Category: Farnam Street

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.

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, fs.blog, rather than the old one (farnamstreetblog.com).

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:

Events

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.

Courses

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.

Books

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.

Sponsorships

“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 kaam.work.

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

Ethics

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 Amazon.com 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.

Shane

 

The Best of Farnam Street 2018

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

  1. Smarter, Not Harder: How to Succeed at Work — We each have 96 energy blocks each day to spend however we’d like. Using this energy blocking system will ensure you’re spending each block wisely.
  2. Your First Thought Is Rarely Your Best Thought: Lessons on Thinking — Most people have no time to think. They schedule themselves like lawyers. They work in five- to eight-minute increments, scheduled back to back. They think only in first thoughts never in second thoughts.
  3. The Pygmalion Effect: Proving Them Right — The Pygmalion Effect is a powerful secret weapon. Without even realizing it, we can nudge others towards success. In this article, discover how expectations can influence performance for better or worse.
  4. First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge — First Principles thinking breaks down true understanding into building blocks we can reassemble. It turns out most of us don’t know as much as we think we do.
  5. 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.
  6. The Surprising Power of The Long Game — In everything we do, we play the long or the short game. The short game is easy, pleasurable, and offers visible and immediate benefits. But it almost never leads to success. Here’s how to play the long game.
  7. Double Loop Learning: Download New Skills and Information into Your Brain — We’re taught single loop learning from the time we are in grade school, but there’s a better way. Double loop learning is the quickest and most efficient way to learn anything that you want to “stick.”
  8. Complexity Bias: Why We Prefer Complicated to Simple — Complexity bias is a logical fallacy that leads us to give undue credence to complex concepts. Faced with two competing hypotheses, we are likely to choose the most complex one.
  9. Deductive vs Inductive Reasoning: Make Smarter Arguments, Better Decisions, and Stronger Conclusions — You can’t prove the truth, but using deductive and inductive reasoning, you can get close. Learn the difference between the two types of reasoning and how to use them when evaluating facts and arguments.
  10. The Decision Matrix: How to Prioritize What Matters — The decision matrix is a powerful tool to help you prioritize which decisions deserve your attention as a leader, and which should be delegated. Here’s how you can start using it today.

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. While the frequency of our articles decreased in 2018, the words published actually increased. As longtime readers know, we are not bound to frequency or length constraints, our only mission is quality. Next year will see a more eclectic mix of content as we get back to our roots.

Thank you for an amazing 2018 and I’m looking forward to learning new things with you in 2019.

Still curious? You can find the top five podcast episodes in 2018 here.

The Top 5 Episodes of The Knowledge Project 2018

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 21 interviews that we published in 2018, these are the top five (as measured by downloads in the first 30 days):

  • #27 The Art of Letting Other People Have Your Way — Negotiation expert Chris Voss, former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI and author of the excellent book, Never Split the Difference, offers some hands-on negotiation training.
  • #37 Getting Better by Being Wrong — On this episode, best-selling author and professional poker player Annie Duke and I discuss how to disagree without being disagreeable, spotting biases that sabotage our success, how to find signal in noise, and reliable decision-making models for high stakes, high-pressure situations.
  • #32 Earning Your Stripes — On this episode of The Knowledge Project, Patrick Collison, CEO, and co-founder of Stripe shares wise insights on success, failure, management, decision making, learning and so much more. Grab a pen…
  • #39 Thinking About Thinking — On this episode, I chat with Tyler Cowen, economics professor, author, and creator of the wildly popular blog, Marginal Revolution. We tackle lots of interesting topics, including tech advances, the changing labor market, and upgrading your thinking process to accommodate the information age.
  • #43 The Mental Habits of Effective Leaders — In a world that changes at a dizzying rate, effective leaders need to develop the skills to keep up. Developmental coach and author Jennifer Garvey Berger shares 3 habits to ensure continual growth, accelerated learning and deepened relationships of trust.

One episode that just missed the cut but warrants your attention is #42 The Path to Perpetual Progress with Atul Gawande.

