How It All Works (A Few Short Stories)

A few short stories whose lessons apply to many things:

Author R.L. Stine is one of the bestselling authors of all time. His Goosebumps series of scary kids books have sold over 400 million copies.

But horror wasn’t his first act. Stine spent the first two decades of his career writing kids’ joke books.

Scaring people, he discovered, is easier than making them laugh.

“Everyone has a different sense of humor, but we all have the same fears,” he said. “Kids are all afraid of the dark, afraid of being lost, afraid of being in a new place. Those fears never change.”

Everyone has different tastes, but emotions – especially fear and greed – tend to be universal.

Physical attractiveness is something everybody intuitively understands but struggles to put into words. What makes an attractive face? It’s hard to describe. You just know one when you see one.

Several studies have tried to crack the code, the most fascinating of which I think is the idea that average faces tend to be the most appealing.

Take 1,000 people and have a software program generate the average of their faces – an artificial face with the average cheekbone height, average distance between eyes, average lip fullness, etc. That image, across cultures, tends to be the one people are most likely to judge as the most attractive.

One evolutionary explanation is that non-average characteristics have the potential to be above-average risks to reproduction. They may or may not actually impact reproductive fitness, but it’s almost like nature says, “Why take a chance? Go for the average.”

People love familiarity. That’s true not just for faces but products, careers, and styles. It’s almost like nature’s risk-management system.

William Vanderbilt was one the richest heirs to ever live. But hold your envy – his life was hardly a joy.

Just before he died in 1920, Vanderbilt told the New York Times, “My life was never destined to be quite happy. Inherited wealth is a real handicap to happiness. It is as a death to ambition as cocaine is to morality.”

The interesting thing is that the other end of the spectrum – an overdose of ambition – may be just as miserable.

A half-century before, Mark Twain wrote to William Vanderbilt’s grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt:

How I pity you, and this is honest. You are an old man, and ought to have some rest, and yet you have to struggle, and deny yourself, and rob yourself restful sleep and peace of mind, because you need money so badly. I always feel for a man who is so poverty ridden as you.

Don’t misunderstand me, Vanderbilt, I know you have $70 million. But then you know and I know, that it isn’t what a man has that constitutes wealth. No – it is to be satisfied with what one has; that is wealth.

Building the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s was too costly for any private company to manage. So Congress offered subsidies: $16,000 per mile on flat land, and up to $96,000 per mile in the mountains.

As to what was considered “flat” vs. “mountain” land, Congress relied on the opinion of geologists.

One particularly malleable geologist named Josiah Whitney was persuaded to declare that the Sacramento Valley – flat as a pancake – was actually the geological beginning of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and was therefore a mountainous region.

The railroad companies were so grateful for the sleight of hand they persuaded the California legislature to rename the state’s tallest mountain Mount Whitney.

Everything is for sale.

As he neared death, physicist Richard Feynman asked a friend why he looked sad. The friend said he would miss Feynman. Feynman said that he had told so many good stories to so many people – stories that would surely be repeated – that even after death he would not be completely gone.

It’s similar to the idea that everyone suffers two deaths: Once when they die, and another when their name is spoken for the last time.

Chris Rock says teachers provide half of the education at school, bullies provide the other. “And learning how to deal with bullies is that half you’ll actually use as a grownup.”

Think of how big the world is. And how good animals are at hiding. Now think about a biologist whose job it is to determine whether a species has gone extinct. Not an easy thing to do.

A group of Australian biologists once discovered something remarkable. More than a third of all mammals deemed extinct in the last 500 years have later been rediscovered, alive. Some were even thriving.

A lot of what we know in science is bound to change. That’s what makes it great.

When a previously known truth is later discovered to be wrong, we should also respect the idea that too many theories try too hard to be facts.

David Brooks makes the distinction between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”

Resume virtues are things like income, job title, and the size of your house. Eulogy virtues are things like being helpful, being loved, being honest, and being remembered.

