Notes, November 2020 Edition

Hello everyone! Listen to some cool music:

Jailbreak, by Thin Lizzy. Man, what an underrated album. You’ve heard half of this album a thousand times, and the other half never. But the other half is super good! Yeah yeah, “The Boys Are Back In Town” is played out from every sporting event, wedding, and action movie you’ve ever seen. Skip it if you want. The rest of the album has a ton of range and depth.

Laughing into the Void, by Tiny Stills. I found this band kind of by accident on a YouTube rabbit-hole, but I’m really into the limited stuff they’ve released so far. They remind me a little of another band that I love, Cruiserweight, except a little more folk and a little less punk. Listen to the last song on the album, “Someday Everyone Who Hurt Me Will Be Dead” if you want a neat first glimpse. Then you’ll go back and listen to the whole album and end on that song again, and it’ll be great.

Stranger Than Fiction, by Bad Religion. Oh, the glorious glorious 90s. Never was bad music so good. Only one song on this album is above 3 minutes, and many are under 2. They didn’t waste time or drag it out! So I won’t either – go listen.

I’m Not Dead, by P!nk. Okay, I admit that I slept on P!nk for the most part when she was super big. Which is weird, because she’s exactly the kind of musician I usually love, but hey, no time like the present. Anyway, I really just want to talk about one song on this album: Conversations With My 13 Year Old Self. This might be one of the top 20 most powerful songs I’ve ever heard. She’s at the absolute TOP of her vocal game, the production is amazing, the concept of the song is incredible. It really knocked me out the first time I listened.

Fight or Fight, by Vilhelm Hass. Super cool album of solely instrumental, high-octane metal tracks. I love a lot of metal, but there’s also a lot of metal that I would otherwise love except I don’t like the vocals. So I’m already halfway sold by just the concept, but Vilhelm Hass delivers a really fun and intense album as well. I know a lot of people also find the vocals to be the “barrier to entry” for their enjoyment of the genre, so this is great “starter metal” if you’re looking to dip your toes into the musical style.

As always, enjoy the music in your life – and share it with others!

The Societal Price Anchor

Once upon a time I worked in a regional convenience store chain. One of my many duties was inventory management, so I ordered the stuff the store ran out of. As a result, I learned a lot about pricing, and the difference between the price you see at the register and the more hidden supply chain prices.

This particular store did about 80% of its profit from one item – coffee. A cup of coffee at this chain ranges from $1 to $2 depending on size, from 12 oz to 24 oz. A pot of coffee made with one of the pre-packaged bags of coffee I would order would make about 100 ounces, give or take. I ordered those pre-packaged bags by the box, and 500 came in a box.

The price to my store for that box was $9.

Do the math. You could take everything else in the store and throw it in the gutter and the store would still bring in a profit, even accounting for overhead, payroll, and all those other pesky operating expenses. In fact, one of the marketing lessons we learned there was that pretty much every item we sold was just a way to get people in the store to buy coffee. Every promo for any item included “buy this item and get any size coffee for just one dollar!” or something. Because even at a dollar for 24 ounces, it was hugely profitable.

Okay, that’s background. That’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is that one time I had the chance to talk to a senior executive at the company and I asked him a question that had been on my mind: Given that competition between coffee chains is SO competitive, and given that we have SO much profit margin to work with, why don’t we sell our coffee for 50 cents or something for a little while just to capture more of the market share? Since our per-unit profit was so huge and our marginal unit cost so low, surely halving our profit-per-unit but quadrupling unit sales would be good?

His answer was really interesting: they had tried it! And sales went way down.

There’s a lot of psychology behind buying decisions, and a lot of historical information affects that psychology. It’s not just an in-the-moment calculation. If people were robots, then seeing a lower marginal unit cost would increase sales in a straight line, no questions asked. They’d done a good bit of research into why that hadn’t happened, though. Here’s what they found:

  1. The customer was used to a certain price range for coffee. They were “anchored” to that price. A temporary reduction in price due to a sale was fine, because people “get” sales. But just reducing the price in a way that seemed permanent made people question why the price was going down. Had the quality of the coffee decreased? And if not, were they being ripped off before?
  2. Even outside of the relationship with just our brand, the “anchor” effect to a particular kind of product or service is strong. Regardless of brand, people think “a fancy cup of coffee is about 5 bucks, a decent cup of coffee is about 2 bucks, and a cup of crappy gas station coffee is about 75 cents.” So if you sell your coffee for 75 cents, people are going to put it in the category of “crappy gas station coffee” no matter what you do. And just because it’s cheaper than good coffee doesn’t mean it’s a better value in the eyes of the customer – if that were true, everyone would buy their coffee exclusively from Big Al’s Gas-n-Go.

That second point has all sorts of interesting effects in the world outside of coffee chains. If someone invented a fantastic car tomorrow and their process was so good that they could sell the car to the end user for two thousand dollars, it would be really difficult to sell. People’s intuition is that “any car that costs $2k is a beater/junker” so seeing that price tag tells them that about your car even if there’s no other reason to believe it.

There’s one place in our society where this particular psychological effect is doing major, serious harm to really huge swaths of our society: higher education.

