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Break the Chain: Stop Being a Slave

A vendor once tried to buy me a laptop. Not just any laptop but a very expensive laptop. The vendor claimed that there were no strings attached. And, as they pointed out, I was the only person in the meeting with them, so “no one would know” they had given it to me.

It wasn’t a hard decision. I said no.

It wasn’t because I didn’t need a laptop. In fact, I did need one. The laptop I was using was old and out of date. I had purchased it myself years ago in a fit of frustration at the ridiculous process the government wanted me to follow to obtain one from them.

“No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

— Nietzsche

Governments have clear conflict-of-interest rules for people in situations like this one. The rules, however, are impractical. They’re also expensive. I remember one dinner with a vendor that ended up costing me hundreds of dollars personally. I made a mistake: I went to wash my hands around the time the vendor picked out some wine. I came back to see a glass of wine poured for me. When the bill came, the vendor insisted on paying it. Damaging our relationship and embarrassing him, I refused and said, “That’s very generous of you, but the government is clear; I’ve got to pay my share.”

My share? Over $200. I hadn’t picked the restaurant or the wine. When I returned to work a few days later and submitted a claim for the difference between my per diem and the meal, I was literally laughed at.

But the real reason I said no to the laptop was that I don’t want to be owned by other people. Even if my freedom personally costs me money. However well-meaning the laptop offer might have been, I would have felt a debt to the vendor who’d given it to me. A debt that would need to be paid at some point. That debt would have created a bond between us that I didn’t want.

We need to make our own way, and there is a slippery slope between accepting the generosity of people who help you along and getting dependent on them. The entitlement born from expecting others to help you is a recipe for misery. So is excessive dependence on others.

The lesson is never to anticipate or rely on the kindness of strangers. This dependence means they own you. If you have a mortgage, you don’t own your house; the bank does.

Working for the government taught me a lot about ownership — specifically, about dependence on other people. People refused to say what they really thought, subconsciously abiding by the maxim “whose bread I eat, his song I sing.”

When people would approach me and tell me how miserable they were and how they hated their jobs, I would ask them why they didn’t leave. The answer was almost always the same: “I can’t.”

Once we’re bought, it’s hard to get out. While we all start out wanting more independence, we increasingly live lifestyles that make us dependent.

When I first started working in the government, I made just under $40k a year in salary. For me, just out of university, that was a killing. I felt like I could do whatever I wanted. After a while, I was making more money but still living off the same starting salary. The additional money went to savings and debt repayment. I said no to living above my means and watched as most of my friends couldn’t say no.

A lot of them spent more than they made no matter how many promotions they received. Appetites for desires are rarely quenched. As people spent more, they got more into debt. As they got more into debt, they wanted more and more. As their wants exceeded even the debt-funded shopping sprees (cars, trucks, houses, swimming pools, campers, play structures for the kids, etc.), they got unhappier. They saw other people with things they wanted. Things they felt like they deserved. Their relationships suffered. They became miserable. They hated their jobs but they were stuck. The bank owned them. Work owned them.

And they realized it too late.

Part of the reason for the laptop offer was likely that vendor expected to have preferred access to me and to the government. Prefered access to information that could potentially benefit his company, to the tune of millions or tens of millions of dollars. Had I accepted the offer, it would have been hard to deny him. I saw the strings and didn’t want any part of them.

Amelia Boone, the Michael Jordan of adventure racing, said, “I believe the key to self-sufficiency is breaking free of the mindset that someone, somewhere, owes you something and will come to your rescue.”

The bank doesn’t owe you a mortgage, just as work doesn’t owe you a job.

“Self-sufficiency,” wrote Epicurus, “is the greatest of all wealth.” Epictetus added that “wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”

It can be hard to say no. It means refusing someone, and often it means denying yourself instant gratification. The rewards of doing this are uncertain and less tangible. I call decisions like this “first-order negative, second-order positive.” Most people don’t take the time to think through the second-order effects of their choices. If they did, they’d realize that freedom comes from the ability to say no.

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So Two Stoics Walk Into a Bar…

The first thing he ordered was OJ with a splash of vodka. When people come to the FS bar the first thing they did was order a drink so this didn’t seem out of the ordinary. But looking closely … this was no ordinary man.

Why was Seneca ordering a drink at the FS Bar? And who was that next to him? Is that Epictetus? It’s clear this was going to be no ordinary night at the FS bar.

It’s time to get to work.

***

(What follows is our imagined dialogue between Epictetus and Seneca, two essential contributors to Stoic thought, at the FS bar, presided over by an intellectually curious bartender, Kit.

Imagine: There is a slight breeze as the door opens. In walk Seneca and Epictetus. They are both dressed decently, but plainly. After taking a moment to adjust to the light, they each take a seat at the FS bar.)

***

Kit: Evening Gentlemen. What can I get you?

Epictetus: I’ll have an orange juice with a little vodka. Get my friend here a hemlock tea.

Seneca: Very humorous. I’ll have the same, please.

