The Long Game 107: What if Age is Nothing but a Mindset, Optionality, Being a Novice, Owning the Demand
🧠 In Praise of Memorization, Glucose, Sleep Experiment, The Late Bronze Age Collapse, 31 Lessons, Edit Photos, Francis Ngannou, and Much More!
In this episode, we explore:
What if age is nothing but a mindset?
The problem with optionality
The advantage of being a novice
Owning the demand
In praise of memorization
The late bronze age collapse
Let’s dive in!
This is a fascinating article describing a research experiment that aimed at determining whether thinking you’re much younger than you are impacts your health.
The men in the experimental group were told not merely to reminisce about this earlier era, but to inhabit it — to “make a psychological attempt to be the person they were 22 years ago,” she told me. “We have good reason to believe that if you are successful at this,” Langer told the men, “you will feel as you did in 1959.” From the time they walked through the doors, they were treated as if they were younger. The men were told that they would have to take their belongings upstairs themselves, even if they had to do it one shirt at a time.
Each day, as they discussed sports (Johnny Unitas and Wilt Chamberlain) or “current” events (the first U.S. satellite launch) or dissected the movie they just watched (“Anatomy of a Murder,” with Jimmy Stewart), they spoke about these late-'50s artifacts and events in the present tense — one of Langer’s chief priming strategies. Nothing — no mirrors, no modern-day clothing, no photos except portraits of their much younger selves — spoiled the illusion that they had shaken off 22 years.
At the end of their stay, the men were tested again. On several measures, they outperformed a control group that came earlier to the monastery but didn’t imagine themselves back into the skin of their younger selves, though they were encouraged to reminisce. They were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller — just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told me, had “put their mind in an earlier time,” and their bodies went along for the ride.
The results were almost too good. They beggared belief. “It sounded like Lourdes,” Langer said. Though she and her students would write up the experiment for a chapter in a book for Oxford University Press called “Higher Stages of Human Development,” they left out a lot of the tantalizing color — like the spontaneous touch-football game that erupted between heretofore creaky seniors as they waited for the bus back to Cambridge. And Langer never sent it out to the journals. She suspected it would be rejected.
After all, it was a small-sample study, conducted over a mere five days, with plenty of potentially confounding variables in the design. (Perhaps the stimulating novelty of the whole setup or wanting to try extra hard to please the testers explained some of the great improvement.) But more fundamental, the unconventionality of the study made Langer self-conscious about showing it around. “It was just too different from anything that was being done in the field as I understood it,” she said. “You have to appreciate, people weren’t talking about mind-body medicine,” she said.
I know at this point this is almost similar to anecdotal data. Still, I’d be extremely curious to see the result of a similar large-scale rigorous study of this specific idea. Mind-body medicine is getting more and more traction, and I hope that the rigorous, unbiased scientific method will manage to remove the “woo-woo” association some of these practices suffer from (not all of these practices are created equal, of course!)
Thanks to @Kpaxs for sharing this screenshot with me:
⚠️ The Problem with Optionality
I wrote many times about the problem with optionality, but it’s worth frequently revisiting because I believe it’s a mistake many people make. Last time, I shared this excellent article:
The shortest distance between two points is reliably a straight line. If your dreams are apparent to you, pursue them. Creating optionality and buying lottery tickets are not way stations on the road to pursuing your dreamy outcomes. They are dangerous diversions that will change you.
By emphasizing optionality, these students ignore the most important life lesson from finance: the pursuit of alpha. Alpha is the macho finance shorthand for an exemplary life. It is the excess return earned beyond the return required given risks assumed. It is finance nirvana.
But what do we know about alpha? In short, it is very hard to attain in a sustainable way and the only path to alpha is hard work and a disciplined dedication to a core set of beliefs. Given the ambiguity over the correct risk-adjusted benchmark, one never even knows if one has attained alpha. It is the golden ring just beyond your reach—and, one must enjoy the pursuit of alpha, given its fleeting and distant nature. Ultimately, finding a pursuit that can sustain that illusion of alpha is all we can ask for in a life’s work.
