Your attention span was stolen

In his “The Attention Span” newsletter, Tom Morgan writes fairly often about the idea that we live in “an infinite sea of information” where “attention is what’s scarce.” I thought about that line recently while reading this excerpt from Johann Hari’s recent book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention. Hari’s research is a fascinating (and occasionally horrifying) foray into the science of our decaying attention spans, which has all sorts of second and third-order effects. One particularly bleak study cited by Hari indicated that a typical college student is now just able to focus on a single task for a maximum of 65 seconds (!). How, then, to improve the human attention span? It’s more complicated than simply cutting out your smartphone, Hari finds. He writes:

“I realized that to heal my attention, it was not enough simply to strip out distractions. That makes you feel good at first – but then it creates a vacuum where all the noise was. I realized I had to fill the vacuum. To do that, I started to think a lot about an area of psychology I had learned about years before – the science of flow states. Almost everyone reading this will have experienced a flow state at some point. It’s when you are doing something meaningful to you, and you really get into it, and time falls away, and your ego seems to vanish, and you find yourself focusing deeply and effortlessly. Flow is the deepest form of attention human beings can offer. But how do we get there?”


Christopher Tsai on compounding knowledge, the mental mindset of a long-term investor, and drawing inspiration from art

This week, I published my Nightcrawler podcast conversation with Christopher Tsai, the founder of Tsai Capital. Christopher is the type of guy who is hard to sum up in a single paragraph, but I’ll do my best here: He’s a long-term investor and business analyst whose interests span art, literature, history, and philosophy. In this conversation, we riff on everything from his friendship with the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to drawing inspiration from fiction. We also talk about a favorite subject of mine—the cognitive and behavioral skills required to play any game of strategy like investing. As Christopher says: “There’s the intellectual side of investing, but there’s the whole behavioral side as well, and that behavioral side reflects back on each investor’s individual personality… To be a successful investor requires you to not just have an intellectual edge, but to have a behavioral edge. You have to understand yourself. You have to understand your own tolerance for volatility, your threshold for losses, your pain.” He continues: 

“We don’t get paid for predicting the future. We make money by getting the odds correct. And by that I mean, you can be totally right about the future, and still not make money. and that’s because the stock market is like a parimutuel system at a race track. The odds are changing based on what’s bet. So the way to deal with that is, you have to swing hard. As Charlie Munger would say, ‘you have to swing hard when the odds are in your favor.'”


China in 2021 (and 2022): Dan Wang’s year-in-review

For anyone interested in a personal and nuanced take on China in 2021 and beyond, I recommend Dan Wang’s 2021 Letter. 

For the uninitiated, Wang covers tech at Gavekal Dragonomics, a global macro research firm based in Hong Kong and Beijing, and also writes about China for Bloomberg Opinion. I found Wang’s predictions about the current regulatory regime and the Chinese economic framework to insightful. (Plus, he’s just a hell of a writer.) “Beijing’s goal is to channel entrepreneurial spirit towards useful goals,” Dan writes. “Profit cannot be the final standard of value, and the country’s best and brightest must work towards national salvation.”

“Internet platforms aren’t the only industries under suspicion. Beijing is also falling out of love with finance. It looks unwilling to let the vagaries of the financial markets dictate the pace of technological investment, which in the US has favored the internet over chips. Beijing has regularly denounced the ‘disorderly expansion of capital,’ and sometimes its ‘barbaric growth.’ The attitude of business-school types is to arbitrage everything that can be arbitraged no matter whether it serves social goals. That was directly Chen Yun’s fear that opportunists care only about money. High profits therefore are not the right metric to assess online education, because the industry is preying on anxious parents while immiserating their children.”

A few more links I enjoyed: 

“At Permanent Equity, we think a lot about who we want to be. It’s always aspirational; in this life no one arrives. But if we have free will and ability, the aim matters. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. We’re always becoming something, for better or worse. We want to be an organization of kindness, self-forgetfulness, and service. We strive to serve our sellers, leaders, employees, vendors, customers, and communities well through win-win-win deal structures, long-term thinking, and humble help. Too often, we fall short.”
“If you have read the Absolute Return Letter for years, you will be aware that the January letter always stands out from the others. In January, we focus on issues we think you should worry most about as we enter another year, and we have made it a tradition to open with Saxo Bank’s Ten Outrageous Predictions, some of which are not as outrageous as you may think they are.”
“Owning things used to be simple. You went to the store. You paid money for something, whether it be a TV, clothes, books, toys, or electronics. You took your item home, and once you paid it off, that thing belonged to you. It was yours. You could do whatever you wanted with it. That’s not how it is today, and by 2030, technology will have advanced to the point that even the idea of owning objects might be obsolete.”

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