Posts Tagged ‘ideas’

March 29 2011

Disregard ideas, acquire assets

by Hang

There's the romantic notion of two complete nobodies, coming up with the next great idea and forging off to change the world. While that does happen, I believe that it's not the optimal path towards controllable business success.

There's a ton of brilliant 22 year old kids these days all churning through the same bucket of rather trivial ideas for web startups. Games! Group Messaging! Coupons! The reason why is that when you're 22 and just out of school, there's only a limited scope of ideas that it's actually practical for you to execute on. What I've found though, is that the most exciting startup ideas are mostly not in this pool but are, instead, backed by a hidden asset.

When I talk about assets, cash is the least interesting of all of these. Instead, I'm talking about more intangible assets like skills, reputation, relationships, attention & fame. I'm of the strong opinion that the most reliable path towards startup success is to focus relentlessly on acquiring interesting assets and then execute on the startups that naturally fall out of them.

Stack Overflow is the perfect example of this. The software that runs Stack Overflow is actually relatively trivial and really could have been built by anyone at anytime. What made Stack Overflow possible were two hidden assets:

  1. Without an initial community of high quality users, Stack Overflow would have died. Joel Spolsky & Jeff Atwood ran, at the time, two of the most popular programming blogs in the world and were able to generate sufficient interest and attention to get SO over the initial cold start hump
  2. Without great software design SO would not have been able to retain users at the rate they did. Joel Spolsky & Jeff Atwood had both been thinking very deeply about the structure and organization of social software for a very long time and avoided a number of obvious mistakes in the fundamental foundations of the software. Here's a blog post from Joel in 2003, thinking about these issues:… and the Stack Overflow podcasts are a secret mine of excellent social experience design insight:…

Neither Joel or Jeff had any grand, overarching vision of starting Stack Overflow when they started blogging for the first time. Instead, they just diligently worked to each build this amazing asset. But by building this asset, they opened up a thousand new, good startup ideas that were unavailable to most other people in the world and all they needed to do was to pick the one most appealing to them and execute on it.

I talk to a lot of different early stage startups these days and, inevitably, the ones I'm most excited about are those with a hidden asset backing them. Joe Edelman who built one of the most sophisticated reputation systems in the world at Couchsurfing is now deploying that asset towards Groundcrew. Gabe Smedresman who ran real world social games at Yale is now deploying that asset towards Gatsby. Yishan Wong who is one of the one of the world experts at startup engineering management is now deploying that asset towards Sunfire Offices. Sutha Kamal who is one of the most relentless business development minds I've seen at work is now deploying that asset towards Massive Health.

Inevitably, the story was that these entrepreneurs focused on acquiring assets and they reached a point where they couldn't not do a startup with them. It became like walking through a field of low hanging fruit and wondering which ones they should pick.

I think the conventional startup narrative is mistaken in that it casts the world into those who are temperamentally suited towards only doing startups and everyone else in the world who can be regarded as a brighter species of sheep. Instead, practically every one of the entrepreneurs in that list has spent significant time being an employee, quietly building up assets that would later become valuable. Many of them were even reluctant to become entrepreneurs.

What I take away from this is that I would like for a new startup narrative to emerge. One that focuses on the less sexy aspects of building a startup which is the 10 years before you write the first piece of code. I'd like for people to start thinking of startups as less something you decide to do and more an opportunity that gets handed to you. I'd like for people to focus first on making real contributions to the world before feeling like the world owes them a startup success. It's things like this that are the key towards shifting the ecosystem into a more mature startup culture and most optimally deploy the scarce human capital that we have.

Disregard ideas, acquire assets.

Post on Quora

The persistently stupid idea

by Hang

There are only three types of ideas.

There are some ideas which are really smart ideas that sound smart on the surface and people repeat them to each other over and over again. If you come up with that smart idea independently, then you will tell someone and they’ll go “yeah, that’s already been thought of already, see X”. Using Vitamin C to prevent scurvy, realizing that worrying doesn’t make a situation better and stopping yourself from being a “nice guy” if you ever want success with women are all examples of this. These are not the ideas you have to be worried about.

There are some ideas which are stupid and sound stupid on the surface. If you come up with that stupid idea independently, then you will tell someone and they’ll go “that’s stupid and here’s why”. Here are 10 of them. These are not the ideas you have to be worried about.

There are some ideas which are stupid but sound smart on the surface. If you come up with that stupid idea independently, then you will tell someone and they will go “huh, that’s interesting”. These are the ideas you have to be worried about because they are the persistently stupid ideas. Persistently stupid ideas come to a person, are tried, fail and then disappear, leaving very little trace of their existence after they are gone. As a result, each generation comes up with the same persistently stupid ideas anew and wastes energy and resources chasing the same illusory pot of gold. This is why you have to be worried about them. The only way to avoid persistently stupid ideas is to learn how to become reflexively allergic to stupid.

