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MC#006: The Exponential

Bounded performance vs unbounded success. The Thief of Joy. A Movement's Tipping Point.

Jason Shen
Jason Shen
4 min read
MC#006: The Exponential

Hey friends,

This is the 6th edition of Making Connections, where we take a random walk down tech, fitness, product thinking, org design, nerd culture, persuasion, and behavior change.

I wrote a thing in Fast Company: Tech workers are showing the effects of COVID-19-related burnout


1. 📈  Humans Struggle With Exponential Opportunity

Psychology | Networks | Performance

Human beings evolved as tribal creatures. And in our tens of thousands of years living in small groups, we of course compared ourselves. There was the best storyteller in the village. The strongest one. The one who made the best arrowheads and daggers. The one with the best hair and the biggest biceps.

In a tribe of 30-80 people, it's not hard to be one of the top individuals. There was something you could have confidence in knowing you were the best your group. Perhaps best in the world! After all, there was no evidence to the contrary. As the world has become more connected via digital networks, the quantitative difference between two people in our "global tribe" can be enormous.

From The Formula, a book about success by a Northeastern University network scientist

The First Law: Performance drives success. But when performance can’t be measured, networks drive success.

The Second Law: Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded

Of course we can talk about wealth, with billionaires whose net worth are 1000x+ greater than the lifetime earnings of the average American ($1.8M if you've got a college degree). Are billionaires 1000x smarter/hard working/creative than the average college grad? No!

And even within their own group, you've got the lowly single billionaire and then you've got Jeff Bezos towering over you with his $153 billion, even after losing $50 billion in his divorce from his wife MacKenzie. Is Jeff Bezos 15x better at business than Eric Yuan, CEO of Zoom, who is "only" worth $10B?

Of course outside of wealth, you've got media. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, everyone operates their own personal media empire. You've got follower count, number of likes or comments on your posts, views on your videos and articles, etc - and these can have an exponential difference between individuals. Again, the best YouTuber is not exponentially better at making entertaining / informative video content. But the algorithm and networks can provide exponential rewards.

I believe that how individuals and society choose to deal with the inequalities driven by unbounded, exponential success is a defining issue of our time


2. 🛵 The Thief of Joy

Psychology | Relationships | Happiness

It turns out that Teddy Roosevelt was right when he said that "Comparison is the thief of joy". Luckily, if we don't focus on that comparison when we're on Instagram, we can actually "catch" the happiness from other people's social media posts.

Social Comparison as the Thief of Joy: Emotional Consequences of Viewing Strangers’ Instagram Posts (Media Psychology Vol 21, 2018)

  • Individuals who tend to compare themselves to others reported lower positive affect if they had viewed positive posts than if they had viewed neutral or no posts.
  • Individuals who tend not to engage in social comparison reported higher positive affect after viewing positive posts than after viewing neutral or no posts.
  • These findings indicate that individual differences in processing tendencies lead people to respond to social information on social media in opposite ways.

However, in more sobering findings based on 8,461 hetero couples, when the woman is employed and the man is not, the woman is at higher risk of spousal violence. That's awful and there's obviously no excuse for abuse towards ones partner. But this finding, and similarly things like the All Lives Matter responses to BLM show how much people will resist when they feel they've been devalued or lost status.

3. ⚖️ A Movement’s Tipping Point

Progress | Race | Culture

Welp, things are happening. 7 years after the movement began, Black Lives Matter hit a tipping point - driven by a pandemic, the network-effects of social media, long term organizing, and pent up range.

According to Twitter (via NYTimes), there were only 146,000 tweets with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Dec 4, 2014. But on May 28th, more than 8,000,000 BLM tweets were posted. Twitter's MAU only grew 15% in that same time period.

Over the last two weeks, support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, according to data from Civiqs, an online survey research firm. By a 28-point margin, Civiqs finds that a majority of American voters support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began. (NYTimes)

And here's a partial excerpt of a great list of actions that have taken place in the last few weeks in The Atlantic

  • The city council of Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, has vowed to disband the city’s police department.
  • The mayors of New York and Los Angeles—America’s two biggest cities by population—announced plans to cut funding for their police forces.
  • Various cities are set to ban choke holds by police, make all local police shootings subject to review by independent agencies, or reduce police presence at schools.
  • For the first time, Harper’s Bazaar hired a woman of color—Samira Nasr—as its editor in chief.
  • Ella Jones was elected mayor of Ferguson, Missouri; she will be the first black mayor and the first female mayor of the city, which was incorporated in 1894.
  • The commissioner of the National Football League apologized for ignoring the complaints of African American players for years, and said he recognizes their right to protest peacefully
  • NASCAR plans to ban displays of the Confederate flag at its races.
  • U.S. Soccer, the organization overseeing the country’s national soccer teams, repealed a rule that banned players from kneeling during the national anthem.

In a lot of ways, this is a call back to MC#002: Good Things Require a Lot of Product Iteration

It's rare to see a product succeed out the gate, and even then there's usually a long process of iteration and fixing issues. Roblox is a 14 year "overnight" success. Zoom was founded in 2011 (after the founder Eric Yuan had been working on web conferencing technologies for like most of his career!)

And that’s it for edition #006 for Making Connections. Thanks for joining this band of curious readers. Would love to hear your thoughts (just reply or click the comment button to start a conversation!)

Yours in opportunity,

Jason

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Jason Shen

Human(e) technologist on a mission to help build resilient teams and organizations. Former NCAA gymnast and three-time startup founder.