A Few Internet People That Have Influenced My Thinking

September 17, 2018

There are some people that humanity looks up to. People like Elon Musk. Or Abraham Lincoln. Or Nelson Mandela. It’s good to admire these people who have done amazing things in all sorts of fields, I certainly do.

However, I also admire some people who are a little bit less famous. People who have a strong following, but in a smaller niche. I think learning from these people can be equally as valuable as learning from the historically famous, so here are a few of the slightly less well-known people that I listen to seriously.

Fred Wilson

Fred is the co-founder of Union Square Ventures (perhaps the best NYC-based VC) and has invested in some of the fastest-growing startups in the world including Twitter, Etsy, Tumblr, Coinbase, Code Academy, Soundcloud, Kickstarter and Stripe. He is one of the leading experts on both network / platform startups and on the current crypto space.

I’ve been receiving Fred’s daily blog in my inbox for almost three years now. I’m really glad to have remained on his mailing list even as my interest in VC has waxed and waned – his morning emails are now a highlight of my day. He has been publishing a daily blog since 2003 and I’ve come to really appreciate this format in particular.

There are many things I like about Fred, but one thing in particular I like is how he approaches hiring at USV:

What are we looking for in candidates? We are looking for analysts who share our enthusiasm for innovation and working with entrepreneurs from the earliest days. More than any particular background, we look for candidates who are intellectually curious, have strong analytical and communication skills, thrive off of new ideas and can push our thinking.
How do you apply? Our process starts with having candidates answer two questions by recording videos, as well as submitting two short written pieces…
Video 1: Why are you interested in the analyst role? [30 seconds]
Video 2: What is an example of an initiative you took outside of school or work? [60 seconds]
Written 1: An email asking for a meeting with the founder of a startup you admire.
Written 2: An argument for why one of the following is either overvalued or undervalued [Twitter, Snap, Bitcoin, Ethereum] [750 words max]

I love this recruiting process. USV doesn’t explicitly ask for prior work experience, university attended, or a resume. Instead, its merit based. They care about why you are interested, how you have performed outside of the traditional day-to-day, an example of networking outreach, and the quality of your investment ideas. Which is precisely what a VC should care about. We need much, much more of this in the hiring world.

He also does an incredible job of explaining some of his thoughts on investing. One framework he’s mentioned is how new technologies advance rapidly in areas where they only deal with bits and are much slower in areas where they deal with atoms:

Machine learning algorithms have massively transformed online advertising (just bits), online commerce (just bits on the UI), trading of financial assets (just bits), and our attention (just bits and neurons).
But in areas where atoms are involved, not so much. There appears to be a growing acknowledgement in the tech sector that the timeline to fully autonomous vehicles is going to be longer than some had thought. It is not that surprising. There are lots of atoms and lives involved.

In addition to honest consumer electronics reviews, discussions on startup valuation and much more, each New Year’s he predicts what the biggest trends in tech will be and revisits his previous year predictions to see what he got right.

However, even with all the insightful tech talk, what I like most about Fred’s writing is his character. He writes thoughtfully and carefully. He puts his values at the forefront. He values human interests. I believe he genuinely wants to improve the world and it comes through in his writing. A few topics he touches on are immigration, parenting, online independence, work struggles, elections, greed and civil debates. Highly recommend reading through a few of his posts and signing up for his blog if interested.

Ed Latimore

For as long as I can remember, the people I idolize most are those who accomplish significant feats in fields that have no relation to one another. One of my favorite movies of all time is Forrest Gump, partially for this reason (partially because who doesn’t love Forrest Gump).

I first found out about Ed through the Farnam Street podcast. The show notes really caught my attention:

Ed is a professional heavyweight boxer, physics major, and philosopher. He’s also the author of the cult-hit Not Caring What Other People Think Is a Superpower. If there’s anything Ed feels like doing, he simply does it.

Professional boxer, physics student, philosopher and author? Definitely interested in this guy (turns out he has since also starting learning chess and Spanish).

While some of the headlines on his site are a bit click-bait-ey, he is a perfect example of someone who straightened his life out and is pursuing his dreams. He understands his limitations and puts in systems to compensate for them. He describes his struggles with chess and Spanish in one of his recent emails:

I’ve tried self-guided study and only experienced temporary and marginal improvement. I’m not an amazing prodigy. I’m barely competent. I simply have drive and I can recognize my weaknesses and when I need help. As a result, I found teachers.
For Spanish, I found a local language school. For chess, I work with National Master Franklin Chen and International Master Yian Liou. I did my best to carry on a Spanish conversation for 2 hours with an Argentine native and I played a few games against the chess masters for them to see where I am. After their initial assessments of my abilities, their recommendations were remarkably similar…
Each of my teachers were basically saying that I had some ability, but my basic understanding was trash. This lack of basic understanding is rendering my progression impotent. I was trying to run before I could walk. It’s probably more accurate to say that I was trying cartwheels and backflips before I could skip.

He makes a good point about learning to walk before you run. But even more important was that he understood self-guided study wasn’t the answer and sought out teachers who would be honest with him about his flaws.

Ed also came up with one of my favorite ideas about life: that happiness is a rate of change.

An interesting fact about life: We’re better able to suffer lack than loss. Chronic poverty and loneliness are easier to manage than losing everything you have and getting dumped. On the flipside, few things increase your mood like a new lover or an increased income. Your happiness isn’t so much dependent on where you are in life as it is on the change in your position.
The change in your life position is responsible for your mood, while the acceleration of this change determines how hard it hits you. This is F=M*A applied to your emotions.
A slow change, positive or negative, doesn’t generate much force. The sudden death of a romantic partner or winning a massive lottery jackpot will quickly and drastically alter your mind.
…Happiness in life is about constantly changing your position for the better. Improving yourself and conquering past challenges is the surest way to keep your mood elevated. No matter how high you get, there’s always another level or another area to develop in.

While he doesn’t do something ‘prestigious’ like invest high-tech companies like Fred, he has some nose to the grindstone advice that can be applied with anything you are learning. He’s a great example of someone who has made great strides but just started from a lower starting point. If nothing else, he provides a good recurring example of someone who is diligently using their time to practice what they want to get good at.

Patrick Collison

I have a lot less material on Patrick because he doesn’t have quite the online presence as the others, however he may be the most impressive on paper. After teaching himself programming at age ten, he frequently won tech competitions in school, then sold his first company when he was 19 becoming a millionaire overnight. A few years later (at age 22) he co-founded Stripe with his brother John which (based off their recent $9.2bn valuation) made them both the youngest self-made billionaires on the planet.

I admire Patrick because he used his world-view and advanced technical skills to create something very valuable. While I think no one in this world is proportionally worth that much money, Patrick’s incredible work ethic, thoughtfulness, and intelligence put him on par with anyone.

As you can probably guess, Patrick is a voracious reader, something he attributes to growing up without much technology in rural Ireland. He reads old and interesting books. His library puts anyone’s to shame. From this, he’s learned to approach problems from a humble standpoint and admits when he doesn’t know something. I encourage you to listen to some podcasts that he’s featured on to hear how he looks at the world. A few excerpts from the Farnam Street podcast:

On what he looks for when hiring at Stripe:

First, a kind of rigor and clarity of thought. So many organizations prize smoothness, smoothness in interactions and trying to reduce or minimize the number of ruffled feathers. And they at least inadvertently, if not deliberately, prefer cohesion over correctness, and we really try to identify people who are seeking correctness and who don’t mind being wrong…
Next, I don’t exactly know what the right word is, but a determination and competitiveness, and I guess willfulness, in that just doing anything of significance is hard…
And then we try to find people who just have—again, to return to these words—interpersonal warmth and a desire to make others around them better and just a degree of caring for others and a desire to be, nice is kind of an anodyne word, but to be nice to them and to make them better off

On how to run a large organization (while not a typical quote, I want to highlight that he admits when he doesn’t have the right answer):

I really think that, and this is not to evade the question, but I really think it’s too early to answer that, in the sense that I can tell you what I think today and one thing we’re currently spending much time on here at Stripe is having different parts of the organization write down what they’re optimizing for. The changes we’ve made over the last year and things like that. Stripe has been a thousand-person organization, or has been a more-than-500-person organization, for just over a year. We’re beginners at this! Three years ago, Stripe was under 100 people. And I think either to opine as if or, to even more problematically, believe that we kind of have it figured out, would be hubris.

Outside of podcast interviews, Patrick also has a website (although not sure how much he updates it these days). He has some advice for people between the ages of 10-20. A few goodies:

- More broadly, nobody is going to teach you to think for yourself. A large fraction of what people around you believe is mistaken. Internalize this and practice coming up with your own worldview. The correlation between it and those around you shouldn’t be too strong unless you think you were especially lucky in your initial conditions.
– Figure out a way to travel to San Francisco and to meet other people who’ve moved there to pursue their dreams. Why San Francisco? San Francisco is the Schelling point for high-openness, smart, energetic, optimistic people. Global Weird HQ. Take advantage of opportunities to travel to other places too, of course.
– People who did great things often did so at very surprisingly young ages. (They were grayhaired when they became famous… not when they did the work.) So, hurry up! You can do great things.

While more well-known than the others on this list, I still really admire Patrick both for his determination and his care in the way he treats others and looks at problems. Looking forward to seeing what else he can accomplish.

Scott Alexander

Scott runs a blog called Slate Star Codex which has quickly become my favorite thing to read if I want to think hard about the world. I first clicked on one of his posts a few months ago and was supremely impressed with how intelligently he wrote. I’ve found very few things online that publish this often and with this quality. Scott spends his days as a psychiatrist, however it’s almost irrelevant as the focus is on his content instead of his personal background.

One theme throughout the posts is properly understanding scientific studies. He has a great post called Beware The Man Of One Study that outlines this issue extremely well. With the amount of decisions being data-driven these days, this post should be required reading for every person who wants to quote a study.

If you go to your better class of alternative medicine websites, they don’t tell you “Studies are a logocentric phallocentric tool of Western medicine and the Big Pharma conspiracy.”
They tell you “medical science has proved that this drug is terrible, but ignorant doctors are pushing it on you anyway. Look, here’s a study by a reputable institution proving that the drug is not only ineffective, but harmful.”
And the study will exist, and the authors will be prestigious scientists, and it will probably be about as rigorous and well-done as any other study…
On the other hand, your doctor isn’t going to a sketchy alternative medicine website. She’s examining the entire literature and extracting careful and well-informed conclusions from…
Haha, just kidding. She’s going to a luncheon at a really nice restaurant sponsored by a pharmaceutical company, which assures her that they would never take advantage of such an opportunity to shill their drug, they just want to raise awareness of the latest study. And the latest study shows that their drug is great! Super great! And your doctor nods along, because the authors of the study are prestigious scientists, and it’s about as rigorous and well-done as any other study.
But obviously the pharmaceutical company has selected one of the studies from the “very good” end of the bell curve.

It’s caused me to stop and think a lot more any time someone makes a decision based on a study. I think this (questioning every study) is the best response. The study could hold truth, but is more likely only telling one side of the story. This is ignoring the fact that many studies fail to be replicated and others still are fraudulent.

In another article, Scott responds to a post by Tim Harford about Brexit and Trump and how they relate to facts. It’s a good read. In the middle, he mentions the ground rules for a “Purely Logical Debate”:

1. Debate where two people with opposing views are talking to each other (or writing, or IMing, or some form of bilateral communication)…
2. Debate where both people want to be there, and have chosen to enter into the debate in the hopes of getting something productive out of it…
3. Debate conducted in the spirit of mutual respect and collaborative truth-seeking…
4. Debate conducted outside of a high-pressure point-scoring environment…
5. Debate where both people agree on what’s being debated and try to stick to the subject at hand…
These to me seem like the bare minimum conditions for a debate that could possibly be productive.

To me these also seem like the bare minimum for a healthy, productive debate. If you look for them in real life, however, you’ll find that people don’t use these. People are tied to their existing beliefs. People have egos. People want to be heard more than they want to learn. It’s healthy to fight these things to find the truth, and the above guidelines laid out by Scott are a great starting point.

Slate Star Codex is part of a larger community called ‘Rationality’ that is focused on understanding the world in a more rational way by accounting for cognitive biases and other such human problems (this community also includes websites like Less Wrong). Posts from these communities are vetted and very well written. The community also holds meetups every once in a while and I was actually able to attend one of these meetups in Chicago not too long ago. It was quite interesting to talk to other people sharing this interest and I hope to continue to attend more.

Other Interesting Internet People

I listen to the above people intently, and I’d encourage you to look at their work as well. If you know of other interesting internet people that aren’t on the above list, reach out and let me know! I love finding blogs in tiny corners of the internet that provide unexpected value.

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