Ideas in Action

What do you want your ideas to do?

All great change and progress in the world starts with ideas, but not all great ideas become change and progress in the world. The vast majority of ideas sit idle and never take form in the world. They languish in the minds of the few and don’t take root where they could become real.

I want the values I care about to help my fellow humans. I want them to be more free, happier, and more successful. In fact, that’s the reason I have the values I do – I care about things that will accomplish those goals.

But it’s not enough to have the idea. It has to be given shape. It’s like the difference between a great idea for a new invention and seeing the finished product on the shelves.

Visualize the world you want, and work backwards to your idea. Can you find a connection – a viable path that leads from your idea to that vision? If so, it’s time to act. If not, it’s time to evaluate: is there such a path, but you need help to see it? That’s fine – enlist that help! Network, hire, and communicate to make the idea a reality. And if after doing all that, no one can see a path that leads from your idea to the better world you envision, then maybe the idea needs to be taken back to the drawing board. This constant revision process is healthy to your thinking; it will sharpen you.

When you find that right idea and that right path, don’t sleep. Change the world.

Adventure!

It’s important to have a guiding principle in life.

You won’t always have time to analyze every decision you make. You wouldn’t have the mental processing power to do so even if you wanted to. There will be many times in your life where you’ll have to trust your gut instincts.

Guiding principles and foundational values are worth thinking deeply about, because they’ll inform your gut instincts if you internalize them into a solid foundation. It’s all too easy to avoid ever seriously thinking about them and to end up with a guiding principle of “always be lazy and complain” or “take whatever you can get.” Those are lousy guiding principles.

A great guiding principle is “always adventure!”

When in doubt, choose the good story. Choose the bold move. Take the road less traveled. You could do worse!

The Weird Ones

I love weird people.

I love when people are passionate about things. One of my favorite things in the world is listening to people geek out about something they care about. Whether it’s your favorite TV show, a project you’re working on, a cause you care about or even just a cool dog you saw. Even if I don’t love that thing, I assure you that I love your love of it.

And while I’m a great supporter of the love of common things and I’m no hater of the basic, I’ve always found that there seems to be a direct relationship between how weird your “thing” is and how much passion you have for it.

When new ideas change the world and shape our cultural landscape, we must always remember that it’s not the ideas themselves that did it. Ideas don’t exist. It’s the people that do it – the physical manifestation of a brilliant idea is the sweat of someone who has it.

Society all too often creates crab pots: strong incentives to stay normal and not deviate too far from what’s expected from an average member of your culture. We’re bludgeoned by it as children and adolescents, and it’s the path of least resistance as adults.

I say break away from all that. Break away young and never look back. I would never advise you to not care what anyone thinks about you, because I think that’s terrible advice. But I would strongly advise you to not care what everyone thinks about you. Be very choosy about whose opinions you value.

But always remember: It’s twice as much work to be strange. If you want to be weird, you have to be right. If you do what everyone else does and you fail, you get a surprising amount of sympathy from people who say, “Well, it’s not their fault, they did what they were supposed to,” or garbage like that. If you strike off the path and you stumble, you’re often on your own. But it’s still a better path. Robert Frost was right.

The weird ones change the world.

McOnomic Literacy

How is it that basic economic literacy has so fallen by the wayside for our young people? This 15-minute cartoon can’t have a target audience older than 10 (in it’s time), but the majority of adults I know don’t possess even this level of knowledge on the subject.

I don’t claim to have a perfect explanation for why that is. Have we outsourced our critical thinking to a dangerous degree? Have we become reliant on a one-size-fits-all education system to be the source of all knowledge, and then ignored any oversight? Is it simply a matter of rational ignorance, or has entertainment grown so robust that kids no longer have the attention span for cartoon ducks talking about Rai stones?

The great likelihood is that there are many factors, some benign and some less so, that combine to shift our culture. And of course, I have no real evidence that our current generation is any less economically literate than the generation that watched this cartoon – for all I know, the words of Scrooge McDuck fell on deaf ears even then, and the reason we’ve stopped making cartoons like this is because people realized they didn’t work.

Regardless, I was pleased to stumble across this little gem. And whether in the interest of economic or historical literacy, I’m happy to pass it on.

Experiences

My oldest daughter, thankfully, is not very “stuff-motivated.”

She’s much more in favor of experiences. She loves money, but mostly out of the sense of accomplishment she gets from earning it – she almost never spends any. She’s just thrilled to have it, like points in a game, representing a tangible manifestation of her effort. I strongly encourage this.

Any time she wants an item like a toy, I tell her she’s perfectly allowed to spend her own money on whatever she likes. But the idea of spending her own money usually puts a big damper on her desire for that moment’s impulse. As a result, she almost never spends.

She loves experiences. If she’s earned a reward for something due to some particular piece of good behavior, her requests are almost always a trip somewhere or the right to choose our dinner menu or permission to stay out later than usual, something like that. I love it. She’s an adventurer and explorer, and I’ll never discourage that.

There are definitely lessons to take there. My daughter’s savings rate is incredible. She’s very good with money; at 7 years old she makes change effortlessly, has amazing sales skills, and is a motivated hustler. Her friends want to play video games; she drags them outside to explore. (By the way, I’m not a vehement anti-video-game person or anything. I played plenty as a kid and turned out okay. But I’m happy that she doesn’t prefer them.)

At the same time, she has a full life with tons of experiences. Her legs are constantly covered in bruises and her fingernails are filled with dirt. She jumps at any chance to earn money and balks at foolish expenditures.

I think she’s going to do just fine in life. There are lessons to take from all this, but mostly I just wanted to brag about how awesome my kid is.

Under the Weather

I’m feeling very ill today. I don’t know if I’ve caught something or if it’s just a very bad case of seasonal allergies, but I’m wiped out. It makes me grateful.

Things could be a lot worse. Not only am I in relatively good health despite this minor incident, but even this is easily handled with modern conveniences and medicine. I have a comfortable couch to lay on and whine. There’s a roof over my head.

It’s a good habit to get in – when something bad happens, train yourself to be grateful for all the good things, and to be happy that much worse things didn’t happen. Some bad things are preventable or fixable, and keeping your mind clear of negative clutter will help you find solutions.

And if all you can do is take some medicine and sit down with a bowl of soup and a good book – well, it’s better to be cheerful doing that than miserable, isn’t it?

The Infinite Puzzle

Picture a single piece to a jigsaw puzzle.

No edges, just the various curves that will allow it to fit with other pieces along any side. You’ve got no picture to work with, so you don’t know what it will be when it’s done. But there are plenty of other pieces around. Amazingly, almost any of them will fit with that first one.

So your picture begins to expand. It starts to take shape, but with every new piece the image changes a little, so while you were certain it was going to be a train, now it turns into a airport, but then it’s a solar system and then it’s a library. The puzzle keeps expanding.

Sometimes there are gaps, and sometimes you find a piece way later that fit with a gap you had long ago, and you get a great satisfaction filling it. Sometimes you find a piece that actually fits in a spot that’s already filled, but it fits better or makes the picture look nicer, so you swap it out.

Sometimes you find pieces that don’t fit at all, or that don’t look good with your picture. You discard them; or maybe you stick them in your pocket and hope they’ll find a spot later. No matter how far you expand, you never find an edge piece. Sometimes you think you do, but you’re always wrong. The puzzle keeps going.

Lots of other people are working on their own puzzles. Sometimes you trade pieces – sometimes you even connect your puzzles, and now you’ve got even more space and even more edges you can attach new pieces to. On rare occasions you pick up whole sections of your puzzle and discard them. Other times they fall away themselves, but there are always more.

Though you never reach an edge and you never finish, and though the image keeps changing and it isn’t always neat and simple, it’s beautiful. The larger it gets the more fun it is; every new piece adds three new spots where a piece could go, three new ways the image could change. You’ll never finish, but you’ll also never run out of room. You can keep on adding pieces as long as you want. And as you go, you get better and better at picking out the pieces that will make the image the way you like, that will shape the puzzle to your satisfaction.

Sometimes you even make the pieces yourself. Those are the best ones; they fit any way you like and they go anywhere you want. Sometimes you change them and sometimes you don’t care for them, but often other people will pick up pieces just like them and they’ll fit wonderfully in their puzzles.

Sometimes you’ll meet people who are convinced they’ve found the edges of their puzzle. They’ll point with pride at what is obviously a notched, jagged line but swear it’s a clear, unassailable border. You’ll shake your head at how proud they are of creating an imaginary cage around themselves while you go on happily expanding your infinity.

When I’m finally tired and I’ve laid my last piece, I hope I won’t regret how many pieces I didn’t find. After all, the puzzle is infinite; you’ll never find them all. I hope instead that I can be happy with the picture I’ve made, and that maybe it made other people happy, too. I’ll leave my puzzle as it is, but I’ll make no effort to guard it after I’m done. Instead, I hope to leave a little sign in front of all those pieces, saying “Free – Please Take As Many As You Like.”

