Category Archives: Personal Growth

Searching for Heroes

All my life I’ve been searching for heroes.  Heroes are hard to find.  

You find someone, look up to them, and then discover they are flawed.  They are more than human.  It is heartbreaking.

When I was in junior high school, my heroes were Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.  I imagine I was like a lot of other 13-year-olds — lots of people revere these two incredible people.  I started obsessing about both Gandhi and MLK Jr. and read a lot about them … going to the library (yes, this was pre-Internet) and reading more and more books and articles about them.

Over time I learned a great deal about my heroes.  But I also learned they were extremely flawed men.  Gandhi has been credibly accused of racism and misogyny … and then there is the fact that he had young girls sleep next to him while he was naked. MLK Jr. did many horrible things to women.   After I found these things out I was really troubled and eventually decided that they no longer could be my heroes because they were flawed.

But the more I read other biographies, the more I realized that everyone is flawed. 

No one is good all the time. 

Every person has a bit of bad in them.  Everyone makes very big mistakes.  In fact, the more good you do, the bigger mistakes you will make.  

Who are your heroes? Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, Florence Nightingale, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, JRR Tolkien, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, James Madison, Warren Buffett, Alexander Hamilton, Milton Friedman, Jane Austen? All of these people were incredibly flawed too.

As you go through history, you see more flawed people.  The Old Testament is full of flawed people.  Moses was flawed.  All the Greek Gods were incredibly flawed (even Zeus) — many were even more petty than the average human.  Even the G-d in the Old Testament is flawed, frequently acting in a vindictive and non-compassionate way … certainly not in a way one would expect a divine and all-powerful being to act.

The only two non-flawed people I could find were Jesus and his mother, Mary.  But it is not fair to compare yourself to divine beings … we can learn from them but us mortals can never become them.

Many fictional characters are too simplistic.  Luke, Leia, and Yoda were all truly good and never had any evil or bad in them.  But they were so one-dimensional.  It is little wonder that Han Solo turns out to be the most enduring character from the original Star Wars Trilogy — he was a con artist, thief, liar, and philanderer who movie-goers fell in love with anyway. 

A Hero Portfolio

Putting all one’s eggs in one hero can lead to real disappointment.  If you have one idol, they can easily fall off their pedestal.  Having a portfolio of heroes allows one to pick and choose the good qualities from all while acknowledging but hopefully not following their flaws. 

Since then, I have found that I can have many heroes (including MLK Jr and Gandhi) — acknowledging their strengths and their flaws.  

Having a hero portfolio also allows one to have people you know as heroes.  My wife and brother are two of my heroes.  Many of my best friends are my heroes.  I can even be my own hero on the days when I live up to my ideal.  Yes, we are all flawed (even in very serious ways) … but we can choose to admire someone for their strengths. 

Four Character Traits That Will Matter Far Less In a Post-COVID World

Life coach Tony Robbins is tall, good-looking, and has a deep voice — these traits will matter less in a post-COVID world

Historically, a tall, good-looking extrovert has had a better chance of success in their career than a short, stocky introvert. But post Covid-19, that’s all going to change. 

In a world where more interactions are via video, rather than in-person, past successful character traits will be less impactful. The paradigm will shift. Your internet connection speed and camera quality will matter more than your physical attributes.

Here are some historical success-contributing traits that won’t matter nearly as much post-COVID as they did before:  

1. Height won’t matter so much.

In today’s world, being tall is a competitive advantage. It’s well-known that tall people make more money than their shorter counterparts. An additional inch of height is worth about $1,000 annually. Many studies have shown that tall people have an advantage in the dating world, too, and U.S. Presidents tend to be much taller than average

Take Tony Robbins, for example. He is 6′ 7″. There’s no question that his tall stature has contributed to his mega-success as a motivational speaker and life coach. He towers over his guests at his conferences, and his deep, booming voice commands respect and admiration. 

But in a world dominated by video calls and digital conferences, your height will matter much less than it has in the past. No one can tell how tall you are on a video call. Everyone is sitting down and generally at the eye-level of their computer’s camera. Height will no longer translate.

