October 14, 2020
How much time should we set aside for learning? What are the most effective ways of portraying and communicating ideas? Should we set long-term goals for ourselves, or allow our goals to emerge over time? What are the pros and cons of being a celebrity in a field (or in general)?
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. My name is Josh Castle, and I'm the producer of the podcast. I'm so glad you joined us today. In this episode, Spencer talks to Michael Simmons about how to think about setting aside time for learning, how to effectively portray and communicate ideas, the difference between goal setting and leaving room for your goals to emerge over time, and the pros and cons of being a celebrity in your field of expertise, or just in general.
SPENCER: Hi, Michael, it's really great to have you here.
MICHAEL: Awesome to be here, Spencer, I've been excited for this.
SPENCER: I always love talking to you, so I'm really excited as well. The first thing I wanted to talk to you about is this idea of how much time we should set aside for learning. You want to tell us a little bit about your thoughts on that?
MICHAEL: Yeah, so I've been a lifelong entrepreneur, and reader, and thinker. And one of the big turning points for me was I read Nassim Taleb’s Fooled By Randomness. And it talks about how a lot of people in the investing world and other areas, we often think of them as successful because they got a great outcome, but really a lot of success can be explained by randomness. So at that point, I looked back at all the books I had been reading over time, and I realized that my criteria was pretty low. It was basically, if an entrepreneur had been successful or something, that I should read their book or try to glean their tactics. So from reading Taleb’s book, I decided to have a much, much higher criteria and study fewer people more deeply. People who've had success, maybe across different industries across decades, they keep on reinventing themselves. Of course, luck, and randomness is a factor for everyone, but then trying to pull out people who are successful because of a skill.
SPENCER: I think that's great. And it reminds me of the metaphor of the coin flipping competition, where imagine you have a million people, and the first day everyone flips a coin. Those who get heads move on to the second day, so the second day, you have 500,000 people. And then everyone flips a coin, and then those who get heads again, they go on to the third day, and now you have 50,000 people. And you keep doing this, and at the end you just have one person and everyone and asks them, “How did you learn to be such an amazing coin flipper?” And they have their theory on coin flipping, and their popular non-fiction book on coin flipping, and so on.
MICHAEL: Exactly, that was actually the exact example that really got me to see it, that if let's say you have 7 billion people flipping coins all the time, you're gonna have some people, just based on randomness, who are going to have just really, really unlikely outcomes.
SPENCER: And it's so tough to know when we're in a scenario where it's more like coin flipping, where the best people really are predominantly there due to luck versus in a scenario where it's more like a skilled activity, like something like basketball. The best basketball player is definitely not there due to luck, right? Like, they're really, really good at basketball. That being said, there might be other players that could have been the best that due to bad luck didn't get there. Like, they got a knee injury at the wrong moment so they never got drafted; even though their knee healed, it was too late. So I think that's really fascinating to untangle.
MICHAEL: And for me, I narrow it down to people like Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and why I pick some of those people is Warren Buffett has been investing since, let's say the 1960s, and his track record is public. And people like Bill Gates with Microsoft, and Jeff Bezos, they have this one idea, but they're constantly, in a way, starting new companies within their company, and expanding. (And Elon Musk.) And so it's not 100% perfect, but it's just way, way better than what I was doing before. And I just started literally watching all the interviews, reading every book written about them or by them, and I really started to realize that I was entering a different paradigm or way of thinking. There's a few clues that I was entering this new paradigm. Number one, almost all of them were polymaths in some way, and number two is voracious readers. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, all of them managing these huge enterprises with 10s of 1000s of the world's smartest people working for them.
SPENCER: I remember hearing this anecdote about Bill Gates, where he was asking someone who's a charity expert about what books he should read, and the guy sends him a reading list of like 20 books. And then the next time they meet Bill Gates is like, “Oh, I read all those books. They were pretty good.” And it's like, “What? You just read 20 books?!”
MICHAEL: Yeah, well, one thing super fascinating about them, when I mention them and their learning habits and reading habits, a lot of people say, “Oh, well, they can do that because they're Warren Buffett or Bill Gates.” But what's interesting is they started reading at a really young age, often in grade school or middle school, and just voraciously. So there's reports about Elon Musk, his brothers saying he was reading basically like two books a day, reading full-time when he was younger. And Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, basically just buying, like almost all the books in the library at one point.
SPENCER: That's fascinating. But I would say that, in some sense, the simplest hack to being really smart, is just to read a ridiculously large number of books by really smart people. It doesn't go all the way, but it’s just one simple thing you can do — not that it's easy, it takes a lot of time, but at least it's a simple, straightforward plan.
MICHAEL: Exactly. And once you're kind of in it, and you've experienced that benefit, it's kind of obvious. But the idea that you should spend a significant amount of your work time devoted to deliberate learning and improving isn't yet a common approach in a knowledge economy. For many people, most of it's still in college, and maybe you do a little bit more, go to an annual conference or something like that. But there's not necessarily a deliberateness to it, where it's weekly, and they're thinking about, “How can I learn better and get smarter?”
SPENCER: And you have a rule of thumb for this, right?
MICHAEL: Yeah, the basic rule of thumb is this 5-hour rule of learning about an hour per day. I got this rule of thumb from Ben Franklin; that's about how much time he devoted towards reading.
SPENCER: Yeah, that seems totally reasonable that most people could squeeze that in if they really wanted. They might have to cut down a little TV, they might have to use Twitter less. That being said, obviously, there's some people that are working two jobs just to make ends meet, and they're not gonna have time. But I think a lot of people could find that time if you cut down on some other activity that's not as valuable.
MICHAEL: Yeah, there's ways to be creative about it, too. One is looking for it at different timescales. Bill Gates has this weekly learning vacation that he’s been taking a long time. So, if you wanted to, you could take some vacation out of your vacation days.
SPENCER: So does he do that, like once a year he has a learning vacation?
MICHAEL: Yeah, so he does that once a year. He also does one hour per day, and reads a book or two a week, as well. But there's learning vacation. Or you can use weekends. I like using weekend mornings, three to four hours each morning, on the weekend.
SPENCER: One of my favorite things to do is to do other pleasant activities while I'm learning. So, I'm taking out the trash and I'm listening to a podcast, or I'm vacuuming and I'm listening to an audiobook, right? And I feel like that is one of the easiest ways to just get more learning in our life during tedious tasks we're doing.
MICHAEL: I think about that as double time. So the one way is to, as you're saying, we have this amazing ability to use our ears while we're using our hands to do other things, like driving or doing chores and walking the dog, which is kind of an amazing thing when you think about it because we can't hold two conversations at once. And the other thing is friendships, too. If you're someone who really enjoys learning, and you invest time in relationships with other people who love learning, then a lot of your conversations are going to be you're going to form the connections and friendship, but you're also going to form around “What did you learn last?” and “How can you help each other learn?”
SPENCER: It's funny, this podcast has been kind of a life hack for me because I realized that I can use it just to have my favorite kind of conversations with super interesting people. So like, “Oh, yeah, come on my podcast, and we're gonna have my favorite type of conversation! It's gonna be great!” And that's been working out.
MICHAEL: Exactly, exactly. And I think there's other effects to it, other rationales for it that I think are interesting about it. So number one: one thing that a lot of people don't think about is the decay rate of information. And just that there's actually, in the philosophy of science, or science of metrics fields, there's people who actually study the rate at which information decays, and how it varies across different fields.
SPENCER: Can you tell us a little bit more about what information decay means?
MICHAEL: Information decay is certain facts becoming outdated. So there's a great book in this, called The Half-Life of Facts, which was the first one that really got me to see it, I'd recommend that for everyone. But there's certain amounts of information that we just accept, let's say when we're younger. So he was saying, if you learned about dinosaurs when you were younger, you would learn that they don't have feathers. But the kids learn today that many of them actually did have feathers. So he talked about how there's a certain amount of information that gets decayed, and one of the challenges is you don't even realize it. Or it could just be information, like what tools are the best tools to use. I think about it within writing, that there's a huge difference between people who grew up writing in an offline environment where you're optimizing for someone who's subscribed to something and maybe reading a magazine on the couch versus today where somebody might discover your article through social media, and they might go on their mobile phone while they're in line somewhere.
SPENCER: Yeah, it's interesting. I guess I think about three different types of information decay. The first are things that are just false but were widely believed. You can imagine like using leeches to treat disease was once believed to be helpful. The second would be things that were actually fairly accurate, but we just have an even more accurate view now. For example, Newtonian mechanics was believed for a long time, and it's still often used because it's quite accurate, but now we have a more nuanced perspective with relativity, right? And then the third type would be things that were true, but are no longer true, like facts about society or humans, but now they're just outdated because people have changed or societies change or something like that. So I can at least see those three different types of information decay. But in all cases, you still want to update information over time.
MICHAEL: Yeah, and I can add a few extra to that list. So one is the words that we use are constantly changing, and the tools that we use are constantly changing. So those are kind of just what people use to do their job, let’s say.
SPENCER: There's a fascinating debate about Shakespeare. Some Shakespearean scholars argue that we should actually translate some of the words that he uses when they actually have a different meaning today than they used to because people are saying everyone's gonna misinterpret it because the word is still in use, but just not used the same way. Whereas a word that is no longer in use is almost safer in a way because at least we know we don't know what it means, right?
