John Hempton

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

John Hempton was on The Jolly Swagman podcast to talk about his career, investments, and work in Australia. Hempton’s a short seller, and not the first we’ve looked at. Marc Cohodes has been featured, twice. Jim Chanos has been featured twice too.

Bethany McLean explained why short-sellers are helpful. She said, “I had no cynism or skepticism is those (early) days.” McLean had to pick stocks for the magazine and representatives from different companies came in, pitched their company, and it was roses all the way down.

After one of her first stories, she got a call from a short seller. That person told her all the ways she was wrong, and as McLean told Patrick O’Shaughnessy, “I just don’t like being wrong.”

Hempton is a short seller, so let’s see what he has to tell us.

Hempton has a talent stack. “At some point, I realized I wanted to pick shorts like Marc (Cohodes) and manage a portfolio like Kim. I don’t think I was good at either of those things as those people…but the combined result is quite nice and I’m really happy with it.”

The odds that anyone is the best in the world at any one thing is quite low. (See Also: Something is always happening). However, the chance that someone is world-class in one combination of things is quite high. Scott Adams writes that he was not great at business, drawing, or humor but he’s great at combining the three.

Adam Savage writes, “Eclecticism is kind of my brand…my talent lies not in my mastery of individual skills, at which I’m almost universally mediocre, but rather the combination of those skills into a toolbox of problems solving that serves me in every area of my life.”

This combination of stock selection and portfolio management contributes to good decisions. He’s very complimentary of Cohodes throughout the episode but Marc invests with such rigor it borders on anger.

“In my ideal world I have a computerized Marc Cohodes that takes his unbelievable stock selection and it industrializes it and by industrializing it I can diversify it and de-risk it.”

This kind of style takes a certain approach. For example, Hempton tries to argue well.  “A really good guy in financial markets likes to be told he’s wrong and hear rational arguments why he’s wrong.”

Steve Jobs was like this, writes Ken Segall. “Steve preferred straight talk and raw content to slick presentations.” Jobs would act like a newspaper editor, assigning tasks, giving feedback, and scheduling follow-ups. “Steve was most comfortable with a table, whiteboard, and an honest exchange of ideas.”

Though as Charlan Nemeth told Russ Roberts, it’s more than the MBA method of assigning a devil’s advocate. 

Sometimes arguments mean not knowing. Good, says Hempton. “If in finance someone asks you thirty questions, the answer to at least seven of them should be, ‘I don’t know.’ If your answer is not ‘I don’t know,’ I’m probably not going to hire you.”

These kind of back-and-forth, honest conversations get to a deeper understanding. “If you just stole an idea without understanding the analysis, you’ll get it wrong and trade it badly.” Cohodes agrees, “When I short a company I know it better than the guy running it.”

This kind of work is needed because there’s a lot of work to do. Hempton says there are lots of shorts available and when one busts, co-founder of Bronte Capital will tell John to go find another one. Similarly, this is true for our time.

We’ll end with a quote from another investor, Howard Marks:

“One way I help myself make these decisions is that I constantly remind myself that there are two risks that they face every day. The first one is obvious, the risk of losing money. The second one is not so obvious, it’s the risk of missing opportunity.


Thanks for reading.

Something is always happening

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Two boats flashed their lights as they raced across the lake. A third joined them. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when boats go fast, with knots, wind, waves and all. Not this time. These boats were booking it.

I watched the scene from the top of the water slide and wondered what happened. A drowning? A gator attack? Terrorism? It was my turn and I slid down the slide into the – also carefully patrolled – waters of a Walt Disney World Resort pool. Later in the day I found out what happened. It was something.

Something is always happening. Walt Disney World averages a million guests a week. Things that occur 0.01% of the time happen 100 times a week. That low percentage may be on the high side. The parks, hotels, restaurants, busses, and shops are full of strangers, exhausted from a day in the Florida sun with their wallets and patience stretched to the limits. Mix in the unfamiliar and the Everyman can become ‘Florida Man’.

Now step back. This applies to everyone everywhere. Seven and a half billion people live on the planet. That provides a lot of combinations for a lot of somethings to happen.

