Category Archives: personal-development

Sagan’s Cosmos on the Scientific Method and Uncomfortable Ideas

I’m currently watching Carl Sagan’s excellent Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. I feel compelled to post the following quote from episode four, Heaven and Hell, as it stood out for its elegant argument for the strength of scientific ideas and for not rejecting uncomfortable (if incorrect) ideas:

There are many hypotheses in science which are wrong. That’s all right. It’s the aperture to finding out what’s right. Science is a self-correcting process. To be accepted, new ideas must survive the most rigorous standards of evidence and scrutiny.

The worst aspect of the Velikovsky affair is not that many of his ideas were wrong or silly or in gross contradiction to the facts. Rather, the worst aspect is that some scientists attempted to suppress Velikovsky’s ideas.

The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge. And there is no place for it in the endeavour of science.

We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system. And the history of our study of the solar system shows clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources.

And if you think this only applies to wacky astronomical ideas or insights about our solar system… well, then you’re deluding yourself.

I can’t wait for the updated Cosmos presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson; it’ll be the best thing on TV since sliced bread.

The Zeigarnik Effect and the Force of Incomplete Tasks

Why do unresolved issues linger in our mind, making us ponder them for days on end? Why are cliffhangers so successful in getting viewers to tune in to the next episode? How can we overcome procrastination? These questions can be answered by learning about the psychological concept/theory known as the Zeigarnik effect.

‘Discovered’ by Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik back in the 1920s, the Zeigarnik effect states that we remember incomplete or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

And so, to those questions. It’s easy to see how the Zeigarnik effect could be responsible for the success of suspense as a dramatic device, but for overcoming procrastination? Use the effect to your advantage and start at the simplest, smallest part of your task. After that, the unfinished nature of the larger task will push you toward action.

Beware, though: the effect has been shown to diminish if we don’t expect to do well on the interrupted task (or are otherwise completely not motivated).

via @jonahlehrer

The Wadsworth Constant: Ignore 30% of Everything

I’ll start with a story.

Last year my girlfriend and I watched the pilot episode of a new TV show and were immediately hooked. The pilot episode was refreshingly complex and forced us to guess missing plot details continuously: it’s adventurous to make your audience work so hard during a pilot, we surmised.

We later discovered that, due to a technical glitch, we actually missed the first fifteen minutes of the show (about 30%). The ‘complete’ version of the episode was less satisfying.


Last year Steve Yegge wrote about life at Amazon.com and what it’s like working under Jeff Bezos. On the topic of presenting to Bezos, Yegge gave this tip: delete every third paragraph.  Why?

Bezos is so goddamned smart that you have to turn it into a game for him or he’ll be bored and annoyed with you. That was my first realization about him. […]

So you have to start tearing out whole paragraphs, or even pages, to make it interesting for him. He will fill in the gaps himself without missing a beat. And his brain will have less time to get annoyed with the slow pace of your brain.


Around the same time as Yegge’s posting, a Reddit user known as Wadsworth pointed out that the first 30% of “nearly every video in the universe” can safely be skipped. As such things go, this soon became a YouTube URL parameter: just add &wadsworth=1 to skip the first third of the video.

This ‘law’ soon became known as the Wadsworth Constant. It works.

Strangers and Friends: A Shared History and Less Graciousness

Ryan Holiday asks a very good question: why do we extend patience and tolerance to strangers, while simultaneously treating those closest to us less graciously?

It’s an interesting question with some equally interesting possible answers (is it a subconscious and inefficient way of attempting to ease our daily lives by telling those we spend the most time with how we want to be treated?). I like the conclusory piece of advice: we should give everyone “the graciousness of meeting them fresh each time”.

Some weirdo says something to you in the grocery store and you smile and nod your head, “Yup!” Just to avoid a scene right? You have a meeting with a sales rep and indulge the friendly but pointless chitchat even though you hate it. But a friend mispronounces a word and we leap to correct them. Your girlfriend tells a boring story and you’ve got to say something about it, you’ve got to get short with her. What kind of bullshit is this? We give the benefit of courtesy to everybody but the people who earned it.

Think of how much patience we have for total strangers and acquaintances. But what a short fuse we have for the actual people in our life. In the course of our everyday lives, our priorities are so very backwards. We do our best to impress people we’ll never see again and take for granted people we see all the time. We’re respectful in our business lives, casual and careless in our personal. We punish closeness with criticism, reward unfamiliarity with politeness.

This is a great example of why I read Ryan’s work: he’s adept at pointing out the everyday hypocrisies that we rarely notice.

Entrepreneurship and the Possibility of Real Failure

In 2007 Vinicius Vacanti quit his highly-paid job in finance to take on life as an entrepreneur. In a short post describing his reasons for doing so, Vacanti says that most of us haven’t faced the possibility of real failure, and entrepreneurship is a way to test your limits by attempting to create something of real value:

A scary idea started creeping into my thoughts: what if I could build something? Wouldn’t I always wonder? Wouldn’t I regret it? Wouldn’t it eat away at me over the years?

And, that’s when I realized that I didn’t actually know if I was good enough because I hadn’t really failed in life (at least not professionally). Most people don’t really fail. We tend to take the job that we think we’ll succeed in. We are hesitant to reach. And, if we do reach and succeed, then we don’t reach again.

The only way to know how good you might be at something is to fail trying it.

And, that’s when I decided it was time to test my limits. It was time to really reach. It was time to quit my safe job and walk straight into almost certain startup failure.

There’s nothing mind-blowing here, admittedly — I just love how Vacanti phrased this.