I harp on this same theme a lot but I’m writing about it today because I was exposed twice in the same hour to two different persistently stupid ideas. Now, since both the people who these came from are personal friends of mine, I want to emphasize that I think the ideas presented are stupid but I, in no way, think the people who sent these to me are stupid. In fact, I discuss this further below. Anyway, onto the stupidities:

The first is an NPR article that repeats the assertion that when our privacy disappears, maybe shame will disappear along with it.

The second is an email in which in which a friend extols the virtue of video chat:

video chat is even better because the software just fades away and it’s true communication. It doesn’t require building software to support intent, it just creates a wide enough channel for communication and gets out of the way.

Both of these are persistently stupid ideas but I’m not going to tell you why they’re persistently stupid ideas.

Because what I just realized about persistently stupid ideas is that they’re perversely more harmful to smart people that dumb people. Each of these persistently stupid ideas has 100 different reasons why they could be wrong. But 99 out of those 100 aren’t the real reason and they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

If you were dumb and you came to be with a persistently stupid idea, I could take pity on you and provide you with any one of those reasons and you would accept it as valid and gently be persuaded from taking the stupid path. However, if you’re smart, I know that you’re going to see through any of the bad arguments and I would be forced to come up with the one correct argument to satisfy you.

But the truth is, I’ve forgotten what the reason is that both of these are a persistently stupid idea. At one point, I had read the literature, carefully constructed the argument, considered it from all sides, correctly rejected all the wrong arguments against it, worked through the implications of the correct reason, concluded that it was a persistently stupid idea, then promptly emptied out my brain of all that datum except that it was persistently stupid.

As a result, I’m not even going to try and persuade you that these are persistently stupid ideas. If you don’t believe me, you’re just going to have to put in your own time and effort to independently investigate them. However, the smarter you are, the harder it will be for you to figure out why they are persistently stupid because you will correctly reject all the utterly random, poorly thought out shit people pull out to justify it’s stupidity.

This is, perhaps, why I’m so fascinated by this topic of stupidity. Because it’s a unique curse that, paradoxically, affects the smartest of us the most.

The Silicon Valley “Bubble”

by Hang

A lot of people are rightfully worried about the “bubble” that exists around Silicon Valley. In the two weeks I’ve spent immersed deeply in the Bay Area culture, this is the best way I’ve found to explain what’s actually going on:

In the valley, people are willing to adapt their behavior to fit the software.

Everywhere else in the world, people adapt the software to fit their behavior.

Let me explain through an example: One of the things I talk a lot about is how corporate shared calendering systems suck because they’re all built according to a list of features without a consideration of the narratives that people are wanting to express through them. Everywhere else in the world, when I’ve discussed this, people join in the gripe and tell me crazy stories of their own about socially tricky situations made awkward due to shared calendering systems. It’s only in the valley where I tell people this and they go “That’s not a problem for us, we adopted this corporate culture which means our shared calendering system doesn’t suck anymore”. Let me repeat that again for emphasis:

We turned our entire corporate culture upside down to accommodate the whims of a piece of software we wanted to adopt.

That’s crazy. Absolutely, bat shit insane crazy and that’s what’s made the valley such a great place to build software. The valley is uniquely able to take a piece of software in it’s rough, early adopter phase and figure out how to mold their lives so that this software becomes useful. This is the classic early adopter pattern and it happens to people everywhere around the world but only in the valley is it a cultural norm and you’re looked at weirdly if you’re not willing to join in. It’s only in the valley where I’ve met companies who now have their entire corporate philosophy centered around being OK with you publicly declaring that you’re going to take a nap in your office and that you should not be disturbed solely because their shared calendering system didn’t have the effective privacy controls necessary to navigate that tricky social dance.

This attitude is so pervasive and so normal within the valley that it’s taken an outsider like me to come in and point out to people how goddamn weird that is. When I put it the way I do, people get pretty disturbed and rightly so. Because, while the valley is a uniquely great place to be building software, it’s not a great place to be designing it. Over and over again, I’ve encountered the pervasive attitude of “Well, the average user will just have to make this fundamental shift in the way they conduct their lives and it’ll be great. They’ll do it because the benefits will outweigh the costs”. That companies don’t understand on a gut level how unrealistic such a statement is for anyone living outside of the valley is, IMO, the primary cause of failure for startups that never manage to move out of the valley.

