Author Archives: Ben Casnocha

Book Notes: The Undoing Project

Michael Lewis is one of the highest paid writers in the world, and virtually every piece of writing I read of his is a reminder as to why. His latest book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, is a stellar story about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s pathbreaking research in psychology.

So many popular modern ideas about psychology and cognitive bias and happiness came from Kahneman and Tversky. So many phrases and heuristics and frameworks I have cited without knowing the researchers who first discovered them, who coined them, who explained them: these two!

The book is also a fascinating psychological profile of a partnership between two brilliant men. Lewis refers to it as a non-sexual love story, with all the corresponding ups and downs.

My highlights below — bold font is my own.


Later, when basketball scouts came to him looking for jobs, the trait he looked for was some awareness that they were seeking answers to questions with no certain answers—that they were inherently fallible. “I always ask them, ‘Who did you miss?’” he said. Which future superstar had they written off, or which future bust had they…

He had a diffidence about him—an understanding of how hard it is to know anything for sure. The closest he came to certainty was in his approach to making decisions. He never simply went with his first thought. He suggested a new definition of the nerd: a person who knows his own mind well enough to mistrust it.

“Knowledge is literally prediction,” said Morey. “Knowledge is anything that increases your ability to predict the outcome. Literally everything you do you’re trying to predict the right thing. Most people just do it subconsciously.”

Soon Morey noticed something else: A scout watching a player tended to form a near-instant impression, around which all other data tended to organize itself. “Confirmation bias,” he’d heard this called. The human mind was just bad at seeing things it did not expect to see, and a bit too eager to see what it expected to see.

In some strange way people, at least when they were judging other people, saw what they expected to see and were slow to see what they hadn’t seen before. How bad was the problem? When Jeremy Lin’s coach at the New York Knicks finally put him in the game—because everyone else was injured—and allowed him to light up Madison Square Garden, the Knicks were preparing to release Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin had already decided that if he was released he’d simply quit basketball altogether. That’s how bad the problem was: that a very good NBA player would never have been given a serious chance to play in the NBA, simply because the minds of experts had concluded he did not belong. How many other Jeremy Lins were out there?

“His defining emotion is doubt,” said one of his former students. “And it’s very useful. Because it makes him go deeper and deeper and deeper.”

And that’s pretty much what Danny Kahneman remembered, or chose to remember, when asked about his childhood. From the age of seven he had been told to trust no one, and he’d obliged.

Presented with two lines of equal length, the eye is tricked into seeing one as being longer than the other. Even after you prove to people, with a ruler, that the lines are identical, the illusion persists: They’ll insist that one line still looks longer than the other. If perception had the power to overwhelm reality in such a simple case, how much power might it have in a more complicated one?

The University of Michigan psychologist Dick Nisbett, after he’d met Amos, designed a one-line intelligence test: The sooner you figure out that Amos is smarter than you are, the smarter you are.

Shore asked him how he had become a psychologist. “It’s hard to know how people select a course in life,” Amos said. “The big choices we make are practically random. The small choices probably tell us more about who we are. Which field we go into may depend on which high school teacher we happen to meet. Who we marry may depend on who happens to be around at the right time of life. On the other hand, the small decisions are very systematic. That I became a psychologist is probably not very revealing. What kind of psychologist I am may reflect deep traits.”

The reigning theories in psychology of how people made judgments about similarity all had one thing in common: They were based on physical distance.

People thought Tel Aviv was like New York but that New York was not like Tel Aviv.

People thought that the number 103 was sort of like the number 100, but that 100 wasn’t like 103. People thought a toy train was a lot like a real train but that a real train was not like a toy train.

“The directionality and asymmetry of similarity relations are particularly noticeable in similes and metaphors,” Amos wrote. “We say ‘Turks fight like tigers’ and not ‘tigers fight like Turks.’

“It is generally assumed that classifications are determined by similarities among the objects,” wrote Amos, before offering up an opposing view: that “the similarity of objects is modified by the manner in which they are classified.

A banana and an apple seem more similar than they otherwise would because we’ve agreed to call them both fruit. Things are grouped together for a reason, but, once they are grouped, their grouping causes them to seem more like each other than they otherwise would. That is, the mere act of classification reinforces stereotypes. If you want to weaken some stereotype, eliminate the classification.

What Europeans often said about Americans—how wildly informal and improvisational they were—was, to her, even more true of Israelis.

