Why Losers Will One Day Rule The World Cover

Why Losers Will One Day Rule The World

“If you’re not a genius, don’t bother.”

Jim Bennett’s voice roars across the lecture hall.

“If you take away nothing else from my class, from this experience, let it be this. The world needs plenty of electricians, and a lot of them are happy.”

Portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in a 2014 rendition of The Gambler, Bennett is an English literature professor at UCLA. Or at least, he pretends to be. What he really teaches, however, is something else entirely.

“Now, the trouble with writing, if I may bring it up here in the English Department, is we all do a little of it from time to time. Writing. And some of us start to think, delusionally, maybe with a little time, a little peace, a little money in the bank, and you get that room of your own, you think, “Well, shit, I might be a writer, too.”

I mean, we accept genius in sports as something we cannot do. But it’s no more likely that you could be a writer that you could be what? An Olympic pole-vaulter? Because what you have to be, before you try to be a pole-vaulter…

Hello! Is a pole-vaulter, no?”

Like his students, you may already roll your eyes, but what’s most annoying about Bennett isn’t his rude, nihilist attitude. Much worse, he has a point. Sure, no pain, no gain, we know that much. But what about no prodigy, no greatness? That one’s a lot harder to process.

If we’re honest, deep down it’s killing us. But why?

A Nitpicker at Heart

From 1856 to 1863, Austrian abbot Gregor Mendel took care of 28,000 younglings. Not monks, plants. The passionate gardener dedicated multiple years of his life to counting peas, for he could not shake the hunch it might reveal answers to “a question the importance of which cannot be overestimated in connection with the history of the evolution of organic forms.”

And, despite never receiving due credit in his lifetime, answers he did find. Crossing pure breeds of all shapes, colors, and sizes, Mendel discovered that green peas mixed with yellow peas always yielded only yellow peas. It was only in a subsequent, hybrid breed generation, that green peas started showing up again. Therefore, Mendel dubbed the yellow trait ‘dominant’ and the green trait ‘recessive.’

150 years later, an entire branch of science, genetics, has grown deep roots from Mendel’s original seeds. We now know that the traits are variants of individual genes, that their pairings are probabilistic, and that we can determine the resulting types with simple tables.

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The underlying math of Mendel’s peas is entirely objective and fair. What’s not is that the same genetic heredity scheme also applies to humans. Some of us are green, some of us are yellow. Some round, others wrinkled.

And the world has always loved green peas.

Winners Win…

Jeremy Meeks is not your average felon. After almost a decade in jail for grand theft, he was sentenced to another 27 months for gang violence in 2014. As usual, the police released his mugshot online.

What’s less usual is that over 100,000 shares and one GoFundMe campaign later, Meeks scored a modeling contract, whilst still in prison. Upon release, he debuted at the New York Fashion Week.

He now sports 1.8 million Instagram followers, a lavish home, a Maserati, and dates the heiress of a fashion billionaire.

It’s easy to look at this situation and call it unfair. It is. But besides winning the genetic lottery, there’s a more subtle element to his story, something that really eats away at us: When you’re extraordinary, the world will find a way to tell you.

Bennett’s case in point:

“Let’s have a look at Dexter. Dexter! An ordinary-looking young man
with a what? Size 40 jacket, regular features, and decent dentition, is the second-ranked collegiate tennis player in the United States of America. How did that come about, Dexter? You come from a tennis family?”

“Well, I mean, I started playing five years ago in high school ’cause the tennis guys have the best weed.”

For some, high school becomes college, for others it’s preschool. But the definition of genius is being too good to ignore. And once the glass breaks…

“What happened when you noticed you were naturally better than everybody?”

“I…I got interested in the game.”

“That is an IQ break point, brother. Right there! Do you remember Machiavelli? That would have been in September.”

“Man. I can remember September.”

“All right. Is it the game, brother, or the money? Virtu or fama? Fame or virtue?
What are you after? Don’t go modest on me. What do you want?”

“Both.”

“You got ambitious, yeah?”

“I realized, as I learned about the game, that I was in reach of… In reach of…”

“Highest level?”

“Highest level, yeah.”

What Bennett is hinting at is that everyone, even a stoner like Dexter, is enough of a Machiavelli to recognize when life is handed to them on a silver platter. Eventually, the trigger will fire and the genius will soar past the rest.

Meanwhile, most of us mortals are free both from federal prosecution and drugs, yet we still can’t find a purpose.

…Losers Lose

Somewhere between our seventh birthday and entering college or starting to work, most of us have figured out that we’re not particularly brilliant at anything. That’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Even worse, it doesn’t change any of the voices around us. When you’re a pea, the world really wants you to be green, true colors remiss. Pressure for greatness is applied, regardless of whether you hold the capacity to.

On top of that, career paths are dissolving left and right. Google hires coders off exposing competitor flaws online, stay-at-home moms run e-commerce empires, and what startup ever required a CV if you brought the skills?

In a world where even a mediocre career unfolds in a million ways, the non-genius loses twice. Besides not making the draft, he or she is burdened with choice. Choice among a sea of unsatisfactory options, which cripples us, as Barry Schwartz explains:

“The very wealth of options before us may turn us from choosers into pickers.

A chooser is someone who thinks actively about the possibilities before making a decision. A chooser reflects on what’s important to him or her in life, what’s important about this particular decision, and what the short-and long-range consequences of the decision may be. A chooser makes decisions in a way that reflects awareness of what a given choice means about him or her as a person. Finally, a chooser is thoughtful enough to conclude that perhaps none of the available alternatives are satisfactory, and that if he or she wants the right alternative, he or she may have to create it.

A picker does none of these things. With a world of choices rushing by like a music video, all a picker can do is grab this or that and hope for the best.”

In face of such disgrace, people like Bennett prefer to self-destruct.

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Cats Are Hard to Understand

Having spotted his novel in a hallway showcase, a student calls out Bennett on his rant about genius.

“You are one.”

“A pole-vaulter?”

“A novelist.”

“No, I am not. For me to be a novelist, I would have to make a deal with myself, that it was okay being a mediocrity in a profession that died commercially in the last century. All right, people do that. I am not one of them.”

No, Jim. Clearly. In lack of destiny, Bennett perpetually pokes the universe, questioning his existence. Heir to one of the richest men in America, he chooses to hide behind a pathological gambling addiction, rather than embrace his losing status.

And a loser he is indeed. Already owing money to a host of dangerous people, he continues to ask for more, only to blow it on yet another deck of cards. He is utterly and completely lost. But being a literature professor, he sure must remember what the cat told Alice:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

“I don’t much care where –”

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

There are two ways to interpret that last line and the perspective Bennett chooses, that’s his big mistake.

Lunch Is Never Free

Of course Bennett knows he’s not alone.

“But it’s still a gamble, isn’t it?”

Dexter nods. Bennett might as well be talking about his own life, but he’s not. What he refers to is the commitment to rise to the occasion. The challenge of the exceptional. Fully aware of their talents, they still have to show up, day in and day out. Even for a genius, genius might be out of reach.

That’s hardly better than the rest of us, who’re desperate for something to hold on to. Anything at all.

Green peas, yellow peas, no one really wins the game when nature is the house. They’re two different problems, but maybe the solution is the same.

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Even Nowhere Is a Place

I’ve been writing for 3.5 years, but I still don’t know where I want to go. The best destination I’ve managed to find comes from a piece of advice by Bennett’s lender of last resort:

“I’ve seen you be half a million dollars up.”

