Book in Brief: ‘Digital Gold’

I just finished Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money by Nathaniel Popper.

I’ve been fascinated with Bitcoin since I first heard about it during a discussion group at a conference in 2010.  Only recently have I begun digging deeper into the tech side (as much as my non-tech brain allows) and some of the stories and personalities behind it.

Digital Gold is not primarily about the tech or ideology or economics of Bitcoin, but the stories of the earliest enthusiasts.

The Good

The book introduces at least a few dozen individuals in the early Bitcoin scene, from the earliest programmers to more recent big-name investors.  It also provides a timeline of events along with Bitcoin’s price history, and makes the eight years of Bitcoin feel like a grand century-long epoch.  It’s a relatively easy, quick read with pretty decent layman’s descriptions of some of the tech behind cryptocurrency.

The Bad

There are several elementary attempts at subtle “gotcha’s” baked into the book, which reveal a sort of childlike worldview about the nature of order and the value of violence-backed authority.  The author laughably implies that the libertarian Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht was only able to build the site only thanks to his education at the government subsidized University of Texas.  He also implies that there is some kind of hypocrisy in Bitcoin investor Roger Ver choosing to live in Japan, since Ver is libertarian and Japanese culture is orderly and steeped in tradition.

Conflation of libertarianism with a desire for disorder, or the assumption that emergent norms and traditions are less orderly than what Mises called the “planned chaos” of government reveal a fairly low-level of sophistication when it comes to understanding how society works.  This worldview surfaced several times, with passing comments about the potential dangers of money without a single authority to regulate it (despite the obviousness of anarchy dominating the history of money, language, law, and culture), and a willingness to worry about criminal acts committed with cryptography, but less concern about far more massive and obvious evils built into the foundation of governments and carried out daily by regulators seeking to shut down Bitcoin business.

The story carries itself and the slight deference to authoritarian outlooks was only rarely bad enough to be distracting, but it definitely tainted the book at times with a condescending tone that would have been better avoided.

The Verdict

If you already know Bitcoin, probably not a lot of new stuff here.  If you are interested in understanding the currency itself, I’d start first with What’s the Big Deal About Bitcoin by Steve Patterson.  But if you’ve heard bits and pieces of the personal stories and want to get a timeline of the players in the history of crypto, it’s worth a read.  However, if you only have an hour, the Netflix documentary Banking on Bitcoin covers an abbreviated version of the same story arc and many of the same people.

Games Worth Playing

Everything is a series of overlapping games.  Most emerged long ago and continue to evolve organically.  Some were invented by one or more persons.  Others are self-created and only experienced by you.

Most games are not worth playing.  Most are not worth rebelling against either.  Most games are best ignored while you create your own alternate game instead.

Occasionally it’s worth playing a game you didn’t invent (usually the emergent kind, almost never the games invented by others).  When you do, it’s best to know you’re choosing to and not pretend to be a victim of the game.

Occasionally it’s worth open rebellion against a game.  When you do, it’s best to know you’re choosing to and not pretend to be a martyr.

It’s always worth creating and playing your own games, regardless of what you do about the web of other games intersecting your life.  It’ always worth identifying the meta-game unique to you; your own search for meaning.

How to Prepare for Nothing?

Almost every career and education question on Quora is something like this:

“Should I do X?”

Where X is get a mentor, or study business, or go to grad school, or raise money, or research this industry, etc.

Rarely is there a specific goal.  The questions are asked as if someone can tell you whether X is “good” or “bad” in the abstract.  Occasionally there is a goal, like “Should I study business if I want to open a restaurant?” but even here, the mere asking of the question reveals that there is no clear connection between the end desired and the thing being considered.  If you don’t even know whether X will help you get there, or you don’t even know where “there” is, why are you even asking?

This is how people treat college.  Hardly anyone knows why they are there.  They will weakly tell you it’s to buy the signal that will help them get “a job”, but in the real world “a job” doesn’t exist.  Specific jobs do.  Most don’t know what kind of work they want, and almost none have ever bothered to check whether or not a degree is a requirement or the best route to get it.  It almost never is!

Most people aren’t looking for the best way to get from A to B, or even from A to discovering what B might be for them.  Most people are looking to be given queues on what other people will think is normal.

Seeking normal is a mind killer.

