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.

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.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Book Notes 1)

influence-bookCialdini includes 6 main principles of persuasion in the book, none of which I have arrived at yet. However, I have read the introduction and first chapter; both of which include concepts worth knowing.
Firstly he uses an example of mother turkeys to draw a comparison. The mother turkey determines whether it will sit on and protect something as if it were its offspring exclusively by listening to whether it makes a certain chirping sound. Evidently, it doesn’t use visual cues or anything like that to even double check. It will sit on a sound device making those noises and behave exactly as if it were a baby turkey. This is an instinct. It’s like an automatic response to a certain cue which has evolved into the turkey’s psychology over time. Usually, this does work out well and certainly it’s been successful over evolutionary time. However, sometimes instincts like this can be mistaken. Potentially they may be exploited by researcher, predator, prey or parasite. Instincts like this are very common throughout nature, though; they save a lot of brain power.
Cialdini’s argument is that humans also have these instincts and they may be similarly exploited, for lack of a better word. As of yet, I feel tentatively unsure to what success this may be applied to humans in the real world. Of course, there are other influences at play and there’s the matter of the conscious mind overriding. How best to consider or use these ideas? Let’s read on.
There was a study where a researcher asked to jump ahead of the line to use a printer, using a scripted request. They were allowed to move ahead by queue members about 60% of the time. Then they tried the same thing adding to the script “because…” followed by a simple reason. This time they were allowed 93% of the time. Then it was tried again by tactfully adding the word “because” to the first script without any additional reasoning or information given. Over 90% again. This proves a feature of human psychology which I assume is well documented: people are more likely to agree to something if “because” is added (or they perceive a reason is given).
I tried adding “because I want to see you” to an invitational msg to someone in an attempt to get them not to flake. It was a typical situation that someone would usually flake in. it didn’t work – they flaked. However, I do believe it felt more persuasive than not giving a reason like that. When I imagine receiving that message I do feel a certain compulsion. It seems that this technique could be applied fairly simply as a sweetening agent to requests or offers. I wonder if ceteris paribus, over time fewer people would flake if I used this. Does using this interfere with other stronger elements in the equation such as intention or anything like that? This is entering territory beyond my intelligence to theorise about and ought to be known through experience rather than supposition.
Another key concept is the contrast principle. Picture this. Three buckets of water in a row: one cold, one room temperature and one warm. The subject puts one hand in the cold and one in the warm. Leaves it for a while. Then simultaneously puts both hands in the room temperature water. The left/cold hand feels that the water is hot and the right/warm hand feels that the water is cold. It’s the same water. Our perceptions of something are shaped by what it’s being contrasted with.
In sales, it’s well known that if you want to sell some more expensive items as well as some cheaper ones, one should introduce the most expensive ones first. For example, a suit followed by ties and sweaters. Or a car followed by extras. This is because the cheaper items seem much cheaper when compared to the more expensive one so are more likely to agree.
If you want to be perceived as more attractive then accompany or follow someone who’s less attractive than you. If their face could launch a thousand ships then wait in the hallway until peoples’ eyes have readjusted.
This knowledge seems valuable in principle but I wonder just how often it could actually be useful. Those who could use it more often such as salespeople or marketers may master the art of using it to their advantage. Whereas if you rarely have stakes riding on persuading others then your opportunities to use and master it will be scarcer. Thus, we can say that the more you may use it the better it is, although perhaps at some point it is simply learned and can’t usefully be learned any better so doesn’t provide any further marginal benefits. It would feel marvellous to try this and it actually work, though. It’s a pity there aren’t practise exercises to help you to really apply and internalise it.
A potential problem with putting this stuff into practice might be that unless the opportunity is just right it would seem contrived. It could be that you ought to be thinking about something else or taking a different approach. It may best be thought about behind the scenes and in preparatory phases. This seems also to be a principle, just good to have at the back of your mind if you ever need it, subtly shaping how you move through the world. Also, there’s a risk of the person knowing what you’re doing. That begs the question is this unethical? I don’t think so. Manipulative? Perhaps a little. Embarrassing? Quite possibly, especially if it’s someone you know and it’s to their disadvantage.
Cialdini also makes the important point that the ultimate in persuasion is simply to offer the most value. I think this is the more primary thing to be concerned about: offering value. On the other hand though; it doesn’t hurt knowing how to optimally phrase or position what you’re offering, especially since the competition probably does.