Danny was then helping the Israeli Air Force to train fighter pilots. He’d noticed that the instructors believed that, in teaching men to fly jets, criticism was more useful than praise. They’d explained to Danny that he only needed to see what happened after they praised a pilot for having performed especially well, or criticized him for performing especially badly. The pilot who was praised always performed worse the next time out, and the pilot who was criticized always performed better. Danny watched for a bit and then explained to them what was actually going on: The pilot who was praised because he had flown exceptionally well, like the pilot who was chastised after he had flown exceptionally badly, simply were regressing to the mean. They’d have tended to perform better (or worse) even if the teacher had said nothing at all. An illusion of the mind tricked teachers—and probably many others—into thinking that their words were less effective when they gave pleasure than when they gave pain. Statistics wasn’t just boring numbers; it contained ideas that allowed you to glimpse deep truths about human life. “Because we tend to reward others when they do well and punish them when they do badly, and because there is regression to the mean,” Danny later wrote,

The only way to understand a mechanism such as the eye, he thought, was by studying the mistakes that it made. Error wasn’t merely instructive; it was the key that might unlock the deep nature of the mechanism. “How do you understand memory?” he asked. “You don’t study memory. You study forgetting.”

Anne Treisman was on a flying visit to Harvard, where the demand to hear what she had to say was so great that her talk had to be moved to a big public lecture hall off campus. Danny left the talk filled with new enthusiasm. He asked to be deputized to look after Treisman and her traveling party—which included her mother, her husband, and their two small children. He gave them a tour of Harvard. “He was very eager to impress,” said Treisman, “and so I let myself be impressed.” It would be years before Danny and Anne left their marriages and married each other, but it took no time at all for Danny to engage Treisman’s ideas.

In very large populations, the law of large numbers did indeed guarantee this result. If you flipped a coin a thousand times, you were more likely to end up with heads or tails roughly half the time than if you flipped it ten times. For some reason human beings did not see it that way. “People’s intuitions about random sampling appear to satisfy the law of small numbers, which asserts that the law of large numbers applies to small numbers as well,” Danny and Amos wrote.

An old friend of Amos’s would later recall, “Amos would say, ‘People are not so complicated. Relationships between people are complicated.’ And then he would pause, and say: ‘Except for Danny.’”

For instance, in families with six children, the birth order B G B B B B was about as likely as G B G B B G. But Israeli kids—like pretty much everyone else on the planet, it would emerge—naturally seemed to believe that G B G B B G was a more likely birth sequence. Why? “The sequence with five boys and one girl fails to reflect the proportion of boys and girls in the population,” they explained. It was less representative. What is more, if you asked the same Israeli kids to choose the more likely birth order in families with six children—B B B G G G or G B B G B G—they overwhelmingly opted for the latter. But the two birth orders are equally likely.

Amos liked to say that if you are asked to do anything—go to a party, give a speech, lift a finger—you should never answer right away, even if you are sure that you want to do it. Wait a day, Amos said, and you’ll be amazed how many of those invitations you would have accepted yesterday you’ll refuse after you have had a day to think it over. A corollary to his rule for dealing with demands upon his time was his approach to situations from which he wished to extract himself…who finds himself stuck at some boring meeting or cocktail party often finds it difficult to invent an excuse to flee. Amos’s rule, whenever he wanted to leave any gathering, was to just get up and leave. Just start walking and you’ll be surprised how creative you will become and how fast you’ll find the words for your excuse, he said.

It confirmed Biederman’s sense that “most advances in science come not from eureka moments but from ‘hmmm, that’s funny.’”

Across North America, more people died every year as a result of preventable accidents in hospitals than died in car crashes—which was saying something.

Bad things even happened to people when they pressed hospital elevator buttons. Redelmeier had actually co-written an article about that: “Elevator Buttons as Unrecognized Sources of Bacterial Colonization in Hospitals.” For one of his studies, he had swabbed 120 elevator buttons and 96 toilet seats at three big Toronto hospitals and produced evidence that the elevator buttons were far more likely to infect you with some disease.

Whenever a patient recovered, for instance, the doctor typically attributed the recovery to the treatment he had prescribed, without any solid evidence that the treatment was responsible. Just because the patient is better after I treated him doesn’t mean he got better because I treated him, Redelmeier thought. “So many diseases are self-limiting,” he said. “They will cure themselves. People who are in distress seek care. When they seek care, physicians feel the need to do something. You put leeches on; the condition improves. And that can propel a lifetime of leeches. A lifetime of overprescribing antibiotics. A lifetime of giving tonsillectomies to people with ear infections. You try it and they get better the next day and it is so compelling. You go to see a psychiatrist and your depression improves—you are convinced of the efficacy of psychiatry.”

By the end of Redelmeier’s medical training, seven years later, researchers had shown that heart attack patients whose arrhythmia was suppressed died more often than the ones whose condition went untreated. No one explained why doctors, for years, had opted for a treatment that systematically killed patients—though proponents of evidence-based medicine were beginning to look to the work of Kahneman and Tversky for possible explanations.

Surgery was more likely to extend your life, but, unlike radiation, it came with the small risk of instant death. When you told people that they had a 90 percent chance of surviving surgery, 82 percent of patients opted for surgery. But when you told them that they had a 10 percent chance of dying from the surgery—which was of course just a different way of putting the same odds—only 54 percent chose the surgery.

The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours. It is sometimes easier to make the world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place.

A man whom no one would ever have described as happy was setting out, to the wonder of those who knew him, to discover the rules of happiness.

