The 21st Century’s Greatest Innovation

Here’s an interesting question: what is the single most impactful innovation of the 21st Century? Take a second to think about it.

Most of my friends say something like the internet or mobile phones. The problem is that most of what we think of as “technology” is really a composition many of individual inventions. The internet was made possible by great innovations at every level of the stack, from physical infra up through applications. Plus some new tech was simply made possible by cost curves falling to a certain level — that’s not quite a specific invention if you ask me.

To take a step back, what do we value when assessing impact? In my view, there are a few different “impact categories.” Specifically, most of what affects the world can be attributed to economic growth, political power, and side-effects like environmental changes or social norms.

How should we think about impact that derives from multiple technologies?

My unpopular opinion is that the most impactful technology of the 21st Century has nothing to do with software, hardware, or the traditional tech sector. I think shale oil extraction has been the most useful invention by a wide margin.

Let’s explore some of the ways that shale oil extraction makes a dent in the way the world works:

Economic: US oil production doubled in just 10 years, between 2007 and 2017. As you can probably guess, oil prices plummeted. (To be fair, this was partly due to increased Saudi production.) This played a role in the global recession recovery, and adds an estimated 0.5% to 1% to global GDP growth. Considering that economists left and right complain that growth in the developed world is so slow,  a 0.5-1% bump is incredible. I struggle to find any recent innovation that comes close to that. (Public-key encryption or perhaps relational databases may have made the cut 50 years ago.)

Geopolitical: The US has large shale rock formations. Tapping into them unlocks a huge amount of oil. But the process of shale extraction is more involved and expensive than traditional drilling so it’s only profitable when oil hits a certain price point in the market. When that price point is hit, however, we have as much oil as we need. This effectively caps the global price of oil at $70-90 per barrel which is below the break-even line for the budgets of the major oil production-dependent nations. This means that the US has much more economic and political leverage over the OPEC members. Since the other top oil producers — Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Russia, etc. — are all notorious for illiberal geopolitics and egregious human rights violations, the shale oil pricing dynamic gives American liberalism more power on the global stage. That’s rather impactful if you ask me!

Environmental: The negative impact of fossil fuels is often discussed and well-documented elsewhere, so I won’t belabor this point too much. There’s actually a very compelling argument for the “growth over environment” school of thought too. See this book or its summary for more. I’m not sure which viewpoint is better, but in either case, the magnitude of impact is clearly big.

In case anyone’s not convinced, we can do some big-picture comparisons to something as massive and ill-defined as “the internet.” According to this McKinsey report, the internet accounts for ~5% of global GDP and 21% of GDP growth in developed countries. That suggests that lower oil prices cause more growth than the entire internet! I’d take the report with a huge grain of salt, though.

The point here is that the traditional tech sector is not the most important part of our economy and our lives. The most wealthy companies in the world may be tech companies, but they represent an enormous amount of concentrated value. Most of what drives real-world wealth and opportunity isn’t (yet) linked to the pixels of our screen.

The Paradox of Compound Interest

I have a nasty habit of asking myself “how much money would I have in 30 years if I didn’t buy this thing?” It’s much harder to justify a $10 omelette or a $500 plane ticket if that money would compound into $50 or $2500 by the time my future kids are growing up.

Founders have the same problem: (source)

 “Equity capital is expensive. Every time you do a raise, you dilute.”  I like to tell a story about the young company founder who told me he was very proud of his expensive new Herman Miller Aeron chairs in his conference room during the Internet bubble. He bought them with cash that had recently been invested  in his company by some new investors. When I explained to him how much the chairs would eventually cost if the company went public someday via dilution the expression on his face turned from a smile to a frown. Dilution maters. Do the math. People say Warren Buffett can tell you nearly exactly how much income you have forgone if you show him an expensive toy. It is a bit unnerving actually, since he does the math in his head. When someone shows a founder some expensive office space with a beautiful and expansive water view they should immediately think: dilution!

That new MacBook for your first employee would cost tens of thousands of dollars in equity dilution if you have a VC-acceptable exit. And it’s not like consumer goods generate much utility on a long time-horizon — a nice pair of earbuds will yield the same benefits whether you listen to them now or in 20 years.

But then the fundamental problem arises: how do you justify spending money on anything beyond the most bare-bones necessities?

Remember that personal growth also compounds.

Qualitatively, our relationships, memories, and perspectives are all valuable, gratifying things to have. Much more so than any financial asset, I’d argue. In the internet-enabled tech economy, our personal qualities are becoming more leveraged than ever. 

With that in mind, it becomes much more reasonable to spend on education, travel, friends, and vanity. But where do you draw the line? I suspect this contributes to why some people take on crushing debt to go to a higher-ranked college than they’d otherwise go to.

It also seems irresponsible to set your personal burn rate equal to your income. Should we spend more? Or less? Or spend extravagantly on the few things most conducive to growth or happiness then cut everything else entirely? This assumes, questionably, that we know how to distinguish between what does and doesn’t cause personal growth!

When starting a company, I agree with the conventional wisdom that you should focus on minimizing burn. The entire point of an early-stage startup is to figure out the potential growth rate of your product when it fits with the market. In personal matters, I tend to think we should instead focus on growth rate. We know with high certainty that (thoughtfully) spending on ourselves will lead to experiences and friendships that make us a better person over time. The point is that drawing a clear dichotomy between the two cases helps avoid a common pitfall: it’s easy to merge work and life then burn startup cash needlessly or fail to invest in yourself.

Getting Good at Startups

Given that I spend most of my time nowadays working with first-time founders and students interested in venture, I figured I’d write a post covering my common advice on getting really good. If anything, this serves as an exploration of trade-offs I’ve dealt with at one point or another.

Although I learned the most exciting and nuanced tips and tricks from talking to great people, there’s still a ton that you can do on your own. I’m constantly amazed at how young some top startup nerds are. There’s so much content out there that you can get learn surprisingly fast if you separate the signal from the noise. Apologies in advance if this turns into a sales pitch on joining a startup and focusing on getting really good at one thing.

Principles

As is true in everything, there are many different ways to be really good. In general, I think we bias towards covering our weaknesses and being well-rounded. Especially if you have a strong deliberate practice/growth mindset. But if you want to be really good, it often helps to be the absolute best at one or two things, and merely acceptable at the rest. You could spend most of your time building a great network. Or becoming a top-tier salesperson. Or learning the detailed history of Silicon Valley and the empirical results of what works when building startups. It doesn’t really matter what you choose. But it’s incredibly hard to do everything when so young.

One useful strategy here is to prioritize the skills with a strong snowball or halo effect. If you get very knowledgeable about one specific vertical, you can be known as “the X guy/girl” for your X of choice. Then you have an excuse to talk to people and build cool things. Or if you focus on building a network of smart, like-minded people, it’ll get much easier as time goes on. Having an already strong network makes future networking easier and frees up time for other pursuits.