“I’ve been up two and a half million dollars.”

“What do you got on you?”

“Nothing.”

“What did you put away?”

“Nothing.”

“You get up two and a half million dollars, any asshole in the world knows what to do.

You get a house with a 25-year roof, an indestructible Jap economy shitbox, you put the rest into the system at 3%-to-5% to pay your taxes, and that’s your base, get me? That’s your Fortress of Fucking Solitude. That puts you for the rest of your life at a level of “fuck you.”

Somebody wants you to do something? “Fuck you.” Boss pisses you off? “Fuck you!” Own your house, have a couple bucks in the bank, don’t drink. That’s all I have to say to anybody at any social level.”

Bennett isn’t a loser because he’s playing a pointless game. The real reason his loan shark is mad at him is that he chose to stay in after he won. Life may force you to bet, but at least make it a gamble worth walking away from should you succeed.

Naval Ravikant puts it a bit more philosophically:

“A great goal in life would be to not have to be in a given place at a given time.

That is a recent vector that I’m trying to work towards. Obviously it’s not fully realistic, you know you have meetings and stuff, but at an even more basic level you have a job, right? Most of us have jobs we go to at a certain time of the day and can’t come back until a certain time and somebody else is telling us what to do all day long.

I think it’s really worth, whenever you can in life, if you have the choice, optimize for independence rather than optimize for pay.”

If it doesn’t matter where you go, you might as well walk on an empty, long, winding, crazy path. All roads lead nowhere, but nowhere is still a place. Regardless of whether you’re excited or inspired, when you choose something over nothing, something always happens.

Maybe the opposite of depressed isn’t happy, but arbitrary.

The Purpose of Life Is to Be Pointless

Whether you’re a genius afraid to take your shot, or an aimless wanderer waiting for the sign, it seems the world desperately wants you to figure out what you want and then be bloody brilliant at it. I don’t think that’s true.

Actually, we’re waiting for you to be pointless. Aimed at an arbitrary goal, just aimed after all. Regardless of what we think of you. We’re all gamblers here. And all gamblers lose.

Go on, pick up your badge. Wear it, and maybe you’ll be free.

Naval thinks so:

“The smartest and the most successful people I know started out as losers. If you view yourself as a loser, as someone who was cast out and has no role in normal society, then you will do your own thing and you’re much more likely to find that winning path. It helps to start out by saying, “I’m never going to be popular. I’m never going to be accepted. I’m already a loser. I’m not going to get what all the other kids have. I’ve just got to be happy being me.””

There’s a fine line between obliterating and liberating. No matter if you’re full of talent or trivialities, only losers get to go for broke. A shot to sit at the table of “fuck you.”

That is why one day, they will rule the world.

How To Eliminate the Number One Cognitive Bias on the Internet Cover

How To Eliminate the #1 Cognitive Bias on the Internet

In 1906, famed English statistician Sir Francis Galton visited the annual ‘West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition.’ The 84-year-old scientist was obsessed with breeding in his spare time. While I’m sure he strolled along the stalls amidst curious onlookers, he did find the perfect mix of leisure and work: a weight-guessing contest.

An ox was brought on stage before ‘dressing’, which is butcher speak for slaughter and removal of organs. Contestants could then submit guesses regarding the dressed weight for six pence each, which resulted in a variety of prizes, a cool $6,000 in modern-day dollars for the host, and a data set of 787 points for Galton to play with.

As Galton suspected, not even the few livestock experts among the group guessed the correct weight. The best estimate came in at 1,207 lbs, nine pounds off the 1,198 lbs mark. When he calculated the mean of all guesses, however, Galton was shocked: 1,197 lbs.

Imagined as a single individual, the crowd’s judgement was almost perfect.

Why Crowd Forecasting Works

James Surowiecki told this story in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. He also explained what Galton didn’t understand at the time: why big crowds are good at making accurate predictions. Surowiecki names three advantages a large group holds over an individual when it comes to judgement calls:

  1. Cognition. If our brains are like computers, stacking them in a row makes information processing faster, more stable, and less prone to subjective errors.
  2. Coordination. All groups have a shared culture. An awareness of said culture allows each member to anticipate how other members will react in certain situations.
  3. Cooperation. Subconscious agreements about how to behave within the group build trust, and so members can rely on one another, even without a central, governing entity.

That’s why bookies set odds based on community sentiment, Nate Silver correctly called the outcome for two presidential elections with big data, and weather polls are up to 20% more accurate if you throw in a lot of extra, non-expert voters.

But not all crowds are wise. Surowiecki lists four requirements:

  • Diverse opinions. If everyone interprets the circumstances the same way, the cognition advantage vanishes.
  • Decentralization. The only way people get these different views is by being in different times, places, and professions.
  • Aggregation. Without a way to add up all individual judgement calls, you just get a long list of unrelated opinions.
  • Independence. What people think can’t be influenced by what other people think.

It is the last factor, independence, that is at the core of why group efforts also often go horribly wrong.

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No BBQ, No Cry

Every second of every waking hour, our brains are under attack. Dozens of cognitive biases constantly eat away at our capacity to make good decisions, and while all of them originally served a purpose, most merely cloud our vision in the modern world.

A large chunk of these faulty wirings in our brain reveals itself when we’re interacting with others. Like this one, which inspired Charles Duhigg to write The Power of Habit:

“I had been in Iraq for about two months when I heard about an officer conducting an impromptu habit modification program in Kufa, a small city ninety miles south of the capital. He was an army major who had analyzed videotapes of recent riots and had identified a pattern: Violence was usually preceded by a crowd of Iraqis gathering in a plaza or other open space and, over the course of several hours, growing in size. Food vendors would show up, as well as spectators. Then, someone would throw a rock or a bottle and all hell would break loose.

When the major met with Kufa’s mayor, he made an odd request: Could they keep food vendors out of the plazas? Sure, the mayor said. A few weeks later, a small crowd gathered near the Masjid al-Kufa, or Great Mosque of Kufa. Throughout the afternoon, it grew in size. Some people started chanting angry slogans. Iraqi police, sensing trouble, radioed the base and asked U.S. troops to stand by. At dusk, the crowd started getting restless and hungry. People looked for the kebab sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found. The spectators left. The chanters became dispirited. By 8 P.M., everyone was gone.”

This is called herd behavior. One hungry guy starts yelling and suddenly, everyone thinks it’s in their own best interest to hurl bricks at the police. There’s no coordination, the mob just happens to move in one direction.

Herd behavior may kick off the party, but it is another bias that gets the derailed train to really pick up steam.

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A 13-Year-Old’s Nightmare

Whether we find ourselves in an impromptu stampede or a more composed group with a chosen course of action, we instantly associate our new insider status with safety. There’s nothing we hate more than jeopardizing that feeling. Enter groupthink. Another bias, it causes dysfunctional decision-making for the sake of harmony in our flock.

There are two drivers that reinforce our natural tendency to swallow our own views in favor of minimizing friction: social rank and social proof.

Social rank is our inclination to listen to whoever we perceive as a leader. Usually, that’s merely the loudest person in the room. Or the account with the most followers. Or the celebrity being paid $250,000 for a sponsorship deal. In politics, hundreds of delegates vote on decisive, historical issues after hearing a single person talk. How is that objective? It’s not.

Social proof makes most of our purchasing decisions these days. When we see that “half of all US runners wear these shoes,” that “40,000 others have subscribed,” or that “3,000 people gave this movie 5 stars,” we defer the all-important process of building trust to whoever came before us. A group we know nothing about.

