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MyNewsCenterNavigator & PoissySmartCity, Max Levchin of Affirm: Seeking the Endurance Athletes of Business, I always tell people go to a start-up while you’re young.

Max Levchin of Affirm: Seeking the Endurance Athletes of Business

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Max Levchin, chief executive of Affirm

I had a fairly happy childhood. I grew up in a very cool family — pretty much every person was a scientist. My entire family lived together. My grandmother, my grandfather, my mom and dad, my brother and I all lived in the same apartment, so I got this exposure to two generations of scientists.

My grandmother had a double Ph.D. in astrophysics. She ran the Kiev observatory for many years. So I had this kind of extremely sheltered but very fun childhood where I would sometimes get to play with this giant telescope at the observatory.

My mom was told by the Soviet state, her employer, that she had to learn how to program computers. I was 10, and her job was a couple of doors down from our house. So I would go to see her after school, and she would say, “Try and understand this programming thing and help me out,” which is how I got into software. Within three months, it was very clear that I was progressing faster than she was.

But my childhood was disrupted somewhat bizarrely by the Chernobyl accident. I was 11 at the time, and I had to spend the next year and a half living with relatives in an extremely rural community in Crimea. That was kind of a “grow up now” moment.

How so?

Suddenly I was in a place where outhouses were the norm in plumbing. We would walk in snow for four or five miles to get to school every day. I went from a sheltered upbringing among scientists and ideas to be told that when I was done shoveling snow, I could do my homework.

And how did you react to that?

I adapted fairly quickly. I was exceedingly bored because I came from a very high-quality school, and it was as if the work we were doing was rolled back two years. I didn’t have to do any homework, because I became the best student in the school in a heartbeat.

The thing I remember vividly is that I missed having access to a computer very much. So I got in the habit of programming on paper, which actually served me really well. So I would just write it out in longhand. I had stacks and stacks of notebooks filled with programs for games and data-processing software.

One of the most gratifying things, when I went back to Kiev and could use a computer again, is that I would type in all the source code for all these games that I had designed on paper, and they would just work.

How do you think your parents and grandparents influenced your leadership style today?

My grandmother was exceptionally formative. She basically was willpower personified. If she wanted something to happen, it would happen. She had this walk-through-walls style where you did not ask for permission or forgiveness; you just did what you needed to get it done. I still judge some of my decisions based on: What would Grandma decide? Was I sufficiently tenacious or not enough?

And one thing I have found over the years is that in hiring, the dominant characteristic I select for is this sense of perseverance in really tough situations. It’s like the difference between endurance athletes and sprinters. I think it is a really good predictor for how people behave under severe stress.

Working in a start-up means there is a baseline of stress with occasional spikes. There are people who are really good at handling spikes. In fact, most people are really good at handling spikes. But normal isn’t normal. There is constant stress. And so I look for endurance athletes, in the business sense.

And how do you test for that?

I ask about the longest stressful episode in your professional career. A lot of people talk about some all-nighter. Then I’ll say, “No, that may have been the highest stress moment, but what’s the longest period of stress you faced?”

Another good question for managers when I hire them is: “Have you ever done a layoff? How’d you do it? How did it feel?” I once had to do a layoff, which I very much hope I never have to do again. But then I want to know how you handled the period once you’ve told everyone.

And there’s only one right thing to do. You help people pack, and that is the hardest thing anyone can do. Your stress level is high, and you just want to hang out in your office and wait for everyone to leave.

But the right thing to do is to go be there with the people you just laid off and help them cope, help them pack and tell them that you’re going to do your best to hire them back once the company’s on good footing. It’s about having compassion even when you feel you may not have the strength for it in the moment.

The other thing I ask when I’m hiring managers is: “What is your internal measure of success and how do you demonstrate that behavior to your troops?” My favorite answer is: “The personal journey of everybody who works for me is my responsibility.” I think that’s a sign of a great manager.

What career and life advice do you give to new college grads?

I tell them to take big risks, because this is the one point in your life when you have nothing to lose. You amass barnacles of good living as you get older, which makes it that much harder to make a big bet.

So I always tell people go to a start-up while you’re young. You might believe that going to a more established company to build up $100,000 in savings is your ticket to go take a big risk. It really isn’t. It just slows you down and makes you feel like you need to get to $200,000.

CreditEarl Wilson/The New York Times

This interview with Max Levchin, the chief executive and a founder of Affirm, an online financial services firm, has been edited for space and clarity.

Q. Tell me about your early years.

A. I was born in Kiev, Ukraine. I spent my formative years under the Soviet state, which wasn’t all that bad, actually. Ukraine is kind of a backwater, so we didn’t really have any of the tension from those days.

PoissySmartCity, Marine Le Pen running as the candidate of French “Left”—who could have seen this coming? No doubt there are more surprises to come.

The new political climate generated by breakneck globalization, aggressive political correctness, and elite arrogance is so turbulent that pollsters have repeatedly failed to see what’s coming. They got last year’s Israeli elections wrong. Same with the Colombian referendum on peace negotiations with the narcoguerillas. They missed the boat on Brexit and the American presidential elections. In France, they failed to see that former prime minister François Fillon would win the race to become the conservative party’s candidate in April’s presidential election. A social conservative with liberal economic views, Fillon scrambles our notions of Left and Right. He represents an alignment unseen since the 1840s.

