Reflection

Today marks the end of my first full month blogging every day.

Due to what is sometimes an odd schedule on my part (I have three kids and terrible insomnia) sometimes the “once per day” ended up being technically twice on a given day as I would sometimes write after midnight, but I’ve definitely kept myself dedicated to it and I’m happy with the results. I think it’s healthy, I find it fun, and I have no intention of stopping any time soon.

I think there’s a secret strategy here that I’m realizing. You don’t have infinite time in every day. You have to make things a priority if you want them to happen. And if you fill your days with healthy and important things, you won’t have time for bad habits.

It’s hard to not do something. To kick a bad habit. If you smoke, it’s hard to quit. One of the reasons bad habits are hard to kick is because trying to focus on not doing something is essentially the same as focusing on that thing – either way, it’s central to your thought patterns. If all you do all day is focus on how much you want to stop smoking, you’re still thinking about cigarettes all day, every day. That will make it hard to actually quit.

I have no scientific data to back this up, but I’ve always thought that if I wanted to quit smoking (I never started, thankfully), a good strategy would be to take up swimming. You can’t smoke while you’re swimming, and grabbing a quick smoke would be inconvenient if you were doing laps in an indoor pool in a gym. Basically, you fill your hours with healthy activities that leave no room for the unhealthy ones. At the very least, you’d cut down considerably.

So don’t try not to do bad things. Instead, just fill your time with such healthy habits that you don’t have time to do anything else. Now that I’ve got a little time every day dedicated to blogging, it’s time to put the next block in the foundation and dedicate a little more time each day to something else. I have a few ideas on what that will be – and since I have a blog, I’ll keep you updated on how it goes!

Someday There Won’t Be Spotify

I used to own more books, by weight, than all my other possessions combined, including my car.

Some people would probably salivate at that idea, but I found it smothering. I find almost all physical possessions smothering, in fact. My constant goal is to keep the total volume of everything I own able to fit in the trunk of a car (minus the car itself, of course). With three kids that’s impossible, but at least my stuff still fits in that space.

However, I love reading. In fact, I love media in general – books, music and movies all bring me tremendous joy. My life was therefore enormously improved by things like Netflix, the Kindle, and Spotify. These things allow me to access all the things I want without the physical burden. It’s wonderful.

Not only is it wonderful to avoid the physical anchor, but those things also allow me access to vast and varied quantities of media that I simply would never have seen otherwise. I’m old enough to have listened to music well before MP3s and Napster, let alone iTunes and the like. I had cassettes and CDs. I had VHS tapes. I had… well, books.

Even then, I hated them. I wanted what was on them, but collecting the objects themselves always felt like buying the bricks to my own prison. Now, I can listen to ten new bands in an afternoon, I read 5 or 6 times as many books as I did before I got a Kindle, and I can check out movies I’d never heard of and find great hidden gems.

All those devices and services lowered my opportunity cost for media consumption. In turn they’ve also lowered the opportunity cost for content creators to do so, since it’s easier now to distribute what you’ve created to a wide audience. And traditional gatekeepers are losing power – it’s easy to self-publish on Amazon, putting your music on Spotify is cheaper than pressing CDs, and streaming services make their own shows and movies outside of Hollywood. I love it all.

One thing it does make me think about – I wonder how it will all evolve from here. I can’t wait to see – I have tremendous faith in human progress, so I have no doubt it’ll be good. But someday some other model will be even better than Spotify and will thus put Spotify out of business, and I wonder what it will be.

Music, books, movies – these are the thoughts and feelings of our collective selves, and consuming them is communion with humanity. It’s exposure to a vast assemblage of minds, and I enjoy every second of it. I love that I can do it more efficiently now than ten or twenty years ago, and I look forward with great anticipation to the world twenty years from now, when I can enjoy it even more.

Usefulness

I think many companies are too large for their own good.

There are plenty of benefits to size. Economies of scale, the ability to leverage great resources, the ability to weather larger storms than a smaller company might. But there are also plenty of things a larger company misses out on, and they can be harder to see.

I’ve worked for companies with more than 10,000 employees. It’s very difficult to make a significant impact. Once a company reaches a certain size, its inertia begins to take on a life of its own, absorbing shocks – both good and bad. Certainly that can mean defense against bad ideas, but that same aspect insulates against good ones.

It’s difficult in such an environment to make yourself useful. You can perform your job well, but if you’re an ambitious person who wants to change things for the better, you’ll find yourself blocked at every turn. That might be in the company’s best interests – after all, you’re not the only person who wants to shake things up, and not every idea can be good – but it’s certainly not in yours as someone who has big goals. You trade the ability to take big swings for a certain level of security.

The long-term effects of that culture on your talent pool begins to show, however. Larger firms attract people who want to play it safe, who are comfortable never sticking their head up. There are many ways that good leadership can fight against this effect, but it’s always a fight. Left on its own, that structure is smothering.