An hour after the procedure, the researchers entered the recovery room and asked the patients to rate their experience. Those who had been given the less unhappy ending remembered less pain than did the patients who had not. More interestingly, they proved more likely to return for another colonoscopy when the time came. Human beings who had never imagined that they might prefer more pain to less could nearly all be fooled into doing so. As Redelmeier put it, “Last impressions can be lasting impressions.”

People did not seek to avoid other emotions with the same energy they sought to avoid regret. When they made decisions, people did not seek to maximize utility. They sought to minimize regret.

Why didn’t people regret Israel’s inaction? Amos and Danny had a thought: People regretted what they had done, and what they wished they hadn’t done, far more than what they had not done and perhaps should have.

They spent more than a year working and reworking the same basic idea: In order to explain the paradoxes that expected utility could not explain, and create a better theory to predict behavior, you had to inject psychology into the theory.

“Happy species endowed with infinite appreciation of pleasures and low sensitivity to pain would probably not survive the evolutionary battle,” they wrote.

The two problems were identical, but, in the first case, when the choice was framed as a gain, the subjects elected to save 200 people for sure (which meant that 400 people would die for sure, though the subjects weren’t thinking of it that way). In the second case, with the choice framed as a loss, they did the reverse, and ran the risk that they’d kill everyone. People did not choose between things. They chose between descriptions of things.

By 1976, purely for marketing purposes, they changed their title to “Prospect Theory.” “The idea was to give the theory a completely distinct name that would have no associations whatsoever,” said Danny. “When you say ‘prospect theory,’ no one knows what you’re talking about. We thought: Who knows? It may turn out to be influential. And if it is we don’t want it to be confused with anything else.”

Then he came straight out with his own feelings about Amos getting the lion’s share of the glory for work they had done together. “I am very much in his shadow in a way that is not representative of our interaction,” he said. “It induces a certain strain. There is envy! It’s just disturbing. I hate the feeling of envy. . . . I am maybe saying too much now.”

It was those constraints that Danny set out to investigate. He wanted to understand better what he was now calling “counterfactual emotions,” or the feelings that spurred people’s minds to spin alternative realities in order to avoid the pain of the emotion. Regret was the most obvious counterfactual emotion, but frustration and envy shared regret’s essential trait. “The emotions of unrealized possibility,” Danny called them, in a letter to Amos.

Toward the end of his thinking on the subject, he summed up a lot in a single sentence: “Reality is a cloud of possibility, not a point.”

What Danny needed was for Amos to continue to see him and his ideas uncritically, as he had when they were alone together in a room. If that involved some misperception on Amos’s part—some exaggeration of the earthly status of Danny’s ideas—well, then, Amos should continue to misperceive. After all, what is a marriage if not an agreement to distort one’s perception of another, in relation to everyone else? “I wanted something from him, not from the world,” said Danny.

But because he was Danny, he made a rule about his fantasy life: He never fantasized about something that might happen. He established this private rule for his imagination once he realized that, after he had fantasized about something that might actually happen, he lost his drive to make it happen. His fantasies were so vivid that “it was as if you actually had it,” and if you actually had it, why would you bother to work hard to get…

Stop Asking Busy People to “Catch Up” With You

“Don’t be transactional. Build genuine relationships. Play the long game. Don’t keep score. Give first.”

All good advice when building your professional network. The Start-up of You is full of these sorts of lines. But good advice taken to the extreme becomes bad advice.

Here’s how. Say you want to maintain a relationship with someone busy in your network. Heck, maybe you even have a specific question or favor to ask of that person. But you don’t want to seem transactional. After all, “authentic” relationships in business involve mutuality and back-and-forth and personal rapport. You don’t want to come off as having a transactional agenda. Right? Right.

So you ping this busy person in your network and ask if they want to “catch up” with you sometime for coffee: “It’d be great to see you and catch up on life. Let me know if you are around next week?”

Unless the person is already a pretty good friend of yours, the answer you often get back is… Crickets.

What happened? The random coffee catch-up meeting request is the most common “external” meeting request in the world, largely because so many of us have been trained to not seem overly transactional when we stay in touch with our network. So when we reach out to busy people, we bury our agenda and hide behind “coffee catch up” as the vague purpose of the meeting.

The problem is, busy people are busy. In fact, they get hit up for coffee catch-ups multiple times a week. They can’t take coffee catch-up meetings all day. They actually have to get real work done. So they avoid your request for random coffee.

What will catch their attention instead? A specific transaction or topic.

“I’m considering taking this job opportunity and would love your perspective.”

“I saw you on stage at a conference and had some feedback for you on the virtual reality topic you spoke about.”

“I’m hosting a conference in a month and would love to brainstorm who we should invite as speakers.”

Best case, this transaction intersects with something they’re actually interested in and would fine useful. Medium case, it lends a finite crispness to the interaction — it feels “manageable” — and the person is likely to agree to a quick call or meeting if he knows it can be quickly resolved. Worst case, the topic isn’t of interest to the person at all — in which case, didn’t you both just save time by realizing that on the front end?

