Weekend Briefing No. 372

Welcome to the weekend.

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Prime Numbers

51—Last year’s pandemic prompted a run on printers, with the first nine months of 2020 seeing retail dollar sales of printers up 51 percent compared with the first nine months of 2019.

45—Yum Brands’ (Taco Bell / KFC / Pizza Hut) digital sales in 2020 hit a record of $17B, up 45 percent from 2019.

23—Virginia became the first state in the South and 23rd overall to end capital punishment yesterday. Over the course of its 413-year history, Virginia executed more than 300 people. The practice was disproportionately used on Black Virginians—296 of the 377 inmates executed for murder in the 20th century were Black.

Making v. Commenting

It’s much easier to complain about how bad things are rather than do anything about it, which is why people prefer to complain. It’s 1/100th the satisfaction, but 1/1000000000000th the effort. Plus, when someone eventually fixes the problem, you can pat yourself on the back for having brought attention to it. You can even complain about multiple things in the time it would’ve taken to fix one thing. Even when it’s well-meaning, it allows the commenter to feel smart without actually needing to do any work. From a social justice perspective, this is one reason why Callout Culture / Cancel Culture is so satisfying. But making is so much harder that criticizing or commenting. Making something and actually working through something is the only way to truly explore the idea maze. Everything else is commentary. When we get the urge to comment on what somebody else is making, try to take a second to be on the maker’s side and ask, “So, what are we going to do about it?” Chief of Stuff (6 minutes)

Beer v. Coffee

Creatives have two ways of working: beer mode and coffee mode. Beer mode is a state of unfocused play where you discover new ideas. In contrast, coffee mode is a state of focus where you work toward a specific outcome. The problem with traditional productivity advice is that it doesn’t take beer mode seriously. Standard tropes like turn off the Internet, tune out distractions and turn toward your goals are all examples of coffee mode thinking. The productivity world is oriented around coffee mode because it’s easy to define, easy to measure, and therefore, easier to write about. Meanwhile, beer mode is filled with surprises that are impossible to predict. On most days, you feel like you wasted time because you don’t make a breakthrough discovery. But once in a while, beer mode leads to an intellectual breakthrough that you would’ve never discovered in coffee mode. In turn, they improve how you allocate your coffee mode time. David Perell (7 minutes)

ESG Investing

Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) has never been more popular than it is today, but why? Here are the top five drivers of ESG investing, according to a recent study: 64% look to ESG investing to manage risk; 59% of investors’ clients are demanding it; 43% believe ESG investing is their fiduciary duty (love that purpose is starting to be seen as a fiduciary duty!); 41% believe that it has reputational benefit; and 35% do it to increase investment returns. (Sidenote: ESG stocks crushed the S&P 500 last year.) Visual Capitalist (8 minutes)

Global South

Southeast Asia was completely colonized by European powers (and briefly by Japan). It started out desperately poor and agrarian at the time of decolonization, and it suffered horrendous wars and atrocities for decades. And yet it has now produced what looks like one fully industrialized (in the economic sense) nation (two, if you count tiny Singapore), and all the other countries look to be in the process of catching up. If this keeps up, in another 30 years, Southeast Asia will join Europe, North America and Northeast Asia among the ranks of regions that everyone agrees are economically developed. And that might break the whole concept of the Global South. To some, the idea of a Global South means that history is destiny—that the dead hand of colonialism, or the living hand of neocolonialism, is holding down the developing world. To others, it’s an expression of the idea that poor countries just don’t have what it takes to get rich. Either way, it’s a form of implicit defeatism—a belief that historical and/or cultural forces are stronger than economic forces. Southeast Asia hasn’t yet broken these ideas on the wheel of hard data, but it might not take much longer to do so. Bangladesh’s similar performance, meanwhile, suggests that South Asia might not be far behind. This leaves the question: Can Africa do the same? Of course, there will be some who say it can’t, and the only way to prove them wrong will be for Africa to actually industrialize. But if and when Africa follows in Southeast Asia’s footsteps, I expect the entire notion of a Global South to quietly fall by the wayside. The economic development of every region of the globe is exactly what’s required to finally convince us that we’ve moved past the colonial era. Noahpinion (22 minutes)

