Month: December 2019

The Top 5 Episodes of The Knowledge Project 2019

Through conversations, we are able to learn from others, reflect on ourselves, and better navigate a conscious life.

The goal of our podcast, The Knowledge Project, is to help you think, reflect, and better understand the complexities and interconnections in the world in which we live.

If done right, listeners should walk away from episodes with a deeper understanding and a renewed sense of curiosity. Of course, not all of the conversations or guests will appeal to everyone.  And that is the point. We consciously want to explore the thinking, ideas, and methods of thoughtful people to deepen our understanding, challenge our ideas, and gain a broader perspective.

Of the 23 interviews that we published in 2019, these are the top five (as measured by downloads in the first 30 days):

  • #62 Cracking the Code of Love with Dr. Sue Johnson — Dr. Sue Johnson is a researcher, clinical psychologist, and the developer of EFT or Emotionally Focused Therapy. In this interview, we discuss how to create, protect, and nourish fulfilling sexual and emotional relationships.
  • #68 Putting Your Intuition on Ice with Daniel Kahneman — In this fascinating episode of the Knowledge Project Podcast, Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman reveals the actions we can take to overcome the biases that cripple our decision-making, damper our thinking, and limit our effectiveness. Listen and Learn from the master.
  • #57 Decoding Difficult Conversations with Sheila Heen — Two-time NY Times best-selling author, consultant, and lecturer at Harvard Law School, Sheila Heen makes the tough talks easier by breaking down the three layers that make up every difficult conversation.
  • #67 Keeping the Flywheel in Motion with Jim Collins — An earnest student and powerful teacher, mega best-selling author Jim Collins goes under the hood and shows what all enduring companies have in common. We talk luck, leadership, and business longevity.
  • #60 Leading Above the Line with Jim Dethmer — Jim Dethmer, founder of The Conscious Leadership Group, shares practical advice about becoming more self-aware, ditching the victim mindset, and connecting more fully with the people in our lives.

One episode that just missed the cut but warrants your attention is #71 Cultivating Desire with relationship expert Esther Perel.

Thanks for listening, Because of people like you sharing our show with friends, family, and colleagues, we crossed 12 million downloads this year and were selected as “Best of” Apple Podcasts in 2019.

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts | YouTube | Spotify | Overcast | Google Podcasts

Want more? Last year was a great year for the podcast as well. Here are the top 5 episodes from 2018.

The Best of Farnam Street 2019

We read for the same reasons we have conversations — to enrich our lives.

Reading helps us to think, feel, and reflect — not only upon ourselves and others but upon our ideas, and our relationship with the world. Reading deepens our understanding and helps us live consciously.

Of the 31 articles we published on FS this year, here are the top ten as measured by a combination of page views, responses, and feeling.

How Not to Be Stupid — Stupidity is overlooking or dismissing conspicuously crucial information. Here are seven situational factors that compromise your cognitive ability and result in increased odds of stupidity.

The Danger of Comparing Yourself to Others — When you stop comparing yourself to others and turn your focus inward, you start being better at what really matters: being you.

Yes, It’s All Your Fault: Active vs. Passive Mindsets — The hard truth is that most things in your life – good and bad – are your fault. The sooner you realize that, the better things will be. Here’s how to cultivate an active mindset and take control of your life.

Getting Ahead By Being Inefficient — Inefficient does not mean ineffective, and it is certainly not the same as lazy. You get things done – just not in the most effective way possible. You’re a bit sloppy, and use more energy. But don’t feel bad about it. There is real value in not being the best.

How to Do Great Things — If luck is the cause of a person’s success, why are so many so lucky time and time again? Learn how to create your own luck by being intelligently prepared.

The Anatomy of a Great Decision — Making better decisions is one of the best skills we can develop. Good decisions save time, money, and stress. Here, we break down what makes a good decision and what we can do to improve our decision-making processes.

The Importance of Working With “A” Players — Building a team is more complicated than collecting talent. I once tried to solve a problem by putting a bunch of PhDs in a room. While comments like that sounded good and got me a lot of projects above my level, they were rarely effective at delivering actual results.

Compounding Knowledge — The filing cabinet of knowledge stored in Warren Buffett’s brain has helped make him the most successful investor of our time. But it takes much more than simply reading a lot. In this article, learn how to create your own “snowball effect” to compound what you know into opportunity.

