Sunday Wisdom No. 74
Why was Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine a failure, while his Difference Engine went into mass production? Had YouTube been created in 1995 instead of 2005, would it have been equally successful?
Welcome to Issue 74
👋 Hi, I’m Abhishek. Welcome to Sunday Wisdom—a weekly advice column on decision-making, clear thinking, creativity, and everything else that’s stressing you out in business and life. I appreciate you being here. If you are loving Sunday Wisdom, you can buy me coffee or share this newsletter with a friend.
What I’m Thinking
The Adjacent Possible
In February 2005 three friends—Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim—created a video-sharing platform. In a little less than two years Google acquired the platform for $1.65 Bn. YouTube now operates as one of Google’s subsidiaries.
Fascinating story indeed, but here’s the interesting bit. Had the founders tried to execute the exact same idea ten years earlier it wouldn’t have been so successful. In fact, most likely it would have been a spectacular failure.
This is the same reason why Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine proved to be such a short-term dead end, whereas his Difference Engine went into mass production only a couple of decades later.
In the book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson explains the idea of The Adjacent Possible pioneered by scientist Stuart Kauffman to explain the set of first-order combination of spare parts that lead to innovation.
Thinking in Words
Truthfully speaking, everything is a remix—some borrowed, some copied.
We were taught in school that every assignment, homework, and answer must be original. Copying from others is not permitted. But you have to understand that borrowing is notably different from plagiarism. Because creativity cannot come out of nothing.
Before starting a creative work, it is helpful to spend a lot of time gathering and noting down ours and others’ ideas. It is easier to get into a state of flow when you are surrounded by good ideas. Now you can start reinterpreting and distilling them.
You’ll see that most of your new ideas—90% of them—would come only after you sit down and start thinking about them. Start with an interesting tweet, and try to build upon it with new words. Write your thoughts down.
If you are out of words, try reading what you have written. Does it make sense? Does it sound cohesive? Now try editing bits of it to make it simpler and more precise. Cut out the excess fat until only the meat of the idea remains. You’ll see that once you start editing you’ll have more ways to interpret your idea, and thus the depth of your thinking would increase. Words make you a clear thinker.
To know my step-by-step method of thinking in words, make sure to explore Re:Engineered Thinking, my online course on structured thinking.
How You Should Consume News
Most people I know read a lot of news. They claim to be reading a 100 or even 500 new articles a day. With this vast amount of information, they are bound to be knowledgeable, or so you think.
To be honest, most of them spend their time reading useless things. To an outsider it may look like they are devouring knowledge, but if you look closer, it couldn’t be more useless. So, this is my question for you today, are you one of them? Do you also spend you time consuming information that go nowhere? We’ll try to answer this very question today.
What I’m Learning
Effective communication depends on a shared body of knowledge between the persons communicating.
If someone is talking about cows, for example, what is said will be unintelligible unless the person listening has some idea what a cow is, what it is good for, and in what contexts one might encounter one. In using the word “cow”, the speaker has deliberately thrown away a huge body of information, though it remains implied.
For example, Victor Hugo wrote to his publisher to ask how his most recent book, Les Miserables, was getting on. Hugo just wrote “?”, to which his publisher replied “!”, to indicate it was selling well. The exchange would have no meaning to a third party because the shared context is unique to those taking part in it. This shared context is explicitly discarded information, or in short exformation.
While, information is the measurable, demonstrable utterance we actually come out with, exformation is everything we do not actually say but have in our heads when or before we say anything at all.
Few Rules for a Better Life
Things you use for a significant portion of your life (bed, office-chair, etc.) are worth investing in.
Establish clear rules about when to throw out old junk. Once clear rules are established, junk will cease to be a problem. This is because any explicit rule would be superior to our implicit rules such as keep this broken stereo for five years in case I learn how to fix it.
Discipline is superior to motivation. The former can be trained, the latter is fleeting. You won’t be able to accomplish great things if you only rely on motivation.
You can improve your communication more effectively than you can improve your intelligence. If you’re not the smartest in the room but can communicate ideas clearly, you have a great advantage over everybody who can’t communicate clearly.
Make accomplishing things as easy as possible. Find the easiest way to start exercising. Find the easiest way to start writing. People make things harder than they have to be and get frustrated when they can’t succeed.
Cultivate a reputation for being dependable. Good reputations are valuable because they’re rare (easily destroyed and hard to rebuild). You don’t have to brew the most amazing coffee if your customers know the coffee will always be hot.
Selfish people should listen to advice to be more selfless, selfless people should listen to advice to be more selfish. Whenever you receive advice, consider its opposite as well, otherwise you might be filtering out the advice you need most.
Things that aren’t your fault can still be your responsibility.
Keep your identity small. “I’m not the kind of person who does things like that” is not an explanation, it’s a trap. It prevents nerds from working out, and men from dancing.
Think a little about why you enjoy what you enjoy. If you can explain what you love about Dune, you can now communicate not only with Dune fans, but with people who love those aspects in other books.
A norm of eating with your family without watching something will lead to better conversations. If this idea fills you with dread, consider getting a new family.
In relationships, look for somebody you can enjoy just hanging out with. Long-term relationships are mostly spent just chilling.
People can be the wrong fit for you without being bad. Being a person is complicated and hard.
If somebody is undergoing group criticism, the tribal part in you will want to join in the fun of righteously destroying somebody. Resist this, you’ll only add ugliness to the world.
Cultivate compassion for those less intelligent than you. Many people, through no fault of their own, can’t handle scammers or complex situations. Be kind to them because the world is not.
Don’t punish people for trying. Punishing includes whining that it took them so long, that they did it badly, or that others have done it better.
Don’t punish people for admitting they were wrong. You make it harder for them to improve.
You don’t have to love your job. Jobs can be many things, but they’re also a way to make money. Many people live fine lives in okay jobs by spending the money they make on things they care about.
Liking and wanting things are different. There are things like junk food that you want beyond enjoyment. But you can also like things (like reading) without wanting them.
Bad things (such as a pandemic) happen dramatically. Good things happen gradually (for example, malaria deaths dropping annually), and don’t feel like news. Endeavour to keep track of the good things to avoid an inaccurate and dismal view of the world.
Few Tips on Writing
You have five seconds to get people’s attention. Books, blogs, emails, reports, it doesn’t matter — if you don’t sell them in five seconds you’ve exhausted most of their patience.
Whoever says the most stuff in the fewest words wins.
Most good writing is a by-product of good reading. You’ll never meet a good writer who doesn’t spend most of their time reading.
If you have an idea but think “someone has already written that” just remember there are 1,010 published biographies of Winston Churchill.
Write the kind of stuff you like to read. Writing for yourself is fun, and it shows. Writing for others is work, and it shows.
👋 That’s All!
As always, please give me feedback. Did any of the stories resonate with you? Do you disagree with anything? What do you want more or less of? Any other suggestions? Please let me know in the comments.