People: Scott Jurek


I first learned of Scott Jurek through the book Born to Run. The portrayal of him interested me enough to read Jurek’s own book Eat and Run, which narrates his life from the early days in rural Minnesota to where he is today.

Where is he today? Soctt Jurek is a legend among endurance runners. Most recently he ran 50 miles in a single day. For 46 days straight. On very rugged terrain. Through a trail he had never ran before: setting the new record on the Appalachian trail. Other impressive feats include:

  • running 24 hours non-stop around a track covering a total distance of 266km
  • winning a host of major ultra marathons, many consistently for years, including those that take place in extreme weather conditions
  • achieving all his athletic feats while on a 100% plant-based diet

Read more about the Appalachian record here: http://www.runnersworld.com/trail-racing/scott-jurek-celebrates-a-new-appalachian-trail-thru-hike-speed-record

 

People: Dan Carlin


Dan Carlin is simply a master storyteller. In his top-rated podcast Hardcore History he records epic tales from the annals of human history in gripping fashion. Truly gripping. It helps that he has a slightly raspy voice, but most of all it’s the intensity of tone. The episodes often stretch to an hour and a half, per part, with the typical story extending four to five episodes. I’m unsure whether Carlin has written out in advance what he wants to say or wings it; what is absolutely certain though is he doesn’t stumble or hesitate, rather he weaves a compelling narrative, while (this is what is really amazing) bringing in the view points of multiple historians and schools of thought. 

More: for a sample, listen to the start of this clip The Wrath of the Khans

The Greatest Threat to Humanity in the next Half-Century: Underpopulation?


Discussion of existential threats to humankind in the coming decades often revolves around nuclear wars, climate change induced famines, and spectacular cosmic events like an astroid collision. More recently there has been concern about artificial intelligence, specifically with the narrative of the singularity. Prominent visionaries including Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk have all expressed their concerns around AI in the past year.

With so much focus on the above issues, I was surprised to hear something completely out of left field during an AMA with Kevin Kelly, most well-known as founder of WIRED magazine, when asked what he felt was a looming threat to humans. He put forth a threat, perhaps not immediately an existential one, that seems quite absurd at first glance: underpopulation. He bases this on the twin trends of an ageing population and low birthrates. While these phenomenons are well studied and being addressed in Europe and Japan, Kelly claims that places like Mexico and especially China are at, or have already passed, demographic turning points. He points out that with the notable, but temporary, exception of the United States, which enjoys a rich annual inflow of young immigrants, this is a serious issue for both “developed” and “developing” countries to contend with.

Some surprising facts he brought up in the AMA and on other occasions:

  • The moment of peak youth on Earth is long behind us. It was in 1972 and since then the average age of the planet has been steadily increasing.
  • Mexico is ageing faster than the US.
  • Counter-measures to high birth rates have been easier to implement and more successful than those to address low birth rates. Wealthy countries have been largely unsuccessful in boosting birthrates despite large cash bonuses with no strings attached; as an example he cites Singapore, which pays out up to $5000 each for a first and second child, and $8000 each for a third and fourth child, but has been unable to push past even the mark of one child per woman (well below the 2.1 ratio necessary to maintain a population).

Here’s an excerpt from Kelly’s 2013 essay titled The Underpopulation Bomb:

A lower global population is something that many folks would celebrate. The reason it’s scary is that the low will keep getting lower. All around the world, the fertility rate is dropping below replacement level, country by country, sothat globally there will soon be an unsustaining population. With negative population growth, each generation produces fewer offspring, who produce fewer still, until there are none. Right now, Japan’s population is way below replacement level, as is most of Europe, Eastern Europe, Russia, the Former Soviet Republics, and some Asian countries. It goes further: Japan, Germany and Ukraine have absolute population decline; they are already experiencing the underpopulation bomb.

The picture for the latter half of this century will look like this: Increasing technology, cool stuff that extends human life, more older people who live longer, millions of robots, but few young people. Another way to look at the human population in 100 years from now is that we’ll have the same number of over-sixty-year olds, but several billion fewer youth.

We have no experience throughout human history with declining population and rising progress (including during the Black Plague years). Some modern countries with recent population decline have experienced an initial rise in GDP because there are fewer “capitas” in the per-capita calculation, but this masks long-term diminishment. But there can always be a first time!

