Derek Sivers

Entrepreneur, programmer, avid student of life. I make useful things, and share what I learn.

Some things I've learned this year that turned my world upside-down and I'm still trying to wrap my head around

Some things I've learned this year that turned my world upside-down and I'm still trying to wrap my head around:

Unlimited servers with unlimited space and unlimited bandwidth : for 10 cents an hour - only when you need it, and not when you don't.

It used to be, when I decided that I wanted to do a whole new project that needed a new server, that I would...

... then that server would be there forever, until I decided to repurpose it, upgrade it, or abandon it. If it got overloaded, I would need to spend another $3000 and another 4 hours to set up a 2nd server.

But now, thanks to Amazon EC2 and S3, I type a few commands on my laptop, and somewhere in Seattle a powerful server jumps to life one minute later, just for me. I can play with it for as long as I'd like, then shut it down or replace it with something else anytime I want.

This changes everything! I'll never need to buy or set up another webserver again. The first time I saw it work, my mouth hung open, and I couldn't stop laughing for a couple minutes.

It's a total base philosophy switch from needing to own something to just having it appear when you need it, and not when you don't.

(Imagine if any guitar you ever wanted could appear in your hands, in your home studio, for just the few hours you needed it to record, for 10 cents an hour.)

(2014+ update: This has become the norm, but now I'm back to enjoying the luxury of a dedicated server.)

Letting Google be the mailserver for my own domain, for free.

I've spent so many hours setting up Qmail, tweaking it, upgrading spam filters, and all that fun stuff. But Google lets you use their mailservers for free, even for your own domain. (No “@gmail.com” needed. No need to use their webmail. Just set them as your POP and SMTP server in your mail program.) Their spam filters are amazing. The only downside is you can only send 1000 emails a day through their server, so it wouldn't work for CD Baby, but the huge upside is their permanent archive of incoming and outgoing email.

(2014+ update: Not into the idea of Google reading all my email anymore.)

A business doesn't need employees.

Own your own small business? Read The Obsolete Employee (but only after you read E-Myth Revisited).

Currently providing a service to an employer? Read some Tom Peters, who suggests you think of yourself as a 1-person company (“Me, Inc.”), whose current biggest client is your employer, but hone your service so that it can be hired by other clients as well.

Put these two together, and you have a world of service-providers and clients, with everyone as their own boss. The whole concept of employee mainly came from the factory age, but there are less reasons these days for the traditional employee-employer relationship.

From a small business point of view, I'm better off hiring independent specialists to do what needs to be done, and not need someone to be doing that in my office, 40 hours a week, from 9am to 5pm, Monday through Friday, etc.

(Note how similar this is to using Amazon's servers instead of needing to own your own.)

Diverse independent groups of people are smarter than any one person.

The Wisdom of Crowds and Wikinomics blow apart the notion of experts, proving that a diverse collection of independent outside opinions will almost always be smarter than any expert. And no matter what your organization (whether you're Google or Sony), the brains and labor outside your organization is always better than anything you've got in-house. So learn to open up your organization to outside contributions.

I could talk for hours about how this changed everything for me, and I'm looking forward to trying some hands-on examples of this myself over the next few years.

The Smartest Investment Book You’ll Ever Read applies this same truism to investing, showing that active financial managers (aka “experts”) on average perform worse than the market average. (In November 2000, Fortune magazine released the “top picks” from its panelists of “top” stock analysts. Those picks ended up under-performing the market average by 400%! He gives many of these examples, and encourages you to ignore ALL experts, and only invest in broad indexes of the entire market. In other words : trust the wisdom of crowds.)

Music subscription service devices

The Sansa Connect changed the way I think about music. (More recent recommendation: the Ibiza Rhapsody).

No computer needed. It connects by wifi directly to Rhapsody, which has almost everything you'd ever want to hear, available any time you want to hear it, without needing to buy.

Go to Pitchfork, look at their top-rated albums, and download them all from Rhapsody to your device to listen to any time over the next few weeks. Doesn't cost you anything, so there's no risk.

Tell it to play you a radio station. Hear something you like? Click [GET THIS SONG] or [GET THIS ALBUM] or [MAKE A MIX LIKE THIS SONG].

I got turned on to more music from my little Sansa Connect than I have by any other means in years. I have a massive music collection but I haven't accessed it in months, since anything I want to hear is available instantly any time I want to hear it. Why maintain my huge collection anymore?

(2014+ update: It's a shame they don't make anything like this anymore, but I guess our smartphones can use Spotify, so close enough.)

The 4-Hour Workweek

Let go of 80% of your actions, to concentrate on the most effective 20%. Shorten the deadlines for getting all actions done. Go on a low-information diet, realizing you don't need to know all that stuff you spend hours a day ingesting. Have remote assistants take care of everything that can be done by anyone else. And voila : you have the 4-Hour Workweek. Again : I could talk for hours about how this changed everything for me, so I'll stop here and talk about that stuff in future posts.

We are happier with restrictions, and trusting others' experiences.

A combination of Stumbling on Happiness and Paradox of Choice. We're bad at predicting how we'll feel about something in the future, so we're better off trusting other people's experiences.

People are surprisingly similar in much of their experiences, even though they think they're more unique. (90% of motorists consider themselves to be better-than-average drivers.)

With more choices, we may make better decisions, but we feel worse about them. (Note how this ties into the Wisdom of Crowds, above : others, collectively, know better than you do.)

I've started trusting the collective reviews from Amazon and Rotten Tomatoes. And I've intentionally decided to limit my options in other ways I'll describe soon, trusting (from others' experience) that will make me happier.


Each one of these things probably deserves its own longer article here, but I just wanted to list them in one place, because it's amazing how differently I see the world now than I did even one year ago.

I'm sure there are more I'll think of after posting this, but in the meantime, I'd love to hear any of yours:

Any things you've learned recently that “change everything” for you?

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