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.
When I was a music critic, the end of the year was a banner time. I spent Decembers making lists of favorite albums and mixes of favorite songs. It got so deep I even made a top ten list about top ten lists.
So what’s meaningful to “list” at this moment in life? For me, ideas and books. Here are nine that impacted me this year.
1. Sapiens by Yoval Harari
2. The KLF: Chaos, Magic, and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds by John Higgs
Sapiens is a mind-expanding history of the human race. Harari is our species' Tocqueville, writing with a startling distance about the history of humans. It’s like reading Mars’ greatest historian analyze our planet. It’s no exaggeration to say it changes how you see the world.
John Higgs’ kinda-bio of the ‘90s electronic group The KLF creates a similar eureka about ideas and art. A good friend gifted it to me, describing it conspiratorially as “the little yellow book.” He was right. Alan Moore’s concept of the Ideaspace, which I learned about here, is something I became an instant believer in.
Sapiens and The KLF establish that ideas are more powerful than anything. Ideas uniquely change how we relate to one another, how we craft our physical environment, pretty much everything. These books helped me better understand their power. They filled me with optimism — even in 2017.
3. Generation X by Douglas Coupland
I knew the name (which this book introduced) but until this year I never read this 1991 novel. It’s a series of conversations between three formerly status-oriented people who dropped out and moved to Palm Springs to work in jobs “beneath” them. The writing is crisp and the ideas challenge three decades later. Short, funny, and very alive.
I’m two books into the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, a series by Chinese sci-fi author Liu Cixin. The story is unlike anything I’ve read. If you have interest in sci-fi, read these. So far the series has changed the way I think about contacting non-Earth life, the potential of indirect forms of communication, and the living soul at the heart of true fiction. These books visited me in my dreams and still do.
6. Beatles 1966 by Steve Turner
A monthly diary of the year the Beatles released Rubber Soul; wrote, recorded, and released Revolver; and wrote and recorded a chunk of Sgt Pepper’s. The greatest single-year artistic leap in modern times.
How did it happen? Read this and you get a feel. The anecdotes are tremendous. John and Paul playing “Tomorrow Never Knows” for Dylan and the Stones in a hotel suite shortly after recording it. When it ends, Dylan says to them with a sneer, “Oh I get it — you don’t want to be cute anymore.”
Paul’s first vacation as a Beatle is another. Paul changed his appearance before driving across Spain and parts of Africa to be incognito. Upon returning, he told the other Beatles they needed to change their identities before getting back into the studio. Making another Beatles record would be too hard. They needed the freedom of being someone else. This is where Sgt Pepper's came from.
It will inspire you to open your antennae up wide.
Age of Fracture recounts the academic and social battles that drove the rise of feminism, individualism, racial identity, and other seismic social changes. The POV is unique: both broadly historical and a closely tracked blow-by-blow of ideas and counter-ideas. No book created a bigger or more meaningful reading list.
Stranger Than We Can Imagine is the second John Higgs entry on this list (he also wrote the KLF book). It details the emergent ideas of the 20th century that transformed the Victorian world into the industrialized, democratized, and way more confusing universe we live in now. Everything from physics to the avant-garde to sex.
Both titles come to a similar conclusion: the theme of the 20th century is relativity. A growing realization that the values and ideas many assumed were universally “true” were anything but. Some may say these are aberrations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. These books counter that the universality of certain beliefs in the past was the aberration, and that we should expect more of this in the years to come. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
9. The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Jack Reis and Al Trout
A wise and useful book from the ‘90s about putting things into the world. Each “law” is a short chapter in clipped, seasoned prose. You can smell the chainsmoke through the page.
Three laws that stayed with me: The law of line extension (when launching a new product don’t reuse your existing brand). The law of sacrifice (if you’re asking people to do something new, you must first make a sacrifice of your own). And the law of fads and trends (a trend is a fad with unsatisfied demand; when experiencing success keep them wanting more).
I’d love to hear what you read and learned this year. What books moved you?
I like to think (and
the sooner the better)
of a daily pledge
honoring the marvels
cultivated by our ancestors
believing that all
I like to think
(right now please!)
of the breaking news alert
reading the corruption is total
and the only ones
with the courage to
end it are
and Robert Mueller
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of millions of bodies
walking in silence
expressing shame for
our waste of
the gift of life
just to make
a little more money
Last weekend my wife, son, and I went to storytime at the library. Fifteen kids, twenty parents, a big mat on the floor. A perfect Saturday morning.
