Luck plays a significant role in business success. Not just in the mere fact of success, but in the magnitude of any given company’s triumphs. We tend to overlook this reality because of a mental distortion called survivorship bias. It is a common cognitive failure, and a dangerous one because it obscures the distastefully harsh nature of the world.
We love to fantasize that emulating the habits of extraordinary entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Elon Musk will catapult the most talented imitators to the stars. In reality, there are plenty of would-be titans of industry who simply weren’t in the right place at the right time. Even with a great product, they could have failed to make the crucial personal connection that would have accelerated their endeavor to the next level.
Survivorship bias is best summed up by a sardonic XKCD comic: “Never stop buying lottery tickets, no matter what anyone tells you,” the stick figure proclaims. “I failed again and again, but I never gave up. I took extra jobs and poured the money into tickets. And here I am, proof that if you put in the time, it pays off!”
“The hard part is pinning down the cause of a successful startup,” a pseudonymous commenter on Hacker News wisely noted. “Most people just point at highly visible things,” such as hardworking founders or a friendly office culture. “The problem is that this ignores the 5,000 other startups that did all those same things, but failed.”
Ambitious people with incisive minds may be fewer than schmucks, and certainly multi-billionaire CEOs tend to be both brilliant and driven. Yet there are scads of brilliant, driven people who will never make it onto the cover of a prestigious magazine. Or any magazine.
Consider the mythology around hoodie-wearing college dropouts. Y Combinator founder Paul Graham once joked, “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg.” The quip is funny because it mocks a real tendency among venture capitalists: Pattern-matching to a fault.
In the same vein, a stunning proportion of partners at VC firms graduated from a handful of tony universities, as if the seal on a person’s diploma were what indicated investing abilities. (Granted, the incidence of leveraged social connections and postgraduate degrees may amplify that trend.)
Steve Jobs, along with Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, became fantastically successful after quitting school to start a company. “How many people have followed the Jobs model and failed?” Scientific Americanasked rhetorically in 2014. “Who knows? No one writes books about them and their unsuccessful companies.”
The press inadvertently helps perpetuate survivorship bias. People find famous entrepreneurs fascinating and inspirational, so journalists write about them extensively. The general public is primarily interested in the fates of companies that are household names or close to that status. And of course, reporters themselves are susceptible to survivorship bias just like anyone else. This is reflected in their coverage.
So what’s the antidote? Well, it’s boring: Being careful and thorough. Make sure to look for counterexamples whenever you think you’ve identified a trend or a pattern. Resources do exist, although not always on the first page of Google results.
For example, CB Insights compiled a list of 242 startup postmortems from 2014 through 2017. The analysts wrote, “In the spirit of failure, we dug into the data on startup death and found that 70% of upstart tech companies fail — usually around 20 months after first raising financing (with around $1.3M in total funding closed).”
Most of all, don’t let the headlines rule your worldview. “The press is a lossy and biased compression of events in the actual world, and is singularly consumed with its own rituals, status games, and incentives,” as three-time SaaS founder Patrick McKenzie put it.
Listen to Walter Lippmann, in his 1922 book Public Opinion. “Looking back we can see how indirectly we know the environment in which nevertheless we live,” Lippmann wrote, reflecting on the inaccuracies of tick-tock reporting during World War I. “We can see that the news of it comes to us now fast, now slowly; but that whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself.”
My friend @Ctzn5, who goes by JJ, came up with a useful corollary to Hanlon’s razor. I’m posting it here so that I can easily link to it whenever, instead of needing to dig through Twitter search every time.
To refresh your memory, Hanlon’s razor goes like this: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
JJ’s addition (which dates to 2016, as far as I know) points out the futility of Hanlon’s: “The intentionality of an agent with behavior sufficiently indistinguishable from malice is irrelevant.”
I think JJ’s razor could use rephrasing for pithiness, but I’m not sure what would be ideal. Perhaps: “Malicious or stupid, it doesn’t matter, because your options are the same.”
I kept a list of every book I read in 2017, inspired by my friend David Auerbach’s “Books of the Year” series. The end result is not particularly impressive. I finished forty books, most of which I read for pure entertainment (as opposed to edification).
However! I had a lot of fun! So that’s a win.
My final tally would have been much lower, but I downloaded the Kindle app again. Since the convenience of reading in bed skyrocketed, so did my book throughput. (Wrangling a paperback + book light while trying to avoid disturbing my partner… not ideal. Perhaps ironically, the guide on how to start reading again that I wrote ages ago gives the exact opposite advice.)
