Reflection, Faster

1/27 - What's Next

Hey there. Hope you have a great week.

Every so often, I take 10 minutes to re-read my previous “Year in Review” reflections. A very valuable exercise that highlights the speed of life!

Enjoy the newsletter.

Yesterday, Kobe Bryant passed away.

Kobe had a profound impact on how I see the world.

In 2016, I published an essay about what I’ve learned from Kobe Bryant. This was the final lesson:

RIP Kobe. Life is too short.

This is my favorite Quote from Kobe:

Articles to Read.

I am nothing

On a scale of one to ten, how good of a cog are you? How do you know?

What will you do if you're too tough to be a good woman, too sensitive to be a good man, too selfish to be a good husband, too lazy to be a good employee, too shy to be a good friend, too caring to be rational, too fat to be pretty, too effeminate to be straight, too introverted to be a good leader, too smart to be kind, too young to be taken seriously, too old to make a difference, or too far behind to even get in the race?

That is all so exhausting.

I am nothing. It's simple. If I were smart, I might be afraid of looking stupid. If I were successful, I might be afraid of failure. If I were a man, I might be afraid of being weak. If I were a Christian, I might be afraid of losing faith. If I were an atheist, I might be afraid of believing. If I were rational, I might be afraid of my emotions. If I were introverted, I might be afraid of meeting new people. If I were respectable, I might be afraid of looking foolish. If I were an expert, I might be afraid of being wrong.

But I am nothing, and so I am finally free to be myself.

By returning to zero expectations, by accepting that I am nothing, it is easier to see the truth. Fear, jealousy, insecurity, unfairness, embarrassment -- these feelings cloud our ability to see what is. The truth is often threatening, and once our defenses are up, it's difficult to be completely honest with anyone, even ourselves. But when I am nothing, when I have no image or identity or ego to protect, I can begin to see and accept things as they really are. That is the beginning of positive change, because we can not change what we do not accept and do not understand. But with understanding, we can finally see the difference between fixing problems, and hiding them, the difference between genuine improvement, and faking it. We discover that many of our weaknesses are actually strengths once we learn how to use them, and that our greatest gifts are often buried beneath our greatest insecurities.

Letting go of your identity can be difficult and takes time, possibly forever, but as with any change, moving in the right direction is all that really matters (which is why you shouldn't compare yourself with others -- you didn't start in the same place or with the same challenges).

Why did we wait so long for the cotton gin?

A cotton gin on display at the Eli Whitney Museum.

Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, invented in 1793, is rightfully one of the most famous inventions of the Industrial Revolution. It separates the lint of the cotton plant, which thread and ultimately cloth is made of, from the sticky seeds—a process that, done by hand, is the definition of “tedious”.

I see no reason why the cotton gin couldn’t have been invented a century or more earlier than it was. Given the economic need, there was a strong incentive for its invention. So why did it wait so long?

The patent on the cotton gin, number 72X, was one of the earliest in America, filed only a few years after the first Patent Act. So one might be tempted to treat this as a case of patent law unleashing the creative force of entrepreneurial inventors. Certainly Whitney sought to make money from his invention (even if he was largely unsuccessful), and Greene, who sponsored his work, must have had this in mind as well. But suppose the Patent Act hadn’t been passed yet in 1793. Would Greene not have encourage Whitney to work on this problem that was so important to Southern plantation owners? Would Whitney not have bothered to solve it?

My personal, as-yet-unproven hunch is that cultural factors were significant here. This was the very dawn of the Industrial Revolution in America. People had not yet learned to expect mechanical inventions to revolutionize every aspect of life. They were used to the status quo and did not yet have “the idea of progress”, at least not in the industrial sense.

The Flute of Shame: Discover the Instrument/Device Used to Publicly Humiliate Bad Musicians During the Medieval Period

Since humanity has had music, we've also had bad music. And bad music can come from only one source: bad musicians. Despite such personal technologies of relatively recent invention as noise-canceling headphones, bad music remains nigh unavoidable in the modern world, issuing as it constantly does from the sound systems installed in grocery stores, gyms, passing automobiles, and so on. And against the bad musicians responsible we have less recourse than ever, or at least less than medieval Europeans did, as shown by the "shame flute," a non-musical instrument used to punish crimes against the art.

"The contraption, which is essentially a heavy iron flute – although you probably wouldn’t want play it – was shackled to the musician’s neck," writes Maddy Shaw Roberts at Classic FM. "The musician’s fingers were then clamped to the keys, to give the impression they were playing the instrument. Finally, just to further their humiliation, they were forced to wear the flute while being paraded around town, so the public could throw rotten food and vegetables at them." Surely the mere prospect of such a fate made many music-minded children of the olden days think twice about slacking on their practice sessions.

