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Five regrets of the dying, from someone who works in palliative care

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. 2. I wish I didn't work so hard (almost exclusively from male patients) 3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings. 4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. 5. I wish that I had let myself be happier. More here. To what extent is the "minimize future regret" heuristic a good one for making decisions? That heuristic's the driver behind my "always say yes" rule.

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Recent changes

You may have noticed, but the blog's undergone a pretty heavy redesign/stripping of extraneous features lately. It's hard to go wrong with "remove everything peripheral to the content, and change the content to Helvetica," although I'm going to tweak the design more soon. Feel free to leave comments if you have any. In the interest of sharing more of what I do and what I've been reading, I've started posting my delicious.com links in the RSS feed. I've also started a new domain called "Kevin Burke Recommends" to highlight cool products, hacks or articles I find on the Web. I'll put together a combined RSS feed and a split apart RSS feed soon.

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Do you kill good ideas?

Via Bob Sutton, here’s an old post about the importance of killing good ideas.

The thing I remember best was that Jobs advised them that killing bad ideas isn’t that hard — lots of companies, even bad companies, are good at that. Jobs’ argument went something like this: What is really hard – and a hallmark of great companies – is that they kill a lot of good ideas. Sure, this is tough on people who have come-up with the good ideas as they love them and don’t want to see them die. But that for any single good idea to succeed, it needs a lot of resources, time, and attention, and so only a few ideas can be developed fully. Successful companies are tough enough to kill a lot of good ideas so those few that survive have a chance of reaching their full potential and being implemented properly.

[..]

His argument also resonates with our experience teaching in the d.school — the groups that often do the worst work have too many pet ideas and can’t bring themselves to kill enough of them, so they don’t do a decent job on any of them.

This applies at the personal level, as well. In an interview with Colin Marshall a few months ago, Robin Hanson noted that he’s similarly interested in many areas, but he forces himself to focus and become a specialist in particular areas. This is probably my biggest failing so far – being interested in many different things but not doing enough work to get extraordinary at any of them. The consulting blog was an attempt to get around this.

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Thoughts on CMC’s Graduation, May 15

  • The primary purpose of the graduation speaker is to reassure the parents in the audience that the 200K+ that they spent on their college education was worth it. The speaker's impressiveness helps with this but they also should stick to one of a few topics: discuss the impressiveness of the students, the value of their education, the challenges of the broad world and how their sparkling degree helps them to meet these challenges head on, or how their education prepares them for a life of success, just like the speaker. Henry Kravis was the speaker today, and I have all the respect in the world for his ability to turn around companies and improve their management, but his speech didn't fit the above criteria. Instead he decided to give lots of advice, in short bursts. He also mixed in current events terms like "iPad" and "Obama" to keep people on their toes. I thought it was pretty bad but the bar and expectations for graduation speeches are pretty low. He got a standing ovation.
  • Pretty much everyone from Kravis to Pam Gann to William Robelo-Lara either downplayed the amount of work that goes into getting a degree or played up the amount of drinking they or the students did at college. Andy says it's because it's impressive that you can drink and still get good grades. I think that it's an attempt to reframe the relevant status game from "who gets the best grades" to "who can party hardest." Because we can delude ourselves about partying hard but it's difficult to delude ourselves about GPA, especially when the Summa Cum Laude students are wearing special tassels. It's partly self defense. And, in the big picture, Kravis did just fine after school even though he did pretty terribly while he was here.
  • Airhorns! People blow airhorns because they want to show everyone else that they care about the student that's graduating. Unfortunate. I'd prefer something more subtle, or more awesome, like releasing doves into the air, co-ordinating an Air Force flyover with my name being read. Surely there are better ways to show that you care about someone.
  • Another common graduation failure is that speakers don't coordinate. Everyone starts their speech like they're the first person to get to the podium. If you're not the first speaker you don't need as much of a hook, because everyone's on the same team. Just say your bit and leave the stage before you think you should.

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The downside and upside of our ability to rationalize

We had another discussion last night about how happy the people in the villages seem to be, in spite of hunger, unstable water supply, long days of labor for low wages, etc. This time someone brought up how shallow it seems that rich people get upset over things that, to the poor people, sound ridiculous, like the wireless being down or not having enough money to purchase some new toy. Anyone who's read Daniel Gilbert's book "Stumbling on Happiness" would know the amazing power of the human brain to rationalize and adjust to new circumstances. The band of possible human conditions is much wider than the band of human emotion; people near the top are only a little bit happier than people near the bottom. Paraplegics report higher levels of happiness than normal people, despite not having the use of their legs. If we couldn't adjust, then people who've scaled the heights of income and status would just walk around in a halo of golden, happy feelings, and people who are desperately poor would be despondent and depressed all of the time. That world state is definitely worse than our current one. People who live in conditions absolutely and materially much worse than those in the West have a chance to be happy. On the flipside, though, people in the West who live in historic material and absolute comfort have a chance to experience sadness, and because their lives aren't filled with drama such as "will I be able to get a gallon of water today, or three?" this sadness always seems shallow, even though the feeling is surely real. The ability of poor people to be extremely happy and the ability of rich people to be extremely sad are flip sides of the same token, I believe. I'm not sure you could have one without having the other. This tradeoff has been positive on net for the human condition.

