Three types of wanting

If you’re building a product, it better be something that people want. That much is obvious. But it turns out that this concept of “wanting” is enormously complex — and there are lots of ways to misunderstand it. Here are three types of “want”.

Type 1 wanting: the passions

The first kind of desire is the kind that’s more of the body than the mind. It’s more System 1 than System 2. It’s a type of desire that’s not based in instrumental reasoning — “I want X because it’ll help me get Y.” This type of wanting is direct and visceral. You feel it when you’re hungry and you see and smell delicious food. You feel it when you’re engrossed in a novel and you can’t stop reading. You feel it when you’re madly in love in a new relationship.

For those who make products, this is a type of wanting to be cultivated. People aren’t born with passion for your product.

Type 2 wanting: the rational mind

The second type of desire is that of the rational mind. It’s instrumental: Bob wants to get a summer job so that he can buy a car. Bob might not have much passion about the idea of getting a job, but nonetheless he wants to do it for instrumental reasons.

When there’s dissonance between type 1 and type 2 wanting, we have a very interesting human phenomenon that philosophers call akrasia, or ‘weakness of will’. People don’t always do what they think is good for them. And sometimes they do what they think is bad for them. For example: George thinks he should stop watching TV, but it feels so good that he keeps doing it. Or: Jerry thinks that he should eat a salad, but instead he easts Kenny Rogers chicken because it feels so desirable.

Akrasia is especially relevant to product makers in health, wellness, and education. You’re building something that’s supposed to provide your user with some benefit — just the way exercise is supposed to provide benefit. But just like we often don’t exercise when we know we should, we won’t necessarily use a product just because it’s good for us. We need Type 1 wanting as well.

Type 3 wanting: the one who knows better

“You don’t want to do that.”

“I don’t think you want that.”

What do we mean when we say things like this? We’re not talking about type 1 or type 2 wanting. You know better than me what you want in those senses.

We’re talking about a third sense of wanting: what you should want. It’s what you would want if you knew more. You currently want to open door number 3, but if you knew what was behind the doors, you wouldn’t want it.

Product makers sometimes mess this up when they have a theory about the way the world should be, and they expect that all their users will want the world to be that way too. But if the user doesn’t share the theory, then they probably won’t share the picture of a better world.


Humans are best off when there’s consonance between the three types of wanting. Eg, when it comes to eating sand, I:

  • Type 1 don’t want it
  • Type 2 don’t want it
  • Type 3 (I’m pretty sure) don’t want it

And we run into trouble when there’s dissonance between the three.

The best products are those for which there’s consonance (in the positive direction) between the three types of wanting. When I bought my first pair of AirPods, here’s how it looked:

  • Type 1: Those things are sexy; I want them
  • Type 2: I think it’ll be worth it go go wireless even though they’re expensive
  • Type 3: Two years later I think that was one of the best purchases I ever made.

When to kill your product

Product axiom: you should maximize your chances of getting lucky.

Corollary: you should minimize the time you’re spending on branches that aren’t going to work.

How do you do that? You kill branches that aren’t going to work.

How do you know when a branch is not going to work?

Right. That’s a good question to dig in to.

To start with, need to have three structural pieces in place. You need to know:

  1. What kind of success am I going for? This is your end-of-the-line goal. Not your theory about a means to a goal. Eg: build a best-selling mobile game.
  2. How much success do you need? What’s the bar? Eg: top 10 in US App Store.
  3. What indicators are you looking for at this stage that would tell you if you’re on the right track or not? Eg: by June 1, 45% D1 retention in Canada.

If you don’t have these three pieces in place, and you’re deciding whether to continue or kill your product, you’ve got nothing to go on but gut. Gut alone isn’t a good way to steer a product.

If you have these three things in place, then you can apply your gut and your brain, and the guts and brains of all your teammates.

Killing a product isn’t easy. It’s your baby. Or if not your baby, it’s probably somebody‘s baby. So be kind with people’s emotions.

For more, see Supercell’s Jonathan Dower at GDC 2016.

Product strategy: understanding chain-link logic

This work-in-progress post is part of a set on the topic of mission, vision, and strategy.

