Episode 28: Chad Grills on Accelerated Learning, Antifragility, and Definite Optimism

I interview Chad Grills, a tech entrepreneur and the curator of the Medium publication Life Learning, about his three core passions: Accelerated learning, antifragility, and definite optimism.

All episodes available on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Stitcher.

Unexpected Ways I’ve Changed in Recent Years

  • I now enjoy Twitter more than Facebook
  • I used to be an extrovert, now I’m an introvert
  • I now prefer cheap, lighter beers over fancy, heavier craft brews
  • I used to only take coffee black, now I quite enjoy cream
  • I now listen to new age type mood music as much as classic rock
  • I now prefer writing to almost any other activity
  • I once found Star Trek boring, now I love it
  • I used to hate politics, now I hate it even more

Does Future Orientation Mean Anything?

It’s not easy to stay out of the future.

I live a lot of my life there.  I don’t know that it’s bad, but there is this universal approval of ideas like, “be in the present moment”, and, “don’t put off living for some future date”.  Those platitudes sound right and put the tiniest weight of guilt on my forward tilt.  I’ve learned guilt is rarely a good road map unless backed by clear reason.  Still, it does seem weird to be always pushing, thinking, dreaming, and building today for some imagined land called tomorrow.

It’s hard to rest.  All rest seems like a stop with a purpose – to recharge and regroup for another forward march.  I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have a few purposeless moments, outside of time.  The arrow of time runs always on, left to right, and drives most of my excitement and lust for life.  Stillness, unless deliberately practiced as a way to make me a better forward moving vehicle, feels like stagnation.

Does the relentless, Crusoe-like desire to add on to one’s present options set with ceaseless improvements indicate something about the nature of reality?  Does the magnetic sojourn into the not-yet place we build in our imaginations mean we are hard-wired for something eternal?

I suppose it doesn’t have to.  It sure feels like it does.  It’s hard to imagine all this forward-facing energy coming to an abrupt end in tandem with my bones and sinews.  Where is the arrow trying to fly?

This of course brings up the equally baffling question of from where the arrow came and what gave it thrust.  Is it accelerating, decelerating, or remaining constant like a geosynchronous satellite?

Even when I am in the moment, the thing that gives it that intoxicating flow is the fact that the moment is movement.  It is the process of overcoming a struggle towards some happily anticipated future probability.

It’s hard for me to imagine that I’ll ever be done.  The thought of ever unfolding creation gives me comfort and, paradoxically, energy when I’m tired.

Things got a little mystical there didn’t they?  Must be this yoga music.

Back to my bowl of cereal…and whatever comes next.

Why You Should Apply to Praxis

Why I Started Praxis

Praxis requires the right people.  It’s a challenging program.  It’s not for everyone.

So who’s a good fit?  If you or someone you know fits any of these descriptions, it might be a match made in heaven…

You’re good, but you’re bored

You can do well in school.  You’re typically one of the best students.  You can do well in a job.  You’re typically one of the best employees.  Most social and educational situations are like games, and you’re pretty good at figuring out the game and doing what it takes to win.  Still, you’re restless.

Gaming the school system for grades seems a bit pointless, and you’re jonesing for something more real.  You want to succeed, but you’d like to do it in an environment that’s connected to something bigger, more valuable to the world and to your own future.

You know you don’t know everything and you’re bored getting rewarded for stuff that isn’t all that challenging.  You relish the opportunity to try bigger things, and to be in an environment where open experimentation and failure aren’t the enemy, but stagnation is.

You’ve always got side projects and ideas

Not satisfied with officially sanctioned clubs and activities, you’re keen to create your own.  You’re the one who’s always starting fantasy football leagues or planning poker nights.  What?  No aquatics club?  You’ll remedy that.  Nearest Red Bull supply is too far away?  You’ll start a little delivery service.

From building club websites and Facebook pages to finding someone to make a new logo for your softball team, you never stop coming up with new ideas, jumping on opportunities, and completing projects of your own design.

You know this urge to build things might take you places if put in a more expansive context.  You know you could learn so much more being around others who have built amazing companies and brought big ideas to life.

You can’t stop seeing how everything around you could be done more efficiently

Everyone in line at the airport is staring at their phone and mindlessly wandering through the rope maze.  Not you.  You’re analyzing the way the line is designed and frustrated that they chose such an inefficient configuration.

You immediately see how the class assignment could be done in a much cleaner, quicker way with the same result.  You probably got in trouble for discovering shortcuts and hacks in grade school.  Everywhere you look, you run numbers in your head or ask questions about how the model works.  When you drive through a neighborhood, you’re looking at the cars and houses and estimating the annual salary and debt needed to sustain the residents.  You wonder if they’d have a higher quality of life in a different city with lower cost of living.

You feel like the world is full of inefficiencies but this doesn’t make you angry, it makes you excited.  Where others see pain points, you see opportunity.  You may not know yet how to channel this mindset and you may not have any particular passion, but you can’t turn off that part of your brain that sees areas for improvement all around.

You’d love to enter an environment where that mindset is valuable and cultivated.  You’d love to take it to the next level.

If that’s you, so is this

Praxis is ideal for anyone who fits any of these descriptions.  An intensive 3 month bootcamp on personal and professional skills, 6 months working at an amazing startup, a rigorous series of personal development projects, coaching, and a deep dive into what it takes to be an entrepreneur and self-directed learner.  This is the career and educational experience you’ve always wanted.  No fluff.  No BS.

Why wait to do awesome stuff and work with innovative companies?

Start today.

When Your Kids Call You Out

I walked into the kitchen this morning to grab a snack while working on my phone.  My five year old daughter called to me from the other room.

“Daddy, can you draw a face on this for me?”

I was in the middle of work, trying to get a quick bit of nutrients and return to my office.  I was distracted.  I didn’t feel like scrawling a face on a piece of packaging plastic with a mashed up pink marker.  I responded,

“I’m not good at drawing faces honey.”

I lied.

It is true that I’m not good at drawing faces, at least relative to an average person over the age of eight.  But my daughter already knows that.  She knows I’m not the best artist in the family.  She knows my son and my wife can both draw a better face than I can.  But she also knows I can do one better than her.  She asked knowing full well the extent and limits of my abilities.  So she called me out.

“Just do your best.  Just like I do my best.”

Ouch.

“Just do your best” is one of those phrases I use all the time as a parent, and it usually feels good.  It’s not condemning or harsh or full of phony, undeserved praise.  When your kid says, “But I’m not good at X!” parents can calmly say, “Just do your best!”  We wouldn’t want them to let fear of imperfection stop them, right?

In this case, I wasn’t getting called out for fear of failure.  I wasn’t avoiding face-drawing because I was afraid the face wouldn’t look good.  I’m way past that point.  I was getting called out for lying.  I was trying to pull a fast one on my daughter instead of just using direct, clear, honest communication.  Kids aren’t that easy to fool.

I really had two choices.  Draw the face or don’t draw the face.  Either one would have been morally and practically acceptable.  If I chose not to draw the face, the best thing would have been to give an honest reason.  “I’m sorry honey, I’m in the middle of some other things.  I’ll do it later if you still want me to.” or simply, “Hon I’m not going to draw a face right now.”

Those may sound harsh, at least compared to drawing the face.  But they’re less harsh than the lie I tried to get away with.  My daughter knows my lack of artistic skill is not the reason I didn’t want to draw a face in that moment.  So deflecting with that not only indicated I didn’t want to draw, but also that I didn’t respect her enough to just say so.

She got distracted drawing and went about her business, as I did mine.  I don’t think any major damage was done.  Still, not my finest moment in parenting.

It was a good reminder of how often and how easily we slip into dishonest forms of communication.  If it goes far enough, it can lead to self-deception, where we actually start to believe our false reasons for action or inaction.

If only I could bring my kids with me 24/7 to call me on my BS.

Doing Work You Love and Being Happy Are Not Necessarily the Same Thing

Would you believe me if I told you that people can be happy doing work they hate?

Everyone wants to be happy.  Well, there is actually some debate about what people want and whether the word “happy” is the the most accurate.  Call it utility, or fulfillment, or flow, or bliss, or the good life, or anything else you like.  I’m going to use the word ‘happy’ to describe an existence that maximizes those moments when you feel proud and thrilled to be alive, and minimizes those where you feel the opposite.  Just give me some definitional generosity, or substitute your preferred word that defines what it is you seek.

Now, most people also think that they want to do work that they love.  That is, they want the way in which they procure the resources needed for survival and material pleasure to be an activity that is inherently interesting and fulfilling.  They do not merely want the hunt to be done for the meat, but they want to enjoy it for its own pleasures.  At least that’s what they’ll tell you.

You might be lying

I think a great many people are lying to themselves and others about what they actually want.  A lot of people want to be the type of person who seeks meaning in their work, but they actually care a lot more about just finding a way to get the resources needed to relax more.  Doing work you love is harder than doing work you can tolerate.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  There is nothing morally superior or inherently noble about wanting to do work that you love, and there is nothing bad about wanting to just get the money you need to work as little as possible.  These are personal preferences, and either approach can lead to a happy life.  Of course, lack of self-knowledge or dishonesty with oneself about which approach you prefer can lead to unhappiness just as easily.