I think there’s not much choice to be had in your comparative advantage. You should do what you do enjoy the most. I can’t stand “networking” so I focus on what I do best: reading, learning, and expressing interesting viewpoints to friends. Building a reputation around knowing a little about everything has made the other relevant startup/venture skills easier to get.

Read the right materials

I’m a big fan of Semil Shah’s post about context as a tool for having good ideas and operating effectively. Most knowledge is subtle and not specifically written down.

The best way to get context is to follow current and historical thought. I’d read through all the classics: Paul Graham, YC, a16z, First Search, Founders at Work, Hacker News, tech Twitter, AVC, Above the Crowd, Chris Dixon, Brad Feld, Elad Gil, 20 Minute VC, and many other that I’m forgetting.

The raw volume of freely available content is humbling. I used to be bummed that I got rejected from MIT, but there’s a silver lining that I’m extremely grateful for: I have a huge amount of time to focus on stuff beyond coursework. Of course CS@Illinois is no walk in the park but I have a lot more flexibility to sit down and consume whatever info I want. Being careful about 1) minimizing “gen ed” time sinks that could be replaced with short books and 2) cutting out extracurriculars I’m not in love with has made a huge difference in productivity and happiness.

With a small number of brillant exceptions (Jason Lemkin on Quora, Vitalik Buterin on Medium, to name a couple), everything on Hackernoon, Quora, CNET, Business Insider, etc. isn’t worth the time. I find that Techcrunch, WSJ, Recode, etc. are fine for keeping track of big picture stuff, but you don’t learn much from them. Newsletters like LAUNCH ticker, Term Sheet, and StrictlyVC are better.

I’m a staunch supporter of learning things completely outside of your field. Not just “tech, but in a different vertical.” Really out there. Think political science, biology, military history, ethics, law, and comedy. More on the importance of this here.

Starting something

This is definitely the best way to learn every skill you need in entrepreneurship and venture. I’ve always known that I have more of an investor personality, but literally all of my mentors told me not to go straight into venture. I was nearly stubborn enough to ignore them but luckily I found the ideal startup internship and jumped on that opportunity.

Let me say: I’m amazed at how much I learned in just three months. It really is the fastest way to learn. I’d try to go as late-stage as possible as long as you can do a little bit of everything. The startup I was at had 7 people. I’m very fortunate to have done everyone’s job at some point.

To take a step beyond my own personal experience, there are a few specific characteristics to unpack from the generic term “startup.”

The speed of execution helps keep things challenging and interesting. There’s more room to experiment, the feedback loops are tighter, and you’re forced to overcome perfectionism and ship quickly.

The extra responsibility of a startup role adds a very qualitative sense of purpose or necessity. At a big tech company, you don’t need to worry about most of the little details, but those tiny parts of the business add up quickly. The utter lack of a safety net or acceptable “not my problem” scenario is a forcing function. You’ll have to think hard about asking the right questions and prioritizing.

Finally, there’s an enormous value to working on small teams that don’t build narratives. Outside of a company, all you know are the stories. It really is mind-blowing how revisionist or over-simplified most info is. Part of this is to build prestige among outsiders. It sounds better if the challenges you overcame were scary and hairy. It’s also because some things like interpersonal conflict and doubt of the company mission can’t be shared externally. That’d violate norms or expose confidential info. By being on the inside of the machine, you know all the juicy details of what’s happening. That was much more valuable than I had anticipated.

If you want to start something of your own, working at a startup is a no-brainer. Hop between startups each summer (and each semester part-time!) If you want to go into venture, I do think the empathy and tactics you learn are worth the time doing something other than your eventual goal. The street-cred doesn’t hurt either.

Investing

One of my major learnings over the past couple years at Contrary has been the value of getting as much real practice as possible. If you’re asking yourself “is this founder in the top 10%, 1%, or 0.01% in terms of clarity of vision?” you need to have enough data points to draw a normal distribution in your head and decide how much of an outlier the founder is.

This also applies to metrics. Is a 5% week over week growth rate good or bad? Is there a big difference in benchmarks between verticals? What CAC is reasonable for this sort of product? The answers to these questions depend on experience and are hard to observe from the outside of the decision-making room.

Talking to a very large number of founders also helps you understand the edge-cases that pattern matching and percentile-ranking don’t cover. What if a founder is a management consultant who taught themselves to code, and is building a social app which has historically been a questionable category? How do you begin to reason from first principles if you don’t have much info to go off of? You develop a valuable intuition for different situations by talking to as many people as possible.

Another thing to optimize for is the “legitness” of the investing you’re doing. Other founders/investors have suggested building a Fantasy Portfolio where you choose startups you know about and pretend that you invested. This is fairly popular in the public markets. It works better there because you have access to much of the same information as other investors, and you always have the option of investing in public markets. A Fantasy Portfolio helps prove that you can find companies, but convincing them to take your money is a different ballgame.

Through a handful clubs or nationwide student organizations, you can give out grants or invest small sums of ~20k. While these are a good way to build a network and meet founders, you can’t learn as much on the decision-making or value-add side. Working on a returns-driven team with larger check sizes (ideally over 6 figures) forces rigor. Just as exams force you to study and thoroughly learn the material in a way that lectures and homework can’t.

Of course I’m biased, but I think Contrary is the best way to do that while still in school. It’s much better than working remotely for a venture fund doing diligence work, in my opinion. Joining a VC in the summer would be best, but I don’t think it outweighs the opportunity cost of joining a startup when school’s out.

 

3 Questions on Tech Companies

I was recently given a few interesting questions on big-picture tech and investing principles. Here are some thoughts:

On big tech co defensibility

I think many investors over-weight for the theoretical aspects of a moat and under-weight practical ones. To be fair, good investors use mental-models to understand and generalize concepts. But it’s very difficult to discount an idea that is conceptually elegant though flawed in detail.

Network effects are the top-of-mind example here. In my view, Facebook — the poster-child of network effects — isn’t nearly as defensible as other tech giants that have ecosystem effects (Google search is much better partly because of data harvested from peripheral businesses like Android and Gmail) or brand equity (Coca Cola is otherwise indistinguishable from Pepsi).

A trite, tweet-sized rebuttal to FB’s moat would sound something like “how did MySpace’s network effects turn out? Or AOL’s, or Yahoo’s?” While NFX are great when you have them, they disappear just as fast once the flywheel starts spinning in the other direction.

I can imagine FB’s core social utility being split off into a number of separate products. We saw this with Instagram before FB acquired them. We saw Snap fill the private/ephemeral need, and not even FB’s massive network effect could save Poke from massive failure.

I also think FB is acutely aware of this: they’re investing more in video streaming to lock content-creators to the platform. They’re also drawing inspiration from WeChat with Messenger by tying in tools to make it a platform rather than a social network feature.

Mark Zuckerberg is one of the last people I’d want to bet against. But I can say the same for Bezos, Page, Brin, etc.

On the most important characteristics of founding teams:

Of course the ability to attract talented hires and being hard-working are useful traits. Solving a burning problem in a large and growing market is great too. Just as being tall is useful to a pro basketball player. I view these more as prerequisites, not forward-looking predictors of success.

Many investors and operators alike seem to favor category creators — companies that build something totally new. Zero to One, as Thiel would say.

But historically, many of the best companies were not the first to the punch. Going by market cap: Apple did not build the first computer or smartphone, Amazon was not the first to sell things online, Microsoft wasn’t the first to make an OS, Google was just a clone of Alta Vista, and Facebook was like MySpace or Friendster.

Even smaller companies like Flexport or Quora can be glibly described as “freight forwarding, but with software” or “Yahoo answers, but with good content.”

To be clear: this does not (and should not!) diminish the achievements or impact of any tech companies. I’m actually humbled by how transformative incremental changes can be. I see this as a testament to the power of pure focus and insightful iteration on the learnings of others.

There are probably other characteristics higher on the list of greatness principal-components. But this is one of the most underrated and misunderstood in my opinion.

On evaluating teams:

First, I look for something wrong with the team. Not to find a reason to pass, rather to make sure that they’re not “too perfect” or cookie-cutter. At risk of sounding like an armchair philosopher, founders with a vision for something truly innovative will look a little strange or contrarian. Founders simply following trends generally opt for more traditional or “prestigious” career paths before starting a company. As a quick aside, I think this is what tech people get at when they use the “don’t hire people who went to business school” mantra as a shorthand for describing outsider-ist tech culture.

Second, I try to understand how the team will continue to attract stellar people both inside and outside of their current areas of expertise. There are a lot of potential levers to pull here. Perhaps everyone is super cool or brilliant (or both!) and other great people will want to just be around the team. Or maybe the founders are respected engineers who only have street cred with other engineers, for example. Then how will they recruit and retain salespeople?

Third, I want the team to be thoughtful about the cultural diversity vs tribalism paradox. Especially in the early stages, teams need to be able to move quickly, be agile, and have laser-focus on the vision. To get through the early-stage grind where you spend all your time with the same people, it helps to be “like-minded.” As you grow, however, that can incubate serious problems (Uber) and you’ll have a harder time cultivating different viewpoints and skill-sets. Ideally founders have thought through this and will be able to handle the team culture through different stages of the company lifecycle. You could even generalize this to being deliberate about scale and knowing how to learn about management.

Questions

Simply listing my interests doesn’t quite encapsulate everything I’d like to share. Instead, here is a list of the questions that much of my reading and thinking revolves around. Let me know what catches your interest and start a conversation with me! Tell me what questions I should be asking.


  • Why are prediction markets not more common? There is only one popular PM category. (The financial markets)
  • Will we tend towards socialism as a function of wealth like Western Europe? (What makes up American exceptionalism?) What causes it? Is industrialized society a temporary exception which will revert back to forager or evolutionary-past social structures? (context)
  • Will our institutions account for signaling? Or is it really the Hansonian elephant in the brain? In which cases will we figure out how to pretend to give people what they pretend to want, and actually give them what they actually want.
  • Does environmentalism matter given that it’s often a direct trade-off with development? Alternatively, why is growth so good?
  • What’s the best replacement for religion in a secular society?
  • How do we solve social problems (e.g. obesity, homelessness) given that interventions have historically done little compared to economic development? Which categories of problems (mental illness, potentially) will not get better because of external trends?
  • How can we describe and teach worldviews? Few debates hinge on facts — you can rationalize your way to anything. Worldview is what sets opinion on topics.
  • How much is pre-determined by personality and cognitive traits? (e.g. political worldviews, career paths, and perhaps most disturbingly, happiness levels)
  • How do we better curate information? The web has given us access to nearly everything. Markets (reputation/aggregation platforms) help surface content, but content regresses towards the mean. “Republics” and “benevolent dictators” (editors and curators) are better than democracy (platforms) in this case. How should we think about the tradeoffs of the different systems?
  • How do we better understand and detect the difference between false feelings of insight and true understanding (e.g. Feynman’s experiments with LSD)
  • Assuming that empathy and coalitional signaling are why we’re becoming more progressive (see above), what, if anything, would stop or reverse that?
  • What should we think about the half-life of knowledge?
  • What would effective unschooling look like? Can that be generalized to most of the population, or would it only be worthwhile for X% of kids?
  • Will the Sovereign Individual thesis come true, or will we centralize more (or fall victim to authoritarianism)?
  • Will we tend towards a Malthusian-style Repugnant Conclusion, or shrink to a more “normal” population?
  • Why is so little time spent on choosing what to do relative to time spent doing? How can we change that?
  • Exactly how much knowledge is lost because brilliant people are “sponge” personalities rather than people who love to create written content?
  • How can we uncover information that’s obscured by narratives, without having to learn by direct experience?
  • What views are the free will assumption not compatible with? (e.g. our justice system assumes free will, but would still be consistent with absence of free will under a utilitarian interpretation).
  • How should we think about views where our philosophical conclusions differ from our intuitive conclusions? There are opinions I can only construct rigorous philosophical arguments against, but I still side with my emotion/intuition when it comes time to make a policy “final call.”
  • Why is art, music, etc. pleasurable? There’s a strong argument for why they exist (Geoffrey Miller) but what makes them so uniquely emotional?
  • What are all the political and rhetorical tactics that politicians, media, leaders, etc use? I should really start writing these down.
  • How can we use internet technology to foster “learning by observing”? I think “learning by doing” is overrated and “learning by shadowing the best” is way underrated.
  • What factors determine or create cultural influence?
  • Is the Paul Graham “what you can’t say” heuristic better than the Thiel contrarian heuristic?
  • Where do our stated preferences diverge from revealed preferences?
  • Is the unexamined life worth living? (context)
  • More questions TBD

Request for Startups

There just isn’t enough enough time in the day to take advantage of every opportunity. Below I’ve listed some ideas that I wish I could start in another life. I’d invest in all of them if the right team is committed. Let me know what you think! I could dig into these ideas for hours.

A dating app for hyper-targeted Reddit-style subcommunities

There are two competing trends I’ve observed in the dating space: 1) an absurd number of niche dating services have small communities, and 2) it’s difficult to filter for what you actually care about on the popular platforms like Tinder or OkCupid. Match Group, the owner of Tinder, Match.com, and OkCupid, has tried to cover the major user segments at the brand level. Is there a way to cover more user segments and give users more choice at the app level?

Nearly all new dating startups are cookie-cutter and terrible. I’m interested in a platform that solves the filtering problem by offering a marketplace of user-generated subcommunities, a la Reddit. There would be an “everyone pool” or master-list of profiles to sift through, paired with the option to “join a circle” such as tall people or neoliberals who enjoy the theatre. I’m skeptical of top-down data science that matches people together based on survey questions — I think letting users generate their own taxonomy could lead to interesting results and potentially form a lasting differentiation. The default “all” list helps users join the platform, and the unique subcommunities lock users in.

