What do countryside strolls, manual car keys, grapes, skipping breakfast and Harvard all have in common? They’re all Lindy — at least, according to various disciples of the theory.
The Harvard contribution comes from one of the most prominent Lindy believers: Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz.
It’s not a stretch to say your startup doesn’t matter until it’s on a16z’s radar. Facebook, Lyft, Instagram, Affirm, Roblox and Coinbase all benefited from early a16z investments. And with the firm fresh off a $9 billion fundraising campaign, startup founders are more eager than ever to understand the thought processes that determine who gets a coveted a16z stamp of approval.
The Lindy Effect, in principle, says that you can usually predict how long something will survive based on how long it’s been around. The thinking goes something like this: For something to survive a long time, it must be versatile and durable. Versatile and durable things are more likely to survive relative to new and unproven concepts. Books, therefore, are Lindy; Kindles are not. Sandwiches are Lindy; cronuts, not so much. Coffee yes, Bang Energy drinks no.
So when Andreessen speculates that Harvard is Lindy because it’s “been around for 400 years, it’ll probably be around for another 400,” it isn’t just a random aside. Rather, it’s a rare peek into the mind of one of Silicon Valley’s most influential gatekeepers. (A16z did not respond to our request to interview Andreessen.)
Paul Skallas, a Lindy linchpin better known by the internet alias LindyMan, claims he and Andreessen exchanged messages for “a year or two” and said Andreessen considers the Lindy Effect when investing in a product. Pulling further at the Lindy thread reveals not only Andreessen’s fascination with heuristics, but also the niche sphere of internet intellectuals who shape his politics and investment decisions.
Overpriced cheesecake and long walks
Andreessen encountered Lindy, as many do, through cantankerous philosopher and retired financier Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A self-described “flâneur,” Taleb has amassed a loyal following of more than 800,000 Twitter users by unsparingly covering topics ranging from bitcoin (“a magnet for imbeciles”) to squid-ink pasta (“no self respecting Squid Ink eater will EVER put cheese on a fish pasta”).
Taleb presents himself as a sort of philosopher king living in Mediterranean exile. He regularly derides bureaucrats, journalists and academics, though he himself was a professor at New York University. He has a penchant for blocking people whom he regards as “idiots,” “bullshitters” or “trolls.” (Andreessen went on a similarly vocal blocking spree to kick off 2022.) And lest you decide these behaviors connote a character flaw, Taleb has already decided, “If assholes don’t find you arrogant, you are doing something wrong.”
In his 2012 book “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder,” Taleb wrote of the Lindy Effect: “[T]he older the technology, not only the longer it is expected to last, but the more certainty I can attach to such a statement.” He adds that this rule only applies to nonperishable goods (no one expects an 80-year-old person to live another 80 years) and warns, “This is a noisy estimator that should work on average, not in every case.”
The term “Lindy” originated in a 1964 New Republic article that referenced a deli in New York, Lindy’s, where off-duty comedians theorized they could elongate their careers by making television appearances more sparingly over a longer period of time. Taleb elaborated on his Lindy theory in a Medium post published five years after “Antifragile,” in which he gives himself credit for developing the theory that best proves the Lindy Effect through models of fragility and anti-fragility. Taleb also warns readers that the eponymous deli has become a tourist trap that “proudly claims to be famous for its cheesecake.”
On a recently deleted episode of the Lindy Talk podcast, Andreessen said he’s “been a fan of Nassim Taleb’s for a long time.” According to Andreessen, they know each other “a little bit, not well,” since “we had him at a thing we did years ago.” Andreessen also said he’s read all of Taleb’s books “like eight times.”
An unlikely acquaintance
With Taleb largely out of reach, Andreessen instead forged a relationship with Taleb’s unsanctioned protégé, Skallas (LindyMan, if you prefer). Skallas recounted that he and Andreessen exchanged direct messages for a few years. Andreessen said he first discovered Skallas in the comments section of a Taleb post, where Skallas successfully corrected Taleb’s claim in “Antifragile” that the ancients did not have a term denoting the color blue as we know it today.
Last year, Andreessen went on Skallas' podcast to discuss some of their shared preoccupations. The conversation centered on the stagnation of mainstream culture and the disrupting force of global internet culture. Skallas writes about this topic often in his newsletter, which recently migrated from a16z-backed Substack to Twitter-owned Revue. He believes our mainstream culture is stuck, pointing to evidence such as the “epidemic of sequels coming out of Hollywood” and the lack of dramatic shifts in American fashion since the mid-2000s. Skallas blamed stuck culture on a top-down media monoculture that gets fed to people through algorithms. Andreessen generally agreed, though he added that “the internet’s kinda eating all culture” because it moves in cycles that are so much faster than upstream media.
The duo then grafted this model of media homogeneity onto American politics: Andreessen suggested that a pent-up demand for novelty helps explain Trump’s political success. “The other side of Trump was the other 14 guys on stage with him at the Republican debates early on,” Andreessen said. “The other side is just the cookie-cutter thing — which is like, you know, who is the average successful politician? You know, it’s a guy in a suit with a certain kind of hair who gives a certain kind of speech behind a certain kind of podium reading off a certain kind of teleprompter, reading the exact same words as the next guy. You know, completely indistinguishable.” (Andreessen, however, is not above giving money to conventional politicians on both sides of the aisle, including Sens. Mitt Romney and Cory Booker and Reps. Eric Cantor and Ro Khanna.)
Later on, Andreessen pontificated on world-saving efforts by elite institutions such as Davos, the Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, The New York Times and tech companies.
