Sunday, May 15, 2022

It's (already) Later Than You Think

You work and work for years and years, you're always on the go
You never take a minute off, too busy makin' dough
Someday you say, you'll have your fun, when you're a millionaire
Imagine all the fun you'll have in your old rockin' chair


Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think


You're gonna take that ocean trip, no matter come what may
You've got your reservations made, but you just can't get away
Next year for sure, you'll see the world, you'll really get around
But how far can you travel when you're six feet underground?


Your heart of hearts, your dream of dreams, your ravishing brunette
She's left you and she's now become somebody else's pet
Lay down that gun, don't try my friend to reach the great beyond
You'll have more fun by reaching for a redhead or a blond


Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think


You never go to night clubs and you just don't care to dance
You don't have time for silly things like moonlight and romance
You only think of dollar bills tied neatly in a stack
But when you kiss a dollar bill, it doesn't kiss you back


Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think


For the musically inclined, the link is below 😊

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Changing Your Mind

We humans are programmed to think we’re right at all costs. Fighting that instinct will set you free.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the psychologist Henry Murray asked a sample of college sophomores to participate in a seemingly innocuous experiment in which they would write their “personal philosophy of life,” including their core values and guiding principles, and then engage in a civil debate with a young lawyer about the merits of the philosophy. He did not tell the participants that the lawyer had been instructed to interrogate them and rip their philosophy to shreds in a “vehement, sweeping, and personally abusive” way. They used techniques Murray had developed in vetting intelligence agents during World War II.

The results were fairly predictable. Murray found that the students were generally intensely uncomfortable at having their views attacked in this way. Most hated it and remembered the experiment negatively even years later. But not all of Murray’s participants recall the experiment as a horrible experience. In his book Think Again, Adam Grant, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that most of the students had a negative experience. But Grant’s research also showed that a few notable outliers said they liked it—at least one found it fun—likely because they were forced to rethink their beliefs.

This latter group might have been onto something important. Rethinking your opinions—and changing your views when your facts are proved wrong or someone makes a better argument—can make your life better. It can make you more successful, less anxious, and happier.

When it comes to the idea that we are wrong, or that we should change our opinions, we are incredibly adept at resisting. Grant writes that we possess an astonishing array of cognitive biases telling us, You are right—disregard all evidence to the contrary. These include confirmation bias (we focus on and preferentially remember information that reinforces our beliefs); anchoring bias (we over-rely on one key piece of information—usually the first one we received); the illusion of validity (we overestimate the accuracy of our own judgments and perceptions); and many other related tendencies. These biases are like a crocodile-filled moat around the fortress of our beliefs. They turn us into hermit kings, convinced that any counterarguments that break through our walls will bring us misery.

But as Grant argues, being closed off to being proved wrong or to having our beliefs challenged has huge costs. Leaders who surround themselves with yes-men have been shown to make costly—and sometimes catastrophic—mistakes. One classic example is the Bay of Pigs debacle, in which President John F. Kennedy’s insular cabinet failed to challenge his misguided instincts. Or consider the political punditocracy that assumed Donald Trump couldn’t possibly be a serious threat to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and never revised those assumptions. If your goal is to find the truth, admitting you are wrong and changing your beliefs based on new facts makes you better off in the end. This is a primary feature of what philosophers call “epistemic humility.”

And while it might not feel easy or fun at first, epistemic humility, like all humility, has clear happiness benefits. In one 2016 study in The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers created a humility score by asking people about their openness to advice, their honesty about their own strengths and weaknesses, and whether they tended to be excited about a friend’s accomplishments. They found that humility was negatively associated with depression and anxiety, and positively associated with happiness and life satisfaction. Furthermore, they found that humility buffers the negative impact of stressful life events.

As is often the case with social science, the data on humility and happiness reinforce what philosophers have long taught. Around the turn of the fifth century, Saint Augustine gave a student three pieces of life advice: “The first part is humility; the second, humility; the third, humility: and this I would continue to repeat as often as you might ask direction.” About a thousand years earlier, the Buddha taught in the Dutthatthaka Sutta that attachment to one’s views and opinions is a particular source of human suffering. These ancient ideas could not be more relevant to modern life.

The humility to admit when we are wrong and to change our beliefs can lead us to greater success and happiness. But with our defenses arrayed against these virtues, we need a battle plan to alter our way of thinking and acting. Here are four strategies you might want to add to your arsenal:

1. Turn the hermit king against himself.

The hermit king walls himself in against admitting a mistake or changing his mind because he fears that doing so will make him look stupid or incompetent. Thus, left to your limbic tendencies, you will fight to the death for even doomed ideas. But this tendency is itself based on an error.