Recently, Erik Torenberg wrote Reconsidering Career Optionality on the same idea:
In a recent post, I described how the best scientific minds are stuck in academia, the best operators are stuck in large consulting firms (like McKinsey) and the best engineers are stuck at FAANG companies.
One of the reasons they do this is because they don’t know what to do next.
I don’t know what I’ll do with my life, so I’ll get a degree.
I don’t know what I’ll do with my degree, so I’ll get a grad degree/MBA
I don’t know what I’ll do with this MBA, so I’ll go into finance/consulting/FAANG to figure out what I want to do.
One way of justifying this path is that they see it as accumulating optionality as if they are gaining badges and skills that let them do more stuff. And, by getting high-paying and high-status jobs, they are capping their downside: “Heads I win, Tails I don’t lose.” What can be bad about that?
One risk with pursuing optionality is that it prevents you from taking risks. In focusing so much on acquiring options to cap your downside, you also cap your upside by being too comfortable to take risks, life-style wise and reputationally. You get an MBA, work a few years in finance or consulting or FAANG, and before you know it you’re 30 and you haven’t taken any risks. Is that what you plan to do with your wild and precious life?
The bottom line is: optionality is a trap, and it has become something that is pursued in and of itself, not for the purpose of using it later on.
🧠 Better Thinking
🥇 The Advantage of Being a Novice
I always intuitively felt that not being an expert at something could be an advantage, and this piece explained perfectly why.
Thomas McCrae was a young 19th Century doctor still unsure of his skills. One day he diagnosed a patient with a common, insignificant stomach ailment. McCrae’s medical school professor watched the diagnosis and interrupted with every student’s nightmare: In fact, the patient had a rare and serious disease. McCrae had never heard of it.
The diagnosis required immediate surgery. After opening the patient up, the professor realized that McCrae’s initial diagnosis was correct. The patient was fine.
McCrae later wrote that he actually felt fortunate for having never heard of the rare disease.
It allowed his mind settle on the most likely diagnosis, rather than be burdened by searching for rare diseases, like his more-educated professor. He wrote: “The moral of this is not that ignorance is an advantage. But some of us are too much attracted by the thought of rare things and forget the law of averages in diagnosis.”
So what happened here?
A truth that applies to almost every field is that it’s possible to try too hard, and when doing so you can get worse results than those who knew less, cared less, and put in less effort than you did.
It’s not intuitive, so it can drive you crazy. And it’s hard to pinpoint when it occurs – maybe McCrae’s professor was being appropriately cautious?
But there are mistakes that only an expert can make. Errors – often catastrophic – that novices aren’t smart enough to make because they lack the information and experience needed to try to exploit an opportunity that doesn’t exist.
Here are the errors that only experts make:
Being an expert from an era that no longer exists
Career incentives can push complexity in a field where simplicity leads to the best outcomes (see: Publish or Perish)
There is one set of skills that comes from being an expert, and another that comes from being a novice, unburdened by the weight of experience or incentives. The former is obvious, the latter too easy to ignore.
This is another reason to go after your dreams and not wait to “know enough.”
⚡️ Startup Stuff
👑 Own the Demand
I liked this article on why the best strategy is to “own the demand.”
For example, consider the different entities involved when you make a Google search:
(A bunch of WAN stuff)
Google’s servers, including their own OS, networking stack, hardware, etc…
Every layer here between you and Google represents some control they give up over the end-user experience and relinquish to the owner of that layer: Firefox for the browser, Apple for the OS and computer, Comcast for the ISP, etc… That’s one big reason why Google gets into the business of building OSes (Android, Chrome OS), computers (Chromebooks), browsers (Chrome) and even took a stab at taking over your Internet access (Google Fiber, Google Fi).
It’s not just Google either. Most web giants have been making similar (though less successful) attempts at taking over their complements. Think about the Amazon Fire phone or the Facebook phone. Sometimes companies will try to outright bypass the entire stack and go directly to their customer — that’s one big strategic impetus behind the Amazon Echo. There’s no pesky computer, OS, or browser built by other people. All is controlled by Amazon.
