Genius Does Not Guarantee Wisdom

After she passed away, my grandma taught me that aging does not correlate with wisdom. She did so through her absence, in which my grandpa’s true — or perhaps now altered — colors showed. As it turned out, my grandma was holding the house together, including her husband. It was her calm, frugality, rationality, and humor that kept everything in balance. When those hard-earned traits vanished, my grandpa went off-kilter, to the point that neither his son nor his grandkids, aka me and my sister, even talk to him anymore. “Aging won’t free you from stupidity,” I concluded. “Only learning will.”

Aging is one quality we’re overly generous with in using it as a proxy for wisdom. Genius is another.

Called in front of the US Congress in 1949 on the matter of exporting isotopes to other nations, Julius Robert Oppenheimer proved as much. Atomic Energy Commission member Lewis Strauss believed handing other countries these chemical materials would be a safety issue, as they might be used in the development of atomic weapons. Oppenheimer did not. Though factually, the father of the atomic bomb may have been right, he could not see the consequences of his testimony ahead of time.

Genius as he was, with his contributions to quantum mechanics, nuclear fusion, wave functions, and even black holes, he proceeded to not just oppose but outright humiliate Strauss for the whole world to see: “Congressman, you could use a shovel in making atomic weapons. In fact, you do. You could use a bottle of beer in making atomic weapons. In fact, you do. I’d say isotopes are less useful than electronic components, but more useful than a sandwich.”

For all his brilliant theories, one outcome Oppenheimer could not predict: that Lewis Strauss was a petty, vindictive man — and would stop at nothing to ruin the world-famous scientist’s reputation. Less than five years later, Strauss became the chairman of the AEC. He promptly orchestrated the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, effectively stripping him of his career and political influence in one fell swoop.

“Genius is no guarantee of wisdom,” Strauss muses in the movie about the incident, and even though he would be the one to make sure his statement held, he was still right.

There’s a difference between aging and learning, and there’s a difference between being book smart and being street smart. Only one of these you’ll do automatically. Don’t forget the other three, for each of them might save your life in a different, unique way.

The True Price of Building the World

The development of the atomic bomb cost $2 billion. You know what cost ten times more? Making a cab app, apparently. Uber has raised over $30 billion in funding to date. Granted, when you account for inflation between 1945 and 2023, the two sums are roughly equivalent, but still, the contrast is stark.

Whether Uber’s impact is positive is under constant debate, especially for its drivers. Riders, however, have undoubtedly benefitted off the mostly cheaper-than-taxis fares. In any case, it’s undoubtedly a far better tradeoff than the nuclear arms race which, since the Manhattan Project succeeded, has led to a whopping 12,000 nukes worldwide, most of them owned by the US and Russia, ready to hold the world hostage or outright destroy it at the owner’s convenience.

Of course, Uber is far from the only individual company requiring — and receiving — a larger budget than the atom bomb. From WeWork to AirBnB to SpaceX, OpenAI, and payment processor Stripe, plenty of humanity’s latest projects have spent far more money on far better outcomes. Others have done a wealth of good with much less, and others still have continued where Oppenheimer left off.

The dynamics make you think. It only costs $2 billion to blow up the planet, but a lot more to make it go round. At the same time, Facebook connected the world for $1.3 billion, a 20th of the inflation-adjusted cost. We can spend our money for better or worse, and it adds up quicker than we think. If we put it where our mouths are, that’s a good start, but then we must also make sure we’re talking about the right things — and perhaps most of all, not past each other.

The war that took over after the first a-bomb dropped may have been cold, but real-world explosions are not, and I think we’d all rather scroll through Facebook on our phones while sitting in an Uber on the way to WeWork than worry about whether the world might end tomorrow. Let’s make sure we appreciate the latter, no matter how mundane it sometimes feels, before we get lost in the former. The true price of building the world is not how much it costs, but remembering we — our family, our country, our generation — are not the only ones in it.

When Sunk Costs Are Real

The sunk cost fallacy suggests that when we’ve sacrificed for a decision, we’re more likely to stick with it, even when changing course would make more sense. From attending an event you bought tickets for weeks ago but don’t feel like going to on the day to throwing our life savings into a failing business, sunk costs catch us all off guard at one point or another.

