Everyone should be more like James Altucher

Everyone should be more like James Altucher

I decided to email someone I admire. I found James Altucher‘s blog a couple of months ago and have since devoured pretty much everything he’s written. He’s made (and lost) a ton of money, and has some incredible stories to tell. His best post is How to be the luckiest guy on the planet and he’s also just self-published a book of the same title, which you can and should download for free. Then read all his other stuff.

Here is the exact email I sent to him, and his exact response. Note: I mean every word I say in my email.

Me to James:

James,

I found your blog a couple of months ago. It’s absolutely fantastic. I really admire the honesty you display in your writing.

I wanted to ask you a couple of things. I’m about to graduate with a BS Economics degree from Leeds University, UK. I don’t have the best grades in the world, but I’m pretty confident, I’m smart, and I’m ambitious.

Do you have any advice for someone who is just graduating and doesn’t want to go into a traditional graduate scheme-type role? I genuinely don’t know what I want to do with my life, apart from start a company at some point. I’d love to work for a startup or something, but I have very few technical skills, so it might be a bit harder for me to get involved in that sort of area.

I really appreciate any advice you can give me. And I’ve bookmarked your ebook online – the daily practice advice is brilliant. I’ve only been doing it for a couple of weeks and already I feel better about the future.

Thanks James
Andy

And his response:

There’s some good news and some bad news.

The bad news is you’re stressed. How come? You’re 22 or so. You have about 10-20 years before you need to figure out a career. There’s no reason to get rich so fast (what would you do with the money except guarantee your future?). I’m not saying “how come” flippantly, by the way. Are your parents stressed about your future? Were they stressed about their own futures when you were younger? Is your girlfriend shaky? Your other friends? Not that you need an excuse to be stressed. Its reasonable at this stage also to wonder, “What’s next?”

What if nothing was next? What if you worked as a waiter for a year and took painting and photography classes for a year? Write a comic book script based on a spiderman and submit it to marvel comics? Work in a factory? Go to India for a year and study yoga (you would get in shape, feel spiritual, make great friends, see the world, etc) while giving English lessons and “getting by”. Like young people do.

Next level: find something your mildly interested in and work for a mega corporation. What’s your favorite TV show? Who produces it. Work for them. They are obviously good at what they do. Its never bad to be the janitor at the best company in the world. You learn how to clean up their shit. Which makes you CEO-level for just about any other company. This is really true.

Next level: startup world. You’re obviously self-motivated and good at sales (you wrote to me. I’m responding. I got 1500 emails today). Go to any startup and tell them you’ll work for free until you get them a $1000 in revenues. And then go out and get them revenues. This focuses you on finding a good startup that you know you can sell their product. You become like a venture capitalist of sorts.

Next level: start your own company. I don’t like that. Maybe you need experience and something you’re a bit more passionate about.

Keep with the daily practice. Start stretching that idea muscle out a little bit more. Make lists of the craziest things you can do. I wasted the ages of 22-26. Or did I? In other words, nothing you do those years will be that important for later on. Meaning, you can explore yourself, make sure you have the right values and know how to be happy, make sure your brain is as big as possible (the mental practices), make sure you know how to save lives by surrending to whatever force you can help.

These are more important than finding the exact right job now. I made the equivalent of 14k euros a year from the ages of 22-26. I lived like a king because I lived cheap. Then I made more and it ruined my life.

This might’ve been a bit of a ramble. But there might be a few things here useful. Thanks for writing me and I’m glad you are doing the daily practice. Please keep in touch and let me know what happens next?

– James

I’m flattered he even replied. His email made me smile. I hope I can take him out for a drink one day.

EDIT: We sent another couple of emails back and forth. Here they are:

Me to him:

James,

Thanks, I really appreciate the advice. I think the reason I’m feeling stressed right now is that there seems to be pressure from my parents and my credit card company to get a job and start earning money RIGHT NOW or the world will end. I guess I feel like I’ll be a failure if I’m not earning good money by the time I’m 25, which I know is ridiculous. I feel like I have the ability to do great things and that I’ll be wasting it if I take even six months of my life to do nothing. I feel like I have to do something impressive right away, or else the chance will be gone forever.