An Investment Approach That Works — There are as many investment strategies as there are investment opportunities. Some are good; many are terrible. Here’s the one that I lean on the most when I’m looking for low risk and above average returns.

Resonance: How to Open Doors For Other People — Opening doors for other people is a critical concept to understand in life. Read this article to learn more about how to show people that you care.

More interesting things, you might have missed

Thank you

As we touched on in the annual letter, it’s been a wonderful year at FS. We are looking forward to a wider variety of content on the blog in 2020 with a mix of deep dives and pieces exploring new subjects.

Thank you for an amazing 2019 and we look forward to learning new things with you in 2020.

Still curious? You can find the top five podcast episodes in 2019 here. Our Best of Farnam Street archive can be found here.

The Gift of Hope

It can be daunting, wondering what to give people, especially at this time of year. What gift properly communicates the feelings you have for someone? One idea is to give yourself. Another is to give the gift of hope.

In Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett writes about hope, and how transformative it can be.

“In a century of staggering open questions, hope becomes a calling for those of us who can hold it, for the sake of the world. Hope is distinct, in my mind, from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open eyed and wholehearted with the darkness that is woven ineluctably into the light of life and sometimes seems to overcome it. Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

Hope makes us resilient and courageous. We can share our hope with others, engaging in a reciprocal exchange that makes us all stronger. Tippett writes:

“We want to be called to our best selves. We long to figure out what that would look like. And we are figuring out that we need each other to do so.”


“Hope is an orientation, and insistence on wresting wisdom and joy from the endlessly fickle fabric of space and time.”

So how might we give hope? Tippett shares this insight:

“There are millions of people at any given moment, young and old, giving themselves over to service, risking hope, and all the while ennobling us all. To take such goodness in and let it matter-to let it define our take on reality as much as headlines of violence-is a choice we can make to live by the light in the darkness, to be brave and free.”

And thus hope, as explained by Tippett, is a resource we can grow, give, and share together.

“It is a relief to claim our love of each other and take that on as an adventure, a calling. It is a pleasure to wonder at the mystery we are and find delight in the vastness of reality that is embedded in our beings. It is a privilege to hold something robust and resilient called hope, which has the power to shift the world on its axis.”

Farnam Street’s 2019 Annual Letter to Readers

Most public companies write an annual letter to shareholders.

At their best, these letters represent an opportunity for the people entrusted to run the company to communicate with the people who own the company, the shareholders.

At Farnam Street, we are obsessed with you, our readers. You trust us with something far more valuable than money: your time. Reading Farnam Street or listening to The Knowledge Project means you’re not doing something else. Our job is to make sure your investment in us is getting an above-average return.

I write our letter each year. As you’ll see, there is no shortage of mistakes and lessons learned this year. (You can find past letters at the following links: 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.)


Brain Food (email newsletter)

Our newsletter mailing list has grown to roughly 250,000 subscribers from 185,000 at this time last year. That’s about a 35% increase in the headline number of readers over last year.

The number is somewhat irrelevant, however, if you don’t know how many people are actually opening the emails. I’m pleased to say our open rate is about 40%. This is down from last year’s 45% but well above the industry average of 20%.

We use a number internally called “effective readers,” which takes the number of email subscribers multiplied by the average open rate to provide us with the number of people who are laying eyes on our content. Last year this equation worked out to be 185,000 × 0.45 = 83,250. This year, it was 250,000 × 0.4 = 100,000. While not too shabby, this 20% growth in effective readers is still far less than 35% growth in the headline number of readers.

Like most of you, I get really busy from time to time. When I’m busy, I am more likely to unsubscribe from things—not because I didn’t get value from them but rather because I just needed to focus, and yet another email was a distraction at that point in time. With this in mind, we created something we’d never seen before. Rather than have you unsubscribe from Brain Food, we now give you the option to take a 30-day break from the newsletter. With one click, we can now temporarily unsubscribe you and see you again in 30 days.

You’ve probably noticed that we’ve been experimenting with pop-ups on the website. That could be one reason open rates are down slightly, as people that have little friction to sign up for emails rarely value our content as much as people who go through a bit of effort to sign up. Right now, the pop-ups are being used more to test wording that resonates. Expect them to mostly disappear soon.

Farnam Street Blog

Around this time last year, we were the 33,000th most popular website in the world. As I write, we’re the ~25,000th most popular site. This isn’t a number we put a lot of weight into as we’re typically in the 27,000–33,000 range. While it seems like we’re not moving up much, it takes a lot to stay in the same place.

One noticeable change that we’ve seen is that the site is easier to share now because of our new URL,, rather than the old one (

While we made small changes to the aesthetics of the website in 2019, you might see slightly more noticeable ones in 2020 aimed at improving the reading experience and the overall experience on mobile.

We published 31 new articles this year. The following list includes some samples that we’re particularly proud of:


In 2019, we offered two public Re:Think Workshops, one on innovation and one on decision-making. Two years ago, these events sold out in a week. Last year, these events sold out in a day. This year it took under 4 hours for the first and under 90 minutes for the second to sell out entirely. (Join the waiting list on this page so you don’t miss out on future dates!)

While we make many small changes every year, we made two this year that involve how people arrive at our events that I wanted to highlight. First, our sales page doesn’t make it easy to tell your boss the “five things you’re going to learn” from our workshops, so getting approval means you have to do some work; second, all tickets are non-refundable and non-transferable. Our goal with these changes was to have an event where everyone wanted to be there, and it works. The motivation and quality of attendees is amazing.

The events are small by design. Fifty people is about the maximum number of folks you can get to know over our short time together. The reason so many events are bigger than fifty people is economics. Events have high fixed costs, and once you hit about fifty people, anyone else you can sell a ticket to is mostly profit. However, putting more people in the room doesn’t make for a better experience for the participants.

Rather than increase the number of people, we’ll be increasing the number of events. We will be running four events in 2020, and they’ll be even better than before, as we’re making a significant upgrade to the content.

We’re also exploring a mega-event in 2021 aimed at bringing together speakers that are not commonly found together.

The Knowledge Project

The Knowledge Project produced nearly a show every two weeks this year! Guests this year included Josh Wolfe, Celeste Headlee, Laura Markham, Howard Marks, Jason Fried, Scott Page, Daniel Gross, Gabriel Weinberg, Thomas Tull, Shelia Heen, Jim Dethmer, Jonathan Haidt, Sue Johnson, Hugh Howey, Greg Walton, Shep Gordon, Emily Nagoski, Jim Collins, Daniel Kahneman, Steve Schwarzman, Scott Adams, Esther Perel, and Neil Parischa.

Last year around this time, we had forty-seven published episodes and 4.8 million downloads. This year we stand at seventy two published episodes and over 11 million downloads. In a world full of sound bites, people are growing to appreciate our deep and nuanced conversations with insightful guests and experts from a wide variety of disciplines. This month, we were honored to be recognized as one of Apple Podcasts’ “Best Listens of 2019”.

The podcast increased in subject diversity this year as we started to explore more areas of life. In 2019, we dove into topics like parenting, sex, and relationships. You can expect that the podcast will continue to explore a wider variety of content than the blog. Upcoming shows dive into anxiety and adversity with psychotherapist Barry Michels, design with legendary car designer Frank Stevenson, and math with professor and mathematician Steven Strogatz.

We did choose not to air an episode this year. I agonized over this decision for weeks and everyone on the team scrambled to try and make it work, but I ultimately pulled the plug. While it’s never fun to send an email to a guest and say we’re not going to air the show, in some cases it’s the best thing to do. The guest would have been unhappy with the show, and since we couldn’t hit the depth we strive to achieve, our listeners would have been unhappy as well. To make it a bit easier in the future to not air a show if need be, we now tell guests we promise to record but not necessarily air the show. This is a production decision. (If you’re curious, only one guest has asked us not to air a show that we’ve recorded, and that was because they felt they revealed too much of their secret sauce.)

Speaking of production, we started editing episodes a little bit for length and flow. Before episode 64, we rarely edited anything. Some episodes, like Jim Collins’, required virtually no editing. Others are pared from two to three hours of recording down to an hour or so of air time.

However, we’ve made the choice to back off on the editing a bit, so you might notice a bit more meandering in the future. We’ll continue to play with this in the future on an episode-by-episode basis to make sure we get the right feel. We’re not artificially trying to make our episodes any predetermined length of time. If we record three hours of gold, you’ll get three hours of gold.

We’re always on the hunt for amazing people and would love to explore more Eastern thinking as well as feature more amazing women. If you know anyone interesting and insightful in line with our previous guests, please drop me a line at [email protected]. While I can’t reply to all inbound messages, I will reach out if I’m interested.

Social media

You can follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and now Farnam Street TV (FSTV) on YouTube.

If you’re curious about how we tackle social media, follow us on YouTube and watch as we try to add value in a noisy world.


We spent a lot of time and effort on a learning course in 2019 that we ended up parking for the time being. We think we have most of it right; however, there was something that just wasn’t working right now. While it sucks to put something on hold after investing a lot of time and effort in it, I expect we’ll come back to this sometime in the near future.

We began work in 2019 on a course we think you’re going to love that’ll come out hopefully in late 2020 or early 2021.

The three mini-courses we’ve already done (The Art of Focus and The Art of Reading being the main two) are now part of the Learning Community. We don’t anticipate making bigger courses part of the Learning Community in the future but will likely continue to do smaller ones inside it.

The Learning Community

We have no aspirations of running the biggest membership community on the planet—just the best. Our Learning Community isn’t for everyone, and yet we continue to collect remarkable people from all walks of life, including entrepreneurs, Fortune 50 CEOs, professional coaches and general managers, athletes, students, teachers, Nobel laureates, authors, and more. We’re brought together by our shared kindness, curiosity, and desire to help one another become more effective.

Not only is the Learning Community a way to support what you love (FS!), join our virtual reading group, get transcripts to all of our podcasts, participate in monthly AMAs with authors, access exclusive meetups all over the world, and so much more—it’s a way to become part of an online community that wants to get better without the shortcuts. A lot of members find the private forum a way to get answers on anything from what book to read next to career and relationship advice.

If you find value in Farnam Street, we hope you’ll consider joining the Learning Community or gift it to the ones you love. Plus, when you join, you’ll also be helping the planet. Since Learning Community members read so many books, we thought it only fitting that we donate a portion of every membership to plant more trees so our forests stay nice and healthy.

If you’re curious, we offer gift memberships and discounts for teams. Visit here for more details.


I’ve been talking about books for three years—and they finally happened. Not only did they finally happen, but we hit The Wall Street Journal’s best-seller list for The Great Mental Models Volume One: General Thinking Tools. To our surprise, the book should be translated and available in a few countries by the end of 2020.

I wrote these words last year and have to eat them:

“There is some bad news, if you’re eager to get your hands on a physical copy. We’re only printing 3000 physical copies. . . . I don’t have an easily explainable answer to why only 3k hardcovers, so I won’t even try to explain it. Learning Community members will know about the physical copies first and get first dibs.”

While we gave away 3,000 copies of the original hardcover to the Learning Community in a feat of logistics I never wish to repeat, a friend of mine, Matt Mullenweg of Automattic Inc., reached out after receiving his copy and asked us to print more and make them more widely available.

After a bit of persuasion, I agreed to partner with Automattic on the book, make a few changes, and reprint the hardcover in another limited run. We printed another 7,000 books, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

Book two should be out before March. It’s printing as you read this. Book three should be available before the end of 2020. One small note: we’ll be printing fewer hardcovers for book two than book one, and fewer still for book three than book two. (Sales in series tend to decline as volumes increase, and we have no desire to store books for a year while they sell down.)

All of the content in the Great Mental Models series will eventually be available for free on the internet at some point in the future. You can read more about the project and what we’re trying to accomplish here.

There are three main criticisms of the The Great Mental Models Volume One: General Thinking Concepts, listed as follows:

  1. The audio is dry.
  2. The book is too short.
  3. The content on the website is so good, why pay for the book?

Let me try to address these briefly.