In a 2015 study in the scientific journal PLOS One, researchers compared scientists’ reactions to being informed that their findings “don’t replicate”—that is, they are probably not correct—a common problem in academia. It would be no surprise if scientists, like most people, got defensive when contradicted in this way, or even doubled down on their original results. But the researchers found that this sort of behavior was more harmful to the scientists’ reputation than simply admitting they were wrong. The message for the hermit king is this: If you are wrong, the best way to save face is to admit it.

2. Welcome contradiction.

One of the best ways to combat a destructive tendency is to adopt an “opposite signal” strategy. For example, when you are sad, often the last thing you want to do is see others, but this is precisely what you should do. When your ideas are threatened and you feel defensive, actively reject your instinct to defend yourself, and become more open instead. When someone says, “You are wrong,” respond with, “Tell me more.” Make friends who think differently than you and challenge your assumptions—and whose assumptions you challenge. Think of this as building your “team of rivals,” the phrase the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin used to describe Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, which, unlike Kennedy’s, challenged him relentlessly. If this sounds like torture, it is all the more urgent that you try it.

3. Don’t document all your beliefs.

Sociopolitical forces today can make humility feel especially dangerous, and even foolish. Social media has stunted our ability to reinvent our thinking, because our ideas are increasingly cumulative: Every opinion we’ve ever posted online is memorialized. With such a well-documented history of beliefs, changing your mind on something important or controversial can feel like weakness and open you up to public criticism.

The solution to this is to take most of your opinions off the electronic grid. Share your views with people you know and trust, but not with strangers on Twitter and Facebook. Sharing your views with total strangers on social media is a weird conceit to begin with—that people you don’t know should care about your opinions. And realistically, there’s no opinion you can preserve in internet amber right now that will benefit you in five years.

4. Start small.

Let’s suppose that you want the benefits of changing your mind. Getting started is hard, especially if the view you want to change is something huge, like your religious beliefs or your political ideology. It’s better to start with smaller ideas such as your fashion choices, or even your sports allegiances. Reconsider the things you have long taken for granted, and assess them as dispassionately as you can. Then, with these low stakes, change.

The point is not to deal in trivialities. Research on goal setting clearly shows that starting small teaches you how to change and break habits. Then, you can scale this self-knowledge up to the bigger areas of your life in which, you secretly suspect, you might just be wrong. At that point, with your new skills in hand, the adventure of finding truth starts.

If you master these techniques, there might be critics who say you are a flip-flopper, or wishy-washy. To deal with this, take a lesson from the great economist Paul Samuelson. In 1948, Samuelson published what might be the most celebrated economics textbook of all time. As the years went by and he updated the book, he changed his estimate of the inflation level that was tolerable for the health of the macroeconomy: First, he said 5 percent was acceptable; then, in later editions, 3 percent and 2 percent, prompting the Associated Press to run an article titled “Author Should Make Up His Mind.” In a television interview after Samuelson was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970, he gave his answer to the charge: “When events change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

In pursuit of happiness, you can do this too. When events change, you acquire new information, or someone simply makes a great argument, go ahead and change your mind, and do it openly. It might seem like a tough ask at first. But trust me: It will go from hard to fun. You have nothing to lose but your moat.

Source –

Sunday, April 17, 2022

The Status Game

When I was a kid I didn’t really understand status. I didn’t understand why some people would grant more social value to others based on their wealth, fame, or talents. I grew up in the middle class and everyone I knew was in the middle class (or close to it) as well. Therefore, the only time I saw status was on television. Musicians. Athletes. Actors and Actresses. You were either a celebrity or a normal person and there was nothing in between. 

In high school I furthered my ignorance by becoming anti-status. I grew my hair long and started playing electric guitar. It was heavy metal or bust and I didn’t care what anyone else thought. Status among my friends was determined not by how popular you were, but by your music abilities or how much you could drink. Nevertheless, I kept my grades up and my parents never asked any questions. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I finally had my first encounter with status. After getting into a good university I noticed how people outside of my friend group started treating me very differently. No longer was I seen as this random “metalhead,” but as the kid who was going places. For the first time in my life I had some status. And I’m not going to lie, it felt great. 

But as soon as I entered college, everything changed. Those things that had once given me status were gone. No longer was I one of the smartest kids in my school, I was just average. Now status was determined based on what fraternity you joined and where you were going to work after you graduated. But this wasn’t the last time that I had to learn a different status game. Following college I worked at a litigation consulting firm where status was based on prestige, pay, and performance (like most corporate environments). And today, as a content creator, status is mostly determined by the size of your audience and how much you can keep their attention. No matter which environment I was in, I noticed that there was always a status game being played. 

Status in the Eye of the Beholder My story illustrates how different communities value different things when it comes to conferring status. For example, if you are a competitive powerlifter, your status is determined by how much you can lift (strength) and how many competitions you have won (competitiveness). If you are a VC, your status is determined by what companies you have invested in (network) and how well those companies have performed (money). I could go on, but you get my point. Status is relative to the context in which it is being evaluated. In other words, VCs don’t care how much you can bench and weightlifters don’t care about your investment returns. Both groups have their own standards for judging members of their community and they care much less about everything else. 

