Three Things Matter in Your Twenties

[Instead of telling kids they can be anything they want to be]
Tell the kids the truth. You can be anything you’re good at…as long as they’re hiring.

And even then it helps to know somebody.

— Chris Rock, Tamborine (2018)

How irritating would it be if you clicked something suggesting only three things matter in the formative time of your adult life and you had to scroll far to find them? So, here they are:

  • getting good at something that people will want (expertise)
  • relationships
  • organization (two types)

By focusing on these (and saying no a lot) for a decade, you will likely have more options available to you on how you live the rest of your life than you would otherwise.

Characteristically, this post sat in the virtual garage for a while because I wanted the list to be concise. Travel, for instance, is highly valuable to personal development, but it feels awkward saying that it is one of the only things that matters. Your author has meal-prepped spinach smoothies (much to the aesthetic dismay of his coworkers) almost every week for 6 years, so I wanted to include health and fitness, but I also wanted to remain unbiased. Some people sacrifice health and fitness in their twenties to work, and those people may soon have the choice to eat wild salmon and ride bicycles from their 30th birthday on.

As the post gathered electronic dust, it occurred to me that if someone forced me to present this to a group of people beyond their twenties, these suggestions would only shift slightly (and I would have to add health). The two diagrams below show the suggestions for the two age groups (capital means wealth). The distinction is made between them because thinking about money is energy-consuming. Once you start thinking about it, and especially if you have to think about it, it is difficult to think about other things (like becoming a doctor). Further, organic (i.e. earned, non-inherited) wealth creation takes time, usually decades. If you want apples, planting apple trees is more fruitful (had to do it) than thinking about apples.

If you are in your twenties and you are not building relationships or getting good at something, you are likely wasting valuable time. Organization is a broad term. My original intent was to specifically suggest that we organize our thoughts — clearly labeling ideas and feelings in a structured way, equipping us to see gaps in our understanding and our motivations — but I realized that being organized generally (i.e. having your shit together) is beneficial in obvious and non-obvious ways. In fact, it is hard to focus on important things like relationships and developing expertise if you are disorganized.

Let’s look at each of these individually.

Expertise
An eternal tension exists between being a generalist and a specialist. I think about it directly or indirectly every day.

You do not want your dentist and your proctologist to be the same person. This is easy to say from the outside view, yet when it comes to ourselves, we generally like trying out different jobs and having other interests. Otherwise, life would be painfully dull. Plus, there are penalties for staying in our own narrow focus. Without a basic understanding of psychology, we are likely to get taken advantage of by advertisements and the major news outlets. Without a basic understanding of finance, we will have a hard time holding onto money. Without a basic understanding of math, we might play the lottery.

There are some notable examples of well-paid generalists (e.g. the best CEOs are by definition generalists). Having said that, nobody wants to pay extra for average. We pay premiums for expertise.

What do we do then?

My favorite solution to this intractable problem comes from British biologist Thomas Huxley who suggested we try to learn something about everything and everything about something.

If you want to test whether you have gotten good at something, see if you can write a primer for beginners.

Above, I said getting good at something that people will want because eventually you will need to be financially independent. How would you like to work your for ten years to become the best floppy disk repairman and find out no one values the set of skills you worked so hard for?

As long as there are people, there will always be wants. And as long as there are wants, there will always be problems. Fortunately for you, if you can give people what they want and solve their problems, they will often give you money. Remember in high school when they taught you how to do that? Me neither. That’s why I respect trade schools.

In high school, it seemed like an unspoken challenge to be able to barely study for tests and get good grades. It made sense as a strategy if you thought there was no point in learning the material because most tests in school involve rote memorization. Memorization is a low-value skill. Why? First, we have a million ways to document things that are better than human memory (e.g. pen and paper). But more importantly, you don’t solve new problems by memorizing facts and spitting them back up. You solve problems by understanding cause-and-effect relationships. When I was 23, my roommate doubted that I could memorize all of the presidents in one night, so naturally that was all the motivation I needed to memorize the presidents that night. That might have been cool for 10 minutes, but that told me nothing useful about presidents or politics.

If you do not have knowledge in a readily accessible or usable format, what do you have? You might have resourcefulness, but the further you get in any field, it might not be enough. Consider the difference between a quarterback who has memorized all the plays compared to one who goes a step further and knows when to call an audible. The quarterback most famous for this ability to anticipate what a defense is going to do then change the play accordingly is of course Peyton Manning. At that level, most quarterbacks are experts at throwing the ball and as far as speed goes, it isn’t guaranteed that Manning could beat Jonah Hill in a 40-yard dash, so his physique is unlikely responsible for him being one of the best of all time. It is his judgment, derived from a deep understanding of the game. There are no shortcuts to cultivating understanding, expertise, or good judgment. These are worthy pursuits in anything we choose to get good at.

Speaking of quarterbacks, regardless of their level of expertise, they literally cannot do their jobs without other people. Which leads us into…

Relationships
Certain words trigger contempt when you hear them in an advice context. Relationships is one of those for me, up there with positive thinking. The reason these get used too much is because they are true and they are open for interpretation. The reason for the contempt is because words alone are useless and people cannot do much with abstract concepts. Be a good friend and have a good attitude are meaningless, whereas, always return texts and calls and talk to your coworkers as respectfully as you would talk to your grandmother are actionable.

If everyone already talks about relationships, why am I? Because they are that important. When I left my first job, I realized what I cared about was who I could call if I needed them in the future, not what I learned. Wait, didn’t I just say that expertise is one of the only three things that matters? Yes. That’s how important relationships are.

We can put relationships into four categories:

  • Romantic
  • Family
  • Friendships
  • Professional network

On a snowboarding trip to Snowshoe in college, an embroidered list of life tips was hanging in the kitchen of our rental house. At the top it said 95% of your life’s happiness will depend on who you marry. I have been around a lot of married couples since then and I doubt any of them would argue with the embroidery. We went in-depth on that topic in The Millennial Marriage Manifesto.

Other than the relationship with your grandparents, the rest of your familial relationships will transition from necessary to optional. For instance, once they no longer have a say in what you do, your parents in a way stop being your parents and become more like an equal or friend. In some circumstances, at least one of them might become your best friend.

Romantic relationships are unique because you don’t get to pick who you fall in love with and attraction is complex. However, with friends, family, and your professional network, one question can take you a long way for the rest of your life: Are you reliable?

Are you there to pick your friend up from the airport? Can your customers rely on you to solve their problems?

The line between friends and “network” should be gray at worst. Borrowing a thought from Naval Ravikant, if you would not do business with someone for the rest of your life, do not ever do business with them. For many of us, that decision is outside of our control in the short term, but it can be a Northern Star, something to head towards in our career.

According to The Atlantic, it takes about 50 hours of socializing to go from acquaintance to casual friend, an additional 40 hours to become a ‘real’ friend, and a total of 200 hours to become a close friend. It takes about one week in the real world to realize how hard it is to find that much time for anything. That is one reason friends made after school will reflect more of your own traits & characteristics because you would never let yourself waste that much scarce time. This can serve as a perpetual personality mirror.