Making decisions this way is a house of cards. Even 13-year-old me knows why. He told his parents that “Toby’s parents let him stay until midnight at Anna’s party too” and that “Matthew, Flo and Vanessa are allowed to as well.” It only took one phone call for this pyramid scheme to collapse. Once again, everyone was home before 10 PM.

While these mental flaws have always impacted how we choose, they’ve never been more cemented in our brains than today. There is no place where the consequences of groupthink are as severe and as omnipresent like the place we all spend most of our time at: the internet.

Of Presidents and Bandwagons

It’s fairly easy to pick a number between 0 and 3,000 lbs, write it down and silently hand it off. Voicing your opinion when your boss opens a group discussion about potentially firing a client is much harder. What’s impossible, however, is making free-spirited decisions when you’re part of a group 24/7/365. Especially if that group preprocesses all of your information.

But that’s exactly the reality we’re faced with today. We’re connected to every person on the globe, all the time. As a result, news are plastered with likes and retweets. Knowledge is full of shares, claps, and comments. Entertainment is rated, dining is reviewed, purchases verified. Even our relationships are measured in hearts, views, and follows.

Social acceptance has become the universal metric, both for making decisions and tracking their success.

In 1848, famous circus clown and later presidential candidate Dan Rice had a brilliant idea to support his fellow politician Zachary Taylor in his campaign. He would take his bandwagon, ride around town, and play music, while Taylor sat on top, spreading his agenda. This move was so successful that not only did Taylor become president, but politicians soon fought over a chance to sit on Rice’s wagon and parade around town.

It is here that the phrase “to jump on the bandwagon” originates, which, 50 years later, had become standard practice. However, it also left a bitter taste in the public’s mouth, indicating you were trying to get a splash of someone else’s glory without even considering how they made it to the top.

Today, the bandwagon effect happens billions of times a day on an individual level and it kills our independent thinking. By not practicing this skill when it doesn’t seem to matter, we also lose our capacity to do so when it does. We go online, our brains turn off, and once we leave the house, we can’t switch them back on.

But there are still those with a healthy distaste for bandwagons. Those, who prefer to explore the world on foot. I know someone like that.

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Meet Alice

On Independence Day 1862, Charles Dodgson was stuck in a boat with his reverend and three daughters of a friend. To pass time on the five mile rowing trip, he told the young girls a story. A story that would continue to touch human hearts to this day.

We love Alice In Wonderland for many reasons, but above all, we love it for the little girl who stood for what she believed in, no matter how much reality began to crumble around her. Once upon a time, we were all Alice. We had a mind of our own. We were curious. Free from dogma, free from doubt.

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

But then we grew up and let society take over. Like Alice along the way, we got a little lost. We’ve been conditioned to constantly ask others for directions, without even asking ourselves where we want to go.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where –”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend my life sitting on a bandwagon, waving as it passes me by. I don’t want to be at the mercy of other people’s sense of direction. I want to explore Wonderland on my own.

That’s why I’ve built a tool that removes social proof online. It’s a free Chrome extension. Her name is Alice. With Alice, you can disable all counts of social media interactions, such as likes, comments, claps, responses, upvotes, retweets, views, and so on.

You’ll still be able to like, comment and share yourself. You just won’t know how many people have done so before you. The only way to judge if something’s worth your engagement, then, is to think for yourself.

And that will make all the difference.

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Your Life Should Feel Like Wonderland

When Sir Francis Galton walked around that livestock fair, he stumbled into an important manifestation of a timeless truth: Knowledge is power. But power is raw. It can create and it can destroy.

Our giant accumulation of human opinions can help us predict the future, or turn us into a mindless herd by the time it arrives. Which role will each of us play in this? “Ah, that’s the great puzzle,” Alice would say.

Social acceptance may have become the norm, but does anyone ever decide they want to be normal? Maybe the Cheshire Cat was right. Statisticians obsessed with breeding, pedantic army majors, circus clowns on bandwagons, we’re all mad here.

I think that’s wonderful. It’s why we’re here. But it all starts with independent thinking. Remember that when you surf around our Wonderland. Like what you like. Retweet what you want to shout. Comment on what makes you think.

As long as you do that, together, there’s nowhere we can’t go.

How To Control Your Mind Cover

How To Control Your Mind

One of life’s great trilemmas is the tradeoff between money, energy, and time. Maybe you’ve heard someone joke about how you can only ever have two of the three. The punchline inevitably comes with age.

When you’re young, you have time and energy, but no money. As an adult, you get some money, but lose all your time. And once you’re old, you might have cash and hours to spare, but no fit body to enjoy either.

We laugh at this, but at the same time, it scares us a little. Because we know it’s true.

I’ve spent the past four months reflecting on our relationship with technology. After exploring addictions, distractions, and enhancements, I recognize many of our efforts in the tech arena are spent trying to fix this impossible problem. While there are some improvements we can make, we’ll never get a perfect outcome.

And yet, the power to deal with this imbalance has been with us all along.

1 + 1 = 1

We usually think of time as a good way to measure a life, but it’s only a proxy for what we really mean: attention. Think of the wealthy heir, who wastes all his riches, and compare him to the artist who dies at 40, but leaves behind a significant body of work. The things we most want in life, be it money, health, family, status, or impact, are really just byproducts of deliberate attention.

To cultivate said attention, we need more than just time. We also need energy. Time without energy is not spent moving. It is just spent. Most of us start life with an abundance of both, meaning our capacity to synthesize attention is often greatest when we’re young.

Visually speaking, science describes attention like a zoom lens on a camera. If you try to see the whole picture from afar, it takes a while to focus. The more you zoom in, the smaller the segment and the faster you can process it.

If we translate this metaphor to attention the way we just defined it, you can think of your time as a flashlight and your energy as the batteries. You need both to turn it on and point it where you want to go. Yes, it’s true that more time and more energy lead to more attention, but that’s only half the picture.

Like on any good flashlight, you can also adjust the radius of the beam.

One Addiction to Rule Them All

One of the world’s leading researchers of attention, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, wrote about the state of optimal performance:

“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”

Imagine you had $100 million and were perfectly healthy. What excuse would you have not to use your attention well? None. Chasing this imaginary state is the game most of us are playing. There will never be no excuses left, but blaming their existence is easier than dealing with them head on. It’s an addictive game too. You can play it your entire life without ever getting close to winning.

David Allen calls this our biggest weakness as humans:

“I think control is the master human addiction. To try to control the world.”

Often, in spite of having the right intentions, that’s what we’re doing. Less Facebook, more time, less email, more energy. They’re all small steps in the right direction, but by taking them we lose out on a much bigger one:

What if we just maximized the attention we can get from whatever time and energy we have right now?

This is a slight, but significant difference. Allen noticed it too:

“Not ‘be in control,’ because that’s something that we work with, something I think you need to develop, but trying to control externally the world is a big addiction.”

Deliberate attention is good. Aware attention is better.

Talking to Ourselves

Even if you’re loaded with spare flashlights and batteries, you can’t just point your attention once and then go straight forever. You’re going to get lost. Naval Ravikant calls this ‘monkey mind:’

“The reality is if you walk down the street and there are a thousand people in the street, I think all thousand are talking to themselves in their head at any given point. They’re constantly judging everything that they see. They’re playing back movies of things that happened to them yesterday. They’re living in fantasy worlds of what’s going to happen tomorrow. They’re just pulled out of base reality.”

