The value of curiosity

There are’t many attributes more important than curiosity.

I mean a deep, intense curiosity about how things work. How people tick. Why the world is how it is.

For example, the laptop I’m typing on, a MacBook Air: who designed it? What software do they use to design it? What training do you have to do to become the sort of person who designs laptops, anyway? Once it’s designed, how do they make it? What material is this? How has it changed from the first generation of this laptop?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I want to find out. More importantly, I want to be the type of person who wants to know more. I get intensely frustrated when I hear people say things like, “I’m not a numbers person,” or “I’m not good with technology.” These are self-limiting beliefs that should be replaced with phrases like “I like learning news things,” or “I get curious about topics I don’t understand.”

Knowledge compounds. Might as well get the ball rolling.

What’s next?

“You should change jobs every two years,” she told me.

Her rationale was that every job ran its course within two years. Six months to get good at the job, a year to smash it out of the park and do great work, and then another six months looking for your next opportunity.

It was the first time I’d heard anyone talk so deliberately and consciously about building a career. And it was definitely the first time I’d heard anyone suggest that, however long it took you to really get good at the job, you should spend the same amount of time looking for the next one.

But of course, you should always have one eye on the future. What sounds better: jumping at the first opportunity that comes your way? Or being mindful of what you are working towards, what you value, what you want your ideal life to look like, and then making conscious steps towards that?

Now you just have to figure out what it is that you actually want. And then you’ll know what to do next.

See the world as it really is

You don’t mean to over-react. You don’t mean to have biases. You don’t mean to judge prematurely, or sensationalise.

But you do. Because you’re human.

The superpower is to see past this. To, as Robert Greene says, develop the ability to see the world as it really is. Or as Hans Rosling says:

What do you need to hunt, capture and replace misconceptions? Data.

Hans Rosling, Factfulness

So, stop seeing things as you think they are, feel they are, or think they should be, and start seeing things as they actually are. This is hard, and requires work and patience. That’s OK–it means that most people won’t bother to do it, and that’s why it’ll give you an advantage.

You are the priority

It always sounds cruel and counter-intuitive. Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Yes, you should ignore even your own child, and save yourself first.

The reason being, of course, that if you don’t, then you’ll be unable to help anyone else anyway.

There are times in my life when I have been out of shape, sleep-deprived, lonely, bored and stressed, all at once. And I was undoubtedly a shitty person to be around.

The way out of it — and this is just what worked for me — is to put yourself first. To love yourself like your life depends on it.

Which for me means a few things:

  1. Eight hours of sleep, every night. Yes, this means you need to go to bed earlier. Netflix or your PS4 will still be there tomorrow (and so will your books). If you’re one of the very, very few people who can get by on less, then good luck to you (but you’re probably not, so just go the fuck to sleep).
  2. Delete Twitter and Instagram from your phone. At best they are a bit of a waste of time. At worst they are making you angry or miserable. You don’t need them on your phone. If you really like either of them, just use them on your laptop, but you don’t need it in your pocket at all hours of the day.
  3. Intermittent fasting plus paleo/slow carb diet. Skip breakfast. Eat chicken and salad for lunch (every day). Eat some combo of meat and veggies for dinner. Don’t drink alcohol, don’t eat sugar or refined carbs. If you want, take Saturday off from all of these rules.
  4. Regular weight training or intense exercise. I do Crossfit now, but I used to just lift weights, the specifics don’t matter. But you have to do something, at least 2-3x per week, preferably 4-5x. In the last few minutes of a hard workout, you’re not thinking about how your job sucks, or how that driver cut you off earlier, trust me. You’re only focusing on the hard work in front of you.
  5. Read. It can be the newspaper, erotic fiction, the Bible, or whatever business bestseller you just bought at the airport, I don’t mind. Just make regular, quiet reading time a habit.
  6. Be present with others. I don’t mean that you need to become a party animal or join a networking group, but you need regular social contact with real people, and you need to not stare at your phone the whole time you’re doing it. This can be with your spouse, partner, gym buddies (see: Crossfit again). 

When I veer away from these principles, I feel worse, and I am less help to everyone else in the world. When I stick to them–when I put my own oxygen mask on first–I am helping myself, and everyone else around me, just a little bit.

Are you delivering? Then everything else is secondary

Hedge fund superstars don’t wear suits.

They don’t need to. Their performance in their job is clear, measurable, and comparable to their peers.

  • Your job is to make money by trading.
  • Your firm, or your investors, know exactly how much money you made or lost in your trades.
  • Everyone knows the overall market performance, so it’s easy to see if you over- or under-performed against the market.

In such a situation, you have skin in the game. If you perform, you get rewarded, and if you don’t, you don’t. Signalling devices like fancy suits, looking busy in meetings, and delivering polished powerpoint presentations just aren’t relevant. You can do pretty much whatever you want, as long as you deliver.

In Sheelah Kolhatkar’s new book Black Edge, there’s a demonstration of this principle from hedge fund titan Stevie Cohen, early in his career:

“Every time I try to trade, Steve’s ahead of me,” the trader complained. “Mesa’s my best stock, and he’s killing me!”

Aizer confronted Cohen.

“Steve, you’re making so much money, and these guys are not doing as well,” he said. “Do you really need to trade Mesa?”

“Would the Yankees ask Mickey Mantle to bat eighth?” Cohen shot back. Aizer shrugged. It was hard to argue. Cohen was such a good producer that he became the exception to every rule.

Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street by Sheelah Kolhatkar

Cohen could ignore the conventions of the firm–letting other, less profitable traders make money on a stock like Mesa–because he produced so much for the firm. Most importantly, it was clear to his boss that Cohen produced more for the firm, because in trading it’s easy to see who is contributing and who isn’t.

