How would the landscape of hard problems change if everyone had to spend at least 2 years of their lives working on them?
Think about that, while I tell you a story about a hero named Eff.
Eff isn’t an academic, in fact he didn’t finish high school. He left home at 16 to pursue a career as a chef. After doing that for 12 years, he opened a drug store. He sold that business and decided to get his pilot’s license while working in federal politics. Four years later he opened and sold a bar, and finally at age 48, settled into real estate where he would spend the rest of his working life.
Eff holds no degrees in mathematics or engineering but can build pretty much anything (he loves making furniture). He can also fix or repair pretty much anything, and other than a near miss he had a month ago with a tree in his backyard, he can think through complex problems and invent novel solutions. If you explain a problem and give him a set of contraints, he will come up with a solution. Sometimes it’s optimal, sometimes it has already been tried, sometimes it doesn’t work, but he will develop a solution that can be tested.
Really smart people think humans have some hard problems to solve. Hard problems that need to be solved in our lifetime. And in a time when some of our best and brightest are being pulled away from these hard problems.
What can we do? We need to get to Mars.
Eff isn’t going to help us get to Mars. SpaceX won’t hire him, but maybe they should. Granted I am biased, Eff is my Dad, and he’s one of the smartest people I know.
Every year, Eff and I share a chilly 6 hour drive up to our cottage. At some point we always end up talking about hard problems. Last year it was robots, this year, we talked about energy. Eff had an idea. What if the road had millions of little springs embedded into the pavement, such that when cars rolled over them, they pushed down and created a little bit of kenetic energy. Could you harness that energy into something useful or powerful? I have no idea, and neither does he, but I think it might be worth asking the question.
I am not saying that little springs are the answer to all our problems, but he is always coming up with ideas like this. Eff’s problem is that he doesn’t know what the really hard problems are. Or if he does, he doesn’t have the context or the constraints to try and solve them. What he needs is the scene from Apollo 13 (if you are an engineer you are nodding your head right now. You don’t even need to click the link because you know exactly what scene I am taking about). A team of people are tasked with fitting a square peg into a round hole, and guess what… they do it.
What if, at some point in his entrepreneurial career Eff had been forced into a similar situation. What if someone gave him a really hard problem, something completely over his head: Solar energy efficiency, the traveling salesman problem, getting to Mars, growing plants in the dessert, efficient hydroponics, harnessing the casimir effect, protein folding, supersymmetry, cold fusion… you get the idea. I think he could help solve it.
Let’s re-invent conscription in the name of science.
Every able minded human being would be legally bound to work on a hard problem that has the potential to dramatically aide human beings, alleviate suffering en masse, or ensure the survival of our species for two years of their life. One year right after coming of age: 18–25 and another closer to the average age of retirement, 55–65. This would make sure that we always had new minds and older, wiser minds working on hard problems.
Similar to parental leave, employers would cover a certain amount, and the government would cover the rest. If you don’t have a job or your employer cannot afford it, then you would have a longer, less focused contract but you would still have to work on / think about a very hard problem for a given amount of time.
One of the hardest problems would be defining / scoping the hard problems in such a way that everyone can contribute. Obviously Eff isn’t going to solve any loop-quantum gravity equations. But I believe there is something else he could help with. I don’t know what that is, but I know we can all be useful. That is why I chose the word conscription. During the Great Wars, some men and women were physically or mentally stronger. This made them more “useful” for certain tasks, but everyone contributed something.
Relying on volunteers or the current system isn’t enough because a terrible math teacher in the 4th grade can make or a break a scientist. There are many would be engineers who had their curiosity extinguished by people, or circumstance. If everyone was legally bound to lend their minds to science, more progress would be made. I do not have a good idea or system for how we would organize or manage this, but we could make it one of the first hard problems to solve.
Call it blind optimism, but I feel that everyone can add value in solving these hard problems. Eff won’t work at SpaceX, but he can help us get to Mars. He just need to know what the hard problems are, and be given time to try and solve them.
