How to Keep the Young and Poor from Succeeding

Let’s face it. I’m not that young anymore. I’m also not poor anymore, and I live a comfortable middle-class American life. Most older, better-off middle-classers like me got where we are through the dynamic market process. The trouble is, now that we’re doing pretty well, that same dynamic process is a threat. I don’t want some young whippersnapper or poor immigrant to outwork me. What if they succeed faster than I do? What if they create more value than I can, and so outcompete me for a job?

Take heart, well-heeled middle-agers. I have a plan. My scheme for keeping younger and poorer people from succeeding—and possibly making us have to work harder to stay on top—is two-pronged: We’ve got to affect both supply and demand.

We need to restrict the supply of economic opportunities. We need to make those opportunities more costly and thus out of the reach of many young and poor. We also need to suppress the demand for jobs and entrepreneurial ventures. We need to make it more beneficial to stay out of the market than to participate in it.

Let’s get to some specifics.

Restrict the supply of opportunities

The biggest advantages young and poor people have over us are very low opportunity costs and a low-cost lifestyle. This means they don’t have to give up much to work a job, and they don’t need to earn much to cover their expenses. Because of these major advantages, they can work for very low wages, and thus become attractive for employers to hire and train. At low wages, they’ll always find work, and worse yet, they’ll be constantly learning and improving—adding to their stock of human capital.

The obvious solution is to make it illegal to work for low wages. Working for free is absolutely out of the question. If young and poor people could simply offer to work for little or no pay, they’d soon be gaining valuable skills and competing with us for jobs! Let’s cut that first rung off the ladder, lest they climb over us some day.

Young and inexperienced workers don’t have a lot of expertise. They make mistakes. Of course, if they’re allowed to participate in the trial-and-error process of the market, the incentives will soon drive them to develop expertise and be reliable suppliers of goods and services. That would be a travesty for us. We need to keep them unskilled and unreliable. The solution is to create a labyrinthine web of licenses and regulations that make it illegal for anyone but experts to sell goods or offer services. Since we’ve already banned working for low wages or apprenticing for free, it will be almost impossible for these novices to learn from a seasoned expert until they gain the necessary skill. We can make it even harder by adding lots of fees and costly training sessions to obtain licenses.

There needn’t be just one law making low wages illegal or just one licensing and regulatory regime. We need a wide variety of complex and ever-changing barriers. High taxes on productivity and profit, union dues and demands, work restrictions, rigid job categories, seniority bias, massive credential requirements, health and safety rules to cripple upstarts, consumer protection laws to hamper smaller producers, no access to capital or ability to stay in line with the law without costly lawyers and accountants, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

My recommendations are myriad, but they all boil down to a simple principle: Do anything we can to make economic opportunities more costly and rare. This reserves most of said opportunities for us.

Now for the second prong.

Reward non-participation

We don’t want to seem callous and cold toward those less comfortably situated. Indeed, we harbor no ill will toward the young and poor. We just don’t want them to compete with or catch us.

Since we care—and especially because we want people to believe that we care—we can’t be all “stick.” We need some “carrot,” too. It’s not enough to restrict the supply of opportunities, because some people will break the rules or work around them. We also need to suppress demand by offering some sweet incentives for young workers to stay unproductive and uncompetitive. We need to make non-participation in the market more attractive than participation.

First, I recommend a strict policy of forced education for the first few decades of life. We’ve already discussed making it illegal for the young to work or the poor to work for low wages. But we also need to make it mandatory that they do something else, and something that won’t make them more likely to compete with us now or later. We should create giant institutions where we send them all day to follow rules and do what they’re told without question. We don’t want them becoming innovative, or pursuing passions and interests that they might become experts in and thus supplant us in the market. They must only learn what the bureaucrats who run the system tell them to. (Oh, and the people who run the system should only be those who don’t really know much about competing in the market, because we wouldn’t want them passing on such knowledge.)

We can’t just make school mandatory. Many would still play hooky if it cost too much. We also need to hide the cost by paying for the whole thing through taxes and borrowing. We need to subsidize it so much that alternatives can’t compete. We need to weave a narrative about its glory so that no one wants to opt out.

But 18 years isn’t enough. We need to keep these young, hungry individuals out of our way as long as possible. I say we artificially lower the cost of otherwise very expensive degree programs and advanced studies. We can guarantee low-interest loans, throw a lot of grants and subsidies around, and always, always parrot powerful propaganda about the inestimable value of classroom learning. Let’s make the most attractive option—socially and economically—the one that keeps them from the commercial world as long as possible.

The longer we can make the education process, the better for us. Defer, defer, defer the time at which young people start entering the productive sector. The more loans they take on in the process, the better. Maybe they’ll even get married, get a nice house (we can incentivize the buying of expensive consumer goods via debt as well!), and have kids. All of these things are good because they take away one of the major advantages the young have in the workforce—their low cost of living and hence ability to bid for lower starting wages. We want them saddled with so much debt that they have to earn high wages to get by, and thus have to compete with workers who are a lot more experienced for those higher wage jobs. We need them coming out of college looking for salaries that don’t comport with their skill levels. This increases the odds that older workers like us will win.

We’ll need to address those too old or too poor for school as well. We need basic income guarantees, food stamps, and all manner of welfare to cover the costs of low-income life such that no part-time entry-level job could pay quite as much. Again, we need to make not working worth more than working.