“A system has chain-link logic,” says Richard Rumelt in Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, “when its performance is limited by its weakest subunit, or link.” Rumelt’s example: the space shuttle Challenger‘s performance was limited by the rubber o-rings that sealed the joints between sections of its fuel tank. When the o-rings failed, the rocket exploded. Improvements to other parts of the system, such as the boosters or avionics, wouldn’t have made much difference unless the o-ring problem was fixed.

Other examples of systems whose performance is limited to that of their weakest link:

  • An assembly line can move no faster than the slowest step on the assembly line
  • A project can be completed in no less time than it takes to complete the “long pole
  • A literal chain is only as strong as its literal weakest link

Not all systems have their performance limited to that of their weakest link. Some systems have performance limited to that of the strongest component. An example would be humanity’s current effort to develop a vaccine for the virus behind Covid-19 — only one lab need accomplish the goal.

And some systems have performance limited by the combined contributions of many components. For example, consider the cables suspending the Golden Gate Bridge:

There are many cables. The amount of weight that the cables can suspend (assuming the towers don’t fail) is limited by the combined performance of all the cables.

Examples of strongest-contributor systems:

In chain-link systems, the way to improve performance is to identify the weakest link and to improve its performance or to reduce reliance on it. This is straightforward.

The tricky thing is when multiple components are below the desired performance bar. In that case, fixing one component won’t be enough to right the ship. It might not even make a noticeable difference. The system can then get stuck in a low-performance state.

Rumelt gives an example. Marco Tinelli is the GM of a machine company near Milan. Over lunch, Tinelli told Rubio the story of his company.

When my uncle passed away, the responsibility for the company passed to me. Things were not good. The quality of the machines had declined, especially compared with our best competitors. Costs were too high and the sales personnel were not technically sophisticated. To sell a sophisticated machine with microprocessor controls takes a sophisticated salesperson. If we didn’t change, we would slowly go out of business. But it seemed as if everything had to change. Where to start?

As he spoke, I realized that Marco Tinelli’s diagnosis was that his machinery company had chain-link logic and that it was stuck. Any payoff from better-quality machines was diluted because the sales force could not accurately represent their qualities and performance. A better sales force, by itself, would have added little value without better machines. And improvements in quality and sales would not save the firm unless costs were reduced.

To fix the problem, Tinelli had to see it clearly. He had to identify the three performance-limiting factors (quality, cost, and sales) and improve them all, knowing that overall company performance might not improve until all three are fixed.

Great missions are great except for when they’re not

This work-in-progress post is part of a set on the topic of mission, vision, and strategy.

There are some ways in which a strongly mission-oriented company culture can be bad, or perceived as bad by outsiders. Those include:

  • Ya’ll are weird. You say things that are outside the Overton window.
  • Ya’ll think the same way, so I mistrust your epistemics —you’re probably groupthinkers.
  • Ya’ll think the same way, so I mistrust your epistemics — you probably have extremists in your midst.
  • Ya’ll are aiming for the wrong thing. You’re gung-ho about getting to world X, and world X is bad.
  • Ya’ll are aiming for the right thing but in the wrong way. You think Y is the best way to get to X, but Y is actually terrible compared to other available ways of getting there.
  • Ya’ll are doing something like spiritual bypassing but for ethical problems z— ethical bypassing. You’re so jazzed about your mission to save the world that you’re not noticing how much damage you’re doing.

A portal to great missions

This work-in-progress post is part of a set on the topic of mission, vision, and strategy.

It’s widely agreed that if you want your company or team to do great things, it’s all but necessary to have a great mission. And yet the vast majority of companies and teams either don’t have anything like a mission, or else what they have is far from great. Why do so few orgs have great missions?

Furthermore, if you read business books and online articles on mission and strategy, you have to read a lot of material to get a little value. Can we come up with an understanding of the anatomy of a great mission that’s actually useful? More importantly, can we distill or create a useful, actionable procedure or framework that if followed will reliably lead to great missions?

In other words, can we create a portal to great missions? That there is the mission of this series.

Outline – Vision, Mission, Strategy

I’ve been thinking about Vision, Mission, and Strategy — for both individuals and organizations.

I’m also trying to figure out how to increase the quality of the stuff I put on this blog while maintaining low cost (time and pain) of writing.

Today’s experiment: modularize planning. I’ll make a little outline / wish list of stuff that in a time-abundant world I’d like to write about Vision. This may make it easier for me to write pieces in short daily writing sprints that ultimately fit together into a coherent whole.

Components: