It’s More Than Just Willpower

It breaks my heart every time I pass someone sleeping in the street. I go through a mental process, wondering what circumstances, preferences, and choices get a person to a spot where sleeping on the sidewalk is better than the next best alternative.

I do not want to deny free will. It’s possible there’s a homeless person somewhere who thinks my life is miserable and theirs is better. It seems more likely nobody really wants to sleep on the sidewalk, but somehow they get to a place where that seems better or easier than whatever would be needed to sleep indoors.

I think about my own life. There are a lot of things I experience that I don’t really want to experience, but I lack the creativity, willpower, or knowledge needed to make choices that would help me avoid those experiences. I’m always living sub-optimally in some way. It’s always a combination of circumstances and choices. I’m always choosing at least a little less than what I know would be best, and sometimes a lot.

I’ve had mostly good incentive structures around me. In part from circumstances I was born into, in part from those I’ve created. To the extent that the incentive structures are good, my behavior and outcomes are good. When those structures are neutral or bad, my choices typically follow.

I think willpower can be built over time, such that a person who’s learned to make good, tough choices gets better at it. But in the beginning, and at the individual point of choosing, I don’t think any two humans are that different. We seek our self interest as defined by our subjective preferences given our current information, resources, and understanding. Those variables of preference, information, resources, and understanding are the elements of the incentive structure.

I try to find, cultivate, and stay in good incentive structures because I know that without them, my choices are capable of leading me somewhere I don’t want to go.

So much for me. What about the people still sleeping on the street? I don’t know. That’s probably why my attention turns to my own life pretty quickly. It’s something I can work with and control at least to some extent. I don’t know what to do for them. That’s part of the heartbreak.

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Always Simpler

Six years ago I had an idea. I thought it was simple. I set out to build it.

In my head, it would go like this:

Simple idea –> traction –> add a bit more complexity –> traction –> add a bit more complexity –> etc.

Eventually, this simple idea would be a massive mothership.

In reality, it went like this:

Simple idea –> little traction –> make it simpler –> little traction –> make it simpler –> bit of traction –> make it simpler –> almost meaningful traction –> make it simpler –> traction –> etc.

Eventually, the idea might be simple enough to be massive.

At every step, I thought I’d stripped to the bone. Made every non-core compromise. At every step, the big discovery and the big challenge was figuring out I hadn’t simplified enough.

The simpler a big idea or product, the harder it is to build.

I’m still trying to simplify every day.

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If You Hate it, You’re Not the Audience

A lot of people who work in venture capital hate the show Shark Tank.

They feel it portrays an unrealistic image of investing; one that will spread and cause viewers to misunderstand the business and then go on to make terrible choices because of it.

There’s definitely a bit of the Theoretical Man argument going on here, but it’s more than that. The investors who hate the show aren’t the show’s audience. They misunderstand the show’s purpose (besides to entertain).

They compare the show against what they would put in a TV show about investing, which is all the stuff they think is important. But they’re so deep in the business, they don’t realize how many steps a total noob must take to even understand what they consider basics.

I love Shark Tank. I used to watch it with my kids. It exposed them to tons of new concepts. The idea of building a business with someone else’s money was novel. The realization that you’ve got to have a story that’s compelling enough to convince the holders of that money to join. The concept of a “pitch”. The understanding that a good pitch and a good company aren’t always the same thing. The realization that investors can be wrong and can be jerks. And founders can be nice or idiots. The knowledge that investors might collaborate or compete with each other on deals while remaining friends.

It doesn’t even matter if the stories are real or realistic. Uninitiated viewers take away the basic insights. These are so basic that VCs forgot everyone doesn’t know them. But if someone doesn’t know it yet, there’s no way they’ll understand a Medium article about power laws and term sheets.

When you hate something popular, it’s prudent to pause and consider there’s probably something in it that is doing something for those who love it. You don’t have to love it, but it’s probably not supposed to serve your ends anyway. If you can discover the reason it brings value to others, you might navigate the world more effectively and enjoy it more.

(Still trying to understand this when it comes to Old Town Road. I’m not ready to give up yet…there must be something valuable in this song to those who like it).

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I Do Not Fear Flat Earthers

Someone Tweeted the other day that what scares them the most is the growth of anti-scientism among the public, as evidenced by things like the niche of people who believe the earth is flat.

My first reaction to any fearful claims about the state of the world today is skepticism about the superiority of the past. Flat earthers have always existed. I’m not sure if they have actually swelled in number, or just been given a temporary internet celebrity status as the meme of the moment.

But let’s just accept that it’s true. Let’s say anti-scientism is growing. Why is this scary?