My high school football coach may or may not have known who Ralph Waldo Emerson was, but both men said, “What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you are saying.” In all of your relationships, pay the most attention to actions.

Organization (Two Types)
More things are competing for our time and attention than ever. Focusing is harder than ever, too. This is why you must be organized and it is one reason why I choose to look at life as a design problem¹.

Type I (Getting Squared Away)
If you want to get technical, what we are talking about here is fighting entropy.

What is entropy? Your kitchen gets messy and disorganized which requires energy to clean it – that’s entropy. Everything in the world (and apparently universe!) is fighting this same battle, right now.

One of the wealthiest men in the United States (Munger) says, “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.”

I would add simply being organized. I have watched business owners, who have expertise and good relationships, lose millions of dollars by being disorganized.

How is that possible?

Many businesses rely on banks for loans. In turn, the banks need reliable information about those businesses to make the loans. If the business owner makes plungers, she thinks everyone in the world already knows about plungers because without them, the world would be a crappy place to live. But everyone doesn’t know about plungers; she knows. She needs to be able to explain in a few sentences how the business makes money. She needs to be able to provide three years of accurate financial statements, tax returns, and her personal financial information in an electronic format. She needs to be able to explain why sales are plunging (okay I’ll stop).

The point is businesses have an enormous incentive to get these things right and have this type of information, which is seemingly obvious, yet they often do not. If businesses fail at doing this, individuals are at least as likely to make the same mistake.

You are going to want a lot of things, like an apartment or home. You are going to need to have check stubs, rental history, references, et cetera. Further, these things are going to depend on someone you don’t know saying yes to your request. If you want someone to say yes to anything, then you should make it as easy as possible for them to do so. They are not going to be able to say yes if you do not have the information they need to make the decision.

I am always looking for practical takeaways, so here are a few:

  • Pick a file-sharing site (e.g. Dropbox), create folders for the categories of your life (Auto, Medical, Housing, etc.), and keep everything important so you can easily access it. Bonus points if you have a system for naming files.
  • Create and maintain a personal budget with monthly cash flows in Excel.
  • Never pay a late fee for anything.
  • Get a whiteboard (it will help with Type I and Type II).

Type II (Waking Up)
You might have heard people say, “You don’t know anything when you come out of school.” How can they say that when you have spent your entire life presumably learning? One interpretation is that we are relatively unconscious of the workings of the world at that age because many of us have been insulated from parts of reality (e.g. growing up in the suburbs, the massive amount of raw information to be processed, etc.). A metaphor for gaining consciousness is waking up. I think of it as a combination of intellectual and emotional maturity and an existential ah-ha moment. From what I can tell, this is not inevitable, so it must be deliberately sought out, by paying attention and thinking.

If you do not organize your thoughts, you do not know what you really think or why you feel a certain way. There are many ways to do this. One of my favorites is writing because we don’t think in paragraphs and essays, we think in words and sentences. Without writing those thoughts down, they can disappear or trail off without cohesion. Putting them together in a way that makes sense takes work. That is why good writers are good thinkers.

Take superstition. If people say their superstitions aloud, they often get embarrassed because they sound ridiculous under scrutiny (e.g. Your team wins because of your lucky underwear? How?). You can do this with anything. If you are willing to go through this process, you will not only get to know yourself better and form more accurate perspectives, you will become more persuasive and be able to get more things done.

These two types of organization will help you think clearly and clear thinking is priceless.

As you can see, expertise, relationships and organization take time. You will find that habits are more important than motivation.

There are 521 weekends in any decade of your life, which may sound like a lot, but if you trust me on anything, trust me that this particular one goes by fast.

Don’t forget to have fun.


  1. Designing Your Life

Disclosure: Long DBX

An Alternative to New Year’s Resolutions

The world never tells you that you’re wrong; it only gives you outcomes. 

— Shane Parrish, Farnam Street

Kierkegaard, in Either/Or, makes fun of the “busy man” for whom busyness is a way of avoiding an honest self-reckoning. You might wake up in the night and realise that you’re lonely in your marriage, or that you need to think about what your level of consumption is doing to the planet, but the next day you have a million little things to do, and the day after that you have another million things. As long as there’s no end of little things, you never have to stop and confront the bigger questions. Writing or reading an essay isn’t the only way to stop and ask yourself who you really are and what your life might mean, but it is one good way. And if you consider how laughably unbusy Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen was, compared with our own age, those subjective tweets and hasty blog posts don’t seem so essayistic. They seem more like a means of avoiding what a real essay might force on us. We spend our days reading, on screens, stuff we’d never bother reading in a printed book, and bitch about how busy we are.

— Jonathan Franzen, Is It Too Late to Save The World?

It is safe to say the New Year’s Resolution is dead. Gyms will still likely see the customary uptick in new memberships in January, where the lines will be blurred between legs trying to escape yoga pants and a busted can of biscuits. We may eventually get lunch with that person we said we would the past 7 times we bumped into them at the grocery store. We might even “enjoy life to the fullest” (perpetually in the Top 5 most common New Year’s Resolutions)…whatever that means.

Odds are we won’t.

It would be great if The Resolution was dead because people realized that an arbitrary date was unnecessary in making necessary life changes. Instead, I think it died because doing what you say you’re going to do is hard and people get discouraged by the demands of changing their habits. At any rate, all of us are prompted by the New Year to think at least a bit about the upcoming year. Companies do this too, but their process is a little more formal. They look forward, budgeting for the upcoming year, and looking forward is what all of us must ultimately do. But many companies, and all public companies, also look backward and write letters to their respective shareholders (owners) explaining how the year went in an annual report. If you’re a stakeholder in the company or in finance, you may read them. If you have no (financial or intellectual) interest in the company, you would never read them.

Although not entirely necessary for this post, it would be worth reading one (Google your favorite public company’s shareholder letter). Management talks about the company’s financials, risks, competition, etc.–all things that impact the performance of the business.

Most businessmen I respect believe that the most appropriate place for projections is the trashcan. My own experience has certainly reinforced this idea as I have never seen a case of someone projecting that they are going to do badly (because they normally want something from the people they’re showing the projections). Therefore, we look to the past to come up with the best way to move forward. The past doesn’t predict the future, but it’s usually the best we have. Since successful investors and companies think this way I got to thinking, why don’t people do this for themselves? Replace all of the business components with a person’s. In the way that projections are often (though not always) less useful for a business than their historical performance, looking at what I did yesterday is often a better predictor of what I’m going to do tomorrow than what I think I’m going to do. At the end of 2015, I did this and found it useful. I have since shared the idea with a few more people and their reaction influenced me to share it more broadly.

Below, I’ll suggest some categories and questions to get you going, but since this is an individualistic activity, you can ignore mine and come up with your own. The temptation is to quickly skim it over and answer them in your head like a What Kind of Cheeseburger Are You? personality quiz on Facebook, but the idea here is to open up a Word document, put pen finger to paper keyboard, and get the thoughts outside of your head. If you’re still enjoying the holidays, you’re in luck because the real purpose of binge eating at this time of the year is to cause such physical lethargy you have no other option but to allow your brain to confront the bigger questions Franzen alludes to in his quote above.

