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Ideas That Must Die, Default Dead & The Fatal Pinch, Mastering GTD Basics

Resource: This Idea Must Die: Some of the World’s Greatest Thinkers Each Select a Major Misconception Holding Us Back (Brainpickings Binge)

“To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact,” -Charles Darwin


There are more ways to be brilliant and useful than being right. Even though some of history’s great thinkers may have given us ideas that have turned out to be outdated or wrong, we can learn a great deal by appreciating the spirit of their inquiry, the style of their expression, and the contemporary applicability of their metaphors/mental models.

Facts are facts but no fact is without its frame of reference. Understanding the foundations and limits of frames of reference helps us know how to hold onto our facts (when to hold them lightly and when to hold them tightly).

Science cannot be separated from philosophy. The very act of drawing the line of demarcation between science and pseudoscience requires the use of philosophy. More importantly, logic matter more than labels. What matters most is not what academic discipline we say we belong to, but rather our commitment to proportioning our beliefs to the evidence.

Some scientists see the question for theories of unification as mystical residue. Perhaps we have a tendency to find the single underlying essence that explains everything because of a crypto-religious quest for God.

Although “race” is a historical, cultural, and phenomenological reality, it has no relevance as a scientific concept. While it may seem, on the surface, that people of a certain race may have a greater/lesser propensity for this or that disease, this is only because of sociological realities that tend to bind people of similar traits together. Once enough variables are added to the equation (economic status, geographic location, etc), the notion of race as a predictor of anything meaningful is scientifically useful.

The experience of being in love has many traits in common with the experience of having an addiction. Some scientists believe we can understand more about the human experience of love and heartbreak by reframing it in this light.

The firewall paradox may be an indicator that there is more to our perceptions of reality than we thought when trying to understand how the universe shows up in our experience.


Maria Popova on how knowledge progresses:

“If science and human knowledge progress in leaps and bounds of ignorance, then the recognition of error and the transcendence of falsehood are the springboard for the leaps of progress.”

John Brockman on how the dying of old ideas (and their advocates) facilitates the emergence of new paradigms:

“Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858–1947) noted, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” In other words, science advances by a series of funerals.”

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein on the indispensability of philosophy to science:

“You can’t argue for science making philosophy obsolete without indulging in philosophical arguments… When pressed for an answer to the so-called demarcation problem, scientists almost automatically reach for the notion of “falsifiability” first proposed by Karl Popper. His profession? Philosophy. But whatever criterion you offer, its defense is going to implicate you in philosophy.”

“A triumphalist scientism needs philosophy to support itself. And the lesson here should be generalized. Philosophy is joined to science in reason’s project. Its mandate is to render our views and our attitudes maximally coherent.”

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein on the superiority of logic over labels:

“What idea should science retire? The idea of “science” itself. Let’s retire it in favor of the more inclusive “knowledge.””

Sam Harris on the blurred lines between disciplines:

“Search your mind, or pay attention to the conversations you have with other people, and you’ll discover that there are no real boundaries between science and philosophy — or between those disciplines and any other that attempts to make valid claims about the world on the basis of evidence and logic. When such claims and their methods of verification admit of experiment and/or mathematical description, we tend to say our concerns are “scientific”; when they relate to matters more abstract, or to the consistency of our thinking itself, we often say we’re being “philosophical”; when we merely want to know how people behaved in the past, we dub our interests “historical” or “journalistic”; and when a person’s commitment to evidence and logic grows dangerously thin or simply snaps under the burden of fear, wishful thinking, tribalism, or ecstasy, we recognize that he’s being “religious.””

Sam Harris on the arbitrariness of academic disciplines and why reason/evidence is what really matters:

“The boundaries between true intellectual disciplines are currently enforced by little more than university budgets and architecture… The real distinction we should care about — the observation of which is the sine qua non of the scientific attitude — is between demanding good reasons for what one believes and being satisfied with bad ones.”

Sam Harris on the hard problem of consciousness, why science doesn’t need to eliminate every mystery, and what it really means to think scientifically:

“Even if one thinks the human mind is entirely the product of physics, the reality of consciousness becomes no less wondrous, and the difference between happiness and suffering no less important. Nor does such a view suggest that we’ll ever find the emergence of mind from matter fully intelligible; consciousness may always seem like a miracle. In philosophical circles, this is known as “the hard problem of consciousness” — some of us agree that this problem exists, some of us don’t. Should consciousness prove conceptually irreducible, remaining the mysterious ground for all we can conceivably experience or value, the rest of the scientific worldview would remain perfectly intact.

