The Next, Episode #31
Being intellectually honest, a new theory of illness, and a grant program for talented youngsters
Hi there, and welcome to The Next - my take on health, wellness, and brand building.
In the last 4 years I’ve founded 3 health brands (Kettle & Fire, Perfect Keto, Surely), which each do tens of millions in revenue. I’ve raised ~$20mm to build Kettle & Fire, gotten into 10k+ retail stores, bootstrapped Perfect Keto, launched 80+ SKUs… and have a small portfolio of Shopify apps I run on the side. Previously, I worked in tech and had no experience in CPG, DTC, or any other 3-letter industries.
🆕 What’s new
At my first real job, I was an idiot. I remember spending hours agonizing over a key decision, only to take it to the CEO who spent 8 seconds telling me why the decision was wrong and what we should do instead. At 22, I remember thinking “how the 🤬did he come to that conclusion literally 1000x faster than me”.
I now realize he wasn’t 1000x smarter than me: he just had more mental models to draw on than I did. At 22, my most robust mental models had more to do with flipcup and puka shells than they did with how to grow a startup.
I’ve recently codified a mental model that I’ve used to sniff out bad ideas. It’s what Nat calls “the false perfection of an idea without tradeoffs”. In my experience, pretty much any time you are presented with something that is undoubtedly, without question, a net positive good (or evil), you’ll want to put on your skeptic hat.
I’m seeing this more and more as mainstream discourse gets dumber and more partisan. Geopolitical issues are not, in fact, complex and made up of competing considerations. They’re simple: Putin bad, just remove! Anyone who doesn’t agree… bad!
Or, take abortion. As the pro-life crowd protests, the other side is killing babies. Surely, we should make that always and forever illegal: killing babies is murder. Murder = Bad, so anyone who disagrees is also Bad. It’s obvious!
“X is obviously good, and anyone who disagrees is evil” colors almost all areas of discourse. This absolutist position leaves no room for nuance, and leads to logical inconsistencies. Should we outlaw abortion even in cases where having a baby will likely lead to the death of the mother? If abortion is murder, should we then arrest and jail women who’ve had one as murderers?
I’ve learned to be wary of ideas presented without tradeoffs, which helps suss out the independent and intellectually honest people around me. And when I come across an idea absolutist, I can be pretty certain that they don’t actually believe the Current Thing they’re spouting off about. Rather than a belief they’ve earned and thought about, they’ve purchased that belief wholesale from their chosen tribe. It’s what Kevin Simler calls a crony belief, and engaging with crony beliefs is almost never worth doing.
Buying your beliefs in bulk from your favorite political team isn’t thinking, and just being aware of this mental model can majorly upgrade the quality of your information diet.
💪 Health stuff
For hundreds of years, every rational person on the planet believed the Sun revolved around the Earth. You could’ve lived your entire life — indeed, many millions did — with roughly the same confidence that the Sun revolved around the Earth as we have that 2 + 2 = 4. Famously, one of the first guys to tell everyone they were wrong was called a heretic, locked in his room, and forced to recant his claims.
Studying history has a way of humbling you, and helping you understand that humans are wrong about almost everything, almost all the time. It also makes me wonder: what are the modern-day equivalents to believing the Sun revolves around the Earth?
You’re probably not surprised to hear that I think there are a lot of these false beliefs in health. I mean, 6 in 10 adults in the U.S. have a chronic disease, and 4 in 10 have two or more: clearly, something aint’ right.
Lately, I’ve been pulling a research thread I find quite compelling. I’m starting to wonder if many of the chronic diseases we see today (cancers, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, even aging) might be more than just the result of poor diet and lifestyle choices, but have a root cause in a viral or bacterial infection.
20 years ago, researcher Paul Ewald theorized that many of the chronic conditions that plague humanity today are not solely the result of genes and lifestyle, but that infection is causal in these chronic illnesses. Wouldn’t you know it, his theory is looking better and better.
Ulcers are his Exhibit A. For years, they were attributed to stress (and, to a lesser extent, lifestyle, and genetics). To be sure, stress probably doesn’t help: but as far back as 1982, Australian scientists Robin Warren and Barry Marshall proved that it was the pathogen helicobacter pylori that causes stomach inflammation and ulcers. They won the Nobel Prize … in 2005, a full 23 years (and who knows how many ulcer-sufferers) later.
Research is starting to look into (although not always with conclusive results) the link between periodontal pathogens, for example, and chronic diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. The link between pathogens and Alzheimer’s is starting to look stronger, too, and a recent study concluded that brains with Alzheimer’s Disease showed increased susceptibility to infectious pathogens.
There are more examples that could be telling:
Sudden-onset OCD (yes, that’s a thing) could be caused by infection.
Obesity could be caused by, or at least heavily correlated with, a certain type of Th1 pathogen.
Studies of sarcoidosis and even hypertension have found that the spouses of the affected people were far more likely than would ordinarily be expected to develop the same conditions. That could indicate some sort of spreadable pathogen as a cause or contributing factor.