This is why you have to choose your status game wisely. Because whatever status game you choose in life ultimately determines what you optimize for. Choose money and you’ll end up working all the time. Choose beauty and you’ll always want to look better. Choose fame and you’ll constantly be seeking attention. Each of these choices has consequences too. Your pursuit of wealth could leave your personal relationships in shambles. Your pursuit of beauty could impact your mental and physical health. Your pursuit of fame could end up ruining your reputation. Whatever status game you decide to play, you have to ask yourself: are the benefits worth the costs? 

Get Status or Die Trying When it comes to the pursuit of status, the juice is usually worth the squeeze. Research on primates has shown that those at the top of a status hierarchy have a higher quality of life and experience far less stress than those near the bottom. It’s good to be at the top. Well, at least most of the time. When a status hierarchy is stable, being at the top is great. But when it isn’t, watch out. As Robert Sapolsky explained in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, instability is hell for high status individuals: Suppose you keep the dominance system unstable by shifting the monkeys into new groups every month, so that all the animals are perpetually in the tense, uncertain stage of figuring out where they stand with respect to everyone else. Under those circumstances, it is generally the animals precariously holding on to their places at the top of the shifting dominance hierarchy who do the most fighting and show the most behavioral and hormonal indices of stress. 

This research suggests that, even after making it to the top, it’s not always smooth sailing. So ask yourself: Is it worth the time and effort to chase status only to face increased anxiety about losing that status in the future? I’m not so sure. What makes this issue even worse is that there is some research suggesting that those with higher status crave increased status even more than those with lower status. In other words, once you start to attain some status, you won’t want to stop. I’ve noticed this in myself despite not caring about the traditional markets of status (i.e. wealth, career success, popularity, etc.) for most of my life. But, I have found a way to fight back. 

Outsmarting the Status Game Though the pursuit of status is a hard temptation to fight off, there is a simple way to prevent it from controlling you—play multiple status games at once. Instead of linking your entire identity to a single status game (i.e. richest, smartest, etc.), have multiple things going for you. In other words, diversify what brings you status. Robert Sapolsky touched on this idea in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers when discussing how low status individuals can feel high status from other avenues: So, the lowly subordinate in the mailroom of the big corporation may, after hours, be deriving tremendous prestige and self-esteem from being the deacon of his church, or the captain of her weekend softball team, or may be the top of the class at adult-extension school. There is no rule that states that you have to judge yourself by a singular dimension, even if society suggests otherwise. For example, I know I’m not the best computer programmer and I’m not the best financial writer either. But if you take the combination of those two skills and I have a bit of an edge. 

It reminds me of what Scott Adams said about what it takes to have a great career: If you want something extraordinary, you have two paths: 1. Become the best at one specific thing. 2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things. The same is true with status. You don’t have to be the best at any one thing. But if you can get pretty good at a few things, you can avoid the pitfalls of trying to be #1 and the status battles that can go along with it. I know some of you will say “Just ignore the status game altogether,” but this is easier said than done. Like many other animals, we are biologically wired to respond to status. Ignorance is not the way out. 

The way out is building a solid foundation of status in multiple things. It’s about becoming diversified in your life, not just your portfolio. 

Source –

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Our Universe

In 2003 NASA pointed the Hubble Telescope at a region of seemingly empty sky and left it there. Over the course of two months, imperceptible drips of light collected in the basin of its 8 foot wide mirror. When they finally combined the 800 exposures of nearly perfectly black sky, a total of 11 days worth of light, they revealed an image speckled with 10,000 galaxies. The oldest of the photons that ended their life in the electronics of the Hubble had traveled from their birth star across the universe for 13.2 billion years. These photons had already completed half of their journey when the earth coalesced. 10,000 galaxies. Our own galaxy, not exceptional in any way, contains around 100 billion stars. In the patch that the Hubble photographed, the size of a millimeter held a meter away, there are on the order of a quadrillion stars. And yet it would take 12 million of such patches to tile the sphere of the sky. How can we understand the scale of this? A quadrillion is a ridiculous number. It’s the kind of number that young boys make up at recess to say how much stupider their friends are, combining syllables at random, not even sure if it’s real.
Consider the leaves of a forest.
A mature tree has somewhere around 50,000 leaves.
The state of Pennsylvania has 16 billion trees.
There are as many stars in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field as there are leaves on all the trees in the state of Pennsylvania.
Consider grass in a meadow.
There are around 50 blades of grass in a square inch of meadow.
The Willamette Valley is 5700 square miles.
If the Willamette valley were all grassland, it would contain as many blades of grass as there are stars in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.
Consider the rain in a thunderstorm.
A raindrop in a large storm weighs around a tenth of a gram.
A convective storm system can drop 100 million tons of rain.
There are as many raindrops in a large storm system as there are stars in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.
Consider sand on a beach.
There are about 1 billion grains of sand in a cubic foot.
Ocean beach in San Francisco has around 4,500,000 square feet of sand above water.
The top 3 inches of sand of the whole surface of Ocean Beach contain as many grains of sand as there are stars in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.
Consider the ocean.
A milliliter of ocean water can contain a million plankton.
An olympic swimming pool contains 2.5 million liters of water.
A pool filled with sea water can contain as many plankton as there are stars in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. One quadrillion stars, in a tiny slice of the sky. If we photographed the entire sky this way, we would have to multiply all of these numbers by twelve million. This is our universe as far as we can see, twelve million Pennsylvania’s leaves, twelve million Willamette Valley’s blades of grass, twelve million storm systems of rain, twelve million Ocean Beaches of sand, twelve million swimming pools of plankton.
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field The James Webb Space Telescope is currently on its way to its destination far from the earth where it will look into the early universe without the glare of the sun and the earth to interfere. On March 16th, it produced an image of a star that it was using to calibrate its mirrors. A distant star is a point source of light, and so by making fine adjustments to the mirrors to resolve that point more clearly, it can tune them to make clear images. In the process, it captured an image full of distant galaxies by accident.
The James Webb Telescope is expected to begin taking its first real images in June. Just imagine the scale of what we’ll see. Source –

