Zero to One

Zero to One. This was an audiobook, narrated by the primary author, Peter Thiel. Thiel was cofounder of PayPal, is a director at Facebook and is an economic advisor to Donald Trump. It was originally compiled as entrepreneurship lecture notes by Stanford student Blake Masters.

Hearing his voice added a deeper insight into the book’s content. I could feel the experience behind his words. I could peer into the inner life of a Silicon Valley elite. How he viewed the world and those in it, as an insider. Surely an intellectual too.

He sounded mild and even tempered throughout, yet not boring because he sounded present and somehow healthy. Punctuated by sub-communicative insights. A hint of contempt for another elite person or organisation. A crack of sympathy for the unfortunate. Sometimes I felt this was contrived. It was interesting to hear someone speak about Facebook for example as an insider who had authority over it.

On to the content. I wasn’t struck by any great structure of the ideas. Being an audiobook it was hard to picture how the book was structured, as would appear in the contents. That can mean that the content itself is better though, remaining in the organic units of lessons, rather than being “boxed in” to an overall pleasing layout or architecture of ideas when they needn’t be. That’s how the content seemed to me overall: organised into lessons rather than a system. Then again “notes” is in the title.

It seems to me that the two great contemporary entrepreneurship books are The Lean Startup and this. Having read the former I felt compelled to contrast the two. During listening and now. The former felt more procedural and systematic. Whereas this felt more concerned with principles and fairly high level advices; the reason being that if you understand the principles and essential pieces then you can apply them to many or all scenarios and the details sort themselves out or don’t matter so much. Different people tend to prefer detailed or high level thinking, but I think it’s good to read both.

I feel Peter is more boss than Eric Ries. Thiel’s references to Shakespeare, Goethe and Tolstoy were impressive but it’s a rare person who can also speak personally about the likes of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg as well. The book did feel a bit like a shrine to Thiel’s greatness or ego. It’s almost as if he rejected or never learned the value of humility. I suppose he intends and does a lot of good overall though which sufficiently justifies egoism in my view. It doesn’t beautify it but in this case the book is beautiful.

As the name suggests, this is a book primarily for ventures doing something new. I think the most central business message he had was that one should aim to be a monopoly: because in competition profits get competed away. The easiest way to be a monopoly is create something new.

Aim for technology that is 10x better than the nearest competitor. This was a message to engineers. This was balanced and contrasted by the message that you need a good sales strategy as well to succeed. The best ideas don’t always win, they have to succeed in the market to do that.

Some parts were very practical advice. Such as the importance of suitable cofounders and company culture.

It got philosophical at the beginning and towards the end. The thought experiment that there are four possible outcomes for humanity. The concept of “the singularity” being the logical end to technological advancement. Interesting, however briefly covered, and something that I’d want to look in to further. It made me realise that science fiction is probably good to read if you want to be a tech entrepreneur; thinking and feeling in terms of technology that doesn’t exist yet.

Vincent Van Gogh and the Four Seasons

Today I went to an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria called Van Gogh and the four seasons. Tickets were moderately priced, the queue took over an hour, the audio guide was useless and it was incredibly crowded. Despite it all it has been the best experience I’ve ever had in an art gallery.

I met a girl in the queue who I thought was Portuguese but she was from Geelong. I saw her eyes light up looking at me but together I just felt we were jaded. We parted ways. A man cut in right near the front of the line but did it so smoothly I must not have felt to say anything. I regret that.

I was shocked that the paintings were just there, unprotected. I’m very grateful for that fact though. It felt intimate. They did seem utterly sublime. Well preserved too. I thought they were brooding but that was just the winter section. They all have a certain headiness to them though, despite being quite tame by today’s standards. Subtlety. Van Gogh’s soul. It takes a heady individual to take Impressionism and leap forward into something else, stroke by stroke.

Despite the crowded vibe the exhibition just got better and better. I looked at every painting. Slower than average but not super slow. It seemed the energy in the crowd improved with every successive painting. Never thought I’d see the day. True progress and the mandate of the arts. Everyone witnessing the same sublimity. Many trying to describe it properly. It’s a funny thing like that, visual art, the way it doesn’t cohere well with language in our soul. Or maybe it does for some people I don’t know.