The best part

Here’s the best part: By the time these young and poor find themselves unable to compete, with costly lifestyles and loans to maintain and little skill or experience, they’ll be older. They’ll join our ranks. They’ll lobby for even harsher restrictions on those even less experienced and less well-off than they are. They’ll demand to get the low-skill jobs they’re qualified for, but demand the pay be raised to high-skill wages. They’ll make the list of degrees and credentials they’ve accumulated the new barrier to entry to artificially raise their market value. They’ll help us perpetuate the very policies that caused their plight!

As with the first prong, these are but a few examples. Ideally a massive and shifting bundle of incentives to not enter the market as a producer can be put together: education mandates and subsidies, tax incentives to spend rather than save and to purchase education rather than other goods or business tools, housing and healthcare as long as you don’t work, and rewards for any activity that makes one less likely to try to compete with us in the market.

These policies will subtly turn the attention of nearly everyone away from value creation, innovation, and serving customers—all of which might threaten our dormancy. It will turn everyone’s attention and energy to fighting over the details of these policies and programs, to who gets which slice of the artificially limited pie and at whose expense. Some of us can really take advantage by running for political office and dividing up the warring interests we’ve created by promising them more restrictions and subsidies.

Above all, with both prongs of this strategy, we need a narrative that calls these policies noble, compassionate, and wise. We need them to be perceived as humanitarian aid to the young and poor, not as ways to keep them from succeeding. We need to make these programs universal values in themselves—regardless of the outcomes they produce. Who could oppose better wages? Who could oppose more education? Who could oppose more loans for homes or college? Who could oppose work rules and consumer safety regulations? Middle-aged, middle-class people certainly won’t, if we know what’s good for us.

We cannot abide an America in which plucky newcomers outperform us at every turn. Join me in securing our future.

Originally published in The Freeman.

The Real Motive for the Matrix

I received a fair number of comments, suggestions, and complaints after yesterday’s post about the obedience-entitlement matrix and how different generations might map onto it.  Unsurprisingly, all of them were from Millennials.  I was glad.  If someone puts your generation in a quadrant with the word “Slaves”, I hope it rubs you the wrong way.

There were two motives for yesterday’s post.  The first was just fun.  I find categories and paradigms enjoyable as intellectual playthings.  No research went into it.  I’m experimenting with different ideas to see if they entertain or enlighten in new ways.  I wouldn’t even say I stand by whatever labels and descriptors were there in any way, except that I fully admit to finding the exercise useful.

The second motive was to rub a lot of people the wrong way.  Not to actually upset anyone, but to leave all readers feeling that the categories put forth fail to accurately capture many people, and especially the reader him or herself.  Stereotypes, categories, sweeping generalizations, and even concepts like generations are made up.  They have no objective ontological status (may my philosopher friends correct me if I’m using these words confusingly).  Like all myths and symbols, they have truth value in that they convey truths, but they aren’t true.

I hope every time you see the world broken into a few big categories it makes you feel a bit like you don’t really fit into any of them neatly.  Disassociate from collective categorizations and see yourself as exceptional.  Collectivism is one of the most pernicious outlooks in the history of man and is responsible for untold evil.

This balance is to use groupings, categories, and two by two matrices as tools to enhance your experience of the world and improve your interpretive and predictive powers.  Don’t actually believe them.  There are two kinds of people in this world: those who accept being lumped into two groups, and those who don’t.

The Obedience-Entitlement Matrix and Generational Differences

I love a good two by two matrix.  Trying on new lenses through which to interpret the world is a big part of intellectual exploration.  Plus, it’s fun.  I have been fascinated for some time with differences between generations, especially since I’ve interacted a lot with Millenials (or Generation Y) in the last several years, and now I’m interacting with the next generation (I’m calling them Generation Z, because I’m not sure any other title exists currently).  There are some pretty significant differences between these two generations, not to mention the huge difference between both and Generation X, Baby Boomers, and even earlier generations.

In order to explore these generational differences, and to sate my desire for matrices, I put together the Obedience-Entitlement matrix.  Obedience – the degree to which a person follows orders and maintains existing norms – is measured from high to low on the vertical axis.  Entitlement – the degree to which a person believes they are owed something from others – is measured from high to low on the horizontal axis.

You can see the four quadrants that result.  The first label in each quadrant describes the dominant trait displayed by individuals or groups in that quadrant.  The second label in each quadrant serves as a kind of archetype, describing informally the role people in that quadrant play in a society.  Don’t mistake the second label as a career description.  It may be that, but obviously many societies don’t have slaves in the formal sense, and many people who make good soldiers are not necessarily soldiers, etc.  You get the idea.

Don’t be too distracted by the word “Slave” in the upper left quadrant.  Again, it’s an archetype.  I tried to think of a less loaded but still accurate word to describe people who are highly obedient and don’t challenge authority, and are highly dependent and expect to be taken care of.  Slave is the best word I could find.  Obviously not the kind of slaves that revolt or escape, but kind that accept their lot and seek nothing more than the most comfortable slave life possible.

Obedience-Entitlement Matrix


So here’s where I started having fun with it.  Thinking in terms of generational differences, I tried to map out the dominant characteristic that describes each of the last four generations.  The Greatest Generation and Boomers were pretty easy.  It gets harder after that.

The ‘Greatest Generation’

The WWII generation fits pretty nicely in the upper right quadrant.  They tend to be deferential to authority and feel a need for maintaining a constant order in the world.  They don’t mind knowing and staying in their “place”, and they don’t expect anything for free.  This generation is accustomed to earning everything through hard work and individual effort, and they keep their gripes to themselves rather than upsetting the apple cart with direct action.

