Don’t Eat The Marshmallow

In the 1960s a series of experiments were conducted on young children, now known as the “marshmallow test”. The young children were each offered a marshmallow and told that if they could wait a few minutes they would be given another marshmallow. The videos of the experiments make for great entertainment and the results have had a large impact on the success of peoples’ lives. For more information on the experiment, read this delightful New Yorker piece by Jonah Lehrer. In brief, the reason why this experiment is able to predict so much of one’s future success is because it conveys whether one has the ability to delay gratification, the ability to focus on greater future gains at the expense of immediate gratification.

I never took the “marshmallow test” when I was young so I am not sure whether I have an in-built nature to delay gratification, but now having the conscious knowledge of the importance of delayed gratification I plan to further cultivate this ability and to apply the concept to my life.

In the real world, the test is not of delaying the eating of delicious desserts(1) but of ignoring the abundant distractions that surround all of us so that we can focus and accomplish meaningful work. Paul graham describes how distractions have evolved and have become more addictive then ever. The challenge is to overcome these distractions and in the words of Mark Suster, to JFDI.

I am not advising one to never goof off or relax, focusing on enjoying the present is important too. Though if you want to accomplish great things, it is important to on some level to sacrifice the present for the future. Or sacrifice may not be the right word because that word signifies giving something up and in a way, it is more of an exchange. I have experienced the fulfillment of accomplishing good work and the state of flow while doing so and I have also experienced the hedonistic enjoyment of lounging by a tropical beach during the day and partying at night. Both are enjoyable in their own way, but I prefer to focus more on the former. Of course hard work is not just a state of flow and a feeling of accomplishment. It is hard work. It is struggle. It is finding ways to continue when you may not feel like it. But in the end, I think it is well worth it.

For a while I was focused on living the 4HWW ideally designed lifestyle(2). I tried out living abroad briefly and backpacking around Costa Rica and Nicaragua. While I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and plan on doing a lot of traveling throughout my life, I want my work to more than finding out how to spend the minimum amount of time to bankroll my lifestyle. I want my work to be meaningful and engaging to me. I want to swing for the fences and to repeat the Silicon Valley cliche, I want to change the world. Maybe at some point in the future I will change my mind but at the very least, putting in the hard work now is the way to stay upwind and to keep my opportunities open.

So remember, don’t eat the marshmallow.

———————

(1)Though eating healthy is another test of will power

(2) I am still a big fan of many of the concepts in the 4HWW and have applied the work principles to be more productive in learning and at my former jobs. The problem in my view is that it implies that the goal of a “lifestyle business” is to minimize work and in doing so, maximizing free time and then recommending that that time should be used primarily for traveling and living abroad. I think Tim’s own choice of how to spend his time is a better example, working hard to write quality content and engaging in advising innovative startups. THe other problem is that Tim down plays the importance of working hard, especially in the beginning of a business. He worked 80 hour weeks to build BrainQuicken and only afterwards did he find a way to decrease his weekly work load. It may be possible to only spend the mythical four hours a week but it may be better to rather think in the mindset of what you can accomplish with hard work.


Get in the ring

Doing something where there is a chance of failure is scary but remember in the words of Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

So go for it and get in the ring and give it your all. Happy new years everyone and here is to a great 2011.


The 2 Graphs That Will Define The Future of Search

The term “graph” is used to mean the underlying data structure of a set of objects.

The major initial innovation of Google was to map the links on the web and use this data to rank search results. This data could be called the “Webpage Graph”. Of course, Google has done a lot to improve search since then, adding over 200 relevant factors. The next major wave of improvement in search results will come from hooking into the social graph and the taste graph.

The Social Graph – how people are connected together on a social network

Facebook got this right by focusing on real identity and making the site ubiquitous so one’s facebook connections could fully replicate their real-world connections. By combining people’s interests (their profiles) with the connections advertisers can now target you by what you and your friends like. This hasn’t led to high CPMs on Facebook (yet) but it still proves to be very valuable information.

Google wants this information. They wish that Facebook would just open up this information but Facebook doesn’t allow users’ data to be used for doing targeted advertising by third-parties. Google says they are going to create a social layer for search. It is still cryptic what they mean by this but basically they think knowing how people are connected and having profile information could lead to higher quality search and advertising quality.