I really don’t know what the solution to this problem is except to become acutely conscious of it and to fight that impulse at every turn. There’s a certain ambivalence I have towards moving to the valley as a result of this, this visceral fear of being digested by the valley process and emerge the other end as a pod person. A year ago, the last time I was planning to move down here, I don’t know if I would have had sufficient life experience or insight to articulate the pattern that happens in the valley. If were to avoid the valley for another year, who knows what insights I’d be able to articulate then that I’m still not able to articulate now?

The Anti-Stupid

by Hang

I spend a lot of my life trying to avoid stupidities.

There are some projects you can dedicate years of blood, sweat and tears to and, after they have failed, you do a post-mortem on them and conclude that you had basically the right approach but a confluence of lack of ability and bad luck prevented you from succeeding. There are other project that you can similarly dedicate years of blood, sweat and tears to and, with the benefit of hindsight, you think “well, that was stupid”. Trying to build a perpetual motion machine, communism and treating women like they were men with more bumps are all examples of the latter.

The way I see it, being smart can get you a lot of places but it’s pretty hard. Avoiding stupidities, on the other hand, confers a lot of the benefits of smartness without having to do all that hard work.

However, interesting stupidities are, by their nature, invisible from the surface. Everyone knows that eating glue is a stupid thing to do but to be a person that does not eat glue doesn’t make you smart, it just makes you not-retarded. The interesting stupidities are the ones that seem superficially smart on the surface but contain some subtle stupidity that is not apparent upon first glance.

The problem is, smartness produces monuments whereas stupidities produce corpses. Every instance of a successful idea or product is the result of some underlying smartness and you can use that monument to learn what that smartness was. Stupidities only produce failures which get buried under the sands of time. What this means is that there are people right now, stumbling along paths strewn with buried corpses, conducting a random walk until the land mine of stupidities blows them up.

Paradoxically, this means that if you want to avoid stupidities, the way to do so is to become even more stupid. It’s only by repeatedly trying stupid things that you can learn where stupidities lie and how to spot them. Being stupid as a reflex is the best way to hone your “wait, this is stupid” detector and gives you a sixth sense about how to spot those buried landmines of stupidities.

The average person has a hard time being anti-stupid because they cannot get past their fear of appearing stupid in front of their friends and peers. To be willingly stupid is an embarrassing thing and it gets you ostracized from polite society.

I’ve found it helps a lot to have a supportive group of friends who are used to my off-the-wall stupidities and take it all in stride as a minor eccentricity of mine. I’ve pretty much wired myself now so that when my brain says “That’s a stupid idea”, my mouth says “Yes” before my brain can say “Wait, what?”. This has lead to me being embroiled in countless deeply embarrassing situations.

I’ve learned that going up to a woman and telling her you have a condom that’s expiring that night so it would be best that it be used is not an effective pickup line. I’ve learned that the campus College Republicans are a drastically crazy group and that it’s really uncomfortable to be the only foreigner & person of color sitting in on a discussion on how immigration is ruining America. I’ve learned that not nearly enough people, when randomly accosted on the street, are familiar with the Battle of Agincourt. I’ve also learned that, if it’s your birthday, you can ask a very nice Ethiopian man very nicely and he will drive you and 9 of your friends 300 miles from Seattle to Portland and then back to Seattle in a H3 stretch limousine for the cost of gas, a lap dance and a steak. These are experiences that I never would have experienced if I wasn’t willing to be so reflexively stupid.

I’ve been meeting a lot of people this week and it’s a tragic thing for me to see many smart people waste their talent going down paths which I’m scared may be stupid. So this is an appeal to all of the smart people in the world: Be more anti-stupid.

PS: As an aside, my impression is that this essay may be somewhat novel within the professional community but old hat within the creative community. This, perhaps, explains the penchant for artists to dress in odd clothes and adopt pet eccentricities; they are a disguise that allows them to move through conventional society without living in it. To have a homeless bum rant to you about crazy, stupid ideas is annoying but not unexpected, to have the same from a celebrated artist who only eats foods beginning with a vowel is charming and exotic, to hear it repeated by a man in a business suit is disturbing and subversive.

Technological Progress happens via Simulated Annealing

by Hang

If you ever learn about optimization, the second technique they teach you after “hill climbing” is something called “simulated annealing“. Forget trying to work through Wikipedia’s definition of it, here’s how I mentally visualize it:

Imagine you your job was to find the highest point on a random Frank Gehry designed building, say the Hotel Marques de Riscal. The problem is, you’re blind so you can only determine the height of one point at a time.

Frank Gehry Hotel

Hotel Marque de Riscal

One way to do it would be to take the entire outside shell of the structure and turn it upside down and then drop a ball bearing in it. When the ball bearing stops moving, you declare that point to be probably the lowest point.

