How to reconcile life’s contradictory choices
You have to focus
You have to be disciplined
You have to start early and be persistent
Stop slacking and procrastinating
Just choose a valuable area, master it
and learn to like it – like an arranged marriage…
Does the advice feel as familiar as it is stale?
That’s because that’s what teenagers and people in their 20s have been told for hundreds of years (and I disagree with most of it). But how do you decide what area to delve into, what to focus on? And once you have decided, how can you improve on your consistency in planning your studies, career, physical fitness etc.
Are you young (enough)
Are you driven
Do you want success
Are ready to work for it
Are you going to get it
And exactly what is it you are going to get
through focused and driven hard work?
On second thought, do you even want success?
Do you even know if you want it? Perhaps happiness more important? Or maybe success actually is paramount. Only after you’ve ‘become someone’ you should think about the ‘softer’ values in life?
You would be forgiven for struggling with such conflicting ambitions, or lack of ambition for that matter, as well as uncertainty about what it is that you actually want. We all struggle with finding our purpose in life (unless you are one in a million and born with a burning passion you simply can’t ignore, like Van Gogh or Shuji Nakamura [blue LED inventor]). Why should you have to choose at all? Why now, at least? I mean, why not just watch reruns of Friends, Seinfeld and Family Guy all day long? Well, for one, because it’s from TV commercials that much of your indecision and cognitive conflicts originated in the first place.
Life’s choices may seem excluding and impossible to integrate…
success OR happiness
social OR individual
a partner OR alone
strategic , persistent and focused OR exploring
big picture OR details
order OR entropy
mass OR power in the gym
formal education OR skills
party OR work out
Executive Summary: Don’t focus, don’t specialize (just yet)
Unless you already know what to focus on let alone how, you first have to explore your desires and alternatives consciously and systematically, i.e., AVOID COMMITTING TO A STRATEGY (too early).
You have to try different things in different areas, different combinations, while asking yourself what you actually want out of your efforts.
My advice is that you should first invest at least a few years in exploring yourself, being mindful of what your natural talents strengths and preferences seem to be. Then you can pick a few and try them out in parallel before settling for one. Be open to changing strategies or role models along the way, but be less flippety-floppy about it the older you get – you may not have forever. But never stop exploring contrasts and extremes within your chosen area and never stop trying new, scary or even new things that seem boring. In short: Live Laterally.
What if I told you there’s a way around the ‘problem’ of either choosing your direction in life or being a slacker? Lead a life of managed chaos:
Sprezzaturian’s One Rule
for growth and happiness:
In short, lateral living means to
incessantly provoke yourself,
your brain and your body,
for continued development,
growth and happiness.
Avoid climbing the wrong hill
Rather than focusing too much for too long on a single skill or topic, risking suboptimization, instead consciously induce a fair amount of chaos in your life, in order to stimulate your creativity and adaptability. Oscillate between extremes, unexpected choices and weird combinations, to constantly challenge both your mind and flesh. Avoid climbing the lower hill just because it happened to be the closest. Lateral living, controlled and organized chaos, managed personal anarchy will make life feel fuller and longer, make you more accomplished (finding and climbing the higher ‘hill’), happier and free of regret.
Are you ready to try it? Read on.
An example of a difficult choice: Lone wolf or part of the puppy litter?
Should you play the role of lone wolf or be more social? Does it matter which choice feels more natural to you or is their a ‘correct’ answer?
Patrick Bateman doesn’t convince anyone with his herd acting
As a social animal, humans naturally feel comfortable in the crowd.
The crowd is a good thing when crossing a crocodile infested river or grazing the savannah. As a predator, however, it is sometimes better to hunt alone, when staking prey, investing or competing in sports.
Herd behavior is particularly adequate when aiming for good enough or a basic level of safety. Individualism is better suited for exceptional results, for a broader spectrum of possible outcomes, including when failure is okay, perhaps when failure or even death is better than mediocrity.
-Herd or alone, muscle volume or strength, power or stamina, work or leisure…
Is there a correct choice, an objectively optimal choice? How do you know which end of the spectrum of choices to aim for?
-You don’t know. /Full stop
The good thing is you are not supposed to know. Living is to mindfully explore all the messiness of the universe, to gradually get to know yourself and your surroundings, to slowly feel who you really are and what it is that makes you tick, rather than climbing the closest hill and becoming a poor reflection of somebody else. You can achieve all this by living laterally, by visiting extremes and contrasts in a reality made up of all shades of gray. A lateral lifestyle enables you to asymptotically approach your inherent maximum.
Now bear with me for a minute…:
Which picture of “triangles” is the most interesting to you of the following?
Most people find the mountain picture the most intriguing, and the stack of geometrically exact triangles the least interesting with the chaotic fractals just slightly better. Total order and total disorder are not that exciting since there isn’t much one can do with it. A complex mountain range, with a certain order but still endless possibilities, however, is almost magnetic to the human mind. We are made to make sense of the manageable complexity in the the grey, between black and white, between perfect order and total chaos. That’s where human pattern recognition works at its best.
However, it still takes intelligence and effort and a certain type of discipline to move between focus on the details and a more comprehensive bird’s eye view, between consistency and variation, between focus and a holistic approach to make sense of the complexity.
Living laterally in practice
1. You can never begin sooner than now
You are going to live for a very long time (much longer than you think, if I and Ray Kurzweil are correct. E.g., This article show nanobots are already fighting leukemia). Even if you have turned 50 already you probably have at least 50 more ahead of you. Don’t think for a second that it is too late to change tack. When you turn 70 you will regret wasting 20-50 years, if you didn’t go lateral today. Same thing in your 90’s, just more so.
2. Start with a wide range of trials and (inevitably) errors
Don’t go head over heels for a life-long strategy or force consistency in an area you know nothing about – not even your own preferences (yet). Sure, you will have to try, and try hard, but keep an open mind regarding your ignorance on the matter (of who you are), and try to realize when to give up on an endeavor and start something new.
Unless you have perfect knowledge (NB: you don’t) about yourself and the world, you can’t (shouldn’t) decide beforehand what to do for the rest of your life. No one, least of all you, knows what is the best area for you specifically to focus on, so don’t even try until you have a reasonably comprehensive map of yourself and the universe ready. For that, you have to explore all the sides, all the laterals, as well as as much of the mess in between to make sure there are no bigger ‘hills’ around.
Don’t lay down a strategy of consistency and just stick to it (some self-help bloggers demand focus, demand consistency, tell you to simply choose a ‘marketable’ area and learn to like it or at least tolerate it. On the contrary, I say you can’t decide to be a certain way before you know who you are, what there is and what you like. Don’t decide to be consistent, nor to be erratic. Don’t decide anything as long as it feels like a decision. Wait until you have explored the alternatives, until you have lived laterally for long enough to have familiarized yourself with the terrain of life and found a place that feels like home, that works, that makes you happy, that is you.
3. Once you commence drilling, go deeper than everybody else
At that point your days of managed chaos are over (at least temporarily) and it is time to focus, to be disciplined to dig deep, very deep, deeper than everybody else. Use all your life’s lessons, your wide scope and experience to add unusual value for yourself and others.
Applied lateral living: How to get big, strong, healthy and ripped in ‘just’ 25 years
Not even a simple thing like physical fitness is easy to plan, due to lack of perfect information about the methods available and your specific reaction to them. Hence, start with the basics:
Just wear yourself out; get sweaty and exhausted. Any way you like, that you think makes at least a little sense – probably running and lifting things in various ways. perhaps throwing some stuff around as well. There is no need to be overly creative; just do what others do unless it involves machines and weird positions. The focus should be on getting tired – both from aerobic (jogging and running) and anaerobic (heavy, short-term, explosive) exercise.
Then, in a couple of months, it’s time to talk about specifics, about tactics, methods and strategy
First walk, then jog, then run, then do push-ups, jumps and chin-ups, then do free weights – first basics and then more specific exercises. If you are reasonably fit you can of course do everything at once even in the beginning. The goal is to get a feel for what you like, increase your proprioception (feel for your body and bodyparts’ position in space and relative each other) and reach a basic level of fitness to progress from.
During the initial stages of your workout career, you will probably cycle your goals between wanting to be:
- Disproportionate arms
- Six-pack abs
- Lateralized (cross-fit)
It obviously would be hubris to pin down just one of the above goals as your only aim before even beginning. Over time you’ll want them all, sometimes one at a time, sometimes all at once.
You could assign the above to just three categories: Aesthetics, Functionality or Health, but specifics like “good looking”, “impressive”, “attractive”, “defined”, “big” etc., within the Aesthetics category for example, are helpful when setting later stage targets. How to achieve the items on the above list calls for its own post, probably a long series of posts. Hence I’ll leave it for now.
Cycle regularly between exploring extremes, opposites, laterals and laser-like focus and discipline
The important take-away here is that you shouldn’t carve your target, strategy or methods in stone, but rather go for a half-systematic trial and error goal seek model, since 1) you don’t know what you want or what you will want, 2) you don’t know how to get there; which method is the best, 3) no one method is probably the best but a variation and combination; a cycling of approaches, 4) unfortunately you’ll have to get used to living with uncertainty and changes – sometimes consistency an patience is called for – for a while – and sometimes flip-flopping between approaches to find what is working, is needed.