It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. -Einstein
Siddhartha went quietly to see his newborn son for the first time. His wife was sleeping with the baby beside her, her hand resting on the baby’s head. The prince said to himself, “If I try to move her hand so I can take the child for one last cuddle I fear I will wake her and she will prevent me from going. No! I must go, but when I have found what I am looking for, I shall come back and see him and his mother again.
Is it right to leave your children for your own selfish ambitions? I wouldn’t.
I always wanted to be a father, and knew I would be in my life. Even with this desire and a feeling of readiness when my wife got pregnant, I am ashamed to admit that I struggled in the first few months after he was born. Resentment and depression consumed much of my thoughts.
What about me and my life? All the things I wanted to do, businesses I wanted to start, languages I wanted to learn, books I wanted to read, knowledge I wanted to consume… when would I find the time? What have I done?
Having just finished watching Slingshot, where Dean Kamen openly speaks about how he would be a terrible father, full of resentment for taking him away from his life’s purpose I couldn’t help but feel guilty. Those were some of the feelings that I had in those early days. I work a lot, and love it. I don’t compare my contribution to Dean’s but I try my best. My son’s birth was a flame that ignited the embers of my ego that I thought I had put out. The fire ragged and was consuming. Luckily, with friends and family to help I was able to starve the fire of thought, and it died as quickly as it started but it did burn us.
Buddha gave me a framework for dealing with those thoughts and feelings. The joy and love I feel today are beyond anything I could have imagined then. As a father every moment becomes a chance to play. Seeing the world through a child’s eyes is a profound perspective altering experience. It makes life pretty clear and simple. You are either living in illusion or living in love, ego or truth, where and when or here and now. Ambition hasn’t become less important, just less serious. I know more than ever that life is a game I am lucky to be playing with my wife and son. Even though I know they are illusions and ultimately impermanent, they are the most beautiful parts of life I have seen and I will enjoy them to the fullest while I can. What better way to spend your time then playing the game of life with the people you love the most.
Buddha didn’t feel these gifts, he chose to pursue ambition and a calling much like Dean. I am not judging his decision as it was his to make, but I can’t help but see the irony and wonder what would have happened if he had seen those desires to escape and self-actualize for what they were. Would Siddhārtha have still found what he was looking for? Would he still have discovered the sword that helped me cut through the illusion? I don’t know.
I do know that in less than 6 hours my son will wake us up in one of three ways: a kick, a laugh, or a fart. Fingers crossed for a laugh but I will take whatever he choses to give.
Over the past 10 years I have experimented with super caffeination, polyphasic sleep, the DaVinci method (slightly different than PS), meditation, affirmations, and visualization as ways to prolong wakeful productive time.
I am an idiot.
Seriously, re-read that line above. It’s true.
In my hubris, I, the mighty Kent Fenwick from Toronto, Canada decided that I would be the one to reach a new level of consciousness and kill this disease called sleep. I would use my super mental powers to will myself awake, to drug myself, to fight nature and evolution itself! A God among men and women…
I was an idiot.
Seriously, re-read that line above. It’s true.
If you are a positive optimist as I am, then you will read this and get a renewed sense of energy.
“No bro, there are these pills you can buy from Amazon that…”
“You clearly never snorted adderall.”
“You gave up! You should have kept experimenting! Did you try…”
All that jazz ^^
So why wait 10 years for the rant? Because I am starting to see explorers that look a lot like I did. The lack of sleep is being worn as a badge of honor. Let me set the record straight, consistent lack of sleep is a failure of prioritization and focus, not a badge of honour.
We might discover a way to wash our brain (yes our brain is a dishwasher) artificially, and could reduce our dependance on sleep but that day is not today. So go to sleep.
Let’s not celebrate things are scientifically known to be toxic and bad. I will never brag about how little sleep I get anymore and frankly, I should hope for a swift kick to the nuts if I do.
The only way to know you are on, is by turning off.
EDIT** — Disclaimer, I do not work for Amazon, or Audible I just love their products. If you want to get these books from the library or other sources power to you. I just find it easier going to Audible. I am flattered that you all think this would be a sponsored post 😉
Being a father, having a spouse that works full time, working full time myself on a startup, helping friends with their startups on weekends, being the best father, husband, son, son-in-law, brother, brother-in-law, and friend I can be, doesn’t leave a lot of time to read.
