How To Start A Wildfire
90% of wildfires are caused by humans. Most commonly, a campfire is left unattended or not put out properly. If the hierarchy of campfire fuel were to be represented as a pyramid, twigs sit at the base. It’s not just wildfires—most things of magnitude start small. That’s the theme of this week’s newsletter…
How To Start An Ice Age
In the 1920s, Russian-German meteorologist Wladimir Köppen discovered something surprising. Ice ages aren’t caused by extremely cold weather. They are caused by consistently cool weather. It starts with a mild summer. If it stays cool enough that some of a winter’s snow sticks around until the following winter, the leftovers create a cooling effect: the sunlight rebounds off the snowy surface and returns to space at a lower temperature. The lower temperature makes it easier for some of a winter’s snow to stick around until the following winter. And so the process repeats. “The process is self-enlarging, unstoppable,” John McPhee writes in In Suspect Terrain, “and once the ice is really growing it moves.” Little by little, a small base snow becomes a planetary ice sheet. “It is not,” glaciologist Gwen Shultz writes in Ice Age Lost, “the amount of snow that causes ice sheets but the fact that snow, however little, lasts.”
Put A Little Drop In The Bucket
Along with In Suspect Terrain, John McPhee has written some 30 books. He’s published over 80 articles just in The New Yorker. And in addition to all the writing, he’s taught at Princeton University for over 40 years. “If somebody says to me, ‘You’re a prolific writer’—it seems so odd,” McPhee says. He says it doesn’t feel like he does a lot. He just “puts a little drop in a bucket each day.” “That’s the key,” McPhee says. “Because if you put a drop in a bucket every day, after three hundred and sixty-five days, the bucket’s going to have some water in it.”
Do Things That Don’t Scale
With his startup incubator Y Combinator, Paul Graham has helped launch over 3000 companies. Airbnb, Reddit, Twitch, DoorDash, Stripe, Dropbox, and on and on. One of the dividing lines between successful and failed startups, Graham says, is successful startups “do things that don’t scale.” The Airbnb founders famously went door to door to recruit their first users and took the photos of their first hosts’ apartments. “When I remember the Airbnbs during YC,” Graham writes, “I picture them with rolly bags [because] they’d always just flown back from somewhere.” Unlike founders who fail, Graham says, the Airbnbs don’t underestimate the power of compound growth. “We encourage every startup to measure their progress by weekly growth rate,” Graham says. “If you have 100 users, you need to get 10 more next week to grow 10% a week.” 10 more users doesn’t seem like much. But keep growing 10% a week, and it’s like a wildfire. After a year, you’ll have 14,000 users. After 2 years, 2 million users. And so on.
Keep Planting The Little Acorns
In 1986, Richard Hamming gave a talk on how to do high quality work for a long time. The talk was informed by his experience working with Nobel Prize winners, interviewing the great minds of his time, and studying the greats of all time. “Most,” Hamming says, “do what we consider their best work when they are young.” There’s two reasons for this, according to Hamming. First—when you do some good work, you get all kinds of tempting opportunities (advising, consulting, speaking, etc.) to work less. Second—the Nobel-Prize effect: when you get some notoriety, “it is hard to work on small problems,” Hamming says. “The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn’t the way things go.”
Divide and Conquer
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says, “The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.” Don’t try to get the big thing right off. Instead, divide it up into little things. If you want a wildfire, start with twigs. If you want an ice age, start with a small base of snow. If you want to be prolific, put a drop in the bucket every day. If you want millions of users, grow 10% a week. If you want a mighty oak tree, plant the little acorns. If you want to control a large force, divide up their numbers. That’s the way things go.