Physical
We’ll start with the most popular New Year’s Resolution category. Two questions can carry a lot of weight here.

  • How did you treat your body this year?
  • Is your body fat percentage higher or lower than it was last year?
    As far as how I treated my body, one area I tried to work on in 2017 was getting enough sleep. I (used to) idolize people who can operate at a high level without much sleep, but after trying that out for a year or two, I realized this is either impossible and/or it simply doesn’t work for me. We have all heard an idiot say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” When have you ever slept 4 hours each night for a week and on Friday felt like you’re performing physically or mentally at the same level as you would have if you were fully rested? Extrapolate that for a meaningful period of time and there’s no way that’s a sustainable game plan. Jeff Bezos, the boss of that online company the retail industry loves, makes getting 8 hours of sleep a top priority. If Jeff can find time to make everything happen that he does in 16 hours, I suppose I have no excuse.

Family
Coming off the holidays, this may be a delicate one. Some people may be crying as they leave their families returning home, while others are getting to the airport 3 hours early to get away from theirs. Assuming you have family and respect them, did you strengthen your relationship with them? Any new additions? Did your roles and responsibilities within your family evolve? Do you want the same things?

Work
There must have been a writers’ conference on New Year’s Day 2017 that determined the theme of the year was tech. Given that I can barely go to a website or read a book these days without seeing a version of how Artificial Intelligence or FANG (Facebook Amazon Netflix Google) is in the process of taking over the world, on one hand I’m convinced a robot is going to take my job and Mark Zuckerberg is going to have me tilling fields in Farmville. On the other, an automated phone system has literally never solved a problem of mine so I’m a little skeptical of impending mass unemployment. So, assuming we still have a few years left, perhaps we should ask ourselves the following: Am I getting better at what I do for work? What skills did I acquire this year? What did I create?

Mental/Emotional
I was trying to order a pizza on the phone the other day from Mellow Mushroom and the guy kept calling back the wrong order to me. As I bit my lip, I was reminded of something the stoic philosopher Epictetus said 1,900 years ago, “If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it easier to maintain control.” There’s a related idea that when you’re right, you can afford to keep your temper, and when you’re wrong, you can’t afford to lose it. A distinguishing factor between a child and an adult is the management of our emotions. Children cry when they are hungry, adults (usually) don’t, although they have the same fundamental desire. This is a never-ending tension, as we are emotional creatures and everything that happens causes us to deal with them. The good news is we can train our emotions (think yoga). It takes some work, but over time the more we align them with rationality, the more likely we are to get what we want.

Educational
Are we really going to learn Mandarin Chinese? I have Rosetta Stone installed on my computer, but unless I move to China, the odds of me learning Chinese are about as good as Kim Jong-Un beating Dennis Rodman in basketball. There’s nothing wrong with lofty goals, but the whole idea of this post is that many resolutions are sufficiently difficult to the point people give up on many of them before they have even gotten all the glitter off. Instead of coming up with big goals, it’s amazing what can happen over time if we simply try to go to bed smarter than when we woke up. We can ask ourselves the following questions to get a feel for whether this happened or not.

  • What did you actively learn this year?
  • What books did you read?
  • Can you explain the big ideas in them to a six-year-old?

Financial
This one is easy. Take all the money you can get your hands on and buy Bitcoin! I’m 100% kidding, don’t do that. The only thing more polarizing than cryptocurrencies in 2017 was Donald Trump, so is an end-of-year blog post culturally relevant without mentioning them? I am not going to talk about them long at all here because I’m unqualified to have an opinion on Bitcoin specifically, but I can tell you that the odds of you having sustainable and repeatable financial success in something you are not an expert in are significantly low. Paraphrasing Charlie Munger from a recent interview at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, you have people being lured into the concept of easy wealth without much insight or work. Whether it’s 2017 or 2017 BC the idea of easy money is seductive. Even though it’s less fun, it pays to be skeptical. Getting rich slowly is a better goal than getting rich quickly.

Moving onto more prosaic matters, we all worked hard this year and maybe we even got paid for our work. Money buys things we want, getting things we want makes us happy, boom! Money buys happiness. If we want to be happy, we’re probably going to have to think about our finances.

  • Is your net worth (value of what you own minus what you owe) larger or smaller than it was last year? By how much? Why?
  • What was the highest and lowest quality financial outflow you had this year?
  • Did you reduce debt or add debt?
    • Most credit cards/bank statements have an Annual Summary that breaks out spending categories.

For more on personal finance, check out The Financial Wisdom of Rap Music.

Relationships
Since we covered relationships earlier in the year with The Millennial Marriage Manifesto, we’ll stick to friendships here. I increasingly try to only spend time with people I like and admire. That seems obvious, but is it? The older you get the more you ask yourself the types of qualities the people you want to be around would have and realize that your friends are inevitably a reflection of yourself. You may have heard “You’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.”

  • Who are those 5 people? Are they different this year than last year?
  • Did you develop deeper relationships with your existing friends? Make new ones?

While we’re talking about new friends and resolutions, in March I went to Cuba with Garrett Gravesen and a group of guys for what we ended up calling the First Annual Entrepreneurship Summit (going to start formally naming all of my vacations). Since then, he wrote a book called 10 Seconds Of Insane Courage and I had the opportunity to help edit it. Garrett lives the belief that big decisions are made in moments–10 seconds to be exact–and that your courage in those moments will determine the trajectory of your life. I’m such a big proponent of careful evaluation that the seemingly contrasting thought is compelling because regardless of how much thought goes into a decision, ultimately you must make a decision. You’ll have to read his wild stories for yourself, but viewing your decisions over the year through this lens will be illuminating.

Fun
What did you do to have fun?
This category reminds me of Kanye West’s song Paranoid “You worry bout the wrong things, the wrong things” because people who aren’t thinking about this are the ones that should and the ones who worry about whether they’re having enough fun are likely already having enough. My disposition is geared more towards delaying gratification because I feel like the payoffs are better, but the future is uncertain so we could get hit by the proverbial bus and never get to the long-term which is why we should try to have fun along the way.

In addition to the ones above, some don’t fit squarely into any particular section, like acknowledging my terrible habit of mindlessly looking at my phone too frequently. I also have started asking myself, “What is the dumbest thing I did this year?”

If you’re like me, you’ll find two things:
1. These are all interrelated.
2. By going through the process of writing these down, any changes to be made will be so glaringly obvious to you that making a formal resolution will be unnecessary. If I looked down and someone had run over my foot with a lawn mower, I hardly need to make a resolution to go to the hospital.

The opening quote from Shane Parrish at Farnam Street about outcomes is one of my favorite ideas I came across in 2017 because it seems there’s so much sensitivity in the world that the idea of someone being wrong or making a bad choice is almost taboo. It’s a subtle nudge that gets us thinking about our choices and what happens because of them while removing the black and white idea of right and wrong. Being mindful of this quote will be helpful as you go through your letter.

