If we too simple, then y’all don’t get the basics.

— Lil’ Wayne, Shooter (The Carter II)

A combination of successful marketing efforts and psychological conditioning has distracted us from focusing on some of the most important, yet simple, things we can control.

In Three Things Matter in Your Twenties, I referenced Charlie Munger’s quote on rationality and avoiding problems: It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.

When I first read that eight years ago, I thought it was a humble joke. By reflecting on dumb things I have done over the years and watching the mistakes of others, I realized it is not a joke. In fact, it has become one of the prominent ideas in my life.

Another thing I realized is that most activity boils down to knowing what to do and having the discipline to do it. 

Now, there is a lot to unpack these ideas. 

Let’s start by thinking of someone you know that has failed at being consistently not stupid. It is likely the person that comes to mind could have avoided being in that situation, and further, you might even consider it to have been easily avoidable. My favorite example illustrating this point of easily avoidable problems is a professional athlete getting caught doing (recreational) drugs. If you want more examples, just look around. If pressed for time, open your high school yearbook. 

When my friend and I see these types of situations, or are in them ourselves, we frequently say, “All he had to do was not mess up.” A more general way of saying this is, focus on the basics. 

This sounds easy. Why doesn’t everyone do it? 

We could spend years talking about this, including what qualifies as basic (which we are about to get to). One of the most salient reasons is painfully obvious to us humans: THE BASICS ARE BORING. This fact, like the basics themselves, is too important to ignore. So basic-ally we have a problem. The fundamentals are critical, but life would become empty if all we did was focus on them. 

What are the basics? 
A group of girls drinking Starbucks lattes.

Of course, it depends on what we are talking about. For every category of life there are different basics — Charlie Munger, a professional athlete, and someone from your high school are different types of people. Then there are some that apply to everyone.

The items below are important, but also think of the idea more conceptually, like building a house. There are infinite possible designs for a quality house, but a quality house must have a strong foundation. A strong foundation in a person’s life is equally important.

  • Sleep
  • Nutrition & Physical Fitness
  • Personal Hygiene
  • Avoiding Stupidity (Rationality)
  • Money
Meatball, underwhelmed after reading the list

Notice how you probably felt a little underwhelmed, like Meatball, reading the list. This is understandable and my entire point. People would rather pay (with money or their attention) for tips and secrets than eat salads and sleep eight hours each night. The former makes you feel better about your life and the latter makes your life better. 

Let’s briefly look at each category from our list above. 

  • Sleep: My friend, and founder of Askeladden Capital, Samir recommended Why We Sleep (his book review) by Dr. Matthew Walker, saying it was one of three life-changing books he has read. That endorsement is the only reason I read it, because I already thought sleep was important, so I was skeptical that it would simply reinforce what I already believe and thus be a waste of time. I went from thinking it was merely important to believing that if you are not getting enough, there is almost no better use of your time than sleeping. Our culture admires people who pride themselves on getting by on six hours of sleep a night. This book may leave us feeling sorry for them. “There does not seem to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep (and detrimentally impaired when we don’t get enough).” 
  • Nutrition & Physical Fitness: 700 million people are obese.1 Recent reports project that by 2030, half of all adults (115 million adults) in the United States will be obese.Fresh vegetables are one of, if not the cheapest things at a grocery store. Amidst hundreds of thousands of free online resources, this falls into the discipline category.
  • Personal Hygiene: I had to include this because it was the origin of the idea for this post. About six months ago, my boss and I were only half-joking about the topic when I said, “It is amazing how far someone can rise in a corporate environment if he just shows up on time, replies to emails, and wears clothes that fit. If he can do those without smelling he is destined for upper management.” Vanity has a bad reputation, yet we all know that the world makes judgments about you based on your outward appearance, so you will be at a severe disadvantage if you choose to ignore this.
  • Avoiding Stupidity (Rationality): As Naval Ravikant says, “Free education is abundant, all over the Internet. It is the desire to learn that’s scarce.”
    • A great place to start is Farnam Street, one of the best blogs on the internet. While finalizing this post, coincidentally Farnam Street posted How Not to Be Stupid.
  • Money: Spend less than you make. All personal finance starts there. According to the Federal Reserve3, about 40% of adults said that they would be unable to pay for a $400 unexpected expense without selling something or borrowing money. If this is remotely accurate, it is sad and scary.

These all interact together. For instance, it is hard to be rational and think clearly when we are tired. This increases the likelihood we do something dumb, like spend money we don’t have or overeat. We make better decisions when we are well-rested. The key is doing this consistently over a long period of time. One full night of sleep and one good decision is not going to do much. However, one thousand nights of good sleep and one thousand good decisions can be life-changing. 

Executing on fundamentals consistently, which may seem boring or uncomfortable, will eventually yield significant benefits (which may be unpredictable in advance) that far outweigh the effort and time dedicated to them.

  1. Health Effects of Overweight and Obese  
  2. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Facts & Statistics
  3. Federal Reserve’s Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2017

See Also:

In Misbehaving, Thaler indirectly ascribes his career success to paying attention to what many psychologists considered too basic. 

“The psychology that behavioral economists have ended up using is not considered cutting-edge to psychologists. If psychologists started using supply and demand curves in their research papers, economists would not find the idea very exciting. Finally, for some reason the study of “applied” problems in psychology has traditionally been considered a low-status activity. Studying the reasons why people fall into debt or drop out of school has just not been the type of research that leads academic psychologists to fame and glory, with the notable exception of Robert Cialdini.” 

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