Mentor Notes: Derek Sivers

Derek Sivers is the founder of CD Baby (sold for $22 million), which he talks about in his book, Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur.

In case you didn’t know, it’s 10 years of his own experience distilled into a short book. And he shares his book notes on his blog with a corresponding rating–which I also put up here on my site.

He’s been a musicianproducercircus performerentrepreneurTED speaker, and book publisher. (and yes, I copied and pasted this line from his website.)

It’s funny ’cause I reached out to Derek and asked how I could arrange my notes, give ratings, and all that. To my surprise, he actually replied with a detailed answer; I’d never expect him to reply because I know he also gets swarmed by thousands of e-mail. But anyway, his advice is like “here’s where to start, you can figure it out after that”–I’m a bit shy to admit this, but receiving that kind of advice felt incredible. (Or maybe I’m just fanboy-ing. Who knows.)

What I like about Derek is his straightforward, common-sense approach to his life. I don’t know how I discovered him, but the first thing I saw from his work is the first section in this post, Just tell me what to do. Reading that changed how I consume information and started questioning my beliefs on what I’ve been reading.

“Just tell me what to do”: compressing knowledge into directives

This article made me change how I read and digest information from books and most importantly, from academic papers. Most books aren’t straightforward–meaning, they put a lot of stories just to make an analogy. I like books that use stories to make an argument, though.

Academic papers, on the other hand, are easy to overrate because some findings are more shareable on social media. For example, studies that prove how smart you are tend to be shared more often by people who want to prove they’re smart, even though the information isn’t actionable nor life-changing at all.

When I read books now, I speed-read the parts I don’t find actionable (or those that you can’t even derive any action from) and skip to the parts that challenge assumptions and change my thinking.

When I’d tell my friends about a great book I’d just read, they didn’t want to read it. They didn’t want 300 pages of anecdotes, explanations, and supporting arguments. They’d say, “Just tell me what to do.” I realized that for some things, I also don’t want the full 20-hour explanation. I’d be happier with just the conclusions — the actions — the directives.

  • Turn books into to-do lists

Compressing wisdom into directives — (“Do this.”) — is so valuable, but so rarely done.

But what about this observation? “Half a group was shown that extroverts are more successful. Other half shown that introverts are more successful. Then when asked to recall events from their past to help determine which they were, they remembered just the events that support the successful group they were told.” How would you turn that into advice?

  • Obviously, this isn’t an actionable piece of study and there are plenty more like this. What are you gonna do, try to become someone you’re not? This is what I was talking about earlier. Relevantly, I now tend to shy away from most scientific studies because in practice, situations are complex and there are just too many variables you can’t isolate. I now only believe in studies that explain a world of difference for solving a problem. For example, I just recently found the process model of ego depletion supports my hypothesis of “willpower becomes harder to access” after repeated use, rather than being totally depleted nor virtually unlimited.

Ideas are just a multiplier of execution

To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.

  • Some analogy to better understand it: if the best execution is represented by 50,000 USD, and you have the most mediocre idea in the world (let’s say it’s 5 out of 10), then the output is (5)x(50,000)=-250,000 USD. But even great ideas (10 out of 10) don’t matter with poor execution (20USD); output is = 200USD. Put simply, ideas are cheap unless they’re executed well.

That’s why I don’t want to hear people’s ideas. I’m not interested until I see their execution.

How to get rich

Here’s my take on this: Instead of listening to charlatans trying to sell you something by telling you “you can make $10,000 a month with this super secret Amazon bullshit dropshipping blablabla”, listen to people who have already done it, AND (this is important) who do not make “teaching people how to become rich” their full-time job.

1. Live where luck strikes.

Live where everything is happening, where the money is flowing, where careers are being made, where your role models live. Once there, be as in the game as anyone can be.

  • I got three lessons from this: Find your local Silicon Valley. Become discoverable. Influences are powerful.

2. Say yes to everything. Meet everyone. Pursue every opportunity.

  • Contrary to “Saying no to everything” when trying to be productive, saying “yes” to everything increases serendipity. That’s actually how Derek Sivers got most of his money while still in his 20’s.

3. Learn the multiplying skills.

Speaking, writing, psychology, design, conversation, 2nd language, persuasion, programming, meditation/focus.
Not pursued on their own, they’re skills that multiply the success of your main pursuit.

  • Be the jack of the vital few trades. I once hypothesized that psychology, persuasion, speaking, and meditation are the most powerful things you can learn that apply to almost everything in life, and I’m happy to find a successful person who agrees to the same thing.

4. Pursue market value not personal value.

Do not be the starving artist, working on things that have great personal value to you, but little market value.

  • In pursuing market value, you aim for what value you can provide rather than what the world can offer you. Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You makes the case for this, and I highly suggest you check it out.

Don’t try to make a career out of everything you love.

  • I think Derek’s thinking here is when you try to create a career out of everything you love, there’s a tendency to find what it gives you rather than what you can offer the market. Again, this goes back to the last point.

5. Shamelessly imitate success.

The market doesn’t care about your personal need to be unique.

  • Find what works and do more of it. It’s funny because after I read this, I started really imitating the successful bloggers I admire. I don’t follow “blogging blogs” anymore, because it’s not only more helpful to just observe what successful blogs do to achieve X result, but it’s also more fun this way. In case you didn’t know, my minimalist design was inspired by James Clear’s blog. My font was inspired by Farnam Street. My writing and thinking is inspired by Mark Manson and Nat Eliason (although they’re at least 100X better). My marketing is inspired by Miles Beckler. I shamelessly imitated the intersection between what I liked about them and what works for each of them.