A usable prediction market

I don’t understand why there aren’t more prediction markets (primer on the concept here). The prediction markets that do exist — the financial markets — are incredibly impactful and employ millions of people. Interesting PM use cases include prediction-based corporate governance structures, better predictions of real-world events, and more accurate securitization of private risk.

I was excited by the launch of Augur, but nobody really uses it. I haven’t worked out why Augur — or a centralized service for that matter — hasn’t caught on. Sports betting is a technically a form of prediction markets and that’s a huge industry. I see no reason people wouldn’t enjoy on similar real-life events (will Kanye run for president and get more than 500k votes?) I think that a prediction market with a Robinhood-esque ease-of-use or social features could get big. (Perhaps this is something that Robinhood should just build on their own!)

This could take the form of a consumer-focused product, or a toolkit for companies to integrate prediction markets into their own products. (Beware, this is a slippery slope leading to Futarchy. Kidding.)

Better tools for remote teams

Zoom, Slack, and G-Suite have made managing remote teams much easier over the past several years. I can’t imagine leading Contrary without such convenient ways to work and communicate. But there are still unsolved problems. Documenting everything for your team through a wiki or messenger is slow and painful enough to not get done most of the time. And you can’t look over at someone’s desk to see if they have a minute to chat. We need better information collection (some companies have attempted auto-transcription of meetings) and less ambiguous/distracting ways to get someone’s attention remotely.

The holy grail of remote tech is feeling like you’re with someone IRL. No matter how much time I spend with Contrary’s venture partners over calls or text, the friendships don’t feel quite right until we meet in person. When seeing someone in-person I’ll feel like we’ve been friends for a while. But in-person interaction is that final stepping stone. This seems to be an artifact of how we’re built as humans. Getting around that somehow would be huge since team culture is so important.

Online mega church

Senior citizens are often lonely, immobile, and religious. They’re also very loyal customers. You can read more of my learnings about seniors here.

Think of how successful some televangelists have been. And they just sell videos. Now that seniors are quickly adopting mobile devices, you can layer on Netflix-like content selection, social features to build community (and network effects!), on-demand streaming, interactive components, in-app donations, etc. Just as middle schoolers can practically live their social lives in Fortnite teams or CoD lobbies, on online religious gathering place could be the killer app for seniors.

Tools or a platform for job offer negotiation

Most college kids don’t negotiate their job offers. I think that’s a colossal mistake because 1) wages tend to be sticky so a marginal difference in starting salary will add up over a career, and 2) an extra few thousand dollars saved now will compound into 5x that by the time the students’ future kids are growing up. Every little bit of cash matters early on in life.

I think there are a couple causes of this problem. College students may not know that they can negotiate offers, or they may be too timid or anxious about risking their offer. Even though in reality, nothing ever happens to the offer and employers won’t think less of you as long as you’re not overtly greedy. Or maybe students are just burned out after 4 years of hoop jumping and want to put the job search behind them.

I don’t know what the best model would be. Career coaching is available to most students, but nobody uses it and it’s got a mediocre reputation. The school cares about getting you in a job, not optimizing those little comp details (similar to the real estate agent incentive problem). There are a couple product angles you could take. First, you could offer an end-to-end job hunting service that closely coaches you on what to say to recruiters (don’t be the first to name a salary number! Blame a family member for needing time to think and compare!). You’d charge a percentage of bonuses you can negotiate to de-risk from the user’s perspective. Second, you could create a library of example emails, Glassdoor-like negotiation benchmarks (some companies are more flexible than others), and a community for navigating the post-offer process which is crowded out by resources for the job-seeking process. Paid access to such a library would be clearly ROI-positive from a user perspective in theory, but I bet it’d be hard to market in practice.

The long term vision would be to slowly eat more and more of the recruiting “stack” and eventually match users with companies. You already know how Indeed, WayUp, etc. work. I think there’s an opportunity to build lasting value-add by being a uniquely trusted brand that is on the job-seeker’s side from the start (helping with negotiations), and by having a better understanding of why employees do or do not accept an offer since you’re involved in that process.

High quality food vending machines

Consumers want 1) convenient food, 2) better quality than fast food, and 3) more unique or “local” eating experiences. The rise of fast-casual, food trucks, and single-purpose micro-shops supports these trends. But there are a couple problems you run into in the food industry that make restaurants bad fits for venture. Margins are low, the businesses are not scalable, and the moats are dependent on brand and food. I want to take the food truck craze one step further with automated vending machines that cook food within them. You’d start with simple (but restaurant-quality) foods like dumplings. The machine would have an internal steamer to cook the dumplings on the spot. To maintain freshness, you’d have a full-time employee prep ingredients and deliver them to all of the vending locations. You could expand into pizza, eggs + hashbrowns, shawarma, etc.

The key thing here is keeping quality up — most vending machine food is bad. But if customers would walk up to a machine on their morning commute and get fast-casual quality meals, you may even be able to charge a premium. Of course there would still be a cost challenge: the machines would be expensive, and you still need to hire someone to do constant maintenance and restocking. That’s mitigated by the lack of labor cost on a per-machine basis. This would be really hard to grow, but I think the market is so big that the slog would be worth it.

A robust way to signal conformity and conscientious  

I’m a fan of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education. It argues a viewpoint that may seem obviously wrong or even upsetting, but is very difficult to actually find steel-man refutations of. To oversimplify one component of the book’s thesis, education signals three things: intelligence, conformity, and conscientiousness. Of course we have the SAT or IQ tests to show off intelligence. But you can’t show a potential employer that you’re conformist enough to be an obedient employee and conscientiousness enough to get the job done.

That’s a big part of why we spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and 4 prime years on education. If there were a stronger, more honest signal of conformity/conscientiousness, then you could potentially skip the brute force signalling that makes up much (most?) of modern education.

(If you’re thinking “but what about everything you learn?” then I agree that’s also part of school, but go read the book. There are some incredible empirical results that may sway your viewpoint.)

I’m purposely leaving this proposal vague. There are a lot of different angles you could try. Perhaps a company should build a stronger reputation system that tracks detailed feedback across employers (hiring managers rarely call references beyond your most recent job). Or you could build a more comprehensive marshmallow test for adults. Or something totally different that I’m not alluding to here.

A socially acceptable, well-branded nootropic

I’m worried that nootropic vitamins and supplements will go the way of Google Glass, Segway, and Soylent: useful products, but something you’re a little too embarrassed to use. Cutting edge research-based companies tend to have very utilitarian marketing strategies (WTF is a ketone ester and why do I need it?) and the nootropic/supplement/IMF/biohacking space isn’t really “cool” or consumer-ready yet. I assumed that the company formerly known as Nootrobox, now HVMN, would be the ones to make it happen. Maybe timing isn’t right, or their execution was off.

Consumers seem to gladly regulate themselves using drugs (coffee, alcohol, and nicotine, specifically) so I don’t think there’s anything fundamental preventing nootropics from happening. Vitamins are common too. I can’t explain why drugs and vitamins haven’t been combined into a mainstream nootropic. It has to be the marketing. (Semi-related: Kin is a startup I’m excited about).

Competition Matters Less in Software

What is it that makes software startups so able to disrupt incumbents? Why does competition seemingly matter less in software compared to other industries?

Software companies are very maneuverable. Especially new entrants. There are relatively small CapEx requirements to maintain existing products so pivoting and expanding doesn’t require as much of a operational/financial tradeoff as compared to non-tech. You can keep your previous product running for next to nothing. Plus you can instantly push new changes to existing users.

Software can instantly scale to fill any niche or unlocked growth opportunity. The marginal cost of servicing a new user is basically zero, and it’s instant. Larger companies are held back by old processes, bureaucracy, hyper-focus on a larger revenue stream, etc.

Network effects (which many competing tech companies rely on) can be unraveled. I’ve always had the hardest time arguing this point. Friends have pushed back against me, saying that the whole point of a network effect is that it can’t come undone easily. I wasn’t quite articulate enough to counter that argument, but Marc Andreessen says it well in Elad Gil’s book:

Marc: I think network effects are great, but in a sense they’re a little overrated. The problem with network effects is they unwind just as fast. And so they’re great while they last, but when they reverse, they reverse viciously. Go ask the MySpace guys how their network effect is going. Network effects can create a very strong position, for obvious reasons. But in another sense, it’s a very weak position to be in. Because if it cracks, you just unravel. I always worry when a company thinks the answer is just network effects. How durable are they? To your point on data network effects, I would just say that we don’t see it very often. We see a lot of claims, and very little evidence. The reality is, there’s a lot of data in the world, and a lot of ways to get data. We have not seen very many data moats that actually make sense, even in science.

You can G2M through many channels. Technology companies often go to market through several different hyper-focused channels. All you need to do is find one LTV/CAC positive channel and pour money into it. Non-software companies are often stuck having to do generic lifestyle marketing and branding which doesn’t easily attribute or confirm ROI.

Software is less tied to external forces like regulation, macroeconomic trends, and cultural norms. I’d argue that the whole point of some software companies is to get around or hedge against the effects of these things. Software firms compete more so on product and distribution.

Software is feature-driven. Coke and Pepsi taste the same in blind trials — their slow-changing brands and distribution drive sales. If a software company builds a better feature set, they can win customers on the basis of their product or service’s functionality .

Data is fungible. Users can switch between WordPress and Medium, for example, at will and with no cost. This is a part of what drives software companies to be platforms: if your value is the aggregation and network effect rather than the info itself, users have a cost to switching (fewer eyeballs)

Great software companies tend to be category creators. I disagree with the Thiel view that startups must go zero-to-one or have a grand secret — most amazing businesses can be reframed in incremental terms, like Netflix is just TV but online, or Facebook is MySpace but for your college friends. Most software companies simply don’t compete much on price or quality. To be fair, this point is a bit of a truism: categories tend to be defined by the most prolific companies, not vice-versa.

All I’ve done here is enumerate the some factors in play. The challenging part is figuring out how these different forces work together, in which situations they appear, and what properties of the market emerge from them.

Of course these points are simplified. Many enterprise software companies, for example, have strong lock-in effects on data. It’s very difficult to export your task management or CRM tooling into another system. Perhaps digging more into these exceptions would make for a good followup post.

Agree or disagree with anything written here? Have something to add on? Hit me an email (will@thisdomain) or tweet (@whrobbins)!

Senior: My Summer at Umbrella

As I’m sadly nearing the end of my time at Umbrella and looking forward to my senior year of college, I wanted to write down some of the interesting things I’ve learned this summer.

I originally joined with one personal mission: add as much info as possible to my understanding of what I want to do with my life. The role was for a wear-every-hat gap-filler. And I really liked the team — I could see myself fitting in well with the culture. To be honest, I wasn’t in love with the problem space at the time, but it was new and mildly intriguing.

As the summer went on, however, I ended up becoming rather interested in senior living. Growing old creates problems in basically every part of your life, and most modern tech-enabled companies aren’t designed to work with seniors. I’m increasingly convinced that there are a truly gigantic number of opportunities and interesting problems out there.

Starting with some things about seniors in general:

The financial calculus is harder. Many seniors live on fixed income and have a lot of uncertainty surrounding how long they’ll live and whether or not they’ll have unexpected medical costs. This makes seniors reluctant to spend on anything that’s not necessary.

Word of mouth carries lots of weight. Seniors are very deliberate in evaluating their experience as customers. It can take weeks for seniors to get comfortable enough with a product to recommend it to friends — and they often have a smaller set of people they talk to. These dampen viral coefficients for a nascent single-player company like ours. It’s unknown how strong word of mouth will be for a more advanced senior-focused tech product. On the flip side, careful recommendations often have a higher impact and make friends likely to convert.

Trust and security are huge concerns. A disturbing number of Umbrella’s members have been previously scammed by unethical contractors or even had their bank accounts emptied by fraudsters. Some sales leads aren’t comfortable giving us a credit card number or basic personal info, and for good reason given the level of abuse targeting seniors. Figuring this out across marketing, sales, and product has been an interesting challenge.

Serious attention to detail. There were multiple occasions where I’d talk to a potential customer and say something like “we charge $29/month,” then after talking for another few minutes, I’d reiterate that “Umbrella only costs $30 bucks a month.” Then I’d inevitably be interrupted: “wait, I thought you said $29, not $30?” Inconsistent information over the phone and sloppy landing pages are a big turn-off.

It’s harder to consistently communicate. While most of us are available through text, email, or phone calls, seniors often only use one or two of the three. It can be tough to design a system that works when any given user might require that you use a specific channel.

You can’t take all tech product concepts for granted. Ideas like recurring subscriptions (what if I don’t use it this month?) and on-demand work (so who are these people just showing up?) are alien. Seniors usually don’t keep up with tech news that might familiarize them with companies like Uber or Netflix, so you can’t even rely on common context to build a brand image and value proposition.

Bad design is really really bad. You can’t hide much behavior (linking an address to a map application, for example.) Hamburger menus, swiping, and press-and-hold are out of the question. Animations are probably too confusing as well. Other complex products may be able to get away with those design elements, but not Umbrella. Building a crystal-clear interface that is acceptable to everyone on the seniority-spectrum is hard.

You earn a lot of goodwill, at least as far as tech companies go. Serving seniors is a strong mission that unifies potential partners, customers, and teammates. While still one hell of a challenge, BD/sales/recruiting gets 3% easier. And that can make a huge difference.

Your customers love you more than you thought was possible. One of the best parts of working at Umbrella has been the immediate and significant impact we’ve had on our members. Every week we’d get a call or note saying “I don’t know what I’d do without you,” or “Umbrella is a godsend.” It’s a lot easier to push through an intractable bug in your code when the users are so genuinely grateful for what you’re doing.