So I stopped reading (mostly) and chose to listen to my books instead.
In a given week I don’t have a lot of free time, but I do have a lot of found time.
Daily walk to and from train, 4 hours / week.
Waiting for my son to fall asleep, 3 hours / week.
Cleaning the house, 4 hours / week.
Driving, 1 hour / week.
Grocery store, 1 hour / week.
Random solo errands, 1 hour / week.
This gives me 14 hours each week or about 700 hours every year to listen to books.
The length of books ranges a lot, especially when you are reading non-fiction. I love The Teaching Company’s offerings but they can run 30+ hours. I also just finished A Song of Ice and Fire, which was a heavy 200+ hours.
One of the biggest problems with audiobooks is that sometimes you just aren’t in the mood for them, especially dense non-fiction. So the system that I use is to always have at least 1 non-fiction and at most 1 fiction on the go at once. Audible makes it easy to switch back and forth while saving your position so that’s not a problem, and this gives your brain a break and makes listening that much easier.
Listen to the preview first. If you don’t like the reader’s voice it’s going to be a struggle. This doesn’t happen often, most voice actors are incredible.
Don’t listen to more than 3 non-fiction books at a time. You will likely gloss over details and you won’t retain nearly as much as you want.
Buy paper books of the audiobooks you love. Audiobooks are hard to reference later, so having a physical copy that you can skim through is key, especially for non-fiction.
Re-listen to books you love. Your brain will wander when listening and you will miss things. Re-listenting lets you get the details you missed.
Download all books, don’t stream them.
Buy a subscription.
The last one is key. Audiobooks normally cost around $25–35, so this year could have cost me $1,700. Instead, I buy a subscription which gives me 24 books for $9 a book. 100% worth it.
I do still read physical books, in fact, I read about 10 physical books this year using the traditional reading times: before bed, while Jack was napping, on the train, early in the morning etc.
10 books vs 50+ books, simple math. If you love to read, and miss reading because life is busy, leverage that found time and stop reading, and start listening.
One of the reasons I love my Apple Watch is the ability to check notifications with a simple glance rather than pulling out my phone. I told myself that the glance is less offensive in social, and business settings because its smaller and doesn’t break the flow of conversation. Having been in San Francisco with my team last week (I work remotely), I got called out by one of the nicest people on my team. She pulled me aside privately and said,
“By the way, you checking that [my watch] all the time? It’s got to stop lol”.
“What? Like looking at my watch?”
“Yeah, maybe I just need to get used to this as more people get them, but it sends a bad impression that I know you aren’t trying to make.”
“I didn’t even think about that! Is that worse then taking out my phone?”
“Totally! At least for me.”
This got me thinking about the glance.
The universal body language for “GET ME THE F&@* OUT OF HERE” is the watch glance.
This subconscious bias poses a problem for me, especially when traveling. I have a young boy, who happened to be sick last week while I was in SF. I was hypersensitive and likely glanced a lot more as I worried every buzz was news of another episode of projectile vomit. My colleague noticed these frequent glances throughout the week, and then it crescendoed during our full day offsite.
She is right. It is offensive. Perhaps even more so than the full phone because that gesture requires a lot more movement. You will likely ignore the noise, and only go full phone if you really feel you need to. The watch makes the glance too easy. Every time you glance you get new information, which reinforces the gesture and builds a habit.
The glance is a new, high signal gesture. Be mindful of your surroundings and use it sparingly when others are around.
If I didn’t love my job, life would be a lot easier. I would have more time for my family, friends, and myself. But in 2003, my life was forever changed when I became addicted to writing software. Over the years I have worked at great companies and not so great companies. I am happy to say Tilt is a great company.
This is not a shameless plug for the fact that we have a ton of job openings (but we do), it’s a message to the rest of the startup world that great companies exist. Led by people that believe in and live the Golden Rule. Forget about money, snack bars, and beer kegs (although we have those too), it’s emails like this that make me feel so lucky to work in tech and specifically at Tilt.