Individuals are Better than Movements

I used to like movements.  I don’t anymore.  Self-interested individuals creating and doing and thinking and talking about what they value are more effective at altering the course of the world than an organized movement of them.  Plus, you don’t need to fight to maintain anything.  You don’t need leaders, or fights over leaders.  You just keep building the world you want to live in, and if people like it, they can emulate.  In just about every way I can think of, businesses are better than “causes”.  A business is just a cause with more discipline and less drama.

When Not Caring is Caring

Kids, customers, allies, associates.  Sometimes the best way to be helpful is to not care.

If you let yourself care too much about the success of others, you might devolve into a condescending altruist perpetually frustrated that the objects of your assistance never just go along with your wonderful compassionate plan for their life.  Teachers and professors struggle to avoid this orientation, as evidenced by constant social media posts complaining that these stupid students just won’t do the thing they’re trying to help them do.

Care becomes disdain if it goes unchecked.  You have to let go.  You can’t bluff either.  You can’t pretend not to care in hopes that it will make the other person come round.  You have to truly learn to be able to be happy even if someone else ruins their life with bad decisions.  You can’t need them to choose any certain thing in order for you to be happy.

Only when you’re unthreatened by the decisions of others can you actually be helpful, caring, and genuinely compassionate towards them.

When to Bring Your ‘A’ Game

You can’t always bring your best game to every task.  In fact, if you tried it’d be wasteful.  Not all tasks are of equal value.

So when to bring your ‘A’ game?  Here’s a rule of thumb that’s been useful for me:

When you expect others to bring their best self, bring yours.

If you’re interviewing someone, you’ll ding them for not bringing their best.  As the interviewer, if you expect them to come on the ball, so should you.  Don’t rush in and lazily conduct the interview.

If you expect someone to do their best editing job on your writing, do your best composing it.

If you are OK with someone doing a B+ for a task, you can do the same.  I don’t expect my wife to summon every one of her culinary powers every time she makes dinner, and I don’t demand of myself my absolute highest spic-and-span cleanup job after.  It’s a B+ environment.  If one of the kids is sick and it’s a crisis, I expect her ‘A’ game and demand my own!

If you want to know when to put in 110%, ask when you expect it of others.

Why The Degree is Dying (and being replaced by something better)

I don’t mean that college degrees are less pervasive, but that the usefulness of the degree is dying, and in many cases, it’s entirely dead.  Most people just don’t realize it yet.

What is a degree?  It purports to be a bundle of goods – knowledge, network, social experience, and a permission slip to compete for certain jobs.  It’s only one of these.  The permission slip, or credential, intended to signal your ability to employers, is the product.  That is the thing being bought and sold.  The rest is window dressing.

It’s easy enough to prove this.  Every other aspect of the college experience could be had for free.  Move to a college town and do it all, even attend classes, except you can’t get the paper without paying tuition.  Everyone does, a clear indication that they’re buying the credential and not the other stuff.

A degree signals some minimum level of ability to an employer.  At least it used to.  It’s easier than ever to signal a higher level of ability in other ways, rendering the degree moot.  If you have something better than a high-school diploma, your diploma doesn’t do much for you.  Likewise, if you have something better than a degree, your degree doesn’t matter much.

More employers are looking for experience, tangible results, giving test projects and trial periods, and fewer are looking at degrees and static resumes with third-party credentials.  Thanks to plunging information costs, your body of work is more demonstrable than ever, which makes an institutional stamp of approval less important than ever.  What’s worth more, a degree in marketing, or proof you built an online store with great conversion rates, marketing copy, and sales numbers?  Will that BA in Communications scream to employers that you have the creativity to create and test marketing campaigns, or the resolve to research, pursue, and track sales leads?  Unlikely.

This is a good thing.  The dying signal power of a degree has many beneficial outcomes.

It’s good for young people.  They don’t need five years and six figures to get started on a great career, and their path from student to professional is more tailored and interesting.  They are not a commodity on a jobs board.

It’s good for employers.  Identifying, recruiting, and training good employees is far more efficient when project and proof based signals are used over institutional stamps.

