The Profile: The man spending millions to live forever & the family of Russian spies
Good morning, friends.
I get a lot of newsletters, but the one I read religiously is Shane Parrish’s weekly Brain Food.
Many of you are probably already familiar with his blog Farnam Street, a site devoted to improve your thinking and help you make better decisions in your day-to-day life. It’s excellent.
Quick intro on Shane: He was a cybersecurity expert at Canada’s top intelligence agency and an occasional blogger when he noticed that 80% of his readers worked on Wall Street. His site, Farnam Street, caters to a high-achieving audience by featuring strategies of rigorous self-betterment as opposed to cheesy self-help. He subscribes to the idea that reading, reflection, and lifelong learning are the keys to true personal development. (If you want to learn more about how he built Farnam Street, read his New York Times profile here.)
I asked Shane to write a guest post for The Profile on how he used mental models to transform his thinking since he began working on Farnam Street. We can all learn a thing or two from this one. I hope you enjoy.
Shane Parrish, Farnam Street:
Back when I was working for a three-letter-intelligence-agency, I had to make a lot of decisions that often felt like lucky guesses. I was given responsibility but no methodology. As funny as it sounds, despite multiple university degrees and a host of promotions, no one had ever really taught me how to think through a problem or make a decision.
When it hit me that at some point my luck ran out, I was flooded with questions. What should my thought process look like? How do I distinguish the relevant information from the irrelevant? How do I determine the interconnections? How would the smartest people I know think about this problem and what can I learn from them? Are there shortcuts, or general thinking tools, that I can use so rapidly improve my thinking?
Someone pointed me in the direction of Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett's intelligent, irreverent business partner. Munger has spoken a lot about the value of mental models, about learning the fundamentals from a wide range of disciplines and using that knowledge as a lens to better understand the dynamics of any situation. The more of these models we have, the better we are able to understand things.
Every discipline, like biology or physics or even psychology has its own set of models they use to see the world. Some of these are incredibly specific to the discipline, but a lot of them are useful for a wide variety of situations outside of their original discipline. And some of them, like reciprocation, appear in multiple disciplines (psychology and physics). Having specialized in computer science, my models were pretty limited.
I think of models like tools, and my mind like a toolbox. The more tools we have in our mind, the more likely we are to have the right ones for this situation. If we don’t have the right tools, we default to using the ones we do have and become the proverbial man with the hammer: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
That sounds a lot like thinking to me.
At first, this new way of thinking was daunting. I had never really thought consciously through the lens of mental models. I wasn’t sure I had the time for something whose payoff was only going to be realized far down the road. And looking at situations while trying to figure out what ideas from multiple disciplines are at play is time-consuming.
Eventually things clicked. I remember one of the first days I started to see the world differently. I was in the middle of a meeting, listening to the same conversation I'd heard a thousand times. The same intractable points of view were going to lead to the same train wreck we'd experienced time and time again. But instead of being stuck, it just made sense. It was like I was Neo in the Matrix.
“We’re not looking at this though the context of base rates,” I said. “So we’re making a decision but ignoring a vast swath of data that suggests we’re wrong.” The room went silent. Finally someone said, “Base rate?” And I replied “A lot of other people have tried this and failed.” And that changed the conversation.
In that one meeting, the questions we asked of each other changed. We started to pull apart hidden assumptions and see the world in a new light. Who tried before? Did they have the same resources as we do? Has the environment changed? Why did they fail? What can we do to increase our odds of success?
I'd love to be able to tell you that we made a better decision that day, but that isn't what happened. But something had changed. I was different. And from then on, I was all in to learning and applying mental models trying to look at situations through multiple lenses in order to think better and understand the situation.
As cheesy as this sounds, I started asking myself how a physicist would see this problem. How would a biologist see this problem? How would a mathematician see this problem? I realized that we can learn from everyone and started seeking out people with opinions I previously dismissed. I changed the people I invited to meetings where we made decisions. I wanted cognitively diverse viewpoints — not a room full of people with a computer science degree — so we could make better decisions.
At the time, I wondered why there wasn’t just a big list of the mental models I should have learned? So I created one and put 109 models in it.
Some practical mental frameworks you can employ in day-to-day life include:
The map of reality is not reality. Even the best maps are imperfect. That’s because they are reductions of what they represent. If a map were to represent the territory with perfect fidelity, it would no longer be a reduction and thus would no longer be useful to us. A map can also be a snapshot of a point in time, representing something that no longer exists. This is important to keep in mind as we think through problems and make better decisions.
Velocity is not equivalent to speed; the two are sometimes confused. Velocity is speed plus vector: how fast something gets somewhere. An object that moves two steps forward and then two steps back has moved at a certain speed but shows no velocity. The addition of the vector, that critical distinction, is what we should consider in practical life.