I heard someone say if you pursue any field of study deep enough you arrive at mystery. Yet the popular scientistic outlook is the opposite of mysterious. It presents a cocksure, “Everything’s settled but the details, and someone in a lab in Sweden is working those out as we speak”. What kind of invitation to inquiry is that? Where’s the adventure?

There’s a sense in which popular scientism makes the world smaller, rather than more expansive. Specialization need not lead to reductionism, but the fashions in science feel that way.

The funny thing is, scientific thought has a checkered history if you judge it by it’s own standards of what’s scientific. How many of the big conceptual breakthroughs come from alchemists, drug-trippers, and people who prayed to gods or sought mediums? You might be surprised. How many looming figures admit in private discourse their fundamental bafflement with reality, and belief that something like mind, or spirit, or consciousness must be at work in ways that don’t fit the models?

There’s a kind of arrogant front put forward by the PR arm of intelligentsia. If a public company presented it’s business condition in such a way it would be considered fraudulent. The nice, tight, all-but-the-details presentation is not only boring and wrong, it runs counter to the zeitgeist.

The current trend is for openness and transparency. So much so that satirical labels like “Struggle porn” have popped up. Today, people want an unfiltered, rambling, three-hour drinking session on the Joe Rogan podcast instead of a well-written statement at a press conference. People want Medium articles about what it’s really like to run a startup, instead of post-IPO retrospectives. Some entrepreneurs have gotten famous by publishing their monthly income statements for all to see.

What about scientists? We’re confidently assured that they know how the world works, and if we wait patiently a few more years for some lab somewhere to tally some numbers no one’s allowed to see, and submit it to some journals no one can access, and let some anonymous referees behind closed doors approve it, it will see the dark of day and get improperly summarized in a news story and used as a bludgeon against anyone openly exploring other ideas.

No wonder mushroom-taking conspiracy YouTubers are more interesting to people!

I see the openness to fringe theories as a good thing. I think the best way to understand the world is to question it. The more fundamental the question, the better. It’s excellent mental exercise precisely because it’s so hard. If an intelligent 10 year old asked you to prove to them the earth was round, could you do it without appeals to authority? It’s shockingly difficult! And that is the kind of difficulty that should be embraced! That kind of question is the gateway to scientific understanding, and possibly breakthrough!

I say bring on the scientistic skepticism. Hopefully it keeps curiosity in the driver’s seat, rather than an obsessive illusion that we have everything neatly labelled and understood.

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Envy is No Fun

Competition is great. Inspiration is great. Anger can be great. A desire to win can be great. Frustration that others are getting what you’re not can be great. Envy is never great.

Envy is when some combo of the above moves to the next stage. The stage where the ill-fortune of others makes you happier in and of itself. It’s not about achieving something directly yourself, but about someone else failing. When the success of others, even if it doesn’t harm you directly, makes you less happy, you have an envy issue.

And it will eat you up. It will taint everything. You will become a monster. And you will have no fun.

You can tell yourself envy is motivation, but it’s not. It’s demotivating and destructive. It channels mental and emotional energy away from your own progress and towards the regress of others. It breeds the worst kind of day-dreaming. It shuts off the powerful perspective of possibility.

If you can find a way to reverse envy – to feel happier at the success of others – you’ll be unstoppable and have tons of fun.

*I reserve the right to wish sports-ill on my sports-enemies. That’s why I play the game of fandom. It’s a little world where all the irrational, tribalistic tendencies can be indulged without real-world harm. (Hopefully)

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School Will be Remembered Like Leeches and Cigarettes

We humans have little knowledge of the past or imagination for the future. Present bias makes us dumb, accepting creatures. We assume what is is what must be.

People think schooling and education are the same thing. This is revealed in the way statistics are presented. “Educational level” is measured by years spent in institutional schooling.

Yet school as we know it is only about 150 years old.

Wait, what? How did humans learn stuff the other several thousand years of civilization? How were 80% of colonial Americans literate with no standardized institutional schooling, and when books were rare and costly and most jobs didn’t even require reading? How did people invent stuff, start businesses, write books, create great art, and expand the corpus of human knowledge for thousands of years without certified teachers and grades and degrees?

Really we should ask the opposite. How does anyone retain any of the natural, insatiable human hunger for learning after years in compulsory academic prison cells?

Schooling is a blip on the learning radar in human history. It will die, then we’ll look back on it like other blips. Remember when smoking cigarettes was good for your health? Remember when leeches were needed to suck out the bad blood and cure disease? Remember when people all the sudden thought, despite thousands of years of evidence to the contrary, that nobody would learn anything without being stuck in cinder block cells for 50 minute segments and forced to turn the wonders of the universe into horrible tedium?

Weird epochs in human history.

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