Thanks for listening, Because of people like you sharing our show with friends, family, and colleagues, we crossed 4 million downloads this year.

Subscribe on iTunes | Stitcher | Spotify | Android | Google Play

Farnam Street’s 2018 Annual Letter to Readers

Most public companies issue an annual letter to shareholders. These letters present an opportunity for the people entrusted to run the company to communicate with the people who own the company, the shareholders. In 2015, I started a similar tradition at Farnam Street. (2016 and 2017 letters are also available.)

Stewards of companies have a legal duty to do what’s in the best interest of shareholders. I feel a similar obligation to you. You trust me with something far more valuable than money: time.

For all of us, time is finite. Reading Farnam Street or listening to The Knowledge Project means you’re not doing something else. My job is to make sure your investment is getting an above-average return.

***

The Psychology of Email Lists

Our newsletter mailing list has grown to roughly 185,000 subscribers, compared to 155,000 at this time last year.

The map and the territory tell very different stories. To understand the difference, we need to understand email lists a bit better.

Email lists are the best way to reach people directly. With email, there are few barriers between the content creator and the reader. Getting into someone’s inbox is like getting into their bed: it requires an invite.

The world is full of companies that want you to sign up to their email list. These actors use pop-ups, free downloads, and other tricks to bribe you for your email. While they do this for numerous reasons, few actually concern you, the reader. They just want to sell you something.

For individuals, big email lists typically mean big egos or bigger paychecks.

Bigger egos—in the sense that the size of the mailing list is a metric by which people keep score. Sometimes this is unspoken; other times it’s fairly overt. Some comparison is natural, but there is a lot of appearance over substance going on. No one wants to be the little piggy in the straw house.

Bigger paychecks—in the sense that people use lists as a proxy for value. I’ve encountered this firsthand in 2018, while negotiating our book deals (more below). Everyone wanted to know our list size, but few wanted to know the open rate. If the list size is the map, the open rate is the territory.

The industry considers a 20% open rate to be good, for an email list of over 100,000 addresses. I think that’s terrible. It means about 20–25% of people actually open your emails, when you account for the plethora of adblockers and image loaders it means actual open rates are slightly higher than reported rates.

Our open rate used to be 35%—and now it’s about 45%. The difference is telling. A list of 150,000 with a 25% open rate reaches an effective audience of about 37.5k people per email. An open rate of 45% changes that to 67.5k per email. Clearly, not all lists are the same.

At FS, we’re not after the biggest list, just the best. We offer a one-click unsubscribe. And if it looks like you haven’t opened an email from us in a while, we will send you a few emails to see if you want to stay on the list. If you don’t engage, we’ll proactively remove you. If you miss us, you can always sign up later—and if you don’t notice, well, you’re breaking my heart.

FS.BLOG

We’re on our third or fourth iteration of domain names now.

We started with 68131 (the zip code for Berkshire Hathaway), then moved to farnamstreetblog.com and now fs.blog. While we started out as a blog or scratchpad, today we’re so much more than a blog. We’re moving our branding toward FS. Why did we move away from Farnam Street blog to fs.blog? In short, it was easier to type, available to us, and our friends at Automattic made it simple for us to switch.

We changed hosting companies this year. Our new hosts, Pressable, sped up the site. Most importantly, they freed me up to write, instead of spending hours a month on webhosting. If you’re looking for a webhost, they are the most competent and proactive we’ve come across.

Our relative ranking among websites continues to improve. Last year we were ranked among the 40,000 most popular sites in the world—out of hundreds of millions. As I write this we have moved into the top 33,000. And in the US, out of an estimated 200 million active websites, we rank in the top 11,000. That’s the top .006%, for those of us who are counting.

I hope to further refine the reading experience on the website in 2019, become a bit more brand-consistent, and better position FS to create something that outlives me.