What would be interesting is if you made this an annual tradition and in 10 years you looked back through them. You would have a decade of personal development in front of you and a pretty good map of how you got to where you are in your life.


See also:

10 Seconds Of Insane Courage by Garrett Gravesen
Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Futureby Martin Ford

Designing Your Life

design

verb  de·sign \di-ˈzīn\

1: to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan
2: to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully
3: to intend for a definite purpose

There is only one success in life — to be able to spend your life in your own way. 

— Christopher Morley 

The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.

— Warren Buffett

When you were in elementary school and your teacher asked you to draw a picture of your life on a blank sheet of paper, your Crayola stick figures probably weren’t on the phone with AT&T asking them in restrained deep breaths to explain how your phone bill is different every single month. Nor were they likely choosing between different door knobs at The Home Depot on a nice little Saturday. 

I was lucky if I was well-behaved enough to even participate in the drawing activity, so now that we’re all adults let’s revisit the idea. One problem with asking young people to draft their futures is they have no idea what possibilities are available. This is the basis for travel, knowledge, and experience. How can you know what you want if you don’t know it exists? If you lived in the US before 1980, there is a good chance you had never eaten sushi. Take my eyes but not the sushi.

The rapid pace of technological developments makes predicting our opportunities even harder. Take virtual reality. Although the foundations were set long ago, the impending widespread use is something relatively few people outside Silicon Valley were aware of five or ten years ago. Whether it’s sushi or VR, the more familiar we make ourselves with the physical, social, and cultural aspects of the world, the more capable we are to label our wants, and thus get them.

When I look around I see that some people have better lives than others (it’s amazing how reluctant people are to explicitly acknowledge this and will inevitably be a topic we explore in-depth later). Of course each person’s genetics, environment, & relative positioning within that environment are critical. If your dad is Shaq, you are going to be tall. If you were born in the US, you have access to air conditioning and medicine. If your mom is the CEO of the corporation you want to work for, guess who’s getting that summer internship.

Having said that, there is room for decision making in determining outcomes. The problem is, most people shape their lives without knowing it through the decisions they make every day. I can’t seem to shake this theme. Even people that seem like they don’t have choices do. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison and he still found time to run a country, abolish apartheid, and get Morgan Freeman to play him in a movie.

You make thousands of decisions every day. How many times to hit the snooze button, who to email, call and visit, what websites you go to, number of cartons of Halo Top to eat, and so on. If we have control over these micro-decisions, do they add up over time to something more meaningful, and can we steer them in a direction that leads to only having the people, things and experiences in our life that we want? If so, would it make sense to consciously figure out what we want ahead of time? This is what I mean by designing your life.

It’s like a bucket list, but for while you are living normally, not just before you die.

Like any idea, this can be carried to extremes. Our actions are rarely insulated to ourselves, so don’t mistake this to be suggesting that you surround yourself with people who enable you to live in your own unchecked fantasy (you know someone who does this and it’s not a good look). Having said that, the people you have in your life profoundly impact the quality of it and I’ve found that I generally want to avoid the type who stand under waterfalls and complain about being wet. We’ll find the right balance.

The only reason this idea justifies an essay is because of the second & third-order effects. It’s quite obvious that everyone wants what they like and they generally make decisions they think will get them those things. However, it gets a little nuanced when 1) we do not know ourselves and therefore our true wants and/or 2) choosing something we want today means we will be unable to have 10 things we want in five years. Let’s make sure we’re on the same page with order effects. Take exercising. First-order effects are sweating, exhaustion, and some level of euphoria. A second-order effect would be better posture, or not panting after walking up a flight of stairs. A third-order effect would be lower lifetime healthcare costs due to improved health which frees up time & cash for you to do and buy other things.

People usually start doing something for first-order reasons, but down the road through an accumulation of the small decisions we mentioned earlier, end up somewhere else due to the second- or third-order effects – sometimes undesirable. The opposite is also possible. In our future life drawing, we may have been incapable of imagining a future job as an electrical engineer or sommelier (sign me up), but through continuous iterations of deciding what we like as we go through more experiences, we end up somewhere with a previously unimaginable & desirable result. I suppose if you stand behind every decision & action you ever make then who cares where you end up?

Here is a hypothetical, but useful, example of things getting away from us. Suppose a guy says, “I want a big house in a good school district because my wife wants one, that would be great for my family, and that’s what people do.” Well, pretend it’s slightly outside the budget, the mortgage payment stresses him out on a daily basis, and he’s at work too long trying to pay for it. Therefore, he never spends time with his wife and kids. Each time something breaks, his face gets a shade more red. Multiply this daily routine by a few years. Gets divorced, sells the house, and the kids become Tennessee Volunteers fans (Go Dawgs). Complete misery.

As a reminder, I have nothing against houses. I use them as examples because they are ubiquitously relatable to most Americans. In fact, your housing and where you live are essential components of designing your life. Winston Churchill nailed the idea mid-cigar when he blew out a contemplative cloud of smoke and said, “First we shape our buildings and then they shape us.”

Two central premises to this are the importance of time and agency over your life. Those who do not feel the clock of their life ticking or often feel like victims of circumstances will not find this concept compelling.

There are two general approaches to designing your life:
1) being selective about each addition to it (harder on the front-end — try resisting Netflix or french fries)
2) experience as much as possible and cutting out/replacing the ones you do not want (harder on the back-end — try deleting Facebook, permanently ending a toxic relationship, or even worse, trying to reverse irreversible outcomes). In design, there is an idea that when you are trying to make something beautiful (for instance a bedroom), first remove everything that is ugly. This is a useful heuristic, especially for older people who are unsatisfied, but do not know where to start. Ask: What do I dislike the most about my life?

Regarding #1, Warren Buffett says, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.” Don’t go watch Yes Man right after reading this or you’ll be stressed out for the rest of the day. The quote has layers of meaning to it, but the relevant point is there are so many things competing for your attention, if you are always saying yes you are spreading yourself too thin and you are by definition not focused. I practice what I preach, but this one is difficult for me.

I will use an easy example in my own life for #2. When I first started working, I wanted to be Frugal Fred and save money, so I ironed my own shirts. I hate ironing shirts. As one of the world’s worst/most distracted ironers, I can probably iron 5 shirts an hour because I watch stand-up comedy on Netflix while I do it. There is pathetic and then there is 5-shirts-an-hour pathetic. I decided to deploy what economists call comparative advantage and let the professionals do it for $1.25/shirt. If you do not already do this, you should quantify how much your time is worth (working) per hour and what a reasonable threshold is to outsource chores and routine tasks, because once you are putting significant amounts of energy into your craft/occupation, saving $6.25 when you could be recharging is simply not worth the energy. Mathew McConaughey’s threshold is higher because in an hour he can make $100,000 shooting a Lincoln commercial. No idea if that number is right, but you get the idea. Star Cleaners is better off pressing my shirts and I’m better off not having interruptions so I can focus on the things I want to focus on. What optimists call a win-win.

Once you pick your approach, it sounds alluringly simple: Imagine your life exactly as you want it. Then make decisions that get you closer to that. However, readers will notice that constraints, trade-offs, and discipline have either been implicit or explicit in every post so far. There will be blood.

