Listening for learning and for pleasure

I enjoy listening to books, because they give my eyes a break and because I can do something else at the same time. Actually, I can't do just anything else, just a few things, and it depends if I'm listening for learning or for pleasure.

I can listen for learning when

  • walking to or from work, or anywhere else I have been many times before
  • cooking something simple that I have made a dozen times or more, like breakfast
  • waiting in line, waiting at the doctor's office
  • on a plane, train, or other transit

I can listen for pleasure in all of the places that work for learning, as well as when

  • cooking something new
  • walking or driving somewhere new
  • grocery shopping

If you need a book recommendation, here are three fantastic picks:

Check your library, because these audiobooks are often available for free.

Is it meant for lingering or for passing through?

Some things are meant for lingering, while others are just a means to an end, a hurdle to pass through. Some examples:

  • A highway is for passing through
  • A park or civic square is for lingering
  • The McDonalds drive-through is (quite literally) for passing through
  • A table at a restaurant is for lingering (usually, but not always)
  • Facebook is for lingering
  • Google search is for passing through

Unsurprisingly, things that are meant for lingering get better if lingering is made easier. The infinite scrolling and all-in-one nature of Facebook, benches in the park, and dessert options at the restaurant.

And things meant for passing through get better as they take less time. Google works to give you ever faster search results. McDonalds lets you pre-order before you get to the payment window, before you get to the pickup window. A highway passes above or below other roads, eliminating intersections.

If you're building something, it's worth deciding whether it's for lingering or for passing through. You get to choose.

Free and open to the public

A coffee shop is open, but only if you have money to pay for coffee, you don't look too weird, and you speak the right language. What seems like a public space is actually private, and it might not listen when you speak up calling for change.

Homes and most offices are even more restrictive. They have locks on them and are very selective about who they let in.

Contrast this with a public square, which is open to everyone. Except for people that break a few societal rules, like theft of property, these public spaces are open to everyone. 

Case in point: I spent some time on Saturday afternoon enjoying the PROXY square in Hayes Valley. Completely free to linger, and with easy access to food, drink, and music. Sure enough there were hundreds of people who lingered over the course of the afternoon.

Subsidies for markets that scale

A common theme I've heard about Uber is that prices are artificially low due to venture capital subsidies. The thinking is, at some point these subsidies must end and prices must go up. The fear is that, by that time, no competitors will exist and consumers will lose out due to high prices.

But what if the cost of providing a ride will decrease in the future? How could it? The most obvious answer is self-driving cars. Other options include:

  • Add cars that seat more people, and share the cost of the driver
  • Enable drivers already headed to a destination, like work, to pick up passengers
  • Allow businesses to directly subsidize rides to their location. This already happens with happy hours and validated parking
  • Allow businesses to buy ads for people who haven't yet made up their mind

Each of these could reduce the cost per trip by 10% or more. From this point of view, offering cheap rides now is just a preview of low prices in the future. Put another way, it's kind of like taking out a loan to start a business where the first product you make is expensive, and each additional product gets cheaper and cheaper. If you can, best to start with the final price rather than get the reputation for overly expensive stuff.

Recover with a new skill

Traumatic life events happen. A breakup, or layoff, or worse.

One response is to commit to a new skill. Learn to paint, or sing, or program. Become a certified yoga instructor. It's a great way to create a new routine and use the time that previously went to the job or person. 

Two rules for efficient decisions

A Google product manager once told me that he has two rules for the endless stream of decisions that must be made a project moves forward:

  1. Never let a decision go undecided for more than 24 hours

  2. Never take more than 60 minutes of focused time to make a decision

These ensure that both the hard and the easy decisions get made, not just the easy ones.

An example of someone who embodied these rules, Robert Moses, who built almost every bridge, highway and park in NYC, famously worked from a table rather than a desk. This was so letters couldn't be forgotten in drawers. Instead, he would start the day by making decisions for each letter.

When do you work best?

I'm a morning person. All other things equal, I do my best work in the first three hours after I wake up. If I try to get the same work done later in the day it either takes twice as long or simply isn't possible.

Yet somehow I can always attend a meeting or respond to an email. So I try to cluster these activities together, and tackle them later in the day when it's harder for me to do individual work.

Not everyone is a morning person. I have friends who work their magic in the afternoon, or after everyone else has gone to sleep. It's worth figuring out when you're at your best. Once you know, use it to do your best work.

Hindsight Bias

Say that it's cloudy today. "It's going to rain", a friend says. If it does rain, there's a good chance that she'll go on to say "Look, I knew it was going to rain, it was cloudy." This is hindsight bias at play. Clouds don't always mean rain, and this friend is in danger of incorrectly assuming that she can predict the rain. 

Hindsight bias can affect us when we're interviewing for jobs, or betting on a sports team or watching an election. To avoid bias, it's better to observe the actual probability from many instances. When that's impossible, perhaps best to remember that the event was actually unpredictable.

America in context

One way to understand everything that's happening in the United States is to follow the media and scroll through Facebook. To add color and context I recommend these wonderful books:

The True Believer by Eric Hoffer is a a 1951 classic on mass movements and revolutions. Also a great way to understand what just happened in american politics.

Gang Leader for a Day, where Sudhir Venkatesh gives a firsthand account of his years spent hanging out with a Chicago gang.

Evicted shines light on how many poor americans cycle through housing, and how in many cases they pay more for less.

Meg Jay tells us about the importance of your 20s through intense stories of her clients in The Defining Decade.

The Three Body Problem is an immersive sci-fi novel from the very popular Chinese author Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu. Best of all it has a second and third book that continue the adventure. Ken grew up in Lanzhou (兰州市) which has the best beef noodle soup (牛肉面) I've ever tasted.

American Icon is a classic turnaround story, and shows just how narrowly Ford missed bankruptcy in 2008.

A great way to enjoy these is through the library. Mine offers kindle ebooks, eaudiobooks, as well as good old fashioned dead tree versions. But they're also 100% worth the cost to own.