Farnam Street’s 2017 Annual Letter to Readers

Most public companies issue an annual letter to shareholders. These letters present an opportunity for the people entrusted to run the company on behalf of the shareholders to communicate with the people who own the company. In 2015, I started a similar tradition at Farnam Street.

To a large extent, I consider you the owners of Farnam Street, but you trust me with something far more valuable than money: time. For all of us, time is finite. Reading Farnam Street means you’re not doing something else. My job is to make sure your investment is getting an above-average return.

***

In almost every reader-related metric, 2017 was a record year.

Readership increased over 40%, which was decent. We surpassed 155,000 subscribers to our weekly newsletter, Brain Food. Tempering this excitement is the fact that email open rates dipped slightly. (We’ve reached the limits of our current mail provider and will be transitioning at some point, likely in Q1 or early Q2, to another provider. For readers, the transition should be seamless.)

Last year I wrote about how most sites try to hijack your animal responses by using outrage to acquire traffic. We’ve never set out to consciously “acquire” an audience. Our readers tell their friends, family members, and co-workers and we grow slowly. I’m okay with that. I write for the million “me’s” out there.

Visitors continued to spend more time on the site (a good proxy for how interested people are in the content). The bounce rate (a fancy phrase for the percentage of people who look at one page and then leave the site) continued to move in the right direction. In short, we had more people who read longer and looked at more pages. Next year we’ll to a better job mixing in some shorter articles.

***

Thanks to Grain and Mortar, we completed a significant revamp of the website that has made it cleaner and easier to navigate. Our looks are finally starting to catch up to our content, a happy difference from what happens with people over time.

***

Events

In 2017, we offered two public Re:Think Workshops (Innovation and Decision-Making). We continue to limit attendance at these events to ensure a good experience for everyone. We sold out the 2018 version of Re:Think Decision-Making in only two weeks. Join the waiting list to hear about events first.

One of the most surprising things about the events for attendees is that they get to meet people who are curious, kind, and intelligent. In short, people just like them. The quality of the individuals continues to impress me. In 2017, we had attendees from WordPress, Adobe, Amazon, Shopify, Risebar, Red Bull, Satori Capital, United Way, Convexity Capital, and more.

This summer, we also held our first Think Week event in Europe (Paris, to be specific), and it was a hit. We’ll be doing at least two of these events next year: one in the Bahamas (sorry already sold out) in February and one in Europe in the summer. (These events vary in intensity, so read carefully before signing up. The event in the Bahamas will be low key, more of a “read all day and let’s meet at dinner to discuss interesting things” gathering, whereas the Europe one will be way more intimate and intense.) Because these events are so small, I’ve decided that people will have to apply to come. If you’re going to spend 30 hours with someone over three days, cramped in my apartment, you want to know that I’ve curated the audience.

The Knowledge Project

What a difference a year makes. Despite having the most irregular podcast in the world, we had over 1.5 million downloads this year. To put that in perspective, we released only 10 episodes this year. The quality of our guests is amazing, as you can tell from the interviews with Naval Ravikant, Rory Sutherland, Adam Grant, Ray Dalio, Susan Cain, Gary Taubes, and more.

We already have a terrific roster lined up for next year. I’m aiming to release a new episode once every three to four weeks instead of once every six to eight weeks. Given the intensity of the research that goes into The Knowledge Project guests, I have no idea how other shows release episodes with the frequency they do.

Tools and More

About four years ago, we started to purchase online courses to see what was going on. As students, we didn’t like what we saw, which was a lot of entertainment and not a lot of outcome changes. So, we set to work and created three courses over the last three years, testing various ways to improve outcomes. Through various iterations, we’ve landed on a formula that consistently delivers results for people.

Productivity That Gets Results, our popular productivity seminar, has been closed (we’ve stopped selling it). However, members of our Learning Community will have access to it starting in January.

The Art of Reading—I dropped the ball on this one — my team and I worked really hard updating the content and adding new resources for our students…and then I didn’t tell anyone. I am a terrible marketer. This course will show you how to sift through information more quickly, squeeze the best ideas out of any book or article, and absorb what you read so you can access that knowledge for years to come.

The Art of Focus is being offered for sale until early January and then I’m closing it for good. The course was a smashing success, but the accountability element takes considerable time. (Note: If you join the program before it closes, you’ll still get all the feedback, support and open access to the course that previous students enjoy. You’re grandfathered in forever.)

I’ve started working on a new course. You’re going to love it.

The Learning Community

The quality of our members—from entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 CEOs to professional coaches, athletes, and bestselling authors—remains remarkable. We’ve really hit on something that delivers.