The remedy for all this confusion is simple: We must abandon the idea that science is distinct from the rest of human rationality. When you are adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence, you are thinking scientifically. And when you’re not, you’re not.”

Bruce Hood on the notion that self-hood is an illusion and why we must abandon it in order to fully understand how a human being operates:

“We know the self is constructed because it can be so easily deconstructed — through damage, disease, and drugs. It must be an emergent property of a parallel system processing input, output, and internal representations. It’s an illusion because it feels so real, but that experience is not what it seems. The same is true for free will. Although we can experience the mental anguish of making a decision… the choices and decisions we make are based on situations that impose on us. We don’t have the free will to choose the experiences that have shaped our decisions.

By abandoning the free willing self, we’re forced to reexamine the factors that are truly behind our thoughts and behavior and the way they interact, balance, override, and cancel out. Only then will we begin to make progress in understanding how we really operate.”

Helen Fisher on love as positive addiction:

“Love-besotted men and women show all the basic symptoms of addiction. Foremost, the lover is stiletto-focused on his/her drug of choice, the love object. The lover thinks obsessively about him or her (intrusive thinking), and often compulsively calls, writes, or stays in touch. Paramount in this experience is intense motivation to win one’s sweetheart, not unlike the substance abuser fixated on the drug. Impassioned lovers distort reality, change their priorities and daily habits to accommodate the beloved, experience personality changes (affect disturbance), and sometimes do inappropriate or risky things to impress this special other. Many are willing to sacrifice, even die for, “him” or “her.” The lover craves emotional and physical union with the beloved (dependence). And like addicts who suffer when they can’t get their drug, the lover suffers when apart from the beloved (separation anxiety). Adversity and social barriers even heighten this longing (frustration attraction). ”

Helen Fisher on the common traits that bind being in love with having an addiction:

“In fact, besotted lovers express all four of the basic traits of addiction: craving, tolerance, withdrawal, and relapse. They feel a “rush” of exhilaration when they’re with their beloved (intoxication). As their tolerance builds, they seek to interact with the beloved more and more (intensification). If the love object breaks off the relationship, the lover experiences signs of drug withdrawal, including protest, crying spells, lethargy, anxiety, insomnia or hypersomnia, loss of appetite or binge eating, irritability, and loneliness. Lovers, like addicts, also often go to extremes, sometimes doing degrading or physically dangerous things to win back the beloved. And lovers relapse the way drug addicts do. Long after the relationship is over, events, people, places, songs, or other external cues associated with their abandoning sweetheart can trigger memories and renewed craving.”

Marcelo Gleiser on why the quest for scientific unification (ie. a theory of everything) is a crypto-religious distraction that places to heavy of a burden on the scientific enterprise:

“The scientific impulse to unify is crypto-religious… There’s something deeply appealing in equating all of nature to a single creative principle: To decipher the “mind of God” is to be special, is to answer to a higher calling. Pure mathematicians who believe in the reality of mathematical truths are monks of a secret order, open only to the initiated. In the case of high energy physics, all unification theories rely on sophisticated mathematics related to pure geometric structures: The belief is that nature’s ultimate code exists in the ethereal world of mathematical truths and that we can decipher it.”

Marcelo Gleiser on how scientific evidence fails to support our unification tendencies and why it’s not defeatist to follow this evidence:

“Recent experimental data has been devastating to such belief — no trace of supersymmetric particles, of extra dimensions, or of dark matter of any sort, all long-awaited signatures of unification physics. Maybe something will come up; to find, we must search. The trouble with unification in high energy physics is that you can always push it beyond the experimental range. “The Large Hadron Collider got to 7 TeV and found nothing? No problem! Who said nature should opt for the simplest versions of unification? Maybe it’s all happening at much higher energies, well beyond our reach.”

There’s nothing wrong with this kind of position. You can believe it until you die, and die happy. Or you can conclude that what we do best is construct approximate models of how nature works and that the symmetries we find are only descriptions of what really goes on. Perfection is too hard a burden to impose on nature.

People often see this kind of argument as defeatist, as coming from someone who got frustrated and gave up. (As in “He lost his faith.”) Big mistake. To search for simplicity is essential to what scientists do. It’s what I do. There are essential organizing principles in nature, and the laws we find are excellent ways to describe them. But the laws are many, not one. We’re successful pattern-seeking rational mammals. That alone is cause for celebration. However, let’s not confuse our descriptions and models with reality. We may hold perfection in our mind’s eye as a sort of ethereal muse. Meanwhile nature is out there doing its thing. That we manage to catch a glimpse of its inner workings is nothing short of wonderful. And that should be good enough.”

Amanda Gefter on how our notion of THE universe must die:

“Physics has a time-honored tradition of laughing in the face of our most basic intuitions. Einstein’s relativity forced us to retire our notions of absolute space and time, while quantum mechanics forced us to retire our notions of pretty much everything else. Still, one stubborn idea has stood steadfast through it all: the universe.

In recent years, however, the concept of a single shared spacetime has sent physics spiraling into paradox. The first sign that something was amiss came from Stephen Hawking’s landmark work in the 1970s showing that black holes radiate and evaporate, disappearing from the universe and purportedly taking some quantum information with them. Quantum mechanics, however, is predicated upon the principle that information can never be lost.

Yes, there are multiple observers, and yes, any observer’s universe is as good as any other’s. But if you want to stay on the right side of the laws of physics, you can talk only about one at a time. Which means, really, that only one exists at a time. It’s cosmic solipsism.”

Adjusting our intuitions and adapting to the strange truths uncovered by physics is never easy. But we may just have to come around to the notion that there’s my universe and there’s your universe — but there’s no such thing as the universe.”

Nina Jablonski on why the notion of “race” as a scientifically relevant concept must die:

“Even after it has been shown that many diseases (adult-onset diabetes, alcoholism, high blood pressure, to name a few) show apparent racial patterns because people share similar environmental conditions, groupings by race are maintained. The use of racial self-categorization in epidemiological studies is defended and even encouraged. Medical studies of health disparities between “races” become meaningless when sufficient variables — such as differences in class, ethnic social practices, and attitudes — are taken into account. Submit Race has a hold on history but no longer has a place in science. The sheer instability and potential for misinterpretation render race useless as a scientific concept. Inventing new vocabularies to deal with human diversity and inequity won’t be easy, but it must be done.”

Alan Alda on the importance of understanding facts withing local frames of reference:

“Is the North Pole up and the South Pole down? Is someone standing at one of the poles right-side up or upside-down? Kind of depends on your perspective. When I studied how to think in school, I was taught that the first rule of logic was that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. That last note, “in the same respect,” says a lot. As soon as you change the frame of reference, you’ve changed the truthiness of a once immutable fact.”

“Facts, it seems to me, are workable units, useful in a given frame or context. They should be as exact and irrefutable as possible, tested by experiment to the fullest extent. When the frame changes, they don’t need to be discarded as untrue but respected as still useful within their domain. Most people who work with facts accept this, but I don’t think the public fully gets it.”

Maria Popova on the stewardship of past ideas as essential to progress and the pursuit of truth:

“the stewardship of enduring ideas is at least as important as the genesis of new ones — not only because past ideas are the combinatorial building blocks of future ones but also because in order to move forward we always need a backdrop against which to paint the contrast of progress and improvement.”

Ian McEwan on the usefulness of hanging on to wrong ideas and why we should never entirely trash ideas that are past their time:

“Beware of arrogance! Retire nothing! A great and rich scientific tradition should hang onto everything it has. Truth is not the only measure. There are ways of being wrong that help others to be right. Some are wrong, but brilliantly so. Some are wrong but contribute to method. Some are wrong but help found a discipline. Aristotle ranged over the whole of human knowledge and was wrong about much. But his invention of zoology alone was priceless. Would you cast him aside? You never know when you might need an old idea. It could rise again one day to enhance a perspective the present cannot imagine. It would not be available to us if it were fully retired.”

Ian McEwan on preserving our old ideas:

“Every last serious and systematic speculation about the world deserves to be preserved. We need to remember how we got to where we are, and we’d like the future not to retire us. Science should look to literature and maintain a vibrant living history as a monument to ingenuity and persistence. We won’t retire Shakespeare. Nor should we Bacon.”