Inversion is a powerful tool to improve your thinking because it helps you identify and remove obstacles to success. The root of inversion is “invert,” which means to upend or turn upside down. As a thinking tool, it means approaching a situation from the opposite end of the natural starting point. Most of us tend to think one way about a problem: forward. Inversion allows us to flip the problem around and think backward. Sometimes it’s good to start at the beginning, but it can be more useful to start at the end.
Improving your understanding of how the world works doesn't happen overnight, and you don't see the benefit right away. Over time though, you start noticing that you have more time. You are less stressed. Most of the problems that do come up are exciting because you feel like you have the right tools to figure them out. This is what mental models have done for me.
Better decisions. Better life.
— Shane Parrish is the editor at Farnam Street, a website dedicated to mastering the best of what other people have already figured out.
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Here’s what we have for you this week.
— The man spending millions to live forever [**HIGHLY RECOMMEND**]
— The founder trying to fix trust
— NYPD’s worst nightmare
— The man building ‘the Netflix for sports’
— The startup building the future of entertainment
— The crypto startup fueling a gold rush
— The family of Russian spies
PEOPLE TO KNOW.
The man spending millions to live forever: Bulletproof Coffee founder Dave Asprey has made the widely publicized claim that he expects to live to 180. To that end, he plans to get his own stem cells injected into him every six months, take 100 supplements a day, follow a strict diet, bathe in infrared light, hang out in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, and wear goofy yellow-lensed glasses every time he gets on an airplane. So far, Asprey has spent at least a million dollars hacking his own biology, and making it to 2153 will certainly take several million more. This one is nuts.
“Is living a long time a kind of superpower? Yes. Although I might die trying.”
The founder trying to fix trust: In this wide-ranging Q&A, you get a sense that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is somewhat self-aware about the unforeseen implications of his platform. He explains that Twitter has inadvertently created bubbles and echo chambers. “I’m not proud of that,” he says. “Like, we definitely help divide people. We definitely create isolation.” Isolation leads to distrust, and Dorsey is often on the receiving end of people’s rage about what’s going on in the world. This is a really good one.
“There’s a lot of fear. It’s fear of companies like ours. It’s fear of power, and it’s completely 100 percent natural. People are afraid of what technology has become and what it can do.”
NYPD’s worst nightmare: Manuel Gomez, a private investigator who used to be a cop, has made a name for himself investigating the cases of people who claim to have been charged with crimes they didn’t commit. Although Gomez looks for cases that seem to reveal police wrongdoing, he has some credibility issues of his own. He could be rash to the point of recklessness. He’s had a history of aggression and violence. And he sometimes overlooked facts that didn’t conform to his preconceived ideas of justice and injustice. I couldn’t put this one down.
“I see myself as a punisher for the wicked and a bringer of justice to the innocent. I protect the weak.”
The man building the ‘Netflix for sports:’ John Skipper accepted the opportunity to become president of ESPN and one of the most powerful people in television. He sat in front of about 450 on-camera reporters, analysts, and anchors and told them his plans. Less than a week later, he resigned claiming the reason for his departure was an ongoing struggle with substance addiction. After the incident, Skipper is back with a new sports media startup that aims to beat his former employer at its own game.
“What I see in John is ambition—and a little revenge. When he mentioned, ‘Look, we want to compete with ESPN,’ I said, ‘Of course. Bingo.’ ”
COMPANIES TO WATCH.
The startup building the future of entertainment: Media mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg and former eBay and HP CEO Meg Whitman have raised $1 billion in funding for their new media startup, Quibi. The company aims to update old-school video techniques for the mobile age. It will create an app-based subscription service that features high-quality programming specifically created for mobile devices. Could this paid app succeed where Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram failed?
“Five or 10 years from now, we'll look back and go, ‘There was the era of movies, there was the era of television, and there's the era of Quibi.'"
The crypto startup fueling a gold rush: In the last three years, Bitcoin has created a virtual gold rush in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Crypto mining company Bitfury has helped migrate most of Georgia’s land registry to blockchain, making the government one of the first to rely on the secure digital ledger. The country is now an energy guzzler, with nearly 10% of its energy output gone into mining. Even farmers got involved. “At one point, it was more profitable than owning a cow,” one business owner said.
“Bitfury has given our country many things, including a path to the future. When you have a ticket to get onto the world map, you should use it.”
FROM THE VAULT.
The family of Russian spies: Not exaggerating when I say this is an extraordinary story. It’s about the children of deep-cover illegal spies who had no idea their parents were Russian. For years Donald Heathfield, Tracey Foley and their two children lived the American dream. Then an FBI raid revealed the truth — they were agents of Putin’s Russia. The man and woman the boys knew as ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ really were their parents, but their names were not Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley. Those were Canadians who had died long ago; their identities had been stolen and adopted by the boys’ parents. The sons tell the family story.
“The family home had been bugged for years. The FBI knew the couple's real identities, even if their own children did not.”