Don’t Vote

Most people (in the USA) believe in voting. The truth is: Don’t bother voting. Your vote doesn’t matter, and your time can be far better spent elsewhere.

As usual our prompt:

Q: What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

A: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”

I think voting isn’t a good use of time.

You’re probably inclined to say “but Josh, this isn’t really that uncommon a belief! There’s 320 million people living in America, plus the whole electoral college thing; at some level we all kind of know that our votes don’t really matter. It’s more the principle of the thing.”

I agree.

But my argument is a little more specific, and a lot less defeatist, than just the above. It’s not so much that your vote doesn’t matter; it’s that in 2016, there are way more valuable things you can be doing than just voting.

Let’s look at an extreme example: Hillary Clinton.


We all agree that my vote doesn’t matter, but have you considered the notion that that Hillary Clinton’s vote doesn’t matter either?

It’s true. Even though she’s got everything in her world on the line, she could vote for anyone on the planet come general elections and it wouldn’t matter one bit.

Any individual’s vote is unimportant. The only thing that’s really valuable is getting all of your peers to vote.

To do that, you need two things:

  • Credibility
  • Campaigning

On a purely practical basis, Hillary has to appear to have voted. We (her peers and extended-peers) have to believe that she votes, otherwise we won’t bother listening to her tell us how to vote. She has to make an appearance at a polling booth, and step behind the curtain for a reasonable amount of time — Bill Clinton could be waiting back there to surprise her with a Smirnoff Ice, wouldn’t matter — Hillary will appear to have voted and her credibility will be intact.

From there, the real thing that matters, the real thing that’s worth her time, is campaigning. Hillary’s vote will only move the popular election results by 1. Her speeches, her advertisements, and her tweets will move the popular results by millions, and will move the electoral results by dozens and could conceivably swing the election in her favor. Which is the whole idea of running for President in the first place. (Her campaign, of course, falls flat if we don’t believe that she believes in voting. That’s why credibility came first.)

This seems kind of obvious when we lay it out in terms of Hillary, but let’s bring it back to me and you.

You and I are tacitly supposed to keep our votes private. Most of my peers leave the political prognosticating to TV pundits and to insane people who feel like they have to share a new Bernie Sanders / Feel the Bern / 420BlazeIt article every 5 minutes, and we formulate our own opinions in the isolation of our own homes.

Part of this is that it’s taboo to talk politics. Our feelings on politics can be pretty central to our personal beliefs, and pretty divisive. People get into fights, breakups, and worse over differences in political alignment. Safer to not bring it up and ignorantly enjoy your friends’ company and the 999,999,999 other things you could be talking about instead of the government. So we tend to keep hush. I myself only have very limited ideas on the political alignments of my close friends — just not a metaphorical crocodile I’ve really ever thought about prodding until I decided to write this essay.

The other part of this voting privacy situation is by manufactured design: In the early days of voting, people were pretty susceptible to being bullied and intimidated into voting differently. If you kept your feelings private, and you voted behind a curtain in a 1-person capacity booth, it was substantially harder for the Al Capone-types to really exert much influence. Some polling booths I’ve used will physically disable the voting buttons until the drawstring on the privacy curtain is pulled all the way shut.


But now it’s 2016 and a couple things have changed:

  1. I could be wrong, but I don’t really think organized mobster crime is that big a deal anymore
  2. You now have way, way, way more power than ever to express yourself and exert broad (positive, not-mafia-like) influence in your network

You could probably very safely get away with voting without drawing the privacy curtain.

On election day, you could spend the ~3 hours finding a local polling place, commuting there, farting around in a line for an eternity, and voting — not to mention first registering to vote months beforehand, if you haven’t done that yet — and all that effort will move the popular election by 1.


Or you could spend 3 hours writing a blog post, or a facebook thing, or an email thing, or a Snapchat thing, or whatever, and send it to your friends. If you do that, you might convince ten, or a hundred, or ten thousand people to register to vote, and to consider voting for your side. If you’re public about your voting preference, you’ll be orders of magnitude more powerful. I’d argue this might even make you a better American.

