “infomania study” has been the bane of my life. I was hired by H-P for one day to advise on a PR project and had no anticipation of the extent to which it (and my responsibility for it) would get over-hyped in the media.

There were two parts to their “research” (1) a Gallup-type survey of around 1000 people who admitted mis-using their technology in various ways (e.g. answering e-mails and phone calls while in meetings with other people), and (2) a small in-house experiment with 8 subjects (within-S design) showing that their problem solving ability (on matrices type problems) was seriously impaired by incoming e-mails (flashing on their computer screen) and their own mobile phone ringing intermittently (both of which they were instructed to ignore) by comparison with a quiet control condition. This, as you say, is a temporary distraction effect – not a permanent loss of IQ. The equivalences with smoking pot and losing sleep were made by others, against my counsel, and 8 Ss somehow became “80 clinical trials”.

Since then, I’ve been asked these same questions about 20 times per day and it is driving me bonkers.”

A commitment and a favor

I learned an important lesson. When you’re writing, it’s easy to find something the supports your point of view and include it as evidence of your truth, whether or not it’s based on good science. I know I have been guilty of intellectual laziness at times.

I’m committed to doing better. If you see something I write that purports to be more than just my opinion but isn’t grounded in good research, please comment or send me email. I will greatly appreciate it (especially if you leave out the part about dying in a hole). Thank you.

How I’ll topple a domino that’s 21 feet tall

It’s only been three weeks since my last day working in a big company,  yet my to-do list is already overwhelming. No matter how busy I am, the list only seems to grow.

A simple change change in perspective helped turn stress and panic into focus and progress.

The ONE Thing

A friend recommended a book call The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Just 13 pages in, it grabbed my attention with a metaphor about dominoes, citing a physics journal article that described “how a single domino is capable of bringing down another domino that is actually 50 percent larger.”

A domino that’s 2 inches tall can topple one that’s 3 inches tall, which can topple one that’s 4 1/2 inches, and so on. The 13th domino would be over 21 feet tall, and the 23rd domino would be as tall as the Empire State Building.

“Getting extraordinary results is all about creating a domino effect in your life…Highly successful people know this. So every day, they line up their priorities anew, find the lead domino, and whack away at it till it falls.”

So I started to think, “What’s my next domino?”

What's your ONE thing?

The best staff meeting ever

That question was in my head when I was in last week’s staff meeting. I used to dread such meetings, but now I look forward to them. The “staff meeting” is just my wife and I talking over coffee every Sunday morning, reviewing clients and products, progress and challenges.

As I was going through the list of things I was working on and planned to do, she stopped me and said: “Don’t worry about all of that.” She explained how the work I was doing for one particular customer was the main priority that would lead to more clients and revenue. “Just get this one thing right.”

My wife didn’t need to read a book to see the benefits of extreme prioritization. We agreed on the ONE thing, and that simplified everything. It’s not that the other tasks disappeared, but that each day I know what I have to focus on above all else. That clarity enables me to realize a much higher return on my time and effort.

The next time you’re overwhelmed by your to-do list, whether it’s for your work, family, or health, think of how you’ll answer if someone asks you: “What’s your ONE thing?”

Then do all you can to topple that next domino.


p.s. In looking into this different kind of domino effect, I came across this demonstration video by a physics professor. He started with a domino only 5 millimeters high.