Fun vs Meaningful

You’ve probably heard the saying “time you enjoy wasting is not time wasted.”

Like most sayings, there’s some truth to it. But if you really believe this you’re probably doing yourself a disservice by having a ready-made excuse to wasting time.

And if you’re like me and try to (somewhat) optimize how you spend time, is there a way to determine how to best spend it, and on what activities to spend it on?

The way I’ve begun to think about it is thinking of activities in terms of fun vs meaningful.

Fun

Fun can mean a lot of things, but to me the gist is that you feel good doing whatever you’re doing in the moment and not necessarily after the fact. It’s a short-term, fleeting feeling without many, if at all, future benefits.

An example is drinking alcohol. Drinking is fun; you feel good while you’re drunk and generally the more you drink the more fun you have. But that fun is fleeting, because the day after you’re groggy, hungover, and regretful (How many times have you said “I’m never drinking so much again”?). And how beneficial is drinking? Not very to your body or health. Sure, you might make a friend or two while doing so, but will those be deep relationships you care about?

Meaningful 

Meaningful, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily have that same instantaneous short-term enjoyment that fun can have. Meaningful activities can be fun, but they can also be hard, painstaking work in the moment. The payoff for meaningful activities can also be delayed, but also much more enduring.

An example of a meaningful activity is working out. It’s tough in the moment, and few people enjoy the first few times they start a new workout program. But the after effects of a workout – dopamine, testosterone, improved circulation, confidence – are universal: no one has ever regretted exercising more.

Thinking of activities this way helps you avoid the temptation for instant gratification. Think of “fun” activities like playing video games, partying, going out drinking, vacationing, etc. as the dessert, not the main course. The main course is filled with activities like learning new skills, taking interesting classes, playing on a sports league, contributing to a start-up, etc.

Of course, people are going to read this and still think it’s arrogant to label activities as meaningful or not, or a waste of time or not. They’re missing the point. Of course you’re free to spend your time doing whatever you want. But if you’re trying to convince yourself that watching TV or playing video games in all your free time is not a waste of time you’re likely deluding yourself.

I had to learn this the hard way. As a kid, I used to play a ton of video games – hours and hours every day, sometimes even waking up in the middle of the night to put in more hours. I had a ton of fun playing them in the moment, but when I stopped I’d inevitably have this empty hollow-ness inside me. Did I really just spend 3, 4, 5 hours playing this game? What did I really achieve as a result? What could I have done instead with all that time? 

I didn’t understand the concept of fun vs meaningful back then, but I’m sure that had I known I likely would have spent my time wiser.

Your Past is an Indicator of Your Future

Time for some harsh truths today.

I’m a big believer in embracing reality. Part of that entails cutting through the noise – propaganda, invisible scripts, motivational nonsense – accepting discomfort, and then focusing on what you can control to better your situation.

A lot of people will have you believe that you can do anything you want if you just believe hard enough or want it badly enough. “Your potential is limitless – all you need to do is untap it!” We further this by deluding ourselves with thoughts like, “Yeah, if I really wanted to do XYZ I could.”

And while it’s true that it’s never too late to start something, if you believe that your past has no effect on your future you’re doing yourself a disservice by avoiding reality.

Past performance – while not a perfect indicator – is a pretty good predictor of future performance. I have a hard time thinking of a field where this rule doesn’t apply.

Who you are today is a reflection of who you were in the past; your decisions, your actions, your thoughts, your beliefs. All of the seemingly inconsequential choices and micro-decisions we make on a day-to-day basis – our habits – compound.

There’s a saying that goes “How you do anything is how you do everything.” Like most phrases or stereotypes, this is generally true. If you approach certain things with a 50% mentality you’ll likely approach most other things with the same lackadaisical effort.

This is one reason why some people seemingly have it all. Success has a spillover effect – what you do builds momentum. Success leads to more opportunities available to you and more “luck”.

If this post is depressing, it should serve as a wake up call that you’re unhappy with your current situation and are probably worried that the future holds much of the same.

You can either whine about it and blame some external factor for your misfortune, trying to convince others in some way to alleviate your situation (hint: getting other people to do what you want that’s not in their best interest never works)…or you can embrace reality and start taking corrective action today. 

All we can do in life is try to take things one day at a time. Improving ourselves 1% a day is a victory.

What this looks like in application:

  • If you’re overweight: Go for a 5-minute run outside today. Tomorrow, 7 minutes. The day after, 10 minutes.
  • If you’re stuck at a job you hate: Update your resume today and apply to one job posting. Tomorrow, two job postings. The day after, three job postings.
  • If you’re trying to improve your confidence: Ask a stranger for the time today. Tomorrow, ask two strangers for the time, or directions to the nearby Starbucks. The day after, strike up a conversation with the cashier.

