There Are No Shortcuts in Product Development — or in Life

In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a strangely ubiquitous pattern: an obsession with what I would call “advanced features”, and a nearly complete disregard of what I would consider “basics”. This all started when I downloaded a couple of new apps for my iPhone. While playing around with them, I noticed that the performance of these products was, let’s say, “less than optimal”. However, these products still had a large number of cool and exciting features. The problem was that the creators of these applications decided to build out slow bug-filled products with 10 features each instead of fast and polished products with only two features each.


While it would have been more prudent to focus on, and perfect, the two most important features in each of these apps, it would have certainly been less interesting and brag-worthy to do so. After all, dreaming up exciting new features is a lot of fun. It’s creative, it’s intellectually stimulating, and it’s exciting for friends and colleagues to hear about. However, it doesn’t matter how many great features you have in theory when they fail to operate successfully in reality. 

Unfortunately, this aversion to the basics can be seen in almost every part of our lives. We might pick up a popular science book on String Theory because it sounds fascinating, even though we barely mastered Classical Mechanics back in high school. We might start creating abstract Jackson Pollock-esque paintings before we can draw simple still-lifes. We might do one-legged bosu-ball squats instead of old fashioned bench presses and deadlifts. And so on.

But why do we do this? It seems to boil down to two things: social reinforcement and human laziness (the path of least resistance). After all, almost nothing we do outside of our bedrooms occurs in isolation. We are social creatures, and all of our actions happen to have, or are done for, an audience. The attention, acceptance, and admiration of such audiences are fundamental human drives – and praise might be the most powerful reward in human existence. Thus, much of our lives is devoted to gaining the attention of others through art, performance, spectacle or witticism. But given our thrifty nature, we want to make sure that we get the most attention and admiration for our “buck”. The less effort we need to expend, the better. Why spend five years getting gradually better at drawing a bowl of fruit when you can draw some abstract shapes on a canvas and get the same praise?

While our forays into “advanced” territory may seem innocent, they deprive us in the long run. This is because we become pseudo craftsmen at whatever we do. Every discipline has a hierarchy of skills, and the great masters were always forced to start with, and master, the most laughable basics. They might have started out washing brushes, mixing turpentine, and mixing pigment. Then, after a year or so, they might have moved on to cross-hatching, two-point perspective, and another fundamental skill or two. Finally, after a decade, they would get to the point where they would be tackling their own compositions. Picasso, after all, didn’t begin his abstract phase until well after he had mastered the basics of both drawing and painting. He put the time in to become an expert before he did his new flashy and talked-about works. How many of us can say the same thing? The support and attention of our social network are a double edged sword. They can keep us stuck in place just as well as they can push us forward. But at least we have plenty of apps and advanced features to play with while we run in place -- even if they don’t work quite the way they should. After all, nothing quite soothes like distraction.

Image: Paul Underhill

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Bottles of antidepressant pills named (L-R) Wellbutrin, Paxil, Fluoxetine and Lexapro are shown March 23, 2004 photographed in Miami, Florida.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Surprising Science
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