The Long Game 122: The Age of Pills, Financial Wellness, Competition, AI Updates
🌇 Why Every City Feels the Same Now, The Corruption of Medicine, How to Deal with Criticism, Gym Gear, Dating, 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 age of pills
Being argument-driven vs. data-driven
Let’s dive in!
💊 The Age of Pills
There seem to be the same scene in every American movie: a person reaching out to their orange pill bottle, taking a few pills, and swallowing them. Growing up, I was always very curious about what these people were taking.
More recently, I understood the extent of the pill problem in the US and many other parts of the world. The idea is that any physical or mental discomfort has its solution in a pill. This article paints the picture.
“I’m definitely medicated because of Covid, but I’m also medicated because I’m a woman who was a nurse who had babies in the middle of Covid, and a traumatic birth,” Ms. Bellow-Handelman said.
She is one of millions of Americans who started or restarted psychiatric medication during Covid’s long and dreary run. Tracking exactly which pills Americans are swallowing these days is difficult because much of this information is privately held.
Now take a moment to guess the percentage of Americans over the age of 18 that are medicated for depression, anxiety, fatigue, or being distracted:
The numbers they turned up echo what we already sense: We are depressed, anxious, tired and distracted. What’s new is this: Almost a quarter of Americans over the age of 18 are now medicated for one or more of these conditions.
More specifically, according to data provided to The Times by Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefits manager, prescriptions across three categories of mental health medications — depression, anxiety and A.D.H.D. — have all risen since the pandemic began. But they have done so unevenly, telling a different story for each age group and each class of medication.
I don’t think pills are useless, far from it, but it’s hard not to see that we are over-medicating people, and a big part of modern medicine believes in a pill for everything.
This is the perfect opportunity for my monthly reminder to you that chronic pain could be fixed by a mind-body approach instead of pills.
Pair with: ADHD & How Anyone Can Improve Their Focus
The modern obsession with getting things quickly without effort is somewhat related to this topic. This great tweet went viral:
Although some people are quick to say the only people who manage to get there do so with drugs, I think the correct answer is more:
energy management > time management (h/t @samuelgil)
discipline over a long period
…instead of pills/hormones—which might work in the short-term but build up your physical/emotional debt.
💰 Financial Wellness
An essential part of wellness is financial wellness. I came across a series of two pieces discussing the experience of being poor and then the experience of being rich, written by the same person, a year and a half apart.
Before exploring these two pieces, the idea that money doesn’t buy happiness is inaccurate, just like the idea that money is the only parameter that can improve your happiness is not valid.
On The Experience of Being Poor-ish, For People Who Aren't
Although absolute numbers do matter to a certain extent, there’s something to be said about the people you keep around you.
A few years back, my wife was at a baby shower hosted by a friend by a mutual acquaintance. In a conversation with the hostess, my wife learned they were in a tough financial position - they were always broke, and no amount of budgeting seemed to help them get ahead; they had cut every cost they could and things were just getting worse and worse. She admitted to my wife that she just felt like she was sinking further and further underwater, and didn’t see any way out for her or her family.
Note: The hostess and her husband were both doctors. They had a combined income somewhere upwards of $200,000 a year, and as the conversation developed my wife learned that their problems started and stopped with the hostess not being able to save quite as much as she’d like once the payments on their very nice house and current-year cars were made. At the time she leaned on my wife for emotional support over finances, our family of four’s income was less than $30,000 a year.
On Being Rich-ish: Lessons I learned becoming suddenly middle-class
The first things to keep in mind are health insurance and rich-people taxes (rich people pay net taxes. It turns out that’s how roads come to be). If you are broke enough (and have a family) the state covers this for you; when you hit a certain income level, they stop. From there, slightly higher taxes come in, as well as slightly reduced pseudo-welfare tax benefits. These two things alone might be a difference of $1000 or so a month.
But even if those account for a grand, that still leaves ~$2500 or so unaccounted for. Where’s it going? For me, it turned out that there was an awful lot of stuff we weren’t buying specifically because we couldn’t. Once that restriction came off, it turned out a lot of our thrift wasn’t as much of a character trait as we thought.
Food is huge here. When we were broke, there were constant economic sacrifices in terms of what we bought to eat. We bought more ramen and beans. We restocked less often, and with more restrictions on individual shopping trips. We’d get more rice, and less cheese (an enormous amount of money is spent on cheese once one has the option). We watched for sales pretty closely.
Once you have money, the default shifts immediately to “just get what you need”, with a healthy side of “and also what you want, if it’s reasonable”. When poor, I once spent about a week contemplating the impact of buying a jar of protein powder before pulling the trigger on this ostentatious luxury item. With greater-than-survival level money, you don’t do this; you just buy it.