MICHAEL: And I think another level, you can look at it as vertically. So think about paradigms, and paradigms change as well, not just the facts within them.
SPENCER: Interesting, do you have an example of that?
MICHAEL: I would say that one that I mentioned in the writing field is a big paradigm shift, fundamentally, where there's people reading on different devices in different contexts, with different business models, optimizing for subscriptions, versus newsletter writing. And so the craft people who grew up in one way than especially the other are at a disadvantage in many ways because they learned many ways of doing things and best practices that actually hurt them in the new paradigm. I guess this is more common in the tech world as well, where they can disrupt older business models or practices.
SPENCER: Right. Well, you have this trope of the older engineer who might want to use older technologies that maybe aren't as good as the newer technologies. And of course, older engineers can always learn new technologies and keep up to date, or there's a danger that they're still using, you know, Fortran or something which they learned when they were a kid.
MICHAEL: Exactly. And in the science world, they talk about how different sometimes new paradigms only progress when some of the people who are the most well-known the previous paradigm basically retire or die.
SPENCER: Yeah, that's really interesting, too.
MICHAEL: So information decay is one thing, and there's a lot more scientists today than there have been in the past, so there's just a lot more people producing knowledge. I've seen different numbers in different places, but it's an insane range around every eight years, the number of academic studies doubles. So that's just another thing is there’s just an incredible amount of knowledge.
SPENCER: It’s just impossible to keep up on all of it, right?
MICHAEL: Yeah, when I'm writing articles, I spend 80% of my time researching. I probably spend about 60 hours per article just on research. And one of the things I just assume now is that for anything that I want to study, there is a field that I probably didn't know about or a group of people who spent their whole lifetime studying this. And there's probably multiple groups studying the same thing from different angles. And so I'm constantly surprised; you don't know what you don't know.
SPENCER: Yeah, a couple tricks that I like to use on that. One is that you can actually find the most cited papers in a sublist discipline if you use Google Scholar. So let's say there's some area and you don't really know anything about it, you can go say, “What are the most cited journals?” And then, “What are the most cited articles within those journals?” And it's a really cool way to just get a glimpse of: What is this field talking about? What are the interesting themes that people think are important? It's not going to necessarily cover everything important, obviously, but it can give you kind of a quick glimpse, which I think can be really powerful.
MICHAEL: Interesting. How do you search for the most cited journals within a field?
SPENCER: Well, you can use tools like Google Scholar to do that. And you just have to look at the different options and settings there.
MICHAEL: Okay, cool. I haven't gone deep on that one. I'm gonna explore that.
SPENCER: Another thing that can be really powerful is this idea of looking at systematic reviews. For those who don't know, a systematic review (it sometimes comes by different names), but what it is essentially is a scholar in a field goes and tries to find all the papers on a topic, and then just kind of summarize what they say. So it's not a meta-analysis because with meta-analysis, usually, they're kind of trying to average all the results to get an overall conclusion. A systematic review is just someone reviewing the literature and saying, “Here's the different things that have been discovered. Here's what some people believe, here's what others believe.” And it can be an incredibly efficient way to learn about a topic if you can find a systematic review on it because it's some experts summarizing what other experts have said.
MICHAEL: Right. Rather than going study by study and trying to piece it together, somebody gives it to you all at once.
SPENCER: Exactly. So that can be super interesting. And actually, I just wanted to say one more thing about that point you made early on where you're talking about: okay, find these incredible people who know a subject so well because they've been successful multiple times, and so on. I think a really powerful trick with regard to that is a little bit like the idea of a systematic review, where you say, “Okay, there's some area I want to understand”, let's say economics, right? Well, one thing you could do is just go try to learn econ from scratch. And you could do that, and that can be very valuable. But it's also a really long road to get to somewhere where you're even close to the cutting edge, right? Another thing you could do is pick one expert that you think seems really smart, and then kind of just trust what they say on the topic. And that's probably an upgrade, right? For the vast majority of people, picking an expert who seems really smart is probably going to be much better than just going with your own current opinion when you haven't really studied that field at all. But even better than that is: can you find two or, hopefully, three experts that all seem really smart, but actually have different worldviews? And then if you can kind of find what they agree with, that can be an even more powerful way to figure out the truth really quickly on a topic. And you're not going to necessarily have an opinion on everything because maybe they'll disagree, and you're not sure what to make of that. But you find three people from different worldviews, they all seem really smart in an area, and they actually agree and it's like, “Oh, wow!” That's actually probably a big update you can make.
MICHAEL: I really like that. It’s kind of like the idea of Ray Dalio’s triangulation. I'm studying multiple people, but I didn't try to optimize for diversity. So that's really interesting.
SPENCER: Yeah, so Planet Money actually did this really fantastic podcast episode, where they got together five economists with different worldviews. One was libertarian, and one was more liberal, and so on. And then they asked them to all sit down together and try to figure out policy recommendations they all agreed on, all five of them from different worldviews. And they came up with really cool recommendations that are maybe not all great, we don't know for sure. But they seem really plausibly great, a bunch of them. And they also seem like things that people don't try, or that haven't been used for a long time if they've ever been used. So I think that that's really fascinating as well.
MICHAEL: I like that, and I listened to that one. And the other thing that I found helpful, I also do the meta-analyses and summarizations, looking for responses where a researcher responds to another researcher with what they think the holes are, and then there's a response back and forth. Because I'm coming from outside the field, if I see a study, it's hard for me to find the holes in it compared to someone else. So I find it really interesting to see and peek in on those conversations.
SPENCER: Oh, yeah, that's really wonderful. It also reminds me of the idea of adversarial collaborations, which I think don't happen nearly enough, where two people that are experts who strongly disagree will actually work together to write a paper that tries to investigate a phenomenon together, and then either come to a consensus, or at least be able to explain why they disagree with each other, and each give their perspective. And I think that it's just super fascinating, and so much can be learned. So one of my favorite examples of that is this paper called Conditions for Intuitive Expertise: A Failure to Disagree.
MICHAEL: Oh, I've read that one. Yeah, it's my favorite.
SPENCER: It's so great. It's adversarial collaboration between Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein, both very famous psychologists, and they're studying: when does intuition work? Because Gary Klein's work has been very much about how experts can be incredibly effective with their intuition, like a firefighter being able to tell right before a building collapses or things like that. And Daniel Kahneman has been poking holes for his career in our intuition and finding all kinds of ways our intuition goes wrong. And so they collaborated on writing a paper trying to understand: “How come you think that intuition is so effective and I think intuition is so garbage?” And it turns out, a lot of it is just they're studying different people's intuitions. So Gary Klein tends to study experts who've had lots and lots of experience with feedback loops, so their intuition got honed over time, whereas Daniel Kahneman tends to study more ordinary people who haven't had training or had years of experience to learn a good intuition, therefore, their intuition tends to be very faulty.
MICHAEL: Yeah, and I also thought they had really interesting insights that changed my thinking around … there's a spectrum of environments, one towards randomness, and the other side on order. And if an environment is completely random, like 100% random (coin flips), then there really is no expertise that can be gotten. And then if it's ordered, it's easier to get expertise and find the patterns and things like that. And so I found that as a helpful construct when thinking about whether to trust the expertise of people in different fields.
SPENCER: Absolutely, yeah, I think that can be broken down even further to say, in order to develop a strong intuition for a thing through practice, you need feedback, and the amount of noise in the feedback means that you may need more feedback, right?
SPENCER: So, if you're in a very regular environment where everything's almost the same every single time, you might be able to learn very quickly, with not that many data points, how to do the thing well, how to predict the thing, but if you're in a very irregular environment where there's a lot of noise and uncertainty, you might need 100s or 1000s or 10s of 1000s of examples before your intuition gets really honed.
MICHAEL: Yeah, I love it. One technique I want to run by you, (that I've spent literally at least 1000 to 2000 hours on this technique and found it really helpful) I call it platform learning. So I found it particularly helpful when I was learning about writing. I wanted to write articles that were deep, long-form articles, well researched, and get them seen online. And I knew that the odds were against me because there's just so many high-quality articles out there competing for attention. And so one of the biggest and best decisions that I made was to use a tool called Buzzsumo. With Buzzsumo, you could analyze over a billion articles over the last seven years or so, where you could pick any search term or domain and then export all of the data, and basically, there's a huge number of articles you can learn from, and each one of those is an experiment in a way, and I can learn from what has worked the best/what hasn't very rapidly, and really analyze the patterns. And so I spent a huge amount of time exporting the data, looking through the patterns. And then I have tested over 4000 different titles, A/B testing them.
MICHAEL: And that has really changed my thoughts on how to develop expertise in an area because I found that the patterns I noticed I hadn't really seen written about in books before. And a lot of times for people who actually write a book, they're not necessarily the world-class expert in that topic. And so the difference between somebody who's pretty good in a field (a professional) versus a world-class expert, it's night and day, and might be fundamentally different techniques. That's number one. And then number two, a lot of people who develop an expertise, let’s say somebody (for whatever reason) starts writing, they get an audience, and then they write a book about how to be a good writer. Part of that is intuitive expertise for them, so they might not even know exactly why they're successful. And so they may not always be the best teacher. And so I found going to the data, and when I'm trying to go to a new field, we have so many different data sources now. Buzzsumo was the one for writing, but for other fields, sometimes I've scraped the web or done things manually and tried to find patterns that way, and then tested my assumptions.