In short, owning the demand is the most potent long-term strategy.
The end goal is to be the operating system of a system that’s as big as possible:
Facebook has struggled with its transition to utility, which would’ve offered it a path towards becoming more of a societal operating system the way WeChat is in China. To be fair, the competition for many of those functions is much stiffer in the U.S. In payments, for example, Facebook must compete with credit cards, which work fine and which most people default to in the U.S., whereas in China AliPay and WeChat Pay were competing with a cash-dominant culture. Still, in the U.S., Facebook has yet to make any real inroads in significant utility use cases like commerce.
📚 What I Read
A few thought-provoking lessons from Rob Henderson:
Envy knows many disguises.
Consciously exercise gratitude.
You are what you do. Not what you say or what you believe.
When seeking advice, ask people in a different life station than you.
At funerals, people don’t talk about the accomplishments of the deceased. They talk about their character.
On why memorizing things matters. Anecdotally, writing The Long Game helps me do just that; that’s a big reason I stick to it.
My high school completely eschewed memorization as a way of learning. Because of that, students were outraged when, in tenth grade, an older teacher tried to require the class to memorize the equivalent of about four sentences of poetry for a test. All hell broke loose. Being asked to memorize forty words was slightly less outrageous than being asked to memorize the collected works of William Shakespeare. The students brought articles in proofs they had found online that memorization isn't a good way to learn, that it would doom us all to a life of lifeless brain-dead chanting of facts, that it would cause all their neurons to flop over and die from the effort. If I remember correctly, they even tried to get parents involved.
But the school stood behind the teacher, and the teacher stood firm, and ultimately we had to be able to repeat back the lines of the poem via a fill-in-the-blank section on the test.
Over the years those lines have come back to me many times, and I understand them on a much deeper level. There's no way I'd ever look them up, but having them accessible has made my life immeasurably richer.
Subconsciously, when you learn a piece by heart, its message penetrates deep inside you. It lies at your fingertips, ready for you to make use of it. Many cultures have long understood this. In Islam, people who memorize the entire Koran are given the special title of hafiz, or guardian. In a secular equivalent, I know people who have memorized Rudyard Kipling's poem If— to give them a moral helping hand at times of crisis.
Even if you don't really understand it the first time, memorizing information and literature gives you the opportunity to come back to it. In the words of a college professor of mine, the point of a liberal arts education is to give you what to think about. Having literature, poetry, or even just quotations at the tip of your fingers makes for a more vivid, vibrant, and resonant life.
💤 The Effects on Cognition of Sleeping 4 Hours per Night for 12-14 Days: a Pre-Registered Self-Experiment
I find Alex Guzey’s sleep self-experiments fascinating, and my guess is that he is onto something:
I slept 4 hours a night for 14 days and didn’t find any effects on cognition (assessed via Psychomotor Vigilance Task, a custom first-person shooter scenario, and SAT). I’m a 22-year-old male and normally I sleep 7-8 hours.
I was fully alert (very roughly) 85% of the time I was awake, moderately sleepy 10% of the time I was awake, and was outright falling asleep 5% of the time. I was able to go from “falling asleep” to “fully alert” at all times by playing video games for 15-20 minutes. I ended up playing video games for approximately 30-90 minutes a day and was able to be fully productive for more than 16 hours a day for the duration of the experiment.
I did not measure my sleepiness. However, for the entire duration of the experiment I had to resist regular urges to sleep and on several occasions when I did not want to play video games was very close to failing the experiment, having at one point fallen asleep in my chair and being awakened a few minutes later by my wife. This sleep schedule was extremely difficult to maintain.
Lack of effect on cognitive ability is surprising and may reflect true lack of cognitive impairment, my desire to demonstrate lack of cognitive impairment due to chronic sleep deprivation and lack of blinding biasing the measurements, lack of statistical power, and/or other factors.