This change matters, especially when it comes to job interviews. Your average company’s interview process is not perfect—height and physicality matter in an in-person interview just as much a candidate’s experience and qualifications. But height won’t translate as well during a video call. The competitive advantage of being tall will disappear. 

Imagine seeing Tony Robbins for the first time via video. His physical stature would not be nearly as impressive as it is in person. 

In the future, tall people will have less of an advantage than they did in the past.  One of the big winners will be women (since women, on average, are shorter than men).  

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5 Ways To Actually Improve Your Life & Your Work During Quarantine

Photo by Alexandre Chambon on Unsplash

There are a lot of articles out there about self-improvement during the quarantine. These can be a bit exhausting to read. You’re probably not focused on growth if you have kids at home and are just trying to manage your life and job under the new COVID-19 world order.

But, there’s still value in attempting to take up some positive habits during this bizarre time. Even if they are just in the back of your mind, they could impact your behavior. 

So, here are a few ideas if you are interested in personal and professional growth during the lockdown: 

1. Watch less news. 

TV news is worse for you than cigarettes. It is designed to get people riled up and elicit extreme emotions to keep you glued to the channel. It is not designed to help to deliver or inform the news. It is all noise and no signal. 

All daily news is bad.

The U.S. networks that deliver daily news are all bad. CNN, FOX, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, CNBC, ABC … and even things like the Daily Show … are terrible for you. Eliminate it all. These programs are designed to get you frustrated, angry, and emotional. Just like smartphones, they are created by brilliant people to keep you addicted to the network 24/7. 

If you watch 10 hours of TV news, you will learn almost nothing. It might mildly entertain you … but you can watch a great TV show (like Breaking Bad) for entertainment.

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How Can You Become a 10xer?

Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

Many people say they want to be a 10xer, but very few people know how to become one. 

This post outlines how you can become a 10xer in your own organization and how you can identify other star employees in any business. 

What is a 10xer? 

A 10xer is someone who brings 10 times the value to their company as compared to their peers. 

They impact the business almost immediately. The organization is improved in a matter of weeks, and their peers notice very quickly that they’ve found someone special. 

Here are the 4 things you can do to become a 10xer:

1. See opportunities where others only see threats. 

The ability to understand and analyze threats to a business is important. This is especially true if it’s a large, established multi-billion dollar business that needs to focus on protecting its downside. 

Companies have entire teams focused on identifying and neutralizing potential threats. Sometimes this is necessary, but oftentimes it’s not. Many threats are not as severe as they initially seem. And if a business spends all its focus on threats, it will no longer innovate and no longer grow.

If you want to be a 10xer, you need to be the one discovering massive opportunities for growth. And the younger the business, the more time should be spent on growth vs. threats. 

This is hard because the threats are real. They are important. They could really hurt the company. And the big threats should definitely be tackled head-on. But not every threat needs to be addressed. And even those that do need to be addressed don’t need to be addressed fully.

It takes experience to discern which threats are important to mitigate and which threats are less severe. Employees with large company experience are often in “threat-mode” more than they should be. This gives you a potential advantage. 

Smart employees at start-ups often spend over 80% of their time on threats and less than 10% on opportunities. But the 10xers spend over 50% on opportunities.

That’s how you can start to become a 10xer; spend more time on finding opportunities than you do identifying threats. 

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Why Specific Positive Feedback is So Important.

Not all feedback is created equally.

There are two kinds of good feedback: constructive feedback & specific positive feedback. 

“Constructive feedback” occurs when you give someone feedback on how to improve on the work they’ve done. 

For example, if you’re taking a golf lesson and your instructor suggests you shift your weight a little to the left to improve your form, this is constructive feedback. 

It’s specific, targeted, timely, and helps millions of people every day. It helps to get rid of non-productive habits in favor of productive ones.

Constructive feedback (for good reason) has been the practice of choice for many great managers, coaches, parents, friends, and leaders.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

“Specific positive feedback” occurs when you explain to someone what they did well. 

Most people think this type of feedback is a pat on the back and a “great job.” But it’s more than that. It’s dissecting the WHY and HOW behind someone’s good work. 

