Jobs with Rules

Education has been top of mind lately around our house (thanks Covid). We’ve considered college admissions, advantages of online learning, and whether reading is different than listening to a book (spoiler: both are good).

There’s some big picture ideas too: curriculums, college, and careers. My daughters (12, 10) aren’t near that yet, but it’s hard not to think about as we see careers adapt to remote work. My wife can work online, somewhat. Teachers can teach online, somewhat. Aside from some manual labor, for the last decade all my income has been earned online.

In Shop Class as Soulcraft Mathew Crawford notes that you can’t hammer a nail over the internet. Or, are things rule based or not? Rules mean code, code means computers and as Feynman explains, computers are fast at following rules.

TikTok’s design is simple rules. On, off. Yes, no. Open, closed. Watched, not. Shared, not.

Circa 2013 self-driving trucks were the topic du jour. However, driving a truck isn’t that binary, it’s not that rules based.

Our truck driver, Finny Murphy writes more about the problems solving involved. Keep the truck between the lines. Pick up this cargo, take it there. Then go here. Unload, schedule workers, back down this long driveway. Get stuck. Negotiate with owner to use his chainsaw, trim a limb. Murphy’s job would have been better with more computer help as he’d spend less time ‘bob-catting’ (driving without a trailer) if there were a network that listed jobs.

Contrast truck driver with financial planner, the latter has years of college. They’re licensed. They’re a charter holder or a master of business. Even more likely is that they have a podcast. The financial planner helps people with money, a very important thing. They wear suits! They have offices!

Which is more rule based?

One sign to spot rule based conditions is when we stop calling something the ‘internet something’. Internet banking, internet dating, and ‘I read it online’ are all things of the past. It’s just banking, dating, and reading now. Did you know, that internet bill pay used to be an add-on, banks *charged* for that service.

Which is more like TikTok, financial planning or truck driving? Finances is already rule based with target date and index funds.

Okay, so what direction should education head?

In Average is Over, Tyler Cowen writes that three things are scarce: quality land and natural resources, intellectual property or good ideas that should be produced, and quality labor with unique skills. I’ll read ‘good ideas’, ‘quality labor’, and ‘unique skills’ as antonyms for ‘rules based’.

Note: About 7% of truck drivers have bachelor degrees compared to 35% of the population. Both figures lower than I’d guessed. Also, rules can be especially helpful when they make you ‘color blind‘ to unhelpful information.

The pool of tears

A lesson from distance learning.

To keep up with my kids I’ve been taking Khan Academy classes and in one, founder Sal Khan noted that when Abraham Lincoln was in law school he used Euclid’s geometric proofs as a test for understanding. Recounted:

“In the course of my law-reading I constantly came upon the word demonstrate,” Lincoln said. “I thought, at first, that I understood its meaning, but soon became satisfied that I did not.” Resolving to understand it better, he went to his father’s house and “staid there till I could give any propositions in the six books of Euclid at sight.”

That’s ambitious, and demonstrates how much of learning is not linear.

In this way online learning excels. If we need time we take time. If we’re done early we make things. We act like Lincoln. Like Naval.

This is hard to do in school, scheduled to the year, week, day, hour, and even minute. Compounding and confounding is that we are relative creatures. I don’t get it compared to the kids that do. In the same way we are spending by neighbors but not saving, we see those who excel and calculateaccordingtothat.

Online learning isn’t great but it’s not all bad either and we’ve shed a few fewertears.

An easy way to change your mind.

This idea is related to Tyler Cowen’s idea of ‘meta-rationality’ which you read about in this pay-what-you want pdf.

Perhaps there’s no better time to see, sort, and participate in over reactions than week one of the NFL. Though I only watch a full game or two a year, there are a lot of lessons from the likes of Mike Lombardi, Bill Belichick, and questions like, should running backs run the forty-yard-dash? (Narrators: meh).

So, after week one of the NFL, how much should someone change their mind?

There were two comments from Wharton Moneyball related this this exact question.

First, the hosts wondered why the small but powerful vitamin D study wasn’t getting more attention. Their guess was a combination of things including excessive dosing, strong priors, sample size, and general application (the participants were already hospitalized but went to the ICU at a much lower rate with treatment).

While people may have strong beliefs about the efficacy of vitamin D it doesn’t hurt to go for more walks, while the weather holds at least. Whether or not someone believes in vitamin D, walking can’t hurt.

Late in the episode, Cade Massey and Josh Hermsmeyer noted the impressive week one play of Gardner Minshew. While both are rooting for his success, there’s no ‘go-for-a-walk’ equivalent for updating beliefs. Base rates suggest we stay closer to home until Mr. Minshew racks up some road wins.

Lastly is this study about teacher expectations. “(U)nbiased (i.e., accurate) beliefs can be counterproductive if there are positive returns to optimism or if there are socio-demographic gaps in the degree of teachers’ over-optimism, both of which we find evidence of.” Want better results from students? Have higher expectations than the data suggests.

The easiest way to change your mind is to make changing your mind inexpensive.

The hardest way to change your mind is to attach ideas to yourself. Jason Zweig calls this thinking “identity protective cognition,” and said, “If you are not judging the validity of ideas by long-term, objective, peer-reviewed evidence then you are just protecting your own identity and it’s foolish.” 

If vitamin doesn’t affect covid health, it still doesn’t hurt. If high expectations don’t affect student results, it still doesn’t hurt. If extrapolation from week one of the NFL doesn’t predict season success it does hurt.

Related: Make small poker bets.

Button Skills


My daughter made this.

The button popped off my pants. Not due to quarantine snacking so much as use. These shorts are so old that the faded parts are a different hue from the non-faded portions.

I found the button separated from the shorts in the bottom of our washing machine. I put both aside for a day and when I came back with needle and thread the button was gone. Now the button lives on as art.

We have a button jar and I found a grey one, instead of blue, and sewed it on the shorts. I’m not great at sewing, and my stitching is uneven, but it’s functional. Attaching the button took the shorts from waste to my waist. The small act of attaching the button made them useful.

A lot of life is probably like this.

There is some range of easy-to-acquire skills that are like sewing a button. Being able to save the function, if not the form, is helpful.

No code. Being able to build small recipes for scripts using a service like IFTTT.

Productivity. Setting up folders, filters, and canned responses in emails.

Cooking. Knowing how to make a few healthy, inexpensive, sustainable meals.

Home repair. Access to a basic set of tools and the understanding of how to use them

Personal health. Maintaining a body type that matches a lifestyle.

Personal wealth. Spending, saving, investing.

Interviewing. Listen to people and hear what they say.

When my daughters were little kids, the most common advice was to read to them. This was binary advice. Or, Just Do It. We did a lot of that. Just reading is probably a button skill too.

Though I learned to sew face masks, I can’t imagine learning to sew clothes. But knowing a little bit can certainly go a long way.

Thanks for reading, and don’t tell my wife these shorts were saved—again.

The POV40IQ email list has been restarted. If you’d like a short email each weekday you can sign up and read them. The idea is that a change in point-of-view is worth more than forty-IQ when solving a problem.

Quarantine Education

Shane Parrish asked, “What are some of the second and subsequent order consequences of covid-19 that you foresee with 80 percent confidence?”, how things would be different from the quarantine for CoVid19. It’s a good question to ask, if students participate in home school what else will change. A running list.

  • Better chronotype matching. Morning people get to do school in the morning, night owls at night. My oldest daughter gets two extra hours of sleep and goes to math class in her pajamas.
  • Better resources. We’ve taken drawing class from Mo Willems and learned about animals from the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden staff. My kids had great teachers but online they have access to the best ones.
  • Teaching young people. Though I haven’t seen much of this yet, it’s coming. Many instructors comment that they didn’t really understand something until they taught it. This can be true for kids at home too.
  • Learning technology tools. My younger daughter dictates her homework rather than typing it which she could do whereas in school she would use a pencil. If tools shape our thinking she’s thinking in new ways.
  • Plato’s cave and school. That same younger daughter needed help with answering why we have a leap day. That led to a talk about why we have the Georgian Calendar and not one that uses a leap week. Which also applies to why we do school-school and not home-school.
  • Asynchronous communications. If the future of work requires some asynchronous skill then this quarantine has been good practice.
  • Intrinsic motivations. My kids follow a program put forth by their school but this is mostly finished before lunch and they can move onto more enjoyable things. My guess is that a long-term homeschool arrangement would break the link between learning and school and create a hub where learning is connected to school, but many other things as well.

One week down and we are doing well.

“Dad, can I listen to an audiobook instead?”

My twelve-year-old daughter asked that question. I said ‘Yes’. Then I thought, does it matter?

Most of the popular press pieces frame reading and listening as a difference of effort. The thinking goes that reading is harder so reading is better for you. If the brain is a muscle then a book is like a treadmill. Harder is better.

Is it?

I started looking. When college graduates in NYC read or listened to Unbroken, there was no difference in comprehension scores. When scientists used an fMRI, the same brain regions lit up for reading or listening. However, there are some things that do differ from form to form. Sequence for example, is easier to recall in a print book.

What might be most important is if reading is pleasing. If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. No one enjoys boring media. There’s only bad content, not bad formats.

Part-of-the-reason the results seem to be a wash is because of the opportunity cost. Both reading and listening to a book are great options. Reading offers encoding and a visual boost. Listening offers prosody, the rhythm of a voice. It’s like soup or salad for dinner, both are healthy choices.

This research was like mortgage choices. Is a fifteen year mortgage better than a thrity year where someone can invest the difference the lower payments bring? It’s a wash. For reading, make choices you watch.

Holy smokes, my kid is twelve!

Danger Word Search

My kids love Ellen’s Game of Games.

My kids love the mini-game Danger Word. The premise is for one player to get their teammate to guess a word. The wrinkle is that the winning word (sofa, ocean, etc.) is similar to the danger word (couch, sea, so-on). If a guesser says the danger word, they get smothered and covered. If a guessers says the winning word, the other team gets hit with it.

It’s an interesting game because the best clues have multiple levels. They give information about both the danger word and the desired word. One winning moment was when a woman gave the clue ‘otter’ and her partner guessed ‘sea’. It was a winning clue that also avoided the danger word of ocean.

Knowing something is this, and not that, will become more important as things move from single-issue-tangible to many-copies-digital.

  • YouTube is an amazing resource but the search options are mostly by name. The most challenging queries are for people who share names with pastors. One side effect from weekly sermons is regular content and what better way to reach the flock than via YouTube.
  • Websites used to have a .gov, .org, .com structure that hinted something was this and not that. In some recent research I found a dot-org domain that looked pretty legitimate. However, going to the About page showed that it wasn’t what it appeared to be.
  • Visual evidence used to be clear. Screens though are shaded windows. Rather than asking is something manipulated, the default is now to ask how something is manipulated.

In Ellen’s game, the goal is to give a precise clue.
In YouTube searches, the goal is to search a precise query.
In website scours, the goal is to find truthful facts.

As more information goes online there will be more, not less, statements about being at war with EastAsia. The skill we’ll all need, my daughters included, is separating one category from another. Danger words from winning words, helpful queries from unhelpful ones, real from fantasy.

Escaping College and Commodity Competition

When one product is similar to another there is competition. Businesses which compete on price lead to low-cost-high-volume winners. Thankfully, being dissimilar isn’t difficult. Many brands (Advil, Coca-Cola, Harvard) differentiate commodities by framing the context.

Differentiation avoids the market mechanism. But that doesn’t mean things will be easy. Being the low-cost provider or being different both take extreme amounts of work. That said, jobs-to-be-done thinking may lead to a slightly easier slog

The JTBD idea is updated on Twitter, but Michael Horn’s TAG brought up an easy idea for escaping competition. Instead of asking who are your customers, ask what do customers want?

Typically businesses count things. This is easy data. Plus, the more math the less career risk: a bit of math in itself.

Through their book, Choosing College, Horn and Bob Moesta encourage people to think about new categories. To count less and consider more. Get past demographics (high school graduate) and to demands (level-up).

What is the demographic profile of someone who eats at Panera Bread? That’s a hard question. However, what’s the JTBD of someone who eats at Panera Bread? That’s easier. Ron Shaich explained that Panera is “the kind of space where you want to sit and do an interview, a place for a bible study group, for a team meeting.” 

People hire Panera for group space and bagel spreads. That’s the JTBD. That’s the differentiation.

Being different is easier—though not easy—because it offers many directions. If a business competes on price, that’s it. If a business finds a new JTBD they might have that market all to themselves, temporarily.