He explains that as children, we’re very connected to the real world, a trait we lose as we grow older and start long-range planning. While some projecting is necessary and useful, we tend to go overboard rather quickly. We get stuck in our visions and wave our attention spotlight around uncontrollably.

So, to get where we want to go, it’s not enough to be deliberate in using our attention. We also have to observe it. Therefore, looking inward and reflecting on where you deploy your attention is equally as important, if not more, than how much you can muster.

This isn’t easy, but Naval has some ideas:

“I’ve taken on this idea that I want to break the habit of uncontrolled thinking, which is hard. If I say to you, “Don’t think of a pink elephant”, I just put a pink elephant in your head. It’s an almost impossible problem. It’s more something that has to be guided by feel, than guided by actual thinking or thought process. I’m deliberately cultivating experiences, states of mind, locations, activities, that will help me get out of my mind.”

Funny how that works, isn’t it? In order to get more control over your attention, you have to let it go.

Wrong Means, Right Ends

Csikszentmihalyi’s book is titled Flow. The name itself suggests the loose nature of the state.

“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.”

But it is not just letting go of external rewards. Flow also requires a certain degree of surrender to the task at hand. You don’t beat a hard level in a video game on first try, you beat it on the 17th attempt, when you barely care any more, but the gears magically click into place.

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.”

Subconsciously, we know this. We induce chemical reactions in our bodies in hopes of controlling our attention all the time, according to Naval:

“In some sense, the people chasing thrills in action sports or flow states or orgasm or any of these states that people really strive to get to, a lot of these are basically just trying to get out of your own head. They’re trying to get away from that voice in your head and this overdeveloped sense of self.”

Food, alcohol, drugs, sex, exercise, these all rest on a choice to direct our attention a certain way and then let it drift for a while. We can use this same choice to recalibrate our attention flashlight, minus the escapism.

What blocks our way usually isn’t the obstacle, but our brain’s obsession with it. Once we let that go, we immediately regain internal control, even long after external control has gone. There are many ways to achieve this:

  • Meditating.
  • Taking a walk.
  • Visiting a place that triggers nostalgia.
  • Immersing yourself in a task that’s either repetitive, like washing dishes, or continuous, like reading, for an extended period of time.

Whatever the activity, if it puts you in a meditative state it helps you make this mental shift. Over time, you’ll see you can do almost anything this way. Allen agrees this is very productive:

“Being able to let go and say ‘wait a minute, let me just accept what’s going on, cooperate with what it is and then be in control of myself.’ But be aware of whatever’s new, whatever’s current, whatever’s present. Letting go is probably the idea that made the biggest difference in my life.”

The result is peace.

No Strings Attached

When you direct your attention once, but then adjust focus intuitively as needed, you get a calm mind. This is a state worth cultivating, Naval says:

“You can think of your brain, your consciousness, as a multi-layered mechanism. There’s kind of a core base kernel level OS that’s running. Then there’s applications that are running on top.

I’m actually going back to my awareness level of OS, which is always calm, always peaceful, and generally happy and content. I’m trying to stay in that mode and not activate the monkey mind, which is always worried and frightened and anxious, but serves incredible purpose. I’m trying not to activate that program until I need it. When I need it, I want to just focus on that program. If I’m running it 24/7, all the time, I’m wasting energy and it becomes me. I am more than that.”

No matter how much attention you can create, spend it right here, right now. Not up in the future, not down in the past. The most peaceful place on earth is always the present.

Be Water, My Friend

This is all very confusing and paradoxical, which is the perfect indicator that it’s natural.

Even if you had 100% of your attention at all times, you would choose to turn on the autopilot occasionally. Watching a movie, reading, music, or sensory experiences, like being outside, eating, swimming, you want your mind to wander during those. Creativity, inspiration, love, that’s when they happen.

At the same time, frantically chasing impulse after impulse, without any awareness of where your attention goes, would be equally disastrous. Who’s planning your goals, checking your direction, paying the bills, if you’re busy slinging feces at the other monkeys in the park?

So, what do we make of this imbalance? Let the pendulum swing, for true control comes from the inside. To lead an empowered life, you needn’t command what happens in it.

Know that while behavior change is helpful, it’s a pebble in the powerful river that is your mind. Remember to look inward and work with what you have. Choose where to go and when to flow. Don’t escape, exist.

Pay attention to your attention, and you’ll always be on your way.


This post is the last in my AntiTech series, where we use technology to fight technology in order to get back what we lost: our time and our attention. You can find an overview here.
Everything Popular Is Wrong Cover

Everything Popular Is Wrong

We remember Oscar Wilde as a poet, a playwright, a player who’d write. Most of us associate him with drama, both in his work and life. The Picture of Dorian Gray, a few pithy lines, an early death.

But when I look at the sea of thoughts that unravels when you click on the author of the most popular quote on Goodreads, I see none of that. I see a philosopher, full of contrarian ideas, paradoxes, and lots of new angles to look at life from.

They remind me of the beliefs of a philosopher we can still talk to: Naval Ravikant. After reflecting on an interview he did with Shane Parrish, I can’t help but notice that some of the most popular sentiments floating around Medium and the web are, well, just sentiments.

“Everything popular is wrong.” One of Wilde’s many polarizing statements. It may be hyperbole, but it’s a starting point for originality. In the echo chamber of self-improvement, some ideas have been circulating for so long, we’ve stopped questioning them.

What if we considered the possibility that these ideas are false?

1. Diversified Learning

The general consensus is that you should learn as much as you can, from as many sources as you can. When it comes to money, food, work, and material possessions, we all readily agree that more isn’t better. Why shouldn’t that apply to books? Illacertus thinks it should.

We rage against materialism, but we condone mental overstimulation. If you want to read 52 books each year, isn’t that just as much of a rat race as assembling a huge shoe collection? Why not pick your sources carefully and deeply understand them?

Maybe some of history’s greatest and time-tested books — the Bible, Tao Te Ching, Don Quixote, each hold all the advice you could ever need. Maybe, you just have to keep re-reading them. For almost all modern bestsellers, you can find a book that’s 50, 100, 500 years older and says the same thing – except it usually does it better.

The same applies to people.

2. Surrounding Yourself With Great People

We’ve all heard it a thousand times: “You are the average of the five people you surround yourself with.” We’re encouraged to keep running around, trying to find the best five people.

In reality, the only person you’re surrounded by 24/7/365 is you. Life is a single player game, as Naval puts it.

“Socially, we’re told, “Go work out. Go look good.” That’s a multi-player competitive game. Other people can see if I’m doing a good job or not.

When it comes to learn to be happy, that’s completely internal. No external progress, no external validation. 100% you’re competing against yourself, single-player game. We are such social creatures that we don’t know how to play and win at these single-player games anymore. We compete purely on multi-player games.

The reality is life is a single-player game. You’re born alone. You’re going to die alone. All of your interpretations are alone. All your memories are alone. You’re gone in three generations and nobody cares. Before you showed up, nobody cared. It’s all single-player.”

How many of your greatest insights, your most blissful moments, your most trialing challenges, how many of your “holy shits” and “oh my gods” and “I don’t knows” have happened in group sessions?

Mentors, teachers, motivators, these are all overrated. Learning to be with yourself and compete against yourself? That takes a lifetime.

3. Constant Growth

If you’re now scared because you think “Really? Living in my own head? Fighting my demons, all the time? Won’t I go mad?” then that’s an indicator for another common piece of advice gone awry. Because there’s so much motivation out there, we feel like we constantly have to keep working on ourselves.

