Sunday Reads #116: How to become stronger (not just at the gym)

Tsuyoku naritai!

Happy new year!

Welcome to the latest edition of Sunday Reads, where we'll look at a topic (or more) in business, strategy, or society, and use them to build our cognitive toolkits for business.

Hope you got some time to rest and reflect over the year end. I know many of us (me included) were close to burnout from the year that 2020 was. So I found it very helpful to take some time off, decompress, and hit reset. Now I feel reinvigorated and ready for the next year of Sunday Reads 😊.

If you’re new here, don’t forget to check out the compilation of my best articles: The best of I’m sure you’ll find something you like.

And here’s the last edition of my newsletter, in case you missed it: Sunday Reads #115: Saying Goodbye to 2020.

This week, let’s look at our careers and personal growth journeys, from the perspective of product management. How do we bring a craftsman mindset to our lives? How do we become better over time?

Here's the deal - Dive as deep as you want. Read my thoughts first. If you find them intriguing, read the main articles. If you want to learn more, check out the related articles and books.

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1. How to become stronger (not just at the gym).

Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote a powerful post in 2007, a clarion call to rationalists everywhere. It was called, Tsuyoku naritai!

Tsuyoku is “strong”; naru is “becoming,” and the form naritai is “want to become.” Together it means, “I want to become stronger,” and it expresses a sentiment embodied more intensely in Japanese works than in any Western literature I’ve read.

You might say it when expressing your determination to become a professional Go player—or after you lose an important match, but you haven’t given up—or after you win an important match, but you’re not a ninth-dan player yet—or after you’ve become the greatest Go player of all time, but you still think you can do better.

That is tsuyoku naritai, the will to transcendence.

Ever since I read it, this has strongly resonated with me. I've approached everything I do from the perspective of becoming better. (And "tsuyoku naritai!" is also my Whatsapp status).

I've always interpreted "I want to become stronger" as: push to attain perfection in whatever I do. I know I won't get there, but that is a good thing - I can keep striving towards it.

But I realized that there's another way of looking at it, when I read this article from Slava Akhmechet, Prioritize Strengths.

He applies an analogy from the “three bucket model" of product management:

You categorize all possible features into one of three buckets— gamechangers, showstoppers (called table stakes in corporate vernacular) and distractions.

A gamechanger is a feature that solves a previously unsolved problem for a user. Gamechangers are why people buy. Consider the Ring doorbell. It lets you interact from anywhere with people who show up to your house. You couldn't do that before. That's new and exciting and solves a problem.

A showstopper is a flaw that prevents people from buying. If Ring cost $1,000 that would have been a showstopper. They had to get the price down to a point where people would buy. But you don't buy a product because the price is low. Fixing all the showstoppers doesn't get anyone interested. It gets people to press the "buy" button, but something else had to have captured their interest first.

A distraction is a feature that doesn't affect sales. The camera on Ring is awful compared to modern phone cameras, but nobody cares. People don't look at Ring and think "hmm, the video quality is bad, don't think I'll buy this." They might complain about it, but they buy. Distractions can look like showstoppers, but aren't.

Now, if the product is you, then the gamechangers, showstoppers and distractions are how you allocate effort to engineer yourself.

This is a great insight!

Don't strive for perfection by fixing every tiny weakness. Instead, focus on your strengths (gamechangers) and only the weaknesses that matter (showstoppers).

Don't care about the distractions. Yes, they are weaknesses. But they don't matter.

What does this mean? At a narrow level, it means you have permission to be bad at email.

At a broader level, it means...

Focus disproportionately on your strengths. They are the gamechangers.

As you build your career, focus on building on your strengths, rather than on patching your weaknesses.

Weaknesses are universal. Patching them is almost a commodity.

But your strengths are likely unique. The ROI on any effort in honing these will be much higher.

  • If you're a programmer, focus on becoming a virtuoso programmer. If you do that, then you're "it". There are very few showstoppers - you can come into work at noon and in shorts, for all anyone cares.

  • If your key strength is deal-making and negotiation, then build on that. Work on your attention to detail, sharpen your analytical rigor, and chase big partnerships. Don't spend your time in the nitty-gritty of ops.

  • If you're a hardcore numbers person, then focus on becoming better at analytics and spotting patterns. That's far more useful than learning to schmooze at dinner parties.

Now, it's important to remember: there are tradeoffs to such focus.

As VGR says in Laser mode vs lightbulb mode, when you focus maximally on improving certain strengths, some others will fall by the wayside.

And that's OK.

You can be bad at email, as Neal Stephenson says in Why I'm a bad correspondent:

“The quality of my e-mails and public speaking is, in my view, nowhere near that of my novels. So for me it comes down to the following choice: I can distribute material of bad-to-mediocre quality to a small number of people, or I can distribute material of higher quality to more people. But I can’t do both; the first one obliterates the second.”

This principle also applies to how you hire and manage your teams.

When you hire for few weaknesses, what do you get? You get a well-rounded mediocre person.

Yes, you minimize false positives (the salesman who is too abrasive to make a sale). But you increase false negatives. You lose the potential superstar, who just happens to stammer a little.

As I mention in Hiring Great People, False Positives are OK. False Negatives are not.

False Positives will happen, no matter what you do. They're 30%-50% of your hires, but that's OK. It will not get lower.

False Negatives are far more insidious. You don't know how much they've cost you.

Life doesn't tell you the cost of the path not taken (except in rare cases - like when Facebook rejected Brian Acton for a job. And he then started Whatsapp).

But that is an anecdotal example, you say. You know false positives are bad (have to let good people go); how can false negatives be worse?

False negatives are worse because like startups, employee effectiveness follows a power law. A strong performer contributes much, much more than a weak one.

You might say that a good employee is only 20% better than a mediocre one. But that stuff compounds! 20% more everyday, and you're on a completely different continent in a year.

The person you didn't hire might be the superstar you needed.

Peter Drucker makes a similar point in The Effective Executive:

Staff for strengths, not absence of weaknesses.

An organization is a way to put people where their strengths are.

If you staff for strength, you can demand strong performance.

Coming back to our own careers though...

Which strengths should we focus on?

OK, got it, focus on strengths over weaknesses. But that's still too broad. You might think, "I have several strengths, which ones do I focus on?"

As Taylor Pearson says in The Subtle Art of Reaching Your Potential: Focus on strengths that have power law outcomes.

You can't build mastery in everything (think "10,000 hours of effort"). So you need to prioritize.

Use three criteria:

  • Is it valuable?

  • Is it something you find easier than others do?

  • Is it subject to power law outcomes? - i.e., do the best performers get a disproportionate share of the spoils?

Let's say you're as good at sales / bizdev as you are at ops. Focus on the sales and the deal-making. That's where winners take all.

And how do you build your strengths?

By shipping.

Ship your work early. Ship your work fast. Get early feedback, work on it, and improve.

Use Taylor Pearson's 70% Rule. Ship when you're 70% there.

Once you’re at 70%, just do it.

The book is 70% done? Launch it.

The project is 70% finished? Ship it.

You’re 70% sure about the decision? Make it.

Remember, Tsuyoku Naritai!

PS. What about the showstoppers - weaknesses that are table stakes?

With the showstoppers, you need to resolve them just enough. You don't need to build mastery.

Take care of the 20% low-hanging fruit, that have 80% of the impact. No more than that.

So don't ignore your email like Neal Stephenson does. Reply, but it's OK to reply 24 hours late 😜.

2. Rational optimism about the Roaring '20s.

A few weeks ago, I shared this tweet:

Eli Dourado has written an article-length discussion on the same topic - Notes on Technology in the 2020s.

It's a lovely read, outlining the key technologies where a step change innovation is coming. Think Zero → One, or One → Ten, not v1.1 → v1.2.

  • Biotech and health: mRNA innovation will unlock significant value, well beyond the COVID vaccine.

  • Energy: The buzz in the world is about renewables, but I think nuclear could be a much better and cleaner long-term source. Eli agrees, but feels geothermal may be even better.

  • Transportation: Eli explains why the shift to electric cars will happen not gradually but suddenly, sometime in the coming decade.

Speaking of mRNA, this twitter thread from a month ago is a great layman's explanation of how it works.

And if you want to dive in a little more, this article is great too: Reverse Engineering the source code of the BioNTech/Pfizer SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine - Articles.

But sometimes, the future is an Uncanny Valley.

Boston Dynamics, the most media-savvy robotics firm, has put out a lot of fun videos in the past, showcasing its robots' talents. For example, see this flawless gymnastic routine.

To celebrate the new year 2021, the company put up a dance video.

Pretty impressive, and a lot of fun. But it felt a little weird, didn't it?

Instead of a warm fuzzy glow of similarity (we're all above average dancers, aren't we 😉), some parts of the video feel like, "yes, it's human-like, but still slightly creepy". Uncanny valley, here we come.

That's it for this week! Hope you liked the articles. Drop me a line (just hit reply or leave a comment through the button below) and let me know what you think.

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See you next week!