Auren Hoffman (00:01):
Welcome to World of DaaS, a show for data enthusiasts. I'm your host Auren Hoffman, CEO of SafeGraph. For more conversations, videos, and transcripts visit safegraph.com/podcast.
Auren Hoffman (00:16):
Hello, fellow data nerds. My guest today is David [Perell 00:00:18]. David is a writer, teacher, and podcaster. He is the founder of the Write of Passage online writing school and the host of the North Star podcast and a Twitter power user. David, welcome to World of DaaS.
David Perell (00:34):
Thanks for having me.
Auren Hoffman (00:35):
We're long time friends, so I'm really excited to dive in with you. The real reason why I want to talk to you is the very first time I heard of you, you had wrote this really long piece on Peter Thiel. I never heard of you before, and then somehow I got forwarded to this piece. And Peter's been a mentor of mine for 20 years or so, and I thought you did a fantastic job on the piece, so then you and I started talking. I'd love to dive into a few questions, not just about Peter Thiel, but also about René Girard as well.
Auren Hoffman (01:04):
Girard is kind of famous for his mimetic theory. You've written about this drive for humans to imitate one another. Peter is a subscriber to this theory. If we go back to the personal brand, are there are enough unique projects out there where it's possible where everyone could get out of the race and we could break away from this kind of mimetics?
David Perell (01:27):
I think that the answer is basically yes, in theory, no in practice. Back in Shakespeare time, the word ape referred to primate and imitate, and so basically, if you look at the etymology of the word ape, it goes back, it sort of hits it both, as if, like an ape what we do is we imitate. And so imitation is deep in human genetics.
Auren Hoffman (01:51):
By the way, that's good. Humans are copying machines.
David Perell (01:54):
Auren Hoffman (01:55):
It's not a bad thing. Generally, it adds cohesiveness in our society. If we're all the Unabomber, it wouldn't work.
David Perell (02:02):
Exactly. And it's just an amazing way to learn. I was just downstairs and I was with a friend, and he's a trainer, so we were just sort of just stretching, and it was so much easier for me to imitate what he was doing than to listen to what he was saying and try to do it from there. So what I spend a lot of time thinking about is where do we want to embrace imitation and where do we want to get away from imitation? So a personal monopoly is a very deeply Girardian idea. It is like getting away from imitation, trying to be the only instead of being the best. And even Thiel has this great line where he says that it shouldn't be a surprise that the first commandment is for us to look up towards God and the last commandment is basically us saying, "Don't look around." So that, itself, is basically issuing imitation and mimetic rivalry.
David Perell (02:50):
But to answer your question very explicitly, I think that there's just a lot of opportunities for people who are able to be doggedly independent to just have that certain faith in themselves. So yes, there are an unlimited number of opportunities, but it's just so counter to the way that we've structured society, the way that we encourage our children, and the way that human nature actually plays out, that in practice there's no way for everyone to work on their own thing. And honestly, I'm not sure that kind of economy would work even. Like you need people who ... And I say this with no condemnation of this personality trait at all, but you need people who are followers. Not everyone can be a leader, and followers can be unbelievably helpful, right? Men and women, people who are the doers, and they tend to just be a little bit less independent minded. And that's fine. We need these different personality types.
Auren Hoffman (03:47):
Even people who are independent minded in certain areas, in other areas they even do things they know are not in their best interests or they know are not in their family's best interests, but they feel like it's very important to follow the herd that's out there. Why do you think people do that?
David Perell (04:03):
Because it feels safe, and I think for good reason. We're terrified of being judged. No one wants to be hated and ostracized. There are so many things that I would love to do, different projects I'd want to take on, different ideas that I have, that I'm just not going to do, because I just don't want to deal with the backlash. It just sounds like an exhausting way to live, and so I'm not above this at all.
Auren Hoffman (04:29):
If you think of a parent, every parent I know thinks their kid is over scheduled, but all the kids are over scheduled. They easily could opt out of it, but for whatever reason, they still over schedule all their kids, myself included. My kids are over scheduled too. Is there some other shortcut, or maybe not a shortcut, but is there some long cut of at least breaking out of it a bit?
David Perell (04:50):
The conclusion I come to in that piece is that you should be hyper mimetic towards the people who are anti-mimetic, and that there's certain people who, in very specific ways, are very different from other people, and you can spend time around those people and imitate some of their instincts. So I think that it's not a coincidence that a lot of the great writers on the internet are neurodiverse, they're autistic, stuff like that. And those kinds of personality traits, they come with being less imitative towards what other people are doing, they question things that the rest of us just take for granted. One of the things that I think a lot about is how to build a friend group of people who think for themselves, of people who aren't swept up in the dogma of the times, but then are de-correlated in terms of their own ends that they achieve.
Auren Hoffman (05:47):
That's really hard because, let's say you want to play with ideas, you can't really play with ideas publicly, that's not safe to go do, so you usually are playing the ideas with maybe five of your closest friends or something, but all five of you may think exactly alike, you're not getting the best inputs to that. You want to have maybe a broader group of a hundred people or at least 50 people that you could play with ideas with that are coming out of it a different way, but you still feel super safe. How do we all find that type of group? Do we have to start a secret society or how do we find that to do that?
David Perell (06:22):
Man, I would love secret societies around this. That's exactly the sort of thing that I think is an amazing idea that, for whatever reason, it just doesn't really fly in this time period. I was at UVA when I was in college, I remember, it's probably a decade ago, going to visit UVA and just learning about the secret societies there. I thought it was so cool that it existed and that it had remained in perpetuity. I think we should have way more secret societies. Of course, actually inspired by you ... This isn't quite a secret society. Tonight I got my first dinner in Austin, inspired by you, the kind of dinners you host.
Auren Hoffman (06:56):
All right, amazing.
David Perell (06:57):
We're invite only, we have a chef, sort of really just trying to curate the experience. There's a dress code to just try to make sure there's a seriousness.
Auren Hoffman (07:06):
Dress code? Whoa, whoa, whoa, interesting. I've never done that before. What do you mean? For those people listening, which is 99.9%, they'll see you're in like a hoodie right now. What type of dress code are you enforcing?
