Be prolific, AirBnB vs Uber, and How to Be the Best in the World – 44th Week of 2020

I stumbled this week across an article called Be Prolific. It’s short and not particularly meaningful, but it feels good to read. The article tells the story of a teacher who divided their class in two: one half would be graded on the quantity of work produced, the other half on the quality of a final piece. By the end, the quantity group produced better quality work than the quality group, because of the amount of practice that they did. The origin of the story, after some hunting, comes from Art and Fear by David Bayles, and speaks of a pottery class. While there is no citation, and no link to any study, other studies about the quantity of work produced by experts corroborate this story’s hypothesis: that people who end up dominating a field aren’t necessarily amazing to start, but they produce so much that they a) improve over time, and b) are more likely to produce something amazing in a given time period than someone else, purely because they create more. (They are also more likely to create something that is utterly turd, but that is beside the point.)

I was talking to someone the other day who also has their own website for publishing writing, even if just as a way to get better at writing (which I think everyone should do). The idea of just getting going to be able to start learning links to one of the later segments this week, Early Work.

Why is a work of art left unfinished | Christie's
An unfinished image, work in progress, like us all.

Dear Readers,

Feels like a lot is happening all at once. Next week is the US election, the UK will go into lockdown, and I have a small number of interviews at various firms.

If you want something to look forward to at the end of next week, something that you don’t have to rely on polsters for, consider signing up to my Weekly Insights, where I’ll send this to your inbox so we don’t both have to rely on the algorithm that brought you here. On the note of the algorithm, if you like this article, react to it on social media (comments are best) and tell me what you liked. It helps more people to see the post.

I hope you enjoy your week,


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Most Interesting Subjects of the Week

Uber and AirBnb

AirBnb and Uber seem to have quite similar models – rent out the use of other people’s stuff, and claim that you are “just a platform” so don’t need to worry about safety precautions/wages/details. But a recent article has claimed that Uber will dwindle and AirBnb will stay rock steady. Their logic is that Uber will always be in competition for drivers and passengers – people will check multiple apps to get the best estimate, drivers will carry multiple phones with multiple rideshare apps installed – and so will always be trying to beat competitors in local markets. On the other hand, AirBnb has a strong market presence around the world, and is the only place that people use to find a house to stay in. For holiday rentals, there is no local competitive advantage that a start-up can gain by spending cash to get properties onto the site, people will use AirBnb first, and only if there is nothing where they are looking will they look elsewhere.

That’s in theory anyway. In reality AirBnb is struggling. Since the start of the pandemic they have had to pay out $250 million to landlords who have had their bookings cancelled, European cities are claiming AirBnb’s back for residents, and they cancelled their IPO.

Digging deeper, I read this article on the intricacies of what happens when an AirBnb rental goes very wrong. More widely, AirBnb has been criticised for making neighbourhoods more expensive and less communal, taking apartments from residents, increasing expulsion of locals from properties, and making noise with parties.

So, with complaints about AirBnb and a possible permanent change in the way people travel and work, what can they do? I see a clear opportunity for them among people who want to travel with work, not travel for work. That is, they can work from anywhere, and choose to work from somewhere they don’t normally live. This “digital nomad” idea was once exotic, but is now becoming increasingly common. Reddit recently announced that their staff can work from anywhere and won’t have their pay cut if they move somewhere cheaper. On The Future of Work, an HBR podcast, it has repeatedly been said that work from anywhere is here to stay.

So how could AirBnb capture this market and help it grow? Well, apartments need to be set up for work, with a desk, chair, and good wifi. The apartment needs to be visually attractive and based somewhere pretty. And the rent for a month needs to be less than a holiday rental would be for that period of time, but can still be more than locals pay. This solves a lot of problems that people have with AirBnb (parties, drunkenness, different random people living next door every week), but the core issue – homes that are normally for locals are being occupied by tourists – still exists.

Early Work

Linking to an idea from an earlier (not very good) article of mine, The Fear of Creating, this week I discovered an article by a Y Combinator Partner called Early Work. While I urge you to read the original, I think there are some core interesting ideas that I can summarise. Basically, many of us don’t have much experience with early work, only with finished work. So when we want to create something new, something that we haven’t done before, we judge it by the criterion of finished work, and it obviously compares poorly.

This has two effects. First, other people might judge your early work, which is a scary prospect. Secondly, and possibly more importantly, you might judge your early work and quit before it gets good. Paul Graham, author of the above article, has a couple of tips on how to get through the lame phase to the good phase:

  • First, it helps to be overconfident and a little bit ignorant – this will save you from knowing how bad the first iterations really are.
  • Second, surround yourself with people who can see the value in early work – not just yes-men who encourage anything, but people who can tell what is an ugly duckling and what is actual rubbish.
  • Third, you can start by internally labelling what you are creating as a less ambitious version – e.g. a drawing might start off as just a sketch, an application as just a system for yourself.
  • Fourth, frame the project as a learning experience. Tell yourself the quality doesn’t matter as long as you learn and improve from what you create.
  • Finally, just be curious. “It doesn’t matter how this turns out, I’m just interested to see what happens.”

It can be all to easy to discount the value of our first steps, whether they are steps in playing the piano, starting drawing or creating a business. But we need to remember that all experts started somewhere, and it was likely at the bottom. Even the king of France puts his trousers on one leg at a time. And remember that if your friend has started something new and is showing it to you, they are already being very brave, and that you should judge what they have made not as a final product, but as a first step. Bringing it back to the article I mentioned at the beginning, the only reason I know that the article isn’t very good is because I’ve improved. Those first articles are the reason I can write better now.

Skill Stacking

The idea of Skill Stacking comes from Scott Adams, and it is described as a way to be the best in the world at something without being the best at any individual skill by combining skills. For example, if you are in the top 10% in the world at two different unrelated skills, then you are in the top 1% for those skills combined. The application of the idea involves understanding your unique skill stack, and marketing yourself in that way.

My problem with this technique is that there are a couple of conditions that are required for this to work. First, the skills need to be in some way related. Me having a bench press in the top 5% and being able to make pasta better than 95% of people might put me in the top 0.25% for those skills combined, but that means nothing. The skills need to have some form of adjacency.

Secondly, there needs to be few enough skills that you can market yourself well. Being the person who combines A, B and C is memorable, the person who combines A, B, C, D, E and F is less memorable, and possibly less effective. Finally, having a unique skill stack isn’t an excuse to stop improving each of the skills in the stack. Being someone who can combine an understanding of genetics with writing and public speaking is fantastic, but that doesn’t mean that you can get away with not improving your writing and public speaking. In fact, improving those skills might increase your impact more than increasing your knowledge about genetics.


For a very old story about a possible alien abduction, look here. For a fascinating article on the design of Japanese butter knives, look here. And for a tip on how to waste as little of your life as possible, look here.

Final Words

Finally, if you have made a bad investment decision in the past, remember that Twitter decided to deprioritise Vine, a short form video app, that they bought for $30 million, just a couple of years before TikTok hit the mainstream. TikTok is now worth around $75 billion. Being an early competitor in that market would have been very, very valuable.

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