The Mindset and Demeanor of Favorite vs. That of an Underdog

I am a competitive guy. Compared amongst Stanford “I must overachieve”rs, I am more competitive than most. Compared to the athletes I have encountered over the years, I am more competitive than most. Even compared to the Stanford athletes crew I roll with, I am more competitive than most. But I am quiet about it and the casual observer might never know.

Why is this? Why do some people show their fire while others keep it inside? More specifically, why am I the way I am? I have a theory.

It involves the demeanor of a favorite and that of an underdog. As a favorite you want to be intimidating. You execute perfectly. You don’t show emotion. Nothing affects you. If you hit a snag, it is simply an expected obstacle on your path to glory. If things are going well, it is as expected and no reason to celebrate. If you are winded or struggling, you hide it in hopes that your opponent will mistake you for a machine.

The mindset of an underdog is different. You want to place a hint of doubt in the head of the favorite. You want to show that you want it more. That you are willing to work harder. That you have luck on your side. You believe that momentum will have an actual affect on the next play, and maximize this momentum with celebration. If you are winded or struggling, you wear it as a badge of honor, in hopes of showing just how far you are willing to go to win.

In my competitive infancy, I was a favorite way more than an underdog (in most cases not due to my contributions, so this list is in no way bragging). In 7th grade I played on a basketball team that rolled through every youth team in the city. My freshman year I played on a football team that went undefeated in an area where football is a big deal. In high school I played on volleyball teams that made it to the LA section championship 4 years straight, in the best volleyball city in the country. My senior year of high school, I played on a volleyball team that won the club national championship in convincing fashion and apparently had the most top 50 recruits of any volleyball team in history.

This was the time that I was developing my competitive nature. In most cases when my team walked into the gym, we were better than you and we knew it. And this formed my demeanor and mindset in competition. To this day I act accordingly, even though I find myself an underdog more than not.

An incident last Friday night got me thinking about this. I was a little bit stiffly (I got sick for the 2nd time in almost 4 years of being a vegetarian, which is way way way less than before) and was heading to bed around 10 to get a good nights sleep. But I figured I’d have a hard time falling asleep so I put on a movie and watch part of it. When I realized I had seen the Magnificent Sever before, I put in Miracle. Oops. 5 minutes in, I was wide awake. It got my competitive juices flowing instantly. Two hours later, the movie ended and I was wide awake. I was so jacked I was awake for another hour.

Photo: Ryan Policky

All That Is Man – Cory Booker Drops Knowledge on Stanford Graduates

A little over a week ago Stanford had its 121st commencement ceremony. The speaker was graduate, former Stanford football player, Rhode Scholar, and current New Jersey major Cory Booker. I first heard about this guy a few months ago when he allegedly juked out his bodyguard to run into a burning building to save a woman. Some versions of the story say he punched out his bodyguard to get by him. Either way, pretty baller.

Here is the whole speech for you to check out. It’s quite inspirational.

For those of you that won’t invest the time in the video, here a couple quotes I felt compelled to get out of bed to write down.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport” – funny how we expect everything handed to us. I suppose if we aren’t willing to do the job of a politician or even participate by doing anything more than voting, we have less of a right to complain. Along the same lines, Booker says most people resort to “sedentary agitation”. Great term!

“Fear is a precondition to discovery” – bam! Think about that next time you’re scared.

And ladies, unlike most of our men featured in our All That Is Man series, Booker is both alive and single. What are you waiting for?

This speech ties together the last two books I’ve read. One about a grad student that spent years hanging out in the Chicago projects to learn how they live – Booker did something similar in Newark. The other about Obama’s 2008 campaign – Booker is also a strong African American politician with an extensive education and roots in community organizing. Funny how connections like this seem to happen …

Strong Beliefs – A Willingness to Ignore a Lack of Supporting Evidence and Contradictory Facts

There are plenty of things people believe blindly without much evidence. You could consider these people lazy for not gathering enough information to make an informed decision. You could consider these people illogical for jumping to a conclusion immediately. You could consider them stubborn for not listening to contradictory facts. But this conviction to things you believe in can be extremely valuable. What are a couple things I blindly believe and logical reasoning won’t change my belief any time soon?