If we’re being candid, I (Josh) don’t actually have to go do the voting thing come November 8th. I just have to insinuate that I’m planning on doing it, and after the fact, tell you that I did. If I skip voting, but convince 10 friends to vote, I’ve still used my time 9x as effectively. (Hillary, by contrast, does at least have to appear at a polling booth because a camera crew will be following her. But again, as soon as she’s on the other side of the curtain, she might as well fire up Angry Birds or Neko Atsume.)

I do, either way, at this point have to tell you who I’m planning on voting for (and hope that you’ll disregard my threat of free ridership in that last paragraph).

As of July 2016, I’m planning on voting for Hillary Clinton.

I’m not so crazy as to try my hand at voting for a third party / runner up like Bernie Sanders.

As for Trump… he’s always felt like a bad idea, but it’s taken months for me to stumble upon the correct, succinct, educated argument for why he actually is a bad idea. That argument is here. The argument is not “his hair is goofy and his face is orange!” or “he’s crazy!” which are relatively worthless petty arguments that stoop to Trump’s preferred flavor of debate. Rather, the argument is a tremendously worthwhile 7-minute read on why, with laser-precision, regardless of Trump’s actual policies, his candidacy undermines what it means to have a country like America.

I have some other thoughts on Trump in this indented section here:

Could I be convinced to change my mind and vote Trump in a few months?

There are facets of Trump’s campaign that I honestly find likeable. I really like the idea that a guy who has no background in politics can launch a platform and succeed — through that lens, Trump seems like he’s a better representative of the American people than someone who’s spent their life laboring and networking in upper echelon government and social circles.

For me to be convinced to switch, it might take a complete heel-turn on Trump’s part. Think, like, the reveal in The Wizard of Oz, where the Wizard turns out to be just a regular dude who figured that nobody was going to listen to him if he behaved normally, so he put on a show in order to get people to pay attention, but in the end it’s blatantly clear he’s just a regular dude. That’s probably what it’d take. But I dunno; maybe you can surprise me with a better argument.

Failing that, I think the very best thing Trump could do for America would be to lose the general election by like a 70/30 split. Any closer than that and next election someone even crazier is going to show up to try and out-Donald the alpha model to get over the hump. Less than that and the collective conscience will feel that the political outsider model never really stood a chance and it’ll be back to business as usual. But if Trump lands 30% as the Bad Cop outsider, he’s paved the way for a Good Cop outsider to reap the benefits in 2020. And in that way, he could actually deliver on his promise of helping to make America great again.

If you think you want to vote for Trump, that’s okay. I think Hillary is a better representative model for what I believe is good about America. I hope that I, and the very articulate argument in the article above, can convince you of that. This whole essay is kind of a risky thing to publish and I really hope it doesn’t devolve into a political shit storm.

Anyway. If you’ve only got a few hours to spend on the American Way this year, I don’t think you should vote for Hillary Clinton come November 8th. Instead, before November 8th, take those few hours and talk with your peers about it. Don’t bludgeon anyone with clickbait and finger-pointing and rage-inducing pabulum. Talk about it. Make a clear & intelligent case, listen open-mindedly, accept the possibility that some people will disagree, and encourage your counterparts to vote — or not just to vote, but to register to vote, because telling unregistered people to vote is worthless. Then on the 8th do whatever you want.

(I promise you that I’ll be voting on the 8th, but maybe… just to be on the safe side… you shouldn’t ask me too many nuanced questions about my whereabouts that afternoon.)

Most people believe that voting is the most important way you can participate in the American government & presidential election. The truth is that campaigning is far more powerful — and in 2016, we should feel empowered to have sane, open-minded, persuasive discussions about politics. 

Tell your friends.

Peter Thiel, Part II

We’ve got to talk quickly about Peter Thiel.

All year I’ve been using Thiel’s key interview question as a writing prompt.

Q: What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

A: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”

Thiel’s been in the news quite a bit lately. Specifically, we found out that he’s a supporter of Donald Trump, and that he’s been secretly backing Hulk Hogan’s company-crippling lawsuit against Gawker because of a grudge he’s held for about a decade. As it turns out, he might be a megalomaniac, or a cartoon supervillain, or something, depending on who you ask.

Several of my readers have sent me links to these sorts of articles, with appeals along the lines of “You can’t write about him anymore! He’s a madman!!”

So here’s today’s important, controversial truth: You can still learn tremendously good things from bad people. Bad people can have good ideas.

That’s not to say you subscribe to the whole of their philosophies or their practice. And it’s not to say you are, or will become, a bad person yourself. It is to say that flatly rejecting a person’s ideas in one field because of something disagreeable they did in a far different arena is technically illogical. (“Some ideas are bad” and “all ideas are bad” are correlated, but the former doesn’t automatically predict the latter). It may even be immoral.

This is not to say that I agree, or disagree, with the things Peter Thiel has done. Extolling or condemning his virtues are not crusades I care to join, and to that end, I’ve gone back and edited out unnecessary references to Thiel in my other essays on the subject.

Nonetheless: I believe the question and the search for answers are no less profound and meaningful today than they were before. I plan on continuing to think and write accordingly.


Jenrry Mejia vs. Daniel Bryan

Mets pitcher Jenrry Mejia recently got banned for life from Major League Baseball for testing positive for steroids three times.

The internet wasn’t kind in its response.

WWE super-duper-duper star Daniel Bryan recently prematurely retired from professional wrestling after testing positive for concussion-based health issues.

The internet, in this case, was overwhelmingly supportive.

Both athletes were effective and popular. Both pushed their bodies to their human limits. Both are out of work way before a healthy career would otherwise dictate.

Our thesis, as usual, is:

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

For a casual observer, Mejia faced a very straightforward rule, “Do not take steroids,” and then broke it, and then broke it, and then broke it. It draws to mind a 2nd grader who, despite being scolded by his teacher, can’t stop pulling girls’ hair. How can a grown man, a 26-year-old young adult, fly so brazenly in the face of the law?

Most of my peers believe Mejia, like all steroids users, is a bad guy. The truth is that if you write incentives a certain way, you can get almost anybody to behave badly.

Most of my peers believe that taking steroids is wrong. The truth is that if I were in Mejia’s shoes, I don’t know that I’d pass up the opportunity.

This idea is important, because it’s bigger than steroids, and bigger than personal health, and bigger than rule-breaking. It’s about incentivizing behavior of all kinds.

Let’s think critically about what might make Jenrry Mejia tick.

I found a profile on Mejia here. It explains that Mejia started shining shoes at age 11, and made the equivalent of $8 a day. He didn’t even grow up playing baseball; he only started at age 15 when he learned about Pedro Martinez’s $53 million dollar contract with the Mets in 2004.

Flash to 2015 where, even in light of his second outstanding steroids offense, Mejia signed a 1-year contract with the Mets worth $2.5 million. (He’d only receive a portion of that while serving his 2nd ban.) Here’s his professional earnings history. He earned $2.6 million in six years with the Mets. Think about this: If Mejia stuck to shining shoes, earning $2.6 million would’ve taken him a little over 890 years. If Mejia even lasted three more years in baseball before getting caught, he’d more than likely walk away with a millenium’s worth of shoe shining commissions.

You think Mejia is a bad guy for taking steroids?

Stanozolol, the drug Mejia got twice suspended for, can be consumed in a tablet or dissolved in water.

By comparison:

  1. Do you know what the active ingredients are in Advil? Do you know or care about the long-term health effects? Ibuprofen has long been closely linked to increased risk of heart failure, kidney failure, and liver failure. I’ve taken Advil. I didn’t have $2.5 million on the line; I had a headache.
  2. In 2011, Bradley Cooper starred in a movie called Limitless. “With the help of a mysterious pill that enables the user to access 100 percent of his brain abilities, a struggling writer becomes a financial wizard.” Limitless is actually the story of Jenrry Mejia. And it’s such a popular story that, in 2015, it got adopted into a successful TV show that’ll probably get renewed for a new season later this year.
  3. I’ve been casually offered Adderall, a pill prescribed for attention deficit disorder. I’ve never taken the stuff, but I know plenty who have; sometimes because it was prescribed to them, but other times to help with studying, exams, or work. These remarkably intelligent, relatively health-conscious peers of mine chomp prescription meds not because they have 890 years of working salary to gain, but because they’d rather get an A than a C.