You work with lot of fascinating characters. Seniors don’t seem to care what anyone thinks of them. Between the hilarious age-gap moments, borderline-crazy 500+ word emails, and heartbreaking reminders of our own mortality, seniors are by far the most human group of customers I’ve ever served.


Thoughts on the space overall

There are a couple strong tailwinds that make me very bullish on senior-focused startups.

First, seniors are becoming more and more digital. While plenty of our members don’t have email addresses or cell phones, that’s changing — fast. You can easily Google around for trends and stats here. By the time a startup begins to scale up several years from its starting point, this will be much less of an issue. So now is a probably a great time to get rolling.

Second, unique senior-specific UX and sales challenges create a surprisingly solid moat. Think about everything I listed above — I suspect that X but for seniors will be a viable startup idea generator. We already see early hints of this from GoGoGrandparent, the Uber for seniors that went through YC. (They’re double dipping on the idea generators: Uber for X and X for seniors!)

I’m convinced there will be several $1bn+ companies out there focused on senior verticals. One of the running jokes at the office was that an online megachurch would be an insanely profitable business. While that’s not a business we would ever want to build, just remember how successful televangelists are. Add on the scale of the internet, modern phone/tablet distribution, and social-network-like community features and you’ve got something huge.

AARP is investing $40mm in senior-focused companies. I’ve also heard more non-specific but senior-related chatter recently from mainstream VCs. I’m looking forward to seeing how the space develops! Let me know if anything catches your eye.


Shoutout to Sam, Lindsay, Emma, Erin, Samra, Caroline, Megan, Manuela, and David for a summer that went by way too fast! I’ll miss you all ❤

Notes on The Elephant in the Brain

For the past several months, I’ve been on a sociology and (evolutionary) biology reading binge. I recently finished my favorite book on the topic: Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s The Elephant in the Brain. I found its ideas so concise, useful, and explanatory, even for someone who’s done previous reading in the area, that I should share a little background as well as my notes from the book.

You may have heard the common X isn’t about Y examples:

Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy

The point here is directionally right and this thinking serves as a useful heuristic for understanding systems. But it’s the the mechanisms and fine-grained details that provide a useful mental model and worldview. Hopefully the highlights will intrigue you enough to read the book yourself.

There are some interesting corollaries and implications to the Hansonian worldview that I think are horrendously underrated and not really explored in the book. Namely:

  • Everything is inherently political or status oriented because sexual selection, not natural selection, is what drove most of humal evolution (this was Darwin’s real discovery which was not fully accepted and modeled until the 1980’s).
  • Virtue signaling must be good, not bad. How else would we set norms on which (arbitrary) games we compete in? Some games are better than others from an external perspective. E.g. consumerist signaling is harmful to the environment.
  • We live in our own little dream worlds. But I don’t know if it matters from personal and philosophical standpoints.
  • Certain political philosophies (Marxism) assume a natural selection-based Darwinian view of human nature which is only a small fraction of why we actually evolved.

I know those bullets have a lot of big ideas packed into them — I could talk about each one of them for hours. Hit me up for more. I’d rather not attempt to explain everything in an overly-abbreviated post.

Here are my highlights. Update: here is another great list of highlights someone compiled!


Here is the thesis we’ll be exploring in this book: We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives—we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people. And in order to throw them off the trail, our brains often keep “us,” our conscious minds, in the dark. The less we know of our own ugly motives, the easier it is to hide them from others. Self-deception is therefore strategic, a ploy our brains use to look good while behaving badly.

The point is, we act on hidden motives together, in public, just as often as we do by ourselves, in private. And when enough of our hidden motives harmonize, we end up constructing stable, long-lived institutions—like schools, hospitals, churches, and democracies—that are designed, at least partially, to accommodate such motives. This was Robin’s conclusion about medicine, and similar reasoning applies to many other areas of life.

The alpha male, for example, almost never tries to replace the gamma male from guard duty; instead the alpha directs all of his competitive energies toward the beta. If the goal were to help weaker members, the alpha should be more eager to take over from the gamma than from the beta.

Knowledge suppression is useful only when two conditions are met: (1) when others have partial visibility into your mind; and (2) when they’re judging you, and meting out rewards or punishments, based on what they “see” in your mind.

Now consider the human being. Like the redwood, our species has a distinctive feature: a huge brain. But if we think of Homo sapiens like the lone redwood in the open meadow, towering in intelligence over an otherwise brain-dead field, then we’re liable to be puzzled.

Now, our competitions for prestige often produce positive side effects such as art, science, and technological innovation. But the prestige-seeking itself is more nearly a zero-sum game, which helps explain why we sometimes feel pangs of envy at even a close friend’s success.

Coalitions are what makes politics so political.

The problem with competitive struggles, however, is that they’re enormously wasteful. The redwoods are so much taller than they need to be. If only they could coordinate not to all grow so tall—if they could institute a “height cap” at 100 feet (30 meters), say—the whole species would be better off. All the energy that they currently waste racing upward, they could instead invest in other pursuits, like making more pinecones in order to spread further, perhaps into new territory. Competition, in this case, holds the entire species back. Unfortunately, the redwoods aren’t capable of coordinating to enforce a height cap, and natural selection can’t help them either.

But our species is different. Unlike other natural processes, we can look ahead. And we’ve developed ways to avoid wasteful competition, by coordinating our actions using norms and norm enforcement—a topic we turn to in the next chapter.

Collective enforcement, then, is the essence of norms. This is what enables the egalitarian political order so characteristic of the forager lifestyle.

right, it was learning to use deadly weapons that was the inflection point in the trajectory of our species’ political behavior. Once our ancestors learned how to kill and punish each other collectively, nothing would be the same. Coalition size would balloon almost overnight. Politics would then become exponentially more complicated and require more intelligence to navigate,

Typically, these are crimes of intent. If you just happen to be friendly with someone else’s spouse, no big deal. But if you’re friendly with romantic or sexual intentions, that’s inappropriate. By targeting intentions rather than actions, norms can more precisely regulate the behavior patterns that cause problems within communities. (It would be ham-fisted and unduly cumbersome to ban friendliness, for example.) But regulating intentions also opens the door to various kinds of cheating, which we’ll explore in Chapter 4.

But there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to do this. It’s perfectly acceptable just to “be yourself,” for example. If you’re naturally impressive or likable, then it seems right and proper for others to like and respect you as well. What’s not acceptable is sycophancy: brown-nosing, bootlicking, groveling, toadying, and sucking up. Nor is it acceptable to “buy” high-status associates via cash, flattery, or sexual favors. These tactics are frowned on or otherwise considered illegitimate, in part because they ruin the association signal for everyone else.

When abstract logic puzzles are framed as cheating scenarios, for example, we’re a lot better at solving them. This is one of the more robust findings in evolutionary psychology, popularized by the wife-and-husband team Leda Cosmides and John Tooby.

Here’s another way to think about it. We typically treat discretion or secret-keeping as an activity that has only one important dimension: how widely a piece of information is known. But actually there are two dimensions to keeping a secret: how widely it’s known and how openly or commonly it’s known. And a secret can be widely known without being openly known—the closeted lesbian’s sexuality, for example, or the fact that the emperor is naked.

Scalping—the unauthorized reselling of tickets, typically at the entrance to concerts and sporting events—is illegal in roughly half of the states in the United States. That’s why you’ll often hear scalpers hawking their goods with the counterintuitive (yet perfectly legal) request to buy tickets. Like wrapping alcohol in a paper bag, this practice doesn’t fool the people who are charged with stopping it; the police and venue security personnel know exactly what’s going on. And yet scalpers find it overwhelmingly in their interests to keep up the charade. This is another illustration of how even modest acts of discretion can thwart attempts at enforcing norms and laws. Note that professional norm enforcers, such as police, teachers, and human resource managers, have a strong incentive to enforce norms: it’s their job. Even so, they’re often overworked or subject to lax oversight, and therefore tempted to cut corners. Sometimes the threat of mere paperwork can be enough to keep police from enforcing minor infractions.

In 1527, King Henry VIII’s marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon seemed unlikely to give him the son he desperately needed, and at 38 years old, he was running out of options. Everyone at court knew that Henry wanted a younger woman—Anne Boleyn—as his wife. Unfortunately, his marriage to Catherine had been blessed by the previous pope, and the current pope was in no mood to grant an annulment. What the king needed was a pretext, a false but plausible justification to distract from his real reason. So, nearly 20 years into his marriage to Catherine, the king suddenly “discovered” that she hadn’t been a virgin on their wedding night, and that therefore their marriage was illegitimate. As pretexts go, this was pretty ham-handed. But kings don’t need their excuses to be particularly subtle or airtight; their power is enough of an incentive for most people to go along. In Henry’s case, his pretext was enough to let him break from Roman Catholicism (thereby launching the English Reformation) and secure his annulment from the head of the new Anglican Church. Pretexts are a broad and useful tool for getting away with norm violations. They make prosecution more difficult by having a ready explanation for your innocence. This makes it harder for others to accuse and prosecute you. And as we’ve seen, a pretext doesn’t need to fool everyone—it simply needs to be plausible enough to make people worry that other people might believe it.

Another domain is personal health. You might suppose, given how important health is to our happiness (not to mention our longevity), it would be a domain to which we’d bring our cognitive A-game. Unfortunately, study after study shows that we often distort or ignore critical information about our own health in order to seem healthier than we really are. One study, for example, gave patients a cholesterol test, then followed up to see what they remembered months later. Patients with the worst test results—who were judged the most at-risk of cholesterol-related health problems—were most likely to misremember their test results, and they remembered their results as better (i.e., healthier) than they actually were.

In recent years, psychologists—especially those who focus on evolutionary reasoning—have developed a more satisfying explanation for why we deceive ourselves. Where the Old School saw self-deception as primarily inward-facing, defensive, and (like the general editing the map) largely self-defeating, the New School sees it as primarily outward-facing, manipulative, and ultimately self-serving. Two recent New School books have been Trivers’ The Folly of Fools (2011) and Robert Kurzban’s Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite (2013). But the roots of the New School go back to Thomas Schelling, a Nobel Prize–winning economist best known for his work on the game theory of cooperation and conflict. In his 1967 book The Strategy of Conflict, Schelling studied what he called mixed-motive games. These are scenarios involving two or more players whose interests overlap but also partially diverge.

•Ignoring information, also known as strategic ignorance. If you’re kidnapped, for example, you might prefer not to see your kidnapper’s face or learn his name. Why? Because if he knows you can identify him later (to the police), he’ll be less likely to let you go. In some cases, knowledge can be a serious liability. •Purposely believing something that’s false. If you’re a general who firmly believes your army can win, even though the odds are against it, you might nevertheless intimidate your opponent into backing down. In other words, mixed-motive games contain the kind of incentives that reward self-deception. There’s a tension in all of this. In simple applications of decision theory, it’s better to have more options and more knowledge. Yet Schelling has argued that, in a variety of scenarios, limiting or sabotaging yourself is the winning move. What gives?

What’s the benefit of self-deception over a simple, deliberate lie? There are many ways to answer this question, but they mostly boil down to the fact that lying is hard to pull off. For one thing, it’s cognitively demanding.

Beyond the cognitive demands, lying is also difficult because we have to overcome our fear of getting caught.

When asked to raise both hands, one man raised his right hand high into the air and said, when he detected my gaze locked onto his motionless left hand, “Um, as you can see, I’m steadying myself with my left hand in order to raise my right.” Apart from their bizarre denials, these patients are otherwise mentally healthy and intelligent human beings. But no amount of cross-examination can persuade them of what’s plainly true—that their left arms are paralyzed. They will confabulate and rationalize and forge counterfeit reasons until they’re blue in the face.

Meanwhile, the rest of us—healthy, whole-brained people—are confronted every day with questions that ask us to explain our behavior. Why did you storm out of the meeting? Why did you break up with your boyfriend? Why haven’t you done the dishes? Why did you vote for Barack Obama? Why are you a Christian? Each of these questions demands a reason, and in most cases we dutifully oblige. But how many of our explanations are legitimate, and how many are counterfeit? Just how pervasive is our tendency to rationalize?

Kings and popes, for example, would often “invite” their subjects to line up for public kiss-the-ring ceremonies, putting everyone’s loyalty and submission on conspicuous display and thereby creating common knowledge of the leader’s dominance.

the psychology of humor—a topic fruitfully explored in the book Inside Jokes,

And many animals, in addition to using specific gestures, will also move slowly or engage in exaggerated or unnecessary movement, as if to convey playful intent by conspicuously wasted effort that no animal would undertake if it were in serious danger.

In another interview he says, “I don’t think it’s fair to get offended by comedians.” And yet what fans say they love about Burr is that he’s honest—“refreshingly,” “brutally,” “devastatingly” honest. So which is it? Is he just joking or telling the truth? The beauty of laughter is that it gets to be both. The safe harbor of plausible deniability is what allows Burr and other comedians to get away with being honest about taboo topics. As Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.”

Conversation, therefore, looks on the surface like an exercise in sharing information, but subtextually, it’s a way for speakers to show off their wit, perception, status, and intelligence, and (at the same time) for listeners to find speakers they want to team up with. These are two of our biggest hidden motives in conversation.

But why do speakers need to be relevant in conversation? If speakers deliver high-quality information, why should listeners care whether the information is related to the current topic? A plausible answer is that it’s simply too easy to rattle off memorized trivia. You can recite random facts from the encyclopedia until you’re blue in the face, but that does little to advertise your generic facility with information. Similarly, when you meet someone for the first time, you’re more eager to sniff each other out for this generic skill, rather than to exchange the most important information each of you has gathered to this point in your lives. In other words, listeners generally prefer speakers who can impress them wherever a conversation happens to lead, rather than speakers who steer conversations to specific topics where they already know what to say.