Upside down hotel

Upside Down Hotel Marque de Riscal

In the field of optimization, this is called hill climbing and it sure is fast but the problem with it is obvious: the ball bearing will likely drop into some rut on the side of the building before reaching the bottom (aka: a local minima).

Simulated annealing is like adding a giant paint shaker and imagining the ball bearing getting heavier over time. At first, the ball bearing is light as a feather and every random vibration is going to make it bounce around, sometimes to a lower point but also sometimes to a higher point. Over time, as the ball bearing gets heavier, it becomes progressively harder to jostle out of it’s rut but when it does move, it moves to a lower rut some distance away. Finally, the ball bearing becomes so heavy it’s virtually impossible to budge, at which point, you declare that position to be probably the lowest point. Simulated annealing can still get trapped in local minima but it usually does a hell of a lot better than hill climbing.

Now, imagine that the ball bearing is society and it’s searching for the solution to a problem like, say, attaching sheets of paper together. If you’re living in any time since the 1930’s, it’s overwhelmingly likely that you’ll be reaching for a “Gem” style paperclip.

A Gem style paperclip

What many people don’t realize is that the Gem paperclip wasn’t the only type of paperclip invented. In fact, the 1909 Websters Dictionary entry on paperclips referred to the “Konaclip” version which was considered the prototypical paperclip of the time.

A Konaclip style paperclip

From 1864 when the first paperclip patent was granted, till 1930 when the gem became dominant, there were literally dozens of designs for paperclips (which, thankfully, has been documented on the Paperclip section of the Early Office Museum). But since the 1930’s, technological progress in the paperclip arena has ground to a halt with the entirety of society standardizing on the Gem and every other style dying in obscurity (For a much more detailed look into the paperclip’s fascinating history, I refer you to the book The Evolution of Useful Things).

To explain this history, I refer back to the simulated annealing analogy. In the early days of paperclipdom, society wasn’t particularly attached to any one design so there was very little momentum in the system. Even a tiny vibration was enough to make another design viable. However, as time went on, certain styles of paperclips started to have legacy effects and it became a race between a few, select alternatives, most notably the Konaclip & the Gem. Finally, society had settled so firmly upon the Gem that it it would take the most extraordinary effort to have any other design supplant it which is why it remains the paperclip of choice to this day. In Simulated Annealing terms, the entropy was now so low that it became practically impossible to escape from a local minima.

Indeed, one of the characteristics of simulated annealing is that it goes through 3 distinct phases. A period of fluid, diverse shifting, a long period of stagnation punctuated by occasional radical shifts and then finally stability from which only incremental improvement is possible.

Looking at the pattern of historical developments of other technologies, it’s possible to spot these same shifts in between phases.

Before 1973, there was a diverse ecosystem of physical interaction paradigms for desktop computing. The most notable examples from that era were Ivar Sutherland’s Sketchpad using light pen interaction and Alan Kay’s tablet style Dynabook.

Sketchpad circa 1962

Sketchpad circa 1963

Dynabook circa 1963

Dynabook circa 1972

Then, in 1973, the Xerox Alto was released and virtually halted the progress of computer interfaces from that point forward. Nearly every desktop computer today is a recognizable descendant of the Xerox Alto.

Xerox Alto circa 1973

The list of genuine innovations in physical UI that have been adopted since the Alto are as laughably few in number as they are trivial in scope. In rough order of importance: Speakers, microphones, webcams, the mouse wheel, wireless networking, higher resolution screens, a numpad, flatter screens & the Windows/Command button (this is not a sampling, it’s the complete list).

The list of potential innovations are as staggering as they are futile: Pen computing, Tabletop computing, Tablet computing, Augmented & Virtual Reality, Touch based interaction, Multitouch, MultiMouse, Bimanual Interaction, Single Display Groupware, 3D displays and the list goes on and on. In the last 37 years, billions of dollars have been poured into these alternative technologies in a vain attempt to supplant the Xerox Alto as the dominant paradigm with pretty much nothing to show from all that work except a bunch of pretty pilot projects.

And with each passing year, it’s become more and more difficult to foster a viable alternative paradigm because more and more gets invested into keeping Alto style computing firmly entrenched. Software is designed for a keyboard+mouse+screen, people have invested time learning the intricacies of a WIMP OS and thousands of companies have a vested interest in keeping the system entrenched.

The same pattern can be found in keyboard layouts with QWERTY, programming languages with C, web standards with HTML+CSS+JS, Office Productivity with Microsoft Office, Email with Eudora and so forth. In every instance, a period of rapid innovation was brought abruptly to a close with a dominant technology and, from that point forward, genuine changes in the status quo happen at best every decade and only after extraordinary effort *.

