The Long Game 81: Gratitude, The Guilt Trap, Hard Work, Career Moats
🧬 The Great Filter, Moving Faster, Morocco, Single Millennials, Powerbuilding, Changing My Mind, 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)
We are offering $1,000 in Bitcoin if you refer to us a candidate we end up hiring.
In this episode, we explore:
The science of gratitude
The guilt trap
Building career moats
Hard work vs. smart work
How Morocco secretly controls the world
Changing my mind
Let’s dive in!
🙏 The Science of Gratitude
We constantly hear about how important being grateful is, and now we have some scientific results supporting these claims. Here’s the abstract of a paper exploring the neural mechanisms of the health benefits of gratitude in women:
Gratitude has received growing interest as an emotion that can bring greater happiness and health. However, little is known about the effects of gratitude on objective measures of physical health or the neural mechanisms that underlie these effects. Given strong links between gratitude and giving behavior, and giving and health, it is possible that gratitude may benefit health through the same mechanisms as giving to others. Thus, this study investigated whether gratitude activates a neural ‘caregiving system’ (e.g., ventral striatum (VS), septal area (SA)), which can downregulate threat responding (e.g., amygdala) and possibly cellular inflammatory responses linked to health.
A parallel group randomized controlled trial examined the effect of a six-week online gratitude (n = 31) vs. control (n = 30) writing intervention on neural activity and inflammatory outcomes. Pre- and post-intervention, healthy female participants (ages 35–50) reported on support-giving behavior and provided blood samples to assess circulating plasma levels and stimulated monocytic production of tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) and interleukin-6 (IL-6)). Post-intervention, participants completed a gratitude task and a threat reactivity task in an fMRI scanner.
There were no significant group differences (gratitude vs. control intervention) in neural responses (VS, SA, or amygdala) to the gratitude or threat tasks. However, across the entire sample, those who showed larger pre- to- post-intervention increases in self-reported support-giving showed larger reductions in amygdala reactivity following the gratitude task (vs. control task). Additionally, those who showed larger reductions in amygdala reactivity following the gratitude task showed larger pre-to-post reductions in the stimulated production of TNF-α and IL-6. Importantly, gratitude-related reductions in amygdala reactivity statistically mediated the relationship between increases in support-giving and decreases in stimulated TNF-α production.
The observed relationships suggest that gratitude may benefit health (reducing inflammatory responses) through the threat-reducing effects of support-giving.
For more, watch this episode for a complete review of the science of gratitude and how to build a gratitude practice.
The most important takeaways:
Most gratitude practices of writing or thinking about things you are grateful for will not actually lead to any positive benefits or changes in brain circuitry
Proper gratitude practice is really about associating or experiencing empathy or sympathy for someone who received help – whether it helps you gave or help you heard about given to someone you connect with
A regular (and correct) gratitude practice can shift connectivity of emotions to reduce anxiety and fear pathways, increase motivation and pursuit pathways, and decrease inflammatory cytokines – amongst other physiological benefits
Unlike other practices (such as mediation or breathwork), the positive effects of gratitude practice are felt almost instantly (60-90 seconds), making it sustainable to incorporate regularly
Steps for a scientifically grounded gratitude practice:
(1) Think about (or find from podcast, movie, etc.) a story in which someone received help, or you received thanks
(2) Write a few notes about the story, such as what the struggle was, what the help was, and how it made you feel
(3) Repeatedly reflect on the story, really connecting with it for a few minutes
🏃 How to Escape the Happiness Guilt Trap
Acting unhappy is a great way to become unhappy.
I understand the impulse, but research shows that acting unhappy is a great way to actually become dissatisfied with life. By saying you’re unhappy, you can talk yourself out of joy and right into gloom, which won’t do anything to ease others’ suffering. What will help is striving to achieve and project happiness even while showing your concerns about wrongs to be righted in the world. In fact, your happiness will make you more effective in making the world a better place.
There is a general trend in society to try to appear like a victim of something at all costs. This phenomenon is harmful:
If you find yourself projecting more sadness than you actually feel, you might suffer from a fear of happiness, an identifiable condition known as cherophobia. According to the research, cherophobia might stem from a belief that being happy will bring misfortune; that expressing or pursuing happiness is bad for you; or that being happy makes you a bad person. There is evidence that cherophobia is often found in religious communities. (You can assess yourself on the Fear of Happiness Scale to see whether you suffer from this condition.)
🧠 Better Thinking
🏗 On Building Your Career Moat
This is a great article explaining the thinking behind building a career moat.
A career moat is an individual’s ability to maintain competitive advantages over your competition (say, in the job market) in order to protect your long term prospects, your employability, and your ability to generate sufficient financial returns to support the life you want to live. Just like a medieval castle, the moat serves to protect those inside the fortress and their riches from outsiders.
First, why would you need a career moat? Isn’t a great job enough? It’s not enough because things are changing too fast nowadays.
The central thesis here is that career moats are worth pursuing because we live in a world of constant change. What is valuable today might not be valuable tomorrow, and the constant threat of automation and globalisation means we are no longer guaranteed careers (or company-supported retirement!) in the modern economy.
