The Long Game 43: Fertility in the Western World, Mindset Interventions, Talking to Strangers

✖️ The Mathematics of Beauty, Working Backwards, China's Reckoning, and Much More!

Hi there, it’s Mehdi Yacoubi, co-founder at lifetizr, and this is The Long Game Newsletter.

Greetings from Paris 🇫🇷

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In this episode, we explore:

  • Alarming fertility rates in the western world

  • Mindset interventions

  • Talking to Strangers

  • Working Backwards

  • The mathematics of beauty

Let’s dive in!

🥑 Health

⚠️ Alarming Fertility Rates in the Western World

I’ve already talked about fertility in The Long Game, but I recently read a paper that I think more people should be aware of:


Reported declines in sperm counts remain controversial today and recent trends are unknown. A definitive meta-analysis is critical given the predictive value of sperm count for fertility, morbidity and mortality.


This comprehensive meta-regression analysis reports a significant decline in sperm counts (as measured by SC and TSC) between 1973 and 2011, driven by a 50–60% decline among men unselected by fertility from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Because of the significant public health implications of these results, research on the causes of this continuing decline is urgently needed.

We might find new technological ways to assist humans with having kids, but I think this problem is a ticking time bomb. Is development necessarily correlated with below-replacement fertility rates? At this pace, it won’t be sustainable for very long.

And here’s an even more alarming situation from Japan

🌱 Wellness

🧘‍♀️ Mindset Interventions

While going through my highlights of The Upside of Stress on Readwise, I was reminded of the power of mindset interventions:

Feeling burdened rather than uplifted by everyday duties is more a mindset than a measure of what’s going on in your life.

We all know people who objectively have a hard time but are always smiling and taking things in a positive way, and we all know the opposite, people who “have it all” but are burdened by the smallest little things.

For wellness and happiness, mindset interventions have huge power. I know some people don’t believe in that; it’s too bad for them (read The Upside of Stress!) Starting to think positively and seeing your problems as the normal challenges of everyday life will trigger a virtuous cycle and make your life much better.

Waitbutwhy has a perfect illustration of this concept:

For those arguing we don’t have free-will, living as if we did makes life better. Whether it does exist or not is beyond the point when we talk about personal philosophies leading to a happier life.

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🧠 Better Thinking

🗨 Talking to Strangers

I have a new personal policy for book choices. I spend much less time thinking about what to read next. I just pick something from the list and start. I used to waste too much time thinking of what to read instead of actually reading/ listening to the book.

After seeing Malcolm Gladwell's books repeatedly recommended everywhere, I ignored my negative prejudice about his work and started listening to Talking to Strangers. I’m glad I did. I loved the book, and I highly recommend the audio version. It has real audio from the examples used in the examples, making the whole thing contextual and impactful. It’s an example of audiobooks done right. 👇

The whole idea of the book is that we’re terrible at understanding strangers. The book explores many examples and lays out multiples concepts related to our inability to understand strangers, but the one I found most interesting is the default to truth bias.

In human societies, communication is organized in a way that makes everyday life easier. That’s why defaulting to truth is useful most of the time. The problem is that when something huge is at stake—Chamberlain meeting Hitler and believing he only wants the Sudetenland or parents ignoring the early warnings of a pedophile coach—defaulting to truth can lead to catastrophic outcomes.

Personally, I tend to be very suspicious, and I rarely default to the truth (I’m leaning on the side of Harry Markopolos). I might even have the opposite problem, defaulting to false. But even then, I get fooled more than I’d like to. I don’t think the ideal situation is to be suspicious of everything, but reading this book is a great reminder that bad things can happen.

⚡️ Startup Stuff

📦 Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, And Secrets from Inside Amazon

Multiple people recommended to me this book about Amazon by two early executives Colin Bryar and Bill Carr. I just started it, and I can already recommend it. If you want to understand the thinking that went behind the scenes to build Amazon, this book is for you.

Here’s a highlight to give you a taste of the book:

“The best way to fail at inventing something is by making it somebody’s part-time job.”

Scene: A conference room. Jeff and several S-Team members sit across the table from the leadership team of a large Amazon business unit, including its VP, two other VPs who report to her, and several of their directors. It’s their quarterly business review, and they’re discussing an initiative that has been stuck in “Status Red” for the past two quarters. Someone asks, “What blockers are stopping you from making progress?”
- DIRECTOR X (the most knowledgeable person for the new initiative): As you know, this project has many moving parts. We’ve identified five unsolved issues so far that are slowing us down. They are—
- JEFF (interrupting): Before we get to those issues, would someoneplease tell me who’s the most senior single-threaded leader for this initiative?
- BUSINESS UNIT VP (after an uncomfortably long pause): I am.
- JEFF: But you’re in charge of the whole business unit. I want you focused on your whole group’s performance, and that includes a lot more than this one initiative. VP 1 (trying to take one for his team): That would be me, then.
- JEFF: So, this is all that you and your team work on every day?
VP 1: Well, no. The only person working on it full time is one of our product managers, but we have lots of other people helping part time.
- JEFF (impatient now): Does a PM have all the skills, authority, and people on their team to get this done?
- VP 1: Not really, no, which is why we plan to hire a director to head it up.
- JEFF: How many phone screens and in-house interviews have you conducted so far for this new director?
- VP 1: Well, it’s not an open position yet. We still need to complete the job description. So the answer is, zero.
- JEFF: Then we’re kidding ourselves. This initiative won’t go “green” until the new leader is in place. That is the real roadblock this initiative is facing. Let’s remove that one first.
VP 1 dashes off a terse email to head recruiter titled, “Open director role for project X leader…”

Fun fact:

📚 What I Read

🤯 My Generation Isn’t Suffering Enough

I’m not from Gen Z, but relatively close to it. I found this article about why Gen Z is so unhappy to be incredibly right and thoughtful.