🧠 Better Thinking
🥇 If You're Scared of Competition, the World Will Eat You Alive
I agree with the standard advice: “don’t compete/focus on the others, just focus on being the best version of yourself.” I think it’s mostly the right approach, but it’s still important sometimes to understand that there are many people you’re competing with.
I thought this piece managed to explain this idea well:
If a teenager asked me for a word of advice about surviving adulthood, it would be this:
"That doesn't mean anything," they'd probably reply. "A 'word of advice' doesn't literally mean one word, you dumb piece of shit."
To which I would say, fine, here's the longer version:
"The well-meaning adults in your life have lied to you. This is a world of competition, whether you acknowledge it or not. You're not just competing for money but for relationships, status and all of the other good things in life. You don't have to be an asshole to win... but you do have to compete."
This was never really made clear to me as a nerdy, non-sports teen. People who say this kind of shit are the reality show contestants who proclaim they're, "Not here to make friends," they're the Wolf of Wall Street sharks who'll celebrate raiding an elderly couple's retirement fund to buy a fourth yacht, they're the pick-up artists who describe dating in creepy economist terms ("You must demonstrate that you are a high-value male by showing dominance over rival suitors!").
But I've watched bad people consistently rise to the top precisely because they embrace the game that the rest of us peace-loving hippies find distasteful.
Then, the article addresses eight objections any decent person might have to this idea:
"Why should I listen to you? Don't you sit at home and write elaborate butt jokes for way too much money?"
"Everyone should have access to healthcare and affordable housing! We shouldn't have to fight each other over scraps!"
"So what does 'competing' even look like, if not that?"
“If you're not achieving what you want in life, stop blaming the system and start honestly comparing yourself to the people you are competing with. How do you measure up to the successful ones? To the failures? What do you need to change about yourself? “
"So I can't be happy unless I turn into a hyper-aggressive, backstabbing shithead?"
"In that situation, I'd rather peel potatoes than become some kind of cutthroat competitor!"
“Sure, let's go with that. You relegate your poetry to a hobby and devote yourself to unskilled labor for the good of the community. You'll find your satisfaction elsewhere, from the love of a good woman and a great circle of friends. Life is more than work, right?
Good news - you soon find a lovely woman with a great personality and a kind heart. You really vibe with her. The only problem is, she has a boyfriend. Even worse, she seems to be friends with like six more dudes who really kinda seem to be just floating around in case she breaks it off with the guy she's with. The mere suggestion that this is a "competition" turns your stomach. The thought of examining her other suitors and honestly evaluating how you measure up, or considering what you might have to change in order to "win", seems hopelessly cynical. So, you back off... and find all of the other women you’re attracted to are in the same situation. So, you're sleeping alone.”
"This is just propaganda perpetuating capitalism! This greedy 'dog-eat-dog' mindset is what's destroying the world!"
"You're acting like we're in a perfectly fair system that rewards those who work hardest! We hate the grind because farm workers get a pittance while middle-managers make six figures answering like three emails a day!"
“Where did I ever say that this competition was fair? Even rich finance bros with "Survival of the Fittest" tattoos will whine that they can't get any action on Tinder unless they lie about their height. Part of having a competition mindset - maybe the most important part - is understanding all of the ways in which the competition is unfair (including acknowledging that you have advantages others don't).”
"What makes you think we don't know about competition? Everyone reading this has gotten steamrolled by it since birth."
⚡️ Startup Stuff
⚖️ Be good-argument-driven, not data-driven
A great piece on the limits of being data-driven by Stripe engineer Richard Marmorstein:
I’ve ranted previously about taking empirical research about software engineering practices with a grain of salt. Let’s dust off the old salt shaker and season up a related idea: the notion that software organizations ought to be “data-driven”, i.e. that all teams and projects should define metrics to evaluate their success; decisions should be generally be given some data-based justification; without data we can’t be objective; if we rely merely on reason and intuition, bias will creep in. Science! Truth! The American Way!
There’s nothing wrong with a fondness for data. The trouble begins when you begin to favor bad arguments that involve data over good arguments that don’t, or insist that metrics be introduced in realms where data can’t realistically be the foundation of a good argument.
Some additional questions to consider:
Are all factors that drive your metric well-understood?
Can you run an experiment?
Are you prepared to do some very very fancy statistics?