It’s good for classrooms and genuine intellectuals.  Yes, you heard that right.  There’s a value to classroom learning, but it’s currently endured unhappily by most students (and many professors) as a means to get the paper credential.  This unholy marriage of credential and classroom has done damage to both.  Learning environments without the (supposedly) magic job ticket are of vastly superior quality.  Whether free or paid, online or in person, podcasts, courses, videos, and lectures of all kinds freely chosen by interested learners maintain quality that mandated credentialed classes can’t touch.

This last point smashes a pernicious myth perpetrated by some academics.  That skipping college is anti-intellectual.  Far from it.  Self-driven learning has never fared better, and the conflation of desperation for a job ticket with thirst for knowledge is absurd.

The death of the degree is not because of a rise in skilled trades either.  That is all well and good for those who want it, but the real revolution comes not when more people choose careers that never involved college, but when people realize that they don’t need degrees for most of the jobs they thought did.

It’s still a remnant, but more and more bright young people are opting out of the degree mill and instead building a portfolio of projects and getting early professional experience.  They are, in essence, becoming their own credential instead of buying one from centralized institution.  It’s most prominent for those with more “soft” skills, stepping into roles in sales, marketing, and operations.  It’s most prominent at nimble, fast growing tech startups without big HR bureaucracy.

I have seen dozens of 17, 18, 19, and 20 year olds with no degree gain skills and learn how to prove it, often through apprenticeships or unpaid projects, and land amazing jobs paying more than their peers will earn five years later when they shop their degree around.  This isn’t fantasy, and it isn’t just for rare geniuses.

Were it not for the massive subsidies, artificially cheap credit, and regulatory apparatus favoring degrees, their death would be far more rapid and obvious.  Still, the revolution is here.  The first movers are already taking advantage of it.


The Tighter the (self-imposed) Constraint, the More Freeing

We ran a workshop for Praxis participants and alumni last night on how to write fast.  I had a hunch that one of the reasons many of them had struggled to get blog posts out (participants all take on a daily blogging challenge in the bootcamp) quickly was because of option overload.

You stare at the blank blog editor and think, “What should I write about today?”  That’s a terribly unhelpful question.  It gets you further from hitting publish than if you never ask it at all, because it reminds you of the infinite possibilities.  Of all those things, which is THE one I should pick?  Cognitive overload.

We opened the workshop with a series of exercises I thought might reveal this problem and help overcome it.  First, I told everyone to write as many words as they could in 3 minutes on any subject.  Imposing the time constraint and the goal of word maximization would get things flowing, as urgency would overcome analysis.  People hammered out a range of 30 or so words to 150 or so words, and we read a few.  They weren’t bad either.

Then we added a constraint.  Same exercise, but the topic was chosen for them at random.  I chose ‘baseball’.  This time, the lowest word count was more like 50, and the highest near 200.  We read a few, and they were good!  Participants said having the topic chosen made it easier to crank out content.

Next we tried to write exactly 50 words on the topic of Tortoises, and finally a Haiku on the topic of Outer Space.  Both resulted in rather high quality stuff, and it wasn’t that torturous to do it.

In about 10 minutes, everyone had written four things, any of which could be blog posts.

There are plenty of other ways to improve speed and overcome writer’s block, but few are more effective than the freedom of self-imposed constraints.  Doesn’t even matter what they are.  They can be totally arbitrary.  Something about gamifying and putting limits on the creative process turns up the speed and volume.  To me, speed and quantity matter more than quality, because the best way to improve quality is to do the thing over and over and over.

“I Dropped Out, Now What?”

I see a lot of questions like this on Quora.  It always strikes me as odd to be asking “What should I do” only in light of being a dropout.  As if sitting on the ed conveyor belt doesn’t require you to ask this same question.  What you should do as a dropout is the same thing you should do as a human being.

My recent answer:

  • Create structure for yourself. What it is is less important than that it is.
  • Get a paying job. Anything will do to start.
  • Get really good at the above job. Even if you don’t love it, being good at it will open up more things you like more.
  • Do something every single day to add value to yourself.
  • Ignore everyone who tries to guilt or pressure you.
  • Have an optimistic, playful, yet focused outlook.
  • Learn to tell your own story, and find inspiration in the stories of others.

This was top of the head.  There’s tons of stuff!  It’s sort of sad and sort of scary how hard it is for schooled minds to conceive of any kind of activities outside the system.  It’s also an exciting market opportunity!

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