The Best Essays I Read in 2014
As part of my annual review process, I took a few hours to look through my research database for great essays and blog posts I read in 2014. Major research topics this year included business, learning, skill acquisition, productivity, psychology, health, science, systems, and general life satisfaction. 1
Of the 2,580 posts I saved, here are a few of the best.
Life-hacking wouldn’t be popular if it didn’t tap into something deeply corroded about the way work has, without much resistance, managed to invade every corner of our lives. The idea started out as a somewhat earnest response to the problem of fragmented attention and overwork—an attempt to reclaim some leisure time and autonomy from the demands of boundaryless labor. But it has since become just another hectoring paradigm of self-improvement.
My daily experiences are unsharable.
My daily life consists of (a) setting the strategy and rationale of the Engineering & Innovation department, based on a mixture of vision, data, and the needs of the rest of the company, (b) participate in doing the same for the whole company, (c) hire, (d) manage the managers whose teams execute the real work. As the CTO of a 130-person company that’s still growing along every dimension at a prodigious rate, that’s the appropriate job description.
But I can’t share anything about it.
The motto of the Royal Society – Hooke, Boyle, Newton, some of the people who arguably invented modern science – was nullus in verba, “take no one’s word”.
This was a proper battle cry for seventeenth century scientists. Think about the (admittedly kind of mythologized) history of Science. The scholastics saying that matter was this, or that, and justifying themselves by long treatises about how based on A, B, C, the word of the Bible, Aristotle, self-evident first principles, and the Great Chain of Being all clearly proved their point. Then other scholastics would write different long treatises on how D, E, and F, Plato, St. Augustine, and the proper ordering of angels all indicated that clearly matter was something different. Both groups were pretty sure that the other had make a subtle error of reasoning somewhere, and both groups were perfectly happy to spend centuries debating exactly which one of them it was.
And then Galileo said “Wait a second, instead of debating exactly how objects fall, let’s just drop objects off of something really tall and see what happens”, and after that, Science. […]
Then things started getting more complicated. People started investigating more subtle effects, or effects that shifted with the observer. The scientific community became bigger, everyone didn’t know everyone anymore, you needed more journals to find out what other people had done. Statistics became more complicated, allowing the study of noisier data but also bringing more peril. And a lot of science done by smart and honest people ended up being wrong, and we needed to figure out exactly which science that was. […]
The highest level of the Pyramid of Scientific Evidence is meta-analysis. But a lot of meta-analyses are crap. […]
Projects fail at a spectacular rate. One reason is that too many people are reluctant to speak up about their reservations during the all-important planning phase. By making it safe for dissenters who are knowledgeable about the undertaking and worried about its weaknesses to speak up, you can improve a project’s chances of success.
The greatest juggler alive, maybe of all time, is a 40-year-old Floridian named Anthony Gatto. He holds 11 world records, has starred for years in Cirque du Soleil, and has appeared as a child on The Tonight Show, performing in a polo shirt and shorts, juggling five rings while balancing a five-foot pole on his forehead.
His records are for keeping certain numbers of objects aloft for longer than anyone else. Eleven rings, 10 rings, nine rings, eight rings, and seven rings. Nine balls, eight balls, and seven balls. Eight clubs, seven clubs, and six clubs. To break this down a little: There’s one person in the world who can juggle eight clubs for 16 catches, and that’s Gatto. […]
[So] how did the greatest juggler in the world end up working in concrete?
Silicon Valley is not a place where one is invited to show frailty or despondence. It is, as Nick puts it, “the place where everybody is killing it all the time.” This might seem peculiar, given that the lot of the small-business founder has always been a fragile one. But in recent years the Valley has successfully elaborated the fantasy that entrepreneurship—and, more broadly, creativity—can be systematized… Starting a company has become the way for ambitious young people to do something that seems simultaneously careerist and heroic.
This daydream of constant killing-it has made it difficult to talk about how fearful and distraught the life of the founder can be. But over drinks with close friends—on that rare occasion when an early-stage entrepreneur has time to have a drink or see a friend – almost any founder will tell a story that much more closely resembles Nick and Chris’ than it does the story of your favorite billionaire, reverse-engineered to seem a neat matter of destiny.
Having a strong opinion about an issue can make it hard to take in new information about it, or to consider other options when they're presented. Thankfully, there’s an old rule that can help us avoid this problem — and even help us make good decisions when we’re uncertain. Here’s how Bayesian Reasoning works, and why it can make you a better thinker.
