“Go Home Until Your Inbox is at Zero”

I’m giving a talk to a packed lecture hall.  It’s about personal growth, career progress, how to build your future, start a company or something along those lines.

I open by asking the audience a question,

“How many of you have more than two or three unread emails sitting in your inbox?”

The vast majority of hands go up, smiling and curious about what’s coming.

I say, “OK, everyone with your hand up, leave.  Go home.  Don’t come to a talk like this until your inbox is at zero.  Thanks.”

That’s what I imagined this morning while laying in bed half awake.  It was a great daydream. (Except for the travel involved in giving a talk. Ugh).

And it’s right.

Creativity “hacks”, time optimization, or ideas on how to change your life, an industry, or the world are more than useless if you don’t have dominion over the things in your nearest sphere of influence, like your inbox.

In fact, until you achieve and maintain inbox zero and a 24 hour response time to important communication (which is not that hard if you have a few ounces of discipline and persistence), the other tips and ideas will be a distraction more than an aid.  You don’t need to know about advanced tips for working with teams if you don’t even know how to work with your own tasks and communications.

I’ve met people who do a lot of stuff and have badly mismanaged inboxes.  I’ve also seen tall houses built on shoddy foundations.  It can be done, but every new addition or improvement is a bad idea, because it only adds to the value that will be lost due to inevitable foundation problems.

Inbox zero is an especially important task for those who are looking for that next big thing to make professional progress.  They don’t have any concrete jobs or paths.  They’re attending conferences and workshops to find far-flung ideas and inspiration to cobble together some amazing, creative project.  They’re always searching for that elusive ten-step plan that will get them results.  Yet the easy, obvious thing they have complete control over is running roughshod over them.  Their inbox haunts them and begs to be slapped back into shape, but they ignore it, chasing shiny objects over the horizon instead.

Sure, some day when you get 1,000 non-spam emails a day because you’ve created such a dent in the world you can approach your inbox differently.  Until then, pointing out that high-demand people don’t always respond to emails so you shouldn’t either is a cop-out.

Get your shit together.  Start with your inbox.  Until you have that mastered, and you use it like a pro, none of the other stuff will be good for you anyway.

By the way, this is no new insight of mine.  My daydream was probably prompted not just by age-old wisdom, but the ever-present discussions these days about Jordan Peterson’s phrase, “Make your bed”, which I was discussing with colleagues yesterday.  He’s right.


I Might Be Misunderstanding Odds in Poker (or maybe not?)

Last night was poker night, which is always great fun.

I tend to be pretty bombastic and blab and trash talk the whole night, and at one point I said something to the effect of, “We have a lot more guys here tonight than usual, so I’m gonna have to adjust my strategy and play more aggressively.”

One of my friends laughed and said I had it literally backwards.

My odds of having the best hand are worse with more players, so I should be more cautious with the same hand.

I half-heartedly tried to work through it and see if I could make sense of my instinct for aggressiveness, but it was in the middle of poker night, so I didn’t pursue it much and instead focused on my beer.

It kept bugging me this morning.  Why do I always feel I need to bet on weaker hands to have a chance at winning when there are more players, vs being able to wait for better hands before betting in a smaller game?

Take a 4 person vs. 8 person game.

Clearly, the odds that my hand will be good relative to the ranking of all possible poker hands is the same in each scenario.  I get two cards out of 52 regardless.

And in the larger game, it’s also the case that the odds that my hand is better than all the other players hands are lower, since there are more players I have to beat.  Having a hand better than 3 other people is more likely than a hand better than 7 other people.

So this would imply that I should be willing to bet on weaker hands in the 4 person game than I would in the 8 person game, since I likely need a stronger hand to win the latter.

That all makes sense, but it kept bothering me that, in my experience, I always feel that to survive or win in a larger game I have to be more aggressive, not the other way round.

I think I figured out why.

In a 4 person game, there is less likely to be a raise or a bet in general than in an 8 person game.  It’s not uncommon for everyone to “check” in a 4 person game, which means I can be a little more patient and choosy about which hands to bet on, since I’m not forced into a bet or fold choice as often.

In an 8 person game, the odds that every person around the table checks are much lower, as someone is likely to either have a good hand, or have a more aggressive personality.  This means that in order to survive and win and not just bleed blinds all night, I am pushed into bet/no bet situations more frequently, and I realize that I’m going to have to start betting a bit more aggressively than I would in a game with fewer raises.

Yes, when I do bet, my odds of winning are lower (only assuming that several other players stayed in, which is often not the case.  Typically even in an 8 person game, I’m betting only against 1 or 2 others who didn’t fold), but my odds of winning by never betting are zero, and with more bets in general, I have to bet a little more than I would in a 4 person game.

Of course, none of this factors in non-mathematical elements like the emotion of the event and how it changes with different personalities, more people leading to more distracting side conversations, people getting more impatient and making crazy bets because they want to win or lose so they can go home, etc. etc.  Maybe those factors alter the way I feel about larger vs. smaller games and it’s not so much about the math.