  1. The audio is dry. Yes, it is. There are two main issues with this. First, the way I read the book wasn’t good enough. That’s on me. Second, it’s a reference book, and reference books don’t tend to make good listening to begin with, so audiobook professionals would be much better narrators. We’ve offered to have the audio re-recorded at our expense but have no control in whether that happens. The rest of the books in the series will be read by a professional.
  2. The book is too short. You can’t please everyone. I hate reading books that are too long more than I hate reading ones that are too short. We didn’t want to waste your time and take what should be 40,000 words and make it 80,000 because it feels like you got more. That’s the type of trickery we shy away from. (With that said, book one is by far the shortest book in the series.)
  3. The content on the website is so good, why pay for the book? I’m not even sure where to begin with this one, as we’ve promised to put all the content of the book online at some point in the future.

The Trade Book

I signed a book deal with Penguin Portfolio in 2018 for a trade book and am beyond excited to be working with the team there, especially Niki Papadopoulos. I’ve wanted to work with Niki ever since she came to one of our events four years ago. I’m busy working away on this book which, assuming I hit my deadlines, comes out in 2021.

Team Farnam

Vicky is our new operations ninja who does nearly everything behind the scenes better and more effectively than anyone I’ve ever met. Devon is leading the charge on our Learning Community, making it more valuable for members. Rhiannon is my partner in crime on the Great Mental Models books. Last but not least, Rosie is helping us with research and more.


“Most sponsorships are a screaming bargain compared to traditional media buys, particularly if you’re trying to reach an elite or elusive [audience].” —Seth Godin

Now is the perfect time for your company to reach a highly influential audience of decision-makers. There are a number of reasons to consider a sponsorship over the traditional pay-per-click model, including the following:

  • This is the best way to reach our audience. Farnam Street readers are educated, affluent, and leaders in their fields. Our readers trust us, and we work hard to earn that trust. That trust extends to our site’s sponsors. Becoming a Farnam Street sponsor allows you to reach this target audience directly, maximizing your value per view.
  • It offers you affiliation with the best. Farnam Street is widely considered to be one of the best websites on the internet. Sponsoring Farnam Street will increase your company’s credibility in the eyes of existing and potential clients. We’ve seen this over and over again with past sponsors from Slack to Metalab.
  • It inspires your organization. When your employees find out you’re sponsoring Farnam Street, they’ll see that you share similar values and are committed to lifelong learning. One CEO called his company’s response “The Farnam Effect” after he got over twenty positive emails from staff and customers after sponsoring us.

Our website sponsors in 2019 were Royce Investment Partners and Greenhaven Road Capital.

Our podcast sponsors in 2019 were Metalab and Mealime.

Our newsletter sponsors in 2019 were Royce Investment Partners, Greenhaven Road Capital, Atoms, Masterworks, Brave, IVPN, Revtown,Legacy, The Information, MUD/WTR, Tulco, Alpha Sense, Ideo U, Ladder, Vollebak, and

If you’re interested in partnering with us in 2020, send me an email at [email protected].


I take your trust in Farnam Street and in me very seriously. This is exemplified by the following:

  • We are not paid by any company for any opinion or article posted on Farnam Street or in any public forum, including podcasts, Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter.
  • We receive free products all the time in the mail. If we use them and like them, we try to tell people about them—there are no affiliate links.
  • Farnam Street participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising commissions by linking to Amazon. Simply put, if you click on our links and buy anything, we earn a small commission, yet you don’t pay any extra.
  • Sponsors of our newsletter and website are not allowed to run any code that might track your internet presence. Website sponsors operate on a percentage-of-traffic basis and do not compensate us based on page views. This helps align our incentives with yours.
  • We do not have a Facebook tracking pixel, so we’re not enabling companies to target our audience.
  • We don’t give out your email address to any third parties.

We’re not always perfect, but we try to be transparent and keep our promises.

Thank you

I’m looking forward to a wider variety of content on the blog in 2020 with a mix of deep dives and pieces exploring new subjects.

Thank you for letting me learn with you.



Influence, Gender, and Defying Social Conventions with Friedrich Nietzsche and Jane Austen

In the third installment of our FS Bar series, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and writer Jane Austen sit down for a drink and discuss each other’s work, gender, philosophy, and try to find common ground. As always, they are attended by our intellectually curious bartender Kit.


We are back at the FS bar. Kit is going through the stock to prepare an order. The door opens and Friedrich Nietzsche lurches in and settles himself at the bar. Kit puts down her paperwork and moves a few bottles to the side.

