I don’t watch a lot of movies, but I’ve re-watched Inception with Leonardo DiCaprio a few times.
I’ve realized what draws me to the movie is that it illustrates an important concept: the power of whispering.
DiCaprio’s character leads a team that are being paid by a competitor of a wealthy oil magnate to invade the subconscious, dream state of his heir and implant the idea in his mind that he should break up his father’s company. The climax of the movie is DiCaprio whispering into the oil heir’s ear the idea that he should break up the company.
The heir goes on to eventually break up the company, believing it’s his own idea and opening up the market for the competitor that paid DiCaprio and his time.
Because the idea was whispered, not said, it was a far better determinant of trajectory and outcomes than if it had been said or shouted.
As the world around us gets noisier and noisier, it’s what’s being whispered to us that most meaningfully impacts our lives.
Great Books Whisper
“You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.”
Good books can have lots of ideas, but great books have only one big idea that they’re trying to whisper to you.
The whole rest of the book is just to make sure you stick around long enough to drill the whispering into your head.
The 4 Hour Work Week whispers “quit your job and travel the world” – that’s what kicked off the lifestyle design movement. All the tactical advice in that book, like testing ideas on Google Adwords and outsourcing to India, were out of date within a couple of years. But it’s still a great book because what it’s whispering is profound.
It doesn’t take a few hundred pages to say something profound, but it does take a few hundred pages to whisper it.
While what books whisper are highly influential, they’re still an order of magnitude less influential than what communities whisper. Communities are much higher bandwidth and whisper in more subtle ways.
Great Communities Whisper
Paul Graham’s Cities and Ambition essay looks back at different places Graham lived and explains what they whispered to him to him as a young ambitious person. Boston whispered “You should be more intelligent,” New York whispered “You should be richer,” and Silicon Valley whispered “You should be more powerful.”
Different communities whisper differently to different people at different times.
I lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand for 6 months and Saigon, Vietnam for a year.
To me, Chiang Mai was always whispering – “You should relax, we’ve got everything you need.”
What Saigon whispered to me was “Hustle! There’s opportunity everywhere and you can get a piece of it!” I liked Saigon’s whispering more so I stayed there longer.
But what Saigon whispered to me and Chiang Mai whispered to me are different from what they might have whispered to anyone else at any other time. Who I was spending time with in those cities, the books I was reading in those cities, and where I was living all affected those messages.
I had a friend that hated Saigon. She lived in a noisy apartment and didn’t have a motorbike. It was hard for her to ever relax or to explore so she was getting whispered something different. Something more along the lines of “You’ll never escape and you can’t relax.”
Great Companies Whisperer
While cities and communities do whisper, whispering as a concept is more influential than Graham gave it credit for.
Cities are just collections of people and every collection of people is whispering something.
The most influential collection we’re a part of that Graham omits is the company and the way companies whisper is culture.
Graham himself is an expert whisperer for Y Combinator because of the culture he creates with his essays and ideas.
He rarely explicitly says “you should start a company and apply for Y combinator,” but he’s whispering it all the time. 6 months ago, the idea of trying to raise money was totally uninteresting to me. I’m still not interested, but the idea is much more appealing to me now than when I first started reading him.
When Peter Thiel funded AirBnB for $117 million, his biggest piece of advice was “don’t fuck up the culture.”
He saw that the value was in what was being whispered, not the product.
Listen to What’s Being Whispered, not What’s Being Said
I try to be careful about what’s being whispered to me, what’s going in the black box, because I believe it will have far more of an impact on my future than what’s being said.
I love working from hipster cafes because it whispers all the things to me that I want to believe about myself –
“You’re special, you’re creative, you’re non-conformist, you’re hip!” I like that story.
There’s certain things that I’ve avoided because I know what they’ll whisper to me and I don’t want them.
To me, buying a house whispers “Fill me up with consumer goods you don’t need and never leave!”
I recently bought a car and I’m mildly terrified about it because part of what owning a car whispers to me is “you like owning depreciating assets that serve as status symbols.”
I don’t like that story at all, but I’ve rationalized it as necessary to be able to tell myself a story I do like – “You have the freedom to explore more places and meet up with interesting people.”
The blogs and podcasts that I consistently follow are the ones that I really love what they’re whispering.
I love reading DHH and Jason Fried‘s post on Signal vs. Noise even though I’m not much of a designer because I like what they’re whispering more than what they’re saying. The same of Joel Gascoigne and Jason Cohen.
They all run companies whispering a story I want to believe – “Build a bootstrapped business around a meaningful culture and amazing products.”
When I meet new people, I’m increasingly listening to what they’re whispering than to what they’re saying. I think there’s a gut instinct that can be developed for listening to whispers.
Sometimes I intellectually agree with everything someone’s saying but they just don’t sit right with me, I suspect they’re whispering something I don’t like but I just haven’t realized what it is yet.
Intellectually knowing what’s being whispered isn’t really necessary if you know you don’t like it, and it’s only helpful if you change what’s being whispered.
Even if you know what’s being whispered to you and don’t care for it intellectually, you’ll probably still do what you’re whispered.
To the extent that I’ve been able to control my path and trajectory is the extent to which I’ve controlled who and what is whispering to me.
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