Today is Internet Freedom Day! DRM-free book about Aaron Swartz's causes
My good friend Marvin Ammori, a board member of Demand Progress, the foundation that Aaron Swartz founded, just published a book on the causes that ended up putting immense pressure on him. Aaron Swartz is on the first page, and his work mentioned throughout. You need to learn about the legal issues, the history, and what you can do to be a part of this important conversation. Get and read it: On Internet Freedom. Marvin's been working on the book for months, and on the cause for a decade. It's free today only, because today is Internet Freedom Day (the 1-year anniversary of stopping SOPA). You might want to buy it tomorrow, though, because all the proceeds go to Fight for the Future and Demand Progress.
I've been thinking about this all week. I'm tearing up just typing this. I've had anxiety all week, I've never known anyone who died. I don't know how to handle it. Aaron Swartz felt like a good old friend to me. I have never met him, but I've been following his life, his startups, and his blog for years. He is my inspiration for this very blog. I saw another kid, my age, writing eloquent thoughtful prose and getting great feedback. He began his life on the Internet, in suburban areas far away from the centers of power. The Internet and his blog gave him access and purpose. He dedicated his life to ensuring that everyone else have that very same access.
His article How to be more productive I read regularly once every year lest I forget. I remember when he renamed his blog Raw Thought.
I can't believe I won't read anything else he writes. He's never replied to my cold emails (he's written many times about his email overflow and business). I'm disappointed by that, so in many ways he's not even an an acquaintance. But I know he's read my writing, my blog, my quora posts. He's commented. In some ways we've had conversations in this cosmic universe.
I was in no rush to meet him because I felt I had decades to get the opportunity to know him. Maybe I felt I needed to learn more, build more, accomplish more in order to deserve the opportunity. I built weby because of the inspiration of his web.py framework. I've imitated his articles, scraped millions of academic papers, followed him in startups, absorbed his ideas. He is a part of me. I sometimes feel like just an echo or shadow of his work.
I hope that, in some way, by promoting the causes that he so dearly loved right now, I can help continue his legacy and continue his spirit and life.
MailPlus simplifies your inbox
MailPlus asks you, your colleagues, and your friends to add a simple expected action to every email you send. MailPlus makes it clear what you are supposed to do with every email you get (read something, reply with details, forward, etc).
MailPlus is simple. Just add "MailPlus: read" or "MailPlus: event" to each email on its own line at the bottom or top. There is no set template, but most common actions are suggested below.
MailPlus encourages you to send emails which require only one action by the recipient. If you have multiple actions required, please send multiple emails.
MailPlus makes it easier to filter urgent emails from non-urgent emails. This means you can better spend your time going through emails in the right order and the right frame of mind. MailPlus makes it easy to sort which actions you can do now versus later.
We recomend that you copy and paste the following as part of your email signature to (1) remind you to add a MailPlus action to all emails you send (change "idle" to anything else), and (2) tell other people about MailPlus.
MailPlus is simple. MailPlus states the action expected for each email.
Learn more about MailPlus: http://bit.ly/mail-plus
- I thought this article/link would be interesting to you. Please read it. Let me know your thoughts, if you'd like.
- yes or no
- Please decide yes or no and reply to this message.
- I am inviting you to this event. Please reply on the event page yes/no/maybe or reply to me if there is no Facebook, EventBrite, or other event link.
- Please call me now (or whatever time is stated in the message). My phone number is detailed in the email or my signature.
- For your information. Just letting you know about this information or link. There is no need to reply.
- Just archive this message for your records. No need to reply. This is useful for credit card purchases or other notifications.
- I am introducing you to this person, who is cc'd on the email. Please reply promptly and decide to communicate more over email, phone, or in person. Please bcc me so that I know you received the email, but I don't receive all your correspondence.
- Just checking in. I haven't talked to you in a while, or I am bored. I'd like to talk to you, but it's not urgent. Feel free to reply when you have time. Emails by default, with no MailPlus line, are expected to be "idle". Add a different line if you have a more urgent or specific action.
Skip traffic, fly to work
James Franco attended 4 graduate schools in different places).
How might one pull that off in the coolest, most flexible way possible? Well, one way is to fly your own plane around everywhere.
For specificity, let's say you love boating around Nantucket on the weekends, but you got into the top English program at Yale. You want to have your cake and eat it too. The not-so-obvious solution is to buy a small airship and fly it to and from school as needed. How do you become a pilot and what are the costs?
You can obtain a Private Pilot license with 40 hours of instruction for $5,000 - $12,000. A flight instructor might cost $50-80 per hour to teach you, and each hour on a plane costs $100 (give or take) for small, old planes. There are other costs (like textbooks and logbooks that are minimal compared to these other costs). Therefore, if you are a sharp, hardworking student, you might get a license for just around $5,000. If it takes you longer, it may take over a year and cost more like $12,000.
You can do the training in under 2 months if you try hard. Try to log at least two hours of flight time each week because otherwise you forget your training each week and it will take you longer and cost you more. Because you can only begin training in clear, bright conditions, it can be much easier to learn to fly in places like Florida or California.
Alternatively, think about first obtaining just your Sport Pilot license which requires only 20 hours of flight time. This can halve your costs and training time. With your Sport license, the FAA lets you fly during clear, bright days with up to 1 other passenger at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet (basically the max altitudes of small planes). A Sport License has no requirements except that you must have a driver's license (and thus passed a rudimentary eye exam). You can always log the next 20 hours of training to obtain the Private Piot license so that you can fly at night with more people in more airspace later. The Private Pilot license has the extra requirements of accurate color vision and a full medical exam.
Then you can buy or rent a plane to fly between Nantucket and New Haven. Small planes cost about the same as expensive cars. You can buy a small, old cheap Cessna 150 for a round $20,000. They no longer produce these models, but they are reliable and common. The Cessna 172s are still in production and can be $40,000 used. These planes can achieve max speeds of ~150 miles per hour with ranges of over 800 miles. Other small ones that carry 1-4 passengers might go up to $80,000. Bigger or luxury planes can cost millions.
You can rent a plane cost effectively. Planes rent by the number of hours that you actually use them in flight. So, if you fly to Nantucket in the morning in 2 hours, go fishing all day, and then fly back at night then you only pay for 4 hours of flight time usage. The cheapest planes might cost only $80 per hour "wet" (with fuel included in the hours rate). More pricey small planes might be only $100-150 per hour wet. Even much larger planes that seat 10 or dozens might cost only $2000-$5000 per hour which is comparable to driving on a per person-mile basis. Note that you can rent a plane for multiple days, but most charge a minimum number of flight hours per day (like 4/day).
The advantages of your own plane include the flexibility of choosing your own schedule and the fact that you can fly into any airport you want. For small or secluded areas with infrequent travelers (like Nantucket and New Haven) this can save you a lot of time and car traffic congestion. Cities run small municipal airports for free just as they do roads for free.
Flying your own plane is a fun and safe (but expensive) way to travel or commute like a badass James Franco. It's not any more dangerous (it's safer with the right care, since a drunk driver won't hit you in the sky) than driving the same distance on a road trip.
I found it surprising how easy and attainable in price (though not cheap, unfortunately) it is to become a licensed pilot. It doesn't take millions to reach the heavens and fly like a bird, just a little saving up and a few weeks of training.
Why don't I write more?
Maybe I don't write because I'm afraid to challenge the validity of my beliefs. Often, in writing, I find flaws in my reasoning.
So I avoid it entirely. I hide my irrationality from myself. Maybe that is why others don't write. They find their scripts not only aesthetically distasteful (ungrammatical and drole) but also illogical. They wake up the next day and ask, "who wrote this nonsensical drivel?"
Me? No. I dare not pick up the quill.
The Yale System of medical school
The Yale System
reponsibilities all too often assumed by teachers are thrown upon the student. If [the student] is interested and wants to
work, he has the fullest opportunities for study and guidance; if he is not himself
interested, he will find no one to pull him along. This freedom is not desired by
the immature student, or by the one whose primary interest is in the acquisition
of a degree and not in the subject matter; but it is an advantage to the
independent, thinking student generally interested in medicine and anxious to
be rid of those pedagogical procedures and routines which have no bearing upon
the acquisition of knowledge .
Work is a Card Game
I have been procrastinating heavily recently, for the past few months actually. I was not entirely paralyzed, but I did have a constant generalized anxiety about not doing work. It persisted and irritated me at all times. I decided to read everything I could about productivity systems, work methods, and procrastination. Reading excels as a procrastination tool.
Yesterday, I believe I have solved my problems (yea, right). I invented a card game. How do you play? You go to CVS to buy some index cards, colorful ones. Perhaps stickers or photographs would work even better. The more fun the better.
Write a task you want to complete on each card. Be specific if you can, although if at a loss you don't have to be too specific. I wrote down tasks like "finish problem set," "learn the PCP Theorem proof," and "finish my midterm". Throw in a somewhat fun task like "write a blog post." This post is a product of the Card Game.
Shuffle the cards well. Keep shuffling. Shuffle some more. Make sure everything is nice and random and you think you can easily get any task. Do not think about the probabilities of getting one card or another. You will work on a task either way, and you will finish all of the tasks in a reasonable time period. The purpose of shuffling is to mix up your day, add a dash of unexpected, and create intermittent rewards like all good games do.
Cut your deck, then choose the top card. Set a timer to work on the task for some time, say 10 minutes. As your focus and concentration increases, you can increase this work period (but no more than 30-60 minutes). Try to keep it short as you just begin getting into the zone, because your focus has not built up yet.
Work on your task! Go full at it, since you only have to work for a few minutes. Delve into the problem, you won't finish in so little time anyway, so just get an understanding of what you might do at least. Deeply introspect, look at things different ways, write thoughts down.
When your timer rings, take a break for, say, 5-10 minutes. It sounds like a lot, but you need it. A regular 5-10 minute break prevents Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and other Repetitive Strain Injuries. Eyes away from the computer regularly also avoid vision damage. You can meditate or do yoga or calisthenics. These exercises increase blood flow to brain, and the focus restores mental clarity that can be lost in details. Do not work, do not stare at a computer screen, and do not write unless it is artistic (and you don't work as an artist in that medium). Do not stress out if your mind keeps thinking about your task. Do not try to keep thinking about your work, but do not force it away if it strays there. Let your mind float to where it lands. Take the full break, even if you become bored. You will need it. Try to meditate.
When your break is over, shuffle the deck again and choose another card. What color will it be this time?! Fun! Maybe it is the same task again! Probably not! Repeat the work/break cycle. At one of your break periods you will know if it is time to stop.
If you finish a task completely, rip the card in half. Make a loud sound. Feel the relief. Pin the card to a poster board as your trophy. You conquered a task, and this will hang for all to see.
Regularly review your deck of cards to ensure that these are in fact necessary tasks. Maybe they are not. Unnecessary and boring tasks poison the game. Eliminate them to keep the Card Game fun and productive. Productivity is rewarding. Fun is rewarding. Unnecessary thumb twiddling is not, and will ruin the game if not effectively pruned. Focus on the good.
Keep one deck of cards separate and sorted and call them your Tickler. These are tasks you are not doing now, but you might want to do some day. These are ideas and inspiration. Every night, manually choose 3 cards from your Tickler and turn them into a new deck for Tomorrow. Use that deck for your game the next day. Try to limit the number of cards you play with every day in order to focus and get consistent amounts of work done. Slow and steady.
If you get to a task card that looks too big or complicated or daunting, crumple it up and break the task down into several new task cards. Try to make them all the same color for fun. Put the first of your new task cards into your deck, and leave the rest in the Tickler. Try to make the first card, the first step at the least, take just 10 minutes.
Theory and Explanation
What is the theory behind the Card Game? It turns work into a bit of a game. What will I do next? I don't know. It could be drudgery. It could be a fun blog post. I add the natural game element of random rewards.
I also add the benefits of the Pomodoro Method. I invented the Pomodoro Method independently 3 years ago. I used the timer on the iPhone app to help me focus for short bursts of time, and I used the break to do yoga, meditate, relax, or think about my problem at a high level.
The timer frees the stress that comes with being forced to do something that I do not want to do. The timer limits my undesirable work time down to 10 minutes.
I also get to churn through tasks. The pile of cards gets thinner and thinner, which shows achievement. Ripping the card in half as I finish is fun and a physical act and reward in and of itself. I should collect the piles of trash and build a stack. That would help me build progress toward something. That feels good too, like a collection.
All the cards are different colors, which adds a bit in terms of organization, but mostly just makes it a little more fun. The collection of defeated tasks becomes a colorful montage. It is a trophy case.
I can easily decide that a task is actually not a priority at all (i.e. it should not be done). I can destroy the card (but not mount it as a victory), or archive the card in a Tickler.
I think one really great part of my system is that as I come upon a card that is a complex task, I can break it up into chunks on the spot. First, I observe how much time I allocated to work on this problem. Then, I break up my card into chunks of approximately that time period. Instead of creating an outline of my plan all at once, I can do it piecemeal as I come across the card. Or, I can just outline the first step or two, and leave the remainder of the project to be outlined later. This helps avoid the problem of making problems too big, or keeping them too big, without thinking about small concrete steps that will help along that path.
How do you decide whether a card is actually important? Is it important? Is it important? People often avoid to-do lists because they are actually unimportant. You will too if you leave in cards that you subconsciously actually don't want to do ever. Just eliminate the card, do not do the task.
The tasks become more physical, with weight. This can work much better than a to do list. I don't know if this would work on an iPhone app. I imagine not so well. It's easy to review and rank and order your cards. The Card Game is versatile.
You need to call it your Card Game. It needs to be a game, you need to call it a game. You need to call it fun, and put in a few fun things to do. They are rewards. You will always hope that the rewards come up. And sometimes you will hope that one of your hard projects comes up. You just need to commit to working to whatever comes up. The way to do that is to feel it is a game, not work. If you say you "should" play with your cards, then you will get stuck. You want to play your Card Game every day.
How to win a Nobel Prize
Richard Hamming, who made Hamming Codes among other things, once gave a famous talk about how to do good research and become a great scientist. His talk is often passed around research circles to introduce new grad students to the process.
The printed version is an exact transcript of his talk, so it rambles. It's not as tight as a proper essay, and it's a little long and repetitive for today's blog age. It is, however, a classic, so I am posting some notes with the major points here. If you like it, I recommend you read the whole thing since it has many interesting anecdotes.
You might notice that a lot of this advice works well in business and startups, and even life in general as well (like "don't get angry").
You and Your Research Notes:
First, decide that you want to do significant Nobel Prize -level work. It's okay to reach.
It's not all about luck, since lots of great scientists (Einstein, Shannon) made many great contributions. They got many hits, so it doesn't seem like pure luck. "Luck favors the prepared mind."
One of the characteristics you see, and many people have it including great scientists, is that usually when they were young they had independent thoughts and had the courage to pursue them. Einstein challenged ideas about the speed of light when he was 12.
You need brains, but only a certain amount, and you probably have enough.
You need courage to dare to think through some impossible thoughts and follow through. Perservere.
People worry about age, but that might be a social effect. It is hard to work on small problems after you win a Nobel Prize young. You need to plant acorns that will become oak trees.
What most people think are the best working conditions, are not. One of the better times of the Cambridge Physical Laboratories was when they had practically shacks - they did some of the best physics ever. Not having enough programmers can force you to invent automatic programming.
You have to have drive, work hard. Knowledge grows like compound interest.
So, effort is important, but you have to apply effort sensibly, or you just spin wheels.
Great scientists can tolerate ambiguity. They know that a theory works, why it works, but also where it doesn't work, and they live in a balance between believing it and not believing it. Darwin wrote down everything that contradicted his beliefs, lest he forget.
Great scientists are committed to their problems, emotionally, so as to not drop them.
Creativity comes out of subconscious, so focus all your conscious efforts on a problem so that your subconscious also works on the problem for you.
You should be working on the most important problems in your field. Why aren't you? Important problems have an method of attack (unlike, say, teleportation). Most scientist work on problems they do not believe to be important.
Great scientists keep 10 or 20 important problems in their heads and are prepared to attack them when they come across new techniques.
Keep your office door open. You have less short-run efficiency, but achieve more in the long run by learning more from others.
By changing a problem slightly you can often do great work rather than merely good work. Instead of attacking isolated problems, I made the resolution that I would never again solve an isolated problem except as characteristic of a class. The mathematician knows that the business of abstraction frequently makes things simple.
You need to sell your work. There are three things you have to do in selling. You have to learn to write clearly and well so that people will read it, you must learn to give reasonably formal talks, and you also must learn to give informal talks.
You can get what you want in spite of top management. You have to sell your ideas there also.
Drive and commitment. The people who do great work with less ability but who are committed to it, get more done that those who have great skill and dabble in it, who work during the day and go home and do other things and come back and work the next day.
One problem is the problem of personality defects, like trying to control everything yourself.
You find this happening again and again; good scientists will fight the system rather than learn to work with the system and take advantage of all the system has to offer.
You should dress according to the expectations of the audience spoken to. If I am going to give an address at the MIT computer center, I dress with a bolo and an old corduroy jacket or something else. I know enough not to let my clothes, my appearance, my manners get in the way of what I care about. An enormous number of scientists feel they must assert their ego and do their thing their way. They have got to be able to do this, that, or the other thing, and they pay a steady price.
Now you are going to tell me that somebody has to change the system. I agree; somebody's has to. Which do you want to be? The person who changes the system or the person who does first-class science? Which person is it that you want to be?
On the other hand, we can't always give in. There are times when a certain amount of rebellion is sensible. Originality is being different. You can't be an original scientist without having some other original characteristics. I'm not against all ego assertion; I'm against some.
Don't get angry.
Another thing you should look for is the positive side of things instead of the negative.
Don't give alibis for why you can't do something. To yourself try to be honest.
If you really want to be a first-class scientist you need to know yourself, your weaknesses, your strengths, and your bad faults, like my egotism. How can you convert a fault to an asset? How can you convert a situation where you haven't got enough manpower to move into a direction when that's exactly what you need to do?
In summary, I claim that some of the reasons why so many people who have greatness within their grasp don't succeed are: they don't work on important problems, they don't become emotionally involved, they don't try and change what is difficult to some other situation which is easily done but is still important, and they keep giving themselves alibis why they don't. They keep saying that it is a matter of luck. I've told you how easy it is; furthermore I've told you how to reform. Therefore, go forth and become great scientists!
If you read all the time what other people have done you will think the way they thought. If you want to think new thoughts that are different, then do what a lot of creative people do - get the problem reasonably clear and then refuse to look at any answers until you've thought the problem through carefully how you would do it, how you could slightly change the problem to be the correct one.
How to avoid the Nobel Prize effect: somewhere around every seven years make a significant, if not complete, shift in your field.
The moment that physics table I always ate at lost the best people, I left. The moment I saw that the same was true of the chemistry table, I left. I tried to go with people who had great ability so I could learn from them and who would expect great results out of me. By deliberately managing myself, I think I did much better than laissez faire.
You don't want to be Instagram
Everyone doing startups wants to be Instagram. They want to win the lottery, the tech lottery. But do you really? In fact, you don't.
Michael Norton has a great TED talk. He begins with a story that CNN covered: people who won the lottery do not end up happier.
Very often, they end up dogged by friends and family asking for money. They isolate themselves. They waste it and spend it surprisingly quickly. Yet, many billionaires in companies make money without the same problems. Why?
One reason is that they are not prepared for the lottery money. Working day to day and then suddenly being in a new environment where they have more money than you've ever had to manage is jarring.
They did not earn it, so they are not prepared for it. They did not put in the hours required to understand finance as a businessperson who works decades does. They do not have strong skills in other areas to occupy them once they have more idle time. They did not build strong support networks of family and friends to help them during stressful long hours and years of work.
They did not build up their wealth gradually and manage each stage of growth with expectations of the people they know. They won it all at once and it forcefully created an alien environment.
The same would happen to you if you buy your startup mega-millions ticket and win without having first spent years working on developing your design, tech, UX, marketing, and business skills. You will have overnight success without a compensating feeling of deserving it.
Many successful entrepreneurs try to do it again, feeling that they didn't deserve it. One psychological condition is called Imposter Syndrome, where one does not feel like they are worthy of their success. They agonize over their success, and try to replicate the payout to no avail.
Maybe it is better to win slowly and fail many times first. Experience suggests that will make you happier when you do win.
Who are you? You are everybody. You are nobody.
Who are you? Who am I? Do you think you control what you do? It makes me sad to think about, but if you watch very closely, if you take special care to be aware of every little situation, you realize that you don't. Why did you do X yesterday? Because you chose to? Nope. Everyone in that same external situation would have done the same thing, probably.
My friend gave me a thought experiment once. What if, in 1000 years, someone built a machine that could do quite a lot to your brain and specifically your conscious thoughts. What if it could do the most intrusive thing: what if it could literally plant a thought in your head? What if a machine could let anyone make your conscious think about a certain thought? It makes you think.
And then I realized, that is already the case. Yellow banana. Banana banana. Mmm, Bananas! You just thought of a banana. Maybe multiple bananas. Maybe you could taste them a bit. I planted that in your mind. When you read a book, those thoughts root themselves in the forefront of your consciousness. Books work because they are the raw stuff of thought fed directly into the brain. The sum of the things that pass through your consciousness define you and your actions. Language is a super mind-control machine. That's what makes it so powerful. And so dangerous.
Language is not quite the same as the posited machine. The brain is sophisticated enough to be able to select its inputs. You can cut out hearing someone. You can avoid reading a book. You can even absorb language in a negative state-of-mind so that the ideas pass through your consciousness pre-criticized and undigestible. Instead of being absorbed those ideas are scorned.
Some people live life this way, but that inhibits learning. Such people do not grow, they miss out on new ideas which are correct because they leave this critical filter on over everything. Sadly, these people saw an idea that said they should be critical and always have their filter on. This was the last thing they ever learned. I used to always have my filter on. Now, I don't.
And, usually, we don't have this filter on. We are open to the people around us. We read books without remembering to turn on the filter, so that the ideas reprogram our very thinking. Maybe we should, maybe not. Nevertheless, it has strong implications on our free agency.
The New York Times writes of some strong meditators who learn to observe external stimuli dispassionately. Whereas some might be distracted by an event, enough to miss another event, these meditators merely objectively noticed the event, and then the following one. The thought was not forced into their minds, but merely presented in front of them. Don't think "banana", instead think "he just said banana." Maybe this is the answer.
Maybe we can both grow and learn and also have control over what we are.
In praise of praise
The most interesting and successful of my blog posts are ones I wrote for myself. I wrote them because they clarified thoughts that I had or judgments that I had reserved but never finely expressed. Not every one of the essays of such kind has been fantastically successful, but many have.
I wrote about Facebook in a passion one hour and posted it to let off some steam. It became fantastically viral. Why? Does it matter why? Why do I try to replicate that?
In fact, whenever I try to copy elements of that explicitly I fail. Rather, there is something about the emotion I had in that topic that was conveyed in the essay. Emotions can be hard to fake.
But I get praise for some of my posts, the impassioned ones I write for myself. The praise externalizes a reward for writing. I seek out more external rewards like a rat in a cage. But it never genuinely comes. I demotivate, stop writing for months.
Spontaneously, I graze the lever of internal gratification with a piece for me, with an audience of one. I feel complete. But the emotion impacts others, and praise rolls out.
It's as if I finally figure out how to run the hampster wheel out of the pure joy of running, but every time I do a treat rolls down the chute. Perhaps this is the nature of success. The treats must be resisted, but this is very difficult when you are hungry. I always fail. Success always leads me to fail.
Even now, I feel as though I write this for someone else.
Make news, don't read news
I used to read the news all of the time. It seems so productive. It seems great because you are learning something you don't know about, very often (though not always since sometimes you seek out that which confirms your biases). It seemed most useful for conversations. Whenever I meet someone, I can have a conversation about the latest thing that we both read about. We have a common base to talk about something that we both know little about, so we are on equal footing. Also, we can talk about this interesting piece of news instead of the weather.
There are a few problems with this, though. Very often, the conversation just involves us repeating the details to the other person, who already read it and thus knows exactly the same details. We listen carefully, or at least pretend to, because that's what we're told to do, and then we nod and say, yea, and this to prove that we are intelligent and heard about the news already.
But this is dumb. It would be much better to have it explained to you, actually, fresh.
I had this experience recently. I had been working so hard on various projects, that I literally could not waste any time learning about things happening around me. Weeks later I found out about this oil spill somewhere. Movies came out, had big runs, and then went on DVD before I had heard about them. I had a conversation with someone the other day where he mentioned a piece of news, and I said I hadn't heard it. He looked at me dumbfounded. How could I not have seen this?
How? I was busy getting work done and learning. The funniest part is that he probably, not consciously, but somewhere in his mind it seemed as though I was not quite that smart. I could not keep up and converse on the latest topics. In fact, I could not, but topical fluency only correlates with intelligence, it does not define intelligence. Moreover, reading the latest news outside of your industry, for most professionals, is a time-killing activity that only signals intelligence. It is possible for someone to signal intelligence and trick someone into thinking that you know something without knowing anything actually useful.
One day, I saw that a friend of mine's friend was very into classical rock. He had vinyls upon vinyls hanging on his wall. I realized that I knew nothing about classic rock, or music in general. Classical rock would be a good place for me to start learning music.
So I read some Wikipedia articles, and I found a torrent with the "top 500" classic rock songs of all time. It started with Stairway to Heaven, moved on to Freebird, the Beatles, etc. I downloaded and listened to it from the top of the charts. I listened over and over, looked at the songs, the artists. In a few hours, I knew the top songs and artists and I could even recognize and sing along to some of them. The next time I met my friend's friend, I mentioned some of these songs, and we talked a bit about them, maybe argued about whether Freebird or Stairway to Heaven is better.
Anyway, years later, he mentioned some classic rock I had never heard of. He was surprised I hadn't heard of it. He thought I was really into classic rock and listened to it and followed it closely. I did not. I just learned a tiny tidbit, enough to signal intelligence in the music. I confessed that I knew next to nothing, not that I was trying to mislead at all.
News helps you signal intelligence in this way, falsely. It's much better to make the headlines, learn something deeply and create something. Make the news, don't read it.
Unfortunately, I still read the news all of the time. It is really hard to stop. I'm not sure why.
How to drop out of college and start a funded Social Network
I will tell you how drop out and start a social network that grows into, ironically, the leader in the college admissions space. I will tell you how to start a social network for scientists whose lead investor is Peter Thiel (who also funded Facebook and started PayPal). Finally, I will tell you about how to help launch the hottest new rival to Facebook, also funded by Peter Thiel and SoftBank, the Google of Japan, and move on to work on Stickybits, to revolutionize how people interact with everyday consumer products.
Step 1: Read Paul Graham's essays.
The story starts my freshman year at Princeton. I had read all of Paul Graham's essays, which are not only thoughtful and information-rich, but also inspiring. Paul's essays described his own experience starting ViaWeb, which he eventually sold to Yahoo! for tens of millions. It is now called Yahoo! Store, one of the few examples of successful '90's bubble companies. He talks about every step of the process, a process which seems very unique and peculiar, and yet surprisingly all startups experience basically the same sets of problems, setbacks, successes, disagreements, and emotions.
In fact, in general, read good books. Blog posts are useful and timely, but books have much denser concentrations of information and they are more insightful. The best blog posts on the web are often just slivers of individual chapters of an existing good book. Blogs give you tiny tidbits of information, one interesting aspect of a complicated story, but a good book gives you that plus the other side and the whole picture, the future and the past, all at a deeper level. A well-written book will not waste words. Those hundreds of pages are worthwhile. Read Founders at Work, by Jessica Livingston, also at YCombinator and also a brilliant entrepreneur and interviewer. The book's stories are inspiring: James Hong's amazing viral growth of HotOrNot will make you want to do the same and become an overnight millionaire.
These writings are inspiring. They inspired me. I started to itch to start something, anything. I started to build things and talk to more people about these interests.
Step 2: Be friendly.
Through a friend and my work, I met Mick Hagen and Jeremy Johnson in the spring semester. If you are lucky enough to meet them, Jeremy and Mick are two of the nicest, most thoughtful, and most ambitious people you will be lucky to meet. We shared a common interest in technology startups. We started talking about what we could do together, drawing on all of our skills.
Some of the best friends you make will be in college: life-long friends. These tight bonds are forged from living very close to each other, possibly in the same room, every day for years. In the real world of apartments and houses, a friendly visit can easily take a half hour commute each way and is centered around a big event. In college, you walk down the hall and just hang out. Moreover, in your classes, you learn both the quality of your friend's effort and how well you work together. A mutual trust is formed over these months and years that are hard to form in the real world. In college, you will find your cofounder, whether they be friends or friends of friends.
Jeremy was interested, as he still is, in the college markets. What can we do to help improve college admissions, the student bodies at the colleges, and the college experience? His plan was more ambitious, but I proposed a simpler one: let students form a social network with ties to college admissions officers. Let students display their scores, interests, and activities online, and let admissions officers at Princeton and Harvard search for them. Charge per student found. Would this work? I reasoned that the College Board already does the same thing with PSAT scores, so I called them (abbreviated transcript):
Step 3: Test your assumptions.
Me: Hello, is this the PSAT office? My name is... um... Mark Westerner at the Marbur College.
CB: Which college?
Me: Um... (*will they look it up?*) Marbur College, a small liberal arts college in New Jersey.
CB: Marbur, can I help you Mr. Westerner?
Me: We are interested in purchasing some student PSAT scores and mailing address information.
CB: Yes, we do that here.
Me: How much would that cost?
CB: Let me see, you can buy 1000 names and addresses for $280.
Me: Thank you. Goodb—<I quickly hang up>
Gold mine. We would sell student information to colleges, completely willingly and enthusiastically on the student's part. Colleges already pay lots of money for very similar but incomplete, noisy data. We could sell the same information over and over again. Colleges get to target and recruit in a way that they have never been able to before. Everyone wins. This would be our primary business model, and in fact still is used today at Zinch.
Step 4: Use university resources to get feedback and advice.
With a business model in place, we went to all of the professors we knew who might be able to help. We talked to Ed Zschau who helped us write a business plan. We talked to the dean of admissions. She said she would love something like this. She told us a story where the school musical director told her that we needed an oboe player, since all of the oboe players were graduating seniors. This endangered the diversity of the school, and the annual Mozart concert. She looked and recruited and found nobody. On the last day, Princeton happened to receive 3 applications from oboe players with excellent academic records, and they all got in. She got lucky, but she would have much preferred an electronic way to target individual students to recruit and encourage to apply.
Armed with a business model, a plan, and this story, we entered an undergraduate business plan competition. We won 2nd place, and, more importantly, we received valuable feedback from the experienced venture capitalist judges. We tweaked the presentation, and then entered the Princeton alumni business plan competition. You have to understand that the alumni business plan competition is open to all Princeton alumni. This includes seasoned financial professionals and Harvard MBAs. We won first place to a raucous applause.
Step 5: Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
Now, we needed to reach out to more admissions officers to learn more about what, exactly, they wanted, and how to sell it to them. How could we do this? There just happened to be a conference on college admissions in June at Harvard with all of the top admissions officers at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Duke, and others attending. This would be a perfect place to make connections.
Jeremy: Hello, we are students interested in learning more about college admissions.
Jeremy: Is it possible for us to attend this conference with a free or reduced price?
Jeremy: We want to make a product to make admissions better. We won't take up anybody's time.
Jeremy: But, really, please we have no intention of...
Jeremy: (to us) Let's go anyway and crash it.
So we drove up together to the conference. We figured that we would probably not be allowed in, but we might get a little information and trade business cards. When we got there, we saw that the conference was just in a hotel lobby. We walked up, put on name tags, and started mingling. Note that most of us were freshmen, so we barely looked post-pubescent much less like admissions officers.
Step 6: Do your research.
We sat at the back of a panel discussion with the admissions officers at Harvard and UPenn. They would literally say to everyone, to us, "It is just really hard to find good students which are the right fit for our colleges. We would love to able to find a student with these exact interests and academic record, pick them out of this area of the country, and just recruit her." Everyone we talked to loved us. Mind you, if asked, we would always tell them the truth that we are Princeton students passionate about and interested in learning more about college admissions. We never ate any of their food or interrupted any classes. We merely observed and met our exact target clients who basically begged us to make Zinch for them.
One piece of research we did not do was where to stay that night. We figured we would be kicked out, so we hadn't planned on anything. We tried calling people who we knew in the area, but nobody answered their phones. We asked friends, friends of friends, people our friends met on the Subway. We were a poor startup with barely the money for the gas. We sat in Qdoba waiting for a call. Looking out the window, we saw a Sports Authority. "That's it! We'll buy a tent, set up camp at some park somewhere overnight, and then return it tomorrow." We were desperate. So we went in, started figuring out the measurements. We went over to the register, credit card in hand. Then, an aunt's friend called us back: we could stay at her house. Too bad, would have made for a good story.
The next day at the conference, we met even more people, and they loved us. Suddenly, this woman walked up to me with a very stern face. She organized the conference, and had told us not to come in the first place. She kicked us out, but not before we already had the contacts and market research we needed. We drove home happy. There are a lot more unbelievable stories from the formation of this company, but they will have to wait for the memoirs.
Step 6: Don't drop out of school.
For most students, this advice is correct: you should not drop out. It only makes sense to give you this advice, all responsible adults will. There are a special few students, though, who, at exactly the right point in their lives, will understand that this advice does not apply to them. There will be no shadow of a doubt that school would just be too boring and unmotivating. When the time comes, those students know who they are.
I had shadows of doubts. Jeremy, Mick, and I disagreed a bit about direction. I decided to stay in school and stop working on the company, which was the right decision for me at the time. Mick and Jeremy continued on a different path from me. As an epilogue, Mick is now in California with a terrifically growing company, Zinch, which is so big that it is now expanding to students in China. Jeremy co-founded and now runs 2tor, which is leading the online college education space. Many people come to me with ideas for allowing students to take classes online. They ignore what has come before, and they do not aim high enough. Jeremy and John Katzman (founder of Princeton Review) put real, leading universities online, like USC, so that top students around the world can take classes entirely online and receive a full diploma equivalent to someone who spent time on campus. You will be lucky to get to know these guys.
Step 7: Integrate into your local community of entrepreneurs, or, lacking that, build it.
Back from my startup adventure, I wanted to evangelize the gospel of Paul Graham. Unfortunately, the Entrepreneurship Club was defunct. Instead, financial firms were hiring in full force, and almost no students knew anything about starting a business. I decided to resurrect it, and start it anew. I grew it from 0 members to hundreds, and made sure that the new leaders in every year learned how to run the club and teach the following year's posterity. It continues itself now in a virtuous cycle. It has grown every year, and in fact, now, the Entrepreneurship Club transfers more tens of thousands of dollars through its account than any other organization on campus. The first year that we bought back the TigerLaunch business plan competition, we ignited the career of another successful drop-out Princeton entrepreneur: Seth Priebatsch of SCVNGR. The network of people at Princeton now involved in startups is growing, and we have helped each other succeed in innumerable ways.
Step 8: Talk to other students from your school who have taken time off.
The club, one day, invited someone to give a talk, James Currier, who started Tickle.com which sold to Monster.com for an incredible amount of money. James stood before me. His eyes were shot open. They had a purple glaze that lit them afire, still bleeding from the red-eye flight he took from California. James had taken time off of Princeton to start his first company, which failed, but he doesn't regret it at all and learned so much. His hair burst out atop his skinny head. Gaunt and fearless, he embraced the air as he swung his arms widely to make his point: "Silicon Valley is absolutely the place to start a company", he said. "That is where all technology happens. That's where Google started, that's where Yahoo, Intel, Oracle, and so many other technology companies started. Some of the smartest people in the world lived there at Stanford, Berkeley, and PARC. It is a magical forever-sunny wonderland where dreams come true and it rains investments and acquisitions." (not exactly what he said...)
He was inspiring. He didn't have a smarmy kind of charm so much as sheer hurricane-force energy. He was insightful and learned. He talked about his great times. He talked about his toughest times. And so he inspired me to do it. I had to see it. What is so special about the Bay Area? How can it actually be that great? What exactly gives the air such power to breath life into world-changing tech empires?
Step 9: Pick a startup hub like Silicon Valley.
It was a school break the following week, so I bought a ticket for that weekend. I bought an incredibly cheap ticket on Hotwire and asked my high school friends in California schools if I could crash on their couches. I also emailed every single company on TechCrunch which stated that its company is in any city in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, or Berkeley to ask for an interview. It was tight scheduling.
If you haven't been to the Bay Area, then you don't understand how it is possible that literally almost everyone is involved in startups. I go to the basketball courts to play some pickup. After a sweaty game, each one in turn introduces their crazy new web2, hardware, or biotech startup to you, each one the founder or CEO. Multiple lunches and talks happen every day, with free food and drinks, you cannot possibly go to all of them or even meet everyone. And everyone wants to help you. I walked down University Ave and saw Facebook, I talked with the CEO of Azureus for 2 hours one-on-one, to the CEO of StyleHive and so many others.
The fact is, these hubs do not crowd you out. They have an overwhelming amount of resources to help you both in early stages and in later stages. Be friendly, learn what you need to know, and everyone there will do everything they can to help you be successful. If you stay in your hometown, as Jeremy, Mick and I almost did in New Jersey, we would have certainly failed. Now, Mick is in San Fransicso, and Jeremy is in New York, enmeshing themselves in the startup scenes and reaping the benefits. If you stay in your home town, understand that you do so not to maximize the success of your startup, but for some other reason, like comfort. Startups are risky, not comfortable. Get a job at Microsoft for comfort. I was done with comfort, I wanted to start a startup.
Step 10: Ask a dean about how to take a leave of absence, and how long you can take one.
Just grab or email your nearest dean, who will point you in the right direction. Princeton has a very lenient leave policy. You can take 3 years off without a problem. You do so by filling out a 1-page form, and you can do this all in a day. You can leave as late as the day before classes, or even after classes start (although you have to pay some tuition). To get back in a year or 3 later, you send an email. Financial aid is unaffected. Every dean you talk to will be very supportive of your decision; they will not question you. This is an excellent policy that encourages students to figure out what they want to do without pressure. Certainly, they would prefer a student to learn in a different way for a year rather than drown in school or do something worse.
Other schools have less lenient policies. Yale only allows a 1-semester leave, which limits the potential for student startups at that school. Their entrepreneurship club would do well to lobby the administration to relax the policy.
Step 11: Reach out to your friends and brainstorm.
I contacted some friends I had met on my trip to California, asking them if they knew of any other people interested in a new startup. I talked to Mark Kaganovich and Jeremy England, and we talked about making a social network and practical tools for managing research for scientists. Mark and Jeremy went to Harvard and are hard-core scientists. Mark is friends with Mark Zuckerberg, and was the 6th person on Facebook. If you get a chance to meet them, you will be blown away by their brilliance. They think analytically and carefully. I only met them from a friend of a friend, but we quickly got along well and we are very good friends and trust each other about everything.
So we started Labmeeting, led by an investment from Peter Thiel, who met the Labmeeting team randomly at one of the many events at Stanford. He saw the quality and depth of thinking of the team, and made his trademark quick decision. These kinds of lucky coincidences happen all of the time in the Bay Area. Now, thousands of scientists love and use Labmeeting to manage their labs and do research. We were the first, and we have the largest number of users from Stanford and Harvard than any other imitation network.
Step 12: Help other entrepreneurs.
In the mean time with Labmeeting, I was helping another young entrepreneur start up his own company, Josh Weinstein. He refused to drop out, but I did help him get GoodCrush off the ground and launched. Since that launch, GoodCrush has renamed and has now been funded by several notable people and venture firms (including Thiel of Facebook). It will rival Facebook at its own game: the college market with CollegeOnly.
One key to Josh's success is public relations. When launching GoodCrush, we were given the contact information of someone at the Huffington Post who could write about GoodCrush. We called them the day before Valentine's day, the big launch, but we mis-dialed:
Josh : Hello, is this the Huffington Post?
Chris: No, you must have the wrong number.
Josh : Oh, I apologize... <almost hangs up>
By the way, who is this?
Chris: Chris, I write at MediaBistro.
Josh : <excited> I'm Josh, we are launching GoodCrush.
It's a new dating wesite for college students
Chris: Is this a new startup? Tell me more...
An hour later, Chris Ariens posted a story on MediaBistro, all from mis-dialing and taking advantage of opportunity. Serendipity is the essence of startup success.
Through the Entrepreneurship Club, I've advised and helped set up half a dozen different companies. They may or may not do well, but the students will certainly learn a huge amount of work. In just a few years, we have seen a tremendous amount of new interesting startups coming out of Princeton, far more than I thought could happen in such a short time. For example, art.sy will transform the way that high-end art is sold. I encourage you to research more and help them out if you can.
Step 13: Let others help you.
Josh introduced me to Billy Chasen at Stickybits. Stickybits is an iPhone app that lets you scan barcodes, and then attach images, video, or text to the barcodes. It's like a virtual bulletin board, so that people can have conversations around products. We have exciting new ideas for how to transform the way you interact with consumer brands, but I can't talk about those yet. We are funded by none other than Mitch Kapor, Chris Sacca, First Round, and Polaris Ventures. My limited experience and skills and the people along the way have helped me do well here. The amount I'm learning from other team members is tremendous. We are the leaders in the social barcode scanning space.
Peter Thiel just launched a new program that will give you money to drop out and start a startup. Startup business is on the rise, the economy is improving. Facebook and other companies are enabling newer business models. More people are on the Internet than ever. This is really the perfect time to start a company, consider doing it now, but don't drop out of school. Meet people, make friends, brainstorm, build a community, help others. You will know when to leave and do startups.
How to drop out of college and start a venture-backed Social Network
A quick google search reveals that there are no good guides online that tell you how to drop out of college. So, this will be a first. There are many opinions about whether you should or should not, but none which really tell you how.
For example, Jason Baptiste just wrote an excellent blog post about why you should stay in college. He is right in many ways, but you should also look at the other side in detail and how well that can turn out.
I will tell you how drop out and start a social network that grows into, ironically, the leader in the college admissions space. I will tell you how to start a social network for scientists whose lead investor is Peter Thiel (who also funded Facebook and started PayPal). Finally, I will tell you about how to help launch the hottest new rival to Facebook, also funded by Peter Thiel and SoftBank, the Google of Japan, and move on to work on Stickybits, to revolutionize how people interact with everyday consumer products.
You can read about these stories on the new article page.
I like to travel light. Anybody who has traveled significantly understands the importance of staying lean. A heavy bag, or series of bags, can ruin the experience of hopping from city to city, which can color the whole trip. Practically, it can cost extra money to move extra bags on a flight or drop off the bags at a bag holding service. Waiting for a checked bag can add more than an hour to your commute time at some airports in certain seasons. Every time I traveled to Miami airport, I waited for at least half an hour and once 2 hours for my checked bag to circle around the carousel.
Some people think that they travel light, but they do not. One checked in bag is not light. Checked bags are the bane of the traveler. You do not want to wait for your bag to come out a turnstile. It is boring and tedious and you never want to do it.
One carry-on is much closer to the ideal. My friend the other day went to Hungary. He decided to travel light, and just bring one duffel bag. He bought some clothes, and other essentials. But if you are running around a city for a whole day, say on a 12-hour layover in Milan, rolling a bag around can start to tire you out. You can check it in, which I did in Zurich, but that delayed my 10-hour layover by over an hour. I would have much preferred to travel with little than to bring even one small bag.
My friend took a small amount, but he could have taken less. I took one small backpack to Hungary. It contained my MacBoook Air laptop, which fits in a manila envelope, an Amazon Kindle, a legal pad, my passport and money, my 3oz green travel towel, my Vibram five-finger shoes for running, my sweat pants for sleeping, and black shorts for running.
I realize that I could have brought even less.
I did not need my travel towel, since anywhere with an actual bath or shower will also have some kind of towel since nobody expects anyone to travel with towels. My apartment had a maid who provided towels. Hotels provide towels. Even hostels have them available.
I hurt my toe, so I could not wear my Vibram running shoes. I wanted to run, so I just took a run around Budapest with my sandals, and it was fine, and in some ways better. I learned that I don't necessarily need my Vibrams either. Budapest clubs are not so haughty as to disallow sandals. Europe is littered with H&M stores, which have quality fashion at absurdly low prices, so i shopped for clothes there instead of packing clothes.
I recently started to use the Kindle app on my iPhone 4 on my 35-minute walks to work. Of course, the large-screen Kindle DX is a hugely better experience. But, the iPhone has the advantage that it is always in my pocket, always. It's also faster to turn the pages and scroll through books. The new version includes the Oxford English Dictionary, so I can look up words, highlight, and take notes much more quickly than on the Kindle. I love my Kindle DX, but it is unnecessary for travel. Although I have to hold the smaller font closer to my face, the Kindle app on the iPhone 4 delivers an acceptable experience.
The legal pad, sweat pants, and shorts I could honestly buy anywhere in the world. They would not be as high quality, perhaps it would be white paper instead of legal paper, maybe some random shorts instead of high-tech Lululemon gear, but they would work for a few weeks of travel.
In fact, if not for my work heavily involving computers, I would not need a laptop either. The iPhone would serve me fine for checking email and reading news. Relieving myself of this, I would need to take none of these things to Hungary.
I could travel naked, with clothes of course but with nothing else really. No bags, no trinkets, nothing to hold me down.
Vibrams? Just Run in Sandals
I took a run in Palo Alto the other day, around Stanford. You see, Stanford has this large park area called "The Dish." Everyone from Stanford knows about it, as it is a popular hang out spot for the day (at night, mountain lions roam). The Dish lies about 1 mile from the main campus. It is a large, hilly area, from which its name is derived: Stanford locates a (few) large satellite dishes on the tops of these hills, hundreds of feet up, pointed at the sky. Stanford is nice enough, however, to also maintain a running path there and allow the community as a whole to use it.
Anyway, I was running through the park in my Vibram five-finger shoes. The Vibrams help keep me my feet strong and fit. They are also small and light, which makes them great for travel. I was busily enjoying them, when this guy came up behind me. He said, "Nice Shoes." "Thanks." I was tired, so I did not immediately know what to say next. Then I looked down at his shoes, and he was running on the trail with sandals. I was astonished. Sandals easily fall off, so they require a certain continuous focus and muscle tension to keep them on.
I asked him about it, and he shrugged it off as nothing. He wanted some Vibrams, but he was able to pull these off in a pinch. He would be running barefoot, but the soles of his feet aren't toughened up enough for that, he said. "Wow," I muttered. This guy is intense. I tried to keep up with him for a 3rd loop around, but I was dehydrated and exhausted and I could not make it all the way up the second climb. I walked home. This thought lingered, but I kept my Vibrams.
But this guy helped me notice that my Vibrams were not entirely necessary. I do love them, and they make walking barefoot, flat great. But I may not need them. As you know, I am religiously careful about owning stuff, and I am constantly evaluating the few things that I own or consider owning within my stuff minimization framework. I thought that Vibrams would help me stay fit and lean, minimizing a beer belly, while themselves being light and small enough to throw into a bag without taking up much room as shoes would. They do, actually. Yet, if I can run with sandals, then I don't need them.
I did run in sandals in Hungary in this past trip. I could not use my Vibrams because I had a huge gash on my toe and I lost a toenail. It was painful to touch my toes, yet I could still run in my sandals with only a slight change in my form. Moreover, my new form for long-distance sandal running, based on my research, is an even better form for health and efficiency. The constraints of my stride imposed by the sandals force me to run in the optimal style.
I will probably not buy another pair of Vibrams once these wear out (the seams along the toes keep ripping, which I would call a defect in the manufacturing or design as many of my friends have the same problem).
Guaranteed Stress Reliever for Busy People
Write. Write down exactly what you are thinking. It will probably be hard at first, especially if you are not used to blogging, creating copy, or writing essays. That's okay: start by just taking a pen and putting words down on paper. Do not worry about grammar or structure. Switch from point to point as they come to you. The purpose is to get each idea down on paper. Structure can come later: read it again and rewrite it.
I have discovered, and I want to prove this but I do not yet know how, that when a person writes down an idea, the mind no longer stresses itself to remember that idea. This makes sense: why waste time and space indexing new information if it can just be looked up? Instead, your mind just remembers where to look.
Moreover, because they are out of your mind, these ideas will not rise to your conscious thoughts every few minutes to worry you. That project you have due next Monday won't stress you out every hour. Write it down. Write down everything you worry about that project. I might not finish in time. The package might never show up. Ken is so unreliable. Tim hasn't answered my email yet, should I email him? I haven't written the first page yet, but I have to write 20. Maybe I can write an outline first. Can I outsource this part?
Write it down, write it all down. I am stressed a lot, I have a lot of things to do. I take on the responsibilities of many projects, and I also hold myself to a high bar in that I should always learn and create new things. This long list of things I do build up in my mind. My brain switches from task to task every waking moment, thinking and stressing and worrying about each little potential issue. It can be overwhelming.
But, I find that a guaranteed way to get these thoughts out of my head is to write them down. It can be in a Moleskine notebook, or an iPhone note. As long as these thoughts are somewhere where it knows it can look them up later, the mind can safely ignore and forget them. You can focus on the task at hand. When you have a free cycle, you look at your list and you pick the one for which you have the most energy at the moment.
This can be a little dangerous, however. The technique is extremely powerful, surprisingly powerful. Because you have effectively eradicated these items from your mind, you no longer worry about doing them. An idea's importance in your mind is proportional to how much time you spend thinking and worrying about it. Yes, you completely eliminated the stress, but you also killed the eustress, the motivating drive, along with the thought. It means that you can end up spending the next few hours reading the news or playing games because your mind is now empty, or you can focus on just one activity to the exclusion of the rest since you have basically forgot them.
Once you write down all of your projects, thoughts, and fears, you can rationally evaluate each of them. Once forced to verbalize exactly why you fear the failure of one aspect of a project, it stops seeming so scary and the solution seems clear. You can work on each idea one-by-one and think it through without another idea popping into your head and distracting you, and without worrying that you will forget an even more important project.
Just make sure you write down everything that you think about. This is guaranteed to work. If it does not work, then you still have other ideas and thoughts and concerns in your mind that you're trying to keep there. Dump it all, then reprocess these ideas one by one by reading what you wrote.
Stuff minimization framework.
I want to not own stuff. The things you own end up owning you. You often don't even realize it.
Moreover, this isn't merely excluded to stuff. A fundamental part of this world is our relationship with things, people, nationalities and other abstract entities. For example, I live in the United States, where fairness and equity in the law is highly prized. Because of Justice and the sixth amendment, I have the duty to serve on juries every once in a while. I was recently called for jury duty . My only permanent address, the only address I have for longer than a few months, is my parents' home address in Florida. So, I have to take a long not-vacation trip home at a specific time mandated by the courts in order to serve at the courthouse, and I seem to keep getting called every couple of years. This interrupts my flow, and forces me to do one thing where I would rather be, say, working or visiting someone.
But, day-to-day, stuff is the largest factor. Stuff controls your activities and creates errands that both suck up hours from your day and interrupt the flow which you spend so many hours to create. For example, you must wear clothes every day, which builds up in the laundry bin. This can cause a large, long laundry process which is quite cumbersome and annoying. It can take hours, and the flow is interrupted many times as you have to switch from wet laundry to dry at specific times. You have to wash and dust things. You must pack and store and rearrange every so often. Things break, then you have to find a repair man or replace it.
But there is freedom. Freedom from these things can help you. You can have the same, or greater, utility by eliminating key things bit by bit until you have optimized between stuff and happiness. You need much less than you think, just follow the Stress Minimization framework I developed to get to that point.
1. Get rid of closet litter that you never use.
Very often, you pick something up, and you want to throw it out, yet you think, maybe I will need this some day, then I will really regret it. You are operating on a regret minimization framework, so you hoard. I do too, except you can be more rational about it. How bad will it be if you throw it out and then need it in a few hours? Well, in a few hours, you can probably just take it out of the waste bin. A few days? Well, you can probably just go out to the CVS and buy a new one or a temporary disposable one for a couple bucks. Or, maybe a friend or neighbour has one you can borrow for an hour. Actually, the consequences are minor at worst.
More importantly, evaluate the likelihood that you will actually need it. This isn't a complicated guessing game; it is actually quite easy. Ask yourself 2 questions:
Do you need it specifically for a specific event for which you have a planned date and time in the future? If so, it probably doesn't make sense to throw it out.
How often did you use it in the last week? Last month? Last year? Last few years? Think about it, if you have played that board game maybe 2 times in the last 3 years, then you can safely give it away. On the next board game night, you can play somebody else's game or go bowling or something else. No loss.
Move everything over to a digital format. Take, store, backup, and share all of your photos digitally. Most modern cameraphones can take pictures that have acceptable scan-quality photos. Any documents or receipts you have, just take a picture with your phone and upload it to a backup server. Throw out the paper. You can always refer to it for information or print it out later. You can create a physical copy of paper as easily as a digital copy, so it should serve all purposes both informational and legal.
3. Unify your stuff.
Do you need both an X and a Y? What if you got one small Z and got most of the benefits of both in one small package? My iPhone 4 replaces numerous things I would normally need to keep. It replaces many notebooks and pencils and pens, a camera, photos of documents eliminate paper and file cabinets for archives, and so much more. Jeff Atwood agrees, it replaces his Nintendo, GPS, camera, browser, email client, mp3 player, HD video recorder, audio tape recorder, DVD player, ebook reader, watch, alarm, emergency flashlight, scanner, level, and ruler.
4. Use minimal things.
I have a 3 oz. green travel towel from Marmot that does as good a job as a thick towel yet fits into the palm of my hand. My Vibrams work just as well as normal shoes, yet they are flexible and can squish into small compartments in a bag as an afterthought. In fact, this is not a compromise at all, since they are even better for running than normal shoes, plus people compliment me and dig the cool style when I wear them around. Do you need a massive 5 pound laptop or a netbook or an ipad or just your phone?
5. Buy disposable things.
Do not buy quality things that are very expensive and which you want to care for. These will tie you down the most. My friend saved up to buy a Macbook Air. This can be over a $3000 device. A year out, now it runs dog slow (many seconds to open anything) and overheats constantly. He can't upgrade it, and he can't replace it because it cost so damn much. He has to buy expensive peripheral equipment to keep it safe, and he constantly has to worry about theft or damage. This is a prime example of the stuff you own owning you. I, on the other hand, spend on the order of $400 for a netbook. Buying one every year is twice as cheap as these expensive computers. Plus, they are better since the new ones I buy will end up being faster than the "fast" one by the second year, run newer software, and be cleaner. Maybe disposable (and sometimes reusable) recyclable paper plates and cups will work for you and end up being cheaper than a set of china. Investigate and experiment.
6. Do not buy new stuff.
Of course, if you need it, do so. If you are unsure, ask the 2 questions in part (1) and try to imagine yourself using the item every day. If it is a rare occurrence, or can be bought at that time, then do not purchase. Also, as things break or get used up or worn out, do not repair or replace them. Take your time. If after a few days or weeks you find that you can live just fine without the item, then you have a achieved a little bit more freedom.
After minimizing the stuff you own, you will find that you have much more freedom and flexibility to do what you want to do every day. Instead of being interrupted by errands, you will be able to work (or play) for 12 hours at a time non-stop. The first step is to remove the interruptions by removing your possessions.
In PE in middle and high school, I always remember taking my pulse and having a very high resting heart rate relative to others. I forget the exact number, but it might have reached 80 beats per minute or higher. I always thought I counted incorrectly or double-counted.
I’ve started running and walking almost daily recently. I feel better and more energized, especially after a run. I would like to know if my overall health improved since I started about 4-6 weeks ago. The first days, I could barely go around the block. I would come back into the house and gulp down a gallon of water in between deep panting heaves. After a couple of weeks I could run/walk a mile or two without gasping for breath by the end. Yesterday, I estimate I ran/walked 5 miles (I know that I walk 4 miles an hour) without a problem.
So, in terms of endurance, my fitness improved. But what about my heart rate? I check yesterday and today. It’s down to about 63 beats per minute. I made a graph using a short Python script, pygooglechart, and the Google Chart API. I will be plotting more data points every day:
Lance Armstrong has a resting heart rate of 32 beats per minute! On the other hand, some quick research online tells me that resting heart rate poorly correlates to fitness, although recovery rate would be a better measure. I’ll start charting my recovery rate once I figure out how to measure it easily.
Y Combinator Application Guide
Y Combinator, a kind of mini-venture capital firm, invests tens of thousands of dollars ($$$) into very early seed stage start-up companies run by smart technology hackers. They wanted to fund me in Summer 2008.
I applied to Y Combinator two times. The first time, when I applied with my friend Mason for the Summer 2007 round, I arrogantly presumed that Paul would lavish on us praise and beg us to fly to California to work with him. I spent no more than an hour on the application. We had no passion in the idea we presented. Our projects list hinted at nothing particularly remarkable or unique. Our analysis of the idea and our competitors delved only into the shallowest parts of a deep lagoon.
The second time, when I applied alone in Summer 2008, in an inspired moment I sat down in Starbucks for a solid few hours to work on the application. I strived for excellence, not perfection. A few months prior, I had briefly glimpsed the semi-successful application of Liz Jobson and Danielle Fong. I recalled their deep detail and thoughtful writing, so I imitated that kind of deep analysis which shows off one’s mastery of logic and breadth of experience.
I wish I had known how to write a good application the first time. So, taking my cue from Brian Lash’s recent question on Hacker News, I helped him out. I write here a slightly expanded version to help out anybody else who wants Paul Graham & co. to fund his or her startup.
If I were to advise myself in 2007, I would recommend that I write briefly but write a lot. This advice seems contradictory, but I mean it in a very specific way. My first application, I kept brief. I did not want to swamp YC with a tome of text. I saved many of my accomplishments for the interview. Do not do this. Write, write, and write some more. Write everything interesting and unique about yourself. If you have doubts about a statement you made about a competitor, qualify it. Don’t vacillate, but at the same time don’t seem shallow, ignorant, and inexperienced.
Of course, once you’ve written all that, you have a very long application. Now, take out filler words. Compress ideas that take up two sentences when you can use just one. If you waste two words in a sentence, delete the whole sentence and write it again from scratch. If you see a phrase that you think an investment banker might use on his resume, nuke it. Achieve a high density. In my experience, the YC crew truly pores over these applications to understand all of the meat of it. They do not skim your application when it has rich content. Cut, cut, and cut some more.
Now, step back and look at your application. If you have very little writing left, real content, then you may not be the best fit for Y Combinator this year. That’s okay. It’s good you know now. Take this year off and work on some interesting, hard projects that nobody has done before. Bounce your idea off of the smartest person you know. Hell, micro-test the idea. Then, repeat this process.
Step back, look at your tight list of accomplishments. If it’s long, that’s great, since reading something long but rich in content everyone loves to do. The length indicates strength. In my limited experience, I think this is how I made my application successful.
What is your company going to make?
I’m open to anything. Here’s one idea:
Have you ever scanned a document before? How was that experience?
It was terrible for me, too. Everyone I have ever asked has agreed that it is physically painful. But, there is a solution, one based on understanding actual human needs. What is wrong with the scanners of today?:
* slow (takes time to heat up)
* slow (scanning at a high dpi takes a long time)
* complicated (please select the dpi, now select bla, now bal[sic]…)
* cumbersome (files generated at high dpi are huge, slow down system)
* cumbersome (OCR’ing a document is a whole other rigamarole)
What do people really need? Simply a decent, readable scan of the document. This should be as easy as holding the paper up to face the monitor.
I propose that I sell a device which is basically just a decent-resolution CCD chip with a special lens which connects to a computer (wired at first, but v2 wireless). Scanning a document is as simple as holding the camera up to a document and clicking. In my tests, scanning a whole text books takes 5-10 minutes. This is a game-changer. I’ve worked with an ip lawyer to file the provisional patent on this and a few other aspects of the designs.
[BY THE WAY, IF ONE OF YOU WANTS TO HELP ME BUILD THIS, I'M ALL EARS. I'M AN AI HACKER NOT A HARDWARE HACKER. OH, BY THE WAY, I USED A DIFFERENT IDEA IN THE INTERVIEW ROUND, NOT THIS ONE SINCE I'M SKEPTICAL OF THE MARKET FOR THIS PRODUCT AT THIS POINT. NEVERTHELESS, IT'S VERY COOL. I WANT TO BUILD THIS FOR MYSELF!]
For each founder, please list: name, age, YC username, email address, personal url (if any), and current employer and title or school and major. List the main contact first. Separate founders with blank lines. Put an asterisk before the name of anyone not able to move to Boston June through August.
….. [Be sure to put your blog here. Don't have a blog? Make one. Blog about whatever is on your mind. Blog about your hacking.
To be honest, an Ivy League pedigree probably helped. Also, my computer science degree (as opposed to Economics or Business one) probably encouraged YC's faith in me.]
Please tell us in one or two sentences about something impressive that each founder has built or achieved.
Looking at some things in ~/projects folder: ……..
[Here I mention a few of my projects, with links to open source code, web pages, anything I can publicly show. I didn't spend more than one or two sentences describing any one project, but I listed many of my most interesting projects and why I worked on them. YC likes to see you working on real problems, so I talked about problems I solved for myself and for others directly
They want to see that you think creatively and that you actually finish things.
It goes without saying that you should list projects which uniquely describe you. Building a toy language in Programming Languages class many people probably do. Yes, it may have taken you a long time, and you may have learned a lot, but you do not necessarily stand out. Writing a CAPTCHA solver to hack Digg few people do or can do.]
Please tell us about the time you, ljlolel, most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage.
…… [I talked about my shotgun email to dozens of startups here in Silicon Valley which gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of cool entrepreneurs. I'll probably blog about this at some point in the future.]
Please tell us about an interesting project, preferably outside of class or work, that two or more of you created together. Include urls if possible.
(see above) [I applied alone, so group projects inapplicable.]
How long have the founders known one another and how did you meet? Have any of the founders not met in person?
n/a [Again, I was a sole founder.]
What’s new about what you’re doing? What are people forced to do now because what you plan to make doesn’t exist yet?
(see above) Basically, nobody ever scans anything because it takes forever, doesn’t really do what you want (you just want a readable, small image and for the document to be searchable),
What do you understand about your business that other companies in it just don’t get?
Scanner manufacturers try to pack in the highest dpi they possibly can. They focus on resolution, when they should be focusing on the user experience. Speed is what they should optimize, but I see no scanner manufacturer doing that.
Who are your competitors, and who might become competitors? Who do you fear most?
HP, Xerox, etc, also ScanR, Qipit, Evernote …… [I go on to be brutally honest about the difficulty and vulnerability of my position as a hardware startup in a crowded field. Remember, you are writing for some very, very smart people. They want to see your analytical thinking skills here. They want to see you be realistic, not delusional.]
……. more questions, answer analytically deeply, answer honestly to the best of your ability ……
If you had any other ideas you considered applying with, feel free to list them. One may be something we’ve been waiting for.
…….. [I always think of new ideas and discuss them with friends. I chose 4 and listed them here. I crisply described each in no more than 2 brief sentences.]
How to check email two times a day
Tim Ferriss popularized the idea that you should limit the amount of time you spend checking email every day. He espouses a philosophy of life called the low-information diet. By following these guidelines, you get more done and, more importantly, feel less stressed.
One of his suggestions about email spread across the blogosphere very quickly because of its simplicity and practicality. He recommends that you check email only twice a day (or preferably less often) and strictly adhere to that rule. I started following these guidelines a few days ago, but I easily relapse. Nevertheless, I do a few things to try to stay on the wagon:
- Add a message to all outgoing emails:
EXPERIMENT: I will be checking email 2 times a day at 1pm and 6pm pacific time.
If you need me earlier, then please contact me below.
And of course I put my contact information below. With this signature, I do not worry about missing out on important and urgent information or replies.
- Delete all links, shortcuts, and bookmarks to GMail
- Set up a script to automatically open up GMail at 1pm and 6pm every day. In Ubuntu, I write just one line in crontab:
0 13,18 * * * export DISPLAY=:0 && firefox https://mail.google.com/
Linux makes hard things easy.
Overcoming Bias is the best blog on the Internet today. You should subscribe to it immediately. Whether you are a student, engineer, waitress, philosopher, or as long as you have and use a brain, you should read this blog regularly.
Overcoming Bias explains wrong thinking in science and everyday life. They often point to an article or cite personal examples, then they explain the intellectual mistakes that led to the false conclusion. More importantly, they explain why people so easily make these intellectual mistakes. The authors suggest new ways to think about the world to prevent you from making the same kinds of mistakes.
They point to peer-reviewed research to compare the systematic biases that people have discovered over time. The articles are information-rich, focused, poignant, and valuable. They are not always right, but never are they shallow. They always think deeply about the topic. If, while reading one of their articles, you can construct a simple counterexample to disprove the claim, then you are misreading it. Read it again until you understand.
The authors write amazingly clearly and unambiguously. I was surprised by this, given the range of topics. The comments are of an unusually high-quality (when reddit doesn’t link to them). I’m lucky to have come across the blog. I’ll look forward to every post, especially to those written by Eliezer Yudkowsky.
Only do things that you like
and you will do them well. If you don’t like something, then you are doing it wrong, thinking about it wrong.
“If you think something’s supposed to hurt, you’re less likely to notice if you’re doing it wrong.”
Stuff sucks life out of you. Americans are brainwashed to consume more and more every day. Unfortunately, this consumerism is spreading around the world. It should stop. Although I’ve wanted to describe it here, I could not figure out a clear way to express the weightlessness I feel after having eliminated nearly all my stuff.
Someone has written a fairly good article describing these ideas for me:
Paul Graham wrote about this very topic recently as well. He does not seem to follow the idea to its conclusion, nor is the writing particularly well suited for the non-technical, but it’s another opinion:
From Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach:
That is, it seems to me, a general principle: you get bored with something not when you have exhausted its repertoire of behavior, but when you have mapped out the limits of the space that contains its behavior.
I’ll call it Hofstadter’s Law. I think that Hofstadter wanted to call something else his law, but it wasn’t as interesting as this.
In Godel, Escher, Bach’s chapter on Zen:
Here is another koan which aims to break the mind of logic:
The student Doko came to a Zen master, and said: “I am seeking the truth. In what state of mind should I train myself, so as to find it?”
Said the master, “There is no mind, so you cannot put it in any state. There is no truth, so you cannot train yourself for it.”
”If there is no mind to train, and no truth to find, why do you have these monks gather before you every day to study Zen and train themselves for this study?”
”But I haven’t an inch of room here,” said the master, “so how could the monks gather? I have no tongue, so how could I call them together or teach them?”
”Oh, how can you lie like this?” asked Doko.
”But if I have no tongue to talk to others, how can I lie to you?” asked the master.
Then Doko said sadly, “I cannot follow you. I cannot understand you.”
”I cannot understand myself,” said the master.
What would you do if you were fabulously wealthy
From a NextJump survey:
12. Visualize a rosy scenario where the company you are working for goes through a wildly profitable public offering, and you personally make enough money from your equity share to enjoy lifetime financial independence. Freed from the need to hold down a job just to meet the financial obligations of your chosen lifestyle, what would you do with your time and money?
That’s kind of a frightening question. For a lot of people I know, their sole goal is to become fantastically wealthy. That dream is so far away, they don’t even think of considering what they would do with the money once they have it. They don’t even realize that they desire money as merely a means to an end.
I like Tim Ferriss’s example. He asked his friend, what will you do after years of toil at your investment bank, after making millions as a vice president working eighty-hour weeks? His friend answered, I’ll finally get to take a long vacation riding a motorcycle through Thailand. Tim just chuckled, telling him, he can do that right now and for a lot less than a million dollars.
I’ve always wanted to get money to achieve my ends. Now, I’m just looking for my ends. As I do what I like, as I do good work, I’ll just get paid enough (or much more than enough) for it. I know that money, more money than I’ll ever need, will simply follow.
The Art of Happiness
The Art of Happiness is a great book. It juxtaposes recent psychological research with deep, ancient Buddhist philosophical principles.
I will quote all of the italicized portions of the book:
Chapter 1: Purpose of life
The purpose of existence is to seek happiness.
Chapter 2: Sources of happiness
Whether we are feeling happy or unhappy is a function of how we perceive our situation, how satsified we are with what we have.
Our feelings of contentment are strongly influenced by our tendency to compare.
Your state of mind is key.
The true antidote of greed is contentment [not wealth].
You can relate to them [anyone: friends, strangers, enemies] because you are still a human being, within the human community. You share that bond. And that human bond is enough to give rise to a sense of worth and dignity. That bond can become a source of consolation in the event that you lose everything.
Chapter 3: Training the mind for happiness
We don’t need more money, we don’t need greater success or fame, we don’t need the perfect body or even the perfect mate– right now, at this very moment, we have a mind, which is all the basic equipment we need to achieve complete happiness.
The first step in seeking happiness is learning.
If you maintain a feeling of compassion, loving kindness, then something automatically opens your inner door. Through that, you can communicate much more easily with other people. Through that, you can communicate much more easily with other people. And that feeling of warmth creates a kind of openness. You’ll find that all human beings are just like you, so you’ll be able to relate to them more easily.
Bringing about discipline withine one’s mind is the essence of the Buddha’s teaching.
We must also develop an appreciation and awareness of that fact [human nature is fundamentally gentle and compassionate]. And changing how we perceive ourselves, through learning and understanding, can have a very real impact on how we interact with others and how we conduct our daily lives.
Chapter 4: Reclaiming our innate state of happiness
It is still my firm conviction that human nature is essentially compassionate, gentle. That is the predominant feature of human nature.
It is scientifically incorrect to say that we have an inherited tendency to make war or act violently. That behavior is not genetically programmed into human nature.
The turning-toward happiness as a valid goal and the conscious decision to seek happiness in a systematic manner can profoundly change the rest of our lives.
Chapter 5: A new model for intimacy
The Dalai Lama’s strategy, however, seemed to bypass working on social skills or external behaviors, in favor of an approach that cut directly to the heart–realizing the value of compassion and then cultivating it.
Chapter 6: Deepening our connection to others
So, when we are dealing with trying to understand relationship problems, the first stage in this process involves deliberately reflecting on the underlying nature and basis of that relationship.
I think that if one is seeking to build a truly satisfying relationship, the best way of bringing this about is to get to know the deeper nature of the person and relate to her or him on that level, instead of merely on the basis of superficial characteristics.
Chapter 7: The value and benefits of compassion
Chapter 8: Facing suffering
Our attitude towards suffering becomes very important because it can affect how we cope with suffering when it arises.
However, if we can transform our attitude towards suffering, adopt an attitude that allows us greater tolerance of it, then this can do much to help counteract feelings of mental unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and discontent.
There is a possibility of freedom from suffering
Chapter 9: Self-created suffering
We also often add to our pain and suffering by being overly sensitive, overreacting to minor things, and sometimes taking things too personally.
Chapter 10: Shifting perspectives
Generally speaking, once you’re already in a difficult situation, it isn’t possible to change your attitude simply by adopting a particular thought once or twice. Rather it’s through a process of learning, training, and getting used to new viewpoints that enables you to deal with the difficulty.
In fact, the enemy is the necessary condition for practicing patience.
1. I am a human being. 2. I want to be happy and I don’t want to suffer. 3. Other human beings, like myself, also want to be happy and don’t want to suffer.
Chapter 11: Finding meaning in pain and suffering
Then your suffering takes on new meaning as it is used as the basis for a religious or spiritual practice.
We convert pain into suffering in our mind.
Pain not only warns us and protects us, but it unifies us.
It is our suffering that is the most basic element that we share with others, the factor that unifies us with all living creatures.
Chapter 12: Bringing about change
The first step involves learning.
The next step is developing conviction.
This conviction to change then develops into determination. Next, one transforms determination into action.
The final factor of effort is critical.
You need to generate great enthusiasm. And, here, a sense of urgency is a key factor.
Through constant familiarity, we can definitely establish new behavior patterns. [habits]
If I encounter some obstacles or problems, I find it helpful to stand back and take the long-term view rather than the short-term view.
As long as space endures / As long as sentient beings remain / May I too live / To dispel the miseries of the world
Because of this capacity to adopt a different perspective, we can isolate parts of ourselves that we seek to eliminate and do battle with them.
This premise is based on the fact that our positive states of mind can act as antidotes to our negative tendnecies and delusory states of mind. So, the second premise is that as you enhance the capacity of these antidotal factors, the greater their force, the more you will be able to reduce the force of the mental and emotional afflictions.
Positive states of mind can act as direct antidotes to negative states of mind.
Chapter 13: Dealing with anger and hatred
The only factor that can give you refuge or protection from the destructive effects of anger and hatred is your practice of tolerance and patience.
An end result, or a product of patience and tolerance, is forgiveness. When you are truly patient and tolerance, then forgiveness comes naturally.
Chapter 14: Dealing with anxiety and building self-esteem
If the situation or problem is such that it can be remedied, then there is no need to worry about it.
Alternatively, if there is no way out, no solution, no possibility of resolution, then there is also no point in being worried about it, because you can’t do anything about it anyway.
I’ve found that sincere motivation acts as an antidote to reduce fear and anxiety.
If there is a solution to the problem, then there is no need to worry. If there is no solution, thenre is no sense in worrying either.
The closer one gets to being motivated by altruism, the more fearless one becomes in the face of even extremely anxiety-provoking circumstances.
I think perhaps honesty and self-confidence are closely linked.
I think that, generally, being honest with oneself and others about what you are or are not capable of doing can counteract that feeling of lack of self-confidence.
[Self-hatred] is not an intrinsic part of the human mind.
So, if our definition of love is based on a genuine wish for someone’s happiness, then each of us does in fact love himself or herself–every one of us sincerely wishes for his or her own happiness.
Similarly, so long as we know and maintain an awareness that we have this marvelous gift of human intelligence and a capacity to develop determination and use it in positive ways, in some sense we have this underlying mental health. An underlying strength, that comes from realizing we have this great human potential.
Chapter 15: Basic spiritual values
True spirituality is a mental attitude that you can practice at any time.