Resource: Default Alive or Default Dead? by Paul Graham


Know the trajectory your company is on. Is it default dead or default alive? If your current expenses remain the same and your revenue growth is what it’s been the last several months, will your company make it to profitability on the money you have left? If not, you’re default dead. If yes, you’re default alive.

It’s okay to be vaguely optimistic, but be honest about it and make it explicit. Instead of “things will be fine,” tell it like it is and say “I’m counting on investors bailing us out if we run out of money.” This will cause your alarms to go off and make you think about the right things.

Relying to investors shouldn’t be your main plan. Investors tend to be fickle and their opinions can shift with a variety of variables.

One of the most common reasons startups fail is because they hiring too much too soon. The need for more employers is more likely to be an effect of growth rather than a cause, but this is easy to get wrong because startups require a lot of work early on.

Moderately appealing product is a common cause of failure. It’s good enough to get you started, but not great enough to stimulate growth. The product must evolve. Having fewer employees makes it easier to evolve the company’s product.


The most important question:

“When I talk to a startup that’s been operating for more than 8 or 9 months, the first thing I want to know is almost always the same. Assuming their expenses remain constant and their revenue growth is what it’s been over the last several months, do they make it to profitability on the money they have left? Or to put it more dramatically, by default do they live or die?”

Why you need to know if you’re default dead or default alive:

“If the company is default alive, we can talk about ambitious new things they could do. If it’s default dead, we probably need to talk about how to save it. We know the current trajectory ends badly. How can they get off that trajectory?”

Ask earlier rather than later:

“I propose the following solution: instead of starting to ask too late whether you’re default alive or default dead, start asking too early. It’s hard to say precisely when the question switches polarity. But it’s probably not that dangerous to start worrying too early that you’re default dead, whereas it’s very dangerous to start worrying too late.”

The fatal pinch:

“the fatal pinch. The fatal pinch is default dead + slow growth + not enough time to fix it. And the way founders end up in it is by not realizing that’s where they’re headed.”

On being honest with yourself and making vague optimism explicit:

“Maybe it will help to separate facts from hopes. Instead of thinking of the future with vague optimism, explicitly separate the components. Say “We’re default dead, but we’re counting on investors to save us.” Maybe as you say that it will set off the same alarms in your head that it does in mine. And if you set off the alarms sufficiently early, you may be able to avoid the fatal pinch.”

On the unpredictability and fickleness of investor temperament:

“It would be safe to be default dead if you could count on investors saving you. As a rule their interest is a function of growth. If you have steep revenue growth, say over 6x a year, you can start to count on investors being interested even if you’re not profitable. [1] But investors are so fickle that you can never do more than start to count on it. Sometimes something about your business will spook investors even if your growth is great. So no matter how good your growth is, you can never safely treat fundraising as more than a plan A. You should always have a plan B as well: you should know (as in write down) precisely what you’ll need to do to survive if you can’t raise more money, and precisely when you’ll have to switch to plan B if plan A isn’t working.”

Operating cheaply has very little to do with growth:

“growing fast versus operating cheaply is far from the sharp dichotomy many founders assume it to be. In practice there is surprisingly little connection between how much a startup spends and how fast it grows. When a startup grows fast, it’s usually because the product hits a nerve, in the sense of hitting some big need straight on. When a startup spends a lot, it’s usually because the product is expensive to develop or sell, or simply because they’re wasteful.”

On the dangers of hiring to fast:

“Don’t hire too fast. Hiring too fast is by far the biggest killer of startups that raise money.

Here’s a common way startups die. They make something moderately appealing and have decent initial growth. They raise their first round fairly easily because the founders seem smart and the idea sounds plausible. But because the product is only moderately appealing, growth is ok but not great. The founders convince themselves that hiring a bunch of people is the way to boost growth. Their investors agree. But (because the product is only moderately appealing) the growth never comes. Now they’re rapidly running out of runway. They hope further investment will save them. But because they have high expenses and slow growth, they’re now unappealing to investors. They’re unable to raise more, and the company dies. …What the company should have done is address the fundamental problem: that the product is only moderately appealing. Hiring people is rarely the way to fix that. More often than not it makes it harder. At this early stage, the product needs to evolve more than to be “built out,” and that’s usually easier with fewer people.