But you know what? You don’t. You don’t need to move forward all the time. You can stand still, too. It’s just that no one tells you that’s okay. But maybe you want to take care of your kids, or your spouse, or help a friend. Or even do nothing for a while. What’s wrong with that?

What’s more, even when it comes to your bad habits, sometimes, you can just accept them. Make tradeoffs. I bite my nails while writing, all the time, but at least I write good stuff. I’m not gonna stop writing, even if it means I never stop biting my nails.

But maybe one day, I’ll stop both. It’s not like…

4. You Need an Identity to Have a Life

The reason we’re so easily sold on perpetual self-improvement is that we’re assembling a puzzle of who we are, and personal development feels like we’re filling in the gaps. With each new habit comes a new label you can put on yourself.

“What we do is we accumulate all these habits. We put them in the bundle of identity, ego, ourselves, and then we get attached to that. I’m Shane. This is the way I am. I’m Naval. This is the way I am.”

But that’s really all habits, goals, accomplishments are: Labels. The more proudly you wear them, the less you’ll be able to take them off when you need to.

Just because I’m introverted does not mean I can’t walk into any room and be the life of the party. I’m writing right now, but that doesn’t make me a writer for life. The more pieces you add to your identity construct, the easier it breaks. Identity is fragile. You aren’t.

If you put down the labeling machine, you can stay flexible and change your mind at a moment’s notice, if that’s the best option.

Who was this man? We’ll never really know.

5. Leaving a Legacy

Now, you might say “But who I am is important, because that’s what the world will remember me for.” It’s the ultimate reward for constantly growing, for shaping an identity worth admiring: legacy.

How ironic. We jump through all these hoops to get more control, to focus more on the knobs we can turn, to shape who we are, only to try and shoot for something that is completely out of our grasp. Isn’t that absurd?

No one cared about you for thousands of years before you were around and no one will thousands of years after you die. What difference does it make whether your book sells for 10 or 50 or 0 more years after you’re dead?

Imagine you couldn’t leave a legacy. Wouldn’t that allow you to focus more on what we need right here, right now? The only thing that’s guaranteed is the time that you’re here. Nothing that happened before, nothing that’ll happen after.

Maybe not even that.

6. Freedom Equals Happiness

If we’re not hustling for legacy, we’re hustling for freedom. Freedom to spend our time where we like, how we like, with whom we like. I’m guilty of this. We think all we need is money, health, and maximum choice, and then we’re free.

But maybe that’s just another self-constructed prison. Maybe there are diminishing returns to freedom. As Barry Schwartz explained, we experience anticipated regret whenever our pool of options grows too big. It hurts us even more than regretting a bad decision:

“Anticipated regret is in many ways worse, because it will produce not just dissatisfaction but paralysis. If someone asks herself how it would feel to buy this house only to discover a better one next week, she probably won’t buy this house.”

So mostly, we’re looking for the wrong kind of freedom. In the long run, travel won’t make you happier. First class seats won’t make you happier. An empty schedule won’t make you happier. But maybe not desiring those things will.

Naval says that’s because we can’t find true freedom on the outside:

“My old definition was ‘freedom to’, freedom to do anything I want. Freedom to do whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like. Now I would say that the freedom that I’m looking for is internal freedom.

It’s ‘freedom from.’ It’s freedom from reaction. It’s freedom from feeling angry. It’s freedom from being sad. It’s freedom from being forced to do things. I’m looking for freedom from internally and externally, whereas before I was looking for freedom to.”

You could be a wage slave or an actual slave, but still find happiness. Don’t put your discontent on a lack of external freedom. But maybe, even getting rid of that inner resistance is a mirage.

7. Happiness Is the End Game

I don’t like the word ‘happiness’ because it conjures such a distorted image. We connect it with excitement, with passion, with euphoria. It’s a state, a feeling, ‘happy,’ but turning it into a noun makes it feel permanent.

We now think we can reach a stage where we’re always in that state and that’s just not true, nor would we want to live that way.

“Happiness to me is mainly not suffering, not desiring, not thinking too much about the future or the past, really embracing the present moment and the reality of what is, the way it is. Nature has no concept of happiness or unhappiness. To a tree, there is no right or wrong. There is no good or bad.

Nature follows unbroken mathematical laws and a chain of cause and effect from the big bang to now. Everything is perfect exactly the way it is. It is only in our particular minds that we’re unhappy or not happy and things are perfect or imperfect because of what we desire.”

I think we should replace ‘happiness’ with ‘balance.’ It’s not about constant positivity, but about cultivating the belief that nothing’s missing. And there’s never anything missing.

The Only Thing That Remains

Sir Ken Robinson once explained why all children are geniuses:

“Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

“Everything popular is wrong.” No wonder we love kids. They misstep all the time, but they do it with bravado. What’s genius about this is not that they come up with so much original stuff. It’s that their default behavior remains the same in all of life’s situations: be true to yourself, whoever that is in any given moment.

What you learn, who you’re with, how fast you’re going, what people know you for, who will remember you, how free you are, and even whether you’re happy, none of these things matter.

What does is the one thing no one can ever take away from you: You are. Right here, right now. And it’ll always be this way.

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Move Slower: How To Deal With the Fastness of Life

In investing, there’s this idea of a backdoor play.

For example, in 2014, Facebook announced it was going to use satellites, drones, and lasers, to bring the internet to the unconnected. Now, instead of buying Facebook stock and hoping they would succeed, you could’ve tried to figure out who they’d get the equipment from and buy their stock. Because even if Facebook failed, they’d purchase a lot of parts in the process.

In that sense, one of the best backdoor plays on cryptocurrencies must have been Twitter. The stock is up 100% year to date, partly because the platform dominates the crypto discussion.

While there is a lot of noise around this heated topic, a few clear voices stand out. Like Luke Martin, who’s amassed close to 150,000 followers in less than 8 months. One of Luke’s core ideas is to move slower with your investments.

Since he brought it up again and again and again, the phrase started popping up in my head. Not just when considering investments, but all the time. As it turns out, moving slower is a great philosophy in all walks of life.

Elephants at Work

I’ve been approached a few times about how I remember the material for my college exams so quickly. I don’t. I try to memorize it just once, but properly. Most of our classes come with anywhere from 200–1000 slides. Sure, you can scroll through them, skim and highlight.

Or, you reflect each slide for 1–2 minutes, ask: “How can I say this in one sentence?” and create a 20-page summary. It takes a week to complete, but when you’re done, you have already read, filtered, written, and memorized most of what you need to know.

It’s not pretty, but it works.

Similarly, taking a day or two to review the scope of what you’ll do and which tools, information, or people you need to accomplish it goes a long way at work. Move slower.

The Best Way to Eat, Hands Down

Just like at work, most of our food culture, especially in the Western world, is designed to be fast. US waiters often ask whether you want the check right after you’re done swallowing the last bite. Come fast, eat fast food, go fast.

The next time you eat, try this: Take a bite, put down your fork and knife, then lay your hands flat on the table. You’ll instantly chew slower. It gives you time to think about what you’re eating, enjoy how it tastes, and you’ll need less to feel full. Move slower.

Wash Your Bowl

My friends make fun of me because I like doing the dishes. They think it’s a mundane, mindless activity. To me it’s the exact opposite. There’s a famous Zen story about it:

A monk told Joshu: “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
Joshu asked: “Have you eaten your rice porridge?”
The monk replied: “I have eaten.”
Joshu said: “Then you had better wash your bowl.”