Another something happened on this trip. My two daughters (11 & 9) experienced their first (dad instructed) hotel fire drill. I sold it as them needing to assist someone else in a hectic situation. They bought it—kinda.

The base rate for a fire in a Walt Disney World Resort is quite low. The base rate for something is quite high. These two events reminded me of this fun math puzzle.

The odds of someone in a group of 23 people sharing your birthday is pretty low. The chance of someone in a group of 23 people sharing someone’s birthday is better than a coin toss.

This is part of the reason I consume very little news. There will be something to report on so long as there are people to report about and people to report to. The combinatorics make it so. Important events, from shared birthdays or hotel fires are much rarer.

Another example is investing. There are so many investors doing different things that something successful will happen to one of them. The trick is finding a ‘zoo’where it’s more than random.

I never found out what scattered the boats. Our hotel also managed to make it through the night, and I’d wager tomorrow night and the next too. But it was a good lesson in these convinces to remember that something is always happening, though how much that something matters takes a bit more work.

Photo is from Art Smith’s Homecomin’ in Disney Springs. The doughnuts were very good and I don’t usually like doughnuts.

How to go to film school without going to film school.

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Industries are professionalizing. Basketball players went from drinking beer and smoking cigarettes during halftime to training and managing their brand over the summer. Entrepreneurs went from managing by the seat of their pants to building a leadership skillset and professional network. Podcasting has gone from two people talking, recording, and sharing to companies trying to be the next big thing.

This trend happened in Hollywood too. In Film School: A Memoir, Steve Boman writes about his time at USC’s famous film school.

Making movies is like investing money or leading people, the only way to learn it is to do it. Robert Rodriguez said, “You learn some things from watching movies but you’ll learn more by picking up a camera and making movies and making mistakes.”

Sometimes school – like USC – is the best place to do that. It was for Boman. “I know a considerable number of people in the industry say wannabe filmmakers would be better served by spending their tuition money on just making a movie without going to school…but it’s not going to work for me. I’m not connected enough with like-minded people, and I don’t know how to do the mechanical filmmaking steps without some guidance.” Boman needed what Scott Kelly needed, structure and resources and motivating forces like the carrot of applause and stick of criticism.

Boman also needed time. Attending film school at forty meant his wife operated as a single mom, with bits of help. During his six semesters in California Boman’s schedule looked like this: on weekdays wake up early to beat the L.A. traffic and drive to campus. Boman’s lucky that he has friends that live eleven miles away, giving him a safe, quiet, friendly place to live 1,500 miles from family.

On-campus, Boman attends classes, studies classics, or writes scripts. Around lunch, he’ll eat and exercise and then attent more classes and work on more projects. During the week Boman gets up at six and stops working at ten. On weekends; well, weekends are made for filming.

“Classes are clustered on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, with a few courses offered on Monday evenings and Friday mornings. It’s a schedule that allows film students to have the maximum amount of time for shooting and editing on weekends.”

That’s it!

But let’s be curious.

Is there a way to get 80% of the results for 20% of the time and money? Maybe not the time but definitely the money. Here’s what a DIY MFA might include:

Constraints. In one class, Boman’s instructor limits the number of words they can use and Boman writes, “that the smaller the box we work within, the easier it is to focus on the art of filmmaking.” He also shoots on film which limited the takes and “we can no longer use the camera like we’re spraying water from a hose.”

Constraints help a lot even when we think they might not. For example, cigarette companies have hugely successful branding and advertising campaigns despite not advertising on television. One theory is that when they were forced off TV they got good at the other advertising forms.

Reps, reps, reps. “I start to make a list of things I would do differently before enrolling in film school. Top of the list is spending time on a non-linear editing system.”

Everything in film school takes time. A lot of time. There are some moments of luck when lightning strikes, and magic happens. Between those moments is where efficiency reigns. If someone can get good at the minuscule they’ll have more time for the major.

Deep understanding. “The class loved my (sport biker) documentary. All my other films were on subjects I know little about. I realize I’ve been ignoring the most basic tenet of Writing 101: write about what you know.”

Steve Osborne wrote that he almost got killed his first day as a cop. He’d chased a perp into a subway tunnel, but “I never planned on the likely event the train would come. Now, I only had a few seconds to think of something before I became a hood ornament.” As his career progressed, Osborne understood more about when to chase someone.