Almost every discussion of a new innovation focuses on the details of the innovation almost exclusively without considering the broader social context. Such discussion manages to miss the vital point that adoption of an innovation depends only a tiny bit on the actual innovation and almost completely on the current progress of society. Once a technology has reached a certain maturity point, whatever local minima that society has currently reached will establish itself be the dominant technology until the end of time regardless of what technological progress has occurred or has yet to occur. Like a game of musical chairs, it’s all about when the music stops. If you’ve managed to grab a seat at the table, then you’ll stay there forever, if you missed your spot, then it’s going to take extraordinary effort to regain it, no matter how much of an improvement you are over the status quo.

* This same model also explains why European & Japanese mobile & broadband technology is so far in advance of the US even thought the US were the pioneers of both technologies. Because the US started early, it’s industry matured around an earlier technological & social standard which caused it to fall behind the less mature, more technologically limber peers.

a numpad,
August 5 2009

The Dream Job

by Hang

The Dream Job is so simple I’m wondering why I’ve never heard anyone propose it before.

I’m going to start off describing The Dream Job by the most inconsequential and most easily changed details because, well… you’ll see.

The Dream Job pays one million dollars per year and only one is offered every year. Every application for The Dream Job must be made public. Once you’re hired, the only power the employer has over you is firing you. That’s it, those are the only overt constraint for The Dream Job, everything else flows from there.

You don’t apply for The Dream Job by sending in a resume. Well… you could but you’re not likely to get it. There’s only 1 Dream Job a year, you need to dazzle. The Dream Job is only for people who first of all love that company very very much but that love is tinged with a deep channel of ambivalence. It’s for people who are driven with the desire that this company, while great, could be so much greater if they could only fix this one thing and you are the right person to fix it.

I would be deeply, deeply tempted if Newegg offered The Dream Job (There are a half dozen other companies with which I would apply for a Dream Job without hesitation but I’m holding those closer to the chest as they’re related to stuff I’m actually working on). Classic usability isn’t even my field anymore but The UI behind online computer buying has essentially remained static since the mid 90’s and every time I want to purchase a computer online, it makes me deeply angry that the user experience is still so poor from a pure usability standpoint. I have so many ideas bursting in my about how you could revolutionize the user interface to make it orders of magnitude more productive and fitting with the tasks that people have. Give me a week to prepare and an hour to present to Newegg and I’m utterly confident I could convince them hiring me at a million dollars a year would be a bargain. Here’s a simple idea Newegg: Build a braindead reliable text parser so that I can paste the shopping cart from any other web store and you can tell me how much identical or similar items would cost at Newegg. Why should price comparing systems be a laborious half hour of hunting for equivilant components on multiple sites when some simple engineering could reduce it down to seconds?I managed to come up with 8 other ideas inside of an hour before I got bored at how easy it was.

The Dream Job is not for everybody. The freedom offered by it sounds alluring but when you consider the full implications of it, can also be slightly terrifying. Once you get in, you can do literally whatever the hell you want but that also means not a single person will actually know what you do until you sell them on it. By definition, you’re hired to do something at that company that’s never been considered before so you’re starting off with nobody obligated to give you the time of day. It’s up to you to build up the support within the company and selling people on your vision or your mission is dead before it’s even born. There’s a reason why a company full of otherwise smart people hasn’t been able to see a problem that’s so obvious to you and it most probably stems from a complete difference in cultures. You need to be not only a visionary but also an anthropologist and a translator. On top of that, you need to constantly justify your $1 million dollar expense or you will be swiftly canned. The Dream Job requires not only brilliance and passion but also deft people skills and the ability to work around showstopper obstacles.

So, given all this, why one million dollars? Simply because, even in this day and age, one million dollars still means something. It still has that allure when those crisp syllables roll off your tounge. The actual number is meaningless, mostly symbolic, and the bargain of the century to boot. Anyone that brilliant willing to work for one million dollars a year is clearly not in it for the money. Instead, the requirements for The Dream Job are simply the natural result of the observation that hiring only for the skills you know you need is a rather stupid way of doing things.

The conventional way of hiring is you first figure out what resources you need, how much you want to pay them, where they slot in the org chart and then you search for a candidate. This was great when your grandparents were busy climbing the corporate ladder but why don’t we shake it up a bit. How the hell is a company supposed to know what it needs anymore? If you’re a process nerd, then you’re going to hire a bunch of other process nerds and build a great process nerd company culture but how can you ever know what you really need is a deep design aesthetic as well? Similarly, if you’re a design person, how are you going to find out how an obsessive A/B tester can transform how you build? The simple answer is that you never will with a conventional hiring model. Instead, you need them to tell you how they want to do their job.