SPENCER: That's really interesting. So how would you summarize your approach? Like how would someone take that strategy and apply it to something new?
MICHAEL: So for example, I'm working on a book right now on the 5-hour rule, and I was very curious, I was thinking, “Okay, what are the data sources I could look for?” And sometimes there's better data sources that are more accurate than others. But what I did is I put together a spreadsheet of The New York Times bestseller lists and the people who had been on the New York Times bestseller list for the longest. A lot of times publishing companies have a huge marketing budget, so you can get something onto the New York Times bestseller list for a week or a few weeks, but for something to stay on the list for dozens of weeks, there's something more there. And so that's an example of how I did it in books. And it just gave me different ideas on naming and patterns; if I'm doing non-fiction, the power of story non-fiction, for example, with online advertising, there’s a lot of ad intelligence platforms. So sometimes, the data already exists that you can license from a source. And so with ad intelligence platforms, you can see ads that have been running for the longest, and it gives you an intuition around what ideas to test first. It doesn't necessarily give you the definitive, but it just helps hone and train your intuition. And then I'd say another category for books, I also looked at all the best-selling books based on reviews on Amazon in lots of different categories, and went deep on those.
SPENCER: That's really interesting. So I'm trying to kind of generalize your method, and how I would describe it, tell me if you agree with this, is that you want to understand a topic, and you could go read a book about a topic, and that's probably a good idea. But another thing you could do is you can try to go find lots of examples of the thing that you're interested in doing. So, whether you want to write a title for your blog post, go look at the blog posts that had the most traffic and figure out what titles they had, right? Or you want to write a best-selling book, go look at all the best-selling books and see what patterns you notice, things like that.
MICHAEL: Yeah, another way I think about it is, often we train, we already all have an intuition around titles because every time we look at social media feed, we're constantly seeing titles, but there's a big difference between honing your intuition based off of the titles that happen to be in your newsfeed over time, versus the best titles on a topic of all time. And the patterns that really come up as the most prominent will often be different on some level. And so it's kind of like if you're learning, let's say you want to learn basketball, it's the difference between learning from a high school coach that's the best in your region versus, learning from the best basketball coach of all time.
SPENCER: Yeah, it seems to me that this is pretty general, like, even with basketball, you can imagine not just watching professional players, but actually break down their game, you know, put it on slow motion and say, “What are they doing? What's their strategy?” It feels like there's a lot of cases where we could actually just watch the best person in the world do this thing, or read the best-selling non-fiction book, etc., and try to break down what they're doing. I remember hearing about a famous thinker who would take an essay topic that some great essayist had already written about, they would then attempt to write an essay about that thing. And then they would compare their essay to the one that the great essayist had written and see what ways that the person did better than them.
MICHAEL: Hmm, I really like that one. Yeah.
SPENCER: One thing that's really amazing about you is that you're so good at figuring out how to portray an idea. So you know, there's just kind of two steps: you have to have an idea to portray, and then you have to figure out how do I describe the idea? How do I tell people about it? Do you want to tell us about some of the things that you've learned about how to do that so well?
MICHAEL: Yeah, sure. Well, I'll say I became really interested in writing first when I was in college. I started a business in high school, actually, with Cal Newport. And it did really well for a high school student business. And it really changed my life and outlook on the world. And I think really imprinted Cal and I with a certain mindset. And I became, actually we each became then, interested in writing, and sharing. And my writing did okay, so I was able to get published as an entrepreneur. I did a blog, but kind of just fizzled out as well. So at first I kind of got interested, then it just there wasn't really anybody paying attention. And eventually, I just turned it off (the blog), and no one noticed, let's say 2004, so I was graduating. And so I had to have that experience where I put a lot of time into it, I thought it was gonna go viral, and no, it didn't really. And so in 2013, a friend of mine introduced me to Forbes with a writing opportunity. So keep in mind, I stopped writing for about eight years now and kind of gave up. And with that experience, I knew that I didn't want to just do trial and error, basically, and just start writing and hope it does well, and assume that all my ideas are brilliant, I really want to take a more deliberate approach. That's one reason I invested that time in Buzzsumo, and spent, at least, I think, 2000 hours, just studying patterns over and over. And I still do it all the time. And then the other thing is that I read a book that really changed my perspective. It's called Blockbusters, it's written by a Harvard professor, Anita Elberse, and she presented a very counterintuitive idea, but backed up by research. So the idea with the internet is that the first idea was this idea of the long tail popularized by Chris Anderson, that the Internet creates all this possibility for all these different niches. And he also predicted that's where a lot of the attention would go, it would just be fragmented.
SPENCER: Right, like you could have a dating site just for smokers. Or you could have blogs just for people interested in sewing with neon fabrics or something crazy like that, right?
MICHAEL: Exactly, exactly. And so in many ways that part of it is true, there's a much longer tail. But he got the part about blockbusters wrong. In many ways, the internet is the greatest centralizer of attention ever, and in a lot of different ways. And so if you look, even the biggest movies of all time are all in the past 9, or the past 10 years. And you know, we're more global, so a great idea can spread globally faster. And then a lot of sites, a lot of the internet, is if there's a strong signal. Let's say there's a news feed story, the algorithms are designed to then boost that story even more, or there are sites that are aggregators where there they don't even produce any unique content they just link to and curate the best post.
SPENCER: So it's a bit of a winner-take-all dynamic with the internet, is that what you're saying?
MICHAEL: Exactly. And so, a lot of industries already understand this. So you look at the movie industry, they're spending more and more money to get all these…you know, the Avengers is kind of crazy where it has nine actors that all alone could have their own movies together, huge effects, and so they understand the blockbuster. But when it came to article writing, what I saw was that most people are in the philosophy of, “Okay, spend an hour or two writing something, putting it out there. And if you're spending much more than that, you're kind of hitting diminishing returns and wasting your time.” And just logically, I thought, why wouldn't it work for articles? And so I saw a huge arbitrage opportunity, almost of just, why don't I just try to create really high-quality content from the start and build my whole process around that. And basically, it's really worked, you know, the articles that I've written have now been read 10s of millions of times. And then there's been many millions of people writing about those articles as well.
SPENCER: Yeah, that's really awesome. I guess the way I think about it is: so most like these two polarized extremes, that seem really valuable. One extreme is what you might call the cheap experiment, like, “Yeah, write a blog post in two hours”, but you know, it's probably not gonna go viral, almost certainly not. But it could be a cheap experiment to see whether this idea has any traction or legs. But that will have to take you then into honing phase where you make it better. And so I do this a lot, where I'll just try to throw out a new idea every day, and see just how people react. But I'm investing a very small amount of time. And at the other extreme, I think is the thing you're talking about, which is doing the thing the best in the world that's ever been done. And this is something that actually I talk to my work colleagues about a lot, which is that at any given time someone's reading your article, let's say. They could be watching Netflix, where they're watching some of the greatest films ever made, they could be on YouTube watching 10s of 1000s of different channels, they could be playing video games, they could be spending time with their loved ones or petting their dog, right? Like, why would they be reading your article unless your article is really exceptional? And so I think of it as these two extremes, where the cheap experiments can be worthwhile, but they're a way to learn. And then if you actually want to do something that's going to be successful, there's a good chance you really have to make it the best in the world. But chances are, it's not gonna be the best in the world, and many things are just gonna be the best in the world at one thing, and one very precise thing. And probably just for one audience, not for every person in the world. What do you think about that?
MICHAEL: Yeah, actually, I agree. And I think I believe that, in the end, you know — you'll get this in the science world — that, you know, it's not like all the…if somebody has a body of work, all their papers are cited equally, often they become known for one thing, or one idea, or a few. And so I think it's really valuable to have that in mind and be looking for your really big investment. At the same time, I agree that I think the process of getting there requires (and is benefited from) experimentation. And I think startups are a good place to look at this, that there's an idea of the minimum viable product and constant experimentation, you want to be embarrassed by the first version of your product because you have to leave out key features. But the idea is you take that, and then you iterate upon that, and to get your big idea. And it's a very deliberate form of experimentation. Whereas I think a lot of times when people write articles, these short articles, there's not really necessarily the deliberate experimentation behind it. It's more of: “Okay, I have a content calendar, I'm supposed to post once a week. Okay, let me get this out.”
SPENCER: Yeah, that's a great point. And I would also add to that, I think the Lean Startup approach to building a startup which says, pick a problem that's close to you, or that you understand or that you've experienced, rapidly make a prototype, get the prototype out there in the world as fast as possible and get feedback on whether people actually are interested in the thing; if they are, start iterating, improving it. There's a lot of benefit for that. And especially this whole idea of creating a feedback loop and de-risking it by like doing things quickly. But I would say that there's also a huge pitfall and it relates to the ideas that you were talking about. And I think the huge pitfall is that it emphasizes doing things quickly and iteratively, rather than doing things the best they’ve ever been done. And I think that that actually is a big blind spot. That too, yes, you might get some users quickly, but to really succeed, usually, you have to do the best that's ever been done, at least in some small niche to create users that really love your product and they get a tremendous amount of value out of it, and they're willing to use it instead of playing video games or petting their dog. Right?
MICHAEL: Right, right. You made me think about you know, Amazon has his day one philosophy. So they had their minimum viable products that they released (Amazon), and just focusing on books, but now they're doing so much more, they doubled in value in just the past few years. So almost all of the value was in the future and oriented towards their blockbuster. So it's another way of just agreeing with you on that. It's very easy to get stuck on just lots of experimentation and not really iterating and trying to really find that blockbuster.
SPENCER: It also relates to the idea of local optimization versus global optimization, where the idea of local optimization is I'm going to look around at my opportunities right now and take one step, that seems like a really good step if it's heading in the right direction. And then the global optimization is like putting on binoculars and looking around all the mountains in the distance and saying, “Which mountain am I actually trying to get to?” And you know, to be successful, you have to be very good at both of these things. If you just do local optimization, then you’ll move quickly, but you'll end up getting stuck in a dead end, or you'll get stuck at the top of a peak that's not that high. And you're just going, “Okay, well, I got this at this peak, but it's not that high.” If you just do global optimization, then you won't really get anywhere. So it's a combination of them, of alternating between looking out at the distant peaks and reorienting trying to figure out which one you're trying to get to, with this looking at the opportunities around you and trying to move quickly and rapidly iterate.
MICHAEL: Exactly, exactly. And I would say, I agree that you have to do both. And I think on average, as a culture, people are much, much better at hill climbing than the deeper exploration mountain climbing. Yeah, I think it requires a very different way of thinking and almost a very different paradigm as well.
SPENCER: So could you just share one or two takeaways about how to sell an idea? Because I think a lot of people have this conception that: “If I have a good idea, it will just sell itself.” Right? But the reality is that you can have an amazing idea, and you still have to figure out some way to share it with others in a way that they want to consume it. So any quick advice on that? Like, you've got a good idea, now what?
MICHAEL: Yeah, that's a really good point. And I think one thing to realize is that the way people find information online is through some sort of news feed. That is the format that maybe started in social media and then has spread across lots of different types. And so think about it even for podcasts, you don't think about that as a news feed. But you log into your podcast app, it shows you the podcast that you're subscribed to, and then shows the newest content first.
SPENCER: Even newsletters on your email, essentially, I mean, it's the same thing, in essence, right? You're just getting this feed.
MICHAEL: Exactly. And it's not like you're seeing the whole thing first, and then deciding. What you're seeing is often some combination of a title, an image, and a subtitle. And so most of the things that people's newsfeeds people don't click on, they ignore them, it's invisible. And so for your content to go viral, and for your big ideas to actually be consumed, for the most part, for most people, you really have to master what captures people's attention at the title and the image. And that's why I've spent so much time in that area. And most people, they'll spend all their time thinking about their idea. And then maybe at the very end, they'll just think about a few titles, not test any, and then release it to the public. And then it will just do a lot worse than they thought it was going to do. And they don't even think about it as a skill set.
SPENCER: And it's sad because it might be truly a great idea, but they just didn't have the right packaging for it, and so people didn't give it a chance. And I think there can be (I think among like, intellectual types) there can be this aversion to that marketing side because they think, “Well, I should just be focused on the pure idea.” And on the flip side, I think marketing type people can under-focus on, “Well, how valuable is the thing that I’m marketing?” Right? Like, what is the true value to the user? And it's really, you have to do both, you have to both create something truly of value, and then you have to figure out how to package it to make it really appealing so people bother to look at it closely enough to realize how valuable that thing is. And you know, one of the ways I think about this is the headline, let's say either the subject line in an email you're sending or the headline in an article. The goal has to be to get them to then consume the first two sentences in effect, right? And then the first two sentences, the goal of that has to be to get them to consume the next two paragraphs, right?
MICHAEL: Yeah, I think it's a big part in mindset. So one of the things I see is just if anybody wants to get some sort of advantage in their career really rapidly, I think one of the simplest ways is to go across fields. So when it comes to writing, I kind of saw that there's different camps. There's the journalists, the marketers, and kind of content marketers, who are more experimentational, trying to sell more, and academics, let's say as the three different camps. And oftentimes, they're not just different camps, they actively dislike and look down on the others. You know, like a lot of people will say, in journalism, you might originally look down at content marketing as going to the dark side, you know? And then, in academia, it's changing some (a little bit) but, you know, if you're a hardcore researcher, if you write a popular book, you might lose credibility. And so, by simply being able to integrate those different fields, there becomes a huge advantage and it requires integrating within yourself, which is hard because you have these different voices, and you feel the tension. And that's not the easiest thing to do. But this is just speaking directly to a lot of people who have great ideas, avoid the marketing of it, as well, and the packaging and really specializing in that. How I've personally gotten interested in it because I've definitely felt that. I remember reading an article on experimentation once and talking about A/B testing headlines. And I actually wrote a whole post about how that was completely inauthentic and wrong. So it's not how I've always thought, but I find it fascinating to just study human attention because it's such a strong lever for everything else. So in marketing, there's AIDA (awareness, interest, decision, and action). And so if you don't have someone's attention, then they're never going to see your product and or buy it. And if you don't have someone's attention, they're never going to consume your idea. Our brain, in many ways, is designed to ignore almost everything. And so just studying how the brain is wired, and what keeps its attention, is an interesting area to kind of geek out on.
SPENCER: Those are great points. I'll just add to wrap up this discussion, that I think another reason people can be averse to trying to sell their ideas is that it can feel unethical. And you know, the way I think about this is that there are unethical ways to try to sell things and get people's attention, and then there are ethical ways to do it. And there are ways to sell things ethically. And so just one example, appeal to people's self-interest; tell them why this thing is worth their time. And that's one of the simplest, most effective ways to actually get attention and do it credibly. So that's just one example. Another example is you can make people curious, and I don't think there's anything unethical about making someone curious, as long as you deliver on that. (You know, if you make someone curious, and then you don't actually answer their question, once they go investigate a thing.)
MICHAEL: Or it’s about something completely else or completely misleading.
SPENCER: Exactly, exactly. So I think there is such a thing as highly ethical marketing if you think about it. And just as a kind of really practical piece of advice. If you want to learn more about this, I went and just by chance happened to meet at three different times three people who had been incredibly successful advertising products on the internet. And so each case, I just went up to them. And I said, “Oh, I would love to know what book on advertising would you recommend?” because they had been so successful in these areas. And I expected them to recommend some recent books on you know, internet-based advertising. And the hilarious thing is that the books these people were recommending, were like, literally, in some cases, 80 to 100 years old. And there was extreme convergence in the books they were recommending.
MICHAEL: Like Scientific Advertising or Breakthrough Advertising.
SPENCER: Exactly. Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins, Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples. And it's hilarious. I mean, Tested Advertising Methods was written in 1932. So I was really baffled by this. And I read those books. And I was like, “Wow, these are excellent books. But why are they so old?” It makes no sense to me. And I finally figured it out, which is that back in the early days of advertising, this was the first time you could really scientifically test an ad and see actually how much money it was making. So what happened is, when that first became possible, people did all kinds of experiments and developed all kinds of theories and how to do it effectively. But it was kind of a slow feedback loop, so they couldn't just run an ad and then in one day, find out the answer. It was more like something that they'd have to wait weeks or months. So they'd have to develop really good theories to run ads really effectively.
MICHAEL: Oh, interesting. Wow, am I doing a mail order campaign or advertising a newspaper versus Google ads or something?
SPENCER: Exactly. Think about how disappointing it is, if a month later you find out it totally bombed. So they worked really hard to get really good at predicting what actually works to sell things. Then what happened is, with the advent of the internet, it became so easy to just test something instantly, that advertisers move towards a spray and pray model where they just generate like 100 headlines, and then just run them all. And so actually, people started to forget the art and theory behind how to write really effective ad copy. And so anyway, it's just fascinating to read these really old books; actually, it's still full of lots of wisdom.
MICHAEL: Yeah, I was curious about that. So that makes a lot of sense. And one thing you said a minute ago, I wanted to go back to is you mentioned about how to market ethically. And you know, two other things I think are interesting on that front are, I think, a lot of writing. If you're doing something around, let's say in the self-help field, which sometimes gets a bad name, but just something that you're sharing something that somebody might think differently, or make decisions differently, or exercise differently, or have relationships differently after the article. That, I think, it's a little bit different, that it's very different than let's say, a scientific article. So the scientific article is kind of like looking for this universal truth. Where I think the self-help is also looking at not just the optimal like the mountain, is also looking at what will people actually do. And they'll be attracted to and actually follow through. And so sometimes you might have to have a non-optimal approach. But that's more simple to remember and easy to follow.
SPENCER: Right? It's like this idea of simplicity versus accuracy, right? In a perfect world, if humans were, perfectly rational beings with an unlimited memory, all of our models and theories of things could be incredibly complex with lots of details, right? But in practice, if you give an explanation that has 30 different factors, essentially nobody's gonna remember it. And so there actually is genuine value in simplifying things, and you just have to be mindful of what accuracy you're losing, right? So there's an advantage of simplifying, but then you're gonna lose some accuracy. And it's about finding the right trade-off and balance for that.
MICHAEL: Exactly. I think it's kind of similar to the idea of (in the rational community) of bounded rationality, that there could be this ideal thing where you just spend all this time getting information and, analyzing different ways, but there's a huge cost to that, as well. And so it may not be worth doing that for all the different decisions. And so I think it's almost like bounded self-help of, “Okay, somebody is really busy, they're like, at home trying to get their kids homeschooled with remote education and working a full-time job. And there's really strong boundary conditions.”
SPENCER: Yeah, great point, like the perfectly rational behavior. And with unlimited computational resources, and unlimited time, it's very different than the perfectly rational behavior with limited cognitive resources, limited time, and a kid, you know, who needs help in your home or all kinds of things like that.
SPENCER: I think of this idea that I call value density, which is basically: How much value are you delivering to your user or reader per minute?
MICHAEL: Hmm, interesting.
SPENCER: So that's one way to try to navigate the accuracy versus simplicity trade-off, is that by simplifying are you increasing the value density, right? If you can make your thing half as long and increase the value density so that they get more value per minute, then that might be a worthwhile trade-off. Whereas if by simplifying it that much, you’re actually giving them less value per minute, then you actually may have made them worse off. So that is one useful kind of framework I use.
MICHAEL: Yeah, I like that. One other thing I think about in this area that I'm — my thinking is not as well developed, I'm interested by it — is, in many ways, the marketing is the product, especially an education product. Because I'm really seeing this, we have a high ticket course, where it's a year-long course that really helps people create blockbuster content. And so a large part of their success, I should say, is their belief in themselves, and their belief in the process, like a huge percentage of their success. And it's a lot more of an emotional game of being able to publish work and deal with the feedback and keep investing even when you're not getting the best feedback for many months, and things like that. Actually, I'm making a list of these dozens of, you know, impostor syndrome, and procrastination, and all of those. So, it feels weird, but in the marketing, in helping people believe in themselves, that has value unto itself. And you can also be misused by a marketer. And also, the more people believe in themselves in the course, in the program, the more time they're gonna invest as well. So even just based on that alone, and the more difficulties they're gonna keep going through.
SPENCER: I think of it as, you want to convince people of their genuine capabilities, if that makes sense. And I really am someone who believes that most people are capable of significantly more than they're doing right now.
SPENCER: Where without, I think, deluding people about their current capability at this exact moment, if that makes sense. So you can inspire them to say, “Hey, you can get to this excellent level, if you go through this process.” And you can truly believe that that's true, that you can get to that level. And it's actually true, but not convince them that they're better at this moment than they actually are, if that distinction makes sense.
MICHAEL: Yeah, that distinction makes sense. Although it can be hard to do that. I mean, I'm surprised in this course of, I noticed a pattern of like, some people are like, little progress, little progress, feeling the uncomfortability. And all of a sudden, they have a huge breakthrough. And then there's a huge jump in their quality, you know, so it can be surprising. And I think where I think marketers have gone wrong, I'd say, is drastically overstating how easy it is. Because the more I teach, the more I realize that it's actually more and more doable, but it just takes a large amount of time to develop that expertise. And so, that feels unethical of overselling. And so a lot of people, they think it's supposed to happen in X (you know, 1000 hours), but really it’s a 5000-hour process or something. Or more like marketers will say it's like 100-hour process and it’s more like a 2000-hour. And so, you know, people spend 100 hours, they don’t get the result, and then they blame themselves.
SPENCER: I think it’s kind of a race to the bottom with self-help books where they all want to tell you that you can either improve instantaneously or with a tiny amount of effort using this one simple trick, or that you're already perfect and you don't need to improve, just to make you feel good, right? And so it's like there can be this challenge of standing out among this crowd of (basically) people that are lying.
MICHAEL: Right, right.
SPENCER: But I think you do that really well yourself by showing that you're producing such valuable content. And I would highly recommend reading some of Michael's articles, they’re really, really excellent. And so you're able to back up the marketing with really high-quality stuff that's worth reading.
MICHAEL: The standard I hold myself to is: every article I write, I try to write the best article that's ever been written on that topic. And not to say it is, but at least I believe it is after doing all the research.
SPENCER: And that's your goal. And that's, I think, the key thing. That's what you're attempting to do, exactly. And then I think that's much more doable than people realize because that might sound incredibly intimidating, but the topic doesn't have to be huge, right? You can narrow the topic. And you can also narrow the audience. If you want, you can say, “Well, this is not for everyone. But it's for this group of people. I want to write the best article on this narrow topic for this narrow group of people that's ever been written.” And that means when those people read it, they should love it. And now I have to figure how to get them to read; it means I have to figure out how to package it and sell it so that they're actually willing to invest the time to realize how great it is.
MICHAEL: Yeah, and one thing that I've thought about a lot is, you can either be the big fish in the small pond or the small fish in the big pond. And I think that's a false trade-off that I've noticed. There's a lot of categories, we can actually be the big fish in the big pond because there's big areas. So I think, for example, learning how to learn, it's a topic that's relevant to so many people in this knowledge economy. And there's not a lot of content or people that thought behind that in general. And so that's number one. And then even I'd say… Susan Cain wrote a book called Quiet about introversion. And so sometimes you can find this huge percentage of people that are introverts as well. So I guess I've changed my thinking that just because something is a niche, doesn't mean that it has to be really small and fragmented.
SPENCER: It's funny I actually collaborated with Susan Cain on creating an introversion test. I don’t know if you knew that.
MICHAEL: Oh, no, I didn't know that.
SPENCER: Yeah. But no, I think that's such an excellent point, though. There are these opportunities to find something really of value that there's relatively little work done on. And obviously, it's not always the easiest thing to find those, but they really do exist, and it's often surprising how many of them exist. And so I think that those are the really awesome opportunities.
MICHAEL: Yeah, I kind of think about it like Leonardo da Vinci, when he was younger, in his journal, wrote a post about lamenting that he lived in a time where all the best discoveries had been already discovered.
SPENCER: That's hilarious.
MICHAEL: Then, of course, going on to become one of the best inventors ever. And so I think the thought leadership journey is sort of similar, and even entrepreneurial. In the beginning, you're just like, “Man, so many people have already written articles on things, what new is there I could add to this?” But then, as one reads more, and learns more, and really builds up your learning across fields, there's just an embarrassment of riches almost of things that there should be articles on, but there haven't. And so in many ways, I think there's just way, way more opportunities now than in the past.
SPENCER: I think a really good heuristic on that is, suppose you're going and trying to learn something. And you're finding all these blog posts, and none of them teach it that well, and you're having to synthesize a lot of different sources. That is a sign that you could go write the best article on that topic, right? Whenever you're trying to learn something, and you're like, “This seems harder to learn than it needs to be.” Go make the research that you wish you had, right?
MICHAEL: Exactly, exactly.
SPENCER: Fantastic. Well, why don't we switch topics and talk a little bit about this idea of emergence? You wanna tell us about that?
MICHAEL: Well, this is something more recent, so my thoughts are developing here, but it's really been a big change in my life. And the deeper I went down the idea of the 5-hour rule and really learning, and so we live in a world where many more jobs are becoming non-routine, knowledge-based intellectual activities, you know, so, in some ways, people aren't just being paid for their immediate output. They're being paid for their insights that they have. So as I studied different people, I realized that I feel like there's almost more of a paradigm shift rather than just a tactic of the 5-hour rule. And so, the typical paradigm that we're kind of often born into, if you're in this entrepreneurial world, is a goal-based paradigm. And it's so obvious that we don't even think about it. It's kind of like a fish being in water. So for me when I was 16 I read Think and Grow Rich for the first time by Napoleon Hill, this classic, which is from 1937. And it's had 10s of millions of copies sold. And the basic idea is that if you want to accomplish something really big that you can. You have to set a goal, long-term, then medium-term and short-term, create a plan, you want to print out a goal statement, look at it every day, visualize it. And that's the best way to achieve it. And I really adopted that. And it had a really big impact on me; and at the same time, over time it had a big impact in a positive way. But I've realized that it also has a lot of downsides that often aren't talked about. And I've fundamentally switched paradigms in the last few years, about five years. And I feel like it's led to just a lot more satisfaction and impact.
SPENCER: What do you see as some of the downsides of the goal-based thinking?
MICHAEL: So I think it can fall into two categories. One is how it feels pursuing goals. So number one, there's the idea of the planning fallacy, and Dunning Kruger curve, and things like that, where when you're outside of something, and you're trying to make predictions about it, it looks a lot more simple from the outside than on the inside. And so once you start learning something, or actually jumping into a project, you realize there's way more steps than you would think, to it. And so with goals, it's easy to be overly optimistic, to over predict your odds of success, or think it's going to be 5 years instead of a longer time, you know, 5 years instead of 10 years or something like that. And there's something called Hofstadter’s law, that even when you know the planning fallacy, you're still going to fall prey to it.
SPENCER: Right. It's like, everything takes longer than you think it will, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law.
MICHAEL: Exactly, exactly, or the planning fallacy. And so then the other, two, is when you look at experts, the same thing of when you look at experts, you're not able to see everything that they've done to get to where they are. And so it looks more simple. And, why haven't you achieved it?
SPENCER: It seems like that could be a feature, though, and not just a bug because, on the one hand, it's bad because we might underestimate how long this will take. And that can create problems for us, or we might underestimate the complexity, which means we don't plan as well as we could. But on the other hand, if we actually saw the full complexity, maybe we wouldn't try to do the thing because we realize it's so much harder than we think.