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More on the difference between millions and billions

I wrote earlier on the ease with which people confuse millions and billions, even though one is 1,000 times larger than the other. The million/billion problem struck again today: a trader accidentally sold $15 billion worth of Procter & Gamble shares, even though he meant to sell only $15 million. Procter & Gamble soon recovered but the market didn't; it lost 10% of its value. As I said before, if we start referring to billions as "thousand millions" we'd have much smarter thinking about the issue. And "T" is pretty far away from "M" on a keyboard so people wouldn't make this kind of mistake.

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Let’s reframe “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Asking kids what they want to be when they grow up is a silly question. Because the answer has pretty much zero bearing on where they're going to end up. What job you take when you grow up isn't really a question of what you want to do so much as it is a question of how hard you're willing to work to get there. Almost always the kid will answer with some high-status profession that's designed to impress the person asking the question, like NBA player, singer, firefighter, and everyone nods sagely. I'm not one for bursting a kid's bubble, but I am against lying through statements about beliefs that you have no intention of following through on, no matter how old you are. Sure, these kids are young, but it's a bad habit to develop; look at how many adults profess to care about the environment, or animals, and then do nothing about it, or only act in ways that signal their care, without actually helping the problem. If a kid tells me what he wants to be when he grows up, I want to know right now what that kid's doing to make that dream a reality. Better questions are, "How hard are you working right now? Are you in the top 1% of your class in terms of work rate?" "How much do you read?" (if he/she wants to be an athlete, musician, programmer) "How much time are you devoting to practicing your game?" Bill Bradley, one of my heroes, once said that anyone could be an All-American, all it takes is three hours a day. It helps to be 6'6, but the point is well taken - the best athletes/musicians are those who work the hardest and practice consistently. (if he/she wants to be an entrepreneur) "How many businesses have you started?" "Do you have an addictive personality? How hard do your friends work?" - evaluate risk of backsliding Taking a kid's answer at face value when he tells you he wants to play in the NBA is hurting the kid. It prolongs the belief that just wanting something to be true will make it so, and the cheap approval lets the kid know his current work rate is okay. I wish that people would start designating the kids that are working on their game for three hours a day as the kids who want to play in the NBA, not the ones who tell you they want to be an NBA player.

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Poor people are probably not happier, or better off, than we are

One thing that's really gotten on my nerves recently is when other volunteers or people I know talk about how happy people in the rural villages are. The person who brings this up usually goes on to imply one of two things: a) these people are happier than people in the West, and we should be embarrassed to have so much and yet so desperately seek happiness, or b) in absolute terms, their lives are better. Sometimes this is accompanied by the speakers longing for simpler times, without so much technology. This is also the premise behind the ending to the final season of Battlestar Galactica; the space folk find a planet inhabited by simple people, with limited technology, and decide to abandon their sophisticated, space-faring ways and lead pastoral lives. We're led to believe that millions of people voluntarily give up their technology for a fresh start. This is also the message that Jesus had for the tax man when he said, "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Granted, Jesus may have been discussing a gate rather than a sewing needle, but the message remains: to earn eternal life, you have a better chance if you give up your possessions. Presumably giving up your possessions makes you less selfish, more aware of suffering, or merely benefits others enough that it's worth it for you to do. Given this evidence, the way people talk about the poor, and the urging of a figure hailed as a savior by billions, I would expect rich people to abandon their possessions in droves. Surely if being poor, and lacking possessions, was so much better for peoples happiness, or if they were serious about gaining eternal life, then they would shun new technology, give up their things and live among the world's poorest. Even if a fraction of a fraction of Western civilization acted on this idea, we're still talking about a hundred thousand people or more. The fact that virtually no one from Western civilization actually does this, to my knowledge, leads me to conclude that pretty much everyone prefers having more money, and more possessions, to having less money and fewer possessions. This is backed up by the Stevenson study showing that everywhere around the world higher income is related to higher levels of happiness. These both suggest that development measures tied purely to increasing levels of income among rural villagers aren't terrible. Why do so many rich people talk like that, where they imagine that poor people are relatively happy? I can think of two reasons. One, it's extremely difficult to imagine what life is like as a poor person. If you've always earned a steady income, had access to food, and/or had health insurance, it might be hard to imagine life where you earn 70% of a meager yearly income in only two months, where you may have to skip meals, or where a simple trip to the doctor can waste a months salary. Furthermore, the consumption margin for the rich is things like iPhones, more clothes, or a fifth TV. The relevant consumption margin for the poor are goods like a laundry machine or dishwasher, a first TV or mobile phone, or a first two wheeler. These are all goods which we use every day and can't really imagine what it would be like to live without. Doing laundry by hand for three months has taught me that it really sucks, both in terms of time and effort, and I don't doubt that having the means to save time and acquire a laundry machine would make people happier. The second reason might be an attempt by rich people to rationalize vast differences in wealth by noting that the poor are happy. From a utilitarian perspective, a marginal dollar gives more benefit to a poor person than a rich person, putting the rich in an uncomfortable position. Any measure which allows people to justify not immediately giving all of their money to the poor is usually welcome.

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