It would have been a completely unremarkable, certainly unmemorable Safeway grocery store run if not for the book that caught my eye on the way to the checkout aisle.
This was two, maybe three years ago, and yet I still remember this book and its cover.
Of course, I was instantly wary. The faux wax seal, the quill-pen script, the ancient parchment paper aglow with some kind of magical beams—it wore the sheepskin of a Dan Brown mega-thriller, except it unapologetically declared itself to be truth. Get whatever you want. Discover the secret to life, the book jacket proclaimed.
The promises were too grand, the scent of scam too strong to ignore. Clearly, there wasn’t some abracadabra shortcut, some kernel of wisdom wrapped in gold foil and tucked away in a dusty safe somewhere, “the culmination of centuries of great thinkers, scientists, artists and philosophers,” passed discretely from generation to generation…
Curiosity kills the cat, and that day it made a chump out of me. I tossed the book into my shopping cart and headed for the checkout line.
At a conference last week about marketplaces, Gagan Biyani shared some pearls of insight from his experiences at Udemy and Lyft. He spoke of the classic chicken and the egg problem. If you’re a seller (a purveyor of some mighty fine pastries, perhaps), you’ll want to bring your goods to a market where there will be lots of baked-good aficionados. If you’re looking to throw a pastry party, you’ll want to go somewhere with a handsome selection of croissants and eclairs.
What this boils down to is that if you’ve got eggs, it’s easy to get chickens. If you’ve got chickens, it’s easy to get eggs. Customers beget sellers. Sellers beget customers. There’s even an economic term for this: the virtuous cycle.
But what happens if you have no eggs and no chickens?
I’ve often felt that if things were fair, then the ease or reward of any particular endeavor should be proportional to how valuable or good it is. But this is the opposite of how many things function. For instance:
In physics: the law of inertia states that the innate force of matter… endeavors to preserve its present state, whether it be of rest or of moving uniformly forward in a straight line. (Wikipedia)
In finance: it’s easier to create more wealth when you already have wealth.
In the office: you are more likely to receive confidence-boosting signals (compliments and promotions and the like) if you already project confidence.
In lifestyles: destructive habits are more difficult to break than to fall into. It is harder for a smoker to say no to an offered cigarette than a non-smoker. Somebody who came from an abusive family is more likely to fall into another abusive relationship. Recovering alcoholics relapse when things are stressful, which only creates more stress.
In relationships: the more adamantly two people disagree, the harder it is for them to earn each other’s trust and resolve the disagreement.
“Fairness is a concept for children,” Candace Bushnell was once quoted as saying. (Her book Sex and the City sparked a cultural phenomenon with a hit show and two movies, but she herself earned very little from those successes.)
There is no such thing as fair or unfair. There is only how the world works.
Do you want to know what The Secret is?
It’s simultaneously both accurate and disappointing.
If you think positively—if you truly, honestly believe that you can attain or achieve something—then you will achieve it.
I don’t think most great thinkers, scientists, artists and philosophers would disagree with that. They probably thought positively and believed they could do what they set out to do.
But what the book left out is the hard part.
How do you get the egg or the chicken in the first place?
How can you fundamentally change the way you think?
One great line from Gagan Biyani’s talk last week has stayed with me: faking the chicken. It means doing whatever it takes to get the chicken in place so that you can start reaping the benefit of eggs.
Using his example, if you’re building a marketplace, even if you have no buyers, incentivize sellers to come on board. Maybe pay them directly. Once the sellers are there, you can leverage them to attract buyers.
Or, if you’re lacking confidence, fake it until you make it. Act as if you have conviction in what you’re saying even if the entire neighborhood’s butterfly population has taken up residence in your stomach.
Or, if something seems out of your capabilities, surround yourself with people that have done it before. Take inspiration from those who make it look possible, and maybe even easy. Trick yourself into thinking you already have the chicken.
At the end of the day, that’s life—the constant wrestling with and pushing of the self. The cycle of striving for better and better cycles, so that we can achieve something of meaning in an unfair world.
Compared to the original Secret, it’s not as enticing of a promise.
But then again, it seems just a little more real.