A few reasonable observations

Before we get to our regular programming, here are a few things on my mind:

  • If you are looking to build a career, the real money is not building the actual career but teaching people how to. From trading to self-help, the total addressable market (TAM) for trainers that can teach wannabe grifters—sorry, I mean trainers—is yuge.
  • Be careful when wishing someone dead; with COVID back again, your wish might just come true.
  • There’s an epidemic of active laziness. People go all the way to the gym to lift weights and take substances until they look like embryos that were dipped in a vat of industrial sludge, but still take the gym lift instead of the stairs
  • 2024 will be a stock picker’s after a long time, excluding 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019…
  • Sell-side research is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) for financial services.
  • This new year, don’t fall for the propaganda of big fitness, big nutrition, big health, and big bariatrics—just take Ozempic.
  • AI will change everything, dude. Ok, let me kill myself.

In praise of doing random things

We all end up in situations where people, both young and old, come and ask for advice. I can think of very few situations that are as uncomfortable as people older than you asking for advice. In a relative sense, being in situations where people younger than you ask for your advice is better than being in situations where people older than you ask for advice. What advice do you give to people older than you? They not only have more hair on them, but  they’ve seen more than you. 

When you are young, you tend to blurt out random shit because you’re dumb. As you get older, you learn that everything is 50 shades of gray, and you learn to think before you speak. While the ability to see the nuance and complexity in everything saves you a lot of grief in life, it is ill-suited for situations where people ask for advice.

When people ask for advice, they want a clear-cut answer. But if you are older and a little wiser, your answer should and will be some version of you don’t know, or it depends. You have to say you don’t know because you probably haven’t done anything of note in life and just got lucky to be where you are. But if you say that you have no clue about anything, you’re in bigger trouble. People say, “Wah, how humble you are, bro.” Randomness and luck = humility. Little do people know that you are actually telling the truth, and on top of that, you have a debilitating and raging impostor syndrome wreaking havoc like a category five hurricane in your head.

The problem is that the last thing people looking for advice wanna hear is I don’t know, or it depends. Whenever you say something nonspecific, you almost always come off looking like the metaphorical male reproductive organ or the hind part of the human abdomen. But, if you think about it, there’s no good or bad advice because everything is context-dependent, and you almost never have all the context. You can always disguise generalized principles of a good life as advice, like working hard, being consistent, and being curious, but that’s not what most people are looking for. They want specific answers. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes ever:

There really shouldn’t be such a thing as bad advice. It’s all just perspective. But because we mistake pencil sketches for indelible ink, we get into all sorts of unnecessary problems. This starts out as a language problem and manifests as an error in reality modeling. In this view, there’s no such thing as good advice, either. There’s just perspective. All of it is conditional; none of it is universal; some of it is occasionally useful. All advice is context-dependent to a degree you may not appreciate until you encounter another context. Sufficiently caveated advice is indistinguishable from chaos.

It’s like this: every piece of advice is a simplification. Every simplification has imperfections. But to fully explain every single imperfection in a little bit of advice would take longer than a human lifetime. And it would take even longer to understand it. — Link

Aside: Make sure you follow Visa on Twitter.

In response to this tweet, someone responded:

Hm. I think I’d also claim “insufficiently caveated advice is indistinguishable from ignorant generalization.” On average, the most useful, non-obvious insights have some essential oddity and complexity but retain elegance. So maybe one should aim somewhere in between.

My staple advice for a long time was a version of Do what you like. When I was young, this sounded cool and romantic. I hadn’t realized that there’s sufficient vagueness to the advice that you can avoid looking like the proverbial reproductive organ. The problem is that when people reply, I’ve no idea what I like. You then do verbal and semantic gymnastics to not look like an idiot. I ended up in a situation where someone young asked me for some advice twice in the last couple of months, and I came away with the nagging feeling that I didn’t say anything helpful.

The reason I’m writing about this is because of a few things. The first is that I’m a comedy geek, as you know by now. The way I listen to podcasts is to subscribe to a bunch of shows, then listen to the episodes I like. I’ve never read Ryan Holiday’s books, but I subscribe to his podcast. Earlier this year, comedian Tom Segura was on his podcast, and I had added the episode to my playlist. I finally got around to listening to it last week, and the conversation didn’t disappoint. The first half revolves around the art of crafting a comedy act, career choices, and mistakes. The discussion about shaping a comedy special was really good and applies to writing as well. But it’s the conversation around building a career that got me thinking about giving advice.