Giving specific positive feedback is hard because you generally have to spend a lot of time with them or see many variations of their work to catch what they did well. 

For example, you might have to watch someone take 100 golf swings before they shift their weight correctly and you can point out what a great swing they had and why (even if it was by accident). 

Photo by Court Cook on Unsplash
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Why a “balanced” life is something to be avoided and not pursued

Much of mainstream wellness advice revolves around creating a “balanced life.” There are phrases like “work-life balance,” “balanced diet”, and “balance of power.” All of these are considered positive culturally and worth striving for. 

When it comes to balance in your own life, though, this advice can lead one astray. A life worth living is making choices — which means each person is going to weigh things differently. “Balance” implies that you need at least a decent amount of everything … but the reality is that you need to clearly make choices on important things that you are going to skimp on.

I’ve met a lot of people in my life. I’ve never met one that was “balanced.” Everyone, absolutely everyone, is weighted in the areas they care more about. That’s natural. That’s good.  

Some people weigh their lives towards their kids. They give up their job, their personal dreams, and often their friendships to focus on their kids. These people are not balanced. They are weighted. They have made the decision that the best use of their time is to focus on their kids. That’s their choice.  

Other people dedicate their lives to helping others in need. They sacrifice their own family and sometimes their own health for the “greater good.”

Everyone makes sacrifices.  Everyone makes choices.

None of these people are balanced because no one is balanced. We all make choices. We all weigh our lives in directions that we think is best. And sometimes we change those weights as we mature. And often we are wrong about the best weights. Balance, while sounding nice, is both impossible and undesirable to achieve.  

Balance makes a person mediocre at a lot of things instead of great at only a few.

Culturally, we are pressured to improve in areas of deficiency in the pursuit of an imaginary “balance.” There’s no one out there screaming at us to get better at what we are already good at. 

“Self-help” is a $10-billion industry. There are life-coaches, consultants, mentors, business-coaches and the like all helping people improve their personal and professional weaknesses. The reason so many people focus on their weaknesses is that it is much easier for others to point out weaknesses and give some tips on how to improve than to help you get better at your strengths.

Even customary employee performance reviews revolve around identifying areas of weakness in an employee, with the subsequent goal to improve in those areas. 

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Why hard work is so important (and still under-rated)

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

To be one of the best in the world at something, you have to work hard. 

While this seems obvious, there are many people who don’t believe it’s true. Many people believe you can become great just working 9 to 5.  It’s not clear where this controversy comes from.

It could be a result of the fact that we can’t all agree on how many hours of work really constitute “hard.” Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master at something.  But it is not just the hours … it is the obsession that matters.  

You cannot be great at something unless you are obsessed with it.  You need to be thinking about it all the time.  That obsession may consume you and it might not be healthy for you … but that is the difference between the great and the merely good.

Hard work is a prerequisite to changing the world. 

People who changed the world were workaholics. Look at Martin Luther King Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi, or Alexander Hamilton. They all put in many hours more than a standard 40-hour week. 

The difference though is that their work is an extension of who and what they are. 

They worked hard because it did not feel like work.  At least not always.

Actually getting 40 hours of work done in a week is rare.

There are very few people who can do world-changing work in a 40-hour week. I’ve never seen one. 

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Over-Rating Intelligence, Insulting Stupidity, Intellectual Bigotry, and Why the Ivory Tower Insults Successful People

There is a caricature of certain successful people as being stupid. I never understood this but it is something that has prevailed in our culture.

It is an odd insult often thrown by the less successful at the more successful. If these successful people were really so stupid, why did they accomplish so much?

We have a tradition of calling our President ‘stupid.’

It goes back a long way. Many of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s enemies (including many in his own party) called him stupid and a lightweight. Of course, we do not think of FDR today as a lightweight … but that was a criticism of him for many years.

In my lifetime, almost every Republican President has been caricatured as being stupid. Gerald Ford was the clumsy bumbler portrayed. Anyone of that era remembers Chevy Chase’s hilarious skits on Saturday Night Live. 

But Ford wasn’t a clumsy bumbler. He was actually the opposite — Ford was a world-class athlete. He was voted the most valuable player on the University of Michigan Football team.

Then came Reagan. How could an actor be smart? The zeitgeist was that Reagan was stupid and he was being taken advantage of by other members of his party. It was so assumed that he was a dummy that there is a classic SNL Phil Hartman skit that is a parody of the parody. The skit was so hilarious because no one could actually believe Reagan could take control of anything.

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First Principles About When to Use First Principles

Summary: in this post you will learn when to take the time to use first principles and the three rules for thinking.   

There are tons of people that claim you need to use first principles for all things. People I follow and greatly respect (Naval Ravikant, Shane Parrish, Julia Galef, Eric Weinstein, Scott Alexander, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, etc.) regular promote first-principle thinking.

The problem is that you cannot use first principles to determine everything. You don’t have the time to do that. You need to rely on proxies who you believed have figured things out and believe in them (until you eventually figure out that the proxies are wrong, frauds, etc.).

For instance, I have never actually done the full proof that the world is round. I don’t actually know, with 100% certainty, the shape of the earth. I use proxies to help me determine that. It might not be round. There might be a conspiracy. Or we might be living inside a simulation. I’m not 100% sure. But I rely on proxies and make an assumption that the world is round (at least for my purposes).

I don’t know (with certainty) that the moon landing in 1969 was real. Some people believe it was faked. But I use proxies who I respect and therefore adopt the belief that the moon landing was real. I believe this even though I have not taken the 100+ hours to prove it myself.

Therefore, I believe the world is round and also believe the moon landing was real. Am I 100% certain? No. But I live life believing it and know that I will likely never take the time to prove either to myself.

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How do I make over $200,000 / year?

If you are not already making $200,000 compensation in your job, there are five steps to getting you there.

Summary:

(1) Do everything you say you are going to do.

(2) Manage your boss and colleagues — don’t make them spend time managing you.

(3) Proactively help the organization.

(4) Be positive (don’t complain). Be a “yes, and” person.

(5) Report to someone making over $200k.

Even if your goal is not money, following these steps (save the fifth one) will help you achieve success in any organization you are in (including teaching in a school, being a soldier in the military, being a firefighter, working at a non-profit, and more).

100% of 10Xers do the first four things. Or maybe it is 98%. And these are things ANYONE can do — you do not need to have some sort of superhuman skill to achieve the first four things. If you do these things well, you will likely be a 10Xer to your organization.

(1) Do everything you say you are going to do.

One of the rarest things to do in the work world (and this is also true in the social world) is simply to do what you say will do. Be dependable. When you say you will do something, you do it. You meet expectations. Almost nobody does this. Just doing this one step puts you in the top 10% of employees.

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We have reached Peak Planning … the declining Marshmallow Test advantage

We’ve finally reached “Peak Planning.”   

yes, we have reached “Peak Planning”

For the last 2000 years, one of the most important skills someone could have was the ability to plan ahead.  Those that could plan ahead would reap massive awards, those that didn’t would starve in the winter.  

But there has always been a tension between the forgetful creative genius (the absent-minded professor type) and the Planner.  Of course, the most successful people were the combination of the Planner AND the Creative Genius (like Bill Gates and like Warren Buffett) … but that is a real rarity. For the last 2000 years, you were MUCH better off being the planner than the creative-type unless you were the BEST creative in your field.  The 1,000,000th best planner still did very well.

The Planner is typically someone who is really good at seeing the likely future and making plans to address it.  For instance, 2000 years ago, it was really important to plan for winter.  Things did not grow in the winter so one needed to store food.  In fact, thinking about food was extremely important because harvests were not certain so you would need to save grain from a good harvest to cover an eventual shortfall year.  

The forgetful creative genius (the absent-minded professor) was at a big disadvantage in society because of their lack of planning skills. At the same time, the Planner (less creative but very good at logistics for the future) was needed for most tasks. 

While both skills (planning and creativity) are important, the future will need more creatives types and less planners.