Unexpected side effect: In 2017 I read substantially fewer articles and essays than in previous years. It seems that my allocation of reading time is zero-sum. All in all, I’m happy to have traded a certain amount of enlightening longform articles for entertaining novels. During most of 2017, I felt mired in intellectual anhedonia, and that influenced my reading choices. I wanted escapism.
Over the course of 2017, I became markedly less curious. My intellectual enthusiasm waned dramatically. I don't know why. Getting older? Brain chemistry?
(Burnout from another bonkers year? All my energy being sucked up by my job? Probably a combination thereof.)
Anyway, the main point of this blog post is to publish and preserve the list of all the books I read in 2017. I considered sorting them by genre but 1) that would involve a lot of judgment calls and 2) chronological order will give you a more eclectic browsing experience. Like a bookstore! See, I’m charming, not lazy.
Fair warning: I used Amazon affiliate links throughout this post, because why the heck not. If you hate Amazon or hate kickbacks or whatever, you can Google the titles and authors.
Slate Star Codex reviewed Shem’s novel beautifully, which is why I bought it. The book “had a touch of magical realism, which turns out to be exactly the right genre for a story about medicine.” Because medicine is “a series of bizarre occurrences just on the edge of plausibility happening to incredibly strange people for life-and-death stakes, day after day after day, all within the context of the weirdest and most byzantine bureaucracy known to humankind.”
A very strong contender for Best Book I Read in 2017. After the nuclear apocalypse, history devours itself like an ouroboros. Science becomes religion becomes science becomes religion. Human nature doesn’t improve, but it still has its moments of transcendent goodness.
The subtitle, courtesy of Amazon: A Powerful Billionaire, the Sex Scandal that Undid Him, and All the Justice that Money Can Buy: The Shocking True Story of Jeffrey Epstein.
I bought this in the airport and read it on a flight to NYC. That excessively long, tabloid-style subtitle relays the subject and tone of the book better than I ever could. Enjoyable read, but I would be ashamed to recommend it for reasons that should be obvious.
This is the third contender for Best! Kaleidoscope Century is a rollercoaster mindfuck of a story. Here’s the Amazon review I wrote immediately after finishing the book: “I didn’t bother to understand the time travel and it was still great. Not for the faint of heart, but I’ve also read much more depraved books, so IMO some of the other reviews are overblown. If you liked the movie Memento, you will like this too.”
Hintjens writes about the psychology of psychopaths — really, he’s talking about sociopaths in general, but he calls them psychopaths — as a layperson extrapolating from personal experiences. Still, his analysis is not implausible. It’s certainly intriguing. He models sociopaths as predators who pursue normal people as prey, milking their victims dry of whatever resource the sociopath wants (money, sex, emotional energy, etc). The Psychopath Code is not as good or convincing as, say, The Gift of Fear, but it’s worth reading if you’re interested in the topic.
I have a huge weakness for Grisham and will read basically any book he’s written. I love suspense, schemes that are unveiled over the course of the entire book, and legal settings. The Runaway Juror provides all of that, especially a delicious slow reveal.
I finally got around to this cyberpunk classic. The characters and plot are weak compared to, say, Neuromancer, but the world-building is FANTASTIC. Sterling explores how transhumanism and politics may end up affecting each other.
This year I developed a fondness for apocalypse and post-apocalypse settings, with a particular affinity for zombies. (It was sparked by watching The Walking Deadwith my partner.) World War Z is SO FUN when you have that itch to scratch. Not every bit of the plot makes sense, as is customary when it comes to zombies, but Brooks gives you a sweeping tour of how the world might be transformed by Zed.
I can’t remember who recommended this book, but it was either David Auerbach or Adam Elkus. The ultimate “decadent elitism” spy novel. An odd but entrancing read.
I’m going to address the following five books as a chunk, because they’re all domestic noir, a genre that is basically Crazy Girl Chic meets crime thriller. I watched The Girl on the Train on an airplane and suddenly became obsessed with flawed female protagonists untangling murders or doing dark, twisted things. All of these books are excellent, especially the Gillian Flynn ones:
Sharp Objects is the best book out of the five, but Gone Girl had by far the most cultural impact. Flynn’s short story The Grownup is also great, if you just want to get a taste of the genre or her style.
I had the privilege of reading a draft of Auerbach’s memoir in order to give feedback. Bitwise still hasn’t been published, but you can preorder it. Auerbach is a subtle, fascinating thinker, and the book uses his life experiences to explore human nature and the effects that technology (specifically computing) have had on society.