Really, you still think Mejia is a bad guy for taking steroids?

Mejia looked at the situation around him, the possibilities in front of him, and the pills his friend in the white jacket was boosting and promised were fine, and he made a choice: Can I push my body a little bit more for this? Is it worth the risk? He looked back at his home town of Herrera, described only in the profile above as “mucho pobre” (“very poor”), and I think the answer was pretty obvious. “Yes.”

Speaking of “Yes,” this is almost the same exact decision that Daniel Bryan faced multiple times — and answered the same way. (You might say, his response was YES! YES! YES! YES!)

Bryan has a history of severe health issues. At one point he lost all strength in his right arm — for months — which required multiple neck surgeries to recover. Forget the nebulous future health ramifications that we’re trying to protect athletes from by banning steroids. THE DUDE’S ARM STRAIGHT UP WASN’T WORKING.

That’s not even what caused him to retire!

Bryan retired because of concussions. He’s had TEN — and that’s only the ones that have been documented.

Bryan walked away from his sport. Perhaps he reached a point where his success was enough. He was a world champion, he’s authored a book which will sell well, he married a beautiful WWE diva. He probably (unlike Mejia) doesn’t have many friends or family living in desolate poverty to support, having grown up as a middle-class kid in the US pacific northwest.

These are the same young men facing and making the same hazardous decisions. And they both acted very much in their own best financial interests at the expense of their health.

There is one meaningful difference between steroids and concussions, and it’s the idea of “fairness.” It’s not fair when some athletes have access to and abuse PEDs while others don’t. It can fundamentally unbalance and undermine the “tossup” nature of a sport. The same problem as when an athlete gambles on their own sport — even when they’re only betting on themselves. If one side has an advantage, physical or intellectual, the game is broken. There’s a reason why Pete Rose is the only other major league baseball player besides Mejia facing a lifetime ban.

What’s unclear to me, though: Is uneven access to steroids really so much worse than uneven access to healthcare providers? Like this one doctor in Phoenix who Bryan somehow found, who was willing to clear him to return to wrestling after 10 concussions, who Bryan insists “it’s not like he’s a quack doctor”. Maybe we should’ve banned Bryan from wrestling years ago.

I think one thing that most of my peers underestimate is how the majority of professional athletes are wildly under-educated. There are Jeremy Lin and Ryan Fitzpatrick who’ve graduated from Harvard, then there’s the fact that for the 2012 season, only 39 of the 913 people to appear in a Major League Baseball game had a college degree.

With that all said: I don’t think we should rush to evangelize Bryan or vilify Mejia. We’re no saints ourselves, though we hold our idols to higher standards. I don’t think we need better protocols to test for steroids or concussions; we need better education for our athletes about the ramifications. It’s a moral hazard problem. Mejia and Bryan advance themselves and see big green dollar signs overshadowing small red crosses, without any consideration for how their selfish decision-making could unravel the entire companies they work for.

And that’s a lesson I think we can all apply not just to sports but to our lives, where our peers, our subordinates, and sometimes we ourselves make morally hazardous decisions on a regular basis. Don’t just read the label, or the rulebook, but understand how the system itself is benefited or hindered by your actions.

The steroids and concussions problems in sports aren’t about the rules or about personal health, they’re about decision-making in moral hazard. The solution won’t be found in harder rules or more rigorous testing, but in better education.

Google [X]

Recall our thesis from last time:

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

This time, we are going to discuss a hunch I have about Google: I believe Google [X], typically assumed to be an R&D branch of Google known for taking “moonshots,”  is really just a marketing company.

This doesn’t really sound like a disagreeable truth; after all, regular Google (and/or its parent, Alphabet) is a marketing company.

