Mindfulness without the Woo Woo

How to survive Ubud, Bali as a skeptical empiricist.

I recently spent 6 weeks in Bali, most of them living and working in Ubud. Ubud is in the middle of Bali. There’s no beach. En route towards Bali’s highest mountains, the elevation is higher. The air is a bit cooler. Everything is lush rice terraces and

It has also been made famous by the book Eat, Pray Love (EPL). I’ve been there three times but only ever seen it post-EPL. Thousands of spiritual tourists head there every year to immerse themselves in breathwork, yoga, meditation, reiki healing and chakra balancing. You can get vegan food and coconut water on every corner and a coffee colonic any time of the day.

I haven’t spent a lot of time defining my epistemological views, but words like skeptic and empiricist would likely be included. No one would ever refer to me as spiritual. And yet, among all that “woo woo” hippie stuff I still manage to thoroughly enjoy Ubud. But I can see how someone, with views similar to mine might hate the place and the people in the place and groan-worthy stuff they sometimes talk about.

So I thought I would write a little empirical survival guide to enjoying yourself in a place like Ubud or generally any place filled with lots of spiritual stuff that you think is a bunch of hokum.

Just repeat the following mantras to yourself.

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Thought Experiment: Revealed Passions

Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt often references his mentor, E.O. Wilson, the best ant scientist in the world.

He argues on several occasions that being passionate about your work is an immense competitive advantage. His mentor is the best ant scientist in the world because he absolutely freaking loves ants. He loves studying them, and he thus studies them more intently and more often that someone who’s just in the ant science game for the paycheck and the glamor.

Sounds pretty plausible to me.

Let’s leave aside for a minute the debate about whether “doing what you love” or earning a good paycheck so you can do what you love is more likely to make you happy. Being passionate about your job almost certainly will make you better at it. And finding work that you are uniquely more passionate about that anybody else is probably a good way to find work that you have an unbeatable competitive advantage in.

Here’s another little economics gem: Revealed vs stated preferences. Experiments have shown again and again that humans terrible forecasters of what makes them happy. When asked to state their preferences — purchases now or savings later, a new TV or a weekend in Paris, and so on — the choices they tell rarely match up to their actual decisions. Economics use the concept of revealed preferences, those trade-offs people express through their actual decisions, to determine what truly makes people happy… or if you prefer econonomist-speak: what maximizes their utility.

I think it’s not too far to stretch to say that humans probably are not great at forecasting what they are actually passionate about. So maybe we should use the same toolkit of revealed preferences to think about revealed passions.

So I’ve been doing this thought experiment over the last few years. What do my actions actually reveal about what I am passionate about? What do I consistently spend my idle time thinking about, tinkering with and improving without any obvious economic benefit?

The thought experiment is to think about this first as objectively as possible, then if you strike something interesting, contemplate how you could work or get paid from it.

Here’s an example for me. I freaking love travel bags. I’ve lived a large portion of my adult life out of a single carry on suitcase or backpack. I currently live out of one. I don’t have a home, just some flexible storage space with Makespace and I still personally own eight or nine different variations of backpacks and luggage. I’m constantly upgrading, constantly looking at reviews of new gear and constantly checking out other people’s bags in airports — taking notes, evaluating features and generally spending way too much time thinking about travel bags.

Maybe I should start a travel bag design company. Why not?

I don’t think this is some secret formula and I’m not dropping everything to start a travel bag company. But I never even considered it until I did this revealed passions thought experiment. So it was a useful 30 seconds of brain work.

And now I’m thinking about it! Maybe it is a good idea. That thought prompted me to start researching, learning about manufacturing and design. If anything it spurred me to learn a bit more about something I’ve never dug into before.

What are your revealed passions? Give it a shot.

The Best Networking is Not Networking

My first job was at a research consultancy. I was learning and writing about the booming wind energy industry. A big part of my job, and that of and many of my colleagues, was to attend an ever increasing number of industry conferences. The goal was to be part salesperson, convincing potential customers that the analysts at our firm were smart people with interesting things to say, and to play journalist, getting nuggets of data and an informal consensus on topics for which we lacked data. The fact that I reverse-engineered the financial model for a complicated financing structure1 almost entirely from buying beers for CFOs at conferences was probably the only reason anyone in the industry thought I had anything valuable to say, for the first few years at least.

These conferences were like any other — people milling around in uncomfortable suits at random convention centers, and sometimes fancy resorts. The startup I worked for was still young so my business card carried little cachet, that meant I would have to do some networking… ugh.

I’m a slim 5’6” so nearly everybody, already packed into tight circles, was physically either taller or wider than me. Wind energy was already an old energy industry so nearly everybody was two decades or more my senior. The battlefield was intimidating to say the least.