Maybe you’re a new parent. Or want to be a parent someday. Or you’re long past your Toddler-Wrangling Years and want to look back with nostalgia and pants-shitting terror over that time. Hell, even if you qualify as none of those things, you will still likely be one day in the presence of a Toddler or Toddler-Shaped Creature, and so, I present to you this Handy Guide.
Prefer to work on things you can show. Prefer to work where people can see you. Prefer to work on things you can own. […]
Telling people you can do great work is easy: any idiot can do it, and many idiots do. Having people tell people you do great work is an improvement. It suffers because measuring individual productivity on a team effort is famously difficult, and people often have no particular reason to trust the representations of the people doing the endorsements. […]
Work you can show off, though, is prima facie evidence of your skills. After your portfolio includes it, your ability to sell your skills gets markedly better. Given that most people's net worth is almost 100% invested in their personal capital (i.e. if you're a young engineer the net present value of all future salary absolutely swamps everything in your bank account), this is a fairly radical improvement in your present situation for not a very radical change in how you go about things. […] If you have the choice between multiple jobs, all else being equal, pick the one where you are able to show what you've worked on.
There's also intangible – but no less real – benefits to having an artifact which is yours.[…] If you take no other advice from me ever, ship something. You'll learn more shipping a failure than you'll learn from reading about a thousand successes. And you stand an excellent chance of shipping a success – people greatly overestimate how difficult this is.
Just don't end the week with nothing.
Fame is deeply attractive because it seems to offer very significant benefits. The fantasies go like this: when you are famous, wherever you go, your good reputation will precede you. People will think well of you, because your merits have been impressively explained in advance. You will get warm smiles from admiring strangers. You won’t need to make you own case laboriously on each occasion. When you are famous, you will be safe from rejection. […]
Fame makes people more, not less, vulnerable, because it throws them open to unlimited judgement. Everyone is wounded by a cruel assessment of their character or merit. But the famous have an added challenge in store. The assessments will come in from legions of people who would never dare to say to their faces what they can now express from the safety of the newspaper office or screen. […]
To sum up: fame really just means you get noticed a great deal – not that you get understood, appreciated or loved.
I've written a number of books about talent challenges and opportunities, but one thing continues to surprise me: More than 90 percent of hiring managers think they're good interviewers, yet rarely do they reach unanimous hiring decisions with other 90 percenters in the same room evaluating the same candidate.
This realization led me on a quest to find the one interview question that would yield universal agreement from hiring managers. It took 10 years of trial and error, but I eventually found it. Here it is:
"What single project or task would you consider your most significant accomplishment in your career to date?"
Life is not a contest, and we get more out of it by cooperating wholeheartedly with each other rather than beating each other’s asses at everything. […]
And you and I, as well as our kids, won’t attain the widest smile on our deathbeds by racking up the largest bank balance or longest list of countries visited. This achievement will probably be earned through a more balanced life. Slow down and take the time to look around you. If you are a chronic lifetime overachiever, give yourself permission to accomplish a bit less. You might just find you are living a bit more.
Writing is not some mystic art. It’s a practical skill – particularly since most of our online communication is text-based to begin with. When you write about your work, it makes all of us smarter for the effort, including you – because it forces you to go beyond the polite cocktail-party line you use to describe what you do and really think about the impact your work has.
Done well, it means you’re contributing signal, instead of noise.
That cold glass of 100 percent liquid sunshine on the breakfast table is the product of a sophisticated industrial juice complex. Satellite imagery, complicated data algorithms, even a juice pipeline are all part of the recipe. “You take Mother Nature and standardize it,” says Jim Horrisberger, director of procurement at Coke’s huge Auburndale (Fla.) juice packaging plant. “Mother Nature doesn’t like to be standardized.”
Today, we're going to talk about Dark rationalist techniques: productivity tools which seem incoherent, mad, and downright irrational… In this article, I'll promote the strategic cultivation of false beliefs and condone mindhacking on the values you hold most dear. Truly, these are Dark Arts. I aim to convince you that sometimes, the benefits are worth the price.
The more I earn, the more I realise that wealth is not money, but the ability to generate money (and other things of value). This is akin to the difference between saying "I am a dancer" (i.e. I have the ability to dance) and "I was a dancer" (i.e. I once had it but I no longer have it). Being wealthy is equivalent to the first statement, while having money is equivalent to the second.
Having money does not make you wealthy, but having the ability to make money, through net income generating assets such as businesses, investments, or even just your own skills, that makes you wealthy. This is perhaps why those with a solid education are never really poor, but merely broke: they have the potential to make money, even if they don't have money right now.
To get wealthy, build net income generating assets, don't accumulate money.