Of late, Google [X] mostly shows up in the news for its advances in self-driving cars. The self-driving car is a concept I’ve expressed love for repeatedly. (See: 1 2 3 4.) In fact, it’s in the news enough that I don’t even think “the self-driving car is world-changing” would qualify for a valid response to the important, controversial question anymore because too many people seem to agree with it.

We won’t know the market success of Google’s self-driving car for a fairly long time. It will probably take years for the Google [X] automobile to make meaningful headway in adoption, despite the glowingly positive opinions we already have on self-driving cars’ safety, convenience, etc.

Here’s some things we do know.

  1. Google [X] is founded on the idea of “moonshots.” Ideas that are potentially huge, but very likely to fail.
  2. Google [X] doesn’t really have a track record of success. Google Glass got to market in 2013, and flopped out of it within the year.
  3. Google in general doesn’t really have a good track record with hardware. Despite the brilliance of Android, Google doesn’t really manufacture its own phones. Google makes Chromebooks and Chromecast, which by all accounts seem to work great, but neither seems to have the ubiquity or fervent fanbase of products by, say, Apple.
  4. The person in charge of Google [X] is a guy named Astro Teller. This is by far the weakest argument of the four, but still… He’s literally an “outer space predictor.” You’d choke on your popcorn if a movie character in such a position had such a name.

All of these leave the door wide open for failure.

For now, the biggest success of the self-driving car is its newsworthiness. You can’t buy a Google self-driving car yet; however, you sure can read about it. 82.8 million search results as of January 2016.

And that newsworthiness is quite valuable.

For example:

  • It’s inspired an untold favorable views of articles and content saying how great Google is (basically, ads for Google)
  • It’s inspired an untold number of people to search with Google to read more about the subject (and each query is peppered with ads by Google)
  • The sooner we have self-driving cars, the sooner we can collect all the data from self-driving cars (which means better targeting for ads by Google)

This section alone probably more than covers the price of the lab and the staff.

More interesting (albeit harder to accurately quantify) are the HR implications:

  • It’s inspired an untold number of quirky Google employees to be excited about their menial work refining ad impression algorithms at a monolithic gargantuan company
  • It’s inspired an untold number of quirky prospective employees to fill out job applications at Google instead of at startups and elsewhere

Those would be very, very valuable for Google, and prove very strong on return on investment for Google [X] the marketing company.

Most interesting of all: Suppose Larry & Sergey benevolently cared about about things beyond Google’s bottom line:

  • It’s inspired maybe a dozen companies to very quickly get very, very serious about an issue that can affect billions of lives. Some companies, like Uber, Lyft, and Tesla, are quite forward-thinking and probably would have gotten there sooner or later. Others, like Ford and GM, tend otherwise to move at glacial speeds — yet on this issue find themselves at the bleeding edge of the industry

This bullet point, in my opinion, is nearly unbelievable. One of the biggest marketing successes of our generation. If Larry & Sergey cared about the long-term well-being of humanity, then spending millions on Google [X] the marketing company has inspired the spending of billions (trillions?) across the globe towards improving (and saving from outright destruction!) millions annually.

When’s the last time you heard of a marketing campaign that led to the market spending of 10x to 1000x what the campaign cost to run?

I bet the Google self-driving car never becomes the market leader. It’s possible it’s not even the first to market for public purchase. It’s even possible that it never makes the market at all.

I bet Google rolls back into a software partner role in its alliance with Ford. I bet Google distributes its software for cars the same way it distributes its software for phones.

I bet Google [X] continues to churn out dreams for as long as news outlets are willing to write about them, and as long as eager college graduates are willing to cite them as inspiration in their job applications. (I’d argue that under these terms, Google Glass — with 421 million search results itself — was actually also, counterintuitively, a success.)

These bets are kind of scary to make, since if you follow tech news, it seems clear that Google is thousands of miles (literally!) ahead of the pack. So maybe this idea will make me look and feel stupid a few years from now. Or maybe by then Google will have already sent droids to assassinate me — they certainly shouldn’t have a problem hunting me down given what they must know from my search, email, phone, and maps habits.