Kit: Good afternoon. What can I get you?

Nietzsche: Beer. (He casts his eye over the taps.) It seems that no one has yet determined how to elevate the craft of brewing. I see even the French make some.

Kit: I’m pretty good at matching preferences to types. What are your must-haves in a beer?

Nietzsche: Strong. Illuminating. And thick enough to hold up a spoon.

Kit: (grins) I love a challenge.

Nietzsche: Hmph.

(As Kit is getting Nietzsche’s beer ready, Jane Austen walks in. Elegantly, if somewhat tentatively, she takes a seat at the bar. Kit puts Nietzsche’s beer down in front of him before turning to Austen.)

Kit: Hi, what can I get you this afternoon?

Austen: Port please.

Kit: Sure thing.

(There is a pause that stretches and becomes slightly awkward.)

Nietzsche: (starts speaking to Austen) I’ve read some of your stories you know. The ones with the alliteration. Sense and Sensibility sounded promising until I realized none of the characters had either.

(Austen takes a sip of the port that Kit has just set down.)

Nietzsche: Really, what was the use of all that sentimental drivel? Man should be required to confront his stupidity, not hide behind it moaning about useless nonsense. In my last book I didn’t waste time trying to comfort those who cower behind the lies they have come to worship. A mirror or a strong knock on the head is what’s required. Not giving ignorance legitimacy.

Austen: Well, I did desire to make some money, and thus did not have the luxury of completely pissing my readers off. You understand why I had to be a fair bit more subtle in my take-down of social convention.

Nietzsche: (his eyes light up) I must have missed that. I was obviously confused by the happy endings. How, despite all the absurdity, it all works out okay in the end. That seems to imply that social convention works.

Austen: Giving readers a happy ending helps them digest the rest. If you tear everything apart and then have your characters die in misery, there is no hope for the reader. If you want them to change their thinking you must give them hope there is still time and a reason to make that change.

Nietzsche: People who need to be coddled like that are beyond benefiting from reading.

Austen: I think it is worth the effort, to try to reel them in before I cut their legs from under them. The more someone enjoys a story, the more they will see it through to the end.

Nietzsche: What people will pay for.

Austen: What they won’t.

Nietzsche: Lots of people read my work-

Austen: Out of sheer morbid curiosity. Dying to know who you will next assault. But you and I aren’t so different. What they come for isn’t what they leave with.

Nietzsche: (regards her for a moment) I doubt it. Most people are too invested in the status quo and too ashamed of their ignorance to think for themselves.

Austen: And yet here we are. Having managed to think ourselves out of the primitive struggle for daily survival. To create language and steam engines and leisure time. So, surely, the odd human occasionally manages to think for themselves, dragging the rest of us along.

Nietzsche: Not without considerable difficulty.

Austen: Yes. But we are up to the challenge, you and I, are we not? (pause) I read Twilight of the Idols in its entirety you know, despite it having no description of twilight or anyone to idolize.

Nietzsche: (takes a sip of his beer, trying to hide a smile) And you think I should have been kinder. Thrown in a puppy or some of that romantic nonsense that has taken over society like a cancer.

Austen: Not at all. I do think you missed a great opportunity to further decimate the social systems that lead to the kind of thinking you seem to abhor.

Nietzsche: Really? And where was that?

Austen: In your book you talk about the progress of an idea, how it grows more refined, more enticing, more incomprehensible. You say it becomes more like a woman. By doing this, by effectively reducing women to be simply what they appear to men, you take away their humanity. And when you do that, you place women outside of the changes you are arguing for.

Nietzsche: Explain yourself.

Austen: Christianity has also reduced women to objects solely to be used by men. By being aligned with the church’s thinking you reinforce the same power structure you are trying to take down.

Nietzsche: (stares at her for a moment) I should have put woman on an equal footing with man?

Austen: If only to anger all those priests and vicars.

Nietzsche: (pauses) That isn’t why I write you know, to provoke outrage. I’m trying to show people how weak they are. And how much more they could be.

Austen: There is greater potential everywhere. Women are both subject to the same institutions and have the same potential for overthrowing them as men.

Nietzsche: Hm. This from the woman who wrote “it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Austen: Oh Mr. Nietzsche, you are smart enough to see the humor in that. Something that is true and absolutely shouldn’t be.

Nietzsche: Yes. People laugh. And then they keep doing it anyway.

Austen: And maybe one day they’ll realize it makes them chuckle because it’s absurd. And then they will stop throwing their daughters in the path of every man with an excellent income and a large property. And maybe the daughters will start to do something else when they aren’t saddled with these expectations.

Nietzsche: I agree with you on this. Women have much more to offer outside the confines of marriage.

Austen: I’m aware of your history, so I will take that comment in the spirit it is intended, with my tongue in cheek.

Nietzsche: And has it made a difference then, your writing?

Austen: (sighs a little) Possibly only to me.

Nietzsche: So here we are then, both of us wasted talents who sought to change the world and who failed entirely.

Austen: You don’t believe that.

Nietzsche: No. It is depressing how little happens in one’s lifetime, but there it is. The Greeks didn’t become interesting until a thousand years after their heyday. Perhaps you and I will both be on a stamp or a bank note one day.

Austen: A girl can dream.

Nietzsche: (Raises his glass in Austen’s direction) Well, Ms. Austen, it hasn’t been as much of a waste of time as I anticipated.

Austen: (smiles) Same to you Mr. Nietzsche, same to you.

Tradeoffs: The Currency of Decision Making

Every decision we make carries an opportunity cost. If we don’t budget wisely, we end up wasting time and energy on things that don’t matter. Here’s how to do it right.


Economics teaches you that making a choice means giving up something. — Russ Roberts

The disregard of tradeoffs and opportunity costs play out in the same pattern again and again in our lives. We try to do everything and end up accomplishing nothing.

If you’re young, you think you can go all out in your career, have fulfilling relationships, travel on a regular basis, keep up with reading and social media, go without sleep, take out unnecessary credit card debt, and start a family at the same time. The end result is always a total meltdown.

Even if you are twenty or thirty years past this point, you are not immune. Every day we are faced with choices on how to invest our time, and we all can be guilty of the same thing: Taking on too much without properly understanding the costs. The problem is a misunderstanding of the importance of tradeoffs.

The dismal science

It’s not always that we need to do more but rather that we need to focus on less. — Nathan W. Morris

Economics is all about tradeoffs. A tradeoff is loosely defined as any situation where making one choice means losing something else, usually forgoing a benefit or opportunity. We experience tradeoffs in zero-sum situations, when a plus in one area must be a negative in another. A core component of economic theory is the study of how we allocate scarce resources and negotiate opportunity costs.

Economics offers tools that we can use as guides for getting what we want out of life if we take economic lessons and apply them to resources other than money. We all know our money isn’t infinite, yet we end up treating our time and energy and attention as if they are.  Many of us act as if there are no tradeoffs—we can just do everything if we try hard enough. The irony is that those who know how to make tradeoffs can get so much more out of life than those who try to get everything.

That’s not to say we can’t get more out of our time investments, while staying within the limitations imposed by mental and physical health. We can get more efficient in certain areas. We can combine activities. We can decide to focus on one area for a while, then switch to another. We can find plenty of smart ways to achieve more.

But blindly trying to overstuff our days and stretch our minds to their limits is foolish, whatever the self-help gurus and hustle porn promoters claim. We’re sold the false belief that we can be and have everything. As Julian Baggini writes in What’s It All About?: Philosophy & the Meaning of Life, a person in a content, long-term relationship might feel the pressure to get everything right:

They may well be an excellent life partner. But perhaps they are not a sexual athlete, the world’s best communicator, the possessor of a great body, a domestic god or goddess. In their local bookshop, however, they will be told by a book that they can and perhaps should be all of these things. This can foster feelings of inadequacy.

The truth is, when you’re trying to get everything right, you’re getting nothing right.

No one has everything

When we look at other people, we end up getting the impression that they are managing to do everything. They are fantastic parents, their relationships are novel-worthy, they look amazing, their careers are epic, they get enough sleep, and they feel good all the time. This, however, is far from true. We’re just not seeing the hidden tradeoffs they’re making.

