Life By Subscription

Once upon a time some busybody do-gooder paternalists said stuff like, “We need taxpayer money going to support music halls and concerts, because it is important that all citizens have access to good music, not just people with enough money.” (Never mind that most people don’t really care to go to the symphony or listen to NPR.)

Now for free anyone can listen to any music in the world on Spotify. For $10 a month, you can do all kinds of advanced stuff, no ads, special playlists, and hey, even listen to music selected by experts, bureaucrats, and NPR if you want to!

The idea that a monolithic monopoly needs to provide all kinds of services whether we want them or not is stupid. It’s always been stupid. But it’s easier to see the stupid now that our lives are comprised of a growing web of voluntary subscription services and Amazon delivers everything for free.

I look forward to the world of SaaS everything. Governance, dispute resolution, protection, insurances of all kinds, education, infrastructure, and more.

I’d like to pick and choose what services to pay for and at what level. The ability to do so will not only make every individual’s life better and cheaper now, it will create clear signals and incentives for providers to innovate and compete and build new stuff we’ve never imagined, easier, cheaper, better.

Sign me up.

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The Delicate Art of Listening but not Listening

“If I asked people what they wanted, the would’ve said a faster horse.” — Maybe Henry Ford

Changing the world means showing people something they couldn’t tell you that they needed.

Nevermind. They can and do tell you what they need. Just in the wrong language.

People will tell you what they need in a language composed of what they see around them. You need to listen carefully to the meaning but ignore the language. When they tell you “faster horse”, you listen and take it seriously as a clue to a problem while ignoring it completely as a solution.

Why faster? What does a horse do? Get you from A to B. OK. That’s a real problem people are telling you they want solved. Better A to B travel. Listen to that. But ignore the word “Horse”. That’s a solution word. For real innovation, you don’t want to listen to their solutions, only their problems.

If their solution was awesome, it’d probably already exist. But their problem is a source of all kinds of inspiration and opportunity.

This is a weird kind of listening. You can’t play the tortured creator who hates consumers because they demand things you think are crappy. The consumer is king and deserves utmost attention and respect.

But you can’t treat them as a solution generator either, and focus group your way to innovation by asking them to design it for you.

Your job is to be more keyed in on the problems people feel than anyone else. Listen to the pain. Your next job is to be less keyed in on the expected and proposed solutions than anyone else. Ignore the remedies.

That’s how you change the world. Introduce something nobody was asking for but everyone was asking for.

Easy, right? 😉

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What Intelligence and Insanity Have in Common

The brain’s ability to make connections.

There are many forms of intelligence. But all of them I can think of have a lot to do with making connections.

Mechanical intelligence sees the connections between parts of a machine. Social intelligence sees connections between people. Physical intelligence makes connections between actions and re-actions. Creative intelligence sees connections between disparate ideas. Entrepreneurial intelligence sees connections between different goods or services, or a new nexus between supply and demand.

A low intelligence person takes the discreet items in the world individually at face value. A high intelligence person sees causal chains, analogies, parallels, and processes that bind the discreet items in various webs.

If you’ve ever witnessed a high connections person in action, it’s fun and surprising. Where most people would see an umbrella over the lunch table, they’d see a wooden pole with canvas, think about their friend who sails boats, wonder about the material that makes sales vs. table umbrellas, then parachutes, then the different levels of wind-flow needed in each application. Before long they’re working out how you might have a single supplier for each item, or a new kind of material. This is how theories and businesses begin.

Our brain dices the world into discreet units for a reason. Seeing connections is a super power, but it can also be a curse. If you can’t unsee them, and your brain goes on a high speed runaway connection binge, you might lose your grip. Each event, object, and activity cannot be encountered and engaged discreetly if your brain is reeling six levels deep on connections.

There’s a reason meditative or hallucinogenic states where everything feels connected and all is one cannot persist while you try to brush your teeth and go to the office. Most of life is encountered in bites. And most of it has to be.

I think conspiracy theorists and paranoiacs have a ton of connection intelligence, but not a strong enough dissection filter. They see too many connections too much of the time. Pretty soon, everything reminds of everything else. Hence things like the “Illuminati confirmed” meme, where every shape, color, name, and logo on every product and commercial gets quickly connected to some kind of other symbol with occult meaning.

People often accuse paranoid conspiracy types of being stupid, or failing to see the meaning of things. The problem is they see too much meaning. They can’t stop seeing meaning.

The trope of the mad scientist, or brilliant mathematician who descends into ravings with old age show the same problem. Too many connections.

But there’s something interesting going on in there too. These are not stupid people, or people to dismiss out of hand. They see too many connections to handle, many of which aren’t useful. But they see a lot of useful connections the rest of us miss in our fragmented world. There’s insight to be found here.

I’m not sure exactly how to cultivate the ability to make connections and guard against connection overload at the same time. But I suspect most of us are in far more danger of making too few connections than too many.

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What If You Killed the What-Ifs?

I was talking to a friend this morning who was in a bad place. He’d forgotten to do some work over the weekend, and he wondered how to handle the inevitable let down when his supervisor found out.

He asked what he should do. I asked what his options were.

He said there were two. He could try to fake that he’d done the work and do a terrible job on his deliverables. Or he could preemptively fess up, say sorry, and ask how best to make it up this week.

I said option two sounded like it had a higher probability of limiting the damage than option one.

He responded with a series of ‘What ifs’. He was imagining all the bad things that might happen. I said okay, what about option one? Same what ifs.

