Today is my 25th birthday, so I thought it would be fun to reflect on a few lessons I’ve (hopefully) learned this year. A “year-in-review” post with less of the “look how much money I made.”
There’s no real order here, and I kept it in a somewhat stream of consciousness style. So let’s just jump in.
This was part of the theme of one of my favorite articles I’ve written in the last year: Forget Commitment: Invest in Something. It also made appearances in Level 3 Thinking, and Lessons from 1 Year of Nomadic Passive Income.
Most of the great things this year came from deciding what I want to invest my time and energy in, instead of jumping around trying new things. A few examples:
Travel: I’m happier living in NYC with a stable schedule, investing in one city and my friends here than traveling around constantly and being nomadic.
Relationships: I’m happier investing in a relationship instead of avoiding commitment and feeling like I need to maximize relationship-optionality.
Writing: I’m enjoying writing more since I slowed down my publishing pace. I like having the time to invest in articles like Level 3 Thinking and Invest in Something instead of churning out a weekly post to hit a schedule.
Friends: I’m trying to get better at keeping in touch long-distance since I recognize that the friendships you invest in over years are better than constantly making new friends (though, those can become great too, given time and nurturing).
A few books helped me wrap my head around this idea of valuing investment were: Denial of Death, Finite and Infinite Games, 12 Rules for Life. But I think it’s best summed up by this line from Self-Reliance:
“Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.”
Sometimes, you have to hear the same idea a few times in a few different contexts to get in your head that it might apply to you. But I’m glad I’m thinking more about it now and trying to be more investment minded.
At the beginning of January, my girlfriend and I got a puppy. Her name is Pepperand she’s the cutest thing on four legs.
When we met her and were trying to decide if we wanted to get a puppy now, Cosette asked a great question (roughly rephrased below) that made the decision obvious:
“This will always be a scary decision… is there anything big in the future that would be different that would make it less scary?”
The question highlighted how our worries about getting her mostly came from some obscure fear of the unknown. We had been saying “later will be better” without any clear criteria for what exactly would be different later to make it better.
You can always come up with good reasons not to do something you’re unsure about, and it’s the first place our minds frequently go:
“I need more money saved up before I quit my job for this other project.”
“I need to date them for longer before I move in with them.”
“I need to visit a few more cities before I decide where to settle down.”
“I need to get better at writing before I start publishing online.”
“I need to do a ton of research before I get a puppy.”
But they’re excuses. You’ll never save enough money where you feel comfortable. You’ll never date them long enough to feel sure that moving in will go fine. You’ll never visit enough cities. You’ll never get good enough at writing. You’ll never do enough research.
We can use these “I need to do X before [big life decision]” type thoughts as what I called “brake lights” in the Level 3 Thinking article. Warnings that we’re getting into excuse territory, that we’re lying to ourselves to avoid some big scary life decision.
And when we see those kinds of brake lights, they’re probably a sign to just do whatever we’re avoiding. It’ll either go great and you’ll wish you’d done it sooner, or you’ll learn a valuable life lesson. Pussyfooting around waiting for the right time rarely does much good.
When I started Growth Machine in September, I was stressed out about getting our first few clients.
Then a couple months later, I was stressed about how many clients we had and the need to hire someone.
Then I hired someone great and was stressed about getting clients again to stay ahead of our burn.
Now we have a bunch of clients again and we’re reaching our capacity… you get the idea.
For anything we choose to care about, there will always be some stressful part. You’ll get into a fight with your partner. Your dog will get sick. Your client will fire you. Your boss will be a dick. Your site will get hacked. We can’t live without stressors (short of total apathy), so we have to decide what we care about enough to get stressed over.
I realized this over Christmas with Nat Chat. Booking guests was stressing me out and it was getting harder to balance that commitment with my work on Growth Machine and Made You Think. So I killed it. I didn’t care about it enough for it to be worth the mental energy. I’d rather use those “stress units” for another project that I’m more excited about.