Does that sound stupid?

Andy

And his reply:

It doesn’t sound stupid at all. But it does sound like something that might not be the best way to be happy right now. A lot of that pressure is external. I was really a miserable failure at 25. And then again at 32.
Why don’t you take a day off from parents and credit card companies. Make lists of what you love. It might be hard at first. You’ve been a bit programmed to think about things you don’t love. What would you if everyone was dead and you were free from the stresses you have? Are you worried you won’t meet girls if you dont have a great job? What if you were a famous painter? Or a juggler? You dont have to do nothing for six months. What if you stopped all alcohol and worked out for six months. Become a hugely healthy person? WOuld that be a waste?
Parents are hard. Mine were disappointed in me. but it worked out in the end. Sort of. Because in the end I had to stop caring what they think (although I still do a little with my mom). The only thing you really need to do righ tnow is survive, save a life every day, and continue that daily practice so you can be a superhero. I mean it.

Life advice from Will Smith

The two keys to life: running and reading.

When you’re running, and you’re out there and you’re running, there’s a little person that talks to you, and that little person says “Oh, I’m tired, my lung’s about to pop off, I’m so hurt, I’m so tired, there’s no way I can possibly continue.” And you want to quit, right? That person, if you learn how to defeat that person when you’re running, you will learn how to not quit when things get hard in your life.

Locus of control

In a class the other day, the lecturer was talking about common traits among successful entrepreneurs – risk-takers, creative types, driven to succeed.

One of them was locus of control. From wikipedia:

One’s “locus” can either be internal (meaning the person believes that they control their life) or external (meaning they believe that their environment, some higher power, or other people control their decisions and their life).

Not surprisingly, the theory is that successful entrepreneurs have a high internal locus of control.

This is something that’s talked about a lot in self-development literature, particularly with pickup artists. The other week I listened to an interview between a pickup artist and Ramit Sethi, discussing the crossovers between pickup and personal finance. They mentioned one key similarity – the mental barriers that stop people achieving their goals.

  • I could get that girl, if only I was better looking/in better shape/funnier/more charismatic
  • I would be saving more and investing, if only I earned more money/didn’t have all this debt/knew where to start

Similarly:

  • I can’t get a job/start a company now because the market is tough/I don’t have enough experience/it’s a really competitive area

How many times have you heard people say things like this? All these thought processes have one thing in common – an external locus of control. “I could do X if Y happened (but I can’t control Y).” But let’s break these thought processes.

Society generally holds men to much lower standards of looks than women – any guy with a decent haircut, workout regime and some new clothes looks pretty good (and in any case, looks are much less important to women than to men). Anyone can go running 3 times a week and buy a cheap set of weights to use at home. Toastmasters helps tons of people become more confident, as do improv classes, not to mention that you could always just, you know, talk to more women when you get the chance. There are people who save money on tiny salaries, by forgoing the things we often see as essential, like an iPhone and eating out all the time. There’s a ton of books and blogs out there to help you get started managing your money. Groupon, the fastest growing company ever, was founded 18 months ago, in the midst of the biggest recession for 30 years. And tons of people still get hired in a down market, they just have to be better at what they do.

In a sense, it’s liberating when you start framing things with an internal locus of control – you actually can do pretty much anything, if you really want to.

It’s also terrifying. All those excuses you’ve ever told yourself, the assumptions you’ve made, you start to see them for what they truly are – irrelevant. And then the only thing left is you.

Update on Erin Pavlina, and why I disagree with what she does so much

I thought I should do another post about Erin Pavlina, because the earlier post I wrote about her was a little stream-of-consciousness, but despite that it’s the third result in google for a search for “Erin Pavlina”, so I feel I should justify my comments a little. (It also annoys me that my blog is higher in a google search for her name than for mine, but whatever).

