Is it better to focus on what you want or what you would be willing to give up?

Ok. I know what you’re thinking:

“What does Super Mario Kart have to do with focusing on what you want vs. what you would give.”

Well, bear with me for a few minutes and if you still feel that way, please flame away in the comments below.


As a species, we spend a lot of time thinking about what we want. Maybe it’s a better job, a new relationship, a fancy car, a dream vacation, more (or less) time with kids, friendlier in-laws; you get the picture.

All this thinking takes a lot of time and energy and often at the end of it we just feel less fulfilled than we did before.

“Ok Hermann, thanks for telling me what I already know.”

Sure thing! I think we all know that this is a giant waste of time and what we should be doing is acting on all those constructive things we know we want to do: grow a garden, learn calculus, take our kids out for a walk, eat healthier and exercise.


…not that we don’t know what we’re SUPPOSED to do; but rather that we can’t seem to do it; at least not consistently. So we beat ourselves up over and over again.

Now we’re double wasting energy. We’re wasting energy thinking about stuff we want AND we’re wasting energy beating ourselves up over it. Imagine if we could just harness that energy into constructive activities.

As a species we’d probably we mining asteroids and colonizing space by now!

But we’re not.

“Wait a minute, I’ve been reading for a bit now and you still haven’t said shit about Mario Kart.”

Ok, Mario Kart.

As a game it can teach us a lot about this problem.


Well Mario Kart requires you to focus on what you are doing, where you are going and being able to respond to rapid changes. It punishes lack of focus. But the designers put a fun little mechanic in the game to unknowing thwart your efforts here. It’s that little  box at the top that contains special items you pick up on the road and that can, hopefully, help you win.

The problem is you can only have one at a time.

So while you’re racing away (or fighting away) part of your brain is thinking about which item you need next. Worse, if you HAVE an item part of your brain is also trying to figure out if the item you have is better than one you might see in the world somewhere. So you’re doing all this comparing and evaluating and thinking instead of paying attention to the road and the things on it.

Now in Mario Kart the options are the same over and over again and so you gain mastery through repetition. Real life is a bit messier unfortunately… and also way less cool and colorful.


So I think a great way to approach this is to focus on what you are willing to give up rather than on what you want. This helps in a number of ways:

1) The list is shorter.
2) You have a lot more control over what you will give up.
3) It’s way easier to commit to NOT doing things than to doing them :P.
4) Over time you will put much more energy into fewer things rather than less energy into more things.

Let’s assume you think this might be a neat idea, how can you try it?


Once you’ve finished reading this post, break out a piece of paper or type “notepad” on your computer or use some app. It doesn’t matter… some way you can write.

Don’t spend too much time thinking about what to write on for God’s sake or we’ll never get anywhere!

Then write down all the things you are currently doing in your life. Maybe you’re writing a book, learning how to cook, taking tennis lessons, learning how to invest, etc etc. When I did this at first it was kind of hard because it wasn’t obvious that I was doing much. That’s the point. Don’t think about projects that you are regularly doing and making huge progress on. Include ALL those projects you thought about, kind of started, think about doing again, but they don’t really go anywhere. Especially if you think about them at night or in the bathroom when you tell yourself “I should really write more of that novel tomorrow.” That’s the meat we’re after.

Once you have that list, start removing things from it. Commit to stopping those things.
That new garden. Forbidden from doing it.
Learning Spanish? Not anymore.
Becoming a master pizza maker? Nope.

Then allow yourself to pick one thing from the list that will survive. That’s the new thing you’re going to do.

But we’re going to make it easy on ourselves. We only have to commit for a month and we only have to commit a small amount of time. Try 30 minutes a day. Or maybe an hour 3 times a week. It doesn’t matter. Something that feels easy so that there’s little chance of failure to commit. Then schedule that time.

STEP 5: MAKE A SPECIFIC COMMITMENTDon’t say “I’ll write my book this year.”

Instead say, “every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9:00-9:30PM I will do nothing other than write. I’m not allowed to pursue any other things on my want list. If I have time to pursue other things, I’ll write.” 

Then hang up that list of things that you aren’t doing; that’s your forbidden list of things you said you wanted but you never acted on. If you feel yourself wanting to do those things, look at that list and instead work on the thing that survived the giving up exercise. Don’t fret! In a few months those things will get their time if you like.

STEP 6: REPEATThen at the end of the month take a look and re-evaluate. I bet you’ll have achieved more than you thought and you’ll be much more hesitant to switch your focus.


If you can find a “buddy” or someone to do this with, it’s even better. A spouse can be great, but also bad. I suggest someone who is interested in your growth as a person, but doesn’t have a relationship that will be directly effected by your choice. Back when I was trying to lost the “last 15 lbs” I used dietbet and it worked very well for this.


