A Million Little (Weird) Pieces | #139

May 1st, 2021: Greetings from Taipei and welcome to almost 75 new subscribers, many of which are joining from the Art of Gig newsletter. Here’s a peek into Boundless HQ where I was doing some writing this past week. You also get a peek into my emerging Chinese language skills and fun writing on our whiteboard.

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#1 Infinite Weirdness

The world is splitting into a million weird pieces and there is not much you are going to do to stop it. If you are the type that likes people to live like you do or follow a standard path, the next decade is going to be frustrating. If you are a top executive at a company and used to everyone just blindly marching along to your orders and fitting into a narrow band of what you think the culture should be, you might want to consider early retirement (before you get fired).

The next decade will see an increasing number of subgroups, niches, political tribes, activists groups, religious movements, online communities, startup institutions, and communal living experiments.

Why do I think this?

Because I’ve been hanging around the internet for almost my entire life, and in the past couple of years we’ve reached a tipping point where almost every conceivable interest group has a home. I’m an older millennial but the first of a generation that has done almost everything online. Many of my married friends met their spouses via dating apps and first connected on shared interests. Dating was a preview of how human connection has gone digital. What has happened for dating will happen for how we hire people, find business partners, make friends and determine what kind of script we want to follow for our lives. We will see some form of this chart in many other aspects of our life:

When I say “weird” what I am really talking about is divergence from default scripts of how one might live there life. The most prevalent script is that you should put your head down, get a job, and work hard. The rest will be taken care of. This script is fine and works well for many but for decades this has meant that a large percentage of these people are quite disappointed with the outcomes of this path.

Now these people can go online and find others exactly like them. When people “find the others” what is really happening is that the costs of being weird are dramatically lowered. What keeps people from taking different paths in their life is not lack of courage, it is often merely a lack of a social group that might support such a change.

With the internet, finding the others becomes trivial and the real question is simply who are those people that I need to find?

Twenty years ago if you did something like I did, quit your job, work remotely and take random gigs, you would have been seen as crazy. You would have been an outcast and struggled to find people doing the same thing. Now, you can join the Nomadlist community, go on twitter and find 100 people doing the same thing, or listen to 25 different podcasts sharing ideas for how to work and make a living in the new digital economy. People that have followed the default path might think my life is risky, but from my standpoint this path is actually way less risky because I’ve been able to make so many friends and connections around the world who support me, want to see me succeed, and for some reason keep offering me free lodging in their houses around the world (really!).

Last week, a friend, Oshan Jarow announced that he was launching the Library of Economic Possibility. Twenty years ago he would have gone to get a PhD, waited his time, applied for funding, and then maybe launched something like this later in life. That is, if he still had motivation left from navigating a competitive career in Academia. Instead he’s been writing kick-ass essays on these topics, building relationships with professors through his podcast and building a life around his curiosity. None of this was possible ten years ago.

Also last week Kansas City Chiefs tight end Sean Culkin decided to become the first NFL player to convert his entire salary into Bitcoin. This might seem crazy if not for the thousands of instant friends and supporters he likely won from the active and enthusiastic online crypto community.

I sense we are at the 3 yard line of a 100 yard sprint and we are going to see weird paths blow up almost everywhere. Part of this has been hidden by politics. Many people think there are “two sides” of everything. If you’ve been online, you know that this is a bad way of looking at things and there are dozens of sides.

People who don’t like these shifts are going to be even more stressed when increasing number of people on paths that make senseveer slightly off track to do things that we don’t expect. I’ve talked to many of these people and many of them are hiding in plan site under the cover of a stable job. They are merely waiting for the inflection point when others opt-out and head in their preferred direction. We will see people will homeschool their kids, move to remote locations, join alternative communities, drop out of college, built crypto towns, launch bold experiments that offend people that spent years climbing ladders and paying their dues, and so on.

We will likely see headlines like “have young people given up on the future?” that will continue to miss the underlying motivations of these shifts.

Through meeting people online who are optimistic and positive, I’ve realized that I kept my own optimism suppressed for years because it was not fashionable. Since then I’ve found others online who are not afraid to lean into a positive, optimistic view of the future and am increasingly becoming more confident in sharing that voice here.