Last year I said that we would use some of the proceeds from the Learning Community to improve the quality of the regular, free content. To that end, we hired our first professional editor in July and the overall quality of our content has gone way up.

In 2017, I started a weekly email to members of the Learning Community. It’s a short bit of content that is more practical than that in our blog posts.

Rest assured, the majority of FS content will always be free. If you find value in Farnam Street, we hope you’ll consider joining the Learning Community. Now you can give a membership to your smart friends and loved ones.

Team Farnam

Perceptive readers know there is more to Farnam Street than me. Behind the scenes is an evolving team and freelancers who make things happen.

This fall Jeff told me that he wanted to pursue another opportunity. Jeff joined Farnam in November of 2015, and his contributions have been many. Jeff has never been one to stand up and brag about what he’s done, but he’s a great friend.

Sponsorships

I want to thank our main 2017 sponsor, Royce Funds. Other supporting sponsors included Greenhaven Road, Tiny, 2CVElysium Health, Ray Dalio and Principles, the Heath brothersAdventur.es, and Syrus Partners.

Royce Funds, Greenhaven Road, Tiny, Syrus and Elysium will be back in 2018. We still have a few open slots for next year, so if you’d like to inquire about sponsoring the blog, please get in touch with me.

2017 Report Card

Last year I wrote, “In 2017, we will work to better synthesize, connect, and explain timeless ideas that help you make better decisions, avoid stupidity, and kick-ass at life. I’ll try to add more personal stories and anecdotes from my journey.”

I’m pleased but not satisfied with our results.

True to our tagline, we’re focused on mastering the best of what other people have already figured out. I always have a hard time with personal stories, though, because I never view the content as being about me. In fact, any of the ideas that you come across on the site that are useful are not mine. I have started opening up about my experiences a bit in the Learning Community and that has been well received.

I also told you that we’d find great guests for our podcast, The Knowledge Project, increase the value proposition for Learning Community members, and work on some books. Yes, books.

As mentioned earlier, we’ve found amazing guests for the podcast. I’m still the same me, but it turns out that once your audience reaches a certain size, the ratio of “yes” responses to “no” responses inverts. So to all of those people who don’t like the dedicated email about the podcast, remember that it helps us get better guests (and, because it’s sponsored, pays the bills).

Creating value for members of our Learning Community is a tricky proposition, summed up in the words of one member: “I get so much value from your free content that I joined the learning community as a means to support what you’re doing. I didn’t realize there was so much more practical value in the learning community. … What I value most is that you respect my time and don’t make anything longer than it needs to be.” In 2017, we started sending weekly emails that are more practical in nature to the Learning Community. We have many more things coming up for the LC in 2018.

As many of you know, we’re huge fans of mental models. The problem is that when I set out to read about mental models years ago, there wasn’t a good source of information in one place. Where could I find timeless ideas to help me learn, think, and decide?

Farnam Street has filled that void for many, but we’ve been inundated with requests to write a book about mental models. The first volume, internally dubbed Thinking Tools, will be released soon. Rather than being a version of the website, it’s a fresh start at intelligently preparing ourselves for the world. Whether readers are high school students or newly retired seniors, this well-designed book will hopefully have a place on their shelves for generations.

***

You Are What You Consume

The people you spend time with shape who you are. As Goethe said, “tell me with whom you consort and I will tell you who you are.” But Goethe didn’t know about the internet. It’s not just the people you spend your time with in person who shape you; the people you spend time with online shape you as well.

Tell me what you read on a regular basis and I will tell you what you likely think. Creepy? Think again. Facebook already knows more about you than your partner does. They know the words that resonate with you. They know how to frame things to get you to click. And they know the thousands of people who look at the same things online that you do.

When you’re reading something online, you’re spending time with someone. These people determine our standards, our defaults, and often our happiness.

Every year, I make a point of reflecting on how I’ve been spending my time. I ask myself who I’m spending my time with and what I’m reading, online and offline. The thread of these questions comes back to a common core: Is where I’m spending my time consistent with who I want to be?

Am I reading things that challenge me and make me want to be a better person, or am I spending too much time on topical things that are meant to entertain me? If you read indiscriminately, you’re wasting vast amounts of time.

Am I spending my time with people who are consistent with who I want to be as a person? Are they constantly learning? Are they generous and kind? Are they challenging me and calling me out on my bullshit?

These are not easy choices. However, hard decisions about whom you hang around with and what information you consume changes your vector and your velocity. Hard choices make for better decisions, more free time, and a better understanding of reality.

Think about dating. We seem to understand that happy people and unhappy people don’t generally get along. If you’re a happy and ambitious person and you go on a first date with someone who hates their job, complains about past partners, and generally wants to zone out of life, you instantly feel repelled by this person. You know, subconsciously, that this attitude is highly contagious and needs to be removed from your life before it spreads. The longer you’re in contact with people like this, the more likely you’ll become them.

