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Category Archives: Letters

Farnam Street’s 2016 Annual Letter to Readers

To the readers of Farnam Street:

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.

Last year I started a similar tradition at Farnam Street. To a large extent, I consider you the owners of Farnam Street.

Investors, or owners, typically exchange money for shares in a company. I think your investment in Farnam Street is just as important —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.

***

2016 was a record year in almost every reader-related metric.

Readership increased approximately 20 percent, which was decent. We surpassed over 100k readers to our weekly newsletter, Brain Food (OK, that’s a pretty awesome milestone. I might have even celebrated with a bottle of champagne … or two.)

Visitors spent 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.

***

I think we all know that readership increased in spite of our website design, rather than because of it. Luckily, we’re tackling that problem next year thanks to the fine folks at Grain and Mortar. I can’t wait for you to see the new site.

***

I’m often asked how we grow our audience. My simple answer is met with skepticism: Our readers tell their friends and coworkers. That’s it.

This is usually followed by an endless slew of unsolicited advice on how to “exponentially increase our growth.” A typical example is the “reward” for generating controversy.

A lot of websites create controversy intentionally. They want nothing more than for 50% of their audience to love an article and 50% to hate it. Why? Because both sides will dig in and then they will talk about it. When they talk about it they’ll link back to the original site, thus driving traffic (and, even more perverse, as a byproduct of how most search engines work, these arguments typically increase search engine rankings).

You almost can’t help but admire the cleverness of this strategy, which takes advantage of hard wired defaults both in humans and search to gain an advantage. This strategy is so common these days it’s not even divergent — it’s the norm!

However easy that play is, intentionally creating controversy to get pageviews isn’t a strategy you’ll find us employing to grow quickly. While it is important to account for arguments from all sides, we’ll stick to our knitting.

While we’re open to new ideas and ways to increase the value for readers, we’re not open to gimmicks or short term strategies. We’d rather be a tree that digs its roots deep, grows slowly, and can’t be easily blown over.

***

Events

In 2016, we offered two public Re:Think Workshops (Innovation and Decision-Making) and private versions too. We continue to limit attendance at these events to ensure a good experience for everyone.

One of the most surprising things about the public events is that people get to meet people who are curious, kind, and intelligent. In short, people just like them.

The quality of individuals who attend these events continues to blow my mind. This year we had attendees from Github, Tuft and Needle, AJO, Glimmer of Hope, Warburg Pincus, Rackspace, Inspire Environmental, and two difference branches of U.S. Special Forces, to name a few.

Last year, if you recall, I was worried that we were spreading ourselves too thin with respect to the variety of topics we took on. Reducing the number of offerings in 2016 was the right thing to do as it allowed us time to relaunch the website ReThinkWorkshops.com as well as make significant improvements to the content of both Re:Think Innovation and Re:Think Decision-Making.

Our next event is Re:Think Decision-Making in Seattle this March. I hope to see you there.

Podcast

The Knowledge Project, our podcast, reached over 350,000 downloads. Which doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider that we release about one episode a month. Things on this front will largely stay the same for the time being. We already have some exceptional guests lined up for early in the new year.

Tools and More

Productivity That Gets Results, our popular productivity seminar, continues to help people avoid the traps that get in the way of being productive. We want to help you spend more time doing what you want to be doing.

The Art of Reading launched to some great feedback and success at helping people improve their information consumption. Yes, we made a course about reading.

We spend so much of our time reading these days — whether it’s email, articles, blogs, books, or reports. The dividends to getting even 5% more effective at remembering, knowing when to skim, and connecting ideas becomes a non-linear outcome.

To my knowledge, our course on reading is the only significantly student-tested course that has worked for executives, teachers, students, NFL Coaches, best-selling authors and more. But we’re making it even better.

We undertook a significant effort over the past few months to materially improve The Art of Reading, which will relaunch in as soon as the video editing is done. (There is no reason to wait to purchase it if you’re interested, existing customers will have access to all the new content for free.)

I don’t want to spoil the other things we’re working on in this space but we’ve made progress on two addition products. The first one is seminar based and should be out soon. The second is larger in ambition and scope and I’ve never seen anything like it. My hope is that we can launch this in the fall as we’ve already delayed a year to make sure we’re getting it right.

Learning Community

Online media properties are continuing to look for ways that create and capture value. The problem here is that most of these organizations want to capture more value than they create — they focus on the wrong side of the equation. This leads to a short-term engagement between creator and audience, as the latter realizes they’ve been had and moves on. Farnam Street tries to take the opposite approach: Add so much value that people want to support it.

Recently, we’ve started to incorporate some of the lessons we’ve learned running a membership program for a year back into the offering. The most apparent is that we’ve moved away from calling it the membership program and are now call it a learning community. This phrase (and our subsequent activities) bring the program much closer in line with what we are trying to create for our readers.

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. I think we delivered on that this year and I look forward to pushing even more next year. (And every year.)