Note: if you want to read more material on psychology, decision-making, rationality, and becoming a top performer, you should sign up to my email newsletter. You’ll get an email every week with all the interesting stuff I’ve read or written that week.

My email address is…

On the earlier post I received two incredibly contrasting comments. The first was this one from Sue:

Hi, I am totally mortified to admit that it is clearly me, not Erin, who is the crazy person. Because Erin has $500 of my money and I am still wincing from the pain of being ripped-off by paying for one of her psychic readings. I wish I had done more research before I went through with it – the problem is that people paying psychics are vulnerable and really want to believe in this bs. Usually I am a rational person but I got totally duped by the false promises on her website. So I would be grateful if you would please publish this comment as a big warning to anyone thinking of buying a reading from this lady – DON’T DO IT!! It feels like rape.

And another from Ellie:

I have to say I have had two readings with Erin and both have been accurate and helpful (including making contact with deceased relatives Erin didn’t even know existed) – a far cry from what Sue refers to here.

So how could two people feel so differently about the same process? And why does that process cost up to $800 for just an hour of Erin’s time?

To demonstrate this, I will now do a psychic reading of you. Yes, you, the reader. It will be a long and detailed reading. I’ll show you how amazing a psychic I am, even though I’m not in the same room, and for some of you, not even in the same country. Here it goes. By the way, I”m assuming that you, like the majority of my readers, are in university or college, or have recently graduated – if not then email me about a private reading. It’s only $200, and I accept payment by PayPal and all major credit cards. So, without futher ado, here is my psychic reading of you.

You are a person prone to bouts of self-examination. This is in sharp contrast to a striking ability you have developed to appear very socially engaged, even the life and soul of the parrt; but in a way that only convinces others. You are all too aware of it being a facade.

This means that you will often be at a gathering and find yourself playing a part. While on the one hand you’ll be talkative and funny, you’ll be detaching yourself to the point where you will find yourself watching everything going on around you and feeling utterly unable to engage. You’ll play conversations back to yourself in your head and wonder what that person really meant when he said such-and-such – conversations that other people wouldn’t give a second thought to.

How have you learned to deal with this conflict? Through exercising control. You like to show a calm, self-assured fluid kind of stability (but because this is self-consciously created, it will create bouts of frustrated silliness and a delight in extremes, or at least a delight in being seen to be extreme). You most easily recognize this control in how you are with people around you. You have learned to protect yourself by keeping people at bay. Because in the past you have learned to be disappointed by people (and because there were issues with you adjusting to your sexuality), you instinctively keep people at arms’ length, until you decide they are allowed over that magic line into your group of close friends. However, once across that line, the problem is that an emotional dependency kicks in which leaves you feeling very hurt or rejected if it appears that they have betrayed that status.

Because you are prone to self-examination, you will be aware of these traits. However, you are unusually able to examine even that self-examination, which means that you have become concerned about what the real you is. You have become all too aware of facades, of sides of yourself which you present to the world, and you wonder if you have lost touch with the real and spontaneous you.

You are very creative, and have tried different avenues to utilize that ability. It may not be that you specifically, say, paint; it may be that your creativity shows itself in more subtle ways, but you will certainly find yourself having vivid and well-formed ideas which others will find hard to grasp. You set high standards for yourself, though, and in many ways are a bit of a perfectionist. The problem is, though, that it means you often don’t get stuff done, because you are frustrated by the idea of mediocrity and are wearied by the idea of starting something afresh. However, once your brain is engaged you’ll find yourself sailing. Very much this will likely lead to you having considered writing a novel or some such, but a fear that you won’t be able to achieve quite what you want stops you from getting on with it. But you have a real vision for things, which others fall short of. Particularly in your academic/college situation, you are currently fighting against restraints upon your desire to express yourself freely.