I SUCK at this. I am an incredibly scatter brained and unfocused person. I love random things and I can spend vast amounts of time on obscure things and then completely switch at a moment’s notice. It’s incredibly frustrating and I’m trying to improve it all the time. I’ve found by having a list of things I am forbidden from doing it helps me focus my time and energy a little bit better and, over time, hopefully form better habits.

What about you? Do you have this problem? What do you do to make progress on things you want?

Will AI and Androids Take over the World?

The Coming of the Terminators

Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk made headlines this year by raising the specter of super advanced Artificially Intelligent machines taking over the world. The idea goes something like this:

1) Today humans dominate because we are creative and can make complex decisions.
2) Computers/Robots are “mindless” servant that do our bidding.
3) In the race to make things “more efficient” we will eventually make AI that can imagine and create.
4) When that AI does that it will realize it doesn’t need us anymore.
5) Bye bye, humans.

OK cool.

So my first reaction is… what’s the problem? I mean from a universal evolutionary standpoint, there’s not really any reason to believe that humans are special. If a meteor can wipe out the Dinosaurs (who dominated FAR longer than we have) in a few geologic seconds; why can’t we get wiped out by the results of our own making. Sure.. it is bad for HUMANS, but that doesn’t mean that it’s some kind of universal evil.

But let’s be more practical. Let’s assume that the Star Trek vision of the universe is “objectively good” or at least desirable for humanity. Does AI really threaten that and if so, how?

Between here and there

I think that the conversation has become far too black and white. On the one hand “AI will always be our loyal slaves” and on the other “eventually they will wipe us out.”

I’d like to talk a bit about the road in between starting with the very near future… say 50-150 years.

The last 150 years has been marked by “machines” and technology replacing base human labor. Robots build cars, stuff boxes, package things, cut down trees, break rocks, construct buildings and so on. As that storm has raged, humans have become more “efficient.” That is, it used to take many thousands of people many years to build a pyramid, but a few hundred people can build a skyscraper in a year or two. The side effect of this, of course, has been that humans have to compete with robots for labor “wages.”

So if you own an auto plant you have to decide if paying someone $x/hr over the course of 30 years is cheaper or more expensive than buying a robot for $x and maintaining it. That pushes car making (and everything else) to cheaper labor costs (robots or cheaper humans).  The reason why this is different than before is that the labor wages are not moving between people but from people to machines… and thus, the owner of the machines. The flip side is that the cost of those things also drops dramatically so as long as there is other work, that displaced worker can live cheaper. And thus over the past 150 years the cost of things has generally reduced while the “productivity” has gone up.

Ok. That is a very primitive summary and you could fire a bunch of holes into it, but it’s not really what I want to talk about… it’s more setting the stage, so bear with me. My main point is that machines in the past 150 years have primarily replaced human physical activity as opposed to human mental activity.

The Next 150 Years Looks Quite Different

I think that is going to change dramatically.

The next stage in the eternal quest for efficiency and productivity is to reduce the cost of mental activity. We can already see this happening with things like self-driving cars. Driving is a suboptimal human activity. It’s boring, frustrating, dangerous and doesn’t really create value. If we can get robots to do it for us, GREAT!. Of course, that means we take out the people who make a living driving, but that’s just the natural cost of the ongoing technology evolution, right? Those people can learn to do something more useful, more fun, more helpful, and more interesting. Maybe they can start a blog or something…

Other areas also seem pretty obvious… how about ordering fast food? Or how about checking out at the grocery store? Or what about trying to find a special tool at Home Depot? Imagine if there’s Wall-e the helpful robot tool guy and you ask him, and he cheerfully shows you exactly what you need. No more listening to someone drone on about some uninteresting thing, no more waiting while he finds the person who might know the answer, no more “hmm… I’m not sure if we have that, let me go find out.”

Restaurants could also benefit. Who needs a moody waiter or an overstressed kid on their first day screwing up your order. Androids would always be polite, accurate, and efficient. You can even just pay with your iPhone and not even leave a tip!

Of course all those people lose their jobs too… but of course, they can find more productive things to do. Or so we hope.

But Wait A Minute…

I think we’re actually going somewhere else… maybe a step “further” or maybe a different step.

Actually I think robo-waiters are not going to be so easy… because when I go out to eat I VALUE the human interaction and while you can AI that pretty effectively, it’s very hard to AI the warmth and care. If you have a favorite restaurant you may know the waiter’s family (through pictures), you feel happy seeing him, and if he screws up your order a bit, that’s ok because he probably also remembers something or can notice when you’re down and cheer you up. These “semi-intimate” service jobs have a very high value component that goes beyond getting what you want quickly.

