Alexander’s Knot: A Different Way to Solve Hard Problems

There’s a legend about Alexander the Great.

There was a certain knot in the city of Gordium. An ancient oracle prophesized that the one to loosen it would be destined to rule over all of Asia.

Historian Peter Green tells the story of Alex his acclaimed Alexander of Macedon.

“In Gordium, by the temple of Zeus Basileus, [Alexander] found what he sought. This was an ancient waggon [with] one very odd feature: its yoke was fastened to the pole with numerous thongs of cornel-bark, in a complex multiple knot of the kind known by sailors as a Turk’s-head. An ancient oracle had foretold that anyone who contrived to loose this knot would become lord of all Asia. This was a challenge which Alexander found irresistible.”

At first, Alexander struggles:

“One characteristic of a Turk’s-head knot is that it leaves no loose ends visible. For a long while Alexander struggled with this labyrinthine tangle, but to little effect. At last he gave up, ‘at a loss how to proceed’. A failure would have been the worst possible propaganda: something drastic had to be done.”

Now, the stuff of legend:

“Alexander, exclaiming ‘What difference does it make how I loose it?’d drew his sword and slashed through the tangle at a single stroke, thus revealing the ends carefully tucked away inside.”

Sometimes, it’s better to cut just the not.

Gordian Knots in Life

Let’s apply this story—this mental model—to modern life.

I’m most productive in the morning. This is because I’ve set up a powerful system of habits… My morning ritual—diet, meditation, joint prep, etc.—is set up so that I’m in the best possible condition to do good work.

As a result, my mornings almost always go well.

Evening, though… Evenings are the opposite. I can’t quite figure them out.

In the evenings, I’m tired. I’m low on willpower, probably hungry and feel like I’ve done “enough.”

Because of this weakness, I get caught by wasteful internet time. If I get pulled by social media or YouTube, it may take 4 hours or more to get out. To be honest, many days I’m too weak to resist.

Enter the Gordian Knot.

Yes, I could try to track down all the “triggers” or environmental cues that are making me waste my evenings. Yes, I could try to set up a system of habits that keep me from failing. But…

Do you see the problem?

This is a lot of work. It might take a few months to a year to tackle this project. All the willpower spent to untie this knot means less time elsewhere solving other, more important, problems.

So, we cut the knot instead.

Instead of solving the problem, you can take the problem and remove it from your life.

Recently, I’ve noticed my evenings are much better if:

  • I stay in an AirBnB that doesn’t have WiFi (I travel constantly)
  • I leave my laptop and phone in a locker or friend’s house (No access to Internet)

Instead of surfing the web, I’ll actually go out to events or spend time with friends.

Similarly, I kept myself from overspending in college by freezing my credit card in a block of ice.

By removing the source of the problem, I cut the knot.

Would it be better to directly work on my media addiction? Of course.

But the world is filled with knots to be untied, and we can’t get to all of them. When you don’t have the time—or the means—to sow up a wound, it’s okay to cauterize it.

Sometimes, you gotta cut the knot.

 

Finding Good Books: A How-To Guide

Every week, I get an email asking something like this:

Hey Charles, you read a lot of books. How do you find good books to read?

Allow me to be sarcastic.

Perhaps the most popular question for writers is “Where do you get your ideas?”

Guess what? The people who ask this are, inevitably, not writers. For real writers, ideas are never the problem.

It’s the same for reading—those who ask how to find good books are (generally) the people who don’t read.

Each good book gives dozens, if not hundreds, of new paths to explore. The more you read, the more there is to read. The problem for readers is not finding books—we have too many—but choosing what to read.

But let me answer seriously.

I think of this problem in two parts:

  1. Find good books
  2. Choose what to read next (prioritize)

How to Find Good Books

If you read 24 hours a day for a whole year, you will finish 2000-3000 books.

Sadly, a million new books are published each year.

Luckily, we don’t want to read everything. This is because:

  • Most books are trash
  • Our interests are limited
  • Reading isn’t an end in itself

Reading too much, especially on the wrong stuff, can hurt us. Here’s Argentine philosopher Mario Bunge writing on information overload, from Philosophy in Crisis:

“…the problem of a worker in today’s knowledge industry is not the scarcity of information but its excess. … In order to learn anything we need time. And to make time we must use information filters allowing us to ignore most of the information aimed at us. We must ignore much to learn a little.”

Over the years, I’ve developed some heuristics (mental shortcuts) for finding good books to read.