Oftentimes, when reaching out to someone busy, you’ll have a specific transaction in mind plus an interest in just general catch up and general relationship building. In these cases, consider leading with a “transactional bluff.” Lead with the transactional item you have in mind, but know that you may spend 90% of the meeting — once you’re actually in the meeting — talking about whatever general catchup topics you want to cover. Maybe you spend the first 10% of the meeting on the transaction and then you switch to “How can I help you?” and the other practices that fuel long term relationships.

Bottom Line: Busy people need a reason to prioritize scheduling your “catch up” meeting. If you don’t know someone well already — this means most people in your professional network — be candid about a specific transaction you have in mind when making the meeting request.

Book Notes: My Struggle by Karl Knausgaard

“It’s not everyday you get sent a masterpiece to review.” So began one glowing review of My Struggle by Karl Knausgaard.

I just finished Book One and enjoyed it very much. For this book to work for you as a reader, you have to be all-in on absorbing the minutia of Knausgaard life. I was. I enjoyed the endless micro-details, and the occasional thought-bombs — or longer meditations — on life, parenting, relationships, death. There are moving passages on fatherhood and his struggle to balance having a family with his professional ambitions as a writer. He writes compellingly about his craving for his own father’s approval — and the damage his alcoholic father wrought on his own emotional stability.

There are countless reviews online of a book that has become beloved by so many in Scandinavia and in the States. Here’s one summary of the “movement” that is the My Struggle series. My Kindle highlights are below.


For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run toward the body’s lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain.

While my days were jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, the meaning of his days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms. “Family” was one such term, “career” another.

Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening we are forty, fifty, sixty.

The only thing that does not age in a face is the eyes. They are no less bright the day we die as the day we are born.

[When his kid stuck out her tongue.]  There has never been so much future in my life as at that time, never so much joy

For, while previously I saw time as a stretch of terrain that had to be covered, with the future as a distant prospect, hopefully a bright one, and never boring at any rate, now it is interwoven with our life here and in a totally different way. Were I to portray this with a visual image it would have to be that of a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides.

As I write, I am filled with tenderness for her. But this is on paper. In reality, when it really counts, and she is standing there in front of me, so early in the morning that the streets outside are still and not a sound can be heard in the house, she, raring to start a new day, I, summoning the will to get to my feet, putting on yesterday’s clothes and following her into the kitchen, where the promised blueberry-flavored milk and the sugar-free muesli await her, it is not tenderness I feel, and if she goes beyond my limits, such as when she pesters and pesters me for a film, or tries to get into the room where John is sleeping, in short, every time she refuses to take no for an answer but drags things out ad infinitum, it is not uncommon for my irritation to mutate into anger, and when I then speak harshly to her, and her tears flow, and she bows her head and slinks off with slumped shoulders, I feel it serves her right. Not until the evening when they are asleep and I am sitting wondering what I am really doing is there any room for the insight that she is only two years old. But by then I am on the outside looking in. Inside, I don’t have a chance. Inside, it is a question of getting through the morning, the three hours of diapers that have to be changed, clothes that have to be put on, breakfast that has to be served, faces that have to be washed, hair that has to be combed and pinned up, teeth that have to be brushed, squabbles that have to be nipped in the bud, slaps that have to be averted, rompers and boots that have to be wriggled into, before I, with the collapsible double stroller in one hand and nudging the two small girls forward with the other, step into the elevator, which as often as not resounds to the noise of shoving and shouting on its descent, and into the hall, where I ease them into the stroller, put on their hats and mittens and emerge onto the street already crowded with people heading for work and deliver them to the nursery ten minutes later, whereupon I have the next five hours for writing until the mandatory routines for the children resume. I have always had a great need for solitude. I require huge swathes of loneliness and when I do not have it, which has been the case for the last five years, my frustration can sometimes become almost panicked, or aggressive.

Time is slipping away from me, running through my fingers like sand while I … do what? Clean floors, wash clothes, make dinner, wash up, go shopping, play with the children in the play areas, bring them home, undress them, bathe them, look after them until it is bedtime, tuck them in, hang some clothes to dry, fold others, and put them away, tidy up, wipe tables, chairs, and cupboards.

Looking back on this, I find it striking how she, scarcely two years old, could have such an effect on our lives. Because she did, for a while that was all that mattered. Of course, that says nothing about her, but everything about us. Both Linda and I live on the brink of chaos, or with the feeling of chaos, everything can fall apart at any moment and we have to force ourselves to come to terms with the demands of a life with small children.

And at least as corrosive is the awareness that I am dealing with children. That it is children who are dragging me down. There is something deeply shameful about this. In such situations I am probably as far from the person I aspire to be as possible. I didn’t have the faintest notion about any of this before I had children. I thought then that everything would be fine so long as I was kind to them. And that is actually more or less how it is, but nothing I had previously experienced warned me about the invasion into your life that having children entails. The immense intimacy you have with them, the way in which your own temperament and mood are, so to speak, woven into theirs, such that your own worst sides are no longer something you can keep to yourself, hidden, but seem to take shape outside you, and are then hurled back.