Or I’m just an idiot who’s gut is leading him to irrational strategies.  A definite possibility.  (Still, in the history of poker night, I’m the winningest attendee from a rotating cast (or at least tied for first), so I’ll take it.  Hi Cameron!)

Ignorance is Easier

You can’t handle the truth!

That famous line from A Few Good Men is memorable and offensive.  Of course I can handle the truth!  I’m a curious, rational, truth-seeking person.

Until it comes to myself.

It’s not that hard to be truth-seeking (or at least truth-open) about other people or the world around me.  I can handle difficult realities when they are out of my control.  The price tag for my car repairs, the likelihood of a catastrophic asteroid strike, and even bad news about my genetics are truths I’m braced to face.

What I don’t want to know are the things I’m doing wrong to cause my own suffering.  That’s the scary, hard truth.

Being in utter darkness about why I’m not getting what I want is more comfortable than the knowledge that it’s because of some attitude or behavior of mine that’s out of whack.  It’s easier to handle being treated badly by someone for no apparent reason than to find it it’s because I’m an unpleasant conversationalist.

I’m not alone in aversion to self-knowledge.  It seems to be part of the human condition.

It’s one of the reasons employers rarely give reasons for not hiring candidates.  It’s not too hard to handle not getting a job offer without knowing why.  It affords the comfort of conjecture.  Maybe the company is just stupid.  Maybe the boss’s nephew had an inside track all along.  Those possibilities are livewithable.  I’m not going to send an angry email to the company if I don’t know why I didn’t get hired.

But if I find out I wasn’t hired because something I said offended the interviewer, they think I have weak attention to detail, and the way I handled a question about my previous work came across as cavalier, I’m going think they are wrong.  I’m gonna be mad.  Employers know that the more detailed rejection feedback they provide me, the more likely I am to send an angry response.  More information about how I can improve means more points of disagreement and more fodder for rage.

Truths I can control are also the most important.  That’s what makes them so scary.  I know they can submarine me.  And I know it doesn’t just take mental toughness and acceptance like truths out of my control.  It also takes ownership, action, and discipline.


But there’s hope in this too.

If I can learn to seek truths about myself with the same openness as I seek truths about the world outside myself, I will be invincible.  If I can handle what I discover and maintain self-honesty about my self-knowledge, there is nothing I can’t do.  In other words, the greatest single determinant of my quality of life is something within my control.

That’s the comforting, terrifying truth.

Knowledge Judgement and Action Judgement

One of the most valuable and difficult to define attributes is judgement.

Knowing how to read and react to a situation, when to say/not say things, and other “soft”, social, and emotional intelligences.  I’m not sure if judgement can be taught to someone who lacks it.  Judgement can certainly get refined through experience, and someone who has it can gain highly specific forms based on contextual feedback.

I’ve been using the broad catch-all word “judgement” to describe this trait for a long time.  Yesterday it occurred to me that judgment manifests in two very different ways.  Or maybe it has two levels.

Level one is knowledge judgement.  People who know the appropriate action to take in a given situation.  This so rare and precious.  People who get it often come with a proposed solution that perfectly fits the situation and navigates the nuance.  They always propose the right solution or close to it, but they still propose a solution.

Level two is action judgement.  These people know what action to take and they take it without asking or getting validation from others.  They might ruffle feathers in an authoritarian structure by acting before asking, but in a more open and dynamic structure, they have far more upside than people only with level one judgement.  An early stage startup, for example, will suffer if an employee always needs to get official approval for their proposed action, vs. someone who sees the need to act first and discuss later.  Level two judgement is not just about knowing what actions to take and taking them, but knowing when acting without asking is in order and when further deliberation is warranted.

Of course, if you don’t have knowledge judgement at level one, the worst thing is to try to go level two and act without asking.  That’s the worst.  But if you are good at knowing how to read and react to a situation, the next step is knowing when to do so without double checking with someone else first.

Cut Your Words in Half, Double Your Ideas

We run an exercise in the Praxis writing module where participants write a blog post, find the total word count, then go back and edit until it has half as many words as the first time through.

I can’t really think of any exceptions to when the final, halved draft is better than the original.  I’ve done this exercise myself many times with the same results.

It reveals how hard it is to translate ideas to language efficiently.  Writing is a way of processing ideas.  I usually begin with a rough sense what I want to convey and the typing teases out the rest.  This is one of the reasons I blog every day and it’s a great way to unearth my thoughts.  But it leads to overworded communication and less than razor-sharp thinking.  It takes greater intellectual power to communicate the same idea in fewer words.

So to get tighter in thinking and communication, cut your words in half.

There’s another challenge I’ve been issuing myself and a few others recently:  Take whatever ideas and goals you have and double them.