Kit: No problem. (She begins to mix the drinks)

Seneca turns to Epictetus, obviously continuing a conversation they had started earlier.

Seneca: I’m not sure I agree with you. Relationships don’t automatically interfere with our ability to be content. If you find someone who has the same approach to life as you, then it’s possible to share your life with them.

Epictetus: Ah, that makes me nervous. Other people, their decisions, their actions, are outside of our control. If we can’t walk away from relationships then we’re relying on things that we have no control over. And it’s impossible to be content like that.

Seneca: But surely a life without emotional attachment is not the kind of life that will provide contentment?

Epictetus: Why not?

(Seneca pauses to think about this.)

Seneca: It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life. Every individual can make himself happy. That implies that feeling something positive is the goal.

Epictetus: Yes, but happiness comes when you can generate it yourself. Like you said, everyone is born with the tools to make himself happy. You don’t need anything else in this world to achieve it. Money, stuff, or relationships.

Seneca: I guess the question then, is can you have something without needing it? Can you enjoy something without relying on it?

(pause while they both consider this)

Kit: And how are the screwdrivers Gentlemen?

Seneca: Exactly as they should be. Thank you.

Epictetus: You probably think our conversation isn’t very appropriate for a bar.

Kit: (smiles) Everything is appropriate for a bar. It’s a good place to work out your thoughts.

Seneca: What do you think? About my friend’s point that we should form no real attachments to anyone. Spouses. Children. Because we can never be truly content relying on anything outside of our control.

Kit: It sounds pretty impossible. If you didn’t care about anyone, why would you even bother getting married or having kids? What would be the point?

Seneca: Exactly! I think that relationships can play a crucial role in being content with your life. The goal is not to avoid feeling because it can cause pain, but accept that pain will inevitably come, and learn to deal with it with equanimity. And if you have a close relationship with someone who’s similar, you can find contentment with each other. It’s about enjoying relationships without becoming attached to them.

Epictetus: No, no. Denial is better than moderation. Wanting nothing means no one has power over you. As soon as you want a spouse, you compromise your ability to control your life.

Seneca: As soon as you desire anything, you compromise. But what if it’s not about wanting a spouse. Or children. What if it’s just about doing it if the opportunity presents itself, and then it becomes about loving the ones you have.

Kit: (who has continued to listen to their conversation due to a lack of other patrons) I think it would be really hard to not want your children to grow up and have great lives.

Epictetus: It’s not ‘wanting’ or ‘not wanting’. It’s not feeling anything at all beyond what you can control.

Kit: Is that even possible?

Epictetus: (shrugs) It’s something to work towards. (Sees Kit’s skeptical expression) Look, if you go buy a chocolate bar, it costs you a dollar. If you don’t buy it, you don’t have the chocolate bar, but you still have the dollar. You can’t both get something and not pay for it. It’s the same with relationships. You can’t derive benefit from them without it costing you to some degree. And if you don’t invest yourself in them, you’ll still have that effort available for yourself.

Seneca: I disagree. I think it is possible to love. You just can’t let yourself be controlled by it. It is desires that blind us to the truth. The wanting, not the being. You can and should love your children. But you must also be mindful of the precariousness of life, and not be amazed or devastated by the things that happen to them. A lot of bad shit happens in life, to us and the ones we love. The problem is that we are always surprised by it.

Epictetus: Ah, so when a little wine is stolen, don’t get upset. It’s the price you pay for tranquility.

Seneca: Right.

Kit: So, you just have to accept that your husband will leave you, and your children will die, that way when it happens you will just be like ‘oh, okay’?

Seneca: (shakes his head) Not quite. It’s more knowing that they could. See, it might not ever happen, but then again, it might. And if you start off accepting that fortune, or fate, or however you understand the world, brings both good and bad, then you will be able to still find contentment no matter what life throws at you.

Kit: Hmm. And does it work for you?

Seneca: (laughs) Sometimes.

Epictetus: I think it’s about trying to be one step removed from what’s happening. If you can recognize, for instance, that it’s not people who are irritating, but your judgment about their behavior that is irritating, then you create a space where you can change how you feel without needing anyone else to change.

Seneca: Yes. The more understanding and acceptance you have of the reality of living, the less you are impacted when circumstances knock you down.

Kit: Well, that I can get behind. Another drink?

The Terror of Totalitarianism Explained

We all hope totalitarianism — a form of government in which the state has no limits in authority and does whatever it wants — is a thing of the past.

Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia showed what the end of humanity would look like, and it terrified us. But it’s important to understand that totalitarianism didn’t just spring up out of a mystical vacuum. As Hannah Arendt explains in The Origins of Totalitarianism, it is, rather, just one possibility along a path that most countries are on at one time or another. And that is why it is so important to understand what it is.

The People

One of the most disturbing things about Nazism in Germany is how quickly the country changed. They went from democracy to concentration camps in fewer than ten years.

Most of us assume that the Germans of the time were different from us — we’d never fall for the kind of propaganda that Hitler spewed. And our democracy is too strong to be so easily dismantled. Right?

