Tonight’s book was Everything Is Obvious* which was cleverly subtitled *Once You Know The Answer with a special bonus subtitle How Common Sense Fails Us by Duncan Watts. And yes – for those of you keeping track at home, I didn’t read a book last night; I was working on mine instead.
I enjoyed this book. As I was reading it, I kept coming up with alternate titles like Everything is Bullshit, The Macro is Irrelevant, Humans Don’t Reason Well, Common Sense Fucks Us Up, Predictions are Useless, and Attributing Things To Abstract Collections of Stuff Like Crowds, Markets, Companies, etc. is Stupid.
Watts is a professor of sociology at Columbia University and a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research. For those of you who think social science is garbage, he’s also a real scientist with a PhD in theoretical and applied mechanics. Basically, he’s a smart, well educated dude who has strong reasoning skills and is an excellent writer.
This book reinforced several deeply held beliefs that I have:
- The macro doesn’t matter in the long run.
- Predictions are irrelevant.
- Most people don’t understand what they are doing or why they are doing it.
- Anything can be explained in hindsight, and the explanation is often wrong.
- The media introduces massive bias into most phenomenon so ignore the media if you really want to understand something.
- Trying things, measuring everything, and iterating aggressively is the best way to figure out what works.
There are probably others. Watts beautifully takes apart a bunch of stories that are viewed as either “common sense”, “conventional wisdom”, or “counter-intuitive truths.” It’s a beautiful thing to read him dissect the popularity of the Mona Lisa and Shakespeare in the same book that he explains why some of the nonsensical assertions of Malcolm Gladwell that are repeated as gospel (including the hilariously stupid Paul Revere / William Dawes analysis), followed by an explanation of the faulty reasoning around the spread of SARS.
The second half of the book is where the good stuff is. Part 1 is “Common Sense” and sets the stage by explaining how as humans we regularly misinterpret what’s going on for a variety of reasons, including our belief about what common sense is and how it works. Part 2 is “Uncommon Sense” and for those of you searching for tools on how to deal with the world more effectively, there is plenty of chocolately goodness here.
I have no idea how much of Watts analysis is actually correct, but his assertions about what blinds us, causes us to make crummy decisions, and results in us believing things we can’t possibly understand sang to me.
James Altucher is brilliant. Everyone on the planet should buy a copy of his new book I Was Blind But Now I See right now. You’ll likely hate some of it. Other parts will annoy you. Still others will seem simplistic, counterproductive, or just plain odd. But every page will make you think.
I met James for the first time at Defrag this year. Eric Norlin invited him. A few of my friends told me I had to see his talk. It was awesome. Now – a bunch of the Defrag talks were superb but James was early in the first day and he set the tone. I can’t remember whether he was before or after Tim Bray but they were back to back and all I remember after they were both done was exhaling a deep breath and saying to myself “fuck – that was great!”
James’ book was in my Defrag swag bag (legendary – one of the best anywhere) and I finally emptied it out the other day. I’m reading a book a day over the next two weeks and this was my book today.
It was perfect timing. On my 90 minute run today alone (no humans at all) in the mountains behind my house in Keystone, I kept thinking about SOPA. I’ve been incredibly agitated the last few days by SOPA after watching three hours of the House Judicial Committee hearing on Friday. SOPA is such an evil thing at so many levels and the people in the House that want it to happen appear to refuse to listen to facts or logic, and – when they talk about what they are confronted with – claim the facts and logic aren’t actually factual or logical. The noise in my brain about this kept drifting away as I thought to myself “how strange that there is snow only on the left side of the trail” or “I wonder if there will be any good movies next weekend since all the ones this weekend are shit” or “how awesome is it that there are no other humans out here” but then would be interrupted by angry thoughts about the chairman of the house judiciary committee who is the sponsor of this bill, the people on the house judiciary committee that are clearly “the henchman”, the absurd process that is unfolding – and then I’d start thinking about my breathing again and the fact that my heart rate was above 160 and that felt good.
James takes us through his chaotic mind, his successes and failures, his struggles and depressions, as he gets to the point where he very clearly tells us that only one thing really matters – one’s own happiness. He proceeds to describe a series of completely fucked up things that get in the way of it. He prescribes a very simple way to be happy, which includes a number of things I do and often suggest such as don’t watch TV, don’t read newspapers, exercise daily, get plenty of sleep, stretch your mind every day, ignore all the crappy people in the world, don’t worry about things you can’t impact, recognize that many parts of the macro (government, banks, education) are irrelevant to your well being, and don’t roll around in the mud with a pig.