Anyway, my answer this time around:

Most people think Google’s self-driving car will be a market success. The truth is that success in the market is irrelevant — the car (and Google [X] itself) is a success simply for the attention it brings to Google.

This is a bigger truth than just an observation about Google: It’s an important truth because it affects how we see and consume news. It’s important to understand biases, and exercise careful thought and skepticism. Marketing in 2016 goes way, waayyy beyond banner ads, TV spots, and even the sponsored content pieces we all love to loathe.

It’s also, maybe a bit less cynically, an observation about business, and how the best businesses understand to build positive feedback loops across all of their initiatives. (You think Marvel makes movies? Hell no. Marvel makes 2.5-hour long commercials to sell action figures. You just happen to watch those commercials in a movie theater.)

Peter Thiel

[note: it turns out Peter Thiel is kind of a strange guy. when you’re done here, please also check out Peter Thiel, Part II]


Peter Thiel says this thing in his book.

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

It’s been bugging the shit out of me.

He continues:

This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.

Most commonly, I hear answers like the following:

“Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed.”
“America is exceptional.”
“There is no God.”

Those are bad answers. The first and the second statements might be true, but many people already agree with them. The third statement simply takes one side in a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”

I’ve been looking of late for a new, concise objective for continuing to write essays here. Answering the Peter Thiel question will be a theme for 2016. I’ll have succeeded if the results of my efforts — these forthcoming essays — can help you (and me!) see the world in new light.

My first answer to the Peter Thiel question, actually, stems from an observation about the Peter Thiel question itself.

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

I think most readers would agree that there are two centrally important components to this question:

1) Important truth
2) People [dis]agree

If either part fails then the idea is not very interesting. It doesn’t create value. It won’t challenge you or change your worldviews. I think most of my peers would agree with that much, and can readily observe as much from reading Thiel’s question.

What’s glossed over is the third important tenet:

3) Very few

I’d been glossing over it myself. And because of that, my pipeline of published essays has sputtered to near halt in 2014-15. I’ve lost track of how many essays have been started and abandoned in drafts. I’ll come up with an concept that I think meets the first two criteria, only to find that while researching the subject, someone else on the internet has already beaten me to my argument, almost word-for-word. Damn. There goes that idea.

I think there’s two reasons “very few” is important.

The one that Thiel probably intended is that “very few” implies there will be a small band of people who agree with you, who might help you advance your important idea, without whom your crusade to change the world will be far more difficult.

The other, I think, is a concession that it’s really just not that feasible to have a truly unique idea — and that it’s not really worth bothering. There are billions of people on the internet who are all exposed to similar news, similar weather, similar media… the odds of coming up with something completely original must be about as slim as the odds of winning the $1.3 billion Powerball. Not something you’d want to bet on.

Businesses succeed for lots of reasons, but very often, “we had this totally unique idea” was not the foundation.

  • Apple started because Steve Wozniak’s friends had homebrew computers and he wanted one too
  • Tesla got into the electric car game about a hundred years after the first electric car company
  • Rocket Internet, a German internet company, has a valuation over $8 billion. Their entire strategy is basically “let’s rip off the good ideas that startups have in the US and employ them in the developing world”

I believe in the importance of “very few.” I think it’s powerful, even liberating, to no longer be responsible for true originality — but simply to be charged with championing ideas held by just a handful of like-minded contemporaries.

So my first answer to Thiel’s question is as follows:

Most of my peers believe that a big idea’s value mostly stems from its originality. The truth is actually that you don’t need originality to change the world (much less write an interesting blog post).

Originality has value.  If you stumble upon an idea that’s at the 99th percentile of the Originality curve, then great! But as Thiel subtly concedes and we’ve observed here, the 90th or 95th percentile is often good enough — and the work to drive your idea from the 95th to the 99th percentile is often counter-productive. The very long tail of uniqueness has diminishing returns.

When you’ve got an idea you like, that’s unique enough, then it’s time to start running.


More answers and ideas like this to come.


(Thanks to Cy, Matt, Zach, and others who’ve read drafts of this.)