A list of ideas that have had a profound impact on how I view the world and make decisions. In some particular order.
1. Mimetic theory. Nearly everything is done because everyone else does it. If you do or think or desire something that many others do as well… Did you make the decision or let others make it for you?
2. Things are easier if you avoid the default. Since we follow what others do and want what others want, default goals are more competitive and default actions less effective than the non-default. We optimize for the rules of the game without questioning the game itself.
3. Most desires are useless. Minimalism tells you to desire minimally. Stoicism tells you not to desire. Mimetic theory explains what you desire is something you didn’t even want in the first place. If you re-thought life from first principles, trying to identify the bare necessities, you’d find that most things could be removed with negligible impact on your quality of life. All this desire has emerged from social cues, and while resisting desire is tough, resisting social cues is doable.
4. FIRE - financial independence, retire early. By following others and mimicking their desires, you’ll retire at 65. Then there’s the FIRE way that could save you decades of the best years of your life. Blew my mind when I first heard it, still blows my mind we accept 40 years of work as the default.
5. Black swans and non-linearity. Few events have a disproportionate impact on the end result, and these events are often unpredictable. But even though they are unpredictable, you can position yourself to benefit when Black Swans occur. In blogging terms, a post that goes viral can bring 100x the results of your average post, and while predicting which post goes viral is tough, just publishing and promoting consistently increases your chances. A single career opportunity could change your life, and while it’s tough to hunt that opportunity yourself, you can publish your work online and that opportunity could find you.
6. Most information is useless. Just like the minority of events produce most results, only a few pieces of information are worth acquiring and retaining. What concept or principle do you keep coming back to? Go for less information but more actionable signals (that’s what I’m trying to do here - creating an evergreen list of ideas to revisit vs constantly acquiring new information that’s less influential).
7. Is it a hell yes or a no? If most information is useless, and if the minority of things are worth desiring, and if the minority of actions produce most outcomes… The default answer to nearly everything should be “no”. “Yes” would be the exception, not the norm.
8. Freedom is measured by how many “must-do’s” you have. Not everything is a hell yes or a no - some are musts. To minimize the impact of must-do’s, group them together so they take less mental energy (eg have a “meetings day” and a “build something day”). To minimize the number of must-do’s, gain skills, delegate, automate, spend money; gain some sort of power to transfer your must-do’s to someone/something else. Get must-do’s out of the way so you can focus on the hell yesses.
9. Barbell strategy. Popularized by Nassim Taleb, the concept suggests you to over-emphasize the extremes and avoid the middle. In investing terms, have safe investments and risky but very high-payoff investments. In knowledge terms, read the oldies that have stood the test of time and the cutting-edge developments, and avoid the rest. You could even use the concept more widely: when you’re working, work deeply without distractions, and when you’re not working, relax intensely without thinking about work.
10. If it’s agreeable, it’s suspicious.
Consider these premises:
- People tend to process and share information that fits their existing beliefs (confirmation bias)
- What someone shares with you is likely something they’ve read/heard vs something they thought of themselves. Original thinking is rare.
- If an opinion was controversial, would it be shared in public? Note: what we deem “controversial” is rather “less agreeable”, because we don’t share truly controversial opinions for fear of social condemnation (see Overton window)
- Agreeable information (including “common knowledge”) tends to be watered down, average, and even negative in value for someone seeking above-average results. To be smarter than the average, you need to consume unagreeable information; the extremes that make you rethink what you “knew” before, hence grow intellectually. If everything you read is agreeable, you’re staying in the same place.
- Agreeable habits and behaviour, too, have gone through this process. Extreme behaviour is shunned and people become watered down, socially acceptable copies of each other. Creative people tend to be “weird”, that is, unagreeable. Content people aren’t concerned with the opinions of others, which makes them unagreeable.
11. Our hunter-gatherer brain hasn’t adapted to the modern world. Most sayings and "common knowledge" were made for the old world. In the modern world, “work harder” shouldn't be the only answer because we have leverage. Similarly, our natural inclinations bind us to a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Seeking social validation may have been useful in a tribe of 150, but not so much anymore. Updating your brain software to the 2020s is a competitive advantage; to do that, ask “Is this still true in the modern world?”