You see, the proliferation of university education for the last half-century or so has created another “price anchor” for our society, which is “self-improvement that benefits your job productivity and career prospects costs about $80,000.” The effect of this on the individual is that we see something that gives us new, marketable skills for sixty thousand dollars as “a good deal,” but something that gives us new, marketable skills for five hundred dollars is “obviously a scam.” The price point of more efficient personal development is simply too many standard deviations below the societal price anchor for most people to trust it. The societal price anchor is much slower to adjust than actual productivity.

Don’t be a societal pessimist. It’s fine to examine a new thing that seems great, and you don’t have to leap on every single new option that comes along. But the things society provides the individual really are getting so much better, so much faster than you could imagine. Seven billion people are absolutely falling over themselves to compete to make your individual existence so amazingly great, and the compound effect of that is staggering. Don’t ignore it – it’s all for you.

If Nothing Prevents Me

Many people get so focused on the things that can go wrong that they can’t even see what could go right.

Look, it’s fine to do a solid risk assessment. It’s fine, good even, to be cognizant of the potential hurdles and obstacles. But they’re hurdles and obstacles – they aren’t the main event.

Start by saying “If everything goes exactly right, if nothing prevents me from attaining my goal – what does that path look like?”

The reason this is so powerful is that 90% of obstacles don’t actually have to be dealt with. You can just go around them, because they don’t matter. You don’t have to fix all the potholes on the way to your destination. You can just drive around them and keep going.

Bravery & Kindness

Bravery is something difficult to define. To some people, simply having a high risk tolerance can look like bravery, but I don’t really think that’s it. It’s not brave if I do a bunch of stuff that I don’t think will impact me negatively, even if an outside observer does think those things are dangerous. I prefer the definition of bravery that says it’s when a person does in fact think something is very dangerous, but does it anyway.

Even that, though, is subject to some scrutiny. Let’s say there’s a burning building, which I am very very certain is very very dangerous to me. If my child is inside that building, I’m going in. That’s not bravery – that’s simply me valuing even a slim chance at my child’s life far higher than a high risk to my own. So I’m not sure I’d call that “brave.” Conversely, imagine I ran into the building for no reason at all – is that brave? Or is that just thrill-seeking – me being an adrenaline junky?

So that’s the thing about bravery. It’s tough to define, and it doesn’t simply measure our reaction to risk and danger. Deeper morals and values come into play, for certain. What I do know is that there is a spectrum of people’s willingness to face danger in exchange for benefit, especially “benefit to others” or “benefit to society at large.” So on that note:

If, for any given action, the risk to myself is high, the benefit to myself is marginal, the benefit to society is large, and regardless of my individual choice, someone will perform this action: it’s brave if I do it.

I don’t think it’s brave to do things that don’t need to be done, for instance. That’s thrill-seeking. I also don’t think it’s especially brave to do things of high potential value to you – that’s just risk/reward analysis. But those people that dig tunnels under mountains? Huge risk, huge societal benefit, crappy pay – but if they quit, someone else goes in anyway? I think of those people as brave.

One of the biggest positive externalities of bravery is inspiration in society. Brave people make us want to do better, reach higher, appreciate the world around us more. That isn’t what they set out to do – they set out to dig a tunnel. But as a fantastic side benefit, we hear their stories and we want to become better versions of ourselves.

If you are brave – if you face danger that helps society and does little to benefit you personally – then I applaud you. And you completely, utterly ruin it if you’re a jerk.

The bravest people do the most good if they are also the kindest people. Don’t chide other people for lacking your bravery – inspire them. Don’t push them away as if they were a class of people unworthy of you. Embrace them as if they were the very flock you’re being brave for. If you’re carrying the weight of the world upon your shoulders, shielding others below from having it crash all around them, don’t mock them because they aren’t up there with you. Inspire them, so they want to be.

Hey, Thanks

My oldest daughter, exploring science through technology, telling me facts about the cells of plants that I didn’t know – facts she discovered on her own, because she wanted to, outside of any structured or formal learning. No reward or punishment. Just exploring and sharing.

My middle child, laughing with hysteric delight as I pour a huge box of stuffed animals out onto her head – a box that is her “space ship,” her defeating the “aliens” and then rushing to hug me before we move on to more and more games, games which she plays so well and with such imagination.

My son, just now in that wonderous waterfall stage of language where new words and phrases come by the dozen each day, mastering the phrase “I love you,” and saying it to me at every opportunity just because he delights in the look on my face when I hear it, and embrace him.

There is breath in me yet, and things worth defending. That is enough.

Deep In The Well

When you’re in a bad situation for a long time, you may find yourself losing sight of anything else.

Imagine you’re deep within a well. Trapped down there. Down where you are is very dark and unpleasant. Sometimes you can see the sky, but only a tiny amount at a time and only straight up. You couldn’t tell what color the flowers were, even if they were right next to the well. You couldn’t tell how high the grass was or who might be walking by.

