“Gradually, then suddenly.”
That’s how Hemingway described going bankrupt.
We have a small vanity stake in a Bay Area craft beer garden. I say vanity because with few exceptions you are fooling yourself if you think being an LP in the restaurant biz makes you somehow an “investor”. This particular location was struggling. Then Corona killed the beer garden. While it sucks to lose money even ironically, it sucks even more for the staff. It was deteriorating. Gradually, then suddenly.
2 weeks ago Moontower readers realized that you cannot compare a small but rapidly growing, unabated infection with the common flu which has already found its steady-state saturation. This was one of the rare sets of circumstances where I felt the need to follow the news. A practice I normally discourage. But the news recently has been what Morgan Housel refers to as the rarest information that exists — that which requires immediate action.
Gradually, then suddenly America came around. It only took Tom Hanks and the NBA. And that one brilliant medium article.
By now your email inboxes are overflowing with COVID-19 cancellations and guidelines. Urgency is everywhere. It should be and it is. That’s good. Sooner would have been better but I’m thankful for what feels like a grassroots accomplishment. The virtual hivemind was buzzing with concern while mainstream meatspace seemed complacent and oblivious in contrast. Luckily the virtual crossed over to reality. (I have more to say about that but I’ll save it for another letter.)
As COVID goes, I don’t have special insight unavailable elsewhere. Instead, I want to use this issue to project some encouragement and then point you to some resources you can use over the next few weeks or months (I dropped the Money Angle for this week for brevity).
A Chance To Break Inertia
We are all anxious. The spread of possible outcomes is well outside the range of future outcomes that we imagine. We automatically presume that each year will be similar to the previous year give or take. We underestimate the volatility. After all, the chance of any particular bad thing happening is small. But if the count of all those particular things is N then (1-p)^N math means it’s only a matter of time before you are faced with something dire that you never planned for.
If a global pandemic doesn’t remind you to be an active participant in choosing your life, then the road you’re traveling is nothing more than a stretch between toll booths. We are not just here for the scenery.
“There Are no ‘Adults’. Everyone’s making it up as they go along. Figure it out yourself, and do it.” – Naval Ravikant
Raise your hand if you were told this when you were young. I wasn’t. I don’t blame my parents. They were just trying to fit in this country. To get along you need to go along. That whole idea. Hard to imagine someone who fought to get to this country thinking otherwise once they finally arrived. The downside is it’s a recipe to live someone else’s life. The fact that it could be a good life is actually a trick. Because it makes you feel guilty when you wake up and realize it’s not the one you would have chosen. Nobody will understand if they see you achieving that ‘model’ life that they themselves are chasing.
Actually, it’s worse than that. If you start chipping away at the idea that this dream was ever yours, you will scare your peers. Especially those who underneath it all feel exactly the way you do. By re-evaluating your priorities you remind people they are trapped in a cage of their own making. It makes them immediately accountable for how they feel.
Imagine you live in one of those zip codes with 10-rated public schools. You tell your friends you are selling the house and are choosing to rent a tiny house. Some will praise you, even though on the inside they think you are a leper. Or worse, they’ll think you got fired. Then there’s that couple using a line of credit to install an open kitchen with that red-knobbed range. They secretly envy your freedom. Not financial freedom. Your mental freedom. Remember if you woke up tomorrow with cheaper tastes you just got a giant pay raise.
So what was it that you wanted before all the adults told you what to want?
Search and Experiment
This issue is the 1 year anniversary of Moontower. This weekend last March I sent the first email to 40 people who indulged me. I asked 100 people total and I was thrilled 40 said yes. It was an experiment. I’m always reading, taking notes and trying to connect dots. Why not share these remixes of others’ originals to see what happens?
Well, a lot happened. Today, there are nearly 500 Moontower readers (help me find 5 more!). Small but beyond what I imagined. I don’t even have that many Facebook friends. It’s a lot of work but it’s so worth it. I have been delighted by the rekindling of many friendships. In some of these cases, it could be described as mutuals who I saw a lot in the past but actually only became friends with recently because of the letter. Looking back it doesn’t surprise me that someone who earns a regular place in your inbox might also be someone you’d want to be friends with. And that works in both directions as you start having more regular dialogues. In many cases, the conversations have led to in-person friendships. All the inbound prompted me to tag many of them with an “Encouragement” label in Gmail. It’s a little self-care hack I picked up that might help on a rainy day. Overall, lots of positivity. More than I could reasonably anticipate.
Beyond the relationship aspect, the letter set a few things in motion. The combination of a forced weekly writing practice plus encouraging feedback gave me confidence. That led to writing more personally and originally (I’m not getting ahead of myself — this a work-in-progress). This, in turn, uncovered a seed I want to water — the joy of teaching. By far my favorite feedback has been when somebody says they learned something from me. So I tilt the letter in that way when I can. What’s something abstract that I can take down a notch? Or what’s a principle that exists in one area that can be applied to another? I didn’t know I could do this until others told me I could.