Personally, I have realized the above during 25 years of glacial-tempo, random, un-deliberate exploring of the fitness world. It could have been worse, however, I could have just stuck with what I knew and what seemed to work when I was a teenager or in my low 20s. I know better now, and so should you – not as in “I know what’s the correct way to train” but rather I know to keep exploring methods and my reactions to them. Both the body and brain thrive on novelty and variation. Just remember that little tidbit of fact and live accordingly and you will leave mediocrity behind.
Pulitzer-prize winning perspective
The incredibly deep book Gödel Escher Bach deals with the topic of recursion, self-reference, in mathematics, music and tricky-perspective pictures. It has a lot to say about the ability of combining various disciplines, about repeating patterns, about pattern recognition per se, about intelligence, about the limits of formal systems, about perspective, about top-down and bottom-up approaches.
To me it manifests the importance of iterating between extremes and opposing perspectives to understand the complex mix in between that is life (and you); Life doesn’t take place in the extremes or monotone even if a certain application of extremes, of diversity, helps, whether looking for risk and excellence or just wanting to do a little better. It all circles back from life in the middle to using moderate extremes to do well in the grey area of life. Life is a mix of black and white or the contrast between them, not just either of them.
If you are intellectually inclined and want something al dente, read it. If you get through it, not least the part about symbolic languages and Gödel’s theorem, it will be worth it. Just note that it took me a full year to get through it, which is much longer than what it took me to read the unabridged 2200-page copy of “Count Of Monte-Cristo” in French. The chapter on symbolic representation was right at 100% of my mental capacity at the time (15-20 years ago).
Lateral living in the world of investing
As a retarded hedge fund manager I’m naturally interested in investigating different vantage points of stock market trends and valuations. There is a buyer for every seller…
When the crowd is right you benefit from realizing that it is, from investing with it, with the trend, However, you also have to be independent enough to panic before everybody else does; you have to understand when the crowd is gradually leading itself astray, like a flock of birds following a magnetic anomaly despite perfectly visible geographic signs below them. Then you have to be prepared to leave the cozy feeling of patting each others’ backs, telling one another how smart you are. But not before.
When you eventually leave the crowd, you’ll be ridiculed, maybe even threatened, but I guess you are prepared for that. Your problem is the opposite; how to stand doing what everybody else is doing, when every contrarian fibre in your body is calling out for doing the opposite.
(*I’ll probably buy too soon too the next time round)
Another thing to consider regarding investments is that if you don’t know what the crowd is doing or thinking it is difficult to be contrarian. On the other hand, you can get pretty far ignoring the crowd altogether; sometimes you’ll agree, sometimes you’ll be on opposite sides, and you couldn’t care less. As long as your model works you don’t have to care which it is. But, still, you could do even better by knowing your frenemy, knowing the crowd, knowing how to use it. Just don’t get too close to it or you’ll be sucked in. It’s so warm and cozy there…
Even those who have found their purpose can use a bit of laterality
-And so will you, even after settling down for a specific “career”
Runners need to include interval training, distance training, pulse training, short and long distances, speed play etc. They need variation and consistency, they need exertion and rest, they need to push through the limits but listen to their bodies too.
The investor‘s world is at least as complicated. Long-term, short-term. Trend or contrarian? What do others think I know about what they know? Valuations? Politics? Alternaives? Financing? Overshooting? Consistency and disciplined patience or tight likewise disciplined stop-losses?
Bodybuilders, strong-men, weight-lifters, competitive athletes all face similarly complex decision and planning challenges. To be a solid top three athlete you can get far by doing what everybody else is doing, just add a little more talent or maybe more or less hours to the mix. A music artist could follow the same recipe, copy what works. But to be exceptional, you need to take more risk, you need to risk not being elite at all, risk total failure. To win in men’s high jump Richard Fosbury invented a completely new style. Jan Boklöv did the same in ski jumping. Both were about to be disqualified from their respective sports. Instead they became legends. High risk and high return, but it could have ended in complete failure. High risk means the range of results is bigger and you don’t know where you’ll end up. However, if you don’t risk it, you know you’ll be mediocre. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
An artist needs to know what is working in the media and the shops right now. She needs to be immersed in pop culture to stay with the times. Both in order to stand out from the crowd or to make sure she is mainstream. Mainstreaming can make a living but not success, and being embedded in the crowd all but destroys the chances of originality and stardom.
And these guys all already know what they want. You don’t.
You are still searching for a purpose, a strategy, a meaning. You might want to want something. You might want to settle down with a long term strategy and hope to learn to like it. It probably works well enough, the brain will make sure you don’t end up miserable. As long as you don’t fail completely at everything you do, you’ll probably even turn out happy – as long as you immersed yourself, adhered to your talents and strengths and did your best at something you could at least tolerate from the beginning.