It can be as simple as if you hate traffic, get a place close to work. If you hate work, spend time outside of work deserving the job you want. If you want to save money, do not spend it all on rent, car payments, and going out. But we want it all. The place next to the office may cost more, your social life may be more important than your career, and so on.

This is where the decision-making part comes in and you figure out what you really want. It is better to do this deliberately. Venkatesh Rao over at Ribbonfarm would caution against “getting trapped in imitative life scripts that may not work for you.” This is similar advice to “You do you” (which could be valid if it was not mostly given at terrible times). In other words, if you try to copy the design of someone else’s life, it will likely disappoint.

We need feedback to determine the quality of our decisions. The feedback from our choices is often received fastest in our physical appearance and mood. Like our life, we can shape our body, getting closer to what we ideally want it to look and feel like. We control this with inputs, rest, exercise, skincare, et cetera. A medium- to long-term approach in these categories gets rewarded. Once you begin to see the cause-effect relationship in such a direct way, it gives you confidence to trust the process in planning longer-term, more abstract goals where the feedback is often delayed and sometimes invisible. For instance, if you want a strong vocabulary (abstract goal), the most effective way to achieve this is by reading the work of great writers. If you read one book, you will not notice any effects. If you read 100, you will.

In the way I imagine it, designing your life entails taking steps to make each phase or season of your life better (abstract goal) than the one before it, however you define that. I am sure we can agree that increasing degrees of freedom is better. There is a paradox here. When you were a kid you did not have a driver’s license and now that you are an adult you do not have to sit in a classroom for 7-8 straight hours like you did in school, so at least spatially, you have much more freedom. However, most adults would laugh at the idea that they have more freedom now. This is because of the way they have designed their life and the responsibilities their choices and circumstances necessitate.

For adults, freedom is almost synonymous with money. Although financially, it is easier than ever to design your life, this convenience can get slippery. One day you buy something online. Next thing you know you have Amazon packages magically appearing on your doorstep every day. Good for Amazon, bad for your credit card statement.

As you can see from the few examples here, each seemingly compartmentalized part of our lives spills over into another, adding complexity, and there are infinite directions to take this idea. Your life is your canvas.

Occasionally, someone will say, “Not everything has to be so planned out JOSH, just go with the flow,” or something similar. This person either innocently misunderstands what I am saying or more likely, has just realized how doing some of these things could have prevented pain. It is crucial to be clear on these two possibilities. One, spontaneity is great. The best day of your life is not the day you plan to be the best day of your life. The entire goal of planning is to save time and give you flexibility, not cause stress. Relaxing is not wasted time. It could be argued that the goal of human activity is leisure time. In contrast, wasting time is doing something without a benefit. If you value a ton of time spent on the couch watching football and you can support that lifestyle, structure your life such that you can spend heaps of time on the couch watching football. For the second, mistakes happen. Some are fixable, some unfixable, some in our control, many out of our control.

We are simply aiming for better-than-random conditions for ourselves. 


See also:
The Design of Everyday Things by Dan Norman

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions
by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert


Quality.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the best movie about Steve Jobs ever made. 

— Chris Dixon

Take a moment to consider the following: What is quality? When you drive by Wendy’s and see “Quality is Our Recipe” on the sign you know they’re full of shit, but why? This is the paradox: we all have an intuitive sense of what “quality” is, but it’s difficult to define, and if we can’t define what it is, how can we pursue it?

When my best friend told me Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (“ZAMM”), tries to answer that question, my eyes stretched wide open because the theme had been on my mind for a while and I was intrigued that someone had put a book-length effort into thinking about it 15 years before I was born.

The book title initially confused me because it turns out it’s not really about Zen or motorcycle maintenance — it makes more sense to think of Zen as living in the moment and motorcycle maintenance as rational thought. The narrator explores how we can combine artistic free-thinking creativity and the reason & logic of technology through a 17-day motorcycle trip from Minnesota to Northern California with his son. The thought is to be so engaged in what you are doing that you become one with it. For example, it is hard to imagine Jimi Hendrix without a guitar. Pirsig’s guitar is a motorcycle and the metaphor for his story.

Since then, I have read the book and later stumbled on Paul Graham’s essay Taste for Makers, in which he tries to answer the question: “how do you make good stuff?” Like when you are buying a new car, you actively notice everything about cars, I couldn’t help being on the lookout for quality.

Quality materials last. Quality people are trustworthy. Quality decisions rely on logic, courage, and intelligence. Regardless of what we are talking about, there is an insatiable appetite for quality.

I thought about Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a phenomenal documentary available on Netflix about one of the world’s greatest sushi chefs. The parallels were hard to ignore. The opening scene of the film shows Jiro writing in Japanese and he says, “Taste is tough to explain, isn’t it?” The opening quote by Chris Dixon succinctly draws the comparison between Steve Jobs and Jiro in that they obviously have drastically different products (personal electronics & sushi), but the level of passion they have invested in perfecting them is nearly identical.

Pirsig, Graham, Jiro, and Jobs. A philosopher, venture capitalist, chef, and a technologist. They are all pursuing the same thing, just using different means and different words. Graham’s, being a 16-page essay, and Jiro, a movie, are more approachable, while ZAMM is a philosophical text (easier to read than most) thinly disguised as a novel. The underlying idea here deeply resonates with me and I think that a fulfilling life is dependent on the pursuit of quality, taste, or whatever we call it. It’s funny, I used to think I wanted to be happy. But, what I realized is that satisfaction is actually superior to happiness because you cannot pursue happiness directly. Happiness is what’s left after you have done something else. I would imagine that a NY firefighter on 9/11 would not describe himself as happy, but would feel fulfilled and satisfied by saving lives. There is a lot here, so we will probably expand on certain ideas in the future. For now, let’s figure out how quality fits into our lives and how it can enhance them.

For better or worse, it is nearly impossible to talk about quality without getting into epistemology (theory of knowledge) because when you say “good” it is kind of in-between subjective and objective. Your 6-year-old son may be good for his recreational basketball league, but Lebron James is good period.

I think what turns people off from philosophy are two related things:

1) it rarely proves anything (which is ironically interesting)
2) after a few minutes the conversation often drowns in a pool of abstraction and loses application to your day-to-day life. Perhaps we can summarize the sentiment with, “Whether the chair exists or not, we still have to go to work.”

Pirsig tries to maintain the casual reader’s interest by using Chautauquas: old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer (cough, the entire goal of this blog, cough).

Since Pirsig & Graham did the heavy lifting already, their ideas and quotes are going to serve as the basis for the post and I’m going to chime in with some thoughts along the way. Graham’s writing style is one of the best in the world. He tactfully acknowledges why a politically correct sentiment exists and then gets to the core of an interesting idea in plain language.

Saying that taste is just personal preference is a good way to prevent disputes. The trouble is, it’s not true. You feel this when you start to design things.

Whatever job people do, they naturally want to do better. Football players like to win games. CEOs like to increase earnings. It’s a matter of pride, and a real pleasure, to get better at your job. But if your job is to design things, and there is no such thing as beauty, then there is no way to get better at your job. If taste is just personal preference, then everyone’s is already perfect: you like whatever you like, and that’s it.

