Jobs Clubhouse Does

February 23, 2021 • #

If you’re on the internet and haven’t been living under a rock for the last few months, you’ve heard about the startup Clubhouse and its explosive growth. It launched around the time COVID lockdowns started last year, and has been booming in popularity even with (maybe in-part due to?) an invitation gate and waitlist to get access.

The core product idea centers around “drop-in” audio conversations. Anyone can spin up a room accessible to the public, others can drop in and out, and, importantly, there’s a sort of peer-to-peer model on contributing that differentiates it from podcasting, its closest analog.

Clubhouse

I got an invite recently and have been checking out sessions from the first 50 or so folks I follow, really just listening so far. Their user and growth numbers aren’t public, but from a glance at my follow recommendations I see lots of people I follow on Twitter already on Clubhouse.

They recently closed a B round led by Andreessen Horowitz, who also backed the company in its earlier months last year. Any time an investor does successive rounds this quickly is an indicator of magic substance under the hood, signals that show tremendous upside possibility. In the case of Clubhouse, user growth is obviously a big deal — viral explosion this quickly is always a good early sign — but I’m sure there are other metrics they’re seeing that point to something deeper going on with product-market fit. Perhaps DAUs are climbing proportional to new user growth, average session duration is super long, or retention is extremely high (users returning every day).

On the surface a skeptical user might ask: what’s so different here from podcasts? It’s amazing what explosive growth they’ve had given the similarities to podcasting (audio conversations), and considering its negatives when compared with podcasts. In all of the Clubhouse rooms I’ve been in, most users have telephone-level audio quality, there’s somewhat chaotic overtalk, and “interestingness” is hard to predict. With podcasts you can scroll through the feed and immediately tell whether you’ll find something interesting; when I see an interesting guest name, I know what I’m getting myself into. You can reliably predict that you’ll enjoy the hour or so of listening.

Whenever a new product starts to take off like this, it’s hitting on some aspect of latent user demand, unfulfilled. What if we think about Clubhouse from a Jobs to Be Done perspective? Thinking about it from the demand side, what role does it play in addressing jobs customers have?

Clubhouse’s Differentiators

Clubhouse describes itself as “Drop-in audio chat”, which is a stunningly simple product idea. Like most tech innovations of the internet era, the foundational insight is so simple that it sounds like a joke, a toy. Twitter, Facebook, GitHub, Uber — the list goes on and on — none required invention of core new technology to prosper. Each of them combined existing technical foundations in new and interesting ways to create something new. Describing the insights of these services at inception often prompted responses like: “that’s it?”, “anyone could build that”, or “that’s just a feature X product will add any day now”. In so many cases, though, when the startup hits on product-market fit and executes well, products can create their own markets. In the words of Chris Dixon, “the next big thing will start out looking like a toy”.

Clubhouse rides on a few key features. Think of these like Twitter’s combo of realtime messaging + 140 characters, or Uber’s connection of two sides of a market (drivers and riders) through smartphones and a user’s current location. For Clubhouse, it takes audio chat and combines:

  • Drop-in — You browse a list of active conversations, one tap and you drop into the room. Anyone can spin up a room ad-hoc.
  • Live — Everything happening in Clubhouse is live. In fact, recording isn’t allowed at all, so there’s a “you had to be there” FOMO factor that Clubhouse can leverage to drive attention.
  • Spontaneous — Rooms are unpredictable, both when they’ll sprout up and what goes on within conversations. Since anyone can raise their hand and be pulled “on stage”, conversation is unscripted and emergent.
  • Omni-directional — Podcasts are one-way: from producer to listener, or some shows have “listener mail” feedback loops. Clubhouse rooms by definition have a peer-to-peer quality. They truly are conversations, at least as long as the room doesn’t have 8,000 people in it.

None of these is a new invention. Livestreaming has been around for years, radio has done much of this over the air for a century, and people have been hosting panel discussions since the time of Socrates and Plato. What Clubhouse does is mix these together in a mobile app, giving you access to live conversations whenever you have your phone plus connectivity. So, any time.

Through the Lens of Jobs

Jobs to Be Done focuses on what specific needs exist in a customer’s life. The theory talks about “struggling moments”: gaps in demand that product creators should be in search of, looking for how to fit the tools we produce into true customer-side demand. It describes a world where customers “hire” a product to perform a job. Wherever you see products rocketing off like Clubhouse, there’s a clear fit with the market: users are hiring Clubhouse for a job that wasn’t fulfilled before.

Some might make the argument that it’s addressing the same job as podcasts, but I don’t think that’s right exactly. For me it has hardly diminished my podcast listening at all. I think the market for audio is just getting bigger — not a zero-sum taking of attention from podcasts, but an increase in the overall size of the pie. Distributed work and the reduction of in-person interaction and events has amplified this, too (which we’ll get to in a moment, a critical piece of the product’s explosive growth).

Let’s go through a few jobs to be done statements that define the role that Clubhouse plays in its users’ lives. These loosely follow a format for framing jobs to be done, statements that are solution-agnostic, result in progress, and are stable across time (see Brian Rhea’s helpful article on this topic).

I’m doing something else and want to be entertained, informed, etc.

Podcasts certainly fit the bill here much of the time. Clubhouse adds something new and interesting in how lightweight the decision is to jump into a room and listen. With podcasts there’s a spectrum: on one end you have informative shows like deep dives on history or academic subjects (think Hardcore History or EconTalk) that demand attention and that entice you to completionism, and on the other, entertainment-centric ones for sports or movies, where you can lightly tune in and scrub through segments.

The spontaneity of Clubhouse rooms lends well to dropping in and listening in on a chat in progress. Because so many rooms tend to be agendaless, unplanned discussions, you can drop in anytime and leave without feeling like you missed something. Traditional podcasts tend to have an agenda or conversational arc that fits better with completionist listening. Think about when you sit down with Netflix and browse for 10 minutes unable to decide what to watch. The same effect can happen with podcasts, decision fatigue on what to pick. Clubhouse is like putting on a baseball game in the background: just pick a room and listen in with your on-and-off attention.

Ben Thompson called it the “first Airpods social network”. Pop in your headphones and see what your friends or followers are talking about.

I have an idea to express, but don’t want to spend time on writing or learning new tools

Clubhouse does for podcasting what Twitter did for blogs: massively drops the barrier to entry to participation. Setting up a blog has always required some upstart cost. Podcasting is even worse. Even with the latest and greatest tools, publishing something new has overhead. Twitter lowered this bar, only requiring users to tap out short thoughts to broadcast them to the world. Podcasting is getting better, but is still hardware-heavy to do well.

There’s a cottage industry sprouting up on Clubhouse of “post-game” locker room-style conversations following events, political, sports, television, even other Clubhouse shows. This plays well with the live aspect. Immediately following (or hell, even during) sporting events or TV shows, people can hop in a room and gab their analysis in real time.

Clubhouse’s similarities to Twitter for audio are striking. Now broadcasting a conversation doesn’t require expensive equipment, audio editing, CDNs, feed management. Just tap to create a room and notify your followers to join in.

I want to hear from notable people I follow more often

This one has been true for me a few times. With the app’s notifications feature, you can get alerts when people you follow start up a room, then join in on conversations involving your network whenever they pop up. I’ve hopped in when I saw notable folks I follow sitting in rooms, without really looking at the topic. For those interesting people you follow that you make sure to listen to, Clubhouse expands those opportunities. Follow them on Clubhouse and drop in on rooms they go into. Not only can you hear more often from folks you like, you also get a more unscripted and raw version of their thoughts and ideas with on-the-fly Clubhouse sessions.

I want to have an intellectual conversation with someone else, but I’m stuck at home!

Or maybe not even an intellectual one, just any social interaction with others!

