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Preview: Ben Casnocha: The Blog

Ben Casnocha



A blog about entrepreneurship, books, current affairs, and intellectual life.



Updated: 2017-10-01T06:14:02Z

 



Small Example of Cultivating Awe

2017-10-01T06:14:02Z

It’s almost playoffs time in Major League Baseball and so in the theme of awe and how to cultivate it, a frequent topic on this blog… In the National League, pitchers must hit when it’s their turn in the lineup. Next time … Continue reading

It’s almost playoffs time in Major League Baseball and so in the theme of awe and how to cultivate it, a frequent topic on this blog…

In the National League, pitchers must hit when it’s their turn in the lineup. Next time you watch a pro baseball game, watch the pitcher try to hit. He almost always strikes out and looks goofy doing it; he’s a pitcher, after all. He spends all his time in the big leagues practicing pitching, not hitting.

But then think about the following. That MLB pitcher who looked utterly goofy at the plate was likely the best hitter on his little league team, the best hitter in his high school, the best hitter at his college, the best hitter in his region growing up, probably one of the most highly touted hitters of his generation. Yet, by the time he gets to the big leagues, he is one of the worst hitters on the field. He’s only in the pros because he can pitch.

It reminds you how good everyone is: truly, the very best in the world. It’s hard not to feel a sense of awe as a result, and it can be felt even if you’re a casual fan watching an otherwise meaningless baseball game.

Awe comes from being in the presence of world-class expertise. But sometimes it takes a little bit of a reminder to yourself to fully feel it. A bit of a re-frame. It does for me, anyway.

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Village Global

2017-09-28T04:03:59Z

Personal update: I helped launch a new venture capital firm this week called Village Global. You can check out the Village site, or read our announcement post. Exciting adventures ahead!

Personal update: I helped launch a new venture capital firm this week called Village Global. You can check out the Village site, or read our announcement post.

Exciting adventures ahead!

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Bob Wright’s Why Buddhism is True

2017-09-11T07:34:48Z

One of the delights of the past couple years has been becoming friends with Robert (Bob) Wright. For a long time and from afar, I’ve been stimulated by his writing and thinking. When I discovered that his next effort involved Buddhism, meditation, and … Continue reading →One of the delights of the past couple years has been becoming friends with Robert (Bob) Wright. For a long time and from afar, I’ve been stimulated by his writing and thinking. When I discovered that his next effort involved Buddhism, meditation, and evolutionary psychology, I jumped at the opportunity to be an ally/collaborator/thought partner. I’ve learned a lot. Over the past couple years, in various MeaningofLife.TV episodes, essays, blog posts, tweets, his Coursera course, and elsewhere, Bob has been sharing bits and pieces of how he thinks about the connection between ev psych — which he originally popularized in The Moral Animal — and Buddhism . Now, in his new book — hot off the presses! — he presents the full argument in one coherent volume. It is titled Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. It’s a fantastic book that speaks directly to a secular reader. He makes the argument that the Buddha’s diagnosis of the human condition — that we fail to see the world clearly and this causes us to suffer — is consistent with how you’d expect natural selection to “design” a human brain with the singular goal of genetic proliferation. Buddhism’s prescription for what to do if you wish to see the world more clearly, become happier, and be a more morally upstanding human being (the trifecta!) makes a great deal of sense, in Bob’s view. And in his experience, by attending several meditation retreats and maintaining a daily practice, there are some practical steps one can take to move closer to these truths in one’s own life. Here’s a photo of a discussion I co-hosted over the weekend for Bob about his book. More to come on all these topics… [...]



Emergent Order

2017-08-20T23:43:01Z

Years of listening to the podcast EconTalk has imparted in me at least one big idea: the market is a pretty amazing mechanism for coordinating human activity. Those of us lucky enough to grow up in a market economy rarely stop … Continue reading

Years of listening to the podcast EconTalk has imparted in me at least one big idea: the market is a pretty amazing mechanism for coordinating human activity.

