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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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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Books of 2021

This year’s reading list is some 50% thinner than it usually gets, but hey ho. I blame missing commute in 2021.

  • From “Small Giants by Bo Burlingham” I learned that if you want a company that cares, you need people who care, and they need to be motivated by more than money
  • From “Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb” I learned that a doctor is pushed by the system to transfer risk from himself to you, from the present into the future.
  • From “Zilch by Nancy Lublin” I learned that if you need to ask for something, be as specific as possible, see “This thing X will cost you Y and will help Z number of women.”

Reading through my notes, I’m sure I’ll re-read some of the books from this year. The complete list:

  • 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
  • Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki
  • Innovation and Entrepreneurship by Peter F. Drucker
  • Zilch by Nancy Lublin
  • Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Howard Stern Comes Again by Howard Stern
  • The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
  • The E-myth Revisited by Michael E Gerber
  • Off to Be the Wizard by Scott Meyer
  • Ä by Max Goldt
  • Traction by Gino Wickman
  • After the Quake By: Haruki Murakami
  • The Most Beautiful Woman in Town by Charles Bukowski
  • A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
  • Start Finishing by Charlie Gilkey
  • A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking
  • 12 Months to $1 Million by Ryan Daniel Moran
  • Big Money Energy by Ryan Serhant
  • All Marketers Are Liars by Seth Godin
  • I Never Knew That About New York by Christopher Winn
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Simplifying Simplifying

Every time physicists discover something new about the universe, they realize that the world is more complex than they previously thought. Ancient Greeks learned that the physical world can be broken down to tiny particles, and they named the particles “atoms.” They used their word for “indivisible” because they thought, surely, this is as complex as it gets.

Later, the first physicists who worked with the electron had no inkling of quantum mechanics. Now we talk about the types of quarks, and the next time we learn more, would you bet along with me that it won’t get any simpler?

It’s as if our understanding of the world is in constant movement toward the increasingly complex. And most people’s default mindset seems to have adjusted to this well.

When we work on many types of problems, we tend to favor additive solutions rather than starting with the simplification step. We fit an extra wheel to carts, use more description to explain things, or add another layer to a cake—to make it “better.” Sometimes we do these things because the additive solution appears easier, and often because we didn’t even think to consider the alternative.

Simplifying takes effort. Consider the quote, widely attributed to Mark Twain: “I apologize for such a long letter—didn’t have time to write a short one.”

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Take Everyone Out for Lunch

A few years ago, we built a startup headquartered in Rome. Everyone on the team was Italian except for me, the only outsider welcomed into this dolce vita. I quickly learned what seemed to be the most important rule in negotiations: first we eat, then we talk business.

Italians seem to have learned that hungry people make bad decisions, probably in much the same way that tired people do. And the easiest way to make sure you and your negotiation partners are both well fed? Take everyone out for lunch.

All roads lead to Rome

Hospitality plays a key role in Italian business culture anyway, and one way or another, it usually involves eating. Refusing an invitation for dinner is likely to be taken as an insult. It’s actually polite to let your business partners invite you out. By letting them demonstrate their “Bella figura” to make a good impression on you, you are allowing them to express their goodwill and hospitality, which makes them look good.

Negotiations start by building relationships. Perhaps a sense of urgency can be seen as an attempt to weaken the other’s bargaining position, but a business discussion can only truly start once trust has been established and every last bit of urgency has been purged from the discussion. A rushed decision might invite regret later on, and a remorseful deal is not a good deal for any involved.

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An Exercise in Persuasion

Writing a resumé is an exercise in persuasion, even if it doesn’t sound like one. The purpose of a resumé is simple: to communicate, with clarity, why the writer is the ideal candidate for the job, and to persuade the employer to hire them.

“Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.”
– David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy, the “father of advertising,” or the original “Mad Man,” was a proponent of clear and concise writing. From him, we gain at least two takeaways that will help improve any CV.

  1. Know your audience. A good resumé will be tailored to the role you’re applying for. Step into the employer’s shoes and ask: Who are they seeking? What skills and experiences would their ideal candidate possess? Emphasize your corresponding experience, and you’re golden.
  2. Keep it short and simple. Don’t use jargon where you don’t have to; remember, your CV will probably be read by HR first, and they too need to understand your words. Include only facts and experience that help your case, and leave out things that are not relevant.
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Strong Theorems on Coin Tossing

“The generation of random numbers is too important to be left to chance.”
– Robert R. Coveyou

In the paper “Strong theorems on coin tossing,” mathematician Pál Révész tells a story about a high-school class. The teacher leaves the room, and the children are told to divide into two groups.