12. Do you want to look successful or be successful? The person who spends the most on cars and brands looks the richest, but in fact, spending money is the opposite of staying rich. The person who seems the busiest looks successful, but she who can control their own schedule is likely more successful.
Don’t confuse the loud, external metrics of success with the quiet, internal ones - focusing on looking successful may prevent you from being it.
13. If they are signaling, think the opposite. For most of evolution, signaling was a source of valuable information. If they have a big colourful tail, they have “evolutionary fitness”, because they wouldn’t be alive otherwise. If they are fat, they are wealthier because they can afford food. But like most information, signaling has lost its value.
A student who complains how little sleep they got last night tries to signal they are a diligent student. If they had managed their time/priorities like a diligent student, they’d have slept fine. Signaling takes no effort, delivering does.
14. Passive vs active time. Much of learning comes from doing vs reading blogs and consuming courses. All benefits of exercise come from sweating vs watching other people sweat. To achieve anything meaningful, a shift from passive to active is needed. Make the shift uncomfortably early.
15. Are you chasing or attracting? Time spent chasing is time not building something that attracts. Chasing the recruiter’s love vs doing something that attracts them to you. Making your thumb sore on Tinder vs bettering yourself. Cold emailing vs attracting customers via content.
16. How would a professional do this? When you are acting, consider there is always a better way. How would a professional practice writing? How would a professional plan their diet? How would they tackle this problem? If it’s meaningful enough to act on, take a minute to identify alternative paths of action.
17. Let the tools work for you and you’ll look like a superhuman. The person who looks the most organized just uses Google Calendar better than most. The person full of ideas just knows how to use a note-taking app. They get distracted as easily as you do, but they block apps and notifications. They work no harder than you, but Zapier and templates make it seem like they do.
18. Are you a cook or a chef? Do you understand what you’re doing or are you merely memorizing or following others? Try to understand the big ideas of the subject and derive new ideas from those first principles. For example, if you know the functions and anatomical structure of your muscles, you know how to train them, even if no one taught you the “correct” movements.
19. Are you going towards your ideal lifestyle? Reason your ideal lifestyle from first principles, devoid of mimetic influence. Look at how you spend your time/money/energy. Are you going towards your ideal lifestyle or do you wish you were? If you don’t put conscious thought, chances are you’re just wishing.
20. Your ideal lifestyle is more realistic than you think. We want to get rich so we can get freedom, and while getting rich is slow, removing bullshit meetings, commitments and relationships brings you freedom within the week. Money is an intermediary to freedom, and we are so obsessed with chasing the intermediary we lose sight of the goal. There are probably unnecessary steps in your plan (Relevant)
21. High agency. Whatever you want, you can get it. Not always to the full extent, not immediately, but if you direct your effort consistently to something, you will achieve it. Saying “I can’t do it” or “It’s not for me” when a few months of focused effort can change your life is… weird.
22. Don’t mistake the consequence as the problem. “I can’t sleep” isn’t the problem. “I don’t have time to exercise” isn’t the problem. “They don’t understand my writing” isn’t the problem. We try to externalize the problem because accepting we are at fault is too painful.
23. If it concerns you, it’s your responsibility. Why would it be on anyone else? Imagine being so low-agency you invent a magical force called destiny so you don't need to ask someone's number at the café. Imagine claiming someone was not “the one” because you didn’t put the effort to build the love with them. Imagine watching TED talks about the “purpose of life” - effectively outsourcing the answering of the most important question - instead of defining what you want with your life. If it concerns you, it’s on you.
24. If it’s important to you, measure it. “Progress” is fuzzy, thus it’s easy to fool yourself. Numbers, on the other hand, don’t lie. You can fool yourself that you’re making progress with your personal finances when you’re reading blogs about it, but you can’t fake the numbers in your savings. If you’re buying new supplements and workout gear, but your numbers don’t move, are you making progress? Define the most important metric, track it and improve it.