An irony is that many people aspire for the latter, but put all their effort into the former.

I had a professor in college who used to work for Adobe. He said the engineers who built Photoshop had no clue how users would use every filter and tool in the software. They just tried to develop every imaginable way to manipulate an image and had faith that artists and designers would discover a creative use for it.

A lot of things work like that – their value to the world isn’t entirely known, or predicted, by their creator.

Visa founder Dee Hock said, “A book is far more than what the author wrote; it is everything you can imagine and read into it as well.”

Author James Patterson said, “One of the best things about reading is that you’ll always have something to think about when you’re not reading.”

Mark Twain, as he does, put it best when he said: “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

Chronicling the Great Plague of London, Daniel Defoe wrote in 1722:

The people were more addicted to prophecies and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives’ tales than ever they were before or since …

Almanacs frighted them terribly … the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors’ bills and papers of ignorant fellows, quacking and inviting the people to come to them for remedies, which was generally set off with such flourishes as these: ‘Infallible preventive pills against the plague.’ ‘Neverfailing preservatives against the infection.’

Hard times make gullible people, who become willing to believe anything that might help their situation. Comedian Trevor Noah sums this up well when he says, “If you find the right balance between desperation and fear you can make people do anything.”

Actor Matt Damon once mentioned the downside of tabloids and publicity: “If people can see 16 pictures of you drinking coffee or walking your dog, I think it dilutes the desire to see you in a movie.”

Early in your career: Wave your arms and be noticed. Later in your career: Most value comes from scarcity.

Investor Howard Marks once told the story of an investor whose performance was never in the top half of his peers in any given year. But, cumulatively, over a 14-year period, he ranked in the top 4% of his peers.

Bond giant PIMCO has an idea called “strategic mediocrity”: You’re never the best in the short run, but you stick around long enough to outlive the competition and come out on top.

Pension & Investment Age used to publish a list of the best-performing investment managers.

In 1981, Forbes realized that the top-ranked investor of the previous decade was a 72-year-old named Edgerton Welch. Virtually no one had heard of him.

Forbes paid him a visit. Welch said he had never heard of Benjamin Graham and had no formal investment education. When asked how he achieved his success, Welch pulled out a copy of ValueLine – a publication that ranks stocks by how cheap they are – and said he bought the ones ranked “1” (the cheapest) that Merrill Lynch or E.F. Hutton also liked. When any of those three changed their opinion, he sold.

Forbes wrote: “His secret isn’t the system but his own consistency.”

A lot of things work like that: Consistency beats intelligence, if only because it takes emotion out of the equation.

Henry Ford had a rule for his factories: No one could keep a record of the experiments that were tried and failed.

Ford wrote in his book My Life and Work:

I am not particularly anxious for the men to remember what someone else has tried to do in the past, for then we might quickly accumulate far too many things that could not be done.

That is one of the troubles with extensive records. If you keep on recording all of your failures you will shortly have a list showing that there is nothing left for you to try – whereas it by no means follows because one man has failed in a certain method that another man will not succeed.

That was Ford’s experience. “We get some of our best results from letting fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” He wrote: “Hardly a week passes without some improvement being made somewhere in machine or process, and sometimes this is made in defiance of what is called “the best shop practice.”

The important thing is that when something that previously didn’t work suddenly does, it doesn’t necessarily mean the people who tried it first were wrong. It usually means other parts of the system have evolved in a way that allows what was once impossible to now become practical.

Paul Graham once wrote:

One way to tell whether a field has consistent standards is the overlap between the leading practitioners and the people who teach the subject in universities.

At one end of the scale you have fields like math and physics, where nearly all the teachers are among the best practitioners.

In the middle are medicine, law, history, architecture, and computer science, where many are.

At the bottom are business, literature, and the visual arts, where there’s almost no overlap between the teachers and the leading practitioners.

He concluded: “How much you should worry about being an outsider depends on the quality of the insiders.”

For more: