I turned 24 this week and had a chance to pause and reflect on some of the learning I’ve been able to do over the last (almost) two and a half decades of my life. This is as much for me as it is for you, but I’m a pretty open person so why not put this up here?
We don’t actually want more stuff…
The desire to learn, to better ourselves, is one of the most fundamental driving forces in our lives. We think we want to get more stuff, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. When we get stuff we aren’t happy. What makes me happy is learning how to get that stuff in the first place, and feeling confident in my knowledge of duplicating my efforts to get the same result.
So the question shouldn’t be: what do I want to get - it should be: what do I want to learn to do?
I want to learn how to build something that can affect many people in a positive way. This is the broad stroke which I want to paint on the canvas of life. The brush I choose to use is technology because I have an analytical mind and I enjoy making technology work (it has both a coolness factor I can’t replicate, and the economics behind technological solutions are favorable to my goal of broad impact) Who knows what the painting will look like…
Fitting a mold
I was bullied a lot as a kid - mostly because I was overweight, socially awkward, and fit in better with adults than with other kids my age. The truth is that it affected my psyche to a point where I believed that I had to fit in to a certain mold in order to be happy. This resulted in me spending a bunch of my time trying to be what others wanted instead of who I really wanted to be. It was damaging, and I’ve spent a lot of time course correcting. But it was also hugely rewarding because it allowed me to gain an independence of thought and of action that has been very beneficial.
The lesson here is often mentioned but worth repeating: worry more about achieving your goals and less about how you appear in the eyes of others.
There is a big difference between fake and real confidence
Fake confidence comes from having other people tell you you’re right. Real confidence comes from inside you when you have a deeply held conviction about the nature of something in the universe.
I’ve had plenty of the former over the years because I spent too long seeking it out. Fake confidence is easy to get, just surround yourself with yes-men and pad your resume with achievements. The drawback in pursuing this kind of confidence is that you aren’t really sure what you believe.
Real confidence is hard to get because we are living in a time of overbroadcasted, half-baked opinions (just look at this blog post… :P). What I’ve learned here is that if you can build real confidence in something it will become a lot easier to act on that conviction without doubts and feel great about the choices you make.
But being honest with ourselves is often the hardest part of overcoming something. Do not confuse what you wish was true with what is really true. You have to stand for something, so figure out what you believe is true about the universe and start there.
True friends are few and far between
Real friendships are challenging to build and hard to come by. I have many friends and very few true friends I would call if I was stuck in a tight spot. The traits I’ve learned to value in good friends (and try to reciprocate to those I care about):
- deep candour and honesty even when the truth is hard to swallow
- the ability to listen instead of talk
- knowing how to put themselves in your (or other people’s) shoes
- a good sense of humour, especially about themselves
- camraderie, brotherhood, we-are-all-in-this-together-ness
The best way to get to know someone (friend, investor, potential business partner) is to find something really hard and do it together. Watch how they react to difficulties, unknowns. Do they dominate the conversation or sit back and listen? Do they have a “we” not “me” approach to problem solving? Are they honest with you even when it’s uncomfortable?
I’ve had the pleasure of having mostly great fortune in this area of my life. I hope to continue to find such wonderful people in my life, and will continue to give the same back.
Love is perplexing
Love is probably the most perplexing thing you might have the great fortune of stumbling upon in your lifetime. It will challenge your assumptions about who you are and what you value more than anything I have found to date. It’s also serendipitous and any attempt I’ve taken at rationalizing it has been unsuccesful. It’s the only thing I’ve found that defies definition.
Money = fuel
I’ve written this quote in a separate blog post because I really love it: “You should regard money as fuel for what you really want to do, not as a goal in and of itself. Money is like gas in the car—you need to pay attention or you’ll end up on the side of the road—but a well-lived life is not a tour of gas stations.” - O’Reilly
Look at guys like Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Why do you think all 3 of them are trying to start companies that can put people in space? I think it’s because they already know they can do the rest. It comes back to learning, they want to learn and see if they can do it. It’s clearly not about the money once you have enough of it.
Lean into what scares you
I’ve always been afraid of public speaking. I’m not sure why, it’s not a rational thing. I do fine in front of a room of 10 or 15 clients, but put me in front of 300 people and my heart is always beating a little too fast.
I’ve learned that signing up to do things that scare you can be hugely beneficial for two reasons; when you overcome them you feel an amazing rush, and putting yourself into a situation where you have to do them forces you to step up and get better.
Our brain’s emotional and automatic response to pain is to fight it or run away. The drawback here is that we can’t improve if we aren’t on the edge of our capabilities, far outside our comfort zone. Breaking through this instinct in order to actually get better is extremely important to personal growth. This is hard to do, but if you can make it a habit you will be better for it.
You can’t multitask
Stop trying to multitask, you are worse at everything when you don’t focus on something. This is something I learned (and am learning) the hard way because I have a natural propensity for taking on projects that interest me, and I’m curious enough about the universe that the list of things which interest me is pretty long.
There is a big body of research coming out saying that acquiring new knowledge is almost impossible when you focus on doing two things at once - if you’re interested, start with the Wikipedia article on it.
It’s easy to say “don’t multitask” - so let’s instead examine why we do it. For me, it’s simply worrying about the opportunity cost of a given thing - “if I’m doing this what am I not doing”. Because of the infinity of choice we have in our society I’ve learned that this type of thinking can kill you. The right course of action is to make a decision with the available information, know why you made it, and then put your head down and build stuff. If you feel you don’t know enough to make a good decision go out and get more information, but don’t stagnate. Decisions are progress.
Resillience: the ability to bounce back
“Sometimes life’s going to hit you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.” - SJ
Assuming that luck largely factors into the outcomes we seek (and this depends upon whether you have a deterministic or indeterministic view of the future - not that it changes my argument), and that we have a random distribution of luck in our lives, it’s inevitable that some times things just won’t work out the way we want them to. It’s important to have the ability to recognize this fact, and not let ourselves get bogged down in the cognitive biases that will derail us.
If you study people who have had a deep impact on our society you will discover that few (if any) of them got there easily. They heard a lot of NOs before they heard a YES. It’s our ability to deal effectively with rejection, failure, and doubt and continue to hold our convictions that will ultimately determine whether we can be succesful. In a system (life) where luck is the dominant variable the only rational thing to optimize for is volume, so hang in there.
“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Of course the scary part is that if we are wrong than they will say that we were stubborn instead of resillient :)
If you are interested in some of the cognitive biases that affect our brains and lead us down this path I’ve found two books hugely beneficial. Mental Traps and Thinking Fast and Slow. The latter is less of the “popular psychology” stuff and actually contains the majoriy of Daniel’s life of research. The former is a quicker and easier read.
I’m not sure I was born an entrepreneur, but I definitely became one.
Entrepreneurship is really quite simple. Find a problem people have and solve it the best. The rest will take care of itself. I’m not saying I’m good at it - but this really is all there is to it. If you can do this well, everything else will fall in to place. If you fail at this, all of the marketing, sales, engineering and PR in the world won’t save you in the long run.
I think an entrepreneur is someone who finds a problem in the world and fixes it instead of going to someone else and asking for a pay cheque and a to-do list. Notice that this is different from working with a group of others (some call it a company) to achieve the same goal. The difference is that you believe in it instead of just receiving some tasks.
If you want to “become” an entrepreneur just find a problem that frustrates you and figure out how to solve it. Whatever you do, don’t be an entrepreneur because it’s the sexy thing to do right now. Just be honest with yourself (see above).
You need to defrag your brain
You probably guessed by now that this blog post is as much for me as it is for you (well probably more for me). Writing is a great way for me to take the 20,000 foot view. I don’t think everyone should write, but I do think everyone needs a way to express the things that are in their brain. Some people get it by talking to friends, walking in nature, religion, whatever. I’ve found that the process of writing helps me defragment and organize my brain. It’s easy to get bogged down by cognitive biases if I don’t take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Writing is what helps me do this. Whatever your tool of choice is, I suggest you find one and make a habit of it. It has been instrumental for me.
The hardest part is managing your own head
All of this advice is easy to give and harder to take. We live all of our lives in our own heads and the biases, perceptions and “truths” that come with it. We are the sum of our collective experience and reflection, and because of that there are (and will always be) lots of blind spots. It’s accepting this fact; accepting our limitations and playing into our strengths that will ultimately yield the greatest rewards for us.
I hope you got something out of reading this, I definitely got a lot out of writing it. Keep learning, keep growing, keep building stuff the world needs, and keep looking for interesting things to explore.
Nosce te ipsum.