Hope your New Year is off to a great start. For me, while New Years Eve itself was a lot of fun, the next ten days of COVID-19 were not quite as enjoyable. I'm happy to report that I've fully recovered.
A lot of the best articles I read over the past month were related to the idea of expertise.
What's going on here, with this human?: I discovered a set of essays by Graham Duncan and they're all fantastic. Some of the highest signal to noise ratios of any business writing I've encountered. In particular this article on 'evaluating people' has incredibly nuanced, thoughtful advice for hiring, checking references, and just figuring out what another person is like.
The philosopher Kwame Appiah writes that “in life, the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game you’re playing.” When I try to figure out what game I’m playing, I see that for the last 25 years I have been playing a game of strategy applied to people, a game where over and over I try to answer the question “what’s going on here, with this human?”
I loved a quote he included from the poet David Whyte, on careers as a 'conversation with reality':
Whatever a human being desires for themselves will not come about exactly as they first imagined it or first laid it out in their minds…what always happens is the meeting between what you desire from your world and what the world desires of you. It’s this frontier where you overhear yourself and you overhear the world.
And that frontier is the only place where things are real…in which you just try to keep an integrity and groundedness while keeping your eyes and your voice dedicated toward the horizon that you’re going to, or the horizon in another person you’re meeting.
Related, The Myth of A Players makes the case that the common belief that there's a set hierarchy of employees - 'A players only want to work with A players', 'B players hire C players', etc. is false. We're embedded in cultures, and if you transplant a high performer into a new setting, there's no guarantee they'll continue performing at that level.
Here’s the truth: Jobs wasn’t a great CEO. He was a great CEO in the context that Apple was operating in at the turn of the century. Smisek wasn’t a great airline CEO – he was a great CEO for Continental’s context. Perez was a great CEO for SC Johnson, Schrempp for Daimler-Benz. They were people who, like so many others, experienced both contexts they were good at, and contexts they were bad at.
That is why the way many of us interpret Steve Jobs’ advice about A-players is so potentially damaging. People have come to believe that you need to find these universal winners, and that everyone else is intrinsically inferior in some way. And that just isn’t true. As evidenced by Pixar, Jobs himself didn’t even practice it that way – he left the hiring up to people who understood the context of the company.
I'm not sure I fully buy the argument - there's a lot of evidence that factors like intelligence, conscientiousness, and agreeableness determine outcomes in many domains, and reversion to the mean and other explanations could account for examples like CEOs underperforming. But from my own experience I think this is largely correct, that finding the right place to operate in is key to high performance.
Scaling Tacit Knowledge, from the meticulous Nintil, describes the 'state of the field' of increasing experiential knowledge. Scaling knowledge transfer would be a huge win, both for individuals trying to get good at stuff and for society as a whole. But while things like Khan Academy are a good start at scaling explicit, legible knowledge, it's less clear how to scale the type of knowledge you need to, for instance, do research well, or run a meeting. I thought the section on Chess was particularly interesting - Chess is a game where people have worked extremely hard, over generations, to get good at teaching how to play it well, and in the quest for excellence have tried to accelerate the learning process. They've found that practicing specific scenarios (chess puzzles that reproduce specific situations in the game) and memorizing grandmasters games was far more effective than just playing chess or coaching.
Karnataka Hospital Insurance Example: One of the largest health insurance experiments ever conducted found, in line with other experiments, no meaningful improvements to health resulting from increased access to health insurance.
More ML text-to-image generation: This time with an incredibly easy UI.
Patch Notes from the Sims 3: "Sims who are on fire will no longer be forced to attend graduation before they can put themselves out".
Public Choice Theory and The Illusion of Grand Strategy: Richard Hanania has written an excellent book applying Public Choice Theory to International Relations. At this point there are few serious commentators who ascribe pure civic minded intentions to politicians and bureaucrats when it comes to domestic politics; we've all internalized the insight that government actors respond to incentives, and legislation is rarely, solely driven by lofty ideals. However, when it comes to foreign policy, academics and pundits continue to describe the US's foreign policy as being directed by grand strategies seeking to maximize American power or values. Richard Hanania writes the definitive takedown of this view, demonstrating how American FP can be far better modeled as being driven not by strategic vision, but the simple and in many ways petty incentives of the military industrial complex, politicians, and special interests.
The United States has tried to secure a nation by spending many times what that country produces in a given year... the money spent to GDP ratio has been 74:1 in South Vietnam, 43.3:1 in Iraq, and a stunning 396:1 in Afghanistan... the United States has spent in Afghanistan the equivalent of of that country's level of production, assuming it stayed constant, for close to four centuries.
[Scholars] have yet to grapple with what these conflicts mean for the rational actor model, in which foreign policy is said to be based on some kind of cost-benefit analysis and serve the national interest.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Joan Didion passed away last year; the media coverage sparked my interest in her writing. This is a collection of excellent essays portraying a California I can, if I squint, recognize.
Of course she came from somewhere else, came off the prairie in search of something she had seen in a movie or heard on the radio, for this is a Southern California story.
Stranger Things: Somehow I had missed the third season of Stranger Things, which just like the first two seasons was excellent - suspenseful horror balanced with action comedy.
Tick Tick... Boom!: An autobiographical musical about the creator of Rent, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Good songs and an engaging story.
Until next month,