Same with the Home Depot person. She may ask you about what you’re trying to do and empathize with your frustration of not knowing how a toilet actually flushes. She may take time to explain it, crack a joke and make you feel better. That’s a pretty hard thing to AI away.

But… I think there’s another kind of service industry that WILL benefit from AI… and it’s much scarier when it comes to “retraining people.”

Let’s think about areas where errors lead to real consequences. Like, say, surgery? Or maybe military tactics? Or police work? Or perhaps judges? What about deciding whether a drug should be approved or not? Those are areas where AI androids might do BETTER than people and as a consumer I don’t care as much about the human side. When I’m knocked out on the OR table and someone is going to cut me open… who do I want? The human surgeon who just got out of a law suit and found out that his wife is cheating on him… maybe he had a drink after a 12 hour shift and was called back last second? Or do I want the feelingless, tireless and perfectly accurate robot that has millions of historic cases of surgery it can recall instantly to make the best possible decision and execute each cut perfectly?

Hmm… I think I want the robot.

Surgery and Driving are more similar than Waitering and Driving.

If I run a hospital, this is good news. I am pretty sure that when androids start doing medical procedures, malpractice rates will go DOWN. So all we need is one or two human professionals to make sure that the machines are working well and we’re good. Of course we still need the hardcore research but that’s a small fraction of human labor. So all you people working hard to become surgeons and make big bucks… sorry! You probably want to learn to be a very good waiter instead.

What about other parts of the medical field? General diagnosis, taking blood, urine samples, dispensing medications, etc. I think Androids are better at that too. Once the have all the information and cases available I think they will be more accurate at diagnosing than humans. And I think they will be BETTER on their own than with human/machine interaction – contrary to what expert humans will say of course :).

Why? Because these are classic areas where humans will be overconfident, bias in their anchoring, not have all the information, etc. What AI can’t replace is a person who shows empathy and compassion… but that’s a very different kind of job…normally more part of “nursing.” The doctor is the jerk who knows everything and the nurse is the nice person who cares. I think the jerk who knows everything is much easier to AI away. I need a nice person who makes me feel good, but I want the AI doing the diagnosis and deciding the treatment.

Of course, people will have to get used to this. The first generation will rebel and want the “good old days” but assuming the outcomes are superior, the new technology will win out.

I dug into medicine, but I think anywhere you see jobs that require calculated decision where bad outcomes are actually dangerous, you will see AI take over. And that’s a LOT of people. AND they can scale very quickly. A single AI can probably diagnose hundreds of people at the same time, given that we have enough input devices (some kind of tricorder, or maybe an army of humans who just hook you up to some machines). In essence the humans in these areas will do what the AI says, not the other way around.

Think about your own job. Does this describe what you do? Well… maybe not for long.

Scary, huh?


While I think we are very far from AI “taking over humanity and wiping it out” I do think we will face the very real challenge of  high-risk outcome, judgment based jobs being replaced by AI. And those jobs ARE interesting and productive for people… it’s just… we’re not as good at them.

So we will face a different problem. Is it BETTER for people to be less efficient and have worse outcomes in exchange for being more professionally satisfied, or is the race to improved efficiency and better outcomes the more important goal?

Do Rich People Really Pay Less Taxes?

My reason for interest in this topic is primarily driven by the impact taxes have on most people of the world as well as the confidence that individuals have in taking any extreme position on the topic.
Just as random sample , here are some claims of the “rich paying more” position:
And here’s some saying the opposite:

I’ll let you google it yourself. It’s easy to come up with very confident and authoritive articles that will support whatever you want to believe.
So there you go… case closed. The rich and poor both pay more than the rich and poor…
…and that is actually true.
You would think that since taxes are fairly objective… that is to say, reported collected taxes is an objective measure, reported income is an objective measure; this should not be a controversial topic.

But it’s not.