A history of the Planner advantage

Being a Planner 25,000 years ago (as a hunter gatherer), while important, did not pay huge dividends.  You mostly wanted to avoid being eaten by lions or bitten by poisonous snakes.  And you had a limit to how much you could succeed because humans where generally confined to small tribes of people.

But as the farming revolution spread and we domesticated, planning became more and more important.  By the time the Renaissance and (later) Enlightenment hit, Planners could rule vast lands or get very wealthy.

Napoleon would have passed the Mashmallow Test

Napoleon Bonaparte surely would have passed the Marshmallow Test.

Then came the industrial revolution and Planners became even more in demand. Alfred Sloan, the famous CEO of General Motors, was an incredible planner.

But planning was not just important in becoming a successful business person. Planning was ESSENTIAL in every-day life.  

In 1990, the people with great social lives were the planners.  If you did not not plan to meet your friends, you might not be able to meet them.  In the pre-mobile phone era, you needed to be constantly planing ahead.  The rewards, both economic and social, went to the planners.

And yes, there were still some extremely successful forgetful creative geniuses like Einstein.  But Einstein had a brain like Einstein.  He was an exception.  

Even the most famous 20th Century artists were Planners

People think that “creative geniuses” are not planners. But in the 20th Century (the century were planning mattered most), most of the great artists were planners.

Warhol was a planner. Picasso was a super Planner. And other “artists” are planning machines.  The successful comics like Seinfeld and Chris Rock were always planning.  Most of the best actors, musicians, etc. have been Planners. Planning was how you got ahead.

Until recently.

In fact, we’ve reached Peak Planner.

Today, it is easier than ever to do something in the last minute.

Want to watch a TV show? Not that long ago you’d have to plan to watch it. Seinfeld was available to watch only on Thursday at 9p. Later, when DVRs came, you’d still have to plan by setting up your DVR. Non-planners often had to resort to watching infomercials. Today, you just go watch the great show whenever you want.

Want to go on a good vacation? It is actually possible to plan the whole thing that day.

Restaurants? Yelp + OpenTable = instant gratification.

Need a ride to the airport? You can call a Lyft or Uber a minute before.

Want food? The biggest problem is picking from one of the 400 apps that help you do that.

Want to meet a special someone? Swipe right on Tinder.

Even businesses need less planning. When I stated LiveRamp in 2006 I had to plan ahead to buy servers. I remember the day when we moved our colo to a new host and we had a checklist of over 250 items. I fondly remember the celebration when we completed the move. But need more compute power for your application today? Simple to spin up more instances on Amazon Web Services.

You don’t even need to plan for office space — WeWork gives you office space on demand.

And you can even get workers on demand through UpWork and Mechanical Turk.

On-demand services are built by Planners to give non-Planners an advantage

The best planners are working themselves out of a societal advantage because they are spending their time planning logistical companies that give small benefits to other planners … but very large benefits to the absent-minded professors.

Coordination is getting easier and easier

Coordination … especially between 2–10 people … is getting easier and easier. Not that long ago, if you wanted to meet someone you’d have to spend a lot of time coordinating it. You’d break out a map and plan your route. You’d call them a few days ahead of time and meticulously plan where to meet.

Today your mobile phone takes care of all of this in real-time. No need to coordinate. It is Planning for Dummies.

The Marshmallow Test will not be as important 50 years from now

The famous Marshmallow Test predicted that people who were good at delaying gratification would be more successful. These are people who better appreciated the value of compound interest. But in a future world where planning is not as needed as today’s world, delaying gratification may not be as important. 

I’m a planner and I benefitted from it.

And yes, you can still get big economic benefits if you plan.  I pay half price when I buy my GoGoAir Pass on the ground instead of in-the-air.  I can save a lot of money by packing a chocolate bar rather than buying one at the airport.  But the benefits to planning, while significant, ain’t what they used to be.

Yeah, I plan meticulously to queue up my reading so that I always have something good to read. I save book and movie recommendations from people. But while this lack of spontaneity has generally served this Generation Xer well, it is likely not a core skill that someone born in the last decade should be focusing on.   