This is where the timing of Clubhouse’s launch in April of last year was so essential to its growth. COVID quarantines put all of us indoors, unable to get out for social gatherings with friends or colleagues. Happy hours and dinners over Zoom aren’t things any of us thought we’d ever be doing, but when the lockdowns hit, we took to them to fill the need for social engagement. Clubhouse fills this void of providing loose, open-ended zones for conversation just like being at a party. Podcasts, books, and TV are all one-way. Humans need connection, not just consumption.

COVID hurt many businesses, but it sure was a growth hack for Clubhouse.

Future Jobs to Be Done?

Products can serve a job to be done in a zero- or positive-sum way. They can address existing jobs better than the current alternatives, or they can expand the job market to create demand for new unfulfilled ones. I think Clubhouse does a bit of both. From first-hand experience, I’ve popped into some rooms in cases when I otherwise would’ve put on a podcast or audiobook, and several times when I was listening to nothing else and saw a notification of something interesting. Above are just a few of the customer jobs that Clubhouse is filling so far. If you start thinking about adjacent areas they could experiment with, it opens up even more greenfield opportunity. Offering downloads (create a custom podcast feed to listen to later?), monetization for organizers and participants (tipping?), subscription-only rooms (competition with Patreon?). There’s a long list of areas for the product to explore.

Where Does Clubhouse Go Next?

There’s a question in tech that’s brought up any time a hot new entrant comes on the scene. It goes something like:

Can a new product grow its network or user base faster than the existing players can copy the product?

This has to be at the forefront of the Clubhouse founders’ minds as their product is taking off. Twitter’s already launched Spaces, a clone of Clubhouse that shows up in the Fleets feed. That kind of prominent presentation to Twitter’s existing base adds quite the competitive threat, though Twitter isn’t known for it’s lightning-quick product innovation over the last decade. But maybe they’ve learned their lesson in all their past missed opportunities. What could play out is another round of what happened to Snap with Stories, a concept that’s been copied by just about every product now.

Clubhouse is doing a respectable job managing the technical scalability of the platform as it grows. The growth tactics they’re using with pulling in contacts, while controversial, appear to be helping to replicate the webs of user connections. The friction in building new social interest graphs is one of the primary things that’s stifled other social products over the last 10 years. By the time new players achieve some traction, they’re either gobbled up by Twitter or Facebook, or copied by them (aside from a few, like TikTok). Can Clubhouse reach TikTok scale before Twitter can copy it?

There are still unanswered questions on how Clubhouse’s growth plays out over time:

  • How far can it reach into the general public audience outside of its core tech-centric “online” crowd?
  • Like any new network-driven product, when it’s shiny and new, we see a gold rush for followers. What behaviors will live chat incentivize?
  • How will room hosts behave competing for attention? What will be the “clickbait” of live audio chat?
  • What mechanisms can they create for generating social capital on the network? How does one build an initial following and expand reach?

Right now, the easiest way to build a following on Clubhouse is just like every other social network’s default: bring your already-existing network to the platform. It’s a bit early to see how Clubhouse might address this differently, but most of the big time users were folks with large followings on Twitter, YouTube, or elsewhere. It’d be cool to see something like TikTok-esque algorithm-driven recommendations to raise distribution for ideas or topics even outside of the follower graphs of the members of the rooms.

Clubhouse (and this category of live multi-way audio chat) is still in the newborn stages. As it matures and makes its way to wider audiences outside of mostly tech circles, it’ll be interesting to see what other “jobs” are out there unfilled by existing products that it can perform.

Intro to Areography

February 7, 2021 • #

The resemblance between Martian and Terran topography is amazing. Mars has volcanism, plains, valleys, and hard evidence of water formerly everywhere.

Great shots here with renderings of Martian topography.

Weekend Reading: Liberal Science, Roam42, and JTBD Examples

February 6, 2021 • #

🧠 In Defense of Being Offensive

Jonathan Rauch on pluralism and the necessity of disagreement in the search for truth.