As in any job, as you continue to design things, you’ll get better at it. Your tastes will change. And, like anyone who gets better at their job, you’ll know you’re getting better. If so, your old tastes were not merely different, but worse. Poof goes the axiom that taste can’t be wrong.

— Paul Graham, Taste for Makers

His delivery is light, but the challenge is real: Be better than you were. He then goes on to describe the principles behind good design.

This theme of self-improvement is natural to us, but it feels more inspiring when coming from people at the top of their field.

I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.

— Jiro Ono

My favorite scene in Jiro is an interview with one of his tuna vendors, Hiroki Fujita, at the fish market. Fujita says, “I either buy my first choice, or I buy nothing. If ten tuna are for sale, only one can be the best. I buy that one.” In-between the lines is the implication that you need to know tuna well enough to know the difference. To know what you want, to know it when you see it, and to pursue it exclusively. Do you know what you want, would you recognize it if you saw it, and would you say no to almost everything else to get it?

(From here, unless otherwise noted, block quotes are from ZAMM.)

P. 8 “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?,” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.

What is best is tricky. We all want the best tuna. Realistically, we should qualify it and say: What is best, given a set of constraints? If I required the best every time I had a late-night pizza craving, then I’d need to go to Italy (or Chicago), on a G6, with Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger flying it.

Having said that, “best” does not necessarily mean most popular or most expensive. Twilight sold about 120 million copies and most Pulitzer Prize winning books sell under 1.5 million copies. You can have a quality toothbrush that you spent $4 on and a lemon car that costs $50,000. Now, often the best becomes both popular and expensive because word gets out and if more people want it, the product or service will likely cost more.

Regarding material items, functionality and durability are important elements of quality. If you wear a $1,000 jacket 1,000 times ($1 per use), I’d argue that is less expensive than a $500 jacket that wears out after wearing it 10 times ($50 per use). Filson and Patagonia are good examples of this concept, which reminds me of an old Russian proverb: We’re not rich enough to buy cheap things.

P. 27-28 We were all spectators. And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.

Whether it is a friendship, a garden, or an Excel spreadsheet, caring about what you are doing is arguably the most important attribute you can have because of how much it encapsulates. With sushi, you could say, “It’s just a piece of fish on top of rice.” That dismissive line of thought is deceptive though. Although the statement is true on the surface, watch the movie and see if you think there is a difference in the level of care between the fish on rice on a conveyor belt compared to the fish on rice at Jiro’s restaurant. Caring is like authenticity, there are no shortcuts and tends to require a significant time investment.

P. 28 I don’t want to hurry it. That itself is a poisonous twentieth century attitude. When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things.

Hurrying, and the related concept of being busy, is not just a poisonous twentieth century attitude…it survived Y2K and came right into the 21st. You rarely catch yourself rushing the important things and you always make time for the ones you care about the most. At Jiro’s restaurant, “after about ten years, they let you cook the eggs.”

Pirsig was a creative & technical writing professor for a brief period of time. If you read the book, you get the sense that although he had the best intentions and thoughts as a father and professor, he probably didn’t come across as good at either at the time.

P. 176 And he became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it still sounded right and changing it if it didn’t.

Rules are alluring because they provide a step-by-step guide to get what we want and processes are usually helpful. However, I cannot think of a single person who I would consider great who simply followed a set of rules. Instead they worked on their craft until it felt right. Going with your gut is a terrible strategy for accounting, but critical for design and creating. This gut feeling comes from getting the reps in. One of Jiro’s apprentices said, “He gives me advice. But, there is much you can’t learn from words. I have to keep practicing.”

P. 209 What he meant by Quality was obvious. They obviously knew what it was too, and so they lost interest in listening. Their question now was “All right, we know what Quality is. How do we get it?”

He singled out aspects of Quality such as unity, vividness, authority, economy, sensitivity, clarity, emphasis, flow, suspense, brilliance, precision, proportion, depth and so on; kept each of these as poorly defined as Quality itself, but demonstrated them by the same class reading techniques.

It doesn’t make a bit of difference how you do it! Just so it’s good.

It impresses me when someone says something so eloquently I think to myself “Oh that is exactly how I would have said it,” when in fact I couldn’t say it anywhere close to as well as them. This ties into his “taken for granted” comment above. Dismissing the concept as obvious is precisely why so many people fail at it. Graham goes a bit further in his characteristics, giving us more concrete examples and hints at how we can go about achieving them.

Everything we have talked about so far has been inwardly focused, so we have to be honest with our motives. Graham says the greatest masters go on to achieve a kind of selflessness.

P. 212 Any effort that has self-glorification as its final endpoint is bound to end in disaster. When you try to climb a mountain to prove how big you are, you almost never make it. And even if you do it’s a hollow victory. In order to sustain the victory you have to prove yourself again and again in some other way, and again and again and again, driven forever to fill a false image, haunted by the fear that the image is not true and someone will find out. That’s never the way.

(Insert flushed face emoji)

P. 218 And interestingly [without Quality], comedy would vanish too. No one would understand the jokes, since the difference between humor and no humor is pure Quality.

I am going to get this quote tattooed in Chinese on my lower back.

P. 310 Of the value traps, the most widespread and pernicious is value rigidity. This is an inability to revalue what one sees because of commitment to previous values. In motorcycle maintenance, you must rediscover what you do as you go. Rigid values makes this impossible.

Robert Pirsig was talking about Confirmation Bias in 1974 long before it was trendy. We talked about this in an entire post here. Graham says Good design is redesign and “it takes confidence to throw work away.”

Suppose we have gotten past Confirmation Bias, we are willing to overturn closely held ideas and previous values, and everything else that goes along with Pirsig’s rediscovery process. No matter how adaptable we may be, somewhere along our journey we will reach a point where there is no readily available solution and there is no good outcome. Pirsig calls this being stuck. I loved this part of the book because we are so often tempted to rationalize away bad circumstances. Sure we can learn from failure, no it is not the end of the world, but sometimes things are objectively bad at that particular point in time–no silver linings. He offers some guidance for this situation:

P. 311 …well…just stare at the machine. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just live with it for a while.

Of the people I have met and know, several are highly uncomfortable being mentally still. It is important to distinguish being still from being lazy or boring. I believe the reason for this is that in the absence of distractions, people are confronted with the real issues or questions in their life that need to be addressed. This can be scary. However, I think part of the rise in popularity of yoga and meditation is because putting the body to work on a prosaic task (yoga, chopping wood, cleaning) that requires minimal effort allows the rest of the mind to reflect. We all need this.

P. 325 The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.

P. 164 The ultimate test is always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you
start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.

If you’ve ever gotten mad at an inanimate object, you understand this at least to some degree already. Everything you work on is a reflection of yourself. It took me ~25 years to figure this out because I also believe that which isn’t worth doing, isn’t worth doing well. Figuring out what to do is often at least as hard as the actual doing.

P. 386 It is an immortal dialogue, strange and puzzling at first, but then hitting you harder and harder, like truth itself.