Everything about The Dream Job stems from transferring the onus of responsibility of defining your job from the employer to the employee. The limit of one a year is what gives it the specialness, the prestige and the cache neccesary to attract the rare people who could handle such responsibility. The million dollars and the enforced hands off approach is what gives them the confidence that The Dream Job is something the company is taking seriously and is committed to integrating as a core part of how they do business. The requirement that applications be public is a filter that screens out the chuckleheads and leaves only those who have a credible chance of deserving it. The requirements are not carved into stone, they’re simply my interpretation of what would be the minimum required for The Dream Job to even work.

 The Dream Job is so stunningly obvious that it must be wrong. I can’t possibly have been the first person to have come up with this. But if it’s wrong, it’s probably at least going to be wrong in an interesting way. If you’re in a position to, do you have the balls to offer a Dream Job? If so, you better hurry because I know the first chance I get to scrape a million spare dollars together, this is what I’m doing.

the ego dilemma

by Hang

The Ego Dilemma

I love meeting engaged people when I’m drunk because it allows me to ask my most drunkly assholish question ever:

“So, are you guys going to sign a pre-nup?”

Roughly two thirds of the time, they give some version of an acceptable answer:

  • Yes
  • No because we have no assets
  • No because, while it minimizes the fallout from a divorce, we feel it increases the chance of one by starting the marriage off on a wrong footing so we’d rather not risk it.

But about one third of the time, I get my absolutely most favorite answer of all which is

  • No because we don’t believe it’s likely we’ll get divorced.

It’s my most favorite answer of all because, after many years of experience, I’ve found that it’s the best way to force people to actually grapple with the ego dilemma.

The ego dilemma goes something like this:

“So, why don’t you think you’re going to get a divorce? Nobody enters a marriage expecting a divorce yet many of them do”

“Well, sure, other people get divorces but we have X & Y and that makes our marriage special”

“Well, yeah, but there were plenty of people who thought they were also X & Y at the start of their marriage but they eventually found out that didn’t help them much in the end”

“OK, but did those people have Z-which-is-so-uniquely-rare-only-we-have-it?”

“You’re right, they didn’t have Z, but when asked a similar line of questioning, they had the same reaction except they put in Z* which was unique only to their marriage, it didn’t help them much”

“Look… we’re just SPECIAL, OK?”

It’s the “Look, we’re just SPECIAL” which is the hallmark of the ego dilemma, it might not ever be as blatantly obvious as that but it’s always hidden in there somewhere.

The ego dilemma is the belief, against reasonable evidence, that there is something unique contained in your ego that challenges previous historical experience. In short, the ego dilemma would be a perfectly reasonable assumption if you lived in a movie where you were the main character but a deeply tricky one in the real world.

Other example ego dilemmas include believing you’re of significantly above average intelligence, setting aside your life so that you can “make it” as a famous actor/musician/sports star/writer, thinking you WILL get the girl with that desperately creepy romantic gesture or, if you’re coming here from Hacker News, assuming that your startup has a reasonable chance of success commensurate with the effort you’re putting into it.

The truly frustrating thing about the ego dilemma is that it tells you nothing of any value. Recognizing that you’re caught in an ego dilemma doesn’t mean that you’re wrong. You could, after all, be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Someone has to be after all. But also likely is that you’re a clueless idiot who’s utterly convinced at your own fallacious arguments. We know this intellectually because we’ve all experienced the ego dilemma from the outside, you’re trying to convince someone that they’re just plain wrong but they keep on returning back to what makes them SPECIAL. And if you’re experienced it from the outside, it’s meant that someone’s experienced it from the outside at you.

When confronted with the ego dilemma, there are two wrong reactions and one right reaction.

The first wrong reaction is to aggressively try and deflect yourself away from an ego dilemma: “Oh, yeah, I probably SUCK at programming but I just don’t know it yet”. STFU: That you can even concieve that you suck at programming is proof positive that you’re above average and your sanctimonious faux-modest attitude isn’t fooling anyone, including yourself. Deep inside, you still think you’re an awesome programmer and so you still have an ego dilemma.

The second wrong reaction is to instantly assume the question is futile and throw your hands up in the air. “Who can ever KNOW if I’m smart or not?”. Obviously, you don’t live in a world where you believe that to be true. You still think and act like a person who believes they are smart.