Most of the time, the fallacy is indeed a fallacy, especially when the previously incurred costs are actually not that great. If you absolutely hate a movie at the cinema one out of three hours in, you should probably leave. You’ve spent the $15 either way, there’s no point in wasting additional time just out of spite.

Similarly, when starting over comes with little consequence, it is also a mistake to stay married to a bad idea. Many college students switch majors after the first semester, and that’s perfectly fine. Six months are a small price to pay not only in the scope of a three- or four-year degree, but especially when considering that the end result might affect your career for the rest of your life.

“The trick to beating the fallacy is to look at investments as giving you options, not obligations,” Nat Eliason suggests. Instead of feeling obligated to make use of the free alcohol at your company Christmas party or the $75 concert tickets, see the money you spent as an investment that unlocks an option to do something later: You can take it, but you don’t have to.

Most of the time, this is a smart approach. Every now and then, however, it’s not. There are situations when sunk costs can and should have a real effect on what you’ll do next.

Sometimes, two great friends of mine ask me in our business mastermind session: “What would you do if you were starting Four Minute Books from scratch today? Would you even start it? What if you didn’t have that business?” It’s an interesting question, but in terms of what goal I should pursue next, it’s not all that helpful — because yes, I indeed run an eight-year-old book summary business that provides the vast majority of my income, and even if I were to completely pivot away from it, it’d probably make sense to leverage some of its assets and audience.

Similarly, if you’re a senior accountant who’s been at the firm for ten years, and your six-figure salary pays for your mortgage, stay-at-home husband, and child, just because you’d rather be an art teacher does not make quitting and going to community college very feasible, does it?

This isn’t to say that you can’t change any decision down the line, but it does suggest there’s a limit to sunk costs being “a fallacy.” After you’ve stuck with a choice long enough, eventually, the time, money, effort, and emotions you’ve invested will have real consequences. You can still alter the choice, but you’ll have to be more creative than simply nuking everything and restarting with a clean slate.

Thankfully, those consequences are rarely all bad. Given how much dedication we’ve put into a path by the time it becomes the first mate on our ship, it’ll likely come with some, maybe even plenty, of benefits. So even if it is no longer our preferred choice, there are some aspects of our current situation we can enjoy. Just because the cost is sunk does not mean it was wasted. Our sacrifices have still added up — just not exactly in the way we had hoped. When that happens, we absolutely should adjust the ship, but instead of throwing our first mate overboard, we should ask him to help us as best as he can.

When it comes to small losses and easily reversible mistakes, don’t let sunk costs get to you. Look at life as a sea of options, not a maze full of predetermined paths. When a significant chunk of your life or identity is wrapped up in a no longer optimal situation, however, be smart. Don’t squander your sunk costs. Work with them! Turn old efforts into new pellets for an engine that has a lot of steam left to give. Just make sure you adjust the steering wheel, and you can still reach your destination. Unlike costs, ships don’t sink so easily — and neither will you.

Onwards and Artwards

Art is more than just painting, writing, or singing. Seth Godin defines it as “a human act, a generous contribution, something that might not work, and it is intended to change the recipient for the better, often causing a connection to happen.”

Making a salad for your son is art. Calling your grandma to check in on her is art. Holding the door open for a stranger is art. In short, “art is work that matters.”

There’s that saying we use to encourage one another, especially after setbacks: “Onwards and upwards” — and that’s where we hope our life will go. But often, up is the wrong direction. Art usually asks us to go down, deeper, to self-reflect, wrestle with our inner ghosts, and bring back something wonderful. For some, the wonderful will indeed be a painting, but for many, it’s simply the wherewithal to endure yet another teenage tirade with poise and calm. That, too, is art.

Like Dumbledore, we tend to prize ourselves on our ability to turn a phrase, but perhaps in this case, we should amend our original statement to this: Onwards and artwards — because according to Seth, everyone can be an artist if they choose, and if art is connection, unlike the path that only goes up, higher, to more, more, more, artwards will always be the right direction.

