Monthly Archives: May 2007

The Best Sentence I Read Today: Jobs on iTunes

In my never-ending quest for awesome images / metaphors / similes / sentences, I came across this gem:

It’s like giving a glass of ice water to somebody in hell.

– Steve Jobs on why Windows users love iTunes’ jukebox software so much.

From Scott Rosenberg’s excellent recap of the Gates / Jobs conversation at the D conference today.

Book Review: Brazen Careerist by Penelope Trunk

Penelope Trunk’s book Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success is an excellent guidebook for under 30 year-olds who are trying to make sense of what they can and should do with their careers.

She presents quick hitter after quick hitter, every few pages introducing a new pithy "rule" such as "Be a Sponge" or "A Resume is a Sales Tool, Not a Work Summary" or "Hunting for a Job is a Lifestyle" or "The Difference Between Fear and Excitement is Breathing". Most of her advice is spot-on.

Penelope tries to be provocative, and she succeeds. And she does it with the same honest, accessible voice that’s made her a successful columnist online and in the Boston Globe.

The only weakness in the book is its lack of in-depth stories and narrative. For me, longer stories are a fantastic way to really understand the issues at hand, and more, I tend to remember the lessons well beyond 24 hours after reading the book. If you like longer prose where the messages are a tad more subtle and nuanced, I recommend you pair a Po Bronson book with Penelope’s.

All in all, though, Brazen Careerist is an awesome resource for young people thinking about their career. I also recommend Penelope’s blog. She’s a great person.

Interview with Marty Nemko

Marty Nemko is probably the top career coach in the country, editing the career section for U.S. News & World Report as well as hosting a popular radio show in the Bay Area. I had the pleasure of being a guest on his show the other week and we chatted for thirty minutes. Here’s the link (Real Player only). Below are the show notes / his questions. I actually haven’t listened to it yet, but I recall an entertaining conversation.

1:50 – Do you really have any doubts that entrepreneurship is The Way?

2:30 – Why not being a medical researcher or heading a non-profit or being a government leader?

3:15 – Is your motivation really is to change the world?

3:30 – If your motivation is a pie, what percentage of the pie is to make big bucks? What percentage is to change the world? The percentage to make fun? What is the real ratio for Ben?

4:06 – I was fascinated by the way you spend a typical day; I want you to describe in micro detail, start from the minute you wake up. Tell me what time you wake up and tell me microscopically what you do because in the details are lots of clues to what makes you different than the millions of nineteen year olds are lacking.

4:31 – Did you cut classes in all of those days?

6:27 – You and me have a drive to get a ton done, how many hours a week would you say you are working?

7:05 – Can you, from your nineteen year old perspective, do you have any ideas as to what differentiates nuts like us from other folks?

7:35 – Were you not motivated before those people?

8:30 – Would you call happy somebody like Mother Teresa who died in poverty helping people, living in squalor and fighting malaria and all of that. I would say that she was content which in my judgment should be the goal of life, but I certainly cannot define that as happy.

9:34 – Could you describe high school for us please?

10:29 – Tell me something more, give me a specific anecdote that comes to mind about your high school life. I know you spent a lot of time cutting and going and doing your business and then going back to school, but you’re still got school and you’re still very much a part of that community. You play basketball for your high school. Give me an anecdote that exemplifies the BS of high school life.

12:38 – Why would you go to college rather than follow the rule of Steve Case or Michael Dell?

12:58 – Opportunity costs means that instead of spending a hundred and fifty thousand, or any brand name school, and years of time when your mind and energy is at its absolute maximum, think what a guy with a potential like Ben Casnocha could be doing in not just starting a business but experiencing and learning and even the dabbling you were saying, look at that as the opportunity cost.

15:00 – One of the things that you’ve done well is you network well. How much of that is simply…you’re a nice guy, you’re an interesting guy, you’re smart, you’re a verbal guy, you’re a handsome guy…very easy to network! What advice do you have for the rest of us who don’t make a great first impression?

15:34 – What if you’re shy? Studies show that 41% of people are shy. What if you’re one of those 41%?

16:35 – One of your great networking successes was you got to attend the Keiretsu Forum and thereby met a billionaire. Walk me through the steps of how you networked your way into that.

18:26 – How did you meet Marc Benioff? I mean is one of the hottest hosted software companies in the world. How did you meet him?

22:00 – Do you believe that you would have been significantly less successful in the absence of your father? Your father’s tutelage and/or the lead he initially gave you?

23:42 – Tell us about the BlackBerry story.

24:55 – Since then have you checked your Blackberry in the car?

29:56 – What keeps you up at night? What do really think hard about?

31:42 – Being an entrepreneur is the key to being sure you’ll never be obsolete. Do you buy that?

Using Analogies: A Thinking Skill

A good analogy does not just invoke some chance resemblance between the thing being explained and the thing introduced to explain it. It capitalizes on a deep similarity between the principles that govern the two things…A good analogy helps you think: the more you ponder it, the better you understand the phenomenon. But all too often in Angier’s writing, the similarity is sound-deep: the more you ponder the allusion, the worse you understand the phenomenon.

This is Steven Pinker, reviewing a book on scientific illiteracy.

The most impressive thinkers I know are quick on their feet with analogies. Good use of analogies doesn’t just represent a communication skill. It’s a thinking skill. It’s making sense of a thing based on its relationship to other things. It’s viewing an idea in context and explaining it to others as such.

Anyone have tips for how we can improve on this thinking skill, besides being self-aware of its importance?

The Best Haiku With “Start-Up”

I’ve always loved haiku. And with my new interest in all things Japan, my interest in haiku has risen correspondingly. (Female sources also whisper from the shadows that poetry helps a man get in touch with his soft side?)

The best haiku experiment I’ve done was for my birthday last year, when I asked dozens of adult friends what they regret not doing when they were younger. Many answered, per my request, in haiku form.

Last week venture capitalist Brad Feld asked his readers to submit their best haikus with the word “start-up” in it. We’re happy to announce the winner, Scott Yates, who will receive an autographed copy of my book My Start-Up Life in the mail:

startups, like parents,
get heaps of good, bad advice.
which bits to ignore?

There were several other good entries which you can read in the comments to Brad’s post. One last-second entry made me chuckle:

Jack Bauer start-up
damnit damnit damnit damn
it damnit damnit

In other book news, here are some reviews that have been trickling in from early readers (who I don’t know personally):

“Ben holds nothing back in his account, describing all the successes and failures, good decisions and mistakes that he experienced along the way. For anyone interested in the entrepreneurial process, this account will prove very revealing.”
David Wilson

“What’s…jaw opening is the level of wisdom and self-awareness he displays. A simply written yet remarkably direct, honest, and, yes, a bit heart-wrenching account about a lost teenagerhood.”
– Barbara Jacobs, American Library Association

“When it comes right down to it, this book should help everyone realize that if you want to get somewhere, you have to continuously battle through sticky situations with an undying desire to learn, willingness to teach yourself, eagerness to find new information, an egoless disposition that makes it easy to ask for help when you need it, and on a very basic level, how to continue putting one foot in front of the other. On a lighter note…this story will not only give you inspiration, but will make you spit coffee if you are not careful. For such a young writer, you wouldn’t expect the entertainment level of the book to be so high. But it is.”
In Bubble Wrap, Business Book Reviews from

“Even if you’re not an entrepreneur, this book offers lots of great anecdotes and ideas that will help you do any job better or improve your career path…. He has a crisp, clear writing style that wastes little time on platitudes and navel-gazing and focuses more on sharing his lessons learned and vision.”
Chip Griffen

“If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, this book will give you the kick in the ass you need to start doing something about it.”
Ryan Healey

Heuristics and Biases: An Excellent Introduction

My friend Elie Yudkowsky, an extraordinary thinker from the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, gave me a copy of his paper Cognitive biases potentially affecting judgment of global risks.

It is the single best discussion of heuristics and biases within the framework of cognitive psychology I’ve read. I highly recommend you print and read Elie’s paper and read slowly to better understand errors in reasoning we fallible humans seem to make all too frequently. It is rare to find a paper so accessible to the lay reader and yet also so grounded in experimental research.

Here are the heuristics Elie discusses. I quote liberally.

1. Availability.

Suppose you randomly sample a word of three or more letters from the English text. Is it more likely that the word starts with an R ("rope"), or that R is its third letter ("park")?

We judge the frequency or probability of an event by the ease with which examples of the event come to mind.

2. Hindsight bias

The "I-knew-it-all-along" effect. We think an event is much more predictable after we know the eventual outcome.

3. Black Swans

"Sometimes most of the variance in a process comes from exceptionally rare, exceptionally huge events.

Do what you can to prepare for the unanticipated. History is biased in favor of observed "acts of heroism". History books do not account for heroic preventive measures."

4. The conjunction fallacy

This is one of the most interesting. In short, we often violate the conjunction rule of probability which states that p(A & B) is less than or equal to p(A). Longer examples illustrate this well, but I’ll skip them for now. One shorter explanation has to do with the amount of detail involved in the example. "Adding additional detail onto a story must render the story less probable, yet human psychology seems to follow the rule that adding additional detail can make the story more plausible." In one experiment the first group of subjects were asked how much they’d be willing to pay for terrorism insurance covering the flight from Thailand to the US, a second group asked how much they’d be willing to pay for the round-trip flight, and a third group the complete trip to Thailand. The average willingness to pay decreased even as the scope of coverage increased (because specific detail in description decreased).

"More generally, people tend to overestimate conjunctive probabilities and underestimate disjunctive probabilities. That is, people tend to overestimate the probability that, e.g., seven events of 90% probability will all occur. Conversely, people tend to underestimate the probability that at least one of seven events of 10% probability will occur." And as Elie says, in the start-up world, funders need to consider the chances of many individual events all going right (customer demand, good employees, etc) as well as the possibility that at least one critical failure will occur (CEO  dies, bank refuses a key loan, etc).

5. Confirmation bias

People seek confirming but not falsifying evidence for a given belief. This is best exemplified in the "2-4-6" task.

Elie cites a study which examined six biases as practiced by students exposed to political literature for and against gun control and affirmative action:

  1. Prior attitude effect. Students who feel strongly about an issue will evaluate supportive arguments more favorably than contrary arguments.
  2. Disconfirmation bias. Subjects will spend more time and cognitive resources denigrating contrary arguments than supportive arguments.
  3. Confirmation bias. Subjects free to choose their information sources will seek out supportive rather than contrary sources.
  4. Attitude polarization. Exposing subjects to an apparently balanced set of pro and con arguments will exaggerate their initial polarization.
  5. Attitude strength effect. Subjects voicing stronger attitudes will be more prone to the above biases.
  6. Sophistication effect. Politically knowledgeable subjects, because they possess greater ammunition with which to counter-argue incongruent facts and arguments, will be more prone to the above biases.

6. Anchoring, adjustment, and contamination

Subjects take initial uninformative numbers as their starting point and then adjust the number up or down until they reach an answer that sounds plausible. Salary negotiations, I’ve learned, are an example where side who first offers a number has an advantage due to anchoring the discussion in a certain price ballpark.

Elie notes that almost any information could work its way into a cognitive judgment — even if it’s clearly irrelevant or absurd.

7. The affect heuristic

"Subjective impressions of "goodness" or "badness" can act as a heuristic, capable of producing fast perceptual judgments, and also systematic biases." An experimenter asked subjects whether an airport should upgrade its equipment. When the measure was described as "Saving 150 lives" it had a mean support of 10.4. When described as "Saving 98% of 150 lives" it had a mean support of 13.6. Even "Saving 85% of 150 lives" had higher support than simply "Saving 150 lives".

Wow! Elie explains: "Saving 150 lives sounds diffusely good and is therefore only weakly evaluable, while saving 98% of something is clearly very good because it is so close to the upper bound on the percentage scale."

8. Scope neglect

We would pay about the same money to save 2,000 oil-drowning birds as we would 20,000 or 200,000. The most widely accepted explanation for scope neglect is that by Kahneman et al who say that we construct an image of an exhausted bird, soaked in black oil, unable to escape, and assign a value to this single image (even though there may be thousands more). Two other hypotheses include purchase of moral satisfaction, which suggests that people spend enough money to create a "warm glow" in themselves and so the dollar amount has more to do with a person’s psychology than the birds, and good cause dump, "which says that people have some amount of money they are willing to pay for "the environment" and any question about environmental goods elicits this amount."

9. Calibration and overconfidence

Our best case and expected case scenarios are often indistinguishable.

10. Bystander apathy

This is more social psychology than heuristics and biases. The famous studies here suggest that large numbers of people are less likely to act in emergencies. In other words, the more people who are standing around during an emergency, the less likely any single person or the group as a whole will do anything about it. Being in a group diffuses individual responsibility.

Elie ends his paper with a final caution: "If you believe someone is guilty of a psychological error, then demonstrate your competence by first demolishing their consequential factual errors. If there are no factual errors, then what matters the psychology?…Do not lose track of the real-world facts of primary interest; do not let the argument become about psychology."

A Guide to Psychology Blogs

I love psychology. I love cognitive science. I think psychology is very relevant to business and a fantastic area of concentration for a college student interested in entrepreneurship or management.

PsyBlog today posted part 1 of their Guide to Psychology Blogs. Their list includes Mind Hacks and Cognitive Daily, two feeds I enjoy.

Go check out their entire blogroll for good, online resources.

How To Persuade Americans, Germans, Spaniards, and Chinese

When asked to do something, Americans ask what’s in it for them. Germans ask if the request complies with rules and regulations. Spaniards consider whether or not the person asking the favor is a friend. And Chinese consider the status and connections of the requester.

– Yeh’s summary of this interesting multi-cultural perspective on persuasion.

How to Start a Business If You Know Nothing About Business

I wrote a guest post over at Penelope Trunk‘s blog Brazen Careerist entitled, "How to start a business if you know nothing about business."

Here were five key points I made. More tips, tactics, and insights in my book My Start-Up Life.

1. Be committed to personal growth and self-improvement.
Start reading books about entrepreneurship. Read about conferences. Reach out to local business leaders and ask for their advice on how to get started. In short, foster a genuine love for learning about the slice of business you are interested in.

2. Harbor a bias toward action.
Learning via books and talking to people can only take you so far. The very best entrepreneurs focus on doing over talking. Learn by doing, learn by failing. Take action. Pick up the phone. Send the email. Show up at the conference. Buy that book. What did you do today?

3. Share your ideas.
If you ask someone to sign a non-disclosure agreement, or if you simply pass on the opportunity to receive useful feedback because you’re scared someone will steal your idea, you are hanging a big, white poster on your chest that says, "I’m naive." In the early stages, you want as much feedback as possible. This means sharing your ideas with others. There is no such thing as a new idea. Besides, it is execution that distinguishes successes from failures, not raw ideas.

4. Keep the customer at the top of your mind.
As you consider various business opportunities, always try to put yourself in the mind of the potential customer. What specific value would they derive from your product or service? What need are you serving? Leave the office and go immerse yourself in the life of the customer.

5. Enlist the support of others.
You can’t do it alone. Find people who can help you. Parents, neighbors, teachers, mentors, coaches. Your network is probably larger than you think. Somewhere in this network is probably a good co-founder for your business, too. Companies with 2 or 3 co-founders do much better than solo warriors. I talk about mentors so much in my book because they’ve been absolutely critical to my success.

Quote of the Day – Americans and Their Burgers

“My opinion is that the media is the main supporter of healthy eating. We’re certainly not hearing it from our customers. And [surveys] show that while consumers say they want to eat healthier, what they actually want is a big juicy burger.”

Andrew Puzder, who is the CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s.