You can read the full essay here : https://edge.org/response-detail/23722

Flipping Things on Their Heads


Assumption reversal is a popular technique in product development brainstorming and problem solving. And with good reason. It can yield terrific insight when applied well.

Here are two nuggets of wisdom from Seth Godin using reversals of the status quo:

1) rather than finding a job that matches your passion, find a way to transfer your passion to your job

Conventional wisdom is that you should find a job that matches your passion. I think this is backwards….Transferring your passion to your job is far easier than finding a job that happens to match your passion.

2) rather than find marketing that matches your product, create a product that matches your marketing

But my favorite reversal on conventional thinking is in the domain of daily routines: rather than setting your alarm in the morning to wake up, set your alarm in the evening to wind down and get to bed.

The Internet’s Greatest Brainchild


If I was told in the year 2000 of the proliferation of services like Uber (transportation on demand), Periscope (live video streaming from your phone), and Siri (intelligent personal assistant) just 15 years henceforth, it might have stretched my mind some, but I would have believed it. I certainly would not have been able to predict anything, but given a status report, I could imagine nodding my head and going along with it. Perhaps I might have even been a bit bullish, and predicted widespread use of holographic televisions, implanted wearables, and personal transport devices (à la Segway) by 2015.

But the one thing I absolutely would not have been able to wrap my head around is if someone had proclaimed in the year 2000: “Listen, by the end of the decade paper encyclopedias will be dead, replaced by an always up-to-date (to the minute!) reference source that will be created and maintained entirely by anonymous volunteers. It will continually be translated into more languages, including extinct and fictional ones. It will be free of advertising and carefully monitored to present multiple points of view and avoid vandalism. It will serve half a billion unique visitors monthly, but run entirely from donations and always be free for all to access (and edit). It will be one of the greatest mass collaborations of humanity. And no one will make money or hoard power in its creation or growth.” Wow. To me Wikipedia is the single greatest product of the internet age.

“Different Is Better than Better”


This is a quote I first heard from Sally Hogshead in her interview with James Altucher. It caught my attention because it so concisely summarizes a winning strategy both at a personal level, as well as at a company level.

At a personal level, in 2015 less than ever, being better on the same dimensions as everyone else is insignificant. Seth Godin, in his book Linchpin, provides a poignant example (emphasis is mine):

10% of the applications to Harvard are from people who got a perfect score on the SATs. Approximately the same number are from people who were ranked first in their class. Of course, it’s impossible to rank higher than first and impossible to get an 820, and yet more than 1000 in each group are rejected by Harvard every year. Perfection, apparently, is not sufficient.

Peter Thiel, in his book Zero to One, lays out the same argument to entrepreneurs, with one caveat. He advises: either be 10 times better or find a different dimension to compete in. 20% better doesn’t cut it.

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Surveys


These days at least once a week I receive an automated email asking me to complete a survey based on a recent customer service support call I made, a stay I completed, or some other interaction I had with a brand.

These do not cease to baffle me, specifically the profound disconnect between the building of a mutually beneficial relationship and the out-of-the-blue demand to fill out the survey. Why should any client, who has already given their valuable time and (possibly) money reengage with the brand?

I can think of three reasons:

  1. Offering some (small) immediate value in exchange: a white paper, e-book, coupon, or even a really humorous message.
  2. Offering the potential for some (much larger) later value in exchange: sweepstakes, exclusive/early access, etc..
  3. Surplus credit: in this case the brand has already given so much value to the client that it can spontaneously withdraw on the positive balance it has built up. This is really rare. Certainly none that I’ve received automated emails from. And in my opinion a wasteful use of surplus credit.

Email newsletters are in the same boat.

So note to self:

  • Always offer value, either immediate or latent, when asking for something. Additionally:
    • For surveys: make it short, collect info on the 1-3 points that really count
    • For newsletter subscriptions: make it really easy to both subscribe and unsubscribe

The Inner Critic


Within each one of us we have a relentless critic. Let’s call him Harry. Harry defines “acceptable limits” for what we can achieve, for what we should even begin to think of eventually someday possibly considering aiming for. He’s a control freak. A moody fellow, to say the least. Harry oscillates from mildly sceptical to fiercely critical, often within the same day, generously sprinkling latent regret through where he treads.  Sometimes he mutters “nah, don’t try, not worth the effort…”, while other times he reaches fever pitch and will berate you “as an utter and miserable failure”. What is always consistent though is his underlying tone: unequivocally negative. Unequivocally risk-averse.

Despite his hostile attitude, Harry is actually a well-meaning guy. He’s very good at what he does: ensuring survival. Not excellence. Survival. We have him to thank for where we are, not just as individuals, but as a species. For nearly all of human history saying or doing anything out of sync with the larger group was a risk. A real risk. Where risk = death. Thus Harry does what he has always done to yield fabulous long-term results: he equates any situation where we might be ridiculed with death. Or perhaps worse. What could we possibly fear more than death itself? The classic example is public speaking:

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.

Jerry Seinfeld

When we want to do something exceptional (always when in the sense of “unusual” or “atypical”, but also in its more positive connotation as “spectacular”) Harry will scowl at us. It’s his job. He might even throw a tantrum or try to burn the house down. That’s his job too. We can treat Harry as an ally. Or a foe. Either way, it really helps to know he’s always there, watching our backs.

 

Be It


What’s more effective?

A) I’m a digital native and social media expert. I follow trends closely and am always an early adopter of the latest in technology products and services.

B) Twitter: @mike

 

Be it.

No: How to Deal with an Influx of Choices


In 2015 the fortunate minority of the world population lives in times where our careers, relationships, and hobbies are less constrained than ever. Less constraints means more choices. In dealing with choices we could:

  1. say yes to everything
  2. default to no

Seth Godin examines each approach (within the career context) in his book Linchpin:

There are two ways the linchpin can use ’no’.

The first is to never use it. There’s a certain sort of indispensable team member who always finds yes. She always manages to find a way to make things happen, and she does it. It’s done. Yes.

Those people are priceless.

Amazingly, there’s a second kind of linchpin. This person says ’no’ all the time. She says no because she has the strength to disappoint you now in order to delight you later. When used with good intent, this negative linchpin is also priceless. She is so focused on her art that she knows that a no now is a worthy investment for the magic that will be delivered later

The second wins in the long term, although it’s often the ‘yes’ person who is celebrated. Undoubtedly there is value to this kind of person, as Godin indicates. A gladiator who can be thrown into any fire at any time, and not only come out alive, but more importantly (at least for the thrower) to have actually put out the fire. That is phenomenal. But there are at least two issues with such an approach:

  1. not sustainable
  2. misallocation of resources (time, energy)

The “say yes to everything” approach is like the Secret Service agent protecting the president. We see the problems arise here, 1) in this extreme analogy he can only do it once (or maybe twice). In typical life situations we can unconditionally say yes many more times, but with still some very real limit before things go downhill. 2) He jumps unconditionally to take the bullet. And it’s precisely that unconditionality that makes him valuable. He cannot (and should not) stop to decide whether this particular bullet worth taking. This is where the analogy breaks down… While all bullets carry with them a high chance to kill, typically opportunities do not have similar impacts. In fact, they have vastly different impacts. Orders of magnitude different. To boot, the impact often has nowhere near a proportional relationship with resources required.

So really, saying yes “to everything” is a delusion, because every yes implicitly carries with it a host of nos. Taking a page out of economics, there is never zero opportunity cost. In this way it is disappointing that Godin does not clearly differentiate; while both add net value the second approach adds markedly more in the long term.

Note, the second approach is phrased as “defaulting to no”, and not “saying no to everything.” In other words (specifically, those of Godin) this is using no “with good intent.” This is a recognition that in most contexts, and for most of us, the number of opportunities available far exceeds our limited resources (notably time and cognitive ability); defaulting to no allows one to fill our finite bucket with what brings real value. Defaulting to no allows us to “choose our battles.”

Thus, defaulting to no does not mean:

  • being negative or shooting down ideas
  • not wanting to take on fires
  • not willing to go above and beyond

Rather, defaulting to no means:

  • selectively saying yes and putting heart and soul behind it
  • taking on the right fires and challenges
  • using one’s own judgment in collaboration with that of others

Thanks to Seth Godin, who shares brilliant anecdotes and insights every single day on his blog.