This is an area I have been thinking about a lot recently. I started a for-profit company in a space where many non-profits are trying to make an impact. When it comes down to it I believe strongly that capitalism is the best way to improve the world. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. Of course there are certain non-profits that are necessary. But if you are providing a good or service of value to a customer that is able and willing to pay, you should collect, even if your primary aim is to help the world. Why? Because I believe it is better for everyone in the long run. I might not have the proof or even a strong argument, but it is good enough for me.

The fiction book Atlas Shrugged provides an entertaining look at the virtues of capitalism. Highly recommended.

The impact of one person

Can one person actually make an impact in a world with 7 billion people? In theory, sure. But can you or I? I have a blind faith that I can and that if everyone believed they could, the world would be a much better place (even if not everyone succeeded).

It just isn’t logical! Considering everyone has more than one problem (Jay-Z has 99 himself), there are billions upon billions of problems in the world – is it logical to believe just one person can make a dent? It doesn’t matter what your mom tells you, she is wrong, you’re not special.

“You do the little job you’re trained to do. Pull a lever. Push a button. You don’t understand any of it, and then you just die.”

“You are not important. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”
-Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

That’s one way to look at it… what a downer. But you know what? People have done it before:

Is it reasonable to believe you can make an impact? Nope, but it doesn’t matter:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
-George Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists

Is it illogical? Yes, but that makes it all the more important:

Do you have any strong beliefs that you don’t care about the lack of supporting evidence or contradictory facts?

I didn’t list a bunch of things people believe blindly because I want you to think for yourself and I want to avoid offending. It’s hard to think about things you never think about, but take a look at your assumptions.

Shout out to Adamson for blogging Sapolsky’s video a few months ago as well as the Fight Club quote. The whole video is intriguing and definitely worth watching, but only the last 3 minutes are relevant to this discussion.

Shout out to Fenner for getting me thinking about this last weekend.

Global Warming vs. Peak Oil Theory

We all have heard about this so called global warming. Apparently it’s true. Scientifically a fact. But it doesn’t necessarily mean we need to cut back our gas guzzling ways or make the government invest in alternative energy. Why not? Peak oil theory.

The United States used to dominate the world market for oil (and thus gasoline) – no, I’m not talking about the demand for oil, I’m talking about the production! The US had tons of oil – Texas, Pennsylvania, California – and the rest the world had a mere pittance. But in 1956 a man named M. King Hubbert predicted these good times would come to an end within 15 years.

He noticed that every oil well and field shared a similar timeline – first discovery, the logistics to extract the oil being put in place, a peak or plateau of production, followed by a decline. In the US he noticed the decline took place 32 to 35 years after the discovery. Armed with this information he analyzed all the oil fields in the US and predicted US oil production would peak between 1965 and 1970. And wouldn’t you know it, US oil production hit its peak in 1970. By 1973 gas prices skyrocketed, which led to the government enforcing rations and artificially setting prices.

This history lesson can also be applied to today’s global oil production market. When you do this analysis, we are dangerously close to the peak. This year could be when the most oil is pumped out the ground or it could be 5 or 10 years from now. It’s hard to predict exactly, but a decline is inevitable according to peak oil theory. Oil is getting harder to find and reach. The low hanging fruit is all gone. Even though there is a lot of oil left underground, it won’t do us much good – if we started drilling now, the flow rate won’t come close to sating demand and at some point it will become cost prohibitive.

Let’s zoom out and imagine both huge problems: global warming and peak oil. Do they cancel each other out? Will the world really keep warming if we run out of oil to warm it? Does peak oil theory tell us not to worry about global warming? Even if you believe in peak oil theory, doesn’t it just seam irresponsible to not do anything about global warming? Won’t it make things a lot smoother if we can identify excellent alternative energy options before we are forced to use them?

Credit Mr. Thiel’s lecture on energy this week for introducing me to this idea (some quick googling shows many people are interested in this). There are so many nuggets of wisdom that pour out of his mouth, it’s hard to pick just one to write about!

Pick Your Battles: QWERTY and DVORAK

I read a paper recently on the economics of the QWERTY keyboard. No, it’s not about how keyboards are priced – economics isn’t limited to just the study of money – it’s the study of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. Basically the paper is about how we ended up with the standard keyboard layout we have today, approached from an historic and economic angle. Yes ladies, this is what I do with my spare time.

The paper explains how the keyboard layout first came about – it was first used to limit some mechanical issues and so salesmen could type TYPEWRITER using only the top row. But then the economics discussion comes in, how this became locked in as the standard despite better alternatives. Basically the layout had a narrow advantage because it was used by a slightly more popular typewriter manufacturer – and this narrow advantage snowballed over time.

Soon the keyboard became so entrenched that even a proven superior alternative couldn’t knock it off its perch. DVORAK is roughly 20% faster, leads to less errors, and reduces repetition injuries by moving your fingers less. Crazy.

Today you can easily switch you keyboard “layout” with software – basically remapping the keys to use the DVORAK layout (but when looking at it the stickers will still show QWERTY). So everyone has the option, but you won’t bother. Educating you that DVORAK is better isn’t enough to entice you to switch – information alone usually isn’t enough to change behavior! Ethos, pathos, logos! What if President Obama (or someone you really respect) told you to learn DVORAK because China is and going to dominate the US if we don’t all learn it. Slightly more effective than just spouting logic?

Now that I fully understand just how silly it is that we still use QWERTY, will I personally switch? I have a desire for efficiency, but there is a limit. You have to pick your battles – you can’t be perfectly efficient in every aspect of life. There is only so much time to perfect skills. But maybe your hobby is learning these esoteric skills rather than reading esoteric papers from the 80’s and pedantically writing about them. If so, here is another really neat one to try out – a font optimized for reading rather than writing called Dotsies.

Photo: julian

What I Learned My First Month Working For Myself

After returning from my travels I decided to go full-time on my after-school computer programming lessons business, Breakout Mentors. We provide a depth of learning that is not available anywhere else by pairing mentors to work 1-on-1 with young students with a long term focus. I’ve been back in San Francisco for roughly a month now, which means I have completed my first month as my own boss. It was everything I thought it would be … both good and bad!

You can imagine the good parts – complete freedom of your schedule, no annoying coworkers, no nagging bosses, and a sweet mustache (until I taught my first students at least). But I want to focus on my major take-aways, in the hopes that you are better prepared should you find yourself in a similar situation one day. Or even if you don’t, so that you know it isn’t as easy as it looks.

The Lonesome Road

Starting your own company is definitely the road less traveled, even here in startupland. One of the goals for myself while traveling was to discover to what extent I need to be surrounded by people. And I decided I’m fine being on my own for most of the day – so many of my friends are in SF, I could never be lonely.

But there is a spectrum of workplace socialness and I am at one extreme – a solo founder. Hell, even having just one person to bounce ideas off of and talk fantasy baseball would be great. Someone to share in the successes and failures. I’m not lonely, far from it. I spend a good portion of my days talking to people about Breakout Mentors. But no one else is on this long and winding road with me, so the road itself is lonesome.

Fear and Doubt

I’ve heard about the emotional battle of starting a company from friends and the internet. Paul Graham has written extensively about it, coining terms like the “trough of sorrow” and “emotional roller-coaster”:

It’s an emotional roller-coaster. This was another one lots of people were surprised about. The ups and downs were more extreme than they were prepared for. In a startup, things seem great one moment and hopeless the next. And by next, I mean a couple hours later.