If Heidi sleeps in the car we go to a café with Vanja, who loves the moments she has alone with us and sits there with her lemonade asking us about everything under the sun: Is the sky fixed? Can anything stop autumn coming? Do monkeys have skeletons? Even if the feeling of happiness this gives me is not exactly a whirlwind but closer to satisfaction or serenity, it is happiness all the same. Perhaps even, at certain moments, joy.

And isn’t that enough? Isn’t it enough? Yes, if joy had been the goal it would have been enough. But joy is not my goal, never has been, what good is joy to me? The family is not my goal either. If it had been, and I could have devoted all my energy to it, we would have had a fantastic time, of that I am sure.

I do everything I have to do for the family; that is my duty. The only thing I have learned from life is to endure it, never to question it, and to burn up the longing generated by this in writing. Where this ideal has come from I have no idea, and as I now see it before me, in black and white, it almost seems perverse: why duty before happiness? The question of happiness is banal, but the question that follows is not, the question of meaning. When I look at a beautiful painting I have tears in my eyes, but not when I look at my children. That does not mean I do not love them, because I do, with all my heart, it simply means that the meaning they produce is not sufficient to fulfill a whole life. Not mine, at any rate. Soon I will be forty, and when I’m forty, it won’t be long before I’m fifty. And when I’m fifty, it won’t be long before I’m sixty. And when I’m sixty, it won’t be long before I’m seventy. And that will be that. My epitaph might read: Here lies a man who grinned and bore it. And in the end he perished for it.

Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows.

Until now, I thought, observing the crowds circulating in the concourse below. In twenty-five years a third of them would be dead, in fifty years two-thirds, in a hundred all of them. And what would they leave behind, what had their lives been worth? Gaping jaws, empty eye sockets, somewhere beneath the earth. 

…after the previous year’s success I was suffering from child hubris, I didn’t need to learn all the lines, everything would be fine, I had thought, but standing there, affected I suppose by my father’s presence, I could barely remember a line, and our teacher prompted me all the way through a long play about a town of which I was supposed to be the mayor. In the car on the way home he said he had never been so embarrassed in his life and he would never attend any of my end-of-term shows again. That was a promise he kept. Nor did he go to any of the countless soccer matches I played in as I was growing up, he was never one of the parents who drove to away games, never one of the parents who watched home matches, and I didn’t react to that either, I didn’t even consider it unusual, for that was the way he was, my father, and many other fathers like him, this was the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties, when being a father had a different and, at least on a practical level, a less comprehensive significance than today.

Feelings are like water, they always adapt to their surroundings. Not even the worst grief leaves traces; when it feels so overwhelming and lasts for such a long time, it is not because the feelings have set, they can’t do that, they stand still, the way water in a forest mere stands still.

He had been enthusiastic and warm, but there had also been a sharpness about him, it didn’t surface often, but when it did I had considered it evil. He

The days from which these incidents are drawn were countless, the bonds they created between us indestructible. The fact that he could be more malicious to me than anyone else changed nothing, it was part and parcel of it, and in the context we lived, the hatred I felt for him was no more than a brook is to an ocean, a lamp to the night.

He had told me often that Dad had totally crushed his self-esteem on a number of occasions, humiliated him as only Dad could, and that had colored periods of his life when he felt he was incapable of doing anything and was worthless. Then there were other periods when everything went well, when there were no hitches, no nagging doubts. From the outside, all you saw was the latter.

“Thank you,” I said, gathering the items and leaving. The desire to sleep with her, which manifested itself more as a kind of physical openness and gentleness than lust’s more usual form, which of course is rougher, more acute, a kind of contraction of the senses, lasted all the way back to the house, but it was not in complete control because grief lay all around it, with its hazy, gray sky, which I suspected could overwhelm me again at any moment.

But then the tiredness hit me. Suddenly all I wanted to do was sleep. Suddenly I could barely lift my arms. The thought of having to undress was unbearable, so I lay back in bed with all my clothes on and descended into the soft, inner light. Every tiny movement I made, even the stirring of my little finger, tickled my stomach, and when I fell asleep the very next second it was with a smile on my face.

“It’s a bit like buying wine in a restaurant,” I said. “If you’re not a connoisseur, I mean. If you’ve got a lot of money you take the second-most expensive. If you haven’t, you take the second-cheapest. Never the most expensive, nor the cheapest. That’s probably the way it is with coffins as well.”

…as tears flowed down my cheeks without cease, for Dad, who had grown up here, he was dead. Or perhaps that was not why I was crying, perhaps it was for quite different reasons, perhaps it was all the grief and misery I had accumulated over the last fifteen years that had now been released.

Now I saw his lifeless state. And that there was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.