First, a general principle I like to use:

  • Filter books for skin in the game. Ignore your personal trainer if she is fat. Do not read books by authors who do not “walk the talk.” (From Taleb’s Antifragile.)

This principle helps us weed out the sensational, low-signal-high-noise books. You would never read a book on martial arts by someone who has never been in a live fight. It should be the same for books.

Now, the heuristics I use:

  • “Walk” the book. Authors tend to mention other authors in their books. A good non-fiction book (such as Kahneman’s masterpiece can have hundreds of references in the back. Follow the “branches” of the reference tree that interest you. (You can do this with the “Further Reading” section of your favorite Wikipedia pages too.)
  • Use crowdsourced lists. Find high-quality communities for your interests. They usually have many lists of recommended readings. Examples of communities I’ve used recently: Cognitive Science Stack Exchange, the philosophy subreddit, and Hacker News.
  • Ask an expert. Write to professors or practicing professionals that you respect (it helps to be a good judge of character here) and ask for recommendations. If you show genuine interest and respect their time, they are often happy to answer.

Choosing What to Read

I do the above steps constantly. This means I always have a running list of books to read.

But how to choose what to read next?

Here are a couple heuristics I use to do this:

  • Use the Lindy Effect. Time filters signal from noise. Old books tend to survive for a reason. (Again, from Taleb’s Antifragile)
  • Consider diminishing returns. Nobody reads 30 textbooks on the same subject. The more you read on a subject, the less learning gains there are from each book.
  • Is it actionable? How immediately relevant will the book be? Can I use it in the next week to make my life better? In the next day?
  • Pick the lead domino. Choose the book that makes everything else easier. For example, a book on psychology is much better for the general reader than, say, a book on ancient Japanese architecture. Or, you might want to read an overview of philosophy before diving into, say, this monster.
  • Trial and error My favorite heuristic. A book is boring because it’s (1) irrelevant, (2) too easy or (3) too hard. Great, that means you shouldn’t read it. Drop it and move on. You can always come back later.

Finding books to read is not hard.

Much harder is finding the time to do it.

Deeper, Not Wider: Some Upcoming Changes to the Blog

Wow. This blog is officially six months old.

In less than half a year, we’ve built an email list of 20,000 readers and get hundreds of thousands of readers each month.

How did this blog grow so fast? Well, mostly because I focused on growth.

But now that we’re a decent size, I think it’s time for some changes.

There’s no point in constantly fighting for new readers if I’m losing old ones. Somebody who reads just one of my articles doesn’t benefit too much in the long run. It makes more sense, then, to focus on deepening relationships with existing readers.

To do this, I’m making a few test changes in the coming weeks.

Blog Post Styles

Usually, I spend hours trying to get the “presentation” just right for blog posts. I’ll edit, re-edit and re-re-edit the structure of an article to make it the best it can be.

This is great for getting a post to go viral (and reach lots of people). But it doesn’t help my serious readers—they always read everything I write carefully.

All the time spent on presentation means less time to do other things.

As a result, I have a backlog of ideas that (1) I don’t have the time to write about and (2) are to “nerdy” to resonate with a wide audience.

In the next few weeks, in addition to “regular” articles, I’ll be writing more nerdy stuff to see if you guys like it.

Patreon System Updates

One big goal this year is to make the blog self-sufficient.

This means having everything work without relying on advertising or product sales. This is only possible due to reader support.

The patron system has been great for this.

However, the reward tiers that involve boxes of gifts have been a problem.

Two reasons for this:

  • Anybody can assemble a box of gifts and send it to you
  • Time I spend shopping is less time spent on reading / writing

So, I’ll be making some adjustments to the reward tiers in the coming weeks.

I’ve changed the setup to offer monthly video calls, and I’ll be adding more tiers with reader feedback.

One-On-One Coaching

A lot of people have contacted me acting for help with specific, personal problems.

Until now, two things have kept me away from coaching:

  • Many-to-one philosophy. I thought that writing was the best way to reach as many people as possible. Which is still true. But it’s also a terrible way to establish a conversation with you, the reader.
  • Fear. Coaching puts me directly responsible for the well-being of one person. And I hate letting people down, so there’s a lot of pressure there.

Recently, work with a few people in my private life has convinced me that there’s nothing better than coaching for people who (1) need serious help or (2) want results fast.

And there’s a lot in it for me too, because I find that—aside from books—I learn the most about human nature via deep conversations with people. Helping you with your specific struggles teaches me about how to help everyone else as well.