I went through a GTD rebellion in the past few years. I felt the checklists, todos, the obsession with inbox zero was just a way to convince myself that I was doing work when all I was doing was pushing buttons.
“I am a maker”, I would say. “I build things”. “I don’t need to make lists about the things I build, I should be building the thing that captures the things that I need to build.”
I was wrong.
Getting clear and using GTD is a good idea and something that I highly recommend trying and sticking with as long as possible. Here is a quick recap of GTD.
Capture everything you need to do in an inbox
Systematically review your inbox once per day
If you find a task that you can do within 2 minutes do it, if not, add it to your inbox or delegate it
Preform a bigger review once per week.
Obviously there is more to it then the list above, but the core tennant is that you should only touch something one time. You decide what to do with it right there.
Process it (add to inbox to do later).
If you have never tried a system like this before, then you will be shocked when you do. It truly is amazing how good you feel once you have captured all your todos into a system that you will review daily and then fully once per week. This enlightened state lasts several weeks if you are lucky, several days if you are honest. What’s the problem?
The weekly review!
You won’t remember to do it, or worse you will spend 5 mins doing it. The weekly review should take at least 30 mins, I block off an hour knowing that I will spend some time looking at a hilarious post or two. I can normally get it done in about 40 mins when I turn off the music and focus.
So do the weekly review. It will save your life.
If you are curious for more trial and errors so that you don’t need to try and error on them yourself, here is my new routine.
Nightly inbox zero
Process my inbox very fast (Gmail keyboard shortcuts)
If I can reply in 1-2 mins I do right away
If it needs more than 1-2 mins, I Star and move on
Calendar reminder to review Starred email at 10:00am daily.
As the day goes on I will add 10-20 things to inbox daily
Process my inbox at night very quickly (keyboard shortcuts)
If I can do the task in 1-2 mins I do it
If not, I assign a project and add a context
Each morning (after email) I do a quick scan of @Waiting, and main project lists.
Every Friday from 10:30-11:30 I do a full weekly review.
Every Monday I attempt a large brain dump
Every evening, normally before reading or watching Corrie, I do a mini brain dump.
I pick my tasks based on focus, energy, and then context.
I try to limit interruptions by turning off email and slack when I have a deadline or need high level creative time.
I maintain the @Waiting list very diligently. If you owe me something, chances are you are on my list. This allows me to quickly see the bottlenecks in projects and processes that I am involved in.
Not as good with this one as I should be, but have committed to trying it more. Instead of realistic things it is mainly full of movie and short story ideas.
Levels of focus
As a father, a husband, son, brother, friend, and Tilter… I have a lot of areas of responsibility. I want to get more formal about how I plan and set goals against these levels but normally I try and meditate on these ideas once per week typically while commuting on the train to beautiful Toronto or while flying to beautiful San Francisco.
That’s pretty much it. Would love to hear your thoughts on it. Drop a comment and let me know what works for you!
1) All bloggers are rich and famous
2) Some bloggers are rich and famous
Blogging doesn’t make you rich and famous but it does expose the author to a rare form of optionality, namely, a positive Black Swam.
Taleb describes the Black Swan as being: unpredictable, high impact, and can be rationally explained after the fact or suffers from the narrative fallacy.
Startups ( read tech startups in a bubble ) are built on the hope of positive Black Swans (pBS) given that employees and owners trade their time and money for pieces of paper ( they aren’t even on paper anymore ) that will make them rich one day. This is the definition of leveraged optionality and in moderation is a great position to hold.
Blogging works the same way.
Each blog post, increases the author’s exposure to a pBS. Maybe someone will post this to Hacker News or Reddit ( maybe I will ) and maybe a book publisher will read it and say, “Wow! Blogging meets the Black Swan, call his agent!”. Ten minutes later my agent’s phone rings ( it’s my phone, I don’t have an agent )
Kent! We read your post, we love it. Would you be interested in singing a… five book deal?
And just like that, I am rich and famous.
Not really though. Obviously.
Not all bloggers are rich and famous. However, without their blogs, would some of them be rich and famous? I would argue that many wouldn’t be for the reasons above: blog posts increase optionality and given the connected structure of the internet, the chance of a single post spreading to beyond it’s target audience is higher than any other writing medium.
Consider that Naseem Taleb and his book is itself a Black Swan. He talks at length about how book publishing is a winner take all, extremistan world. Take 3 random authors who’s book sales total 1,000,000 copies and ask someone on the street to guess the distribution between them. If you don’t know anything about book publishing you might guess around 333K each = 1M, when in reality it’s likely more like:
Author 1 – 969,000
Author 2 – 20,000
Author 3 – 11, 000
Most people are blind to the extreme nature of book publishing, startup IPOs, and successful bloggers.
Books, movies, and startups are hard to predict. Therefore publishers, studios, and venture capitals need to make a lot of small bets in order to win. You can think of writers the same way. Knowing what you know about writing being a winner take all game, doesn’t it makes sense for authors to write more books? Yes of course it does. Each book they write, increases the chance of being exposed to a pBS. Look at Dan Brown, one of the most read authors in the world. He didn’t find his pBS until his third full novel, The DaVinci Code. Digital Fortress, Angels and Demons are now best sellers, but not when they debuted.
Book publishing is a winner take all game, blogging is a little different because of the long tail. You can write about esoteric topics that only a handful of communities are interested in and find success given the power of Google and their eigenvectors. The reason blogging is such a good investment is that you can write for the niche, and still enjoy the chance of finding a pBS.
So should you blog for optionality’s sake? No. Blog because you love to write, but yes, you are “buying lottery” tickets each time you hit publish ( not really ).
Since we didn’t officially call it, and I hate loose ends, the answer is 2).
Let’s be honest, no one truly knows how Google did it, how Uber did it, how Tilt will do it, but it’s fun to pretend right?
I signed up for GrowthHackers.com today after years of trying to ignore it (I won’t even give them a back link). Being someone immersed in growth for many years, before it was called growth, I figured I should give it a try. The first 10 posts, except one (from a competitor no less) were all self indulgent and 100% crap.
In the tech and startup ecosystem, growth suffers form the narrative fallacy more than any other profession, save maybe venture capital. It is so easy and cheap to look back and explain why something did not work and blame it on events out of our control, or look back at success and paint ourselves the hero, when more than 50% of it could have been blind luck.
Growth marketers are awash with the confirmation bias. How many times do your experiments look to refute a growth hypothesis rather than confirm one? Here’s a great example. I am seriously sick of these kinds of posts. I am not picking on them to be mean or cruel, but it solidifies my view that we are all, for the most part, in some kind of growth circle jerk. Where company X tries something and it works, so then company Y tries the same thing with a little something different and low and behold it works too, and then company Z comes in and changes things ever so slightly… do you see my point? We are not building anything here. There is no real growth, I call this virtual growth, we are counting leaves on a branch that has been divided so many times. There are entire other trees out there, entire new forests, even some desserts that are worth exploring.
So you got a 200% increase, you might have missed a 20000% increase had you tried something bold and failed. Of course adding a pop-up will drive a certain number of signups, of course bugging the shit of your visitors will lead to conversions, I am not saying that we need to not do these from time to time, but do we need to talk about it? Aren’t these axioms by now? Stop telling me how you discovered a new secret to popups, when you just got lucky. If you are looking to confirm a theory you will more often than not find evidence to support it. Start trying to be wrong a lot more.
The best kind of science is done when you are constantly and consistently wrong. Your growth hypotheses should aim to be refuted not confirmed. This point is really important, so it begs to be repeated, your growth hypotheses should aim to be refuted not confirmed. If you are getting more things right than wrong, you are not doing your job. You are likely in a topology that looks something like this:
It is better to attempt climbing a mountain and failing, then climbing a hill over and over again.
Growth right now is full of hill climbers, we need more mountaineers.
Stop reading all the crap that pervades our industry including this. Leave the circle jerk. Sit down, think about your problems, design experiments to refute your hypotheses, get it wrong 100 times before getting right.