As a natural introvert I hate this stuff. I don’t mind talking to people, but walking into a crowded room and trying to spark up conversations with strangers. Makes my palms sweat as much as anybody else. Except for extroverts who actually like that stuff, those people are lunatics.

At first I was very analytical about figuring out how to network in the least painful way possible. I observed my colleagues who were good at it, read Dale Carnegie books and that awful Never Eat Alone book, read some blogs and experimented continuously. I learned some stuff that does in fact work.

I learned if you are young you need to dress very sharply to be taken seriously. If you manage a billion dollar private equity fund, everybody takes you seriously even if you’re in an oversized mustard yellow three-piece suit, a bolo tie and cowboy hat with an eagle feather in it. If you’re in your early twenties with nothing to trade but your wit and charm, you need a dark well-tailored suit, pocket square, some strikingly neon dress socks in polished kicks.

I learned about a “whatzit” or a conversation piece. Sometimes the tiniest ice-breaker can kick off a great conversation so it’s good to dangle something, anything really, that someone can make an off-hand comment about to break the silence. In my case it was a metal and tortoise-shell business card holder that I deftly whipped out to distribute cards while everybody fumbled in their wallets for crinkled pieces of paper. “Oh nice card holder,” they’d say. I’d respond, “Thanks, what are you investing in these days?” I’m aware of the American Pyscho business card analog here but you gotta admit, Bateman was a smooth operator.

I learned to get to the conference really early because everybody is off their guard and bleary-eyed at the coffee line. I learned later to spend hours before the conference emailing attendees because hard to reach people were 10x more likely to agree to a 15 minute side meeting at a conference than a 30 minute phone call on their normal calendar.

These are just a few snippets, there’s mountains of advice out there on how to network better. And a lot of this stuff does technically work, it will improve what you get out of a networking event and it totally worked in some ways for me.

But then I discovered a networking tactic that worked 100x better. All the other marginal improvements I’d made were worthless by comparison.

The secret to power networking is: Make something awesome and tell people about it.

The way to crush a conference is to give a compelling, data-rich, slightly funny and slightly controversial talk. It’s as simple as that.

I learned this when the CEO of our company was supposed to give a presentation at a reasonably important conference and couldn’t make it at the last second. So my boss thought, “Tyler’s been working for us for like six months now, why not have him do it instead?” (Yea, everybody there was awesome like that).

So I worked my ass off, put together a really interesting deck, nervously told a joke or two and pulled it off. I made something and told people about it. And then an amazing thing happened, everybody wanted to network with me! My talk was on the second day, so people who had actively ignored me the first day were now introducing themselves, or sending their lackeys to arrange a meeting. I got invited to the cool nerdy after parties where everyone gets too drunk and tells you all the juicy data.

This isn’t even an 80/20 effort. Just giving a 15 minute presentation yielded 99% of the value of the conference with 1% of the effort. Unless you have a deathly fear of public speaking, sitting on stage and saying “look at this cool thing I have” is a lot less scary than walking up to a stranger and saying “Hi I’m Tyler.” At least to me.

After that my conference trips were both more effective and much more pleasant. I focused almost all my efforts on getting a good speaking slot and giving a kick ass talk and mostly didn’t worry about the rest.

The general pattern holds well too. Since I put my suits in storage and quit my conference jockey gig, I’ve spent the last four years making stuff and blogging about it. Blog posts have been by far the best source of any kind of networking for me.

Inbound requests from folks who want to partner or help with my businesses all come from blog posts. Interesting people who just want to have a chat, come from blog posts. Fellow entrepreneurs who want to swap stories, find me through my blog posts. The blog-first startup is getting a lot of traction as a business tactic because it allows you to cheaply make something useful and show it to people before you ever pitch an investor. If done well, investors read what you’re putting out there and reach out to you!

I’m sure I’ll think of other good distribution methods for the make and tell people about it but for now it’s all about the blog game for me. Or rather the full pattern is: make something awesome, blog about it and then Buffer it, and then later repost it to Medium.

People always think the end-game to actually get value out of your blog is to monetize it with ads or something. But I think the biggest benefit by far is it allows you to do “pull networking.” You write down “these are the things I’m thinking about and like talking about” and others can read them and reach out to you if they like thinking and talking about those things too. That is infinitely more valuable than the $0.00005 per page view for one weird trick ads in your sidebar.

Making things, by the way, is also the only way to network upwards. What do I mean by that? Well let’s say you want to meet someone you look up to and admire: a writer, film star or entrepreneur. If you deploy all the traditional networking tactics incredibly well, they might be impressed and maybe you would get to meet them and gram a selfie with them. But let’s say you actually want to become friends, confidants and colleagues with these people. No amount of cold-calling, leveraging alumni networks or stunts can get you there. But write a best-selling novel, Kickstart a film in Sundance, or build a fast-growing startup and now you get invited over for drinks and conversation. The only way to build a real relationship with someone who has hugely asymmetric demands on their time is to make something they admire.

