Virus of the Mind (book review)

Post COVID-19 makes Richard Brodie’s 1996 book, Virus of the Mind more familiar. We’ve experienced a virus. In 2021 my daughters tested positive while my wife and I did not. In July 2022, only I tested positive. We have also seen a variety of symptoms. Individual accounts vary. Young people tend to do OK. Older people tend to do worse. The cause and effects of COVID-19 apply when thinking about a mind virus known as a meme.

Brodie defines a meme as ”a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds.” Memes are (1) information, (2) influential, and (3) active replicators. 

Terrible twos is a meme. It is information about toddlers. It changes behavior and/or attitudes. It spreads thanks to alliteration, believability, and openness to new ideas from new parents. 

But terrible twos isn’t really true. Three is worse. Terrible twos persists because it is a meme. 

‘Meme’, which rhymes with ‘gene’ was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Brodie’s book on memes is the sidecar to the Dawkins motorcycle of genes. 

For instance, how a meme spreads, much like how a gene spreads, depends on the environment. Humans evolved in certain atmospheric gasses and our genes did certain things. Genes weren’t programmed for bipedal mammals with large heads. We just ended up this way, a kludgy outcome. Things happen based on what works best at any given moment. 

Monopoly winners are kludgy. The best Monopoly spaces are orange. But players buy up the properties as they are available and cash is on hand. Winners – if your group makes it that far – won’t always have orange. They’ll have a rainbow. It’s one thing that works and hence replicates, after another.

That’s the thing to remember with genes and memes. There’s no destination, just replication.

Human genetic evolution kludged its way to three big triggers: danger, food, and sex. Ancestors with responses to DFS replicated better. We are the progeny of people who thought DFS were really important. Because DFS are wired into our genetic evolution they are also wired into our mimetic responses. Brodie writes, “Genetic evolution gave us the tendency to pay attention to certain memes.” 

It’s not only explicit danger, food, or sex. One sub response is competition. Because we are wired to compete, like in Status Games (Review here), genes and memes associated with competition do better. As a kid who delivered newspapers I always wondered why national and local news, business, and sports each had their own section. Why were those so important? It’s competition, a byproduct of danger (outrun the lion), food (get more berries), and sex (have a better mate). 

DFS and the sub-branches help memes spread but there are other paths as well. Conditioning like repetition is one. Tradition is another. Religion, writes Brodie, does this well. What’s universal about different faiths is their traditions. From weekly to annual, from small to large, most of the world’s largest religions have some aspect of regularity and that keeps the meme going. 

Religious memes (really, religion itself) demonstrates meme neutrality. We are all programmed by memes, there’s no avoiding that. We only choose which memes we are programmed with. Memes are (1) information, (2) influential, and (3) active replicators – and if we change what information we consume, what information influences us, and what information we spread we can change the memes in our world. Brodie writes, “Further compounding the problem is that you don’t immediately know whether the programming you get from a given mind virus is harmful or beneficial. Nobody ever joined a religious cult with the intention of getting brainwashed, moving to Guyana, and committing suicide.”

Thinking about memes was like thinking about what is water

Make up business model

Homeotelic responses are the most important type of action. Introduced here, someone who wanted to lose weight and save money would learn to cook for themselves. Cooking (homeotelic) satisfies both goals.

Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club used homeotelic approaches. Their first goal was cheaper razors and their second goal was easier razors. Online subscriptions achieved both goals.

Competitors like Gillette were forced into heterotelic responses. They couldn’t move towards easier because of their existing retail goals.

Makeup company Trinny London’s CMO Shira Feuer spoke with Rory Sutherland about how she manages the brand in a homeotelic way. Here are three ways.

  • Trinny London uses real people not models as their models. This is a good bit of differentiation. We’re like you the ads state.
  • The branding is like the models: nice but not fancy. The copy isn’t polished and the images aren’t photoshopped.
  • The company uses gifts, not discounts to extend value. Gifts are CAC Trojan horses.

If the Trinny London brand goal is nice and friendly, then not-models, simple copy, and free gifts all work toward that.

Feuer also worked at Burberry and tried to bring that aesthetic to the makeup world. But it was too polished. What works at Burberry does not work at Trinny London. Feuer also consulted with companies and remembers being told you should never pay full price for a Domino’s Pizza because the discounting is built into the pricing model. What works at Domino’s Pizza does not work at Trinny London.

The Domino’s Pizza turnaround was built around changing the culture, improving but not perfecting the pizza, allowing social media, and building their data prowess. That’s a great homeotelic plan – for DP.

Really, this is one of my favorite books.

Made up start up: Sandbags

A business succeeds by doing three things: creating something people want, getting it to them, and communicating the value. We call this: product, placement, promotion. 

Hey Siri, search ‘sandbag workout’

Workout sandbags are an interesting product because no one wants sandbags. The product is the sandbag but the JTBD is looking like this guy. Or at least more like this guy

Sandbags are also interesting because of their distribution opportunity. DTC opens opportunities blocked by traditional retail and neutralizes the TiVo problem. Channels like Amazon are okay, but shift the comparison metrics to price and stars. Companies that offer good-enough inexpensive options do well on Amazon – not a good tactic here. 

Lastly, the ‘people also ask’ sandbag section seeds great copywriting. These customer queries reveal wants. And customers want clarity. Searches are full of ‘program’ or ‘workout’ or ‘plan’. People are searching for what Bob Moesta writes are the ‘little hires’. Someone has bought a product, the ‘big hire’, but don’t quite know how to use it. That’s interesting too. 

People take action when their current situation stinks enough, a new solution looks good enough, there’s not too much ambiguity aversion, and their habits aren’t too strong. In his book Moesta puts it this way:

[Push of the malaise + Pull of the solution] > [Anxiety of ambiguity + Habit of the moment]

If LEFT > RIGHT then action occurs. 

Push: everyone wants to be in better shape. Like that guy? Who knows. 

Pull: sandbags are kinda weird, kinda bro. This may be an opportunity. 

Anxiety: people don’t know the ‘little hires’. Big opportunity. 

Habit: the workout (or not) of the moment. 

In Unacceptable, the book about the college admission scandal, parents hired help. The aiding advisor advertised high-school-test-prep ads at coffee shops and gyms near the schools. The customer wasn’t the student going to college, it was the parent paying for it. The consumer and ‘little hire’ were different from the customer and ‘big hire’. 

Successful products serve both groups. This makes the Unacceptable story tragically funny, some students didn’t know, what, or care what their parents did! 

This is spitballing. We’d also need to find: 

  • Where are the ready people? Maybe: in Google searches, Instagram fans, on Reddit forums, listening to personal development podcasts, and so on. What’s our version of the coffee shop?
  • What does ‘zombie revenue’ tell us about why people who buy it but don’t use it? 
  • What workout email helps customers make progress? 
  • Why are sandbags so bro? Is this an opportunity? 

Every business is a trade off. Doing one thing makes other things easier/harder. A team that plays offense fast has less time for their defense to recover. There’s a good way to sell sandbags. Is this it? Only the market knows. But it’s a good mental lift. 

Drucker’s disagreements

Decisions, writes Peter Drucker, are not made between right and wrong. They are choices between “almost right” and “probably wrong”. How then can someone choose?

“Decisions of the kind the executive has to make are not made well by acclamation. They are made well only if based on the clash of conflicting views, the dialogue between different points of view, the choice between different judgments. The first rule in decision-making is that one does not make a decision unless there is disagreement.”

Peter Drucker

In other words, argue well.

  • Both Presidents Eisenhower and Obama concealed their preferences to turn their Yes Men into Drucker’s Diagreeers.
  • Audrey Tang offered the expression rotate your position, using language to embody our action (and this connection works).
  • Tim Harford praised debate for setting boundaries and structure, letting the ideas duke it out while egos, relationships, and norms sat on the sidelines.
  • Sam Zell strives to be “business agnostic” and encourages his people to push back.
  • A good scrap, Wilbur Wright is quoted as saying, “brought out new ways of looking at things…helped round the corners.”

Disagreement can be upsetting. But the best organizations set up expectations to disagree. Drucker’s addition to the “argue well” collection is to draft the fine line between “almost right” and “probably wrong”. If things are that close then we must debate to find what’s right.

Urban’s words

Tim Urban words

This post is part of our new dictionary series. Words are information about how we can think and how we do think. These are from Tim Urban’s March 2022 appearance on The Psychology Podcast.

Low rung thinker. Think of a ladder. Climbers are high rung thinkers. They approach life like scientists, with curiosity and inquiry. They look around. Non-climbers are low rung thinkers. They approach life with dogmatic and group thinkyness. 

Our height is not static. We climb up and down the ladder. Changing the scope of your media is one way to affect the height. 

An inverse proxy for height is conviction. Depending on the topic, the more confident person the lower they likely are.

Grand Theft Auto Dating. Think of dating as a GTA level. In the game avatars run about stealing cars, shooting bystanders, and running from the police. There is a lot of exploration and not a lot of consequences. 

Dating can be like that. 

It’s not when we use innate norms. We evolved in small social groups where the cost of standing out was high. But we mostly don’t live that way anymore. Yet we act as if we do. 

Instead, says Urban, treat dating more like GTA (minus the carnage). Treat dating as having GTA rules rather than evolutionary ones. 

Identity rocks. Imagine identity as rocks in a backpack. We carry these rocks around with us and they can get heavy. They don’t allow us to change. 

Identities serve (at least!) two purposes. First, they give us membership to a group. As evolved creatures that used to matter a lot! Second, they embody what we want to be. ‘Caring’ is embodied in religion. ‘Freedom’ is embodied in politics. ‘Change’ is embodied in movements. Disembody the sensation from the identity. 

Idea lab. A real imaginary place where collaborators can throw out crazy ideas and freely disagree. It’s where “ideas are like science experiments.” 

Often this is in the culture of a place. One way to create this culture is by having two bosses clash. This shifts the incentive from appeasement to truth-seeking

But naming a room “the idea lab”. That frames it nicely. 

Loved Flash FM (YouTube). Also, the ideas around social groups and status games are in this post. Also, naming a room isn’t crazy. Some founders put a toy elephant in the corner of their meeting rooms so they never forgot about the elephant in the room.

Time management and commutes

I thought the genesis of this idea was Rory Sutherland, but he probably got it from Nassim Taleb who writes that fifty, one foot falls is different from one, fifty foot fall. It also came up on Acquisitions Anonymous where Mills Snell noted thirty years of experience could be two people or ten and the situations are quite different. Taleb got it from someone too – King Solomon? – that it exists in many places is good reason to take note.

Rory Sutherland writes that life is not commutative like mathematics. Put numerically: 20,000×1!=1×20,000. Credit Karma acts on this, rewarding $25 spent for lunch rather than a few tenths of a percent in interest. Gifts and maybe mileage reimbursements may act under the same human tendency.

Time management writes Peter Drucker in The Essential Drucker is also not commutative.

“To write a report may, for instance, require six or eight hours, at least for the first draft. It is pointless to give seven hours to the task by spending fifteen minutes twice a day for three weeks. All one has at the end is a blank paper with some doodles on it.”

Rather Drucker suggests locking the door, removing the phone and six hours without interruption. Then one can finish the “zero draft, the one before the first draft.” And only then work in small installments.

Is this commutative?‘ can be another problem solving prompt. In true cases, there’s no gain in rearrangement. In false cases, switching from water cooler meetings to off site meet ups, can result in different outcomes on similar inputs.

“To have small dribs and drabs of time at his disposal,” writes Drucker, “will not be sufficient even if the total is an impressive number of hours.”

The Mom Test (book review)

“It’s not anyone else’s responsibility to show us the truth. It’s our responsibility to find it. We do that by asking good questions.” – Rob Fitzpatrick 

The best way to think about The Mom Test (Amazon) is as a field manual for JTBD. Bob Moesta explains that JTBD is the balance of supply-side innovation and demand-side innovation. It is the innovation balance between what we can build and what the customers want. 

Often innovation is unbalanced, oriented more from the supply side. One way to judge is the language. Is a product or service explained in the company language or the consumer language? 

Oooooohhhhh. Got it. So just ask customers what they like and change it! 

Nope. 

Fitzpatrick’s book guides the shift from supply-focused to demand-focused. It’s an informational puzzle. 

To shift, an organization must focus on good questions. Fitzpatrick dubs good questions “The Mom Test”. If a question is so good even your mom answers truthfully it’s a good question. Failed startups often failed The Mom Test. Yes, our friends say, that’s a great idea

Good questions find signal in the noise, which comes in different flavors. 

  1. Social context. People will be nice, so questions must be precise. 
  2. Vague questions. Good questions focus on behaviors. Show me your calendar and checkbook types. 
  3. Lack of listening. Take a page from Chris Voss and reply with sounds like, looks like, and seems like

Good questions focus on aspects of a person’s life, not ideas about a product. 

One difference between Fitzpatrick and Moesta is the structure of these question-and-answer sessions. Moesta tells his interviewees to think of it as background for a documentary. He reduces the stakes and that leads to a better signal. Fitzpatrick suggests reducing the stake further. Any conversation can include The Mom Test. If you want specific conversations Fitzpatrick has advice for that too. 

To see if The Mom Test helps every conversation leads to a next step. There are no good or bad meetings, writes Rob, only successes or failures. 

A good examiner will get out of their own way. “You’re searching for the truth not trying to be right.” 

If you want to get better at creating things people want, or like a bayesian update to be more demand focused, check out 1,000+ reviews on Amazon.

Never Split the Difference (book review)

You never step in the same river twice, the saying goes and this second read (the first) of Chris Voss’s Never Split the Difference revealed an unknown spectrum.

Life is a series of “I want you to…”. These requests span our discomfort. For me, job-to-be-done interviews are easier than Voss’s negotiations which are easier than direct copy which is easier than face-to-face negotiations.

I dismissed direct copy and negotiations as less good and confused the metric of difficult as correct.

But they’re all the same.

Each “I want you to…” begins in another person’s world. “The goal is to identify what your counter-party needs,” writes Voss and get them to talk and talk and talk some more. For direct copy said Bob Bly, “enter the conversation they are having in their mind.” For JTBD interviews said Bob Moesta, act like a documentary filmmaker gathering information. Understanding always happens first.

But not a perfect understanding.

Voss wrote his book because Getting to Yes felt too formal. Perfect understanding is a logic puzzle. Negotiations are psychological puzzles. Like understanding Status Games, Voss wants his readers to understand people’s biases and tendencies too. Those include:

  • Framing: setting an anchor price or using loss aversion, each of which changes the comparison to a new price or a missed deal.
  • Removing the sting: I’m about to ask you for a big favor or this is going to take a while but we will go as fast as possible. These warnings are the balm for the stoic observation that we suffer more in imagination than reality.
  • Avoid split the difference compromises: which optimize easy and neglect the chance to be creative.

Negotiations are like the Who’s Line is it Anyway Helping Hands skit (YouTube). Each party is a set of hands and “the deal” is making something that works. Understanding the other person’s style and needs is how to make it work.

My discomfortable dismissal was mood affiliation.

Meth COGS

In profession problem solving we looked at how careers craft thinking. Let’s add DEA agents.

In his podcast with Jocko Willink, Joe Piersante talks about his time working in Arizona and dealing with hundreds of meth labs. If I told you I was in 500 labs, Joe says, it would be an understatement. Meth was the drug of choice in Joe’s region and between the cost to create, the large rural area, and proximity with Mexico it was difficult to police.

“It was bad at first because there was so many,” Joe says. It was too easy. What “put a dent into it,” was the 2005 Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act, which restricted access to pseudoephedrine, a precursor chemical to meth.

The COGS increase changed the business model.

Later in his career and the episode Joe talks about his time in Afghanistan. “We would not go after the poppy farmers because they were made to grow the opium,” Joe said, “The Taliban came in and they had the biggest stick at the time. It was a case of ‘you’re going to grow this or you’re going to get killed.'”

There were no better incentives to offer this group of laborers. “We knew they weren’t reaping the benefits so we tried to find the people getting the money.”

A lotta problems are multi-dimensional. Think about the field of addiction, said David Nutt, it’s about the drug, the person, and the society. Each of those is a lever. Profession problem solving is too. How would an economist solve this? How would a marketer? How would a coder? Each leads to a different island in the archipelago of thought. DEA agents think a bit like business owners, and we can add this approach to the set.

I also learned what Smurfing is/was, a unique JTBD.

Snickers and Milky Way

Snickers and Milky Way

Reframing our perspective is a powerful thinking tool. ‘Sleeping on it’ is reframing. Reading books is reframing. Comparing novel things is reframing. 

For a business owner, thinking of time of day, place in life, and what happened prior is reframing.

Bob Moesta notes “context creates value”. Time and place create more or less value. Birthday gifts have one value on birthdays and another value when it’s not. 

But we miss this because of average lies. Average computes easily, is sometimes helpful, but is a crude tool. Sometimes we NEED this one thing RIGHT NOW! 

Contrast Snickers and Milky Way. Graphically: 

Commercially (2011):

Snickers is a chewy pick-me-up energy bar. Milky Way is a treat-yo-self deep breath of sweetness. The context creates value

According to Bob Moesta, the context for eating Snickers is that I’m hungry and I want something filling, tasty, cheap, and fast. Applying average thinking, there’s not a constant demand. Find when customers consume a product reveals that product’s JTBD.

“Context creates value” fits well with Alchemy too. Channeling Rory Sutherland, it wasn’t that Snickers needed to be tastier, rather reframed. Alchemy is about solving problems with psychology rather than physics. Instead of making travel faster, make it more enjoyable with wifi, charge ports, booking flexibility, a table for tea, someplace for the kids to burn off energy, and so on. Faster is only better when the process sucks. 

Consumers and customers have untapped wants. They’re hiding behind time, place, averages. They’re served by JTBD & Alchemy.