Unfortunately, the right way to deal with the ego dilemma is tricky and complex and deserves an entire post of it’s own. It really involves revamping your entire belief structure into something deeply probabilistic with a much finer and more nuanced representation of ignorance which I promise to write at a later date when I’ve fully processed what I’m actually doing.

But the absolutly most fascinating thing about the ego dilemma, and the reason why I so love torturing the almost married is that, even if you fully agree with and accept the argument and logic behind the ego dilemma, even if you’re an otherwise intelligent and reasonable person who doesn’t commit the obvious errors against rationality, when confronted with an actual ego dilemma from the inside, knowledge of the ego dilemma helps you barely at all.

The ego dilemma is what I call an unthinkable thought, you can almost see it slip around people’s head, evading capture. It’s so fascinating to me watching otherwise intelligent people utterly unable and unwilling to grapple with the ego dilemma set in front of them.

Back to our married couple:

“So you understand what an ego dilemma is now?”

“Yes, it all seems very logical and well thought out”

“So you see how it applies to you signing a pre-nup?”

“Oh? No, that doesn’t count, our pre-nup is special”

“What? But saying it’s special is how you RECOGNIZE it’s an ego dilemma”

“It is… but this is a special exception to the ego dilemma because of…”


The no obnoxious rich people paradox

by Hang

I said to a friend last night that the first thing I would do when I became rich would be to hire someone to walk around with me and write down every word I uttered and then ritually burn every page as soon as it was filled. Truthfully, I probably wouldn’t do that if I were actually rich. You wouldn’t do it either but you get why it should be done. Now, I could intellectualize about how it’s all about male dominance rituals and signaling relative status but the truth is that if you don’t understand this on a gut level, you might as well move on, the rest of this post is going to be nonsense to you.

In ancient times, it was practically expected that the emperor would have a harem. After all, what was the point of power if not the ability to impregnate many fertile women? And yet, just 10 years ago, the most powerful person in the world almost got impeached for engaging in an act of non-procreative sex with a not particularly attractive woman. The power of life and death over slaves got morphed into the power of hiring and firing of servants which morphed into the worry that perhaps the domestic assistants wouldn’t be fully self actualized if you weren’t on a first name basis with them. Even the glutton is gone; as recently as 1917, you had the likes of Diamond Jim Brady who represents himself admirably in the gallery of great historical gluttons but who today could fill his generously sized shoes? The conspicuous consumption that remains today has sublimated into a form of simpering conformity that’s oh-so-dull to watch. Houses, Private Jets, Watches, Art & Wives… yawn (or, if you’re black or secretly want to be black: Cribs, Bitches, Bling & Cred). None if this inspires the poor to feel the visceral self-loathing of inadequacy nearly half as well as the obnoxiously creative rich of the past. Where did the panache and the admirable fuck you attitude go?

Understanding the no obnoxious rich people paradox may be the key to also understanding the no evil geniuses paradox. In both cases, the paradox is that it’s so easy to imagine these people existing that it’s difficult to imagine them not existing. Why, the only difference standing between you and an obnoxious rich person (apart from the money, duh) is your innate goodness and lord knows innate goodness is in short supply. So where did all the obnoxious rich people go?

Here’s my new stab towards an answer: Wealth used to represent a certain kind of freedom that it doesn’t now. A rich person today can usually get around most of the controls put there by society but a rich person in the past could also get around all the controls that we put on ourselves. In short, wealth allowed for one to enable the purest expression of the id. The reason why you can even imagine the obnoxious rich person is because, deep down, your id is kind of a douchebag. If you were a rich person in the past, you would have not only the desire but also the permission to act on your douchebag impulse. Fortunately, modern society has been set up so that even if you are rich, you’re not allowed to express your douchebag id in an unadulterated form. Instead, rich douchebaggery is channeled safely into much more innocuous channels such as fraternities which encourage conformity, not experimentation.

In short, the proles have won the invisible war that neither side was even aware they were fighting. It might have been possible, a long time ago to imagine an organized conspiracy by the powerful but today, it properly belongs only as a paranoid fantasy used by those who don’t want to take responsibility for their own failings. We, as a society, have managed to turn the rich from a bunch of hard nosed bastards into a set of navel gazing neurotics, largely harmless to everyone, except in their clumsiness.

Pain, Gain & Brain Candy

by Hang

One of my close friends, when asked if she would read my latest post, replied:

Not really sure I want to be enlightened in that way, but since I’m such a motherfucking glutton for punishment, I’ll read it. How does it make you feel to know that many of the things you say and write are punishing or cruel to other people?

My instinctual response is that I view pain somewhat akin to how a personal trainer would view it. Yes, there is bad pain but there is also pain that leads to growth as well and if it wasn’t at least a little bit painful, I don’t think I did my job right. But to be honest, I’d never really considered it all that closely before. It forced me to confront a world view I was somewhat alien to and, in the process, define my own world view a little more closely.