Moontower gives me a chance to learn new things and use that to spread understanding. So I discovered I liked explaining things. I know I love boardgames. And having a 1st grader always leaves me thinking about how games can be used to educate children. So I’ve meandered into the world of games-based teaching as a side pursuit. I’d say I’m in the research phase, but in the meantime, I’m going to take a week off work in June and host a boardgame camp for about 12 kids. Other than coaching a few kids sports teams this is way out of my element but you have to start somewhere. This chain of events brings me towards a new lesson.
You Can’t Introspect Your Way Towards Fulfillment
Life feels best for me when I’m in a flow. Building. Producing not just consuming. And if this experiment taught me anything, it’s to introspect a bit less. Have more of a bias towards action. This isn’t my default. I’d say shoegazing was more my thing (I won’t lie, I do dig Jesus and Mary Chain). To people who are naturally wired for action, like Yinh who many of you know is a first-ballot Hall of Famer at getting sh%t done, this sounds obvious. Subeasy even. But I know I’m not alone. I know from conversations with many readers who are struggling with inertia.
There are people of all ages searching for what they are good at. What they should be doing. People that don’t know their strengths. They are curious and eager but don’t know how to direct their energy. The prescription for all of them is to just take a small step and do something. If you want to get fit, don’t wait until you buy the running sneakers you think you need. Just do a few pushups right this second. The action muscle needs to be trained. I’m working on it too. Readers, if you fall in this camp and you hang with me every week in this letter, I’d bet you have a lot to give inside you. But you can’t introspect it out. You have to take a step. And you need to continue. Like a dumb mule. Forward. Why? Why is a shoegazing question. Drop it. The why will come to you later. The only formula that matters today is effort x reps equals something big. If you multiply either by zero, you get zero.
Concepts To Help You Get Started
Copy what I did. I started with the simple goal to be an ambassador of ideas to people who aren’t reading what I am. I take things from Twitter or my favorite blogs and show them to people who don’t read Twitter. Anyone can be a bridge. Your millennial friends are probably reading Dave Perell but that doesn’t mean everyone you know is. What insights from your career generalize to be useful to others? There’s no limit to how many people can say the same thing because everyone has a unique experience to bring to bear on subject matter. All the best self-help is just ancient philosophy that the Greeks pondered thousand of years ago anyway. But people need to be communicated to in different ways and through different formats. So the lessons can be repackaged with modern case studies or new stories that may stick in new ways. The Yoda of financial journalism, Jason Zweig, writes:
I write the exact same thing between 10 and 60 times a year, making sure none of my readers can tell that I’m repeating myself. That’s because there are only a handful of enduring truths about investing, but editors demand more than a handful of columns each year. Sooner or later, you must either lie or repeat yourself. Since I prefer the latter choice, I scour websites and journals in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and animal behavior, looking for research that will give me new ways of saying the same old things. That way, the only person who knows I’m repeating myself is me. (Link)
2) Collect Your String. Build Your Fire
Khe Hy cites the journalistic practice of “collecting string”. These are “the random threads of thought that could someday be spun into a larger story.” Collecting string is hearing a new phrase for the first time and wondering where it came from. It’s a digging up an old anecdote that you’re convinced will resonate with your tribe. It’s the intuition that a “fleeting thought or observation” could someday lead “lead to another story, whether that’s a quick blog post or a book.” (Link)
Nick Maggiulli reminds us that building your fire takes time.
The analogy I like to use is building a fire. Most of your life you gather firewood. It’s not useful by itself, but it has potential. You keep gathering. You keep storing away information, memories, thoughts, opinions. You do this until one day you get a spark of inspiration and decide to start a fire.
Your fire starts small. A few people see it, but most ignore it. You keep throwing more logs on the fire and it burns brighter. Maybe more see it and take notice, but it’s still mostly unknown. You keep at it day by day, night by night until you have a roaring blaze. Then they can’t ignore you. (Link)
Nick’s blog is one of my favorites. But he wrote one post a week and it wasn’t until #71 that it caught fire (staying away from “going viral” until fire season is back in CA).
3) Get numb so you can be consistent
Cedric Chin writes:
If people offer you advice, shut it out. It’s not that feedback is bad, or that advice is terrible, it’s that none of it is useful until you’re numb. You must get over the fear of launching before you focus on the disgust you feel about the quality of your work. When the disgust is all that’s left, that’s when you know to seek feedback.
Radio producer Ira Glass has a famous quote where he says:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
The most important thing, in the beginning, is to establish a cadence before you can focus on improving quality. But you can’t ‘fight your way through’ if you have a problem with producing. Get numb, then get good. (Link)
For more links to help you get unstuck:
- When you learn an instrument you usually start by learning other people’s songs. I paraphrase in my own words when I take notes. I think of paraphrasing as doing a cover of the original. The writing is mine but the idea isn’t. Ben Franklin arduously did this to train himself to write. Austin Kleon recommends this approach as well. Try to reproduce others’ work so you can get in their headspace. By reproducing and reverse-engineering you learn the craft. Your voice will come later. David Laing explains in Covers Shouldn’t Just Be For Musicians. (Link)
- The odds you notice someone else’s bad hair day is negligible. Don’t fall for the spotlight effect — overestimating how much people pay attention to our behavior or appearance. Remember, nobody cares. Most of your thoughts revolve around “I”. That’s true for everyone. The only people who notice you have a crush on you.
- Perhaps you’d rather be anonymous. You can still capture the same benefits and perhaps even more efficiently. Dave Perell explains how as well as some of the history behind pseudonyms. (Link)
- The very first Moontower started with a bit about dealing with “imposter syndrome” in the modern world. (Link)
Resources for parents with kids at home
- Outstanding tips and resources for kids both offline and online (Link)
- Shane Parrish’s crowdsourced thread of learning resources (Link)
- List of all education companies now offering free subscriptions (Link)
- Outschool: Live online learning for all grades and subjects (Link)
- A Guide to Using Khan Academy Kids for Remote Learning (Link)
- Beanstalk: Distance learning made free for the duration of the COVID threat (Link)
- Mystery Science: elementary science videos (Link)
- Kurzgesagt: animated science videos (Link)
- 3Blue1Brown: animated math concepts (Link)
- Moontower list of resources to teach kids about money & business (Link)
- Moontower guide to game-based learning (Link)
- Moontower reader Erik Berg’s favorite board games and why (Link)
- Nicky Case has the best explorable games to learn about complex phenomena (Link)
- Nicky is building an explorable COVID game to understand how infections spread (Link).
- Science Buddies: A great site for finding science projects by interest and age level. We want to do the one about germ spread. (Link)
- Khan Academy’s Recommended Schedules (Link)
- That schedule floating around social media:
For adults looking to read more, Moontower’s collection of book lists and resources (Link)
You should definitely subscribe to his letter. He doesn’t need a plug from me. This is for you. (Subscribe Link)
But if something can top the letter it’s truly the community he built. Hundreds of people joined in that spirit of mutual aid and vulnerability. Entrepreneurs, artists, designers, educators, developers, financiers. Outside my private chats with old friends, it’s the coziest place on the web for me. If you email him, he can invite you. For people looking for a spark, my number one rec is to join the RadReads Slack group.
I’m pretty active in there so you’ll find a familiar handle. But everyone in there is insanely friendly. Lurk around, you’ll understand.
There’s a new #remote-work channel in there for folks looking for a virtual watercooler with video chats. Lots of experiments in our new world.
Finally, he did a brief but terrific letter this week on dealing with COVID distancing. (Link)
From my actual life
COVID stream of consciousness…
…feels too big.
…Friday I worked from home for the first time. I kept a Google hangouts video chat open with my partners so I don’t get too lonely.
…find ways to support your local businesses. Gift certificates has been a popular idea floating around.
…landlords, making rent is going to be hard for people. some leniency especially in what is bound to be a soft real estate market is not just a way to shoulder some burden but may very well be optimal.
… support your favorite small bands. Buy merch. Nobody makes money selling music. So no performance, no money.
…find a way to cut a deal with people who give lessons.
…check on elderly neighbors.
…homeschooling will be even less stigmatized as resources their upscale war-machine-style
…some people who always wanted to work from willfind the fantasy underwhelming. Perhaps dreadful.
…everyone is stressed but if this just feels like a snow day you have extra bandwidth. Meanwhile, there’s someone close by who is facing crushing pressures, anxiety, or just dire decisions.
Embrace the tech
We are all lucky to have smartphones and video calling. Recent shows I’ve enjoyed have been Cheer on Netflix (Ladarius is extra af) and Ramy on Hulu (very edgy comedy about a 22-yr old Egyptian kid in NJ navigating modernity, Islam, and dating). The Arabic on the show is perfect Egyptian Arabic Ramy’s parents’ accents is humor that you can only appreciate if you have had a shib-shib thrown at you during dinner. Thanks to my cousin Gaby for finding that gem.
Don’t forget to go outside but don’t touch the jungle gym. Maybe order a kettlebell and a jump rope for at-home WODs.
In closing, I just want to say thanks. Writing Moontower is a special experience because of all of you.
Stay safe and hug a loved one.