3 New Ideas 💡
Peter Thiel’s Contrarian Question 🔀
In Zero to One, Peter Thiel introduced an interview question that he gives a lot of weight to: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”
Thiel explains how this contrarian question helps to filter for two important characteristics that give rise to paradigm shifting developments:
"This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius."
In Thiel's eyes, contrarian ideas are the essential ingredient to making vertical progress where ideas aren’t just incrementally improved upon, but rather flipped on their head or thrown out the window in favour of new, and better, ones.
While Thiel is concerned with how contrarian thinking gives rise to leaps in technological development, being able to questions and go against what is widely agreed upon is also useful to us at the individual level. Being able to do so allows us to push forward our own thinking and break down assumptions that represent bottlenecks in the possibilities we can imagine.
As one example, Howard Marks of Oak Tree Capital explains that above-average returns in investing requires an element of second-level thinking:
“Being right may be a necessary condition for investment success, but it won’t be sufficient. You must be more right than others.. which by definition means your thinking has to be different” (Howard Marks, The Most Important Thing)
Only by identifying and challenging the assumptions that constrain the way we think are we able to prioritise what Tiago Forte terms the 'Throughput of Learning' and become better thinkers:
“[Assumptions] constrain your view, what you are allowed to see, and thereby the thoughts and actions available to you… we have to design our mental environment to maximize the throughput of invalidated assumptions.”
The Curse of Knowledge 👨🏫
The Curse of Knowledge (or curse of the expert) is a psychological bias where an individual’s expertise prevents them from seeing things through the eyes of someone lacking the same prior knowledge.
Teachers, for instance, may fail to see that the understandings they have internalised through years of exposure and practice might not come intuitively to their students. This often leads to logical jumps that can leave students confused and intimidated by the holes that were assumed, by their teacher, to have been filled in - imagine, as an example, the impossibility of trying to learn algebra without being taught first to add, subtract, multiply or divide.
Being able to enter the mind of others and understand the context that shapes their perception is essential to navigating everything from interpersonal relationships to business, and developing an awareness of how expertise clouds the way we teach is one step we can take towards improving this skill.
Asking ourselves whether our words are understandable by non-experts doesn’t just make our teaching more effective, it demonstrates that we have a detailed understanding of a subject that we can mould at will to fit different layers of abstraction.
As Richard Feynman put it, “If you can’t explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it.”
Bilbo Baggins 💍
Listening to Jon Favreau explain the series of events that made him into the renowned creator that he is recognised as Today, I was intrigued by the way that he views his own nature.
Contrasting himself to the manically restless bundle of curious, productive energy that is Tim Ferris (who was interviewing Favreau for an episode of The Tim Ferris Show), Favreau explained that his personality is closer to that of Bilbo Baggins.
Bilbo’s journey in Tolkien’s fantasy novel The Hobbit is defined by subversion. Belonging to a species characterised by their avoidance of danger and discomfort, Bilbo finds himself lured by the call of adventure to go far beyond the walls of his home in the Shire, embarking on a quest that brings him face to face with all the doom, gloom, excitement and wonder that Middle Earth has to offer.
Favreau explains that just as the events of The Hobbit draw a hard contrast to Bilbo’s inherent nature, Favreau’s life of adventure similarly goes against the way he views himself. As a reserved, unrealised adult in his early twenties, a spur of curiosity and restlessness pushed him to take a cross-country motorcycle trip that showed him how varied his life could be. It was ultimately this sense of adventure and some streaks of courage and curiosity that brought him down the road-less-travelled, making his career into what it is Today.
Just like Bilbo Baggins, is not as a result of his character, but rather in spite of it, that Favreau’s life ended up the way it did.
3 Favourite Saves 💾
Who Disrupts the Disrupters is an essay from Packy McCormick’s Not Boring newsletter that asks the question: Will the internet companies of Today be subject to the same cycle of disruption that allowed them to rise to power? Packy introduces Clayton Christensen’s theory of Disruptive Innovation and contrasts the viewpoints of analysts Benedict Evans and Ben Thompson before siding with Chris Dixon in his belief that Web3 and blockchain technology will produce the inevitable successors to Today’s tech giants. Giving examples of Web3 projects analogous to currently dominant SaaS companies, Packy explains that while it is unlikely that we have seen the next Google or Facebook, Web3 will certainly create the opportunity for New Market Disruption in an emerging frontier that offers built-in scalability, incentives for consumers and possibilities that go beyond what is possible with the internet as we know it Today.
Gagan Biyani is the founder of both Udemy and (more recently) Maven, two education startups that give a platform for learning outside of the classroom. In conversation with David Perell for the North Star Podcast, he discusses how his upbringing shaped his relentlessness, what Silicon Valley gets wrong, the important role that immersion and observation play in learning, and how one can spot quality in the details. The episode plays like a late-night conversation between two good friends who both share a deep passion for learning, experience and culture.
Aggregation Theory is a blog post from Ben Thompson exploring how the internet flattened the playing field of distribution to take down the giants of the past: media houses, book publishers, hotels, taxis and more. As opposed to looking ahead to the future (as the earlier essay from Packy does), this post from 2015 explores the common thread between the successes of companies from Google and Facebook to AirBNB and Uber: aggregation. Thompson’s theory describes how the companies of Today generate outsized returns by focussing on user acquisition and modularising supply (thanks to the access of the Internet), moving away from the old model that focussed on developing advantage by controlling both the supply and distribution of goods/services.
3 Quotes to Think About 📝
“You do not change people’s opinions by defeating them with logic. People do not feel obliged to agree just because they cannot reply at the moment.” - Herbert A. Simon, Models of My Life
“The chief enemy of good decisions is a lack of sufficient perspectives on a problem.” - Alain de Botton
“Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them.” - Paul Graham, Writing, Briefly
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