Wrong.

Arendt writes that “the success of totalitarian movements … meant the end of two illusions of democratically ruled countries….” One illusion was that most citizens were politically active and were part of a political party. However,

… the [totalitarian] movements showed that the politically neutral and indifferent masses could easily be the majority in a democratically ruled country, [and] that therefore a democracy could function according to rules which are actively recognized by only a minority. The second democratic illusion exploded by the totalitarian movements was that these politically indifferent masses did not matter, that they were truly neutral and constituted no more than the inarticulate backward setting for the political life of the nation.

In many modern democracies, we can see evidence of indifference and pervasive feelings of helplessness. There is low voter turnout and an assumption that things will be the way they are no matter what an individual does.

There is pent-up energy in apathy. Arendt suggests that the desire to be more than indifferent is what totalitarian movements initially manipulate until the individual is totally subsumed.

The disturbing factor in the success of totalitarianism is … the true selflessness of its adherents: it may be understandable that a Nazi or Bolshevik will not be shaken in his conviction by crimes against people who do not belong to the movement…; but the amazing fact is that neither is he likely to waver when the monster begins to devour its own children and not even if he becomes a victim of persecution himself….

How does totalitarianism incite this kind of fanaticism? How does a political organization “succeed in extinguishing individual identity permanently and not just for the moment of collective heroic action”?

As Arendt demonstrates, both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia capitalized on tensions already present in society. There was essentially a massive rejection of the existing political system as ineffectual and self-serving.

The fall of protecting class walls transformed the slumbering majorities behind all parties into one great unorganized, structureless mass of furious individuals who had nothing in common except their vague apprehension that the hopes of party members were doomed, that, consequently, the most respected, articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the powers that be were not so much evil as they were equally stupid and fraudulent.

How does a totalitarian government harness this attitude of the masses? By completely isolating individuals through random “liquidating” (mass murder) so that “the most elementary caution demands that one avoid all intimate contacts, if possible – not in order to prevent discovery of one’s secret thoughts, but rather to eliminate, in the almost certain case of future trouble, all persons who might have not only an ordinary cheap interest in your denunciation but an irresistible need to bring about your ruin simply because they are in danger [in] their own lives.”

It’s important to understand that it is simple to isolate people who already feel isolated. When you feel disconnected from the system around you and the leaders it has, when you believe that neither your vote nor your opinion matters, it’s not a huge leap to feel that your very self has no importance. This feeling is what totalitarianism figured out how to manipulate by random terror that severed any form of connection with other human beings.

Totalitarianism “demand[s] total, unrestricted, unconditional, and unalterable loyalty of the individual member. … Such loyalty can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement.”

The Politics and Propaganda

Totalitarianism does not have an end goal in the usual political sense. Its only real goal is to perpetuate its own existence. There is no one party line that, if you stick to it, will save you from persecution. Remember the random mass murders. Stalin repeatedly purged whole sections of his government — just because. The fear is a requirement. The fear is what keeps the movement going.

And how do they get there? How do they get this power?

Arendt argues that there is a “possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.”

This battle with truth is something we see today. Opinions are being given the same weight as facts, leading to endless debates and the assumption that nothing can be known anyway.

It is this turning away from knowledge that opens the doors to totalitarianism. “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”

These fabrications form the basis of the propaganda, with different messages crafted for different audiences. Arendt makes the point that “the necessities for propaganda are always dictated by the outside world and that the movements themselves do not actually propagate but indoctrinate.” Thus, propaganda can be understood as directed to those who are out of the control of the totalitarian movement, and it is used to convince them of its legitimacy. Then, once you are on the inside, it’s about breaking down the individuality of the citizens until there is nothing but a “subdued population.”

The success of the propaganda directed internally demonstrated that “the audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”

The Power

What does totalitarian rule look like? These states are not run by cliques or gangs. There is no protected group getting rich from this control of the masses. And no one is outside the message. For example, “Stalin … shot almost everybody who could claim to belong to the ruling clique and … moved the members of the Politburo back and forth whenever a clique was on the point of consolidating itself.”

Why no clique? One reason is that the goal of totalitarianism is not the welfare of the state. It is not economic prosperity or social advancement.

The reason why the ingenious devices of totalitarian rule, with their absolute and unsurpassed concentration of power in the hands of a single man, were never tried before is that no ordinary tyrant was ever mad enough to discard all limited and local interests — economic, national, human, military — in favor of a purely fictitious reality in some indefinite distant future.

Since independent thinkers are a threat, they are among the first to be purged. Bureaucratic functions are duplicated and layered, with people being shifted all the time.

This regular violent turnover of the whole gigantic administrative machine, while it prevents the development of competence, has many advantages: it assures the relative youth of officials and prevents a stabilization of conditions which, at least in time of peace, are fraught with danger for totalitarian rule….

Any chances of discontent and questioning of the status quo are eliminated by this perpetual rising of the newly indoctrinated.