I asked him if he could control what the supervisor did in response to whatever approach he chose. He said no. I said, “Then forget the what ifs. They are irrelevant. They’ll happen regardless. Focus on what you can control and pick the course of action with the highest probability for the least painful outcome. Then stop thinking about it.”

He felt paralyzed by the what ifs. Stressing over eventualities he couldn’t control froze his decision making process. He was going to default to option one, not because he thought it was better, but because he never had time to think clearly and choose due to all the worry about what might happen two steps down the road.

Kill the what ifs. Take the step in front of you based on the best evidence you have. See what happens. Take in the feedback. Adjust. Choose the next step.

That’s it. It really is that simple. But it’s hard. We worry a lot about many things out of our control, or only potentially in our control in the future based on a series of responses out of our control.

If you want less stress, think about fewer things. But think about them well.

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If You Want Clear Thinking, Get Money Involved

I talk to so many young people who cannot think clearly about life decisions.

Most of the time, it’s because they have too little money involved.

I don’t really want to go to college, but maybe I have to?

I’m not sure if I should take this job because it might not be my passion?

Do I really want to move to a new city?

Those questions get a lot clearer when mom and dad aren’t paying tuition, paying for your car and cell phone, or providing a rent-free living space.

College is the easiest and most extreme example. Ask a young person who’s tepid on the idea of attending and they’ll torture themselves trying to work through the pros and cons. Then say, “It will cost you $50,000. You’ve got to come up with that on your own.” All of the sudden, it looks like a ridiculously stupid deal. Because it is.

College savings accounts from mom and dad blind young people to the truth of their situation. Something everyone else says is important, and it’s “free”, becomes too hard to turn down, even though you know it’s not going to move you closer to your goals.

The more skin in the game young people have the sooner, the better they’ll get at self-knowledge, analysis, risk-taking, and decision making.

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The History of History

It would be interesting, though very difficult, to study how history changes.

I don’t mean how the sequence of human events changes from the present into the future, I mean how the past changes. Since it exists only in memory from our present perspective, the stories we believe about the past are the past. But those stories aren’t fixed. They change all the time.

I’ve seen some books and studies that look at a few historical events and document the ways in which history textbooks dealt with them in, say, the 1950s vs today. The changes are often dramatic, but presented in a deadpan Orwellian fashion as if it has always been this way, nevermind what we used to say.

And it is of course true that history is mostly written by those on reasonably favorable terms with the dominant political powers. When those change, histories also change.

Imagine if the German army had won World War II, or the Soviet Union had won a nuclear showdown with the United States. Do you think the dominant historical narrative would be the same? Not only would the telling of those conflicts be different, but the story of all previous history would be different. There is little reason to believe our current historical story is any less biased.

And in most cases, you can’t easily go to the evidence to prove which version is true. Evidence is scant. Most of history, especially ancient history, is based on one or two fragments or artifacts that get translated by one or two people who then get referenced by others who get referenced. If you wanted to find out whether a particular ancient figure was real, you might find the best you could get was someone who wrote a story about them, and it’s unclear whether the story was intended as fiction. There is no harder evidence for many things in history.

This does not make history a scandal or conspiracy, but it ought to cause humility. It needn’t cause paranoia about being lied to. In fact, I find it thrilling. It means the world is full of so much more mystery than we assume if we simply accept dominant narratives as provably true.

It is useful to think probabilistically about history (and everything else). If you experience something firsthand, you can be certain it happened. If a trusted friend relays a story, you might be slightly less certain. By the time you’re hearing fifteenth-hand someone referencing an nineteenth century scholar’s belief about when the Sumerians built the Ziggurats based on one type of textual analysis, the probability is it totally accurate should be a lot lower.

In Orwell’s dystopia, history gets changed by the politically powerful at moments notice by changing the official story. While I do think it’s easier than most of us assume to change the dominant historical narrative, it takes a lot more than changing some government documents or publicly funded textbooks. Academics and professional historians are the easier part. Artists and novelists are the more important part.

When you think about the American West, or Ancient Egypt, or Medieval Europe, you have a lot of ideas that are pretty coherent and consistent with other people’s ideas about these things. While most are not contradicted by history books, they didn’t originate there. It’s not the source material that causes us to believe historical narratives as much as it is the fictional narratives built on top of it. Even though we know A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a fictional narrative (built on top of another at least mostly fictional narrative of Arthur), the historical setting becomes a little more real in our brain every time a fictional story uses it as a backdrop.

A handful of movies like Jurassic Park that portray dinosaurs as predecessors to birds probably do more to make that part of the historical narrative than whatever studies or researchers they are referencing.

On the one hand, the power of art and fiction to shape our beliefs about the past is a bit troubling. I takes very little evidence from very few sources for a bunch of stories to spin up and make us believe things with higher probability than warranted, simply because it is repeated in so many stories on top of stories.

On the other hand, it’s cause for comfort. It’s empowering. I means an Orwellian regime is going to have a harder time controlling the past. Sure, they can handle the subsidy-sucking professoratti, but to control the narratives of all the artists and story-tellers? A Herculean task. In fact, the inability to control rebel creatives has brought down many a dictatorship.

History is not a fixed thing. Our knowledge is so slim. This makes probabalistic thinking important. It makes the stories we tell important. It makes the lenses through which we view the past important.

History has a history. The way it’s presented today might not be better than it once was or could be. It’s useful to think about ways it might better be told and understood.

(Bonus: Here’s a great video on ways of seeing the past.)

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