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Farnam Street Think Week

Every year Bill Gates takes a think week, where he reads and ponders the future. This is how he reframes his perspective, gains new insights, and recharges his mental batteries.

This sounds like a good idea to me.

Escape the winter blues and join us for a week of reading on the beach in the mornings, afternoons spent thinking, and evenings with long dinners with fellow participants discussing ideas.

Some details:

  • The event runs March 18-23. Jeff and I will be flying in the 17th and leaving the 24th.
  • Anyone can register. After meeting thousands of Farnam Street readers in person over the years I know you're a pretty awesome crew. So, anyone can sign up  … but I only want people who are going to take this seriously.
  • Space is extremely limited. There are only 20 spots.
  • You have a say. Dinners are the only organized events and they will each have a theme. After registration closes, we'll email participants to get ideas on what they want to discuss and what they'll be reading. You'll also get a list of what Jeff and I will be reading that week.
  • Registration closes on February 29, at 11:59pm EST.
  • Discounted rates at the hotel. Things in Hawaii can be expensive. Since we hold a lot of conferences, we managed to lower the room rates by hundreds of dollars. This is subject to hotel availability.

If this sounds like your idea of fun — reading, thinking, and hanging around a bunch of like-minded people drinking wine and discussing ideas — then I'll see you there.

This has the potential to recharge your batteries and change your life.

You can find more information and sign up here.

Farnam Street’s 2015 Annual Letter to Readers

To the readers of Farnam Street:

Most public companies issue an annual letter. These letters offer an opportunity for the people entrusted to run the company to communicate with the people who own the company.

I decided this would be a good year to start a similar tradition at Farnam Street. It’s not that I haven’t written annual letters before. As a board member and advisor, I’ve written a few in the past. However, I’ve never written you an annual letter before. There is no good reason for that. To a large extent, I consider you to be the owners of Farnam Street.

Investors, or owners, traditionally 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: your time.

For all of us, time is finite. That means we need to think about opportunity costs. Reading Farnam Street means you’re not doing something else. My job is to make sure your investment is getting an above average return.


2015 was a record year in almost every reader-related metric for Farnam Street.

The number of Farnam Street readers increased dramatically. The time people spent reading a page (a good proxy for how interested people are in the content) increased. The bounce rate (a fancy phrase for the percentage of people who look at one page and then leave the site) decreased dramatically. In short we had more people who read longer and looked at more pages.

We offered three public Re:Think Workshops (Leadership, Innovation, and Decision Making). This took a lot of effort from an amazing team. The quality of people who attend these events continues to blow my mind. One former Harvard Business School professor summed it up nicely by saying you won’t find a better crowd of people at a public event anywhere. The feedback for all of the events was positive with the exception of one person (over 100 positives and 1 negative – we’ll take it). I felt we were at risk of spreading ourselves too thin, so we've decided to pare down to two in 2016 (Decision Making in February, which is already sold out, and Innovation in the fall). We’ve opted to put Re:Think Leadership on hold for now. Additionally, we have 13 people coming to Re:Think Decision Making who have attended Re:Think workshops in the past (including 6 who are attending Re:Think Decision Making for the second time) — I can’t think of a better metric to help gauge success.

The Knowledge Project, a successful podcast, launched. The first few episodes have been downloaded over 100,000 times. The audio quality sucked at first — which is entirely my fault — so we’ve spent a lot of time and money getting that to a decent place. I can tell you firsthand, the quality of conversation doesn’t matter if people can’t hear it. We’re much better now but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Our first ever online product: How to be Insanely More Productive launched. I remember being on a train coming back from Toronto when I first put this online. I figured this was a good place to start as I’m often asked to talk about productivity. I guessed about 50 people would sign up and I’d get some good feedback on how to deliver an online course that delivered tangible results in people’s lives. I was blown away by the participation levels and extremely positive feedback. I still get emails almost weekly from people saying how it helped them gain control of their lives and spend more time with their family. However, similar to the first episode of The Knowledge Project, this webinar offered first-rate content in third-tier packaging. I had another webinar planned for September on How to Read a Book, but I delayed the launch until I could find the right people to help re-package and re-formulate the material into something much better.


Membership program and the economics of running an online media company.

Perceptive readers will note the change of perspective from “I” to “we” in recent posts and newsletters.

Farnam Street had reached the point where I couldn't do the things I wanted to do long-term and still keep the day-to-day going. Despite having a team of people working hard to bring you events like Re:Think Decision Making, it's largely been a one-person endeavor until now.

I had to decide between pursuing my goals short-handed, which limits what can be accomplished, and growing with like-minded people who share my vision for Farnam Street. I chose the latter. And the first such hire started in November.

In late summer I started courting Jeff Annello to work with me at Farnam Street full-time. Not only does Jeff exemplify the Farnam Street ethos but he's a paragon of quality thinking. We've worked together in the past and had been waiting for another opportunity to do so.

