Yesterday I had lunch with a friend.
My friend had recently spoken with the CEO of a company that he wasn’t a big fan of. After talking to this person, the friend was pleasantly surprised to discover that the CEO was smart and nice. My friend was reassessing his feelings about the company as a result.
I listened to the story with interest. Then I asked a somewhat odd question. How important did he think it was to be smart and nice?
Look around. Aren’t most people you know nice? Aren’t most people you know smart?
There's data to support the idea that people are smarter than they used to be. The Flynn Effect observes that our IQs have increased significantly over the past century. They're still rising. According to that metric, we’re smarter than ever.
And yet consider the world around us. The problems we’re creating. The problems we’re ignoring. This happened even while people were getting smarter by the generation. And being super nice about it, too.
There’s no easy Other that we can honestly point to as the root of all evil. It’s not like there’s some island of supervillain a-holes who are responsible for everything bad in the world. (No Manhattan jokes, please.) There’s just us.
This means that nice and smart people have played central roles in making the world worse. That might not have been their intention, but it was the outcome. Nice, smart people have done and will continue to do bad things.
In one of Hunter S. Thompson’s books he writes about a night in the late ‘60s when he picked up a longhair hitchhiker. Not long into the ride, Hunter discovers that the guy is a jerk. Hunter can’t believe it. Long hair had always been a signal for who he could trust. Now even the jerks had grown their hair out. His compass had to change.
Could it be the same with smart and nice?
Maybe social evolution — in overdrive thanks to social media — will make everyone nice. Being nice works to our advantage, so “nice” genes become more dominant.
Sounds chill. But then how will we know what’s going on underneath the surface? Who’s really inside?
The media framed the 2000 election between Bush and Gore as the contest to find “the guy you’d rather have a beer with.” But this is arguably the least meaningful lens through which to make a decision. It’s just the path of least resistance. Tell someone that what they feel is also what's right and rarely will they disagree.
In the long run, “nice” and “smart” might be traits we have to recalibrate on. If someone isn’t nice or smart that’s a negative, but if someone is nice or smart maybe it’s only a neutral quality rather than a positive one.
Like long hair, once everybody’s got it the signal means less.
Last month my family and I left New York. As of a week ago, we’re living in Los Angeles.
Leaving NYC was a big deal. I lived there for 18 years. I love the city. I am a New Yorker.
When I think about what in life I’m most proud of, it’s moving to New York. I moved there right after college. Getting there had long been my dream.
New York was never easy but it treated me well. It’s where I started my career as a writer. It’s where Kickstarter happened. It’s where I made many great friends.
New York and I had a perfect goodbye. My last dinner was with an old friend at St. Anselm, my favorite restaurant. Afterwards we want to a DIY show in Queens. I was 26 again.
For my last meal the next morning, I went to the same deli in the Lower East Side where I went everyday for 15 years. I ordered the same egg-and-cheese sandwich on a toasted everything bagel. I said hi to the same guys who have worked there since I moved to Ludlow Street in 2002. I told them it was my last day.
After hearing the news, the two men came around from behind the counter and warmly patted me on the back and shoulders. They said they hoped this would be a good decision for my family and wished us well.
I cried. Standing there in the deli holding an aluminum foil-wrapped egg and cheese while two men showed me love, I had tears in my eyes. The only time I cried during my departure.
Shoutout to Happiness Deli, shoutout to egg and cheese sandwiches, and shoutout to New York City.
Our reasons for coming to LA are unoriginal. A mix of weather, wanting change, and recognizing that this is a window before our child starts school when we can take chances. LA probably isn't our last stop but we’re having fun with it.
And while we’re here, I’m writing a book.
Late last year I signed a book deal with Viking Press. I’ve been working on it full-time since November. My deadline to finish is the end of this year.
I’m enjoying the experience very much. I’ve given myself fully to it. When we were in New York, I spent day after day isolated in an empty apartment with no internet, just writing and reading. The depth of the work is pure pleasure and unlike anything I've done before. I look forward to working on it everyday.
So what's the book about? Well, it’s not a memoir and it’s not about Kickstarter. It’s a manifesto, and still in progress. I'll leave it at that for now. The book should come out late next year.
Before coming to LA, my wife and I went to the TED conference in Vancouver. Of all the talks, something that a philosopher named Will MacAskill said about the age of humankind stuck with me the most.
MacAskill said that if you compare Homo Sapiens to other species on Earth, humans are the equivalent of ten years old in our lifespan. We are very early in our lifecycle. Not even adolescent.
There should be many tens of thousands of years of human history ahead of us. But we act like this is the last party — who cares if anybody cleans anything up? Which, now that I think about it, does sound like the behavior of a ten-year-old. I guess I shouldn't be surprised.
Seeing life on the right timescale is very valuable and hard to do. Jeff Bezos shared something in the most recent Amazon annual shareholder letter that puts it well. He writes:
A close friend recently decided to learn to do a perfect free-standing handstand. No leaning against a wall. Not for just a few seconds. Instagram good. She decided to start her journey by taking a handstand workshop at her yoga studio. She then practiced for a while but wasn’t getting the results she wanted. So, she hired a handstand coach. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but evidently this is an actual thing that exists. In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. “Most people,” he said, “think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.” Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be.
To do anything as well as it should be done will take all of your effort. It means giving all of yourself until it's right. It means humbling yourself before it.
This is the thing that we — multitasking our way through life — find hardest to do. We respect our own time but disrespect the time of the things that need doing. We do too much, we do it too fast. And when it doesn’t work we wonder why.
The alternative is to give all of yourself to a small number of things. To turn things off, to say no, even to opportunity. It's a scary prospect. But it’s only through sacrifice and dedication that someone can make something worth making.