Mental Pivot

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Mental Pivot #37: A Story about Fish and Situational Awareness

I spent the first 18 years of my life on the south shore of the island of Oahu, in the state of Hawaii, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. By all measures, it was an idyllic childhood in an idyllic place. Of course, I didn't know it at the time. Hawaii was all I knew, I had no point of comparison. I didn't realize that the fragrant air, verdant green mountains, warm sunny days, and gentle trade winds were not the norm in other parts of the world.

It was paradise, but I was blind to it.

At the age of 18, I journeyed to the "mainland" to experience college first on the West Coast and then later on the East Coast. I had no car, I lived in a tiny apartment furnished with used furniture and cinder block shelving, and no commas in my bank account balance. The upshot was that I had few obligations, little responsibility, and a world of possibilities, decisions, and opportunities ahead of me.

It was freedom, but I didn't know it.

There's a joke that the American writer David Foster Wallace referenced in a speech to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. It highlights a simple but profound truth:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?"

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

I may have moved on from the paradise of my childhood and the freedom of my 20s, but I'm still swimming in the metaphorical water. Like the young fish, I'm blind to it most of the time. Maybe it's a lack of curiosity. Maybe it's a lack of perspective. Maybe it's a failure to consider what I take for granted or to ask the right questions. Maybe it's just that I'm simply not listening to those who are pointing out the truths that I'm too busy or distracted to hear.

Regardless, this thought encourages me to keep listening and learning from others—those who frequently point out what I cannot see. It also speaks to the importance of gaining experience, broadening one's perspective, and discovering a greater appreciation for my present-day situation.

Now onto this week's recommendations…

This Week's Pick:

The 60-Year-Old Scientific Screwup that Helped COVID Kill

Megan Molteni's long-form piece for Wired is a fascinating look at flawed beliefs and the danger of unchallenged dogma.

Early in the pandemic scientists argued about whether SARS-CoV-2 was spread via droplet or aerosol: droplets fall to the ground quickly and stick to surfaces with their "blast radius" while aerosols remain suspended in the air for hours and can travel long distances.

Conventional wisdom held that infectious particles smaller than 5 microns in diameter were aerosols and larger particles were droplets. That thinking didn't jibe with scientist Linsey Marr's understandings of physics; she knew that larger particles could behave like aerosols especially with the right temperature, humidity, and wind conditions.

Marr, along with a small team of researchers, investigated the history of this idea and came to the discovery that a combination of ideological biases, the misreading of a key report on tuberculosis decades back, and the blind acceptance and transmission of the erroneous 5-micron rule were to blame.

Not only was the misunderstanding about the 5-micron rule wrong, it was also being used by organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to guide public health policy.

It's a great piece on the often messy process of scientific progress.


  • Cialdini's 6 Principles of Persuasion: A summary of Robert Cialdini's ideas from his classic, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. The principles: reciprocity, scarcity, authority, commitment and consistency, liking, and social proof.
  • Clarity Is an Underrated Skill: Tom Gamon's principles for clarity: make the implicit explicit, be succinct, avoid ambiguous pronouns.
  • The Filing Cabinet: A seemingly banal and overlooked innovation gets its due in this fascinating long-form piece by Craig Robertson: "A century ago, the leading symbol of information management was the filing cabinet; by the turn of the millennium, it was Google search." Now that’s progress.
  • How a New York City Restaurant Loses Money on a $14 Sandwich: A short exercise on understanding the unit costs of a food product. In particular, you can see how restaurants get squeezed by 3rd-party delivery commissions.
  • The Key to Find Time for Learning: Scott Young offers practical strategies for fitting learning into your busy schedule.
  • Plotters and Pantsers: It's the classic writing dichotomy. Plotters are meticulous planners and pantsers improvise their prose as an act of discovery. [Me: It also a worthwhile metaphor for two distinct approaches to life in general.]
  • What Is an Entertainment Company in 2021 and Why Does it Matter?: Matthew Ball examines the first principles of entertainment: create stories, deepen the audience relationship, and then monetize that audience. Ball focuses, in particular, on the audience relationship part of the equation in which company’s foster genuine love and emotional attachment.
  • What Is Existentialism?: Jack Maden looks at three core principles shared by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus: phenomenology, freedom, and authenticity.
  • Your Probabilistic Personality: Ben Orlin's single-question quiz to test your personal risk profile is a fun exercise. Side note: I’m on the big number end of the spectrum.

Odds & Ends:

  • In The Ultimate Guide to the Creator Economy, Singapore-based VC firm Antler shares its insights on the burgeoning creator economy via five key categories: audience curation, audience monetization, vertical platforms, community management, and creator tools. It's a great way to familiarize yourself with the landscape and current platforms in this space.
  • The inaugural Ambies Award winners were announced recently. The Ambies celebrate the "best in podcasting" and are given out by the industry's Podcast Academy. The awards cover a wide range of categories including comedy, sports, true crime, business, history, personal growth, and politics. The winner and nominee listings are a chance to check out programs you might have missed.
  • Readsom is a new site for discovering popular, high-quality newsletters in categories like technology, startups, productivity, and social justice.

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