Human-size life

I was reminded of a post I’d shared 3 years ago from Dave Winer’s blog (one of the first regular blogs on the internet) called “Your human-size life.

Dave wrote the post to explain why the narrative we have on wealth in society – “Until you’re rich, you’re miserable. Once you’re rich, it’s all great!” – is deeply flawed. And, there is a quote from that post that has stuck with me over the years.

One of the biggest mistakes rich people make is to try to live larger than a single human being can. A mathematical impossibility. You can buy a big house, but you can only sleep in one bedroom at a time. You can own twenty fantastic cars, airplanes and yachts, but you can only be in one at a time. You can own an NBA team and a MLB team, and you get to sit in the nicest seat in the house at games, but you still can only sit in one seat. In other words, your humanity doesn’t increase just because your wealth did.

At the end of the day, we can only sleep in one bedroom, drive in one car, work on one desk, and be in one place. If we’re lucky, we get to do all of this while spending time with people we care about  and spending at least some portion of our day struggling to solve problems that matter.

Or, as Dave puts it –

“I think we all need a struggle, I think that’s where our creativity comes from. We need something that feels unattainable, but actually is not. But the struggle to rise above our humanity, that’s not going to happen for any of us. And the desire to have it robs your very human life of any value. 

Joe had it right. Live a gentle human-size life. Go for a walk in your middle-class neighborhood and run into a friend of a friend and share what you see, and influence their life for the better. That’s the kind of thing a human can do. And it is, imho, where happiness comes from. “

Long term games with long term people

Investor Naval Ravikant had a great tweet storm on “How to get rich” (his notes on extrinsic success) a few months back. He has since been publishing a great series expanding on the various ideas he tweeted about on his blog. And, yesterday’s post resonated deeply as it contains powerful life advice – “Play long term games with long term people.”

The summary –

(1) Pick an industry where you can play long-term games with long-term people. Long-term players make each other rich. Short-term players make themselves rich.

(2) All returns in life come from compound interest over many turns of long-term games—and they usually come at the end.

(3) People do right by each other when they know they’ll be around for the next turn of the game. And friction goes down, so you can do bigger and bigger things together.

I think the implication of his first point – “Long term players make other rich” – is key and extends well beyond money. When we are in relationships for the long term, we end up investing deeply in the richness of the lives of those around us. Thanks to the way compounding works, those investments pay off incredibly well the long term for everyone involved.

So, become someone who thinks and plays long term games. Then, find partners, friends, and colleagues who are in it with you. It is a powerful combination.

Career and life lessons from a business class upgrade

I was upgraded to business class on Emirates Airlines last month for a 4 hour leg of a 17 hour journey. It was funny how I immediately found myself wishing I had been upgraded for the longer leg. Ha. Human nature. It had been a while since I traveled business on a good airline and what I observed had some interesting implications on thinking about careers and life.

To begin with, I perceived a change in behavior from the staff the moment I got my upgrade at the counter. I felt I was suddenly treated with more respect and felt special. Of course, the comforts were great – a full recline bed on which you can sleep comfortably and a table on which you can get work done without feeling squished. But, what struck me was the visible difference in the way I was treated. This disappeared the moment I stepped back into Economy for the longer leg.

The principle here is signaling. I was treated as someone with perceived higher value simply because of my accidental/serendipitous business class tag. It is powerful because we, as humans, are always categorizing people and things. And, signaling, one way or the other, determines which buckets we fall into.

So, when it comes to planning careers, my thought process and advice are really boring – work hard, get into the best school you can get into, then work hard and get good grades (or do something really cool in the risk-free zone that is school), then get into the best job you can get into, do very well and you’ll find yourself with more options over time. The reason for this boring advice is that it reduces downside. Yes, we love talking about entrepreneurs who made billions by taking crazy risks. That is largely media fueled nonsense. Most smart entrepreneurs are actually masterful de-riskers – they only take the next risk when they feel they’ve minimized chances of failures. And, as far as drop outs who made billions go, the most storied of the lot – Bill Gates, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg – dropped out of Harvard and Stanford. I daresay they would have done fine even if things hadn’t worked out at Microsoft, Google and Facebook.

Fivethirtyeight had a sobering article titled “Rich Kids Stay Rich, Poor Kids Stay Poor” presenting results from a research study on how growing up in poverty affects kids. One of the charts in the article was –

career, wealth

Most charts told a similar story – folks who grew up in wealthy families remained wealthy as adults.The article underlines just how hard social mobility is. And, if these were the results in the US (the land of opportunity), I can only imagine what similar studies would unearth elsewhere.

My hypothesis is that the principle that underlies all of this is, again, signaling. Do well early and you reduce downside for the rest of your careers. Once you’ve reduced that downside, you are well placed to take risks to increase upside. That isn’t to say your chances are low otherwise. But, it is also no coincidence that you have an absurd number of risk takers in places like the Silicon Valley. The truth is that places like the Silicon Valley both place a premium on failure and encourage risk taking once you’ve had a stint at a successful tech firm. So, in some ways, you’re probably only increasing your career capital. Sure, you will always be able to point to many who “made it” without following this principle. But, I could say with a good degree of confidence that the many are a small proportion of the “many others” who fell by the wayside without a Fortune cover story.

The article and data also goes to show how fortunate you are if you won the genetic lottery and were born into the right family. If you are in those top percentiles, maybe this data ought to be a wake up call to stop complaining about all the things that go wrong and to use all that privilege you have to leave the world better than you found it.