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Volition and placebos

If a placebo heals your illness, does that mean it was all in your head in the first place? That you weren’t really sick, or didn’t really want to get better?

If expensive wine tastes better to you, but you can’t tell wine apart in a double-blind taste test, does that mean it doesn’t really taste better to you, or that you have shallow tastes?

Can luxury goods, spiritual practices or a change in the weather change our situation?

Knee surgery works for some people, and those people, apparently, had an actual injury and the surgery fixed it. And yet, sham knee surgery (in which the patient is sedated, cut and stitched, but no internal changes occur) is just as effective as ‘actual’ knee surgery for certain physical ailments. Does that mean that those ailments weren’t real, or that the patient was not trying hard enough to get well?

Along the way, we’ve persuaded ourselves and others that our brains don’t matter so much, and that the stories in our lives are not nearly as important as the molecules.

And yet, every time we look closely, the opposite appears to be true.

Stories are a balm. And our brains are powerful, though not always (or even often) under our conscious control.

“It’s all in your head.” Where else would it be?

Productive assets and useful flows

Assets are ownable. They are devices, skills, connections or properties that allow us to amplify our effort and do our work with more impact.

A drill press is an asset, so is your law degree. The permission you have to talk with your customers, the benefit of the doubt you get from your patients and the freedom to expand into a new territory are all assets. A movie studio owns volcano.com, decades after the movie was made. It’s an asset, a wasting one.

The projects we do create flows. We put in time or effort or cash, and something comes back. When the effort and resources we put in are rewarded with at least as much return as we expected, the flow is positive. It was worth the effort.

The next steps in figuring out our strategy (whether you’re a freelancer, a spiritual leader or a CEO) are:

Make a list of the assets. Put them in order of value to you and value to others. Are there some assets you’re hoarding that are going to waste? Some that might be worth selling or walking away from? Are there assets that will respond well to an investment of money, effort or learning?

Get really smart about the flows. Are you defending sunk costs, sticking with projects simply because that’s easier than leaving them behind? Which flows could be improved with focus and effort?

Hard choices today often lead to good outcomes later, and while today is real, we spend almost all of our lives living in later.

Consider the WordWindow

Computer adventure games were possible in the 1980s because of a bit of code called a ‘parser’. You could type, “pick up the axe” and the computer would understand the phrase and follow your commands. In italics, because it didn’t understand anything, it simply broke your sentences into bits and changed the state of your inventory accordingly.

When faced with a parser, even a primitive one, many people did that homunculus thing and decided that the computer could understand every single thing you might type, like, “I’m thinking that having an axe in my inventory would be helpful,” or even, “let me tell you about my cousin…”

My first gig, at Spinnaker, was leading the team that built the original generation of illustrated computer adventure games (I got to work with Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury, which is a great story). We discovered early on that the parser was magical but not nearly as powerful as people hoped.

Sounds a bit like LLM and ChatGPT, forty years later.

The solution was to offer a convenient and simple approach, which is almost always the solution to a problem of confusion.

We created the WordWindow™ button. The gratuitous trademark symbol made it more powerful, apparently.

When you clicked that button, it gave you a list of the 25 most common or useful things you could type.

I think this is going to be a powerful bridge even now. For example, a “Summarize” button is going to lean into ChatGPT’s strengths, but it’s not something people might immediately jump to.

Broadening this concept, whenever you find the folks you seek to serve appear to be hesitating or confused, consider offering them a multiple choice option.

Menus work. Even when we’re not at a restaurant.

The swag is here

To celebrate the new book, here are some limited edition swag options to benefit good causes and independent craftspeople.

You can find them all at seths.store.

I went to Brooklyn and worked with Dan at the Arm to create a set of five handmade letterpress posters. They’re 12 inches square, available framed or unframed, and all sales directly benefit Newborns in Need. It’s hard to describe just how magical paper and ink can feel in the hands of a pro. They’re each signed on the back, limited to 100 each. Many thanks to my friends at Scribe for making all of the fulfillment possible.

Next up are a pair of durable, soft, handmade t-shirts that capture some of the energy of the book. They’ll look better on you, promise. Made by the Cotton Bureau, all profits go to BuildOn.

And then there’s the legendary bee mug, made by independent craftspeople working with Bread and Badger in the Pacific Northwest. I can confirm that tea tastes significantly better in these mugs, with or without honey.

Book launches are always fraught, but now it’s the book’s job to spark and amplify the conversations that make change happen. Thank you for your support and for caring enough to make a difference.

PS bonus letterpress footage:

Double debossed, shot in gratuitous slo-mo, with AMSR sound as recorded live

PS lots of new podcast interviews here

The 77% threshold

When the gas car was first introduced, it couldn’t compete with horses. After all, we’d had thousands of years to optimize our systems around horseback, and this new technology was still nascent. Roads were rare, gas stations were scarce and the cars themselves were unreliable.

The same thing happened again when electric cars made a comeback a hundred years later. At first, they had limited range, limited space, low acceleration and charging was a hassle.

When a new technology arrives, it is almost always at a systemic disadvantage. If we wait until the new thing is better than the old thing, we’re taking a big risk.

That’s because we have competitors who will spend the time to learn the new tech, and more importantly, build systems around it. They will gain customers you may have trouble getting back. They have a head start that can last a generation.

Herbie Hancock started experimenting with electronic instruments a decade before many of his peers. That enabled him to create not one but two of the most successful jazz singles of all time.

If the local landscaping contractor sneers at electric weed whackers and leaf blowers because they’re not quite as cost-effective in the short run, they’ll probably lose some customers, and won’t develop what they need to know when the technology and systems catch up. And the new systems will catch up.

The same goes for media companies that are defending a model of expensive content that’s ad-supported, refusing to consider that it might not last. How much longer will Vogue matter?

When there’s an iterative cycle of new technology, the systems can’t help but improve, and the tech is likely to as well.

When a new tech or system is 50% as effective as the old one, it’s our job to learn it and understand it.

And when it hits 77%, we ought to consider creating a new division, a new product line or a new approach that adopts it.

By the time it catches up, we’re either part of it or we’re too late.