His book Kindly Inquisitors was first published in 1993, but is as relevant today as ever. The book is a defense of what he calls “liberal science”, our decentralized process for knowledge discovery that relies on relentless-but-gradual error correction:

Liberal science, by its very nature, has little tolerance for fundamentalism; conversely fundamentalism is a threat to liberal science. Fundamentalism, defined by Rauch as the “search for certainty rather than for errors,” is the antithesis of scientific inquiry. Fundamentalism seeks a monopoly on knowledge from which it can deny the beliefs put forth by all others. Rauch even notes that there are fundamentalist free-marketeers—those who refuse to accept the possibility that cherished economic axioms may be flawed, or at least in need of revision—and he challenges them to enhance their intellectual rigor. If classical liberals are willing to accept the self-correcting actions of the marketplace to properly allocate valued resources, they should also allow the self-correcting mechanisms of liberal science to separate knowledge from supposition.

Due to its nature as a decentralized system, liberal science frees knowledge from authoritarian control by self-appointed commissars of truth. “In an imperfect world, the best insurance we have against truth’s being politicized is to put no one in particular in charge of it,” notes Rauch. Liberal science achieves this end. It avoids despotism in the intellectual realm as it does in those of politics and economics.

⌨️ Become a Keyboard Pro with Roam42

A great guide here from Ramses at RoamStack

I set up RoamHacker’s Roam42 suite for SmartBlocks a few weeks back, and it’s game-changing. I’m still a novice with it and have only used a few of its tools, but this sort of extensibility and programmability is what’s making Roam the most interesting text platform.

👨‍💻 How to Write Jobs to Be Done Example Statements

This is a solid, brief guide on how to frame Jobs to Be Done statements.

“Help me brush my teeth in the morning” is not a great example of a Job to Be Done statement.

“Help me brush my teeth in the morning” is joined at the hip to an existing solution (a toothbrush) and there’s only so far you’ll be able to expand your thinking within that bubble.

A way to describe the Job to Be Done when a person is brushing their teeth that could lead to more innovative product design is:

“Keep my teeth healthy.”

Another New House

January 25, 2021 • #

The Summer of Lockdown last year really made us re-think what we want in a house. It hasn’t quite been two years in our current house, and we like the neighborhood and still love St. Pete, but the life changes induced by the pandemic spurred us into buying a new house that fits better with our reoriented priorities.

Another new house

Four primary motivators:

  • Closer to the family, both Colette’s and mine — we’re already in the vicinity, but closer makes things easier
  • A pool! — we thought this wouldn’t be a big deal, until having to spend a Florida summer holed up with the kids with nowhere to go
  • Closer to (better) schools — our kids are just starting
  • Shift to perma-remote work makes short commute distance irrelevant — this wasn’t even in the mind at all when we bought the current place, so loosening the geographic requirements opened up the market a lot

We haven’t moved yet other than bringing over some easy-to-move things plus tools and gear to get some projects done ahead of the full move.

The list of pre-move projects started with just a few but has expanded as I dug into the first ones. We decided that several of these things would be easier to just bite the bullet and do before we move all the furniture and difficult-to-displace items into the house to have to work around. What started with removing popcorn ceilings turned into also removing wallpaper (one of the rooms has layers on layers that have been textured and painted on top of), painting ceilings, painting walls, replacing fans. The rooms I’ve got done so far look great, and we didn’t have to stumble around bulky furniture or loads of kids stuff to get these messy projects done.

There’s an expanding list of other side projects coming together, but none that will prevent us from getting moved.

One of my focus goals for the year is to devote more time to home improvement and DIY stuff than I have previously. It requires back-seating some other priorities, but there are a few things in the works that’ll be super satisfying if I can make the time to work on them. One I’m most excited about is an outdoor kitchen-slash-detached micro office space. Once we get moved that’s one we’ll be tackling first, planning to document the process and maybe even make some video along the way.

Waypoint — a Raspberry Pi GPS Tracker

January 13, 2021 • #

Books of 2020

January 7, 2021 • #

I’ve gotten a lot more selective about books to read in the past few years. My 2020 reading goal was 30 books, giving me space to absorb them and take better notes, and to permit reading longer stuff I could take my time with.

Here’s my list for the year, with stars next to the favorites.

Brave New World Brave New World by Aldous Huxley Published: 1932 • Completed: January 7, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

I had never read Huxley’s classic dystopian science fiction. It was alright, but to me it’s one of those classics better in its influences than the original source material. Wasn’t bad, but didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected I would.

Zero to One Zero to One Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel Published: 2014 • Completed: January 11, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

On the surface, Zero to One looks like pulpy tech startup how-to book, but it’s better described as an introduction to Thiel’s worldview about business.

Mastering the Market Cycle Mastering the Market Cycle Getting the Odds on Your Side by Howard Marks Published: 2018 • Completed: January 29, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

Investor Howard Marks is well known for his memos that lay out his thoughts and opinions on the current state of the market. This book is sort of a collection of his thoughts on the cyclical nature of markets.

Deep Medicine Deep Medicine How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again by Eric Topol Published: 2019 • Completed: February 9, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

A solid read on the state and potential of AI applications in health care. There’s a ton of potential for AI and machine learning in the space, but also a load of hype distracting from its true prospects. Areas like radiology, documentation, note-taking, dictation, and other “mechanical” processes can be moved aside making space for greater unique human connection — things doctors can do that machines can’t. Some fascinating (and often sad) statistics about the methods of modern healthcare.

Where Wizards Stay Up Late Where Wizards Stay Up Late The Origins of the Internet by Katie Hafner Published: 1996 • Completed: February 29, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

A brief history of the formation of ARPA and the evolution of the internet from the early 1960s to the mid-90s. A quick read and solid primer on the players involved in the early days.

The Phoenix Project The Phoenix Project A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford Published: 2013 • Completed: March 13, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

Three writers with engineering backgrounds write a novelization of a devops team encountering and solving dozens of problems from within their broken technology organization. A revival of Eli Goldratt’s The Goal, covering management science concepts like agile development and the theory of constraints. Much more entertaining than it sounds.

The Dream Machine ⭐️ The Dream Machine J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution that Made Computing Personal by M. Mitchell Waldrop Published: 2001 • Completed: March 14, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

I’ve read a lot about the history of computers, but I didn’t realize the deep influence of JCR Licklider until reading this. This book is nominally a biography of “Lick”, but also uses him as a thread to wire together many of the seminal moments in the evolution of computers and the internet, since he was directly involved in so much of it: interactive computing, time-sharing, IPTO/ARPA, funding research at Stanford, UCLA, Berkeley, Engelbart’s work, Project MAC. This was one of my favorites in a long while. Probably generated 20 new books added to my reading list (a strong signal for an interesting work).

I wrote a thread after I finished it with some of the touchpoints of his career.

The Revolt of the Public ⭐️ The Revolt of the Public And the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium by Martin Gurri Published: 2014 • Completed: April 9, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

I can measure the “interestingness” of a book by the highlights-to-page-count ratio. Since all of my highlights go to Readwise, it’s funny to look at this number and how accurate that statement is. This book was written in 2014, but reads like Gurri was living in the summer of 2020 when he was writing it. The deep insights into the root causes of dysfunction in institutions, media, and politics show that he was a proverbial Cassandra with the answers to why public outrage, distrust, populism, and social media firestorms have been happening more and more frequently. The book is light on solutions to these problems (Gurri says he “does not make predictions”), but the first step to knowing where to start is to accurately diagnose causes. A phenomenal read. I’m glad to see that Stripe Press reissued it to increase its audience.

Ubik Ubik by Philip K. Dick Published: 1969 • Completed: April 11, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

PKD has a deep bibliography of drug-fueled speculative fiction, and Ubik is one of his most acclaimed. Set in a “future 1992”, it features psychics powers, corporate espionage, reality distortion, time travel — a blitz of crazy sci-fi storytelling in 200 pages.

The Three Languages of Politics The Three Languages of Politics Talking Across the Political Divides by Arnold Kling Published: 2013 • Completed: April 20, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

For a few years I’ve gotten interested in the subject of polarization and why we end up with such steep divisions of opinion on literally every single topic. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind is probably the richest analysis of this, picking apart the moral psychology of why people believe what they believe (and why they think so negatively about their “opposition”).

From his appearances on EconTalk, I started following the work of economist Arnold Kling, who wrote this short book breaking down these definitions from a perspective similar to Haidt’s. He posits that when two people hold differing beliefs and disagree, we’re actually speaking different languages, not even understanding the basis for arguments an opponent is making.

See also this interesting discussion between Kling and Martin Gurri on institutional decay.

Darkness at Noon ⭐️ Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler Published: 1940 • Completed: April 21, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

Picked this up from a mention on The Fifth Column. Koestler fictionalizes Stalin’s Great Purge, telling the story of an old party member called Rubashov, imprisoned and put on show-trial for treason. It’s told from his perspective as he sits in prison recalling the events that led to the party he helped create eating its own.

A Time to Build A Time to Build From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream by Yuval Levin Published: 2020 • Completed: April 28, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

I’d heard good things about this from interviews with Yuval. There are strong ties from his ideas to those of Gurri in Revolt: the thesis that institutional decay is at the root of many of our modern problems.

How to Take Smart Notes How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens Published: 2017 • Completed: May 16, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

Getting into Roam this year got me seriously rethinking my haphazard note-taking habits. Within the #roamcult community, Ahrens’s book is one of the canon works on the “zettelkasten” method, Niklas Luhmann’s approach to decentralized, network-based thinking. It’s helped me immensely in learning and recall, since I now have a more deliberate approach to knowledge capture from the many books I read.

It’s excellent to see the community springing up around continuous learning, writing, and richer note-taking. Tools like Readwise have also helped to take this to the next level.

Check out this interview with the author, which gives a great overview of his work.

Beastie Boys Book Beastie Boys Book by Adam Horivitz, Michael Diamond Published: 2018 • Completed: May 31, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

Music bios don’t make frequent appearances in my reading list, but I had to read this one. The Beasties are one of those groups that have maintained high status in my music rotation for 2+ decades. Rarified air, since most sort of tail off or become tired after long enough.

I have a copy of the fantastic hardcover edition, but I actually listened to this one in audio format. Guest narration from folks like Mix Master Mike, Chuck D, MC Serch, LL Cool J, Spike Jonze, and many more folks from their extended universe. Highly recommended.

Ra Ra by Sam Hughes Published: 2014 • Completed: June 7, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

This one came across through Twitter, a self-published work from writer and programmer Sam Hughes. In the world of Ra, magic is real and studied as a branch of engineering. The protagonist is a practicing mage who ends up caught in a conspiracy. A creative and original work of fantasy/sci-fi.

How Innovation Works ⭐️ How Innovation Works And Why it Flourishes in Freedom by Matt Ridley Published: 2020 • Completed: June 20, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

Innovation is a phenomenon frequently taken for granted in today’s world. Since we’ve seen booming improvements in scientific discovery, public health, industrialization, and economics over the past 3 centuries, no one alive today has ever known anything different. So it’s easy to think that innovation springs forth from the ground, a free and bountiful resource we all get to enjoy the fruits of.

But innovation isn’t automatic — it requires giving creative individuals the freedom to experiment, to drive toward continuous improvement through the relentless application of trial and error.

The front half of the book is full of examples sliced from the history of technology and how innovations we all value today originally came to be: Edison’s light bulb, the Wright flyer, nitrogen fixation, vaccinations, the steam engine. Every innovation we know of was not the result of magical, eureka-like discovery, but rather the slow and steady, compounding progression of building on thousands of prior incremental discoveries.

In the back half (which should be required reading in history classes), Ridley succinctly lays out innovation’s essential ingredients — it’s recombinant, team-based, serendipitous, gradual, decentralized — and many other core principles to define innovation’s evolutionary quality.