David Perell (07:17):
Just collared shirt.
Auren Hoffman (07:17):
David Perell (07:18):
Just something that makes you say, "I'm going out to dinner tonight and this is a thing."
Auren Hoffman (07:23):
David Perell (07:24):
And [crosstalk 00:07:24] sort of deco inspired ...
Auren Hoffman (07:26):
Don't show up in sandals and shorts or something. Okay, interesting.
David Perell (07:30):
No, absolutely not. Absolutely not.
Auren Hoffman (07:32):
And you think just getting dressed ... Like I get dressed every day to go to work, because I feel like it gets me in a work mode. I put on a collared shirt every day to just get in my work thing, whereas maybe on a weekend I don't do that. Do you think that just gets you in a more of a mode of having a serious conversation?
David Perell (07:48):
No doubt. No doubt.
Auren Hoffman (07:50):
Oh, interesting. Okay.
David Perell (07:50):
I'm doing Valentine's Day dinner on Saturday night, and I said, "Hey, we're getting dressed up because I want this to be a special night." It's funny, no one talks about getting dressed up. In Austin, it's so casual, but there's something to it. Absolutely, it's like a seriousness and a certain intentionality to the night that I think is important.
Auren Hoffman (08:07):
When you get these people together, let's say you get eight people together for dinner or for lunch or something like that, how do you really encourage people to play with ideas, to share, to build on each other, to help to foster, it's not just each person contributing their own individual idea, but there's some sort of collective effort of getting these ideas better? How do you bring those along?
David Perell (08:28):
I think one thing that you taught me is that you do a good job of leading the conversation and you make sure that everyone is having one conversation. There's a lot of dinners where there's a couple little ones, and the group doesn't get together. The other thing that I think is important is to ... It's something I've been thinking a lot about. To introduce your friends. People are not good at introducing themselves, and I think there's a social component to it. It's not cool-
Auren Hoffman (08:55):
Either they go forever or they're just like, "My name is David," or something.
David Perell (08:59):
Exactly. Basically, if you're at a business dinner and you're with someone who's a big shot ... If you are the big shot, it's hard to say, "My name is Jim," or, "My name is Lisa," and, "I run a $500 million company and I've sold three companies before. I think we are the best in the world at this part of finance. I am absolutely incredible at public speaking. There's probably no one on planet earth who can command a table better than I can." It's just not kosher to say that. But if I introduce somebody else and I say something like that, everyone's like, "Cool, thank you."
Auren Hoffman (09:34):
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
David Perell (09:35):
I [crosstalk 00:09:35] that.
Auren Hoffman (09:36):
Okay. So do you, a priori, actually work? "Okay, I'm going to come up with 30 seconds on each person and really try to hone in on the superpower of these people so that everyone around them-"
David Perell (09:47):
Auren Hoffman (09:47):
Oh you do, okay, so you think about that.
David Perell (09:49):
Auren Hoffman (09:50):
Okay, interesting. I think I should do this. This is a good idea.
David Perell (09:52):
Actually, I have a follow up comment to that, something that I've been thinking a lot about. One huge point of just human edge in humanity is we need to get way better at complimenting people. This is a huge issue. I was with a friend, and she was looking for a job, and I said, "Hey, this is what you're good at. You're really good at a certain kind of attentive listening where you can listen to what somebody says, but you're really good at picking up not just on what they're saying, but the intentionality behind it, and then taking what they're saying and then turning that into action." Being specific like that with compliments and insofar-
Auren Hoffman (10:29):
Was she aware of that superpower of hers?
David Perell (10:31):
No, not at all, not at all.
Auren Hoffman (10:32):
Okay. Oh, okay. So, you're pointing out something that she didn't even know that was a superpower.
David Perell (10:36):
She said, "I've never had anybody compliment me like that in my entire life."
Auren Hoffman (10:40):
Oh wow. Interesting.
David Perell (10:44):
There's probably three things that she does that well. I just said, "Okay, I'm going to think about what these things are," and that specific though. I don't actually think that people have a very good sense for precisely what they're good at, and they're way too broad when they think about their skills. Way too broad.
Auren Hoffman (11:03):
Interesting. Well, this goes back to being more narrow, building that personal monopoly. Now, if everyone was a contrarian and kind of worked on unique problems, in some ways that in itself is mimetic.
David Perell (11:14):
Auren Hoffman (11:14):
There is a bit of mimesis to be contrarian sometimes, at least with certain subgroups and stuff. How do you see that ebbing and flowing?
David Perell (11:22):
Yeah. I think that the de-correlated friend groups is a huge thing. The other thing is just don't be so mediated. We swim-
Auren Hoffman (11:30):
What does mediated mean?
David Perell (11:31):
Just consumed by media. We swim in media. We live in a reality, most of the time, that has nothing to do with where we are. Half of the people are freaking out about some tension in Eastern Europe, what's going on in some suburb of South America or what's going on in Washington DC with the Capitol. Those very people aren't aware ... For example, we had some people who were breaking into my apartment building and they were trying to steal stuff and bad things were going on. That stuff of just in your here and now is often so much more important to our lives. All this to say, getting away from the media, and getting away from what I call the never ending now, which is, I think, even a deeper point of ...
David Perell (12:22):
One time, when I was living in New York, me and my friend, Nick, we used to get these sponsorships from companies, and what we would do is we would host these parties for influencers, so we'd get YouTubers and Instagrammers. So one day after the party ended, we were like, "Okay, let's go to a comedy show." So we get in the Uber, and it's one of those SUV Ubers, so I'm in the backseat, and I just spend the 20 minute drive looking at what's everyone looking at on their phones. Every single person in that 20 minute ride only consumed something made in the last 24 hours. Snapchat stories, Instagram stories, Twitter feeds, Facebook, text messages. I just think that's ridiculous. I think it's absolutely ridiculous that we're so caught in this perpetual present, this never ending now, that we're just blind to history, we don't read things that were made two years, let alone 20 years ago, let alone 200 years ago, and I think it just makes us dumb, and I don't think it has us taking advantage of the wisdom of our ancestors.