Leap When You’re Almost Ready

“Jump out of the plane on my count, at 5. Ready?” the sky diver instructor says to you, a nervous first-time customer, crouched in a tiny Cessna plane flying 10,000 feet above the air. You are pulsing with adrenaline. Wide eye fear.

“Ok,” you say, unconvincingly. “Ready.”

The instructor kicks open the door to the plane. Air rushes through the open door and the aircraft rattles a bit in the sky. Fear turns to panic, as every fiber of your body — everything evolution has taught you — says to not jump out of an open aircraft.

“1, 2, 3…”

Then, on the count of 4, the instructor jumps the gun. You think you have one more precious second to change your mind. But he’s already pushed you out the airplane. And away you go.  This way, there’s no time for you to change your mind at the last minute.

Although I’ve never sky dived, I’m told this is not an uncommon technique to use with first-timers who sometimes experience last minute panic cop-outs.

And it reminded me of a great insight from an acquaintance, delivered on summer day a couple years ago in Berlin.

I asked him if he felt ready to have kids when his wife gave birth. He replied, “I wasn’t ready. But we were almost ready to have kids. Almost ready. You’ll never feel fully ready.”

This is a truth in so many things, isn’t it?

Don’t start a company when you feel ready to, because you’ll never feel ready. Start a company when you feel almost ready.

Don’t marry your boyfriend or girlfriend when you feel ready, because you’ll never quite be sure. Marry him when you feel almost ready — when you’re almost sure he’s the one.

Don’t take the job that you feel fully prepared for. Stretch yourself. Push yourself. Take the job you feel almost ready for.

“Almost ready” is similar to The 80% Rule persuasion hack. Ronald Reagan argued that you don’t need someone to agree with you 100% for them to be “with you” — you just need them to be with you on 80% of the issues. That’s usually enough for them to pledge their support.

The 80% Rule applied to yourself would mean you don’t need to be 100% sure of a decision for it to be the right decision. You need to be 80% sure — or, almost ready.

Otherwise, if you’re lucky, a coach or mentor will be around to interrupt your deliberating and doubt and procrastination — and push you out the airplane before you realize what’s happening!

“The Stale Tenement Air of Married Life”

Great opening paragraphs in this review of Joshua Ferris’s story collection:

It is late on a spring afternoon in Brooklyn. Sarah sits on her balcony, sipping a glass of wine, gazing down at the neighbors laughing on their brownstone stoops. A mystical sort of breeze arrives, one of “maybe a dozen in a lifetime,” tickling the undersides of leaves and Sarah, too, who now finds herself restless with longing for something new, for anything but the same old thing. Her husband comes home. “What should we do tonight?” she asks. “I don’t care,” Jay says. “What do you want to do?”

As most battered and seaworthy veterans of relationships eventually know, this is not the best response to a mate who feels herself to be in a sudden existential quandary, who, anointed by a breeze, is looking for something more than just another late-night superhero movie and familiar takeout sandwich. Bad though a spouse may be who dictates the marital laws, equally awful is the passive partner who simply goes along for every ride.

In that vexed, trembling fashion begins “The Breeze,” one of several standout stories in Joshua Ferris’s new collection, “The Dinner Party,” a magnificent black carnival of discord and delusion. Richard Yates once published a collection called “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.” With 11 stories of its own, “The Dinner Party” might comparably have been titled “Eleven Kinds of Crazy.” Coupledom, in particular, is shown to be a nearly hallucinatory proposition, involving those alternative realities commonly known as husband and wife, who suffer veiled and separate lives side by side, breathing in squalid proximity “the stale tenement air of married life,” as Ferris puts it.

Book Review: The Intel Trinity

Steve Jobs, in a 1994 interview, said that once you discover that everything around you that we call “life” — rules, expectations, institutions, buildings, companies, theories, and so on — were made by people no smarter than you, everything changes. Because when you realize that most of what seems permanent and “the way things have always been” was, at one point, the proactive creation of a fallible human being, then you learn that if you poke at life you can actually change it. From then on, you take a much broader view of life’s possibilities.

It’s a powerful point that I agree with, except for the notion that the institutions and companies and norms and countries around us were built by people “no smarter than you.” In fact, the Founding Fathers of America were probably smarter than you or me. Same with Steve Jobs. Not all of us is smart enough or persistent enough to leave an enduring impact. But it’s true most of us are smarter than we know.

In any case, if you apply Jobs’ comment to Silicon Valley, it resonates. It’s uncommon to step back and ponder who created the norms and culture of modern tech entrepreneurship that we take for granted today. I locate the answer in (at least) two companies. HP, where Dave and Bill pioneered the idea of flexible work hours, employees owning equity in companies, casual attire, non-hierarchal decision making, and so much of the “west coast” aesthetic that is central to modern Silicon Valley identity. When HP introduced these policies, they were considered bold and groundbreaking. And then Intel, which, by growing from an idea to the world’s most important company, set a standard for execution that became the high water mark for other startups that aspired to global scale.

Intel also was one of the first companies to raise modern venture capital. How often do we stop and think about the original investors who decided to invest real money in a high risk, low liquidity tech company, and the entrepreneur who thought to sell equity in his company in exchange for enough risk capital to shoot for the stars?

I recently read Mike Malone’s The Intel Trinity, a wonderful guide to the history of Intel and the famous troika of Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove. These guys created Silicon Valley. The Intel Trinity explains the story of Intel well, and the tremendously intense and sometimes volatile relationship between them. Those of us too young to have lived through the rise of Intel are an especially relevant audience for this book, as is anyone who does not understand the historical meaning or importance of Moore’s Law. While there are a couple chapters in the book about Andy Grove’s personal history, for more color on that — his unbelievable personal life story as an immigrant from Hungary — I’d recommend Grove’s memoir Swimming Across.

John Stuart Mill’s Life, In a Sentence

“Mill’s [life story] is of a man out in the pure sun of reason and rational inquiry, lit at night by the romantic moonlight of a little bit of love and just enough madness.”

That’s from Adam Gopnik’s wonderful account of Mill’s life. The opening paragraph of the piece contains this: “Certainly no one has ever been so right about so many things so much of the time as John Stuart Mill.”

Mill made it onto my icons list of 2009.

Book Short: The Complacent Class by Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen’s latest book — The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream — follows up The Great Stagnation and Average is Over as the third in a trilogy about what’s gone wrong in America that has caused, in Tyler’s summation, wages to stagnate, infrastructure to decay, entrepreneurship to slow, and in general a large swath of Americans to fall behind in the modern economy.

Lengthier reviews already published elsewhere, so I’ll offer just three impressions of this provocative book written by a good friend.

First, reading it was reminder number 6,238 that I live in an exceptionally privileged life. I’m doing fine and almost everyone I know is doing just fine. The economy around me is booming. I travel almost exclusively to parts of the world where everyone is doing fine. That I find myself in this position is due almost entirely to luck and good fortune; what responsibilities I and my fellow lottery winners have to those handed a harder set of cards is one of the most important moral questions I grapple with.

Second, the habits of mind and action that Tyler says contribute to the complacency of so many Americans are the same habits we write about in The Start-up of You — except we extoll the positive version of them, of course! Tyler talks about risk aversion; we talk about how to take intelligent risk. If you want solutions, at the individual level, to some of the diagnoses in The Complacent Class…then read The Start-up of You!

Third, there’s an ambiguity in language on the topic of entrepreneurship that pops up in this book and other books and articles that study economic data. Tyler cites data — and points to this 538 piece summarizing the data — showing that fewer people are starting companies. Even the tech sector has fewer startups today! Entrepreneurship is slowing down, it seems? Well, maybe. Venture capital is pouring into startups. If there were fewer and fewer companies being started, why is there more and more venture capital being invested in startups? I think the issue here is the definition of “startup” and “high tech.” High level economic data tend to look at “new business formation” to draw conclusions about “entrepreneurship” and they define “startup” as any sort of new venture. Even “high tech” is broader than the specific niche that Silicon Valley is famous for and that venture capital chases: software and hardware startups financed and run in such a way as to one day achieve massive scale. This sort of entrepreneurship — the sort parodied on HBO’s Silicon Valley, glorified on Shark Tank, and written about in the popular press — is thriving, even if, in general, fewer Americans are starting “new businesses.” Of course, this doesn’t detract from the broader point that a lot of Americans are facing stagnant careers and a lot of once-stable industries are no longer reliable sources of prosperity.

Anyway, Marginal Revolution, Tyler’s blog, has long been a must-read. And don’t miss his podcast, which is still fairly new but really hitting its stride…

What I’ve Been Reading

Two very long books.

1. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I really enjoyed working my way through this novel. If you’re new to Murakami, I wouldn’t start with this one. It’s dauntingly long (almost 1,000 pages), and I could see some readers getting lost — if you aren’t ready for it — amid the strangeness and sadness that permeate many scenes in the book. But if you’re in the right headspace, the hyper detailed descriptions, the plot, and strange sci-fi “weather” cast over Tokyo make a memorable reading experience.

Here’s just one quote that gives a sense of the vibe: “Once you pass a certain age, life is just a continuous process of losing one thing after another. One after another, things you value slip out of your hands the way a comb loses teeth. People you love fade away one after another. That sort of thing.”

2. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon

This is another brick of a book but of a very different sort: non-fiction, organized into focused chapters, each on some element of a non-ordinary life experience and how parents and families adapt. There are chapters on deafness, dwarfism, transgender, homosexuality, prodigies, autism, and others. If you’re a parent of a child who falls into any of these categories, it’s a a must-read. I’m not, but I still found myself learning a ton about the life experience of those with certain types of disabilities. In many chapters there’s a spotlight given to the push and pull of advocacy groups, politicians, educators, and others who try to standardize a point of view on whether parents should buy cochlear implants for their deaf child, for example, or a 5 year old boy who tells his parents he wants to become a girl.

