Per My Last E-mail #24
Mexico, Three Book Recs, Lunchclub, The Wing, and Scenius
Hi Friends 👋,
Happy Tuesday from Mexico City!
Puja and I are going to our friends’ wedding here on Saturday, so we came down a few days early to experience Dia de los Muertos, explore more of the city, and set a Guinness World Record for number of tacos eaten in a 10-day period. I’m proud to report that two days in, we’re ahead of pace and showing no signs of slowing. Because those tacos don’t eat themselves, I’m going to keep this week’s e-mail (just a little bit) shorter.
What I’m Reading
What I’m Reading gets the place of honor right up front this week because the concepts in these books are helpful in understanding some of this week’s Links & Listens.
Vacation means more reading time, so since my last e-mail, I’ve been able to finish three excellent books: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, What You Do Is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz, and Get Together by Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, and Kai Elmer Sotto. These feel like books that I’m going to keep coming back to, and I’d recommend them to any of you who are interested in how humans feel, think, and behave, individually and when we form groups.
Since you’re going to read each of these books, I won’t spoil them. I’ll just give one takeaway from each, and will revisit some others in the Links & Listens section below.
The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
One-Sentence Summary: A scientific exploration of how human morality and decision-making work, and what that tells us about politics, religion, and culture.
Takeaway: We make decisions based on emotions, and use our reason to justify all of the gut decisions we make. Haidt likens our emotions to an Elephant and our reason to a Rider. The Rider seems to be in control, but the Elephant is so large that the Rider is often just responding as quickly as it can to the decisions the Elephant makes. Haidt uses the Rider/Elephant analogy to help explain why we can’t settle disagreements with reason, why we need to motivate the Elephant with emotional appeals, and why we often make decisions that confuse even ourselves.
What You Do Is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz
One-Sentence Summary: A former CEO-turned-VC shares historical lessons and practical advice on building culture.
Takeaway: In order to clarify your culture, you need to create shocking rules. Rules that make everyone who has to follow them ask, “Why?” and an answer that solidifies a key aspect of the culture. Touissant Louverture, the Haitian slave who led the only successful slave revolt, created a rule against infidelity among his troops, even though infidelity was a common part of, and even a reward for, war at the time. Why? Because he needed a culture of trust, and if soldiers’ families couldn’t trust them to honor their commitments, how could they trust each other?
Get Together by Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, and Kai Elmer Sotto
One-Sentence Summary: A guide to creating, growing, and sustaining communities from three of the best in the community-building game.
Takeaway: This is going to serve as a go-to resource as I work on building a community; I highlighted at least three things on each page. But the thing that struck me most about Get Together was how well it was written for the purpose it’s trying to serve. It’s short, doesn’t unnecessarily repeat itself, provides the right amount of illuminating case studies, and re-iterates the most important pieces in checklist form at the end of each chapter. Wayyy more business books should be written this way.
Links & Listens
🦸♀️ The Wing: How an exclusive women’s club sparked a thousand arguments by Linda Kinstler in The Guardian
The Wing, a “network of work and community spaces designed with [women] in mind,” is as controversial as it is beloved. It has ardent supporters, and detractors who pick apart its every move - it’s been criticized for being unwelcoming to people of color, for being too elitist, and has even been sued by men who believe they should have the right to join the women-only club.
Some of the people who are upset with The Wing are those who can’t join - because they’re male, because they don’t feel they belong, because they can’t afford it. But many of The Wing’s detractors are its own members; the same people who defend it against external criticism are the ones who attack it themselves. So what’s going on? I think we can find some of the answers in Get Together and The Righteous Mind.
Get Together introduces Robert Putnam’s idea that there are two types of communities - those based on bridging social capital and those based on bonding social capital. Bridging communities bring together people of different demographics based on shared interests, whereas bonding communities bring together and strengthen bonds among people with similar backgrounds. The Wing is a bonding community, and as such, it naturally upsets people outside of its group. In many cases, the fact that outsiders attack it makes those on the inside feel an even stronger connection to each other.
More interesting is the fact that even people inside The Wing community are often vocally opposed to its policies, even while remaining actively involved and supporting it against outsiders. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt writes about the fact that we are 90% primates and 10% bees, meaning that we operate on two levels: 90% of the time, we compete against each other as individuals within our group, but 10% of the time, we operate as part of one whole. At certain points, a “hive switch” goes off, and we move from thinking of ourselves as individuals to thinking of ourselves as part of a larger whole. Think back to the 9/11 attacks. Americans who opposed each other on every issue on 9/10 came together as Americans on 9/12. We stopped hating each other, and started hating our enemy together. Haidt cites an old Bedouin proverb: “Me against my brothers; my brothers and me against my cousins; my cousins, my brothers, and me against strangers.” The Wing members fight against each other internally but then have the group’s back when threatened externally.
It’s pretty crazy to realize how much of human behavior is so predictable.
(Relatedly, Ethel’s Club opened its doors in Brooklyn yesterday, and Union Social Club shut its doors in Durham over the weekend. Point: bonding communities. I was a fan of Union Social Club’s mission of creating a more accessible space and bringing together people from diverse backgrounds. Bridging definitely ups the degree of difficulty in attracting and retaining early members and building a sustainable business model, though.)
🤓🤓🤓 Scenius, or Communal Genius by Kevin Kelly
This is an oldy but a greaty. In 2008, Kelly wrote about a term coined by the musician Brian Eno, scenius: “the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.” Examples of scenius include Ben Franklin’s Junto, Vienna Circle, the Bloomsbury Group, The Other Club, MIT’s Building 20, and Burning Man.
Kelly argues that scenius can’t be intentionally created, that it emerges out of the presence of the right early pioneers, the right time, the right generic, flexible space. I agree with Kelly that scenius is difficult to create within the context of a startup or a city - each has its own goals, timelines, and performance standards apart from creating scenius, and enabling the requisite weirdness and freedom to thrive in either context without the certainty of a positive outcome is more of a risk than companies or cities are able to bear.
But half of the battle is just getting the right people in the right place at the right time and giving them the room to do their thing, and I do think you can create that. I wonder what happens if you create a system that thrives independently of any particular outcome, in which the organization wins just by making a place and a community that attracts the type of people who create scenius.
South Park Commons, which not surprisingly says that it draws inspiration from sceniuses Junto and the Bloomsbury Group, feels like it’s on to something. In just over two years, more than 20 companies have been launched out of SPC, including Lunch Club (see below). By providing the right space and putting smart, creative people together, they’re showing early signs of success in creating scenius. I’m taking notes.
🇲🇽 Bonus Watch: Coco
The next best thing to celebrating Dia de los Muertos is watching Coco, and then getting excited enough to come down here for it next year’s festivities.
This week’s Product of the Week is lunchclub.ai.
Last Friday, I had coffee with someone I’ve never met before. He wasn’t introduced to me by a friend, an acquaintance, or even a human being. Instead, an algorithm thought that we would be able to help each other, and it turns out that it was right.
Lunchclub is a startup that was born in South Park Commons, which I wrote about in The Rise of IRL Member Communities. It uses machine learning to discover mutually beneficial connections and helps find a time for the mutually beneficial pairs to meet up IRL. Each week, on Monday, Lunchclub checks in to see when you’re available that week and where, and then follows up with an introduction to a new person it thinks you should meet.
I kept hearing that people were surprised with how spot-on the connections were, so I decided to give it a whirl. Once I got off the waitlist, Lunchclub made its first introduction within a couple of days. From the intro e-mail they sent to both of us, I was blown away by the accuracy of the match.
In-person, it became even more apparent that they had nailed it. The person I met with had worked in finance, like me, and was working on starting an IRL Member Community, like me. Because neither of us had reached out to the other, we came into the conversation on equal footing, and because of the similarities in our backgrounds and interests, we were able to dive right in and start providing feedback and helpful tips to each other. Since we met on Friday, we’ve been e-mailing back and forth, and it feels like this relationship is going to continue to be valuable.
I’m definitely going to let Lunchclub work its magic again. If you’re in New York, SF, London, LA, Toronto, Boston, Seattle or Austin, I’d highly recommend seeing who it can connect you to. You can sign up at my link here.
This Wednesday, we’re locking in a date and location and selecting teams for Debate Club Part Deux. Last call for signups here.
In the meantime, of course, more tacos.
Thanks for reading!