Your relationship with your parents (there is a suggestion that one is no longer around, or at least emotionally absent) is under some strain. You wish to remain fond of them but recent issues are causing frustration – from your side far more than theirs. In fact they seem unaware of your thoughts on the matter. Partly this is because there are ways in which you have been made to feel isolated from certain groups in the past – something of an outsider. Now what is happening is that you are taking that outsider role and defending it to the point of consciously avoiding being part of a group. This will serve you well in your creative and career pursuits. You have an enormous cynicism towards those who prefer to be part of a group or who exhibit any cliquey behaviour, and you always feel a pang of disappointment when you see your ‘close’ friends seeming to follow that route. Deep down it feels like rejection.

However, for all that introspection, you have developed a sensational, dry sense of humour that makes connections quickly and wittily and will leave you making jokes that go right over the heads of others. You delight in it so much that you’ll often rehearse jokes or amusing voices to yourself in order to ‘spontaneously’ impress others with them. But this is a healthy desire to impress, and although you hate catching yourself at it, it’s nothing to be so worried about.

There’s also an odd feeling that you should have been born in a different century. You might be able to make more sense of that than I can.

There are some strong monetary shifts taking place at the moment. Both the recent past and what’s in store over the next few months represent quite a change.

You have links at the moment with people abroad, which are quite interesting, and will look to yield worthwhile results. You’re naturally a little disorganized. A look around your living space would show a box of photos, unorganized into albums, out-of-date medicines, broken items not thrown out, and notes to yourself which are significantly out of date. Something related to this is that you lack motivation. Because you’re resourceful and talented enough to be pretty successful when you put your mind to things, this encourages you to procrastinate and put them off. Equally, you’ve given up dreams a little easily when your mind flitted elsewhere. There are in your home signs of an excursion into playing a musical instrument, which you have since abandoned, or are finding yourself less interested in. (This may alternatively relate to poetry and creative writing you’ve briefly tried your hand at and left behind you.) You have a real capacity for deciding that such-and-such a thing (or so-and-so a person) will be the be all and end all of everything and be with you for ever. But you’d rather try and fail, and swing from one extreme to the other, than settle for the little that you see others content with.

Conclusion: It’s very interesting doing your reading, as you do present something of a  conundrum, which won’t surprise you. You are certainly bright, but unusually open to life’s possibilities – something not normally found among achieving people. I’d say you’d do well to be less self-absorbed, as it tends to distance you a little, and to relinquish some of the control you exercise when you present that stylized version of yourself to others. You could let people in a little more, but I am aware that there is a darkness you feel you should hide (much of this is in the personal/relationship/sexual area, and is related to a neediness which you don’t like).

You really have an appealing personality – genuinely. Many thanks for doing this, and for offering something far more substantial than most.

So how was that? Accurate? A load of nonsense? If you’re a normal, fairly intelligent young person, you will undoubtedly have found, like I did, that at least some of this applies to you. Yes, sometimes I can be a little self-absorbed. Yes, I tried to play the guitar and then got bored of it, and gave up. Yes, I’d like to think that I’d rather try and fail than settle for less. And like most people, I have “links” abroad.

But do you see the problem with this? Most of it is so general and generic, that if you really wanted to believe it, you could. If you really wanted to believe that I was psychic and performing an excellent reading of you, you could take the phrase “links abroad” to mean any number of things. Maybe you have relatives abroad, or colleagues from work, or  you recently went on holiday, or you’re just about to go on holiday, or that your girlfriend is half-swedish. It could literally apply to almost everyone, if they wanted it to.

Similarly, who hasn’t at one point in their life tried to play an instrument or some other creative exercise? Who isn’t a little disorganized sometimes? Who hasn’t felt a little odd or disconnected in a social situation before?

By now, you’ve probably worked out that I’m not a psychic. This reading was in fact copied from Derren Brown’s book Tricks of the Mind (which I’d highly recommend, by the way), and is an example of the Forer Experiment.

Forer administered a personality test to his students. Rather than scoring the tests and giving individual assessments, he gave all the students the exact same analysis copied from a newspaper astrology column. The students were then asked to evaluate the description on a scale of zero through five, with five being the most accurate. The average evaluation was 4.26. The experiment has been repeated hundreds of times since 1948, and the average remains about 4.2. The Forer effect shows that people tend to accept generalised descriptions of their personalities without realising that the same evaluation could apply to nearly anyone else, because people want the results to be true.

