Welcome back to another edition of the Sunday Digest. This week features advice for finding success in an increasingly competitive world, a thought-provoking plan for tackling the biggest issues our society faces, an astonishing solution for chronic pain, and more.
As always, thanks for reading.
This Week's Post
In the summer after my junior year of college, I spent a month studying abroad in Oxford, England. It was an immersive acting program – we'd spend weekdays in classes and have evenings and weekends for rehearsing, seeing shows, exploring the Hogwarts-esque school we were staying in, and of course, partying with our peers.
On the first day, we were each asked to prepare a monologue to present to the program's director and a couple teachers. It felt like an audition, even though the stakes were low: They simply wanted to get a sense of us as performers in order to sort us into class groups.
Though it felt like we had stepped into the world of Harry Potter, there were no magical sorting hats here.
One student raised her hand and asked if the director had any suggestions on how to prepare. His advice was concise:
The response reminded me of the time another teacher of mine, when asked how long our capstone paper needed to be, simply said, "As long as it needs to be."
We live most of our lives without a rubric, but it's tempting to reach for the certainty of one. Often, simply pursuing excellence is good enough. There's no need to complicate it further.
But what does brilliance look like? The answer to that question is analagous to, of all things, a rainforest.
Erik Torenberg summarizes this analogy from the podcast Exponent in his post "The Death of the Middle":
In a rainforest, with its abundantly available water, sunlight, and nutrients, two types of plants thrive: the tiny, highly differentiated plants on the forest floor, and the giant trees that form the canopy. It’s hard to be in the middle.
In an ever more connected world, it becomes harder and harder to be in the middle. This is because finding the best products and services in the world to solve your problem is easier than ever.
People don't seek out things in the middle – they seek out the best in the world.
"Best" and "world" are relative, however. The grocery store down the street from me may not literally be the best in the world when compared to every other grocery provider in the world. But in this case, if the problem I'm trying to solve is "fresh eggs within walking distance," then the local mart is the best in the world for me.
If you're an illustrator, "best in the world" may mean "best painter on the Santa Monica pier creating portraits in less than five minutes for tourists."
Or if you're an accountant, it may mean "best online bookkeeping service for small non-profits looking to automate their payroll."
As a creator, employee, artist, entrepreneur – however you define your work self – your goal should be to keep redefining "best" and "world" until both things are true.
In other words, be brilliant.
H/t to Naval
From the Archive
If you're still working to define what "best in the world" looks like for you, consider Chris Anderson's concept of the long tail:
👩🎨 The Long Tail
If you turned on the radio in 1948, you could listen to anything you wanted, as long as what you wanted was being broadcast by your local station.
It was probably Bing Crosby.
Until recently, most of the media you had access to was created for a mass audience.
The internet turned this on its head. As a creator, your work no longer needs to appeal to the largest possible audience, because sharing is free and discovery is easy.
Instead, you can create for the long tail, which refers to the wide range of smaller niches that are now accessible. Here's a graph of what that distribution looks like:
What to Read
🇺🇸 A Simple Plan to Solve All of America’s Problems – The Atlantic
Derek Thompson recently launched a new project called "Progress" at The Atlantic. It's "a special series focused on two big questions: How do you solve the world’s most important problems? And how do you inspire more people to believe that the most important problems can actually be solved?"
In a recent post, he lays out the framework for his answers to these questions:
In the past few months, I’ve become obsessed with a policy agenda that is focused on solving our national problem of scarcity. This agenda would try to take the best from several ideologies. It would harness the left’s emphasis on human welfare, but it would encourage the progressive movement to “take innovation as seriously as it takes affordability,” as Ezra Klein wrote. It would tap into libertarians’ obsession with regulation to identify places where bad rules are getting in the way of the common good. It would channel the right’s fixation with national greatness to grow the things that actually make a nation great—such as clean and safe spaces, excellent government services, fantastic living conditions, and broadly shared wealth.
This is the abundance agenda.
Thompson's arguments are thought provoking, and I appreciate his willingness to engage with these issues from the perspective of multiple ideologies.
And a note for readers outside the US: Although he's writing through an American lens, the issues in question – climate change, healthcare, etc. – are ones that every country has to grapple with.
💊 Can Virtual Reality Help Ease Chronic Pain? – NY Times
The short answer to the headline's question, of course, is yes. We can create a world without chronic pain with VR, and with practice, that psychosomatic experience continues into the "real world" as well.
Our brains are extremely malleable, and we are only just starting to learn how to rewire them to ease chronic neurological issues.
In one module, patients pick up lotus flowers with their healthy arm and toss them into a serene infinity pond surrounded by mountains; the V.R. mirrors the action but shows the opposite arm doing the motions. Seeing themselves perform this novel action, in an unfamiliar environment that has no associations with pain, seems to create new neural connections that eventually help repair the dysfunctional parts of their brains.
If the brain predicts that an action will be painful, then “it’s going to send that threat signal out ahead of time,” Nguyen says. But if people experience themselves maneuvering more easily and with greater range in V.R., then their brains may begin to recognize that increased movement as safe — and, Nguyen hopes, eventually pleasurable.
💋 People Are Dating All Wrong, According to Data Science – Wired
Speaking of vulnerability and cultivating meaningful relationships, dating apps often lead us to pursue desirability, rather than compatibility. Even with the help of computers, predicting compatibility between two potential romantic partners is really hard.
Good romantic partners are difficult to predict with data. Desired romantic partners are easy to predict with data. And that suggests that many of us are dating all wrong.
So, what traits make people desirable to others?
The fascinating, if sometimes disturbing, data from online dating sites tells us that single people predictably are drawn to certain qualities. But should they be drawn to these qualities?
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz goes on to discuss what does predict romantic happiness, and his conclusion is remarkable:
How a person answered questions about themselves was roughly four times more predictive of their relationship happiness than all the traits of their romantic partner combined.
Tweets of the Week
Have a great week,