MICHAEL: Yes, yeah, I think that's probably true for me on many levels, as well. So that could be a benefit from that perspective. Maybe that was helpful for me in the beginning of getting started. But for most of my career, I've actually felt behind of where I should be. And that's really affected my self-esteem, like I've had this dialogue in my head of, “Why am I behind others? Or why is this taking longer? There must be something wrong with me.”
SPENCER: That's ironic because I think a lot of people would say you're really successful. And it just goes to show that I think it really depends on who you compare yourself to. Like, you talk to someone who spends all their time around billionaires, and they can feel poor if they only have $50 million, right?
MICHAEL: Right, right. But I also think it's part of the goal-setting paradigm is, okay, you set a SMART goal, so it's a really big, hairy, audacious goal, something that you don't even think you can achieve, okay, you're gonna achieve it in five years. And so I think that it's part of how you compare to yourself.
SPENCER: That's a good point. And then you realize, “Oh, it's actually much harder than I thought.” And now maybe it's like 10 years. And maybe part of my goal was actually not even what I want, and so on.
MICHAEL: Exactly. And then another thing is that a goal at a fundamental level, in a way, you're making a prediction about your future self, and the future world. And then you're holding a goal constant about what you want to achieve for your future self, what you want for your future self. And then you have a kind of error correction based on an objective function. Like, let's just make it easy around, let's say, you want to make a certain amount of money. You create a plan, and then as you get more money, that means you're moving towards it, you get less, that means you're moving away. And one thing I've noticed is that I change way more over a period of 5 or 10 years than I would have expected to beforehand. And it's in unexpected ways that I change. And so if I have some of these long-term goals, I've kind of felt it's hard to let go of a goal sometimes that you've publicly stated and been going for because it can feel like giving up and that's another thing that I've really noticed is that I feel I've much more enjoyed this paradigm of assuming that I'm gonna grow and change in unexpected ways and creating the space for that to happen.
SPENCER: So I'm really interested in this alternative paradigm, right? Because I think the goal-setting paradigm seems so obvious, so many people, they might not even realize there is another option. So tell us about that. Do you have a name for it? And how would you describe it?
MICHAEL: I'm still getting the wording right. But the first book, which I really recommend to folks that really put it into words that helped me think differently, was a book by two artificial intelligence researchers, academic researchers — and they were working for Uber at one point, high up in their AI efforts, and then they're working somewhere else now — Kenneth Stanley and Joel Lehman. And it's Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned is the name of the book. And they're basically talking about — keep in mind, I'm not from the AI field — but there's one approach to problem-solving is algorithms that with an objective function, where you just have an end goal, and then you're only taking the paths that move quickest to it, let's say, and then you have another path, another model, which they have is more of a novelty algorithm, where the key thing is you have to constantly do something new. And they found a lot of different situations that the novelty algorithm would perform an objective function higher than the objective function. So let me give an example. Let's say you have a maze, the best way to solve a maze isn't going directly towards the end part because gonna hit a wall, sometimes you have to go do things that seemingly are a backward step, to go forward. And so how this relates to learning and why I saw the connection there is that with learning, if you're putting a significant amount of time to learning, let's say you're spending 20% of your time learning one day a week or something like that, on a daily basis, that seems like the biggest waste of time because rather than putting time on your to-do list and increasing your short-term output, you're putting time towards learning. And same thing on a weekly basis, spending one day for learning seems crazy. And so there's kind of a different paradigm there.
SPENCER: Well, you know, I think we can add this to what we were talking about before with, we were talking about the hill climbing local optimization, where you just look around at your current area and take the best, fastest step in the direction you want to go. And then we contrasted that with this, like, put on your binoculars and look at the distant peaks, and figure out and reorient what peak you're trying to get to. And this feels like to me like a third component of that kind of framework, which is there's activities that you can do that kind of broaden you or teach you things that they're neither directly moving you immediately towards a goal in the short-term, nor are they about reorienting in the long-term. They're more about expanding your horizons and improving yourself. And so an example of that might be following your curiosity or learning about an area that that seems potentially interesting, but you don't have a specific application in mind for it, but you just could spend a few hours reading about it. What do you think about that?
MICHAEL: Exactly, exactly, they use the idea of stepping stones, that a lot of times with these big huge innovations, we don't really know if we're where you don't know the steps in to get from where you are to where you want, it's a better approach to have the stepping stones where you don't really know what the path of a certain step is, but you're putting these stepping stones in place. And each thing you learn, let's say, gives you lots of different options that you could go towards in the future. And so you're basically almost letting the goal emerge, rather than holding it constant. And I think related to this, another distinction is with the goal-setting paradigm. There's kind of a resistance towards surprises in a way because you're having this goal fixed. And so if you see something that could be an opportunity or something doesn't go the way you expected, there's kind of a negative feeling towards it because it's taking you away from the goal. Where if you have more of this curiosity or novelty focus, steppingstone focus, that you're learning a lot from these surprises and things that don't work, and new opportunities are coming up. And there's more of an openness to those opportunities. And many of the biggest inventions, you know, drugs like penicillin, have come from these surprises that people rather than ignoring them leveraged.
SPENCER: Right. Because if, let's say some interesting opportunity comes up, or interesting surprise, but you're like, “Oh, but that's not in my five-year plan of this goal I'm trying to hit.” Right? There may be this resistance to pursuing it. So in a way, these long-term goals can be limiting. Can you explain the stepping stone metaphor a little bit more? How does that metaphor fit into this?
MICHAEL: So I think Amazon actually is a perfect example. The company is almost built around this at some level. And keep in mind, I'm not saying goals have zero value, there's kind of understanding the pros and cons of each one making a case for…so Amazon, they started off as a book-selling company. And in creating the structure for that, they created huge databases and data systems to manage different programs. They created a fulfillment network, a shipping network, the website, and recommendation system. So they built all these foundational things. And then they're using them. So first, they went from books that allowed them to go to CDs, and then furniture and other things. And then they opened that as a platform that other people can build on top of. And same thing with AWS in doing that. And now there's Fulfillment by Amazon and Amazon Freight, I think it is. And so it's a way of thinking where you're going towards, you're building things, but then as you build those things, you’re building up capabilities of knowledge, systems, relationships that can be used in a lot of different ways. And AWS, for example, is Amazon's like, one of the… if you just spun it out of Amazon, it would be in the Fortune 500, would be one of the most successful profitable companies ever, fastest-growing ever launched. And it was built with this stepping stone philosophy.
SPENCER: That's really cool. So I want to propose another paradigm that I think is not incompatible with yours, which is that instead of setting goals, like we usually think of (like, my goal is to be a doctor or something like that) we get really clear on our values, and those are our goals. So in other words, not try to become a doctor or get my college degree, but rather understand what the things you want to create in the world are. Like, “Okay, the things I really care about, are making my loved ones happy. You know, my own happiness, but also, I really care about making sure that people don't suffer as much as they are right now, around the world”, or whatever it is, right? Different people are gonna have different values; there's a lot of different values that you could have. And then basically using those as your goals, that allows you to kind of keep the end in sight. So instead of picking stepping stones at random, or deciding sort of at random whether an opportunity is worth pursuing, you're always going back to your values and saying, “Ah, okay, here's an interesting stepping stone, but is it aligned with the value I'm trying to create in the world or the things I truly fundamentally care about?” And that's the kind of decision criteria for everything else. What do you think about that?
MICHAEL: Yeah, let me process that for a second. So on the one hand, I really like that. I think that, especially in the goal-setting process, I think the value part is often rarely talked about, like we should just set a goal. And oftentimes, when we just do that, without really reflecting, or picking things that are the most prestigious to do, or like we're doing because lots of other people do it, let's say. So when you really think about your values, you do that better. I could see a negative: so for me, one of my values in beginning college is to have a large lasting positive difference in the world. And that is something where it leaves space for me to do different things, and flexibility. So I really resonate with it. And I think sometimes [the] challenge though, which I'm still trying to reconcile and leave space for, is that it's really hard to predict how we're going to change and how our values are going to change. So if we pick a value that is constant over time, then I feel like it works more. But if we optimize ourself, the less self-development we have, and then it's more likely we might pick a value that might hurt us in the end.
SPENCER: Right. And I would say that values tend to be more stable than goals, right? Like the value of wanting to make sure that you are very close to your family, let's say. It's probably more stable than the goal of like, “I want to become this profession”, right, which could change a lot based on when you learn more about that profession; and when you think more about what you're really trying to achieve in life and what the trade-offs are being in that profession and so on. But I agree they're not necessarily perfectly stable, so you still have to be careful about that and focus on the values that you're really competent in, and the ones that you think are unlikely to change over time. And I think also, this is one argument why we might do more kind of stepping stone like activities when we're younger because we are less clear on, for example, what our values are. And as we clarify them, that allows us to kind of hone in more on what activities are actually moving us towards our values.
MICHAEL: Yeah, I really agree. And when I look back on my own life, you know, those parts in the beginning of my career, where my values were a little bit off, that really came to hurt me.
SPENCER: Does that mean you misunderstood your values? Or what does that mean?
