If I look back on my blog, I can see that each year there were one or two ideas that just blew me away and ended up dominating my thinking. For example, 2011 my year to be obsessed with school – homeschooling and higher ed, 2010 was my year for disillusionment with happiness research, 2009 was when I started writing honestly about how unglamorousstartup life really is.
1. Nature vs. nurture
An important book came out at the end of 2011 that got very little play in the media: Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, by Bryan Caplan The title of the book is just awful. Which is probably why it has been roundly ignored. The title should have been Why Nothing You Do As a Parent Matters. That title would have gotten a lot of media coverage, but who would have purchased the book?
No one. Because as parents we are invested in the idea that what we do matters. But it turns out that what parents do doesn't matter very much. This book is a compendium of evidence from a wide range of university studies that show that once basic needs of a child are met, parents do not really affect how their kids turn out.
Here's an example of the reach of this evidence: The age that boys first have sex is determined genetically. You cannot influence it by talking to the kid, or preaching to the kid, or whatever. The evidence is astounding. But also disheartening. Because then what does it matter what are parents doing?
One thing is that they can affect how much kids appreciate them as adults. This is influenced by the parents completely. So as this research gains public attention, the shift we will see in spending will be toward things that parents and kids experience together. We don't need to spend money on shaping the child when the child is already in the shape he or she will be. We can focus on spending money to help the child connect with the parent in a meaningful way that will last their whole lives. That's all we can influence, as much as we wish it to be otherwise.
2. Lean startup thinking
At this point, the idea of the lean startup is not that new. That’s the method for launching a startup where you continually ask questions and refine as opposed to setting up a goal and driving unequivocally in that direction. It’s a process for dealing with the reality that we don’t know what will work and what won’t work. Eric Ries came up with the idea, wrote a book about it, and now he’s at Harvard evangelizing it to the next generation of entrepreneurs. The idea took hold of the Silicon Valley crowd first, of course, but at this point, the idea of the lean startup has infiltrated entrepreneur circles in middle America as well.
The lean startup is such a strong, salient idea for our era because it is the natural response to the situation where we have the ability to gather information quickly and move quickly. But why do we only apply this idea to companies? Why not also apply it to our lives? We don’t need to figure out a goal when we are in our 20s and then move toward that goal. We can constantly gather information, ask questions, and readjust our goals. Our lives should run as lean as our startups do, which is to say, aiming to get rid of the baggage from goals we once thought might work but now clearly will not.
Next, we should stop investing in our lives as if they are set in stone. The less stuff we have, the lower our monthly costs are, the more flexible we can be to respond to new information about what really works for each of us, in our own lives.
3. Fake is an art form.
Instead of fighting against fake, maybe we should celebrate it. After all, we have a long history of loving fakery. You know what the people did with the discovery of oil paint? Now that they could make lines and colors so precise as to look real, they started painting pictures of beautiful women for men to hold onto when they couldn’t have a real one. (Girl With the Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier, is a great story of this practice.) Andy Warhol devoted his life to making art about our love of the fake.
So here we are, in 2012, and did you check out the photo of the Apple store at the top of this post? Here’s another photo of the store.
Guess what? It’s a fake Apple store in the middle of nowhere in China. All the employees think they are working for Apple. And the customers think they are buying from Apple. And though some mistakes are obvious, a former Apple store employee stumbled upon the store and she documents all the little details the store owners got wrong in a very fun blog post.
I want to tell you this is thievery and dishonest and an international crime. But you know what? I love it. Fake is fun, and China is just amazing at it.
4. The rise of career centers.
At some point, there’s going to be a huge shift in university politics, and the head of the career center is going to be the god of academia. That’s because the value of a school is no longer in the knowledge it spews—anyone can take the classes online. Anyone can access the teacher’s papers online, and anyone can email the professor with a good question.
The value in the school is the jobs kids get after they graduate. For some schools, just the name of the school will open doors. For most schools, though, this is not true. And for those schools, the career center has an opportunity to add huge value to the diploma.
At some point, university administrators will stop courting physics professors and start courting a high-profile head of the career center. Because right now the career centers are throwing the students under the bus.
You know what will make this shift go much faster? When US News and World Report gets a reality check about what people reallly want to know about higher education, and they start publishing lists of schools ranked by how well they place kids in the job market after graduation. There’s nothing like a new list criteria to force the hand of university presidents. (And in the meantime, we should complain loudly that US News and World Report uses largely irrelevant criteria for school rankings, like class size. It’s 2012. If you don’t like the size of your class, go online and have a class of one, and then meet your professor during office hours.)
5. The compounding effect. The guy who publishes Success magazine, Darren Hardy, wrote a book called The Compound Effect. I liked the book as soon as I heard the title. I thought to myself, “Of course! Making good career decisions every month is like putting money in a 401K every month!” The thing is that most of us are not putting money in a 401K every month. (And it probably doesn’t matter, because saving for retirement is an antiquated approach to life.) But most of us can get the compound effect by making solid decisions each month, again and again and again.
The opening of Hardy’s book is: “Ever heard the story of the tortoise and the hare? Ladies and gentlemen, I’m the tortoise. Give me enough time, and I will beat virtually anybody, anytime, in any competition? Why? Not because I’m the best or the smartest or the fastest. I’ll win because of the positive habits I’ve developed, and because of the consistency I use in applying those habits.”
I like that. I like the idea of making lots of good small decisions about my career knowing that the compound effect will create big rewards over time. Which reminds me of the idea that captured my attention in 2008: having a strong career is so much more rewarding than having a 401K.