So in a situation where your performance is clear and obvious, all that matters is results. Everything else is secondary.

What if your output isn’t clear?

Of course, the issue is that many of us work in functions like accounting, customer service, operations, HR, or marketing, where we don’t have a simple way to point to the results we produce. The output of our work is mixed up with everyone else’s. In such situations, we need to find a substitute for “delivering results”.

I’d argue that a good substitute is “making my boss’s life easier.” By which I mean that your boss:

  • trusts you to get the job done to a good standard;
  • can rely on you to hit deadlines reliably;
  • isn’t surprised or caught out by anything you do;
  • feels informed of everything they need to know about your area;
  • doesn’t feel out of the loop on anything.

If you can hit these, then again, everything else is secondary. On the flip side, if you aren’t ticking these boxes, your actual job performance doesn’t matter that much. As author Jeffrey Pfeffer says in his book Power:

[A]s long as you keep your boss or bosses happy, performance really does not matter that much and, by contrast, if you upset them, performance won’t save you…job performance matters less for your evaluation than your supervisor’s commitment to and relationship with you.

–Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer

So the trick is to understand: what sort of situation am I in? And therefore, what do I need to deliver? Then focus on that, and forget everything else.

The most important money rule to follow

I’m not a financial adviser, but sometimes I play one on the internet. So here’s the most important piece of financial advice you’ll ever get.

Make sure you have a four figure sum, in liquid cash, all the time.

If you’re one of the 61% of Americans that can’t cover a $1000 emergency with savings, or 41% of Brits that don’t have at least £1,000 in savings, it is now your mission in life to correct this issue.

Constantly living paycheque to paycheque, juggling bill payments, and stressing about credit card debt is no way to live life. It makes you unhappy, unhealthy, and will affect everything in your life.

So here’s the solution. Until you have at least a grand in liquid cash savings that you can use to cover an emergency or unexpected expense, you need to restrict yourself to eating only beans and rice. You get no alcohol, no eating out, and no spending on entertainment. Every spare penny needs to go towards building that cash buffer. There’s plenty of time for fun and games once you’ve got a little space between you and bankruptcy.

Trust me–as someone who has experience stretching the last bit of money until I next get paid–when you have just a little money in the bank, it feels like a weight off your shoulders.

The Ten Year Idiot Rule

I wish that I knew what I know now // when I was younger

The Faces, Ooh La La

Knowledge compounds. It builds over time, slowly but surely, until one day, finally, you really start to feel like you know something about the way the world works.

Unfortunately, that feeling is probably bullshit.

In ten years you will likely look back on the person you are today, and think, “God, I was such an idiot.”

This is the Ten Year Idiot Rule, and it’s an unavoidable fact of life. The 20 year old student thinks he knows all about how the real world will work when he graduates. The 30 year old thinks he’s perfectly prepared to have kids. Both are wrong. They’re idiots: and in ten years, they’ll realise that fact.

The fun part is that this rule applies even if you know about the rule. I’m almost 30 now, and I have no doubt that when I turn 40, I’ll look back on the person I am today and think, “Nice guy, but a bit of an idiot.” Which is exactly how I feel about my 20-year-old self right now.

This is unavoidable. The only solution is to accept it, stay humble, and try to improve every day.

The rule I use for buying books

When I get a little money I buy books, and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.

Desidirus Erasmus, 15th century scholar

I have a simple rule for deciding what books to buy: if I think I might want to read a book, I just buy it.

It’s a rule I shamelessly stole from entrepreneur and author Ramit Sethi. A good book might cost £10, but one or two good ideas from that book will pay it back 100 times over.

Think about it: an author has spent hundreds of hours, over at least a couple of years, thinking, formalising, and distilling what they’ve learnt, then writing it down in easy-to-access form. You can buy this knowledge for less than the price of a round at the pub. There is no better bargain in life.

I’ve followed this book-buying rule for years now, even when I was a poor student. In fact, following this rule led to me being in credit card debt for a few months. It was still totally worth the money because reading all those books meant that I built the knowledge and skills I needed to drastically increase my income later down the line. The ROI on investing in books is immeasurable.

It’s also a rule that another incredible thinker and entrepreneur, Naval Ravikant, follows. Here’s a quote from his podcast with Shane Parrish from Farnam Street:

A really good book costs $10 or $20 and can change your life in a meaningful way. It’s not something I believe in saving money on. This was even back when I was broke and I had no money. I always spent money on books.

–Naval Ravikant

And if that’s not enough, try this quote from author and marketing genius Ryan Holiday, who writes of his physical library:

In my eyes, there is no question that I am able to write as much as I do and have been able to accomplish as much as I have been fortunate to accomplish because of the library I have built. When I do my taxes each year and look at what I’ve earned vs what I’ve spent on books, I see the correlation and think “Sounds about right” and then I push to up it in the following year.

–Ryan Holiday, How to Keep a Library of Physical Books

Here’s another quote from writer and investor Joshua Kennon, and his not-so-subtly titled post The Biggest Advantage You Can Give Yourself In Life Is Reading:

The nurturing of our reading habit is not an accident.  It is deliberate; purposeful.  We fiercely protect our reading time, shutting out the world so we can focus.  We also invest in it financially, making it a clear priority.  Our research and publication budget reaches comfortably into the mid-five-figures per annum with newspapers, magazines, academic journals, trade journals, books, online database access, and nearly every other imaginable source of information showing up either in print or digital format like clockwork.

I hope the message is sinking in. Consistently reading and learning, every day, will slowly compound into an incredible wealth of knowledge. It’s the best investment you can possibly make in yourself.