There is very little in-depth journalism about weddings, unfortunately, so I had to put up with Mead’s snotty attitude about people who dare to spend more than $5,000 on getting married. (Personally, I don’t intend to splash out a huge amount, but c’mon, there’s nothing wrong with throwing an expensive party.)
Probably my longest read of the year, since it clocked in at 500+ pages. Cry to Heaven is a lyrical ode to the castrati (eunuch singers) who were the toast of the Italian opera during the eighteenth century. The book is surprisingly smutty, very chivalric, and totally gorgeous. I loved Cry to Heaven despite its lack of plausibility. If you enjoyed the movie The Red Violin, then you’d probably also enjoy Cry to Heaven.
A semi-fictional exploration of post-Holocaust trauma in the Jewish diaspora. (That was a mouthful, wasn’t it?) The Emigrants was recommended by my friend Jared Radin. It feels more like a series of thoughtful essays than a novel. I came away with a better understanding of why heritage is important to people… although I still don’t fully get it.
That’s a wrap! Every book I read in 2017, assuming I didn’t forget to write any of them down. (Which is possible, since I wrote 99% of this post before realizing, “Hey, didn’t I read Shibumi this year?”) I hope you got something out of perusing the list, and I’m somewhat surprised that you made it to the end. Feel free to recommend books that you think I should read in 2018!
The following blog post won’t make sense unless you followed the contentious process of Larry Garfield being exiled by Drupal’s community leadership. A substantial portion of the community itself found that decision appalling, so there was a lot of backlash. Followed by counter-backlash. Then counter-counter-backlash.
I wrote two articles about the events as they were unfolding, back in early 2017, and you can catch up on the broad outlines by reading them:
You’re also welcome to dig up the copious Medium, Twitter, and Reddit conversations.
At the center of the conflict — although the Drupal Association danced around saying so outright — was Larry Garfield’s former Gorean partner. She was going by the name Ayelet at the time, and it’s also the name she asked me to use when writing about her. Garfield and Ayelet had a Gor-style Master/slave relationship, a twist on the common BDSM arrangement.
Another twist: Ayelet was, and continues to be, nonverbal by choice. She also suffers from intense social anxiety. According to Ayelet and her partners, these symptoms are manifestations of her acute autism. Ayelet was in her early thirties during her relationship with Garfield.
Garfield brought Ayelet to a Drupal event, and people were confused and concerned by how they related to each other. Ayelet was perceived as oddly standoffish — to be fair, she is — and people didn’t like that Garfield told her what to eat. In general, people interpreted their interpersonal dynamic as authoritarian. The worry was that Ayelet was being abused in some shape or form.
Larry Garfield told me:
The article implies that my telling ayelet what to eat was an M/s thing. While that is a common attribute of M/s relationships, in her case it was because of her autism. She dislikes making small, inconsequential decisions where there’s no clear right/wrong answer (what to eat, what shirt to wear, which roll to take from a bread basket, etc.), so we got into the habit of me selecting that for her. She would lock-up in analysis paralysis if I didn’t. (Larger decisions with a stronger deciding factor she was able to make; she’s a vegetarian even though I am not, for instance, and I never pushed her to change that.)
The Drupal Association got wind of this, along with sundry documentation of Garfield’s interest in Gor. It’s worth noting that Gor is a controversial flavor of kink, and enthusiasts’ commitment can range from casual hobby to complete personal philosophy. On the continuum, Garfield appears to be closer to the latter, although he has disavowed the misogynistic aspects of Gor.
As you may have gathered from the preceding paragraphs, I’ve spoken to Ayelet, as well as her current partner, and the therapist she worked with while she was living with Garfield. In an extraordinary display of transparency, Ayelet and her current partner obtained all the notes that her then-therapist took when she was a patient, and shared them with me.
She also authorized the therapist to speak with me, so I could ask him questions. I verified his identity and contacted him independently. He requested that I not use his name because he doesn’t want to be professionally associated with the whole drama. At this point I’m just going to quote directly from the therapist’s email to me, just cutting out Ayelet’s legal name:
I am the therapist that worked with [redacted] aka Ayelet aka [redacted]. At the request of [redacted], Larry Garfield participated in sessions. At no point in our sessions did I communicate with Ayelet without Larry Garfield.