My generation is miserable. Gen Z, those of us born after 1997, are the saddest, loneliest, and most mentally fragile age group to date, cursed with rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide. How can that be? How can a generation with everything feel so desperately unhappy? By almost every metric, human life is dramatically better today than it ever has been. The number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from around 90 percent in 1820 to just 10 percent in 2015, while rates of illiteracy, mortality, and battle deaths are also in rapid decline. For the most part, Gen Z are heirs to an immense fortune: a utopian world of instant gratification and technological dynamism. In theory, this should be the age of happiness.

The reason for this suffering is that humans are not built for a life of ease.

This is a forgotten wisdom, one revered by the ancient Stoics and once fundamental to philosophical thought. Within the writings of Seneca and Epictetus lies the maxim that it is not our hardship that harms us, but how we relate to it. In choosing to learn and grow from affliction, we fortify our mind. As Seneca wrote, “Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”

Actually, something very counterintuitive is that humans thrive in times of crisis. Modern life forgot this and tried to remove all of the sufferings, only to realize that we created something even more unbearable.

As well as robust mental health resources in our institutions, we need to see a more balanced approach to Gen Z’s mental wellbeing—one that coalesces self-care with strenuous, humbling self-development. My message for my generation is to dare to switch off Netflix, abandon your excuses, and bear the unbearable. It may not be what we want to hear, but it may be just what a miserable generation needs.

🌍 The Arrival of Fast Internet and Employment in Africa

I found this paper interesting. Here’s the abstract:

To show how fast Internet affects employment in Africa, we exploit the gradual arrival of submarine Internet cables on the coast and maps of the terrestrial cable network. Robust difference-in-differences estimates from 3 datasets, covering 12 countries, show large positive effects on employment rates—also for less educated worker groups—with little or no job displacement across space. The sample-wide impact is driven by increased employment in higher-skill occupations, but less-educated workers' employment gain less so. Firm-level data available for some countries indicate that increased firm entry, productivity, and exporting contribute to higher net job creation. Average incomes rise.

I look forward to seeing how Starlink will disrupt the global internet access industry.

🎙 Podcast Episodes of the Week

No new episode on The Long Game Podcast this week. Here’s a recap of the last two episodes dedicated to charter cities.

🏝 #12: Patri Fridman on Competitive Governance and Technology

Listen on Apple Podcasts

🌇 #11: Mwiya Musokotwane on Building the Future of Africa, Charter Cities, Innovation and Institutions

Listen on Apple Podcasts

🍭 Brain Food

✖️ The Mathematics of Beauty

One of the great things online dating enables is to study human psychology related to dating and finding mates. This article exploring the mathematics of beauty is really worth your time! It’s an investigation to understand female attractiveness.

This post investigates female attractiveness, but without the usual photo analysis stuff. Instead, we look past a woman's picture, into the reaction she creates in the reptile mind of the human male.

Of the most interesting findings of the article is that the more men disagree about a woman's looks, the more they like her.

Our first result was to compare the standard deviation of a woman's votes to the messages she gets. We found that the more men disagree about a woman's looks, the more they like her. I've plotted the deviation vs. messages curve below, again including some examples.

So, what’s going on?

Suppose you're a man who's really into someone. If you suspect other men are uninterested, it means less competition. You, therefore, have an added incentive to send a message. You might start thinking: maybe she's lonely. . . maybe she's just waiting to find a guy who appreciates her. . . at least I won't get lost in the crowd. . . maybe these small thoughts, plus the fact that you really think she's hot, prod you to action. You send her the perfectly crafted opening message.

On the other hand, a woman with a preponderance of '4' votes, someone conventionally cute, but not totally hot, might appear to be more in-demand than she actually is. To the typical man considering her, she's obviously attractive enough to create the impression that other guys are into her, too. But maybe she's not hot enough for him to throw caution (and grammar) to the wind and send her a message. It's the curse of being cute.

🎥 What I’m Watching

🇨🇳 China’s Reckoning: Demographic Collapse

I really enjoyed this mini-documentary by PolyMatter on the Chinese demographic crisis. He gives a pretty pessimistic view of the future of China. Even though most of his points are correct, I think he underestimates China and uses concepts that may be less important in a technological world.

Peter Zeihan has similar arguments in his books, mainly based on geography and demographics, but this may not be the full picture. I think the view of Bruno Maçães depicted Belt and Road is more accurate.

In a world of robots, AI, and technology, geography and demography might play a much less important role than they did in the past.

🔧 The Tool of the Week

🗺 italki — Learn Any Language Faster

I know many people who want to learn a new language, and I must admit, it’s not easy. This year, I’m learning Serbian, and I follow the method of Scott Young from Ultralearning:

It’s a good method to master a language quickly:

  • iTalki Classes — for pronunciation and conversation.

  • Anki Flashcards with ~ 3000 words — to have enough vocabulary. Frequency dictionaries are handy to find the most important words to learn.

  • A textbook — for grammar.

italki is a great way to find a tutor to practice conversation. I like it because you have to do them once you schedule the classes, and you won’t postpone indefinitely!

🪐 Quote I'm Pondering

"Life must be understood backward. But it must be lived forward."

— Søren Kierkegaard

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👋 EndNote

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Until next week,

Mehdi Yacoubi

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