Ready to be shocked: I’m not a very emotional person. I like to think I’m too logical to be overtaken by emotions. Thus, I thought my emotional rollercoaster would be closer to Goliath Jr. than Goliath. Mark me down as one of those people that were surprised.

It takes just a couple emails from parents that are pumped about Breakout Mentors to get me jacked up. Unfortunately, it also takes just a few minutes for me to ponder “do I have any idea what I’m doing”, “is this really going to work”, and “is anything I’m doing actually making a difference”. Wuh-wuh-wuuuuuhhhhhhh!

My strategy is to combat the emotional roller-coaster with routines in order to put forward a consistent effort without thinking too much about it. During the lows I also remind myself why it is a goal worth pursuing. My execution of these strategies however leaves plenty of room for improvement.

It’s All About Results

There’s no one to impress by working hard. Thus, hard work in and of itself is not valuable like it is in a normal job. Take this extreme example: your boss tells you to add 1 on the calculator over and over again. It’s urgent and very important. So you do. And you do a killer job, working 16 hour days until the project is done. Unfortunately it is soon discovered adding 1 is the wrong strategy and the company is going in a different direction – all your hard work is thrown out.

Even though your work produced no value for the company, people at least noticed how well you did on the project. You took directions from your boss and crushed it, producing more than anyone could have expected. That will come in handy when it’s time for the company to consider raises and promotions.

But in my situation, looking busy doesn’t accomplish anything. I’d only be fooling myself. Executing the wrong strategy perfectly is worthless. It’s all about results! If I pursue a marketing effort that leads nowhere (which I’ve already experienced a couple times), it is just wasted time. It doesn’t matter how hard I work. It matters how smart I work, then executing.

This is exactly what I want out of a job. No kiss-asses trying to look good or make their boss look good. No navigating a bureaucratic org chart to get buy-in for your ideas. It’s all me – time to figure out how good I really am.

Happy Closing Thoughts

Now that I have sufficiently warned you of the negative aspects, let me jump back to the positives. I am able to use my flexible schedule to take a class at Stanford and enjoy San Francisco’s spring weather. I am learning a lot about myself and how to operate a business. I am being challenged. I have met some incredible people that I wouldn’t have if I found a paying job like is expected of me. Most importantly, I am adding a ridiculous amount of value to my students lives, whether or not it proves possible to economically reap the benefits – and that is a win-win!

Back to School – My First Class Since Graduating 4 Years Ago

I was never the student that actually completed the readings before lecture. It was always way too many pages and there were better things to do with my time like playing soccer in the hallway. I am now that student.

This quarter I am taking Stanford’s CS183. The title of the course is “Startup”, which sounds right up my alley. Here is the course description:

Conception, launch, scaling, and growing of a successful tech company. Bridging the subjects of engineering, science, business, finance, and world history, topics will include: the technology revolution of the 20th century and prior eras; the economics of business; founding a startup; the importance of team vision and passion; long-term strategic planning; building a successful founding team; financing and the VC perspective; secrecy vs. openness; recruiting, managing growth, marketing, regulation and other operational topics. Assignments are designed to explore key concepts at greater depth, using real-world and hypothetical example companies. Inner accounts from the early days of startups including PayPal, Google and Facebook will be used as case studies. The class will be taught by entrepreneurs who have started companies worth over $1B and VCs who have invested in startups including Facebook and Spotify. Students can expect to be proficient in the core skills critical to the founding and growing of a tech company upon completion of this course.

Sure sounds interesting, but there are plenty of interesting courses, none of which I have actually attended since graduating in 2008. So what made this such a compelling opportunity that I wasn’t going to let it slip? The course is taught by Peter Thiel, one of the biggest ballers in the Silicon Valley. The guy drops knowledge like Snoop drops hot items.