Dashing to Work

“I don’t know how Nik does it, man,” a friend of my girlfriend told her during a weekend trip. “Waking up every morning, working, actually motivated to do things — despite no boss, no structure, nothing forcing him to show up.”

I always laugh when I get these comments. To me, being excited about work is as natural as breathing or looking forward to a tasty meal. Part of the reason is the very absence of structure people wonder about. I love my job because I get to call most of the shots, but that’s only one piece of the story.

The other day, I caught myself running towards the couch, eager to grab my laptop, plop down, and start writing. “Who does that?” I thought with a chuckle. When I replayed it in my head, the scene reminded me of an anime character sprinting in sheer excitement, or perhaps a child running towards, well, anything, because children are always running, always eager for the next thing. That’s me, essentially. A child passionate about creating, about making the next thing, and that’s why I’m always excited.

Ironically, despite all the darting, there is no quick way to a lifestyle like this, nor a clear one, and while I worked hard to build it, I also realize it’s a privileged position to be in. I wish we lived in a world where dashing to work would be the norm, but even if you’re part of the large group who doesn’t, above all, I’d like you to remember one thing: It’s possible to love your job, and it’s possible for you to love your job at some point in your lifetime.

Don’t give up too early, and don’t let life’s other tradeoffs distract you too much from this important one. Maybe one day, for no particular reason, you’ll find yourself skipping, racing, or dashing to work — and even if not, you can still whistle, enjoy the small perks, and return home to a life you love.

Heaven Is Not a Yearbook

With the exception of football freestyle, an activity I can no longer pursue outside of a few juggles in my garden, I don’t have a lot of interesting hobbies. In fact, I barely have hobbies at all. Neither does my girlfriend. We don’t skate ski. We don’t do bike trips across the country. We’re not going to an art gallery opening every other week.

We work. We run our household. We play some video games or watch a movie at the end of a long day, and every now and then, we go out for a nice meal, a walk, or some other activity, potentially with friends. And you know what? We are perfectly happy. Life is simple, and simple is enough.

Two years in, I’m getting the sense that where, in your 20s, you were “supposed to” party, slack off, and screw around — both in your career and otherwise — your 30s offer a different kind of social game. Two, actually. The first is house-marriage-kids, and though there’s nothing wrong with that, I don’t quite understand why some people insist on doing it all within a year. The second is the one we might play for a few years before. Fueled by your first few career wins and real money coming in compared to your student days, we could call it, “How much cool stuff are you doing?”

As it turns out, in your 30s, it still isn’t cool to say, “Oh, I’m just working really hard, and that’s about it.” Big surprise. What you’re supposed to say over a fancy, $100 sushi dinner, is more akin to, “Well, last weekend we went to London for some shopping. This week, we’re collecting our new ice climbing gear and doing a wine tasting class, and next month, we’re off to the Azores for our windsurfing class.”

While statements like this might get you a lot of brownie points with friends, they’ll also ensure your wallet is perpetually empty, even if you make thousands of dollars each month. But with that kind of schedule, when are you even making those dollars? At the very least, it might not last very long if your mind is always on your next cool event or vacation.

You know what I’d rather do than sound interesting at parties? Own $10,000 worth of stocks. Get along with my partner. Have a clean apartment. Yes, the bar is low, and the list is long, because while there’s no rule that you can’t have fun in your 30s, there’s also no rule that says you need to keep playing a more expensive, time-consuming version of Society’s Silly Games™.

Not only do those games often end up compounding your life into the wrong direction, but social credit is not a currency you can take with you when you die. Whatever afterlife you believe in — if any — do you really think anyone’s going to ask you about your hobbies when you get there? “No golfing? Less than 50 countries visited? No TikTok account? Sorry, we don’t want any party poopers here — straight to hell with him!”

At the very end, all that will be left are a few poignant memories, a varying level of pride about your accomplishments, and, if you’re lucky, a handful of people you love. Heaven is not a yearbook nor an award ceremony. If you enjoy travel, new experiences, and eclectic pastime activities, by all means, enjoy them for their own sake — but if you feel caught up in a weird game of keeping up with the Joneses, know that you can stop playing any time.

It’s okay to be “boring,” normal, and live a simple life. As long as simple means happy, simple will always be enough.

You Can’t Waste Anything

It’s cute that you’re trying. So hard sometimes. To waste time. To waste money. To waste space.

Unfortunately, I must tell you the game is rigged: You can’t waste anything.

Not a single second of yours on this earth is spent in vain. Every dollar you hand out goes exactly where it needs to go. And whatever space you occupy — physically, mentally, emotionally — is not an inch more than you ought to take.

You may not understand the purpose of being stood up in the rain, of losing $1,200 on a put option, or of vegetating around your house with covid for the third time, but trust me, it’s there. For the longest while, those setbacks might feel like waste, but more often than not, sooner or later, you’ll see both rhyme and reason. In fact, you might invent them — and that’s exactly as it should be. You are telling your own story, not just to us but also to yourself, and in that story, every piece will eventually find its place.

And for the events you can never make sense of? The happenings that escape your mind’s logical powers until the very end? Those, too, are right where they belong. Karma can’t explain everything. Where’s the fun in that? After all, what good is a main character who knows everything? We must see the hero struggle, fail, and fall. How else can we root for them to get back up? And even when that champion is the unlikely person we glance at in the mirror, hero dynamics still apply. Sometimes, we must go on despite things not making sense — and in its own, twisted way, that too makes sense.

It’s one of life’s great paradoxes: When you understand the meaning of your suffering, you are always right, and when you don’t, you are always just too early.

You can’t waste anything. You’ll forever exist at the right time in the right place, and your life will be eternally on track. It’s a story that extends beyond the canvas you can see, but it’s as polished of a tale as it gets. Trust in the process, and keep turning the pages.

The Power of Throwing a Stone

The worst part of being sick is not knowing when the turnaround will come. “Is today the worst day? Am I still going down? Or am I already on my way back up?” If you knew in advance that next Wednesday will be your low point, getting to — and through — Wednesday would be a lot easier.

But that’s not how life works, is it? Sometimes, you think you’re on the road to recovery only to get doubly smacked down 24 hours later. Yesterday was that day for me. The 50%-drop before the eventual bottom-formation.

With what felt like only a third of my brain power, I was in cruise control for most of the day. At 5:30 PM, I lugged myself out of the house for a short walk. I’d slept poorly the night before, and I thought air, sun, and a few steps might do the trick.

While slowpoke-ing across a rough meadow, I spotted some stones on the ground next to a tree. For whatever reason, I really felt like throwing one. I picked up a handful and chucked them into the nearby bushes. It was such a small, insignificant event — literally a throwaway gesture — and yet, it felt like the most productive thing I did all day.

For even the shortest of moments, the physical act of picking up a rock and giving it a new location reminded me that I could still affect the world around me. I could still change things. Sure, my power to do so was severely diminished right now, but eventually, that power would come back. In the meantime, the most important task might be to not forget it existed in the first place.

Was that moment my inflection point? One day later, it surely seems so, but who knows? Life loves to play games like that. First crushing our expectations only to reward them shortly thereafter. If the result are more humble winners, I guess the grand design works. Until I find out for sure, however, I’ll take the small achievement.

There’s that whole thing in the Bible about not casting the first stone, and when it comes to people, no matter what kind of house you’re sitting in, that’s always true. But if it’s a rock you want to skip across a lake for old time’s sake or a small pebble tossed into the bushes to show yourself that you can still do something, anything, really, those take on a different meaning entirely.

On the right days, there’s power even in throwing a stone, and small gestures rarely fail to make a difference.

The Career You Should Have Picked

During the 2021 Pokémon card resurgence and subsequent mania, I discovered that what had once been an obsession of mine when I was nine was now a million-dollar industry. Youtubers bought 20-year-old booster boxes for thousands of dollars and opened them live on stream. Collectors drove around with dozens of binders on their backseat, hoping to get the cards they needed to complete a long-forgotten set. And from card exchanges to trading fairs to the PSA grading agency, millions of people wanted in either on the fun or on the money — and in many cases on both.

After briefly cursing myself for selling my cards for cents on the dollar long ago, I was happy to see that something so simple could bring so much joy to so many people for so long. Not only the people following the creators and collecting in private, but the creators themselves, too. Who would have thought that someone as loud and brazen as Logan Paul would turn into a little kid again over opening a bunch of card packs? Or that Justin Bieber has a full-on display of the first 151 Pokémon cards on his wall?

The person I was most surprised to see, however, was Pat Flynn. Pat was an architect who got laid off in the 2008 housing crisis. He then started a website teaching architect’s how to pass their exams. Eventually, he launched and grew Smart Passive Income, one of the first and best resources showing anyone how to start an online business. And now, apparently, Pat was a Pokémon Youtuber.

Having followed Pat’s work for almost a decade, it seemed he was finally getting back to a childhood dream of his, thanks to his business doing well. He wasn’t set on flipping cards for money or pulling the rarest monsters. He simply wanted to enjoy Pokémon again — together with anyone else who loved the games and cards. I saw Pat giving away lots of cards on his streams, handing cards to others who needed them for free, and do a lot of things that seemed to throw his usual business acumen out the window. Perhaps that’s why it worked.

On Deep Pocket Monster, Pat has more subscribers than on his main Youtube channel, which he’s been growing for years. His first Pokémon card convention, Card Party, was a smashing success. Pat’s second career in Pokémon seems to be the ultimate proof that the more you love what you do, the better it will go.

It really makes you wonder: Why don’t we choose our biggest creative loves off the bat? Almost no one does, putting rhyme and reason ahead of passion for the game. In the moment, it feels like an adult, reasonable decision, but years later, we might realize that few ever get to where Pat has gone: the point where your main business works well enough, you have enough time and money to just chase what may be a fruitless dream. Maybe postponing to become a card collector, write a book, or build your own electronics is a bigger risk than to go for it when conditions seem unfavorable.

How many Justin Biebers should actually be Pokémon Youtubers, and how many silent watchers of video game streamers would have been better off playing with the pros? We’ll never know, but every time a dream many folks share resurges, like Pokémon did in 2021, some of those people will reveal themselves. Most will just enjoy the nostalgia, few will begin nourishing their dream again on the regular, if only in little ways, and only a rare handful will turn the ship of their life around and say, “Full steam ahead! To dream land, here we go!”

What is your dream, and which option will you choose? I won’t ever need to know, but sooner or later, you’ll have to decide. Just know that, whichever direction you go, it’s never too late to start a second career — and if it’s the one you should have picked in the first place, it might go a whole lot better than you could ever imagine.

10-Year Breaks

Between my “most professional” gaming days at the end of high school, selling all of my consoles and games in college, and restarting after being gifted a Nintendo Switch a few years ago, I spent almost a decade playing near-zero games. It was a productive break.

In those ten years, I’ve attained two college degrees, made many friends, and learned to fend for myself in the world of writing. I’ve built a career I love, found a home, and fell in love with a wonderful person.

And now, after all that, it was a great time to rekindle an old passion. I’m less obsessed about video games than I used to be. I can play casually and enjoy each game for its own sake. The habit has returned as a hobby, this time. Nothing more, nothing less.

In hindsight, I would do it all over again — but that’s the thing about 10-year breaks: You can’t plan them. Can’t “decide” to take one. Can’t put it on your calendar and “lock it in.”

If you love video games, roller-skating, or comic books, and a good friend tells you, “Hey, why don’t you stop all of that for ten years?” you’d give them a crazy look and go about your day. But we do it all the time, don’t we? We drop habits like apples accidentally falling out of our grocery bag, not even realizing we lost them until years later — and when we find them again, we conclude: Actually, the timing worked out rather well.

If you end up taking a 10-year break from something, it means that whatever lands in its place will be a better fit for your life at the time. Don’t worry so much about what you hold on to vs. what you let go. Allow patterns to flow in and out of your life as needed.

It’s never too late to catch up with an old friend — and perhaps, after a decade-long detour turns out to be the perfect time to meet again.