The humiliation implicit in owing a job to the unjust elimination of one’s predecessor has the same demoralizing effect that the elimination of the Jews had upon the German professions: it makes every jobholder a conscious accomplice in the crimes of the government….

Totalitarianism in power is about keeping itself in power. By preemptively removing large groups of people, the system neutralizes all those who might question it.

Possibly the one ray of hope in these systems is that because they pay no attention to actually governing, they are not likely to be sustainable in the long run.

The incredibility of the horrors is closely bound up with their economic uselessness. The Nazis carried this uselessness to the point of open anti-utility when in the midst of the war, despite the shortage of building material and rolling stock, they set up enormous, costly extermination factories and transported millions of people back and forth. In the eyes of a strictly utilitarian world the obvious contradiction between these acts and military expediency gave the whole enterprise an air of mad unreality.

But in the meantime, what these regimes create is so devastating to humanity that it would be naive to assume that humanity will always bounce back. “They have corrupted all human solidarity. Here the night has fallen on the future. When no witnesses are left, there can be no testimony.”

Even though totalitarianism doesn’t produce countries with a variety of strengths and a robustness to fight off significant challenges, they should not be easily dismissed. The carnage they create tears apart all social fabric. And we must not assume that they exist only in the past. Thus, from Hannah Arendt, a final word of caution: “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.”

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[Episode #30] Company Culture, Collaboration and Competition: A Discussion With Margaret Heffernan

On this episode, I’m joined by speaker, international executive, and five-time author Margaret Heffernan. We discuss how to get the most out of our people, creating a thriving culture of trust and collaboration, and how to prevent potentially devastating “willful blindness.”

As former CEO of five successful businesses, Margaret Heffernan has been on the front lines observing the very human tendencies (selective blindness, conflict avoidance, and self-sabotage to name a few) that cause managers and sometimes entire organizations to go astray.

She has since written five books and has spoken all over the world to warn, educate and instruct leaders to not only be aware of these tendencies, but how to weed them out of our companies, our business, and even our relationships.

In this conversation, we discuss many of the concepts she shares in her books, namely:

  • How to tap into the collective knowledge of your organization so problems are solved quickly, efficiently, and cooperatively.
  • The strange experiment Margaret ran to build “social capital” in one of her early businesses that transformed the way her employees treated and interacted with each other
  • How to build a culture that doesn’t create in-fighting and unhealthy competition within your organization, and how many companies today are missing the mark
  • One simple thing you can do as a leader to increase the buy-in, productivity and overall satisfaction of your team members (and it takes less than 30 seconds to do.)
  • The dangers of binary thinking and how Margaret catches herself from oversimplifying a situation.
  • Why arguing may be one of the purest forms of collaboration — and how to do it correctly.
  • How to identify the environment and context where you do your best work and how to best replicate it.
  • How “willful blindness” has caused catastrophic disasters in business, professional and personal relationships, and what we can do to avoid being another statistic
  • The wonderful advice Margaret gave to her kids when it came to choosing a career path

And much more.

If you interact with other human beings in any capacity, you need to hear what Margaret has to say.

Take a listen and let me know what you think!

***

Listen

Transcript
An edited copy of this transcript is available to members of our learning community or for purchase separately ($7).

If you liked this, check out all the episodes of the knowledge project.

***

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Understanding Speed and Velocity: Saying “NO” to the Non-Essential

It’s tempting to think that in order to be a valuable team player, you should say “yes” to every request and task that is asked of you. People who say yes to everything have a lot of speed. They’re always doing stuff but never getting anything done. Why? Because they don’t think in terms of velocity. Understanding the difference between speed and velocity will change how you work.

I once worked for someone who offered me the opportunity to work on a new project nearly every day. These projects were not the quick ones, where you spend 15 minutes and crank out a solution. They were crap work. And there were strings: my boss wanted to be informed about everything, and there was no way I’d get credit for anything.

I remember my response: “That sounds amazing, but it’s not for me. I’m busy enough.”

Saying no to your boss, especially as often as I did, was thought to be risky to your career. I was the new kid, which is why I was getting all of these shit jobs thrown at me.

The diversity of skill sets needed to accomplish them would have made me look bad (perhaps the subtle point of this initiation). Furthermore, my already heavy workload would have gotten heavier with projects that didn’t move me forward. This was my first introduction to busywork.

My well-intentioned colleagues were surprised. “You’re not going to get anywhere with that attitude,” they’d pull me aside to tell me. The problem was that I wasn’t going to get anywhere by saying yes to a lot of jobs that consumed a lot of time, were not the reason I was hired, and left me no time to develop the craft of programming computers, which is what I wanted to do.

I had turned down a job offer for three times what I was being paid at this job because I wanted to work with the best people in the world on a very particular skill — a skill I couldn’t get anywhere but at an intelligence agency. Anything that got in the way of honing that craft was the enemy.

Over my first seven years, I’d barely leave my desk, working 12- to 16-hour days for six days a week. Working that hard with incredible people was amazing and motivating. I’ve never learned so much in such a short period of time.

