Welcome back.

Have you thought about subscribing? It's free.

Three more questions

Pronouncements are more common than ever.

It might be an insurgent announcing a way to change the government, a CEO with a bold new plan or an entrepreneur seeking funds. Or perhaps it’s a pundit or a critic, hard at work. Pronouncements are bold, definitive and dramatic, but they also seem to defy common sense.

If you’re actually proposing something thoughtful and practical, perhaps you could answer three questions:

  1. And then what happens? After we take this action, after you shut down that agency, eliminate that division or launch this new project, what will happen after that?
  2. How will that work? What are the mechanics involved, the ones that don’t suspend the laws of physics or organizational behavior that will support this new way forward?
  3. Why? Can you explain, beyond your reality-suspending confidence, why the system will respond to your approach?

It’s entirely possible that this is precisely the change we need and the change that will work. But when the pronouncer refuses to answer the questions, it should give the rest of us pause.

And also convenient

If you want a breakthrough, or something at the top of the rankings, or a skill that few have, or the chance to build something you’re proud of…

It doesn’t pay to also require that it be convenient.

The end of the high school essay

Good riddance.

There’s not a lot of evidence that getting good at writing book reports or regurgitated essays under typical high school conditions leads people to success or happiness later in life.

When typing became commonplace, handwriting was suddenly no longer a useful clue about the background or sophistication of the writer. Some lamented this, others decided it opened the door for a whole new opportunity for humans to make an impact, regardless of whether they went to a prep school or not.

New York City schools are trying to ban GPT3 because it’s so good at writing superficial essays that it undermines the command structure of the essay as a sorting tool. An easy thing to assign (and a hard thing to grade) just became an easy task to hack.

High school essays had a huge range of problems, and banning the greatest essay device since Danny Dunn and his Homework Machine is not the answer. In fact, it’s a great opportunity to find a better way forward.

The first challenge of the essay was the asymmetrical difficulty in giving useful feedback. 30 essays, 5 minutes each, do the math. It doesn’t scale, and five minutes isn’t even close to enough time to honor the two hours you asked a student to put into the work.

As a result, the superficial inspection system led to the second challenge: Students get more points for good typing and clear sentence structure than they did for actually thinking deeply, questioning the status quo or changing their minds. If you grew up in a household with verbally agile family members, you probably did way better on essays than your peers, but not due to much effort on your own.

The third challenge was the lack of clarity about why we were even bothering to have kids write essays. Clearly there wasn’t an essay shortage. Ostensibly, it was either to prove that they read what they were supposed to read, or that they were able to create cogent and persuasive arguments and analysis. Essays were a signal that you could read and you could think.


They were actually a signal that you could do just enough work to persuade an overwhelmed teacher that you were compliant.

So, now that a simple chat interface can write a better-than-mediocre essay on just about any topic for just about any high school student, what should be done?

The answer is simple but difficult: Switch to the Sal Khan model. Lectures at home, classes are for homework.

When we’re on our own, our job is to watch the best lecture on the topic, on YouTube or at Khan Academy. And in the magic of the live classroom, we do our homework together.

In a school that’s privileged enough to have decent class sizes and devices in the classroom, challenge the students to actually discuss what they’ve read or learned. In real-time, teach them to not only create arguments but to get confident enough to refute them. Not only can the teacher ask a student questions, but groups of students can ask each other questions. Sure, they can use GPT or other tools to formulate where they begin, but the actual work is in figuring out something better than that.

At first, this is harder work for the teacher, but in fact, it’s what teachers actually signed up to do when they become teachers.

This is far less cohesive and controllable than the industrial model of straight rows and boring lectures. It will be a difficult transition indeed. But it’s simple to think about: If we want to train people to take initiative, to question the arguments of others, to do the reading and to create, perhaps the best way to do that is to have them do that.

We’ll never again need to hire someone to write a pretty good press release, a pretty good medical report or a pretty good investor deck. Those are instant, free and the base level of mediocre. The opportunity going forward remains the same: Bringing insight and guts to interesting problems. [More.]

The myth of luxury goods

Luxury goods are items that are worth more (to some) because they cost more.

The cost itself is the benefit that is being sold.

There used to be a correlation between superior performance and price. In 1900, an Hermes saddle or a Louis Vuitton trunk was arguably better built for the work it was put to.