Wealth Is What You Don’t Spend

Let me tell you a story about why some people aren’t as financially secure as they could be. It starts with a weight-loss study.

Fitness is a $30 billion industry. Almost 40% of Americans are obese.

Exercising makes you feel like you accomplished something healthy, which can rationalize a post-workout food binge. Eating a pizza after sitting on the couch all day might bring guilt, but doing it after a jog feels like a justified treat.

A lot of exercise can be offset by a lot of food. That’s what we do, and we do it because exercising gives us a moral license to eat more.

You can’t measure the benefit of exercise by merely looking at how much you sweat. The gap between what you gain and how much you avoid offsetting that gain is the figure that matters most.

The same goes for saving money.

The Refragmentation

One advantage of being old is that you can see change happen in your lifetime. A lot of the change I've seen is fragmentation. US politics is much more polarized than it used to be. Culturally we have ever less common ground. The creative class flocks to a handful of happy cities, abandoning the rest. And increasing economic inequality means the spread between rich and poor is growing too. I'd like to propose a hypothesis: that all these trends are instances of the same phenomenon. And moreover, that the cause is not some force that's pulling us apart, but rather the erosion of forces that had been pushing us together.

The form of fragmentation people worry most about lately is economic inequality, and if you want to eliminate that you're up against a truly formidable headwind — one that has been in operation since the stone age: technology.

Technology is a lever. It magnifies work. And the lever not only grows increasingly long, but the rate at which it grows is itself increasing. Which in turn means the variation in the amount of wealth people can create has not only been increasing, but accelerating. The unusual conditions that prevailed in the mid 20th century masked this underlying trend. The ambitious had little choice but to join large organizations that made them march in step with lots of other people — literally in the case of the armed forces, figuratively in the case of big corporations. Even if the big corporations had wanted to pay people proportionate to their value, they couldn't have figured out how. But that constraint has gone now. Ever since it started to erode in the 1970s, we've seen the underlying forces at work again.

Not everyone who gets rich now does it by creating wealth, certainly. But a significant number do, and the Baumol Effect means all their peers get dragged along too. And as long as it's possible to get rich by creating wealth, the default tendency will be for economic inequality to increase. Even if you eliminate all the other ways to get rich. You can mitigate this with subsidies at the bottom and taxes at the top, but unless taxes are high enough to discourage people from creating wealth, you're always going to be fighting a losing battle against increasing variation in productivity.

Your Life is Driven by Network Effects

What city you live in. Who you date or marry. Which job you choose. What clothes you wear.

We all think we make these choices ourselves. It certainly feels like we’re in full control. But it turns out that our choices — both in our startups and in our lives — are more constrained than we think.

The unseen hand in them all is the networks that surround us and the powerful math they exert on us.

This article outlines how we see network effects impacting nearly every aspect of your life. With that lens, it lays out a perspective on how to make the 7 most important decisions of your life. It will hopefully help you make decisions that are more true to the kind of life you want to lead.

Why Amsterdam’s Canal Houses Have Endured for 300 Years

Amsterdam’s canal houses may be beautiful, but we shouldn’t assume that they were always sites of a leisured, easy life. Look closely at the appearance and layout of these skinny, extremely photogenic buildings, laid out across the city’s canal belt during the Dutch Republic’s 17th century peak, and there are telltale signs that they were built not solely for living: Cranes projecting from their gables; deep, murky plots; and internal staircases almost as steep as ladders. Indeed, these houses may still be impressive, but when completed, their uses were a little different from what we might associate with a “house” today.

More to Check Out: 
- A global tipping point: Half the world is now middle class or wealthier
- How Nursing Homes in the United States Overmedicate People with Dementia
- An ant colony has memories that its individual members don’t have
- Superhuman & the Productivity Meta-Layer
The economic policy of Elizabeth Warren



Experimenting with something…hit reply to this email (with perhaps a bit about you and what you are interested in) and I will email introduce you to another newsletter subscriber. Think you will find interesting!

Books I read:

  • The Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Stock Market Returns

My bookshelf

My Update:

  • Here’s the guide to leaving banking/consulting and breaking into startups.

  • Working in SF!

If you enjoy the newsletter, you can Venmo me a tip: @jordangonen or on the web here. Really appreciate the support! - Jordan