Baby Boomers

Boomers are in the bottom left quadrant.  They grew up questioning everything and tearing down what didn’t suit them.  A big part of their revolt came when they felt they didn’t get what they deserved.  They want things, and you’re damn-well gonna give it to them.  This is a group that’s willing to question all authority structures, and yet doesn’t mind fawning over those promising free goodies.  This is a source of radical idealism, but practical problems.

Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z

Here’s where it gets hard.  I’ll theorize on why it gets harder in a minute, but first let’s see what we can do.

Generation X might be the least clear.  I consider myself a Gen Xer, even though my date of birth may or may not put me in the tail end of that group, depending who you ask.  I have older siblings and grew up primarily with people and accouterments considered Gen X.  So what does grunge music and a bunch of movies about discontent corporate workers and long-haired slackers mean for the matrix?  I’m still not settled on this one, but I think Gen X is mostly in the upper right quadrant in deed, if not in words.  You don’t see the abiding respect for authority that the Greatest Generation displays, yet for all the complaining and philosophizing about the system, Gen Xers pretty much do the ‘normal’ thing.  They complain about it and feel like it’s pointless, but they do it.  Xers don’t seem to have a strong sense of entitlement either.  In fact, they seem to expect mostly bad things to happen, and have made a kind of stoic peace with it.

On to Millennials.  Here’s where I’ll tick some people off.  If I can narrow down the diverse set of Gen Y characteristics to only the most common, I’d have to place them in the upper left quadrant.  Millennials are demanding and ‘high maintenance’ if you ask employers or parents.  But not in a revolutionary way that truly scares those in authority.  Millennials aren’t threatening to the status quo as much as they are frustrating.  It’s hard to know what they need.  They want a lot of things, and they want someone else to figure it out and give it to them.  They aren’t afraid to openly criticize or make demands of authority, but mostly as a way to vent emotions.  They want to be taken care of above all, and have an abiding sense that the world is unfair if they don’t get what they want.  If you provide, they’ll obey.

Generation Z is really interesting to me.  Only in the last few years have I spent a good deal of time around this generation.  I place them primarily in the bottom right quadrant.  They’ve seen older siblings pay a lot of money for college only to end up in debt living in the basement.  They’ve never known the phenomenon of ever increasing home values and 401(k)’s.  They don’t expect their lives to be better than their parents by some automatic function of time passing.  They’re not entitled.  But they also feel comfortable openly criticizing existing institutions.  Unlike most Millennials, however, they’re not afraid to do something about it and pay the price.  Unlike boomers, they don’t see revolt or reform as the best way to confront the status quo.  They simply walk away, opt out, and exit what they don’t like.  They’ve grown up in a world full of options, and they don’t feel the urge to go along with, or revolt against the game.  They just quit and find or create a new one.

The End of Generations?

X, Y, and Z are pretty hard to easily categorize.  Not just on this matrix, but in general.  They don’t seem to share really dominant characteristics the way previous generations do.  Perhaps that’s because not enough time has yet passed for us to have the ability to look back at their full record.  But I also suspect that the value of defining generations is declining across the board.

We have more choice and customization than ever.  It was once the case that everyone in a certain age range was sure to have a lot of shared experiences.  You saw the same shows, heard the same songs, wore the same clothes.  There weren’t many options.  Today it’s not uncommon for one 18 year old to be a huge fan of a band or TV show that another 18 year old in the same town has never even heard of.  The number of shared experiences and cultural icons has diminished.  This is a very exciting development!  Oppression and stagnation thrive off of sameness.  Collectivism is a dangerous mindset, but it’s becoming endangered.

Your Turn

Play around with the matrix yourself.  Place generations, individuals, companies, sports teams, or anything else on it.  Tell me why I’m wrong.  See if you can adapt it to be of more use to you.

The Trade-Off Between Productivity and Adaptability

When I got to the office this morning the WiFi was down.  It put a wrench in my whole day.  I had planned to write a blog post then jump right in to my task list.  Today was one of those productive days.  I could feel it.  But with no WiFi I couldn’t start in my preferred order.  I could do emails and several other things on my phone, but it’s much harder to write a blog post that way, so that had to wait.  I am now off my game, and struggling to get back on.

Some days I’m pretty adaptable.  If I know things are going to be unpredictable, I enter a flexible state of mind and can handle it well (when travelling, for instance).  But even though I handle it well, I’m far less productive when I’m highly adaptive.  I get back from a trip and I have a lot of catching up to do.  I have yet to find that zone where I can be highly productive and still easily roll with unexpected schedule shifts or curve-balls.

This apparent trade-off got me thinking about great sports teams.  Some of the greatest regular season teams are highly productive.  They have a plan, they are excellent at execution, and they deliver results week in, week out.  But many of those teams struggle mightily in the post season.  They face top defenses who have had longer to plan and throw out every trick in the bag.  They can upset the schedule.  Teams who operate far on the productivity side of the continuum suffer from lack of adaptability and can sometimes get blown out just by missing one or two early series.  I’m thinking of football especially.  How many Super Bowl winning teams have been the most consistently productive regular season teams, compared to the more tumultuous, creative, adaptive, and even streaky “big moment” teams?  Outside of Manning’s Colts, not many in my lifetime.

Where does this leave me?  I don’t really know.  I suspect the sweet spot is to find a way to dial in to productive mode for the regular season – the daily grind when travel and tumult are not the norm – and flip the switch to adaptive mode during the post season – the busy times and big moments where a lot is in the air.  I’m not sure how well one person or team can embody both styles of play and change between them on call.  I’ll have to think of some examples.  Still, I suspect that is where consistent greatness comes.  The kind that can win day in, day out, playing to strengths and rising to the big game with whatever’s needed.

What Does a Degree Signal?

There are plenty of critics of college.  It’s not uncommon to hear prominent pundits challenge the prevailing narrative that everyone should go to college.  Many contrarians say that too many young people are going to college, not too few.  They say that higher education is well-suited for the smart, hard-working, above average types, but too many mediocre students are attending.  They say it works better when only the best and brightest attend.  I think most of these critics have it backwards.

A degree is a signal.  It is well established that higher education’s primary value, and hence business model, is as a sorting mechanism rather than a forming mechanism.  Sure, you learn and change and gain things through the typical four year experience.  But all of those things could be had without being a registered student.  The only reason people keep paying to make the experience official is because of the signalling value of a transcript.  Given this fact, it follows that the signal would provide the most value for the marginal students, and the least value for the smartest, hardest working, highest achieving (not merely academic achievement, which doesn’t always mirror what matters in the world outside the walls of the classroom).  In other words, college is far more valuable to an average person who is content to put in less effort it than an above average talent who is very ambitious.

Considering how widespread the granting of degrees is, and considering the talent level of the typical college classroom, the degree doesn’t signal much.  It signals that you are average.  You’re like most other people.  If you’re at or below average, it can be valuable to have a way to let people know this.  If you’re above average, you want signals that demonstrate that you are, not merely those that lump you in with average.  Look around a college classroom and remember; what you’re purchasing is a signal that says, “I’m about the same as these people.”  For many of the sharpest, hardest working students, a degree signal greatly undersells them.

So much so that degrees have actually become a reverse signal in some circles.  In the venture capital world, it’s not uncommon for investors to count skipping or dropping out of college as a big plus for founders they want to invest in.  Entrepreneurs who have the courage to pursue their vision in the face of social pressure signal something really powerful.  Some of the most interesting people and opportunities in the world want an answer to the question, “Why did you go to college?”, rather than why didn’t you.  If you’ve got drive, creativity, and smarts above average, why did you choose the relatively easy, prevailing path?  Why did you wait four years to get started on the really good stuff?

Like most critics, I agree that college is not for everyone.  Where I disagree is that I think those who benefit least from it are those who are smartest and hardest working and most able to do more without it.  College is a least common-denominator signal.

A Book That Will Help You Understand Why Bitcoin is Amazing

My friend Steve Patterson – a brilliant and clear thinker, excellent writer, radical, tech enthusiast, and scholar – has written what I think is the best intro to bitcoin you can find.  It’s sufficiently basic, so even a tech noob like me can grasp it, but it doesn’t shy away from delving into the details of how the technology works.

downloadWhat’s the Big Deal About Bitcoin is the kind of book that, as you read it and immediately after, make you feel like you completely grasp the intricacies of bitcoin.  After a few days you can’t really explain or recall exactly what had you so excited.  That is a sign of a book that does a great job boiling down really complex ideas.  Big ideas take a while to understand, longer to be able to explain to others, and longest to become second-nature.  A book this small that can give you the complete intellectual understanding of the concept immediately is rare.  One encounter will convince you of the power of bitcoin.  Another will help you be able to explain it.  I’m reading it for a third time as I try to gain a level of understanding sufficient to convey it to others!

Prior to reading Steve’s book I was excited about bitcoin as currency from primarily a theoretical standpoint.  I know the dangers and limitations of government issued currency and the power and beauty of competitive, market-based currencies.  I was also very interested in bitcoin as method of payment as a practical solution to the archaic, costly, time-consuming methods currently available to individuals and businesses.  Transferring money is ridiculously cumbersome, and the fact that I’ve had to physically enter a bank branch twice in the last month – with several paper documents in hand – is absurd and annoying.  I knew bitcoin had potential as both a currency and method of payment, and I loved buying and transferring small amounts to play around with it.  What I did not understand was the real source of bitcoin’s value and power, the blockchain itself.

The blockchain is nothing more than a public ledger, but one that is completely decentralized and essentially eliminates fraud and most of the biggest problems that have long plagued both physical and digital financial transactions.  But the blockchain is more than just a financial innovation.  It’s a unique distributed software process that can be applied to anything where proof of ownership is incredibly valuable and forging such proof is low cost. (Copying paper money, or paper titles, for example).  It makes units of digital information, which by nature are infinitely copy-able, into unique, scarce pieces of data.  That single innovation has the power to transform the world, and the number of applications and technologies than can be built on top of it are endless.

Don’t get too bogged down trying to understand my explanation – I’m reading the book again to get better at explaining it, but I’m not there yet!  Pick up a copy and read it for yourself.  I’ll be surprised if you don’t walk away thinking bitcoin is the biggest innovation since the internet.



Some Podcasts I’m Listening to

EconTalk – An excellent podcast that I’ve been listening to somewhat regularly for a long time.  It’s great if you love economics, but it’s also great if you just love interesting people, big ideas, and non-conventional thinking.

School Sucks – I’ve heard about this one for a while and finally started listening to it.  I love it.  It covers a lot of topics, but the main theme is that the schooling mindset is anti-intellectual and stunts our imagination and development.  In the vein of thinkers like John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, and Peter Gray.

Alan Watts Podcast – A collection of recorded talks given by Alan Watts on religion, philosophy, science, meditation, and everything in between.  If you’ve never read Watts, this is a great way to get acquainted with his mind-stretching ideas and style.  If you have read him, it’s a cool experience to hear his voice.

Startup – A very cool almost real-time story of a podcaster starting his program and launching a company around it.  Longtime NPR Planet Money and This American Life host Alex Blumberg sets off on his own and shares the trials and tribulations of starting a company.  It’s entertaining, transparent, and inspirational.

The Tim Ferriss Show – I just started listening to this show by the author of the (badly named) Four Hour Work Week.  In the early episodes Tim takes a while to get to some of the best content and conversation, but he has excellent guests and wide ranging conversations about optimizing human performance and much more.  You never know what you’ll get, but it will be something new and challenging.

TED Radio Hour – An excellent way to get snippets and highlights from some great TED talks, with additional background info and interviews with the speakers.  Episodes are thematic, and have sound bites and interviews built around three or four TED talks on the theme.  I just pick themes of interest to me and skip around.  They do a good job of overcoming lack of visuals by adding extra audio content.

The James Altucher Show – I’m not a regular listening, but I like to check in and see what guests he has and pick and choose episodes.  They’re always good when I do!

Why I Love Voxer

I don’t spend a lot of time looking for or experimenting with new apps.  I assume I’ll eventually hear about anything that really helps me.  It takes a lot to change my systems of getting things done.  When a friend told me to download Voxer so we could connect easier than via phone or text, I was almost annoyed.  But I did it anyway.  It changed everything!

Voxer is a simple messaging tool that allows for audio, text, and images.  It’s much easier to use than the audio option native to the iPhone, and I find it incredibly natural to use it as the primary form of communication with friends and colleagues.  It combines the passive communication form of email and text – where you don’t need a coincidence of mutual availability like a phone call – with the personalization and ease of voice.  You can’t text while driving, and you don’t get to convey as much emotion and nuance.

The most valuable part is the ability to have threads with multiple people.  At Praxis, the team has two seperate Voxer threads that are ongoing.  One is for action items, and one is for big picture stuff.  We all travel a lot and are rarely together in one place, so when one of us has an idea we want to bounce around, we can have a conversation about it right away but still work around our schedules.  I’m a part of NBA and NFL threads with friends who are into sports where we debate what greatness is and trash-talk.  My kids use it to leave me messages when I’m travelling.  There is also a notes feature where you can leave notes to yourself, but without having to take up storage space on your local device like the native voice recorder app.

It’s hard to explain why Voxer adds so much value beyond the existing forms of communication, but I’m telling you if you and a few people with whom you regularly text, call, or email try it out, you’ll get it.  It’s amazing.

Two Habits That Help Me

I was checking out some new podcasts while travelling yesterday and listened to an episode of Tim Ferriss’s show where he interviewed Josh Waitzkin, on whom the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer are based.  Waitzkin mentioned several habits that keep him productive and help him maximize his day.  Two in particular stood out because I’ve found both extremely helpful when I practice them, but had not consciously thought about why that might be.  Waitzkin helped clarify the why.

The first is simply to begin the day with writing or some other kind of creative activity.  Do your creative work first, before checking emails or social media.  Those tasks and inputs will put your mind in a reactive orientation.  Once in react mode it’s very hard to keep the creative part flowing and it can make for a more stressful, chaotic day.  If you create first, you orient your mind creatively and then when it’s time for the inputs and tasks, you’re less reactive and more creative.

The second habit is to finish the work day with high quality work.  Whatever task or project you end the day on, make it your best work.  This not only gives a sense of pride, completion, and accomplishment that helps you transition away from work and unwind, it also leaves you in a productive, high quality mindset.  Your subconscious will carry that over into the night.  When you awake the next morning to create, you’ll already be in a good frame of mind to do so.

I’ve not always been consistent with these habits, but both essentially formed on their own as I found how valuable they were to getting and staying in the zone.  As I said, I hadn’t actually pondered them as explicit habits and discovered why they worked until the podcast, but they definitely do for me.

Should You Study the Greats, or Just Improvise?

It’s not uncommon for the most devoted students of personal health, or business startups, or filmmaking, or success more generally to be only moderately successful themselves. We’ve all met people who have read every “7 Ways”, and, “10 Tips” book on the market, yet still haven’t really gotten off the ground personally. So is greatness just too unique and context-dependent for useful road maps?

Most classes and books and seminars on how to succeed are run by those who have succeeded in some field or another. While their track record may be impressive, I always feel a little bit like successful people make up a lot of rules and patterns that helped them succeed in retrospect, and only some of them are real and valuable. If you’re too serious about it, it can make you feel like you can’t succeed unless you follow such rules or have great formmulae in place. In reality, those come later. First comes just doing stuff.

I think most endeavors in real life are more like bike riding than the checkbox tests in schools. If you wanted to be great at cycling, what would you do? Would you start with a seminar on bike riding? Best case, maybe you’d gain 5% of what’s needed from theory and experienced riders – like why a helmet might be a good idea – but you have to get 95% from just doing it.

This doesn’t mean experts and books are useless. Once you are an avid rider, only then do tips and techniques from Lance Armstrong really help you. It’s hard to even know what they’re talking about before that.

A lot of people in business school or getting MBA’s or at entrepreneurship conferences are like an aspiring cyclist spending years studying inside tips for winning the Tour de France and drafting and advanced specialized techniques for hill climbing, etc. before ever getting on a bike. Hop on and ride. A lot. Enter a few small races. Then whip out the books.