The Taste Graph – Measures what people will like by what other people like

Two systems: popularity based and recommendation engine based.

Amazon was the first to use this concept well. Amazon used the popularity concept by having user-written product reviews. This helps users make informed decisions on what to purchase and made Amazon a trusted source to find what to buy online.

Netflix decided instead just showing the average ratings, Netflix would allow each user to have a customized expected rating for each film using a recommendation engine. This method is definitely superior to a purely popularity based taste graph in that it provides more accurate information for each user.

Hunch is trying to do what Netflix did for movies reviews but for everything–an ambitious goal for sure. They are trying to get there by having users answer multiple-choice questions and say whether they like or dislike certain things. I think eventually more ways of getting feedback will eventually be required but that is for another time. Right now it is just important to see the trend of the rising importance of the “Taste Graph”

Google measures which user clicks on which links and this leads to a lot of interesting data that goes into improving search but it is still not a full “taste graph”. Google could benefit from a taste graph in a similar way they could benefit from a social graph. This information could lead to better algorithms and thus better search results.

Conclusion

Eventually all of these graphs are going to converge and it is going to drastically improve personalized search.

Most likely, Google will find a way to get a detailed profile of each user and a detailed social graph of whom they are connected to. On top of that they will know what each user likes based on having information on what decisions they have made and how they have rated different things. All this information will go into improving personalized search results.

It will be a big challenge for Google to obtain this information and it won’t happen overnight but in the very long term, Google will most likely find a way to get this information.

“The perfect search engine,” says co-founder Larry Page, “would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want.” In order to get to this point, Google has to know who you are and what you like.


An Important Question: If money was no issue, how would you spend your time?

This is a very important question. One that I ask myself more than nearly any other. You should spend some time thinking about how you would answer this question as well.

Recently Hacker News has had a series of entries on the front page about FU money. I think the real purpose of FU Money is to maintain a desired lifestyle[1]. If you can find a way to live an ideal lifestyle while making enough money to live, you circumvent the need to pursue a deferred life plan [2].

The Tricky Parts:

1. There is no easy way to measure whether the way you are spending your time is ideal.

2. Money and prestige are much easier to measure then happiness so people often pursue those goals over happiness and lifestyle.

3. It is hard to find a way to support yourself financially while also living an ideal lifestyle.

What comes to mind when you think of how you’d spend your time if money was no issue?

You might think of traveling the world, partying, jet setting… all good things but that lifestyle probably isn’t sustainable for one’s entire life. At some point, we all have a need for meaning–to be a part of something larger then ourselves. This can come from many different areas but it requires going beyond a purely hedonistic lifestyle.

I can’t prescribe one right answer to this question as each person has a different temperament and unique passions. Sorry if you were looking for the answer because there isn’t one.

Rather then prescribing one answer, the goal of this post is to encourage you to think about your personal answer to this question when making major life decisions and to take it into consideration. Hopefully good things will come from it.

Notes

[1] A desired lifestyle has two parts: 1.being able to do what you want with your time 2. to be able to buy expensive things and live a very luxurious lifestyle. I’d argue that this is a distant second in importance for achieving lasting happiness to spending your time how you would most like to. Furthermore, no matter how much you earn, if money is your main motivator, you will probably start to surround yourself by even more affluent people and will never have enough. Thus, I recommend trying to scale down the importance of great wealth in living an ideal lifestyle. Quora’s take

[2] The deferred life plan is basically doing stuff that you don’t like now in order to live your ideal lifestyle later. I borrow this term from Tim Ferriss. This plan is epitomized by people who hate being investment bankers but are anyways in order to acquire enough currency so then they can pursue something else later in their life. It seems that the ideal solution for someone in this situation is to just start doing what they really want to do. (If you are an IBanker and love it, good for you and no offense intended)


Introducing a new Theory: The Recommendularity

The Singularity is the technological creation of smarter-thanhuman intelligence. I present something that is akin to this theory though on a much smaller scale: the recommendularity.

The Recommendularity is the technological creation of better-than-human intuition recommendations. By this, I mean that an advanced recommendation algorithm with sufficient data will be able to predict how a person will like something better than the person himself or herself.

In recent years the internet has seen a proliferation of recommendation engine based products:

I greatly enjoy using each of these products along with millions of others. And the best thing is: the more that you use them the better they get.

Recently, something crazy happened. When it comes to movie recommendations, I now trust netflix more than my own intuition. The process has been slow and gradual. Overtime I have fed more film ratings into the system–now over 1,000. Also the netflix algorithm has been constantly improving during the same period of time.

Netflix, realizing the importance of the accuracy of their recommendations hosted a million dollar prize competition for who could improve their recommendation algorithm the most. Beyond this being a damn good publicity stunt and way to get more than their money’s worth of labor, this is just a hint to what may be in store.

As recommendation technologies improve and these technologies begin to have access to more and more data about us, the recommendations that they will be able to make will only improve.

It is too early to predict the nature and shape of this improvement curve.  On the top end it could follow an exponential improvement curve like Moore’s Law. On the opposite end, there could be a natural limitation to how good recommendation engines can get leading improvement to reach a screeching halt.

Even if there are limitations to how good the recommendation engines get, there is still a ton of room for growth in the amount of information that can be fed into a recommendation engine leading to great improvement in the results.

(This is where the SciFi part begins)

Where could this lead given enough time? (Hopefully, in our lifetimes)

Recommendation engines will be better than humans at making nearly any decision. People will rely on the personalized recommendations to make more and more decisions in their lives–anything from where to eat lunch, to where to go to college. Eventually even the the most important decisions in life could be left to an algorithm.

Ultimately, choice will remain with the individual but as the computer recommendations get better and better more and more weight will be placed upon a machines recommendation.

The recommendularity represents the ultimate discovery tool. It will help ensure that everyone gets everything out of the world that is best for them according to processing the preferences of people with similar interests.


The Power of a Couple of Links: A Beginner’s Endorsement of Social Media

For my last blog post, I put the link into a comment on Tim Ferriss’ blog and submitted the post to Hacker News. This was the first time I tried doing anything to promote a blog post… and it wasn’t much.

Those two tiny things led to 180 site visits in the following three days. This is tiny by large website traffic terms.

For a new blogger though, getting anybody to visit my blog and who knows–even hear about my idea–is pretty cool.

Having 100+ people visiting one’s own site is pretty remarkable. Think, before the internet, it would be hard to find a place where you could share your ideas with that many people. Now you have the platform–blogs and others– and the audience is just a few links away. How awesome is that?

I still have no real idea what I am doing in terms of blogging. I am still a beginner. I was so nervous (and so lazy) about blogging for so long. I just kept saying I would start later. Excuses! I am glad that I finally decided to start.*

And you should get started too. At the very least you will improve your writing ability and you will have a way to share your views with the world. Think of all of the cognitive surplus just laying dormant. Even though tons more people are creating (in many different forms), most are still just consuming.

I know, I used to just consume information, videos, etc. and produce nothing. It is so much easier, but in the words of Paul GrahamIf you have two choiceschoose the harder.”

So, go for it, take the chance and make something. Then share it with the world.

* Thanks bro for the encouragement


Startup/Real World MBA Idea: Fantasy VC

(Photo: DavidDMuir)

I just read Tim Ferriss’ new blog post about creating your own Real-World MBA.   Basically Tim, took the $120k business school would have cost and put the money into a micro angel investing fund, the “Tim Ferriss Fund”. His primary objective was to learn from the experience and planned for the whole thing to be a sunk cost. I thought of an idea for those who don’t have $120,000 sitting around…

I was thinking it would be pretty cool if there was a fantasy version of angel investing just like there is for football and the stock market. Aspiring entrepreneurs and angel investors could try their hands at investing in a no risk manner. Certain fantasy investors who perform well might even be able to influence actual angel investors and VCs. A large part of the experience of angel investing couldn’t be recreated but at least some of it could and I think a lot of people could learn through the process.

What do you think of the idea? How could it be improved?

PS: It has been a while since I have blogged and I am not sure how often I will blog in the near future. Hopefully I will feel inspired often.

*  FYI, Tim wrote the 4 Hour Workweek and coined the term “lifestyle design” and discusses the benefits of optimization and outsourcing in business.