Finally, this part on how being too data-obsessed can impact the morale of the team:
R.I.P. intrinsic motivation
An overemphasis on data can harm your culture through two different channels. One is the suspension of disbelief. Metrics are important, says your organization, so you just proceed to introduce metrics in areas where they don’t belong and everybody just ignores the fact that they are meaningless. Two is the streetlight effect. Metrics are important, says the organization, so you encourage your engineers to focus disproportionately on improvements that are easy to measure through metrics - i.e. you focus too much on engagement, growth hacks, small, superficial changes that can be A/B tested, vs. sophisticated, more nuanced improvements whose impact is more meaningful but harder or impossible to measure.
In both cases, the cost is morale. It’s demoralizing to feel that your success, in the eyes of the organization, is defined by a metric that is either out of your control or doesn’t match your convictions about how to best serve users and the organization. There is a class of engineers - extrinsically motivated, preoccupied chiefly with climbing the corporate ladder, without such convictions, happy to claim credit for upward-bound metrics that seem related to their area of work without being bothered by the lack of a strong causal argument, or to growth hack away and drive up the numbers without creating meaningful improvement - who thrive in this environment. But bad metrics is a surefire way to destroy instrinsic motivation.
Overemphasis on data is also a sign of weak leadership. It is interpersonally less risky to say “according to the metrics, your team is underperforming”, even when everybody knows the metrics are nonsense on stilts, than it is to say “in my judgement, based on observations X, Y, and Z, your team is underperforming”. A mature leader has no need to hide behind false objectivity, but insecure leaders use metrics as a crutch.
📚 What I Read
🤖 AI Updates
A lot happened in the field recently. Here are some articles to keep you up to date.
AI Content Generation, Part 1: Machine Learning Basics
If you’ve been following the red-hot AI content generation scene, then you’re probably already aware that it’s likely a matter of months before authentic-looking video of newly invented Seinfeld bits like this can be generated by anyone with a few basic, not-especially-technical skills. Instead of tweeting little 250-character dialogues like the one above, Seinfeld fans will tweet video clips complete with flawlessly matching laugh tracks.
What remains is one final bundle: the creation and substantiation of an idea. To use myself as an example, I have plenty of ideas, and thanks to the Internet, the ability to distribute them around the globe; however, I still need to write them down, just as an artist needs to create an image, or a musician needs to write a song. What is becoming increasingly clear, though, is that this too is a bottleneck that is on the verge of being removed.
AI Revolution - Transformers and Large Language Models (LLMs)
This field will continue to evolve rapidly and as the underlying language models accelerate in ability we will see ongoing acceleration of applications. We are still in the earliest days and many exciting things are yet to come. This will be a multi-decade transformation and will require ongoing improvement in base models and engineering to reach its full potential.
🏥 The Corruption of Medicine
Guardians of the profession discard merit to alter the demographics of their field.
Medical science has been one of the greatest engines of human progress, liberating millions from crippling disease and premature mortality. It has also seen its share of dead ends and misconceptions. Science goes astray when politics becomes paramount, as in the denial of plant genetics and natural selection under Stalin. America’s very real history of structural racism, a history that took us too long to remedy, resulted in segregated hospitals and cruel disparities in treatment. That past is belatedly but thankfully behind us.
The scientific method is a natural corrective to such fatal errors. Now, tragically, when it comes to the contention that racism is the defining trait of the medical profession and the source of health disparities, opposing views have been ruled out of bounds and are grounds for being purged. The separation of politics and science is no longer seen as a source of empirical strength; it is instead a racist dodge that risks “reinforcing existing power structures,” according to the editor of Health Affairs.
😅 10 Rules for Musicians (and Everybody Else) on How to Deal with Criticism
Having experienced the process on both sides, let me offer some suggestions on how musicians (and others) ought to deal with criticism. Here are ten rules I try to live by in my own experiences with harsh feedback.
(1) Never let a total stranger control or define your sense of who you are, and what your mission in life is. Of course, there are some people whose criticisms I must take to heart—starting with my wife, and close family members. But it’s not a large number of people. And it certainly doesn’t include the reviewer at the Poughkeepsie Times.
(2) That said, you can’t just ignore criticism. I applaud writers who claim never to read reviews, but I don’t suggest you emulate them. And for the simple reason that critics impact your life, and you often need to deal with the fallout. That’s true if your boss takes you to task. (“Ted, you’re not making enough widgets on the widget assembly line—I’m taking away your overtime hours.”) And it’s also true if a hit piece on you runs in the New York Times. So you pay attention to the criticism, not because it defines you (it doesn’t), but because as a professional you responsibly deal with the consequences of your actions, whether deserved or not.
🍭 Brain Food
🌇 Why Every City Feels the Same Now?
Over the last ten years, didn’t you gradually start to feel that every city looks the same? Lovely coffee shops, neon lights in restaurants, selfie sticks sold next to famous monuments…?
