How jokes, and all things, work

Here’s Jerry Seinfeld telling Tim Ferriss about an idea he’s got. It’s still early. We don’t know yet if it’s a joke. Seinfeld said, “I don’t know what to do with that”

“When you’re on a cell phone call and the call drops, and then you reconnect with the person, they’ll go, “I don’t know what happened there.” As if anyone is expecting them to know anything about the incredibly complex technology of the cell phone, they offer this little, I don’t know if it’s an excuse or an apology. They go, “I don’t know what happened there.”

After Seinfeld has an idea he writes it down (there’s a lot of good writing and creative tips in this episode) and he works at it. Seinfeld explores the idea like my mother-in-law explores the home goods stores. Is this a good decoration? Does this match what else I have?

Seinfeld writes on yellow legal pads until a joke is pleasing to the ear. Then, it’s time to see how it works. And to remember, nothing is above the laugh.

At a comedy club the joke thrives, it dies, or it suffers enough damage to limp home and recover to emerge stronger and better prepared the next time. The comedy club is feedback.

“That’s the paradise of stand-up comedy. You don’t have to ask anyone anything. Stand-up comics receive a score on what they’re doing more often and more critically than any other human on Earth.”

Jerry Seinfeld

All things work like this. From idea to iteration to feedback in the market. Stand-up from Seinfeld is the cleanest version of this. Jerry’s method is the IKEA instruction of comedy, down to the simple paper it’s printed on. A comedian can have a joke in the morning, work it over over lunch, and deliver it after dinner.

All creations follow this process, but comedy is the gold standard because it’s clear and clean and quick. Write a newsletter (neé, blog) and the feedback is slow. Create a product and after development, marketing, and distribution you might know if people like it.

Poker’s appeal is principally the same. It’s cause-and-effect world. It’s easy to see. We like that. Comedy too.

Life is messy. But this helps. Keep in mind that the same process underlies everything creative: idea, iterate, feedback. The loop may be longer, but the process is the same.

Danny Meyer is an Alchemist (and you can be too)

“A question that stymied me for years and years, a question I got almost anywhere I went, it seemed like every organization asked, ‘How do you manage to hire so many awesome people?’.

“I said to look for fifty-one percenters, people who are emotionally wired to be happier themselves when they delivery happiness to you.”

Danny Meyer, ILTB

The central idea to Alchemy is to optimize important but overlooked things, with especially large returns from inexpensive yet important finds. How to find these things? Numbers provide a good clue.

When things are easy to measure, they are numerate. These numerate items are easy to discuss, to compare, to enter into spreadsheets then sum, average, and compare again.

Danny Meyer has succeeded (in part) because he competes in new areas. In the beginning of the podcast he tells O’Shaughnessy about competing on food and wine and ambiance and all that, but that’s what everyone does. It’s hard to have THE BEST food when everyone is trying to have that.

THE BEST food has convention. It has history. There are norms. There is price. Having THE BEST food in New York City is like being the best investor in New York. Good luck.

However, being the best at something slightly different is quite a bit easier. There’s a lot more area and a lot less competition if you do things off the beaten path.

Meyer found this in hospitality. Listening, we don’t get the impression that the tag wags the dog, but it’s got to be part of the reason Meyer is around, and talking on the Invest Like the Best Podcast.

Often Alchemy is using (free) psychology rather than (costly) structure. Better service rather than better linens.

One story Meyer tells in the book is about ‘the medicine cabinet’. One establishment was having the normal rumble of friction getting its legs under it and when patrons had a bad time, Meyer and staff offered a glass of dessert wine to soothe their pain.

Not only was the wine complementary, but it was special. At the time, dessert wines were novel so it was a special treat. The kicker was that they were the cheapest wines Meyer stocked.

Alchemy is like improving weaknesses, there is a lot of return for the initial effort, often much-more than optimizing factor f for the tenth time.

