"Because" is one of the most powerful words in the English language.

In Robert Cialdini's classic book, "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion," he gives a great overview of the science behind persuading people.  One of the most interesting experiments has to do with the effect of "because" on people.

In a study, they had a subject approach a copier with a line of people.  The subject asked the people to cut in line. 

The request by itself only got 60% of the people to allow the subject to cut in line.

When the subject asked to cut because they were in a rush to meet a deadline, over 90% of people let them cut in line.

Almost the same percentage let the subject cut when they asked to cut in line, "because I need to make these copies."

Anyone in line for the copier needs to make copies, that request adds no new information to the situation, but our brains make a shortcut that assumes that what comes after "because" is a real reason, so we don't think about the information content of what comes after it.

This is something our President uses, where his justifications for policies are often nonsensical, but by phrasing them after "because," people fill in the spaces regardless of the reality.

Now that you know how this works, you can watch out for it.  If you use the effect to persuade others, please do it ethically.


Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Now that my campaign for Mayor of Phoenix is over, I've had a chance to read a few books and wanted to jot down my notes on the main themes for my future reference and for anyone who might be considering the book.

The first one I read on vacation in Flagstaff, Cal Newport's "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World."

The main thesis is that the ability to concentrate on a single project or problem for a sustained period becomes harder in our world of network tools and distractions like email and clickbait websites.  Since it's harder to do, there are significant advantages for those who practice the skill of going deep over others who are stuck doing shallow work.

Deep diving

After laying out his hypothesis that deep work is worthwhile, he sets down four rules to cultivate the ability to do deep work and make it part of your personal practice.

The four rules are:
  1. Work Deeply
  2. Embrace Boredom
  3. Quit Social Media
  4. Drain the Shallows
Work Deeply: Focus on the most important tasks (Pareto's 80/20 rule), create rituals and an environment to make it easier to get into the deep work, and make sure to incorporate downtime when you stop trying to do the deep work to allow your mind to refresh and to develop insights into the problem or project using your subconscious mind.

Embrace Boredom: Our constant distractions prevent us from being bored (checking social media or messing with our phones), which detracts from the ability to focus.  By blocking out time to focus, and then allowing Internet distraction only as a break from that focus, you rewire your brain to have focus be the default.

Quit Social Media: The ability to connect is a small benefit, at the high cost of distraction.  Since this constant shallow distraction is not likely to be moving you toward your life goals, you should evaluate social media to see if the benefits outweigh the costs.  Like the rule about not buying single-purpose kitchen appliances, the added clutter doesn't pay for itself with a benefit. Choose your tools like a craftsman, applying careful cost-benefit analysis.

Drain the Shallows: Figure out what work is deep, schedule all of your time so that you can prioritize the deep work.  Make sure to have a limit to how much deep work you do in the day.  When you do have to do shallow work like email responses, make the senders work harder to send, make the responses advance the project, and don't feel obligated to respond to every electronic missive that comes your way.

It's a relatively short, well-written book, with solid research citations and anecdotal examples from the author's career of how the techniques can benefit someone who wants to achieve more than most people in society without spending as much time.


“You can never buy a decent used car”?

It was the subtitle that got me to read Tim Harford’s book, “The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich are Rich, the Poor are Poor – and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!” Our family owns the oldest independent car dealership in Phoenix and has sold thousands of decent used cars over the last 75 years; who is this guy to say you can “never” buy one?

I’m glad the title pissed me off enough to read the book. Nothing is more powerful for a man than knowing how things work. Harford’s book shows you how the world works in ways that empower you to do something about it. Whether you’re a Libertarian like me or subscribe to some other political belief, an economist’s understanding of the effects – intentional or otherwise – of market actors and government policies will help you advocate for the good. After finishing this book, you’ll have a much better grasp on the world than 95% of our politicians in Washington.

“Billions of people could benefit from better economic policies. Millions are dying because of bad
ones.” -Tim Harford

One key insight he explains in simple terms is that if one wants to adjust the outcome of a race, the
least distortion is made by rearranging the starting blocks, rather than forcing some runners to run
backwards or more slowly. The outcome is still that all runners cross the finish line at the same time,
but they all are still running at their individual capacity.