For the next quarter, I’m trying out a new coaching method of which focuses on giving you the skills to manage yourself.

If interested, send an email to charles {at} marketmeditations {dot} com with the subject line “Online Coaching”.

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Hope that gives you some context on what changes will be happening going forward.

Thanks for being a reader, Charles

Paul Graham on Getting Rich – The Two Things You Need

There are many ways to get rich.

But, in my mind, there’s only one real way:

“Want to become a billionaire? Then help a billion people.” -Peter Diamandis

Paul Graham knows all about getting rich this way. He did it in 1998, when his company, Viaweb, sold to Yahoo! for $49.6 million.

Now, he helps others do the same a Y Combinator, which helps “incubate” promising new startups. The combined value of YC companies is over $65 billion dollars.

In his book Hackers & Painters, Paul Graham has a chapter titled “How to Make Wealth” that shares the principles behind getting rich.

Let’s take a look.

The Weight of the Average

First, let me clarify something.

Money and wealth are not the same. Money—be it pieces of paper or numbers on a screen—is a store of value. Wealth, on the other hand, is value itself.

Businesses (non-corrupt ones, at least) aren’t about making money:

“People think that what a business does is make money. But money is just the intermediate stage—just a shorthand—for whatever people want. What most businesses really do is make wealth. They do something people want.”

Now, there’s a downside to working for a company. Whenever you’re part of a bigger whole, you can become burdened with the “weight of the average”:

In a company, the work you do is averaged together with a lot of other people’s. … if they are paying you x dollars a year, then on average you must be contributing at least x dollars a year worth of work, or the company will be spending more than it makes, and will go out of business.”

These days, people throw around the word “equality.” But let us not confuse equality of opportunity with equality of outcome.

Graham mentions how two programmers (getting the same salary) can be entirely different in effect:

“…there are huge variations in the rate at which wealth is created. At Viaweb we had one programmer who was a sort of monster of productivity. I remember watching what he did one long day and estimating that he had added several hundred thousand dollars to the market value of the company. A great programmer, on a roll, could create a million dollars worth of wealth in a couple weeks. A mediocre programmer over the same period will generate zero or even negative wealth (e.g. by introducing bugs).

Put another way:

“In the right kind of business, someone who really devoted himself to work could generate ten or even a hundred times as much wealth as an average employee.”

This explains why it’s hard to get rich in big, slow-moving companies:

“If you want to go faster, it’s a problem to have your work tangled together with a large number of other people’s. In a large group, your performance is not separately measurable—and the rest of the group slows you down.”

The Two Conditions for Riches

At a company, if your work helps a million people, you probably won’t become a millionaire. That’s because you aren’t directly paid for wealth created.

So the first step to riches is to step away from this to a system where you are directly rewarded for your contribution.

Paul Graham calls this quality measurement:

You need to be in a position where your performance can be measured, or there is no way to get paid more by doing more.

An example of this is software development. If I develop software on my own, selling it to 10,000 people instead of 100 people gives me 100 times the payoff. I get paid for doing more and reaching further.

There’s a second piece to the puzzle, though. How are you going to help a million people in the first place?

People that do this, says Paul Graham, are in positions with leverage:

“…you have to have leverage, in the sense that the decisions you make have a big effect.”

Everyone who gets rich of their own efforts has both of these qualities, says Graham:

“I think every one who gets rich by their own efforts will be found to be in a situation with measurement and leverage. Everyone I can think of does: CEOs, movie stars, hedge fund managers, professional athletes.”

The Takeaway

But I’m not big on “riches for riches” sake. I’m more interested in the wealth side of things. I want to be rewarded for helping as many people as possible.

That’s what’s so appealing about writing.

The way I have my writing income set up (via Patreon and other sources) is that I only make money when I am doing well. If I don’t get results, I don’t get to eat. The upside, though, is that a perfectly executed article can go on to reach 100k or even 1M people—maximum leverage.

This type of work is not for everyone. There is safety among the average…

But if you want the challenge, if you want to have a bigger impact on the world, and you enjoy the idea of getting paid for your contribution perhaps a measurable, high-leverage occupation is what’s right for you.

All or Nothing Productivity: How Excellence Creates Excellence

There’s a popular saying.

“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

I don’t like it.

It’s true, of course. Nothing good in life comes without a tradeoff. But many people misunderstand this. They tend to think that all downsides are equal.

An example. People say things like, “Oh, I want to go to the gym. But I’ve got to focus on my career right now and my work and I just don’t have time. I’m so busy!” The underlying assumption: we must choose between our health or our work.

