Personal Goals and Feedback Loops

Most successful technology companies leverage feedback loops to continuously improve their products. In other words, the company sets a long-term goal, selects metrics to measure progress towards that goal, and conducts rapid experimentation on their products to optimize those metrics until the goal is achieved.


This works really well. Data-driven companies tend to outperform their competition. Through feedback loops and rapid experimentation Facebook is able to make us spend more time in their apps, Google is able to make us do more searches and Amazon is able to make us buy more products.

But these feedback loops are in service of the technology and the goals of the company that created it, not the individuals using it.

As users, we have very different long-term goals. We want to learn a new skill, strengthen our relationships, or improve our health and well-being. The technology products we use aren’t being optimized to help us achieve these goals. In many cases they’re working against us.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this problem lately. Why can’t we use technology to help us solve this? Why can’t we use technology to help us more clearly define our long-term personal goals and setup feedback loops to help us rapidly achieve them? We have some of these capabilities in the health and fitness space, but the existing solutions seem too narrow and single-purpose. We need broader solutions that can help us evaluate tradeoffs in all the decisions we make throughout the day.

If we could effectively define our long-term goals and establish measurable feedback loops, we could then broadcast this information to all the technology products we use. I have to think it would be in the company’s best interest to optimize their products for helping us achieve our goals as well as theirs. Because if they helped us achieve our goals, we would likely become more loyal to them and use their products more. And if our goals are more aligned with the technology products we use, they can begin working for us instead of the other way around.

What if Google optimized their search results to help you develop deeper knowledge in an area you were interested in learning about?

What if Facebook optimized their news feed to help you form stronger relationships with the people you care most about?

What if Amazon optimized their site to help you purchase only the products that will help you live a healthier and happier life?

Perspective and Purpose

I finished reading Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari last week and have been reflecting on it a lot since then.

This is the sequel to his previous book Sapiens. Where Sapiens looked back at how we as a species got to where we are over the previous 70,000 years, Homo Deus looks forward and asks where we’re going. Sapiens provided a rich contextual perspective, and Homo Deus uses that to perspective to question our purpose.

In Homo Deus, the author makes the case that for thousands of years, society has fought against the same three things: famine, plague and war. Even though some of us still struggle with those things, on the whole we’re moving towards a world in which they may become solved problems. And if that happens, what will the human race focus on next?

The author argues that the ultimate reason for eradicating famine, plague and war is to raise all humans up to the same baseline standard of living. Once we’ve achieved that, the only logical next step is to focus on raising that baseline to much higher levels. He believes we’ve already started down this path and that our new goals are shifting to the pursuit of immortality, bliss and divinity.

The future he describes is both fascinating and terrifying. But to me, the details of this hypothetical future weren’t the point of the book. The point of the book was to force us to question our purpose as a species within the context of a 70,000 year perspective. What is the ultimate purpose of our species? What should we be doing with our lives to contribute to that purpose? If we don’t like the future he laid out in this book, what assumptions can we question? What other more ideal futures might be possible? And what can we do to make them more likely?

I have no answers, and am left only with more questions and more things to read. But I’d highly recommend both of these books.

Why are we protesting?

Over the weekend, I came across an article in the New Yorker that asks: Is There Any Point to Protesting? The author questions the results of modern protests and why we haven’t seen them produce the same amount of systemic change as other protest movements in the 60’s and 70’s.

If you look at recent events this year, protests have seemingly become more and more reactionary. They’re in response to events like neo-nazi rallies or police misconduct or something Trump says. I’m not saying any of these things aren’t worth speaking out against, but I worry about the way in which we’re doing it. There’s no longer-term, coordinated strategy. And without some kind of longer-term, coordinated strategy, these protests are too fleeting to result in any real systemic change. It seems like for many participants, these protests are serving more as a form of group therapy. And in the process of bonding with others over outrage, it’s strengthening our identity politics, creating a vicious, divisive cycle.

On the latest episode of Sam Harris’ podcast they question why we’re seeing an escalation of identity politics. One hypothesis is that all of this could just be people searching for more meaning in their lives.

In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari argues that the contract of modern society is: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power. In other words, science gives us remarkable power through knowledge and technology, but in the process it’s de-valuing traditional religion to the point where it no longer provides us with meaning.

If all of this is about people searching for meaning, are identity politics going to become our new religion?

At the very least it seems like things are going to continue to get more divisive unless we figure out how to make bigger changes.

Why Decentralization?

I read this paper over the weekend by The Center for Civic Media & The Digital Currency Institute. It looks at the centralization of power among tech companies in the publishing industry, the risks it poses, and how decentralization might help mitigate them.

I liked how they attempt to question the base assumptions around decentralization as the solution. Is the concept of centralization necessarily a bad thing? Or just the current state of it? What are the specific problems centralization is causing? And is decentralization the best way to solve them?

This talk by Albert Wenger makes a similar point that decentralization is not inherently better than centralization. There are fundamental limitations of decentralization and new problems it introduces. We should be intentionally decentralizing to solve a problem, not just decentralizing for the sake of making something that’s not centralized.

I feel strongly that the concentration of power among a few large tech companies is a serious problem that we should be trying to solve.

I’m also extremely bullish on decentralization as a solution to that problem. It’s an appealing technical solution to the problem. And the innovation around blockchains, smart contracts and tokens has the potential to better align the interests of platforms and users. All the excitement around ICO’s is a good thing, because it’s enabling us to run a lot of experiments. Many will fail, hopefully some succeed, but at the very least we’ll learn a lot.

As a thought experiment though, I wonder if we’re too focused on pursuing decentralization as the solution? What if in doing so we’re missing more pragmatic alternatives that are less technically perfect? What about non-technical approaches? Do we really need to build a fully decentralized version of each platform in order to adequately mitigate the risks of the centralized version?

It reminds me of the Joel Spolsky quote:

There’s a subtle reason that programmers always want to throw away the code and start over. The reason is that they think the old code is a mess. And here is the interesting observation: they are probably wrong. The reason that they think the old code is a mess is because of a cardinal, fundamental law of programming: It’s harder to read code than to write it.

It’s harder to understand all the intricacies of how the existing paradigm works and construct hypotheses for how we might disrupt the power of large tech companies within that paradigm. It’s a lot easier to write it off as impossible and try to create a new paradigm. But creating a new paradigm costs more, takes longer and there’s no guarantee it will adequately solve all of our problems.

It seems like the majority of the tech world has accepted that decentralization is the way we will eventually solve this problem. I’m curious what alternatives are out there and who’s working on them. Any links or recommendations would be appreciated!

Givers vs. Takers

According to organizational psychologist Adam Grant, there’s generally two types of people in any organization:

  1. Givers, who approach interactions with the mindset of, “What can I do for you?”
  2. Takers, who approach interactions with the mindset of, “What can you do for me?”

I would much rather work in an organization of Givers. And according to this HBS study, the negative impact of a Taker on the organization is 2–3x the positive impact of a Giver.

You probably can’t just fire all the Takers in your company. But you can do a better job screening them out in the hiring process. As we’ve been more aggressively hiring at DuckDuckGo, looking for these traits is something that’s been on my mind.

In his TED talk, Adam Grant proposes screening for Takers with this interview question:

Tell me about 3 people who’s career’s you’ve had a meaningful impact on?

If they talk about people above them, they’re Takers.

If they talk about people below them, they’re Givers.

In my experience, I’ve found it to be pretty obvious whether they lean towards being a Giver or Taker in how they talk about their previous work experience. I haven’t tried using that question yet, but I like having it in my back pocket.

If you’re a Giver, DuckDuckGo is hiring:

Scripting My Opening Drive

In The Score Takes Care of Itself, football coach Bill Walsh talks about how he started experimenting with scripting each play in the opening drive of his games and the startling results it produced:

I was flying by the seat of my pants; we lost. “Never again,” I vowed, “will that happen to me.” That’s when I got serious about scripting; never again would I walk into the future unprepared for foul weather.
Consequently the number of plays I planned out — scripted — increased substantially the following year when I was with the San Diego Chargers as Tommy Prothro’s offensive coordinator. The next year, when I was head coach at Stanford University, the number increased again, and the impact was startling. In fact, during my second season, Stanford scored on our first possession eight times in eleven games. Typically during a season a team might score once or twice on the initial drive of a game.
This success wasn’t an accident; I had written the script for our success. Informed preplanning — looking perceptively into the future and getting ready for it — gave the Stanford football team a distinct advantage. I took that advantage with me when I was hired by the 49ers.
At San Francisco our first twenty or twenty-five plays of the game would be scripted, along with a multitude of options, alternatives, and contingency plays depending on the situation and circumstance. Among other things, it plugged me into the future; I was visualizing the game ahead, “seeing” what would happen. I could close my eyes and literally see all twenty-two men running and responding to some specific play I had drawn up.

Similarly, I started scripting my Mondays a few years back. I’m not sure where the idea came from, I hadn’t read the book yet. I think it was born out of my own frustration with losing track of my days and not getting done what I wanted to.

Each Sunday night I would look ahead to the goals and deadlines that were approaching, what meetings were on my calendar and what personal obligations or errands I had to get done. Then I would slot it all into my calendar, planning out my entire Monday, by the hour.

This had the effect that Bill Walsh describes above. Instead of starting my week by reacting to whatever came at me, I was intentionally executing what’s on my calendar and getting the most important things done.

The other benefit of this approach is that by working off a calendar instead of a task list, you can only expect yourself to do what will realistically fit into your schedule. Instead of ending the day feeling overwhelmed and stressed because I only got done half my todo list, I feel satisfied because I accomplished the half that mattered.

I now try to do this most days of the week, not just Mondays. When I’m able to stick to it, the results have been very good. But it’s not perfect…

There’s days when the unexpected happens and you get forced completely off script. It’s frustrating, but I’ve learned to be adaptable. I just rearrange my schedule as needed and deal with it, knowing that I get to start over the next day with a new script.

Walsh, Bill; Jamison, Steve; Walsh, Craig. The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership (pp. 50–51). Penguin Publishing Group.