But most of all he reminds us to just be honest all the time about everything. In my experience, this is the most liberating thing of all on the quest for happiness. Anyone who spends time with me knows I try to always do this regardless of the implications.
Be honest. Be happy. We all die eventually.
I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull for the first time in 1975 when I was about 10 years old. I’ve read it several times over the last 35 years, but probably hadn’t read it in over a decade. My first business partner, Dave Jilk (now the Standing Cloud founder / CEO), gave it to me as a birthday gift last week.
I just read it again and it was as powerful, inspiring, and enlightening as I remembered it. I’m often asked what books I’d recommend to an entrepreneur (especially an aspiring entrepreneur). There are two: Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Whenever we are in the upswing of an entrepreneurial cycle, like we are right now, I start seeing all kinds of weird stuff appear. Random people, who get notoriety for themselves, blow up. The media is aggressively negative presumably in the quest for getting readership. Entitlement behavior runs rampant. The quick buck artists appear. Money becomes a central topic of many conversations. Established companies and government suddenly wake up to the power of innovation and try to co-opt the energy. The word bubble becomes so popular that a bubble builds around using the word bubble.
The great entrepreneurs just keep building their companies. They focus relentlessly on their products, their customers, and their people. They create things that delight, take chances, make mistakes, and iterate as they, and their organizations, get better. They just keep at it and the very best ones shut out and ignore all the noise. And they learn, and learn, and learn.
Just like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Young Jonathan realizes he is different and then outcast, but he discovers himself. He then discovers others like him, including his great mentors. He learns, experiments, tries new things, makes mistakes, and learns. And learns. And then he becomes the mentor and teaches other young seagulls to discover themselves. Throughout, he does what he loves the most – he flies, and practices, and learns.
If you are an entrepreneur, take one hour out of your day this week and read Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And then spend another hour, alone, thinking about it. I assure you that it’ll be worth the time.
A few weeks ago a guest post titled Minimum Viable Personality appeared on Fred Wilson’s blog. The author was a Giant Robot Dinosaur who has been dishing out wisdom in all caps in the comments on Fred’s blog for a long time. I’m a huge fan of FAKEGRIMLOCK, occasionally commenting on his comments, but often laughing out loud or smiling with recognition of their brilliance when I saw them. And, I grinned with relief when I finally made his #NOEATFRIDAY list.
Recently, while pondering how Yoda would deal with Optimus Prime, I got a tweet from FAKEGRIMLOCK asking if I wanted a guest post from him. Without hesitation I said yes. Following in all its awesomeness (with illustrations), is another missive from my favorite Dinobot.
BE ON FIRE
WORLD FULL OF IDEA. ALL NEED IS BRAIN. MOST HUMANS HAVE BRAIN.
IDEA BY SELF IS COLD. JUST SIT THERE. DO NOTHING.
IF WANT DO SOMETHING, NEED FIRE.
NEED BE ON FIRE.
WHY BURNING MATTER
MAKE STARTUP HARD. IT HARD BECAUSE YOU WRONG. YOU FAIL.
FAIL COLD? GO HOME. QUIT.
YOU NOT QUIT. YOU BURN. FAIL IS FUEL. MORE FAIL, MORE BURN. BURN FAIL UNTIL ONLY WIN LEFT.
THAT WHY BURNING MATTER. NOTHING STOP PERSON ON FIRE. NOT SLEEP. NOT SICK. NOT BROKE. NOT BULLET. NOT END OF EARTH.
FIRE MAKE SMOKE
ANGER IS SMOKE. FIRE DESTROY. DESTROY MAKE NEW THINGS GROW. COLD PEOPLE HATE FIRE. NO ONE WANT TO BE FERTILIZER. FIRE NOT CARE.
LOYALTY IS SMOKE. PEOPLE FOLLOW FIRE, GET HOT. NOTHING STOP PERSON ON FIRE. PERSON ON FIRE WRAPPED IN HOT CROWD? THAT FIRE CHANGE WORLD.
WIN IS SMOKE. PERSON ON FIRE NOT CARE ABOUT WIN. NOT CARE ABOUT MONEY, FAME. WIN HAPPEN WHEN BUSY DO THINGS THAT MATTER. THINGS ON FIRE.
WHERE IS FIRE? LOOK FOR ANGER. MIDDLE OF ANGER IS CHANGE. MIDDLE OF CHANGE IS HOT CROWD. MIDDLE OF HOT CROWD IS WIN. MIDDLE OF WIN IS FIRE.
HOW MAKE FIRE?
