The Best of 2020 – Business Psychology and Strategy #27

Happy New Year! Last week I talked briefly about goal setting, and I examined why Peloton’s recent acquisition is a brilliant strategic move. This week I’m looking back at the past year, commenting on the articles and journalism that stuck with me and changed the way that I worked and lived. If you want to see the list, skip the next couple of paragraphs and go to the list.

Over the past half year, I have been asked a couple of times how I find the articles I cite and how I manage to read so much. Since the 20th of June I have read ~650 articles, or about 3.3 articles a day. I find these articles in one of three categories of places.

First, newsletters that I receive. For news I recommend DealBook from The New York Times, which delivers daily news updates on business, economics, and politics. For personal development, if you can be bothered to sift through the shit, I use medium. Unfortunately unless you pay, medium only allows you to read three articles a month, so I use a combination of wiping my cookies and reading in incognito windows. For a random selection of other articles on technology and working I read HackerNewsletter, a collection of the best articles on HackerNews.

Second, I read through news sites. Every couple of weeks I will give Harvard Business Review a read, as well as checking out Long Reads to find some interesting longer form stories. Finally, some of the stories I read come from social media. I know that social media is a very biased source, which is why it is only one of the three sources I use. I tend to avoid Facebook in favor of LinkedIn and Reddit, but I still make an effort to limit the amount of time I spend on social media.

To answer the question of how I read so many articles, I’d like to introduce you to Notion. Notion is a flexible notes and database system that I use to organize my life and business. My hero is the Chrome Notion WebClipper, that allows me to clip any article on the web directly to my notion database of articles. This means that I can batch my reading into a couple of afternoons a week by clipping the articles I want to read and then sitting down for an hour and digging into the reading.

I also use Notion to store and comment on the articles I read. I categorize the articles and summarize them so that I can come back to them and remember what the articles were about. This system also makes it easier for me to write my weekly newsletter because everything I have read that week can be filtered and quickly viewed to find themes within the reading.

If you don’t use Notion I recommend you give it a quick look, as of last year it is completely free for individual users. To learn more about batching here is a video from Tim Ferriss.

Most Interesting Articles of the Year

Working. This segment would have looked very different if this year had gone to plan. I was going to start working at a boutique consultancy, so this would probably have included more articles on excel analyses and traveling. Instead it is shifted a little bit towards start-ups, as that is what I ended up doing.

First is the story of how someone spent time talking to strangers to get better at uncomfortable conversations. Next, this is a useful guide to how to get the most out of your one-on-ones with your boss. Then there is an article on the correct way to measure productivity, making a very useful distinction between measuring input and measuring output. Next is an article on whether or not graduates of top universities perform any better than other graduates.

But my favorite article of the last six months in this category is from Paul Graham, the co-founder of Y-Combinator. In Early, Paul talks about how to judge early work, and how bad humans are at judging whether or not something has potential.

Leadership. Throughout school and university I have occupied a variety of leadership positions. Right now, although I am running my own start-up, I’m not in any kind of leadership position. Regardless, learning to be a good leader is useful for people at any level of an organization, as the same communication, emotional, and thinking skills will help you be a better employee and colleague.

First is an article from HBR on how some organizations are using ideas from the front lines to improve processes and help workers feel more attached to their work. Next is an idea I talk about frequently, writing, and how to use it as a tool in leadership. Then comes an article from the BBC on why the best leaders in person are probably not the best leaders in a remote world, and which characteristics are essential for effective leadership in remote work. Next is an article from HBR on why rookie CEOs outperform experiences CEOs.

But the article in this category that has stuck with me the most is an article from HBR on how to be a visionary leader without being the top dog in an organization. Creating vision for your team, even if you aren’t the leader of that team, can help to pull the team together and ensure that you are all pulling in the same direction.

Strategy. I find this topic to be one of the most interesting. Companies make decisions that shape not just their future, but the future of entire industries and of all of the customers. Some general articles on strategy specific to well known companies are the difference between Uber and AirBnB, the growing giant that is Shopify, and an acquisition by Lululemon and by Peloton.

But more interesting are a pair of articles from HBR and Forbes. First, from HBR, is an explanation of why narrative matters so much to a start-up when it pivots. I thought this article was very valuable and I kept it in mind when shaping the purpose of Nom Nom Not Dairy. Then from Forbes is an article on what actually matters when you innovate. Hint, it isn’t having the best technology, or even having the best idea.

But the most interesting article in this section, and the article that has had the biggest effect on me, must be an article from HBR called Three Rules for Making a Company Truly Great. This detailed quantitative analysis details three rules. The first two rules are Better Before Cheaper, and Revenue Before Cost. These two rules resonate with me from when I worked at Cargill, when I first heard the phrase “cutting costs is not a way to make money”. I’ve thought back to this article regularly when building Nom Nom and deciding on strategy for the company.

Economics and Finance. This year I have become more interested in Economics and Finance than before. One non-article I’d recommend is Hard Money, a documentary on how all money is a fabrication, and an explanation for the popularity of Bitcoin. This guide to Mariana Mazzucato is an interesting article that has changed the way I think about the role of government. This article talks about whether or not markets are actually efficient, a widely debated topic in economics. However, the article that taught me the most about finance in a business setting is an explanation about why cash flows matter so much, and about the time value of money.

Social Media. I’m not a fan of social media. I don’t have Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat on my phone because I know how well designed the addictive algorithms are. That being said, social media is one of the forces shaping our modern world.

First is a question that I’ve asked many times, is the world getting more stupid? Next is a conversation is psychology about why we continue to doom-scroll, scrolling through bad news feeling worse and worse. Finally, the most worrying of the three articles in this section, is an explanation of Social Cooling, the effect of knowing that your data is watching you, and will change what it shows you based on what you like, what you comment on, and even how long you look at a post.

Personal. This category is a combination of productivity and personal development. While productivity is important, doing the right thing is even more important. Of all the articles that I’ve mentioned here, I think the articles here have had the biggest effect on me.

Starting with one of the articles that encouraged me to make the leap and start Nom Nom, HBR talks about the benefits of the strategic side gig, a second job which teaches you skills that you wouldn’t have gained in your day job, but are helpful nonetheless. Next are articles on the benefits of laziness, and how to approach situations with a beginner’s mind.

But the most influential articles for how I live my day to day life have been Not Thinking: why not thinking or making decisions can help you to be the most effective version of yourself; Ugh Fields: the phenomenon that causes a task to become painful to think about to the point where even though you know it needs to get done, it feels too late to start; and How to Think for Yourself: by Paul Graham.

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