Then class starts.
“After storytime today,” the teacher begins, “we would appreciate it if everyone could fill out a survey about our performance.”
My head jolts up.
“We would further appreciate you texting this number to give consent to be surveyed in the future,” she continues.
“All of this is so we can make evidence-based decisions.”
My mouth falls open.
Trust is dying right now. It’s dying by side effect and design.
Distrust is at the heart of modern marketing. Trust our product not theirs. Trust this candidate not that one. Podcast ads preach fear of the middle man.
This kind of marketing is nothing new. What is new is that the competition they’re advertising against is humanity itself. Talk to Siri and Watson not each other. Trust data not intuition.
These messages undermine trust in each other in order to increase trust in corporations and systems. The meta-message: Trust companies not people.
We’re so hungry for validation we go along with it. How hot did the algorithm say you are? Show me your score and I’ll you show mine.
Human trust is an aging incumbent. Commercial trust is a hot category. Last month Facebook acquired a company called tbh that lets people give each other anonymous feedback. The deal was reportedly for tens of millions of dollars.
Verification and data tracking systems create a new frontier for trust. There’s no need for clumsy interactions like the one in the library — the networks know everything.
But who trusts those networks? After the Equifax hack, even trusting trust is an issue. We’re trending towards a climate of default distrust.
Not to worry, thinks the technocratic product manager. We’ll whiteboard a new global verification system of truth and trust to fix it.
God help us if they succeed. Today’s solution is tomorrow’s bureaucracy.
An ideal approach trusts others enough to not demand trust in return. It acknowledges the importance of trust without trying to commoditize it. It promotes good decisions, not fear.
The blockchain is an encouraging platform for new concepts of trust. I root for a future that looks like Keybase, not a Black Mirror dystopia.
In the end we didn’t fill out the librarian’s survey. Our son took off running the second storytime ended. We didn't look back.
Until recently I felt too busy to think about how I was getting things done. It was all about crossing off the next thing on the to-do list.
This is one of the first things I wanted to adjust after my job change. Here are eight shifts I've made to better direct my time and energy.
When I’m writing I keep Wifi turned off. This creates enough friction to keep easy temptations at bay. It’s like I’m buying my brain flowers to apologize for all the times I mistreat it with schizophrenic multi-tasking. My brain is grateful. Yours will be too.
No pinned Chrome tabs
Chrome used to be my mind map. Pinned tabs for various email accounts, calendars, Google Docs, articles I intended to read, etc. This resulted in me working almost solely inside Chrome, which made the distracting between-tabs-clicks way too easy.
I approached breaking free of Chrome in a few ways:
1) Separate email and writing from Chrome.
2) Use bookmarks to design my browsing habits rather than mindless surfing.
3) Bookmark articles I’m interested in but don’t immediately read (to date I’ve gone back to read exactly zero of them, which says it all).
4) Keep open tabs to a minimum (no more than three or four, ideally).
After these changes my Chrome usage has plummeted. It’s no longer a default state. Now I look at the web when I have a reason to.
To separate email from Chrome I shopped around for an email app. I picked Airmail because of its basic UI and how it handles multiple accounts. Parts of Gmail I miss, but overall the ability to be focused about correspondence has made a noticeable difference. Apple Mail can also do the trick, it’s just buggy for me.
I started using Outlook at the recommendation of Craig Mod. The design is soothing and non-attention getting. Calendar and contacts are effortlessly folded inside the app. Top notch.
For writing I moved from IA Writer (which I like) and Google Docs to Bear Writer. I like Bear because of how easy it is to access my directory of writing, how quickly I can start a new note/doc, and syncing between the desktop and phone apps.
One thing Bear has not helped as much with is recording spontaneous notes and ideas. I spend a lot of time walking around NYC finding inspiration. I’ve tried using Siri, notes to self, and other ways to take down a quick thought. None have worked the way I want. I’m considering going back to keeping a notebook in my pocket. Other ideas?
"The portable whiteboard"
I spend my working time with three things in front of me: my laptop, a stack of books I’m reading, and a 8.5" by 10” sketchpad and set of colored Sharpies. I call the sketch pad and markers my portable whiteboard.
