What If I Invest In All The Wrong Things? Cover

What If I Invest In All The Wrong Things?

I’ve always been a planner. The Joker would call me a schemer:

“You know, I just do things. The mob has plans; the cops have plans. Gordon’s got plans. They’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds.”

“I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.”

While giving that speech in The Dark Knight, the Joker is wearing a nurse outfit. He’s in a hospital, visiting someone he put there in the first place. It might be ironic, but it’s also easiest to doubt my plans on days when I’m sick.

What if they’re really just…pathetic?

Trains Leave Stations All The Time

When I first got into crypto in the summer of 2017, choosing what to invest in was easy. The space was growing, but the good, serious projects were far and few between. One year and thousands of new companies later, selecting among even the top 1% feels like an impossible task. There are 17 good solutions to every major problem and all sources of information have their own, hidden agenda.

Once again, infinite choice has caught up to us. The community even has a word for it: FOMO. The fear of missing out on the next, hot investment keeps individual players forever anxious, circling around a single question:

What if I invest in all the wrong things?

Stuck in bed with a cold recently, thinking about my portfolio and my many other plans, I realized this question is about more than allocating your money.

It’s the defining struggle of a generation.

The Essence of All Philosophy

One of the easiest ways to distract two millennials is to tell them to arrange a meeting. It sometimes takes me as many as five or six attempts to schedule a simple lunch. Don’t even get me started on Friday night. Now I’m not perfect, but more often than not it’s the other party who can’t make up their mind.

That’s why, usually, I feel pretty good about my ‘schemes’. Whenever I’m done setting them up, I’m rewarded with fewer decisions in the moment. Planning allows you to forget the big picture, forget yourself, even, and to focus on the task in front of you. But on days like the past few, days when I’m sick or not working as much, the Joker’s ideas start to visit on me.

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What if this project is a complete waste of time? What should I do next? Who should I hang out with, when do I really need to focus on dating, and what if I invest my money into things that go to zero? Is it stupid to keep it all in cash?

What if, what if, what if.

Two little words that ruin a lot more than just Friday night. The bigger the decision to make, the worse it gets. It’s a phenomenon that’s especially pervasive in my generation, but it’s far from new. As the wealthy and famous 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard would remark:

“Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both. […] Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.”

You could call Kierkegaard the prototypical millennial of his time. Equipped with many more possibilities than his peers, he was still haunted by constant anxiety. “The dizziness of freedom,” as he would say. Given our modern-day choice cornucopia, it’s no wonder young peoples’ heads are always spinning.

But that’s not what we choose to see.

Three Rungs on Every Ladder

The most famous millennial meme is that we feel entitled. We’re eager to skip three rungs on every ladder and if we can’t, we don’t start climbing at all. That’s the story and it’s everyone’s go-to explanation for why we refuse to make many of life’s most important decisions.

We’re not marrying, we’re not having kids, we don’t even move out. We don’t make enough, save enough, invest enough. We’re not willing to get our hands dirty, we’re blinded by bean bags and ping pong tables, and we hope for the big payday that never comes.

And yet, having grown up in a world where school shootings are normal, where banks get bailed out for losing our money, a world full of fake news, corrupt systems, and crushing student debt, our expectations aren’t all that high. According to Stephanie Georgopulos, we’re well aware it’s up to us to do something about these things. But that doesn’t make committing any easier.

Maybe it’s not entitlement that’s at the heart of our procrastination at large. Maybe it’s the fact that, with 300 hours of video being uploaded to Youtube every minute, with thousands of potential Tinder matches, with over 200 types of bread in every Walmart and so much pressure to get it all right, it’s become really hard to choose.

This is beyond existentialist philosophy. Something’s happening in our brains.

The Joker of the Millennial Generation

One reason we stay on the edge of our seats when the dismal clown torments Gotham is that the choices he offers always seem so simple. Pay half your fortune or watch the Batman take the mob apart; save the lawyer or save the girl; sacrifice the convicts or the regular citizens — which one is it going to be?