Danny Meyer is an alchemist. From the people he hires to the businesses he starts.

You are an alchemist. Find something that’s important but not measured, and deliver that.

Correlated Decisions

“We use quantitative methods to put together diversified portfolios that don’t blow up over time. We have technical guys who are very sophisticated, one guy was the MIT chess champion. We need these guys to balance our portfolios, but they’re not picking stocks. I pick those guys because they have no idea how to pick stocks and I don’t want to know what they think about picking stocks, that’s for our researchers.”

– Joel Greenblatt, Capital Allocators.

The JTBD of diversity within an organization is uncorrelated decisions. If we’re all thinking the same way, the expression goes, nobody is thinking.

Early in the episode with Ted Seides, Greenblatt cautioned that there’s always more correlation in a portfolio than someone expects. This is consistent with the idea that most financial issues are liquidity issues.

If there are 3 ways to spend your day then we should be wary about the feed, the search, and the trends. For instance, the September 1 – December 1 BTC search trends. When Coinbase emailed me “Why Bitcoin is in the News.” I thought, this might be a good time to sell.

Google Trends for “bitcoin”.

Trends, searches, and feeds aren’t bad, but they are correlated.

The best solution to uncorrelated decision making is to use a bit of decision making advice from Rory Sutherland. When we select one at a time, we choose the average item. When we choose multiple things at a time, we choose a variety.

Rather than consider a best option then, we can consider a basket of options. With finite resources it’s hard (impossible?) not to prioritize but it does lead to new ideas.

It’s neat to hear that Greenblatt’s operation is like a newsroom: editorial and news, research and technical. Division is balance. The worst outcomes aren’t when something goes against us but when everything does.

Second Order Parenting

“Perhaps the most important thing is supporting a kid’s sense of autonomy.” – William Stixrud

Peter Attia wants to be an Olympian. When he’s 100. When Attia first explained the idea, he worked backward. What should someone do now if they want to do something else later? If you want to be able to go to Disney World with your grandkids you better be able to walk eight miles now. Or some such thing.

Working backwards is a nice tool for solving problems. I want to get to n so first I need to get to n-1.

A similar approach is advocated in the book, The Self Driven Child. In that book William Stixrud and Neil Johnson ask parents to consider their future eighteen-year-old. Then, like Attia, work backwards and consider what a child needs to do at twelve so they are successful later.

Stixrud’s and Johnson’s ideas come down to four pieces of advice for parents:

  1. Offer help, not force 
  2. Offer advice, it’s their choice  
  3. Encourage children to make their own decisions
  4. Have kids solve their own problems, as much as possible 

It’s not so much about ice-cream for dinner, but it’s about setting some (wide, but safe) boundaries for children to operate within.

This has been hard because parenting is a bit of a wicked problem. There’s a lot of showy things a parent can do but might not necessarily be that helpful. Once a child is mentally and physically safe, what’s the next clear thing?

In the ERE book, Jacob Fisker shares a reverse fishbone diagram to show ‘net’ effects. The aim is to end up above the horizontal line. Eating a candy is a positive first order effect, it tastes good. But a negative second order effect (low nutrients, high sugar), and maybe even more (bad habits).

Early Retirement Extreme --- A philosophical and practical guide to  financial independence -- Contents

Easy decisions, hard life. Hard decisions, easy life.

There are many things with negative first order effects (difficult conversations, certain exercises, working late/early) but which have positive n+1 effects and so they are worth doing. Personal finance follows this diagram for example. Parenting according to Stixrud and Johnson follows it too. It might not feel easy and it might violate the actions=progress maxim, but it’s difficult non-actions that help kids the most.

One personal instance is schoolwork. We’ve been distance learning and I’ve played a large role from checking work to answering questions. And, sometimes just telling my daughters the answers. Like junk food it’s easy at first but it violates both the fishbone approach and the self-driven child advice.

How much to change, I don’t know. But this isn’t baking. Like over-price or over-rated or over-indexed, the direction for gains is clear: my kids have to learn to live their own lives and it’s my job to support them.

Market Mechanism 2

Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom on Pexels.com

This is in addition to the previous post on the market mechanism. Briefly, it’s the idea that competition erodes the value captured by the producer.

Barry Ritholtz asked Morgan Housel about what he wished he knew when he started. Housel responded, “One thing that sticks out is that good investing is not about being good at something but you have to find something that other people are bad at. The fact that you are good at modeling does not necessarily make a difference because a lot of people are good at that.”

This, said Fredrik DeBoer, is part of the myth of college. One way to avoid the squeeze of the market mechanism is to have a rare skill. In Housel’s words, to be good at something other people are bad at. People are compensated by what they know, proxied by a degree, then a graduate degree. More degrees more (proxied) competition.

Success is found, said Hamilton Helmer, in the durable. “If you do something better, the question is, ‘How can this be durable?’ There has to be something that prevents others from taking all of that away from you.” How can you avoid the market mechanism creating a commodity?

It probably will happen too. Rufus Peabody said about gambling: “I used to bet second halves in college and professional football. That used to drive my yearly earnings, it was an ATM machine basically. But the last three years I’ve basically broke even there and may not continue running the models because the inefficiencies that were there are no longer there.”

Profits attract competition, competition drives profits and prices down. The market mechanism is Santa for the consumer and saboteur to the producer.

There’s one way to avoid the market mechanism; attract less competition.

Movies, wine, investing, and sports all offer financial and psychic income. That’s a double dose of the market mechanism once someone sniffs out the potential rewards. A cooler choice might be digging pools.

Design Ease

James Clear joined Ted Seides to talk about habits:

“Or you see a plate of cookies on the table and that’s a visual cue for the cookies. The practical strategy is to make the cues for your good habits as obvious as possible. Rather than having cookies on the counter have fruit or nuts or something you want to eat.”

James Clear

Clear has a good framework which boils down to ease. Make the things you want to do easier (access, reward, feedback, etc.) and make the things you don’t want to do more difficult. We faced this one Christmas, relegating the cookies and promoting the fruit.

When the cookies (bottom left) were on the island we gorged on them. When they were moved five feet away to the corner, and replaced by fruit the gluttony stopped.

Recently we noted influential words and a potential addition is the word ‘design’. That’s a heavy word. It carries too much.

‘Design’ gives the impression that something was cultivated and refined. It gives the air of investment and taste. Design can be that, but there’s a quick and simple design rule that works almost all the time—and worked for our cookie and fruit switch at Christmas.

Go from zero to one.

Not in the Peter Thiel sense, but in the behavioral economics sense. If something is understood as free, we do more of it. Make us pay even a tiny bit though, and we do much much less.

Clear gives an example in the podcast. He told Ted that he’ll keep his phone in the other room, a mere 30 seconds away. That’s a big old nothing-burger of cost, yet it is when it comes to actually doing the thing. Try this. Put your phone one place and sit down with a book/computer/project in another.

Well done. You’re a designer.

Translating JTBD

“At Twitter we had all the sales people in a different building and so we organized a margarita and taco event in the sales building. Of course all the engineers wanted margaritas and tacos so they had to go and spend time with the sales people and ask them around their roles.”

Kris Cordle

Cordle goes on to tell Shane Parrish that once a sense of community forms it’s easier for the sales people to go to the engineers, “rather than filling out a form that goes to the engineer who goes, ‘what is this person talking about?’.”

Jobs-to-be-done is like an elegant meal—but in the kitchen the cooks are hot and the chef is scratching her head wondering what will make it into tomorrow’s soup.

JTBD-ing is messy because we don’t have the language for it. The axiom to don’t ask the customer what he wants exists not because the customer doesn’t know but because the customer doesn’t know how to express it.