In the real world what happens is that we start to generalize our bad situation, believing it to be universal when in fact it might be quite specific to us. If you have a spouse that constantly puts you down, you might start to just think that’s an inherent feature of all spouses. If you have a boss that is thoroughly dismissive of your input for long enough, you might just start to say, “Bosses, amirite? They all just throw your ideas out the window!” Note the subtle switch – you’ve gone from complaining about your boss specifically, to making a broad statement about all managers.

It’s understandable. People often value “fairness” over absolute good. Because we’re good at comparing two things but bad at objectively evaluating one, we tend to find even miserable circumstances more bearable as long as we can’t see anyone who has it better than we do. So if we suffer from a particularly miserable circumstance long enough, our brain just starts assuming everyone is equally miserable in that sphere – everyone’s boss dismisses their ideas with a disdainful smear, right?! It’s a defense mechanism.

But it also eats hope.

You see, if you don’t think a circumstance better than yours exists out there, then it’s a very short mental leap to thinking that no better circumstance could exist. You resign yourself to your fate and cope in other ways, but you don’t try to make it better.

Climbing out of the well can be very hard. But it’s easier if you know how deep the well really is (as opposed to how deep you think it is), and it helps if you can put up a periscope and get a glimpse around.

Talk to people without imposing your view. Don’t start a conversation about careers by complaining about your own – start by asking neutral questions. Read positive accounts of other stories from within the sphere in which you’re miserable. Learn that the whole world isn’t trapped down in the well with you.

You may find someone who can lower a rope.

Start Where You Are

Some people want conditions to be so perfect before they start a project that it’s practically an even bigger project just to arrange those starting conditions. And that’s if they’re even actively arranging them at all – many people just wait for the perfect storm.

Look around you, right now. That’s the starting line. This is what you have to work with. There is no “pre-game.”

Do Yourself A Favor

As we enter into a busy season with lots of disruptions, there’s a small task you could set for yourself that would have tremendous benefits as you enter next year.

Here it is: Keep a list of every time someone asks you for a favor between now and the end of the year, and why.

Before you leap to any negative conclusions, let me put a fear to rest: this exercise isn’t about keeping track of the favors you do for people. This isn’t about getting some sort of repayment or keeping track of who ‘owes you’ in the new year. Perish the thought.

No, this is a private thing that you’re going to do for you and you alone, and here’s the purpose of the exercise: to find out what makes you valuable.

You see, people habitually underestimate the value of their contributions, especially when those contributions are made easily. We also pay attention to the things with Big Obvious Labels, like our college degree or our current job title. Stuff we do “on the side” or “as a hobby,” even if we’re really, really good at it – those things we tend to forget to list when we’re trying to figure out what we’re good at or what we might want or be able to do.

Tracking your favors is a good way to get an idea of what the world around you thinks is valuable. It’s like crowdsourcing your brainstorming on this topic. Maybe you’re in sales, but come December 31st you look at your list and it turns out that on 46 separate occasions someone asked you to “take a look at my computer because it’s being weird again.” Now think – why are they asking you? Is it possible that totally without realizing it, you’ve cultivated a reputation as a tech whiz because you always seem to know how to fix a computer problem? I’ve seen it happen. And I know what happens next! You say, “well, that’s not really a job skill – it’s so basic! Anyone should know it! I just happen to work with incredibly below-average people in this sphere.” You’ve said that about something you’re good at, I guarantee it.

Especially something you didn’t formally train for. You think everyone should be good at it because it was easy for you to learn, so over and over and over again you think of everyone else as uniquely bad at it instead of just realizing the obvious, which is that all expertise is relative and you’re relatively great at this thing.

Trust the favor list. If everyone you know asks you to cook during the holidays, that means they think you’re good at cooking – or that you’re reliable, or competent, etc. That’s why you should track what each favor was, so you can do a little analysis about why you in particular were asked. You should even track favors you don’t do – for this exercise, it doesn’t matter if you say yes or no, just that you were asked.

You know the phrase, “in the land of the blind, the man with one eye is king?” Imagine being the guy with one eye and saying, “well, I shouldn’t be king, because I can’t even see that well.” Of course you can’t – but it doesn’t matter if everyone else is much worse.

You, like all humans, are absolutely garbage at objectively evaluating one thing in a vacuum – in this instance, yourself. Humans are only really good at comparing things, and if the majority of people around you are bad enough at something that they’re always asking you to do it for them – as a favor – then listen to them. There’s wisdom in their request.

Teach Upon Teaching

The vocabulary of my son (age 2) is coming along nicely. He can repeat many words, and will gleefully point at things he knows the word for and call it out. So we do a lot of reading together, with him pointing out words and so on.

My daughter (age 3) took over this duty tonight. She guides him through words, encourages him, and with great and genuine exuberance calls out “great job” when he repeats after her.

As soon as she began, I backed off. She was doing an absolutely wonderful job and I couldn’t improve on it. I watched, proud as could be, as my three-year-old taught my two-year-old to read.

She leans on the shoulder of her big sister, my 8-year-old, as the big sister reads more advanced books out loud for her younger sister’s benefit.

Ripples upon ripples. You never teach one person – that’s why passing knowledge on to someone else is so good. It keeps going, keeps spreading. It’s a good deed you can do in the world – just share a piece of learning with someone, and watch it grow.