As we listen to the Joker present our options, an answer forms in our gut right away. And yet, because they’re so full of moral dilemma, they quietly drive us insane. Like Kierkegaard, we know we’d regret the decision either way. This is where science kicks in. In The Paradox of Choice, researcher Barry Schwartz explains why the explosion of individual freedom in the past century continues to make us miserable today. He talks about five things:

  1. Postdecision regret. It’s now easier to imagine we could have done better in hindsight, even if a more suitable alternative doesn’t exist.
  2. Anticipated regret. The thought of making a choice only to find out you could have made a better one two days later is a paralyzing threat in itself.
  3. Opportunity costs. The more things you can select among, the easier it is to factor in all the attractive features you’re missing.
  4. Escalation of expectations. With such a big selection, it feels natural that perfect should be possible. But it never is and that’s depressing.
  5. Self-blame. Finally, it’s clear who’s at fault for all this disappointment: we are. It was healthy to blame a lack of choice, but that excuse has gone.

These are all bad, especially in conjunction, but it is number two that is the bane of our existence.

“How will it feel to buy this sweater only to find a nicer, cheaper one in the next store? How will it feel if I take this job only to have a better opportunity appear next week?”

The questions millennials ask themselves on a daily basis are all variants of the same theme: What if I invest in all the wrong things?

Anticipated regret is the Joker of the millennial generation.

The sheer number of options we have makes every decision feel like a moral dilemma. So we stand there, frozen, dizzy from all this freedom. Paralyzed by choice, regretting what we have not yet screwed up. That’s why we keep watching superhero movies, rather than living them.

But, as in any good superhero movie, there is a silver lining.

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The Purpose of Supporting Actors

For as much as he claims to be an “agent of chaos, a dog chasing cars,” the Joker then turns right around scheming. It’s only on the surface that he’s aimless. From Kevin Lincoln’s piece about the 10-year anniversary of the film:

“The Joker’s plan is to appear as if he has no plan, and by hiding the plan — and, most importantly, disguising the inevitably tedious moment in which the villain reveals his plan, as the Joker does in [the hospital] — [the creators] reinforce the Joker’s purpose.”

There’s a lot to be said for plans if even the self-proclaimed antithesis of schemers has one. I don’t have a perfect list of arguments, but here are three I can take comfort in when doubting myself:

  1. It’s okay to take your time with life’s big decisions. Our grandparents probably wouldn’t have an easier time than we do if they had to make the same, big choices today. It’s easy to belittle the situation from the outside, but in the end, it’s your life, not theirs.
  2. What you choose will probably be good enough. As a corollary, for everything that isn’t all-important, which is most things, you might as well “introduce a little anarchy,” as the Joker would say. Where to get lunch? Which bar to hit on Friday night? Flip a coin, these things don’t matter, and you won’t remember them two weeks from today. Anything will do.
  3. Last, and most importantly: At the very least, I am investing. There is boldness in the act of commitment itself. And no matter how hard any particular decision may squeeze your brain, it is far better to sacrifice your time, your money, your energy, for a cause you think is worthy than to stand on the sidelines waiting.

The Joker’s role in The Dark Knight is so powerful, so all-consuming that it’s hard to focus on any other character. My generation might often feel like supporting actors in their own lives, but, ultimately, it’s always the sidekicks that get the hero to carry on. Like commissioner Gordon, when he gives advice to a newbie, which feels a little like a tip for growing up:

“You’re a detective now, son. You’re not allowed to believe in coincidence anymore.”

Peace of Mind Analogy Cover

Use This Analogy to Cultivate Peace of Mind

China’s first north-to-south express highway is the G4. It is over 2,200 km long and you can use it to drive from Beijing all the way to Hong Kong or Macau. On a busy day, it looks like this:

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Your mind has more than a mere 50 lanes, but on a busy day, the level of traffic is just the same. Each car in each lane represents a different version of you. A version that would make an alternative choice, behave differently, or think another way. But there’s a catch:

Only one lane is called ‘the present’ and only one version of you can drive on it at any given time.

As a result, there’s a constant, massive traffic jam from all these alter egos fighting over who gets to lead the convoy. Each one is trying to squeeze into the present lane, shove itself ahead and cut off everyone else. When 50 cars clash, who ends up in front is anyone’s guess. It’s impossible to hand any one version the reigns with all these options, desires, and arguments pulling you in opposite directions. But that’s not the worst part.

Imagine how present-you feels with this huge, pent up mob in its back. Everyone trailing slightly behind is honking, shouting, tailgating, just waiting for their chance to overtake. How could present-you possibly focus on driving, let alone drive calmly or look ahead?

Too Much of a Good Thing

Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish 19th century philosopher and one of the founders of existentialism, developed a rather dark view of the world at a young age. Born into a wealthy family, he lived in constant fear of death and regret, both of which he saw waiting around every corner.