I think the primary reason for this is that most people are not really interested in whether or not the poor or the rich pay “too much” or “too little;” they are interested in affirming their bias. So I created a little matrix to represent this across two simple dimensions:
Ok, over simplified, but basically this breaks people into self-identified buckets that influences their perception and informs how they look for information. If you are rich and you feel “justified” about it, I suspect you will tend to find information that makes your tax situation seem unfair towards the “I pay too much” side, implying others pay too little. Conversely, if you feel “rich/unjustified” then the reverse is true. The situation if you are “poor” is not very different, although I suspect the # of people who deliberately fall into the “poor/justified” bucket might be small… I also think that the # of people who subconsciously feel this way might be pretty big; that is to say people who are poor and feel that they somehow deserve it.
So how does this play out? Well, if you’re rich and feel you “deserve it” you might type into Google “do the rich pay too many taxes” and boom… tons of support. If you are rich and “don’t deserve it” you type in “do the rich not pay enough taxes” and boom… tons of support for that too. Since the way search engines work is they echo what is sought after and avoid contrary positions; this can easily lead each side to believe they are objective and everyone agrees with them… cause… well… the data says so. How many people actually try to search for the opposite of what they believe and then compare the differences to check against their biases. That sounds hard!
And of course there is plenty of data to back up any position. For example, in terms of “total federal income tax collected by income bracket” the richer groups pay more in total receipts. That gives you graphs like this:
Wow. That’s pretty convincing. I mean, look… rich people used to pay just over half… now they pay over 3/4 of the taxes! Case Closed!!
But wait… something critical is missing… how was the total income earned distributed over that time period. Well, that question creates graphs like this:
Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere. Those rich bastards have almost tripled their income, while their tax contribution has only gone up 20%. CLEARLY the poor are paying way too much.
Hmm… well maybe.
But hang on a second there professor… is it that the rich people got way richer at the EXPENSE of the poor, or was it that the subsequent fifths should have gotten richer as well but because of other things (that have nothing to do with taxes) they didn’t? Maybe there’s not enough welfare? Or maybe wage policy was bad? Or maybe it was all that outsourcing and we just haven’t figured out how to outsource Investment Bankers and CEOs… yet!
Next up, we can look at the SOURCES of tax revenue over time which makes charts like this one:
Aha! It’s those bastard evil corporations that are using their huge might to suck up all the money for themselves. No doubt they are filtering that revenue to those upper 1% earners as well. Now it all makes sense…
Well… maybe.
But maybe… as companies globalized their sources of profit got broadly distributed to other countries… other countries where they owe taxes to THOSE governments. Consider things like companies trying to repatriate money or moving their corporate headquarters to countries with friendlier tax laws.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s the US was much more of a self-consuming market. So it just isn’t this simple… During that same time the US’ trade deficit has also exploded. Well… it turns out when you import most of what you consume; your corporations aren’t paying taxes on the development, manufacturing and distribution. And if they can figure out a way to make that stuff cheaper AND pay less taxes… it makes sense that they will try and do that, right?
Let’s be honest, all those iPhones and iPads are not being made over in Cupertino. At least not right now.
As much as we want this to be a simple problem… it isn’t. And that makes it so that anyone with an axe to grind can make the picture look however they like.
So, what’s really going on here?
Something that became very clear to me is that regardless of their position on the topic, people had a very similar approach to taxes.
We see taxes are a weapon that you use AGAINST the “other” group as opposed to a neutral mechanism that helps distribute large but necessary public costs as equitably as possible across the population.
Very few articles talk about taxes as a process by which we fund important things like: infrastructure, defense, education, health, etc. Instead it’s almost always either:
a) a platform to complain about how someone else has it better than me or has something they don’t deserve
b) a platform for complaining about how a political party or individual I disagree with is an idiot
One thing that people seem to be unified on… OTHER people don’t pay enough taxes whereas I, of course, pay too much.
That is… the system is unfair:
..and there is definitely a relationship between how much you pay (in absolute terms) and how unfair you think it is.
This is pretty unhealthy, in my opinion, and what is at stake is our ability to create a functioning society.
Personally I don’t see taxes as bad or good, nor do I see them as a weapon that should be used in class warfare. There are plenty of other class warfare weapons that are perfectly legitimate and probably more effective: minimum wage, employment laws, social security limitations and payouts, welfare reform, and so on. And those are equally fun to debate!
I think when we think and talk about taxes we should try to look at it from two perspectives:
1) Which programs/projects/institutions benefit from public ownership and support and which don’t.
2) How can we distribute the costs of those programs/projects/institutions in such a way that the wealth of the payer is proportionate to the cost they bear.
That means we need much more debate and transparency around what (1) actually is. I suggest an itemized list of public projects/programs/institutions, their associated cost and each person’s “share” of that bill. So basically I know that when the DOD buys a stealth bomber, I paid $4.89 for it, and I can then look at where I spent my money and decide where I think it makes sense and use that to inform my voting behavior.
Maybe I think that an extra Grade Vanilla Latte would have been much better than a stealth bomber… or maybe I’d be willing to forego that extra 24 pack of diet soda so that we can fix some of the crumbling bridges. Ultimately those are the decisions that we are making, but they are so buried that we don’t think about it this way.
In this way we can see taxes as a way to get maximum benefit from public contribution to important projects that we all need as opposed to this evil institution that is just sucking up all our money and giving it to others far less deserving than ourselves.