In other words, doing work you love is not the secret ingredient needed to be happy.  At least not for everyone.

There are people who can never be happy unless they are doing work they love.  For them, it doesn’t even matter if they make a lot of money at it.  If those people chase money and status over fulfilling work, they’ll be miserable.

There are also people who can never be happy unless they have a large amount of money, free time, leisure, and a minimum of stress.  For them, it doesn’t even matter much what kind of work they do, as long as it yields them enough money in a small enough amount of time to do what they really love.  If those people chase a meaningful career with all the material and time sacrifices that requires, they’ll be miserable.

Who are you?

The key to happiness is to discover which type of person you are, be honest with yourself and others about what you find, and have the courage to live it.

Let me illustrate this with a matrix.  I love a good 2×2 matrix.  It’s been awhile since the last one I made (in what is still one of my favorite posts), so I decided to conjure up a new one.  My graphic design skills are once again on full display.  You’re welcome for the visual feast.

Doing Work You Love and Being Happy

Let’s walk through each of the four quadrants one by one.  See if you can recognize people in your life who fit them.

Oh, and notice in particular the fact that the amount of money earned is not the relevant factor in any of the quadrants.  You can have rich, poor, or anything in between in any of them.

“I love my work and I’m happy”

The upper left quadrant represents those people who have gone all-in to find work that makes them feel alive every day.  They may be billionaire tech company founders who live and breath their company, or penniless beach bums who spend all day on the waves and scrape together just enough money giving lessons for a burger and a brew.  I know people so passionately obsessed with their work that they’d rather be doing it than anything else.  Depending upon what that work is, they may be very wealthy or very poor.  They don’t much care.  They care about their craft, and so long as they’re doing it, life is good.

“I hate my work and I’m happy”

The upper right quadrant is where people who have accepted the fact that work is not for them hang out.  They’ve also come to grips with the fact that the things they actually do love require a good bit of money and time, and work is required to get it.  They configure their lives to do the minimum amount of drudgery to get the maximum payoff.  I know business owners who have no interest in their industry, or salespeople who would just as unhappily sell something totally different.  They just found a niche where they can get what they need.

They sometimes live the Four Hour Workweek life, and truly put in almost no time to keep the income stream going.  Those with a longer time horizon and ability to defer gratification may put in a lot more hours upfront and endure a high degree of boredom for the payoff of evenings, weekends, or retirement.  I know people who I don’t think would ever find happiness in any kind of work.  They want leisure.  But they’ve made their peace with this fact and put all their energy into being true to that reality, instead of unhappily chasing an illusive form of work they’d love, or feeling guilty for their material desires.

“I love my work and I’m unhappy”

Ah yes, the martyr.  The people in the lower left quadrant are probably the hardest for me to be around.  They self-righteously remind everyone about how they opted not to “sell-out”, but then never stop bitching about the costs they incurred for doing so.  The truth is, these are people who would be happier seeking money instead of work they think the world will see as meaningful.  This is the jazz artist who gets angry every time the Grammy’s come along and some blonde pop star takes home the hardware.  This is the adjunct professor who chose an obscure academic discipline with almost no chance of good money but never stops yelling about the injustice in the fact that no one values what they do enough to pay them big bucks.

The funny thing is, this is a phenomenon found almost exclusively in rich countries.  The unhappy work purists are typically quite wealthy by world standards, but they can never stop comparing themselves to the richest of the rich.  This obsessive tendency to compare reveals their true preference for material wealth over career fulfillment.  They’d be a lot happier if they were simply honest with themselves and, as my friend Jason Brennan suggests, got a job at Gieco.

“I hate my work and I’m unhappy”

Opposite of the previous category, those in the lower right quadrant believe themselves to be made happiest by money, status, and “normalcy”.  But they are wrong about their true desires.  These people chose the best school, the best major, the best internship, and the job with the best title at the consulting firm because everyone around them egged them on the whole way.  Surely a great job, nice house, respectable resume, and good income will lead to happiness, right?  In their case, wrong.

They find themselves hating their work and not really enjoying the material benefits it brings either.  Their weekends are just as dull as the workweek.  As they keep ratcheting up the career ladder they also ratchet up their lifestyle, hoping that the next level and a new car will bring happiness.  It doesn’t.  But because their material quality of life escalates with their income, they feel trapped.  If they happen to realize that they never cared much for money and status as much as meaning in their work, it seems too late.  How could they give up $180,000 a year to start a band or become a chef?  They might lose their marriage, and surely their social standing.

Knowledge and Honesty

Again, every quadrant has examples of both rich and poor within it.  The two happy categories include rich and poor as well as those who love their work and those who hate it.  The key is not finding the one true path that works for everyone.  The key is finding out who you really are.  Then not being ashamed of what you find and not lying to yourself about it.