This is a depressing outlook — but it is, I think, the state of the world that we live in. It's doubly depressing if you consider the full implications of this worldview: that not building a career moat means living in constant fear of dropping off the bandwagon.
The best way to build a career moat is to be great at a specific combination of skills. Being the best software engineer in the world is extremely hard, but being the best at one particular (rare) combination of skills is more attainable.
Here is an example:
A skillset can be rare and valuable if the path to your unique combination of valuable skills is opaque. I gave an example of my friend in the telecommunications industry — his role requires him to be proficient in a broad set of rather unique skills, thus pushing up the lucrativeness of his specific job. (He has, to date, been poached twice).
⚡️ Startup Stuff
⚖️ Working Hard vs. Working Smart
This week, I found the perfect summary of the working hard vs. smart discussion in this episode with Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom. It is so good. I highly recommend watching it (from 1:49:00 to 1:58:00.)
I tried to clip the whole part, but I could only upload a small part on Twitter:
To sum it up: no one said that hard work is necessary, but if you want to change the world, even in a small way, you’ll absolutely need to work very hard. On top of that, hard work should be celebrated, and it’s something that’s currently changing in Silicon Valley (see this article from Waze co-founder.)
The answer is straightforward on the “but smart work is better than hard work” question: early-stage companies need both. In addition, especially for young people, Lex argues that it’s pretty daring to believe you know what “smart work” is.
These environments are not for everyone, but it’s good to be transparent and honest about what a team is about both on the input and the long-term goals and ambition.
To better understand why someone would want to work that hard, I recommend Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins.
📚 What I Read
🎲 Actionable Gamification
This is an excellent book on product design. I’ll cover it in detail next week.
I felt depressingly empty. I thought to myself, “I’ve spent thousands upon thousands of hours getting more experience, leveling up, accumulating more gold, collecting better gear…and now I end up with nothing.” Was there really no meaning to all the hours I had spent playing in the past few years? What if I had spent all this time learning a new language, or playing the violin instead? I would be “high level” in real life, instead of in some digital world of escapism.
This emptiness brought a rude, but important awakening. How could I instead, play a game that everyone is playing but the outcomes would actually mean something in the real world?
🏎 Moving Faster
A thoughtful piece on how to become faster.
The main thing that helped is actually wanting to be faster.
Early on I definitely cared more about writing 'elegant' code or using fashionable tools than I did about actually solving problems. Maybe not as an explicit belief, but those priorities were clear from my actions.
I probably also wasn't aware how much faster it was possible to be. I spent my early career working with people who were as slow and inexperienced as I was.
Over time I started to notice that some people are producing projects that are far beyond what I could do in a single lifetime. I wanted to figure out how to do that, which meant giving up my existing beliefs and trying to discover what actually works.
The main theme for most of the ideas below is being systematic about improvement. I had always been onboard with team processes like continuous integration, code review and root cause analysis, but for a long time I was completely haphazard about my own processes.
Now when I finish a chunk of work I look back and ask why it took me as long as it did and whether it could have been faster. This process is usually uncomfortable and I often manage to avoid thinking about the things I'm doing wrong so that I can stay in my comfort zone.
🌹 The Culture of the Single Millenial
A great exploration of the concept of the single millennial:
Why does the Millennial generation (people born between 1982-1996) have lower marriage and birth rates than previous generations? And when Millennials do get married, why is it at a later age than previous generations? Prominent periodicals like The Atlantic, Time, Washington Post and others have published articles trying to explain the phenomenon.
🎙 Podcast Episodes of the Week
This week in podcasts:
Kevin Systrom on Building Instagram
A fantastic episode on what it takes to build a product of the scale of Instagram.
A great reminder/summary of Atomic Habits by the author James Clear. The thing I found the most interesting is the influence of the social environment.
The people you surround yourself with can make or break your system
If you want to make a habit stick, hang out with like-minded people
Strange behaviors are only strange if you are the only one who does them
The desire to belong can sometimes overpower the desire to improve
The environment is like a form of gravity, you can resist it for a little while, but at some point, it begins to take its toll
If it’s possible, change or adjust your environment where your desired behavior is the normal behavior
“Environment is like an invisible hand that drives our behavior”– James Clear
🍭 Brain Food
🤯 Changing my Mind
Austen asked a great question on Twitter:
My response would be (as you might already know!)
What would be your response? Let me know! I’m currently looking for reading material for 2022.
🎥 What I’m Watching
🧬 The Great Filter — Why We Haven’t Found Other Life
I can’t get enough content about the Great Filter. This video is a good one.
To pair with Bostrom’s Where Are They? Why I hope that the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing.
🇲🇦 How Morocco Secretly Controls China, India, The United States, And the World
The story of Phosphorus and how it will evolve in the next few decades.
🔧 The Tool of the Week
🏋️♀️ Powerbuilding Programs
If you’re looking to upgrade your gym routine, Jeff Nippard has some of the best programs out there. I’m starting Powerbuilding Phase 1 this week and highly recommend Jeff’s Youtube channel and programs.
🪐 Quote I’m Pondering
you can do it too...
— Virgil Abloh, RIP 🙏
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