Now, it did make some sense for our ancestors to track news as a way to get practical information, such as we do today for movies, stocks, and the weather. After all, they couldn’t just go easily search for such things on Google like we can. But notice that our access to Google hasn’t made much of a dent in our hunger for news; if anything we read more news now that we have social media feeds, even though we can find a practical use for only a tiny fraction of the news we consume.

But when researchers Jesse Prinz and Angelika Seidel asked subjects to consider a hypothetical scenario in which the Mona Lisa burned to a crisp, 80 percent of them said they’d prefer to see the ashes of the original rather than an indistinguishable replica. This should give us pause.

Consider the lobster—as David Foster Wallace invites us to do in an essay of the same name. “Up until sometime in the 1800s,” writes Wallace, lobster was literally low-class food, eaten only by the poor and institutionalized. Even in the harsh penal environment of early America, some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats. One reason for their low status was how plentiful lobsters were in old New England. “Unbelievable abundance” is how one source describes the situation. Today, of course, lobster is far less plentiful and much more expensive, and now it’s considered a delicacy, “only a step or two down from caviar.”

A similar aesthetic shift occurred with skin color in Europe. When most people worked outdoors, suntanned skin was disdained as the mark of a low-status laborer. Light skin, in contrast, was prized as a mark of wealth; only the rich could afford to protect their skin by remaining indoors or else carrying parasols. Later, when jobs migrated to factories and offices, lighter skin became common and vulgar, and only the wealthy could afford to lay around soaking in the sun.

asked participants how much they would agree to pay for nets that prevent migratory bird deaths. Some participants were told that the nets would save 2,000 birds annually, others were told 20,000 birds, and a final group was told 200,000 birds. But despite the 10- and 100-fold differences in projected impact, people in all three groups were willing to contribute the same amount. This effect, known as scope neglect or scope insensitivity, has been demonstrated for many other problems, including cleaning polluted lakes, protecting wilderness areas, decreasing road injuries, and even preventing deaths. People are willing to help, but the amount they’re willing to help doesn’t scale in proportion to how much impact their contributions will make.

Patrick West calls it “conspicuous compassion.” The idea is that we’re motivated to appear generous, not simply to be generous, because we get social rewards only for what others notice.

Consequently, even the most celebrated studies are often statistical flukes. For example, one study looked at the 49 most-cited articles published in the three most prestigious medical journals. Of the 34 of these studies that were later tested by other researchers, only 20 were confirmed.

In fact, patients show surprisingly little interest in private information on medical quality. For example, patients who would soon undergo a dangerous surgery (with a few percent chance of death) were offered private information on the (risk-adjusted) rates at which patients died from that surgery with individual surgeons and hospitals in their area. These rates were large and varied by a factor of three. However, only 8 percent of these patients were willing to spend even $50 to learn these death rates. Similarly, when the government published risk-adjusted hospital death rates between 1986 and 1992, hospitals with twice the risk-adjusted death rates saw their admissions fall by only 0.8 percent. In contrast, a single high-profile news story about an untoward death at a hospital resulted in a 9 percent drop in patient admissions at that hospital.

And yet medicine deserves its share of public scrutiny—as much, if not more so, than any other area of life. One of the simplest reasons is the prevalence and high cost of medical errors, which are estimated to cause between 44,000 and 98,000 deaths in the United States every year. As Alex Tabarrok puts it, “More people die from medical mistakes each year than from highway accidents, breast cancer, or AIDS and yet physicians still resist and the public does not demand even simple reforms.”

found that death rates plummet when doctors are required to consistently follow a simple five-step checklist. •Requiring autopsies. Around 40 percent of autopsies reveal the original cause-of-death diagnosis to have been incorrect. But autopsy rates are way down, from a high of 50 percent in the 1950s to a current rate of about 5 percent. •Getting doctors to wash their hands consistently. Compliance for best handwashing practices hovers around 40 percent. Some of these problems are downright scandalous, and yet, as Tabarrok points out, they’re largely ignored by the general public. We’d rather not look our medical gift horse in the mouth. Another way we’re reluctant to question medical quality is by getting second opinions. Doctors frequently make mistakes, as we’ve seen, and second opinions are often useful—for example, for diagnosing cancer, determining cancer treatment plans, and avoiding unnecessary surgery. And yet we rarely seek them out.

If we’re using medicine as a signal of support, however, then we’ll provide and consume more of it during a patient’s times of crisis, when they are more grateful for support. And this is exactly what we find. The public is eager for medical interventions that help people when they’re sick, but far less eager for routine lifestyle interventions. Everyone wants to be the hero offering an emergency cure, but few people want to be the nag telling us to change our diets, sleep and exercise more, and fix the air quality in our big cities—even though these nagging interventions promise much larger (and more cost-effective) health improvements. One study, for example, tracked 3,600 adults over seven and a half years. Investigators reported that people who reside in rural areas lived an average of 6 years longer than city dwellers, nonsmokers lived 3 years longer than smokers, and those who exercised a lot lived 15 years longer than those who exercised only a little. In contrast, most studies that look similarly at how much medicine people consume fail to find any significant effects. Yet it is medicine, and not these other effects, that gets the lion’s share of public attention regarding health.

Imagine a preacher addressing a congregation about the virtue of compassion. What’s the value of attending such a sermon? It’s not just that you’re getting personal advice, as an individual, about how to behave (perhaps to raise your chance of getting into Heaven). If that were the main point of a sermon, you could just as well listen from home, for example, on a podcast. The real benefit, instead, comes from listening together with the entire congregation. Not only are you learning that compassion is a good Christian virtue, but everyone else is learning it too—and you know that they’re learning it, and they know that you’re learning it, and so forth. (And if anyone happens to miss this particular sermon, don’t worry: the message will be repeated again and again in future sermons.) In other words, sermons generate common knowledge of the community’s norms. And everyone who attends the sermon is tacitly agreeing to be held to those standards in their future behavior. If an individual congregant later fails to show compassion, ignorance won’t be an excuse, and everyone else will hold that person accountable. This mutual accountability is what keeps religious communities so cohesive and cooperative.

In the end, our motives were less important than what we managed to achieve by them. We may be competitive social animals, self-interested and self-deceived, but we cooperated our way to the god-damned moon.

When Insiders Were Outsiders

When you become successful, there are two stories to tell: the triumph of that success, and the struggle of getting there. There are plenty of resources on the former — winning tactical advice, motivational think-pieces, etc. are easy to find. But I think people benefit most from the latter category.

Here’s a list of great hustle stories. Use these to remember that everyone had to start somewhere, and we’re all making it up as we go along!

If you can think of similar high-quality pieces, let me know! Contact methods on my homepage.