Weekly Review #75: Bali book retreats, Ex-con incubators, and not spoiling your kids

I got around to reading Ben Horowitz’s modern tech classic The Hard Thing About Hard Things and found it surprisingly riveting. The story of how he weathered CloudFlare’s ups and downs during the tech bust is incredible and a helluva story. The second half of the book is almost entirely actionable advice directed at public executives and therefore not helpful to anyone who’s not one, but definitely check out the first half of this book.

I sat down with Jack Smith, former founder of Vungle and Shyp and all around smart guy, who just got back from a month vacation in Bali. Sound fun? He went solely in order to read books! No talking, nothing else, just reading. Apparently its a common strategy for Bill Gates and the like to go on similar ‘Think Weeks” where you do nothing except think or read. Crazy. Another fun fact about Jack – the only Linkedin endorsements he accepts are for ‘Hustle’. He certainly deserves it!

Tech:

Festify is a clever app that lets people at a party vote on the next song using their smartphones.

This beautiful archive of User Onboarding Flows is a great resource for any designer.

Defy Ventures is a cool concept: an incubator for ex-con entrepreneurs. They recognize that street dealers have a lot of entrepreneurial qualities and help them ‘transform the hustler’.

This take on the Future of Facebook Messenger is a prescient look into the future of messengers in general. In a world where Wechat lets you book doctor appointments, get visas, and pay for electricity, Facebook is lagging, but you can bet they’ve got their plans ready.

Lifehacks:

This guy has a long manifesto on living that boils down to “give fucks, but give them sparingly“.

Some Tips for emailing better from Fortune – don’t use folders at all, and recognize when you’re procrastinating.

Fun:

Louis CK’s Crabby Love Letter to NYC is a great read into a grounded man’s ascent to stardom. Two passages I especially liked:

“The difference between LA and NYC is that the whole city of L.A. is given to this industry. It’s a community of artists, but there’s also an old-fashioned, almost plantation-y feeling to California. There’s a whole, huge [class] of people — the El Salvadorans, the Guatemalans — who make the city run, and they’re invisible to people. So when you go to L.A. and your liberal friend is rude to the valet guy or the busboy, it can be a little shocking. In New York, everyone is so mixed together that there’s less of a feeling of class here. Outside some fancy office building, you see a CEO getting his cigarette lit by a cleaning lady. Everybody is dealing with the same shit, everybody is on the subway elbow-to-elbow.”

“The thing that keeps me stable now more than anything is my kids. They’re who I bring the Emmys home to, and they’re excited for me and proud of me. But I also make them aware of what it takes to get to these places. I talk to them about work, and I hope they both have shitty minimum wage retail jobs when they’re old enough. I really try to be aware of not letting them grow up weird or spoiled, which is easier to do here than it is in L.A. My 13-year-old daughter leaves the house at 7:15 every morning and takes a smelly city bus to school way uptown. It’s like 8 degrees out, and it’s dark and she’s got this morning face and I send her out there to take a bus. Meanwhile, my driver is sitting in a toasty Mercedes that’s going to take me to work once both kids are gone. I could send her in the Mercedes and then have it come back to get me, but I can’t have my kid doing that. I can’t do that to her. Me? I earned that f—ing Mercedes. You better f—ing believe it.”

To Live Well, Balance the Subjective Present with the Objective Future

We’re all trying to live good lives. What exactly that entails depends on who you ask, their background, genetics, experience, all that stuff. One monk’s blasphemy is a hedonic’s joy. There’s no “one size fits all” prescription for a good life that all can follow. Absent of religious dogma, there is only the creed to “do that which brings about desirable consequences”.

That said, I’ve noticed two fundamentally disparate mindsets that people use to go about this: living for the present and living for the future. You could also live for the past, but that would be focusing on circumstances out of your control, which is a sure recipe for depression. But by living well now, you will live well in the past, and by planning to live well in the future, you will do so in the present. So the only times you need to worry about living well are the present and the future.