MICHAEL: You know, I feel like, in my 20s, I was spending a lot of time trying to fit in more and try to, let's say, go to the right conferences and win awards, and things like that. And I feel like, in my 30s, I'm really enjoying doing things, building connections where I have a deep resonance with people and we really connect with each other and have similar values, versus just trying to do things. I wouldn't have said I was doing this in my 20s, but when I look back, I definitely overdid that. And so a lot of the relationships didn't persist into this next stage of values. But that goes back to my point, though, it's hard to predict it, how it's going to change. And I did spend a lot of time just in my teens and 20s, reflecting and really doing a lot of introspection. And so I feel like, in my 30s, it feels like how I think right now is going to be true for the rest of my life, you know, that I figured it out. But again, that also is I feel like how it feels at each stage.
SPENCER: Yeah. Well, I think that it is true that we change the most when we're young, right? Like, very often, when you're 15, you're changing very fast. And then when you're 20, maybe you're changing slightly less fast, but still very fast. And when you go from like 50 to 55, you're probably not changing that much. So I think that it is true, that our changing slows down, I think it's still important to remember that you're gonna keep changing. And you know, if you think about how much you've changed over the last five years, that might be a reasonable proxy for how much you might change over the next five years. And so we’re just kind of always coming back to that.
MICHAEL: Well, I also feel like it can be dangerous to feel like…okay, so, on the one hand, is true, like biologically, we're changing and our brains developing, so we're going to change a lot in our youth. But I also feel like there's an aspect of it that's a self-fulfilling prophecy. I noticed this in myself, where you feel like, “Okay, and this is actually okay. Let me take a step back and explain a different way.” So you know, Piaget has all this research on finding these patterns of how children develop, that they developing these similar stages, in similar order around similar timeframes in their life. And up until about the 1980s, it was assumed that we plateau as adults, and it's basically, “Okay, we've basically developed and then we don't change.” And education system is also developed around this. And now, there's this whole field of adult development and studying patterns. And Robert Keegan at Harvard is one of the pioneers here. And he found that adults go through these patterns of growth as well, where you find yourself in fundamentally different paradigms or ways of seeing the world. So I find it empowering to have the perspective that my future self is going to change radically, as well. And I'm actively, as part of my learning process, I actively look for knowledge that is going to disprove my most fundamental beliefs. And that process also creates that change, versus somebody who if you're doing the opposite filter of only filtering by things you believe in, it’s much more likely that you're going to be similar.
SPENCER: It seems to be pretty indisputably true that we change the most when we're young, you know, you think about the difference between like a five-year-old and an eight-year-old even, right? But that being said, I really like your point about it being self-fulfilling prophecy, if you kind of think, “Oh, I believe what I believe and I'm never gonna change my mind. And this is who I am.” That might actually limit your future growth. And I'm a huge believer that, adults can change. You know, 70-year-olds can change, and I think that a lot of us kind of stagnate. But that's actually more of a choice. Because we decided to keep doing the same activities, and reading the same materials, and not pushing our boundaries, and not challenging our existing beliefs. So I like the attitude that you have there a lot. I would also just add one more thing that you reminded me of, which is that I think one of the most dangerous traps that people fall into it, it's so common, is they choose their behaviors based on how they think other people are going to judge them, rather than based on deeper values. Pretty much everyone has some desire to fit in, right? Like, you know, it sucks to be socially ostracized, and we don't want that, and of course, for just about everyone, there's some people that we want to like us, right? But that being said, I feel like as a species, we way over-index on what other people think about us, and especially people that really are not that important to our life like, random acquaintances, and so many people's goals that they set seem to be dramatically affected by what they think other people will or won't judge them for, or will or won't respect them for. You have any thoughts on that?
MICHAEL: Yeah, no, I 100% agree with that. I think it's really, really hard because it's deeply wired. Because I was saying before that I look back on my 20-year-old self and see how there's certain things I was doing for that, although I don't know if I would have said that at the point. And honestly, I probably think my future self will look at my current self that way as well, even though I'm changed a lot. And you know, there's a part of me that just wants to do really big things. That’s something I just noticed about myself that's been constant over time. And it almost doesn't even matter what the big thing is.
SPENCER: What do you think drives that? What do you think the deeper thing you're after is?
MICHAEL: I'm not sure. I've actually done a lot of introspection around it. But I just find my mind drawn to that, and fascinated by it. And so I feel like I could have a version of just, I want to do big things for ego or just being seen by a lot of other people. Or it could just be more altruistic as well. Or, you know, that's just part of how I'm wired or other people are wired.
SPENCER: I feel like thought experiments can help us with this. Like, for example: Okay, suppose that I do a big thing that like, 100 million people learn about, but it actually doesn't affect anyone positively. It's just kind of neutral, right? But like, now, everyone knows my name because I did this thing, right? And so that's one thought experiment saying, “Well, how would I feel about that, versus let's say I do a smaller thing? Only 100,000 people know about it, but it actually had a big impact on people's lives and people's lives are significantly better off because of it.” Or you're taking it all the way to the further extreme, “I did something that radically improved the lives of many people, but nobody ever finds out about it. Like, somehow, nobody knows that I was the one that did it, even though it helped people so much.” You know, and I don't think there's anything wrong with having a mix of motivations. I think we all do. But just trying to get clarity on: okay, what is actually driving us, why do we want to do this thing? And what is the deeper underlying root of that? It can help us make more efficient plans because once we realize, “Oh, what I'm actually after is this thing, then maybe there's actually a better way a more efficient way to get that.”
MICHAEL: Yeah, well, I think that's a good point on multiple levels. And I think we're a mix of motivations, conscious and unconscious, and some of them are conflicting with each other. So in my 20s, I almost think I went too much toward the altruistic side. And I didn't do enough things for myself to get the right foundation. So it's like, there’s the idea of like, get your house in order first. And so I thought that that was an interesting feeling as well. And I would say, you know, so I feel like there's a mix of motivations. And I also think that on the recognition side, for example, for speaking, we used to have an event company we (my wife and I) founded where we go to college campuses, and we brought a tour bus around with us. And it was interesting because, at the event, you get really high reviews, really positive comments, but you lose touch with people. So you don't really see the impact. You know, it's not like we keep in touch with every attendee of a speaking engagement. And so, I've noticed, for example, that I really like seeing the impact of like, with courses, you could really do something and talk to them a week later, a week later, a week later and see the growth. And I find that more fulfilling. And I do like the idea, like for me of at this point in my career, the recognition that comes from it. And I think I'm probably pretty confident my future self will value that less. But I also don't want to lie to myself, as well. So it's interesting. How do you think about balancing those different parts?
SPENCER: Yeah, well, I think you raise a really interesting point, which is that we all have some motivations that we may not feel great about, right? So on the one hand, almost all of us have altruistic motivations, where we want to help others. We have community-based motivations where we want to like help our loved ones, and family members, and friends, stuff like that. But we also all to a degree at least have selfish motivations as well, where we want people to think we're cool, and be accepted. And, you know, people to like us and people to give us things and, all these kinds of things. And, I think that being in denial about those does not actually make them go away, right? You are who you are. And so I think the best thing there is to try to really genuinely understand what's actually true about yourself. Because denying you have self-motivation doesn't mean you don't have that. It just means that you're more naive about yourself and less able to plan around what you really care about. And I think actually being honest with ourselves about that can also help us be better at balancing different motivations more successfully because when you lie to yourself about having some selfish motivations, it can lead to weird behaviors where you're doing things that are sort of altruistic, but really, they're selfishly motivated because you're trying to deceive yourself. Where is it actually better to embrace that say, “I actually have some selfish motivations and some altruistic motivations. And in my altruism, I'm gonna really just focus on maximizing my impact.” And in myself, or stuff I'm going to focus on, making myself happy, or whatever it is, and not accidentally combining them into some weird, horrible hybrid of fake altruism, which I think is actually surprisingly common.
MICHAEL: I really agree with that. Yeah, everything you said. Also, I think one step is acknowledging those emotions that you might think are more selfish. And then also, I feel like on some level, just being aware of them, doesn't remove them.
SPENCER: It doesn't, but it lets you understand them, and then balance them with other things. Because I think almost all of us are neither purely altruistic nor purely selfish, right? It's like, we truly are a combination.
MICHAEL: And I found within myself, there's certain needs that are kind of like if you're really hungry, and you haven't eaten for four days, probably all you can think about is eating food. If you haven't slept for three days, that's possible, then all you can think about is going to sleep. And so I think there's a lot of these needs that we have that when I look back at myself that there's a temptation to make them, maximizing them, where a better approach is satisficing. So, for me, maybe there's a certain amount of recognition, I don't know what it is where automatically, the need goes away. I've definitely felt that with money, and with friendships, too. It's not like I don't feel. At one point in my life growing up, I was the only child. My dad died when I was young, and I’m half black, half white. So I felt alone, and I had that part of my identity, but now my wife and I just had our 20-year anniversary of meeting each other, two kids. So I don't feel deficiency or feel that aloneness, you know, and so maybe the recognition, and it's hard to say, but it goes back to the point of it being hard to predict. It's hard to predict how that will change for me over time, naturally.