Connections. “A great many classes are taught by these adjuncts, nearly all of whom have extensive experience working in the trenches of Hollywood.”

Here’s the challenge of the DIY method. Boman’s classes are staffed by Hollywood writers. Boman actually sells a piece of work while in grad school. In the long list of USC students, he’s the first in this area. It happened because of the instructors.

Hustling. One of Boman’s friends is Peter Breitmayer who gives this advice over a meal:

“I get asked that question so much from actors back home. They want to know how I do it. I tell them I treat auditioning as a full-time job. If I’m not putting in forty hours a week doing auditions, preparing for auditions, meeting my agent, doing readings, then I’m not working…So many people think to act in this town you’re gonna just suddenly ‘make it’. Then they don’t, and they quit. My attitude is just constantly to be auditioning.”

Jenna Fischer gives similar advice. Want to be famous? Be a reality star Fischer writes. What to be an actor? Study acting. Then go out and audition, and keep training. Fischer writes, “Professional athletes train in the off-season. So should you.”

Stakeholders. The biggest advantage a DIY-er has over Boman is the fewer stakeholders. Boman has a family living in Minnesota while he’s in California. He has a serious medical situation (no spoilers here!) while at USC. Oh, his wife does too. He also has kids and a compressed earnings future. The only missing drama is an earthquake.

A three-year, film school MFA, can cost up to two-hundred thousand dollars all in. That’s a lot for anyone, much less someone using his kid’s college fund to pay for it. Part of the reason shows like Seinfeld and Friends worked is because those starring actors didn’t have huge commitments. One person on Seinfeld said that “time had little meaning there.”

Big projects, like work or school, require time and support from other people and places. The fewer or more supportive commitments, the better the base of stakeholders someone can begin a project from, like a DIY MFA.


Thanks for reading.

Habitual Advice

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

In college, there was a professor who touted Automatic Bill Pay. Not only did he use it, but he also paid for it. The thing banks now offer for free, as a perk, used to cost money. How wild is that! But this still exists. I didn’t realize it either, but I was paying for ‘Automatic Bill Pay’. Only in the form of habits.

Many parts of life are automatic. Some use technology, checks to mortgage companies. Some use psychology, coffee each morning or smartphones in bed. Personal habits are like Automatic Bill Pay. They take time to set up, but once done require minimal updates and maintenance.

New habits work best in stable environments, installed habits work in any. I was reminded of this after seeing my brother and his one and three-year-olds this summer. Toddlers are unstable. They’re unpredictable and totally reliant. They’re great in many ways and my nephews filled my lap like they filled my heart, but they are terrible for routines.

This is obvious only with distance. My older kids are more predictable and reliant, but there’s always some kind of constraint on our habits. Habits need certain things to get started, especially in unstable environments.

Habits need motivation. Jocko Willink repeats that “discipline equals freedom”. I didn’t understand this until thinking more about habits. The regularity of important things (whatever that means to each person) makes other choices easier. Whether later in a day, a week, or a life.

Habits need investment. Tynan inspired the automation of all the grout-like tasks in my life. My bills are paid, emails are filtered, and food is delivered thanks to reading Tynan. He has an approach I’ve called Investments and Dividends and it’s the idea that some things are worth a lot of work upfront to reap the long term benefits.

Habits need commitment. Ramit Sethi navigated me to make regular investment decisions. It’s easier to look at the checking account after the money has been sent off to the wisest possible choices.

Habits need to be daily. Tyler Cowen and Stephen King both say that writing is a daily and regular task—like anything else we both enjoy and want to be better at. Daily is the only unit where people (like me) are incapable of lying.

Habits need locations. Guy Spier wrote of moving to Zurich, “I would also overhaul my basic habits and investment procedures to work around my irrationality…To my mind, this is infinitely more helpful than focusing on things like analysts’ quarterly earnings reports, Tobin’s Q ratio, or pundits’ useless market predictions—the sort of noise that preoccupies most investors.”

Habits need time. Naval said, “All the benefits in life come from compound interest; whether in money, relationships, love, health, activities or habits.”

Habits need the right tools. In the book, My Morning Routine, Shane Parrish said that he doesn’t use a smartphone. Why? “I’m not really a fan of trying to solve common life problems with apps and software programs.” Instead, he uses “some basic, old-school planning and discipline.”

Habits need kickstarting. Brian Koppelman was a blocked writer until he was thirty. He only blasted past when he found The Artist’s Way by Julie Cameron. “That was enormous for me. In doing morning pages, I freed myself from all this other stuff, from the curse of perfectionism.”

Habits need high switching costs. It’s easy at any moment to go and do something else. Unless we like the thing we’re doing, we’re good at it, and it’s beneficial in the short and long term. Businesses talk about raising the switching costs between products and the same approach can work for habits.

As students head back to school and routines change, best of luck starting your new habits. Thanks for reading.


Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

For many of the puzzles that come up in life we can use the mental model of a bottleneck to consider possible solutions. There are two components to consider; the bottle body and the bottleneck.

For a week in July our family lived on a lake in lower Michigan. It was gorgeous. We skied, tubed, fished, swam, ate, and reminisced with friends. All the memories from the trip happened in those moments.

But there were also the logistics. The boat to rent, the swimmers to lifeguard, and the food to cook, clean, and dispose of. When I toured our rental the owner emphasized using the trash compactor. “If you don’t use this, you’ll have the cans full by the second day,” he said. He was right. Twelve people create a lot of trash.

It wasn’t an abnormal or atypical amount. It was just a lot of people. We had a bottle volume and bottleneck problem.

Normally the four families in one house were four families in four homes, each with it’s own trash can. On day two we started writing our names on the red plastic cups littered around the house. That helped one way (create less trash) but we could have also had more trash cans.

In college physics there’s always a question about flow rates. Assume a bathtub fills at X gallons per minute and drains at Y gallons per minute. What’s the water level after Z minutes? This physics question is our trash metaphor. We can turn the tap and slow the flow or widen the drain.

The business funnel is an exact replica of this. Picture taking is another. A decade ago I bought a nice camera and took online classes to learn to take better pictures. The most frequent advice was to take a lot of pictures. That’s more flow. Skills like the rule of thirds, framing, lighting, and zooming with your feet were about widening the bottleneck.

Writers are more researchers than writers. Their research expands the body their skills refine the bottleneck – this time it’s a selection effect that’s desired. Robert Caro’s challenge was that the bottle was so much bigger, etnerally vast, that he realized. About researching Johnson he wrote:

“For example, bringing electricity to the Hill Country. In all these early biographies of Johnson, the fact that he founded the largest electricity co-op and brought electricity to the Hill Country gets a few pages, if that—sometimes it only gets a paragraph. But when I was interviewing people out there, they would say, No matter what Lyndon was like, we loved him because he brought the lights. So I suddenly said, God, this bringing the lights is something meaningful.”

So Caro moved to the Hill Country.

Bottle bodies and bottlenecks are two knobs to turn to change the rate something occurs. For things like trash on vacation we only had access to one. For things like new clients and more sales there’s both.

Cheers, and thanks for reading.

Summer Productivity

Supported by Greenhaven Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Each season gives us a chance to pause and take stock. Thanksgiving and Christmas cover the end of the calendar year. The start of school helps parents mark changes in their children. Spring blooms, and cleanings, offer a chance as things get warm. Summer too has moments of reflection and chances for redirection.

On a trip to Michigan this summer, a friend and I both noted how much more we read during Ohio winters. There was something seasonal about plowing through books and traveling to distanct worlds and new points of view while winter settled in and surrounded us.

Productivity has been top-of-mind because it’s constrained in the summer. There’s more things to do with more people which leaves less time for work–and books.

At the site, Writing Routines many profiles feature the spirit: I write around family commitments. Almost no writers have the cabin in the woods or special office they go to. Most of those writers write at home when the kids are in school. If they have a summer deadline they turn on a movie.

Summer then, with the commitments to family, late evenings, and beach vacations offers a chance to reflect with constraints on our productivity. With only 168 hours each week, and more hours committed to more things, we can see how much we really do and whether it’s important.

My tool of reflection is the to-do list.

On Imgur a meme circulated when someone posted their encouragement to a child who wanted to be an astronaut. She had to study hard, go to college, learn lots of science, and take a physical fitness test.

The child shrugged and said, “that’s just four things.” That sounds like a list. But wait, there’s more!

Lists are fractal. Events like “Write everyday” or “Exercise 3X per week” or “Read one 10Q at lunch” can all be broken down into more granular layers. To write means having something to say which means knowing or doing something interesting.

Lists internalize. When I write each day it doesn’t just happen. Everything requires work. I’ve made the ‘Writing List’ so many times it’s become habit and doesn’t require a list anymore. Like a piece of software, my brain executes a morning script that runs: coffee, crossword (NYT mini), writing.

Lists are learnable. It may not seem like someone needs to learn how to make a simple list but sometimes we need to see the trailhead before we find the path. One option is the Bullet Journal system. Ryder Carroll wrote in his book.

“The Bullet Journal Method is for anyone struggling to find their place in the digital age. It will help you get organized by providing simple tools and techniques that can inject clarity, direction, and focus into your days. As great as getting organized feels, however, it’s just the surface of something significantly deeper and more valuable.”

With annual, monthly, and daily lists the system provides a way to track actions and break down big goals into their smaller parts.

Like any good system; writing, investing, exercising, or producing — the best system is the one you stick with. Carroll doesn’t hawk his products, though I’ve used them and they’re good, but encourages experimentation and derivation.

Constraints – like summer hours – are helpful. They offer a chance to evaluate our systems.

Sam Hinkie said, “Within heavy constraints, thinking different is one of the few ways you can do anything differently.” He was talking about running a basketball team but it can also apply to our lives. As we spend more time outside, go on more adventures with friends, and make more memories with families we can think about the role of work.

Summer is a forcing function. What’s the most valuable thing you can do? And do you do it?

Lists show us – in our own handwriting – what we wanted to do, what we did, and give the chance to reflect on what was important. Summer is a great to to reflect on our lists.

Thanks for reading.

‘Righting’ Routines

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

I used to think my brain was my most important organ. Then I remembered who was telling me that. – Various

On a recent podcast, Marc Andreessen noted that learning from investing is difficult. Sometimes there aren’t lessons to learn, sometimes they are, sometimes they are the right lessons at the wrong time. Sometimes they’re devilishly hard to tease out.

What matters most, (based on The Two Jar Model) is what we control. It’s our routine, mindsets, work environments and more. Today we’ll look at that through writer’s lens. Though keep Marc’s comment in mind, not everything here is a lesson for you. All quotes are from Writing Routines.

Work is cummulative. Stephen King jokes that he only takes off three days a year (Christmas, July 4th, & his birthday) because it makes for good copy. He really doesn’t. When he’s writing he writes every day.

When asked about his production function, Tyler Cowen replied that he writes everyday too. “Sundays, absolutely. Christmas, too. Whatever. A few days a year I am tied up in meetings all day and that is a kind of torture. Write even when you have nothing to say, because that is every day.”

In a Reddit AMA Cowen said that it helps to be born a certain way. That means enjoying it, not Instagram-picture enjoying it, but relishing the challenge of the downs and the fruits of the ups. How does someone find this kind of work? Charlie Munger suggests getting good at doing something to enjoy it more.

Do some work, long enough, and you’ll see some rewards. Rich Cohen, author of The Fish That Ate the Whale said he has “a very impoverished social life” and with daily work it adds up. “What seems like my being prolific is just day after day after day after day after day.”

Work is designed for. There are three ways to get better at doing good work, space, time, and incentives.

Space. Where work is done matters. David Burkus said that he works from home and needed to find work/life integration. His home office is tucked away:

“So even though the commute is a few steps, it gets me into ‘work’ mode. But its only a few steps to walk back into the living areas and do something ‘life.’ So I flip back a couple times a day and, at first, it really frustrated me because I was coming from a 9-5 environment. Now, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Andrea Wulf converted her attic into a study. There, “I can see the world below me without getting distracted. It’s a writing heaven.”

Time. Writing, like water, can fill any volume. Many featured writers at Writing Routines enjoy mornings but they also work around ‘life’.

Asha Dornfest noted that her schedule has matched her kid’s phases in life. When they were young, “(I) tucked my work into the spaces between family needs.” As they got older she wrote when they were in school.

Annie Duke faced similar conditions as “a pretty busy mom.” She starts when she’s free and with family stuff most writing happens, “weekdays when the kids are at school.”

Incentives. Writers have a natural metric, the word-count. Like a metronome, each syllable is part of the symphony. However that’s only one part of the job.

Many writers have some daily goal but it depends on their approach, their work, and the preparation. Metrics only work for things that can be easily counted.

Wulf has “successfully avoided to have a word count hanging over me.” Words are good for the habit but not always the creation. Incentives need to match processes that lead to good outcomes. Wulf noted, “I spend so much more time reading, researching, restructuring and thinking than writing that it has become meaningless to have a word count.”

Duke too. “I don’t write every day, but I do read every day which I think counts as preparation for writing.”

Work is professional. In the late 90’s a friend had an art exhibition and to show my support, I went. There he pulled me aside and said, ‘Can you believe that someone just paid $400 for that paining? It only took me a few hours to make!’

Briefly I thought of studying art.

Writing might seem like that, but many featured writers at Writing Routines treat it like a job. Kate Winkler said, “(I) stay committed to self-imposed deadlines, so I’ll have a weekly goal that I always meet, no matter what. Journalism has really trained me to respect deadlines and I really try to turn drafts in early.”

Sam Gwynne too, “Everything grows out of my 30 years in the journalism biz. I have worked with daily, weekly, and monthly deadlines and have done this as both an editor and writer.”

We get tricked by this when we see outcomes. Investment returns are simplifications of all kinds of things; work, effort, advice, luck, research, timing, more luck, and more work. Work is the iceberg we don’t see.

It’s clear from the routines that there are three steps to writing; preparation, production, and polishing.

A ‘good’ finished product is some, though not equal, amounts of each. We call these people writers but if we tracked their time they’d be researchers, rewriters, and coffee drinkers. The books in our hands, the podcasts in our ears, the blogs on our screens are the tips of the icebergs.

Some outline like maniacs. Kate Winkler says, “I’m incredibly anal—always have been, especially as a documentary film editor. I keep everything online and organized in very specific folders that are color coded.” That allows her to “create a lot of outlines.”

Robert Kurson uses giant pads of paper to see the story at a glance. He learned this from a film producer and includes “all kinds of arrows, exclamation points, and other notes.” This framework is good because Kurson said, “I probably spend more time on the research than the writing.”

Sam Gwynne says, “I think writers should use outlines and I am constantly amazed to hear that many do not. An outline forces you to think your way through the piece. Writing is thinking. Transitions are everything.”

Writing then is like the expression about life; easy choices hard life, hard choices easy life.

Annie Duke says thirty percent of what she puts on paper “sees the light of day.” Thanks to a lot of drafting in her head, talking with other people, and workshopping the material, “By the time I sit down to write, I’ve already put in time on what I want to say.

Kurson says that 1,000 words is a good day. “If it’s much more than that, I begin to suspect that I’ve taken shortcuts or made compromises. I’m not sure how much sees the light of day; it’s a decent amount, but that might be because I write more slowly than many writers I know.”

Andrea Wulf says, “For me, editing is as important as writing. No, probably even more important.” That’s the work; preparation, production, and polishing.

Work is storytelling. If you’re working with people tell stories.

Andrew Wulf says she reads novels while she writes, “as a reminder of the importance of language. Just because I write non–fiction doesn’t mean that beautiful language should be excluded.”

Robert Kurson adds that by the time the research is done he thinks,“How would I best tell this to friends if we were driving from my home in Chicago to my favorite Indian restaurant in Milwaukee?”

Stories are the reason for our daily email [POV40IQ]( The name comes from a Rory Sutherland story, where he noted that a change in perspective can be worth forty IQ points.

Now you know some stories too. thanks for reading.

What’s the right metric?

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Committing to some verb; exercising, writing, or working often involves some metric and the metric matters. Bosses sometimes pay for getting work done, and sometimes pay for being there – and getting some work done. We’re our own bosses too and operate with the metric of our choice.

Some numbers, like dollars to retire or distance to run work well – sometimes. Other times there’s something even better.

Time is a great metric, especially for things where the process is more important than the outcome. And twenty minutes is the best anyone can work on anything for twenty minutes.

I’m trying to become a better swimmer and that means going slow to practice good form so time is a better metric than distance. I can also set a timer on my watch so that my only focus is on swimming, keeping myself totally focused.

Twenty-minutes is also a swallowable pill for less desirable work. Twenty-minutes of housework can turn into a workout with the right mindset. Whenever there’s transcription, research, or proofreading to do I set a timer for twenty-minutes, repeating it once or twice if I get into a groove.

What twenty minutes really is is an easy design hack. It shifts your perception of a situation. Any arbitrary rule can do this.

Here’s now Neil Gaiman explained his “biggest (writing) rule” to Tim Ferriss. He’ll head down to his writing cabin and “and I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything. I’m allowed to sit at my desk, I’m allowed to stare out at the world, I’m allowed to do anything I like, as long as it isn’t anything.”

No crosswords, no phones, no books. “All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.” Like a parent who offers their children the option of carrots or broccoli rather than fruit or vegetables, Gaiman has redesigned his environment.

Within that, he avoids wordcounts. Gaiman writes by hand using different colored fountain pens. Each color shows him how much he wrote each day.

In sitting alone in his gazebo in the woods with just his pens and notebooks, Gaiman has created an environment to write (“the most important thing about the gazebo is it’s out of wireless range”).

All metrics are like this, arbitrary. Does it matter if the goal is 100 or 98? Did you know the marathon, the fabled Greek-inspired feat of feet has changed distances over time?

The things we measure influence our behavior and we can change those measurements to change our behavior. Not just in the number but in the form.

In a recent post we noted that doing good work takes three things; the skills for the work, the motivation to do it, and the right conditions for it.

Timing ourselves is a way to frame the conditions. Do this unpleasant task for just this long. Sure.

That said, I wrote this using a word metric, not a time one. Each morning I wake up, write 400 words, and only then am I done. If it was twenty minutes I’d get distracted, fall back asleep, get more coffee, or anything else. For this task, at this time, the best metric for me is words. My morning design may be different than Gaiman’s, but it’s still designed.

We still need dollars and dates and distances for the working, creating, and running we do. But we can also use time. Most important is picking the metric that gets results. It’s not the measurement that matters, but the verb we’ve committed to. 


Thanks for reading.

Motivation, Structure, Skills

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Anytime we want to do something in life we need three things; enough motivation, the right skills, and helpful conditions. This trio of ingredients is actually why college is still a good choice for many young people. Having advisors, friends, and grades to keep you motivated, having a deliberate and directional progression of skills and the resources of college like libraries, study groups, and tools makes college a one-stop shop for learning.

College is like a European riverboat cruise. The XMBA is like backpacking and couch-surfing.

We talk about college alternatives because the availability of ‘the right skills’ has changed. Online lectures, blog posts, and podcast interviews with the best experts in the world makes getting the best content easier than ever. Not only that but experts who aren’t professors, like Rory Sutherland, share their expertise too.

But just because the skills are available doesn’t mean a DIY education is best for everyone. Co-Founder of an AI firm and former angel Investor Tyler Willis said, “If you don’t know which way to go, the default should be to stay in school.” He added, “If you’re going to drop out you need to work harder than you would have in school.”

Though less explicit, motivations and conditions matter quite a bit.

This education example exposed itself in the excellent Endurance by Scott Kelly who didn’t care about learning in high school or his first year in college. Then one day he picks up The Right Stuff, reads the entire thing, and wants to become an astronaut. Kelly could work hard when he wanted to. He became an EMT in high school and favored the shifts that ran through the more dangerous parts of town.

The best way to get to NASA was the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and as a legacy student thought he had a chance. He was rejected. Why? His terrible grades.

He applied to SUNY Maritime and got in. There he wrote, “The military discipline came pretty easily for me. I think I had been craving that kind of structure, and it was almost a relief to be told what to do and how to do it.”

The Right Stuff motivated Scott Kelly.

The school structured the day for Kelly.

The classroom offered the skills and Kelly seized them. Though it wasn’t easy. He reflected on his first math class assignment, “It was late at night by the time I was done, and I tried not to reflect on the fact that everyone else in my class had probably ripped through the homework in fifteen minutes. I tried to focus on the fact that I had set myself a goal—to read this chapter, to do the problems—and I had done that. I turned out the light feeling like I might finally be able to turn things around.”

I used to teach at a small college in Ohio. I still talk to high school students. In three years I’ll have a high schooler. I’m not sure what my advice about college will be but I always tell people that school is not your only education.

College is a normal bell curve, not-college is that but with fat tails. The good is better, the bad is worse.

In either direction, students can shift the curve to the right if they have enough motivation, the right skills, and helpful conditions.


Thanks for reading

How to listen to more podcasts

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

A friend admitted his admiration a while ago. ‘I’d be lucky to read one book a month and you seem to read one in a day.’ That’s an exaggeration in absolute but not relative terms. I read a lot more but he’s a lot busier.

Luckily for both of us, it’s easier to read more, or watch YouTube videos or listen to more podcasts. The problem isn’t finding good stuff to consume, but prioritizing it. After reading more than a book a week, listening to untold hours, and having an eclectic mix of YouTube view history, here are some things I’ve found that work.

Get a foothold. Often it takes a snippet of knowledge to get started on a topic. Before I started watching the Nudgestock videos I watched a lot of Rory Sutherland. Watching Rory I understood the kind of things he was interested in and had some framing for what was to come. Each episode built my pyramid of knowledge. However…

Be okay not knowing. The a16z podcast is the most advanced show in my regular queue and I know nothing about “Damage-free Genome Editing — Next in CRISPR” or “What’s in the Water at the George Church Lab?” That’s okay. I listen if it’s interesting. If it’s not it means I don’t have a foothold. Listening to something familiar is like swimming in a lake and a paddleboat goes by. Anyone can heft themselves in, operate the controls, and tool around.

Listening to something new is like watching a cruise ship motor past. You can’t get on, up to speed, or understand it without a lot of studies. That’s fine, watch it pass. Part of lifelong learning is realizing that unlike school, none of this on the test, there is no test. You can always learn it later, or not at all.

Skip relentlessly. There’s no such thing as a bad book, just a bad book for you. I struggled for years to read Taleb before he clicked, whereas Tyler Cowen I could read every day. For podcasts, I’ll start every episode in my feed but skip until something sticks. You have no commitment to finish each book, episode, or video. Remember what Scott Malpass told Ted Seides, “At the end of the day we don’t really care much about what other people are doing. We’ve got our own risk tolerance, our own mission. We are going to do what we need to do for Norte Dame.”

That’s what your learning is too, what you need to do for you.

Designing. Good design is ‘paving the cowpaths’. Your goal to consume more shouldn’t be to absorb an entire curriculum but to make it a daily habit. Like finances or health, the small regular steps compound better. How can you design your day to make listening, reading, or watching easier?

  • On YouTube, their recommendation engine is very good at suggesting new things. This cuts both ways. If you browse highlights, vloggers, or viral videos that’s what you’ll see. A new profile for ‘learning’ might do the job.
  • On Podcasts, go for a walk. This is my favorite thing to do. There’s something about being outside that makes this all the more enjoyable.
  • On Reading, choose your medium. The Kindle is great for battery life, portability (underrated by most), and focus. Also great is an old iPad where internet browsing is too slow to be comfortable. Or physical books if you’re one of those sorts. Find the design that fits you best.

Taking notes. A frequent question I get is, ‘How do I take notes?’ Much like good design, it’s what fits you. Lately, I’ve used, but not committed to, the Apple Notes app. Here’s a sample of the Epstein note:

Note taking is great too because it makes the information stick. If you’re hiring podcasts, books, and videos for education then it’s not just consumption that performs this job, but production too.

In that note, Epstein references kind and wicked environments and they’re good descriptors for learning in school and learning in life. School is kind where the things you practice will be on the test. Life is wicked where pop quizzes rule the day. You’re preparing for the latter, which means there’s no curriculum to study. Follow your curiosity to whatever weird podcasts, books, and videos you can.


Thanks for reading.