One of my top reads of 2020, for sure.

I’m hopeful that the rise of the progress studies movement this year will continue to catch on with more people, spreading the understanding of how innovation truly works to a wider audience.

The Lean Startup The Lean Startup How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries Published: 2011 • Completed: July 16, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

This is practically required reading for anyone in the startup world, so I don’t know how I went so many years without reading it. Since it’s been built upon in the culture of tech and become a native part of the lingua franca of the industry, there wasn’t much news to me here. That being said, it’s a solid foundational work in the scene, with many core principles still relevant today and beyond.

The Gervais Principle The Gervais Principle Or The Office According to 'The Office' by Venkatesh Rao Published: 2013 • Completed: July 30, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

Venkatesh Rao is one of the most interesting people in the internet writer-verse these days. This one is a collection of long-form essays he wrote, building a theory of business organizations using The Office as a framing device for establishing the nomenclature and examples of his theory, which builds on top of a Hugh MacLeod cartoon from years ago.

It sounds absurd when you start reading it, but continuing through each part you realize how sharply spot-on this analysis of corporate culture is.

The Remains of the Day The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro Published: 1989 • Completed: August 5, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

This one is highly acclaimed work of historical fiction. The writing is quality and dialogue is incredible, told from the perspective of an English butler at the tail end of his career. I felt it was sort of slow, but had some interesting moments. Would like to read more of Ishiguro’s other work.

Inspired Inspired How To Create Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan Published: 2008 • Completed: August 27, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

Marty Cagan’s blog has been a resource for me for years as a product manager. This book collects up Cagan’s organizing principles for how product teams should be assembled and work together. Some solid insights here, but if you’ve read the archives of the SVPG blog, you won’t find any revelations you haven’t already seen.

Mythos Mythos The Greek Myths Retold by Stephen Fry

part 1 of Stephen Fry's Great Mythology

Published: 2017 • Completed: October 2, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

For some reason mythologies are fascinating to me. Last year I read Edith Hamilton’s classic Mythology, and before that Gaiman’s revitalization of Norse Mythology and Joseph Campbell’s analysis of myth’s roots in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Looking at how stories start to form as ways to explain the unexplainable, and how they pass down through culture helps provide a frame for how other ideas coalesce and spread.

Like with Gaiman’s take on the Norse gods, this one is humorist Stephen Fry’s rework of the Greek myths. Compared to other classicists like Hamilton or Bullfinch, Fry’s modern take is far more entertaining and approachable, while still deriving from the same original sources like Hesiod, Ovid, and Homer.

Bonus: Fry’s narration in the audio version is fantastic.

The Psychology of Money The Psychology of Money Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness by Morgan Housel Published: 2020 • Completed: October 3, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

Morgan Housel’s blog is a treasure trove of fascinating ideas. I preordered this one early in the year when it was announced, and devoured it in a couple days when I got it. It’s a great primer on how to think about finances, savings, retirement, from a first-principles perspective, readable by anyone with no prior knowledge of investing or finance required.

The Decadent Society The Decadent Society How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success by Ross Douthat Published: 2020 • Completed: October 16, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

Back on the topic of stagnation and institutional decay, this one was New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s entry on that theme. His basic framework defines “decadence” as a society rife with 4 qualities: stagnation, repetition, sterility, and sclerosis.

I’m not sure I share Douthat’s depth of pessimism about the stagnation hypothesis (which has been well written about elsewhere), but there’s some insightful analysis here about possible root causes to some of this stagnation.

Like with Revolt and A Time to Build, it’s hard to prescribe solutions to the problem, but worthwhile figuring out the diagnosis.

Peter Thiel wrote a good essay on the book earlier this year, if you want to read more about it.

Gut Feelings Gut Feelings The Intelligence of the Unconscious by Gerd Gigerenzer Published: 2007 • Completed: October 31, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

I first learned of Gerd Gigerenzer on EconTalk where he discussed the ideas from this book. If you’re familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, this covers some of the same concepts, but in a much deeper and interesting way.