There is also an excellent analysis of why our healthcare system in the United States is so broken and
what we could do to fix it. Rather than distort the heath insurance market with mandates and
penalties to deal with the issue of asymmetric information between individuals and insurance
companies, we should adopt a system that allows the market and price forces to work, similar to
Singapore. The Singaporean system is not perfect, but would be vastly better when it comes to both
price and outcomes than what we have now.

As to the used cars, think about how you would deal with the problem of a car dealer having good
and bad cars for sale (“peaches and lemons”) from the perspective of a car buyer who doesn’t know
which is which. Once you’ve thought through the problem, pick up a copy of Harford’s book and
see whether you got the same solution.


Marketing to a small minority without a massive budget

If 1 out of 100 people are potential buyers for your product, you still have a target market of approximately 3,227,000 people. The challenge is reaching them.

Mass media would work, if you saturate all 322MM people with your message, some fraction of that 1 in 100 would respond, but you'd be broke from the cost of mass marketing to everyone to target the 1%.

The hack for this system is to get the media to give you free (often negative) coverage by creating manufactured controversy and outrage. They will run stories that attack your product and show them to everyone, but your 1 in 100 target market will also see those stories. They will be intrigued by your product and probably even more loyal customers from watching your product be attacked by the mainstream.
The specific methods for using this technique are covered in Ryan Holiday's book, "Trust Me I'm Lying," and are used by controversial public figures every day.

Understanding how this works is a powerful tool, though it can't be your only tool.


Book Review: "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power"

It's not often anymore that I have time for a full-length book, but I recently read Jon Meacham's biography of Jefferson, "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power."  It took a few weeks taking it on long flights and reading before bed, but it's very worth the time.

Meacham covers the entire arc of Jefferson's life, giving plenty of space to his formative years in Virginia and looking at the influences that shaped him prior to obtaining high office.

By Meacham's account, Jefferson seldom would be directly critical of others, even political opponents or enemies.  His politeness and tact were the surface that people saw, while he worked quietly and diligently behind the scenes to consolidate alliances and test the waters to ensure that he seldom engaged in battles he could not win.

Meacham does not avoid the issue of slave ownership, treating it thoroughly, but noting the complexities of the time and Jefferson's complicated relationships with his slaves.  He finds some evidence that Jefferson supported abolition as a concept, but his assessment of the political situation was that it would be a lost cause to fight for publicly.

Libertarians have a soft spot for Jefferson, due to many of his writings and quotations having a strong libertarian bent, but the picture Meacham paints is of an idealist who was an absolute realist about policy and the exercise of governmental power.  His ideas were lofty, but he also had skill as a political tactician in not seeking too much and knowing when to negotiate.

If you're interested in the man behind the legend of a Founding Father, Jon Meacham's "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power" is worth a read.


Real change starts with the man in the mirror

There are so many people in the world who are not doing what they should.  When I find myself focusing on the actions of others, I find it helpful to listen to Michael Jackson's classic, "Man in the Mirror

As a stoic, I recognize that only my actions are in my control.  As a Libertarian, I recognize that nobody should have control over another person's freedom.  As a businessman and manager, I have experience that people respond better to examples than commands.

It's time we take a look at the man in the mirror.  It's time to make a change.


How Much Do You Get Paid for Breathing? - An update

Back in July 2013, I wrote a post about how much one gets paid for breathing.  The basic concept is to figure out how much money you make from entirely passive investments and divide it our to figure out what you get paid just for breathing, without having to do any work.

At that point, between interest, dividends, and rental income, I was making $0.34 per hour.

Not quite two years later, I'm doing a little better on dividends and the rent went up on the house we don't live in.  The new passive income is up to $3409.49 for the year, $284.12 for the month, $9.34 per day, and $0.39 per hour.

A five cent per hour raise is not normally something to write home about, but when it's a raise on the wage you make for breathing, that's an extra $438 every year for just staying alive.