Many people don't realize that Farnam Street takes hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars a month to sustain — and that was before bringing Jeff on board.

For years, generous readers like you have supported Farnam Street with donations. Without exception, I've reinvested all of that money back into Farnam Street.

I wish all help came as cheap. Jeff and his new fiancé, as you can imagine, don't fully subscribe to this long-hours, no-salary package.

This was the impetus that led me to Re:Think the donation model. While I haven't done away with donations, you can still contribute that way if you wish, I've opted to focus on a membership program.

Online media properties, as you probably know, are going through a bit of a rough patch as they look for ways to create and capture value. The problem, from a reader's perspective, 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.

Farnam Street takes the opposite approach: Add so much value that people want to support it. Our goal is to be so good that having a membership becomes a no-brainer, while at the same time, using some of the proceeds from paid membership to improve the free areas of the site.

The vast majority of content will always be free, and you can expect the free content to increase in quantity and quality as we head into 2016. If you find value in Farnam Street, we hope you'll consider contributing either through an individual or corporate membership.

One thing I want to make clear is that, although I've done a good bit of the work to date by myself, Farnam Street is a team. There is no way we would have gotten where we are without the wonderful support of a few key people who wish to remain behind the scenes. These people play more of a role than you can imagine and we all owe them our thanks.

I also want to thank our lead sponsor for 2015, Greenhaven Road Capital and our two lead sponsors for 2016: Slack and Siebels Asset Management Research. It’s not too early to start thinking about 2017. If you’d like to inquire about sponsoring the blog please get in touch with me.


We will continue to work hard every day to offer readers and members more value in 2016. That’s not an empty statement. Allow me to explain. 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.


We have no idea what tomorrow will bring so we 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 time and trust,

Are You an Outsider Trying To Change A Broken System?

Joseph Tussman

Elizabeth Warren was one of the key architects in the U.S. government’s response to the financial crisis. In her memoir, A Fighting Chance, Warren draws our attention to the troubling reality of high-level Washington.

One particular anecdote is worth noting for its penetrating insight into how the world actually works.

Warren was a member of the Congressional Oversight Panel, which, she writes, “couldn’t change a system that seemed hellbent on protecting the big guys and leaving everyone else by the side of the road.”

In 2009 after the panel had produced its third report, concluding that the risks to the American taxpayers were far greater than Treasury let on, Lawrence H. Summers, then the director of the National Economic Council and a top economic adviser to President Obama, “leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice,” Ms. Warren writes.

Larry's tone was in the friendly advice-category. He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.

And that is how the world inside government and organizations often works. You've been warned.

Hunter S. Thompson on Living versus Existing

Hunter S. Thompson on Living versus Existing

Hunter S. Thompson's letter to Hume Logan on finding your purpose and living a meaningful life is one of the most popular posts to ever appear on Farnam Street.

One reader found it so valuable he dug into Thompson's work in search of more wisdom. He ended up printing out a copy of Thompson's “Security” and mailed it to me.

Thompson, for his part, lays out some timeless wisdom yet again.

Security … what does this word mean in relation to life as we know it today? For the most part, it means safety and freedom from worry. It is said to be the end that all men strive for; but is security a utopian goal or is it another word for rut?

Let us visualize the secure man; and by this term, I mean a man who has settled for financial and personal security for his goal in life. In general, he is a man who has pushed ambition and initiative aside and settled down, so to speak, in a boring, but safe and comfortable rut for the rest of his life. His future is but an extension of his present, and he accepts it as such with a complacent shrug of his shoulders. His ideas and ideals are those of society in general and he is accepted as a respectable, but average and prosaic man. But is he a man? Has he any self-respect or pride in himself? How could he, when he has risked nothing and gained nothing? What does he think when he sees his youthful dreams of adventure, accomplishment, travel and romance buried under the cloak of conformity? How does he feel when he realizes that he has barely tasted the meal of life; when he sees the prison he has made for himself in pursuit of the almighty dollar? If he thinks this is all well and good, fine, but think of the tragedy of a man who has sacrificed his freedom on the altar of security, and wishes he could turn back the hands of time. A man is to be pitied who lacked the courage to accept the challenge of freedom and depart from the cushion of security and see life as it is instead of living it second-hand. Life has by-passed this man and he has watched from a secure place, afraid to seek anything better What has he done except to sit and wait for the tomorrow which never comes?