And that’s not to mention a big one that just came out a few months ago… that Epstein-Barr virus (are there any good Epstein’s out there?!) likely causes multiple sclerosis!
I could give more examples here, and obviously a lot in this area is highly speculative. But I do find Ewald’s argument compelling, and fully expect we’ll find more and more chronic conditions are caused by infection. In short, I’d expect this list to grow longer.
If you’re interested in this topic, definitely check out a recent post by Riva Tez that covers toxoplasma gondii: a single-celled parasite that can cause debilitating diseases, including neurological and psychiatric problems. As she says, wellness fanatics flinch at people smoking but have no insight into the herpes virus permanently lodged in their brain.
I’m currently reading a LOT about the relationship between infection and chronic illness, and even hired a researcher to dig into the topic for me. If you’ve read anything compelling in this space (or want to work with me on a project focused on this area), please holler!
🤑 Biz stuff
In early 2020 I gave my youngest brother an old Macbook so he could experiment with entrepreneurship.
It’s since changed the trajectory of his life. With one laptop and $50 of Udemy courses, he taught himself to code and built an app. He’s now teaching himself Excel and looking at starting a small e-commerce business. He’s engaged, excited about learning, and (I’d bet) is learning more than any of his classmates.
What now seems like small amounts of money have also changed the trajectory of my life. After starting my first company in college, I had a choice as graduation loomed. I could either kill the company and take a corporate salary, or I could keep chasing the entrepreneurship thing. As I was sharing my dilemma with a mentor, he made me a promise: that if the company blew up (in a bad way), he’d give me $5k to cover my living expenses while I looked for a job or figured out my next move.
That offer gave me the courage to continue doing the startup thing 👼. And though that specific company didn’t end up working, it put me on a path that I’m pretty darn happy with. And I’m not sure that it would have happened without his offer.
I want to help more kids change their trajectory. So, here’s the deal.
If you’re under 25, and $2000 or less can meaningfully change your life, I want to hear from you. I’d love to help you start companies, learn new skills, build things, make art, do science, push boundaries, and improve yourself.
To that end, over the next week or two I’m launching Inflection Grants along with Cyan Banister and Long Journey Ventures (where I’m a part-time venture partner). In our first round of grants, we funded kids to build a bio research lab, get AWS certified, take a machine learning course, run a molecular modeling program for award-winning water pollution work, and more.
I’m excited to see what this next round of grants brings. If you (or someone you know) could earnestly use $2k to change their life, please apply here.
😌 Dope stuff
Some of my favorite things since the last newsletter (note: I don’t get paid to recommend anything here):
📰 Article - I really enjoyed Nadia Eghbal’s typically thoughtful post on Effective Altruism and idea machines. The core question she explores is how groups go from ideas to outcomes. For example, Effective Altruism began as a set of ideas and is now a real community that’s driving real-world outcomes via funding and other mechanisms (though not always effectively). If you’re interested in how ideas can drive real-world outcomes, the article is worth reading, as is pretty much all of Nadia’s stuff.
📚 Book rec - I’m not exactly proud of this, but lately I’ve been enjoying The Expanse series. It’s a series that’s more space fiction than sci-fi, but still entertaining. I’m almost loathe to recommend it, as there are far better sci-fi series out there (Nexus, Red Rising, Three Body Problem to name a few). But it’s entertaining, and none of you recommended anything better last month so here we are. This is your fault.
⌚ Cool product - I have a suspicion that decades from now, we’ll look back at our present-day work habits and find them extremely primitive. You mean, most humans used to just get up and start working without(?!?!) the use of chemical cocktails other than 1-2 cups of coffee? Michale Pollan has argued that caffeine created the modern world: well, I submit that the drugs of the future will be far better than coffee is for productivity, focus, and getting things done.
I think Magic Mind (disclosure: I recently invested) might just be a step in the right direction. Using it with coffee I feel less jittery and more focused, and my HRV is better on days that I use it. I’d recommend giving it a go, and feel free to ping me if you want a discount code.
🎵 Music - This set by Jody Wisternoff and James Grant for Anjunadeep 13 is just incredible (with the exception of 1 song I find annoying). Put it on in the background and enjoy - this is probably my favorite Anjunadeep yet.
🏀 Random - I’ve been thinking about pulling together a mini-event in the fall that’d help someone reset their relationship with food and the food system. Something combining education, community, and a get-your-hands-dirty farm/hunting/butchery experience. If that’s something you’re interested in, just reply and let me know, as it’s an area I’m actively thinking about.
🙋♂️ Asks - I’m looking to hire someone to work directly with me to get a new project off the ground. This role will include a real salary and founder-level equity and responsibilities. If you (or someone you know) might be interested, please reply back and let me know!
Enjoy the start of summer my friends! I’ll see y’all in a month. And if any of you have any recs for Chamonix or Zurich, I’m all ears - will be there for much of June and July.