Product Hunt Podcast and AMA

I did an hour long podcast with Erik Torenberg on the Product Hunt podcast. Embedded below. We cover a range of topics. I also did a text-only Ask Me Anything on the Product Hunt site where we cover a lot of ground as well. That link has the full transcript.

Also check out Tyler Cowen’s interesting AMA on Product Hunt as well. I asked him a question about reading books and he had an interesting reply.

From Communal to Individual. From Future to Present.

Two paragraphs that I think capture the current milieu quite nicely, by Lionel Shriver in the book of essays Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed.

To be ridiculously sweeping: baby boomers and their offspring have shifted emphasis from the future to the present, from virtue to personal satisfaction. Increasingly secular, we pledge allegiance to lowercase gods of our private devising. We are concerned with leading less a good life than the good life. In contrast to our predecessors, we seldom ask ourselves whether we serve a greater social purpose; we are more likely to ask ourselves if we are happy. We shun self-sacrifice and duty as the soft spots of suckers. We give little thought to the perpetuation of lineage, culture, or nation; we take our heritage for granted. We are ahistorical. We measure the value of our lives within the brackets of our own births and deaths, and we’re not especially bothered with what happens once we’re dead. As we age–oh, so reluctantly!–we are apt to look back on our pasts and question not did I serve family, God, and country, but did I ever get to Cuba, or run a marathon? Did I take up landscape painting? Was I fat? We will assess the success of our lives in accordance not with whether they were righteous, but would whether they were interesting and fun.

If that package sounds like one big moral step backward, the Be Here Now mentality that has converted from 60s catchphrase to entrenched gestalt has its upsides. There has to be some value in living for today, since it any given time today is all you’ve got. We justly cherish characters capable of living “in the moment” — or, as a drummer might say, “in the pocket.” We admire go-getters determined to pack their lives as much as various experience as time and money provided, who never stop learning, engaging, and savoring what every day offers — in contrast to dour killjoys who are bitter and begrudging in the ceaseless fulfillment of obligation. For the role of humble server, helpmate, and facilitator no longer to constitute the sole model of womanhood surely represents progress for which I am personally grateful. Furthermore, prosperity may naturally lead any well-off citizenry to the final frontier: the self, whose borders are as narrow or infinite as we make them.

Live Chat on Product Hunt Tomorrow

Erik Torenberg is a long time blog reader who’s become a friend.

After he graduated from college a few years ago, it’s been fun seeing him break into the Valley and make a name for himself. As part of the founding team at Product Hunt, he’s been rallying product makers of all sorts into one of the most active online communities in tech.

They just launched Product Hunt Live, a chat feature for authors and makers to connect with readers. I’m participating tomorrow — Wednesday Aug 19th at 11 AM PT. Join me there to ask me anything for an hour!

Is Tyler Cowen the New Charlie Rose?

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Tyler’s begun a new interview series at GMU and his conversations with the first two guests, Peter Thiel and Jeffrey Sachs, are amazing. Available as transcripts, videos, or podcast episodes.

In each conversation, you feel like you’re in the presence of two first rate thinkers in honest exchange with each other about what’s happening in the world. There are lots of insights to take away from each, but the meta lesson for me — especially in the Sachs dialogue — is the level of expertise one develops after years of thinking about the same question. Sachs has been thinking about developmental economics for a long, long time, and the depth of his experiences and views — right or wrong — really comes through.

Some specific quotes. At one point, Sachs says the following, and there’s an interesting back-and-forth about different ways to solve global problems:

I believe that knowledge matters and that the more clarity, the more evidence, the more appropriate an analysis, the more likely we can find a good outcome to things. Many people are cynical. I tend not to be. I’m sometimes accused of being gullible as a result, or being too soft in the face of whatever. But I believe that there’s a way to reach an agreement, typically, among pretty conflictual and often pretty antagonistic actors.

Sachs also is bullish on China:

[China’s rise] is happening. That’s the story of our time. It’s happening.

One and a half billion, two billion people including other parts of Southeast Asia — they’re on an upswing. That’s great. It’s wonderful. It’s the most significant scaled improvement of material conditions in the history of the world in a short period of time. It’s deep. It’s great civilizations, great cultures, great capacity.