During the duration of our work together, I did not see any physical signs of abuse. No abuse was reported to me by [redacted] or by Larry. If there was any abuse going on, I was not aware of it. In my observations of [redacted] and Larry were operating in a fully consenting relationship between two adults both able of making independent decisions with regards to each person’s well-being. It was not apparent that either [redacted] or Larry were a threat or danger to one another.
He added, “At no time in the course of the treatment did I feel I need to activate a duty to warn. In fact, the records reflect accurately my experience with [Ayelet] and Larry as best I can recall.” What the records reflect is a profoundly emotionally troubled woman, who struggles with interacting with others, but is strongly bonded to her partner. My own interpretation is that Garfield acted as caretaker as much as romantic counterpart (as does Ayelet’s current partner).
The therapist’s statement, along with having reviewed his copious notes, leads me to personally feel about 95% sure that Ayelet’s relationship with Garfield was unorthodox, certainly, but not abusive or otherwise unethical.
But there’s that one complication he mentioned: “At no point in our sessions did I communicate with Ayelet without Larry Garfield.”
Gathering the information for this update was difficult because of Ayelet’s communication limitations. I don’t blame her for that — disabilities are what they are — but it does make me uncomfortable from a reportorial perspective. Along with being nonverbal, Ayelet doesn’t like to have her thoughts recorded permanently, regardless of the medium. She requested that I not quote her directly at all, only paraphrase her thoughts.
We were only able to speak with her current partner present. They flew out to San Francisco for this purpose, and we met at a hotel on September 22nd. She typed on a computer to me, and also used American Sign Language with her partner, which he translated. She did correct him at times, and she showed me the computer directly, without always showing it to him too.
The most in-depth communication I got from Ayelet was a written statement that she prepared beforehand. This was a substantial concession on her part, she said, even though she was able to erase it immediately after I read it.
Ayelet wrote about how disenfranchised she felt by the whole Drupal ordeal: Her ability to consent dismissed, her perspective not sought by the Drupal authorities (according to her and her partner), and her loved ones endangered. She is now very concerned that her current partner, who takes her to professional events with him, will face the same outrage and ostracism that Garfield did. Ayelet described how hard it was for her to get to a place in her life where she could be herself, autism and anxiety and all, without having to contort her personality in order to survive. That sense of safety and comfort felt threatened. She and her partner say that the fears won’t subside.
That’s something I worried about a lot in writing this story. It’s hard for me to imagine any other scenario where strangers’ casual observations would cause me to question whether a couple’s relationship was consensual. In general I go through life assuming that people’s relationships are kosher, absent clear and obvious evidence otherwise, or an overt allegation from one of the partners. But because Ayelet is autistic and doesn’t communicate in the ways that most people do, I was charged with falsifying the idea that she was essentially being held hostage.
I’m not sure what else I could have done. I still feel uneasy, worried about whether I handled reporting this update correctly. Should I have pushed harder to speak with Ayelet alone? Or would that be a cruel imposition on her? I don’t know. Even though I feel that abuse is an extremely unlikely possibility, given the preponderance of evidence, there’s no way for me to definitively state that Ayelet’s relationships are healthy. I’m not qualified to make that judgment, and the level of access I’d require to even try is impossible. Andrea Shepard pointed out, “Would having ‘healthy’ relationships be framed as a prerequisite for access to love and public life for anyone else?”
She added, “Allegations of abuse by third parties without the support of one of the partners can be a rhetoric of delegitimization, and particularly for someone with a lot of mental health history, are likely to have resonances of forced separation and denial of agency.”
So I don’t know if I did this story justice.
And to be honest, when you really want to get a story right, that can be paralyzing. You write and rewrite and go to sleep thinking about how to frame the events. The dual responsibilities are keenly felt: You have to be fair to the subjects of your story, and prove worthy of your sources’ trust. Equally, you are obligated to be as transparent as possible with your readers and represent the information accurately. That’s a hard balancing act, especially when you can only have an incomplete picture. The facts you’re able to definitively state may be straightforward, but the way in which you contextualize them often isn’t.
All of that is to say, I’m sorry that this update is messy and inelegant. If you have any questions, feel free to email me. I’ll edit this blog post with clarifications as needed. Here’s a snapshot of the original version, for accountability’s sake.
Some feedback relayed by Ayelet’s partner:
I asked her if she thought anything was untrue or wrong, and she did correct that she’s been to more than one Drupal event. She also doesn’t think she’s emotionally troubled, but wonders if that’s more of an opinion. And she doesn’t think social anxiety is accurate, because she doesn’t feel anxious in social settings, so long as people leave her alone or don’t think she’s being rude or worry there’s something wrong with her.