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Take It Easy

Historically, there is something quite curious about the all-encompassing work ethic of many of today’s masters of the universe. For Andrew Carnegie, at one point the world’s richest man, and many of his robber baron colleagues of the Gilded Age a century ago, diligence, perseverance, and industry were virtues to be preached—not practiced. The successful man of business was not a wage slave, paid by the hour or the day or the task, and he should not behave as if he were. Manually laboring drudges might work long hours without sacrificing productivity, but businessman could not. Their work required imagination, thought, calculation.

“Your always-busy man accomplishes little;” Carnegie wrote in 1883, “the great doer is he who has plenty of leisure. Moral: Don’t worry yourself over work, hold yourself in reserve, and sure as fate, ‘it will all come right in the wash.’” The American penchant for delaying gratification, for putting off retirement, for working ceaselessly, for refusing or canceling or postponing or cutting short vacations was, the Scottish-born Carnegie believed, monstrously self-defeating. It sapped the creativity the man of business required to move forward. Americans, he remarked to his cousin, “were the saddest-looking race … Life is so terribly earnest here. Ambition spurs us all on, from him who handles the spade to him who employs thousands. We know no rest. … I hope Americans will find some day more time for play, like their wiser brethren upon the other side.”

Carnegie was not alone in preaching a gospel of leisure. In his autobiography, Random Reminiscences of Men and EventsJohn D. Rockefeller—who accumulated a fortune estimated at $1 trillion in today’s dollars—admitted almost as a point of pride that he too “was not what might be called a diligent business man.” Though he had, as a young executive, punctually arrived at the Standard Oil offices in Cleveland at 9:15 every morning, he usually spent no more than “three hours a day” there. “He worked at a more leisurely pace than many other executives, napping daily after lunch and often dozing in a lounge chair after dinner,” writes his biographerRon Chernow. “By his mid-thirties, he had installed a telegraph wire between home and office so that he could spend three or four afternoons each week at home, planting trees, gardening, and enjoying the sunshine.” At age 50, complaining of fatigue, he withdrew from work for several months. A few years later, he retired completely. “I’m here,” he told an interviewer who asked about his remarkable longevity, “because I shirked: did less work, lived more in the open air, enjoyed the open air, sunshine and exercise.” Even during his working years, “which lasted from the time I was sixteen years old until I retired from active business when I was fifty-five,” Rockefeller admitted that he had “managed to get a good many vacations of one kind or another.”

Carnegie too balanced his adult years carefully between work and leisure. At age 27, while still an employee of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, he wrangled a special leave of absence so that he could spend three months on vacation in Scotland and Europe. Three years later, at age 30, he left his business interests in the hands of Tom, his younger brother, and toured Europe for a year. In 1878, he took another year off to travel round the world. “Carnegie was never a hard worker,” observed his authorized biographer. “Not a hard worker, that is, in the grindstone sense; he spent at least half his time in play, and let other men pile up his millions for him.”

For Carnegie and Rockefeller, part of the magic of twentieth-century capitalism was the disconnect between work and riches. Capital invested wisely in plant, properties, and securities grew and paid dividends, and did so, almost by itself. For Carnegie, the child of a self-employed artisan, this was a revelation. “I shall remember that check as long as I live,” Carnegie wrote in his autobiography, describing his first dividend from the Adams Express Company, a freight-delivery service he held stock in. “It gave me the first penny of revenue from capital—something that I had not worked for with the sweat of my brow. ‘Eureka!’ I cried. ‘Here’s the goose that lays the golden eggs.’”