Here’s a question transcription of a sample interview Moesta conducted:

Look at the ground Moesta covers! For a mattress! Look at the language. “You moved?” “Who suggested sand bags?”

JTBD is elegant because of the hard work behind it and the hard work is the translation. Often this comes down to: what does the person need to feel.

Now we can circle back to Cordle and see how, like a game of telephone, the message ‘needs to feel this’ gets garbled going from one person to another. What makes the message clearer is good communication which exists in a good culture.

Margaritas and tacos seems unnecessary to the bottom-line but becomes axiomatic once we trace the process back. Like looking at the flurry of activity in a kitchen can give a sense how such a polished meal emerges.

For more, check out Moesta’s (2020) Demand Side Sales 101.

The Swiss Cheese Approach

“Testing, tracing, vaccination…We will arrive at more of a Swiss cheese approach. Every single thing we’re doing: mask wearing, vaccinations, testing, therapy. Every one is imperfect, like a slice of Swiss cheese. But if we do a dozen of these and lay one over another all the holes are gone. That’s what it’s going to take.”

Larry Brilliant on the Tim Harford podcast

We’ve addressed this idea before, to always fix your weaknesses, but the pandemic response is another opportunity to think roughly about cost-benefit actions.

Most of the time, s-curves, there’s a great return whereas the same fixed effort later is like squeezing the remnants from a tube of toothpaste. The iPhone is a clear example where for many years it was an amazing improvement but each iteration is more novel.

However, the slew of Apple products is like Brilliant’s block of Swiss cheese. Each iPhone, iPad, AirPods, etc. has ‘holes’ but overall the company has few.

The ‘Job’ of what is said

“I thought hard about what other people are trying to accomplish and I tried to shape my language in a way they could hear it. That’s half of what I talk to founders about. It’s just that, how to build the API to the other person’s brain. It doesn’t matter what you say. It matters what they hear, and it matters how they feel.”

Sam Hinkie, ILTB

That expression has a real JTBD-ness to it. It’s not the how something is done but the what, and if it’s the right what.


Tracking Tom. After a monster of a game, Tom Brady is 162 yards ahead of pace, his largest difference of the year. If Brady plays the rest of the games he’ll likely hit the over and our speculation will be wrong but our reasoning continues to hold, though maybe less than we should have suspected. One question comes to mind:

Did we think about base rates wrong? The key to base rates is to choose the right reference class. Brady seems fanatical about his health, and maybe we should have taken a page from Morey and made a cross-class comparison to Lebron James.

There’s still more ‘zero’ outcomes than not. Tampa could clinch a playoff spot, or be eliminated. Brady could be injured or rest before the playoffs.

We speculated at the start of the season there were a lot more zero to 200-yard games (injury, rest, offense, etc.) than 400+-yard games. That’s held in the data, Brady’s median yards per game is 11 yards less than his average. It feels incredibly odds, but we’ll be wrong for the right reasons.

Leave the selfie stick/mindset at home

“Well, my advice to everyone that goes to a national park is to leave your selfie stick behind and leave your desire to get that perfect selfie behind and just soak in the beauty of the park itself because that will stay with you a lot longer than this selfie kind of mode will.”

Tim Cook, Outside podcast

One theme of the podcast between Cook and Michael Roberts is the classic, am I using technology or is technology using me? Sometimes that manifests in taking selfies rather than enjoying spaces.

But it’s Cook’s framing that’s my favorite idea. Don’t want to take selfies, design the choice to be easy, and leave the selfie stick at home.

But, what if we apply this to the selfie mindset. Take the stick but leave the mindset?

The way we think about problems greatly affects the way we solve problems. One way to approach situations then is to ‘bring along’ a new mindset. For instance, someone can consider how to argue well or to learn something with Fermi Knowledge. Bringing that desire to a new project, situation, or group will affect how we act.

It’s easy to think of bringing along of tangible things but we can bring along ideas too, and framing them that way might make them easier to pack.