Eventually, he decided that humor was the only adequate response to life’s madness. He claimed that once he saw reality, he started laughing and hadn’t stopped since. In one of his most famous works, he also gave us a new word to capture the struggle with our own insignificance, a word that’s survived verbatim in both English and German to this day: angst.

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” he would remark. It perfectly fits the image of the mental traffic jam we’re faced with in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Not just because the car is the pinnacle of personal freedom, but because the sheer availability of all these lanes to drive on can literally make us dizzy. All these choices about who to be and what to do, we’re actually free to make them, unlike Kierkegaard and his contemporaries, who were much more limited, yet plagued by the same issue still. It seems it’s gotten worse.

So how can we stop being dizzy?

The Road Ahead

When I was younger, I would race my Dad on the 15-minute drive from the city to our home in the suburbs. Eventually, we realized that even if you go 50% over the speed limit on the highway stretch, you only save one minute. Imagine how much you save going through the toll booth two cars ahead in line.

Most choices in life are like that. You raise all kinds of hell to go 50% faster, only to end up one day earlier at the same finish line. Often, switching lanes feels much more efficient in the moment, but, ultimately, doesn’t make a big difference. Gauging the impact of your decisions beforehand like that is one way to dissolve the mind’s massive traffic jam. Another is realizing that part of each alternative version lives on in you, even if that car gets left behind.

But the best one, by far, is having faith in present-you. Don’t look left and right so much. Life is full of chances to look back and say: “Oh, I should’ve taken that exit.” But if you take them all, you can never focus on the road ahead.

In rallying, one of, if not the biggest determinator of success is how much the driver can trust the co-driver. The person in the passenger seat announces directions and the driver acts. That’s why, when talking about their greatest wins, rally legends like Walter Röhrl don’t mention times, but the state of flow, of effortless performance, they were in. Because if you trust present-you completely, the road ahead always looks like this:

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You might take a few detours, but eventually, that trooper will always take you home. For most of us, life is a long drive on a free highway. The anxiety is something we, like Kierkegaard, create in our heads. There’s no real need to rush. Cultivating this view takes time. But it helps to practice. Maybe that’s why later in his life, the angsty philosopher changed his mind:

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” 

— Søren Kierkegaard

Digital Nomad Cover

Digital Settler: The Healthy Alternative to Being a Digital Nomad

“If you need to take a vacation, never come back.”

— Joel Salatin

It feels almost weird to acknowledge it: I make a full-time income using nothing but a laptop and an internet connection. I wasn’t born to be an entrepreneur, so growth’s been slow, but for the past four years, I’ve made a very livable amount of money for a single dude in his 20s.

I first learned about this new-rich, digital lifestyle in 2012. Back then, I painted the same picture in my daydreams that must decorate millions of desktop backgrounds around the globe: a chair on the beach, an ice-cold drink, and a laptop on my lap. But then, something interesting happened: I got the travel without the work.

The New American Dream

From September 2012 to May 2013, I studied abroad in Massachusetts. While I was there, I traveled to Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, Las Vegas, and dozens of other cities. I went all around California, to Hawaii, Canada, and even Mexico. After returning home, I also went to London, Tokyo, Seoul, and Sydney. All in the same year. It was insane.

Especially because, thanks to a generous friend, we lived the high life wherever we went. We lived at the Bellagio in Vegas, drove around in a Mustang 5.0, rented a Jeep to drive up Mauna Kea, and enjoyed the skyline view from the indoor pool in Tokyo.

My view from the Marriott Waikiki Beach. Jealous already?

It was a glimpse into the life every digital nomad dreams of. A glimpse into a life I was as far away from as one could possibly be. I come from a German upper class family of academics. Most of the people I grew up around don’t even do digital and they’re definitely not nomads. On the trip, I thought a lot about the gap between who I was and who the new American dream was reserved for. And then another funny thing happened: Once I returned home to a cold, German winter, I didn’t want it anymore.

What’s the Opposite of a Digital Nomad?

Traveling full-time was a lot of fun. But, just like anything you do full-time, it inevitably turned into a job. We constantly had trains to catch, planes to book, trips to organize, things to pack, and rooms to get out of. If you do anything long enough, the boring parts catch up to you. Always.

You begin to think about your problems, flaws, and what you could have done better. Because no matter where you go, you are still you. The novelty of different places wears off quicker and quicker, until you find yourself lamenting the same issues you’ve had long before you left.

This problem isn’t new. It’s as old as man. From Seneca’s Moral Letters:

You should change your attitude, not your surroundings. You may have crossed the expanse of sea, and as our Virgil says, ‘lands and cities may grow distant’, but your faults will follow you wherever you reach.

This is what Socrates said to a man who was complaining: ‘Why are you surprised that traveling does you no good, when you are carrying your own state of mind around with you? The same cause is weighing you down now which drove you from home.’ […] You ask me why this flight is not helping you? Because you are in your own company.

And yet, traveling the world at 21 years old was the best thing that ever happened to me. Why? Because it gave me a sneak peek at the end result of the career path I was about to commit myself to. A chance to realize that, once again, the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.

Still, I was grateful for the experience. Because even though it showed me I had the wrong goals, it gave me a sense of calm when letting my travel desires go. I have seen more of this planet than 99% of folks ever will, and if I die seeing nothing more of it, that’s fine. That’s a powerful source to draw happiness from.

But there was still something about working for myself that wouldn’t let go.

Being a Digital Settler: An Unexpected Source of Happiness

As I was studying for my next set of exams after my trip around the globe, I noticed something: The allure of long-term travel was gone, but the attractiveness of a local, regular job hadn’t come back. It slowly dawned on me that maybe, being a digital nomad was a thinly veiled excuse to make the grind of entrepreneurship look more attractive.

I think that’s the big mistake aspiring digital nomads make. Like I did, they chase the right outcome for the wrong reasons. Thanks to my big trip, I can tell you that needn’t be the case: If you lift the veil, entrepreneurship is still beautiful. For as much as we overrate the joys of long-term travel, we’re also too quick to dismiss how much meaning we can draw from growing roots where we’re planted.

Nowadays, my friends commend me for the high-degree-of-freedom life I’ve built. I agree, it’s satisfying. Because just like I can relocate tomorrow, I’m free to go to the same café, sit at the same place, and do my work. In the past five years, I’ve only taken three round trip flights. I spend most of my time in Munich, where I live, and some of it with family back at my parents’ house.

I’m digital without the nomad. What does that make me? A settler? Whether saying no to travel is mad or wise, I don’t know. But I can wholeheartedly say: Most of the happiness you gain from working for yourself comes from having a choice, much more so than from whatever choice in particular you make.

And you don’t need to travel around the world to find the truth in that.

This Question Will Make You Immune To Failure Cover

This Question Will Make You Immune To Failure

On Monday, a guy cut in line at the hairdresser. Not the grocery store, the hairdresser. Where you already wait for some 30 minutes and each person’s treatment takes forever. But just as I was about to get angry, I finally got sick of my own bullshit.

I was angry a lot over the past three months. At people, at events, at myself. Often for valid reasons. But having a good reason to be angry does not make being angry a good reaction. It almost never is. I remembered a Buddhist quote:

“Anger is a hot coal you’re holding, waiting to throw it at someone else.”

Since I had a little more time to pass, I started digging: Why was I holding so many coals?

The Third Option

Looking back, I realized most of the times I was angry came from some sort of failure or rejection. It was never anything major, just obstacles on the road towards my goals. Unexpected speed bumps, paid for in money, energy, and time.

Speed bumps are a good analogy, because the people who set them up are only doing their job. Most of the time, they do it at someone else’s command, and they never do it specifically targeting you. So when you see one coming up, it’s your decision to go full throttle and potentially blow out your suspension. Or, you can just slow down.

There is a scene in How I Met Your Mother, in which Ted is chasing his ex-fiancée in a cab, ready to confront her. After leaving him at the altar, she moved in with her ex-husband, having previously told Ted he’d have to come live with her. That’s a very good reason to be angry. But then, Ted slows down:

“So I got out of the cab, ready to say all of that stuff. Ready to explode. But then…it all just went away. And that was it. In that moment, I wasn’t angry anymore. I could see Stella was meant to be with Tony.

Kids, you may think your only choices are to swallow your anger or to throw it in someone’s face. But there’s a third option: you can just let it go. And only when you do that is it really gone and you can move forward.

And that kids, was the perfect ending to a perfect love story. It just wasn’t mine. Mine was still out there, waiting for me…”

While I found letting go to be a great solution in the past, it’s often hard to do in the midst of failure, when the sting of rejection is still fresh. It hurts. And, as humans, when we’re hurt, we want to do something. Getting yourself to where you can let go is a process and that process takes time. Inaction makes it feel drawn out, while doing things distracts us, usually just enough for our subconscious to begin dealing with everything.

By now I was sitting in the chair, looking in the mirror. I asked myself: “What else can I do here? How can I use these failures, these rejections, these objective and indifferent speed bumps, really, to get to the next level?”

Then, I remembered another quote.

The Simple Ethos of a Billionaire

All humans have desires. Growing up is fulfilling our duty of separating the good ones from the bad. The template we then use to chase those desires is as follows: We alternate between taking action and waiting until we hit either failure or success. If we succeed, we can pursue another desire. If we fail, we need to go back and restart the cycle.

Every time we get angry is a sign that the waiting part is broken. We want our rewards now and we can’t stand the thought of resetting the cycle. It’s almost as if slowing down itself hurts, regardless at what speed you end up taking the bump. But if you load up on coals, eventually, your car will stop altogether.

As I was thinking about what I want the most and how I can do more than just let go, I remembered an idea from Charlie Munger’s 2007 USC commencement address:

“I got at a very early age the idea that the safest way to try and get what you want is to try and deserve what you want. It’s such a simple idea, it’s the golden rule, so to speak. You want to deliver to the world what you would buy if you were on the other end. There is no ethos, in my opinion, that is better for any lawyer or any other person to have.”

Deserve what you want. A simple idea indeed, but a very nuanced one. I first heard it four years ago, but I used to focus too much on the getting part. Now, I finally realized that even someone who deserves to have certain things might still never get them. Note also that Munger didn’t call it a sure way, just a safe way. Except death, there are no guarantees in life.

But if you give your best to deserve what you want every step along the way, something funny happens to your template for fulfilling desires. Suddenly, every iteration of the cycle reroutes to success.

One Question to Rule Them All

The difference between when I first heard Munger’s quote and now is that this time, I don’t see it as a shortcut in the goal-setting process. I see it as an upgrade.

Think of it as charging all your actions with integrity. To do that, you can either imagine virtue as your highest desire or a filter to run all your wants through. Whichever perspective you choose, if you practice it successfully, the result of every action will be the same.

Once the waiting begins, you’ll eventually detach from the outcome, knowing you’ve done the best you can. The right thing, whatever it may have been. That in itself is a success. Because regardless of what’ll happen with your goal, you’ve fulfilled your desire to be virtuous. That, you can take pride in and then restart the cycle. You’re not immune to failure happening to you, but to much of the self-inflicted stumbling, falling, and cursing that usually follows.

You create this sort of moral contrast to a vision of your future self. A self you can aspire to. And while it’ll never exist in its purest form, if you get close enough, you’ll inevitably attract what you desire. I was already on my way home, but still thinking about how I could implement this idea in my life. Eventually, I came up with a daily reminder, a question:

“What would the guy do who deserves everything I want?”

Like the idea itself, it’s simple, but nuanced. When I say “everything I want,” I have a few specific goals in mind, but it applies to all of them and they’re free to change. When I use “the guy” instead of “the person” or “someone,” it’s easier to imagine the virtuous ideal as my future self. But above all, I like this question for three reasons.

1. It is always relevant.

You can ask this question right after waking up in the morning, as you’re about to leave work, or at 3 AM during a horrible fight with your wife. It doesn’t matter whether you just failed, succeeded, or learned a certain path is blocked altogether. The answer will be useful at any time, always and forever.

2. It is limitless.

Maybe you want to be the first human being on Mars. Maybe you’d like nothing more than a stable, five-figure job. Maybe you dream of making it on broadway. Or, maybe you want to pick up your son and get a haircut yourself, without losing too much family time. Whether you have a single, ubiquitous mission, or a dozen small goals, this question has room for them all. It doesn’t care if what you want is possible, because behaving morally always is.

3. It is detached from all outcomes.

You can always choose to act with integrity, right now. Deciding in the present moment does not require what you did over the past ten years, or last week, or even five minutes ago. Your moral compass usually has a clear answer, too. And it’ll still be the right answer, even if you should fail. There’s no need for what-ifs.

The Road Worth Taking

Every morning, I look at my phone and sit with that question. It’s an experiment that’s just beginning, but I already feel a lot better about my decisions.

There’s one caveat though: Aspiring to more integrity is not a substitute for sacrifice. It’s a layer on top. You’ll find that, often, what is right, what is hard, and what is the most beneficial to your goals are one and the same. Especially in the long run.

For the few times they differ, you’ll never regret taking the high road. It has a lot less speed bumps. But, most importantly, you won’t spend your life holding hot coals.