Turn back the pages of history and see the men who have shaped the destiny of the world. Security was never theirs, but they lived rather than existed. Where would the world be if all men had sought security and not taken risks or gambled with their lives on the chance that, if they won, life would be different and richer? It is from the bystanders (who are in the vast majority) that we receive the propaganda that life is not worth living, that life is drudgery, that the ambitions of youth must he laid aside for a life which is but a painful wait for death. These are the ones who squeeze what excitement they can from life out of the imaginations and experiences of others through books and movies. These are the insignificant and forgotten men who preach conformity because it is all they know. These are the men who dream at night of what could have been, but who wake at dawn to take their places at the now-familiar rut and to merely exist through another day. For them, the romance of life is long dead and they are forced to go through the years on a treadmill, cursing their existence, yet afraid to die because of the unknown which faces them after death. They lacked the only true courage: the kind which enables men to face the unknown regardless of the consequences.

As an afterthought, it seems hardly proper to write of life without once mentioning happiness; so we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?

The Four States of Mind

The truth is, you have control of your thoughts, reactions, and responses. And once you understand how powerful that choice can be, you’ll be able to change more aspects of your life than you can imagine.

We're busier than ever. We're often on autopilot.

We “go through the motions” without really paying attention to the decisions we're making or the implications. This is often where we go in the wrong direction and our view becomes narrow – we miss the bigger opportunity.

Sebastian Bailey elaborates on this in Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently.

We can focus internally or externally.

Internal Focus

When your focus is internal, it’s much like you’re having a conversation with yourself. Consider the voice you hear in your head as you read this book. Even while you’re reading our words, another dialogue might be asking if it’s worth continuing to read this chapter or if now is the time to have a cup of coffee. … When your focus is internal, you are conscious of the fact that you are thinking; you can hear and pay attention to the running commentary in your head.

External Focus
Where are you right now? What's happening? What noises do you hear? Who is close to you?

External focus is an awareness of the things outside your own head. And when you focus in this way, you aren’t aware of what you’re thinking. Your attention is on what is going on, not on what you think about it, how to interpret it, or whether it could have an impact on your future.

When you are really caught up in something, whether it’s the thrill of a football game or the latest twist in your favorite reality show, you are externally focused. And when you find yourself thinking, Why am I wasting time watching this ridiculous reality show? you have returned to an internal focus.

Where should your focus be?

Your mind is always occupied in one of two places: what is going on inside your head or what is going on outside your head. It is impossible to focus at the same time on both what’s internal and what’s external, just as it is to focus on neither. What is possible, though, is to switch between them, which, with a little mental discipline, you can do pretty much whenever you want.

The truth is we need to alternate between being internally focused and being externally focused.

The Four States of Mind

When you combine the types of focus (internal and external) with the ways we focus (helpful and harmful) you get four distinct states of mind: autopilot, critical, thinking, and engaged.

We want to be in the helpful states. And we want to flip between thinking and engaged.

The Four States of Mind
First things first, we need to recognize what state of mind we're in.

Autopilot: Recognizing Habits of the Mind

Autopilot kicks in when you allow what was once exciting and challenging to become boring or mundane. You stop thinking about the situation and, instead, respond in preprogrammed ways.

This happens in several ways. What turns autopilot on (and turns the thinking mind off)?

The Familiarity Trap

We label things and experiences to help us understand how they fit with the world around us. For example, you see someone crying and automatically think, Crying equals sad; therefore, that person must be upset. Your automatic response prevents you from considering alternative explanations. The person crying could be acting, chopping onions, or laughing so hard that tears are streaming down his or her face. But when you are caught in the familiarity trap, you are unlikely to consider these alternatives. The familiarity trap explains, say, why security officials at the airport rotate roles. If a person looks at an X-ray screen for long enough, a nuclear bomb might go through without that person noticing. Some pianists learn their pieces away from a keyboard so they won’t become too familiar with it and fall into autopilot when they perform.

The Single View

Of course, we all see the world through our own eyes. My eyes are different from your eyes. But when we try to consider an issue or solve a problem, we tend to assume that the way we see the world is the right way to see it. Why wouldn’t we? And yet our view isn’t always the right one. Thinking creatively demands that you look at a familiar problem with fresh eyes— using a perspective different from your own. To actually achieve this, you need to recognize that your mind is functioning on autopilot, temporarily fixed by your worldview and your life experiences.


To demonstrate that pressure often leads us to behave in autopilot mode, psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson asked a group of seminary students to prepare a talk on the Good Samaritan parable. With the parable at the forefront of their minds, the seminarians were then asked to walk to the location where they were expected to deliver their talk. So far, the task seems pretty straightforward. However, this is where the cunning psychologists made life difficult. They had arranged for the seminarians to come across someone lying in the road, coughing, spluttering, and calling for help. To make matters more difficult, the psychologists had told half the seminarians that they were late for their talk and the other half that they had plenty of time. How many would stop to help the injured person? And which ones? Of those who were told they had plenty of time to reach their destination, 61 percent stopped to help, but of those who were told they were late, only 10 percent stopped. According to the observations of the psychologists, some seminarians literally stepped over the actor pretending to be injured. The slight change of situation moved the rushed seminarians into autopilot, making them forget what had been on their minds just moments before.

