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The Start-Up of You: Living in Permanent Beta

The Start-Up of You: Living in Permanent Beta

Big Think’s “Book of the Month” for March is The Start-Up of You, by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha.  For a quick overview and outline of their new ingredients for success, check out our original post on the book here. While most readers are familiar with Mr. Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn and partner at Greylock Capital, his co-author Mr. Casnocha is more of an up-and-comer.  


Taking a more unconventional route than Reid, Casnocha found start-up success as a kid in high school, leading to his first book My Start-Up Life: What a (Very) Young Entrepreneur Learned On His Journey Through Silicon Valley.  He has since been very active in The Bay Area, co-founding the Silicon Valley Junto: an intellectual salon for Silicon Valley executives to congregate and freely wax philosophic.

Casnocha is also an avid traveller and learner, and uses his blog to compartmentalize all of the things he’s inspired by through the process. He refers to his blog as one about “entrepreneurship, books, current affairs, and intellectual life” - and the entire foundation of the site resembles lessons found in The Start-Up of You.  Big Think got a chance to speak with Ben and ask him some questions about the book, and how he is currently implementing some of his own strategies for success.

Big Think: The Start-Up of You introduces us to an important equation for success: I^we, which essentially suggests that an individuals success is directly tied to the strength of his or her network. You seem to be the perfect model for this equation, can you tell us how you have cultivated so many important relationships? How did you meet Reid Hoffman and land the opportunity to write this book with him?

Ben Casnocha: I to the We means that both the individual's effort and the power of the network matter, and they work in tandem. Someone with no skill (broadly defined) won't get very far, no matter how strong the network. Similarly, someone with lots of skill but a weak network won't realize his or her fullest potential. So, you need both. Myself, I build relationships because I like people. And I enjoy helping people, and being helped. I'm also fairly disciplined about staying in touch with folks over a long period of time.

With Reid specifically, we had a light relationship before working on the book. We enjoyed each other's company, but for this specific project, we were ideal partners in terms of our complementary skill set and resources. The pre-existing relationship provided a base level of trust, but it was my unique combination of assets in both the entrepreneurship and writing worlds that made me the right fit to work with him on the project professionally. That's an often overlooked point when people talk about "networking": it has to be a relationship plus capabilities.

Big Think: If you had to start from scratch with no network or credentials, how would you bootstrap your success in 2012?

Ben Casnocha: Develop a network and credentials!

Big Think: How have you incorporated ABZ Planning in your own life? What can you tell us about your current A, B, and Z plans, and how have your goals evolved over the last couple of years?

Ben Casnocha: I'm less a planner than some. So I always have multiple Plan B's in mind. My current Plan A is to get the word out about the new book and about career strategy more generally. There are a couple Plan B's around how to do that — i.e. other formats or routes beyond a book to spread the ideas. Sometimes Plan B can have the same desired outcome, but a different path for getting there. I also have a couple Plan B's that are separate and apart from the book — e.g. start another company. Plan Z is to get a "normal" job somewhere.

Big Think: I really liked how you incorporated Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan Theory into assessing the day and age we live in to manage and take intelligent risks. As our technology and innovation continue to increase exponentially, and industries continue to become more and more volatile, what are some of the key skills everyone should have in their toolkit?

Ben Casnocha: What we suggest is that people proactively take on some risk in the short term to make themselves more resilient to long term disruptions. Taking on short term risk can involve switching jobs, joining new groups / associations in the area, launching a personal blog, running an experiment within your existing job (e.g. volunteering for additional work). These are some practical ways to inject volatility into your life, and thus some risk. There are also a set of conceptual frameworks that are useful, which we detail in the book.

Big Think: This book reads like the generalist’s guide to finding success through utilizing the resources of Web 2.0 and Social-Media. However, both you and co-author Reid Hoffman are much more than well-networked, successful individuals. At the end of the day, both of you are seem to essentially be super curious and motivated intellectuals. What are some themes or ideas that are really exciting to you as mankind moves forward into the land of the unknown?

Ben Casnocha: One theme that fascinates me is cognitive enhancement. It seems only a matter of time until we live in a world where steroids for the brain are readily available to all. And once we come to grips with that reality, I suspect the debate over the ethics will be much more heated than the debate over steroids in baseball or any other sport, where the use is limited to a select group of freakish athletes. What happens when I can take a few pills that make me smarter in every way and thus do better on tests or projects and thus make more money and advance faster than someone who chose not to take the pill (for unknown health risks) or who couldn't afford the pill?

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When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

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