“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”

— Warren Buffett

Certainly, offers of work are good problems to have. A lot of people struggle to find work, and here I was, a few weeks out of university, saying no to my boss. But saying yes to everything is a quick road to mediocrity. I took a two-thirds pay cut to work for the government so I could work with incredibly smart people on a very narrow skill (think cyber). I was willing to go all in. So no, I wasn’t going say yes to things that didn’t help me hone the craft I’d given up so much to work on.

“Instead of asking how many tasks you can tackle given your working hours,” writes Morten Hansen in Great at Work, “ask how many you can ditch given what you must do to excel.” I did what I needed to do to keep my job. As John Stuart Mill said, “as few as you can, as many as you must.”

Doing more isn’t always moving you ahead. To see why, let’s go back to first-year physics.

The Difference Between Speed and Velocity

Velocity and speed are different things. Speed is the distance traveled over time. I can run around in circles with a lot of speed and cover several miles that way, but I’m not getting anywhere. Velocity measures displacement. It’s direction-aware.

Think of it this way: I want to get from New York to L.A. Speed is flying circles around Manhattan, and velocity is hopping on a direct flight from JFK to LAX.

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”

— Steve Jobs

When you’re at work, you need to know what you need to do to keep your job. You need to know the table stakes. Then you need to distinguish between tasks that offer a lot of speed and those that offer velocity.

Here are three ways you can increase your velocity:

  1. To the extent possible, ruthlessly shave away the unnecessary tasks, priorities, meetings, and BS. Put all your effort into the projects that really matter.
  2. Don’t rely on your willpower to say no; instead, create systems that help you fend off distractions. I have two friends who were about the same weight several years ago. Around that time, one of them was diagnosed with celiac (gluten intolerance). He immediately started to lose weight after changing his diet. Upon seeing this, my other friend decided that he, too, would go on a diet to lose weight. Because they both ate out a lot, they both were frequently in situations where they would have to make healthy choices. The person with celiac developed “automatic behavior“; he had to avoid gluten if he wanted to stay healthy and pain-free. The other person, however, had to keep making positive choices and ended up falling down after a few weeks and reverting to his previous eating habits. Another example: One of my management principles was “no meeting mornings.” This rule allowed the team to work, uninterrupted, on the most important things. Of course, there were exceptions to this rule, but the default was that each day you had a three-hour chunk of time when you were at your best to really move the needle.
  3. And finally, do as I did, and say “no” to your boss. The best way I found to frame this reply was actually the same technique that negotiation expert Chris Voss mentioned in a recent podcast episode: simply ask, “how am I supposed to do that?” given all the other stuff on your plate. Explain that saying no means that you’re going to be better at the tasks that are most important to your job, and tie those tasks to your boss’s performance.

Members can discuss this post on the Learning Community Forum.


Read Next

Eight Ways to Say No With Grace and Style

Footnotes
  • 1

    The difference between speed and velocity first came to me from Peter Kaufman.

Half Life: The Decay of Knowledge and What to Do About It

Understanding the concept of a half-life will change what you read and how you invest your time. It will explain why our careers are increasingly specialized and offer a look into how we can compete more effectively in a very crowded world.

The Basics

A half-life is the time taken for something to halve its quantity. The term is most often used in the context of radioactive decay, which occurs when unstable atomic particles lose energy. Twenty-nine elements are known to be capable of undergoing this process. Information also has a half-life, as do drugs, marketing campaigns, and all sorts of other things. We see the concept in any area where the quantity or strength of something decreases over time.

Radioactive decay is random, and measured half-lives are based on the most probable rate. We know that a nucleus will decay at some point; we just cannot predict when. It could be anywhere between instantaneous and the total age of the universe. Although scientists have defined half-lives for different elements, the exact rate is completely random.

Half-lives of elements vary tremendously. For example, carbon takes millions of years to decay; that’s why it is stable enough to be a component of the bodies of living organisms. Different isotopes of the same element can also have different half-lives.

Three main types of nuclear decay have been identified: alpha, beta, and gamma. Alpha decay occurs when a nucleus splits into two parts: a helium nucleus and the remainder of the original nucleus. Beta decay occurs when a neutron in the nucleus of an element changes into a proton. The result is that it turns into a different element, such as when potassium decays into calcium. Beta decay also releases a neutrino — a particle with virtually no mass. If a nucleus emits radiation without experiencing a change in its composition, it is subject to gamma decay. Gamma radiation contains an enormous amount of energy.

The Discovery of Half-Lives

The discovery of half-lives (and alpha and beta radiation) is credited to Ernest Rutherford, one of the most influential physicists of his time. Rutherford was at the forefront of this major discovery when he worked with physicist Joseph John Thompson on complementary experiments leading to the discovery of electrons. Rutherford recognized the potential of what he was observing and began researching radioactivity. Two years later, he identified the distinction between alpha and beta rays. This led to his discovery of half-lives, when he noticed that samples of radioactive materials took the same amount of time to decay by half. By 1902, Rutherford and his collaborators had a coherent theory of radioactive decay (which they called “atomic disintegration”). They demonstrated that radioactive decay enabled one element to turn into another — research which would earn Rutherford a Nobel Prize. A year later, he spotted the missing piece in the work of the chemist Paul Villard and named the third type of radiation gamma.

