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Tonight’s book was Everything Is Obvious* which was cleverly subtitled *Once You Know The Answer with a special bonus subtitle How Common Sense Fails Us by Duncan Watts. And yes – for those of you keeping track at home, I didn’t read a book last night; I was working on mine instead.
I enjoyed this book. As I was reading it, I kept coming up with alternate titles like Everything is Bullshit, The Macro is Irrelevant, Humans Don’t Reason Well, Common Sense Fucks Us Up, Predictions are Useless, and Attributing Things To Abstract Collections of Stuff Like Crowds, Markets, Companies, etc. is Stupid.
Watts is a professor of sociology at Columbia University and a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research. For those of you who think social science is garbage, he’s also a real scientist with a PhD in theoretical and applied mechanics. Basically, he’s a smart, well educated dude who has strong reasoning skills and is an excellent writer.
This book reinforced several deeply held beliefs that I have:
- The macro doesn’t matter in the long run.
- Predictions are irrelevant.
- Most people don’t understand what they are doing or why they are doing it.
- Anything can be explained in hindsight, and the explanation is often wrong.
- The media introduces massive bias into most phenomenon so ignore the media if you really want to understand something.
- Trying things, measuring everything, and iterating aggressively is the best way to figure out what works.
There are probably others. Watts beautifully takes apart a bunch of stories that are viewed as either “common sense”, “conventional wisdom”, or “counter-intuitive truths.” It’s a beautiful thing to read him dissect the popularity of the Mona Lisa and Shakespeare in the same book that he explains why some of the nonsensical assertions of Malcolm Gladwell that are repeated as gospel (including the hilariously stupid Paul Revere / William Dawes analysis), followed by an explanation of the faulty reasoning around the spread of SARS.
The second half of the book is where the good stuff is. Part 1 is “Common Sense” and sets the stage by explaining how as humans we regularly misinterpret what’s going on for a variety of reasons, including our belief about what common sense is and how it works. Part 2 is “Uncommon Sense” and for those of you searching for tools on how to deal with the world more effectively, there is plenty of chocolately goodness here.
I have no idea how much of Watts analysis is actually correct, but his assertions about what blinds us, causes us to make crummy decisions, and results in us believing things we can’t possibly understand sang to me.
James Altucher is brilliant. Everyone on the planet should buy a copy of his new book I Was Blind But Now I See right now. You’ll likely hate some of it. Other parts will annoy you. Still others will seem simplistic, counterproductive, or just plain odd. But every page will make you think.
I met James for the first time at Defrag this year. Eric Norlin invited him. A few of my friends told me I had to see his talk. It was awesome. Now – a bunch of the Defrag talks were superb but James was early in the first day and he set the tone. I can’t remember whether he was before or after Tim Bray but they were back to back and all I remember after they were both done was exhaling a deep breath and saying to myself “fuck – that was great!”
James’ book was in my Defrag swag bag (legendary – one of the best anywhere) and I finally emptied it out the other day. I’m reading a book a day over the next two weeks and this was my book today.
It was perfect timing. On my 90 minute run today alone (no humans at all) in the mountains behind my house in Keystone, I kept thinking about SOPA. I’ve been incredibly agitated the last few days by SOPA after watching three hours of the House Judicial Committee hearing on Friday. SOPA is such an evil thing at so many levels and the people in the House that want it to happen appear to refuse to listen to facts or logic, and – when they talk about what they are confronted with – claim the facts and logic aren’t actually factual or logical. The noise in my brain about this kept drifting away as I thought to myself “how strange that there is snow only on the left side of the trail” or “I wonder if there will be any good movies next weekend since all the ones this weekend are shit” or “how awesome is it that there are no other humans out here” but then would be interrupted by angry thoughts about the chairman of the house judiciary committee who is the sponsor of this bill, the people on the house judiciary committee that are clearly “the henchman”, the absurd process that is unfolding – and then I’d start thinking about my breathing again and the fact that my heart rate was above 160 and that felt good.
James takes us through his chaotic mind, his successes and failures, his struggles and depressions, as he gets to the point where he very clearly tells us that only one thing really matters – one’s own happiness. He proceeds to describe a series of completely fucked up things that get in the way of it. He prescribes a very simple way to be happy, which includes a number of things I do and often suggest such as don’t watch TV, don’t read newspapers, exercise daily, get plenty of sleep, stretch your mind every day, ignore all the crappy people in the world, don’t worry about things you can’t impact, recognize that many parts of the macro (government, banks, education) are irrelevant to your well being, and don’t roll around in the mud with a pig.
But most of all he reminds us to just be honest all the time about everything. In my experience, this is the most liberating thing of all on the quest for happiness. Anyone who spends time with me knows I try to always do this regardless of the implications.
Be honest. Be happy. We all die eventually.
I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull for the first time in 1975 when I was about 10 years old. I’ve read it several times over the last 35 years, but probably hadn’t read it in over a decade. My first business partner, Dave Jilk (now the Standing Cloud founder / CEO), gave it to me as a birthday gift last week.
I just read it again and it was as powerful, inspiring, and enlightening as I remembered it. I’m often asked what books I’d recommend to an entrepreneur (especially an aspiring entrepreneur). There are two: Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Whenever we are in the upswing of an entrepreneurial cycle, like we are right now, I start seeing all kinds of weird stuff appear. Random people, who get notoriety for themselves, blow up. The media is aggressively negative presumably in the quest for getting readership. Entitlement behavior runs rampant. The quick buck artists appear. Money becomes a central topic of many conversations. Established companies and government suddenly wake up to the power of innovation and try to co-opt the energy. The word bubble becomes so popular that a bubble builds around using the word bubble.
The great entrepreneurs just keep building their companies. They focus relentlessly on their products, their customers, and their people. They create things that delight, take chances, make mistakes, and iterate as they, and their organizations, get better. They just keep at it and the very best ones shut out and ignore all the noise. And they learn, and learn, and learn.
Just like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Young Jonathan realizes he is different and then outcast, but he discovers himself. He then discovers others like him, including his great mentors. He learns, experiments, tries new things, makes mistakes, and learns. And learns. And then he becomes the mentor and teaches other young seagulls to discover themselves. Throughout, he does what he loves the most – he flies, and practices, and learns.
If you are an entrepreneur, take one hour out of your day this week and read Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And then spend another hour, alone, thinking about it. I assure you that it’ll be worth the time.
A few weeks ago a guest post titled Minimum Viable Personality appeared on Fred Wilson’s blog. The author was a Giant Robot Dinosaur who has been dishing out wisdom in all caps in the comments on Fred’s blog for a long time. I’m a huge fan of FAKEGRIMLOCK, occasionally commenting on his comments, but often laughing out loud or smiling with recognition of their brilliance when I saw them. And, I grinned with relief when I finally made his #NOEATFRIDAY list.
Recently, while pondering how Yoda would deal with Optimus Prime, I got a tweet from FAKEGRIMLOCK asking if I wanted a guest post from him. Without hesitation I said yes. Following in all its awesomeness (with illustrations), is another missive from my favorite Dinobot.
BE ON FIRE
WORLD FULL OF IDEA. ALL NEED IS BRAIN. MOST HUMANS HAVE BRAIN.
IDEA BY SELF IS COLD. JUST SIT THERE. DO NOTHING.
IF WANT DO SOMETHING, NEED FIRE.
NEED BE ON FIRE.
WHY BURNING MATTER
MAKE STARTUP HARD. IT HARD BECAUSE YOU WRONG. YOU FAIL.
FAIL COLD? GO HOME. QUIT.
YOU NOT QUIT. YOU BURN. FAIL IS FUEL. MORE FAIL, MORE BURN. BURN FAIL UNTIL ONLY WIN LEFT.
THAT WHY BURNING MATTER. NOTHING STOP PERSON ON FIRE. NOT SLEEP. NOT SICK. NOT BROKE. NOT BULLET. NOT END OF EARTH.
FIRE MAKE SMOKE
ANGER IS SMOKE. FIRE DESTROY. DESTROY MAKE NEW THINGS GROW. COLD PEOPLE HATE FIRE. NO ONE WANT TO BE FERTILIZER. FIRE NOT CARE.
LOYALTY IS SMOKE. PEOPLE FOLLOW FIRE, GET HOT. NOTHING STOP PERSON ON FIRE. PERSON ON FIRE WRAPPED IN HOT CROWD? THAT FIRE CHANGE WORLD.
WIN IS SMOKE. PERSON ON FIRE NOT CARE ABOUT WIN. NOT CARE ABOUT MONEY, FAME. WIN HAPPEN WHEN BUSY DO THINGS THAT MATTER. THINGS ON FIRE.
WHERE IS FIRE? LOOK FOR ANGER. MIDDLE OF ANGER IS CHANGE. MIDDLE OF CHANGE IS HOT CROWD. MIDDLE OF HOT CROWD IS WIN. MIDDLE OF WIN IS FIRE.
HOW MAKE FIRE?
WORLD IS BROKEN. FIX IT.
RIGHT IDEA HARD. RIGHT IDEA HURT. RIGHT IDEA IS HOLE IN WORLD.
RIGHT IDEA MAKE BURN INSIDE TO FIX. CAN TAKE DAY OFF FROM IDEA? IT WRONG ONE.
FIND IDEA THAT BURN, GRAB WITH BOTH HANDS, NEVER LET GO.
THAT HOW MAKE FIRE.
YOU MUST BURN
EVERYONE THINK WAY TO STARTUP IS TALENT + IDEA + MONEY.
STARTUP NOT ABOUT MAKE THING, SELL THING. STARTUP ABOUT CHANGE WORLD.
WORLD IS COLD. YOU MUST LIGHT WORLD ON FIRE.
YOU. MUST. BURN.
In order to stay on the #NOEATFRIDAY list, I promised FAKEGRIMLOCK that this would be licensed under Creative Commons. Anyone can do anything they want with this, including FAKEGRIMLOCK (as long as no infinite loops are created.)
Last night I had the pleasure of talking at a dinner at Emily White’s house. Emily is on the board of the National Center of Women & Information Technology with me, is ex-Google, currently at Facebook, and with her husband Brian are amazing hosts. We had a fascinating group of NCWIT board members as well as a bunch of local entrepreneurs and members of the bay area entrepreneurial ecosystem who had a connection either to Emily or to me. The environment, food, and evening was delightful, and I led a discussion about a wide variety of topics after doing a 30 minute space jam in answer to Emily’s lead off question of “So Brad, what’s on your mind?”
We covered a lot of stuff around entrepreneurship, creators, the magic of doing things, the importance of asking “why”, and my belief that we are in the midst of a massive societal behavior shift. One of the questions that a long time friend asked was something like “My daughter is in high school and worries about the path she needs to be on to make sure when she gets out of college that she gets a good job. If you were me, what would you tell her?”
I don’t have kids so I don’t really feel qualified to answer this from a parents perspective, but I answered it with a story of three key things my dad said to me between the ages of 10 and 17 that had a profound impact on what I’ve done and how I live my life.
Age 10: You can do anything you want: My dad is a doctor. He came home for dinner every night but would often go back to the hospital in the evening (and on weekend) to do rounds and visit patients. Until I was 10 I’d often go with him. I loved hanging out with him, would bring a book, and plop down at the nurses station and read while I waited for him to go about his business. At 10, I decided I had no interest in being a doctor. I didn’t like the way hospitals smelled, I didn’t like the noise and the chaos, and I lost interest in all the doctors I was meeting. I remember telling my dad that I didn’t want to be a doctor. I blurted it out – think of a very nervous 10 year old just spitting out “Dad – I don’t want to be a doctor.” I remember my dad looking me in the eye and saying very clearly, “Brad – that’s ok – you can do anything you want to do.”
Age 13: We didn’t want to discourage you so we were supportive: When I was 10 – 13 I was a serious tennis play. I played all the time and was on the Texas junior tennis circuit. I was pretty good – consistently getting to the quarterfinals in singles and occasionally the semifinals. When I turned 13 I bought a computer for my bar mitzvah. I also hit puberty and discovered girls. I lost interest in tennis. Recently I was talking to dad about this and wondered what he thought at the time. He said that he and my mom were supportive of my tennis, but were relieved when I decided to quit playing. They were sick of schlepping me around Highway 80 and other places in Texas to spend the whole weekend watching me play, scream and yell, throw my racket, and then mope when I eventually lost. He said “I didn’t want to discourage you, so we were supportive, but we were relieved when you went down a different path.”
Age 17: Give it a year: My first two months at MIT were awful. I was homesick – all my friends, including my girlfriend, had gone to UT Austin. I got a 20 on my first physics test and went in my room for an hour and cried. I was completely overwhelmed by Cambridge and Boston – the people, the dirt, and the hustle of the city. The fraternity I lived in was filthy. The early winter chill startled me. And I thought Dallas, where I grew up, was the greatest place on early. My parents came and visited me in mid-October for a weekend. We were walking around on a crisp fall day in Concord, MA when I told them I hated MIT and wanted to drop out and go to UT with all of my friends. We talked to for a while – with my parents mostly listening – and then my dad said “You’ve only been here two months. Give it a year. If you still hate it after a year, switch to UT. But give it enough time to really understand it.” I ended up staying at MIT, getting two degrees, dropping out of a PhD program (I finally got to achieve my desire to drop out), and – while many of my days at MIT were brutal, I ended up loving the experience and treasure the impact it has had on my life.
I’m really lucky to have parents who have been awesome and incredibly supportive of me. When I reflect on the things that shaped the path I’ve taken, it was often short little one liners like these at a critical moment. My dad was just magical with his timing and his message. I can only hope I can be as good as he is.