Auren Hoffman (13:20):
Obviously, there's advice to not do that, but it's hard not to do, even people who really don't want to do that are going to fall into that trap of looking at the latest emails or looking at the latest Slack messages. It's easy to do too, it's easy to take this bite size thing, "I know this is only going to consume like 32 seconds of my time," or something, and they don't have to think deeply of it. It's like eating popcorn. But how do you break out of it? How do you not do that? Or how do you do it less?
David Perell (13:49):
To be extremely clear, the reason I had that insight was because I was the worst offender of it that there was. There's certain ideas that you have to live in order to experience, and so I'm really just yelling at myself here.
David Perell (14:01):
But I think that what you do is you get to a place, you log out of your social media apps, you don't pick them up, you surround yourself with sort of older books. You say, "Hey, I'm not going to bring my phone into my bedroom," but then I have a couple books on my bedside table, I'm going to read those. And you just keep it top of mind. "I'm just going to read older stuff." And look, it's less about emails and Slack messages, that's just back and forth conversation. It's much more about just the nights where are you going to spend an hour and a half on Twitter tonight? Or are you going to spend an hour and a half with a book that has stood the test of time and is really worth thinking about, and that doesn't feel as pressing and urgent now, but has more lasting value over time?
Auren Hoffman (14:44):
Interesting. Now, one book that you talk about a lot is the Bible. It's probably the most read book in the world. You have stated that it's somehow still very underrated. Why do you think it is underrated? What about the Bible's relevance today, in today's world, that maybe a lot of people are missing?
David Perell (15:02):
Two answers to that. I've been listening to Northrop Frye's 25-part lecture series on the Bible, probably recorded in 1965. It is phenomenal. The whole premise of the lecture, of the whole series, is that we are going to go through the Bible. And by understanding the Bible better, it's going to help us understand literature better. And if you take a book like Paradise Lost, how do you understand what's going on there unless you understand the Bible? Actually, this weekend I'm going to watch the Chronicles of Narnia. I'm watching it because C.S. Lewis wrote it, and I'm looking for those religious undertones. It just sounds fascinating.
Auren Hoffman (15:41):
Right, it's amazing.
David Perell (15:41):
But how can I understand that movie in the way that C.S. Lewis intended for me to understand it if I don't understand the Bible? That's the first thing. So first thing there is the Bible, what it opens up is profound, because so much references the Bible implicitly.
David Perell (15:57):
And then the second thing is if you live in the west, you are profoundly shaped by Christian ideas. If you take the idea of human rights, "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal." This very important line from the Declaration of Independence that is hammered to us, into our heads, in American civics, that line goes back to the idea of Imago Dei in the Bible, that we are all made in the image of God.
David Perell (16:24):
And I beg to differ, it is not self-evident that all men are created equal. That line follows a Christian tradition. And if you dive into the west, why we believe what we believe, ideas like justice, ideas like caring for the victim, ideas of like, for example, you go to a movie theater ... I was trying to buy tickets for a concert at Red Rocks yesterday, and there's a special ticket that you can only buy if you're handicapped. That idea that the meek shall inherit the earth, and that the people who are weak should be particularly praised and taken care of, those are very Christian ideas, through and through, that run counter to a lot of ways of thinking in the past, which is no, this is Darwinian, survival of the fittest. And if you ain't cut out for it, we're not going to care for you. These are Christian ideas.
David Perell (17:18):
So, that's why I say the Bible is underrated. Not because it hasn't been read very much, but because it has been so influential. I graduated from college with a minor in a liberal arts degree and I never even opened the Bible. That's just for ridiculous to me.
Auren Hoffman (17:35):
I think you had to ... Even basically, by the time you had finished college, you had never even read any part of the New Testament at least, maybe some of the old Testament here and there.
David Perell (17:42):
Yeah. Do you know how ridiculous that is? That is just absolutely insane that I could be considered an educated person. I had never read any of the gospels. What?
Auren Hoffman (17:53):
And they're very profound. How did you get there? So, okay, you graduated from college, you'd never read the gospels, you probably didn't even know who Mark was or something. And then how did you get to the point where you did start reading and taking it seriously?
David Perell (18:07):
So, there were probably three steps. I think the first thing was, all credit to him, the Jordan Peterson lectures. They are just phenomenal. His introduction to the idea of God, biblical series, just rocked me. And this could be a little deep, but Jordan Peterson gets made fun of for his idea to clean your room. People are always like, "Ah, it's stupid advice," and all that. This was my second apartment in New York city, and we got a three bedroom, and I really wanted to live in Brooklyn instead of Hoboken. So I said, "You know what? I will cover that second bedroom." It was like $1,100 a month, and that was a lot of money at the time.
David Perell (18:49):
So we were getting desperate, and we found this guy on Craigslist. We're like, "Okay, you can just live with us." It started off okay, and then we realized his life was just a disaster. He was addicted to anxiety medications, he had chronic seizures that he was getting because of all the things that he was putting in his body, and his life really went downhill, like no one in my life who I'd ever been close to.
David Perell (19:14):
So Jordan Peterson was saying, "Hey, clean your room." And I was watching someone who didn't even have their room clean and what that does to people. And the practicality merged with the metaphor, and the Bible sort of opened my eyes to this.
David Perell (19:27):
And then there was a guy who, his name is Brent Beshore, he's a investor in Columbia, Missouri. We got to talking and he said, "Hey, come out and visit me in Columbia." So I did and we spent 48 hours together just talking, with him just hounding me about my assumptions around God.
Auren Hoffman (19:44):
Oh, okay. Interesting.
David Perell (19:45):
And I flew home humiliated by how little I understood about Christianity in particular, and just all the assumptions I didn't realize. So, Brent helped me work through that.
David Perell (19:58):
And then I think, writing that piece, Peter Thiel's religion, and understanding Girardian ideas, understanding how Peter thinks ... I think in the synthesis of all those things, I was really pulled ... I mean, I'm still not religious so something still hasn't clicked, but had been pulled towards at least taking these ideas seriously in a way that I hadn't before.