Free

I really dislike speculative fiction, but I really want to like it.

I grew up loving science fiction in particular, but I find most entries into the genre aren’t to my tastes. So when I get a solid recommendation I’m usually ecstatic, because it increases the odds that I’ll like it from 1% to maybe 20%. So when Robin Hanson, a thinker I very much respect (here’s his blog!) started talking about Ted Chiang’s Exhalation, I was eager to pick it up.

I’m 4 stories into the collection, and so far I’m not disappointed! But this isn’t a review; rather, I want to talk about a specific idea he explores in one of those stories. Minor spoilers, but I’ll try to avoid anything that would ruin your enjoyment.

So, let’s start with a basic premise: You have a small device that consists of a button and a light. The light always lights up exactly one second before you push the button, because of something called a “negative time circuit.” Basically, if you push the button it turns the light on one second ago. So if you see the light and try to push the button faster, you’ll always fail, and if you try to wait for the light and then not push the button, the light never comes. Supposedly this disproves free will.

Now, people way smarter than me have grappled with issues of determinism and free will for a long time, and I’m far from an expert on that discourse. But I don’t know that I believe that this device, functioning as described, means you don’t have free will.

For starters, there still seems to be a free choice involved in pushing the button, it’s just being made by a slightly-future you. The light isn’t telling you that you have to push the button; the light is reacting to the fact that you did push the button, only it’s sending that reaction back in time. But the light is still reactive. And it’s reacting to my own free choices that I make – at least some version of me.

Robin raised a point on Twitter – can I see the light and then decide not to push the button? The device says no, and thus I don’t have free will, argues Robin. But maybe I can – maybe I see the light, and choose not to push the button, and since I don’t push the button no light goes back, and that’s what’s happening when I look at the device and there’s no light. How could I tell the difference between that scenario and one where I never pushed the button at all?

My head is starting to hurt.

Change Your Mind

When should you change your mind?

Inspired by a question asked on Twitter by Zach Weinersmith, I’m giving some thought to how, why and when we should change our beliefs.

First, it’s helpful to categorize our beliefs. Ultimately there are only two categories of beliefs that matter: those that change your behavior in some way, and those that don’t. For instance, let’s say you currently believe that eating spiders would kill you. Even if I were to convince you that it won’t, you might go on not eating spiders just because you find the idea disgusting. In that case, your belief that spiders are deadly when eaten is a zero-impact belief; it doesn’t change your behavior.

A high-impact belief is one that heavily affects your behavior. If you sincerely switch to being an ethical vegan, you’re likely to change a lot about your life. Certainly your diet, but maybe a host of related behaviors as well.

“Actions speak louder than words,” so one way to measure whether a belief is sincerely held is whether it actually changes someone’s behavior. I can say “I care about animal cruelty” all day, but if I don’t change a thing about my diet or behavior, you’re probably safe to guess that I’m not sincere.

For better or worse, people care about how their beliefs are perceived by others. You not only want to have your beliefs respected by those you respect, but you also want to be taken seriously. If all your peers are vegans, that might make you want to be a vegan as well – and if you become a vegan, you certainly want your peers to believe in your sincerity in the adoption of that lifestyle.

In addition to the actions a belief requires today, people often want to signal to their peers a credible, long-term commitment to those ideals. If you care about being perceived as a vegan, then you also probably care that people believe that you’ll remain one for some time – that your beliefs are solid, not mercurial. It’s easy to signal your current devotion to veganism by not eating meat today, but how do you give the impression that you’ll remain that way tomorrow and ten years from now?

One of the ways people do that is to attach their initial devotion to a belief to some significant event. If you just wake up one day and decide to be a vegan, your peers might assume that you could wake up some other day and decide that you’re not. But if you don’t claim to be a vegan until you go on a month-long backpacking trip through Africa and have a profound experience where you “find yourself” or something like that, then you give the impression that only an equally-profound experience in the opposite direction could shake you from your new worldview.

I find this to be a disturbing trend for a variety of reasons.

One: You should arrive at your beliefs due to logic and reason, not emotional bias. Whether you’re using the “spiritual journey” as an excuse to signal or you really did come to that new belief because you “found yourself,” you should give serious thought to researching that new position or belief in a serious way before committing to great change. It’s definitely good to explore new beliefs and ways of thinking, but do it with sound purpose.

Two: Anecdotal data sucks. Let’s say I get mugged by a man in a green hat, and I’m injured during the mugging and almost lose my life. That’s a profound experience! But if my conclusion from it is “Men in green hats aren’t to be trusted; we should arrest them all and ban green hats while we’re at it,” then my thinking is seriously flawed. My solitary experience with a man in a green hat isn’t in any way indicative of any broader trends, even though it may feel that way to me at the time.