To me, pain is how you know you’re alive. Pain is thrilling because it’s transformational and without transformation, what else is there beside marking time? Pain is integrity, the prospect of pain is where you prove to yourself who you really are. Pain ties deeply into notions of masculinity and what it means to be a man. The masculine concepts of courage, cowardice, stoicism & loyalty all have to deal with reactions to pain and fear. This is not to justify this world view, merely to explain it.

A lot of my writing stems from these premises. It’s confrontational and brash and requires a bit of heavy lifting to get. Until now, I’d never thought it could be any other way. Part of the reason for me starting this blog is to find a community of like minded thinkers who view the world from that same lens of intellectual masochism. It’s been a frustrating process for me that I’ve been at this for almost a year with so little to show for it from that regard but I’m going to keep on plugging away at it.

Anything you think is either unoriginal, wrong or both

by Hang

I first discovered this obviously wrong truth when I was doing my honors thesis. Time and again, I would come up with a novel idea or a neat algorithmic trick. Some of them, I would discover had already been invented 3, 5, sometimes 10 years before I came up with it. But the ones I was absolutely sure nobody had published before because I had scoured the literature and covered every approach. Well, all of those original ideas turned out to have some hidden, unforeseen flaw that rendered them either trivial or actively stupid. This lead me to formulate the belief that “anything you think is either unoriginal, wrong or both“. Like all obviously wrong truths, it has the paradoxical property of being obviously wrong and also true.

The premise for the statement comes from the simple observation that good ideas survive and bad ideas die. This means there exists an entire class of awful ideas that people come up with time and again only to eventually discover their wrongness and then abandon them. Every person who discovers them believes themselves to be wholly original since nothing of the sort exists in the world and each of them is met with disappointment, sometimes after many years of sweat and toil. But because failures are almost invisible, they leave no warning signs to future generations that this is an awful idea that should be avoided*.

Anything you think is either unoriginal, wrong or both” is an acknowledgment of your own stupidity. Your first instinct, when you come up with a new idea, should be to try and find out if anyone else has done it before. Your second instinct should be to try and find out if anyone’s done it before. Your third, forth and fifth instincts are to ask how come everyone else figured out this was a dumb idea and I haven’t? If you’ve gotten this far and you still haven’t discovered anything useful, you should start feeling a little bit uneasy, it probably means you weren’t smart enough to discover how wrong you are.

If you have discovered the prior art or the fatal flaw, then breathe a small sigh of relief. Unoriginal ideas are GOOD, wrong ideas are GOOD. An unoriginal but right idea is still valuable to all the other people who’ve never heard of it and chances are, if you’ve never heard of it, there will be a significant fraction of the population to which bringing this idea contributes value. Wrong ideas do more to teach you more about the world than right ideas because they teach you about some discrepancy between your expectations and the world, The corrective force of wrong ideas is what allows you to deftly cut to the core of any issue and tease out just where assumptions are weak and likely to fail.

But if you’re lucky, over the course of your life, you’re going to stumble across many ideas which are both original and right, in which case it’s still better to treat them as unoriginal and wrong. Believing an idea is unoriginal and wrong makes that idea do more work. You attack it more fiercely and from more angles. You keep on asking people if the idea sounds familiar and you’re eager to seek feedback because you’re so damn curious to discover why it could be so wrong yet elude you for so long. In doing so, you disassociate the idea from your ego so that you can take criticism about it calmly and dispassionately. Eventually, that drive of curiosity will force you to action, just to finally prove how this idea is flawed. Treating an idea as unoriginal and wrong means that the only standard you’re willing to accept is success. This brings a clarity or purpose that cuts through the confusion when executing upon that idea. Other people may be willing to make excuses or caveats that salve their ego but, as far as you’re concerned, if an idea is not successful, it’s not right**.

Anything you think is either unoriginal, wrong or both” is an idea that also applies to itself. I’ve been slowly chewing over this idea for almost four years now and it’s been frustrating to me that so far, I haven’t been able to find someone else that’s expressed it as a similar sentiment which by de facto, makes it wrong. I’m putting this out there to invite the embarrassment of someone pointing out the obvious source or the obvious flaw that I’ve managed to miss for so long. Please, tell me how I’m stupid, it would be a welcome relief.

*Some people, when first discovering this problem, come up with elaborate schemes of recording all of these common awful ideas so that future generations can avoid them. This, unfortunately, is a common awful idea.

** not right and wrong are different concepts in the same way that not being a millionaire is different from being homeless.

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