What we don’t understand is that this principle applies to whom, or what, we spend our time with online as well. If you consume shallow content, then before you know it, you’ll have shallow opinions. If you’re not careful, the world will become black and white rather than various shades of grey.

Most of what we spend our time with online doesn’t make us better, but rather shouts at us and distracts us. And most of it is just bullshit click-bait anyway, with no more depth than a book summary on Amazon.

Consider:

  • The article on how to network like a boss offers advice on how to get ahead by thinking of people in terms of what they can do for you. After all, if they can’t do something immediate and gratifying for you, the next person is just a swipe away. Not only does this kind of behavior make you more likely to be selfish, but it also misses the point of networking altogether, which is to spend time with people who think better than you do and connect with them in meaningful ways.
  • The article on how to get a promotion shows you how to position yourself for favorable optics. Not only does this mean that you’re going to spend more of your time demonstrating how much value you deliver and less of your time delivering value, but it’s also going to make you less likely to get along with your co-workers.
  • The article on how to become more productive was written by someone who has no idea of what your life is actually like. And it focuses on how to do email faster instead of on how to do less email, so you only end up getting better at moving widgets. And here’s the thing: when you’re better at moving widgets, your reward is to move more widgets. And if you’re moving more widgets, you never have time to do something better.

Think about it. If the person writing the article churns out an article a day on 200 subjects a year, how much are you really going to learn from them? You have to consider both the content you’re getting and the sources. Are the writers fluent in their subjects? Are they well read? How credible are they?

Not to mention, a vast swath of what we consume makes us miserable. So much of what we are surrounded by is fake happiness. We want people to think we’re happy when we’re not. The louder and more frequently someone says their partner is “just the most amazing person in the whole world,” the more I suspect relationship issues. When we only see other people having happiness — real or fake — our minds trick us into thinking that we’re the only ones who are struggling. So we hide it, and by hiding it, we become more isolated and alone.

Increasingly, the feeds we follow show us an endless array of people having a good time, traveling, partying it up, and more. Individually, our friends might be able to do this once a year, but when you follow a few hundred accounts, you’re virtually assured that on any given day, one of those people is doing something marvelous. This makes us feel like crap: Why can’t I keep the house clean, pick up the kids, and not feel rushed all the time? Why do they have so much free time? Why didn’t they invite me? I want to be there. Why are those people always happy? How did they get so successful? I work just as hard as they do. And so on. We are surrounded by unrealistically positive expectations, which just remind us of what we don’t have: free time, money, an obsessively healthy lifestyle, diamonds, and a soul mate.

Nothing looks the same again. We feel alone. It seems like other people are nothing but successful and we do nothing but struggle. As our misery increases, we hide our struggles more and just show others the good stuff. Only it’s not real; we’ve just become part of the crowd of people pretending there is no struggle.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but I’m human. I struggle. A lot. Here’s what you miss with the curated feeds: In the past year alone, I’ve been on my couch crying; I’ve been betrayed by a close friend; I’ve tried and failed to develop a relationship with my biological father; I’ve had days when I think it would be easier to win an Olympic gold medal than to get my kids to school without losing my patience; I’ve been so exhausted that I can barely keep my eyes open; I’ve looked at a sink full of dishes and said “not tonight”; and there is so much more. The point is, you might see the results, but you don’t see the struggle. And when you see only the best in others, without seeing the reality of others, you are nudged toward thinking less of yourself.

So if your Facebook feed is full of happy people doing things that make you feel bad about your life, either change the feed or be conscious of the fact that everyone struggles from time to time but not everyone lets you see it. Be aware of how what you’re seeing affects you. And remember that the people you allow into your life, both in person and online, are the people you will end up becoming.

Curate carefully. Choose people who add value to your life and meaning to your relationships. And stop giving a damn about what other people think.

***

As I wrote last year, “Velocity is a vector-dependent concept. Moving in two directions that are not 100% aligned creates drag.”

While I still said yes to too many things in 2017, I’m getting better at saying no. The best thing I did this year was to switch my default to “no” for all meetings. If I can’t say no, I schedule the meeting for the afternoon. If I have to do it in person, I make it close to my office.

What helps me say no to meetings? Some simple tests: Am I willing to have this meeting right now? Would I rearrange my calendar for this meeting? If I’m not willing to sacrifice something, even something small, for the meeting, maybe it’s not worth having.

Thank you for your continued time and trust in me and Farnam Street. I will continue to try to earn it.

—Shane

(See what a difference a year makes. You can find the 2016 letter here.)