Well, you are not alone! I was reminded of this sentiment after seeing this tweet:
Then, I found this great piece that tries to explain the phenomenon.
Some time ago, I woke up in a hotel room unable to determine where I was in the world. The room was like any other these days, with its neutral bedding, uncomfortable bouclé lounge chair, and wood-veneer accent wall—tasteful, but purgatorial. The eerie uniformity extended well beyond the interior design too: The building itself felt like it could’ve been located in any number of metropolises across the globe. From the window, I saw only the signs of ubiquitous brands, such as Subway, Starbucks, and McDonald’s. I thought about phoning down to reception to get my bearings, but it felt too much like the beginning of an episode of The Twilight Zone. I travel a lot, so it was not the first or the last time that I would wake up in a state of placelessness or the accompanying feeling of déjà vu.
The piece mainly covers the architectural side of things:
In the decades that followed, corporate architecture of the sort outside my hotel room adopted designs that expressed corporate power. It became slick and monolithic. Ruthlessly rational, it exudes aloofness—its denizens exist high above the streets in glass-and-steel boxes that maximize the expensive floor space. The earliest of these structures were inspired by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1959 Seagram Building, which set the archetype until the 1980s. The New Formalists tried to temper this model with humanizing, historical touches—the tall, pseudo-gothic arches with which Minoru Yamasaki embellished the World Trade Center, for instance—but even then, it often harked back to earlier symbols of dominating power, like Greco-Roman classicism had done.
I think that another part of the equation is Instagram. The ubiquitous social network is the cause and motivation behind so many trips, and the will to cater to those people with Instargammable places is a big reason why so many places look the same. Beautiful brunch plates, coffee art, neon lights, colorful walls, flowery cocktails…
🎥 What I’m Watching
🏴 Women Find 80% of Men Unattractive
A comment on the video:
It's crazy how competitive dating is nowadays. I feel as if men have to be absolutely perfect in order to even have a chance at dating. Hearing stories about how some of my older family members met each other and it was so simplistic and not nearly as cut throat and competitive. If our uncles, grandfathers, fathers had to deal with the way dating is today most of them would have never met a woman and had kids. Social media and dating apps has completely ruined it.
Pair with: Generation Swipe
I know about this and think about it a lot, because I’m smack in the middle of it. I’m a 27-year-old on all the apps. To be safe, I go into every bookstore, slide books off the shelves, and peek through the opening between Normal People and Americanah ready to lock eyes with my forever beau. But it seems all the would-be husbands have been left functionally castrated by porn addictions, or slaving away at a 9-to-5 trying to pay for a tiny apartment, or too distracted by bio-hacking and Reddit boards to go on a date.
Also, pair with: Why Tinder is toxic for young women
🤔 Why Can’t You Say The ‘R Word’ Anymore?
The excellent Gurwinder explains why people care more about the R Word than the genocide currently happening in China. His Subtack is excellent.
🔧 The Tool of the Week
🏋️♀️ Some Gym Equipment I’m Considering
I’ve been training for a long time and quite obsessed with lifting in the last 12 months and made some good progress. Here is some equipment I’m considering adding:
Gym Pins: ever since I stopped seeing the end of the weight stack of machines as an achievement, my progress has skyrocketed. There is no reason to stop at 105kg for the lat pull-downs. Gym pins help you load more weight on the machines of your gym.
Weighted Pull-Up Belt: the same idea. Once you start mastering bodyweight pull-ups and can get multiple sets of 15+ reps, you might want to begin loading yourself for extra resistance.
Fat Gripz Extreme: I already have the Fat Gripz Pro and started using them almost daily for the last month, I’ve seen excellent progress on my grip and forearm size. I’m considering getting the Extreme as grip training is slowly becoming an area of focus for me.
Neck harness: Working your neck is essential if you want to avoid having a pencil neck. You can start with plate neck curls, but the neck harness can be a way to step things up.
Weighted Vest: To start rucking!
While we’re at it, something I took a long time to understand is that if you’re not gradually loading more, doing more reps with the same weight, or decreasing the rest period, you are not progressing! If you've been curling with the 16s kg/36s lb for weeks, why aren’t you picking up the next ones, and then the next ones, and so on? It’s not because no one is curling with the 40s/90s in your gym that you shouldn’t aim for that. That approach has helped me tremendously.
Lastly, follow the right people (here, here & here, for example), and ditch the IG fake-nattys obsessed with aesthetics that are impossible to attain naturally.
🪐 Quote I’m Pondering
You are your worst enemy. You waste precious time dreaming of the future instead of engaging in the present. Since nothing seems urgent to you, you're only half involved in what you do.
— Robert Greene
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