Summation: While people that do well on the Marshmallow Test will still have an advantage … that advantage will be much smaller 50 years from now as it was 50 years ago.

Note: This is adopted from my 2017 Quora article on Peak Planning.

the experts are (usually) wrong – so dial down your trust meter

The experts are wrong a lot. If there is not a clear truth, the experts are usually wrong more than 50% of the time.

Experts (those who predict the future for a living) are, more often than not, dart-throwers. They usually perform no better than chance. And recently they have performed even worse than chance.

“Economists have predicted nine of the last five recessions.”

Most experts are biased by their experiences. In fact, the most dangerous person is one who says they are unbiased. “I am just using facts, not opinions, for this prediction” is almost always wrong.

We are ALL biased. We see the world through a very hazy prism of our experiences.

There is no unbiased news outlet. Even “real news” has lots of untruth to it. Almost every news story I had intimate knowledge of made a significant reporting mistake or factual error in the story.

We’re human and we make mistakes. We’re human and we see the world with our strong bias. We overweight certain sources and underweight others. We discount data that is very good and we rely on data that is wrong. We see patterns when there are none and see coincidences when there are conspiracies.

The “expert” can be dangerous.

We live in a world where people spend a lot of time building their bona fides so they can make their living off their “expertise.” Most of the top 1% of earners make their living predicting the future. But because people come with huge biases, their predictions can often be very, very wrong.

In even the most noble professions (like medicine), people have huge biases. Study after study finds top surgeons recommending treatments that they specialize in … even when the problem may be better served from another procedure. That’s because for most of us, every hammer is a nail.

Sacred cows tend to not be that sacred.

Experts tend to talk to other experts and can get sucked into a dangerous groupthink. Once all experts agree on something, even when it is highly speculative, it can become calcified.

Experts often say “that cannot be done” like it is a rule of the universe. But instead of a low of gravity, it is more akin to a custom (like setting fork on a left side of the plate).

We see groupthink happen most often is the softer sciences like political science, sociology, foreign policy, and economics. The more specialized the field, the more people find themselves talking to each other … and the more they will be prone to repeat one another.

While it is harder to happen in hard science, we see it happen there too. Wrong ideas are clung on to too long because it is hard to change one’s mind about the world. Max Planck famously said “Science advances one funeral at a time.”

None of this means experts are trying to be sinister. Yes, sometimes people are on the payroll of an interest (for instance, many people who campaign against oil pipelines are indirectly funded by the railroad companies or the Russian government), but that is not usually the case. Biases control people’s thoughts much more than money.

Protect yourself from experts through contrarian thinking

“Conventional Wisdom” is often very conventional thinking.

Before accepting opinions as truth, think through the issues yourself. Don’t just look for agendas but look for biases. If a surgeon recommends a specific procedure that only her hospital does, seek out other opinions.

Seek out outcasts. Seek out non-expert experts who often challenge the status quo. Some that I would recommend are: Peter Thiel, Naval Ravikant, Nassim Taleb, Paul Graham, Judith Rich Harris, John Hempton, Charlie Songhurst, Tyler Cowen, Sam Altman, Jonathan Haidt, and Slate Star Codex. I’d even throw in some more mainstream thinkers like Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Athey, Daniel Kahneman, Richard Feynman, Tim Ferriss, Daniel Yergin, Robert Cialdini, Oliver Sacks, Elie Wiesel, Robert Caro, and Charlie Munger because people like them will always make you think.

Of course, experts can be right. They often are.

You don’t have time to question everything in this world — you might turn into the Unabomber if you did.

For instance, even if you cannot prove the earth is round, it is not a good idea to think the world is flat. It is likely that the government did not fake the moon landing. And when you were born, you probably were not delivered by stork.

The 40-year life lesson: experts are (very often) wrong

Just because someone knows much more about you about a particular subject, do not assume there are correct. Do not bestow authority on them just because they are wearing a lab coat or possess a PhD.

Summation: just because someone has spent more time learning about something, it does not mean that they are a closer to the truth than you.

This is expanded from my 2017 post on Quora.