Sunday Reads #172: Be careful what you set as your North Star. For it will consume you.
In which a viral tweet makes me question the price of my soul.
Hope you’re having a great weekend.
You’ve heard the saying, “What gets measured gets managed.” This week, let’s look at the dark side of this powerful management principle.
It started, strangely enough, with a funny tweet:
1. The tyranny of the quantifiable.
I went viral on twitter a couple of weeks ago:
[If you aren't sure what's funny, click and see the replies 😊].
Nearly 300,000 views in total, on this tweet and my follow-ups in the thread. 19,000 engagements. 1200 likes, 130 retweets.
I had two reflections:
1. It's a heady feeling. I loved going viral! I enjoyed the constant pings of dopamine, as folks liked, retweeted and replied.
2. There's an extreme power law of outcomes.
For instance, see my average impressions (views) per tweet for the last month:
Average impressions per tweet: 1207 (i.e., each tweet was seen by 1207 people, on average)
Average impressions per tweet, without the viral tweet: 408
Average impressions per tweet, without the viral tweet AND my replies to it: 208
If the views cratered without the viral tweet, engagement was even more skewed:
Average engagement per tweet: 85
Average engagement per tweet, without the viral tweet: 12
And under Elon Musk, Twitter is starting to optimize for virality even more!
As Jakob Greenfeld says here, Twitter now shows your average tweet to less than 10% of your followers. Unless you're posting things optimized for virality, hardly anyone will see them!
Real estate entrepreneur / shitpoaster extraordinaire Nick Huber sees it too:
Now, why am I telling you all this?
Because this reminded me of a timeless lesson:
The road to hell is paved with… actionable metrics.
There's a popular saying in management literature: "What gets measured gets managed."
Not a month passes when I don't hear it or say it.
The logic is straightforward:
If you measure something, you automatically tend to optimize it. So, if you want some outcome, start measuring it. And, lo and behold, it will be achieved.
As I said on twitter once, in a joyous mood:
And it's true! Plenty of good things do come out of measurement:
A large part of Amazon's success is finding the right "controllable input metrics" and tracking them. More in the excellent Working Backwards by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr. Also read about the power of OKRs in John Doerr's Measure What Matters.
As I wrote in this thread, tracking my body composition was a critical factor in going below 15% body fat for the first time.
Bryson DeChambeau is one of the world's leading golfers. And one secret of his success is maniacal measurement of his metrics. David Perell outlines in this excellent thread.
And if it weren't for this adage, some of the most timeless pieces of literature might never have been written!
To maximize his income, Dumas even created a taciturn character, Grimaud, who only spoke in monosyllables. And when the newspapers stopped paying him by line, he killed off the character 😂!
So yes, metrics are powerful if you can harness them towards your goals.
But there's a dark, insidious side to this as well.
Which escalates through three levels, each more treacherous than the last:
Level 1: What we want is hard to measure. So we measure something easier.
The most important things are hard to measure. But you still need to measure and optimize something. So you choose a measure that approximates your goal.
There's now a gap between what you want and what you're measuring.
Even if you know at the start that this gap exists, you will forget over time. And then, you're no longer moving towards your real goal. You're only moving towards the approximate one. Which is not the same.
For example, We all want to be happy.
How do we measure happiness on an ongoing basis (vs. individual happy events)? We can't. So we measure wealth instead. It's a decent approximation at the start, but it breaks down over time, as we continue to optimize.
Another example: Facebook and Google report clicks and impressions, not actual incremental purchases. So that's what digital marketers track and optimize. And it likely doesn't work, as I say in Digital advertising doesn't work. And marketers don't care.
Level 2: What you're not measuring becomes invisible to you.
The easiest way to lose sight of your goal, is to choose another goal that is more measurable.
I wrote about a strange example of this in What doesn't get measured... doesn't exist?. The article has more details, but briefly:
Until the 2010s, audience measurement in India (TAM) used an audience sample that was largely urban. Even though the rural audience was massive.
Rating agencies corrected that with a new measurement model, BARC, which looked at a much larger sample, including a sizeable rural proportion.
Instantly, broadcasters started generating new, "rural-focused" content - e.g., tons of shows with supernatural elements.
The rural audience was not new! But broadcasters started creating content for it ONLY when they were able to measure it.
Another, more evil example, from my How Big Oil has misled us since the '70s:
In another example of a perfectly descriptive headline, BP created 'carbon footprint' as a devious, manipulative PR tactic.
BP contracted Ogilvy in the early 2000s to create a marketing campaign that takes the heat off them on climate change.
In a scene straight out of Mad Men, Ogilvy introduced the concept of "carbon footprint". Ogilvy told people that they themselves are responsible for climate change.
Yes, gentle reader. Your "carbon footprint" isn't a concept invented by scientists. It's a term fabricated by Don Draper the master manipulator.
The company even introduced a "carbon footprint calculator" to convince people that this is what makes a difference.
The carbon footprint is such a powerful metaphor!
It does a 180-degree frame switch.
"Ask not what Big Oil can do for the Earth, ask what you can do for
Big Oilthe Earth."
And when you make something measurable, it's like you put it on steroids. We started doing whatever we could to reduce our carbon footprint.
We started using paper straws (paper decomposes, so it’s better than plastic. Even though trees are cut for it…?).
We now buy carbon credits on flights (we’ve not checked, but surely they're being offset properly!).
One last example of naïve interventionism (via Taylor Pearson), and then we move to Level 3:
Early modern Germany viewed its forest through the lens of a single number: the revenue yield of the timber that could be extracted annually: timber revenue/year.
In the eyes of the State, the forest was simply a certain quantity of wood.
The state worked to make forests more legible. They wanted the real forest to conform to the administrative grids and estimates. No naturally occurring forest would grow to fit the tidy spreadsheet, and so through careful seeding, planting and cutting, they created a forest that was easier to count, manipulate and assess
The underbrush was cleared, as it did not fit the spreadsheets. The number of species was reduced, often to one, because it was easier to track. Plantings were done in straight rows and grids on large tracts of land.
... The negative consequences of forcing the forests to become legible to their planners didn’t become obvious until after second rotation of trees to be planted, about a century later.
It turns out there was a complex process going on in the forests involving soil building, nutrient uptake, and symbiotic relationships between fungi, insects, mammals and flora, which were not fully understood.
The result was Waldersterben, AKA forest death. If your goal is to “deliver the greatest possible constant volume of wood,” forest death is, speaking technically, no bueno. Muy no bueno.
The clearing of the underbrush reduced the diversity of insect, mammal and bird populations which were essential to the soil building process. The first legible plantings had done so well because they were sucking up the nutrients that had taken centuries to accumulate in the forests.
Because the forests were now all a single species, pests could spread easily from tree to tree; whereas, in the [previous] forest, the species tended to grow in groves so while a pest might kill a grove or two, it did not spread to the whole forest.
You get what you measure. Not what you want. Heaven forbid they are different (and they are always different).
Because when that happens, you move to:
Level 3: The metric becomes an end unto itself, and misaligns incentives irrevocably.
I wrote about this in Oops! I did it again:
As Hong Kong continues to battle Wave #4 of COVID, the government has announced an incentive to encourage people to get tested. The city will offer anyone who tests positive for COVID a handout of HKD 5,000 (USD 645).
Ingenious. What a great scheme! Surely nothing can go wrong here. <sarcasm: off>
And true enough, a week later:The HKD5000 test subsidy is heading towards wrong way - "Have sex and you are guranteened for HKD5000!" "Come and drink soup for COVID!" outside sex worker's place
You see, this is a law of nature. It's called Goodhart's Law:
"When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."
There are several more examples in that article. I'll just mention two more:
The most cited example of Goodhart's Law is a Soviet-era nail factory:
Once upon a time, there was a factory in the Soviet Union that made nails. Moscow set quotas on their nail production, and they began working to meet the quotas as described, rather than doing anything useful.
When they set quotas by quantity, they churned out hundreds of thousands of tiny, useless nails.
When Moscow realized this was not useful and set a quota by weight instead, they started building big, heavy railroad spike-type nails that weighed a pound each.
One of the key triggers of the opioid crisis in America was an innocuous question: "how much pain are you in, on a scale of 1 to 10"?
The crisis started when lobbyists convinced doctors to start treating pain as a "fifth vital sign", like blood pressure and pulse.
Soon, all you needed to get an opioid was to say your pain is 10 on 10.
So, what gets measured gets managed. But what doesn't get measured... might as well not exist.
Now, how do these three levels link back to Twitter and social media?
This gradual divergence between what you want and what you track... is exactly the Faustian bargain of building an audience on the Internet.
I call it the tyranny of the quantifiable.
What you choose as your North Star will consume you.
Once you have a large enough number of followers and significant engagement, there's only one way to get more followers and engagement:
Tweet platitudes. Clichés. Fortune cookie tweets.
Slightly useful to millions of people, vs. incredibly useful to hundreds.
This is why the moral arc of twitter bends towards fortune cookie tweets.
Just look at how Sahil Bloom's tweets have evolved over time (he's now at 800K followers).
I loved his earlier posts. But I shudder at the thought of reading his 103rd thread on morning routines.
The Farnam Street newsletter was a must-read for me a few years ago. Now I don't even subscribe to it. Same with James Clear.
They're now saying the same thing a hundred ways. And I for one am tired.
But you see, they have no choice. Because the algorithm shapes everything you see on social media. That's why:
Everything on Instagram is cinematic.
Everything on Twitter is crisp.
Everything on popular blogs is simplistic.
And nothing is real.
Feed the algorithm, and it will eat you alive.
7 days ago, mega-influencer MrBeast uploaded a YouTube video about curing a thousand people's blindness. It's already received 86M views.
But what's interesting is the backlash he has received. In his words:
Now, whether you agree with the hate or not, one thing is true:
MrBeast's charity falls in the uncanny valley between chasing views and doing philanthropy.
Ryan Broderick of Garbage Day sums it up well in An investment in future virality:
“When the philanthropist complains that their philanthropy isn't getting the kind of praise he wanted, it should make you wonder what the motive behind the philanthropy was in the first place.”...
I once spent an afternoon going through [MrBeast's] content from the beginning. Many of his early videos are scrubbed, but if you scroll through his content, you can watch him evolve from being a teenage gamer obsessed with PewDiePie into a creator that now surpasses PewDiePie. And you also start to get a clear picture of what the MrBeast philosophy is, to the extent there is one.
[MrBeast] figured out that you can buy virality. Not by paying for reach, but by telling your audience exactly how much you’re spending...
But viral content platforms, and YouTube, in particular, reward a constant, almost psychologically torturous need to one-up yourself. So you have to keep creating excuses for spending more and more money.
You start giving it away to random people on the street, then to contestants in your own game show segments, or you spend it on increasingly elaborate stunts. Then you create a charity to spend even more money.
And the algorithm rewards you with views, and thus subscribers, and thus ad revenue.
But [MrBeast] now seems to be angry that people are beginning to realize that this philanthropy is not an act of charity, but an investment in his future virality.
And I wonder - in my own small way - will this happen to me?
If I chase likes, will my writing become optimized for virality (hot takes and shitpoasting) instead of usefulness?
Worse, as I write more simply for greater reach, will I lose my capacity to think of complex topics? Will I lose my ability to see nuance?
Wow, I definitely don't want that!
If there's any way to get out of this quicksand, it's to ask a simple question:
What do I want to want?
To recap, there's a simple reason why measuring outcomes can lead you astray:
What you really want, is hard to measure. So you're always measuring something that's easier.
Sometimes there's a small gap between the two. Sometimes there's a big gap.
But there's. ALWAYS. A. GAP.
So, it helps to ask remember two things:
A. What are you optimizing for? What is your goal?
In my example of "Building an Online Persona":
Are you in this to rack up a million followers?
Or are you in this to learn new things? Make new friends, who make you smarter? Open yourself to new opportunities?
Likes ain't cash, as JK Molina often says.
Now, if your goal is to learn new things, you can't measure it with a single objective number.
But if you sit with it - ask yourself every month what you learned that month - you will see progress.
Find that one golden nugget every day, every week, or even every month - and that's enough.
B. What is your time horizon?
Are you looking to achieve your goal in 6 months? Or is this a multi-decade journey?
Play long-term games with long term people, and you will never lose.
As I said in How would you discount your life?
The time horizon makes the strategy.
Long time horizon → Discounting the future at a low rate → The future matters a LOT. Focus on exploration. Search for golden eggs.
Short time horizon → Discounting the future at a high rate → The future matters less. Focus on exploiting. Kill the Golden Goose.
(Check out the article. At the very least, it will have you think about IRRs and discount rates in a new way).
Just to be clear: I respect the pragmatic POV.
If your goal is to rack up a million followers or 100 million views, then for sure - do what it takes. If you’re playing, play to win.
But be aware that you won't know the price you're paying today. The bill might come due one month from now. Or one year from now.
You can’t deny the prize, it may never fulfil you.
It longs to kill you, are you willing to die?
Chris Cornell, You know my name.
Before we continue, a quick note:
Did a friend forward you this email?
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2. Golden Nugget of the week: Sales is not about selling.
I've been reading a bunch of articles and books about sales, and the one key lesson is:
Sales is not about selling. Sales is about qualifying the buyer.
Find the right buyer, and your product will sell itself.
Reminds me of this anecdote from Gary Halbert:
One of the questions I like to ask my students is, "If you and I both owned a hamburger stand and we were in a contest to see who would sell the most hamburgers, what advantages would you most like to have on your side?"
Some people say they would like to have the advantage of having superior meat from which to make their hamburgers. Others say they want sesame seed buns. Others mention location. Someone usually wants to be able to offer the lowest prices. And so on.
After my students are finished telling what advantages they would most like to have, I say to them: "OK, I'll give you every single advantage you asked for. I, myself, only want one advantage and, if you will give it to me, I will whip the pants off of all of you when it comes to selling burgers!"
"What advantage do you want?", they ask.
"The only advantage I want, " I reply, "is a STARVING CROWD!"
Way of the Wolf by Jordan Belfort (trivia: The movie "Wolf of Wall Street" is based on him)
3. A beautiful meditation on mortality and death.
I read an article this week, and it's tearing at my heart-strings.
Will just quote one of the first lines:
We were like strangers on a train, the passengers and I, hurtling through the night, revealing intimacies we would never have dreamed of sharing during the brighter light of day. I encountered people whose lives amazed me, ennobled me, made me laugh and made me weep. And none of those lives touched me more than that of a woman I picked up late on a warm August night.
And the last line:
I do not think that I have ever done anything in my life that was any more important.
Read the article! And try not to cry.
That’s it for this week. Hope you enjoyed it.
As always, stay safe, healthy and sane, wherever you are.
I’ll see you next week.