But it’s not just the pollsters who’ve missed the changing tides. The largely unknown Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, who became a figure of fun during the run up to the Brexit vote, is the president of the European Commission—the bureaucratic body that largely governs Europe on behalf of its elites. Like Nancy Pelosi and the shrinking band of House Democrats, the aptly named Juncker is doubling down on policies that have produced failure. Juncker told an Austrian newspaper that there would be no letup on federalizing Europe; there will be no national opt-outs from the stagnation economics administered from Brussels.

The common thread of all these electoral “upsets” is that the voters seem to have tilted rightward. But that assumes that the mental geography mapping Left and Right still makes sense. The very terms “left” and “right” derive from the early stages of the French Revolution. The seating in the first National Assembly as viewed from the speaker’s podium placed the proponents of a new, supposedly more rational France to the left of the podium.  On the right were those—often Catholics—who wanted, it was claimed, to cling to aristocratic tradition. It was a passing moment of political and ideological clarity. By the time the enlightened despot Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself king in 1804, the terms had become, as they continue to be today, hopelessly confused. The great Catholic liberal Chateaubriand was forced to align himself with the Bourbon monarchy because he saw it, compared with Napoleon, as the lesser threat to liberty.

Fillon has had neither predecessor nor precursor in the resolutely etatist France of the last 168 years. The last major figure with Fillon’s combination of liberal and conservative characteristics was the Anglophile François Guizot, who was prime minister when the revolution of 1848 ended the bourgeois monarchy of Louis Phillipe. Until now, Guizot, a great historian whose The History of Civilization in Europe sits a few feet from where I write, has had no heir. Fillon tells the French that he wants “to give the country its liberty back.” He promises to cut a half-million public-sector jobs, end the 35-hour work week, and reduce France’s corpulent 3,000 pages of labor regulations to a svelte 150. This would be a revolution, of sorts. Modern France has never gone through the free-market reforms that revived the British, Canadian, Swedish, and German economies. Government spending in France now represents 57 percent of the economy, and as in the U.S.—only worse—the free market has been strangled by out-of-control statism.    

The New York Catholic writer George Marlin has described how Catholic voters of the Rust Belt, infuriated by economic atrophy and politically correct social liberalism, won November’s presidential election for Donald Trump. Something similar has happened in France. In April 2017, Fillon, an Anglophile and practicing Catholic, could conceivably confront Marine Le Pen, the anti-Islamist leader of the National Front, in the second and conclusive round of the French presidential election. If so, the pundits will find that their old mental maps have been rendered useless in a conflict between two “conservative” candidates. That’s because the working-class vote, once claimed by the Left, has been abandoned by the French Socialists, who, like their counterparts in America, have run off in pursuit of an incoherent alliance of gay, Muslim, and feminist voters.

Today, France’s Socialist president François Hollande has governed so ineptly that he garners just 4 percent approval. By this standard, Hillary Clinton did well among white working-class men—she lost them by 38 percent. The French Socialists have been returned to their nineteenth-century marginality, while in the U.S., the Democrats have been reduced to the regional position they held in the 1920s, when they were the party of saloonkeepers and Southerners.

In 2001, Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a supporter of Vichy France, shocked the world by placing second in the first round of the French presidential elections, barely edging out Socialist Lionel Jospin. Jospin’s 16 percent of the vote was nearly matched by a museum-quality assortment of Communists, Maoists, and Trotskyites. Together, extremist parties of the Left and Right polled roughly a third of the vote. But in the general election, the mainstream parties banded together to support Jacques Chirac, who trounced Le Pen with 82 percent of the vote.

But 2016 is different. France is dispirited. It’s shaken by Muslim aggression. It has puttered along for decades with less than 1 percent growth. Its unemployment rate approaches double digits, and its youth unemployment rate of 24 percent has sent scores of young people to London, Berlin, and New York. Fillon’s Thatcherite economic policy will no doubt push France’s vast array of public-sector trade unionists—and what remains of the industrial working-class voters—into the arms of Marine Le Pen, who could merge as the de facto left-wing candidate (if such terms still have any meaning). The many millions who either work for government or are the recipient of corporatist benefits might quietly support Le Pen’s nationalism rather than risk losing their privileges.

Whoever is the victor, the ill-begotten European Union will have been handed yet another shock, even as the nations of southern Europe threaten the solvency of the European Central Bank. Like the American Democrats, who, notes Powerline’s Scott Johnson, marched lockstep into defeat after defeat, the European elites show no sign of becoming educable. The European elite seem to have developed a death wish. “What could be better news for the investment banking community than having all non-fascist voters, left, right and centre, obligated to vote for [Fillon],” snarks Paul Mason of the fervently continentalist British newspaper The Guardian, “who wants to slash the welfare state, sack workers and extend the working day?”

Marine Le Pen running as the candidate of French “Left”—who could have seen this coming? No doubt there are more surprises to come.

Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

 
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