Carnegie was so excited by the check that before cashing it, he showed it to his friends at their Sunday afternoon gathering. “The effect produced … was overwhelming. None of them had imagined such an investment possibility. … How money could make money, how, without any attention from me, this mysterious golden visitor should come, led to much speculation upon the part of the young fellows, and I was for the first time hailed as a ‘capitalist.’” There was something magical about a poor boy receiving money without having to work for it. Carnegie had not “earned” his dividend check. Yet here it was, in a white envelope lying on his desk, and no one was going to take it away.

Watching over one’s investments and one’s company’s investments took time and effort, Carnegie would learn—just not a whole lot of it. At age 34, he moved away from Pittsburgh, the center of his business enterprise, to New York, the center of his leisure interests. He would, for the rest of his life, carry on his business from New York and his various homes in Scotland, where he spent at least three or four months every summer—and this at a time when the fastest form of communication was the telegraph. He did not attend board or management meetings or visit his mills or communicate on a daily or regular basis with associates, subordinates, business colleagues. He had detailed cost sheets delivered monthly by U.S. mail to his home in New York City, where he marked them up and sent them back to Pittsburgh, with lengthy memos attached. He set long-term strategies for his companies, chose his associates wisely, secured political and business alliances, as needed for expansion, and never took his eye over the profit-and-loss statements.

When A.B. Farquhar, a Pennsylvania businessman, boasted that he was in his office every morning “by seven in the morning” and was the last one to leave in the evening, Carnegie laughed at him. “You must be a lazy man if it takes you ten hours to do a day’s work. … What I do … is to get good men, and I never give them orders. My directions seldom go beyond suggestions. Here in the morning I get reports from them. Within an hour I have disposed of everything, sent out all of my suggestions, the day’s work is done, and I am ready to go out and enjoy myself.”

Andrew Carnegie had learned, early in his business career, that no individual was indispensable nor irreplaceable. The corporate model was a wondrous creation. Its successful operation required a firm division of labors. Success depended on the effective delegation and coordination of leadership functions and responsibilities.

Carnegie never apologized for his success as a businessman nor for the millions upon millions he had made. Business was not for him the highest calling a man might answer. Carnegie loathed being referred to or honored as primarily a businessman. He had left Pittsburgh, a city that was too intent on business, for New York City, the cultural and literary capital of the nation. He intended to use his leisure to educate himself, to make the acquaintance and learn from the premier intellects of his day: from Mark TwainHerbert Spencer, and Matthew Arnold; to attend lectures; to become an intellectual, a wise man, and an author.

His gospel of leisure enjoined him—and others outside the realm of wage slavery—to behave as free men ought to. The wage slave had no choice but to dedicate his life to work and hope that there might be time left over for leisure. But Carnegie—and Rockefeller—chose to order their lives such that large portions of their waking hours might be dedicated to leisure, not as an escape or alternative to work, but as an end in itself. The rich man could afford to depart from the everyday world of work and business for something far more exalted, the world of leisure.

The irony of ironies was that, instead of moving forward into this brave new world of leisure, as Carnegie had, too many businesspeople, in Carnegie’s day and in our own, have voluntarily imprisoned themselves in the work world as if they too were wage slaves with no alternative but to work their lives away.


Source –

Take it Easy: David Nasaw on the Work Habits of Andrew Carnegie (

Friday, February 25, 2022

Working Hard

It might not seem there's much to learn about how to work hard. Anyone who's been to school knows what it entails, even if they chose not to do it. There are 12 year olds who work amazingly hard. And yet when I ask if I know more about working hard now than when I was in school, the answer is definitely yes.

One thing I know is that if you want to do great things, you'll have to work very hard. I wasn't sure of that as a kid. Schoolwork varied in difficulty; one didn't always have to work super hard to do well. And some of the things famous adults did, they seemed to do almost effortlessly. Was there, perhaps, some way to evade hard work through sheer brilliance? Now I know the answer to that question. There isn't.

The reason some subjects seemed easy was that my school had low standards. And the reason famous adults seemed to do things effortlessly was years of practice; they made it look easy.

Of course, those famous adults usually had a lot of natural ability too. There are three ingredients in great work: natural ability, practice, and effort. You can do pretty well with just two, but to do the best work you need all three: you need great natural ability and to have practiced a lot and to be trying very hard. 

Bill Gates, for example, was among the smartest people in business in his era, but he was also among the hardest working. "I never took a day off in my twenties," he said. "Not one." It was similar with Lionel Messi. He had great natural ability, but when his youth coaches talk about him, what they remember is not his talent but his dedication and his desire to win. P. G. Wodehouse would probably get my vote for best English writer of the 20th century, if I had to choose. Certainly no one ever made it look easier. But no one ever worked harder. At 74, he wrote

with each new book of mine I have, as I say, the feeling that this time I have picked a lemon in the garden of literature. A good thing, really, I suppose. Keeps one up on one's toes and makes one rewrite every sentence ten times. Or in many cases twenty times.

Sounds a bit extreme, you think. And yet Bill Gates sounds even more extreme. Not one day off in ten years? These two had about as much natural ability as anyone could have, and yet they also worked about as hard as anyone could work. You need both.

That seems so obvious, and yet in practice we find it slightly hard to grasp. There's a faint xor between talent and hard work. It comes partly from popular culture, where it seems to run very deep, and partly from the fact that the outliers are so rare. If great talent and great drive are both rare, then people with both are rare squared. Most people you meet who have a lot of one will have less of the other. But you'll need both if you want to be an outlier yourself. And since you can't really change how much natural talent you have, in practice doing great work, insofar as you can, reduces to working very hard.

It's straightforward to work hard if you have clearly defined, externally imposed goals, as you do in school. There is some technique to it: you have to learn not to lie to yourself, not to procrastinate (which is a form of lying to yourself), not to get distracted, and not to give up when things go wrong. But this level of discipline seems to be within the reach of quite young children, if they want it.

What I've learned since I was a kid is how to work toward goals that are neither clearly defined nor externally imposed. You'll probably have to learn both if you want to do really great things.

The most basic level of which is simply to feel you should be working without anyone telling you to. Now, when I'm not working hard, alarm bells go off. I can't be sure I'm getting anywhere when I'm working hard, but I can be sure I'm getting nowhere when I'm not, and it feels awful. 

There wasn't a single point when I learned this. Like most little kids, I enjoyed the feeling of achievement when I learned or did something new. As I grew older, this morphed into a feeling of disgust when I wasn't achieving anything. The one precisely dateable landmark I have is when I stopped watching TV, at age 13.

Several people I've talked to remember getting serious about work around this age. When I asked Patrick Collison when he started to find idleness distasteful, he said

I think around age 13 or 14. I have a clear memory from around then of sitting in the sitting room, staring outside, and wondering why I was wasting my summer holiday.

Perhaps something changes at adolescence. That would make sense.

Strangely enough, the biggest obstacle to getting serious about work was probably school, which made work (what they called work) seem boring and pointless. I had to learn what real work was before I could wholeheartedly desire to do it. That took a while, because even in college a lot of the work is pointless; there are entire departments that are pointless. But as I learned the shape of real work, I found that my desire to do it slotted into it as if they'd been made for each other.

I suspect most people have to learn what work is before they can love it. Hardy wrote eloquently about this in A Mathematician's Apology:

I do not remember having felt, as a boy, any passion for mathematics, and such notions as I may have had of the career of a mathematician were far from noble. I thought of mathematics in terms of examinations and scholarships: I wanted to beat other boys, and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most decisively.

He didn't learn what math was really about till part way through college, when he read Jordan's Cours d'analyse.

I shall never forget the astonishment with which I read that remarkable work, the first inspiration for so many mathematicians of my generation, and learnt for the first time as I read it what mathematics really meant.

There are two separate kinds of fakeness you need to learn to discount in order to understand what real work is. One is the kind Hardy encountered in school. Subjects get distorted when they're adapted to be taught to kids — often so distorted that they're nothing like the work done by actual practitioners. [3] The other kind of fakeness is intrinsic to certain types of work. Some types of work are inherently bogus, or at best mere busywork.

There's a kind of solidity to real work. It's not all writing the Principia, but it all feels necessary. That's a vague criterion, but it's deliberately vague, because it has to cover a lot of different types. 

Once you know the shape of real work, you have to learn how many hours a day to spend on it. You can't solve this problem by simply working every waking hour, because in many kinds of work there's a point beyond which the quality of the result will start to decline.

That limit varies depending on the type of work and the person. I've done several different kinds of work, and the limits were different for each. My limit for the harder types of writing or programming is about five hours a day. Whereas when I was running a startup, I could work all the time. At least for the three years I did it; if I'd kept going much longer, I'd probably have needed to take occasional vacations. 

The only way to find the limit is by crossing it. Cultivate a sensitivity to the quality of the work you're doing, and then you'll notice if it decreases because you're working too hard. Honesty is critical here, in both directions: you have to notice when you're being lazy, but also when you're working too hard. And if you think there's something admirable about working too hard, get that idea out of your head. You're not merely getting worse results, but getting them because you're showing off — if not to other people, then to yourself. 

Finding the limit of working hard is a constant, ongoing process, not something you do just once. Both the difficulty of the work and your ability to do it can vary hour to hour, so you need to be constantly judging both how hard you're trying and how well you're doing.

Trying hard doesn't mean constantly pushing yourself to work, though. There may be some people who do, but I think my experience is fairly typical, and I only have to push myself occasionally when I'm starting a project or when I encounter some sort of check. That's when I'm in danger of procrastinating. But once I get rolling, I tend to keep going.