Those of us lucky enough to grow up in a market economy rarely stop to consider how remarkable it is that our local supermarket always has enough bread on the shelves. Suppose an alien landed from outer space and you had to explain that there were two possible systems for ensuring that there’d be enough bread in the supermarkets to feed a local population. One system involved a “bread czar” who’d be totally focused on making sure every store got the right amount of bread from farmers; the other system would involve a bunch of chaotic, self-organized activity between and among all the farmers and market owners in the world and somewhere it’d all work out. Logically, the bread czar carefully overseeing everything should carry the day. But alas!

Here’s Russ Roberts, from his blog post on Emergent Order:

Understanding and appreciating emergent order, and understanding when it works well and when it doesn’t and it does not always work well, is for me, the essence of economics and the deepest idea that we economists can contribute to helping normal human beings understand the world around us.

Economists call the interaction between buyers and sellers of bread a “market,” but our charts of supply and demand, while often very powerful, don’t get at the richness of how we as human beings manage to cooperate without top-down coordination and do it so peacefully.

Indeed. The post is a companion to a short video titled It’s a Wonderful Loaf, which Russ produced, which tells the story of the would-be bread czar. I had the pleasure of seeing it debut in San Francisco.

Inducing awe is something I’ve written previously about. It’s a powerful habit to cultivate. I love being in the presence of real expertise or real impressiveness and marveling at what happened behind the scenes to manifest the expertise in front of me. Free markets and capitalistic mechanisms — while hardly perfect — for me induce a different but related sense of awe and wonder.

Thanks, Russ, for sharing your passion and sense of wonder with others. It’s infectious.

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Samatha Meditation Practice

2017-07-23T17:34:47Z

During both my 10 day silent meditation retreats, there were moments where I felt a deep calm, my mind got very bright, and I possessed an ability to control my attention in a way that seemed totally profound. I don’t think … Continue reading → During both my 10 day silent meditation retreats, there were moments where I felt a deep calm, my mind got very bright, and I possessed an ability to control my attention in a way that seemed totally profound. I don’t think my experience constituted a state of jhana — how the Buddha referred to blissed out, immersive, “absorbed” states of mind. I was probably experiencing “access concentration“, a precursor to the jhanic states; in any case, those minutes of absorption were utterly memorable for me. I remember returning to my dorm room afterwards, late at night, and lying in bed thinking to myself: I have a new superpower. Like many beginner meditators who experience momentary states of profound absorption and stillness, I have foolishly quested after that state in subsequent meditation sessions. On my second 10 day retreat, I craved the state of ultra concentration that I felt during my first retreat. I intently sat late at night in the meditation hall. And then, as I felt my mind ease into a deeper stillness, I told myself, “Here it comes. Here it comes. Is this it? Is this what happened to me last time?” See ya later, still lion mind. Hello, monkey mind. On my 3 day residential retreat, I never entered deep concentration, probably because of this mental chatter around wanting it. I think I could use more practice at stabilizing the mind — without the questing and excessive effort — before I go deeper on practicing insight meditation. So I’m going to focus more on samatha over the next year or so. The samatha concentration practice involves stabilizing, unifying, and collecting the mind into what the Buddha called samadhi, or a state of concentration. With a clear and collected mind, you can begin to discern more subtle sensations, and begin to more clearly perceive the truths about your mind and reality. I recently attended a one day retreat at Spirit Rock on samatha practice. The teacher distinguished samatha from vipassana. Samatha practice is like trying to stabilize a pair of binoculars and getting them into focus. Vipassana is looking through the binoculars in order to observe reality as it actually is. Throughout the day, we practiced basic relaxation. “Release tension in your body. Now release a little more,” the teacher said, as we scanned each part of the body. With total relaxation, you can begin to quiet the mind, and focus on an object of concentration — in our case, the breath. The anapanana practice of studying the breath can become quite a granular analysis. For example, we practiced: Noticing whether breath is long or short Noticing the beginning of the breath, the middle part of the breath, the end of the breath Focusing on spot underneath nostril where breath enters Counting breaths up to 10 and then starting again at 1 On the Goenka retreats, you spend the first three days doing nothing but breath awareness, so I have some practice at it. But I never understood how object-awareness connects to broader vipassana practice until now. To deepen my understanding, I’m taking an online class at Spirit Rock on concentration/samatha practice, with 8 hours of video lectures. I want to thank a blog reader who wrote me a very helpful comment/email last year in response to my blog post about my awareness + wisdom retreat. He helped me explore the difference between samatha and vipassana. After some gentle corrections, he included this line of encouragement at the end: “Not many people have gotten as far as you have with meditation and Buddhism. You also ask good questions and have good insights. You should definitely keep up your practice. It is a [...]