At that moment the monk was enlightened.

After you’ve eaten, cleaning up is the next step. If you let it be, it can be a meditative, restorative practice. Just like any physical next step. You rinse and swirl as long as you need to. There’s no need to rush. Let life flow for a few minutes. Move slower.

Gut Decisions Twist the Stomach

When we’re young, we quickly jump into relationships of all kinds. The first person we sit down next to in high school, the first cute guy or girl we see in college, the first coworker we go to lunch with. As we get older we realize how scarce and valuable our time is, but that habit is hard to shake.

There’s nothing wrong with commitment, but you don’t have to commit to anyone or anything on the spot. Give your relationships time. Add an extra date, an extra meeting, an extra night at the gym. Move slower.

Glaciers vs. Rocks

If you pile up enough dirt, you can create your own hill, but mankind has yet to make an artificial mountain. There are so-called ‘sailing stones’ in the Nevada desert. They’re rocks that move at up to 5 meters per minute. Even the fastest glaciers, however, move at only 30 meters per day.

Source

For most fortunes that last, you’ll find the money has piled up with similarly declining velocity. Even if you get rich really fast, there’s no way to ‘stay rich quickly.’ Generally, delaying financial decisions often makes them obsolete or at least their conditions a lot more favorable.

If your TV breaks and you wait until Black Friday to buy a new one, you might realize by then you don’t need one at all. Instead of a mortgage today, get a raise in 6 months. When the market dips, wait to see if it dips some more. Move slower.

Why the Tortoise Beat the Hare

In 2014, rapper 50 Cent decided to accept Bitcoin for sales of his new album. Four years later, his 700 BTC stash has ballooned to over $5,000,000 in value. You might think of this as dumb luck, but is it really? Just because you’ve forgotten a good decision doesn’t make it bad.

This is what moving slow is about. Taking the time to think, make good choices, and then give fortune the time it needs to support them. The hare lost against the tortoise not because he expended too little effort, or because he took a break, but because he stopped moving altogether.

The one thing moving slow is not is an excuse to postpone choices indefinitely. Make decisions deliberately, but when you make them, do it with your whole heart and soul.

Move slower, but keep moving.

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How To Make Better Decisions

In 1970, economist George Akerlof published a paper called The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism, in which he described an idea that would keep researchers busy for decades: adverse selection.

The concept describes a type of market inefficiency. When buyers and sellers have different information about the goods or services being sold, whichever party knows more can dictate the outcome of the transaction.

For example, sellers of used cars know whether their vehicle is of good quality or breaks down every ten miles, (a so-called ‘lemon’) but potential buyers don’t. As a result, sellers overcharge. Akerlof dubbed this phenomenon ‘asymmetric information’ and predicted a market death spiral in which, theoretically, no one would want to buy a car.

Of course the real used car market is very much alive, however inefficient. While measures to mitigate information asymmetry have been introduced, such as extended guarantees, inspections, and certifications, people still get ripped off every day.

But why? Akerlof received the Nobel prize in economics for his discovery and today, almost 50 years later, every US state has its own variant of the ‘Lemon law’ to protect consumers. Yet, we still make bad decisions, not just in purchasing goods, but everywhere.

And we really have no excuse to.

Avoidance Is Expensive

There are two types of capitalism: the kind that solves real problems and the kind that peddles placebos. The latter thrives on information asymmetry. In fact, it’s the only reason it works.

While con artists and scammers have been around for millennia, they’ve had to be a lot more creative since the rise of the internet. The wide dissemination of information at no cost has shrunk the gap a lot. Or rather, it’s increased how much we can shrink it ourselves. What used to be mostly a game of luck has now become a game of effort, but we avoid it just the same.

Take this picture of a turtle, for example.

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? While it’s a fantastic way to elicit emotions and get you to daydream about your next vacation, you don’t know where I took it from. But you could find out, thanks to Google Image Search.

With some more effort, you could even determine what kind of camera was used, where it was taken, who the photographer was, and ask them for more details. The question is, if I used this picture to try and sell you an all-inclusive trip to the Bahamas, would you?

Most of us don’t. We’re happy to comply when others prompt us to make decisions with as little context as possible. We form opinions based on headlines, pass judgements after reading tweets, and glance at pictures without demanding the frame they came in.

That’s what information asymmetry is at its core. A lack of context. It’s baffling how often we choose to decide under its influence, despite having all the tools we need to fight it.

Here are three that help you define, set, and leverage context to improve every single one of your decisions.

1. Knowing What You Know

One of Warren Buffett’s most popular mental models is the circle of competence. In a 2017 documentary, he describes it as follows:

“I can look at a thousand different companies and I don’t have to be right on every one of them, or even 50 of them. So I can pick the ball I want to hit. The trick in investing is just to sit there and watch pitch after pitch go by and wait for the one right in your sweet spot. And the people who are yelling ‘swing, you bum,’ ignore them.”

Knowing what you know increases the probability of your assumptions being right and thus helps you decide with confidence. Whatever lies outside of that circle is nothing but smoke and mirrors, but you can afford to ignore it, because you’re not going to take shots in the dark.

What’s remarkable is how small a circle we can get away with, yet still be successful. You could specialize in producing, selling, or investing only in tetracycline antibiotics, and that’d be more than enough to keep you busy for a lifetime.

To find the border of that circle early, we must walk to the edge, peer over, and maybe run a few low-risk experiments. But once we’ve set the perimeter, we can build a huge web of context inside it, while ignoring all the noise on the outside.

2. Knowing What You Don’t Know

In video games, it’s very common for the map of the terrain to be unknown when you start playing. Only as you move around do you uncover patches of the area, which then slowly begin to form a complete picture.

No matter how many black spots are left, keeping track of where they are allows you to shine your proverbial flashlight on them later, but not go there before you’re ready. There’s lots of smoke outside your circle, but that too is finite, at least for any particular decision. Knowing that boundary has value.

The more you optimize your life, the less you’ll have to step outside your circle of competence, but sometimes, life forces you to. It’s impossible to pick the perfect job when completely switching career fields, but being aware of how little you know, you can consult with experts, steer clear of big responsibilities at first, and prioritize what you’ll learn.

Even saying “I don’t know” out loud provides relief, makes it easier for others to empathize, and is more often seen as a sign of professionalism, rather than weakness.

3. Knowing How Much You Need To Know

Once you’ve determined where your wisdom ends and how much there is to attain for your specific decision altogether, another question presents itself, and it makes all the difference: how big is the gap between the two?

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell placed the ideal amount of information needed to make an educated decision between 40% and 70% of the total that’s available. Ideally, he says, you’d always keep waiting for more context at less than 40%, but never procrastinate after you’ve got 70% of the data.

No two situations are alike and this isn’t a hard rule, but thinking about whether you can push the edges of your circle of competence, and how far you’d have to drive them to avoid complete failure, is worth your while.

For example, if a stranger passes you in the street and doesn’t return your smile, your gut might tell you “this person’s arrogant.” However, armed with nothing but their appearance, you clearly have less information than you need to make that call.

Similarly, spending two whole afternoons to decide which out of three $50 backpacks you buy might be overdoing it, especially if you make $50/hr or more.

These are oversimplified, but the principle stands. Don’t let perceived urgency pressure you into sub-par decisions. Ask, search, and wait for what you need to pick not just an option that will do, but the option that’ll do best in your circumstances.