The second was that a few weeks ago, some unfortunate souls asked me for advice, and the only thing I was comfortable saying was to do random things in life. The third thing was a smart kid yesterday said the kids these days in college have the philosophy of fuck around and find out. That’s a damn good way to live life. The only side effect is that you may catch some unwanted and unspeakable diseases, but I digress.

There were parts of the conversation where I was thinking, “Hmm, that’s good advice that I can give to others.” I hope I don’t get sued for copy-pasting long bits of transcripts, but I loved these parts of the conversations. If you notice, even though it’s unsaid, the subtext of the conversation about doing random things in life to figure out what you like. We aren’t born with a gene that’s encoded with our purpose in life. The only way to figure out what you want to do and what you like in this miserable life is to fuck around and find out—preferably without catching diseases. Tripping over and busting your face is the only way you’ll learn not to walk like a rapper.

Ryan Holiday: If you can go, “Hey, this is what I’m trying to accomplish here,” then it makes it easier to make decisions about including it or not including it. I think people are bad at this with life as a whole. They don’t know what they want their life to be like, what success is, so they just go, “Well, someone offered me a lot of money to do X,” or it’s unpleasant to do. Why, yeah? So, sometimes you do unpleasant things to get to a place you want to get, and sometimes you turn down lots of money or a cool opportunity because it gets you far away from where you want to go. But if you don’t have a sense of where you’re trying to end up, you’re just making these individual decisions, and you don’t actually have the perspective to know what the best choices.

Tom Segura: Yeah, you’re totally right, and it’s very hard to be able to see clearly all those things when you’re 25. I mean, at this age, I can look back and go, “Oh, I understand why someone is unaware or not yet there to make those decisions.”

Ryan Holiday: If you don’t have this sense of where you want to end up, you end up just taking things that are cool or exciting or where you’re getting some traction or momentum, but that’s getting you far away from where you ultimately want to end up.

Tom Segura: This leads me to this kind of thought for you, though, and maybe because you have an answer on this. I feel like I really knew that I want to do. I want to perform, right? I didn’t know I wanted to stand up at the time. I thought maybe I want to act, but I knew. I knew that. But what do you say to people? Because I imagine, and I’ve heard people be like, “I don’t know. I don’t know what I want to do.” Yeah, what do you tell them when they’re being like, “Yeah, you’re right. I don’t know where I want to end up.”

Ryan Holiday: Yeah, in Robert Greene’s Mastery, he talks about your sort of life’s task, like how do you find what that thing is? People go like, “What’s my passion?” He’s basically saying, and I think it’s true, it usually goes back to some point in your childhood or early teen years. You discovered this thing that lit you up, that got you excited, and then there was some part of you that said, “This is impractical. This is impossible. This is too hard,” and you turned away from that. It’s usually not that you don’t know what it is; it’s that you have decided that it can’t be something that you’ve already tried, you know what I mean?

Tom Segura: Your brain is almost blocking out, “Well, it’s obviously not photography.”

Ryan Holiday: Yes, but it’s photography. Like I knew I loved books; I wanted to be a writer. I had done this stuff to fund being a writer. It was like, “It’s time I got to go get serious about this thing,” and I ended up quitting and moving across the country maybe 6-8 months later.

Tom Segura: Here’s the thing, all those stories, right? Like, they sound insane. Now it doesn’t because you’re wildly successful.

Ryan Holiday: It worked out.

Tom Segura: But right, you tell somebody, “I quit this and I packed up,” and they’re like, “It’s fucking stupid.” So if you’re listening or watching, you’ve got to remember that it might look, it probably will look crazy or stupid to a lot of people for you to pursue the thing that you really want to do.

Ryan Holiday: I would say one way to handle that is just don’t fucking tell people. When people say it’s not going to work out for you, you feel that so deeply that it affects you, right? Like, I didn’t want people to be like, “You’re going to do that? You know how hard it is.” So I just did it quietly, and it wasn’t until I had done it that I talked about it, and I wasn’t susceptible to either judgment or ego or anything. I was just doing the thing.

I love the idea of doing random things with any sense of direction in life. This has been a big part of my life for a long time, and even though most of the things I’ve tried have gone nowhere, I lost nothing but gained a lot. I’ve met some amazing people and learned a ton of things that I otherwise wouldn’t have. Another way of saying do random things is to say have no goals. I learned this from Patrick O’Shaughnessy’s wonderful philosophy of growth without goals.