When you find out there is something wrong with the cycle called yourself, it tends to make us angry. If it makes us angry enough, we will pretend there is nothing wrong with the cycle and you can imagine how that impacts where we are going.

This is something to think about in doses. Pirsig thought about this stuff so much it drove him insane.

By this point, the content of this excerpt from a Playboy interview of Steve Jobs in 1985 will sound familiar:

Playboy: Does it take insane people to make insanely great things?

Steve Jobs: Actually, making an insanely great product has a lot to do with the process of making the product, how you learn things and adopt new ideas and throw out old ideas. But, yeah, the people who made Mac are sort of on the edge.

Playboy: What’s the difference between the people who have insanely great ideas and the people who pull off those insanely great ideas?

Jobs: Let me compare it with IBM. How come the Mac group produced Mac and the people at IBM produced the PCjr? We think the Mac will sell zillions, but we didn’t build Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build. When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.

It has been several years since I read Steve Jobs’ biography, but it sounds like he read ZAMM.

I wonder how Jiro would respond to the same question about insane people and great products? Jiro and his employees memorize the seating chart of the guests of the restaurant by gender before they arrive, so that the women are served slightly smaller portions than the men in order to keep a harmonic pace to the meal, ensuring everyone finishes at the same time.

Most people like interviews and profiles of successful people because they potentially offer insights into the traits that caused their success. So, let’s say there is a spectrum of personality traits and on one end is living-in-the-moment and at the opposite end is rational analysis we alluded to above. It is likely that we lean towards one end or the other and have a tendency to at least subconsciously think people who are more of the other type just do not get it, which can’t be the case. If we can gravitate towards the center over time, I think we will have a higher quality of life regardless of whether we maintain motorcycles, create the next iPhone, or make the best sushi.

A focus on quality is an end in itself, but it has additional second-order benefits, too. It will filter your true wants. If the quality of something is not that important to you, you probably do not need much of it in your life. This reduces the number of things you want, which almost literally means you will be happier.

Go for quality.


See also:
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Paul Graham’s Taste for Makers essay
Playboy Interview with Steve Jobs (1985)
Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia)
Filson
Satisfaction by Gregory Berns
Man on Wire (documentary)

 

50+ Shades of Gray: Opinions, Mental Models, & Probability

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I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.

— Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway

Opinions

Since no one really talked about this past election, and politics are rarely an emotive topic, let’s use that to introduce the subject of today’s conversation (trust me, we won’t stay long). Whether you voted for the Mad Mango, The Criminal, or Francis Underwood, I am indifferent. What is much more interesting is the step before: our decision making framework, and how it affects what we do and choose. Before the election, across different states, countries, people, and age groups, I heard similar sentiments and shockingly similar sentences used to describe why people were voting for a particular person. Some people talked about rationally-considered pros and cons of the situation. Many more had an opinion on topics that not only appeared to be insignificant in relation to the country’s real issues (if someone starts talking about bathrooms, I start wondering what they are distracting me from thinking about) or seemed to ignore a candidate’s ability to execute on promises (classic), but those opinions seemed to be immovable the moment they left the lungs. The rhetoric & villains were getting all too predictable. The first thing we must acknowledge is that this is a complicated system we are in and it absolutely requires latitude in our thought. An inflexible thinker in life is comparable to an inflexible gymnast in the Olympics.

If stubbornness were wine, ignorance would be the grapes. Have you noticed you cannot reason someone out of something they did not reason themselves into? Given that each of us is more likely to be persuaded by the ideas we discover on our own than from other people, if there is one area where we can hold our proverbial horses, it is in the initial formation of our opinions and ideas. Let’s become comfortable with saying “I don’t know” for a while. Why? First, Munger’s quote above; it should be on the ticker of every news station and inside every fortune cookie (in bed). Second, with seven billion people on the planet, there are simply too many things happening to have an opinion on each of them. Third, the easy problems have been solved, leaving us with the harder ones with less clear answers. Fourth, once we form an opinion, we hold onto it and the only way we let go is if someone pries it from our dead, lifeless fingers. Finally, I think the truth is often difficult and that any improvement in our appreciation for nuance makes our society better. I am not talking about a better society in the abstract Let’s Love Everyone sense. I am suggesting that we have a responsibility to spend adequate time and energy developing our ideas and to effectively commit to lifelong learning, because my guess is that the average reader here is under 30, and we are not going to get very far based on what we already know. If we do this we will each receive a (yuge) personal benefit, sure. But it will generally be a net positive for everyone else, too. We will reduce the number of people who confidently answer questions about which they don’t have any real knowledge.

When I talk about this idea, occasionally I’ll hear the fingernails on the chalkboard: “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.” No. No, they are not. If this is a belief of yours, spend 10 minutes on Facebook and get back to me. Let’s say someone asks you and me what the marginal tax rates should be and you have spent 30 years trying to figure this out and this is the first time I have thought about it. Our opinions are not equal and I haven’t earned the right to say much on the topic. “Well that is just my opinion” requires no further justification when we’re talking about the best burger in Dallas (Maple & Motor), but more serious things require more homework.

As more time is spent on any one thought, serious thinkers start bumping into paradoxes. Have you tried getting a black and white answer on a topic from an expert? It is harder than convincing your friend not to text their ex. Easy example: Is coffee good for you? The answer is unexciting: it depends (on several things, including the definition of good). Wars don’t get started and magazines don’t get sold over “it depends” though. Of course, many things have objective answers. DNA carries the genetic information of a cell. A balance sheet must balance. La La Land Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture. The key, and potentially uncomfortable, realization we have to face is: Many areas outside of the hard sciences do not have answers and facts in the traditional sense, but instead entail a series of options along a continuum, with trade-offs (shades of gray). The more objective answers we accumulate, the more equipped we are to assess those trade-offs.

There are two main risks to walking down this path of deliberation and open-mindedness:
1) We eventually have to do something. We can’t just keep all of this in our heads indefinitely, we want to use it. This one is easier because we’ll often be told we need to do something faster than we do. You don’t just get in the car and drive to Chick-Fil-A. You avoid a lot of pain and agony if you first think about whether it is Sunday or not.
2) Many people are trying to fool you. This is the bigger one – If we are too open-minded we will end up in a cult with a lot of product warranties, organic pet rocks, and free cruises. So we should be skeptical of experts and marketing (future post), but we also must be mindful that if it is an area largely unfamiliar to us, we have some old-fashioned work to do. I wish there was another way around this.

You may be thinking: he wasted 900 words (and we are not done yet) to suggest we should know what we are talking about and consider the other side of an argument. There is more to it, and the thing that makes this polite suggestion effectively worthless is Confirmation Bias. We seek out information that (wait for it) confirms what we already believe. You don’t see protesters with signs that read: “EXCELLENT POINT! I HADN’T THOUGHT ABOUT IT THAT WAY BEFORE!!!!!” Those people have pounded the same ideas into their head for so long and only surrounded themselves with people like them that they have ruined their mind. I am not in love with too many ideologies, but I can kind of empathize: if avocado availability were threatened, I would be doing more than protesting.