Better Version of Yourself

People don’t buy products because of what those products do, they buy products because of what they can do—or what they imagine they can do—with them. They buy better versions of themselves. Many consumers are trying to solve the existential problem of self-actualization with a material purchase. This was pioneered by the Pepsi Generation ad campaign in the ‘60s. Those who bought in and became a part of the Pepsi generation were searching for a new way to feel, rather than a new beverage to drink. Pepsi’s genius was that it found a way to be both. The profundity of the Pepsi Generation campaign is twofold. First, its success reinvigorated a brand on the verge of being knocked out in an early round by one of the greatest competitors of the 20th century—Coke. Second, even decades later, it is nearly impossible to find a brand that has not used the strategy Pepsi pioneered: selling not a product, but a better version of ourselves. This idea even permeates Apple’s retail strategy. Apple employees will never show you how a product works, rather they will let you use it, forcing you to familiarize yourself with the product, yes, but more importantly, yourself in its presence. Social media is well-understood to be contributing to identity politics, but it’s also contributing to something deeper: identity paralysis. This condition is one in which we have a forced awareness of how everything we say and do—even the seemingly inconsequential, like the shoes we wear, or the airline we fly—reflects on us. It follows that our generation would also be uniquely drawn to brands that make us feel how we want to feel about ourselves, even as how we want to feel about ourselves is often nothing more than how we want to be perceived externally. Like Starbucks with the Unicorn Frappuccino, we prioritize external perception over just about everything else. The social media market, where we live now, demands a focus on visible characteristics—which are, by their very nature, external—from designer drinks, yes, but from individuals, too. In this society of ultra-conscious consumers, successful brands will be those that make consumers feel the way they want to feel about themselves. Zander Nethercutt (7 minutes)

Leadership

Most of the time people learn about leadership by studying what other leaders have done that worked or didn’t work. That’s a perfectly fine way to learn about leadership. A more powerful way to learn is for each leader to sit in that question: Why would somebody follow me? Here are some ideas to help you answer that question from “Touchy Feely,” the nickname of Stanford GSB’s most popular class on interpersonal dynamics, led by Professor Carole Robin. (1) Leaders develop a better understanding of these two antennae: (a) The first is being very tuned to what’s going on for me inside of me. (b) The other one is being attuned to the signals coming from you—and having them work together toward something productive. Leaders who work on fine-tuning those antennae and learn to have them will talk to each other. It is no easy feat to become what we call referent figures: people that others want to be more like, people that others admire, people that others are influenced by. And, by the way, what would make me a referent figure and why people would follow me might be very different than why people would follow you. (2) But at the core, we have to be willing to allow ourselves to be known. Bringing that facade down and being more interconnected and being more connected allows you to think differently. (3) We have to create environments where: (a) Other people feel safe that they can be more known. (b) We can learn how to have conflict that’s productive. (c) And we have to be invested in each other’s success. NFX (21 minutes)

Build Your Backstory

Have you ever noticed that nearly all relatable founders have a compelling backstory? It’s commonly referred to as a “founder story” and it’s the narrative of how a startup company came to be. The story often helps build deep brand loyalty among the company’s user base. Here are seven simple steps to create your (true) backstory. (1) The Obstacle. There is one critical thing that’s very relatable: overcoming an obstacle. And everyone has overcome an obstacle in their lives. (2) Internal Struggles. Internal struggles are how we feel inside because of the obstacle faced in step one. Internal pain is captured with words like “fearful,” “insecure” or “anxious.” (3) External Struggles. External struggles can generally be seen or heard. An over-drafted bank account, a lost job, a poor living situation, etc. (4) The Change Event. The change event is the one critical decision that you made that leads you from your struggle to your newfound transformation. (5) The Spark. The spark is that magic moment when you realized everything was about to change. It’s when you went from feeling completely disconnected to reinvigorated. (6) The Guide. The guide in the story is the person who lifts you up and helps you see your potential for what it really is. (7) The Result. The result is the continuation of the story to even bigger and greater success, leading up to your present situation. Justin Welch (11 minutes)

Bookshelf

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin. This is the second book in the Broken Earth Trilogy. The season of endings grows darker, as civilization fades into the long cold night. Essun—once Damaya, once Syenite, now avenger—has found shelter, but not her daughter. Instead there is Alabaster Tenring, destroyer of the world, with a request. But if Essun does what he asks, it would seal the fate of the Stillness forever. Far away, her daughter Nassun is growing in power and her choices will break the world. Amazon

Most Read Last Week

1st 10—While early employees help set implicit norms, building systems early in a company’s lifecycle sets explicit norms.

Unrestricted—If a nonprofit doesn’t understand better than its donors where money needs to be spent, then it’s incompetent and you shouldn’t be donating to it at all. This means a restricted donation is inherently suboptimal. It’s either a donation to a bad nonprofit or a donation for the wrong things.

Bots—White-collar workers, armed with college degrees and specialized training, once felt relatively safe from automation. But recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have created algorithms capable of outperforming doctors, lawyers and bankers at certain parts of their jobs.

About the Weekend Briefing

A Saturday morning briefing on innovation & society by Kyle Westaway—Managing Partner of Westaway and author of Profit & Purpose. Photo by Timothy Dykes.

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Weekend Wisdom

If there’s ever a scandal about me, *please* call it Elongate.Elon Musk

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