Whenever I need to outline an idea or think through something deeply, I turn to the portable whiteboard. The ability to think in a flexible, physical space is liberating. I have more breakthroughs using the portable whiteboard than my laptop or any other tool. Highly recommended.
Unfollow everyone on Twitter
It took me several tries to defeat my Twitter addiction. The first move — made a few years ago — was to remove Twitter and all social media from my phone. This ended my mobile usage, but increased how often I used Twitter on the desktop.
I would get trapped in Chrome loops: check Gmail, check Slack, check Twitter, check Gmail, etc. I could (and did) spend hours this way achieving absolutely nothing. It’s the productivity version of "playing" an arcade game without putting in a quarter.
Eventually I came up with a more drastic solution: unfollow everyone. This has been the best answer. Now Twitter is such an unsatisfying experience I rarely go there. I’ll continue to keep my account for self-promotion, but it’s no longer a source of information. To date I have experienced literally zero ill effects and many positive effects from not reading Twitter.
I’m a longtime Tumblr fan but the writing tools just aren’t great. I’ve used Medium but I don’t want to be associated with the startup/life hacker zeitgeist. The only way I could think to have a truly neutral space was to create my own. I tried Wordpress but the setup process was too involved (maybe the tenth time this has deterred me from WP). While not cheap, Squarespace is great. I'll keep using them.
Any habits or gear recommendations to share? I’d love to hear them!
We’re so good at undermining our confidence. We let imaginary voices water down our true nature. We live in a story where we’re the center of attention.
There’s an even scarier truth: Nobody cares about you. Nobody is thinking about you. Everyone is too self-obsessed to care about anyone else.
Sure, your family and partner care. Some of your close friends. But even many of them care only to a point. They're too busy worrying about their own stories.
We fear people are waiting for us to trip and fall. Let's say that's true. Maybe 10% of people you know are happy to see you fail. So what? You’re probably happy to see them fail too.
The other 90% of people? They already forgot your thing ever happened. They’re too busy thinking about themselves to think about you.
Go for what you really want. Nobody cares about you.
Here are the books I read during the month of August.
NONFICTION BOOK OF THE MONTH
by Steve Turner
The first book I read after my departure from Kickstarter was decided. I went to McNally Jackson, a bookstore in Soho, thinking I would buy a self-help book about transitions. Instead I came across this: a monthly diary of everything the Beatles did, listened to, or smoked/took in 1966, the year they released Rubber Soul, recorded and released Revolver, and recorded half of Sgt Pepper’s — aka the single greatest one-year artistic evolution the world has seen.
This very satisfying book gives a strong feeling for what it was to be a Beatle. My respect for Paul and George (already my favorites) went through the roof. Both are diligent, curious learners who used their time to seek new ideas and had the talent and humility to filter them through their own work. Paul’s interest in the avant-garde was early and knowing. The tape loops that back John on “Tomorrow Never Knows” were actually home recordings made by Paul. (Also surprising: "Tomorrow Never Knows" was the first song recorded for Revolver.) George’s interest in Indian music was sincere and devoted — it took a while for Indian musicians to take him seriously.
The book is full of amazing anecdotes, including John and Paul playing “Tomorrow Never Knows” for the Stones and Dylan before it was released and the pair hearing Pet Sounds for the first time. The book notes how the Beatles had the privilege of seeing the future in art, fashion, food, and ideas before anyone else. The culture that came to be in the ‘60s owed much to their incredible vision. For any fan of the Beatles or cultural production, this is a must-read.
FICTION BOOK OF THE MONTH
Before the Fall
by Noah Hawley
The story of a private plane crashing on its way from Martha’s Vineyard to NYC with a dozen wealthy passengers on board. Two survive. From there the book leaps into a Lost-like array of timelines and backstories with a very satisfying denouement (Lost-unlike).
The book was written by Noah Hawley, head of the TV adaptation of Fargo. The feel for cinema and tension is exquisite. Just as impressive is the writing, which possesses a Delillo-worthy emotional elegance. As good a thriller as I’ve read.
NONFICTION BOOK OF THE MONTH RUNNER-UP
by David Halberstam
Wow. This is an enormous book with each chapter devoted to a deep overview of a key aspect of America in the ‘50s — civil rights, McCarthey-ism, Elvis, the bomb, Eisenhower, and other iconic developments. They're written with a perspective that is fresh, surprising, and all-knowing. Most enjoyable were the chapters on things I hadn't thought about: the washing machine, the suburbs, I Love Lucy. The way that every corner of culture informs and provokes the rest. This book makes me wish Halberstam had the time to do this for every decade. Tremendous.
FICTION BOOK OF THE MONTH RUNNER-UP
You Should Have Left
by Daniel Kehlmann
A novella about a writer and his family going to a house in the country. Surprising, well written, satisfying. Imagine Karl Ove writing The Shining except you'll finish it in two hours, not two months.
The Invisibility Cloak
by Ge Fei
This was my first time reading contemporary Chinese fiction and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It tells the story of a high-end stereo expert in a fantastical contemporary Beijing whose poverty traps him in a series of confusing experiences. It kept my attention, though the ending was so abrupt I tried re-downloading the book to make sure there wasn’t some kind of technical issue (there wasn't).
Barbarians at the Gate
by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar
My second time reading this business classic, the story of the sale of RJR Nabisco in the late ‘80s — at the time the biggest and most high profile leveraged buyout in history.
The book is an incredibly reported sprint of ego and competition. Every one of Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe pop up, all of them looking worse for the experience.
The book unintentionally and unknowingly reveals the shallowness of capitalistic competition, media hype, and the destructiveness of ego. For all of the time, money, and brain power used to complete this “deal of the century,” the epilogue reveals that the whole event was almost meaningless. Nothing came to pass the way any of the players expected, and for most of them their careers were effectively over once it was done.
Anything You Want
by Derek Sivers
A series of business and personal vignettes from the founder of CD Baby. There’s a humbleness and clarity of vision that’s appealing.
A People’s History of the United States
by Howard Zinn
History is written by the victors. Here’s the other side. I'm halfway through this classic of American history told from the side of the marginalized, the discriminated against, and the defeated. The net takeaway: the challenges many see and feel with America now have always been there, many by design. These things aren’t accidents. Americans are really good at telling ourselves myths.
Grade: Incomplete (still need to finish)
The other day I had breakfast with a founder. I had recently announced that I was stepping down as CEO of Kickstarter. That morning I learned he was considering stepping down from his company too.
Business is good, he begins. He’s been at it for almost a decade and it’s arguably the best it's been. The metrics are up. People are happy.
But he's not happy. He doesn't feel useful. Things are growing but it's not from his ideas. Instead new leaders are doing well. When he lets them drive, things grow. When he takes the wheel, things stall.
I’m not meant for this job anymore, he says.
I listen. Then I ask a question.
Why are we talking about the failure of your ideas and not the success of the team you’ve put in place?
He raises an eyebrow.
The CEO's job is to build an organization that succeeds. How do you do that? By knowing where you want to go and hiring people who can get you there. It sounds like you've hired the people. Now you need to make sure you know where you're going.
Getting perspective takes conscious effort. You have to create space for it. Regularly. It means spending less time in the office and in the weeds. It means letting the team do their job while you do yours.
Your job is to see the matrix. There are many ways to start seeing it: talking to peer CEOs, meeting customers, reading books, a weekend of solitude, taking drugs in the woods. All involve time, space, and separation.
Seeing the matrix means you learn to see the world through the lens of where you're going. You learn to communicate, guide, and decide as if your future successful self is looking back on current events. It's not every step and every detail. It's colors, shapes, a direction.
Everything else comes from the team as you talk through the vision together. It's a constant conversation. And when the team and vision come together, the sky's the limit. That's when the future becomes real.
Now's not the time to quit. Now's the time to grow into your new job.
He is smiling. He likes this new way of seeing things. We walk outside. It's a beautiful morning.
It's amazing how different the world looks when we manage to get out of our own way.
Kickstarter was launched in 2009 — not by a computer science major or an MBA, but by an artist, a designer and me, a music critic. Arts and culture were important to us and we thought a lot of other people, too. It took off.
When a Washington Post headline a few years later declared "Kickstarter raises more money for artists than the NEA,” I felt both humility and apprehension. We were mentioned in the same breath as the National Endowment for the Arts, an organization whose mission we admire deeply. But I worried our success might be seen as an argument that the private sector alone should address arts funding.
Read in full: Published as an Oped in The Hill