Giving strangers the benefit of the doubt

It is fascinating to realize how hypocritical we are when we get upset at strangers who make a mistake on the road or do something that seems inconsiderate in a public place.

I’ve definitely been that that annoying stranger for someone else from time to time. I’ve done inconsiderate things as I was rushing out of the store on a bad day. And, I’ve definitely made mistakes on the road.

Our default state is to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Our life becomes a lot smoother when we habitually give strangers the benefit of the doubt. It turns out that the world becomes a happier place too.

Right in context

Most of the toughest questions life asks of us have no right answers.

There may be an answer that works best within a certain context – given the environment, constraints and personalities involved. But, there are no cookie cutter solutions for the problems that matter. To figure out the best way forward in any situation, we need to honest with ourselves about the real problem we’re attempting to solve and thoughtfully wrestle with ourselves as we figure out our path. Not “the” path, “our” path.

The tragedy, then, is that we spend so much time attempting to be right that we forget that all that matters in the long run is that we be thoughtful instead.

The blind spot check

When you learn to drive a car, you are taught to keep turning to check in on your blind spot. It is an important lesson because your rear view mirror doesn’t show you cars that are very close to you. And, since you spend a lot of your energy focused on the road ahead, you need to switch contexts as you turn and ensure you are covered on the sides as well.

As you get better, however, turning becomes less of an event. It isn’t because the blind spot became less dangerous. Instead, it is because your field of vision has expanded. As you drive, you have a map of the road around you. So, as you turn left, you know that the car behind you is a safe distance away.

The disappearance of the blind spot check event is a sign of progress on the driver learning curve. And, checks are a natural step in our journey to pick up a new skill.

For example, when we start working on a new business, it is vital that we check every number regularly. But, the purpose of studying these numbers is to develop a sense for when things are going well and when things aren’t. Similarly, the purpose of the quantifying how much you read or exercise is to build awareness on how you spend your time. Once you develop that sense, you stop doing them and move on to improving other things. We study numbers to leave numbers. We create checks to grow beyond them.

This, then, brings up two questions we need to ask ourselves from time to time –

  1. What sort of checks do we have in place today? These checks are a proxy for the skills we are trying to build.
  2. And, more importantly, are today’s checks different from the checks we had in place a year ago?

What is the average age of a successful start-up founder in the US?

45 years old.

If that surprised you, there’s more in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper (paywall) by researchers at the US Government, MIT Sloan and the Kellogg School of management.

A few other notes from the Techcrunch article on the paper –

  • The source: A variety of administrative data sets to investigate the age of founders of new businesses, and particularly the age of founders of high-performance startups. Administrative data sets are the “gold standard” of data, because unlike surveys or other statistical sampling methods, they represent the entire population under consideration.
  • Findings point to 40+ founders: The average age of a startup founder is about 41.9 years of age among all startups that hire at least one employee, and among the top 0.1 percent of highest-growth startups, that average age moves up to 45 years old. Those ages are taken from the time of the founding of the company.
  • Findings don’t vary much by geography and industry: Some sub categories like like oil and gas can have average founder ages as high as 51.4 years old. The researchers wrote that “The only category where the mean ages appear (modestly) below age 40 is when the firm has VC-backing. The youngest category is VC-backed firms in New York, where the mean founder age was 38.7.” 
  • Older correlated to better: One interesting dynamic in the data is that older entrepreneurs appear correlated with better startup performance. “For example, the 1,700 founders of the fastest growing new ventures (1 in 1,000) in our universe of U.S. firms had an average age of 45.0 (compared to 43.7 for the top 1% and 42.1 for the top 5%),” the researchers wrote. “Overall, we see that younger founders appear strongly disadvantaged in their tendency to produce the highest-growth companies,” the researchers wrote. One reason, they argue, is that older founders tend to have more years of experience in their industries.
  • Why is the stereotype different from reality?: The authors speculate that the reason could be that younger founders are “more in need of early-stage external finance” because older founders have the connections, networks and personal wealth to fund their ventures. VCs don’t have access to those deals, so they gravitate to the kinds of deals they can potentially fund.

There are a couple of aspects of this study that are fascinating. First, it speaks to the power of narratives over data. Narratives are often shaped by outliers and most of us think of a few outliers when we think of successful start-up founders. Second, availability bias is hard to overcome when you don’t have other data. Venture capitalists write about young founders they back all the time. It is easy to forget that there are other sources of data on the subject too.

And, finally, conventional wisdom around experience is wisdom for a reason.

Chess openings and learning like a chef

Amateur chess coaches start by teaching their students opening variations. Students learn by memorizing the “right” openings and by avoiding problematic ones. Expert chess coaches, on the other hand, start with the lowest amount of complexity. They start with just three pieces on the chess board – king and pawn versus a king. Then, they might substitute a pawn with a bishop or rook.

Piece by piece, expert coaches build an understanding of the power of each piece and a comfort with space on the chess board. Over time, they add more pieces to the board and build their student’s understanding of the game from first principles.

The contrast between these methods of learning is akin to reasoning like a cook and reasoning like a chef – an analogy from Tim Urban at Wait but Why. Cooks focuses on cooking by re-creating existing recipes. However, a chef starts by understanding the nuances of single ingredients and slowly builds from there. Tim argues that we ought to pick a few areas of our life (e.g. our careers) where we reason like chefs and behave like cooks (e.g. our choice of clothing) for the rest. This is similar to the balance we need to strike between being satisficers and maximizers.

(Thanks Wait but Why for the illustration)

While that approach is true when applied to approaching aspects of our life, I think learning works differently. Our dominant learning style is somewhere along the above spectrum and the art of learning lies in approaching all learning like a chef. When you’re able to do that, you begin every learning journey by understanding the building blocks and achieve competence with surprising efficiency. If you’ve read Richard Feynman’s autobiography and wondered about how he became competent in topics as wide ranging as theoretical Physics, lock picking, painting and Brazilian drums, well, you now know how he did it. Feynman was the textbook chef-style learner.

I was a cook-style learner for most of my life. It was thanks to writing here that I began understanding my shortcomings and exploring what learning like a chef feels like. And, while I’m still working on applying that learning style consistently, I have come to appreciate its power.

And, my synthesis is that the reason chef-style learning matters is because it is the only way you attain real competence – the kind that flows unconsciously and without effort. That’s because elite performers don’t get there because they copied someone else’s style. You can’t take the fighter out of Rafael Nadal’s tennis game and ask him to switch to become more like Federer. No, Rafael Nadal is who he is because he became the best he could be.

To achieve unconscious competence at a craft, we need to understand themselves and the first principles of our craft. Over time, we integrate who we are and what what we do and move as one.

And, to do that, we need to approach learning like a chef.

Hello Feedblitz

(For those receiving this via email: If this is the first time you are receiving A Learning a Day email, that was because Feedburner didn’t verify you when you did subscribe. I realize this might have happened a few years ago now. So, I apologize for the seemingly abrupt start to your daily learning subscription.)

Today’s post is dedicated to those of you who subscribe to A Learning a Day via email. Over the years, I’ve heard from many of you about issues with the daily email. Some of these issues were formatting related and made this email hard to read. Many were around how hard the email was to share socially. There was no easy way to share posts on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook. And, even if you forwarded these notes to your friends and family and asked them to subscribe, it wasn’t easy for them to do so.

But, the worst kind of issues were those around Feedburner’s verification email. As I’ve come to realize, many of these went to spam folders and were never seen again. So, to a few of you, the email heads up from Feedblitz earlier today was the first time you heard from this blog as you have been in verification purgatory for as long as six or seven years. I cringed as I got a couple of unsubscribes rightfully sharing they had no recollection of subscribing – and I expect a few more to come through over the next few days. Again, I’m sorry.

I’ve been promising a fix to a few of you for a while. I am definitely a few years late in moving out of Feedburner and making this switch. While a part of the reason for this delay is to do with bandwidth, I’ll also admit to being a cheapskate. I started this blog ten years ago as a nineteen year old student. And, in many ways, that nineteen year old student’s attitude to “free” lives on. While I’m still grateful for that frugality in many areas of my life, there are areas where investing in better solutions is a no brainer. This is one of them. Thank you to the many of you who pushed me to invest in a better solution.

Replies to this email should reach me on rohan at rohanrajiv dot com as per normal. So, I hope to hear from you on how I can improve the email experience.

And, thank you Seth for recommending Feedblitz.

PS: For those reading this on feed readers, I hope this reached you fine. We’ll be back to normal service tomorrow. :)

64 pounds of plastic

A sperm whale washed up dead in Spain with 64 pounds (29 kg) of waste – most of it plastic – in its stomach. The waste includes ropes, nets, plastic bags and even a plastic drum.

Ocean plastics are killing fish and corals at an unprecedented rate and this is just one in a long list of examples.

So, I hope we’ll do more than sigh and look away. I hope that every such piece of news will push us to be more conscious about how we deal with our waste. We need to be more conscious about what we use, how we dispose our waste, how we recycle and to be more conscious about how we use natural resources.

The problem may seem too large for us to influence. But, all of this is caused by all of us and our collective behavior via the communities and organizations we belong to. Bit by bit, we can change the collective behavior.

It matters.