However, these two times are sometimes at odds. What is best for you now may not what is be best for you in the future. But what is best for you in the future is often no fun for now. Therefore, the answer as to how to spend your days (and by extension, your life) depends on whether you prefer to live well today or tomorrow. There’s no ‘right’ balance, just the best fit for your disposition.

Two Extremes With The Answer in The Middle

An apt description of a Present oriented person is that of Jack Kerouc’s mad ones: “the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” His characters in On The Road are perfect examples of this – always traveling, always looking for the next thrill, always having a good time but never satisfied. Meanwhile, they leave behind a trail of booze, misdemeanors, broken women, and a forgotten child or two. The beatniks knew how to have a good time, but they didn’t know how to live a good life.

The best description of a Future oriented person is George Bernard Shaw’s unreasonable man: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Such a person is never satisfied with what is, only what could be. It is a sure recipe for greatness (or failed ambitions), but can lead to a joyless life, constantly striving for that which does not exist. The unreasonable man is never satisfied either, and this is a sure ingredient in the cocktail of a good life.

Surely no rational person would want to live either of these extremes. Luckily this is not a dichotomy with two mutually exclusive opposites, but a duality, where any point on the balance is a combination of the two. You must figure out how much Present and how much Future you want in yours days, and recognize that your answer is distinct from that of everyone else’s.

Some people prefer Kerouc’s lifestyle over Shaw’s, and others vice versa. That’s fine! It makes a lot more sense for everyone to have their own unique balance than for all of humanity to fit into 16 odd personality types like a Myers Briggs test. So I can’t tell you where your balance is – only you know that answer. But I think it helps to point out the axis, and to note that disagreement comes from people on different points. Nobody is wrong, per se, they just have different preferences.

To find where you fit, just look at what you prefer, how you already decide to spend your life. Every action in the Now has a partner in the Later, and vice versa. Think about which of the following you are drawn to: Dancing vs dreaming. Presence vs planning. Vibrancy vs ambition. Laughter vs preparation. Play vs worry. Family vs career. Being preoccupied with what is vs what could be. Feeling vs meaning.

What’s Your Subjective/Objective Balance?

A true philosopher would take issue with time as a basic axis of a universal duality, and point out that the real contrast here is that of Subjectivity vs Objectivity. I agree, for the Present is truly subjective – it varies depending on which perspective you take, whose When you decide to pin the Now on. My Now is not always your Now. But the Future is always there; we all share it as an abstract concept. What matters in my future can affect anyone else’s in theory, but my Now only affects those near me in space or time. Indeed, that is one theory as to why procrastination is so pervasive – we conceive of our future selves as different people, and thus leave our Present problems for ‘some other person’.

Phrased this way, it is not a question of what is good for you now vs later but what is good for you vs for anyone. Again, ‘good’ here simply means that which brings about desirable consequences, that which brings about the life that you want. Now we’re getting into dangerous utilitarian territory, yes, but think about how many existing concepts fit into this duality.

Think of Art vs Science, Opinions vs Facts, or Beauty vs Truth. One is subjective, and the other objective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but truth by definition is that which all can agree on, or that which corresponds to reality. Science is the closest thing to objective we can get – carried out correctly, the scientific method is exactly that which uncovers ‘true’ concepts, things that exist whether or not we accept them.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson says: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”.You and I may disagree about the mastery of the Mona Lisa and both be right, but we can hardly disagree about the First Law of Thermodynamics without one of us being wrong.

Returning readers will notice that this Subjective/Objective axis is a universal framework built to couch my previous question: “Would you rather die happy or significant?” Happiness is no doubt important for a life well lived. But happiness is a subjective mix of brain chemicals for one sentient ape, and doesn’t extend to others. There are many people (myself included) who are not satisfied with that, who must leave some kind of objective mark on the world in order to live well, in order to matter.

Now I know what to call such people – Objectively oriented. Maybe Shaw and I have some kind of personality defect, to want anything more than a long happy life filled with loving friends and family. That may be, but to me, Kerouc’s hedonism looks just as ridiculous. Neither of us are ‘right’, we just disagree on the optimal Present/Future balance.

Takeaways

This doesn’t tell you how to live well, it’s just a conceptual framework to look at your decisions with. But I’ve already gained tremendous insight through identifying this duality, and recognizing that others have different present/future preferences than I do. It’s the kind of fundamental understanding to build a philosophy on, in sharing best practices for living well subjectively or objectively, for the present or the future.

Now that I know this, I see it everywhere. And I’m not the only one – for example, the 7 deadly sins of Christianity are bad because they “are forms of Idoltry-of-Self, where the subjective reigns over the objective”. I’m not making this up! It’s just the clearest way I’ve found to put things.

What do you say? Does this framework make objective sense, or only subjectively to me? Have you ever thought about something similar? What are some other opposite pairings to add to the list?

Weekly Review #74: Birdman raves, Chess livestreams, and table-flipping competitions

I watched the movie Birdman this week, and all I can say is Wow. It’s a startling look at the human condition, as one man struggles to remain significant and yet remain happy with what he has. I’m usually no fan of magical realism, but this was just done so well. Plus the whole thing is shot in what looks to be one unbroken shot, which makes it even more mesmerizing. Plus it used this great quote:

“A man becomes a critic when he cannot be an artist, the same way that a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier.” -Gustave Flaubert

This must be the first week ever I don’t have any Tech for you!

Lifehacks:

Max Ogles shares how an esoteric chess streamer got famous – not by being really good at chess, but by being decent at chess, editing, and talking. It’s combining talents, and you can do it too.

Scary NYT article showing the difference between one twin who exercises and the other who doesn’t will make you want to get moving.

Fun:

This well-written article lays out why the EU should just accept English as a common language already, and hints at how English beat French for the title.

Here’s the highlight reel of a table-flipping competition. Yes, it’s a thing!

This fun little flash post shows how dangerous even a little bit of segregation can become.

Impressions of Amsterdam

 

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I just got back from a week in Amsterdam visiting my brother, who is studying abroad there. (and has an excellent blog documenting his travels!) I almost wasn’t going to write a whole post in favor of throwing a few details in the Weekly Review, but there’s plenty I learned worth sharing. I guess I was biased because most Americans already know Amsterdam from Eurotrips.

A Jovial yet Pragmatic People

From the Uber drivers to the tour guides and all our friends in between, the Dutch are always slightly joking or playfully questioning your statements. It seems to be ingrained in their culture to not takes things so seriously, and make light of any situation. That’s always been a Breier family value as well, so I like it.

You can see this carefree yet grounded thinking reflected in their national history. Our friendly bike tour guide told us that the Dutch way of making a decision is to always look at the economical consequences. Weigh the pros and cons of each option, and take the one that makes the most sense. And if that option happens to misalign with the personal values, then they’ll pragmatically take it anyways, and try to figure out a way to stay true to themselves while keeping everyone happy.

For example, there was an instance long ago when the Dutch king was facing internal and external pressure due to being officially Catholic. So he issued a proclamation which announced that everyone, himself included, was now Protestant. Officially, Protestantism is the legal religion, but behind the scenes, they still tolerated everything. Everyone’s happy!

How did that work? Non-Protestants would worship in hidden churches like the Red Hat, which pretended to manufacture hats in the front but had a huge church in back. Even if somebody reported them, the law was that a church was only a church when there’s people in it, and the police would only make house calls on weekdays. Then they can feasibly say “Yeah, it looks like a church, but there’s no one here”, with zero persecution.

Pretty crazy, but eminently reasonable, no? It’s the Dutch version of ‘looking the other way’, which translates to ‘peering through the fingers’, as if you’re covering your eyes but still seeing. Except that it’s codified into the nation psyche, making the Netherlands a haven for dissenters of all kinds, even up today with the legal drugs and prostitution.  (Speaking of prostitution, The Amsterdam Diaries is a surprisingly well-written collection of anecdotes from a British gentleman who treats his Amsterdam pilgrimages as a refined hobby.

The Dutch World Power

This pragmatic Dutch operation treated them well in the 17th century, when the invention of wind powered sawmills allowed them to built ships faster than anybody else and become a world power in the Dutch Golden Age. Yes, I know, you usually think of Spain or England when talking about colonial powers, but there is a story to this succession. Roughly, it goes like this:

Portugal discovers far-flung colonial opportunities first due to the plentiful forests providing wood for ships, and the nation’s exploratory nature. Then Spain follows, using their greater forests and resources to seize as much from the Portuguese as possible. Then the windy Dutch countryside gets filled with wind powered sawmills, which let them build ships faster than anybody else, and they were able to steal Spain’s thunder. Then comes the Industrial Revolution, which allowed Britain, filled with standardized water-powered sawmill opportunities and a much larger population, to take over the world proper.

Yet there was a time when the sun never set on the Dutch Empire, too – New York was originally named New Amsterdam and many of its names (like Brooklyn), are Anglicized versions of the original Dutch versions (like Breuckelen). How did all my history classes miss that?!

Contemporary Amsterdam

The modern city is a great place to visit, obviously, thanks to the friendly people, vibrant history, pervasive public transit, and unique recreation opportunities. Apparently even the locals are getting tired of how crowded everything is, however – the downtown area is filled with tourists all the time, which makes it difficult for the locals to live their life around them. Unlike other international hubs lik eParis or London, Amsterdam is really quite small. Expansion opportunities for the city are few, since the canals take up a lot of space, and the whole area is watery, which means houses have to be built on top of forty foot poles pounded into the ground.

That’s why everything is so cramped – it has to be, and also people were taxed on the width of their house, which explains all the narrow mansions and preposterously thin stairs. Look at all the houses and notice the hook jutting out from the top roof – its for attaching a rope to in order to haul furniture to the upper floors and through a removable window, since they won’t fit in the stairwell.

Touristically speaking, the family covered most of the bases – a trip out to Volendam’s windmills and clog making factory (super commercial, but interesting to see), a trip to the tulips at Keukenhof (basically a “theme park without rides”, as my father put it), a day trip to Rotterdam, and a canal cruise as well as the aforementioned bike tour.

We also took a walk through the infamous red light district, which was a fascinating look at a ‘vice’ rendered ‘safe’. All the girls have their own clean warm windows, everything is very clean, and the atmosphere is almost calmer than the bustling city center. It’s definitely worth a stop there for any traveler, just for the spectacle if nothing else. (I had missed it on my prior Eurotrip here five years ago because both of my teenage male fellow travelers somehow were not interested!!!)

Weekly Review #73: M-commerce, top growth stacks, and the art of eye contact

Tech:

This startup will put your face in an 18th century style oil painting for $200.

The Great Discontent is a 100 days of creation challenge that sounds like a great way to force yourself to build.

This introduction to SaaS metrics is a handy way to navigate around CAC, LTV, and all those other pesky terms, while this huge list of growth hacking tools is a good list to check when you next want to find some customers. Or you can look at what the best growth teams use, in Greylock’s compilation of the top growth team tools.

This rundown of how Asian messaging apps make money is an interesting look into how LINE and Wechat monetize – they let you message for free and collect service fees for anything else you do within the app, and then let you buy anything ranging from cabs to cabinets. Clever.

Lifehacks:

This Lifehacker post on how to be a jack of all trades is a nice blueprint for how to nourish hobbies, and Michael Balcan’s post on the art of eye contact helps break down the science behind something we all do every day without thinking.

Fun:

The long but incredibly rewarding story of how Matt lost his iPhone, made friends with the guy who bought it secondhand in Shenzhen, and finally ended up being a celebrity in China is a truly heartwarming tale. Treat yourself.