There is nothing wrong with letting your autopilot direct mundane activities you have to do and have no desire to change, like mowing the lawn or folding laundry. But as the study just described shows, there are times when you must take control of your thinking or risk missing key opportunities (in the case of the seminarians, the opportunity to put into action the very message they were about to deliver at a lecture).

Thinking: Actively Analyzing Your Thoughts

You are in a thinking state of mind when you are assessing options, deciding on a course of action, working through a problem, estimating the likely consequences or chain of events, or simply organizing your thoughts to make more sense of them. When you’re at your best in this state, your thoughts feel clear, precise, and positive.

This is useful when: solving problems and making decisions, correcting mistakes, making sense of a situation, and reflecting on the past.

One of the most effective ways of improving yourself is to learn from your past experiences, consider what you did well, and decide what you could do better in the future if you were in a similar situation.

So what does it mean to have an engaged state of mind?

An engaged state of mind exists when your focus is external, on something in your immediate environment, and when you’re performing at your best. If you can drive, you might recall the moment when you first drove somewhere on your own without thinking, Check mirror, change gear, right blinker, but instead your attention was completely on the road ahead and the other motorists while you sang along to the radio. Or you might recall the first time you skied to the bottom of a slope and you were not quite sure how you got there, but it felt great.


When you are absorbed by what you are doing, you are engaged and totally present. By not judging yourself, you interfere less with the task at hand and allow your potential to take over.

This is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow.

Turning the Autopilot Off

Look for something new.

Practice scanning your environment, consciously looking for what is new, different, and unusual. Ask yourself questions, like How has this street changed since the last time I walked down it? What are the differences between the people on the train? What do I notice today about my colleagues? These questions might seem silly, but they force you to live in, think about, and focus on the present— to become aware of your surroundings and not slip back into autopilot.

Learn that “always” isn’t absolute.

One of the reasons why all of us can get caught in autopilot is that we tend to see the world as a set of absolutes. You are apt to believe that such and such will always happen, because so far it always has. This is a mental shortcut, which saves you from having to think about it again. As a result, your thinking falls into patterns of your own making and you are, in effect, switching on the autopilot.

Accept other people’s perspectives.

Have you ever had a boss or colleague you thought was overbearing, dogmatic, aggressive, or rude? Do you think they saw themselves in that way? Surprisingly enough, they might not. If they were asked to describe themselves, they might say they were assertive, direct, honest, and candid. One of the reasons why conflicts can get so ugly is that it’s easy to fall into a state of autopilot and respond to others without thinking or without considering others’ perspectives. By staying alert to other people’s perspectives, you can move out of autopilot and into a more constructive state of awareness.

Another tip, build reflection into your routine. Check out this guide on meditation to get started. You also want to focus on process not outcome.

By focusing on the steps you need to take to get where you want to go, rather than on the eventual outcome, your mind switches from critical noise to being engaged.

The Ideal State of Mind

An ideal state of mind fluctuates between thinking and engaged— whatever a current situation demands of you. There isn’t a formula that dictates when you should be in one state and when you should be in the other, but much like dancing, you need to find a rhythm and delicately move as the situation (or music) requires.

Try listening to your thoughts without critiquing. Attempt to stay neutral. Once you've mastered that try to consciously notice more, make an effort to practice and be present in the moment.


Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently is full of mind-expanding content.

The Meaning of History

Will and Ariel Durant on the Meaning of History

In the audio version of The Lessons of History you can find excerpts of interviews with the authors Will and Ariel Durant where they explore the meaning of history.

I think the audio book is worth picking up just for these alone.

Here is one excerpt from the interviews, not the book, where Will Durant talks about whether history makes sense.

Well, a lot of people have thought that. Voltaire thought that history is the record of the crimes and absurdities of mankind. I thought that was a very unworthy definition. I should say history is the record of the activities of mankind and it has two sides — one is the crimes and absurdities and the other is the contributions to civilization, the lasting developments which enabled each generation to proceed with a larger heritage than the one before. And that to me is the meaning of history.


The meaning of history is that it is man laid bare. You see there are two ways of arriving at a large perspective, which would be a definition of philosophy, a large perspective. One is by studying the external world through science in all its aspects. You come to some general conclusion then, the way Hebert Spencer did, approaching it from that point of view, as an engineer. The other is to examine how man has behaved for the last six or ten thousand years and consequently history becomes the best guide we have to what man is and we have to presume that one of the lessons of it is that he continues to behave basically, in each generation, as he behaved in the generation before. His instincts are the same, the basic situations that he faces are the same. Naturally he makes similar responses: he makes poetical organizations, he makes love affairs, he over-eats, and so forth so that the present is the past rolled up for action and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.


Still curious?Check out Three Lessons of Biological History.