Self-knowledge and self-honesty.

Finally, after discovering and being truthful about what makes you happy, go do it.  It’s worth all the costs.

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For more on this topic check out the podcast episode with TK Coleman, “Should You Follow Your Passion or Not?

Episode 27: Michael Gibson on Leaving Academia to Pursue Ideas

Michael Gibson was pursuing a PhD in philosophy when it struck him that the really big ideas weren’t being advanced within the walls of academia. He left, got into the tech world, and found himself running investor Peter Thiel’s fellowship program for young college droupouts. He’s recently co-founded his own venture capital fund to support young people who want to work on big ideas outside of the classroom.

We discuss his love of literature and philosophy, how he wound up in Silicon Valley, and what it looks like to operate outside the status quo.

This and all episodes are available on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Stitcher.

Entrepreneurship Needs the Right Context

Entrepreneurship is really sexy right now.  Startup founders are like rock stars and you can’t go a day without seeing articles about them.  As far as it goes, I welcome this trend.  Entrepreneurship, as J.B. Say might define it, is the act of moving resources from lower to higher valued uses, or more concretely, creating a new process or product to solve old problems in innovative ways.  This seems a pretty good thing to glorify, at least compared with some other superficial traits that get a lot of attention.

Still, if entrepreneurship is praised across the board, regardless of the context, bad things can happen.

Absent competition and markets, being entrepreneurial has no value.  In fact, it can destroy value if channeled into the political process.  Political entrepreneurs find new ways to access resources first taken from others by force (taxation), and therefore do not create wealth.  They shift existing wealth around with no value-add, because the profit/loss signals are short-circuited.  Furthermore, they divert resources from productive activity to lobbying, currying favor, or massive projects with populist appeal but no market value.

Just about any entrepreneurial endeavor with the words “green” or “sustainable” has a high likelihood of being a fraudulent political game rather than genuine value creation.  The web of grants and subsidies and tax incentives and price supports and mandates in this industry make it all but impossible to identify real value creation as distinct from political shenanigans.  There are a great many media friendly entrepreneurs who chase government dollars instead of private investor or customer dollars, which are the real indicator of value creation.

Furthermore, all the buzz about entrepreneurship has given tech founders a huge platform from which to weigh in on a great many other issues.  Many people assume anyone smart enough to build a great app or billion dollar company could improve public policy.  The problem is that policy doesn’t get debated and implemented in a startup environment, but a monopolized, violence-backed, and fundamentally warped institution with all the wrong incentives.  The technocratic desire many startup types have to make gov’t more like a Silicon Valley company is what Hayek might call the fatal conceit.  It won’t work.  “If only smart people would control all the resources (and the guns that seize them) we’d make public infrastructure flawless!”  This kind of thinking is more dangerous, even if more noble on its face, than political actors openly seeking their own enrichment and not trying to solve grand problems with central plans.

The same thing happened in the industrial era.  Titans like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie were heroes because of their amazing success at improving the world through entrepreneurial action in the market.  When they turned their attention to politics, Gilded Age entrepreneurs built up a horrific behemoth of graft and monopoly that only slowed progress.

In a free or mostly free market entrepreneurs are the greatest force for good the world has ever known.  More than any amount of philanthropy or good intentions.  Outside the market context there is nothing inherently noble about entrepreneurship, and when directed to the political process it can be downright destructive.

Working Hard Doesn’t Have to Mean Burnout

I often write about how you can succeed by working your butt off to be the most reliable, consistent, effective person in whatever work setting you find yourself.  I talk about the need to be so good and so reliable that those you work with never have to worry about you.  I had an interesting response from a reader who said that these ideas seemed to lay the groundwork for suffering a terrible work environment.  If all your focus is on working hard and making sure you don’t cause stress to your colleagues, you might end up burned out and unhappy.

It’s a fair criticism because I don’t always make explicit an assumption that precedes the work hard advice: don’t stay someplace that sucks.

Don’t do things that make you dead inside.  Don’t stay anywhere – home, school, job, relationship – where you feel devalued or depressed every day.  Don’t settle or compromise.  You may not know what makes you come alive, and that’s OK, but as soon as you find things that make you die, quit.  Exit.  Leave.

Your professional life is too valuable to find some kind of middle ground or happy medium where you kind of like it OK, therefore you kind of sort of do a decent job.  No.  If you’re not kicking ass and being your best self day in and day out, why be there at all?  If grinding it out at 100% results in your being abused or burned out, the solution is not to work less hard, it’s to find new work.

If you’re unhappy, slacking off a bit more will not improve the root problem.  If doing your best work doesn’t bring you joy, you need to find work that does.

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