News

I received a curious call from a reporter from the New York Times earlier this year, asking, “Why does everyone on Wall Street keep talking about you?” He found my “I don’t know” rather unsatisfying, and kept probing. The result was this profile on me. While we stayed on the most-emailed list for two full days—an eternity in the news world—the best thing about the story was that my mom doesn’t think I’m unemployed anymore.

My hometown paper also featured me in this article. Lest I get a big head, my mom pointed out that I couldn’t get ahead of “cat stops traffic” and “man walks slowly across street” to make the most-viewed stories of the day.

Events

In 2018, we offered two public Re:Think Workshops, on Innovation and Decisionmaking. We continue to limit attendance at these events to ensure a good experience for everyone. We sold out the 2019 version of Re:Think Decisionmaking in one day. Join the waiting list so you don’t miss out on future dates!

While the feedback we get is positive beyond belief, we’ll be doing a major revamp of the content in 2019 to be released in 2020.

Our two smaller events are exceptional, but they’re not for everyone. We also require that you apply to attend these events because we need to ensure we have the right mix of people.

The first, Think Weekend, is a dinner series. We meet for a Thursday–Sunday period in a warm location during winter. The days are free time, and we have an interesting series of dinner conversations.

The second is Re:Think Europe. Here we have 10 people show up for what’s been called “the most unique experience I’ve ever had.” It’s an intense period in close quarters with ten people that start out as strangers but wind up best friends. People walk away mentally stimulated and exhausted, while making tangible progress on problems they have.

The Knowledge Project #ListenAndLearn

The Knowledge Project moved away from being “the most irregular podcast in the world” to presenting a new episode about every other week—about 25 episodes this year. Our 2018 guest list included FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, learning expert Barbara Oakley, Stripe CEO Patrick Collison, obstacle course super champ Amelia Boone, poker pro Annie Duke, Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke, and the CEO of the JP Morgan, Amazon, and Berkshire Hathaway healthcare initiative, Atul Gawande, to name a few. (You can find the full list here.) The lineup for 2019 looks just as good.

As I write this we stand at 47 published episodes with over 4.8 million downloads. You should know that we’re not bound to bi-weekly episodes. Our only commitment is quality, so we don’t pre-commit to frequency or duration. Some of the shows will be 15 minutes and others will be four hours. We rarely edit conversations, unless it’s requested or we feel it’s important to protect the guest. To put things in perspective, only two or three instances come to mind. My assumption is that if I’m still interested in the conversation, you are too.

I know what you’re thinking: can you sit and talk for four hours with one person, with no interruptions? Yes! Our guests are exceptional people, and I’m a fanatic when it comes to listening and learning.

The Knowledge Project isn’t bound to have me as a host. In the future, we will explore having other hosts.

We guided TKP’s branding on a sharp turn for the better this year, and will continue in 2019. We invested a lot of money in these improvements—they don’t increase revenue for us but do make for a much better product and experience for you.

We’re likely to move away from sponsors to a listener-supported model in the near future. While we’ve had some great sponsors, like Metalab, I increasingly find that sponsors want things from me—really from you—that just don’t align with my principles.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about some of that stuff. I take your trust in FS and in me very seriously.

  • I am not paid by any company for any opinion or article posted on FS or in any public forum, including podcasts and Twitter. I receive free products all the time in the mail (over 200 in 2018!). If I use them and like them, I try to tell people about them—no affiliate links. If you’re wondering what this looks like in practice, I think I mentioned two things this year: Atoms and Bellroy. I wear the Atoms every day in the office, and Bellroy has been my wallet forever. It’s the same one I buy for my friends.
  • 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 my Amazon.com links and buy anything, I 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. We tell them nothing about you except in broad strokes. Website sponsors operate on a percentage-of-traffic basis and do not compensate us based on page views. This reduces our incentive to increase page views and write crappy content.
  • 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.
  • If you’re interested in sponsoring the newsletter, podcast, or website, feel free to reach out to us at [email protected] or directly to me at [email protected]

Courses

A few years ago, we started offering courses to help people with skills that make them more adaptable. We were more concerned with outcomes than income. To that end, I purchased most of the most popular online courses and took a look at how they worked, what they were selling, and how they went about improving outcomes.

