Here’s how you do it. Build a platform which relies on cultural creation as its core value, but which only sees itself as a technology platform. Stick to this insistence on being solely a “neutral” tech company in every aspect of decision-making, policy, hiring and operations, except for your
One hundred billion people have walked this planet. Nearly eight billion of them are alive today. Each has a story, few have a microphone. Each has seen something different and thought something unique. Most know something you can’t fathom, and you have experienced stuff they wouldn’t believe. But so many behaviors are universal across generations and geographies. Circumstances change, but people’s reactions don’t. Technologies evolve, but insecurities, blind spots, and gullibility rarely does. This article describes 17 of what I think are the most common and influential aspects of how people think. It’s a long post, but each point can be read individually. Skip the ones you don’t agree with and reread the ones you do – that itself is a common way people think. 1. Everyone belongs to a tribe and underestimates how influential that tribe is on their thinking. Tribes are everywhere – countries, states, parties, companies, industries, departments, investment styles, economic philosophies, religions, families, schools, majors, credentials. Everyone loves their tribe because there’s comfort in knowing other people who understand your background and share your goals. But tribes have their own rules, beliefs, and ideas. Some of them you might disagree with; some are even abjectly terrible. Yet they remain supported because no one wants to risk being shunned by a tribe that’s become part of their identity. So people either willingly nod along with bad ideas, or become blinded by tribal loyalty at how bad the ideas are to begin with. 2. What people present to the world is a tiny fraction of what’s going on inside their head. The Library of Congress holds three million books, or something like a quarter of a trillion words. All of the information accessible on the internet is estimated at 40 trillion gigabytes, which is roughly enough to hold a high-def video lasting the entire 14 billion years since the big bang. So much of history has been recorded. But then you remember, that’s just what’s been publicly shared, recorded, and published. It’s a trivial amount of what’s actually happened, and an infinitesimal amount of what’s gone through people’s heads. As much as we know about how crazy, weird, talented, and insightful people can be, we are blind to perhaps 99.99999999% of it. The most prolific over-sharers disclose maybe a thousandth of one percent of what they’ve been through and what they’re thinking. One thing this does is gives a false view of success. Most of what people share is what they want you to see. Skills are advertised, flaws are hidden. Wins are exaggerated, losses are downplayed. Doubt and anxiety are rarely shared on social media. Defeated soldiers and failed CEOs rarely sit for interviews. Most things are harder than they look and not as fun as they seem because the information we’re exposed to tends to be a highlight reel of what people want you to know about themselves to increase their own chances of success. It’s easiest to convince people that you’re special if they don’t know you well enough to see all the ways you’re not. When you are keenly aware of your own struggles but blind to others’, it’s easy to assume you’re missing some skill or secret that others have. Sometimes that’s true. More often you’re just blind to how much everyone else is making it up as they go, one challenge at a time. 3. Prediction is about probability and putting the odds of success in your favor. But observers mostly judge you in binary terms, right or wrong. There’s a scene in the movie Zero Dark Thirty where the CIA director questions an analyst team who claim to have located Osama Bin Laden. “I’m about to go look the president in the eye,” he says. “And what I’d like to know, no bullshit, very simply, is he there, or is he not f*cking there?” The team’s leader says there’s a 60% to 80% chance Bin Laden is in the compound. “Is that a yes or a no?” the director asks. A young analyst jumps in. “One hundred percent chance he’s there,” she says. Everyone is stunned. “OK fine, 95%, because I know certainty freaks you guys out. But it’s 100%.” It’s a good example of how uncomfortable probability can be. The idea that something can be likely and not happen, or unlikely and still happen, is one of the world’s most important tricks. Most people get that certainty is rare, and the best you can do is make decisions where the odds are in your favor. They understand you can be smart and end up wrong, or dumb and end up right, because that’s how luck and risk work. But almost no one actually uses probability in the real world, especially when judging others’ success. Most of what people care about is, “Were you right or wrong?” Probability is about nuance and gradation. But in the real world people pay attention to black and white. If you said something will happen and it happens, you were right. If you said it will happen and it doesn’t, you’re wrong. That’s how people think, because