Your life is a project…. accumulation
December 26, 2012 62 Comments
I have written how I consider men’s lives to follow three fundamental phases: foundations, accumulation and maintainance. Don’t overthink this it’s just a convenient mental map to be deployed where useful. So let’s consider the second stage which typically begins upon graduating university or beginning an apprenticeship.
Goal: Max out your manly talents of intelligence, creativity, wealth-generation, physical competence
The accumulation phase could equally be described as “setting yourself up for life” or “becoming the best man you can be”. It’ll typically take you the whole of your twenties. Whereas the foundational phase was building the well-rounded basic skills of life taking advantage of the general education granted to children while side-stepping the weakness inherent in kids of not knowing who they are or what direction they wish to go in, the accumulation phase is about specialisation. Society channels you down predetermined tunnels as a kid fixing everyone on more or less the same generic path. Where foundation is Call of Duty (“follow the NPC”) accumulation is Deus Ex (“augument and choose”). I’ll let you in on a little secret right now:
There’s no money and no status to be had from being a generalist. All the upside is in specialisation.
What does that mean to you, dear reader? First off you have to carefully marshall your intellectual, physical and emotional resources. Make careful decisions on what skills you seek to acquire.
- The payoff for any given skill is wildly disproportionate to its difficulty
- If something is enjoyable, its probably not lucrative. Expect to make tradeoffs
- Scaleable skillsets are a huge gamble
Consider language learning. It’s a difficult task involving hundred of classroom hours and, to be fluent, living in a country where its spoken as a native. I had university friends doing language degrees and almost exclusively the only ones who got good jobs did a joint honours with another skill. Spanish on its own will help you navigate South America but it won’t add a penny to your salary unless it’s combined with a real money-making skill such as accounting, engineering or law. Speaking of language, they are not all created equal. Japanese takes approximately three times longer to learn than Spanish or French and it’s only useful for one country. Serbian is bloody difficult and only useful in one small country where per capita income is only $11,000 and they all speak English anyway. Why on earth would anyone learn Serbian unless they are fully commited to living there for years on end? It’s just a dumb waste of effort.
Consider the UFC. That’s the biggest-paying promotion for the sport of MMA. There’s only one PPV every six weeks or so which only has six TV fights per show across all weight divisions. So that’s twelve fighters getting TV-level paydays per show making an annual total of TV-paydays about 104 slots. Assuming you are fighting at that level and get offered a slot, it’ll be a minimum of six week’s training with its attendant costs. Probably 20% goes to your manager and gym. Assuming no medical costs or long injury-related layoffs, fight four times a year, and assuming you win every fight (so statistically 75% of fighters won’t manage even this) you are spending 24 weeks in training and getting by on four paydays. Now go look at how much these guys get paid.
Shocking. Truly shocking. And this is at the most lucrative end of the sport. The top guys do fine (well, not compared to £80k per week footballers but fine compared to normal guys) but look past the top 5 names. Most MMA guys are taking <£10,000 a fight. Drop down to the next level of show and its <£1,000. For six week’s work. I make that in two days sitting at my desk. When I have a bad day at the office I don’t get beat up too.
The lesson isn’t that I’m awesome and fighters suck. The lesson is some careers are far better than others despite being considerably easier and considerably less risk. The 437th-best lawyer in London earns considerably more than the 10th-best London MMA fighter and that income is far more stable. My advice is treat the exciting careers as a hobby.
Nicolas Taleb writes well on the risk/reward payoffs of scaleable careers. The general self-improvement advice is choose a business / career where you can scale upwards. Acting, music, software are classically scaleable careers. If you can be Seinfeld (syndicated worldwide), or have Gangnam Style (200+ million youtube views), or write the next Angry Birds then you can rest on your royalties. The problem is survivor bias and winner-takes-all. The very nature of a pyramid business structure is that only one pharoah is buried in it. Freakonmics has a great essay on how the scaleability of the drug dealer business model means almost everyone earns less than minimum wage and sustains themselves on the dream of being the one Mister Big. Don’t gamble your life’s trajectory on being that one guy. If you truly believe you’ll overcome unsurmountable odds buy a lottery ticket. And stay away from battlefields.
In summary, choose your career wisely. Don’t be afraid to switch careers before you become too committed. Your risk appetite likely differs to mine but here’s my dream list of career conditions:
- Based on a real skillset that is difficult to learn (e.g. accounting, medicine, architecture)
- Most of the population is literally unable to compete (e.g. requires too much abstract thinking, training period is too stressful, entry costs are too high, apprenticeship is difficult to obtain)
- Nature of the job cannot be adequately offshored or automated because it relies on high-trust thinking, verbal knowledge, quality decision making, and personal contact (e.g. law, computer programming)
- Stable income stream with a large pool of commoditised jobs (e.g. accounting, contract law, computer programming, consulting)
- EDIT: I haven’t read this book but it looks like a great resource for choosing a career: “Worthless”
Once you’ve started on your career your main goal is to become really good at it. Shine your star as bright as you can. Take real passion in excellence for its own sake. Ignore all those office-politics TV shows and books that would convince you advancement is all about who you know. No. Right up until you hit senior management advancement is what you know. Consider pick-up: what is the more successful strategy (i) learn the secret code to bullshit women into your bed or (ii) become the kind of high value man that pretty women want to sleep with? Precisely. When you know full well that every single day you go into the office you are producing high quality work, when every single product you deliver to a customer is best-in-class…. the money will keep rolling in. I’ve read all of Robert Green’s books. He’s right in his 48 Laws of Power and his 33 Strategies of War but these are only effective at the margins. Consider them defensive positioning so that the passive-aggressive office freaks can’t hurt you. Do not willingly engage in such petty power games or you’ll take on the character of your opponents. Never wrestle a pig. You both end up covered in shit but the pig likes it.
At the beginning of your career things are rather nebulous. Your academic record matters but both you and your prospective employer know your basically a know-nothing kid who needs to be trained up on the job. So heading into an interview your vibe, character and potential matter alot. Five years down the line it’s all about genuine markers of geniune skill. Do you have the industry-standard qualification? Do you write the industry-leading program code? How many sales did you bring to your last company? Whatever the metric is, you are on stronger ground having acheived the matric through being excellent at your job than bullshitting your way through with gambits you learned in a self-help book. The business world is not as dumb as you may think.
Your twenties are your peak brain-forming years. You can google yourself all the studies showing how artists are most productive in their twenties, how creative thinking is maxed out in those years. By spending your twenties feeding your mind you will become more intelligent. I’m lucky – I spent the whole of my twenties straining and challenging my mind quite naturally by taking a difficult study-intensive job, reading hundreds of books, writing for several publications, learning a foreign language, cerebrally learning martial arts (in addition to the raw physical side), playing intellectually engaging video games etc. I was not simply sitting on my sofa with a bag of Wotsits watching X-Factor. You must find challenge in your twenties. Work is a great place for it but also consider your leisure time. Learn expert systems. Take joy in it, whether it be chess, crossword puzzles or Starcraft. You must read alot, with a good portion of those books being stimulating rather than mere entertainment. Set yourself little projects within your hobbies. Here’s a sample of what I did in my twenties:
- Learn how global financial and economic flows work. I found five top quality technical blogs to read daily and deepened my knowledge of sectors through reading about 45 books. It took eighteen months.
- A deep dive into Japanese culture. I studied the language at a school, watched lots of anime with English subtitles, and read English-language translations of major Japanese fiction.
- Micro-analyse fighting arts. I watched a few hundred MMA and kickboxing shows live, analysing the fights as I watched rather than limit myself to letting in wash over me. I read theory pieces on technique, followed the major magazines, learned what I could from fighter records (and to predict future fights), tried to pick out moves in fights to practice in the gym etc.
Those are my hobbies, don’t feel obliged to mimick them. Notice a common trend is my frame was to identify intriguing questions and then set out to answer them. Even the dryest blogpost on sub-prime ALT-A mortgage servicing fees becomes fascinating when it’s the answer to a question you’ve been asking yourself. That’s how your brain glows.
Accumulation is by its nature a forward-thinking phase with considerable deferred gratification. You’ll take alot of manly pride in building your castle but there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s alot of hard graft. You must be prepared to work hard. There is no shortcut because your brain and body require the hard work in order to reach their potential. Even if somehow inexplicably you were to stumble upon a suitcase full of millions you could not shortcut this process. Sure, you’d be financially set for life but all those other male attributes would wither on the vine.
Done correctly, you will end the accumulation phase towards your early thirties with the following dimensions to your character:
- Clever as fuck
- A highly marketable skill set so you need never fear unemployment
- A huge reservoir of interesting knowledge about the world, it’s culture and history
Congratulations. You are now entering your SMV prime holding four aces.
*NB* – I didn’t touch on physical culture, fashion or other lifestyle areas. I’m assuming you know you should continue working out and learn to dress well. By necessity this post can only touch a few concepts so don’t think this is all there is. And of course don’t get married. I’d also add don’t buy a house or do anything else that ties you long-term to one place and high monthly payments. I’ll discuss that more in the final part…….. and btw, this is my 500th post.