Native advertising has been on my radar for years, but I’ve never written a sponsored post before. Modup’s only request was that I link to the website, so I had complete creative freedom. I decided to explain why I think brainhacking is important. My perspective is an outgrowth of the cyberpunk paradigm that I chronicled for Ribbonfarm last year.
However! Before I get into all of that, the next section provides basic context for readers who aren’t familiar with nootropics or modafinil. Otherwise, scroll down to “In Favor of Manipulating the Wetware” and start there.
A Brief Introduction to Nootropics
Wikipedia describes nootropics as “drugs, supplements, or other substances that improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals.” Caffeine is by far the most widely used nootropic, although it’s doubtful that the average caffeine user thinks of it that way.
A more typical example of a “smart drug” is modafinil, the product that Modup sells. Fans of modafinil describe the effects that you’d expect from super-charged caffeine — boosted alertness, concentration, and general mental acuity. Modafinil’s official purpose is to treat narcolepsy and other sleep disorders. As a cognitive enhancer, the drug is very popular, perhaps the best-known nootropic that isn’t a mainstream product.
Modafinil is supposed to be prescription-only in the United States, but it’s one of those illegal things that rarely prompt punishment, like driving five miles over the speed limit. Plenty of Americans purchase and use modafinil on a regular basis without any issues. Nevertheless, I am not a lawyer, so don’t interpret the previous two sentences as legal advice.
Some people hate the idea of using drugs to alter their mental state. It seems unnatural and aberrant, or they worry that they won’t be themselves anymore.
I’m not one of those people. I love being able to tailor how I feel — that’s what my daily antidepressants do, and I owe my life to those pills. Being able to tweak my mindset more easily, in more ways, would be wonderful.
When I’m irritable, the usual culprit is hunger, and eating fixes the problem. In an ideal world, that’s how I would manage every part of my cognitive life. Feeling scatterbrained despite a tight deadline? Pop some focus pills, that’ll do that trick!
The level of control that I want isn’t available in real life. Neither is the degree of instant gratification — at least not yet! In the meantime, while we wait for someone to invent an omnipotent neuroscience AI or whatever it is that keeps Elon Musk up at night, nootropics are the next best thing.
The usual approach is to devise a nootropics “stack” (combination of substances) that meshes well with your personal biochemistry. The goal is to augment your existing cognitive abilities and make it easier to reach the “flow” state of optimal productivity. In principle, it’s exactly like drinking a couple of beers in order to hit the Ballmer Peak — but hopefully minus the downsides of alcohol.
To me, the most alluring aspect of nootropics is having more power over how I experience and interact with the world. But I try not to fool myself by exaggerating what’s possible. No pill in the world will double my IQ, reprogram all my bad habits, and dispose of pesky emotional baggage.
So far I haven’t assembled a nootropics stack that works for me. I know that if I do, the best-case scenario looks like temporary periods of incremental improvement. I can imagine being a smidgen better at everything, just a little bit sharper and extra motivated. That would be a fantastic result, well worth pursuing! But I admit that it lacks Hollywood drama.
I should also note that simple lifestyle basics are the most reliable and effective self-improvement regimes. It’s wise to prioritize eating a balanced diet, sleeping as much as you need to, and exercising regularly. (For what it’s worth, the /r/Nootropics FAQ backs me up on that. But no, I am not great at practicing what I preach.)
Although I try to maintain reasonable expectations, I still find the world of nootropics exhilarating. It feels like the future is extending a helping hand to the present. Accordingly, I love the gritty sci-fi glamour of “brainhacking,” an occasional synonym. “Nootropics” is anodyne, even clinical — the sound is corporate. It could easily be a brand name. Whereas “brainhacking” elevates the mundanity of drinking coffee in the morning or worrying about micronutrients.
On top of that, I appreciate the linguistic nod to the cypherpunks who unleashed everything. The nootropics ecosystem couldn’t function in the analog world.
Most importantly, the internet obviates the need to ask medical gatekeepers for permission. I may not be a full-on libertarian or a crypto-anarchist, but I have enough of a rebellious streak to resent a nanny state built to perpetuate regulatory capture.
Using nootropics is a potent expression of personal agency, both micro and macro. Brainhacking means exercising your rights to self-determination and free association.
Thank you to Modup.net for sponsoring this blog post! Please consider Modup if you’re looking to buy modafinil online. Paying with bitcoin gets you a hefty 33% discount. (That’s 13% more than the vendor I used recently!)
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