25. If you can’t influence it, you can’t influence it. That’s it. Save your energy for things you can.
26. You don’t need to have an opinion. If you can’t influence it, it’s okay not to have an opinion - have it or not, there’s no difference. If you don’t know enough to have an informed opinion, it’s okay to admit it. A fake, on-the-spot opinion fools others, and worse yet, yourself, as it sets an anchor for your future opinion on the matter.
Not having an opinion will make you totally not fun at family gatherings, but it’s a worthy trade-off for the life you get back from unfruitful debates and the news you read to stay “informed enough” to have opinions.
27. You get what you ask for, not what you deserve. An uncomfortable conversation could boost your income by 10%. An email can open up opportunities you’ve only been dreaming of. One phone call can result in a hefty discount. A short period of discomfort can lead to long-term benefits, if you’re up for it.
28. Everything is made up, you can bend the rules. Job posting asks for a Masters but you don’t have it? Send them an email, it may not be a deal-breaker. Missed a deadline by a day or two? They could let it slide if you ask. You won’t succeed every time, but you’ll get more by recognizing that everyone, like you, is making this shit up as they go. Things don’t need to stay the way they are.
29. Time will pass, whether you start or not. Learning a new skill, going to the gym, starting a blog… We put things off because of the initial discomfort of sucking at first, even though we recognize the long-term benefits. 2 options.
1. The pain of inaction will grow so large you start later. You endured unnecessary pain by not starting sooner.
2. Your pain will grow but you get used to it, so you don’t start.
Both options of not starting now are scary. Convince yourself they are scarier than the first step you need to take.
30. Personal rules force long-term focus. Most issues emerge when you choose “now me” over “future me”. You watch TV instead of exercising, buy the get-rich-fast stock instead of the get-rich-slow index, get happy-drunk now vs happy-happy long-term.
If being fit is important to you, have a rule not to buy junk. If stress-free investing is important to you, have a rule to never buy individual stocks. Discipline is easier when it’s “outsourced” to a rule you cannot break; establish a rule and you’ll avoid struggling over the same decision again.
31. When it’s good enough, go with it. Our decisions can be categorized into maximizing - getting the absolute best - and satisficing - going with whatever does the job. You could always plan more, or you could start now with a good-enough plan. You could spend another hour searching for something better, or just go with the first thing that’s good enough. Taking action when the big things are right - not perfect - is probably better than striving for perfection in every aspect.
32. Choose something, commit. The biggest benefit of satisficing is that you have more time to exploit, rather than explore. When you’ve found a good-enough partner, you could spend your time finding someone marginally better, or you could commit to the relationship and make it work. Once you’ve found a field that even remotely interests you, commit and become super good at it, instead of waiting to find a field that’s even better.
Fear of “not getting the best” is why you don’t commit and jump between options. Funnily, it goes both ways. If you focus on committing, that fear will fade out.
33. What happens if I do this for 10 years? This helps you recognize the unsustainability of some habits / relationships. And helps you find motivation for good habits / things that compound. 10 years from now, you’ll wish you started today.
34. Anger is a sign of immaturity. Those I admire understand anger won’t make it better. Those who turn to anger instead of self-examination or rational conversation have a road ahead of them.
35. Cognitive dissonance. I don't want to work, so I’ll hate my boss. I don’t want to figure out how to get wealthy, so I’ll convince myself money is bad. I don’t have the courage so I’ll believe I don’t have the ability. What is something you believe that is not a product of reality but of you lying to yourself?
36. Gell-Mann amnesia. When you know marketing, you understand most marketing advice online is bullshit. When you’re an expert in statistics, you see news gets the numbers twisted. “You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues.”
Then you read the next thing in the newspaper or Reddit or Twitter - it’s a topic you’re not an expert in - and you blindly accept the information as fact.
37. If you’re comfortable, step up. When the weights start to feel comfortable, you know it’s time to add more. But: learn to identify when you should be comfortable vs continuously improving.