Time Simply Slipped Away Without Any Meaning

2017-07-15T18:31:41Z

In the Elena Ferrante series, the narrator visits her best friend after they had become somewhat estranged. She reflects: “I understood that I had arrived there full of pride and realized that—in good faith, certainly, with affection—I had made that … Continue reading

In the Elena Ferrante series, the narrator visits her best friend after they had become somewhat estranged. She reflects:

“I understood that I had arrived there full of pride and realized that—in good faith, certainly, with affection—I had made that whole journey mainly to show her what she had lost and what I had won. But she had known from the moment I appeared, and now, risking tensions with her workmates, and fines, she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.”

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Book Notes: The Undoing Project

2017-07-01T07:09:46Z

Michael Lewis is one of the highest paid writers in the world, and virtually every piece of writing I read of his is a reminder as to why. His latest book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, … Continue reading →Michael Lewis is one of the highest paid writers in the world, and virtually every piece of writing I read of his is a reminder as to why. His latest book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, is a stellar story about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s pathbreaking research in psychology. So many popular modern ideas about psychology and cognitive bias and happiness came from Kahneman and Tversky. So many phrases and heuristics and frameworks I have cited without knowing the researchers who first discovered them, who coined them, who explained them: these two! The book is also a fascinating psychological profile of a partnership between two brilliant men. Lewis refers to it as a non-sexual love story, with all the corresponding ups and downs. My highlights below — bold font is my own. Later, when basketball scouts came to him looking for jobs, the trait he looked for was some awareness that they were seeking answers to questions with no certain answers—that they were inherently fallible. “I always ask them, ‘Who did you miss?’” he said. Which future superstar had they written off, or which future bust had they… He had a diffidence about him—an understanding of how hard it is to know anything for sure. The closest he came to certainty was in his approach to making decisions. He never simply went with his first thought. He suggested a new definition of the nerd: a person who knows his own mind well enough to mistrust it. “Knowledge is literally prediction,” said Morey. “Knowledge is anything that increases your ability to predict the outcome. Literally everything you do you’re trying to predict the right thing. Most people just do it subconsciously.” Soon Morey noticed something else: A scout watching a player tended to form a near-instant impression, around which all other data tended to organize itself. “Confirmation bias,” he’d heard this called. The human mind was just bad at seeing things it did not expect to see, and a bit too eager to see what it expected to see. In some strange way people, at least when they were judging other people, saw what they expected to see and were slow to see what they hadn’t seen before. How bad was the problem? When Jeremy Lin’s coach at the New York Knicks finally put him in the game—because everyone else was injured—and allowed him to light up Madison Square Garden, the Knicks were preparing to release Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin had already decided that if he was released he’d simply quit basketball altogether. That’s how bad the problem was: that a very good NBA player would never have been given a serious chance to play in the NBA, simply because the minds of experts had concluded he did not belong. How many other Jeremy Lins were out there? “His defining emotion is doubt,” said one of his former students. “And it’s very useful. Because it makes him go deeper and deeper and deeper.” And that’s pretty much what Danny Kahneman remembered, or chose to remember, when asked about his childhood. From the age of seven he had been told to trust no one, and he’d obliged. Presented with two lines of equal length, the eye is tricked into seeing one as being longer than the other. Even after you prove to people, with a ruler, that the lines are identical, the illusion persists: They’ll insist that one line still looks longer than the other. If perception had the power to overwhelm reality in such a simple case, how much power might it have in a more complicated one? The University of Michigan psychologist Dick Nisbett, after he’d met Amos, designed a one-line intelligence test: The s[...]