Thoughts on Robin Hanson’s Simple Rules

I loved this blog post, and I started to respond on Twitter but it rapidly became a blog-length thought, so here we are.

People hate simple rules and meritocracy for a lot of reasons. Some thoughts:

  • By definition, the majority of people will be outworked and outperformed by a small minority. The majority don’t like the constant arms race of hard work; they’d rather use their mass influence to cap the benefits of it. That’s why 40-hour work weeks exist. Because if you can get ahead of me by working 50 hours, then I’ll have to work 50 hours to keep up, and I don’t want to. I’d rather force you to only work 40.
  • Clear rules eliminate excuses, and people cling to their excuses like a security blanket. If the rules are murky and I don’t get what I want, I can cry “Injustice!” or “Bias!” and sometimes it will even work – and if it doesn’t, I can count on a lot of sympathy. Or at least I can be righteously indignant. But if the rules were simple and fair from the start, I have no excuse when I break them or fail. I think this is the biggest contributing factor.
  • People think they’re more deserving than others, and also that they have good reasons for doing bad things that others do for bad reasons. Example: “I smoke marijuana because I have chronic back pain and it helps me be a more productive worker, but they smoke marijuana because they’re worthless pot heads.” People want the ability to enforce laws on others but skate themselves because they legitimately believe that’s just.
  • Many rules can’t be objective. Especially in things like college admissions or tenure considerations, it’s often a matter of relative ranking rather than objective standard, which makes fair rules nearly impossible. The real standard is “better than X% of your peers,” which means it’s malleable.
  • My (totally anecdotal) observation: The people who most want clear rules are the people that would excel in a meritocracy. They want clear rules because they don’t expect to need special consideration, and don’t want special consideration for someone else getting in the way of their earned success.
  • Conversely to the last point, some people want clear rules so they know the bare minimum they need to do.

The ultimate example of the downside of unclear rules:

How To Be Right About Everything

I care about being right.

I care about the truthfulness of my statements, for many reasons. I want to know that people that may take my advice find that advice genuinely helpful to them. I care about my professional reputation, and don’t want it sullied if I’m wrong too often. I care about knowledge, and the don’t like the idea of walking around with a bunch of incorrect information taking up limited space in my brain.

But there’s so much to know! So much to potentially be wrong about. How do you make sure you’re right?

There’s no certain way to always be right, but there’s definitely a method that helps improve your record: make sure you suffer a cost if you’re wrong.

Or to put it another way: get some skin in the game!

Let’s say you’re a sports fan. You’d like to make predictions about sports, and you’d like those predictions to be right. If that’s the case, you should bet. Bet money, and bet a decent amount. If you consistently put money on your own decisions, you’ll work a lot harder to be right than if you were just making predictions with no cost attached to them. For instance, if you’re an Eagles fan, you might be tempted to say “The Birds are going all the way this year! I’m 100% sure of it!” But you’re really just signaling loyalty to your team; the decision comes from hope and love, not from actual information – even if in the heat of the moment you truly believe what you say. Now if someone responded to that statement with “If you’re 100% sure, how about putting your money where your mouth is? Want to bet?” Suddenly you’re no longer 100% sure, and before you put real money on it, you might take some time to do a little real research.

We’re flawed beings. We’re not computers, and we’re subject to all sorts of biases. Those biases are usually the reasons we’re wrong about stuff. So the way to be right more often is to give our brains a reason to put those biases aside. Put simply, we’re biased because being biased is often either free or has costs we don’t see and thus don’t respond to. If we put the cost front and center, suddenly we’ll be less biased.

There are many, many ways to bet, to get skin in the game. The traditional “bet” is only one of them. If you find yourself saying, “that company is going to crash and burn, mark my words,” then there’s a way to make money from that! Get that ball rolling and suddenly you have a much higher incentive to be guided by actual information instead of hunches. There are companies that will allow you to bet on yourself losing weight – you give them money and a weight loss goal. If you succeed you get extra money back, but if you fail you lose your stake.

This extends to the political realm, too. Politics is mostly about people with no skin in the game and no incentive to be right trying to impose rules and regulations on people that do. Industry regulations always crack me up, being written by people who have never even used the product or service in question (let alone provided it) trying to tell an entire market what’s best for them.

One of the reasons I talk confidently about things like career coaching is that I have skin in the game. That’s my profession, and if I’m wrong about it I lose income and career potential. I have an incentive to be right, and that motivates me to constantly learn, improve, and be careful with my advice. It might not make you right about everything, but people with skin in the game are right more often than people without.

If you don’t believe me – want to bet?