And do you see how someone could make this reading even more precise in person, with a number of probing questions? By saying things like “I’m getting an indication that you can be a creative person”, and guaging the person’s reaction, you can make it much more accurate. If they agree with you, you can go more along this line and say something like “yes, you like to express yourself creatively, through music or writing or something similar” which has every chance of being correct. If they don’t think they’re particularly creative you might say “well, not obviously, but you have a creative side of you that manifests itself in other ways. For example, you often come up with a solution to a problem that others don’t see”, or you could even say “well, you have a creative side that you’re not fulling embracing, which you need to do”. The possibilities are almost endless.

And to use these skills, as Erin does, to dupe people into thinking that they can contact their deceased relatives (for only $797.00 an hour!) is dishonest, exploitative, and disgusting. To offer someone false comfort about a terrible event in their lives, and charge them up the ass for doing so, is horrible.

Admittedly, it may not be that Erin Pavlina does this intentionally. Let’s look at the alternatives for what might be happening here:

  1. Erin uses cold-reading techniques to give the outward appearance of being a psychic medium, and all the content on her website and her blog is carefully constructed to uphold this appearance, as people will come to her already believing she is psychic, making her job much easier as a result, as they will mould what she says into something that fits their reality.
  2. Erin believes what she says, and thinks she is psychic, as do others. She is quite intuitive and can, for example, tell if things are bothering someone, and can be a comfort to them. She’s not psychic at all, but sometimes she gets lucky with the things she says.
  3. Erin can literally contact the dead, psychically read people, and everything she says is absolutely true.

Which do you think is more likely?

Erin Pavlina is a crazy person

I like to think that, generally speaking, I can be fairly objective and rational and think things through to their logical conclusion. I’d like to think that I choose any course of action or belief based on the evidence in front of me and a careful analysis of the facts.

Which is why this shit scares me. From Erin Pavlina’s blog post, What Happens When You Die (as if ANY person in the world has the authority to speak about this subject):

First we need to understand how we got here.  Your consciousness, your soul, your energy made a decision to incarnate into a human body so that you could have experiences that you can’t get in the ether.  You agreed and decided to take physical form to work on karmic issues, personal growth, or to help the planet evolve.  You chose your parents, planned some major life events, worked things out with some other souls who would also be around when you were, and got busy gettin’ born.  Then the veil was drawn over your memory so you could act out your life without knowing why you were there.

I’ve never heard anything so outlandish in my life. It’s suggesting that toast is made by a piece of bread choosing that it wants to be heated on both sides for a minute before being coated in delicious butter and a blob of marmalade. It’s fucking nuts.

Why do people convince themselves of these things? How does anyone come to such a ridiculous belief? What has happened in these people’s lives that they choose to believe this, with absolutely no evidence?

And why the hell is there a week-long waiting list to pay $500 for a phone reading with this person?

Some things really worry me. This is one of them.

Being familiar with the ideas

Anyone who’s seen my list of google reader subscriptions or my delicious account can tell that I spend a large portion of my time online. And while my parents may think that that’s a huge waste, I do spend at least some of my time trying to learn new things, new ideas and new concepts. A lot of what I know and what I consider my marketable knowledge, I learned online (either directly from wikipedia or blogs, or indirectly from being told what books to read etc).

One of these books that I’m currently reading is The Long Tail (I know, I’m late to the party), which I was reading on Ryan’s recommendation:

There is not much that needs to be said about this book other than it defines current net economics. There’s the head of the tail which is the stuff you find in Borders, and the tail, which is the infinite inventory on Amazon. You need to be familiar with this theory.

That’s a fair point, but it made me think – what ideas or theories should people be familiar with?

I could think of another two:

What others are there? What ideas should young, smart and ambitious people know to help them succeed?