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The Four Agreements Microsummary

In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz invites us to make the following commitments to ourselves:

Be impeccable with your word. Try to be honest and true in everything you say. Do not lie, gossip, etc.

Don’t take anything personally. You cannot choose what others say or do, but you can choose how you respond to it.

Don’t make assumptions. Everyone has their own perspective and understanding of reality, and everyone is wrong much of the time. There is no shame in admitting your mistakes or uncertainty. Have the courage to ask questions and express your thoughts.

Always do your best. This one is the most important.Do not compromise.

Adherence to these tenets will improve our lives immensely.

Mind Trick for Writing More

I would like to wait far shorter to publish, and I would like to articulate my thoughts far more often.

In order to encourage that, I will do two things:

I will allow myself the luxury to change my mind. Anything I write reflects my best thought process at the moment but does not define me as a person). This will allow me to write “in the now” and not worry about the future.

The objective is to share my thoughts, not to measure my skill as a writer. Good writing takes time, and I strive to be a good writer. However, I don’t want that to make me write less often or worry that it’s taking too much time away from my core work.


Immigration Trilemma

Here are three properties that most people agree they want, but you can't have all three:

  • local democratic accountability
  • equal treatment under the law
  • ability to absorb a large number of migrants

It's hard to reject the first two, so many jurisdictions have laws limiting immigrants from entering.

I think we should talk about a trilemma for migration, which is three things, and we can only have two out of the three. You think of the liberal democracies — what would we like as a response for large numbers of people who need to go someplace? If it was some political jurisdictions, one of the things we want is local democratic accountability for the officials in the government. The second would be equal treatment under the law. And the third is, in this jurisdiction, the ability to absorb large numbers of migrants, potentially numbers that are bigger than the existing population.

Picture one of these places when there’s a million people there, but you’d like it to be able to accept another 9 million. All three of those things are things that most people would support, and you can’t have all three. So, the two we pick in most existing jurisdictions — we just don’t allow large-scale migration, and you can see some logic to that.

If you’re one of a million people, and you like the equilibrium, and you’re contemplating bringing in another nine million, and you’re committed to equal treatment under the law, the system’s going to basically be the one that all the new arrivals are going to vote for, not the ones that you like. And the new arrivals might be coming for the thing that you like, but still, collectively, they might vote for or put in place something that isn’t the one they’re seeking out.

There’s a reason why democratic systems can’t absorb huge numbers of migrants. You could violate equal treatment and say, “Okay, we’re going to let large numbers of people come in, but they’re not going to become citizens, have a different legal status.” Because of the norms that evolve in these conditions of inequality, I think that is going to prove to be a very damaging approach for both the migrants who arrive and the people in the existing society.

Source: Tyler Cowen and Paul Romer

How To Change Social Norms

To change entrenched social norms, isolate a group that has the new norms. Then slowly reintroduce others at a rate where they absorb the new norms. This applies to countries and to startups.

Persistent norms are not necessarily a bad thing, but you do need to think about what if you get stuck in a situation where the norms in a population are inefficient and really holding you back? Then you have to ask, what are the mechanisms where a group can change its norms? And this idea of letting a nonrepresentative subgroup go off and be the founding population in a new place. Then as people go in at a moderate rate from the old population to the new one, they can get socialized into the predominant culture in the new place.

With that mechanism, you can actually change the whole distribution of norms in a population in a way that might be more feasible than if you’re trying to change those norms in place in the population. These are the questions we should be asking about how to resolve some of the deepest challenges we face in development.

Source: Tyler Cowen and Paul Romer

Corey Thomas on Culture

I met with Corey Thomas from Rapid7 to talk about culture. Here are my notes.


Corey defines culture as "shared beliefs about how to create success". These are beliefs you won't compromise on, that you'll live and die by. It's better to fail with a principled and well-articulated set of beliefs than to exist in a wishy-washy state of uncertainty.

Another way to think about culture is as a guide for making decisions. When something unexpected or challenging happens, how would you like the people on your team to handle it. Should they do what will cause the least conflict (HBR calls this an emphasis on order), do what is bold or daring (emphasis on authority), do something playful (emphasis on enjoyment), etc. At Rapid7, their culture is "do the right thing, do it fast, learn from it", so an appropriate response might be to do the thing that lets you learn the most (even if it may be wrong or costly) and then look to iterate and improve.

Good Culture

Corey likens culture to a band playing together. Each person must be excellent at their instrument, but it's only when they play together that they can make beautiful music. Similarly, if one person is out of tune or not on the same page, they ruin the whole experience. Good culture is coherent.

There's no such thing as the one right culture. There are only tradeoffs. Whatever culture you have, it will naturally emphasize some universally valuable qualities at the expense of others that are equally valuable, but not to you or not right now. If your culture values predictability and preparedness, it will do better in a static environment where planning ahead is particularly useful. In a situation where things change constantly and planning is less effective, it will struggle.

The important thing is to understand your culture, and what inherent upsides and downsides it has. A stong culture will always have negatives, and if you see them clearly you can accept them and manage to them.

Your Culture

How to identify your culture? Ask yourself what you believe creates success. It doesn't have to be true in the objective sense. It only has to be true for you - something you collectively choose to believe at the moment.

As you name each belief out loud, test yourself to make sure it really is what you think. Maybe you said that the most important thing is fun - that if everyone is excited and having fun at work, you will get the best results. If that is true, would you hire someone who struggles to finish work on time and isn't that smart, but is extremely funny and playful? If no, then "fun" is probably a nice-to-have for you but not a core part of your culture.

Thinking about the extreme case helps you eliminate the platitudes. Corey calls this the "motherhood and apple pie" of culture. Some values like honesty are basic requirements, so it's not helpful to say that's what your culture is. Of course everyone has to tell the truth. Other values sounds nice, but when you dig deep you realize you can't have everything and you have to choose. Do you want high creativity or high efficiency? Having both is extremely difficult.

LBRY's Culture

Corey identified our culture at LBRY as a "big idea" culture. We have a big idea (that people want a decentraized marketplace for digital content, that Bittorrent + payments + global index is a winning combination, that using a blockchain to store metadata about content on the network is a scalable and useful application) and we're creating it together. We are meritocratic and semi-autonomous.

As a consequence, Corey warned that LBRY may struggle with cohesion and cooperation. Leadership may expect people to come to us with problems instead of proactively providing support, but if we're not clear on this expectation, we may be neglecting someone. Corey also thought that we may struggle to meet short-term goals because big ideas take a long time to bring about.

If he's right, acknowledging this will help us make active decisions about the tradeoffs. Most importantly, we can be explicit about them to ourselves. We should not be surprised at some of the challenges we're facing, because they are a direct result of what we (heretofore implicitly) chose to value.

Meta Advice

When I asked Corey how he created this model of culture for himself, he said his approach is to look for consistency and "contradictions that matter". Cultures generally have multiple competing foci. That's ok if the tension created there is beneficial. For example, American culture emphasizes liberty and equality. You can't actually have both, but this contradiction creates a very useful conflict that has lead to a lot of progress. That said, it is generally very hard to pursue multiple goals that are opposed, so Corey suggests only doing it if "the payoff would be astronomical".


HBR: The Culture Factor (here's a summary)

more from Corey