You don’t have the master something before studying it, but to really benefit from the insights of experts, you have to know what they’re talking about on a gut level. You have to be doing the stuff they’re teaching.

Glean what you can, but don’t ever let the quest for more knowledge on how to do something get in the way of just doing it.

Stay in Touch with the Future

There was a great Super Bowl ad that showed a now famous clip of two newscasters discussing the internet and email in 1994.  It was only 21 years ago, and already the thing they were so helpless to define or understand has completely redefined our world in a way all of us tacitly understand from birth. (You should see my kids with an iPad).

I’m an optimist and a big believer in the possibilities of tech and progress, yet too often this belief is just theoretical.  It’s easy to get a little impatient.  Yes, I know what’s possible in theory, but why don’t I see marvelous advances in practice?  Looking to the recent past is a great reminder of how much radical progress has happened in my lifetime alone.  Looking to the cutting edge of the present is even more exciting.

I try to read or watch something at least every few weeks about some area of science or technology that is a new frontier.  Whether checking on the latest in 3D printing, taking a peek at what’s going on at the Large Hadron Collider, or reading up on Bitcoin and its implications, I’ve discovered my sense of wonder is stirred by frequent updates from the fringes.  Every time I poke around new research and discoveries I wonder why I don’t do it more often.

If you’re looking for some crazy new stuff, here’s one I watched yesterday.  In addition to discussing some specific new technologies, Jose Cordeiro mentions four ways to deal with the future: Passive (bury your head like an Ostrich), Reactive (respond to it like a fire-fighter), Preactive (hedge against it like an insurer), and Proactive (create it like a builder).

Back to the Blog

I have said many times and I still firmly believe that the six months I spent blogging every day, seven days a week, led directly to the creation and launch of Praxis. Creating begets creating.  Posting ideas and words publicly every day puts you on the hook.  It makes you face fears.  It makes you ask “Why not”, instead of, “Why”.  It stirs the subconscious and unearths latent ideas and inspiration, and forces accountability.

Not long after launching Praxis, I stopped blogging here daily.  I’ve continued to blog once or twice a week at the Praxis blog, but I’ve done very little writing outside of what’s directly relevant to the company and its broader mission.  That’s been wonderful and will continue.  But it’s not enough.  I’m not sure what took me so long to realize it, but I need to blog every day.

I’ve been getting that restless feeling more and more, and wondering what to do about it.  I’m having the time of my life and facing new challenges every day with parenting, Praxis, and life in general, but I’ve felt just a little intellectually and spiritually sluggish in recent months.  Even my weekly blog posts for Praxis were sometimes a challenge.  When writing doesn’t come easy it’s a sure sign that I’m not ingesting enough new ideas.  When I’m reading or listening to interesting podcasts or lectures frequently, writing is easy.  In fact, it can’t be resisted and I often have to push other things out of the way to get the overflow of ideas out.  There is some kind of process my brain engages in when new ideas are fed in.  It does something to them and spins them back out reconstituted and reformulated.  I suppose it’s a kind of idea alchemy – though as anyone who’s read this blog can affirm, it doesn’t always result in the output being more valuable than the input!  It almost doesn’t matter the quality of the inputs or outputs.  Nor does it matter if anyone reads it.  As long as ideas are flowing in, being processed and transformed, and flowing out, I feel fulfilled and happy.

Blogging every day is the best way I’ve yet found to not let myself forget to consume a steady, healthy quantity of ideas.  Faced every day with the blank page, you realize quickly when you don’t have enough material to work with.  When you do, the posts write themselves and the challenge becomes keeping it concise.

That’s a lot of setup.  The point of this post is simply to say that once again I will be blogging here every single day, seven days a week, until further notice.  I’m not sure what I’ll write about or what themes might emerge.  I just know I need to do it to be my best self.

Take a listen to this great episode of the James Altucher podcast with Seth Godin and you, too, may be inspired to blog every day.

Better Off Free

11275_1658524154373144_4693890827086546057_nLiberty.Me was kind enough to publish a collection of essays I put together about a year ago in book form. Better Off Free spans a decade of my life, and in many ways tracks my intellectual journey.  It was fun to compile and I hope it’s enjoyable to read.  Special thanks to my good friend Zak Slayback for his fine editing work.

You can buy it in paperback on Amazon.

Alternatively, you can download the PDF, ePub, or Mobi file from Dropbox here.

I share the introduction to the book below, to give you an idea what it’s all about.


Better Off Free – Introduction

This book does not present one unified thesis or argument, as it is a collection of articles and blog posts spanning nearly a decade and many different topics. There is, however, a central theme that runs through it and loosely ties the essays together. That theme is simple: freedom is better than force.

The moral and practical reasons for the benefits of freedom and the dangers of force are explored from various angles throughout the book. You can think of each essay as an individual point about this or that topic, standing alone with its own color, and the book as a blank canvass. As each point dots the backdrop, you begin to see when you back up something of a single image, like an impressionist painting.

The essays are ordered and sectioned to provide some kind of flow and structure, but it ought not to be taken too seriously. The order is almost a reverse-chronology of my own intellectual journey. It begins with the most radical ideas, and works backwards through how I came to them.

I began exploring economic thinking, which helped me see the folly of central planning and the power and beauty of spontaneous order. Section 3 is mostly concerned with these ideas. Along the way, I was surprised to find that some of the same principles overlapped with the moral order. Section 2 deals with the moral side of freedom.

Economics is not a normative discipline, but once the paradigm shattering nature of economic thinking permeated my brain, it turned me into a relentless questioner, which bled into all aspects of my life. I began to see the state as not only very inefficient and ham-fisted, but as deeply inhumane. This was not an easy evolution. I was dragged, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, kicking and screaming to the radical conclusion that the state is a clumsy and barbaric farce at best, and a tool for the deepest evil at worst.

This was a rather depressing realization at first. It took time and intellectual effort to work out what, exactly, the implications of my newfound radicalism were for my own life and work. It took time to see the beauty of unplanned order more than the folly of states, and the empowering nature of human coordination instead of fear of it being disrupted.  Section 1 is, more or less, where I arrived.

I’ve always wanted to make people’s lives better. I started in humanitarian missions but wanted to do something on a more fundamental level – teach a man to fish and all that. I entered politics, thinking that’s what creates the policies and institutions we live under. I was wrong; politicians are followers and lagging indicators, not the creators of institutional change. I explored policy research and education and the popularization of economic thinking, which felt far more productive. I’m now in the realm of entrepreneurship, seeking to create the kind of alternatives that theory and history show to be better than the state-dominated status quo.

The journey is not over, nor will it ever be. This book shares points along the path that led me to a major transition from asking what works for society to seeking what works for myself in my own individual life. How can I be free?

Understanding the larger economic and social systems around us is incredibly valuable and instructive, not to mention enjoyable work, but at some point it comes back to you. Is your hope for a fulfilling life in the hands of other people and powers, or your own? What keeps you from being free?

I will only add one final disclaimer. Section 2 uses religious language and references, primarily Christian, as many of the essays were written for Christian audiences. If that’s not your thing, you can ignore the religious terminology and, I think, the arguments still stand. If you value life and find violence distasteful for any reason, the ideas in that section will hold true.

I hope you enjoy this collection of ideas. Many of them were originally published elsewhere in magazine or blog format for places like the Mackinac Center, the Western Standard, The Freeman, The Values & Capitalism Project, Libertarian Christians, the Mises Institute, Laissez Fare Books, Liberty Magazine, the Libertarian Alliance, and others. Thanks to these publications and so many other organizations and individuals that have helped me along my intellectual adventure.

Be free.


November, 2013

Idea Mensch Interview

An interview I did with Idea Mensch on Praxis, entrepreneurship, and an assortment of other things.

Where did the idea for Praxis come from? What does your typical day look like?

Praxis is really the culmination of a lot of ideas and experiences, beginning with my time in college when I felt like given the time and money, I wasn’t learning nearly as much as I wanted to and I was getting better experience working than in school. Through many ups and downs and steps in my career path over the past decade, I finally pulled the pieces together and created the kind of educational experience I wished I’d had. The idea of work with entrepreneurs, the best of liberal arts, business, and hard skills training, and a largely self-directed program packed into ten months for net-zero cost was the realization of a long held dream and the answer to my own and many other students’ frustrations.

A typical day for me begins with a swim, breakfast, shower, and then a half hour or so of reading a few blogs and catching up on social media. Then I dive into my to-do list, which involves a lot of phone calls, emails, and Skype meetings with entrepreneurs in the Praxis business partner network, interviews with applicants, catch-up calls with participants, programmatic stuff with our Education Director, marketing plans and tactics (which are highly variable) with our Marketing Director, reviews and updates to financials, and many other interactions with many other people. I plow through a lot of emails, as I have a zero inbox policy and respond to just about every serious email I get.

I like to get outside for at least half an hour each day to break things up, sometimes just to walk, sometimes while making phone calls. I also work in at least thirty minutes to write pretty much every day, and time to read whatever book I’m on. I find that if I don’t make time for writing and reading, my mind begins to feel empty, and my energy soon follows. I need to feed on new ideas constantly to stay charged.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Action. I am heavily action biased, which can certainly get me in to trouble, but I find that any idea I analyze for too long without moving forward in some way inevitably dies an ignoble death. I need to see progress, so I push things and move them, even if just a little bit every day. From the moment the idea for Praxis came together in my mind, I began hashing and rehashing it, contacting people I’d need to help build it, buying domain names, doing informal market research, and anything I could to keep moving the inertia. If I do at least one thing every single day to get an idea closer to life, it has a far higher likelihood of success than if I wait around for a time when I can make one big move. I see it like exercising. If the idea is a healthy body, you’re better off doing one thing every day, even if it’s just twenty push-ups, then waiting for the perfect day to spend two hours in an elaborate workout at the gym.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The massive reduction in transaction costs due to technology. There are so many underutilized resources out there – both people and goods – because traditionally it’s been really hard to gather the right information at the right time to make the right connections. Smartphones, location services, massive amounts of digital data and other technology have made valuable information readily accessible and seamless. We’re just seeing the beginning of the efficiencies and opportunities this creates with things like Uber, AirBnB, and other ways people can find what they need in places previously unavailable to them because of prohibitive transaction and information costs. Everything from specialized skills and knowledge from experts, to the best brunch joint in town can be accessed instantly, where you once had to know a trivia king or read a phonebook.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Delete, shred, destroy. I am a minimalist. I try to clear out any and everything that is nonessential. I condense and combine wherever I can. I go paperless with everything, and if important things are sent to me in physical form, I snap a picture and store it in the cloud so I can throw out the paper copy. I keep my desk, my inbox, and my life in general as clutter free as possible. I used to collect things I thought would someday be useful, but I found the mental space required to have so much stuff around (both physical things and facts and tasks in my head) was immense, and reduced my productivity. I now record crucial info and to-do’s and rely on my calendar and list to remind me so I don’t have to remember, and I purge all that is not needed, and even some things that are if they’re easily replicable!