The core idea is that when we use our “gut” to make decisions, it’s not random, emotional guesswork driving the rationale; gut is driven by heuristics, rules of thumb, and complex impossible-to-articulate models of reality that we become programmed with through millions of tiny events and experiences. Gigerenzer draws a coherent picture of the theory with many examples of the counterintuitive power of heuristics.

The Splendid and the Vile The Splendid and the Vile A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson Published: 2020 • Completed: November 27, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

This one is a great history of Britain through the Blitz of 1940. It mostly follows Churchill and his close circle of family members and advisors as they make their way through from the evacuation at Dunkirk through the German bombing campaign and the eventual entry of the United States into the War. I’ve never read any of Larson’s other work, but he’s a fantastic writer of narrative history. This one reads like a thriller in parts, with the UK perched on a knife’s edge in whether they could withstand the onslaught and successfully fight back.

I wrote a bit about the book in RE 5 a few weeks ago.

Seeing Like a State ⭐️ Seeing Like a State How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott Published: 1998 • Completed: December 2, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

I was tipped off to this one I think originally by a post from a Venkat Rao post, talking about the central theme of the book: legibility.

SLAS centers around a concept Scott calls “authoritarian high modernism”: an approach to organizing society that attempts a planned, centralized scheme for a system — could be a farm, a city, a company, an economic system, or an entire country — with the central goal of making the peripheries more legible to the center. High-modernist designers, planners, or government leaders look at “messy” systems of organization and see a lack of order. Scott’s claim is that this top-down worldview simply ignores or assumes useless what it cannot quantify, monitor, and manage. Complex systems exhibit apparent disorder, but at the lowest levels are often surprisingly rational.

This book is worth revisiting regularly. It was profound to me and connects dots between many other distinct theories and ideas I’ve been interested in.

I went deep on this idea in RE 4. Check that out to read more about legibility.

Competing Against Luck Competing Against Luck The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice by Clayton Christensen Published: 2016 • Completed: December 6, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

Christensen is most renowned for his work on disruption theory (The Innovator’s Dilemma), but he’s been instrumental in developing “jobs theory”, which I find more practical to apply to the day-to-day process of building. In principle it guides you to think about products or services as things your customers are “hiring” to perform a “job”.

If you’re interested in Jobs Theory stuff, I’ve found Ryan Singer’s work fascinating, following these threads for product-building. His newsletter is great.

Kim Kim by Rudyard Kipling Published: 1901 • Completed: December 12, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

I’ve had Kipling on my reading list for years and didn’t know where to start on his works. Kim tells the story of an orphan that finds himself drafted into the service of British intelligence in the “Great Game” of geopolitical influence against Russia.

The backdrop is an interesting tour through the different cultures of the Indian subcontinent.

Thinking in Systems Thinking in Systems A Primer by Donella Meadows Published: 2008 • Completed: December 23, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

Throughout the year I kept encountering this subject of complex systems. Systems thinking is something I found intriguing, and as happens with many books, a perusal of the first few pages of Dana Meadows’s book quickly turned into consuming the whole thing. As the subtitle says, this book is a fantastic primer on the core principles, and lays out the central elements of stocks and flows with clear diagrams.

I went deeper on systems thinking and feedback loops in RE 6 a couple weeks ago.

Sid Meier's Memoir! Sid Meier's Memoir! A Life in Computer Games by Sid Meier Published: 2020 • Completed: December 31, 2020 • 📚 View in Library

While I’m not a gamer these days really, except for time with the kids, my youth was spent playing lots of PC games, especially the ones in Sid Meier’s catalog. Civilization II was absolutely formative for me in more ways than entertainment. I’d credit that game with sparking an interest in history, cementing a deeper one in geography, and was the starting point for a love of strategy games of the era.


I’m still working on what my reading goals will look like for this year. I’d like to be more purposeful about studying specific subjects more deeply rather than the semi-haphazard selections I tend to make normally.

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