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.

***

Team Farnam

Perceptive readers know there is more to Farnam Street than me. Last year we reached the point where I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do myself so Jeff Annello (@mungerisms) came on board. Jeff and I have worked together in the past, and I value both our friendship and the quality of thought he brings to the table. There are a lot of ideas I want to try and lots of great things to come, and we'll continue to work with exceptional people as we go along.

***

Sponsorships

I want to thank our lead sponsor for 2016: Slack. I’ll also welcome our incoming sponsors Royce Funds, Greenhaven Road Capital, SparkBox, adventur.es, and Grain and Mortar (who are currently in the process of redesigning the site). We still have one open spot, so if you’d like to inquire about sponsoring the blog please get in touch with me.

***

2016 Report Card

Last year I offered a way to judge our progress. Let’s quickly review what I wrote so I can hold myself accountable.

Here is what you can expect and hold us accountable for in 2016:

The quality of all content will be much higher. We will do better at adding context, presenting ideas in compelling ways, adding tools to your mental tool box, making things practical, and exposing you to mental models that will help you be better at what you do. We’ll further our exploration of what it means to live a meaningful life and deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world.

The Re:Think workshops will offer a better experience. While everyone has described their experiences so far as off the charts, I see so much room for improvement that it’s hard to fathom how we’re exceeding expectations. Everything from onboarding and hotel options to the overall experience while at the event will be improved. We have an amazing team in place for the events. They consistently sell out.

The audio quality on the podcast will be much improved. I’ve already taken care of this to a large extent. Where possible, I’ll do more in-person interviews as these offer more meaningful and deeper conversations.

The experience of existing readers will not be compromised to add new readers. For a large part of the year there was an annoying little pop-up that appeared on the screen asking for your email address. This was a mistake. While it helped us grow at about 2500 readers a month, it’s annoying to some and degrades the reading experience for all. You deserve better. I fumbled here and hopefully recovered. I was aware of how annoying it was and failed to act. The allure of 100,000 readers is a strong pull — especially when my mother reminds me that her “small town” (my words, not hers) has more people than I have readers. Anyway, the pop-up is off now.

The site will function better. We will be seeking to engage a web designer in 2016 or 2017 to redesign the site to improve navigation, organization, and the overall reading experience. This is more about finding the right person or team to work with us and less about the year in which it happens.

Products will exceed your expectations. We have two new things slated to roll out in 2016 — a mini-course in January on How to Read A Book and a project I’ll reveal when the time is right. To help ensure we’re delivering at the quality and caliber you deserve, we’ve invested in hiring the right people to help design, develop, and deliver these courses. I hope you’ll offer your honest feedback.

Here is my view on how we did in 2016.

“The quality of content will be much higher.” We made much progress on this front. We still need to work on better synthesizing and connecting ideas. We need to get better at varying the length of content as we perhaps trended a little verbose toward the end of this year.

“The Re:Think workshops will offer a better experience.” While there is room for improvement. We improved the content, added some nice personal touches, and really sought to deepen our connection with readers. These events provide a way for us to do things that don’t scale but add enormous value to everyone.

“The audio quality on the podcast will be much improved.” I won’t say it’s “much improved,” but I didn’t make as many bone headed mistakes this year.

“The experience of existing readers will not be compromised to add new readers.” We held off from doing a pop up and instead offered original content to high-quality publications, such as Medium, Quartz, etc. (If you run a publication with a big audience you think would be a fit, fire off an email to [email protected]).

“The site will function better.” Grain and Mortar is in the process of redesigning it now. If you have comments or suggestions, please reach out to [email protected]

“Products will exceed your expectations.” We’re getting better at this. The content quality is great and getting better but we still needed some help with the packaging and functionality. Sparkbox helped us redesign fscourses.com to help create a platform that pairs great infrastructure, design, and content.

Overall, I’m pleased but not satisfied.

What to expect for 2017

I won’t offer as detailed of a roadmap for next year. This year we worked on a lot of low-hanging fruit. Improvements are likely to be more incremental this year. Don’t let this unsexy statement fool you, there is significant value in the trenches.

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.

The learning community will continue towards an exclusive vibrant hub of learning that fosters deep connections between participants and value you can't get anywhere else.

We’ll have a new slate of guests on the Knowledge Project, start exploring longer content such as books, and continue to offer you mental tools and tactics that deliver value and live a meaningful life.

We work hard to be the website you want to read. The website you want to immerse yourself in. The one where after 20 minutes of looking around you look up and say “I’ve found my tribe.”

2017 is also the year I start working on a few book projects. Stay tuned.

***

Where I’ve made the biggest personal mistake over the past year is thinking I can do two or more things at once successfully. Velocity is a vector dependent concept. Moving in two directions that are not 100% aligned creates drag.

There is a lot of work ahead of us.