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If you liked this you’d also like my previous essay on how to make the default path weird.


#2 Talent platforms

I stumbled across Braintrust this week which appears to be giving consultants ownership in the platform and only charging client’s the fees. This is one of the most promising freelance talent platforms I’ve seen in a few years. I wrote something a couple years ago about the “failed promise” of freelance talent platforms

The platform is motivated to grow the firm and develop strong relationships with as many clients as possible. They are aligned with clients over the long term, but not with the individual freelancer. As long as there are enough people that can do the projects, there is no incentive for the platform to care about the success of any individual freelancer.

Traditional 2.0 talent platforms became more efficient but ultimately they are not sustainable because they don’t align the incentives of a freelance consultant and the vc-funded talent platform.

Braintrust is designing around something we’ve talked about a lot here:

The way we work is broken. In fact, it’s been broken for a long time now. We’d hoped the gig economy would usher in a new era of worker autonomy and abundance, but the economics didn’t pan out. A few wealthy people became even wealthier, and the average worker is still scrambling to make a living.

I’m going to try to get one of the founders on the podcast and see what I can learn about how they are thinking about this.


#3 Boomer Enlightenment?

Jim O’Shaughnessy is one of the most thoughtful, curious and optimistic people I’ve stumbled across. This is from his podcast interview with Josh Wolfe:

We made a mistake and by that I mean my generation and my parents generation. The mistake we made was thinking that the period from 1946 to 1980 was the norm.  No it was not!  It was the anomaly! We had just wiped out the manufacturing capabilities of anyone who could challenge us. So the idea that you had that job with the gold watch and you could work there for your entire career and raise a family of four and all of that, that was an anomaly. In the late 1950s Detroit was selling 80%+ of all autos sold in the world.

He’s also been a big champion of young people in his company and been blown away when he has given them autonomy:

These young kids we have. They can do what I view as magic. “Oh what do you want? This look and feel? We can give this to you by the end of the day.”…They have this internal memory and drive that makes them digital natives and makes them much more effective. Let’s get out of their way and let them do these things.


#4 Shoutout to the University legal teams

From Scott Galloway:

In May, we predicted: "There will be a lot of zombie universities. Alumni will step in to help. They’ll cut costs to figure out how to stay alive, but they’ll effectively be the walking dead." Within 72 hours I received my first, second, and third cease and desist letters from universities we said were likely to perish.

Universities have a stranglehold over people’s imaginations as the final step in a good life - sending your kid to a good college - and are extracting 5-6% a year tuition increases for this fact. Where are they spending some of this money? On legal bills to sue random people on the internet that say they might have a problem.

It amazes me to see so many people anchor their life around this “fixed-point” and more or less throw up their hands that this is how things have to be. Stop donating to your universities until they commit to the future. What does this look like? Probably something like ASU where they have increased their enrollment steadily over the last decade 5-10% a year and investing in hybrid education models where every class can be taken in-person or online. Here are there 2026 goals:

  • Improve first-year persistence to greater than 90 percent.

  • Enhance university graduation rate to greater than 85 percent and more than 32,000 graduates.

  • Enhance quality while reducing the cost of a degree.

  • Enroll 125,000 online and distance-education degree-seeking students.

Michael Crow and ASU are clearly saying “I want to actually be part of the future of education.” From their annual report:

Since fiscal year 2016, online degree program enrollment has more than doubled, increasing by 112 percent at Arizona’s public universities. Online degree program students now comprise 27.3 percent of total enrollment with the majority of students taking at least one online class - 114,251 students or 58.4 percent of total enrollment.

This is part of a bigger more impressive agenda from Arizona which has increased enrollment more than projected while also increasing graduation rates.

I would call out some schools here that are increasing tuition and not increasing enrollment or embracing online education but I might get sued.


#5 Misc. From Around The Web

📸 Dave Beck is making interesting videos including a review of Cal Newport’s Deep Work

👨‍🌾 Austin Kleon argues that we are dormant, not languishing


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