Coolest Things I Learned In 2018

I write a weekly email called the Monday Musings. The most popular part of the newsletter is a section called “Coolest Things I Learned This Week.”

It’s fun and eclectic, interesting and intriguing. This is a collection of the most popular insights I shared in 2018.

Subscribe here if you want to see ideas like this every week.

Note: I’ve lost some of the sources for these factoids. If you see something that’s yours, and you’d like me to credit you, please email me. Happy to make the change for you.

Tom Hanks on what it means to be an actor:

“My job is to hold a mirror up to nature, which means I need to reflect true human nature — how we think, how act, and the great paradoxes in all our decisions.”

People don’t buy products. They buy better versions of themselves.

“People don’t buy products because of what those products do, they buy products because of what they imagine they can do   with them.”

The Magic of Bees:

“To survive a Northern winter, bees change the composition of the swarm by shrinking the overall population, caulking the hive, getting rid of the deadweight males (i.e., ALL of the males), and laying just enough eggs to preserve a minimal survivable population through the winter and into spring. 

They cluster together in the center of the hive, keeping the queen in the center, shivering their wings to create kinetic energy, occasionally sending out suicide squads to retrieve honey stores from the outer combs. They lower their metabolism by creating a cloud of carbon dioxide in the hive. 

Yes, a carbon dioxide cloud.” — Ben Hunt

In a Big Craze, Be the Arms Dealer

Whenever there is a market fad/phenomena with low or no barriers and a flood of entrants—the best strategy is often: Be the arms dealer.

The lowest profile players in high-profile, low-barrier industries are almost always the most profitable.

Don’t sell wine, sell barrels.

Don’t make movies, create animation software.

Don’t own restaurants, build the restaurant supply company.

Birds Sense Magnetic Fields in their Vision: 

The mystery behind how birds navigate might finally be solved: it’s not the iron in their beaks providing a magnetic compass, but a newly discovered protein in their eyes that lets them “see” Earth’s magnetic fields.

The bird’s eye has a magnetic field detecting proteins in the retina, and their vision becomes skewed with an overlay tied to how that protein impacts regular sight. 

The image below is an excellent, if speculative, reconstruction of what birds see. An overlay band against the sky, serving as a compass for migrating across the globe.




The Thin Line Between Success and Failure

The same traits needed for outlier success are the same traits that increase the odds of failure… So be careful blindly praising successes or criticizing failures, as they often made similar decisions with slightly different levels of luck.

How Writing Shapes Language

When writing is first introduced into a society, it is typically used mainly as a record of spoken language, but as writers eventually write for readers, not hearers, the language of text diverges from speech.

The Somali language had essentially no written tradition until 1972, when it became the official state language. Over a mere 20-year period, researchers have observed noticeable changes to the written language, such as the emergence of longer and more complex words and greater elaboration of sentence structure.

The Beautiful Quote on Jeff Bezos’ Fridge at Home




People Walk Faster in Big Cities

Well, this is cool! 

Average walking speed increases predictably as city size increases.




I Love this Term: Starchitecture

In contemporary architecture, the personality of the architect — not just the building — is the product.

[Today’s buildings have] a signature visual gimmick that plays well on Instagram and on the photo-heavy web sites that make up much of online architecture media.

The first starchitects traded in buildings that acted as symbols for specific places, at a time when cities were competing for visibility as well as capital on a global scale. The competition has intensified with the rise of the internet and the rebirth and globalization of Silicon Valley in the 2000s. Now Ingels and BIG are emblematic of an age in which every building must be a signature unto itself, acting as a branded digital image to spread online and as a proof of concept for the Bilbao effect—and, last of all, a physical space to inhabit.

How the Internet is Changing Status

Old Status Symbols: 

  • Luxury goods

  • Position of authority

  • Busy-ness

  • Endorsed by establishment

New Status Symbols: 

  • Fitness

  • Position of influence

  • Flexible schedule

  • Creative Output

  • Self-actualization

  • Independent

What Architecture Signals

“If you want to know what a given society believes in, look at what its largest buildings are devoted to.” — Joseph Campbell

Richard Feynman’s Learning Strategy

Step 1: Continually ask “Why?”

Step 2: When you learn something, learn it to where you can explain it to a child.

Step 3: Instead of arbitrarily memorizing things, look for the explanation that makes it obvious.

Back to the Dawn of Time and The Early History of the Universe

Here’s what’s seen with the Hubble Telescope:




This image is known as the Hubble Extreme Deep Field. 

In September of 2012, a team of scientists pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at a single tiny patch of sky and gradually built up an image over 23 days of observation. 

The image contains 5,500 galaxies, each of which, in turn, contains billions of stars. This region of sky ordinarily looks empty because these galaxies are far too dim to be seen with the naked eye. Some of the galaxies are more than 13 billion light years away. 

We are seeing them as they were just a few hundred million years after the big bang, near the dawn of time. If you have the eyes to see,this is what deep space and the early history of the universe looks like.

Virgil Abloh’s Zig-Zag Approach to Creativity

Use the zigzag approach to find a new space. 

Linear thinking results in copies of past products. 

Do opposites. 

That space in between gives you a new experience that you can apply and problem solve and that’s why I work on so many things at one time.

— Virgil Abloh, Artistic Director at Louis Vuitton

None of these faces are real. All made up by AIs. 




My All-Time Favorite Writing Advice

“When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. 

You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. 

The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer must give him something worthy of his gift to you.” 

— Steven Pressfield

Emotions that you feel but could never explain until now.




Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “”The limits of language are the limits of your world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Flag Colors by Latitude




I can’t stop watching this GIF from the World Cup. 