38. You probably don’t lack knowledge - it’s available for free. You lack the ability to apply that knowledge (eg systems, practice) or the courage to use it. Both of which you should focus on as much as knowledge acquisition.
39. What got you here won’t get you there. That’s a hell of a book title and I have nothing to add.
40. Do you need to be new here? In some things - like diet, exercise, personal finances - I don’t want to be new. I want to get them right. (Indeed, chasing the newest trend may do you more harm than sticking to the basics that work).
On the other hand, Paul Graham argues only the investors, founders, scientists and essayists who think differently from their peers get rewarded. Here, being new is the only successful option.
41. The inverse is sometimes more important. Losing weight is less about adding “super foods” and minutes on the treadmill as it is about removing junk food from the diet. Happiness is less about adding friends and material possessions as it is about removing toxic relationships, substance abuse and negative thinking. Think through important goals/problems both ways.
42. Just because ___, doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because you want it to be true, or benefit from it being true, or because it sounds logical or simple or familiar, or because it’s in a popular book… doesn’t mean it’s true.
43. If you’re unhealthy, how smart are you? There are few things more important in itself, or more significant to your mood, productivity, relationships, anything you care about. We tend to prioritize health only when we need to - when we get sick - but the smart prioritize it always. Some will feel offended, including my previous self, saying things like “I’m incredibly busy, I don’t have time to exercise”. That’s fine, but the truth remains: the less time you spend taking care of your health, the less time you’ll have on this earth.
44. Four energies to monitor and replenish.
- Physical energy (you’re healthy; physical stamina) => practice healthy lifestyle
- Emotional energy (you’re not overly stressed or burnt out) => practice time management and prioritisation
- Mental energy (you can focus on one task for a long time; mental stamina) => practice deep work
- Spiritual energy (you feel what you do has meaning) => practice mindfulness and goal-setting
45. Deliberate practice. There’s a huge difference between systematically practicing something vs putting in any work. That’s the difference of going to the gym and doing the same weights every time vs following a systematic plan of progressive overload; both will take the same time, but one will lead to muscle growth. If you’re serious about it, you should practice it deliberately.
46. Packaging is at least as important as the product. Product being equal, packaging makes the difference. If you can’t create a vastly better course, article or good, you should package it in a simpler, better-looking or better-positioned way.
47. Optimism is the rational option. “An important lesson from history is that the long run is usually pretty good and the short run is usually pretty bad.” Most people contribute to society, instead of taking away from it. Assuming bad intent or being pessimistic makes life seem awfully simple, which is why we do it, but assuming good intent and being optimistic is actually more rational.
48. Calmness is a choice. You can’t choose what happens to you, but you can choose how you deal with it. Instead of spending energy on denying or debating the event, we should accept it and spend energy on working with it.
49. You can’t live anywhere else but now. How often, when you are on a walk or making food or doing any mundane task, do you think of the past or the future? Thinking you need to do this and you should have done that. Those future plans and the past can’t be influenced in that moment, so why are we thinking about them?
If we could appreciate the moment, noticing things we haven’t noticed before, getting lost in it, making conscious that which we made unconscious long ago… those mundane tasks could become sources of mindfulness and calmness, instead of stress and anxiety over things we cannot do anything about now.
This is the type of mindfulness I’ve seen success with vs sitting still for an hour.
50. Did you make someone’s day today? Making others happy is the most reliable way to make yourself happy. Just being a bit kinder or more energetic than you need to be often suffices. (Case in point: David Brunelle who helped me get my blog started, for no reason. Thank you.)
Ultimately, many of these ideas boil down to 3 themes:
- Are you following the comfortable default set by society, the past and your genes, or are you consciously choosing an alternative? Often the alternative is a more rewarding way to go.
- If you want to go beyond the default, you need to avoid most natural inclinations, information and models. Because those are what create and maintain the default.
- To ignore most things and to create your own path, instead of following a path made for you, requires high agency. To consciously decide what you want out of life, track you’re getting there, and avoid anything that doesn’t help you achieve your goal.
I’ll explore these themes and the above ideas more thoroughly in future posts. Sign up below if you’d like to get notified.