Avoiding stress isn’t a good goal. Avoiding stress that you don’t choose is a good goal. But taking on stress is necessary to reach most goals in our life. Investment is important (Lesson 1) and part of investment is deciding what kind of stress you’re willing to let into your life.
Stress you choose is good. Stress forced upon you is bad.
I’ve noticed in the last year that professional work can fall, broadly, into one of two camps:
Impressing your peers, and impressing the masses.
In the first case, your work impresses people at a similar intellectual and socio-economic punching level as you. Jobs was impressed by Gates, and Gates impressed by Jobs. Nozick was impressed by Rawls, and Rawls by Nozick. Tupac was impressed by Biggie, and Biggie by Tupac. Sure, in these cases they were also “enemies,” but that animosity required a respect for each other’s’ work.
Then there’s another type of work, where you impress the masses, but you don’t impress your peers. These are the entrepreneurs & creators who do something that wins them the adoration of a huge group of fans, without earning respect from their peers for their work.
Why do some people focus on impressing the masses? Money, mostly. You can make much more by appealing to a million people than appealing to a thousand. And unfortunately, since so many writers and other artists need to make the money work in the beginning, they start with the mass-market sexy stuff in the hopes that they can work their way back to “the good stuff” later.
It’s rare that someone can simultaneously impress their peers and impress the masses, but it can be done.
A good example is Jordan Peterson. He’s managed to impress a huge swath of people with his arguments around religion, ethics, masculinity, philosophy, psychology, while also doing it in a way that earns him the respect of his peers.
But he had to impress his peers first. Peterson spent 20 years writing Maps of Meaning, for which he earned next to no mass-recognition. It wasn’t until he began to transmit his ideas down the intellectual hierarchy that he became popular.
His progression highlights the main challenge of the peers vs. masses choice. You can focus on impressing your peers now and impress the masses later, or you can impress the masses now. But you can’t transition a work from impressing followers to impressing peers. If you start at the mass appeal level, it will be extremely difficult to work back up.
The articles I write that my peers enjoy are much more rewarding than the ones that have more “mass appeal.” I think my best articles are ones like Decomplication, Level 3 Thinking, Invest in Something, Search to Social, Wiki Strategy, despite other articles getting more traffic.
For a while, this site needed to make money, so I had to think somewhat on the mass appeal level. But now that it doesn’t (thanks to other projects), I can focus more on the peer-level topics interesting to me, instead of just what gets searched for and clicked.
I disliked Facebook before, but after seeing it devolve into a cesspool of political circlejerking & argumentation over the last year (with the occasional adorable dog video thrown in) I’ve quit it entirely.
The biggest problem is a minority of hyper vocal far-left stay-at-home-internet-trolls who will pounce on anything that can be remotely construed as racism/sexism/anything-ism.
Because of these bigoteers, many perfectly reasonable people are afraid of sharing any opinions. Simple statements like “men and women are biologically different” could get a hot and bothered HR person calling for your firing. It’s easier to stay silent, especially if you have something to lose from public shaming.
We don’t want a world run by thought police, and the surest way to end up in that world is to surrender your right to disagree with people. So how do we fight this trend towards self-censorship? Have opinions. Any opinions. Literally any opinions at all. Have them, share them, and try to do it without being a dick.
The most intolerant 1% on the far left and far right are constantly at each other’s’ throats, but the 98% in the middle are normal people who want to be able to have a conversation. Most people are fairly reasonable and willing to talk about controversial topics, so long as it’s a discussion, not a fight, and no one is out to get them.
No one wants to start these conversations, though. If you’re in a group of six people, there’s a non-zero chance that one of the other five is going to bigoteer you the minute you open your mouth to share a less-politically-correct opinion, so it’s easier to say silent and laugh about how nice the weather is this winter. It’s like it’s already Spring!
So be the first mover. Have an opinion. Push back when someone says something you disagree with. Sure you’ll get into an argument sometimes, and sure some people will judge you, but that’s better than living in fear.
Seriously, quit putting it off and just get one. They’re the best.
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