Now I just want to explore. That may mean blog posts, research papers, new investing strategies, letters, podcasts, long periods of nothing, or maybe another book. Who knows? Exploration is continuous, there is no end point. Focusing on exploration is very rewarding all the time. It may produce things that look like end points, like achievements, but those things are just byproducts.

It is in these woods that I’ve begun to teach my son (and will soon teach my daughter) this lesson: explore for the sake of exploration, without expectation. Discover essence in your surroundings and in yourself, free from external conditioning (stories) and expectations. Build from the inside out and bottom up. Great habits and practices make a great and successful life. Cultivate those and the rest will take care of itself.

This reminds me of a passage of conversation between Stephen Fry and John Cleese that I talked about in a previous post:

Stephen Fry: One of the things that always maddened me about self-help books is the ones that start off with goal orientation—setting yourself goals—and I think it’s the most dangerous and despicable inimical thing imaginable because I don’t know a human being who, when they reach a goal they’ve set themselves, isn’t dissatisfied.

John Cleese: Absolutely.

Stephen Fry: Always an anticlimax.

John Cleese: So many of the Nobel Prize winners get very depressed when they win the Nobel Prize.

Stephen Fry: I can imagine exactly, because what do they do next?

The cool kids even have a fancy phrase to describe doing random things: “surface area of luck.”

If there’s one thing I’ve discovered in recent years it’s this. The amount of serendipity that will occur in your life, your Luck Surface Area, is directly proportional to the degree to which you do something you’re passionate about combined with the total number of people to whom this is effectively communicated. It’s a simple concept, but an extremely powerful one because what it implies is that you can directly control the amount of luck you receive. In other words, you make your own luck.

This reminds me of a quote my boss loves and uses often:

“I have two basic rules about winning in trading as well as in life: 1. If you don’t bet, you can’t win. 2. If you lose all your chips, you can’t bet.” — Larry Hite

In the same vein, there was another brilliant quote that Ryan Holidays shared in the podcast:

“According to Seneca, the Greek word euthymia is one we should think of often: it is the sense of our own path and how to stay on it without getting distracted by all the others that intersect it. In other words, it’s not about beating the other guy. It’s not about having more than the others. It’s about being what you are, and being as good as possible at it, without succumbing to all the things that draw you away from it. It’s about going where you set out to go.”

I know nothing about the stoics, but these are some smart dudes. No wonder all of them have abs.

Oh, to try to try random things is a good new year’s resolution as well. Just try random things. Life might just surprise you.

A few good reads

Cells, Not DNA, Are The Master Architects Of Life (archive)

DNA is not destiny.

But without a cell, a genome doesn’t mean much. For creatures ranging from a virus to a human being, it is cells that give meaning to those sequences of nucleic acids by translating stretches of them into proteins. It is cells that use those proteins to take care of and repair themselves. Most importantly, it is cells that work with other cells to construct an organism. The cell decides which genes are used for what purposes and when, rather than being at the mercy of the genes, a feat on most magnificent display during the development of an embryo.

“Cells hold a creative potential that genes cannot dream of.”

Pair this with: These Cells Spark Electricity in the Brain. They’re Not Neurons

Investing’s Big Blindspot.

Being able to chant Mungerisms and Buffettisms on cue is one thing, but knowing how to use them to make money is a whole new thing. Brilliant piece by Tom Morgan.

Like most people, I was told that thinking from first principles is the way you understand anything. Rules come first. But CFT argues that “ill-structured” domains like investing are so variable that there are rarely any consistent first principles that apply to every situation. Reality is simply too messy. Instead, the right approach is to consume a vast number of case studies, in order to understand all the various ways principles may appear in the real world.

This approach is somewhat at odds with the blogs, threads, listicles and books that are focused on revealing the “10 universal principles of success.” Sure, these may exist, but they’re useless without understanding how to apply the principles- especially given the way the principles show up are always different. It’s about understanding the power of context. This is why you can’t get as rich as Warren and Charlie by following rules. Intelligence can quote Warren and Charlie, chapter and verse, but wisdom might actually help reproduce their results.