The basic insight in both of these exercises is that our ambitions are too small and our words too big.

We waste a lot of time and talk and energy on ideas and aspirations too small to warrant it.  Why not dramatically tighten the talk and radically expand the thoughts?

Try it.

Why Intellectuals Should Leave Academia

Professors and teachers: The best way to increase the quality and engagement of students is to separate your instruction from accredited institutions.

Don’t complain about low quality students; they’re not there for you and mostly don’t care about your ideas. They’re there for a piece of paper they think is a magic ticket to acceptance in the world and they suffer through your class as a cost.

You’re too good to deal with students like that who don’t value your work!

Step out from behind the subsidized, cartelized, credentialized system and offer your instruction to excited customers in the market!

Ask Thaddeus Russell how much better Renegade U customers are than students in college courses for credit. Ask Austin Batchelor how amazing his tens of thousands of aspiring artist pupils on Udemy are. Ask anyone who’s talked at a conference or seminar that didn’t offer credit but was filled with people who actually wanted to hear your ideas!

Don’t be afraid. There is a massive market for knowledge and good instruction.

If you’re good, you’re likely to make more money, because you’ll reap directly what customers value and won’t be subsidizing low quality colleagues or administrators. The upside is limitless.

Of course if you’re not good at conveying ideas, you’d better get good or you won’t make as much. This is a healthy discipline!

And no, you won’t lose “academic freedom”, you’ll have more.

The world is so full of opportunity for hard-working intellectuals to make more money, interact with far better minds, and have more fun if they can muster the imagination and courage to stop chaining their work to the musty halls of accredited paper mills.

The revolution is well underway.

Why Free Market Professors Don’t Exit Academia

Whenever I talk with a free-market professor about the silliness of subsidized, cartelized, bureaucratized academia and how it devalues and stifles their work, it reminds me of the (apocryphal?) statement made by F.A. Hayek near the end of his life.

Supposedly, he said, “I might be an anarchist if I were a younger man.”

He was too old, too tired, and had already fought hard enough for his ideas and didn’t feel up to the challenge of taking them to their logical conclusion.

C’mon profs.  Don’t undersell yourselves and settle for a drip of government cheese and classrooms full of unwilling customers.  I believe in your ability to crush it in the open market; maybe you should too!

After all, being an intellectual outside of academia has never been easier.


School Writing vs. Real Writing

Continuing on yesterday’s theme.

The entire education apparatus, from kindergarten through college, teaches skills relevant to how to succeed in academia, and nothing relevant to how to succeed in the free-market.

Take writing as one example.

In school, you write to criteria determined by others on topics of interest to them then submit it to a single “expert” to review it in secret and tell you if they think it’s worthy. Just like the academic peer review and publication process. But nothing like any kind of valuable writing in the real world, where you get no assignments, you are exposed to the full market, you need to motivate relevant action among your target audience regardless of “expert” opinion, and you have real profit/loss at stake.

No wondered degreed people have a hard time creating value in the real world. They learned the opposite most of their lives.

What if Everyone Was Forced to go to Auto Mechanic School?

Imagine a world in which all kids were sent to auto mechanic school for the first few decades of life.

Some percentage of them, those destined for a future with cars and mechanical problems, would love it.  It’d be a great fit for them.  They’d spend their time focused on the skills they enjoy and that will bring them value in their careers as mechanics.

For most, it would be wasteful and annoying.  They’d spend years and years being prodded into memorizing and repeating facts and tasks that they don’t care much for and that bear no resemblance to what they’ll do for a career.

Of course, those who grow up to be mechanics would think the whole system is great.  They’d be genuinely baffled by people who dislike it or think it should be skipped or scrapped.  They’d go on about how valuable all of the skills and habits gained in the system are for life.

You don’t have to imagine an educational system like that, because we already have it.

Instead of mechanic school, it’s teacher school.  And college is professor school.

The entire system, top to bottom, is designed by and for by teachers.  All the things learned and methods of learning are valuable nowhere in any part of the real world except the academic professions.  The most effective learning happens just from being around things and being in an incentive structure that rewards certain behaviors.  School means you spend all your time around educators (and none of it around any other real world professions) and in an incentive system that rewards things they like.  So that’s exactly what you learn, how to live like an academic.  As I’ve described elsewhere, school is a 16 year apprenticeship for professors.

It’s no surprise then that teachers and professors are baffled by people who complain about the flourescently lit hell of classroom cramming and credential chasing.  They loved the whole experience and it taught them all the stuff they needed to succeed in their careers as academics and educators.  It’s also no surprise that it’s such an epic, colossal waste for most people who want to enter other parts of the vast market.

There’s nothing bad about auto mechanic school.  But it’s easy to spot the absurdity of forcing every person to spend 12 or 16 or 20 years in it and telling them it will be valuable no matter their interests, goals, or future career.  It’s no less absurd to do what we currently do and force everyone to go to professor school for most of their young life.

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