Half-lives are based on probabilistic thinking. If the half-life of an element is seven days, it is most probable that half of the atoms will have decayed in that time. For a large number of atoms, we can expect half-lives to be fairly consistent. It’s important to note that radioactive decay is based on the element itself, not the quantity of it. By contrast, in other situations, the half-life may vary depending on the amount of material. For example, the half-life of a chemical someone ingests might depend on the quantity.

In biology, a half-life is the time taken for a substance to lose half its effects. The most obvious instance is drugs; the half-life is the time it takes for their effect to halve, or for half of the substance to leave the body. The half-life of caffeine is around 6 hours, but (as with most biological half-lives) numerous factors can alter that number. People with compromised liver function or certain genes will take longer to metabolize caffeine. Consumption of grapefruit juice has been shown in some studies to slow caffeine metabolism. It takes around 24 hours for a dose of caffeine to fully leave the body.

The half-lives of drugs vary from a few seconds to several weeks. To complicate matters, biological half-lives vary for different parts of the body. Lead has a half-life of around a month in the blood, but a decade in bone. Plutonium in bone has a half-life of a century — more than double the time for the liver.

Marketers refer to the half-life of a campaign — the time taken to receive half the total responses. Unsurprisingly, this time varies among media. A paper catalog may have a half-life of about three weeks, whereas a tweet might have a half-life of a few minutes. Calculating this time is important for establishing how frequently a message should be sent.

“Every day that we read the news we have the possibility of being confronted with a fact about our world that is wildly different from what we thought we knew.”

— Samuel Arbesman

The Half-Life of Facts

In The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, Samuel Arbesman (see our Knowledge Project interview) posits that facts decay over time until they are no longer facts or perhaps no longer complete. According to Arbesman, information has a predictable half-life: the time taken for half of it to be replaced or disproved. Over time, one group of facts replaces another. As our tools and knowledge become more advanced, we can discover more — sometimes new things that contradict what we thought we knew, sometimes nuances about old things. Sometimes we discover a whole area that we didn’t know about.

The rate of these discoveries varies. Our body of engineering knowledge changes more slowly, for example, than does our body of psychological knowledge.

Arbesman studied the nature of facts. The field was born in 1947, when mathematician Derek J. de Solla Price was arranging a set of philosophical books on his shelf. Price noted something surprising: the sizes of the books fit an exponential curve. His curiosity piqued, he began to see whether the same curve applied to science as a whole. Price established that the quantity of scientific data available was doubling every 15 years. This meant that some of the information had to be rendered obsolete with time.

Scientometrics shows us that facts are always changing, and much of what we know is (or soon will be) incorrect. Indeed, much of the available published research, however often it is cited, has never been reproduced and cannot be considered true. In a controversial paper entitled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” John Ioannides covers the rampant nature of poor science. Many researchers are incentivized to find results that will please those giving them funding. Intense competition makes it essential to find new information, even if it is found in a dubious manner. Yet we all have a tendency to turn a blind eye when beliefs we hold dear are disproved and to pay attention only to information confirming our existing opinions.

As an example, Arbesman points to the number of chromosomes in a human cell. Up until 1965, 48 was the accepted number that medical students were taught. (In 1953, it had been declared an established fact by a leading cytologist). Yet in 1956, two researchers, Joe Hin Tjio and Albert Levan, made a bold assertion. They declared the true number to be 46. During their research, Tjio and Levan could never find the number of chromosomes they expected. Discussing the problem with their peers, they discovered they were not alone. Plenty of other researchers found themselves two chromosomes short of the expected 48. Many researchers even abandoned their work because of this perceived error. But Tjio and Levan were right (for now, anyway). Although an extra two chromosomes seems like a minor mistake, we don’t know the opportunity costs of the time researchers invested in faulty hypotheses or the value of the work that was abandoned. It was an emperor’s-new-clothes situation, and anyone counting 46 chromosomes assumed they were the ones making the error.

As Arbesman puts it, facts change incessantly. Many of us have seen the ironic (in hindsight) doctor-endorsed cigarette ads from the past. A glance at a newspaper will doubtless reveal that meat or butter or sugar has gone from deadly to saintly, or vice versa. We forget that laughable, erroneous beliefs people once held are not necessarily any different from those we now hold. The people who believed that the earth was the center of the universe, or that some animals appeared out of nowhere or that the earth was flat, were not stupid. They just believed facts that have since decayed. Arbesman gives the example of a dermatology test that had the same question two years running, with a different answer each time. This is unsurprising considering the speed at which our world is changing.