Having no idea what tomorrow might bring, I try to prepare for an uncertain future. I show up to the office every day looking for opportunities to move forward in the best way I can. That’s usually putting one foot in front of the other and trying to make incremental progress without regressing.

Thank you for your continued time and trust in me and Farnam Street.
—Shane

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John Steinbeck on Love

Nobel laureate John Steinbeck (1902-1968) is best known as the author of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men but we can pull from his letters a mix of insight and language that rivals that of Hunter S. Thompson.

Steinbeck hated the telephone. Letter writing was a more natural way for him to communicate his thoughts with both the people he liked and the ones he hated on all manner of subjects.

Found in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, the master pens this beautiful and passionate response to his eldest son Thom's 1958 letter confessing his love for a girl named Susan.

While Steinbeck urges patience, a value increasingly lost in today's hyper-connected world, he also highlights several kinds of love: one destructive and the other unleashing.

New York
November 10, 1958

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.

Love,

“You see well enough. But you stop listening.”

Ernest_Hemingway_in_Milan_1918

Just after the publication of his new novel in 1934, Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald asked his friend Ernest Hemingway for an honest opinion on the book. The story, about Dick and Nicole Diver, was based on Gerald and Sara Murphy, mutual acquaintances of both Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

And respond Hemingway did.

The letter, found in, Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961, contains plenty of timeless advice for any writer.

Key West
28 May 1934

Dear Scott:

I liked it and I didn't. It started off with that marvelous description of Sara and Gerald (goddamn it Dos took it with him so I can't refer to it. So if I make any mistakes—). Then you started fooling with them, making them come from things they didn't come from, changing them into other people and you can't do that, Scott. If you take real people and write about them you cannot give them other parents than they have (they are made by their parents and what happens to them) you cannot make them do anything they would not do. You can take you or me or Zelda or Pauline or Hadley or Sara or Gerald but you have to keep them the same and you can only make them do what they would do. You can't make one be another. Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen.

That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best—make it all up—but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.

Goddamn it you took liberties with peoples' pasts and futures that produced not people but damned marvellously faked case histories. You, who can write better than anybody can, who are so lousy with talent that you have to—the hell with it. Scott for gods sake write and write truly no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly compromises. You could write a fine book about Gerald and Sara for instance if you knew enough about them and they would not have any feeling, except passing, if it were true.

There were wonderful places and nobody else nor none of the boys can write a good one half as good reading as one that doesn't come out by you, but you cheated too damned much in this one. And you don't need to.

In the first place I've always claimed that you can't think. All right, we'll admit you can think. But say you couldn't think; then you ought to write, invent, out of what you know and keep the people's antecedants straight. Second place, a long time ago you stopped listening except to the answers to your own questions. You had good stuff in too that it didn't need. That's what dries a writer up (we all dry up. That's no insult to you in person) not listening. That is where it all comes from. Seeing, listening. You see well enough. But you stop listening.

It's a lot better than I say. But it's not as good as you can do.

You can study Clausewitz in the field and economics and psychology and nothing else will do you any bloody good once you are writing. We are like lousy damned acrobats but we make some mighty fine jumps, bo, and they have all these other acrobats that won't jump.

For Christ sake write and don't worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. You feel you have to publish crap to make money to live and let live. All write but if you write enough and as well as you can there will be the same amount of masterpiece material (as we say at Yale). You can't think well enough to sit down and write a deliberate masterpiece and if you could get rid of Seldes and those guys that nearly ruined you and turn them out as well as you can and let the spectators yell when it is good and hoot when it is not you would be all right.

Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don't cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don't think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.

About this time I wouldn't blame you if you gave me a burst. Jesus it's marvellous to tell other people how to write, live, die etc.

I'd like to see you and talk about things with you sober. You were so damned stinking in N.Y. we didn't get anywhere. You see, Bo, you're not a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we should do is write. Of all people on earth you needed discipline in your work and instead you marry someone who is jealous of your work, wants to compete with you and ruins you. It's not as simple as that and I thought Zelda was crazy the first time I met her and you complicated it even more by being in love with her and, of course you're a rummy. But you're no more of a rummy than Joyce is and most good writers are. But Scott, good writers always come back. Always. You are twice as good now as you were at the time you think you were so marvellous. You know I never thought so much of Gatsby at the time. You can write twice as well now as you ever could. All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is.

Go on and write.

Anyway I'm damned fond of you and I'd like to have a chance to talk sometimes. We had good times talking. Remember that guy we went out to see dying in Neuilly? He was down here this winter. Damned nice guy Canby Chambers. Saw a lot of Dos. He's in good shape now and he was plenty sick this time last year. How is Scotty and Zelda? Pauline sends her love. We're all fine. She's going up to Piggott for a couple of weeks with Patrick. Then bring Bumby back. We have a fine boat. Am going good on a very long story. Hard one to write.

Always your friend

Ernest

(Note: Hemingway's spelling is shown accurately. For example, he twice wrote “write” where, presumably, he meant “right.”)

(via Letters of Note)