Yes, I am finally willing to admit my intellectual man crush on Peter Thiel. And if you are reading this, I think you would probably like him as well. He is a free thinker that isn’t afraid to state his mind in a time that groupthink and conformity reign supreme. But what separates him from other freethinkers is that he is a man of industry rather than a politician or behind the scenes puppet-master (like many other billionaires). He has founded two billion dollar companies (Paypal and Palantir) and been heavily involved in another (Facebook).

Here are some readings to check out to get a feel for what Peter Thiel is all about:

Let me know if you are interested learning some of the nuggets of wisdom that Professor Thiel teaches in class.

Question for you: do you have any intellectual man/woman crushes?

Bonus points from me: dude likes New Zealand

No, I did not add the flowers to that picture. I think it is really how it was shot! Source

The Blame Game – New Zealand FM Radio Edition

The Blame Game is something I like to play. No, this does not mean projecting my faults upon others – do you really think that lowly of me? The Blame Game is where I assess the multiple factors of blame for a given problem. You will commonly see what I call the Blame Game used in civil lawsuits determining to what extent someone is financially responsible. A more commonly used term for this is comparative fault or comparative responsiblity.

I’ll explain it with an real world example – determining who is financially responsible for a car accident when both drivers are “at fault”. Bob rolled through the stop sign drunk, but James was speeding and didn’t stop at all. The court would have to decide who is responsible for the damages – the judge might decide Bob is 70% financially responsible and James is 30%.

I use the Blame Game as a way to think through all the factors that contribute to a problem. While driving around New Zealand, I noticed that the FM radio reception is piss-poor. Why is this? Well Brian, there are a number of things that contribute, it isn’t just a simple answer. Ok, so let’s break it down into comparable responsibilities.

Of course there isn’t really a right answer, just something that you can defend. If you are so inclined, help me out by assigning some percentages:

1. Landscape (lots of mountains in the way)
2. Lower frequency band than in the States
3. Differences in how signal is broadcasted (for example using less power to send the signal)
4. Shape of the earth (the spheroid bends away faster here, FM is line of sight)
5. Other

This type of thinking is particularly useful any time many factors contribute to something. Let’s not be content simply saying “the environment” shaped the outcome. What parts of the environment? Which is the breakdown of responsibility?

Our Blame Game answers can then be used to determine which corrective action will yield the greatest result (also useful would be estimates of how difficult each corrective action would be). Now you’re thinking like a product manager – effort and reward tradeoffs.

Yes, this is something that actually goes through my mind while alone. Not the nerdiest example either (it would probably involve maths (kiwis use “maths” rather than “math”)).

Photo: Randy von Liski

A Land With Few People – A Vegetarian’s Perspective

The most shocking thing about New Zealand is how few people there are here. I hail from California, where millions of people pack in, battle gridlock traffic, try to ignore the smog, and pay a premium to do so. So you would expect a land even more beautiful than California with comparable infrastructure would be swarming with people. Not the case.

It’s high season, which means the country is absolutely swarming with visitors from all over the world. Relatively swarming. Despite this huge influx of people, there is a rather deserted feeling – on some highways we would go well over 10 minutes without passing another car.

New Zealand is a little longer and much skinnier than California – in terms of area, it’s only 63% of the size, roughly equivalent to chopping off everything north of San Francisco. But with only 4.4 million people, New Zealand is quite empty compared to California’s 38 million. In fact, if New Zealand were a state, it would be the 27th largest most populous, right between Kentucky and Oregon.

A country with this much space has a different set of problems than what I am accustomed to back home. Take what you know about the difficulties of renewable energy, the malice of the lumber industry, the stagnancy of politics, and the horrors of factory farming – throw out all those old beliefs. You must reevaluate with the facts of New Zealand.

I won’t explore all of these in this post, but as a vegetarian I do want to quickly share my thoughts on the meat industry in New Zealand. Have you seen the “happy cows come from California” commercials? Anyone who has driven past cow-schwitz on the 5 freeway knows this is false propaganda. In New Zealand however, the cows must be happy. They have huge amounts of gorgeous land to roam and actually eat what comes naturally, grass (in the US cows eat corn and get sick because they aren’t well equipped to handle it, but are kept alive with anti-biotics long enough for the growth hormones to fatten them up).