As Arbesman points out, in the last century the world’s population has swelled from 2 billion to 7 billion, we have taken on space travel, and we have altered the very definition of science.

Our world seems to be in constant flux. With our knowledge changing all the time, even the most informed people can barely keep up. All this change may seem random and overwhelming (Dinosaurs have feathers? When did that happen?), but it turns out there is actually order within the shifting noise. This order is regular and systematic and is one that can be described by science and mathematics.

The order Arbesman describes mimics the decay of radioactive elements. Whenever new information is discovered, we can be sure it will break down and be proved wrong at some point. As with a radioactive atom, we don’t know precisely when that will happen, but we know it will occur at some point.

If we zoom out and look at a particular body of knowledge, the random decay becomes orderly. Through probabilistic thinking, we can predict the half-life of a group of facts with the same certainty with which we can predict the half-life of a radioactive atom. The problem is that we rarely consider the half-life of information. Many people assume that whatever they learned in school remains true years or decades later. Medical students who learned in university that cells have 48 chromosomes would not learn later in life that this is wrong unless they made an effort to do so.

OK, so we know that our knowledge will decay. What do we do with this information? Arbesman says,

… simply knowing that knowledge changes like this isn’t enough. We would end up going a little crazy as we frantically tried to keep up with the ever changing facts around us, forever living on some sort of informational treadmill. But it doesn’t have to be this way because there are patterns. Facts change in regular and mathematically understandable ways. And only by knowing the pattern of our knowledge evolution can we be better prepared for its change.

Recent initiatives have sought to calculate the half-life of an academic paper. Ironically, academic journals have largely neglected research into how people use them and how best to fund the efforts of researchers. Research by Philip Davis shows the time taken for a paper to receive half of its total downloads. Davis’s results are compelling. While most forms of media have a half-life measured in days or even hours, 97 percent of academic papers have a half-life longer than a year. Engineering papers have a slightly shorter half-life than other fields of research, with double the average (6 percent) having a half-life of under a year. This makes sense considering what we looked at earlier in this post. Health and medical publications have the shortest overall half-life: two to three years. Physics, mathematics, and humanities publications have the longest half-lives: two to four years.

The Half-Life of Secrets

According to Peter Swire, writing in “The Declining Half-Life of Secrets,” the half-life of secrets (by which Swire generally means classified information) is shrinking. In the past, a government secret could be kept for over 25 years. Nowadays, hacks and leaks have shrunk that time considerably. Swire writes:

During the Cold War, the United States developed the basic classification system that exists today. Under Executive Order 13526, an executive agency must declassify its documents after 25 years unless an exception applies, with stricter rules if documents stay classified for 50 years or longer. These time frames are significant, showing a basic mind-set of keeping secrets for a time measured in decades.

Swire notes that there are three main causes: “the continuing effects of Moore’s Law — or the idea that computing power doubles every two years, the sociology of information technologists, and the different source and methods for signals intelligence today compared with the Cold War.” One factor is that spreading leaked information is easier than ever. In the past, it was often difficult to get information published. Newspapers feared legal repercussions if they shared classified information. Anyone can now release secret information, often anonymously, as with WikiLeaks. Governments cannot as easily rely on media gatekeepers to cover up leaks.

Rapid changes in technology or geopolitics often reduce the value of classified information, so the value of some, but not all, classified information also has a half-life. Sometimes it’s days or weeks, and sometimes it’s years. For some secrets, it’s not worth investing the massive amount of computer time that would be needed to break them because by the time you crack the code, the information you wanted to know might have expired.

(As an aside, if you were to invert the problem of all these credit card and SSN leaks, you might conclude that reducing the value of possessing this information would be more effective than spending money to secure it.)

“Our policy (at Facebook) is literally to hire as many talented engineers as we can find. The whole limit in the system is that there are not enough people who are trained and have these skills today.”

— Mark Zuckerberg

The Half-Lives of Careers and Business Models

The issue with information having a half-life should be obvious. Many fields depend on individuals with specialized knowledge, learned through study or experience or both. But what if those individuals are failing to keep up with changes and clinging to outdated facts? What if your doctor is offering advice that has been rendered obsolete since they finished medical school? What if your own degree or qualifications are actually useless? These are real problems, and knowing about half-lives will help you make yourself more adaptable.

While figures for the half-lives of most knowledge-based careers are hard to find, we do know the half-life of an engineering career. A century ago, it would take 35 years for half of what an engineer learned when earning their degree to be disproved or replaced. By the 1960s, that time span shrank to a mere decade. Today that figure is probably even lower.

In 1966 paper entitled “The Dollars and Sense of Continuing Education,” Thomas Jones calculated the effort that would be required for an engineer to stay up to date, assuming a 10-year half-life. According to Jones, an engineer would need to devote at least five hours per week, 48 weeks a year, to stay up to date with new advancements. A typical degree requires about 4800 hours of work. Within 10 years, the information learned during 2400 of those hours would be obsolete. The five-hour figure does not include the time necessary to revise forgotten information that is still relevant. A 40-year career as an engineer would require 9600 hours of independent study.