The better, yet emphatically less popular, strategy is to seek out information that disconfirms what we believe. Now why in the hell would we do that? Because we want to be rational. How else are we going to figure out the truth if we are only exposed to a partial amount of information? This is a tall order considering new information is usually rejected due to an emotional or financial conflict, the tendency is to hold onto a belief long after it is proven wrong, and the author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous quote is about the rarity of people being able to function while holding two conflicting ideas in their head at one time. But we are Generation Snowflake. We are special.

In a previous post I said the number one book I would recommend is Poor Charlie’s Almanack and I mentioned mental models, but I didn’t define them. In the book, Charlie shares how he believes acquiring worldly wisdom through the primary academic disciplines creates a “latticework of mental models.” Now, his principal reason for doing this is to appropriately value the future prospects of businesses better than other people so that he can make billions of dollars, primarily in the stock market. He has been doing this successfully for 50+ years.

Now, I assume many of you are more noble than I am. But, if making money is your cup of Kombucha and primary inspiration for this, we will probably expand on that in the future. Meanwhile, what guys & girls (& even gender-undecided) can get on-board with is the wide application of this concept beyond investing. It is impossible to say exactly what a business is “worth” because there are so many uncertainties, variables, and judgments required about the future, but its intrinsic value can arguably be estimated within a range. In investing, you would rather be approximately right than precisely wrong. Paraphrasing legend Benjamin Graham, you don’t need to know a guy’s weight to know he is fat.

How about we apply this same mindset to everything? We may not know exactly what something like the minimum wage should be, but maybe we can understand the consequences and possible implications of it being $5/hour (riots) and the ones when it is $20/hour ($50 cheeseburgers).

What are the models?

To the man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

— Charlie Munger

A model is a representation of reality, not reality. Every idea in our head is just a model. We cannot at one time imagine the world, everything in it, and the functional relationships between those things. We have perspectives of the way we see it, which are based on a limited number of concepts.

Why should we care? The idea, concisely captured in the quote, is that one-dimensional thinking leads to us “torturing reality” to fit our current worldview (using our hammer on a screw). Developing a mental toolkit allows us to have more than one way of viewing the world, which gets us closer to reality. The latticework implies the concepts must lie on top of one another so that they are being used simultaneously (hard AF). If we have the most fundamental models, we basically create filters for the information we are increasingly flooded with while using the least amount of energy. Someone who spends a couple of months studying the underlying principles of economics is better suited to interpret new economic information than someone who has spent years reading shallow/topical economic news articles.

Here is a list of the key disciplines and an example of a model from each that has broad applications (most of which can be found in a freshman level college textbook except the one I added at the end — don’t worry, I sold most of my $300 books back to the bookstore for $7, too):

  • physics (critical mass)
  • biology (genetics)
  • psychology (the 28 psychological biases & reasons for misjudgment)
  • economics (information asymmetry)
  • engineering (feedback loops)
  • history (patterns)
  • accounting (cash flow statement)
  • business (Porter’s 5 Forces)
  • chemistry (uncertainty principle)
  • computer science (if-then statements)
  • probability/statistics (normal distribution)
  • math (systems thinking)
  • law (burden of proof)
  • travel (culture & politics)

You and I are too busy to dedicate a meaningful portion of our lives studying physics, computer science, and chemistry. We need to be at brunch, checking memes on IG, or doing whatever else it is we want to be doing. So the obvious (only?) downside to this idea is the time commitment. But Rome didn’t learn mental models in a day. If we make a reasonable effort to nail down the most fundamental concepts at first and give ourselves a realistic timeline of maybe 5-10 years, we should be able to plant a pretty good set of intellectual seeds before our mid-thirties that we will reap benefits from for the rest of our lives. We only need to learn how to ride a bike once.

(If this idea is an absolute non-starter for you, you are reading this at LIV in Miami trying to come down while people are shouting ANOTHER ONE at you in a DJ Khaled voice and you are more likely to ask for a pay cut than learn about “mental models,” at least do yourself the favor and learn the 28 psychological biases.)

Probability

The correctness of a decision can’t be judged from the outcome.

— Howard Marks

You would think I’d stop after coming up with a 5-10 year syllabus for us, but let’s briefly touch on one of the important models relevant to our discussion: probability. Another old rich white guy I like reading is Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital. He influenced one of the biggest changes in the way I perceive the world: thinking about the future as a probability distribution (gray) rather than a fixed outcome that can be knowable in advance (black & white). He says, “Not being able to know the future doesn’t mean we can’t deal with it. It is one thing to know what’s going to happen and something very different to have a feeling for the range of possible outcomes and the likelihood of each one happening. Saying we can’t do the former doesn’t mean we can’t do the latter.” Take for instance YouTube sensation King Curtis from Wife Swap with his chicken-nugget-heavy diet and “Bacon is good for me!” declaration. We don’t know what will happen to him, but we can safely assume his range of outcomes is unlikely to set any longevity records.

Take any situation that you can think of and how it worked out. Even though only one thing does happen, a lot of other things could have happened and those are important to appreciate. This concept is referred to as alternative histories. Let’s say we play a game where you have a 90% chance of winning and I have a 10% chance of winning. We play the game one time and I win. If a crowd was watching us without understanding the game, they may think I am better than you because I won. This is obviously a mistake. It doesn’t matter whether we play the game 1, 10, or 1,000 times, you are correct in playing against me every time regardless of the outcome. The only time this wouldn’t make sense is if there was a wager offered to me with greater than 9-to-1 odds (9x my money) if I win and/or you are unable to risk the wager (e.g. the bet was for everything you owned, in which case anything less than 100% certainty of winning would be unacceptable).

The process is more important than the outcome. Think about if our boss took our paychecks on pay-day and bought lottery tickets instead of putting them in our bank accounts. Even if we all won $10 million we should have the same reaction as if we survived a skydive and someone didn’t pack our parachute. Imagine if we replay this scenario 1,000 times and we start to think differently. If we borrow this line of thinking, it may shift the way we judge the actions of others in any field and lead to us slowing down the formation of our opinions based solely on the outcome. Further, it may make our own lives less stressful because although we can never guarantee an outcome, our intuition can take us a long way when we are asking ourselves whether we are doing the right thing that gives us the highest chance of getting what we want. We can ask: if I repeated this 1,000 times, what would likely occur?

We have covered enough ground for one day. Hopefully, I have demonstrated how mental models, and an example of one, can enhance our cognition and lead to more constructive ideas and opinions. Human nature is unlikely to change, so strong opinions and internet trolls are here to stay. But knowledge is a tide that raises all rafts, sailboats, yachts & ships.

I want to make it abundantly clear, that while your blogger here believes quite passionately that mental models are likely the best bread crumbs on the path to understanding and insight, I am a comically long way from mastering a single one of them.

Does any of this mean we are going to change overnight? No, Anastasia it doesn’t.

Firstly, it is hard. Secondly, there is a lot more paperwork to do, and thirdly, you don’t know what you are in for. You could still run for the hills. Come, I want to show you my classroom.


Additional Reading: