To Be And To Last #35

This week we explore gift cards that build highways in Delaware, the early days of AWS, and some great reads to consider for 2021.

Why do you read?

Sometimes reading becomes a status symbol: “I attended Harvard” is replaced by “I read Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan”.

Which is sad, because reading should be egalitarian; it should be intrinsically motivated, and above all it should be fun.

I personally have only one rule when it comes to reading: if I’m not enjoying a book, I’ll drop it instantly and move on.

I don’t feel any pressure to finish a book, but I do feel tremendous pressure to make reading fun - not work.

With that in mind, I always love the reading lists published around the new year. Feyi Fawehinmi shared some delightful books that were completely new to me (2019 is also great). The fantastic Erik Torenberg summarized some mind-expanding reads - a few of which feel quite timely this week.

Personally, I recently finished Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer (a poignant look at missed opportunities), and I’m currently enjoying The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People after dismissing it for years as pretentious self-help nonsense (so far, it’s actually quite good).

Legacy momentum

As humans, we’re pretty much terrible at causation. Paired with a relentless desire to believe we understand the cause of an effect, this leaves us with an often dangerously incorrect view of how the world actually works.

One interesting example is legacy momentum. As described by Shreyas Doshi, legacy momentum describes how *incredible launches* today at a large corporation are often due to decisions made over a decade ago (often by people who are no longer even at the company).

In that vein, I enjoyed this thread from Dan Rose exploring the decisions made in 2000(!!) that set the course for Amazon Web Services to eventually become the billion dollar business it is today ($10B of Amazon’s $16B operating income in the 9 months ending Sept 30, 2020).

Unused gift cards fund state governments?

Your unused gift cards just might end up paying for a state highway in Delaware.

Like other types of unclaimed property, unused gift cards eventually enter an ambiguous state of uncertain ownership. And in some parts of the US, those gift cards end up funding state governments.

Delaware (home to ~60% of public corporations) has done so well with unused gift cards that fully 10% of the state budget in 2017 was funded from unclaimed property. And it’s not luck: they actually invested $207M from 2004 to 2014 alone in hunting for corporations that weren’t reporting unclaimed property to the state.

In other states like Washington, these unclaimed funds go to the corporations instead. In FY 2019, Starbucks reported $141M in “breakage income” from unclaimed gift cards (eg, free money).

Of course, neither of these approaches are ideal for the individual consumer (unless you’re a Delaware citizen who enjoys roads built with Office Depot gift cards from Colorado).

Ideally, these funds would be somehow returned to the original owner - something that’s difficult to do when (1) the individual amounts are often tiny and (2) it’s not always clear whether a specific gift card has been “lost” or is perhaps just being saved for a later time (even when you know at an aggregate level that x% of cards are lost).


To Be And To Last: Thinker Nate Desmond’s weekly roundup of long reads, contrarian thoughts, and hidden jewels that aren’t getting enough attention.

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