Two secret agents need to meet

Two secret agents need to meet for the very first time. They don’t know anything about each other—can’t even be sure that they live in the same hemisphere. They will recognize the other agent when the day comes, but that’s about all.

The spies haven’t previously agreed on anything, and they can’t communicate in any way, neither directly nor indirectly. The deadline for the meeting is one year. Within 12 months, the two agents need to meet without sharing so much as a tweet.

Where and when will they meet? And what would you do if you were one of the agents?

This puzzle is obviously “unsolvable” in a way that no two people will come to the same conclusion. Rather, it is an opportunity to observe creative problem-solving in real-time and to see how candidates talk through different approaches.

To maximize the chance of having a successful meeting, the agents need to think through what they themselves would do in such a situation, as well as imagine what the other agent might do. Since there’s no prior agreement and no knowledge of each other’s whereabouts, their best hope is to increase the probability of a chance meetup by choosing a place and time that most other agents would reasonably think of.

I don’t know much about spies, but I know that when I lived in Berlin, Germany, I only ever met up with friends who specifically came to visit me. On the other hand, when I lived in Manhattan, I only needed to wait, and sooner or later, all my friends from all corners of the world would eventually come by. So, “my” agent would choose New York for the meetup, and if it’s New York, it has to be Times Square, and if it’s Times Square, it’s probably New Year’s Eve. In my line of thought, the whole ball drop thing is just one massive secret agent meetup.

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Thinking Inside the Box

On the opposite side of my co-working desk is a project manager who’s been in meetings since he sat down. His constant voice makes it impossible for me to concentrate. While he gestures wildly and talks at the top of his lungs about some buttons on a website, I look around and realize that I’m the odd one out in this space. Most everyone else is also chatting away on video calls–that is, those who aren’t playing ping-pong.

Anyone in this room who wanted to get focused work done has given up by now, having left for a quieter corner or a different office altogether.

Open spaces promise to bring people together and increase the occurrence of serendipitous meetings–those water cooler or coffee chats where important conversations can happen. But the open-plan office can be challenging for people who need to do deep work, especially during lunchtime or whenever noise levels rise.

The perfect working environment depends on the person just as much as the space. Depending on who uses it and what they want to achieve there, the same office can be heaven or hell.

A workplace is more than a physical place where work is done. The more we learn about how people work, the more we understand that the environment affects work performance in profound, sometimes surprising, ways. Everything in the environment matters: The size of the desk, the availability of natural light, and the air quality. These elements are all predictors of our comfort, our happiness, and ultimately, of our productivity.

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When children first learn to count, they often use pebbles or other physical objects to aid them. Once they get good at counting on their fingers, it still takes time and effort to transfer this skill into a different context. Children who have learned to count using their fingers need to learn to do the exact same thing using pen and paper.

Applying our existing knowledge and skills in new situations is not a spontaneous process. It’s harder to apply something at our workplace if we learned it a long time ago in a classroom — sounds true, and is true, as confirmed by by university professors Susan M. Barnett and Stephen J. Ceci in 2002.

It doesn’t help that our brain was built to forget information that doesn’t seem relevant. Even if we paid attention while studying, and our brain encoded the information correctly, it may not have been consolidated into our long-term memory. That step can be influenced by anything—from how we slept that night, our stress and anxiety levels, or whether the new information conflicts with what we already know.

And even when we’ve done everything right and have the newly formed memories in our long-term storage, our current situation might be missing the cues that allow our brain to retrieve them. Think of all the times you went to the kitchen for something, only to find yourself there and not remembering what you wanted to do — you left the cue back in the other room.

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Dance the “redun-dance”

In one joke, a hiring manager says, “We always put half the incoming applications in the bin—because who wants to hire unlucky people?”

Psychology is not fair. In my limited experience with dating, I observed that girls seemingly wanted to date me only when I already had a partner—never when I was single. And quite similarly, companies seem to prefer hiring people who already have a job. Though unfair, long-term unemployment is as unsexy as a dateless math major.

Why is it so hard to enjoy the time off between jobs? For many, this could be the first chance in a long while to unplug and maybe even get a full night’s sleep. There’s a lot to like about having a day off: the time to indulge in hobbies and sports, reconnect with friends, or simply enjoy a walk outdoors.

And yet, somehow, a layoff doesn’t feel like a real holiday. Redundancy fuels uncertainty. Not knowing when the “holiday” is going to end makes it hard to set goals and plan for the future. This uncertainty makes layoffs one of the most challenging experiences in life.

Like in college, friends can provide a much-needed confidence boost. Confidence is the currency of job interviews, but it’s hard to maintain high self-esteem during the redundancy process. The more time that passes between jobs, the harder it becomes to perform confidently in an interview, which in turn makes it take even longer to find the next gig.

After being laid off, many people discover that their former teammates and work friends are very helpful in finding the next opportunity. The power of weak ties has been proven over and over again: These days, most people get a job through friends of friends. One just has to put the message out there and ask for help. For example, on LinkedIn, people with even a small number of connections can get the eyes of recruiters and hiring managers on their profiles.

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When Founders Persuade

Persuasion is like physics; we don’t have to know why gravity works in order to experience its effects. Much the same way as founders putting all sorts of businessy garbage in their pitch decks is a-ok — everything is well as long as it works.

It’s still better to know why something works though, on the off chance of the thing changing, only to produce the exact opposite effect. As one example, fear of missing out, or FOMO for short, is one that founders notoriously try to exploit, but get wrong almost all the time.

When founders write pitch decks, they essentially use well known behavioral biases, say:

  • A founder might send an email to an angel saying that the investment round is closing (FOMO!), and so if the investor doesn’t decide within a week, they are missing out on the deal. Which is all well and good, but most rounds never reeaally close, so the same investor might see the same opportunity a half a year later.

  • Anchoring is much easier to deploy. Founders have to know their competition in and out: which similar companies secured investment, by whom, and on what valuation? Including some of the more flattering metrics in a pitch is a must. Startups can use a comparable company with a high valuation to make their cheaper offering sound like a “discount,” or use a higher valuation to signal a more “premium” product.

  • Familiarity bias might work if the investor shares similarities with the founder or with the company in some way. Are the parties from the same hometown? Are the companies based in the same state? Might be worth pointing those similarities out.

  • Venture tends to work like an assembly line in which Series A and later-stage investors are looking at companies that angels have invested in, and angels are looking at whether a startup is coming from a well-known incubator or not. As a new startup, getting incubators is pretty easy compared to getting seed investment, so first-time founders should consider this option.

  • Press releases and social following can be important factors. A somewhat related 2006 study found that individual investors are more likely to buy stocks that catch their attention. Any advertiser could tell you: People buy what they remember.

I know, I know, I haven’t said anything entirely new here, which is kind of the point. This is exactly how most founders operate today: they use anchors from competitor data, their footer says “built with <3 from wherever the hell our favorite investor is from”, and put their achievements on LinkedIn. But isn’t it nice to know where all that comes from?

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Brooklyn City

The whole of the 19th century saw Brooklyn grow from six villages to become the third largest city in the nation. Brooklyn had important industries, ports, centers of business, its own civic center, cultural institutions, and diverse neighborhoods. It had its own transportation centers, rail and streetcar lines and roads.

Brooklyn had its own independent parks, police, corrections and fire departments, water and gas companies, and later, telephone and electric companies, as well as a separate, and very progressive public school system. It had its own government, courts, and newspapers. Had Brooklyn been located anywhere else, it would still be an independent and successful city. But it was directly across the river from Manhattan.

— the story continues: Spellen of Troy
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High School Teachers, I Told You So

I spent most of high school trying to convince teachers that daydreaming and gazing around the room is a large part of the creative process. In a surprising turn of events now there’s a new study, published in Nature, that says more or less the same.

They get there in a rather roundabout way. Melanie Brucks, who’s the lead author of the paper and an assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, didn’t realize the true value of the study and named the thing “Virtual communication curbs creative idea generation”.

They recruited hundreds of people, matched everyone up in pairs, and asked each group to come up with creative uses for a product. Pairs were randomly assigned to work either in person or over video conference — and it turned out that people on Zoom came up with less creative ideas than people who had the chance to talk face-to-face.

The reason? People who look in the camera ignore most of what’s going on in their peripheral view. The narrowed visual focus narrows their cognitive focus, and this narrowing of the underlying associative process is what hinders idea generation.

Here you go, friends: don’t ignore your peripheral view.
And use daydreaming as part of your creative process.

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Illegal Primes

One of the first illegal primes was found in 2001. When interpreted in a particular way, it describes a computer program that bypasses the digital rights management scheme used on DVDs. Distribution of such a program in the United States is illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. […] An illegal prime represents information whose possession or distribution is forbidden in some legal jurisdictions.

— from Wikipedia

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Self-Doubt Roller Coaster

At a startup, self-doubt is real. Nobody knows whether the original idea is any good until the product is on the market, generating real feedback. So, a founder’s job is to perfect the following balancing act:

  1. On the one hand, they need to believe in the product. Without that conviction, it’s impossible to convince anyone else to join their team, or to buy the product.
  2. On the other hand, believing in an idea without a market is a very dangerous thing to do. If a startup spends too long building a product that, in the end, nobody will want to buy, they will run out of money before even making their first sale. At the end of the runway, a “plane” has to take off.

The successful poker player Isaac Haxton once said that perhaps the most important skill of a professional poker player is to know exactly how good you are. Overconfidence will bankrupt a person if they keep sitting at poker tables, going against better players.

There’s constant chatter in the founder’s mind: the replays of user interviews, the marketing messages of competitors, the opinions of product and sales teams.

Sounds counterintuitive, but what often helps distill the noise into something more productive is: more chat. Talking to mentors and peers can help us find our bearings and separate the signal from the noise.

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The Loneliest Sport

“If I’m going to play tennis, the loneliest sport, then I’m sure as hell going to surround myself with as many people as I can off the court. And each person will have his specific role. Perry will help with my disordered thoughts. J.P. will help with my troubled soul. Nick will help with the basics of my game. Philly will help with details, arrangements, and always have my back.”

former tennis champion Andre Agassi in his autobiography, “Open”
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