WORLD IS BROKEN. FIX IT.
RIGHT IDEA HARD. RIGHT IDEA HURT. RIGHT IDEA IS HOLE IN WORLD.
RIGHT IDEA MAKE BURN INSIDE TO FIX. CAN TAKE DAY OFF FROM IDEA? IT WRONG ONE.
FIND IDEA THAT BURN, GRAB WITH BOTH HANDS, NEVER LET GO.
THAT HOW MAKE FIRE.
YOU MUST BURN
EVERYONE THINK WAY TO STARTUP IS TALENT + IDEA + MONEY.
STARTUP NOT ABOUT MAKE THING, SELL THING. STARTUP ABOUT CHANGE WORLD.
WORLD IS COLD. YOU MUST LIGHT WORLD ON FIRE.
YOU. MUST. BURN.
In order to stay on the #NOEATFRIDAY list, I promised FAKEGRIMLOCK that this would be licensed under Creative Commons. Anyone can do anything they want with this, including FAKEGRIMLOCK (as long as no infinite loops are created.)
Last night I had the pleasure of talking at a dinner at Emily White’s house. Emily is on the board of the National Center of Women & Information Technology with me, is ex-Google, currently at Facebook, and with her husband Brian are amazing hosts. We had a fascinating group of NCWIT board members as well as a bunch of local entrepreneurs and members of the bay area entrepreneurial ecosystem who had a connection either to Emily or to me. The environment, food, and evening was delightful, and I led a discussion about a wide variety of topics after doing a 30 minute space jam in answer to Emily’s lead off question of “So Brad, what’s on your mind?”
We covered a lot of stuff around entrepreneurship, creators, the magic of doing things, the importance of asking “why”, and my belief that we are in the midst of a massive societal behavior shift. One of the questions that a long time friend asked was something like “My daughter is in high school and worries about the path she needs to be on to make sure when she gets out of college that she gets a good job. If you were me, what would you tell her?”
I don’t have kids so I don’t really feel qualified to answer this from a parents perspective, but I answered it with a story of three key things my dad said to me between the ages of 10 and 17 that had a profound impact on what I’ve done and how I live my life.
Age 10: You can do anything you want: My dad is a doctor. He came home for dinner every night but would often go back to the hospital in the evening (and on weekend) to do rounds and visit patients. Until I was 10 I’d often go with him. I loved hanging out with him, would bring a book, and plop down at the nurses station and read while I waited for him to go about his business. At 10, I decided I had no interest in being a doctor. I didn’t like the way hospitals smelled, I didn’t like the noise and the chaos, and I lost interest in all the doctors I was meeting. I remember telling my dad that I didn’t want to be a doctor. I blurted it out – think of a very nervous 10 year old just spitting out “Dad – I don’t want to be a doctor.” I remember my dad looking me in the eye and saying very clearly, “Brad – that’s ok – you can do anything you want to do.”
Age 13: We didn’t want to discourage you so we were supportive: When I was 10 – 13 I was a serious tennis play. I played all the time and was on the Texas junior tennis circuit. I was pretty good – consistently getting to the quarterfinals in singles and occasionally the semifinals. When I turned 13 I bought a computer for my bar mitzvah. I also hit puberty and discovered girls. I lost interest in tennis. Recently I was talking to dad about this and wondered what he thought at the time. He said that he and my mom were supportive of my tennis, but were relieved when I decided to quit playing. They were sick of schlepping me around Highway 80 and other places in Texas to spend the whole weekend watching me play, scream and yell, throw my racket, and then mope when I eventually lost. He said “I didn’t want to discourage you, so we were supportive, but we were relieved when you went down a different path.”
Age 17: Give it a year: My first two months at MIT were awful. I was homesick – all my friends, including my girlfriend, had gone to UT Austin. I got a 20 on my first physics test and went in my room for an hour and cried. I was completely overwhelmed by Cambridge and Boston – the people, the dirt, and the hustle of the city. The fraternity I lived in was filthy. The early winter chill startled me. And I thought Dallas, where I grew up, was the greatest place on early. My parents came and visited me in mid-October for a weekend. We were walking around on a crisp fall day in Concord, MA when I told them I hated MIT and wanted to drop out and go to UT with all of my friends. We talked to for a while – with my parents mostly listening – and then my dad said “You’ve only been here two months. Give it a year. If you still hate it after a year, switch to UT. But give it enough time to really understand it.” I ended up staying at MIT, getting two degrees, dropping out of a PhD program (I finally got to achieve my desire to drop out), and – while many of my days at MIT were brutal, I ended up loving the experience and treasure the impact it has had on my life.
I’m really lucky to have parents who have been awesome and incredibly supportive of me. When I reflect on the things that shaped the path I’ve taken, it was often short little one liners like these at a critical moment. My dad was just magical with his timing and his message. I can only hope I can be as good as he is.
My friend Dov Seidman, the CEO of LRN, has a new edition of his book How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything out. In this copy, the forward is by President Bill Clinton, who has firmly embraced Dov’s philosophy of HOW.
We’ve been investors in Dov’s company LRN for the past decade and over the last five years I’ve gotten to know Dov and his wife Maria pretty well. They are a dynamic entrepreneurial couple, as Maria is founder / CEO of a new company called Yapp. In addition to being hard at work creating their companies and raising a family, they both live incredibly principled lives. How they do this is embodied in Dov’s philosophy about HOW.
Ever since I’ve know Dov, he’s talked about the importance of HOW. Not what, not why, not how much – just simply HOW. We’ve had our share of long conversations about a variety of topics, but they all come back to the HOW of things.
Dov believes that HOW is everything. It’s not what you do that matters, but how you do it. LRN exists to help businesses understand and incorporate this concept, as the historical approach to business has been all about “how much”, and if you read, ponder, think carefully about, and internalize Dov’s writing and philosophy, you quickly realize that “how much” is irrelevant when lined up against HOW as a construct.
While this applies to business, it also applies to life. My favorite part of working with and talking to Dov is just letting our conversations go wherever they want. While we occasionally stay focused on business, we often drift into wide ranging discussions about our individual lives, HOW we address things, and HOW it all works, and HOW we think about it.
Sure, there is plenty of why and what and where and who in our conversations, and I continue to be a very strong believer in the use of the five whys (continually asking why to get to the root cause of things), but I’m also a deep believer in asking about and focusing on the HOW.
I have dinner with Dov on Monday night and am looking forward to it very much. In the mean time, I encourage you to get a copy of How, read it thoughtfully, and think hard about the HOW in everything you do.
I had several conversations with entrepreneurs this week who were struggling with a specific issue that had plagued them for a while. In each case these are strong, capable entrepreneurs who I’ve known for a long time. As with all entrepreneurs (and humans), they have strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots. In each case, I felt like self-doubt had crept into their brains around the specific weakness they were struggling with.
On the way to the airport, I had call with another entrepreneur that I work with. Same tenor – something that he’s struggled with for a while was causing him to lose confidence. We talked most of the way to the airport and by the end of the conversation, it was clear that, while this is an issue that has been a struggle for a while, it’s one that this person has actually done a good job on, but just has never crushed it. The frustration – over a period of time – started to morph into self doubt.
When I realized this, I gave him some specific suggestions, using the frame of reference of “inquiry.” This is how I deal with my own self doubt. Whenever I find myself struggling with something that I think is important, I go on an inquiry to learn as much as I can about the issue, figure out what I’m struggling with, figure out a solution that works for me, and then implement it. I’ve done this numerous times in my life – sometimes the inquiries are short (24 hours); other times they last a decade or more.
When I thought about what might be generating this self doubt in otherwise successful, smart, and intellectually / emotionally strong people, I realized that the context that we are in is often a driver. Suddenly lots of companies are having what appears to be success and rapid growth. If you are an entrepreneur and you are not running one of these, even if you are experienced and successful, it’s easily to start to doubt yourself. This is especially true when you find yourself in a bumpy spot in your business.
Perspective matters a lot at these moments. I’ve had a lot of successes and failures. Whenever I fail at something, I just get up, try to learn something from it, and try again. But I don’t benchmark myself against others – I don’t care where I am on any particular list, I don’t care what other people are saying, I don’t care what is written about me (good or bad). I just try to learn from each experience and get better. And, when I realize that I’m doubting my ability to do something, I double down on the notion of figuring it out and use an inquiry to get me there.
After reflecting over the past few weeks on Turning 45 as well as Death and Dying, I’ve reached a conclusion that I’ve said out loud several times: “My life is most likely more than half over.” The singularity not withstanding, the chances, at least today, that I’ll live to be over 90 aren’t great.
Over the weekend, I saw two blog posts from friends – one from Joanne Wilson about her mom passing away titled Judy Solomon, Entrepreneur and one from Ken Smith (I’m actually close to Ken’s brother Keith, the CEO of BigDoor) titled A Eulogy for Elmer Smith. Both are beautifully written – Judy was 73 and Elmer was 97. Joanne starts off with a very insightful statement:
“Old enough to have lived a full life yet young enough to have had her life cut short. I always thought she would live to the ripe old age of 90 something, but life doesn’t always turn out as expected. “
Several of you recommended that I read Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy – Until You’re 80 and Beyond. It was one of the books I read during my week off the grid the first week of December and I enjoyed it a lot.
It had two key graphs in it. The first is the normal “human being decay cycle.” Basically, at the age of 45, most humans start a long, slow, gradual decay ending in death.
The second is the “desired decay cycle.”
The book talks about how to live your life from 45 forward so you experience the second curve. As Amy likes to say, there are usually only a few things you need to do to accomplish physical health (e.g. if you want to lose weight, (1) eat less and (2) exercise more.) In this case, it’s (1) don’t eat crap and (2) exercise six days a week, at least two of them with weights.
There’s a lot more in the book, including plenty of real medical, health, and physiology explanations from Dr, Harry Lodge (the co-author). But just internalizing these graphs along with the two tips from the book have enabled me to re-commit to the six-day a week exercise approach (at least two of them with weights).
I sure do like the second graph a lot better than the first graph.
Two colleagues have died suddenly in the past two weeks – one was in his 60’s and one was in his 50’s. Both shook me up. A close friend’s mother is very ill. And a close friend’s father died earlier this year.
I’ve had a physical challenging year. I ran a marathon in February and was geared up for a lot of running and then hurt my back. Seven months later I’m better, but I had five months of solid and consistent pain (never getting below a two on a 0 to 10 scale and often reaching eight or nine.) On top of that, I’ve had a few nasty colds, including a staph infection in my earlobe that scared the shit out of at least one doctor. Oh, and two weeks ago my extrovert completely burned out.
When I read the title to Fred Wilson’s blog this morning (Pacing Yourself) I thought he was going to talk about “personal pace.” His post ended up being about investment pace (and is a very important one), but it has deep roots in personal pace, even if they aren’t obvious on the surface.
I’m turning 45 in a few weeks and this is the first year of my life that I’ve felt any amount of sustainable physical fatigue. Every year I run extremely “hot” until I burn out, but then I recover in a week or so of deep sleep and rest. Suddenly, however, I’m feeling tired on a more regular basis. My binge sleeping on the weekend is reaching new levels. It takes me a few days to recover from a redeye (and, as a result I’ve decided not to take them anymore.) The periodic intervention from my partners about “pushing too hard” seems to be turning into an annual affair.
Fear of death motivates a lot of human behavior. I’d like to believe that I’m tranquil about death (when my number is up, it’s up) and when I read posts like Regrets of the Dying (thanks @djilk) I smile and feel good about how I approach my life. But this year feels like a transformative one for me as I am suddenly acknowledging that I’m probably not in the first half of my life anymore.
I had a couple of dreams that past few days about death and dying and good versus evil. I’m 99.9% confident these dreams are a result of me watching the Star Wars episodes over the past five days (Return of the Jedi is tonight – then I’ll be done). As I come out of my latest burnout cycle, I’m starting to ponder how and what to adjust so that year 45 if a healthier one than 44 and doesn’t have a burnout week (or month) in it.
On page 89, the book’s unnamed protagonist said “My brain hurts.” I thought to myself, so does mine.
God’s Debris is Scott Adams’ first non-fiction book (yes, that Scott Adams, the father of Dilbert.) Well – it might be fiction, it might be philosophy, or it might be a novella. Or maybe it’s something else. But it’s fascinating. And challenging. But short. It was tonight’s book (although the night is still relatively young so I’ll get started on the next one in a few minutes.)
This is not a religious book, nor is it a slam (or endorsement) of religion. It is, in Adams’ words, a thought experiment. One of the two characters is an old man who turns out to know everything. He explains, through a series of short chapters on different subjects, all of the great mysteries of life. While it’s easy to argue with some of his assertions, the old man (who turns out to be called The Avatar) explains things in a simple way that – while not bulletproof – is compelling. Some of the chapter titles give you a quick feel for what is going to be covered: Free Will, Science, Where is Free Will Located?, Genuine Belief, Delusion Generator, Reincarnation, UFOs, and God, Free Will of a Penny, Evolution, Skeptics’ Disease, ESP and Luck, Light, Willpower, Holy Lands, and Relationships.
When I finished it, I hopped on Wikipedia and discovered that Scott Adams wrote a sequel called The Religion War. I really want to read it on my Kindle but it’s only available in physical form so the atoms are now in the mail to me.