Two incredible tools for sustained growth: “why” + Commonplace

Topic: Are you stuck on the nearest hill? How do you even know? Finding out what your alternatives are, what you actually want and how to get it starts with why.

Discussion: How to make sure you don’t squander your life, or your investment returns

Conclusion: Question more. Do it systematically. Get to the root. Adapt.



That word might be the very thing separating humans from animals.

OK, for the record, I don’t think there is a clear separation between “humans” and “animals”. I think intelligence, emotions, curiosity, consciousness, cumulative culture etc. are manifested along a spectrum in all living things.

I do, however, think that humans are orders of magnitude ahead most animals in some respects, such as when it comes to asking questions like “How?” and “Why?”

It’s the hows and the whys that got us technology, which in turn has given humanity a form of abundance of food and leisure that most animals don’t. It’s not all good of course, since evolution has taught us to eat all the calories we can lay our hands on, while spending as little energy as possible. We evolved for energy-hoarding “Netflix and chill” behavior (as in actually chilling in front of a movie with a bag of chips, but, sure, we have evolutionary drives of other kinds too). But what we need is novelty and exercise.

My whys are about maintaining Future Skills

Almost everything I do these days is centered around understanding and countering evolutionary mismatches, and staying relevant just in case.

To be clear, here’s the situation:

I had a rewarding career in finance to say the least. Then I quit when I had enough money to live comfortably for the rest of my life. The problem is that living comfortably might mean too little physical and mental challenge to stay healthy. In addition I don’t trust fiat money or even the conceptual system of working in one period for “tokens” and relying on others doing the work for me in the next period in exchange for said tokens. In particular not over longer time periods.

The above means I need to keep investing both financially and personally in order to stay relevant and secure in a changing world. That’s why I keep risking my money in various ventures, as well as read, write, listen and record — in essence learn and teach.

Sure, I would still work out and do sports, not to mention read books and listen to podcasts, even if I didn’t worry about becoming unhealthy and ignorant. And I probably would do some investing too, just because it’s fun to be involved in interesting projects or simply to help people realise their ideas. I wouldn’t, however, as I do now, manage dozens of investments, projects, blogs and podcasts at the same time. Sure, I wouldn’t call it “work”, but the fact is that I’m never idle.

I’m not complaining. Not at all. On the contrary, I’m doing exactly what I want. It’s just a little surprising to myself what it was that I wanted.

Ask why, answer, and change accordingly

Alright, enough with the soul searching. What’s the takeaway for you?

The most important tool for moving forward I’ve come across is the question “Why?”. It’s even better in multiple form, such as the Five Whys:

Ask yourself why you do something, and then why that is, and why again until you get to the actual root of the matter. Do the same with reality, events and people around you to map your surroundings and put yourself in the relevant context.

In order to benefit fully from the power of why you probably need a way to organise your findings too. That’s where the commonplace comes in handy — that’s just an old word for a structured notebook where you keep track of all your ideas and findings in a systematic and searchable form.

Start with your most fundamental whys: why you live where you do, why you work where you do, why you see the people you see, why you eat what you eat and do what you do. Try this:

Make a table in your commonplace and fill it out with answers to why, gradually over time as you are hit by inspiratons (an elusive elementary particle):

  • Work (help people, stay relevant)
  • Live (friends, environment, infrastructure)
  • Travel (see new things, change, break)
  • People (interesting, challenging, fun)
  • Consume (just the bare necessities)
  • Eat (nutrition, health)
  • Do (blog, write, record, read: see Work)
  • Study (exciting, brain health, curiosity)
  • Exercise (health, vanity, fun)
  • Invest (fear, fun, challenging)
  • Social Media (contribute, networking)

Then ask how you could do it differently, better, tailored to you. Keep adding snippets of information and clues to answers to those questions in your commonplace Know Thyself file, until you know enough to start transforming your life from what just happened to take shape to what you actually would design from the bottom up (within the bounds of all kinds of individual, worldly limitations of course).

If asking why is your most valuable friend; availability bias, ownership bias, loss aversion and homeostasis are your worst enemies. They are all variations of a theme that anchors you in place, making you climb the nearest hill instead of the best hill. Searching and replacing that default state takes effort and courage, and the potential rewards aren’t now but in the future.

Maybe, just maybe, you’ll conclude that you’re already exactly where you would be anyway. Wonderful! Alternatively, you might find you should and could change dramatically. Also wonderful! (albeit scary).

If you’re an investor there are whys for you as well

Maybe you’re not ready for life-altering decisions. Maybe you’re just an investor that came across this post unknowingly, and your answer to why you invest is simply “to get more money”. Well, the principle is still good:

Why do you hold the assets you do? Why is that valuation metric important? Why would the growth rate be x%? Why would that push the stock price higher? Why do you think it’s not in the price already? Why would A and B change the way they need to in order for your investment to pan out as planned?

Make it a habit to at least once a year pretend you’re starting from scratch and question every single holding in your portfolio and their premise and actively try to find better alternatives.

I’m not sure which is harder, giving up on old holdings or old habits.

The feeling of freedom

My whys made me give up high finance in exchange for dog walks, podcasting and writing, but I still live in the same apartment and go about my days much the same as before. The only true difference is that instead of spending my days in an office researching stocks, I’m sitting alone in my home office on the one hand learning and expressing myself, and on the other making sure I could get a job if needed.

Another difference is the concept of “freedom”. I could do whatever I like. The only consequence would be a theoretical loss of relevance in the future. As long as I know I’m “free”, I’m happy confining myself to a small room and an internet connection.

That seems to be what I really needed, just the feeling of freedom.

Future Skills

Now, what about you? Do you have your whys in order, whether for the big picture or just your investments? Start taking notes, slowly but deliberately mapping your actual life and comparing it to your desired life.


In my podcast Future Skills (link to iTunes to listen to and rate the show) I and Ludvig talk about strategies for achieving the best possible life experience. We talk about tools and habits for enhanced focus, creativity, health, finances and happiness, in order to prosper in a world of accelerating change.

We talk about self-knowledge, about breaking homeostasis and about circumventing irrational biases in short format episodes, and provide inspirational conversations with masters in their field in longer format episodes.

Do you know what you want and how to get it?

No? Don’t worry, most people don’t. In Future Skills we explore that space together, on a quest for ever better methods and practices to foil our evolutionary mismatches.

Check it out on iTunes or any Android podcast app of your choice.

P.S. Please rate or review Future Skills to help make more people find it

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