Today, though, a more expensive resort, bottle of wine or article of clothing is likely not the item of highest performance. It is simply a symbol that the purchaser is happy to understand and perhaps show off. Poor performance might even be part of the value proposition. Not only can you afford to pay extra, but you can afford to pay extra and have your feet hurt as well.

Build a new one

Entrenched cultural organizations and icons feel more permanent than they are. Network effects, brand power and the status quo can seduce us into believing that we’re stuck with what we have, but things are rarely as permanent as they appear.

James Bond is bloated and dated. Idris Elba deserves the role, but that’s unlikely to happen. But Netflix could create a competitor, start with the old playbook but build something new, something more modern.

College accreditation leads to bureaucracies and huge costs. But new ways of delivering learning can upend a hundred years of a dominant system.

The Olympics and FIFA are corrupt and built on old models of media and geography. New ways of organizing and amplifying talent could create a powerful force for change.

Social networks like Facebook and Twitter seem like they will last forever. Until they don’t.

Nothing much changes until someone cares enough to build an alternative.

Just in time

You may have noticed that when you eventually find something, it’s in the last place you looked. Mostly because after that, you stop looking.

And when a long-awaited moment finally arrives, the respite comes just in time, when we’re at the end of our rope. That’s largely because if we give up before then, it never arrives, and because we can probably stick things out longer than we’d like to believe.

Waiting for the hero to save us just in time isn’t nearly as productive as realizing that we have agency. We have the agency to quit when it makes sense to quit (ignoring sunk costs) and we have the agency to dig in deeper when it really matters (acknowledging that it might not work).

When help does arrive, just in time, it’s worth celebrating.

Patterns, culture and theft

AI is here, and it can (or soon will) be able to draw, code, or write with more skill than most of us.

It’s tireless, very fast and very cheap.

Understandably, some creators are up in arms. They say that if an AI is trained on their photographs, their architectural designs or their cartoons, it’s a form of theft.

This doesn’t hold up.

If an art student studies all of Picasso’s 10,000 paintings and then creates a new painting that is clearly based on them, we call this the advancement of culture. The same is true if a writer uses a word that was coined by Shakespeare, or if a graffitist is clearly inspired by Shepard Fairey.

That’s how culture evolves. Taking an idea isn’t theft. Taking an idea is an oxymoron. Ideas belong to all of us.

We couldn’t and wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s no way to bake a cake, drive a car or write a sentence without using what came before.

GPT and other AI tools don’t actually know anything. They’re pattern matchers and pattern extenders. And those patterns are called culture.

(Aside: There’s a difference between copyright and trademark. Copyright is a small carve out to protect the actual craft of creativity and its specific outputs. Trademark is a way to signal to the world who made something. If someone uses AI to copy an artist’s style and then tries to pass it off as coming from the artist, that is theft. Theft of trademark. Different discussion for another day.)

If a computer or a person steals your style, it’s an indication that you’ve made an impact on the culture. And the only response is to dig deeper and make another impact on the culture, not try to carve out your contributions to our shared modes of interaction.

The only thing that allows creators to create is the work that came before. When we create, we add to that work so that others can do the same.

On this date

Something extraordinary happened.

A record became a hit, a new technology was proven to work, someone raised their hand and asked an important question…

On this date, someone took a chance, connected, opened a door or showed up with generosity.

We can celebrate each of these momentous events today. The best way is by doing it again.

Pareto optimality

It’s easier to understand than it is to say.

The baker and the blacksmith should trade. The baker can make a loaf of bread more easily and efficiently than the blacksmith, and the blacksmith would ruin her productivity if she stopped making rakes and horseshoes in order to put a loaf in the oven.

If someone over there can do their particular work efficiently, and you can trade your particular work to them, everyone comes out ahead. It works even if the intermediate step is using cash. Sell your services to one person, use the cash to buy something from someone else.

And yet–freelancers have trouble trading. We think we should do every job ourselves. That’s not only non-productive, it reduces the magic we have left for the work that only we can do.

Hustles end badly

“They can always say no” is the mantra of someone who is hustling for attention, promo or a sale.

But when you hustle a colleague or a friend, they can tell. They can tell that you’re being selfish, angling for a short-term win and trading something precious for something now.

When we ask someone to do something for us that we wouldn’t recommend they do for someone else, an important bond is lost.

Hustle belongs in hockey.