Monthly Archives: September 2020

999 Real Fans


This blog is an excerpt from my book, Lead The Future: Strategies and Systems for Emerging Leaders (the e-book is cheaper here).

You may want to familiarize yourself with Inequality and Power Laws before reading this blog post.

Lookin’ for all my real friends
How many of us? How many of us are real friends
To real friends, ’til the reel end
’Til the wheels fall off, ’til the wheels don’t spin

—Kanye West, “Real Friends

This section is a synthesis of the essay “1,000 True Fans” by Kevin Kelly—author and former editor of WIRED Magazine—and the self-love exemplified by Kanye West.

Kelly’s essay opens:

To be a successful creator, you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craft person, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, or entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.

The impetus for Kelly to write this essay was not a discovery of these power laws or the desire to simply write a contrarian essay during the globalization of celebrity. He decided to write his essay because of the emergence of networks like Facebook and Twitter, which were facilitating direct, instantaneous communication between creators and their fans. The ability to have a conversation with your fans changed the reality of what it meant to be a fan and opened new possibilities for how one could work full time as a creator.

Depending on your specialization and cost of living, you could potentially live off having 1,000 “true fans,” or even fewer. These are fans who will purchase from or donate to you to support your craft because they love what you make and want you to focus your energy on creating.

If you lived in Rochester, New York, as a single bachelor, you could easily survive on $36,000 per year, assuming you could qualify for a low premium health care plan. If you can, then you would only need your 1,000 real fans to give you an average of $36 per year, or $3 per month, to cover all your expenses. As we’ve seen, both wealth and social media following fall into a power law distribution. The math—$36 per fan per year on average times 1,000 fans equals $36,000—is correct. However, in reality, you might have one fan who contributes a disproportionate amount of your total earnings.

If you’ve ever watched any of the top Twitch streamers—people who play video games full time—you will see this phenomenon. When Fortnite first came out, I would regularly watch Ninja play, and he would receive a consistent stream of $8 donations and always thanked each donor by name. Every time I watched him play, he would start losing it midstream: “Oh my god. Thank you so much. Really, thank you, thank you. Wow,” and then you would see that one subscriber donated $1,000 to his stream. In an interview with ESPN, Ninja told them that $40,000 was the largest single donation he had received at one time. That one donation is 5,000 times the size of those $8 donations.

Let’s now consider our confident friend Kanye West. One of the greatest surprises of 2018 for me was that I became a giant Ye, or Kanye West fan. He produced albums for Pusha T and Nas, produced and performed KIDS SEE GHOSTS with Kid Cudi, and released ye all within the span of a few weeks. The high quality of this avalanche of albums prompted me to review his discography, and I probably listened to KIDS SEE GHOSTS over fifty times. 

In particular, the song “Reborn” was exactly what I needed:

I had my issues, ain’t that much I could do
But, peace is something that starts with me, with me
At times, wonder my purpose / Easy then to feel worthless
But, peace is something that starts with me.

I had liked some of Kanye’s music in the past, but I never really understood why he had such devout fans. From the Taylor Swift “Imma let you finish” incident to listening to him sing “I Am A God,” I just couldn’t understand his extreme egotism.

My perspective changed when I heard Kanye in this BBC interview:

If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me. You’re a fan of yourself. You will believe in yourself. I’m just the espresso. I’m just the shot in the morning to get you going to make you believe you can overcome that situation that you’re dealing with all the time.

In that moment, my entire view of Kanye West’s brand was reframed. 

His goal was to be the loudest, most egotistical person in the room, or even the world. While an incredibly successful career strategy, his approach had a direct impact on his fans’ lives as well. Not only is Ye able to capture our attention through his personality and antics, but he also creates that space for us all to be authentic, to be loud and assert our individuality. 

And for that freedom, I thank Kanye West. But that’s not all that Ye’s self-love has to teach us.

Let’s return to the example of the bachelor living in Rochester. Perhaps one of his real fans could choose to give him $3,000 one year, maybe even more, but that outcome is quite unlikely. However, he has one fan who can have that level of impact on his life every single year. His realest fan. Fan #1. No, not his mom, although we’ll address that too. No, himself.

If that bachelor chooses to give up drinking alcohol to focus on his writing and swaps Friday nights at bars for sober nights playing cards with close friends, he can save money, avoid liver damage, skip many hungover mornings, and create more content and products. The example is not meant to condemn drinking alcohol (although it is literal poison). 

You can make decisions that will enable you to achieve your dreams. You can view yourself as your most important fan. You can invest in your own work. You can love what you create. 

You have partners in your life who will contribute in nonlinear ways as well. The people you date. Your roommate. A business partner. Your best friend. Your parents. Your mom might give you a jacket for your birthday. Your co-founder might give you advice that enables you two to grow your business’s revenue and cover your cost of living. Your spouse might help you stay sane by being there to support you when you stretch yourself too thin.

As we’ve discussed throughout this book, your collaborators and partners will be critical to your success as a leader. Focus on building and maintaining relationships with your realest fans rather than obsessing about how you’ll get 500,000 followers on Twitter. 

ACTION: Call one of these friends, partners, or family members. If you can’t call them, shoot them a text and ask if there’s a time where you could meet up or video chat in the next week.

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Inequality and Power Laws


This blog is an excerpt from my book, Lead The Future: Strategies and Systems for Emerging Leaders (the e-book is cheaper here).

One of the people who has most influenced my thinking is former Wall Street trader, philosopher, and best-selling author Nicholas Nassim Taleb. If you find some of the ideas about probability in this book interesting and useful, I highly recommend you read his collection of books, Incerto.

A main idea in one of the books from Taleb’s Incerto, The Black Swan, is that the bell curve does not provide a valid model for many kinds of data and phenomena.

If you are a student, you will likely be most familiar with the bell curve from your experience taking tests. It is common for teachers and professors to grade exams on a [bell] curve. They will assign a certain amount of As, Bs, Cs, etc. based on the distribution of scores on the exam. This enables the teacher to avoid giving every student an A, on an easy exam, or giving every student an F, if the exam was designed for students with greater proficiency.

Certain sets of data do not fit inside this bell curve distribution. These data sets tend to be focused on domains related to money and social phenomena, rather than biology. We can model many of these kinds of distributions as an exponential growth curve, or “winner-take-most” or “winner-take-all” model. For example, you have likely heard that the top 1 percent of the wealthiest people in the United States owned 38.6 percent of all American wealth in 2016—an example of this type of power law distribution.

The power law curve looks something like this:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

—Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Author, Inventor, and Futurist

In the case of, say, Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos, this tremendous wealth results from their ability to monetize the value their companies provide. They were able to not only create value, but also successfully convert it into profit. In contrast, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has created tremendous value for the world but did not implement a business model that would enable him to amass wealth in proportion to the value he created.

We can also look at a historical example. George Eastman, with his company Eastman Kodak, popularized personal film cameras. These cameras radically expanded people’s ability to capture photos and were critical to the mass adoption of photography as a consumer good. Eastman Kodak was a tremendously profitable company that captured large amounts of the value it created, through its monopoly on film production and processing. Due to Kodak’s patents, they faced little to no competition for many years.

The proliferation of cameras has created immense value for society, and these products are now available globally. In my lifetime, I have experienced both disposable Kodak film cameras and the incredible, machine-learning-augmented Pixel 2 camera. The latter has enabled my brother to thoroughly document the childhoods of my niece and nephew. A low estimate suggests there may be 10,000 times the amount of photos and videos of their childhood than mine or my brother’s.

A company like Kodak can be cited as an example of both the tyranny of monopolies and the value created from technological innovation. At the time of writing, every smartphone now has a camera orders of magnitude more powerful than anything George Eastman could have hoped to create. While phone companies today compete at the margin to provide the best camera, a high-quality camera is a required feature for any smartphone. Commercial cell phone manufacturing is a highly competitive market with moderate profits, especially contrasted with Eastman Kodak’s consumer film monopoly under George Eastman’s leadership.

While Facebook and Amazon receive justifiable criticism for some of their business activities and the exorbitant wealth of their founders, their critics often ignore or overlook the value they have created. Facebook enables their users to communicate with their friends, family, and fans, facilitates distribution for independent news sources and other entrepreneurs, and encourages fundraising for thousands of nonprofit projects. Likewise, Amazon empowers many small businesses to expand their markets, supports new products and business opportunities through Amazon Web Services, and enables authors, like me, to get our content to our readers in person, on Kindle, or via Audible. You may have good reason to critique these firms, but the point of this section is to point out this tension that arises from innovation.

Inequality can result from innovation that provides immense value to our lives. The reality is that power law distributions exist and we should develop an understanding of the origins of these inequalities.

Another example of power laws can be found in search engine usage. In August 2019, Google’s search engine was used for 93.14 percent of all mobile searches. The next largest search engine, Baidu, only accounted for 3.56 percent of mobile searches. This dominance in search results enabled Google to generate 86.78 percent of all its revenues from Q3 2017 to Q3 2018. This distribution has been relatively stable over time. In this example, we see that not only is there a power law distribution in the usage of these search engines but there is a power law in revenues generated internal to Google. While they have numerous other products, including the aforementioned Pixel phones, they account for a small fraction of their total revenues.

Recognizing the inequality the power law represents is critical to understanding our modern world. These distributions are an issue the next generation of leaders will have to grapple with as we work to build a more prosperous future. Obscuring and ignoring these inequalities is neither pragmatic nor moral.

We need to continue to permit businesses, their customers, and their employees to benefit from the value they create, but we also need to develop institutions that are more effective at supporting those who do not directly prosper as a result of these innovations.

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How I Placed Into Third Semester German With Three Weeks Of Immersion


Wissen Sie, dass ich Deutsch spreche kann?

I’m not fluent in German by any stretch of the imagination but I’m actively working on it!

This is the quick story of my initial exposure to the German language, which led to my daily Duolingo practice. I am not an expert on language learning and didn’t use any fancy tricks.

In the summer of 2014, I visited Großauheim, Germany, the birth place of my Omi, for the first time. Family friends graciously hosted me and I quickly realized that knowing the word “Nein” (no) wasn’t going to cut it.

While my hosts were away at work, I would spend several hours working through the Duolingo curriculum. And every evening I would be immersed in conversations in German, occasionally joining in with a simple phrase. My hosts taught me phrases like “Gute Nacht” (good night) and “Schlaf gut!” (sleep well) and corrected my mistakes to help me learn.

It is a rare occurrence that I remember dreaming. However, these three weeks that I spent in Germany, I dreamt every single night. My theory is that the immersive experience triggered my brain into rapidly learning the language. Every night my brain was focused on organizing all the information it had taken in and I experienced it as dreams.

What could be more immersive than smoking hookah with a group of German 20-somethings and trying to recognize every word that I could?

Belvedere Palace, Vienna — Yes, it’s this magical in-person

Only a few short weeks later, I arrived in Vienna, Austria to study abroad for the semester. Our program requested that anyone with any background in German at all take a placement test, as the beginner courses are usually full. The German course is required for the program and it’s rare that Americans have any background in German.

Somehow, my limited German experience — 3 weeks with a German family and Duolingo — landed me in third semester German. Was I actually familiar with the language as if I had studied for two semesters?

Hell no! I didn’t know anything. I couldn’t have even used the future tense, let alone conjugated any adjectives properly.

The first three weeks of our semester — in the beautiful late summer of Vienna — we spent our mornings and early afternoons in our German class. For the beginners, this was meant to empower them to complete basic interactions in a respectful way and introduce all of us to the culture of the city.

My peers in third semester German were subjected to a speed-run of everything they had learned in their prior two semesters of German. They spent their evenings easily completing the assigned homework and enjoying the public festivals and Viennese wineries.

In sharp contrast, I made vocabulary flashcards, struggled to understand the fundamentals of German grammar, and spent an additional two or three hours trying to cram two semesters of German into my brain. I definitely didn’t have as much fun as my peers during those first three weeks but I had a transformative experience. I quickly went from being unable to read any signs around me, to being able to read them all.

Eventually, I made it in the famous vineyards myself!

As my studies continued, I caught up to my classmates and began to have a lot more fun. I spent less time studying flashcards and more time trying to speak to Viennese girls at bars. My German was not great when I left Vienna but I had built a solid foundation…the problem would be building on it.

When I returned to the US, I didn’t immediately find a sustainable way to continue to practice German. I became re-immersed in the campus life at University of Rochester and focused my energy on many of the activities that provided the stories and experience for my book — Student Government, politics, and Greek Life.

Over the past two years, I have returned to Duolingo to continue my study of German. My hope is to eventually achieve a conversational proficiency that will enable me to have wide-ranging conversations. That dream is still likely a couple years away.

If this post has inspired you to begin (re)pursuing your own language studies, I do highly recommend Duolingo. I will be publishing a review of my latest experiments with it shortly. If you use this referral link, I receive additional months of Duolingo Premium!

Likewise, if you have any advice or want to (re)connect over our mutual interest in learning languages, email me at grantdever at gmail dot com or reach out to me through whatever preferred channel!

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