Stop Asking Busy People to “Catch Up” With You

2017-06-27T00:09:20Z

“Don’t be transactional. Build genuine relationships. Play the long game. Don’t keep score. Give first.” All good advice when building your professional network. The Start-up of You is full of these sorts of lines. But good advice taken to the extreme … Continue reading →“Don’t be transactional. Build genuine relationships. Play the long game. Don’t keep score. Give first.” All good advice when building your professional network. The Start-up of You is full of these sorts of lines. But good advice taken to the extreme becomes bad advice. Here’s how. Say you want to maintain a relationship with someone busy in your network. Heck, maybe you even have a specific question or favor to ask of that person. But you don’t want to seem transactional. After all, “authentic” relationships in business involve mutuality and back-and-forth and personal rapport. You don’t want to come off as having a transactional agenda. Right? Right. So you ping this busy person in your network and ask if they want to “catch up” with you sometime for coffee: “It’d be great to see you and catch up on life. Let me know if you are around next week?” Unless the person is already a pretty good friend of yours, the answer you often get back is… Crickets. What happened? The random coffee catch-up meeting request is the most common “external” meeting request in the world, largely because so many of us have been trained to not seem overly transactional when we stay in touch with our network. So when we reach out to busy people, we bury our agenda and hide behind “coffee catch up” as the vague purpose of the meeting. The problem is, busy people are busy. In fact, they get hit up for coffee catch-ups multiple times a week. They can’t take coffee catch-up meetings all day. They actually have to get real work done. So they avoid your request for random coffee. What will catch their attention instead? A specific transaction or topic. “I’m considering taking this job opportunity and would love your perspective.” “I saw you on stage at a conference and had some feedback for you on the virtual reality topic you spoke about.” “I’m hosting a conference in a month and would love to brainstorm who we should invite as speakers.” Best case, this transaction intersects with something they’re actually interested in and would fine useful. Medium case, it lends a finite crispness to the interaction — it feels “manageable” — and the person is likely to agree to a quick call or meeting if he knows it can be quickly resolved. Worst case, the topic isn’t of interest to the person at all — in which case, didn’t you both just save time by realizing that on the front end? Oftentimes, when reaching out to someone busy, you’ll have a specific transaction in mind plus an interest in just general catch up and general relationship building. In these cases, consider leading with a “transactional bluff.” Lead with the transactional item you have in mind, but know that you may spend 90% of the meeting — once you’re actually in the meeting — talking about whatever general catchup topics you want to cover. Maybe you spend the first 10% of the meeting on the transaction and then you switch to “How can I help you?” and the other practices that fuel long term relationships. Bottom Line: Busy people need a reason to prioritize scheduling your “catch up” meeting. If you don’t know someone well already — this means most people in your professional network — be candid about a specific transaction you have in mind when making the meeting request. [...]