What keeps me going depends on the type of work. When I was working on Viaweb, I was driven by fear of failure. I barely procrastinated at all then, because there was always something that needed doing, and if I could put more distance between me and the pursuing beast by doing it, why wait? 
[7] Whereas what drives me now, writing essays, is the flaws in them. Between essays I fuss for a few days, like a dog circling while it decides exactly where to lie down. But once I get started on one, I don't have to push myself to work, because there's always some error or omission already pushing me.

I do make some amount of effort to focus on important topics. Many problems have a hard core at the center, surrounded by easier stuff at the edges. Working hard means aiming toward the center to the extent you can. Some days you may not be able to; some days you'll only be able to work on the easier, peripheral stuff. But you should always be aiming as close to the center as you can without stalling.

The bigger question of what to do with your life is one of these problems with a hard core. There are important problems at the center, which tend to be hard, and less important, easier ones at the edges. So as well as the small, daily adjustments involved in working on a specific problem, you'll occasionally have to make big, lifetime-scale adjustments about which type of work to do. And the rule is the same: working hard means aiming toward the center — toward the most ambitious problems.

By center, though, I mean the actual center, not merely the current consensus about the center. The consensus about which problems are most important is often mistaken, both in general and within specific fields. If you disagree with it, and you're right, that could represent a valuable opportunity to do something new.

The more ambitious types of work will usually be harder, but although you should not be in denial about this, neither should you treat difficulty as an infallible guide in deciding what to do. If you discover some ambitious type of work that's a bargain in the sense of being easier for you than other people, either because of the abilities you happen to have, or because of some new way you've found to approach it, or simply because you're more excited about it, by all means work on that. Some of the best work is done by people who find an easy way to do something hard.

As well as learning the shape of real work, you need to figure out which kind you're suited for. And that doesn't just mean figuring out which kind your natural abilities match the best; it doesn't mean that if you're 7 feet tall, you have to play basketball. What you're suited for depends not just on your talents but perhaps even more on your interests. A deep interest in a topic makes people work harder than any amount of discipline can.

It can be harder to discover your interests than your talents. There are fewer types of talent than interest, and they start to be judged early in childhood, whereas interest in a topic is a subtle thing that may not mature till your twenties, or even later. The topic may not even exist earlier. Plus there are some powerful sources of error you need to learn to discount. Are you really interested in x, or do you want to work on it because you'll make a lot of money, or because other people will be impressed with you, or because your parents want you to? 

The difficulty of figuring out what to work on varies enormously from one person to another. That's one of the most important things I've learned about work since I was a kid. As a kid, you get the impression that everyone has a calling, and all they have to do is figure out what it is. That's how it works in movies, and in the streamlined biographies fed to kids. Sometimes it works that way in real life. Some people figure out what to do as children and just do it, like Mozart. But others, like Newton, turn restlessly from one kind of work to another. Maybe in retrospect we can identify one as their calling — we can wish Newton spent more time on math and physics and less on alchemy and theology — but this is an illusion induced by hindsight bias. There was no voice calling to him that he could have heard.

So while some people's lives converge fast, there will be others whose lives never converge. And for these people, figuring out what to work on is not so much a prelude to working hard as an ongoing part of it, like one of a set of simultaneous equations. For these people, the process I described earlier has a third component: along with measuring both how hard you're working and how well you're doing, you have to think about whether you should keep working in this field or switch to another. If you're working hard but not getting good enough results, you should switch. It sounds simple expressed that way, but in practice it's very difficult. You shouldn't give up on the first day just because you work hard and don't get anywhere. You need to give yourself time to get going. But how much time? And what should you do if work that was going well stops going well? How much time do you give yourself then? 

What even counts as good results? That can be really hard to decide. If you're exploring an area few others have worked in, you may not even know what good results look like. History is full of examples of people who misjudged the importance of what they were working on.

The best test of whether it's worthwhile to work on something is whether you find it interesting. That may sound like a dangerously subjective measure, but it's probably the most accurate one you're going to get. You're the one working on the stuff. Who's in a better position than you to judge whether it's important, and what's a better predictor of its importance than whether it's interesting?

For this test to work, though, you have to be honest with yourself. Indeed, that's the most striking thing about the whole question of working hard: how at each point it depends on being honest with yourself.

Working hard is not just a dial you turn up to 11. It's a complicated, dynamic system that has to be tuned just right at each point. You have to understand the shape of real work, see clearly what kind you're best suited for, aim as close to the true core of it as you can, accurately judge at each moment both what you're capable of and how you're doing, and put in as many hours each day as you can without harming the quality of the result. This network is too complicated to trick. But if you're consistently honest and clear-sighted, it will automatically assume an optimal shape, and you'll be productive in a way few people are.

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How to Work Hard (

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Losing Our Edge

No one has to tell you you’ve come to the right place. The look of merchandising authority is complete and unmistakable.’’

That’s how the New York Times described Sears in 1983.