Simply put, New Zealand doesn’t have the same factory farming issues that the United States has. Therefore, if I were to have grown up in New Zealand, I would not be a vegetarian right now. And yet I am not gorging on meat while here, why not? I firmly believe in the message in this Jack Canfield quote –

“One-hundred percent commitment is a breeze, 99 percent is a bitch. If you’re 100-percent committed, you never have to re-decide. It’s a done deal. If you commit 99 percent, every day you have to re-decide.”

Credit to Jonah for the cow-schwitz term. (It’s a play off Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp)

Photo: Christopher Hynes

Crushing Books and Why I Publish My Book List

I have been crushing books recently. But before we jump into that, let me provide a little background.

Why Do I Keep Track of Books Read?

Flashback to 2008 … Michael Phelps won in the most exciting finish ever, Barack Obama became president, and I graduated from college. There is an incredible jump in freedom when 18 year-olds go off to college – no parents, no curfew, and easy access to your choice of poison. It crushes some people while others learn to thrive in the new environment. There is also an incredible jump in freedom when 22 year-olds graduate into the working world – no grades, more structured free time, and money to spend. It crushes some people while others learn to thrive in the new environment.

After a couple months of adjusting, I started creating the changes I wanted to embrace in this new period of life. The largest was becoming vegetarian after a self-imposed two month vegan challenge. But the one relevant to this post is keeping track of the books I read.

I learned about the field of personal informatics – tracking specific data from your life to keep as a record or use for optimization (I blogged about it here). I ultimately decided tracking too much data is OCD and to be avoided. So I would only track data for short term optimizations and one long term record – the books I have read. This is important to me as a history of what I was interested in at various points of my life and so I have a list to refer back to when giving book recommendations.

Why Do I Make My Book List Public?

I find it very interesting to learn what smart people are reading (this mainly means non-fiction, since smart people become smart from a thirst for knowledge, and books are quite possibly the best way to explore an idea in depth). It successfully communicates the influences upon that person in a way that has yet to be beat. I also look to see if the person reads across many disciplines and seeks out viewpoints that contradict from their own.

Since I pretend to be one of these smart people, I will keep my book list public.

What are the Results?

For the last three and a half years I have finished roughly 1.5 books per month. There were periods of learning about investing, behavioral economics, startups, and more.

But then there is a period of 6 months in 2011 where I did not finish a single book. With hindsight, this is a red flag signaling something is off – what was happening in my life to put an abrupt end to my thirst for knowledge? First, I was struggling in a job going nowhere which stunted my intellectual curiosity. Second, my spare time was used to create Breakout Mentors to provide fun computer programming lessons to 10-15 year-olds.

Then I retired from the working life and have finished 13 books in the 4-5 months since (and going to finish 3 more in the next week). In my relaxed state I have branched out and tried new things: the Hunger Game series, 2 biology books from Tom’s New Zealand science collection, and a classic 1000 pager I have put off for many years. It has been great and I hope to sustain this pace upon my return to the States.

Who is with me – are you going to start keeping a book list if you aren’t already? Have you drawn any interesting insights looking back on your list?

  • You can find my book list here (its also on the top nav bar)
  • Web article reading lists are also good but less common and shorter works aren’t as influential as books – check out uber-blogger Ramit Sethi’s delicious psychology tags for some good reads.
  • Dedicated reader B.Lindy has requested notes or ratings of the books so that he can better use the list as recommendations. Good idea, but not yet implemented (Derek Sivers’ list is what I aspire to have some day). Anyone interested can drop a comment about specific books or what they are interested in and I’ll try to help.
  • My sister Lisa is doing 1 second videos each day for the year. Going to be an awesome keepsake and hopefully not too hard. Check out this example result:

2011 from hey_rabbit on Vimeo.

Photo: Martin Gommel