In the Thiel conversation, there’s the following:

TYLER COWEN: Let’s say you’re trying to select people for your Thiel fellowships, or maybe to work for one of your companies, or to start a new company with. Just you, Peter Thiel, as a judge of talent, what trait do you look for in that person that is being undervalued by others? The rest of the world out there is way too conformist, so there must then be unexploited profit opportunities in finding people. If you’re less conformist, which I’m very willing to believe, indeed would insist on that being the case, what is it you look for?

PETER THIEL: It’s very difficult to reduce it to any single traits, because a lot of what you’re looking for, are these almost Zen-like opposites. You want people who are both really stubborn and really open-minded. That’s a little bit contradictory. You want people who are idiosyncratic and really different, but then who can work well together in teams. And so, this is again, maybe not 180 degrees opposite, but like 175 degrees.

Later, Tyler reads a question someone sent him that could be summarized, essentially, as what should a person do today to be successful in the modern economy? Peter says:

I’m always super hesitant to answer questions that are so abstract. If there was some general answer to the question, it would almost certainly be wrong. If I give you some general answer, and everybody could follow it, then if everybody followed that answer, it would be the wrong thing to do.

It resonated with me because the “What’s the one thing I need to do to achieve XYZ?” is such a common question I hear asked of speakers and authors.

Strengths and Weaknesses Are Connected

When people seek to define areas of potential improvement they often look to address weaknesses or build upon strengths. But thinking about strengths and weaknesses as independent attributes fails to recognize their inherent interdependence.

One day, while working with Reid Hoffman, I shared with him a self-evaluation of my work, my goals, and my strengths and weaknesses. When I discussed how to compensate for certain weaknesses, he told me, “Most strengths have corresponding weaknesses. If you try to manage or mitigate a given weakness, you might also eliminate the corresponding strength.” And if you try to expand upon a strength, you may also expand upon a weakness.

Reid shared a personal example about himself. He is not particularly well organized. But perhaps his day-to-day chaos partially enables his creativity. Creativity involves connecting disparate ideas. The man is a non-stop generator of ideas — perhaps the unstructured tempo of his life is a positive enabling force. How intensely organized you are and how creative you are may be two opposite sides of the same coin.

Another example from his life: His loyalty and generosity with friends is a strength. Friends are so important to him, and he to his friends, and the stellar results of his collaborations with friends are for all to see. But sometimes he gives too much and sometimes his friends take too much and it pulls him away from taking care ofhimself.

This two sided coin idea informs one of Reid’s classic strategy jujitsu moves: turn your weakness into a strength. For example, if you’re a startup and worry your lack of a track record is a liability to customers, instead of wishing it away, figure out how to turn your newness into a strength when marketing — perhaps it means you’re more agile or more personalized or more responsive.

On an individual level, if you worry that you’re not a good writer make a point to be great on camera and with video. You aren’t a fast thinker? Be known as deliberate, careful, detail-oriented. And so on. Here’s a good post on how to re-frame other limitations as potential strengths.

Bottom Line: Find the silver lining of strength in every weakness and remember that strengths and weaknesses tend to be connected — you cannot eliminate one without the other.

See my full essay 10,000 Hours with Reid Hoffman: Lessons on Business and Life for lessons and insights from Reid.

Markets vs. Central Planners, An On-Going Series

A great little vignette from Don Boudreaux about humility and markets.

I remember back in the late 1970s or early 1980s when I first noticed that still water began to be offered for sale in single-sized bottles. I was convinced that this product would fail. “Who would pay for still water in single-sized bottles when still water can be gotten for free out of water fountains and water coolers or at zero marginal cost out of faucets at home?” I reasoned. Whether I reasoned rightly or wrongly, my prediction proved wrong. Reason, you see, is a wonderful and necessary tool, but also one of limited power. My reason could not reveal to me the preferences of millions of other people. My reason could not reveal to me the ambitions and the creativity of entrepreneurs. My reason could not reveal to me the details of an open-ended future in which people are free to spend their money—as consumers, as producers, and as investors—as they wish.

Had I been a government planner in the 1970s or early 1980s—a planner with the finest training, the highest integrity, and a most intense desire to serve my fellow citizens well—I would have counseled against directing society’s scarce resources into the production and distribution of single-sized bottled still water. My reason would have assured me of the prudence and correctness of my decision. And if I were such a government planner whose diktat would have been heeded, no one would ever have learned that my decision stunk.

That markets work better, in all their chaos, than smart, well-intentioned central planners, is in one sense quite counterintuitive.

Questions About Life from Jonathan Safran Foer

What’s the kindest thing you almost did? Is your fear of insomnia stronger than your fear of what awoke you? Are bonsai cruel? Do you love what you love, or just the feeling? Your earliest memories: do you look though your young eyes, or look at your young self? Which feels worse: to know that there are people who do more with less talent, or that there are people with more talent? Do you walk on moving walkways? Should it make any difference that you knew it was wrong as you were doing it? Would you trade actual intelligence for the perception of being smarter? Why does it bother you when someone at the next table is having a conversation on a cell phone? How many years of your life would you trade for the greatest month of your life? What would you tell your father, if it were possible? Which is changing faster, your body, or your mind? Is it cruel to tell an old person his prognosis? Are you in any way angry at your phone? When you pass a storefront, do you look at what’s inside, look at your reflection, or neither? Is there anything you would die for if no one could ever know you died for it? If you could be assured that money wouldn’t make you any small bit happier, would you still want more money? What has been irrevocably spoiled for you? If your deepest secret became public, would you be forgiven? Is your best friend your kindest friend? Is it any way cruel to give a dog a name? Is there anything you feel a need to confess? You know it’s a “murder of crows” and a “wake of buzzards” but it’s a what of ravens, again? What is it about death that you’re afraid of? How does it make you feel to know that it’s an “unkindness of ravens”?

— Jonathan Safran Foer, from his writing on the side of a Chiptole cup. At that Vanity Fair link are Toni Morrison’s and Michael Lewis’s two-minute entries. Worth reading.

Unintended Consequences of Messing with Complex Systems

Ecosystems are complex. When you try to intervene and “fix” one discrete part of an interconnected ecosystem, you’ll likely incur unintended and unpredictable consequences elsewhere. An ecosystem can be a biological community; it can also refer to a large company or even an entire economy. I love Arnold Kling’s metaphor of a country’s economy being like a rainforest. It’s a metaphor that should humble any policymaker who thinks he can simply turn a knob here or a knob there to shape economic outcomes.

In a recent episode of Econtalk on free market environmentalism, there’s an interesting story about wolves in Yellowstone. When wolves were taken out of Yellowstone park, all sorts of weird things happened. A very cool 5 minute video summary (with some beautiful imagery) explains.

Studying One’s Own Work for Imperfections

Garry Kasparov, the chess grand master, obsessively studied his past matches, looking for the slightest imperfection, but when it came time to play a chess game, he said he played by instinct, “by smell, by feel.” After Herb Stein finishes shooting a soap opera episode, he immediately goes home and reviews the rough cut. “I watch the whole thing,” Stein says, “and I just take notes. I’m looking really hard for my mistakes. I pretty much always want to find thirty mistakes, thirty things that I could have done better. If I can’t find thirty, then I’m not looking hard enough.” These mistakes are usually little things, so minor that nobody else would notice. But Stein knows that the only way to get it right the next time is to study what he got wrong this time. Tom Brady spends hours watching game tape every week, critically looking at each of his passing decisions, but when he’s standing in the pocket he knows that he can’t hesitate before making a throw. It’s not an accident that all of these experts have converged on such a similar method. They have figured out how to take advantage of their mental machinery, to steal as much wisdom as possible from their inevitable errors.

From Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide.

Ben Franklin Didn’t Like the Choice of Bald Eagle

As a Franklin devotee, I kind of loved this anecdote. Fight on, Ben!

In 1782, after years of argument and indecision, Congress concluded that the bald eagle would make an appropriate symbol of national power and authority, and so it was decided that the bird, depicted with its wings outspread, its talons grasping an olive branch, etcetera, should be adopted as the emblem for the great seal of the United States….Not everybody agreed with the decision… Benjamin Franklin thought the turkey a better choice and considered the bald eagle—a plunderer and a scavenger of dead fish rather than a hunter, and timid if mobbed by much smaller birds—an animal of bad moral character and in fact a coward.

(From Netherland by Joseph O’Neill.)