# Startups: How to Plan with Too Many Options

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.
- Dwight Eisenhower

One common difficulty startup founders face is how to avoid being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff to do.  In a typical startup, you need to know your market well, execute on building a product, acquire lots of customers, raise money, hire great talent, build a strong company culture, and manage your cash flow.  Our brains simply don’t have the power to wrap themselves around all these areas in all their details all the time.

I faced this difficulty myself in running HitPlay, and I see this issue all the time in companies I mentor.  From my own experience — and the experience of various other people I respect — I’ve outlined an approach I think is helpful.

The trick is to wrap your head around one area at the right level of detail, and to be smart about how you move this focus around.

Here’s the process:

• Focus like a laser on this area until it’s no longer what’s most important.
• Rinse and repeat.

## Great, thanks, but how do I do that?

Start with awareness.  You (as the founder) will be in the best position to make the right call.  What’s most important is that you actually follow this process, and refine your instincts as you go.

You should cultivate a habit of asking yourself “what’s the most important thing to be thinking about right now?”.  The answer may be high-level and strategic.  Or it may involve low-level implementation details.  Whatever the answer, once you identify it, you can use this awareness as a tool to cut down on wandering thoughts.

Seek advice.  More experienced entrepreneurs can give valuable perspective, especially on high level “what’s the most important thing to focus on” kinds of questions.  Often, when you’re deep in the operational trenches, you don’t see the forest for the trees.  You feel like you’re in the middle of a sprint, when really running a company is a marathon.

As for how to find mentors, a little flattery goes a long way.  Find someone you’d like as an advisor, and send them a note as to why they in particular would be helpful to you.  Ask to schedule a quick phone call, and be respectful of their time.

## Embrace Constraints

You’ll never get a handle on complexity without ways to reduce your search space.  Some techniques:

Say no a lot.  Say no to random requests to “grab coffee”.  Say no to most prospective business deals.  What you say no to is more important than what you say yes to.

Suppress thinking about something until a certain condition is met.  A couple examples:

• You have a site and are considering throwing up ads for revenue.  Before devoting resources to this task, do a little math.  Let’s say you can sell ads for $1 CPMs, and anything less than$1000 / month of revenue is immaterial.  That means you should wait until you’re getting 1 million page views per month before you think further about this task.
• You know your code needs to be refactored to allow horizontal scalability.  But there’s a high likelihood that you’ll never have enough concurrent users to require this scalability.   So you could use a trigger like “don’t worry about refactoring until my server load is greater than 1″.

Group tasks into milestones. By milestone, I mean:

• A measurable deliverable at the granularity of “a few weeks of work”.
• What you learn by achieving the milestone will improve your subsequent planning.

The second point is the key.  Because of the expected knowledge to gain, there’s no point planning beyond the milestone (other than the rough planning to determine that the milestone is comparatively more important than other things to do).  The milestone acts as a horizon that limits the scope of your planning.

And once your identify a milestone, switch into execution mode where you drop down to the low levels of detail you need to do the work.

Let me walk you through an example.  Let’s say you and a friend have an idea for a startup, but don’t have anything built yet.  A good milestone could be “create a landing page that expresses the value proposition of your product, and collect 300 email addresses of interested people”.

This milestone is small enough that you should be able to wrap your head around all the necessary steps.  And consider how much you learn upon achieving it:

• You’re forced to clearly articulate your value proposition.
• You gain knowledge on how to acquire customers.
• You validate your interest in the company, as well as compatibility in working style with your partner.
• You have lots of people’s contact info to reach out to for feedback.

I’d like to end with a few anti patterns to be aware of:

• The founders cannot agree on what’s the most important issue.  Founder disagreements are a big deal.  If you find yourself unable to agree on what’s the most important issue, then your most important issue is this inability to agree.
• I’m fighting too many fires all the time to do much planning.  You need to make time for non-urgent / important tasks.  If you find yourself in reaction mode all the time, your most important issue is to get ahead of the chaos so you can be proactive.
• We know what we need to do and we’re too busy to spend much time in planning.  This situation is almost never true for a startup, but is a common sentiment since it’s easy to get caught up in the details.  It takes discipline to operate at multiple layers of perspective.  When you’re executing toward a milestone, you shouldn’t be spending a lot of time planning.  But between milestones, you should give yourself (and the entire team) lots of time (several days, if necessary) to focus just on planning.  You should have a healthy ratio of time spent thinking vs. doing, or else you will slowly drift off course.

How about everyone else?  What approaches to planning and prioritization have worked best for you?

# Thoughts from an Angel at Last Night’s 500 Startups Demo Day

Overall, I was quite impressed.  Dave McClure and the folks at 500 Startups have done a good job vetting and mentoring applicants.  You meet a lot of talented entrepreneurs on demo day — it’s a networking event on steroids.

As an angel investor, my key takeaways are:

Market rate for terms

The typical company that presented not only boasted a strong team and a working product, but also demonstrated some kind of traction.  For example:

• Twitmusic has over 8,000 musicians registered with 32,000,000 Twitter followers.
• TenderTree transacted $20,000 in revenue in June. • TeliportMe has been downloaded over 450,000 times Most of the companies were trying to raise$500K – $1M on convertible notes with caps in the$4M range.

So — whether you’re on the raising or investing side of the aisle — that’s your market rate.

Overall trends

Of the 27 companies presenting:

• 5 were child or education related.
• 5 were fashion related.
• 7 were led by female founders.
• 6 were foreign.

Some Standouts

• Network replaces you phone’s contacts with a smart, networking app.  It promises to do away with business cards, and add contextual information to contacts.  This idea will either work spectacularly, or fail quickly.
• Chalkable is building a platform to sell educational apps to schools.  I like the education space.  It’s just itching for major disruption.  Chalkable’s approach is to work top-down, by selling to schools.  That’s a challenge, but also a great barrier to entry if they succeed.  And they already have several schools using their product, so early indications are good.  I’m not sure if the “app store” model is right, but they could capture enormous value if they are simply a modern web 2.0 platform company that provides distribution through schools to children.
• Wanderable is a honeymoon registry for couples who want experiences, not stuff.  From a financial perspective, I like ideas associated with weddings, since you’re capturing people at a very price insensitive moment of their lives.  And the scuttlebutt on Wanderable is the two founders (who have been close friends for a decade) are a particularly strong team.
• Happy Inspector is probably the least sexy idea, and the one I judge “most likely to exit”.  They have an iPad app for property managers to perform inspections easily.  They already have 300 users paying monthly subscriptions.  They are in the enviable position of having customers paying them to develop more features.

# This Photograph Cannot be Efficiently Priced

On Hacker News, I just read This Photograph Is Not Free and the response This Photograph  Is Free.

<tl;dr> summary:

• Not Free: this photo cost me several thousand dollars in fixed costs, so I should be paid if you use it.
• Free: sure this photo cost me money, but I did it for fun and I’m happy to share it with the world.

The deeper problem is there’s really no good pricing model for digital goods.

Specifically, production of digital goods involves a fixed cost (sometimes a very high fixed cost), but the marginal cost of copying a digital good is free.

How do you price something with zero marginal cost?  An every-increasing percentage of goods and services have this characteristic, so I believe solving this problem is the key economic question of our times.

The current approach the movie and music and software industry takes is to:

• Charge the price that maximizes revenue.
• Rely on various legal and technical mechanisms to prevent copyright theft.

We’re all well aware of the enormous “pain in the ass” that copyright law inflicts on us.  It sucks, it holds back innovation, etc. — but there are enough rants out there about copyrights.

The other big (but less discussed) issue is how to charge the appropriate price.  I believe the main inefficiency here is the price for most digital goods falls into what I call the vast chasm of impossible pricing.

To illustrate, let’s say I have a cool photo I want to monetize.  My options are:

• I can ask people to enter a credit card number and pay for it.

The problem is asking for a credit card is a big deal.  The customer has to get over a purchasing friction, and the merchant has to pay a fee.  Essentially, you can’t charge anything less than around $5. On the other end lie ads. Talking orders of magnitude here, a typical CPM is$1, so if you have an ad-supported revenue model, you’re basically selling each item for $0.001. There’s a 5000x difference between the most you make from ads, and the least you can make from credit cards. So what do you do if you took a nice photo? Or you wrote an insightful blog post? Or you sent an investigative journalist to Iraq and wrote an article? The fair price for whatever you did might be a nickle. And you’d probably be happy if you got a nickle every time someone viewed you page. And many people might be perfectly happy giving you a nickle in appreciation, but they don’t want to deal with the cognitive load of authorizing a transaction. Imagine if we had an easy way to charge a nickle. A very long tail of writers, photographers, musicians, and programmers would see a 50x boost in their revenue. There’s an incredible opportunity in solving the vast chasm of impossible pricing. # Hacker News and SaaS An interesting thing happened on Hacker News yesterday that highlights some complexities around innovation and compensation in today’s world. Someone posted a link to visitor.js, which is a hosted piece of JavaScript that gives details on your visitor (like which city they’re in, date of last visit, etc.). The creators set it up as a paid service. You’d have to pay at least$10 per month to use it.

Within hours, someone posted a free open source version of visitor.js.

• The creation of the open source version of visitor.js is good for the industry as a whole.  It’s yet another tool that developers everywhere can use and repurpose however they see fit.
• The open source version makes it harder for the people behind the original visitor.js to make money from their efforts.  Hacker News has provided a disincentive for their innovation.

The economics of software are funny.  If you build a service that’s really deep so no one can easily copy it (like Twilio), you can survive.  If you build a site that accumulates millions of users, no one can easily take them away from you even if they replicate your product.

But if you do something that’s kind of cool, like visitor.js, you’ve added value to the ecosystem of technical tools, but… you don’t get compensated for this value

This dynamic creates a world where independent developers are increasingly effective at building things, but making money from what we build is more difficult.

# Reflections on Starting a Company

Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.
- Andy Warhol

There’s a lot of practical advice out there on how to run a startup.  I want to add a few personal words about some of the intellectual and emotional lessons I learned in building HitPlay.

Some background notes: HitPlay grew organically without investors, so I have little to say about raising money, but a lot to say about earning it.  Also, I started the company over 9 years ago, so these lessons are colored by having seen many business cycles.

## 1) How to Overcome Fear

One thing I’ve learned is everything that limits us is a form of fear or laziness.

Creating a startup is a lot of work, so if laziness holds you back, you’re not going to get far.

Fear is more complex.  If you have real financial responsibilities (like a family), the fear is valid.  But other fears, like fear of failure and fear of what other people think, is much less useful.

Fear is the mind killer

The way I overcame fear was through a simple thought experiment.  My startup could either succeed or fail.  If it succeeded, fantastic.  But, I realized, even if it failed, I would be happy I tried.  I’d rather be the guy who tried and failed than the one who never tried at all.

Once I made this realization, I had no intellectual reason to not do a startup.

## 2) Ownership Feels Great

One of the immediate (but not predicted) joys of starting my own company was how great ownership felt.

As an employee, my job was a means to make money.  I did what my boss asked, and I did it competently.  But I didn’t invest much energy into my work.  I just didn’t care that much.

Now that I was working on the product I conceived, for the company I started, I was in a whole new world.  I took pride in every line of code, in every pixel on the screen.  I wasn’t just slinging code.  I was nurturing my baby.

I also took pleasure in the accumulative nature of building.  In other words, I could work all day and make a minor but distinct improvement — and this improvement would be present every day in the future.  I felt like I was rolling a big ball, and every day I was increasing its speed.

## 3) How to Work Without Direction

When you work for someone else, you’re given direction.  For the first few months of my company, I was still of this mindset.  I kept wanting someone to tell me what to do.

This lack of direction is a double-edged sword.  On one hand, it’s liberating and empowering.  But it’s also overwhelming.

What makes it so overwhelming is you have no constraints on your set of choices.  Do you want to build a certain feature?  Spend your time optimizing page load speed?  Do a Google Ad Word experiment?  Look for someone to hire with expertise in marketing?  Pivot to a new business model?  Paint your company’s name on your body and run naked through the superbowl?  It’s up to you.

## 4) It’s Lonely without a Co-Founder

I threw myself entirely into my company, and I obsessed about everything.

The problem is no one else really cares if your border radius is 3 or 5 pixels.  Or whether you should pay slightly more for bandwidth in exchange for a lower commit level.

When you run a startup, you’re making tons of decisions that are vital to the business, but meaningless to everyone else not in the trenches with you.

A few months into my startup, one of my friends joined me, and I was much happier because I finally had someone who cared as much as I did.

## 5) Your Company will Live or Die by Traffic

The single most important and most difficult problem to solve for any consumer oriented web site is how to get traffic.

In my naïveté, I thought all I had to do was build a product people were willing to pay for.  I didn’t ask myself how I would get those people to my site in the first place.

And advertising didn’t work.  Ad rates are set by the highest bidder, so I could only make money to the extent that I out monetized everyone else.  I couldn’t compete in pure monetization, unless the ads were so precisely targeted that the ad volume was negligible.

## 6) The Secret to your Success is not Public Knowledge

You cannot analytically derive a plan to success.  Because if you could, then so could other people, and the opportunity would be arbitraged away.

To win, you’ll have to stumble into something not publicly known.  For instance, when Google started, no one thought search was going to be big.  Or a company called ThePoint observed that lots of people were using their group action platform to coordinate purchases, so they started Groupon.

You’ll need to increase the surface area of your luck, and keep a close eye on your analytics to see if there’s a pattern you can exploit.

## 7) Hiring is a Big Deal

In my case, we took little funding and grew organically for years before we made enough to hire people.  The change from just a couple founders to a team of employees was the most challenging transition in the company’s history.

Partly, it was challenging because I had no management experience.  Also, my product was my baby, and I had a hard time letting go.  Nonetheless, before hiring, your effectiveness is determined by what you do.  After hiring, it’s measured by what you get other people to do.  And that changes everything.

I could write a dozen posts going into specifics, but some books that helped include What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Tribal Leadership, and Good to Great.

Over the years, money comes and goes.  Markets change, businesses follow cycles.

What lasts are the relationships you cultivate, and the integrity with which you operate.

Check your ego at the door.  Don’t focus on how big your slice of the pie is; rather, focus on growing the pie.  Speak clearly, and act transparently.  Over the years, you’ll grow a network of people who like working with you and trust you.

## 9) If You’re Not Having Fun, You’re Doing Something Wrong

Time spent at your startup should be in service to your life, not vice versa.  You commit to a startup, but you have a deeper commitment to find whatever gives you meaning and satisfaction.

One of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes is

I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Note: as Steve said, sometimes you have to do things that aren’t pleasant.  You just deal with it.  But if you’re doing unpleasant things too many days in a row, you should make a change.

## In Conclusion

Running a startup is lonely, filled with stress, often not glamorous, and has a high chance of failure.  But it’s betting on yourself.  So if you’re crazy enough to do it, I sincerely wish you the best luck.

# Fun with Reddit Image Data

Reddit is one of my favorite sites.  It has a fantastic community that generates a wealth of interesting data.

## Spidering image posts to Reddit

I wanted to play around with a slice of this data (image posts).  Getting all these images was kind of annoying, particularly because Reddit’s API only returns 1000 search results, and Reddit rate limits you to one request every two seconds.  So I wrote a cron script to suck down all new image posts every hour.

But I also wanted accurate scores and comment counts.  So I had another cron script re-download information on every post 1 week after it went live (to allow time to gather up/down votes and comments).

I wish Reddit would distribute an occasional database snapshot.  That would be a great data source to play with.  But, alas, they don’t, so I’ve had these scripts running for about 5 months.

If you’d like to play with the image links I spidered, you can use my snapshot (230,248 images, 19 megs compressed, JSON output from SOLR):

The structure of each entry looks like:

{
"author":"A_Slow_Descent",
"url":"http://i.imgur.com/Gmjyq.gif",
"sequence":628406,
"subreddit":"pics",
"score":4,
"over_18":0,
"title":"the single-most sad moment of my childhood",
"thumbnail":"http://thumbs.reddit.com/t3_jjpng.png"
}

## Example Application

I wanted to build something that surfaced interesting new photos with minimal effort.  Reddit is great first thing in the morning when it’s full of fresh content.  But what if I want to goof off and it’s only been 15 minutes since I last browsed Reddit?

I can keep paginating further and further away from the front page.  But them I’m constantly scanning links to see if I’ve visited them.  And there’s no way to tell when new content is on the front page.

What I really wanted was a single button that I could click as much as I wanted, each time getting a new photo.  I don’t really care to see the most recent photo — just give me a reasonably good one, and make it easy to keep seeing more.

# Try it out!

Random Next

Every time you want a new image, just click the “NEXT” button.  To make that work:

• I threw the content into a SOLR index, which allows filtering by subreddit as well as random sorting.
• JavaScript handles resizing images (for smooth user experience), randomizing SOLR results (so you get a new path even if you reload the page), and updating the DOM with the image.
• To improve quality, the default view filters out images with a score under 100 (which eliminates the bottom 80%).

Synchronized Viewing Experience

Perhaps the most novel feature is “synchronized viewing”.  Everyone who visits the image-viewing page gets a distinct channel as a URL.  If you share this URL with a friend, you’ll see the same images.  Each time one of you clicks “NEXT”, you’ll both see the same new image.

To build this feature, I used PubNub, which is a great service to publishing and subscribing to channels.  It’s really easy to set up.

Every time someone visits the page, I give them a random channel (if they don’t already have one).  And then every time they view another image, I publish that image’s id on the channel.

The page also subscribes to this channel, so everyone else on the same channel will receive the image id and display it.

Results

I found the image explorer fun when the images have immediate impact (like a beautiful landscape photo rather than a rage comic).  I also discovered lots of subreddits I never knew existed.

Some images I like:

A bullet going through some M&Ms

Butterfly Tongue

Just a baby hippo taking a bath

Attack!

Sunrise reflected in a bubble

Mount Bromo

Acknowledgements

In addition to PubNub, I’d also like to thank imgur.com for hosting all these images for free.

There’s practically an infinite supply of videos on the Internet.  But there are limited ways to discover and view video content.

Rather than waste words trying to explain visual concepts, let me just show you.  I took the top 1000 videos of all time on YouTube, and threw them into this special player I built:

# Try it out!

Play around with it for a while, then come back to me.

## The Product

People are great at processing moving images.  And we should be, since our visual cortex takes up 1/3 of our brains.  I wanted to create a viewing experience that took advantage of all this neural hardware.  I wanted users to feel a pleasant flow as they decide what to watch, and quickly jump from video to video.

To that end, I implemented the minimum set of features to provide this experience.  I didn’t want any other features — such as a speed control — that might introduce an additional cognitive loop.  I want viewers to just let the visual data flow, and not concern themselves about whether to speed up or reverse the stream.

Another aspect of the user experience, is the flow is infinite.  The players shows random slices of random videos, and it goes on forever.  1000 videos is only a tiny fraction of YouTube’s library (much less the entire web’s library).  But you can watch this player for a long time without the content losing its novelty.

## The Technology

Some highlights from the technical side:

• I use ActionScript because I had code with a polished player interface (i.e., displaying thumbnails while scrubbing the video).  The main reason to use html5 vs. ActionScript is to run on iOS devices.  But the browser on iOS doesn’t let you embed playing videos into a page, so it wouldn’t have worked on those devices anyway.  For what it’s worth, I really enjoy working in ActionScript, and I’m sad it’s going away.  But that’s a topic for another post.
• The player takes advantage of high bandwidth.  Broadband speeds have been quietly increasing over the past few years.  Most people have much bigger pipes than a typical video play uses.  For instance, a DVD-quality video stream is roughly 1000 kilobits per second (or kbps).  I’ve got a cable modem, and I just measured over 20,000 kilobits per second.  In other words, my computer could stream 20 DVD-quality videos at once.
• All the thumbnail videos you see scrolling by are compressed to 50 kbps (they’re 160×120 pixels with no audio).
• I used YouTube’s API to get these videos, but unfortunately, their API only returns 1000 search results.  So I have no practical way of adding more content.  I really wish API designers would allow access to entire content libraries, but that’s also a topic for another post :)

## Next Steps

I would love to see this “video wall” player as an option on all video sites.  I think it works really well with the enhanced interactivity possible on the Internet.

Technically, I can hook this player into different content libraries.  But there are a couple practical obstacles.

First, to make scrubbing work well, I need sprites that show different frame from the video.  Second, I need tiny 50 kbps thumbnail streams that show the videos scrolling across the wall.  For full integration, the site hosting the content needs to generate the sprites and tiny videos as part of their encoding pipeline.

# Search vs. Browse

The two dominant metaphors for exploring information are searching and browsing.  Search is great when you have a clear intention behind what you’re looking for, and the information is well structured.  The “clear intention” often involves spending money, and that’s why Google is a \$200 billion company.

But I’ve always had a soft spot for browsing.  When browsing, your intention is often a more diffuse desire for entertainment.  The information can be unstructured, like images and videos.  Search is serious, browse is fun.

In particular, I find browsing an interesting problem when your set of content is so large as to essentially be infinite.  I’ll go into more detail on aspects of browsing infinite content, but first here are some concepts that guide how I approach browsing.

## Content

Content is the set of items available for browsing.  On Netflix, it’s the movie library.  On Facebook, it’s all the posts that are visible to you.

## Filters

A filter is a subset of the content.  Common filters include:

• Text searches
• Categories matching
• Recommendations (or other relevancy filtering)
• Date ranges

## Sorts

Once you apply a filter, you need to sort the results.  Now things get a little more interesting, based on how you sort:

• Alphabetically — rarely the right choice.  Even in the case of searching text, you’re better off sorting by relevancy (which any decent text indexing tool like solr will provide).
• Most popular — good in that you’re showing high-quality results, but bad in that the “most popular” view doesn’t change often.  If a user is likely to look at this slice of content regularly, you need to shake it up.  Some sites solve the problem of stale results by combining a “most popular” sort with a “content added in past week” filter.
• Most recent — opposite trade off from “more popular”.  You get dynamic results, but their quality is low.  Works well if timeliness is important and the user has other ways of pruning the content for quality (like your Twitter feed).
• Recently popular — I personally like to blend popularity and recency.  The easiest way to blend these two metrics is to discount the popularity of each piece of content by its age like so: $recently\_popular_{i} = \frac{popular_{i}} {age_{i} + k}$, where k is a constant that modulates how drastically popularity falls off with age.  It’s inherently subjective, so you’ll need to dial it in.
• Random — rarely seen, but can be a great choice if the novelty is the most important factor in the user experience.

## Views

Now that we’ve filtered and sorted, there are interesting and underappreciated choices involved in how to display the content.

• Fixed number per page or infinite scroll?  Infinite scroll has become fashionable in the past couple years, but it’s not without drawbacks.  As you add more elements to the page, it becomes heavier and less responsive. An even bigger issue with infinite scroll is state is lost when a user clicks to view details on something, and then clicks back.
• What meta data to show?  It’s easy to scan information in the browse page, so all the stakeholders involved in the project will likely argue for their piece to get on the browse page.  But you also don’t want a cluttered look.

## Default Values

One thing I’ve learned from watching users interact with web sites is the vast majority of them (like 95%) never change default values.  This is so important, I’ll say it again: your users will not change default values.

So while you could present lots of choices on how to filter and sort and view, the only one that matters is the default.

## Infinite Content

As I mentioned earlier, I find some of these choices around browsing interesting in domains where there is so much content as to be essentially infinite, and when the user is just seeking novelty.

Here are a couple examples:

• An endless flow of videos, which serves random moments from the top 1000 YouTube videos of all time.  It’s instantly engaging — no need to think about what you want to watch.
• A social way to browse pictures.  I got these pictures from Reddit, which is one of my favorite sites.  But I often get frustrated browsing pictures on Reddit, because their “recently popular” sort doesn’t change enough.  I wanted an interface with a simple “NEXT” button to give me a fix whenever I click.

# The Utility of Perspectives

There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly correct some of our misapprehensions.

My parents were in the foreign service, so I moved around a lot as a child.  I spent years living in such places as Senegal, Egypt, and Bolivia.

Perhaps because of this background, I’ve always been aware of different people’s perspectives.  Not only does everyone have a different perspective, but the range of perspectives that intelligent people can possess is vast.

As the anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt wrote:

Anthropology has taught us that the world is differently defined in different places. It is not only that people have different customs; it is not only that people believe in different gods and expect different post-mortem fates. It is, rather, that the worlds of different peoples have different shapes. The very metaphysical presuppositions differ: space does not conform to Euclidean geometry, time does not form a continuous unidirectional flow, causation does not conform to Aristotelian logic, man is not differentiated from non-man or life from death, as in our world.

Now maybe you’re thinking “yeah yeah, I know, intelligent people can disagree about things and other cultures are really different, but how is this relevant to my life?

I’ll give you two ways: authority and power.

On authority: since there are so many different but valid ways of seeing things, no one else can lay claim to ultimate truth.  Everyone else is just making things up as they go along.  So it’s up to you to construct your own world view.  Figure out what perspectives resonate with you, and become your own authority figure.

On power: you have limited power over the external world.  Sure, you can move your limbs this way and that.  Can you make millions of dollars and retire rich?  Maybe, but that’s hard.  And good luck trying to make yourself younger.

But you have a lot of power over the perspectives you employ in dealing with the world.  And your perspectives shape your attitude, which shapes your internal reality.

In other words, if you can cultivate a persistent attitude that “life is an amazing gift and I’m just so grateful that I have these few years to enjoy it”, that attitude will make you happier than a bitter attitude plus all the money in the world.

Successfully cultivating a new attitude isn’t easy, but it is possible and is in fact easier than a lot of goals we burn ourselves out trying to achieve (see above on “make millions of dollars and retire rich”).

# Happiness through Intelligence

“I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”
- Emo Philips

If you ask most people what their #1 goal in life is, some form of “be as happy as possible” tends to be the top answer.

So I’m constantly baffled by how bad most people are — even incredibly smart people — at applying their intellectual faculties in service of this goal.

## Our brains serve our genes, not vice versa

This inability makes sense when you think about it from an evolutionary psychology perspective.  The Darwinian game of “genes optimizing their ability to make more copies of themselves” has been going on for a couple billion years — many orders of magnitude longer than human-level intelligence has been around.

Animals that acquire resources and high social status have the best mating opportunities, so it’s little wonder that we’re naturally motivated to climb the resource / status ladder.  In fact, we likely evolved such big brains just so we could navigate the complex web of status hierarchies of our communities.

But, as research in positive psychology tells us, these trappings of status don’t make us happier.  It’s not about how much money you have (above a low threshold).  It’s not even about how smart or good looking you are.

Instead, the factors within our control that correlate with happiness (as opposed to genetics, which is outside our control) are such things as having free time, having good friends, regularly entering a state of flow, and feeling attached to something bigger than oneself.

So why can’t we apply our big brains to the task of making ourselves happier?  We can, but it’s hard, because our brains are not monolithic entities.

## Elephant and the Rider

A metaphor that I like comes from the fantastic book The Happiness Hypothesis. To quote from the book:

The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.

You can use your conscious mind to make yourself happier, but it take more than a simple act of will.  You need to retrain the elephant.

The author lists three ways to retrain the elephant:

• Cognitive behavioral therapy.  Basically, you practice becoming aware of negative thought patterns.  Whenever you catch yourself in a negative pattern (e.g. “I’m so bored with my life”), you substitute a positive thought (e.g. “I’m bored so… I should sign up for an acting class!”).  Over time, the negative patterns diffuse.
• Meditation.  Practicing mediation makes you mindful of your thoughts, and able to intervene at a meta level by asking yourself “does this thought serve me”.  You learn to create a more positive internal state by not reacting to craving and aversion.
• Prozac.  The shortcut to giving yourself a healthy balance of neurotransmitters :)

This retraining is hard.  It takes commitment to repeatedly practice the steps needed to retrain the elephant.  But if you think that “be as happy as possible” is your highest goal, shouldn’t you invest this energy?

Think about how many hours per week you devote to making money.  And you know (in your conscious brain) that this money isn’t going to move the happiness needle as much as having free time, good friends, a flow state, etc. — doesn’t it make rational sense to shift some of these hours away from making money (if you can’t find the time elsewhere) and instead apply them towards those activities that research says is more likely to make you happy?