“How do we know that our answers are the right ones?” Andreessen mused. “This goes back to these epidemiology issues, these climate change issues, and so forth. It’s just like, OK, like, we’ve got our views on how the world should be saved and we’ve got our science that claims to justify it and we’ve got our morality which all seems crystal clear. But we are at the end of the day the elites, and so we are the most insulated from all of the downstream consequences from all of the changes that we’re demanding everyone around us make.”
In many respects, Andreessen and Skallas make for strange bedfellows. Skallas isn’t an elite, after all — at least, not the kind Andreessen meant. He works a day job as a corporate lawyer to support his moonlighting as a cultural critic. And while Andreessen is still held in high regard within this sphere of the internet, Skallas was accused of plagiarism in November. He made his Twitter account private shortly thereafter. He probably hasn’t helped his cause by boasting in interviews: “I really consider myself the greatest living writer, and I say that without irony.” For what it’s worth, he and Andreessen still follow one another on the platform.
Even when it comes to practicing the Lindy lifestyle — however you interpret that — the two men seemingly exhibit major differences. Skallas relocated from New York City to a quaint countryside town in France during the pandemic; in October, Andreessen paid $177 million for a Malibu home, setting a new price record for California home real estate. Skallas gives health advice based on applications of the Lindy principle, which yields tips such as lifting weights for exercise and avoiding canola oil. During their conversation, Andreessen told Skallas that he had started taking what could be “the actual miracle drug of all time” that’s used for diabetes, obesity and weight loss. Skallas replied, sounding skeptical, “Are you one of the first people on this? Are you like a guinea pig here?”
Carrying a heavy heuristic toolbox
And then, of course, there’s the fact that Andreessen is arguably one of the world’s foremost venture capitalists, a job that requires him to be at least mildly enthusiastic about a vector of technological progress that’s pointing in a decidedly un-Lindy direction.
In the future a16z is building, you will be able to trade $89,000 NFT derivatives on Coinbase while an anonymous, overworked Instacart employee squeezes avocados on your behalf in a grocery store two miles away. Your children never attend in-person school and instead take courses through Maven, though really they just spend all day playing “Work at a Pizza Place” on Roblox, using Affirm to buy custom avatars in seven easy installments of $29.99. Oh, and you haven’t seen your dog in a long time — maybe he’s still at the DogVacay apartment where you dropped him off last week?
This tech-heavy, app-driven, metaverse-ready future is a far cry from the Lindy ideal of living in a Mediterranean villa where you invite your neighbors over to eat squid-ink pasta (sans cheese, obviously), made with ingredients sourced from the same seas and fields that sustained your ancestors.
Even if you don’t buy into the lifestyle applications of Lindy, it’s still possible to imagine scenarios in which the concept would be useful to an investor. For instance, the Lindy Effect would predict a short lifespan for fake meat companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. It would also tell you that people won’t easily accept the idea of appending electronics to their heads in the form of Google Glass or other augmented-reality glasses.
But successful venture capitalists need to invest in something, and that’s where Lindy seemingly falls short. Lindy would predict a short lifespan for social media, which is in part designed to upend millennia-old social structures. If Andreessen had applied the Lindy Effect in such cases, he’d be a few billion dollars poorer. Similar arguments can be made for the bulk of companies in a16z’s portfolio.
That’s not to say the Lindy principle is wrong. In the first place, it never claimed to have empirical predicting power. Of greater importance to a venture capitalist: A technology can be short-lived while still making investors extraordinarily wealthy along the way. Social media is clearly having a profound impact on our society, even if most Americans would say that’s for the worse. The field could disappear along with the rest of Western civilization, but you’d be a shabby venture capitalist if you’d passed up on the opportunity to invest in Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
The key to solving this apparent contradiction is understanding that Lindy is only one of many heuristics in Andreessen’s toolbox. In a single interview on the niche podcast “After the Orgy,” Andreessen referenced tall poppy syndrome, OODA loops and the scapegoat mechanism.
Tall poppy syndrome, for instance, refers to cultures in which those who visibly strive for excellence get attacked by the collective. Andreessen finds the phenomenon “horrifying” and sees a raging pandemic of tall poppy syndrome in the U.S. and throughout Europe.
The OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop, meanwhile, is a U.S. military decision-making framework. To Andreessen, it explains “why internet politics [and] internet culture takes over everything.” The framework suggests that if one combatant is able to go through their decision-making cycle faster than the opponent, they will break the opponent’s cycle and force them to restart. Doing this over and over ends up paralyzing the opponent, since they can never complete a cycle.
Finally, the scapegoat mechanism comes from Stanford philosopher René Girard, a beloved thinker among a circle of highly influential tech figures — most notably Peter Thiel. The theory claims that societies project unconscious desires on scapegoats, whom they proceed to destroy in public rituals. This provides catharsis and allows the community to reestablish social cohesion after it has symbolically cleansed itself by destroying the scapegoat. Andreessen remarked: “I think it is fair to say the internet in many ways, or social media generally, is a very effective scapegoating machine.”
The ideas don’t necessarily go together or fit into the Lindy framework, but that might be exactly the point.
The OODA loop is particularly difficult to reconcile with Lindy. If, as Andreessen said, “Internet culture just evolves faster, and the fact that it evolves faster guarantees it takes everything over,” then the obliteration of ancient cultural norms and technologies seems inevitable.
You don’t know what a dinner will look like by seeing all the ingredients and kitchen utensils laid out, but it can certainly help narrow the guesses. Similarly, while understanding just one, or even many, of Andreessen’s heuristics won’t allow you to know what he’s thinking, it could certainly help. But the heuristics often contradict one another, and they aren't mathematical formulas that yield the same output when given the same inputs. So for now, if you’re hoping to get a chunk of that a16z money, maybe just stick with taking a long Lindy walk to think things over — inspiration might arrive when you least expect it.