In the first group, students have to flip a coin two hundred times and record whether a flip lands heads or tails. In the other group, students have to come up with random heads-or-tails sequences, but without using an actual coin; instead, they have to “generate” random numbers in their head.

Once all the students each have 200 lines recorded, the teacher returns and tries to guess which student belongs to which group. Most of the time, the teacher guesses quite well.

Their secret is this – for the average person, it doesn’t feel right to put down five, or even four, consecutive heads or tails. That many runs just doesn’t sound plausible. However, a statistician knows that when a uniformly random coin generates a sequence of 200, it’s very likely to have runs of six or more. Its probability is close to 97 percent.

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The Daisy’s Trick

“She loves me,” says a man in love, picking off the first petal of a daisy. “She loves me not,” he says a moment later, picking off the next petal. And so, he continues removing the petals, until the last of the flower is gone and the results are in. The daisy helped the player determine whether or not he’s loved by the girl he desires.

But how did the daisy know that?

The daisy’s trick is that it gets a little help from the man himself. People play the “she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not” game with all sorts of questions, and the answer is not always 50-50. And sure enough, if we observe someone de-petaling a daisy in this way, we will usually see them adjust the rules midway through.

“I’m not even sure this is really a daisy,” a player might say as they get halfway through a flower and start to suspect that the result might be unfavorable in the end. They then go on to find another daisy to restart the game and discard the results of the first one. This improves their chances – now it’s only one in two flowers that has to have an even number of petals.

Our internal compass knows exactly how many times we are allowed to start again to balance out the game’s probabilities. If we give ourselves a 9-in-10 chance to be loved back, we might end up “cheating” three to four times, but not more. After that, if the last daisy has bad news, we’ll probably accept the verdict.

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Equal Jobs, Slightly Less Pay

After the hack of Sony Picture’s internal emails, the world learned that American Hustle actress Jennifer Lawrence had gotten fewer back-end points than her male counterparts in the movie.

Lawrence largely blamed herself when she wrote about this experience on her website: “I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early. I didn’t want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don’t need,” she wrote. “But if I’m honest with myself, I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight.”

The actress’s experience is not unfamiliar to researchers. Studies tell us that, in many situations, women face a higher social risk than men if they initiate negotiations. This can help explain why women are more likely to avoid transactional behavior.

Women report greater anxiety about negotiation and are less likely to perceive situations as negotiable. It’s easy to see how this is bad news for women; proverbs such as “You’ll never get what you don’t ask for” exist for a reason. If even a small percentage of uninvited negotiations are successful, according to the rule of compounding interests, those differences in starting salaries can lead to substantial compensation gaps over time.

Gender inequality lowers the quality of life for both men and women. Women suffer the largest and most direct cost of these inequalities, but the costs span across society and families. It’s not a women’s issue nor is it only a men’s; it’s a problem that needs everyone’s attention and participation.

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Riches in the Niches

There’s a scene in the movie A Beautiful Mind, where the mathematician John Nash and his colleagues are about to party with a group of girls. Nash, the protagonist, goes into a lengthy mathematical explanation when informing his nerdy friends, in essence, why he should be the only one hitting on the hot girl. 

In the movie, the “pigeon scene” is a good excuse for introducing “the bargaining problem,” one of John Nash’s key achievements in game theory.

But Andy Warhol helps us understand the concept in a much simpler way. In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), the artist explains how living in New York City changes people. On beautiful, sunny days, Central Park gets so crowded that you can’t even see through the throng. On a rainy Sunday morning, however, no one wants to get out and walk the empty streets, so you can have them all to yourself.

As Warhol puts it, “Living in New York City gives people real incentives to want things that nobody else wants — to want all the leftover things. There are so many people here to compete with that changing your tastes to what other people don’t want is your only hope of getting anything.”

Opportunity changes people’s preferences and tastes. The world is a dynamic marketplace, where supply-and-demand changes constantly.

Finding a romantic partner is not just about your own checklist either. It’s also about everyone else’s. Everything is changing all the time, which, of course, is just another kind of disaster. Culture matters, the zeitgeist matters, and our friends’ opinions matter — sometimes more than our own.

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