Nope.

Let us look at an excerpt from Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile:

“…it is a well-known trick that if you need something urgently done, give the task to the busiest (or second busiest) person in the office. Most humans manage to squander their free time, as free time makes them dysfunctional, lazy, and unmotivated—the busier they get, the more active they are at other tasks.”

There’s an asymmetry at play here…

All or Nothing Effects

I’m interested in a lot of things—philosophy, entrepreneurship, biohacking, movement, psychology, writing, social dynamics… I can go on and on.

At any time, I have half-a-dozen projects going on. Recently, I’ve noticed something interesting: When one thing is going well, everything is going well.

Let me explain.

Let’s say you randomly choose one week of my life from the past year. You have a little computer that pulls up all of my “data” from that week.

First, you check my biology. My body fat is under 10%. I’m strong (I just PR’d in the gym). My blood work is excellent. Looks like I’m in good health.

What does the rest of my life look like?

Writing? I averaged 2000 words a day. Reading? Four books finished and twice as many started. Copious notes too. Social life? Excellent. Happiness levels? Consistently 7+/10.

Compare this to another week, when things are not going so well…

My abs have disappeared. Blood pressure is high. Joins are inflamed. I’m sleeping less, eating poorly. Writing quality has dropped. I’m struggling to read, and wasting time on social media. No human contact all week. Happiness levels are at a 4/10 and dropping…

You get the point.

When one thing is good, chances are everything is good. And the opposite is true too.

It’s Not Just a Hamburger

Now, what does the above have to do with you?

Follow me along for a thought experiment…

On your way home from work (you’re walking) you catch a whiff of a rich, salty smell. Hamburgers, from the local fast food joint. Lunch was 6 hours ago. “What the hell,” you say, “it’s just a burger. It won’t matter in the long run…”

Oops.

This is where people get caught. Most of us see decisions in a vacuum.

Yes, a single hamburger won’t make you fat or unhealthy. That’s not the point. The real risk is in the downstream effects of your choices.

Let’s follow the stream downwards.

You eat that hamburger. It sends a rush of pleasant hormones to your brain. You’re happy. The food toxins are absorbed through your gut lining and flow to the brain. Bam, brain fog. Clouded judgment.

Suddenly, fries don’t sound so bad. So you eat some fries. Well, what the hell. Why not some ice cream too.

We’re not done yet.

When you bought that hamburger, you flipped a switch in your brain. The switch says, “Hamburgers OK.”

Guess what happens tomorrow when you walk by the same burger joint? It gets a bit easier to do it again. By eating that burger, smoking that cigarette or shoplifting that pack of gum, you’ve made that much easier for the you of tomorrow to do the same thing again.

So no, it’s not “just a burger.” We’re talking about how one decision affects every single decision for the rest of your life.

That’s the power of downstream effects.

Spirals, Circles and the Power of Momentum

Now, let’s connect downstream effects with the topic of “all or nothing” productivity.

Let me introduce two mental models: the virtuous circle and the minus spiral.

Minus Spirals

The Japanese love making terms that don’t exist in English, and minus spiral (pronounced mainasu supairaru) is one of them.

I like to think of the minus spiral as a whirlpool of negativity. Bad decisions cascade into more bad decisions, which then trigger more bad reactions… Like some crazy nuclear reaction, you get stuck in a downward spiral that is almost impossible to escape from.

Virtuous Circles

The virtuous circle is the opposite of the minus spiral.

Making good decisions, working on health, spending time with good friends, doing good work… All these things feed into one another. More of one thing can lead to more of another.

The farther you are “up” the virtuous circle, the easier it is to stay there.

Excellence creates excellence.

The Takeaway: Invest in Momentum

When you’re charged with positive momentum (you haven’t had junk food in years, you’ve got lots of positive people in your life, you’re working on fulfilling work), bad decisions are easy to recover from.

But when you’re stuck in a minus spiral—hurtful people around you, a shitty job, bad diet, poor sleep, etc.—good decisions are impossible. If you fall too far, it’s impossible to get out without help.

The takeaway: the less positive momentum you have, the more important it is to make the right decisions.

Now, when I recognize I’m losing momentum or even drifting into a negative spiral, I’m willing to spend a lot of resources—money, time, energy—to make sure that things don’t get worse.

Next time you catch yourself asking “What’s the harm?” or “What’s the point?”, don’t forget about the downstream.

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