Unfortunately, we didn’t learn a ton from these courses. Most university courses are theory-based, which is great but not practical. Most of the online courses offered by entrepreneurs are edu-tainment around selling stuff—like online courses. This didn’t deter us. We took a different approach, working through iterations until we hit on something that finally worked: one-on-one interaction.

If you did the homework in The Art of Focus last year, which was a daily email to me, we responded and problem-solved with you every step of the way. Most of the time it was me responding. While this wasn’t efficient or scalable, it was certainly effective. These weren’t group calls but one-on-one interaction. That was just one of the lessons that we learned about how to increase the odds people actually made changes that stuck.

Now that we know what works and what doesn’t, we can tackle a few more ambitious ideas around courses.

In our history, we’ve offered three online courses, a productivity webinar, The Art of Focus, and The Art of Reading. We’ve stopped selling two out of three of these, and will stop selling The Art of Reading in January 2019. (The Art of Focus will be available as part of the Learning Community in January, and the productivity webinar is already available to members.)

Here’s a sneak peek: we’ve  been working on a mega-course on learning for over a year. It has taken a long time to cover not only the theory behind how we learn and how your brain processes information, but how to put it into practice. The wait will be worth it! We’ll use what we learned in the previous courses to increase the odds of success for participants.

I’ve tested the concepts with a few people I’m close to, and the response I’ve gotten is nothing short of amazing. Here’s a representative sample from my testing: “Shane, no one has ever taught me how to learn. In under an hour, you changed everything from the types of questions I ask other people to dramatically increasing my ability to quickly learn…nothing will be the same again.” That’s unsolicited feedback, three months after our conversation, from a person who wanted to test the course for me and paid for it on spec. No videos, just one hour with me in a restaurant over dinner.

The Learning Community

Rest assured, we have no aspirations of running the biggest membership community on the planet, just the best. The Learning Community isn’t for everyone. Our growing Learning Community continues to collect remarkable people and includes entrepreneurs, Fortune 50 CEOs, professional coaches, athletes, GMs from all the major leagues (NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB), students, teachers, Nobel Laureates, and bestselling authors.

The learning community isn’t about more content but better content. Not only is it a way to support what you love (FS), join our virtual reading group, get transcripts to all of our podcasts, and so much more—it’s a way to join and interact with a group of people like you, who want to get better and smarter without the shortcuts, a group that offers everything from reading recommendations to smart parenting advice. Some of my favorite moments this year, has been when someone posted questions about a book to the community forum and the author, an LC member, responded.

Importantly, if you read the website for free, it’s funded by the Learning Community. While there are some exclusives and some bonus FS content for LC members, the majority of FS content will always be free. If you find value in Farnam Street, we hope you’ll consider joining the Learning Community, or gift it to the ones you love.

Books

Last year I wrote this:

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

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

I have to eat those words. And I have some other confessions to make.

Writing a book and publishing a book are two very different things. The writing was done and fully edited in May. However, then we had to learn how to actually publish a book. That’s where the time and effort really come into play. There are a lot of publishing decisions around books—everything from typeface and layout to paper and design. You have to decide on the style, not just for one book but for the planned series of 5. Then you have to decide where to print, how to sell them (it’s not as easy as sending them to Amazon), how many to print, whether you want electronic copies, audio, and a host of other things.

Let’s talk a little about the series of books that we’re publishing under Farnam Street: The Great Mental Models.

The first physical book was designed from the beginning to be a beautiful reference book. In a world of disposable books, I didn’t want this to be a book you bought and threw away. I wanted to be the last book on your bookshelf.

Just because we’re self-publishing doesn’t mean we can’t have a world-class team. Our creative director for the project, Morgwn Rimel, came by way of setting up the School of Life. We love working with Flok Design, an international design firm based in Germany. Illustrator Marcia Mihotich is insightful—we love her style. We also had a great editor, Néna Rawdah, and proofreader Karina Palmitesta.

