Friday Finds (Polaroid, Einstein's Dreams, Bezos, Physics, Curiosity)


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Hi friends,

Greetings from Austin!

Now that our fall Write of Passage cohort is complete, I have two priorities: 1) Get back into writing every day and 2) Launching Write of Passage Liftoff, our program for teenagers.

Launching a second product is ~50% of starting a new company. We're back in the messy startup days where grit and tenacity are key virtues. The product is in its malleable early stage, and customers don't know about us.

As a team, we're hell-bent on building the world's best writing school. High schoolers need an alternative to relying on the current education system. School standards are falling, with students trapped in a haze of boring lectures and busy work. Fortunately, the Internet has forever changed the economics of education, and writing skills are only becoming more valuable.

The application window for our beta program (beginning November 29th) is open now. If you know a teenager who should join us, tell them to apply here.

If you're a high school parent, check out the video below.

Today's Finds

Paul Graham's Talk to High Schoolers: An instant inspiration for our Write of Passage Liftoff program. When you're in high school, tons of people ask you what you want to do with your life. Graham says this is the wrong question to ask. You don't need to have your entire life planned. Instead, prioritize discovering what you like. Doing so is harder than it seems because most jobs are different than they initially appear. When you watch House, you think being a doctor revolves around constantly saving lives. But actual doctors are victims to bureaucracy and stuck in the Paperwork Age. Instead of committing to concrete future plans, Graham advises high schoolers to work on projects that interest them, tackling hard problems with smart people. Only later should they worry about their career path. I'll add an addendum. Get rid of the idea that writing should be boring. Permit yourself to question precedent. If there's one lesson to learn from history, it's that humanity is wrong on many things we think know with 100% certainty. So question things, and look for topics that unleash your curiosity. Write about what you learn and publish your discoveries (if that makes you uncomfortable, write under a pseudonym). If you do it right, the writing process becomes wildly invigorating.

Jeff Bezos' 2017 Letter to Shareholders: Bezos has written one of these every year since 1997, and this is probably my favorite one. Two ideas here stand out. First, the idea that customers are divinely discontent. No matter how much you improve your product, they'll be unsatisfied and always ask for more. It's your job as an entrepreneur to recognize their ever-increasing standards and push for improvement. For Amazon, free shipping became two-day shipping – which became one-day shipping... and now, I often order packages in the evening and receive them before I wake up the next morning. Bezos talks about handstands later in the memo. A friend of his wanted to learn to do a perfect free-standing handstand. She thought it'd take two weeks. In practice, it takes about six months to acquire the skill. The problem with thinking you can quickly learn something difficult is you'll quit when it takes longer than you expected. It's better to accept how hard something will be instead. Bezos writes: "Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be." That's a motto worth following.

Why Jeff Bezos Dropped Physics: No matter how talented you are, your lack of genius in a particular area is often obvious. Jeff Bezos wanted to be a theoretical physicist. But one night, while studying quantum mechanics, he realized his brain wasn’t wired to process highly abstract concepts. Upon learning that he wasn’t smart enough to be a physicist, he switched to computer science. He tells the story in this short and hilarious YouTube video.

Einstein’s Dreams: A splendid collection of short stories from the philosopher-physicist Alan Lightman. All of them are about time, relativity, and physics as if they were the dreams of Albert Einstein. My favorite one is about body time vs. mechanical time. Body time is the world of hunger, moods, and circadian rhythms, while mechanical time is the world of clocks and alarms. It‘d be fun to switch between these time speeds throughout the year. To help myself enter the calm flow of body time, I’ve deliberately chosen not to put any clocks in my home.

Edwin Land: The founder of Polaroid and Steve Jobs' hero. He holds 533 patents, second only to Thomas Edison. Early in his career, Land went to the New York Public Library every day, where poured through books about light. Reflecting on his obsessive reading habit, he said: “I was fortunate enough to acquire Robert W. Wood's book, Physical Optics, which I read nightly the way our forefathers read the Bible." That knowledge led him to the idea of polarized light, and two decades later, the Polaroid camera. Unlike today's entrepreneurs, Land was driven by intuition instead of data, which is why Steve Jobs admired him so much. They both had obsessive commitment to "creating products of style, practicality, and great consumer appeal." They relied on gut instinct instead of market research. Land was also a gifted presenter. He obsessively rehearsed for public product demonstrations (which inspired Jobs to do the same). For an introduction, I recommend this podcast with David Senra. If you prefer reading, check out this digital Harvard exhibit where you'll learn about the early origins of instant photography and the invention of the polarizer.

Have a creative week,

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