Sowing Anachronism: How to be Weird in Public, and Private (archive)

A thought-provoking post on the perils of over-reliance on technology and the attendant life of convenience. As we become enamored with the erotic comforts of technology, are we losing the good things in life? If you feel disenchanted by the modern era of technology, this is a wonderful blueprint on how to live a fulfilling life by rebelling against the false promise of technological convenience and comfort.

Our age is rare, in that we’ve thrown ourselves into a laboratory of new technologies that have not been tested through the careful sifting of history. Our children and teens are being subjected to a global experiment, whose early results are disturbing, yet with no sign, as yet, that Big Tech or our elected officials are seriously interested in slowing the experiment down.

Which is why many of us will choose to creatively resist with anachronistic action. Step two of the 3Rs, which we introduced in an earlier essay, is Remove: physically remove devices and other forms of technology from any places where we don’t want them. The next step, Return, happens more naturally. Free of the magnetic pull of our devices, we will instinctively start to look elsewhere for stimulation, connection, and meaning. Anachronistic actions can be a part of this return, whether reading older books or writing by quill, or perhaps restructuring our lives around an ancient cycle of prayers and devotions.

Pair this with:

Freeing Ourselves From The Clutches Of Big Tech (archive)

This is what I’ve been calling “comcom” — competitive compatibility. For most of modern history, this kind of guerrilla interoperability, achieved through reverse engineering, bots, scraping and other permissionless tactics, were the norm. But a growing thicket of “IP” laws creates severe legal jeopardy for these time-honored traditions. Just one of these IP rules — the “anti-circumvention” provision in Section 1201 of 1998’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act — provides for a five-year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine for anyone who bypasses “an effective means of access control.” And that’s for a first offense!

It’s Time to Dismantle the Technopoly (archive)

There’s a utilitarian logic to this approach. The impact of technologies on our well-being can be both significant and unpredictable. The technopoly mind-set holds that we should accept the positive impacts of new tools alongside the negative ones, hoping that, over time, the positives will outweigh the negatives. This optimism might prove justified, but techno-selectionists think that we can do better. If we aggressively repudiate the technologies that are clearly causing net harm, while continuing to embrace those that seem to be more beneficial, we can direct our techno-social evolution much more intentionally. Such attempts at curation—which can occur at every scale, from personal decisions to community norms and civic regulation—are unavoidably messy. Often, it’s necessary to forgo some positive developments in order to eliminate larger negative impacts. And curation can easily go wrong. What is widespread vaccine hesitancy, for example, if not a prominent example of techno-selectionism?

Where does the modern state come from? (archive)

This, Mr Allen and his co-authors say, is evidence that that the fist states were formed by farmers co-operating for economic reasons. A canal network would have been too large a cost for any to bear alone. But by spreading the cost, the construction was worth it for each. Such decisions were momentous. They represent some of the earliest examples of governments providing infrastructure in return for taxes, and thus the genesis of the earliest states.

Why the World Is on the Brink of Great Disorder (archive)

As we head into a new year, here’s a cheerful and jolly message about how we’re fucked by Ray Dalio. I wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

History shows that the painful seismic shifts part of the Big Cycle comes about when there is simultaneously 1) too much debt creation that leads to debt bubbles bursting and economic contractions which cause central banks to print a lot of money and buy debt, 2) big conflicts within countries due to big wealth and values conflicts made worse by the bad economic conditions, and 3) big international conflicts due to rising world powers challenging the existing world powers at a time of economic and internal political crises In doing this study, I also saw two other big forces that had big effects. They are:

  1. Acts of nature (droughts, floods, pandemics) including climate change.
  2. Learning leading to inventions of technologies that typically produced evolutionary advances in productivity and living standards —e.g., the First and Second Industrial Revolution, and computing/AI revolution.

Pair this with the following cheerful and uplifting posts:

2023 shows that economic growth does not always breed peace (archive)

A brutal takedown of the fantasy that economic development can cure all societal ills by Adam Tooze.

A Year in Crises (archive)

We’re buggered.

New Clues for What Will Happen When the Sun Eats the Earth (archive)

In the same vein, let’s fast forward the we’re buggered reality to it’s logical end: what happens when the sun around which the earth orbits dies? Well, the good news is that you won’t be around to find out, but the bad news is that earth might be turned into a planetary version of Domino’s cheese burst.

Go and try tripping a friend or a sibling. If they fall on their face and get angry, tell them you’re welcome because you learned the importance of being mindful, and pain is the best teacher.