Three: You shouldn’t make it hard for your future self to change your future mind. Don’t wrap your whole identity inside a single belief, because then you leave yourself no exit strategy if you turn out to be wrong. Imagine after the Green Hat Mugging, I not only proclaim my hatred of people in green hats, but I signal my devotion to this belief in increasingly permanent ways: I post loudly on the internet about my belief, and make new profiles on social media sites with names like GreenHatHater19, I put “GREEN HATTERS MUST DIE” bumper stickers on my car, and I even tattoo some similar logo on my body. Then later someone confronts me with incontrovertible evidence that the green hat thing was a fluke, and in no way do green hats indicate criminal proclivity. Do you think I’ll be easily swayed? Will I suddenly abandon all that identity?

Not a chance. People don’t just hold beliefs; they barricade themselves inside beliefs. They climb inside them like they were bomb shelters and fortify themselves against anything that might sway them. Don’t be that person.

Give yourself room to grow. Leave your back doors open. Change your beliefs gracefully when the evidence calls for it. Don’t hate others for their beliefs, even if you sincerely believe they’re wrong. At best, your reasonableness will sway them to your side, and at worst, you’ll be respected and welcomed if it turns out you were the mistaken one. And leave yourself lots of room in your world for multiple beliefs that don’t have to be right or wrong.

When you encounter the profound, just enjoy it.

Plan Your Failures

There’s this sort of modern business parable I like. Goes like this:

A big-shot CEO is being interviewed for some magazine. Interviewer asks him why he’s so successful. He says “Two words: Good decisions.” Interviewer asks him how he learned to make good decisions. He says “One word: Experience.” Interviewer asks how he got experience, and he says “Two words: Bad decisions.”

I love that. I think one of the worst things that can happen to you is easy, overnight success. If you succeed on your first attempt at something, you almost certainly don’t have a robust framework for your success. You learned exactly one way to succeed and zero ways to fail, and you can’t even be sure if your success was entirely due to your own accomplishments or if the stars simply aligned. Compare that to the way Edison made the light bulb after countless failed attempts – it took him a thousand tries, but he never claimed they were failures, he said he discovered a thousand ways not to make a light bulb. That a light bulb was an invention that took a thousand steps.

The benefits of so many failures is that you carve a path through ignorance and the unknown and gather a tremendous knowledge of the world around your actions. Thousands upon thousands of bits of information about what works and what doesn’t and to what degree, allowing you to mix and recombine these pieces into exponentially greater and greater ideas and plans.

You should go into any endeavor with a plan to fail.

That means while of course you’re trying to succeed, failure shouldn’t shock you or catch you unprepared. You should know that failure is a very real possibility, you should expect it, and you should have a clear framework for evaluating that failure and squeezing all the information out of it that you possibly can. Don’t just shrug your shoulders and try the same thing again – gather your data, evaluate your methods, and adjust your course.

Try to fail at least a few times per week. They don’t have to be big failures, but you should aim for at least a handful every week. Try a variation on your sales pitch. Test out a new formula for the beauty products you sell. Use different software to make your next design. Tweak the dials. Someone who never has even a tiny failure isn’t trying anything and isn’t taking any risks – and thus will never improve.

You can’t coast. No success is permanent. The world moves around you. It’s fine to define your own parameters of success (and in fact, you should!), and so it’s perfectly fine to be content with a certain level of success and decide that the marginal benefit of an additional dollar doesn’t outweigh the marginal cost of an extra unit of effort put towards making it. You can retire whenever you decide to. But until then – as long as you want to keep it up – don’t let success stand in the way of your failures. Because you need them.

Culture

My constant desire to learn about what other people care about drives me with great enthusiasm towards other cultures.

Normally my desire to see inside the minds and motivations of others is a very individual pursuit – I like knowing what makes a person tick more than I generally like learning what makes people tick. I think it’s because my fascination with people generally involves wondering what makes them different from everyone else, but when you study motivations from a more macro viewpoint you’re often looking at aggregates. And while sociology and economics fascinate me to no end, I think even those joys will always pale before the glee I feel when I just get to know one unique individual.

But no man is an island, and no one exists in a vacuum. People’s hearts and minds are swayed by the words and deeds of others, and that constant flowing web becomes the eddies and pools of culture. So that fascinates me too – the way that condition shapes tradition. It reminds me of the way that everything is interconnected, how the pattern of rain will shape the flow of a river, and how the flow of a river will shape the way people swim, and how there will always be people who swim differently regardless.

Tonight I ate at one of my favorite restaurants, a delicious Mexican restaurant run by an immigrant family. While there with my family, we met an multi-generational family of Koreans (some immigrants, some American-born) with two small children of their own. All the children happily played together, and my wife and their mother wished each other solidarity at the upcoming bedtimes. It was a nice evening.

For all our differences, some things are universal.