David Chang

David Chang David Shankbone 2010.jpg
Photo by David Shankbone – Shankbone, CC BY 3.0.

Wow. This podcast with Ezra Klein was good. I didn’t expect it. Sometimes you know of someone in a peripheral way (like Justin Bieber), but then you learn more about them and catalyze an opinion. That’s how this interview felt.

I didn’t expect to learn so much from David Chang, but I did. Here are a few things I learned.

1/ Turn your weakness into a strength. Chang says, “(I had) just amount the right naiveté to know what I could and couldn’t do. I had just the right amount of experience.” He adds, “I was never going to be in the top ten.” He was good, but at the same time not good enough.

In hindsight, the fact that he wasn’t that good, was quite good. “I had no allegiance to anything,” Chang says, “I could pick and choose whatever I liked.” He could use Doritos.

Even though he was classically trained, he never would get his own restaurant. That’s fine. It meant he could start Momofuku.

“You are your own competitive advantage,” said Howard Marks. Chang demonstrated this. This also means that your weaknesses can be turned into your strengths.

Auren Hoffman advised founders to play to their strengths. Gary Vaynerchuk says to punt your weaknesses. From food to tech, the big takeaway is to know yourself.

Understand what you aren’t good enough at (like Chang did when he diverted from the classical food world), to spend your available time on something you can be good at.

Tren Griffin said that Charlie Munger gets this, choosing to invest in companies rather than start them. Naval Ravikant has taken the physical and philosophical health rather than career angles to know himself.

You won’t ever be done. Felicia Day wrote, “knowing yourself is life’s eternal homework.” But it’s so helpful if you figure things out.

2/ Earn your X-MBA. Chang says that he started Momofuku around the same time his friends were going to graduate school. “Okay,” Chang thought. The restaurant will cost 250K all in, “this will be my business school.”

The key part isn’t school, it’s education.

Ezra Klein did this when he chose a writing fellowship instead of an MFA program. Sophia Amoruso did this too, choosing YouTube videos and “Dummies” books rather than business school. Tim Ferriss invested to earn his X-MBA. The Wright Brothers never went to college, they learned on their own.

How do you earn an X-MBA?

  1. Consider the opportunity cost of school. If you go to school, what can’t you do? For Chang this meant he couldn’t start Momofuku, something which required his youth.

  2. Consider the financial cost of school. What are you paying for? What are you hiring the degree to do? Chang figured it was a financial wash.

  3. What connections can you make? Each X-MBA’er met a lot of people while doing their “thing.” Chang found people he’s still friends with.

  4. Are you a good self-directed learner? The Wright Brothers didn’t stay home and play games – they skipped school to read. Chang too had the right makeup for running a restaurant.

  5. How important is signaling? If a degree is a signal in your world, then you probably need the degree.

3/ Love the grind. Chang believed in what Casey Neistat calls “the religion of work.” “It’s like a scratch you have to itch,” says Chang.

To be great, you have to work really hard, harder than Chang. Remember, he couldn’t break through in the classical world of food. That Mount Everest was too much. He had to find a new mountain.

He went off on his own. That too takes a lot of work. It’s why Gary Vaynerchuk makes videos like this:

This hustle never ends. It’s like parenting, notes Klein. You may clear a hurdle but the race continues. Life’s not a linear video game. The same challenge comes up tomorrow. You need to be okay with that.

Even dream jobs are like this. “It’s a misconception to say that if you love what you do,  you love it all the time,” says Chang, “that’s a total lie.”

We’ve heard this before. Austin Kleon, noted that “every job is still job.” Jon Acuff said the same thing.

Marc Maron told James Corden that he went on Conan, and was  surprised that there was no party after. Why, because those people were at their job. “It’s just a bunch of fucking people at work,” Maron said. Even funny boys Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg said that the job of writing movies still has parts they don’t want to do.

4/ Part of the reason thinking. Here’s what I didn’t expect after this podcast, to be confused about what food to eat. Geez, it’s complex. Chang admits this, “the sustainability of what we do is not an easy question to answer, it weighs on my mind a lot.”

Introduced by Sanjay Bakshi, part of the reason thinking is our mental model to understand that many ingredients enter but one cake comes out.

Chang understands this. He talks about doing right by his employees in the restaurant, the ones in the other restaurant, and the farmers. It’s hard, he tells Klein, to balance all this and then provide food at a price people will pay. One thing he’s doing to answer these question is experimentation.

Before closing his R&D lab, Chang was coming up with new foods for all his restaurants to use. Some of his restaurants are experimenting with a no tips. Each of these tweaks gives him clues as to what parts of the reason are most important.

Systems talk to us. They give us signals about the parts. In the cacophony of life this is hard to hear. Hear it you must.

Look at Monsanto, says Chang. “I think Monsanto is one of the worst fucking organizations on the planet, but how can you debate your cause versus feeding starving people?” Part of the reason thinking is complicated. But it’s worth figuring out. “I view this as a challenge to work around,” Chang says.

** Suggested reading.**

Klein tries to pick Chang’s brain about books to help him be a better manager, and the two agree that there are good books for this, just not management books (“I don’t read any of that stuff,” Chang says. “I’d rather read books. I can learn more from a history book or autobiography about someone that made a ton of mistakes.”)

The good books? The Checklist Manifesto is a “great book. I love that guy.”

The Bhagavad Gita, “it’s about decision making… when I have a tough decision, I ask, ‘what is the actual worst thing that can possibly happen?’ And it can’t be as bad as I think it can be.” Tim Ferriss and Ben Horowitz use this technique too.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid“It’s about logic and patterns.”

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

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