It was too crowded for me to deeply understand the four seasons theme beyond a mere grouping of the paintings. Nor was I able to grasp the apparent Japanese influence. That’s ok. I’m glad someone tried to put it in a meaningful context. However the artist’s life was much darker than “and the four seasons” suggests.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), like most great Europeans of the past was born into an upper middle class family. With severe mental health issues, he only started painting in 1881, at the age of 28. In the next decade or so he would produce a remarkable 2,100 works. Averaging one work between every one and two days. An archetypal study in Mastery.

He was closest with his younger brother, Theo. As someone with a younger brother, I feel a lot of empathy for the man. It makes me feel what his family life was like.

He was bedevilled by depression and psychotic episodes. Despite this he ate poorly and drank excessively. This no doubt contributed to him infamously severing his own ear. His work was rather unappreciated during his lifetime and he lived in poverty. He shot himself in the chest with a pistol at age 37; dying two days later in his brother’s arms. He epitomises the tortured but genius artist.

He is said to be of the post-impressionist movement. His work is characterised by bold colours and expressive brushwork. He began to be appreciated after his death, as his work profoundly influenced the modern movement. This list has him ranked as the second greatest painter of all time.

The Lean Startup

This book is the most scientific approach to entrepreneurship I’ve ever seen. The whole thing seems so congruent and yet the book manages to stand up as being original. I had the sense that this book has become a deep part of the zeitgeist and at the root cause of much change; particularly in America.

I was impressed with the trenchant quality of the writing and believe this indicates that he knows entrepreneurship very well, but also it had the “closed system” quality of a programmer’s mind. Hence why everything just seemed to fit and resonate quite well.

This will take a few days to sink in. Then again, its lessons aren’t meant to be understood in theory, they are meant to be practised (as in the concept of Genchi Gumbutsu). I like that it presents entrepreneurship as a learnable system, and thus one can take a skills-centred approach to it and even consider it a profession. He seemed to reference Japanese companies a lot so I wonder if he didn’t miss valuable knowledge from other countries.

I would have to apply the ideas in this book to truly comment on its merit but given its reception; I’d say this was a very good entrepreneurship book to start with.

Yesterday I checked my WordPress administration page and was shocked to see that 42 people viewed my last blog post. This is the highest ever. Something about this number made me switch into a higher gear. So I built a Facebook page for myself as a writer; which I’ve linked to this blog in various ways.

I also made a Facebook page for my burgeoning meetup group: Melbourne Lifestyle Design. And also decided to link to my business and employ a tentative tagline.

As children, we’re taught to think of our career or identity in a singular fashion. In the public sphere rarely are people thought of as any more than one thing at a time. Yet if you check Wikipedia pages you’ll find that often people have a full raft of competencies. Doctors are also writers. Actors also directors. Nurses also philanthropists.

In Mastery, Robert Greene illustrated how Leonardo Da Vinci managed to create wholes that were greater than the sum of their parts by working between fields, drawing on multiple skill-sets and bodies of knowledge.

Aristotle invented the modern system of separate fields of inquiry. Its delineations are by no means indelible.

Some people are generalists, it’s as simple as that. Not all people though. And that is absolutely fine.

I have recognised this quality of generalism in myself and my vision for life. It’s become obvious enough that my way forward it to think very long term and develop a stack of wisely chosen skills. In this spirit of self-knowledge, I submit my new tagline “The SkillSet Way” in the hopes that others will recognise what it means and identify with its message.

Life is about a lot more than skills though (there’s also knowledge, but Tai Lopez has claimed that already) and frankly, it would be boring to write exclusively about them. Blogging is just one skill. Developing skill sets are what allow one to get paid, travel, develop new relationships, create, rise up.

I like this mentality because it brings the locus of control inwards. It’s premised on the truth that everything starts in the mind anyway. Thus just about every outward thing in life that you yearn for becomes achieved as a direct consequence of what’s happening in your brain: what you practise doing.

Life itself becomes like a game, so you can call your whole being into service. That’s the good thing about knowing what you want. Those with a proclivity to seek improvements in their knowledge, meta-skills and non-cognitive qualities have a distinct advantage over the long term.

To be perfectly honest I’m already getting sick of having a tagline, it feels constraining. I’ve already pretty well covered my point anyway. I would ask you this though: what single speciality in life can give you everything you wish for? Develop broadly applicable skills (like teaching, writing, foreign language), a speciality and think long term about what your life might hold.

The 5 Second Rule

the 5 second ruleThe 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins. This was an audiobook that I got from Audible about a month ago. Just short of 8 hours in total. I got about half way through it in one go and then got too annoyed by the brusqueness of the narrator’s voice to continue. I resumed it yesterday though, resolving to finish the remaining 3.5 hours in one day. And so I did. I was pleasantly surprised by how Mel seemed to sound less masculine and more sensitive by the end. It’s interesting that she’s a professional speaker – you can sense it in the way she narrates. And not in a good way. It’s like Joe Rogan (who is one of my favourite public figures): when he does comedy it just seems to strike the wrong cord. It sounds like a commentator/broadcaster attempting standup and it’s not a good mix for such a subtle art.

The content of this book is incredibly simple. This book is like the anti-intellect. And yet ironically, there is an intellectually compelling discussion as well. Books generally seem to promote a circumspect attitude. Not this one. This book is like an antidote to analysis paralysis. We all know that there is power in quick action though.

The core idea is also the name of the book: The 5 Second Rule. Basically whenever you sense an inkling to do something and you know you probably should, count “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” and then just do it. This paragraph so far represents most of the content of the first half of the book. In the second half though I was impressed by how much she delved into why, how and when. On the other hand it’s not that impressive because of course you can find lots of ways that “acting now” can be beneficial. The simplicity of the book is why I gave it 3 stars, but that in no way detracts from the importance and quality of its message.

There is a certain genius in the 5 second rule. Importantly, it instills a sense of urgency which is otherwise hard to come by for some people. Applying the rule seems to activate the prefrontal cortex which is that part that would overcome our baser instincts such as sloth or fear. It’s simple and such that it can be applied to a range of situations.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about having a “mental toolbox”. This seems to fit in well because there is undoubtedly times in life where “just doing it” is best. I wouldn’t make it my central governing philosophy as the author appears to have done though; doing so would give a person an air of brusqueness and perhaps incongruence.

This book seemed to draw a dichotomy in my mind which wasn’t there before. Intellectually, I sense that this is what I gained most from it. The dichotomy is between the macro and micro perspectives of success. It drew this dichotomy by illustrating what success looks at the most operationally micro-level there is. This is something that I had little concept of because it’s generally overlooked by the intellect.

When I say micro I mean momentary. It’s easy for me to visualise what success looks like over the course of a year or a life time. What does success look like in a fleeting moment though? This book mounts a pretty convincing case that often it is acting without hesitation on certain inclinations or inspirations. I’m very nearly overcomplicating it here.

For me the most compelling advantage to living in this way is that it creates a certain element of magic, authenticity and urgency. Don’t get me wrong; living a circumspect life can be a beautiful thing. You can design yourself a perfect life and work towards it over years and it can be utterly wonderful. This in itself is missing something sexy: spontaneity, authenticity, vitality, urgency. Honouring subtle and fleeting parts of oneself by bringing them into concrete reality. I’ve been someone that generally prefers to take as much time as necessary to come to the best decisions. Or to motivate myself to do something over a period ranging from minutes to years. On some level I knew that my life was lacking these vital qualities. I also intuitively understood that they are attractive to women and necessary for achieving success of a non-academic flavour.

The main reason that I’ll be re-listening to this audiobook sometime soon is that it is rich in psychological concepts and studies. For example, I learned about something called “bias for action”: this idea has stuck with me like glue. The scientific aspect of the book alone earned it an additional star in my rating. Without this research to back it up, the book would be ugly – as motivational books often are. I do wonder if this impression would be different if it were narrated by a professional narrator instead of a professional speaker.

She gave various situations that the 5 second rule can be applied to. Some were more robust than others. Two that I remember are to stop worrying and to “leave nothing important unsaid” with loved ones.

According to Robbins, the single most important thing you’ll do all day is get up without pressing snooze. She managed to back this up with a scientific explanation. I detected a note of surprised self-satisfaction in her voice for this intellectualism, which was endearing. The argument was: when you press snooze your body tries to reenter another 90 minute sleep cycle, so if you do wake up in 10 minutes you have 80 minutes of “sleep inertia”. She suggested that it takes 4 hours or even ruins the whole day; which I believe from experience but couldn’t explain why it is so.

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout. This is a relatively short book. Only 130 pages or thereabouts. As the name suggests, the book is structured into 22 laws, each with 1 chapter.

Got this book after I decided to learn a bit about marketing. Having been through an entire finance degree and retaining little useful information about finance, however, I opted to learn about marketing with a “lean” amount of information. Perhaps you understand why I chose this particular non-fiction from among other books of the marketing genre.

In order to crystallise and consolidate my own knowledge from the book and also to create a useful summary, I’ll briefly summarise each of the 22 laws.

  1. The Law of Leadership. If you are perceived as being the first to do something there is a psychological preference given in buying decisions. I think this is Apple’s main advantage over Samsung with smart phones, it’s certainly part of the reason I prefer Apple.
  2. The Law of the Category. “If you can’t be first in a category, set up a new category you can be first in”. In other words, don’t try to beat Toyota in the car market, but perhaps try to beat them in a certain niche of the car market.
  3. The Law of the Mind. Closely related to the Law of Leadership. This states that it’s not so important that you are first in the market as you are first in the market in the minds of consumers. If you are first, people have to know that for it be advantageous.
  4. The Law of Perception. Marketing is not a battle of products, it’s a battle of perceptions. Often it’s not hard and fast facts which lead to marketing success, but rather working perceptions so as to influence consumer behaviour. It’s not so much about objective facts about products as it is about presenting products in a compelling way. In the long run, the best product does not always win.
  5. The Law of Focus. It’s a great victory in marketing if a company can own a word in the customer’s mind. FedEx managed to put the word “overnight” in peoples’ minds and their success skyrocketed because there was demand for that.
  6. The Law of Exclusivity. Two companies cannot control the same word in the customer’s mind. The one who already owns the word has managed to retain it time and time again.
  7. The Law of the Ladder. People tend to have a mental image of hierarchies between firms in certain industries, and if a company acts as if they are higher than they are they look upstart. Perhaps like they have no social intelligence. Thus the marketing strategy needs to take into account the company’s place on the ladder.
  8. The Law of Duality. In the long run every market becomes a two-horse race. I believe that this is due to the following law. Basically people tend to choose the product or they’ll choose the alternative. Think Apple and Samsung.
  9. The Law of the Opposite. If you want to be number two, present a popular alternative, don’t try to do what they do also.
  10. The Law of Division. Market categories divide over time. Thus the total number of categories tends to increase and become more niche.
  11. The Law of Perspective. These forces tend to occur over an extended period of time i.e. over the long run.
  12. The Law of Line Extension. It’s difficult to get a foothold in an established market so firms often leverage their existing brands. This weakens the brand in its key market category so this might not be smart in the long run.
  13. The Law of Sacrifice. The three things to sacrifice are product line, target market and change with time. Basically you need to say no to certain things in order to stand for something.
  14. The Law of Attributes. If the market leader is toothpaste that “fights cavities” for example, there are often other attributes which people will look for. “Whitens teeth” is another good attribute.
  15. The Law of Candor. A message of self-effacing honesty can make people drop their guards and be more receptive, there should be a positive message in there as well though.
  16. The Law of Singularity. It tends to be better to make singular definite moves than multiple unsure ones. Also, there is only ever one line of best practise, all others being relatively ineffectual. Not sure about that last part.
  17. The Law of Unpredictability. Peter’s law: the unexpected is always what happens.
  18. The Law of Success. “Ego is the enemy”. Success leads to arrogance and arrogance leads to failure.
  19. The Law of Failure. Failure is to be expected and accepted. Organisations should have the ability to accept failure. Japanese firms are good at doing this because they have a consensus approach to decision-making.
  20. The Law of Hype. The press often gets it wrong. The real story is often happening quietly, off the front pages.
  21. The Law of Acceleration. There are trends and fads. Trends last over the long term and accelerate slowly. Fads accelerate very quickly but don’t last long. Think Pokemon GO. Unless you have a way of cashing in big time from a fad, it’s usually better to hang your hat on a trend.
  22. The Law of Resources. Applies to business in general but regarding marketing, a good idea won’t have great effect if it’s not adequately funded.

The Power of Habit

thepowerofhabit

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Right off the bat I would say that this book is well written. However lot of the content is case studies and I had the feeling that that was in order to fill more pages. That being said the stories often had their “aha” moment where it dovetailed with the lesson of the chapter. Quite classy. I also noted that each chapter was very close to 30 pages which was quite satisfying actually. So there you have the most salient quality of this book: its excellent construction. A good example of a successful non-fiction book if ever one was to try and write one, in my opinion.

Onto the content itself. This is a rare book that bears directly on the reader’s behaviour. Often that’s what you hope from this genre. Among many ideas in the book; one sticks out as being central. You might even say the whole book revolved around just one idea. I’m referring to the theory that all habits are composed of three distinct parts:

Cue -> routine -> reward

I’ve found this very memorable and easy to apply to my own life. I even have the sense that it’s become a key part of my mental toolbox, if ever anything has. However, I’m yet to see if any positive behavioural changes will stick over the long term with this method (because I’ve only known about it for a week).

The way to “hack” your psychology, if you will, in order to change your behaviour, is to identify the three parts of the habit. Often a habit you’re trying to change. Once you’ve identified the cue then you must choose a different routine: a competing response. I’ve found that the effectiveness of this book breaks down with the selecting of a new reward. Or at least this is where the challenge lies. For example, it seems that sometimes any reward you could give yourself is just as bad or worse. For example if you’re trying to replace internet addiction and the steady dopamine rush you get from it, then what more innocuous reward can you replace it with? Marijuana? Sugary foods? Not all rewards are created equal. Over the long term it seems to me you have to learn how to delay gratification. There is a subtle balance there that this book doesn’t address.

Some things that I noted down from the book are:

  • A keystone habit is one which leads to other positive habits emerging. For example I identified a keystone habit for me as avoiding the snooze button.
  • The basal ganglia is the key part of the brain involved with habits. Brain scans show that over time the brain activity drops while doing the same activity. I.e. it becomes easier, more automatic, you can focus on other things while doing it even.
  • Apparently you can’t truly extinguish a bad habit you can only change it. I quit smoking so I’m not sure about this. Noticing what triggers habitual behaviour is known as awareness training.
  • It’s known as a competing response when you design a new response to the old cue e.g. chew gum when you crave a cigarette.
  • Many new habits have a tendency to break down in high stress situations. Duhigg drew an analogy of Alcoholics Annonymous to show how they deal with this. Apparently putting faith in a higher power is the key to maintaining a habit in tough times.
  • Willpower is a muscle not a skill. Build willpower through your habits and it can spill over into other things as well.
  • Organisational habits. Starbucks turned self-discipline into an organisational habit by identifying and drilling on inflection points. Inflection points are challenging scenarios. People are more likely to stick with a desired behaviour if they have a definite plan for how to deal with inflection points.
  • If you dress something new in old habits it becomes easier for people to accept. This is why new music on the radio sounds similar to last months. If it sounded too new people would be put off by it
  • Effective social movements are driven by a combination of strong ties between people (close friends and family) and weak ties (larger community). This point didn’t seem to fit well with the central thesis of the book. He was trying to discuss societal habits (having already discussed individual and organisational habits).
  • Most cues fall into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people and immediately preceding action.

Reading this book has made me think a lot more about cues, routines and responses. Now I use cues as a way of anchoring certain behaviours that I’ve always wanted to employ – it does work well because cues are easy to remember. I’ve also started trying out rewarding myself for doing good things. It’s a bit of shock to my reward system. It’s like dopamine is generally a bit lower but then a big hit comes when I celebrate doing something important. For a long time I’ve been used to a very steady stream of dopamine and that pattern has been disturbed recently.

Usually books influence little more than your thoughts and feelings. All in all though I feel confident in saying that no book has had a more direct impact on my actions than this one.