Book Notes: My Struggle by Karl Knausgaard

2017-06-18T20:28:18Z

“It’s not everyday you get sent a masterpiece to review.” So began one glowing review of My Struggle by Karl Knausgaard. I just finished Book One and enjoyed it very much. For this book to work for you as a reader, you … Continue reading →“It’s not everyday you get sent a masterpiece to review.” So began one glowing review of My Struggle by Karl Knausgaard. I just finished Book One and enjoyed it very much. For this book to work for you as a reader, you have to be all-in on absorbing the minutia of Knausgaard life. I was. I enjoyed the endless micro-details, and the occasional thought-bombs — or longer meditations — on life, parenting, relationships, death. There are moving passages on fatherhood and his struggle to balance having a family with his professional ambitions as a writer. He writes compellingly about his craving for his own father’s approval — and the damage his alcoholic father wrought on his own emotional stability. There are countless reviews online of a book that has become beloved by so many in Scandinavia and in the States. Here’s one summary of the “movement” that is the My Struggle series. My Kindle highlights are below. For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run toward the body’s lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain. While my days were jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, the meaning of his days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms. “Family” was one such term, “career” another. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening we are forty, fifty, sixty. The only thing that does not age in a face is the eyes. They are no less bright the day we die as the day we are born. [When his kid stuck out her tongue.]  There has never been so much future in my life as at that time, never so much joy For, while previously I saw time as a stretch of terrain that had to be covered, with the future as a distant prospect, hopefully a bright one, and never boring at any rate, now it is interwoven with our life here and in a totally different way. Were I to portray this with a visual image it would have to be that of a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides. As I write, I am filled with tenderness for her. But this is on paper. In reality, when it really counts, and she is standing there in front of me, so early in the morning that the streets outside are still and not a sound can be heard in the house, she, raring to start a new day, I, summoning the will to get to my feet, putting on yesterday’s clothes and following her into the kitchen, where the promised blueberry-flavored milk and the sugar-free muesli await her, it is not tenderness I feel, and if she goes beyond my limits, such as when she pesters and pesters me for a film, or tries to get into the room where John is sleeping, in short, every time she refuses to take no for an answer but drags things out ad infinitum, it is not uncommon for my irritation to mutate into anger, and when I [...]



Leap When You’re Almost Ready

2017-06-01T06:57:58Z

“Jump out of the plane on my count, at 5. Ready?” the sky diver instructor says to you, a nervous first-time customer, crouched in a tiny Cessna plane flying 10,000 feet above the air. You are pulsing with adrenaline. Wide eye … Continue reading →“Jump out of the plane on my count, at 5. Ready?” the sky diver instructor says to you, a nervous first-time customer, crouched in a tiny Cessna plane flying 10,000 feet above the air. You are pulsing with adrenaline. Wide eye fear. “Ok,” you say, unconvincingly. “Ready.” The instructor kicks open the door to the plane. Air rushes through the open door and the aircraft rattles a bit in the sky. Fear turns to panic, as every fiber of your body — everything evolution has taught you — says to not jump out of an open aircraft. “1, 2, 3…” Then, on the count of 4, the instructor jumps the gun. You think you have one more precious second to change your mind. But he’s already pushed you out the airplane. And away you go.  This way, there’s no time for you to change your mind at the last minute. Although I’ve never sky dived, I’m told this is not an uncommon technique to use with first-timers who sometimes experience last minute panic cop-outs. And it reminded me of a great insight from an acquaintance, delivered on summer day a couple years ago in Berlin. I asked him if he felt ready to have kids when his wife gave birth. He replied, “I wasn’t ready. But we were almost ready to have kids. Almost ready. You’ll never feel fully ready.” This is a truth in so many things, isn’t it? Don’t start a company when you feel ready to, because you’ll never feel ready. Start a company when you feel almost ready. Don’t marry your boyfriend or girlfriend when you feel ready, because you’ll never quite be sure. Marry him when you feel almost ready — when you’re almost sure he’s the one. Don’t take the job that you feel fully prepared for. Stretch yourself. Push yourself. Take the job you feel almost ready for. “Almost ready” is similar to The 80% Rule persuasion hack. Ronald Reagan argued that you don’t need someone to agree with you 100% for them to be “with you” — you just need them to be with you on 80% of the issues. That’s usually enough for them to pledge their support. The 80% Rule applied to yourself would mean you don’t need to be 100% sure of a decision for it to be the right decision. You need to be 80% sure — or, almost ready. Otherwise, if you’re lucky, a coach or mentor will be around to interrupt your deliberating and doubt and procrastination — and push you out the airplane before you realize what’s happening! [...]