Start small. Progressively overload yourself. If you do this consistently for two weeks…a month…three months…how much closer to your goals do you think you’ll be?

Thoughts on Perfectionism

The master at anything was once a beginner. Everyone starts somewhere.

The stars will never perfectly align and circumstances will never be optimal. Start before you’re ready.

David Foster Wallace once said, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.” The only way to overcome this inertia is to just dosomething.

Consider the anecdote of the ceramics teacher and the pottery class.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups.

All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: 50 pounds of pots rated an “A”, 40 pounds a “B”, and so on.

Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged:the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.

It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Start small and start badly. Then keep working and refining the edges. This is the only way to improve and achieve any semblance of perfection.

Your Passion vs Your Parents

We live in a more confusing time than ever today.

Entire industries have sprung up that never existed just one or two decades ago. The old way of doing things is often broken.

Because of this, much of the advice that was passed down through the generations has become obsolete. Conventional wisdom is sometimes no longer relevant.

Every day, we’re barraged with advice from other people about how to live our lives. Parents, siblings, teachers, friends, society at large all tell you how to live your life. Everyone imposes their will on you, whether they mean to or not.

As a result, young people are pushed into careers they never wanted. They choose their college majors based not on their interests but on what their parents think is best. (By the way, I think the whole idea of choosing a major at 18 is ridiculous to begin with)

They (or I should say, we, as I still identify as a young adult) seem to never cultivate a sense of identity, instead relying on the guidance of someone else to tell them what to do next. The concept of choosing their own life path is foreign to them.

It’s unfortunate, because those who listen too much build a habit of trusting others to make decisions for them. As time goes on, this habit only grows stronger, leading to a life of conformity and blind trust in authority figures.

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We’re All Trapped in Our Own Little Bubbles

We all live inside our own little bubbles, whether we know it or not.

Ask anyone with a university degree to estimate what % of people have a university degree, and they might say something like 70%. The reality is closer to 33%.

Ask a multi-millionaire what the average salary is, and he might say something like $80,000. The reality is closer to $40,000.

All we are is a mash-up of our past experiences and thoughts that have made us who we are today. The people we associate with mold us and influence us in subconscious ways we aren’t even aware of.

What we think we know is often just our perception of reality, not reality itself.

Something like 25% of recent graduates can’t find a job or are unemployed/underemployed. Yet all my friends have found jobs with ease. Many are working in top-tier jobs like investment banking or engineering clearing 6-figures out of undergrad.

Many of my friends aren’t even aware how bad the state of the economy is.

Some of my friends complain about high tuition costs; their parents pay $15K/year for them. Meanwhile, there are some kids who pay $40k/year out of pocket and will be $150k-200k in debt by the time they graduate.

We’re all in our own little bubbles, and yet most of us never realize it.

There are some people out there who believe in things so backward to the rest of us, we look at them as a lower species of intelligence. And yet, to them, that’s their life. It’s all they know, and it’s all their friends know. Their bubble has reinforced their beliefs over and over. To them, we’re the backwards and unenlightened ones.

This is why it makes no sense to look down on others for believing certain things, or behaving a certain way. Years and decades of conditioning will do that to you. You merely experienced a different set of circumstances growing up, and as a result are a different person.

By definition, everything we know in life revolves around us. How we perceive things. How we interact with others and situations. By all accounts, the world does seemingly revolve around us. It’s important we realize this – to look beyond our little bubbles – and learn to see things as they really are, not how we think or want them to be.

Advice for Incoming College Students

I felt like answering a question on Quora about what you’d tell someone about to start college. Here it is, reproduced below.

This is what I’d tell my sister, who’s about to start college in the fall this year. Note that I haven’t read any of the previous answers so as to not influence my own, so forgive me if I’ve repeated anything.

1. Good grades ARE important.
The people who harp about how GPAs don’t matter are (usually) the same people who land mediocre jobs or no jobs out of school. Besides, why would you not put your best foot forward and gain an advantage over others if you have the chance to? That being said, 3.7 is often good enough; I wouldn’t kill myself to obtain an extra 0.1 or beyond. Spend that extra time developing other skills, learning new hobbies, and meeting interesting people.

2. Actively find and make amazing friends – which includes your professors.
I believe one of the most important reasons for going to college these days is the network that you build during those years. You may not know it now, but that person in your first year frosh group or your dorm mate can turn out to be a very important person later on. They may become an eventual business partner (see: Peter Thiel & Reid Hoffman, Mark Zuckerberg & Eduardo Saverin, etc.) or a future spouse. You may be tempted like I was to stay inside on Thursday/Friday nights, but don’t fall into the trap of complacency. Do something scary at least once a week and try to have a conversation with at least one new person a week.

