The Long Game 103: The Hispanic Paradox, Walking the World, Changing Behavior is Hard, Mental Health & Building a Startup
👫 Dating, Embedded Education, Javelin, Deepfakes, Archive Today, Abysmal Knowledge, and Much More!
Hi there, it’s Mehdi Yacoubi, co-founder at Vital, and this is The Long Game Newsletter. To receive it in your inbox each week, subscribe here:
In this episode, we explore:
The Hispanic Paradox
Why I walk
Changing behavior is hard
Managing your mental health while running a startup
Let’s dive in!
🧐 The Hispanic Paradox
First, what is the Hispanic Paradox:
Using World Health Organization data for 2001 and 2015, Chen et al analyzed all premature deaths (defined as those occurring in individuals aged 20-64 years) among US Latino, African American, and white populations and Puerto Rican and 12 other Latin American populations. Their major findings were that US Latina women had the lowest premature mortality rate of all populations studied and that mortality among US Latino men was lower than that among all populations except for Peruvian individuals. Their other significant finding—specifically, that US Latino populations have lower mortality rates than US white populations—adds to the literature documenting the Latino mortality paradox.
What’s happening here? There were a lot of proposed explanations, but I found this one particularly interesting:
In early December 2021, I was seeing a physical therapist for a shoulder injury. During one of my visits, the therapist was alternating between me and another patient on an adjacent bed, who had a knee replacement. While the therapist worked on the other patient’s leg, stretching it and bending the knee, I eavesdropped on their conversation.
The patient was in pain, anxious to complete the hard part of the therapy. The therapist was encouraging him to keep working. At one point the patient expressed a desire to quit. The therapist responded “Te queda una semanita más.” This translates to “You have a short week left.” The patient agreed to continue.
By adding the suffix “ita” to the word “semana,” – or week – the therapist offered the patient a perspective on how much therapy remained in a way that sounded shorter, even though it was still a full week.
This ability to minimize or exaggerate a situation by simply adding a suffix is one feature of the Spanish language that could contribute to a striking resilience in health that researchers have documented in Hispanic populations in the United States, called the “Hispanic Paradox.”
This brings us to the importance of words, the mindset of people, and their impact on health. We know, for example, that optimism is associated with exceptional longevity. On a personal level, I fixed my chronic back pain with a simple book and a change of perception.
Many people will call BS on this, but I’d bet we’ll uncover a lot at the intersection of beliefs and health in the next few decades.
🚶 Why I Walk
As you might know by know, I’m a big proponent of walking. It helps you feel better, think better, discover your city and burn extra calories. This two parts series about walking is excellent and will hopefully convince you to walk more!
I use this same approach when I am in any new city. On my first day I literally walk across the city, to the extent it can be done. I choose a route after spending a few hours on Google street view, then change it, often dramatically, along the way. I usually end in a bar, restaurant, church, or all of the above, before taking a bus back. The next day I do another cross town walk, but in a different direction, filling in the blanks from the prior day’s walk.
Then, over the next week(s), I walk between 10 to 20 miles per day, picking and choosing from what I have seen before, highlighting what I like, what I want to know more about, refining the path, till by the end of my trip, I have a daily route that is roughly the same.
While that is certainly not the most efficient way to see a city, it is the most pleasant, insightful, and human. I don’t think you can know a place unless you walk it, because it isn’t about distance, but about content.
Cars suck for that. They are a brutal way to get to know a place. A literal metal bubble that cuts you off, zooms your through, and then dumps you in another bubble of your choosing. A wall between you and the world.
Pair with: Although very good for your overall health, the benefits of short walks tend to be overblown.
⌚🚶♀️ PS: If you’re an Apple Watch user and want to walk more by participating in our Vital walking challenge, sign up here.
🧠 Better Thinking
↪️ Changing Behavior is Extremely Difficult
I remember listening to Daniel Kahneman a few years ago. I still remember that with all the research he did on biases, how humans think, and how to think better, he said he doesn’t believe it helped him think significantly better. He once said:
“I’ve studied cognitive biases my whole life and I’m no better at avoiding them.”
I think Kahneman exaggerates a bit (otherwise, he wouldn’t write non-fiction books about it), but you get the point: changing how you think & act is very hard.
Here are a few ideas that can help:
When attempting to change the behavior of someone else, instead of pushing them to change, weaken the restraining force.
Behaviors don’t always reflect personality; they’re more often a function of the situation.
To improve your decision-making: slow down.
When making decisions, think of options as if they were candidates. Break them up into dimensions and evaluate each dimension separately.
Then – Delay forming an intuition too quickly. Instead, focus on the separate points, and when you have the full profile, you can develop intuition.
The person who moves first in a negotiation has the advantage.
Why? – The first number stated changes everyone’s view of what’s considered plausible and moves the discussion in that direction
“We believe in things, most of the time, not because we have good reason to believe them… We have beliefs because mostly, we believe in some people, and we trust them. We adopt their beliefs.“ – Daniel Kahneman
“Having a lot of money doesn’t make you happier, but being poor makes you miserable” – Daniel Kahneman
On using algorithm instead of intuition:
“If you really want to improve the quality of decision-making, use algorithms… wherever you can. If you can replace judgment by rules and algorithms, they’ll do better.” – Daniel Kahneman
On this last point, it’s tempting to try to reduce everything to an algorithm. Still, the most critical decisions are often impossible to reduce to an algorithm, and intuition is essential in those cases.
Pair with: Alan Watts - How to trust intuition and develop self-confidence?
On a slightly related note, this is a good piece on why you can outsmart your own nature and why rituals matter. It made me think of Tradition is Smarter Than You Are.
⚡️ Startup Stuff
🧘♀️ Managing Your Mental Health While Running a Startup
I enjoyed this piece by Okta co-founder Frederic Kerrest on managing your mental health while running a startup. I generally think this is an under-discussed topic, and it might well be the most important for long-term success.
There are so many traps it’s easy to fall into that I think it’s helpful to be aware of at the beginning of your journey.
People in business and tech talk endlessly about fundraising, product-market fit, design thinking, the latest tech, management techniques, consumer trends – everything except the need to keep yourself in fighting shape. That’s crazy. Building and running a startup is exhausting. All founders need to create strategies to stay fit – mentally, emotionally, and physically. You don’t want your company to implode simply because you never carved out time to exercise or sleep.
The rigors of startup life are certainly difficult in the beginning. Unfortunately, they’re also difficult in the middle, and even after you’ve gone public. My company brings in more than $1 billion dollars a year in revenue, and yet I still wake up in the middle of the night obsessing over work. In this chapter, I share advice on how to take care of yourself. What’s most important is simply to be aware that you need to. Here are practices that have worked for me:
Find founder peers at the same stage as you, or slightly ahead. Develop relationships with other entrepreneurs who’ll understand what you’re going through and the problems you need help with. Your friends and family can offer general moral support, but none of them will really get it the way a fellow founder will. [PS: If you’re a founder at the same stage as me or ahead, let me know! 👋]
Follow the “oxygen mask” rule. You know the old flight-safety advisory: “Place your mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.” You can’t help your company if you’re not able to perform at your best. Create routines to stay physically, emotionally, and mentally fit.
Take vacations. You’re going to feel like you can’t. But [just like you might need to pause in order to upgrade a system or process], sometimes you will need to upgrade yourself, even if it means stepping away from the company (which won’t slow down because you’ve built a well-oiled machine that runs well without you, right?) so you can recharge your batteries and get energized for the next leg.
Another prevalent trap is trying to “keep up with the Joneses.”
Startup founders tend to be competitive. Of course they want to know how they stack up. But there’s no single roadmap to success. Every company is different. Consumer companies are different from enterprise ones. Startups selling to small businesses will grow differently than those selling into the Fortune 100. It’s useless to compile the information we were tracking. It might give you the illusion you’re assembling some kind of useful insight. But you’re not. It’s a waste of time – time that you don’t have to waste.
In competitive auto racing, they teach drivers to “focus on the road, not the wall.” Look at the wall and you’ll crash. To win, you need to keep your eye where you want the car to go. I share the same principle with new founders: Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing or how they’re performing. Just focus on your own road, your own race.
To prevent this, don’t read funding announcements, don’t read Techcrunch, mute everything distracting you from your mission on Twitter, and simply focus on your users and your team, and stay alive for as long as it will take to make the magic happen. Also, get used to the rollercoaster; this one will never go away 😂
📚 What I Read
🎓 Embedded Education
Embedded education is the future of learning, one more opportunity for vertical social networks:
Learning no longer lives on an individual platform. Rather, learning happens everywhere. We’re entering a new age of “Embedded Education”. What makes phrases like “software is eating the world” or “every company is a fintech company” so powerful is that once we hear it, we can’t unsee it. Every company all of a sudden can become a software company, and every software can provide finance as a service. Once we start paying attention to Embedded Education, platforms are now filled with the potential to become some of the most effective education delivery channels.
Embedded education is the practice of educating people through encounters that they already have with systems that exist primarily for non-educational purposes. While the recently popular concept of “embedded finance” distributes financial products at the point of digital transaction, which is the most natural way for consumers to discover options, embedded education delivers learning at the point of getting the job done. From content delivery all the way to community engagement, Embedded Education is an evolution from progressive learning, which follows clear logical steps to intuitive learning, which relies less on the route memory of disparate knowledge nodes, but on the relationship between these nodes.
📚 Abysmal Knowledge
On writing online:
The first requirement for writing on the internet seems obvious but is not: You need to have something to say. Many people want to write, but don't; it never occurs to them that they don’t have anything to say.
Fortunately, the solution is simple. Go find something to say. There are roughly two different ways to obtain something to say.
The first is classical erudition, old-fashioned and patient study of great works.
The second is through adventure + introspection. Do literally anything hard, risky, or strange, and combine it with thinking.
The most widespread error in contemporary internet writing is the idea that you can produce meaningful internet writing by curating and re-mixing internet content.
Remixing classical erudition is a path to originality; remixing derivatives will only ever be doubly derivative.
The second requirement of successful internet writing is volume plus consistency, or in one word: Execution.
Tools are overrated; systems are overrated; frameworks are overrated. Simply deciding to triple your writing volume immediately is underrated.
👫 the agony of eros: dating
A great dating piece by Ava:
Because dating is so difficult, there’s a huge market around “dating advice” for both men and women. All of the resources tend to center around following rules as a substitute for 1) having self-awareness and 2) being a good communicator. For ex, PUA advice will say, women like dominant men, so you should frame all your conversations with them in this particular way. “The Rules” type of advice will say something like, it’s important to not seem needy, so if you double text him you might as well kill yourself. Is this advice helpful? In my opinion: yes, sometimes, especially for people who struggle with understanding (admittedly opaque and frustrating) dating norms. Like, you probably shouldn’t text someone who hasn’t replied to you six times, because they might become legitimately scared of you. And it’s obviously true that women are socialized to be less assertive than men when dating, so if your strategy is to wait until a girl asks you out, that will work with a minority of women but not the majority. But the thing that’s really hard about dating is that it tends to bring out all your attachment issues, problems you’ve inherited from your parents, primal fear of rejection, etc so it’s really, really hard (basically impossible) to fake being different than you are. Anyone who’s tried to pretend they’re indifferent to someone they actually really, really like knows exactly what I mean. Your true self always slips out.
🍭 Brain Food
💤 The overfitted brain: Dreams evolved to assist generalization
I came across this fascinating paper about dreams by Erik Hoel:
The Bigger Picture:
Dreaming remains a mystery to neuroscience. While various hypotheses of why brains evolved nightly dreaming have been put forward, many of these are contradicted by the sparse, hallucinatory, and narrative nature of dreams, a nature that seems to lack any particular function.
Recently, research on artificial neural networks has shown that during learning, such networks face a ubiquitous problem: that of overfitting to a particular dataset, which leads to failures in generalization and therefore performance on novel datasets. Notably, the techniques that researchers employ to rescue overfitted artificial neural networks generally involve sampling from an out-of-distribution or randomized dataset.
The overfitted brain hypothesis is that the brains of organisms similarly face the challenge of fitting too well to their daily distribution of stimuli, causing overfitting and poor generalization. By hallucinating out-of-distribution sensory stimulation every night, the brain is able to rescue the generalizability of its perceptual and cognitive abilities and increase task performance.
Understanding of the evolved biological function of sleep has advanced considerably in the past decade. However, no equivalent understanding of dreams has emerged.
Contemporary neuroscientific theories often view dreams as epiphenomena, and many of the proposals for their biological function are contradicted by the phenomenology of dreams themselves.
Now, the recent advent of deep neural networks (DNNs) has finally provided the novel conceptual framework within which to understand the evolved function of dreams. Notably, all DNNs face the issue of overfitting as they learn, which is when performance on one dataset increases but the network’s performance fails to generalize (often measured by the divergence of performance on training versus testing datasets).
This ubiquitous problem in DNNs is often solved by modelers via ‘‘noise injections’’ in the form of noisy or corrupted inputs.
The goal of this paper is to argue that the brain faces a similar challenge of overfitting and that nightly dreams evolved to combat the brain’s overfitting during its daily learning. That is, dreams are a biological mechanism for increasing generalizability via the creation of corrupted sensory inputs from stochastic activity across the hierarchy of neural structures.
Sleep loss, specifically dream loss, leads to an overfitted brain that can still memorize and learn but fails to generalize appropriately. Herein this ’’overfitted brain hypothesis’’ is explicitly developed and then compared and contrasted with existing contemporary neuroscientific theories of dreams.
Existing evidence for the hypothesis is surveyed within both neuroscience and deep learning, and a set of testable predictions is put forward that can be pursued both in vivo and in silico.
🎥 What I’m Watching
🚀 The Insane Engineering of the Javelin
🧑🎨 This New AI Makes DeepFakes... For Animation Movies!
The paper "Stitch it in Time: GAN-Based Facial Editing of Real Videos" is available here.
🔧 The Tool of the Week
📁 Archive Today
Tired of the incessant paywalls of news websites? Archive today lets you access an archived version of the page you’re trying to read for free.
🪐 Quote I’m Pondering
The chief prevention against getting old is to remain astonished.
— Kevin Kelly
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