Auren Hoffman (20:19):
Interesting. Peter Thiel, he talks a lot about definite optimism, this idea that you can envision the future and be optimistic about it, which can result in a lot of progress. His theory is that, let's say, mid-20th century America and before was very definite optimistic, World War II [inaudible 00:20:37] even going back to the 1800s, and because the American society itself was definitively optimistic. But there's this idea of the indefinite optimism or the definitive pessimism that's out there. How could we more nudge our society to a definitive optimism?
David Perell (20:57):
I think that there's just a fundamental void of agency in our society. People just don't think that if they have an idea, that they can actually follow through on that, even the simplest thing sometimes.
Auren Hoffman (21:10):
What would be an example of something simple that people just don't think they can do?
David Perell (21:13):
Like get a job at a company that you're not qualified to work at? It's like, "No, I can't do that. No, I'm looking for a marketing position and there's no marketing position on the site, and I'm just not going to be able to work there until it opens up." I'm like, "No, that is not how the world works." The world works ... You make things happen for yourself when you find opportunities that aren't made public yet, and that are in this liminal state between the opportunity doesn't exist and the opportunity explicitly exists. They are these windows of opportunity, so I always say the best jobs are the ones that aren't advertised for. So rather than waiting for the marketing position to open up ... Now I'm talking my own book here, but I believe it.
David Perell (22:00):
And it is you build a site, you have three to five essays on something that you've written well about, then you email the CEO, the CEO of the company that you want to work at, and you say, "Hey, I discovered this problem on your site, and this is the solution. Here are exactly why I'm thinking about it. And hey, if you want some help implementing it, this is why I'm the person to do it. And if you don't want help implementing it then fine, here's a free idea. I'm also happy to talk with anyone on your executive team, anyone who works for you, we'll hop on the phone for free." If you do that for five companies, there's a damn good chance you're going to get a job. And if you get that job, it's going to be better than the one that's listed on the jobs page.
Auren Hoffman (22:39):
But it's hard to just say to each individual ... There was something in the water in American society until, let's say, maybe the last 50 years, that was clearly definitively optimistic, and then something had changed over time. So how do we nudge society more ... Again, maybe there's a way to nudge each individual, but I don't know how scalable that is to go do that. Is there a way to move society a little bit more toward that optimistic way of, actually, we have a sense of the future and we think we can bring a better future about?
David Perell (23:12):
I guess what I would say is I would question the premise that a society with more optimists is necessarily a better one. I do definitely think that a society ... Well, not even definitely. I suspect that a society where people have more agency is a better one, and that's where I would focus.
Auren Hoffman (23:30):
Okay. How do we move people to have more agency?
David Perell (23:32):
Yeah. I think some of the things that you were talking about, about let's not over schedule our kids, let's live somewhere where they can get out and play. I think we just have this ... And [Jonathan Haidt 00:23:42] has written well about this. Kids are very coddled. Somebody comes home with a broken arm, and I think a hundred years ago, it's like, "Hey, you've got a broken arm, that's part of life." Now it's like a tragedy. You know what I mean?
Auren Hoffman (23:53):
David Perell (23:54):
And then also just forcing people to do hard things. There's a piece I want to write, I don't know that I have the courage to write this piece, and I don't know that it's quite right, but it's a provocative title, so let's follow it. And I mean this with no offense to anybody.
Auren Hoffman (24:07):
It's okay, we're like toward the end of the podcast, and no one's going to listen to this one anyway, so go crazy.
David Perell (24:13):
It's called In Praise of Bullying.
Auren Hoffman (24:15):
Okay, I like it.
David Perell (24:15):
And the reason that I want to write a piece called In Praise of Bullying is that my parents put me in so many situations growing up where I was just the youngest. I would go to sleepaway camp. I went to one sleepaway camp, I was the youngest person at the entire camp by four years, and I got bullied like crazy.
Auren Hoffman (24:36):
David Perell (24:36):
I think you had to be 15. I think I was 11 at the sleepaway camp. My parents were like, "Yeah, just go, you'll be fine." I was a California boy, I went to sleepaway camp in the middle of nowhere Texas. And I had a bunch of stuff like that. I was a small scrawny kid. But you know what? It sucked and I hated it, but it taught me how to figure stuff out when you're in a bit of a pickle, and it gave me a little bit of a spine, and so I think that that gave me some agency in life.
Auren Hoffman (25:03):
It's like a [Laffer 00:25:04] curve. There's probably a certain amount of bullying that's very important, it can probably go too far. But yeah, you're right, if you think of a lot of the most successful people, there's almost certainly a time, at least in their pre adulthood, where they were extremely bullied. That's really good. Now-
David Perell (25:19):
So, should I write the piece?
Auren Hoffman (25:21):
I definitely think you should write it. I think it's a very provocative piece, I think it's actually not as controversial as you think. [crosstalk 00:25:29].
David Perell (25:28):
Okay, I like the Laffer curve idea. I think that's a really good addition.
Auren Hoffman (25:33):
I think the problem is a lot of us think there's so many things that are so controversial, but when you actually talk about them with people, it turns out they're just more common sense. When you talk to most people today, this idea of we need to keep everyone super safe and we can't take risks, almost everyone I've ever met disagrees with it even though there's a common wisdom, but it's a weird thing where everyone disagrees with the common wisdom.
David Perell (25:58):
Why does that happen? That's like private truths, public lives. Why does that equilibrium happen where if you ask the average person what they want, you end up with these very different behavior patterns than what the group consensus navigates towards? What's going on there?
Auren Hoffman (26:17):
It's a good question. I'm in the data business. The nice thing about the data business is there are some core truths. Data is really just about this happened or this is true or this is the store hours of the local McDonald's or something, which is like the data that we sell at SafeGraph. It's very, very nice to be in a business like that, because this is a fact.
Auren Hoffman (26:36):
But even in the data business, you can imagine, there might be a dispute about what country this is or something. Like what do you label it on? And you have two different nations disputing that this should be labeled in this country or this country, or this street is called this street, or some other group thinks this street should be called another street. So, even a business which is really just about facts, which is the data business, you can imagine a scenario where you get into these different types of disputes that are happening.
Auren Hoffman (27:00):
I'd be interested in your thoughts about why. It certainly seems to be happening more today than it was happening in the past, at least in the US. This is certainly something that's been happening all over the world in the past. Why do you think it's happening more today in the US?
David Perell (27:12):
Yeah. I'll throw something out from my own life. One of the things that is like an unfortunate realization that you have when you start running a company, is how rational it to be super risk averse, in a way that I don't think is good. There's got to be legalese here, there's HR there, there's this red tape there. And once you have something that makes money, and it's good for your life, and you actually have to pay people, and if there was a law suit that came you would go out of business and all your employees wouldn't have work, you have to become risk averse in a way that nobody wants to have that kind of risk aversion. So, one of the reasons that I think this happens is the cobwebs of bureaucracy and how they interact with law and regulation.
David Perell (28:06):
For example, take masks on airplanes. Or no, here's an even better one. There are so many restaurants in Austin that on the door say, "Masks are required," but nobody in the restaurant wears a mask. Nobody. So I'm like, "What's going on there?" And I think that it's something around maybe getting sued or whatever. It's like, "Hey, we said that they were required," but then you end up with these weird ... They're not lies, it's not even deceptive behavior, but it's something like that. I think that's very revealing at these weird twists of incentive structures.
Auren Hoffman (28:44):
How do we change it? Maybe we can't change it all the way, but what are some nudges to move it? Assuming you think that's not a good thing, how do we nudge it in a slightly different direction?
David Perell (28:53):
I don't know. I don't know. One of the things that blew my mind ... I was living with a bunch of buddies during the pandemic. There's this great series of books, it's called like A Very Short Introduction. They're awesome. They're like little pocket books, a hundred something pages. We read one about the US Constitution. For the first like 150 years, the federal government basically couldn't tax anything except for interstate commerce. It was, I think beginning in the 1910s, that the federal government started to be able to tax. And now the federal government has just become huge in America, and I think that has partially to do with it.
David Perell (29:35):
Basically, what ends up happening at a company ... I had to get my AirPods replaced at Apple yesterday, and it was a terrible experience. Because what happened was I got the AirPods replaced, and in the past I've just had one go dim, and then they'll fix it really fast. I was talking to the representative, and he'll say, "Yeah, so what people will do is they'll buy counterfeit AirPods, and then they'll have them replaced." Now they need to match the serial number, and then in order for them to run the diagnosis, it took an hour.
David Perell (30:04):
So what ends up happening is for good actors, which is like 99.99999% of people, it just makes the experience so much worse. But at Apple's scale, and I say this with a lot of empathy, think of all the people who are trying to game the system. So Apple has to put in these rules in place to make sure that those people don't take advantage of the system, but then it hurts things for everybody else.
Auren Hoffman (30:27):
HR is like that too, where they'll have rules about how you can spend money at the company. Most people aren't going to get the penthouse suite on the company's dime, but there is that one guy who did that in 2012, and now it's like, okay, now everyone has to get the six reviews before they can spend the company's money.
David Perell (30:47):
Auren Hoffman (30:48):
I once joined a company, and I read the HR handbook, and it was like this big. It was so big. There was actually something in the HR handbook that said, "You cannot do cocaine on premises." It didn't say you couldn't do meth, it didn't say you couldn't do heroin. It was very, very specific.
David Perell (31:05):
Auren Hoffman (31:06):
I called the head of HR, like, "Okay, what's the story?" It turns out there was some guy who like five years before was caught doing cocaine in the bathroom, and they thought it was important to put it in the handbook, even though it's common knowledge that you should not do these types of things. They didn't have the heroin in there. It's just someone did something, and now we feel like ... Again, if you think of the Bible, if you ever try to read Leviticus it makes no sense. It's like, okay, you steal my donkey and I could steal two of yours. It gets so complicated so quickly. It's like, actually, let's just treat people with respect, and let's maybe have fewer things a little bit more ... Maybe there's a little less black and white about what happens as a consequence here. Like, yeah, if you do cocaine in the bathroom, you should get fired, but you don't need to write every single way you're going to get fired down there. It should just be clear. Like, "Hey, you got to be a good citizen. If you're not, we're going to fire you because that's just not what you do at a company."
Auren Hoffman (32:01):
Same thing with harassment. We should know we should treat people with respect. Everyone should know that you shouldn't harass someone, you should treat people with respect. If anyone doesn't know that, they shouldn't work at your company. If you're at the point where you have to educate somebody about how to be a good citizen, that's a huge burden for a company to handle. They should say, "Look, if you're not going to treat people with respect, you don't belong in this company. We're just going to kick you out." But we don't have to litany every single way you treat somebody with respect. Just be kind to other people, care about other people, don't be a jerk. That's a common way that we should be in society.
David Perell (32:33):
Totally. I think it's Airbnb that has a framework for its culture called Strong Norms, Fewer Rules.
Auren Hoffman (32:44):
Ooh, I like this.
David Perell (32:45):
What the idea says is that if you have a strong culture, you don't need explicit rules. You could take something like a really tight community or something. It's like what everybody does, the way the behavior is modeled, it's all just natural to people. Going back to imitation, this is one of the good things about imitation, that we can just look at what other people are doing, we can say, "Okay, that's what we do."
David Perell (33:08):
And often there's just implicit norms. For example, if you go to an Equinox gym, they don't have a lot of heavy plates and they make it really hard to lift a ton of weight. By doing that, they are creating an implicit norm that this isn't a place to be yelling and screaming, it's a place to be much more civil at the gym. Whereas if you go to other gyms and they have giant squat racks, they're all over the place, they have the ... What is it? The-
Auren Hoffman (33:33):
Chalk and stuff.
David Perell (33:33):
The chalk, exactly, the chalk. Then they're basically saying, "Hey, get after it." So, there's all of these implicit norms.
David Perell (33:40):
And what happens in a culture that doesn't have strong norms, that doesn't have a strong sense of tradition, that doesn't have ... And tradition, I've heard it described as tradition is to a culture what memory is to an individual. If you have lost that memory, if you're recreating everything from scratch, where you have people who don't follow the same shared narratives of wherever they are, what you end up with is this very fragmented way of thinking about how to run a society, where you have a law for this, a law for this, a law for this, a law for this. And everything has to get written down. So you could almost say that there is a direct correlation between, in a company, the length of the employee handbook and the strength of the culture.
Auren Hoffman (34:23):
I think this is almost certainly true. Even in a country, you can imagine this scenario as well, where there should be no reason we have to write every single thing down, it's okay to have a little bit of nuance, and then it's okay to be different. That's another thing I think these companies forget. Culture isn't about how you're the same.
Auren Hoffman (34:42):
Have you been to an Indian wedding?
David Perell (34:43):
Yeah, they're so fun.
Auren Hoffman (34:43):
I love Indian weddings. I absolutely love it. They're amazing. It's my favorite type of wedding. Now, I'm not making a judgment call, someone else may have a different type of wedding they love.
David Perell (34:51):
You're so fucked.
Auren Hoffman (34:52):
But I love Indian weddings. They're just amazing. And they're very different from a traditional Western wedding. They're much more colorful, there's a lot more dance and singing and other types of things. It's different. If you're used to traditional Western weddings, and you go to an Indian wedding, you're like, "Oh, I'm doing something different. I'm in a different culture." And this is may be not a judgment, may be not this is better or worse, because I think cultures are different, but it is different for sure, and then people can opt in to those types of differences that are out there.
David Perell (35:21):
Totally. That is exactly the kind of diversity that we should be embracing. But one of the things that we end up with is this homogeneity of diversity, where everybody is sort of diverse in the same ways. Or you can have a diversity where ... And I think this is what the localists try to promote, is no, you have all these different pockets, and actually within the different pockets there maybe isn't as much diversity, but then from a macro scale, you have a ton of diversity. So what we want is something in between those two parts of the spectrum. I mean, I'm with you, Indian weddings are a total blast, and it's because they're so different. You wear different clothes, and I love them. I love them.
Auren Hoffman (36:03):
Now, you stated that your ultimate goal of building an audience is to kind of build a personal monopoly. Can we dive into what is a personal monopoly and is it actually possible for everyone to have one?
David Perell (36:16):
I think that the way that I would start this is that Jerry Garcia, the famous musician, said, "Your goal is to be the only person who does what you do." I think that's a good North Star to follow. If that's the North Star that we're going for, we need to set the environment of the seas so that we can go toward Polaris. And I think that the internet brings a gift and a curse. The gift of the internet is that you can tap into global markets. So, this podcast can be heard from people on every continent, as long as they have a internet connection. My writing is the same way. It can be read anyone, anywhere. But the curse of the internet is where you have global markets with the gift. The curse is global competition. So, as we move into a world of globalization, differentiation becomes more important.
David Perell (37:12):
I realized this when I was working my first job as an advertising sales guy, and I realized I have no competitive advantages to offer the world, and I'm just a totally ... Just a total cog, and there's nothing differentiated about me. It freaked me out, it freaked me out. I'm making decks. People in other parts of the world could do this just as well as I could for a fifth of the cost. I was like, "Okay, I need to figure out how I can do something that's distinct."
David Perell (37:46):
Actually, at the time I had this journal, and I would write in that journal every morning. I would write, "I want to turn my youth into an asset instead of a liability." I wrote that every single day, "I'm going to do that. I'm going to do that. I'm going to do that."
Auren Hoffman (38:00):
Oh my gosh.
David Perell (38:03):
Where I ended up settling was that I could be the person for in depth writing on the internet, and that my job could be writing on the internet and teaching people how to write on the internet.
Auren Hoffman (38:16):
And you decided you're going to do this before you've ever really done massive writing on the internet?
David Perell (38:21):
Yeah. I mean, I wasn't so-
Auren Hoffman (38:23):
I'm going to teach everyone to write but I haven't yet done it.
David Perell (38:25):
Exactly. I would say it was pretty clear that was something I was going to do. Of course, things always evolve and end up looking different than what you thought. But yeah, now I have that thing that's distinct, and then every cohort, we have people from 30 to 35 countries in every single one. So, I think that when you think about life on the internet, just that model, even if it's not explicitly true, like the only person, but having that as a model that you're going towards, I think is really helpful.
Auren Hoffman (38:52):
Is the goal to be the best at what you're doing or is the goal to be unique or is it just the fact that you are unique means you're the best?
David Perell (39:00):
I think that third one is exactly it. It's different for everybody, so it's always hard in advance to predict what a good example is, but you kind of know it when you see it. I had a student, her name is [Ana Fabrega 00:39:16], who you're probably familiar with.
Auren Hoffman (39:17):
David Perell (39:18):
She came in to write a passage and she, I think went to between eight and 10 schools growing up. She had this really deep understanding of human nature, and then taught in schools in Boston and Panama, and was really disillusioned with the education system and had very strong ideas about how to fix those things. Now she's really moved into why video games are a good way to learn. In that synthesis of ideas, there's just nobody else who's doing that.
Auren Hoffman (39:48):
But that sounds like a bit of an exploration. It's not like she thought it all through. Or do you think people actually do think it all through before they end up where they're going?
David Perell (39:57):
I think it's like startups. I think that you have a [inaudible 00:40:00] startup, which is, "Okay, this is what we're going to do, this is the vision," we have it all very planned. And I think that there's other startups that are ...
Auren Hoffman (40:09):
David Perell (40:10):
More messy, and they're sort of squiggling towards wherever they go. How about you? With SafeGraph?
Auren Hoffman (40:16):
Well, we had a core vision, but certainly things changed along the way, for sure. That's really interesting. Yeah, it's interesting to think of ... If you want to be the best, then there may also be a way of just doing some sort of join on your interests. It's hard to maybe be the very best software developer in the world, but you could be a pretty decent one. And then it might be hard to be the best, I don't know, somebody who knows a lot about dolphins in the world. But the join of the two might be pretty easy. It's like, "I'm the best software developer who really knows a lot about dolphins, and I'm going to use the dolphin stuff to be better at software, and the software stuff to be better at dolphins." Is that where you think like, "Okay, we got to do some sort of join," and maybe the join is like six circles or something before we come up with, "Here's where we're best at?"
David Perell (40:59):
Exactly. I think this is what Scott Adams explained really well. He has this idea [crosstalk 00:41:05] skill stack.
Auren Hoffman (41:04):
Where he's not the best at drawing.
David Perell (41:06):
Exactly. That was a big inspiration for this. I think that what I added to this was that a personal monopoly is to be known for being the best. He came in with the skill stack and the synthesis of different ideas, I think what I brought is share your ideas so that you're known for that, and then when somebody Googles, "Hey, I'm interested in this," your name pops up.
Auren Hoffman (41:28):
Got it. So if we care about computer science and dolphins, it's like [Jane 00:41:32] shows up and she's the expert of that.
David Perell (41:34):
Auren Hoffman (41:34):
David Perell (41:36):
I think the second thing that I brought into this was that a personal monopoly is developed faster when you commit to writing, because what's great about writing as a medium is that it sucks and that it's not fun, so because of that you can only write about things that you're actually extremely enthusiastic about, otherwise you'd rather just bang your head against the wall. So what it does is you can no longer lie to yourself about your interests, and then once you can no longer lie to yourself, you sort of break out of this Girardian mimesis where you're doing things that everybody else is trying to draw you to, which is exactly the opposite of how you get a personal monopoly. But when you're forced to confront, "Okay, I need to write about this, and I need to do it consistently, and I need to do it for years," you tend to be a little bit more honest with yourself about, "Hey, what do I actually like? What am I actually good at? Where am I actually contributing?"
Auren Hoffman (42:27):
Okay, interesting. Now, is it similar ... Because you're very active on Twitter, you've got about 300,000 followers there, including me, I'm a big follower of yours on Twitter. Is it similar advice you would give to someone to building a following and increasing your presence on some of these other mediums?
David Perell (42:43):
In what sense? So rephrase the question.
Auren Hoffman (42:45):
Well, you mentioned, well, okay, you stick to something you're good at and stick to it, and have some sort of repeated thing, and focus on your personal ... It's like focus, focus, focus on your personal. I guess don't jump on the various memes or other types of things. I'm just going to hammer in on this personal monopoly and over time there's going to be some sort of compounding type of following? Or do you think there's a different way of thinking about if you want to grow your following on a place like Twitter, you have to think about it in a slightly nuanced way?
David Perell (43:13):
Every platform of course has nuances, but I think that the nuances are subtle enough that they're probably not worth getting into. But what I would say is a nuance that I think has a broad enough aperture, to sort of speak to the question that you're asking, is ... One of my students explained it really well. He said that there's architects and there's archeologists. The architects, they start off with a building and they have all the plans. They know how the doors are going to open and close, they know what the lengths of the room are going to be, maybe they even have a sense of what the furniture is going to be in there, the tiling. Then there's people who are archeologists. Archeologists have a sense of where they're going to dig, so what they do is they'll look here, no. Look there, no. And then finally they'll stumble across something, and they find something, and then they really start digging down. So they're much more exploratory, but once they find a space, then they really commit to that.
David Perell (44:02):
I think that everybody is on a spectrum. Actually, I was much more of an archeologist than an architect. Honestly, I started getting into ideas when I had an internship in New York City, and I realized that I had absolutely nothing to contribute to the world, and that I just didn't have any knowledge whatsoever, so that then made me intellectually curious. But from there I was exploring this, I was exploring that, I was following all these different industries, and I sort of stumbled into this. And then once I found those ruins, so to speak, then I started really digging deep into, "Hey, this world of online writing is fascinating and I'm going to build a personal monopoly around that."
Auren Hoffman (44:38):
Interesting. Now, you mentioned Ana Fabrega, is that how to pronounce her name?
David Perell (44:41):
Auren Hoffman (44:43):
And I think [Packy McCormick 00:44:44] took your ... I'm Not Boring, It's You. You've had a lot of well known writers, or at least now, that are well known, that have taken your course. You could imagine a scenario where you take a piece of their earnings, kind of like Y Combinator or some other type of model. Have you explored the different ideas about other ways to incent them to grow?
David Perell (45:02):
Absolutely. Actually, I would love to talk through this with you because I feel like you ... I would just like to hear ...
Auren Hoffman (45:08):
We'll do this right on the podcast, yeah.
David Perell (45:10):
From a business strategy perspective, how you would think about this. I feel like one of the big questions that you have to ask in a business is what is the locus of differentiation and the thing that is really your core competency? Often your core competency is a little bit different from your mission, so that's what we have. I think our mission is to basically build and create what we call citizens of the internet, people who are sharing their ideas online and they're having the internet work for them. So, that's our mission. What you just proposed is very in line with our mission, but I think it's very orthogonal to our core competency, which is, I think, selling and running excellent live educational experiences. So the thing with that is I love the idea, but it so doesn't fit to who we are as a company. I've thought about it so much, and we just haven't pursued it for that reason.
Auren Hoffman (46:05):
Well, partially, maybe one shouldn't be optimizing too much, and so should be focused much more on their core competency anyway, so maybe actually that's the much smarter way to go. It's really interesting. I'm always fascinated with how people do push the envelope, how people try to come up with different ways, how people try to get more people involved as well, because one Packy McCormick could pay for a thousand other folks who are involved in those types of things.
David Perell (46:32):
Yeah, we've thought about it. We've also thought about launching a recruiting arm. People come in to write a passage ... Say that we have 300 students in a cohort, so we have a very good sense of who the top 15 to 30 people are, because it's an intense experience, so you see resilience, you see discipline, you see quality of thought. You get a lot of strong data points on people.
Auren Hoffman (46:54):
Yeah, I imagine.
David Perell (46:55):
So we've thought, "Hey, what if we could match people with companies?" But once again, it is quality on the mission, it's not aligned with what I think we do well. So, I don't know, we're trying to figure it out.
Auren Hoffman (47:06):
That's a struggle that probably every business goes through, every folks try to go through. I'm interviewing you in a podcast, but you yourself are a very successful podcaster. You got two podcasts even. What advice would you give to a newbie podcaster like myself?