Sadly there’s no one weird trick here. The making of awesome things is massively harder than becoming a LinkedIn Group power-user, but it’s massively more rewarding too.

  1. “tax equity” for the energy geeks

Why you can believe in climate change and be anti-GMO


They will beat you over the head with The Facts that 97% of scientists agree that humans are causing climate change.

But you offer them one upgraded-by-Monsanto™ banana, reminding them of The Facts that nearly the same level of consensus exists within the scientific community that genetically modified foods are safe to eat, and they still say, “Yeah, but I have a right to know so I want a label.”

I’ve seen these two juxtaposed often enough as prima facie proof that liberals employ double-think when it comes to believing scientists. Even though I don’t have a strong opinion on GMOs, I’m going to wade in here a little bit. What I would like to do is lay out the argument that it is possible to both believe in climate change and be anti-GMO. More specifically it’s important to take a holistic look at the scientific questions, the implications and the proposed policy solutions. In any case science never boils down to “which of these assertions is 100% correct.” So what I’ll specifically argue here is not a purely academic argument of whether the two scientific beliefs are compatible, but I’ll argue that you can rationally look at the science behind both and be proponent of action to mitigate climate change AND action to limit or identify GMOs without contradicting yourself.

Much of my thinking here evolves from this paper on the Precautionary Principle by N. N. Taleb et al. This principle argues that you should evaluate not just the probability of a risk, as implied by scientific consensus on an issue, but the consequences of the consensus being right or wrong. In particular it argues that we should pay close attention when our probability-adjusted cost-benefit analysis includes any probability of ruin or total irreversible damage. If ruin is a possibility, we should exercise extreme caution with regards to policies that have a chance of leading to it, even if the probabilities are small.

The Precautionary Principle leaves no room for nut jobs, crazies or conspiracy theorists. It takes as a presupposition that you agree that people should use the scientific method and generally behave rationally and that we should give very very strong weight to the current scientific consensus on any given issue. But it also argues that you should look at the nature of the implications if the current scientific consensus is right and if it is wrong, and what are the cost/benefits of proposed policies in both cases.

In the case of climate change, the PP yields an obvious asymmetry. If the scientific consensus on climate change happens to be wildly and totally wrong and the climate would be totally fine and humans and their emissions have nothing to do with it; but we go ahead and enact reforms to accelerate emissions reductions, the cost is relatively small. We incur some incremental energy costs, but also catalyze innovation in a number of stale sectors of the economy. There are also side-benefits of reducing air pollution and so on. On the other hand, if the scientific consensus is correct and yet we do nothing, the damage is enormous. Economic damages that tend towards the incalculable coupled with potentially irreversible damage to the livability of our entire planet… Ruin.

The asymmetry of being wrong is obvious here and the Precautionary Principle leads us to believe that we really should act to mitigate climate change.

But with the GMO debate, I would argue that the asymmetry goes the other way, opening the door for a different conclusion.

First it’s important to note that there are, as I see it, two primary and independent objections to GMOs. The first is that eating them consistently may cause deleterious health effects to an individual, leading to an increased risk of cancer or some other disease where the root causes are not very well understood anyway. The second is that the genetic fiddling involved in creating GMOs goes so far beyond Mendel’s peas that there is a risk we create some sort of mutant monster crop that kills all the monarch butterflies, cascading us into an Interstellar-style dystopian future of widespread ecosystem collapse. The policy conclusions from these diverge a bit. GMO labeling laws, that have captured so much of the public debate, really only address the former, whereas an outright ban like in the European Union would target both concerns. At the risk of oversimplification, I’ll lump both together and just consider an opinion that GMOs are risky to individuals and ecosystems and should be more heavily regulated and their use pared back.

The scientific community rejects with strong agreement both of these scenarios. But let’s run the same analysis. If the scientific consensus on GMOs being safe to eat and benign to the environment is correct, but we label them and limit their use the cost is probably small. The cost of labeling seems very small indeed. People pay a bit more by only buying organic bananas. But the cost of materially limiting the use and distribution of GMOs is a bit more problematic. GMOs have improved crop yields dramatically and played a key part in the global reduction in poverty. But the cost of labeling plus being a bit more cautious is probably not that large. On the other hand, if some of the bigger concerns of the risks of GMOs turn out to be true, but we take no extra precaution because of the current scientific consensus, we could find ourselves in a future where Matthew Mcconaughey traveling though a time dilation field is the Earth’s only hope. Seriously though, It isn’t totally inconceivable to believe that there is some small risk that exponentially faster tinkering with the genes of crops could lead to some cascading ecosystem imploding disaster.

The important point here is not to start immediately comparing the probabilities associated with climate change versus GMOs but to see that the two are mirror images of each other in terms of the asymmetry of the consequences of the scientific consensus. That’s why, if one is very cautious, it can be completely rational to want to act to mitigate climate change AND to want to more tightly restrict GMOs, despite that fact that one is swimming against the scientific consensus on the one hand and relying completely on it in the other.

But, Tyler!?!?

Before you say it, the Precautionary Principle is not a cure all and it does not solve the question of needing to make a judgement call about the relative probabilities at some level.

For example, when the CERN laboratory in Switzerland was finalizing it’s tests for the Higgs-Boson particle, certain bloggers/crackpots and what have you, asserted that the experiments could potentially create a black hole that would swallow up the Earth and all of human civilization in an instant. A tiny probability but with an implied infinite risk. Should a rigorous application of the Precautionary Principle have shut down the CERN experiments based on any risk of total annihilation of humanity?

Additionally a cautious approach to GMOs could be extended to the anti-vaccination argument. If the costs of a small subset of the population abstaining from vaccination are small, and the risks, an increased rate of child autism, very large, shouldn’t a rigorous application of the Precautionary Principle endorse the anti-vaccination position as much as the anti-GMO position?

Well, first there’s a weak answer to this. The cost of abstaining from vaccinations are not small with herd-immunity playing a key role in the virtual elimination of certain very nasty diseases like measles. And the risk is very very small given that basically no scientists at all agrees with the proposition that vaccinations increase the risk of autism.

But that doesn’t give us the clear answer that we’re looking for does it? Should we trust science or not? Are certain people of a certain political spectrum anti-science nut jobs or unquestioning automatons. I don’t have the answers. But the believe/don’t believe science question is a vast over-simplification. We need to expand our thinking on these issues and looking at the asymmetry of consequences is an important part of the toolkit for doing so.

Terrifying Freedom

It can be comforting to have something keeping you down.

A shitty boss or a dead end job, the Gub’ment or the Man. Patriarchy or racism. All of these things conspire to block you from being happy, successful and fulfilled. And that’s comforting for a lot of people because it gives you something to blame. Something to rail against and to grumble about on the commute home each day.

I’m pretty sure my best thinking is behind me. I did it all during my four years of high school debate team. But during that time the one idea that we studied that continues to fascinate me the most is threat construction. Threat construction is a fairly formalized sociological and psychological tendency for us to construct external threats. Psychologically this manifests in our desire to constantly create a bogeyman that’s the root cause of the problems in our life. The effect becomes even more powerful when groups of people circle the wagons and rally together to blame some “other” for their misfortunes. People are constantly creating, or at least vastly exaggerating, external threats.

And we really enjoy this. Coworkers love to kibitz about the bosses. Crazy uncles love to prognosticate on the impending threat of sharia law. I do it too. When my startup was failing I used to love to bitch about the stupid VCs who wouldn’t invest in us. Once you start thinking about threat construction, you see it everywhere, including in your own thinking all the time. We are constantly manufacturing and exaggerating layers upon layers of external threats.

Because the alternative can be terrifying.

When you start to really examine these threats or forces one by one and deconstruct them, what you probably find is that 99% of what’s keeping you down is made up of two things. The first thing is the shear randomness of the universe. You’re not cursed, you don’t have consistently bad luck, it’s just that the universe, the distribution of positive events, gene allocation are all profoundly random. Nothing is conspiring against you there and they only thing you can do is act like a professional poker player. You make good bets with your time, energy, decisions and resources and you let the chips fall. The second thing is You. And that’s the terrifying part. It’s comforting to think that you’re doing all you can and some force, human or otherwise is just blocking your path. But we when you really examine those thoughts it turns out that you have the ultimate control over the vast majority of those things.

Those layers of external threats and forces act as comfort blanket, shielding us from the ultimate responsibility for our own lives. My Dad used to always have a saying about his martial arts teacher who would say that “if someone punches you, it’s your fault for not getting out of the way.” It sounds a bit crazy at first glance, but it’s pretty liberating. It’s a way of thinking that you have the capacity to affect every part of your life and nothing is really out of your control to influence or improve.

Now I’m not saying that shitty bosses or government intrusion or sexism or racism are not real things. I’m not saying they’re made up. Some threats are made up, but some of them are very real. But I do think that in most cases they simply tilt the already uncertain and difficult terrain of life further against you. The lion’s share of the blame for the status of your life is probably still on you.

Complaining to your friend about something that’s keeping you from your dreams gives you a short, quick hit of good chemicals in your brain. Deeply examine the issue and you realize that 1) ultimately the onus is on you to act and 2) acting probably involves taking some risk, and the randomness of the universe ensures you don’t know it the risk will pay off. That does not give you a spurt of good chemicals, but something more akin to a punch in the gut.

But it’s the truth. We all have a terrifying freedom.