Here’s the thing about taking it slow: it adds up really fast. […] For some reason, we think that starting easy and going up slowly is a waste of our time. It’s not.
For some reason, society has convinced us that if your heart rate isn’t above 150 beats per minute and you don’t feel gassed at the end of your workout, then you haven’t done yourself any good. I disagree. If you actually add a little weight each week and don’t miss workouts, then it will get hard enough, fast enough.
Clearly some things are more valuable to learn than others, independent of your personal interest. Literacy is more valuable than sculpture, and programming is more useful than Latin (assuming you don’t harbor a secret passion for clay or dead languages).
This is a first way to break down skills – by how useful they are to learn. Many of the skills listed in my previous post were of this kind. Things sufficiently worth knowing that even having a poor level of ability is valuable.
However, I want to focus on a different, more subtle, distinction. Imagine we take two skills that have approximately equal usefulness. Now compare those two skills and ask where the value comes: does most of the value come from the basics or does it come from mastery?
It’s not a secret handed out at institutions of higher education, it’s just how things work: you begin with a lack of understanding about a topic, and a need to solve a problem in that topic area. The honest, sustainable means of doing so is to improve your understanding. This is achieved by:
1. Formulating a question which, when correctly answered, will improve your understanding in some way; then:
2. Attempting to answer it.
Note the second step above. To argue that grabbing the completed solution in some way satisfies this process is laziness and intellectual dishonesty, and probably renders you unworthy of being helped.
Adherents of meditation suggest that we sit very quietly, in a particular bodily position, and strive, through a variety of exercises, to empty our minds of content, quite literally to push or draw away the disturbing and unfocused objects of consciousness to the periphery of our minds, leaving a central space empty and serene.
In the Buddhist world-view, anxieties and excitements are not trying to tell us anything especially interesting or valuable. We continuously fret without good purpose, about this or that random and vain thing – and therefore the best solution is simply to push the objects of the mind to one side. […]
Buddhist meditation has been so successful, we are liable to forget another effective and in some ways superior path to finding peace of mind, this one rooted in the Western tradition: Philosophical Meditation. Like its Eastern counterpart, Philosophical Meditation wants our thoughts, feelings and anxieties to trouble us less, but it seeks to sort out our minds in a very different manner. At heart, it doesn’t believe that the contents of our minds are nonsensical or meaningless.
Our worries may seem like a nuisance but they are in fact neurotically garbled but important signals about how we should direct our lives. They contain complex clues as to our development. Therefore, rather than wanting simply to empty our minds of content, practitioners of Philosophical Meditation encourage us to clean these minds up: they want to bring the content that troubles us more securely into focus, and thereby usher in calm through understanding rather than through evacuation.
We like to sort by a primary/secondary system where primary is WHY you do a thing and secondary is HOW…
Primaries don’t exactly define WHAT a person will do in any circumstance, but what they wish they would do, what they would do at their bravest and most right, what they would feel least guilty and most validated about.
[Secondaries are] HOW you achieve the goals set by your primary… Primaries are WHY you do what you do and secondary Houses are HOW you do what you do. Motives and methods. Ends and means. Reasons and skills. […]
Modeling a House means that you can fit yourself in the perspective of that house and use its tools – but more than that, understand its tools. Why they’re useful, why they’re good. Even if you aren’t a Gryffindor, you can really, really understand why people get firey about injustices, and if you get put in a situation where you need to get firey, by God you can do it.
Performing a house is a lot more external. While not unheard of to do it by yourself, you’re more likely to perform only when around other people. It’s using the tools of a house, sometimes down to expressions and vocabulary and reactions, without really feeling it… But it’s not very internal. It’s a mode, but it’s one that is being used specifically to get a certain reaction from the people around you. And that doesn’t mean that it’s not powerful, or that it only exists externally, or that it can’t influence decisions and behavior, but it’s not nearly as likely to. It’s a step or two away from acting.
This is a fun exercise if you're familiar with the story. This system would also probably stand up to psychometric validation at least as well as the MBTI or DISC profiles – that is to say, not terribly predictive, but a handy shorthand way to categorize a person's general worldview and tendencies. If you're even tangentially interested in writing fiction, it's gold.
And in case you're wondering, I'm a Ravenclaw/Ravenclaw that can model Gryffindor and perform Slytherin.
1. Programming was also one of my major research topics this year, given my significant continuing interest in improving my practical programing skills. Overly-technical posts were not included in this digest. I also set aside excellent essays and posts related to the more technical aspects of my own business (writing, publishing, teaching, etc) to make this digest more applicable to the interests of my readers.