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

Bagging groceries when I was 14-15. I hate to even call it the worst, because I actually enjoyed it and have enjoyed every job I’ve had, but compared to all the rest, it was definitely the least pleasant and rewarding. I learned several valuable things. First, that time moves really slowly when you’re not in “flow”. When we were humming and lines were long, hours passed like minutes as I frantically bagged and carried groceries out. It was actually a rush and I’d give myself challenges to see how fast I could bag the groceries without damaging them. When we were slow, the minutes crept by slower than anything I’ve ever experienced. This is why I actually loved working busy holidays.

Another powerful lesson was just how hard good help is to find. Nearly all of my colleagues stole items from the store. I even had a book stolen from the break room. Many were fun to talk to, but not at all trustworthy or hard working. Just by showing up on time for every shift, I quickly become one of the most valued employees even though the youngest. It was a sad dose of reality, but helped me temper my expectations for a working world in which most people simply aren’t that good as employees.

Finally, I learned that those who hated their jobs did worse and were less happy than those who didn’t, and that it was largely a choice. Some of my coworkers and managers were always unhappy clock-watchers. They didn’t perform well and didn’t value their own work. Some took pride in it. It wasn’t a difference in ability or position, but a difference in outlook. Some had fun with work and treated it like a playful experience and one they could always improve in. They excelled and were generally happy. Others saw it as a necessary burden and did the bare minimum. They had little pride in themselves and were generally unhappy. It became clear that belief trumped external circumstance when it came to fulfillment.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Take bigger risks sooner. It took me too long to realize that what everyone else says, does, and believes is not as important as my gut. I may fail more going that route, but failure is the best way forward, and it took me too long to not be afraid of it. I would try to get some of my earlier, crazier ideas of the ground instead of waiting for validation.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Constantly force yourself to put into words – written and spoken – your vision and value proposition as concisely as possible. Whether for your company or product, or just for your life in general. What are you trying to build? Why does it matter? What will be the outcome? It’s incredibly hard to understand and articulate, even for those in the middle of successful ventures! But it’s crucial self-knowledge and it brings about crucial self-honesty.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Our business is brand new, so the only growth we’ve experienced this far is going from zero to one and getting our first class off the ground. The biggest aid to that was probably cashing in tons of accumulated social capital. I’d spent ten years doing favors for people, making connections, sharing information, ideas, and feedback generously, mentoring, and generally trying to be kind, helpful, responsive, and someone who gets things done. This built up a lot of goodwill with a wide network. When Praxis get going we needed as much as we could get, because there are some things you can’t do with money, time, or individual effort alone. We needed expertise, media exposure, connections, and much more, and it was only by cashing in on that accumulated social capital that we were able to grow from seed to sapling.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

My original business plan for Praxis was essentially a work for free arrangement that I felt was really groundbreaking and beneficial to all parties. I was quite far along in the process when it dawned on me to check into current labor laws and regulations, only to discover that what I had in mind was basically illegal. You can’t work for free unless you actually destroy value at a company, according to current regulations. My initial reaction was resigned indignation. I was ready to give up on the whole idea altogether until my brother, a seasoned and successful entrepreneur and a close friend and mentor, just laughed when I shared it with him. He said, “That’s great! That’s what’s kept everyone else with this idea from moving forward, so it means less competition for you!” He assured me there’s always another way to get at the same end goal, and with some creative thought and effort, we found one.

I will never forget that phone conversation, or the non-threatened, playful approach my brother brought to the situation. He had been through things like this and had internalized the lesson that there are no obstacles that a good idea can’t overcome somehow. That was huge for me.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Rental everything. I don’t want to have to own and maintain a weed Wacker, lawnmower, suits for formal occasions, golf clubs I seldom use, a boat, camping gear, etc. But I do want to have access to these things, either regularly or infrequently, and in quality and quantity it wouldn’t make sense for me to buy and maintain myself. A combination of businesses and individual owners on a one-stop peer-to-peer platform where prices, location, ratings and availability were open and accessible could make my life a lot easier and make use of a lot of underutilized assets sitting in garages, warehouses, or stores. Sure, it’s a logistical challenge, but you figure that out and you’ve got at least one customer for life!

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

I can clap with one hand. On both hands.

What software and web services do you use?

Google. Praxis uses Google apps for business, and the combination of my iPhone hardware with Gmail and Drive apps is unbeatable.

It’s simple, clean, has tons of storage space, and intuitive search function, and it’s the industry standard. I have no particular brand loyalty, so as soon as I use something I like a lot better, I’m happy to switch. Right now, nothing comes close.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

The Act of Creation, by Arthur Koestler. This lesser known gem is quite an amazing book, jam packed with insight about what human creativity looks like and how it happens. It’s a powerful reminder of the value of daydreaming and subconscious activity. It’s empowering and humbling at the same time, like all great truths.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

In terms of contemporaries, I like to read Fred Wilson’s blog, I enjoy Seth Godin’s blog as well, and I love consuming nerdy economics stuff from EconlogEcontalk, and The Freeman. If we’re talking all time, I’ve always appreciated deep insights on the human condition from Mark Twain, Albert Jay Nock, C.S. Lewis, Frederic Bastiat, Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith, and Socrates.