Airbnb waited 4 months after raising money at the end of Y Combinator before they hired their first employee. In the meantime the founders were terribly overworked. But they were overworked evolving Airbnb into the astonishingly successful organism it is now.”

Resource: Getting Things Done by David Allen — Mastering the Basics


GTD mastery is a process and it has many levels. The best thing to do is dive in, get started, and give yourself time to get accustomed to the practices and principles by way of real experience.

Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s easy to slip back into old habits and get off track. The good news is that it’s just as easy to start back up again.

There’s no need to be all or nothing with GTD. Any little practice (ie. the two minute rule) can significantly reduce your stress, improve your sleep, and increase your productivity. While it’s best to work the whole system, you’re more likely to get to that point if you use whatever tools you have momentum with in the beginning.


How implementing GTD is like learning to drive:

“A good analogy here is the experience of learning to drive a car. The first stage is getting the basics under control, so that you can handle the machine without hurting yourself or anyone else. The moves feel awkward and often counterintuitive. But once you’re good enough to get your license, your world changes dramatically for the better, because now you can go places and do things that you couldn’t previously. Then there comes a time when you are able to drive down a road without actually thinking about the act of driving—it’s become an almost automatic part of your life. And finally, you decide to graduate to a really high-performance vehicle, in which the prime challenge and opportunity is how well you can focus ahead, making yourself essentially one with your vehicle, experiencing elevated levels of satisfaction and fulfillment with driving. ”

Why being patient with yourself, sticking with it, and getting in those GTD reps is essential for mastery:

“As simple as they may seem at first, building proficiency with the fundamental components of Getting Things Done—the basics—can take a while. Though it’s easy to understand and agree with its concepts and principles, putting them fully into practice is not necessarily a smooth or automatic process. It’s the same as with any sophisticated practice—driving a car, throwing a karate punch, or playing the flute—the beginning moves are not familiar or comfortable. Once you’ve done them a thousand times, however, you can manifest elegance, power, and fluidity that would be inaccessible any other way. The same may be true for you about learning GTD. ”

The work of undoing old habits and the counterintuitive nature of GTD:

“For example, capturing everything potentially meaningful into trusted external buckets, so that nothing remains rattling around in your head, is a behavior that can be as daunting to employ as learning to manually shift easily in a car. As with most aspects of the GTD model, writing things down is itself not a new skill, but rather a practice that can easily seem unworthy of the effort, if not downright counterintuitive. (“If it’s not immediately important, why should I bother?”) Becoming sensitized to the need to externalize those kinds of thoughts as well as building the habit to actually carry out the necessary actions with a ubiquitous tool at hand, without exception, is the real challenge. ”

The bad news is that it’s easy to get blown off course:

“If you are sincere about implementing Getting Things Done, it’s actually not that difficult to get started, as I’ve tried to assure you with the instructions given in the earlier sections of the book. At some point, though, the rest of your reality will inevitably come flooding at you full force, and if the new practices haven’t yet had time to root themselves in your behavior patterns, it’s relatively easy to get blown off course. ”

The good news is that it’s easy to get back on track:

“The good news is that it’s as easy to get back into your productive groove as it may have been to get knocked out of it. It simply requires revisiting the basics: get a pen and paper and empty your head again; clean up your lists of actions and projects; identify and add new projects and next actions to bring your lists current; clean up what’s leaked outside your system. ”

Everyone takes time to achieve GTD mastery:

“This cycle of getting off track and getting back on again happens to almost everyone—particularly during this first level of mastering the basics of the game. In my experience it can easily take as long as two years to finally get this stage of practice fully integrated into one’s life and work style, and consistently maintained. ”

Every little bit of GTD helps even if it’s not the whole package:

“Another piece of good news is that even if a person has gleaned only a few concepts from this material, or has not implemented the system regularly, it can bring marked improvement. If you “get” nothing more than the two-minute rule, it will be worth its weight in gold. If you just write down a few more things on your mind than you would have previously, you’ll sleep better. If you clean up e-mail to zero at least every once in a while, you will have great cause for celebration. And if you simply ask, “What’s the next action?” of yourself or anyone else when you might not have otherwise, it will add to your stress-free productivity. “

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