The difference between college and high school is you won’t see the same people in every class. You won’t know the names of most of the people you see, nor will you ever even get a chance to speak a word to them. So it’s up to you to actively find and meet people you want to be friends with. Note that you shouldn’t limit yourself to the people in your classes or even in your year. Once you leave the confines of college, anyway, you’ll realize that it’s only during school years that your friends are exclusively people your age. Get used to making friends with people older and younger than you.

3. Be very careful about your ideologies.
At 18, despite thinking you know everything, you’re still *very* easily influenced. You’re bright-eyed and hopeful, and may have lofty dreams of fighting for social justice and becoming an activist for what you believe in. It’s admirable but just be careful. There’s a great article here: “Everything is problematic” | The McGill Daily about one student’s experience with political activism and how it almost ruined her.

I’m not going to go too much into it here, but the key is to keep an open mind and not become too affiliated with any group. It is very easy to get peer pressured into becoming someone you are not, fighting an “us” versus “them” battle that leads nowhere. Focus on what you can control, and how you react to things.

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Chinese Parenting Fails to Produce Children of Greatness?

Chinese parenting is great at producing skilled and compliant knowledge workers, but it utterly fails to produce children who can achieve greatness, remake industries, or come up with disruptive innovation.  All the Chinese-American people I know who now perform at the highest levels – both creatively and technically – either achieved this without being driven to it by their parents (ask Niniane Wang about her upbringing) or in rebellion against the paths their parents set out for them (see Tony Hsieh http://www.businessinsider.com/tony-hsieh-life-before-zappos-2010-10).  The others – the skilled and compliant mediocre – make superb employees for the truly great, and if that is what their parents consider “successful,” then that’s exactly what they’ll get.

This quote comes from here, where Yishan Wong gives his take on whether Chinese mothers are superior.

It’s a fascinating response, and it can probably be generalized to most types of Asian parenting. What’s more, I fully agree with his view.

To give some background on Yishan and why his statement should hold some weight, he’s worked at PayPal, Facebook, Square, Sunfire, and reddit. All of his roles culminated in Manager/Director/CEO status. In short, he’s worked with and managed a lot of employees. He’s written broadly about the hiring process, the secret to career success, and a thousand other answers on Quora.

He’s also Chinese-American himself, and was the recipient of the type of Chinese “Tiger” parenting he describes as producing compliant and mediocre employees. But what has made him so successful in the traditional definition of the word is not because of, but rather despite, overbearing parenting methods.

While his parents pushed him to learn the piano and speak Chinese, they largely left him alone when it came to computers and gave him some lee-way to have a social life. As a result, he was able to pursue his passion of computers, an in-demand, lucrative career, while developing strong communication skills.

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Robert Greene on Dealing With Fools

In the course of your life you will be continually encountering fools. There are simply too many to avoid. We can classify people as fools by the following rubric: when it comes to practical life, what should matter is getting long-term results, and getting the work done in as efficient and creative a manner as possible. That should be the supreme value that guides people’s actions. But fools carry with them a different scale of values. They place more importance on short-term matters – grabbing immediate money, getting attention from the public or media, and looking good. They are ruled by their ego and insecurities. They tend to enjoy drama and political intrigue for their own sake. When they criticize, they always emphasize matters that are irrelevant to the overall picture or argument. They are more interested in their career and position than in the truth. You can distinguish them by how little they get done, or by how hard they make it for others to get results. They lack a certain common sense, getting worked up about things that are not really important while ignoring problems that will spell doom in the long term.

The natural tendency with fools is to lower yourself to their level. They annoy you, get under your skin, and draw you into a battle.  In the process, you feel petty and confused. You lose a sense of what is really important. You can’t win an argument or get them to see your side or change their behavior, because rationality and results don’t matter to them.  You simply waste valuable time and emotional energy.

In dealing with fools you must adopt the following philosophy: they are simply a part of life, like rocks or furniture. All of us have foolish sides, moments in which we lose our heads and think more of our ego or short-term goals. It is human nature. Seeing this foolishness within you, you can then accept it in others. This will allow you to smile at their antics, to tolerate their presence as you would a silly child, and to avoid the madness of trying to change them. It is all part of the human comedy, and it is nothing to get upset or lose sleep over.

Start Your Day as a Producer, Not a Consumer

One of the big obstacles that I faced – and still face, to some degree – when I began working full-time was restructuring my every day routine. See, for about 16 years from kindergarten to the end of college, I would spend the morning and afternoon learning things, and then go home and work at night. I essentially conditioned myself to be in a passive state during the day, soaking up what others talked about or mindlessly taking notes in class. I was generally not one of those people who did much work at school.

In college, I took this model to the extreme. I would rarely wake up before noon, head to class, and would have the most energy around 4-5pm. I did my best studying and work in the evenings.

Unfortunately, this model doesn’t work too well in the real world. I’ve had to retrain myself to do work during the day. This was by no means an easy task, but one change in my daily routine helped me get on the right path.

Most of us have two modes: producer or consumer. The trick is to start your day as a producer, rather than a consumer. What this means is doing productive, beneficial tasks that are meaningful first thing in the morning, as opposed to checking and responding to email/social media. It doesn’t necessarily have to be work, although tackling your to-do list is great. It could be exercising, meditating, writing on your blog, cooking, etc.

The point is it should be an active activity. Passive activities like scrolling your newsfeed and skimming the news should be avoided. It’s about being proactive, rather than reactive. It’s knowing that you’re in control of your life, and are focusing on your needs first.

For me, I’ve found that journaling and writing first thing in the morning has been the most beneficial. For many others, it’s exercise. Whatever it is, once you repeat this routine long enough, it becomes one of those keystone habits that lock all your other productive habits into place.

On the days where I get something big accomplished right away, the rest of the day is that much more productive. The distractions that were once tempting feel like a waste of time. I can actually catch myself browsing Facebook, asking myself What am I doing?, and then closing the tab.

On the off days where I start off as a consumer, I’m trapped in that vortex of endlessly surfing Reddit or Elite Daily (is this you right now?) trying to fill a void, trying desperately to entertain myself but never feeling satisfied.

In fact, I’m convinced now that how you spend your morning is indicative of how you’ll spend the rest of the day, and there may be some science behind this. It’s hard to shift from the shallower, more transactional frontal cortex to the other parts of your brain that govern conceptual, deep thinking. It’s easier to start in the deep recesses of the brain and shift to the shallower parts. What this means is it’s easier to go from producer mode to consumer mode than vice versa.

And by starting your morning off doing something you enjoy, you elevate your mood for the rest of the day, which then positively impacts everything else you do.

All of the most successful people I know and have read about share this philosophy of starting their day off with an important, focused project.

There’s a great story about Charlie Munger that exemplifies this. As a very young lawyer, he was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, ‘Who’s my most valuable client?’ And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day. He did it early in the morning, working on construction projects and real estate deals. Over time, this one hour of self-learning compounded and ultimately allowed him to race past his peers.

OK, you’ve consumed enough of this. Try it for yourself. Start your mornings as a producer. You may be surprised at the difference it makes.

Experts

It’s amazing how much we trust “experts,” given how infallible they are sometimes.

In December 2000, the majority of investment banks forecasted that by the end of 2001 the dollar and the euro would be about equal in value. This list included Credit Suisse, Bank of Tokyo, RBC, UBS, and Deutsche Bank. The real exchange rate at the end of 2001 was only $0.88. Every bank overestimated.

In compensation for their overestimates the year before, the banks uniformly corrected their predictions downward. But the euro went up; the true exchange rate was 1.05, higher than any of the banks had foreseen. Surprised by the upward trend, the banks corrected their forecasts upward for 2003. Once again, the actual exchange rate was outside the range of estimates.

This continued on until 2010. Almost every year, the actual rate was outside the predicted rate.

Why do banks pay large amounts to entire departments for these meaningless predictions? For one, there’s an element of defensive decision making, where senior managers can point and say, “Well, this is what our mathematical models said would happen. It’s not our fault.” But two, there continues to be a large enough demand for these predictions that they’re supplied. Humans place an inordinate amount of trust in experts, and even desperately seek them out, so banks maintain the illusion.

The truth is anyone can become a market guru. Roger Babson is credited with correctly predicting the stock market crash of 1929, but what is less known is that he had been predicting the crash for years. Of course, no one remembered those misses after he was right once. Elaine Garzarelli predicted the stock market collapse in 1987, and four days later it really did crash. She became known as the Guru of Black Monday, but thereafter, her predictions about the market were right less often than a coin toss.

Warren Buffett often gives the following example: Consider 10,000 investment managers whose advice is equal to flipping a coin. After a year, 5,000 of them will have made a profit. The next year, 2500, and so on. After ten years, about ten managers will have gotten it right every single year. We would classify these ten people as gurus, attributing such a feat to their unique, deep insights of the market and some innate talent.

In my undergrad businesses school, we took a lot of complex finance classes teaching us the intricacies of portfolio optimization, where you have a chunk of money and want to invest it in a diversified portfolio. In the academic world, this involves fairly complex formulas and a host of assumptions to deal with. The professors promised us it would all come in handy on the job.

Well, it turns out there’s a one-line sentence that trumps all of these strategies, even beating a Nobel Prize-winning portfolio strategy. It’s this: Allocate your money equally to each of N funds. 

In a study, this rule of thumb was compared to a dozen complex investment methods. Seven situations were analyzed. In six of the seven tests, 1/N scored better than the others, and none of the other twelve were consistently better at predicting the future value of stocks.

The Nobel Prize-winning method isn’t a sham, it’s just that we live in a world of unknowns and uncertainties that can’t possibly be quantified in assumptions. Experts will tell you otherwise, but really, what is an expert?