While we self-published to maintain control over the content, thanks to the team above it will look and feel better than most traditionally published books in every way. If you’re curious as to what it looks like on the inside, you can see here and here.

There is some bad news, if you’re eager to get your hands on a physical copy. We’re only printing 3000 physical copies.

The reaction from my agent was telling.

“Shane, so let me understand this right, if you had demand for another 1k books you wouldn’t print more?”

“Not unless something changes.”

“So you don’t want to make more money.”

“Not off the physical book.”

[Two minutes of silence.]

“I’ve never heard that before.”

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.

Why will I be able to get an audio copy before eBook copies?

Long story short: Audible came to us and said they wanted to partner with us, and offered us a lot of distribution and promotion. Helping more people with critical thinking outweighs having the physical and print books out sooner. We’re excited to work with Stacy Creamer and the team at audible.

I am hesitant to sell the print and electronic rights, because I think holding them gives us flexibility in the future. I want all the content to eventually be free, because that helps our mission of equalizing opportunity: the people who can’t afford books arguably need access to thinking tools more than the people that can. And we want to experiment with things that would have been really hard to do with a traditional publisher.

The FS brand carried the day at every meeting we had with people interested in the audio rights. There wasn’t a person we talked to who wasn’t familiar with FS, and in every room where it was pitched, people said, “I love that website.” That helps.

In short, the mental models books are coming. The first draft of the second book is almost done. The books will come out as soon as I can get them to you without sacrificing quality or distribution. As soon as we know more I’ll let you know.

A Trade Book

I signed a book deal with Penguin Portfolio 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. While this contract was for one book, I have four high-quality and unrelated book ideas in the queue.

Stay tuned.

Team Farnam

Perceptive readers know there is more to Farnam Street than just me. While I might be the face of FS for now, the site you are reading is increasingly about a team of people.

The team includes Rhiannon, who is a full-time staff writer and my right hand, working with me on the mental models books. Devon is our jack of all trades, doing most of our copy for courses, marketing emails, and podcast production. Bri is my part-time assistant.

Next year, two more will join the fray: one person in January to help us research, and another person in October to lead the team to the next level. I wasn’t looking for people, but the opportunity arose to hire two amazing humans, so I pounced.

Sponsorships

I want to thank our website sponsors Royce Funds, Tulco., and Greenhaven Road Capital. I’d also like to thank our podcast sponsors Metalab, HeathIQ, and Inktel. If you’re interested in sponsoring us, send me an email at [email protected]

A Better Way to Sell Your Business

If you’ve built a profitable business with a reputation for fanatical customer service, I’m interested in becoming your partner.

Through Syrus Partners, a company we started to mirror Berkshire Hathaway on a micro scale, we made several investments last year. They included Mealime and Paragon Intelligence—where my background comes in handy.

We’re looking to partner with companies that have a reputation for honest and fair dealings, consistent earnings, good returns on capital, and straightforward business models. As an investment partner, we’re not interested in flipping the business, taking control, or leveraging it up. We bring permanent capital, simple and fair deals that can close in 4–8 weeks, and a reputation for letting you do your thing. We’re always available to help with anything—our team consists of people with world-class experience in marketing, branding, sales, and technology, not to mention an extensive Rolodex. Simply put, we offer as much or as little help as you want. We want you to keep doing what you’re doing.

We’re not VC, so please no pitches for business ideas. If you’ like to explore selling all or part of your business to a trustworthy and long-term partner, send an email to [email protected] with all relevant details.

Thank you.

We continue to put one foot in front of another and reinvest the proceeds from the Learning Community to create the best content we can.

Next year we’ll get back to more variety of content. There will be a mix of deep dives on topics as well as explorations. In short, back to our roots. We lost a bit of focus on that in 2018, which is entirely on me.

There is much good to come from FS in the new year. I look forward to continuing to learn with you. Thank you for reading and supporting us.

Shane

 

 

 

 

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