Tradeoffs can take a while to become apparent. They sometimes only show up in the long term. We see this in complex adaptive systems. Try to optimize one area and there’s likely to be a price elsewhere. Sometimes it’s an obvious negative equation, like when steroid abuse leads to organ damage, or when fancy houses mask crippling debt.

But often the tradeoffs are genuinely hard to evaluate—people with world-class math abilities are often socially clueless, and many parents sacrifice career advancement to raise their kids. We all have to make sacrifices to be able to invest in what is important to us. Tradeoffs imply that to get really great at a few things, you have to accept being mediocre at a lot more.

There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.

— Thomas Sowell

Most of us can divide up our lives into a few important areas: work, health, family, relationships, friends, hobbies and so on. It’s an unfortunate truism that we can never quite keep everything in balance. We’re constantly going off-kilter in one area or another and having to make course corrections. When one area goes well, another is usually sliding. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole. Focus on one area and it’s often to the detriment of another.

If you feel like you’re always behind on some area of your life, it’s probably a sign to reconsider tradeoffs. If you feel like you’re always running in place without making any serious progress on anything you care about, you’re probably making the wrong tradeoffs. We often end up allocating our time, and other scarce resources like money, by default, not in the way that gets us what we want.

How to take tradeoffs into account

The necessity of making trade-offs alters how we feel about the decisions we face; more important, it affects the level of satisfaction we experience from the decisions we ultimately make.

― Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

One of the most important areas where we need to pay attention to tradeoffs is when we make decisions. It’s not always enough to consider what we stand to gain from going for option B over option A. We also need to take into account what we lose.

Most big decisions involve major tradeoffs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s neutral. It’s just the price we pay. Simply being aware of the notion of tradeoffs is enough to change the way we make decisions.

Time is our most fundamental constraint. If you use an hour for one thing, you can’t use it for anything else. Time passes, whatever we do with it. It seems beneficial then to figure out the means of using it with the lowest possible opportunity costs. One of the simplest ways to do this is to establish how you’d like to be using your time, then track how you’re using it for a week. Many people find a significant discrepancy. Once we see the gulf between the tradeoffs we’re making and the ones we’d rather be making, it’s easier to work on changing that.

For instance, understanding tradeoffs in time usage is a good way to cut out unwanted, unhelpful behaviors and wastage. It’s one thing to tell yourself you’re not going to spend half an hour reading the news every morning before starting work. It’s another matter to plan how you’re going to spend that time instead. Will you finish work earlier and cook a fancier dinner, or Skype with a friend who lives abroad, or read a chapter of a book?

The higher the value is of what you could be doing versus what you are doing, the greater the opportunity cost. We’d all agree that we’d rather devote our time to activities we value, yet we can end up not acting that way out of habit or obligation or simply because we haven’t considered what we’re forgoing. We will never manage to get rid of everything that has low value to us, but we can keep cutting it back.

Multitasking as a way of getting more out of our time without making tradeoffs doesn’t work. The tradeoff in that case is often not doing anything particularly well. If you answer emails when you’re with your kids or friends, you’re not really focusing on either. Your emails are banal and the people you are with feel unimportant. Even if we try to find ways around fundamental constraints, the tradeoffs show up somewhere.

The final requirement in order to take tradeoffs into account is that you really need to be able to let go of not being great at something. If you’ve chosen to prioritize your relationship with your kids over a clean house, then you need to be okay with letting other people see the mess. If you’ve prioritized physical activity over entertainment, you need to accept that other people are going to tease you for being ignorant of what’s going on in the world. If you’ve chosen to focus on your career versus maintaining every friendship you’ve ever had, you need to get over the pang of hurt when people stop inviting you out.

Tradeoffs aren’t always easy, which is probably why we try to avoid them.


If we think we can have it all, we’re more likely to end up with nothing. We can get much farther if we decide where to focus our energy and which areas to ignore. When we actively choose which tradeoffs we want to make, we can feel much better about it than when we’re forced to let things slide. We need to actively decide what we value the most.

Each of the myriad decisions we make on a daily basis carries an opportunity cost. If we don’t consider them, we easily end up stuck in situations where we’re forgoing things we’d rather prioritize. We end up lamenting what we’re missing out on against our will, unsure how this happened. But if we first consider the tradeoffs associated with the decisions we make, we can end up with far more satisfying choices.