Keep in mind that Jones made his calculations in the 1960s. Modern estimates place the half-life of an engineering degree at between 2.5 and 5 years, requiring between 10 and 20 hours of study per week. Welcome to the treadmill, where you have to run faster and faster so that you don’t fall behind.

Unsurprisingly, putting in this kind of time is simply impossible for most people. The result is an ever-shrinking length of a typical engineer’s career and a bias towards hiring recent graduates. A partial escape from this time-consuming treadmill that offers little progress is to recognize the continuous need for learning. If you agree with that, it becomes easier to place time and emphasis on developing heuristics and systems to foster learning. The faster the pace of knowledge change, the more valuable the skill of learning becomes.

A study by PayScale found that the median age of workers in most successful technology companies is substantially lower than that of other industries. Of 32 companies, just six had a median worker age above 35, despite the average across all workers being just over 42. Eight of the top companies had a median worker age of 30 or below — 28 for Facebook, 29 for Google, and 26 for Epic Games. The upshot is that salaries are high for those who can stay current while gaining years of experience.

In a similar vein, business models have ever shrinking half-lives. The nature of capitalism is that you have to be better last year than you were this year — not to gain market share but to maintain what you already have. If you want to get ahead, you need asymmetry; otherwise, you get lost in trench warfare. How long would it take for half of Uber or Facebook’s business models to be irrelevant? It’s hard to imagine it being more than a couple of years or even months.

In The Business Model Innovation Factory: How to Stay Relevant When the World Is Changing, Saul Kaplan highlights the changing half-lives of business models. In the past, models could last for generations. The majority of CEOs oversaw a single business for their entire careers. Business schools taught little about agility or pivoting. Kaplan writes:

During the industrial era once the basic rules for how a company creates, delivers, and captures value were established[,] they became etched in stone, fortified by functional silos, and sustained by reinforcing company cultures. All of a company’s DNA, energy, and resources were focused on scaling the business model and beating back competition attempting to do a better job executing the same business model. Companies with nearly identical business models slugged it out for market share within well-defined industry sectors.

[…]

Those days are over. The industrial era is not coming back. The half-life of a business model is declining. Business models just don’t last as long as they used to. In the twenty-first century business leaders are unlikely to manage a single business for an entire career. Business leaders are unlikely to hand down their businesses to the next generation of leaders with the same business model they inherited from the generation before.

The Burden of Knowledge

The flip side of a half-life is the time it takes to double something. A useful guideline to calculate the time it takes for something to double is to divide 70 by the rate of growth. This formula isn’t perfect, but it gives a good indication. Known as the Rule of 70, it applies only to exponential growth when the relative growth rate remains consistent, such as with compound interest.

The higher the rate of growth, the shorter the doubling time. For example, if the population of a city is increasing by 2 percent per year, we divide 70 by 2 to get a doubling time of 35 years. The rule of 70 is a useful heuristic; population growth of 2 percent might seem low, but your perspective might change when you consider that the city’s population could double in just 35 years. The Rule of 70 can also be used to calculate the time for an investment to double in value; for example, $100 at 7 percent compound interest will double in just a decade and quadruple in 20 years. The average newborn baby doubles its birth weight in under four months. The average doubling time for a tumor is also four months.

We can see how information changes in the figures for how long it takes for a body of knowledge to double in size. The figures quoted by Arbesman (drawn from Little Science, Big Science … and Beyond by Derek J. de Solla Price) are compelling, including:

  • Time for the number of entries in a dictionary of national biographies to double: 100 years
  • Time for the number of universities to double: 50 years
  • Time for the number of known chemical compounds to double: 15 years
  • Time for the number of known asteroids to double: 10 years

Arbesman also gives figures for the time taken for the available knowledge in a particular field to double, including:

  • Medicine: 87 years
  • Mathematics: 63 years
  • Chemistry: 35 years
  • Genetics: 32 years

The doubling of knowledge increases the learning load over time. As a body of knowledge doubles so does the cost of wrapping your head around what we already know. This cost is the burden of knowledge. To be the best in a general field today requires that you know more than the person who was the best only 20 years ago. Not only do you have to be better to be the best, but you also have to be better just to stay in the game.

The corollary is that because there is so much to know, we specialize in very niche areas. This makes it easier to grasp the existing body of facts, keep up to date on changes, and rise to the level of expert. The problem is that specializing also makes it easier to see the world through the narrow focus of your specialty, makes it harder to work with other people (as niches are often dominated by jargon), and makes you prone to overvalue the new and novel.

Conclusion

As we have seen, understanding how half-lives work has numerous practical applications, from determining when radioactive materials will become safe to figuring out effective drug dosages. Half-lives also show us that if we spend time learning something that changes quickly, we might be wasting our time. Like Alice in Wonderland — and a perfect example of the Red Queen Effect — we have to run faster and faster just to keep up with where we are. So if we want our knowledge to compound, we’ll need to focus on the invariant general principles.

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