The Long Game 80: The Tail End, The Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls, Decisiveness, Hooked

👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 Parenting Practices & Children Personalities, How Ocean Shipping Works, Good Taste, Bosnia, Cron, 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:

📣 We are hiring at Vital, help us build the “Strava for Health.” We are now looking for:

  • Senior Backend Engineer (Python, Django)

  • Senior Frontend Engineer (Flutter)

Find all our openings here.

We are offering $1,000 in Bitcoin if you refer to us a candidate we end up hiring.

In this episode, we explore:

  • The tail end

  • The dangerous experiment on teen girls

  • Decisiveness

  • Hooked

  • How ocean shipping works

  • Good taste

Let’s dive in!

🥑 Health

🧬♾ The Tail End — A Reminder of Why We Need to Fight Aging

The end of the year is always a good moment to realize a few sobering facts that it’s always important to keep in mind. No one does it better than Tim Urban:

I’ve been thinking about my parents, who are in their mid-60s. During my first 18 years, I spent some time with my parents during at least 90% of my days. But since heading off to college and then later moving out of Boston, I’ve probably seen them an average of only five times a year each, for an average of maybe two days each time. 10 days a year. About 3% of the days I spent with them each year of my childhood.

Being in their mid-60s, let’s continue to be super optimistic and say I’m one of the incredibly lucky people to have both parents alive into my 60s. That would give us about 30 more years of coexistence. If the ten days a year thing holds, that’s 300 days left to hang with mom and dad. Less time than I spent with them in any one of my 18 childhood years.

When you look at that reality, you realize that despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life. If I lay out the total days I’ll ever spend with each of my parents—assuming I’m as lucky as can be—this becomes starkly clear:

It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.

It’s a similar story with my two sisters. After living in a house with them for 10 and 13 years respectively, I now live across the country from both of them and spend maybe 15 days with each of them a year. Hopefully, that leaves us with about 15% of our total hangout time left.

This reminder should push us to invest more time, energy, and money in the research and efforts to reverse biological aging to enable humans to enjoy far greater healthspans and lifespans.

In the meantime, this story from 105 years old Julie Hawkins is inspiring:

When she turned 100 she took up sprinting. In 2017 she set the 100m world record for women over the age of 100 with a time of 39.62. When her record was broken in September by Diane Friedman, Hawkins decided to compete in a new age category.

“I love to run, and I love being an inspiration to others,” Hawkins said on Sunday. “I want to keep running as long as I can. My message to others is that you have to stay active if you want to be healthy and happy as you age.”

🌱 Wellness

🚫 The Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls

Although I don’t agree with the premise of blaming all of society’s problems on Facebook—see here and here—I think it (Instagram) still has terrible consequences for some people, namely young girls.

Jonathan Haidt was the one to raise concerns about it initially and wrote a great piece last week about it.

Social media gets blamed for many of America’s ills, including the polarization of our politics and the erosion of truth itself. But proving that harms have occurred to all of society is hard. Far easier to show is the damage to a specific class of people: adolescent girls, whose rates of depression, anxiety, and self-injury surged in the early 2010s, as social-media platforms proliferated and expanded. Much more than for boys, adolescence typically heightens girls’ self-consciousness about their changing body and amplifies insecurities about where they fit in their social network. Social media—particularly Instagram, which displaces other forms of interaction among teens, puts the size of their friend group on public display, and subjects their physical appearance to the hard metrics of likes and comment counts—takes the worst parts of middle school and glossy women’s magazines and intensifies them.

He then makes the point that Instagram is the likely culprit in four points.

  1. Harm to teens is occurring on a massive scale.

    1. The data for adolescent depression are noteworthy:

  2. The timing points to social media.

    1. Here the argument is that the increase in social media usage is correlated to the rise of mental issues in young people. Correlation is not causation, though.

    2. “National surveys of American high-school students show that only about 63 percent reported using a “social networking site” on a daily basis back in 2010. But as smartphone ownership increased, access became easier, and visits became more frequent. By 2014, 80 percent of high-school students said they used a social media platform on a daily basis, and 24 percent said that they were online “almost constantly.””

  3. The victims point to Instagram.

    1. “The evidence is not just circumstantial; we also have eyewitness testimony. In 2017, British researchers asked 1,500 teens to rate how each of the major social-media platforms affected them on certain well-being measures, including anxiety, loneliness, body image, and sleep. Instagram scored as the most harmful, followed by Snapchat and then Facebook. Facebook’s own research, leaked by the whistleblower Frances Haugen, has a similar finding: “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression…”

  4. No other suspect is equally plausible.

    1. Haidt acknowledges that correlation doesn’t prove causation but explains that no other cause is equally plausible. It’s important to see that it could be a fitting narrative that we want to believe in. We need more research into this to conclude things for sure.

    2. “Correlation does not prove causation, but nobody has yet found an alternative explanation for the massive, sudden, gendered, multinational deterioration of teen mental health during the period in question.”

I personally stay away as much as possible from Instagram because I don’t think it brings much value to my life. Twitter, on the opposite, is much better because it’s focused on ideas and thinking rather than appearances.


🧠 Better Thinking

⏩ Decisiveness is Just as Important as Deliberation

A lot is said about making good decisions, but it’s rarely acknowledged that most decisions need to be made fast. This is an excellent article exploring this concept.

decisions in the real world are often time sensitive — the sooner you act, the more value you realise from having acted (but often the precise amount of that value is also occluded by uncertainty). Most decision-making frameworks don't take time selection into account, since there is no need to model time sensitivity in decision experiments. But in the real world, the utility of each choice may sometimes depend on the decisiveness with which you act on your analysis.

This is particularly true in the context of a startup. The author gives the example of when he took too long to fire a blatantly underperforming team member.

One of the lessons you learn in management is that organisational problems become more intractable the longer they remain unsolved. You start by not firing one likeable under-performer, and then before too long you have a culture of underperformance that permeates your entire org. Eventually, the competent people quit — they don’t enjoy the extra work. Those who aren’t as competent stay. Your company remains unquestionably likeable. But correcting the culture now becomes a lot more difficult than if you corrected it in the early days.

(I say this like it is some slippery slope, but this is what happened in an actual company that I know).

What did my team think in the months that I dithered? What was I communicating with my actions? From the perspective of the junior engineers who were observing (and who had to pick up the slack), I was probably communicating the idea that performance didn’t matter as much as likeability did. This was at odds with what I was saying verbally. The longer I took to act, the more pronounced this message became.

When you work hard to build a team of A-players, taking too long to let go of someone that’s not a fit is dangerous because it impacts the overall team and its understanding of what is expected in the organization.

⚡️ Startup Stuff

🔁 Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

As we are focused on building a verticalized social app at Vital, I picked up Hooked by Nir Eyal last week. It may seem paradoxical to mention Hooked in the same newsletter where I write about the harms of Instagram and mention the episode with Tristan Harris and Daniel Schmachtenberger. Still, I believe it’s possible to build habit-forming products that are 100% aligned with the goals of its users.

Optimizing health is hard and takes a lot of time. A lot of people just get bored after a little while and stop doing it. We are building a social app that will make the whole experience much more enjoyable and enable people to stick to it for the very, very long term.

Back to Hooked, here are some notes I took from the book:

  • It’s challenging to change or replace established habits. Habits emerge because our brain is eager to save time, making us do whatever worked last in most situations.

  • Habit-forming products generate high revenues and are hard to compete with.

  • There are many advantages to selling habit-forming products. First of all, they attract long-term customers. Second, a habit-forming product has a strong competitive position. This is because changing and replacing habits is so hard that for a new product to usurp your customers, it will need to be significantly better than the old one; no minor improvement will do the trick.

  • Habit-forming products require users to go through the four stages of the Hook Model repeatedly.

  • The four stages are:

    • The trigger: an external event that gets us to try a product the first time, for example, a TV commercial.

    • The action: what we need to do to use the product, for example, registering on an online community.

    • The reward: the fulfillment of the need that initially motivated us to take action, for example, being entertained if the motivation was boredom.

    • The investment: something of value that we have invested in the product, such as time, money, or information.

  • The last step leads back to the start of the cycle, and as these steps are repeated over and over again, the user starts to develop internal triggers instead of external ones. This means they will feel the impulse to use the product all on their own, even without external stimuli.

  • To start the process of habit-building, products need an external trigger. The external trigger is necessary because, initially, the product is not yet part of the potential customers’ habits.

  • Once we develop internal triggers that make us use a product, we’re hooked. Often, the most potent internal triggers are negative emotions. So, for example, the internal triggers many of us have for social networks and smartphones range from boredom to fear of social disconnection to the stress of living in uncertainty, which makes us Google every unknown in our lives.

  • Every product needs to motivate and, most importantly, enable potential users to use it.

  • Variable rewards are vital in making users dependent on a product in the long term.

  • If users have invested something, be it time, money, or effort, into a product, a habit will likely follow.

  • Finally, the question of using this model responsibly: companies should use the power of habit-building products responsibly. How do companies or entrepreneurs know whether they are right or wrong in this respect? They have to ask themselves two questions:

📚 What I Read

📉 The Bad Guys Are Winning

Is democracy the only possible evolution of societies on Earth? Not so fast. This is a sobering piece:

If the 20th century was the story of slow, uneven progress toward the victory of liberal democracy over other ideologies—communism, fascism, virulent nationalism—the 21st century is, so far, a story of the reverse.

Is There Such a Thing as Good Taste?

The answer is yes:

When I was a kid, I'd have said there wasn't. My father told me so. Some people like some things, and other people like other things, and who's to say who's right?

It seemed so obvious that there was no such thing as good taste that it was only through indirect evidence that I realized my father was wrong. And that's what I'm going to give you here: a proof by reductio ad absurdum. If we start from the premise that there's no such thing as good taste, we end up with conclusions that are obviously false, and therefore the premise must be wrong.

🇨🇳 The Triumph and Terror of Wang Huning

This is how China behaves:

It is in this context that Wang Huning appears to have won a long-running debate within the Chinese system about what’s now required for the People’s Republic of China to endure. The era of tolerance for unfettered economic and cultural liberalism in China is over.

According to a leaked account by one of his old friends, Xi has found himself, like Wang, “repulsed by the all-encompassing commercialization of Chinese society, with its attendant nouveaux riches, official corruption, loss of values, dignity, and self-respect, and such ‘moral evils’ as drugs and prostitution.” Wang has now seemingly convinced Xi that they have no choice but to take drastic action to head off existential threats to social order being generated by Western-style economic and cultural liberal-capitalism—threats nearly identical to those that scourge the U.S.

🎙 Podcast Episodes of the Week

This week in podcasts:

  • Tristan Harris and Daniel Schmachtenberger

    • Great episode on how technology threatens democracies and our mental health. Daniel Schmachtenberger is one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever listened to. If you enjoy his ideas, this episode with Lex is a necessary follow-up.

🍭 Brain Food

👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 Parenting Practices Seem to Have Little or No Impact on Children's Personalities

The nature vs. nurture debate might be one of my favorites. I already talked about it multiple times on The Long Game, but I came across this paper last week, and it was too important not to share it. Here’s the abstract:

The goal of this research was to explore the relationships between four parenting dimensions (academic involvement, structure, cultural stimulation, and goals) and child personality development.

Many theories, such as social learning, attachment theory, and the psychological resources principle assume that parenting practices influence child personality development.

Most of past research on the associations between parenting and child Big Five traits specifically has used cross-sectional data. The few longitudinal studies that examined these associations found small relations between parenting and child personality. We extended this research by examining the long-term relations between four underexplored parenting dimensions and child Big Five personality traits using bivariate latent growth models in a large longitudinal dataset (N = 3,880).

Results from growth models revealed a preponderance of null relations between these parenting measures and child personality, especially between changes in parenting and changes in child personality. In general, the observed associations between parenting and child Big Five personality were comparable in magnitude to the association between factors such as SES and birth order, and child personality—that is, small.

The small associations between environmental factors and personality suggest that personality development in childhood and adolescence may be driven by multiple factors, each of which makes a small contribution.

This is a significant result. It means that parenting has far less influence on a child's personality than traditional theories of psychology believed. This is also shown by twin studies, where they find that twins separated at birth end up in very similar life circumstances.

It doesn’t mean that good parenting isn’t essential, though. The role of healthy parenting is not to affect personality, but rather to teach a child how their personality affects other people, the environment & themselves through providing proper boundaries around their child’s personality that lead to successful social interactions.

🎥 What I’m Watching

🚢 How Ocean Shipping Works (And Why It’s Broken)

If you’re on Twitter, you must have seen the heroic thread of Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen. If not, there you go 👇

This video is a great follow-up to understand the problem on a global scale.

🇧🇦 Bosnia in Danger of Breaking Up

I have a particular interest in the Balkans, I found this video informative, and the underlying problem worth being aware of.

🔧 The Tool of the Week

📅 Cron — Superhuman for Calendar

I love beautifully designed products. Cron is part of those products with particular attention to detail and a superior design. I’m looking forward to testing it! Here’s a cool video with the founder and Garry Tan.

🪐 Quote I’m Pondering

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us.

Daniel Burnham

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👋 EndNote

Thanks for reading!

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Until next week,

Mehdi Yacoubi

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