Get great at executing other people’s ideas as well as your own.

  • Value execution over trying to be special or smart. Ideas are just a multiplier for execution!

6. Be the owner, not just inventor.

Ideas don’t make you rich. Great execution of ideas does._
The biggest rewards will always go to those that fund it and own it. To get rich, be the owner. Own as close to 100% as possible.

7. Benefit from human nature.

Instead of complaining about the downside of human nature, find ways to benefit from it.
Instead of complaining about the rules, just learn the game, then play it.

  • Learn persuasion and how people tick, because practically speaking, complaining doesn’t solve problems.

How to stop being rich and happy

Obviously, this article implies the opposite advice, but nonetheless awesome.

1. Prioritize lifestyle design.

You’ve made it, so it’s all about you, now. Make your dreams come true.
Shape your surroundings to please your every desire. Make your immediate gratification the most important thing.

  • A lot of entrepreneurs prioritize lifestyle design but only up to the point that they’re freed to pursue what they want to do. I believe striving for lifestyle design alone is an epitomy of becoming fragile. It’s somehow the same problem I got from trying to design my environment too much; I believed the environment should be perfect at all times, and nothing bad should happen any time.

2. Chase that comparison moment.

Ignore the fact that the happiness only comes from the moment of comparison between the old and new.

  • Gratefulness is happiness. It comes from deliberately thinking that you, instead of having nothing, you have everything you need instead.

Once you’ve had your new thing for a week, and it becomes the new norm, seek happiness from another new thing.

3. Buy, not rent.

Why rent a house, castle, boat, or car, when you can buy? It’s not about the thing, it’s about identity. This shows who you are now.

  • We buy based on emotion and justify on logic. Possession isn’t always the logical thing, but it’s easily the most emotional so people prefer buying instead even though it’s financially suboptimal

4. Internalize your new status.

Admit you are in a different class of people now, with different needs.

  • Here’s how to look up to yourself and down on others

5. Be a connoisseur.

Learn what others say is the finest. Insist on only the finest.

  • In other words, keep up with the Joneses for that double-whammy effect: lose your riches and your satisfaction.

6. Get to know your possessions.

Now that you own the best, it’s time to focus on what you’ve got. Learn all about the features of your new possessions.

  • Diving into your materialistic world is false happiness. Even brain science has shown that it’s the anticipation of getting a reward, rather than getting it that gives the most dopamine.

7. Acclimate to comfort.

Eliminate every discomfort from your life. Blame others when the world seems hard, and is not living up to your standards.

  • Think that discomfort is something that should always be eliminated, and you’ll live miserably. There is value in suffering. The question just becomes “what are you willing to suffer for?”

How to like people

1. Assume it’s their last day.

  • Self-explanatory. It sounds kinda evil, but if you know it’s someone’s last day on Earth, you’d probably not take your time together for granted. But it’s easier said than done.

2. Be who you’d be when alone.

  • In other words, show authenticity and vulnerability.

3. Assume men and women are the same.

…differences among men and differences among women are far greater than the differences between men and women.

  • People exaggerate gender roles. Humans are humans.

4. Always make new friends.

Let go of people that don’t welcome and encourage your change.

  • This is probably the best form of maximizing your happiness. Out of all your friends, there are only a couple ones that give you around 80% of your happiness. Some of them you won’t find when you don’t make an effort to befriend others.

5. Avoid harming the relationship.

A friendship that may take years to develop can be ruined by a single action.

  • Stop mindlessly responding. Stop criticism, stop proving your friend is wrong or stupid nor talk ill behind his back. I believe Seneca wrote extensively about friendship in his letters to Lucilius.

6. Act calm and kind. Regardless of how you feel.

7. Don’t try to change them.

Stop trying to change people who don’t think they have a problem.

  • Stop giving unsolicited advice. Stephen Covey has a pretty good take on this: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” Once you’ve thoroughly empathized, (not symphatized) you’ll know whether you should give advice or not. But a rule of thumb is to not give huge advice unless asked–even when you think it’s revolutionary.

8. Purge the vampires.

Get rid of people that drain you, that don’t make you feel good about yourself. They make you hate all people.

  • I learned about these “vampires” in Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work!; I believed that it shouldn’t just apply to producing content, but to your whole life as well. That said, those who make you grow as a person may make you feel bad sometimes. Be wary of mistaking them for vampires.

How to be useful to others

I strongly believe building a business is the best way to become useful to others.
Some people say you’re a sellout if you put a price tag on your work, but I digress. Here’s Derek.

1. Get famous.

The more people you reach, the more useful you are. The opposite is hiding, which is of no use to anyone.

  • This isnt to say try to famewhore your way into fame. It means reaching more people with your message e.g. SEO and Marketing
  • Read “Show Your Work” by Austin Kleon

2. Get rich.

Once rich, spend the money in ways that are even more useful to others.

  • By having money, you’ll have a greater ability to help more people

3. Share strong opinions.

Those who were undecided or ambivalent can just adopt your stance. But those who disagree can solidify their stance by arguing against yours.

  • Polarize. Nobody will like you strongly if you just stand on middle grounds all the time. Everybody has strong opinions on something. That said, there is a balance between sharing strong opinions and disrespecting opposing views.

4. Be expensive.

People who spend more for a product or service value it more, and get more use out of it.

  • Higher prices can actually help, because of the sunk cost fallacy. I noticed I just binged Mark Manson’s content after paying for his subscription, even though it’s just a limited amount. As a result, I found that I valued his writing advice more than everything I’ve seen on the Internet.

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