Solomon inclines to telling anecdotes over statistics, because “numbers imply trends and anecdotes imply chaos.” There’s a lot of messiness in the real family experiences profiled here. Internal debate. Changes of heart. I’m in awe at how Solomon shares stories about the families he spoke to. Genuine compassion and yet steel eyed honesty. He manages to assert his own opinion on topics where there’s true debate, but without simplifying the matter or selling short the diversity of views.

How Romeo Stevens Improved His Life

He first describes how his life has gotten better. And then attributes it to the below actions. My favorite is #6.

  1. Movement. Sure, having an exercise habit, but also just physically altering my state when I am not functioning well gets things working more often than not. Weights, cardio, yoga, but also just walking and sit stand desk ($30 from Ikea parts).
  2. Info triaging. Reading many things at a coarser level and prioritizing more ruthlessly based on what seems valuable, alive. This is a rather pithy description for something of such vast value. It is probably worth a post. (huge ht to Alex Ray for finally finally convincing me to actually do this.)
  3. Developing exobrain systems that work for me in a pleasant rather than onerous, virtue based way. eg I use workflowy, pomodoros, and konmarie like systems a lot. I find many other systems for organizing my priorities to be unpleasant, so I don’t use them. Note I said organize my priorities, I don’t use such systems in order to try to make myself work. Once I stop thinking of these as ‘productivity systems’ I started getting tons of value out of them. That frame is propaganda for an internal fight that it’s better to get a ceasefire on rather than developing ever more powerful weapons for.
  4. Noticing negative self talk and not putting up with it. Internal parts that are motivated to get something can engage respectfully with other parts/values or they can be ignored. This got more subtle as I got better at it. I went from noticing explicitly violent internal moves (yelling, shaming, etc.) to noticing that parts use things like hypnotic binding, misleading choice of words to frame issues etc. Your parts are as smart as you because they are you. (sometimes they seem smarter because systems arrived at via selection don’t have to stick to a particular abstraction level the way explicitly planned ones do)
  5. Internalizing the core framework of coherence therapy and Immunity to Change by Kegan: that your current bugs/negative emotions/etc. are trying to help you and if you don’t acknowledge the important job they are doing any fighting you do against them likely won’t work. Or in other words, akrasia is self healing unless you figure out the ways your current coping strategies are helping you get your needs met and you find alternate ways.
  6. I don’t know what to call this one that won’t induce an eye roll. To paraphrase Lama Yeshe: ‘I am not telling you to help others as some sort of virtuous commandment. I am saying that from a 100% selfish standpoint you should try out focusing on the needs of others. Try it for 3 weeks, and honestly evaluate if your life is better. If not, you never have to do it again. But it will likely be impossible not to notice how much better things go when you get in the habit of keeping a lookout for ways you can assist others in their positive goals. No one is telling you to give up your critical faculties and be taken advantage of. And you’ll find that your paranoia was unwarranted.’ I’ll note that if you are secretly keeping a tally of how people owe you you are not doing the thing. This might be semi-involuntary and take conscious effort to drop. Others might be wary as they suspect you of angling for some advantage. Let them in on the secret that you are being selfish. Those you genuinely enjoy helping and those you don’t will work itself out naturally.
  7. My attention span has improved dramatically as a result of significantly reduced use of super stimuli (news feeds, video games, pornography, super stimulating foods, hero’s journey fiction, hyper attention grabbing style music, frequency of hamster pellet checks (fb, email, messaging, etc.), video binging) and the resulting free time is shocking.
  8. Schematizing everything. This is an improvement not to normal mental tools but to the mental toolbox. Collecting schematic workflows that other tools can be plugged in to for specific tasks. There are far fewer of these and they assist in the mental availability of the correct mental tools because they have what Eugene Gendlin calls a ‘specific’ or ‘sharp’ blank. ie a blank that knows what it is looking for (what was that word? no that’s not it etc.). Ever wonder why you can remember thousands of words but not 100 mental tools? Because you have a rich associational web for your words (connotation space) but not one for mental tools. This starts fixing that. The sooner you start the better.
  9. Noting (outlined here)
  10. Rituals make your life more like Groundhog Day. Mainly used for the meta-habits of setting intentions around other habits and doing reflection. A morning and evening routine is very worth it. It will repeatedly fail, you have to keep iterating so it fits your current life.
  11. Climbing out of the valley of bad meta of believing if I just installed the correct set of mental tools and habits that things would magically fall into place at some indeterminate point in the future. Realizing that I can’t use the outputs of other people’s processes as my process (as you would be doing if you tried to instantiate this list as a set of processes rather than using it as inspiration to examine your own life more closely)
  12. Meta: carefully investigating motivation, prioritizing, meaning, the concept of ‘carefully investigating’, goals, systems, mental tools, mental states, search strategies, what counts as an explanation, tacit vs explicit, procedural vs declarative, and others.

Here are Romeo’s other posts on LessWrong. Thanks to Andy McKenzie for the pointer.