'‘In the markets we enter, we’ll be dominant,” said its head of retail. Few doubted it.

After dominating American retail over the previous century, Sears in 1983 was pushing into banking. Few doubted it would win there, too. “On a scale of 10, not to be flip about it, I’ve got us at about 10.5,” its chairman told the Times.

That wasn’t hyperbole. Sears was the largest retailer in the world housed in the tallest building in the world spreading its operational expertise into new businesses. Its catalog was the Amazon of its day.

Then everything fell apart.

Sears made more profit in 1954 than its market cap is worth today.

There’s one story about what Sears did wrong, which is well known.

There’s another story about how common these declines are. More than 40% of all public companies go on to lose effectively all their value.

The only thing harder than gaining a competitive edge is not losing that advantage when you have one. That’s as true for careers and investment strategies as it is for business. And since people are naturally optimistic, there’s a tendency to put more thought into finding an edge than not losing it once you find one.

Competition and incompetence are usually blamed when a competitive advantage dies. But here are other factors I’ve seen pull winners off the podium.

“Being right is the enemy of staying right because it leads you to forget the way the world works.” – Jason Zweig. Buddhism has a concept called beginner’s mind, which is an active openness to trying new things and studying new ideas, unburdened by past preconceptions, like a beginner would. Knowing you have a competitive advantage is often the enemy of beginner’s mind, because doing well reduces the incentive to explore other ideas, especially when those ideas conflict with your proven strategy. Which is dangerous. Being locked into a single view is fatal in an economy where reversion to the mean and competition constantly dismantles old strategies.

Maintaining financial success takes precedence over traits that were vital to building the initial idea. Nothing to lose is a wonderful thing to have. You focus all your energy on building something great. Having a quarterly dividend to maintain is what happens after you build something great. But it can come at the expense of what made you successful in the first place. Deutsche Bank once asked large companies how they prioritize cash flow in a crunch. I’ll let them explain:

After cutting deferrable investment, firms would borrow money to pay the dividend, as long as they do not lose their credit rating. Next, they would sell assets at fair value and cut strategic investment. Only if all these actions are insufficient, would they resort to a dividend cut.

They cut strategic investment to maintain the dividend. This is Christmas to scrappy newcomers.

Mistaking a temporary trend for a competitive advantage. Serendipity often masquerades as skill. Take monetary policy. The top three investing skills are patience, temperament, and having your career coincide with a 30-year uninterrupted decline in interest rates. Or sales: Orange County circa 2006 convinced many subprime mortgage companies that they had a leg up on traditional lenders. Sure, exploit opportunity when the wind is at your back. But don’t be surprised when an outgoing tide reveals the limits of sustained individual greatness.

Scaling a product requires scaling HR, which is monstrously complex and usually unrelated to your original skill. Designing a device or discovering an investment strategy is a million miles separated from managing 500 or 1,000 people. Managing one-hundred thousand people is a different universe. Even when responsibilities are delegated, creating a culture that promotes trust, creativity, and growth is likely a totally different skill than was required to build your product in the first place.

The decline of paranoia that made you successful to begin with. I like the idea that systems are better than goals, because once you reach a goal you tend to stop doing the thing that made achieving the goal possible. “I’m going to work out every day” is better than “I’m going to lose 10 pounds” because once you lose 10 pounds you’ll probably stop working out. Same thing happens when a successful business or career hits a big goal. Paranoia is a trait newcomers use to combat how deeply the odds are stacked against them. But it tends to die once a goal is hit. Few things sap the paranoiac drive to do better than stable cash flow and high profit margins. Michael Moritz of Sequoia was once asked why his firm had thrived for 40 years. “We’ve always been afraid of going out of business,” was his answer. That is an exceedingly rare response in a world where most people step back, see all they’ve achieved, and assume they can breathe a sigh of relief.

Reputational momentum is vicious and unforgiving on the way down. The more successful you are the more people want to be associated with you – which is great. But that’s equally powerful in reverse. Someone early in their career can screw up and recover quickly, moving onto the next company. A successful person or company has each flaw blared across the news, saturating the gossip channels of their network. Lehman Brothers’ 2008 struggles made front-page national news; a small community bank could have been at its wits end with hardly a soul aware. Sears fits this bucket: Everyone is aware how strained it is, so no one – customers, employees, investors, vendors – wants to be associated with it.

Brands are hard to build and even harder to span across generations. You can do everything right and still fail because customers don’t want to be associated with products of their parents’ generation. Morgan Stanley could make the indisputably best robo advisor in the world and millennials would still prefer Betterment. That’s how Charles Schwab blossomed in the 1980s and 1990s; with a brand baby boomers felt was theirs, not their parents’. One of my goals as a writer is to bow out the moment I realize I’m too old to understand how the game is played anymore. Companies, with indefinite time horizons, have to keep trying. A few of them pull it off; more often it’s painful to watch.

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