The Diet of the Wise

When Warren Buffett first took an interest in financial markets, there was no internet, yet he chose to fight information asymmetry regardless. It surely must have been an uphill battle, reading all those books, complicated financial reports, and whatever else he could get his hands on.

Yet here we are, history’s entire knowledge at our fingertips, often failing to google, go beyond the headline, or read the blurb of a book, let alone the whole thing. We’re too lazy to read and too busy to think, when that’s the diet of the wise. Better yet, it’s close to free.

In a fully connected world, information is only as asymmetric as you allow it to be. You have all the tools you need. Use them to build context. Avoid environments that force your hand. Know what you don’t know. Resist the temptation to move too quickly.

If your good decisions compound, maybe we’ll read about you someday.

How Should 20-Somethings Spend Their Time?

One day, you will wake up and be 75 years old. It happens to all of us. We blink and life passes. The question is whether it passes us by.

When you do get up on that fateful morning, look in the mirror, and realize you’re not happy, or that you’ve wasted too much time, it’ll be because right now, you didn’t properly answer life’s three big questions.

1. What Do I Want My Normal, Boring Days to Look Like?

How do you enjoy spending your time? What could you do for work that wouldn’t feel like work? How can you make money doing what you love? What can you learn to love?

When you’re 22, life feels like every day should be about fun. But if you only do the minimum to choose a career, you’ll end up choosing out of ten companies you applied to and the three you did internships for. That’s a very small sand box to play in.

So many people get sucked into a hole that they never get out of again, because they took their first job on a whim. Don’t take your first job on a whim.

2. Who Do I Want in My Life?

Who’s going to be your partner in crime? Where might you find them? Do you have five friends you can really count on? Or 250 whose last names you don’t know?

Everyone knows that thing about being the average of the five people around you, but very few people ask: Who are these five people? You can choose them.

You don’t have to settle for who lives in your dorm, who’s in your class, who you meet at the club, or whoever happens to just be available.

3. Where Do I Want to Live?

What city makes me feel at home? Does it make me better or worse? Is it distracting or empowering? Do I need nature and calm or urban restlessness?

I first visited Munich when I was 16 years old and it immediately felt like home. I returned again and again for longer periods of time, while comparing other options. Once it was clear I liked it best out of all cities in Germany, I moved here.

That was 10 years later, and I haven’t even left the country. Travel is all the rage right now, but most of us eventually want to settle, because it takes time to build a life. But it also takes time to figure out where you can settle.

Spend more time answering these questions. Take a year for each one. Or two.

These things don’t feel like they matter much now. That’s a mirage. Don’t wake up in 50 years and realize they’re what mattered the most.

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The Fastest Way to Become Smarter

Four monks decided to meditate silently without speaking for two weeks. They lit a candle as a symbol of their practice and began. By nightfall on the first day, the candle flickered and then went out.

The first monk said: “Oh, no! The candle is out.”

The second monk said: “We’re not supposed to talk!”

The third monk said: “Why must you two break the silence?”

The fourth monk laughed and said: “Ha! I’m the only one who didn’t speak.”


95% of all talking covers only two topics:

  • The person whose mouth is open.
  • Stuff that’s outside our control.

The first monk got distracted by an outside event and felt compelled to point it out. He could’ve just re-lit the candle.

The second monk reminded everyone of a rule that had already been broken. He could’ve just kept meditating.

The third monk vented his anger. He could’ve just stayed calm.

The fourth monk got carried away with his ego. He could’ve just enjoyed his success in silence.

What all four have in common is that they shared their thoughts without filtering them, none of which added anything to improve the situation. If there had been a fifth, wiser monk, here’s what he would have done: Remain silent and keep meditating.

In doing so, he would’ve shown each of the other four monks their shortcomings without a single word. The more you talk, the more likely you are to say something stupid. The less you talk, the more you can listen.

Listening leads to learning.

What’s more, when you’re not talking, you have time to observe the situation until you spot the moment when it’s actually important to say something. Only speak when what you say is likely to have a significant, positive impact, for wisdom is cultivated in silence.

The less you speak, the smarter you get. And, maybe not quite coincidentally, the smarter you get, the less you speak.

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Minimalism Will Not Make You Happier

I’ve been a minimalist since 2012. At first it wasn’t a choice. When I moved into my 60 sqft room on a US campus, there simply was no space, regardless of how much or how little I owned. So, for the first few weeks of the exchange program, I lived out of my suitcase.

Shortly after, I found The Minimalists and their 21-day journey. Josh helped his friend Ryan pack up all his stuff, as if he was moving, and then he only unpacked what he needed for three weeks. They learned that we don’t need all that much and that trashing, donating, and selling material possessions doesn’t hurt. To the contrary, it’s often liberating:

“Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around. Real freedom.”

From that moment on, I was hooked. “I want freedom,” I thought. And so, to this day, the places I’ve lived in all look somewhat like this:

Some say it’s clean, some say it’s boring, but for me, it’s just normal. Without a doubt, minimalism has added tremendously to my happiness over the years. But not in the way you’d think. It wasn’t the money I made from selling all the excess stuff, nor the money I saved from not buying more.

It wasn’t even the freedom from all the clutter.

Even that only gets you so far.

When Freedom Hurts

One of my favorite ways of learning is to watch people who are 2–5 years ahead of me. What challenges do they face? How do they deal with them? Then, I mentally prepare for their current and my future problems. It doesn’t matter if, when, or how I get there. As long as I’m prepared.

The most fascinating thing I’ve observed so far is what I call ‘the void. It’s the hole people fall into when they achieve financial freedom. Most people never get to the point where they can live indefinitely off the assets they’ve built, so all their lives they’re used to trading the majority of their time for money.

For the few who do, apparently, waking up one morning and realizing they don’t really have to work and don’t owe anyone their time isn’t exactly bliss. It’s scary. Part of the problem seems to be that the tools they used to get there were a means to an end. Once they reach that end and look back, it turns out the means weren’t all that meaningful. Nat Eliason explains:

“As long as I needed an income, it was easy to ignore that I wasn’t working on anything important, but once I stopped needing the money, I had to start asking myself more seriously if that was what I wanted to spend my time on.”

Sometimes, freedom hurts. Free or not, if you fall into the void, you have to claw your way back out. Minimalism is a bit like that. If you only do it so your house is empty, then you might not like what happens once you sit in that empty house.

Maybe that’s why the mega rich sometimes pile up cars, jets, houses, yachts, and lots of other stuff. To counteract the freedom they have. Because it’s too much.

The question, then, is not so much “how do I get more freedom?” It’s about what you’re going to do with that space once you have it.

Room to Think

At the start of the last semester, my roommate came back from his home town, where he’d already done a bit of studying. He wasn’t happy about returning to the study room, where we usually go during the day.

“It’s so narrow and crowded. Back home, our library is huge. If you go to the top floor, you can see the whole city. It has a lot of room. Room to think.”

Remembering all the libraries I’d been in, I agreed I too liked the ones with large, open spaces best, but I didn’t put two and two together. Now I know, it’s also why I like minimalism. Whether you look at a sparsely filled apartment, closet, or contact list, you’re always confronted with the same thing: lots of room.

Room to think.

“What can I do in here?” In my room, I’m limited to sleeping, reading, working, or watching a movie on my laptop. “Who’s the most important person I can call?” “What outfit does this event require?” These are good questions, but without room to ask them, we’ll never come up with good answers.

It’s not just that you can’t walk straight in a room full of clutter. You also can’t think straight.

That’s way more important than freedom.

Bigger Than Happiness

In an over 30-year-old comedy routine, George Carlin talks about our ridiculous obsession with collecting things:

“That’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff. That’s all your house is. Your house is just a place for your stuff. If you didn’t have so much god damn stuff, you wouldn’t need a house.”

Like all great comedy, his monologue is hilarious because it’s profoundly true. However, in this last sentence above, he and I disagree. A house with few items can have tremendous value, because it now offers room for lots of other things. Experiences, memories, but most of all room to think.

Who do you want to stick around in your house? Who shouldn’t come back? When you leave your house, what are you tending to? Is it really important?

Minimalism isn’t about being free like a bird, or at least, not just about that. Rather than providing a path to happiness, it creates the space you need to deal with life’s toughest challenges. Physical separation for mental reflection.

Subtracting stuff only matters if you add meaning, so maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of history’s greatest thinkers led neither very happy, nor very free lives. Like Epictetus, a slave immortalized for the clarity of his mind:

“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”

Something to think about. If you have room for it, that is.

What Is Stoicism? Cover

All You Need to Know About Stoicism in One Table

In a very personal TED talk, Tim Ferriss shares the story of his almost-suicide. Struggling with depression more than the average person, he says he’s spent a great deal of his life finding ways to improve emotional resilience.

The best tool he’s found so far also happens to be the source of his best business decisions, he claims: Stoicism.

Right after, he admits: “That sounds…boring.”

How could something that helped one person both prevent the worst kind of death and make millions be boring?

Yeah…how?

Right Time, Wrong Dress

I chose Latin as my second foreign language in high school when I was 13 years old. It turned out to be a great choice, not just because Latin holds the roots of many European languages, but because of the history education you get alongside those.

In a German book with the translated title Latin Is Dead, Long Live Latin!, author Wilfried Stroh notes:

“Let’s not forget Cicero, the self-made man who turned from humble beginnings to Consul of the Roman Republic. Understanding him and other ancient philosophers, like Lucretius, Seneca, Augustus, and of course poets and historians, that’s why we study Latin, not in order to decorate ourselves with fancy quotes.”

Isn’t this the exact thing we’re trying to do today? Some of the most popular articles online try to help us understand people like Ray Dalio, Taylor Swift, and Elon Musk. Rome’s emperors, poets and philosophers are our modern day billionaires, singers, and hedge fund managers.

We want to decode their way of thinking, their philosophy, for our success. It is no coincidence, then, that many of the people who are building the future use the same, ‘old’ thinking that worked for our ancestors. Their brain software is Stoicism.

However, because of its origins, we don’t look at it that way. Since it’s hidden behind the intimidating curtains of education and history, most of us don’t look at it at all. We hear the right buzz words, like success, wisdom and living a good life, but then words like virtue, fortitude, and providence enter the picture, and we’d rather flip right back to Youtube.

It’s funny. Language is the perfect gateway to this incredible area of study, yet today it might also be the biggest obstacle. We’re scared to read texts written in Old English, let alone learn Latin or Greek, so we miss out.

Hence, when people like Tim call Stoicism “an operating system for thriving in high-stress environments; for making better decisions,” what they’re doing is translating to help us pick up the thread.

It’s always the right time for Stoicism, but it’s always wearing the wrong dress. To the outsider, it looks like a raincoat for a sunny day. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, you can find everything you need to know about Stoicism in a single table.

Three For Three

If only we dare to look just a little closer, we can instantly see that Stoicism is, above all, about simplicity — and a philosophy built around this idea can, by definition, not be complicated.

Take its location of origin, for example, the stoa, which you see in the titular image of this post. Nothing more than a walkway with a roof, it was a place for people to gather and exchange ideas, so the first Stoic, Zeno, just stood up and started talking.

Another one of modernity’s great translators, Ryan Holiday, therefore hits the nail on the head when he says:

“Stoicism is a philosophy designed for the masses, and if it has to be simplified a bit to reach the masses, so be it.”

He promptly delivers on said promise at the end of The Daily Stoic, a collection of quotes from famous Stoics, with the following table:

Simplified a bit from the source.

It contains everything you need to know. Everything. Let’s break it down, starting with the labels.

The blue, left column contains, bottom to top, the three parts of the self, which determine how you navigate your life.

  1. First, you perceive the world and its events, which prompts you to desire certain outcomes while wanting to avoid others.
  2. Second, those two prompt you to want to act in certain ways, while refusing to do other things.
  3. Third, whether your will allows or rejects any given impulse determines what you’ll actually end up doing.

The idea is that the better you get at perceiving the world, the faster you become at cataloguing impulses, which, in turn, makes it easier to give in to the right ones and block the rest.

While Ryan described these three elements extensively in The Obstacle Is The Way, the main takeaway here is that everything — everything — starts with perception.

Moving to the green, top row, left to right, we see the Stoics’ three disciplines that shape our perception, action and will.

  1. First, we must study and learn more about the world and our place in it. Which events can we influence? What’s best for the common good? And, most importantly, what is true?
  2. Second, this learning enables us to practice certain behaviors and character traits, like duty, taking initiative and good judgment.
  3. Lastly, by practicing these things we receive excellent training in the highest goods of the Stoics: discipline, justice, courage, and wisdom.

Once again, while this is technically a chain to work through, it is important to remember that all it takes for the rippling effect to kick in is to start studying.

One Question Is Enough

So far, we learned that good will and good action start with clear perception. Proper practice and training are the consequence of study. As a result, we get a singular starting point for becoming Stoics: studying our perception.

If the goal is to move up and to the right, towards wisdom, then the place to start is at the bottom left, in the realm of physics.

Therefore, you really only need to do one thing to become a Stoic: Learn to recognize what’s in your control and what’s not. Sure, there are specific habits to practice and more to find out, but if you intently focus on this one aspect, the rest will follow.

Epictetus, another famous Stoic, confirms:

“Of these areas, the chief and most urgent is the first which has to do with the passions, for strong emotions arise only when we fail in our desires and aversions.”

Hence, again and again, Stoicism comes down to a single question:

“What do I control here?”

Imagine you looked at every situation in life that way. The weather, annoying people, your mood, frustrations at work, unlucky, even disastrous events, it’d all spin around you like moons orbiting a planet — they’re there, but you don’t mind them. Effort, goodwill and hope, on the other hand, will be at an all-time high. After all, these are fully within your control.

That doesn’t sound boring at all, does it?

What Philosophy Is Really For

Further selling Stoicism to the audience, Tim says it “decreases emotional reactivity, which can be a superpower.” Given it could save a student from suicide as much as it could keep an NBA star from losing his temper, he claims the stakes are very, very high.

But there’s more to Stoicism. A bigger end game. Something…simpler.

Think back to your happiest moments in life. What went through your head, if anything? Who were you with? What did you do or had just achieved? Chances are, they were like listening to a Stoic talk on a sunny porch: simple.

Happiness is rarely the result of pulling off complex schemes. It’s raw, like the events that precede it. Kissing the love of your life, knocking out a great stretch of work, sitting in the grass, feeling the wind.

This is something even fewer people understand about Stoicism than its simplicity: It’s a philosophy of happiness.

It might be just a side effect, but it’s a profound one nonetheless. That’s why it’s no surprise that Tim ends his talk on a note sent to him by one of his most treasured mentors:

“I could not imagine a life more beautiful than that of a Stoic.” – Jerzy Gregorek