SPENCER: I think of myself as having a lot of different intrinsic values, like things I care about for their own sake. But only three kind of like magisteria or like, kind of categories of intrinsic values that I'm trying to balance. And the first category is altruism. And in that category, I'm just trying to maximize the impact on the world. And it's something I care about a lot, making the world better. The second one is my community values. And those are very focused on the people I care about, you know, my friends, family, loved ones, and so on. And then the last is kind of the selfish realm where it's like my own happiness and pleasure and reducing my own suffering. And so to me, I'm always trying to balance those three things and not let any of those three categories overwhelm the others, right? If I put 99% of my effort in the altruism, then I think it kind of wrecks me as a person. If I put 99% of my efforts into the selfish part, I think it actually makes me into a much worse person and doesn't even necessarily make me happier, but definitely makes me a much worse person. So it's like, trying to find the right balance between the three. That's how I look at it. And in each of them, I have lots of more specific sub-values within those categories.
MICHAEL: How do you think about what the right balance is? Is it mainly an intuitive thing? Or if there's a deficiency in one, that's where you put your attention? Or is it like juggling?
SPENCER: Yeah, so I think this is an area where we don't have much else to rely on other than our intuition. But we can try to hone our intuition, again, through kind of thought experiments, saying, “Okay, well, would I be willing to trade-off, you know, this much of x for this much of y?” Right? Like, “What if I could help the world this much more, but it would require, you know, working an extra hour a day, is that worth it?” And really, there's no answer to that because it just depends on your values. You have to try to do a careful thought experiment internally and see, “Well, how much do I care about helping the world versus how much do I care about, like, having one hour or less of work a week, which might make me less stressed out and less exhausted or something like that?” And so it's just always about trying to find that balance. And I certainly am significantly less happy than I would be if I didn't focus as much on altruism, and trying to help the world because, because I care a lot about that I actually work significantly harder, have significantly less free time, and am significantly more stressed out. But it feels worth it because I genuinely value that side. But at the same time, I'm not going to let that completely dominate the other categories and you know, work myself to death or until I'm unhappy.
MICHAEL: Are there any resources you recommend for understanding one's intrinsic values, both the ones that are more conscious and obvious, but also the ones that are more selfish and that we try to hide?
SPENCER: Yeah, so we actually made an intrinsic values test on clearerthinking.org, which you can go take for free if you just search intrinsic values test. And that's the best resource I know of because we actually created it to try to fill a missing gap that we were finding where we didn't know of a resource that really collected all the different values that people seem to have. So we tried to do that, tried to be really comprehensive. We actually made this infographic of different intrinsic values based on our research that we were able to find. And then you can go learn about yours that way.
MICHAEL: Alright, that's awesome. You gave me something to do this weekend to reflect on.
SPENCER: Cool. So for the last topic, before we finish up, let's talk about celebrity, I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.
MICHAEL: Celebrity is really interesting to me for a few different reasons. I think one is, I feel that it's misunderstood a lot. So if we see somebody become famous, there's often a feeling like, “They're…well, they must not be smart, or they're just good at getting attention”, and look down on them like, “Oh, they're just that way because they're attractive or something like that.” And I think, number one, attention is a skill set, and being able to capture attention is a skill set and one we could become better at and think about the certain skill sets involved in that. And then number two, that it's really interesting that some of the people who are really good at this, capturing attention, they're able to switch between industries, and rise to the top. And so at the very least, I think it creates a really interesting discussion between, on the one hand, the one extreme has just become really, really good at a skill, and then the rest takes care of itself. And then the other extreme is, the key thing is your ability to get attention. And then attention leads to so many other things. You know, people believe you're more competent, it gives you more opportunities, those opportunities lead to more skill. And I just think within that continuum, I think probably people are a little bit too much towards the skill side, in a lot of certain fields. So for example, I think Elon Musk is really interesting in this sense. He's done over 12,000 tweets, which is just crazy, that number of tweets for somebody as busy as running these huge companies. And then he's built up a brand and a celebrity that really goes outside of just fortune 500 CEOs, and it has allowed him to, if he has any idea, he basically can get huge amounts of capital, the world's top talent, and leverage that celebrity to go into new fields. And, like him or hate him (most people hate him), but Donald Trump, I think, just purely abstracting away everything else, but just looking at the fact that he was a reality star, and able to take attention and capture attention, and then become the president of the United States. That's just surprising. And somebody like Kim Kardashian is another person where her family has built this huge — maybe the sisters have built — these huge multi-100-million-dollar, over a billion-dollar brands across lots of different categories. Their TV series has been on for 15 years. And this is just more of an area that I'm learning more about. And I've read five different books in the past few months, but I'm still in the early stages, but curious what you think about it.
SPENCER: Yeah, so I definitely see the point you're making that, you know, people often denigrate celebrities that they feel like aren't talented. You know, I don't think many people denigrate like, the top sports stars because it’s just obvious that they're so talented. But like, when you take someone who's like a reality television star or something like that people will denigrate them saying, “Well, they're not really skilled at anything, you know, what are they really famous for?” And I think you make a really thoughtful point, which is that there is something very often that these people are really good at, it's just a little bit harder to characterize. And it's something like drawing attention, which is a really powerful skill. On the flip side, I would say that I can also be somewhat sympathetic with the skeptics because sometimes that attention is drawn in a negative way where it feels like this person is actually making the world worse by drawing attention. On the other hand, some people draw attention in a way that feels really positive and seems to make the world better. So I agree with what you’re saying, but I would just add the caveat that some forms of attention seem to be negative. It's like, you can get attention by throwing a temper tantrum, or you can get attention by saving someone's life, right? And so, you know, attention can be good or bad.
MICHAEL: Yeah, I agree. And say the same time any skill set can be used in certain ways that could be positive or negative. I think one thing that's happening (let's say with Elon Musk) is whereas most CEOs don't voice their opinion about just personal things or politics — and you can make a case maybe he shouldn't be doing these things. And clearly, he's made a lot of mistakes — Elon Musk is tweeting things that I personally disagree with. But, you know, he's also just sharing, revealing more parts of themselves that are not PR oriented. And so that is often considered negative, but I don't know, maybe it's not as negative as we think, just if people share more, him sharing more his perspectives that not all of them are PC. Should he only share PC thoughts?
SPENCER: Do you think that there's a tendency for things that are more negative to go more viral? Or do you think that's a misconception?
MICHAEL: There's looking at it from the global perspective of, “Okay, what are the things that go viral? Are they positive or negative?” I actually don't know the numbers. Yeah, the conventional wisdom is there's more of a negativity bias.
SPENCER: Right, like things that make people angry, or upset or afraid that people claim that those are the things that tend to go viral more often, rather than the things that make people like surprised in a positive way, let's say. But I think we could definitely agree that things that are emotional go more viral, but then the question is the negative versus positive?
MICHAEL: Well, I mean, just because it's that way on a global level, in terms of a strategy is, I think there's a lot of, for me, like, I don't do negative articles, or try to take down things, I'm more trying to just have a learning lens. And so there's a ton of things that you can do that are really positive-oriented, and help people learn that kind of go viral. So I would definitely say that's true. And that, you know, for the people listening, I would focus on that. And the reason I'm interested in this (partially) is I grew up with the idea that if you're an entrepreneur or someone that you shouldn't have a public profile, really. Jim Collins has this idea of level five leadership, where he studied in Good to Great, a lot of the CEOs, you didn't even know their name, and they didn't have any news articles about them. And so I was really surprised when I saw this rise of celebrity CEOs. And I've gone through different phases of being against it or for it. And I think right now, in the fact that even that we're having this conversation is, at some level, saying we're both leaning towards it, you know, if you're having a podcast and devoting time towards there taking away from your businesses, but there's this, in a way, it's accepting that building, being a public intellectual, you know, to share your ideas, public. In a way, being a celebrity in your area has value.
SPENCER: So what do you see as some of the costs and benefits of putting yourself out there and trying to be known publicly versus just focusing on doing what you do well privately?
MICHAEL: I think one of the key distinctions to make is timeframe. And this goes back to what we're talking about with goal paradigm versus the emergent paradigm. So let's say you have a company, you have a goal, and you're spending five hours a week; being a thought leader, in the short-term, it's really probably not going to pay off for you, and can risk being a distraction. And on the other side of it, I think now we're building these brands that outlast the company, you know, our personal brand, and our personal reputation. We're probably gonna work on multiple companies, and we can bring that to ourselves, we can bring that with us to different companies, different situations, to different social causes. And we can't even predict what the future companies we're going to start to are. And so I feel like there's a benefit of having a personal reputation that's public and worth teaching people for just as a stepping stone to a future life that you can't predict. But it'll give you more opportunity to have an impact.
SPENCER: Yeah, this reminds me of the emergent thinking idea that we were talking about before, that it's not pursuing necessarily one specific goal, but it kind of sets you up for lots of possible future goals. And it both builds a platform and simultaneously is an opportunity to help other people.
MICHAEL: Exactly. And so for me, when it comes to things like these sorts of investments, where the short-term hurts your goal setting towards your most immediate goals, but long-term creates these whole new set of opportunities that wouldn't have existed. I really like making those investments. So investing in mental models, I've started the mental model club, of this really stable knowledge you could apply across fields that doesn't become outdated as rapidly and, you know, building a celebrity in one's niche. I think all of these are some of the best investments you can make, that you wouldn't make unless you were operating from this paradigm on some level.
SPENCER: Michael, thanks so much for coming on. This was great.
MICHAEL: Thank you, Spencer.
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