A New Record for Successful Flights




202,157 successful flights were completed in a single day, on July 4th, 2018. 

Imagine all the precise engineering, rigorous maintenance, international cooperation, and just people pooling their talents and resources required to make this happen. Flight is still the most advanced and spectacular human invention.

Avoid Boring People

“The best advice I ever got was Jim Watson, who co-discovered DNA. Jim is brilliant, and as many brilliant people are a little bit crazy, and Jim has this admonishment which is double meaning, three words: ‘Avoid boring people.’ I love it, because what he’s saying is, ‘Stay away from people who are not interesting,’ avoid boring people, and, ‘Avoid boring people. Don’t be boring to people. Be interesting.’”

China and India Dominate the Population Map







The Placebo Effect May Be Overstated

“Probably placebo effects rode on the coattails of a more important issue, regression to the mean. That is, most sick people get better eventually. This is true both for diseases like colds that naturally go away, and for diseases like depression that come in episodes which remit for a few months or years until the next relapse. People go to the doctor during times of extreme crisis, when they’re most sick. So no matter what happens, most of them will probably get better pretty quickly.”

Music is Emotional Scaffolding

Love this idea.

“You could say, without losing a great deal, that the purpose of music is to make emotional textures [clear and understandable] enough to serve as a narrative canvas. Which is why the pop-psych idea of having a theme song for your life is so attractive when you are young. To be young is to feel with more intensity than your capacity for making emotions legible can handle. So you seek external scaffolding.”

Simple Writing Tricks

One of the simplest ways to improve one’s prose and to keep a reader’s attention is simply to vary sentence length.

The cadence of breathing and speaking tends to mimic the frequency of the brain’s ability to process words and sentences.

There is a restaurant in Los Angeles called Brunch Near Me, presumably to trick Googlers. 





The Simpsons Predicted Disney’s Acquisition of Fox More Than A Decade Ago




July 4th Fireworks Are Perfect for GIFs




The fastest-growing counties in the United States are all warm places.




Why Red Barns are Red

Barns are painted red because red paint is cheap. Red paint is cheap because iron is plentiful, and iron is plentiful because it is the final element formed out of a dying star.




Roger Federer is a Legend… Look at this shot!




Wait for it…

Wait for it…




The reaction is even better!




A Simple Formula for Writing Better Hooks

  1. “Get 3 yes’s in 30 seconds.”

  2. Readers should nod their head yes to the headline, subheading, and first sentence.

  3. If they’ve made it to the third sentence, they’re ready for an interesting and compelling story.

A Map of Bird Migration




Nike’s first head of marketing, Rob Strasser published this memo 40 years ago.




Who is a True Artist?

The true artist is one who lives completely, harmoniously, who does not divide his art from living, whose very life is that expression, whether it be a picture, or music, or his behavior; who has not divorced his expression on a canvas or in music or in stone from his daily conduct, daily living.  That demands the highest intelligence, highest harmony. To me the true artist is the man who has that harmony. 

How the Japanese Relate to Nature

They believe that every impulse, every natural impulse, is not to be corrected, but to be sublimated, and to be beautified. They take a glorious interest in the beauty of nature. They cooperate with it. In many Japanese gardens, you don’t know where nature begins and art ends.




How camera lenses change the shape of your face




Childhood vs. Adult Boredom




This is What a Great Meme Looks Like




Quality of Conversation Increases with Time

Rather than spending two or three hours with somebody, I prefer to spend two or three days with them. More, if possible. Time has the effect of pushing conversation deeper. After 24 hours, the smalltalk disappears, and after 48 hours, philosophizing is inevitable. The quality of conversation and the persistence of shared memories increases exponentially with time.




The Story of Hollywood

The reason Hollywood is in LA is because the independent film makers were trying to escape Edisons film trust and LA was close enough to Mexico that they could skip the country if legal battles got too nasty.

Likewise, Palm Springs became the getaway of the stars because it was the exact number of miles they were allowed to roam while under contract to the big studios.

How Maps Distort Reality




Raise Others’ Aspirations




Everybody Worships

Here’s a map of religious belief as percentage of population.

Red is high percentage of local population with faith. Blue is low.




Paypal’s Founding Team




PayPal’s founding team was six people. Four of them were born outside of the United States. Five of them were 23 or younger. Four of them built bombs when they were in high school.

Marketing Lessons from American Express

Great marketers unlock massive amounts of value with little tweaks. 

A great example: American Express. The “Member Since” date on AMEX cards means nothing. But according to estimates, the effect on customer loyalty is estimated to be worth more than $100 million! 




How to Ask Good Questions

  1. A good question is energizing. It’s an inviting challenge, it’s something that’s interesting and fun to pursue. It inspires a new way of seeing things, a new way of ordering information.

  2. A good question is an act of pointing. First you survey the ideascape in front of you – maybe it’s shared territory between the two of you, or maybe it’s you looking over your conversation-partner’s shoulder – and then you try and identify the most compelling, interesting thing, and point to that.

  3. “Funny” or “interesting” is a sort of compass or gyroscope that guides you away from stale questions.

Evolution and Death

“The most important component of evolution is death. Or, said another way, it’s easier to create a new organism than to change an existing one. Most organisms are highly resistant to change, but when they die it becomes possible for new and improved organisms to take their place. 

This rule applies to social structures such as corporations as well as biological organisms: very few companies are capable of making significant changes in their culture or business model, so it is good for companies eventually to go out of business, thereby opening space for better companies in the future.”

— John Ousterhout, Stanford professor

An Incredible Aerial Image of New York City




Keyboard Shortcuts that will Save You A Lot of Time




World GDP by Country