David Perell (47:21):
Okay. I would say the first thing is you have to think of podcasts, not as individual units, but as a piece of content within a broader ecosystem of content that that person has produced. One of my favorite interviews ever is Tyler Cowen about his production function. The reason that I thought that interview did well and resonated well is Tyler Cowen has been on a million podcasts. So I need to ask, "What are the things that Tyler Cowen hasn't been asked and how do I have a conversation around those things that people are also interested in?" I would say that's the first thing.
David Perell (47:59):
The second thing is that, like anything on the internet, there is just a benefit to just being prolific. I think you just need to ask how much is a podcast for you to grow your brand and how much is a podcast for you to learn? One of the reasons I kind of cut back on the North Star was it really just became a way for me to learn, the axis tilted or something where the conversations that I was able to have now in private were getting more interesting than the ones I was able to have in public.
Auren Hoffman (48:32):
David Perell (48:34):
So yeah, I sort of stopped doing it. But yeah, I would say that first one, I don't think podcasters think very intelligently about how that piece of content is within the broader ecosystem, and the listeners have listened to a bunch of podcasts with this person.
Auren Hoffman (48:46):
Well, that's a good point. Yeah. It's funny, because when we started this podcast, we were a little late to the podcast game when we started a podcast. I just decided, "I'm going to be the audience. I'm doing it just for me. If other people want to come along for the ride, then that's great." Luckily, we've had tons of other folks who want to come for the ride, but mostly more like senior executives that have came along for the ride, so the vast majority of our podcasts is well known CEOs and stuff, but really I'm doing it for myself to learn, not to build a brand. But maybe we should be doing something very different.
Auren Hoffman (49:14):
All right, this has been amazing. I love this conversation. Okay, last question we ask all of our guests, what is the conventional wisdom or advice that you think is generally bad advice?
David Perell (49:24):
That you should follow your passion. I just don't think it's good advice. I think that one of the big problems with modernity, with the void of religion, we've lost a lot of concepts that religion gave us the words to understand. There's a beautiful word in the Christian tradition, calling and vocation, and this idea that you have certain God given talents. My dream when I was in high school was to go become a professional golfer. That's what I wanted. I worked so hard for it. I would get off of school, I'd go to golf practice, I'd be there till the sunset, I'd go home, shove dinner in my mouth, then I'd go back to the driving range, and I'd be there until the lit driving range turned off. And then I'd do it every single day, so I was practicing three or four hours after school every day. During the summer, I would get to the golf course when there were stars in the sky, and I would leave when there were stars in the sky. So, all day.
Auren Hoffman (50:26):
David Perell (50:27):
My freshman year, I got recruited to play Division 1 golf. I played my freshman year, and ultimately, I just wasn't good enough. It broke my heart, broke my heart. So for two years I was in just a brutal, brutal spiral of, "Okay, what am I going to do with my life?" I think that what I got from that experience was a keen realization that no matter how hard I tried as a golfer, I was never going to be great. I was going to be good, and I'm a solid golfer, I'm a damn good golfer, but I'm never going to be a great golfer, I'm never going to be able to play professionally.
David Perell (51:02):
So what I did was I spent time playing with people who now are professionals. I played in tournaments with Bryson DeChambeau, who is like ranked fifth in the world. I watched him hit on the driving range with my own eyes. And what I've started to do was say not, "Golf was my passion," but I've started to say, "What are the God given gifts that I have? What are the things that just come very easily to me that I also want to pursue?" And then how do I listen to the world to say, "Okay, I'm now feeling called to do this," and then align myself with that? I think that until we can embrace the idea that all of us are born with specific sets of skills, rather than fighting it and saying, "You can be anything, you can be anybody," if we can actually-
Auren Hoffman (51:53):
Do you actually think we're born with these skills or do you think you kind of develop it over time?
David Perell (51:59):
I think we're born with them, and then through encouragement we develop them over time. So I think I was born with an ability to hold the attention of a big crowd, but my parents sent me to public speaking sleepaway camp growing up. Sleepaway camp. And my dad told me all the time, "You're going to do public speaking for a living. You're going to do it for a living." And he was right. So I think that if we can learn to listen to these natural talents, to listen to our callings, I think we-
Auren Hoffman (52:30):
That's the nerdiest thing I've heard. Public speaking sleepaway camp.
David Perell (52:33):
I know, dude. I know. It was awful, it was absolutely awful, and I'm so glad I did it. So, that's my answer.
Auren Hoffman (52:40):
All right. I love it. This is great. Okay, besides for everyone following you on Twitter, which everyone should do, where else should people find you on the internet?
David Perell (52:49):
I think just my website, perell.com, P-E-R-E-L-L.com. And then if you just want to search "50 days of writing, David Perell", you'll get a free 50 day email series that distills my method of writing, and it's going to help you build a writing habit, it's going to help you learn to write on the internet and become a better writer. So, look that up, "50 days of writing" and then just Google my name. Go find it.
Auren Hoffman (53:12):
Awesome, David, thank you so much for joining us at World of DaaS.
David Perell (53:14):
Auren Hoffman (53:16):
Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed the show, consider rating this podcast and leaving a review. For more World of DaaS, and DaaS is D-A-A-S, you can subscribe on Spotify or Apple podcast or anywhere you get your podcast. And also check out YouTube for videos. You can find me at Twitter at @auren, that's A-U-R-E-N, Auren, and we'd love to hear from you.
David is a blogger, educator and a voracious tweeter. He runs the Write of Passage course on how to become a better writer and communicator.
David and Auren dive deep into mimesis, the philosophies of Rene Girard and Peter Thiel, and what it means to be a contrarian. They discuss ways to build a “personal monopoly” and how to stand out in a world where everyone imitates each other.
World of DaaS is brought to you by SafeGraph. For more episodes, visit safegraph.com/podcasts
You can find Auren Hoffman (CEO of SafeGraph) on Twitter at @auren and David Perell at @david_perell
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Tyler Cowen is Professor of Economics at George Mason University, host of the Conversations with Tyler podcast, blogger at Marginal Revolution, author of several books (including one my personal favorites, the Great Stagnation).
Tyler is one of the very few truly committed to constantly learning. He also reads 5-10x faster than a fast reader, so his superpower is consuming large amounts of information.
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