it requires the least amount of effort. It’s hard to convince others – or yourself – that there could have been an alternative outcome when there’s a real-world outcome sitting in front of you. The core here is that people think they want an accurate view of the future, but what they really crave is certainty. It’s normal to want to rid yourself of the painful reality of not knowing what’s going to happen next. Someone who tells you there’s a 60% chance of a recession happening doesn’t do much to erase that pain. They might be adding to it. But someone who says, “There is going to be a recession this year,” offers something to grab onto with both hands that feels like taking control of your future. After the Bin Laden raid, President Obama later said the odds placed on whether Bin Laden was actually in the target house were 50/50. A few years ago I heard one of the SEALS involved in the mission speak at a conference. He said, regardless of whether Bin Laden was in the house, the team felt the odds they’d all be killed in the mission were also 50/50. So here we have a 75% chance that the raid would have ended in disappointment or catastrophe. It didn’t – but that alternative outcome isn’t a world many pay much attention to. 4. We are extrapolating machines in a world where nothing too good or too bad lasts indefinitely. When you’re in the middle of a powerful trend it’s difficult to imagine a force strong enough to turn things the other way. What we tend to miss is that what turns trends around usually isn’t an outside force. It’s when a subtle side effect of that trend erodes what made it powerful to begin with. When there are no recessions, people get confident. When they get confident they take risks. When they take risks, you get recessions. When markets never crash, valuations go up. When valuations go up, markets are prone to crash. When there’s a crisis, people get motivated. When they get motivated they frantically solve problems. When they solve problems crises tend to end. Good times plant the seeds of their destruction through complacency and leverage, and bad times plant the seeds of their turnaround through opportunity and panic-driven problem-solving. We know that in hindsight. It’s almost always true, almost everywhere. But we tend to only know it in hindsight because we are extrapolating machines, and drawing straight lines when forecasting is easier than imagining how people might adapt and change their behavior. When alcohol from fermentation reaches a certain point it kills the yeast that made it in the first place. Most powerful trends end the same way. And that kind of force isn’t intuitive, requiring you to consider not just how a trend impacts people, but how that impact will change people’s behavior in a way that could end the trend. 5. There are limits to our sanity. Optimism and pessimism always overshoot because the only way to know the boundaries of either is to go a little bit past them. Jerry Seinfeld had the most popular show on TV. Then he quit. He later said he killed his show while it was thriving because the only way to identify the top is to experience the decline, which he had no interest in. Maybe the show could keep rising, maybe it couldn’t. He was fine not knowing the answer. If you want to know why there’s a long history of the world blowing past the boundaries of sanity, bouncing from boom to bust, absurdity to absurdity, it’s because so few people have Jerry’s mentality. Opportunity is scarce and people don’t want to leave any on the table. So they insist on knowing where the top is. Most things in the world are a mix of facts and emotions. How much steel can this factory produce (a fact), and what are investors willing to pay for that output (an emotion). The important thing is that emotions aren’t something you can predict with a formula. What is bitcoin worth? How high can Tesla go? How much crazier can politics get before voters revolt? The only way to answer those questions is to know what kinds of moods people will be in in the future – how optimistic they’ll feel, what they’ll want to believe, and how persuasive storytellers are. Which is impossible to know. I don’t know what kind of mood I’ll be in tonight, let alone how a bunch of strangers will feel years in the future. The only way to find the limits of people’s moods – the only way to find the top – is to keep pushing until we’ve gone too far, when we can look back and say, “Ah, I guess that was the limit.” It’s tempting to watch things go from boom to bust and think, “Why are people doing this? Are they crazy?” Probably not. They’re just rationally looking for the limits of what everyone else can handle. 6. Ignoring that people who think about the world in unique ways you like also think about the world in unique ways you won’t like. A recent profile of Eliud Kipchoge, the world’s best marathon runner, wrote: Cramped in a dull room with hours to kill, the Olympic medallists did what most would do: they opened their phones, logged into wifi, a
The world’s first round-the-world solo yacht race was a thrilling and, for some, deadly contest. How its participants maintained their vessels can help us understand just how fundamental maintenance is.