Category: Farnam Street

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 #ListenAndLearn

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 this year, 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

 

 

 

 

The Best of Farnam Street 2017

Here’s a look at the most popular articles we wrote this year, including what really separates amateurs and professionals, a system for remembering what you read, the powerful interviews of Naval Ravikant, Ray Dalio, and Rory Sutherland, how we abuse time, and so much more.

***

1. The Difference Between Amateurs and Professionals — There are a host of other differences, but they can effectively be boiled down to two things: fear and reality. Amateurs believe that the world should work the way they want it to. Professionals realize that they have to work with the world as they find it. Amateurs are scared — scared to be vulnerable and honest with themselves. Professionals feel like they are capable of handling almost anything.

2. How to Remember What You Read — Why is it that some people seem to be able to read a book once and remember every detail of it for life, while others struggle to recall even the title a few days after putting down a book? The answer is simple but not easy. It’s not what they read. It’s how they read.

3. Naval Ravikant on Reading, Happiness, Systems for Decision Making, Habits, Honesty and More — In this wide-ranging interview, we talk about reading, habits, decision-making, mental models, and life. Just a heads up, this is the longest podcast I’ve ever done. While it felt like only thirty minutes, our conversation lasted over two hours!

4. The Difference Between Open-Minded and Closed-Minded People — The rate at which you learn and progress in the world depends on how willing you are to weigh the merit of new ideas, even if you don’t instinctively like them. Perhaps especially if you don’t like them. What’s more, placing your trust and effort in the right mentor can propel you forward, just as placing it in the wrong person can send you back to the starting point.

5. Maker vs. Manager: How Your Schedule Can Make or Break You – If you’re a maker on a manager’s schedule or a manager on a maker’s schedule, you could be spinning your wheels. Find out the ideal way to schedule your day for maximum results.

6. Charlie Munger on Getting Rich, Wisdom, Focus, Fake Knowledge and More — While we can’t have his genetics, we can try to steal his approach to rationality. There’s almost no limit to the amount one could learn from studying the Munger mind, so let’s at least start with a rundown of some of his best ideas.

7. Habits vs. Goals: A Look at the Benefits of a Systematic Approach to Life — The power of habits comes from their automaticity. This is why they are more powerful than goals. Read this article to harness the power of habits.

8. The Code of Hammurabi: The Best Rule To Manage Risk — King Hammurabi of Babylon, created Hammurabi’s Code. The laws were more effective at containing risk than today’s laws. Here’s why they were effective.

9. Life Lessons from a Self-Made Billionaire: My Conversation with Ray Dalio — In this interview with billionaire investor and entrepreneur Ray Dalio, you’ll learn the principles Ray prescribes for making better decisions, fewer mistakes, and creating meaningful relationships with the people in your life.

10. 29 of the Most Gifted and Highly Recommended Books — It started with a simple question: What book (or books) have you given away to people the most and why? The email was sent to an interesting subset of people I’ve interacted with over the past year — CEOs, entrepreneurs, best-selling authors, hedge fund managers, and more.

11. The Butterfly Effect: Everything You Need to Know About This Powerful Mental Model — The Butterfly Effect shows that we cannot predict the future or control powerful complex systems. Read to learn more about this mental model.

12. The Wrong Side of Right — One big mistake I see people make over and over is focusing on proving themselves right, instead of focusing on achieving the best outcome. People who are working to prove themselves right will work hard finding evidence for why they’re right. They’ll go to the ends of the earth to disagree with someone who has another idea. Everything becomes about their being right. These otherwise well-intentioned people are making the same costly mistake that I did.

13. The Generalized Specialist: How Shakespeare, Da Vinci, and Kepler Excelled – Should we generalize or specialize? This article explores how Shakespeare and Da Vinci excelled by branching out from their core competencies.

14. Seneca on The Shortness of Time — If we see someone throwing money away, we call that person crazy. This bothers us, in part, because money has value. Wasting it seems nuts. And yet we see others—and ourselves—throw away something far more valuable every day: Time.

15. Rory Sutherland on The Psychology of Advertising, Complex Evolved Systems, Reading, Decision Making — In this wide-ranging interview with Rory Sutherland (the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Group, which is one of the largest advertising companies in the world), we talk about: how advertising agencies are solving airport security problems, what Silicon Valley misses, how to mess with self-driving cars, reading habits, decision making, the intersection of advertising and psychology, and so much more.

16. How to Live on 24 Hours a Day: Arnold Bennett on Living a Meaningful Life Within the Constraints of Time — Despite having been published in 1910, Arnold Bennett’s book How to Live on 24 Hours a Day remains a valuable resource on living a meaningful life within the constraints of time. In the book, Bennett addresses one of our oldest questions: how can we make the best use of our lives? How can we make the best use of our time?

17. Thought Experiment: How Einstein Solved Difficult Problems — Read this and learn how the mental model of thought experiment, helped people like Albert Einstein, Zeno, and Galileo solve difficult problems.

Go back in time and see the best of 2016.

Farnam Street’s 2017 Annual Letter to Readers

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

Events

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

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

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

The Knowledge Project

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

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

Tools and More

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

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

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

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

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

The Learning Community

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

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

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

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

Team Farnam

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

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

Sponsorships

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

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

2017 Report Card

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

I’m pleased but not satisfied with our results.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

You Are What You Consume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

—Shane

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

The Best of Farnam Street 2016

After the publishing the 16 best books I read this year, it’s time to take a look at the best of Farnam Street this year. Of course, ‘best’ is an editorialized list from what you loved and shared and what I took the most pleasure in writing. Spanning everything from learning and thinking to mental models and history, here’s to an amazing year.

1. The Best Way to Learn Anything: The Feynman Technique

2. The Pot Belly of Ignorance

3. The Munger Operating System: How to Live a Life That Really Works

4. Books that Improve Your General Knowledge of the World

5. 20 Rules for a Knight

6. Joseph Tussman: Getting the World to Do the Work for You

7. Second-Level Order: What Smart People Use to Outperform

8. Ego is the Enemy: The Legend of Genghis Khan

9. The Four Tools of Discipline

10. At Some Point, You Have to Eat The Broccoli

11. Too Busy to Pay Attention to Life

12. The Value of Grey Thinking

13. A Few Useful Mental Tools from Richard Feynman

14. Stop Crashing Planes: Charlie Munger’s Six-Element System

15. Peter Bevelin on Seeking Wisdom, Mental Models, Learning, and a Lot More

16. Get 5% Better

Still curious? Check out the Best of Farnam Street: 2015, and 2014

12