I believe that this experiment provides strong evidence that I experienced no major cognitive impairment as a result of sleeping 4 hours per day for 12-14 days and that it provides weak suggestive evidence that there was no cognitive impairment at all.
I plan to follow this experiment up with an acute sleep deprivation experiment (75 hours without sleep) and longer partial sleep deprivation experiments (4 hours of sleep per day for (potentially) 30 and more days).
I’m wary of generalizing my results to other people and welcome independent replications of this experiment.
All scripts I used to perform statistics and to draw graphs, all raw data, and all configuration files for Aimgod (costs $5.99) and for Inquisit 6 Lab (has a 30-day trial) necessary to replicate the experiment are available on GitHub. Pre-analysis plan is available here and on GitHub.
📉 Aplana la Curva (de la glucosa) [Spanish 🇪🇸]
The excellent Samuel Gil reviewed the book Glucose Revolution:
Y con estos trucos cerramos la edición de hoy. Espero que ahora entiendas un poco mejor el rol de la glucosa, los formatos en los que se presenta y las diferentes respuestas metabólicas que provoca, por qué comemos tanta hoy en día y las consecuencias tan negativas que tiene, así como qué podemos hacer para minimizar su impacto negativo en nuestro salud.
Recomiendo mucho comprar el libro de Jessie (entretenido y riguroso como pocos) y seguirla en Instagram. Y para los más motivados y experimentadores, recomiendo también comprar un monitor continuo de glucosa y experimentar todo esto en carne propia—la variabilidad individual es bastante grande a nivel metabólico.
Por último, si te interesan estos temas, te recomiendo también unirte a la beta privada de Vital (disclaimer: somos inversores), una red social para entusiastas de la optimización de la salud.
🍭 Brain Food
Here is a fascinating Wikipedia rabbit hole for all the history nerds out there:
The Late Bronze Age collapse was a time of societal collapse between c.1200 and 1150 BCE, preceding the Greek Dark Ages. The collapse affected a large area covering much of Southeast Europe, West Asia and North Africa, comprising the overlapping regions of the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean, with Egypt, eastern Libya, the Balkans, the Aegean, Anatolia, and the Caucasus. It was a transition which historians believe was violent, sudden, and culturally disruptive for some Bronze Age civilizations during the 12th century BCE, along with a sharp economic decline of regional powers.
The palace economy of Mycenaean Greece, the Aegean region, and Anatolia that characterized the Late Bronze Age disintegrated, transforming into the small isolated village cultures of the Greek Dark Ages, which lasted from around 1100 BCE to the beginning of the Archaic age around 750 BCE. The Hittite Empire of Anatolia and the Levant collapsed, while states such as the Middle Assyrian Empire in Mesopotamia and the New Kingdom of Egypt survived but were considerably weakened. Conversely, some peoples such as the Phoenicians enjoyed increased autonomy and power with the waning military presence of Egypt and Assyria in the Mesopotamia.
Competing and even mutually incompatible theories for the ultimate cause of the Late Bronze Age collapse have been made since the 19th century. These include volcanic eruptions, droughts, invasions by the Sea Peoples or migrations of Dorians, economic disruptions due to the rising use of ironworking, and changes in military technology and methods of war that saw the decline of chariot warfare. Following the collapse, gradual changes in metallurgic technology led to the subsequent Iron Age across Eurasia and Africa during the 1st millennium BCE.
🎥 What I’m Watching
⚖️ Tim Urban on Political Discourse
An excellent talk by Tim Urban on high rungs vs. low rungs politics.
🥊 The Violent Path of Francis Ngannou
The story of Francis Ngannou is one of my favorite ever. Whenever I think what I have to do is hard, I remember what he had to achieve to get where he is today.
Pair with: Francis Ngannou on JRE
🔧 The Tool of the Week
A free online photo editor you can use directly in your browser. No ads and no account to create. Just drag, drop, edit, and save.
🪐 Quote I’m Pondering
If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.
— Leslie Lamport
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