However, if you want to break out of obscurity, leave mediocrity behind, go for the full Monty of both happiness and success you should put much more effort into knowing yourself and your options first, through living a lateral life:
A refined or alternative solution, a more efficient and robust approach would be to invest a few years at a time in experimenting with who you are (no, I don’t mean kissing your same-sex cousin in the shower), what your strengths are, what your desires are, what methods stick more naturally to you. A way of helping you in that process is exploring lateral thinking, exploring (moderate) extremes and diversity. Set fire to your brain synapses by doing unexpected things, crazy combinations, meeting new people (e.g., Gina Dirawi, a Swedish TV personality, has a series based on meeting other people to get some perspective on how small her own problems are), and so on.
Why brain plasticity and research on memory matters
This is how you can find out who you are, what you want, how to do it. This is at least one drop in the holy grail of how to be efficient, finding purpose, being productive and not least happy:
The brain and the body alike feed on diversity, on novelty, on challenges. In addition, the brain evolved to control the body and predict the environment it is moving around in. Hence the brain and body are intimately linked and develop best in concert – like when walking and thinking, walking and discussing, walking and listening to science podcasts. Sitting on the other hand is the worst thing you can do – it shuts down both the body and the brain and accelerates aging (less brain plasticity, less body mobility and even less plasticity).
It would be very comfortable, albeit possibly boring, if life was just black or white, if you could just choose one path and then be done with it. Now, that is not the case. Life is all possible colors, nuances, shades and hues and you had better embrace it and take advantage of it or succumb to the monotone.
Try this if you can’t come up with anything else:
- Take (cold) contrast showers (circulation, will-power) and hot saunas (testosterone)
- Sweat, freeze (brown fat)
- Strain your body during training. Relax and meditate
- Listen to music you like. Listen to music you don’t like. Listen to silence; be mindful, know thyself. Music stimulates your IQ
- Fast, be hungry. Overeat, aim for hypertrophy
- Enjoy your food, consider every bite, pick apart the taste components
- Move, walk (and listen to podcasts about things that interests you and things that are not on your list)
- Talk to new people. Listen to them.
- Walk barefoot when you shouldn’t (chance encounters, new feeling, new thoughts)
- Be wet and then dry (walk in the rain and then enjoy a hot coffee and drying yourself
- Get drunk and have a hangover, then workout and take a sauna and enjoy getting well again
- Travel and meet people with other and worse problems than you
You’ll grow more if you socialize with ambitious and successful people in life (this doesn’t imply rich or famous, but truly accomplished and happy people), with bigger and stronger people in the gym etc.
Then change your crowd when you have reached the top of your group, in order to keep climbing the ladder. On the other hand, intimacy, friendship, gratefulness and consistency are a few of the best things in life. In addition, meeting with less fortunate people increases your own gratitude and happiness. Success and happiness are not perfectly linked, if you are not mindful, they can even be opposite each other. Once again, life is about contrasts and diversity, about (unusual) combinations, not about finding the one answer and method. That includes my one rule about laterality; sometimes you should focus instead, and then circle back to controlled diversity and experimenting.
If you are writing a book, looking for new ways to make money, creating a day trading system, looking for a girlfriend, competing in sports, aspiring for the Nobel Prize in Physics… If you are looking for excellency for reaching the next level you have to experiment, combine, look in unexpected places. You need a sufficient experience and knowledge in several different areas. Music, art, sports and math are intimately linked. Logic, rhetoric, sensations and feelings too. You can read way, way more about this in the extremely heavy tome of Gödel Escher Bach.
Include boring stuff to increase everyday laterality
The other day I went for a walk before breakfast as I often do. I listened to 4 or 5 podcasts, some of them on science, others about language or politics. When I’m not walking and listening to podcasts I read a lot, so digesting new information in audio form stimulates my brain in new ways. In addition, I make it a point to include programs I think might be boring or at least are on topics I don’t care much about. They often turn out not to be and I often learn things I didn’t know I anted to know about. As an added bonus I often get completely new ideas about completely unrelated areas.
All these ideas tend to just briefly stick in my mind, only to evaporate a minute later, unless I write them down. Luckily, Ludvig at SGM inspired me to start using Evernote to keep and organize my ideas. Earlier, I simply remembered what I remembered, but now I have accumulated 250 separate and indispensible notes in less than three months. They are organized in 17 different notebooks, while using 200 different labels. And, nota bene, these are the 250 notes that are still relevant; as soon as I have used an idea I erase the note. The funny thing is that I actually downloaded Evernote 6 months before even meeting Ludvig but never used it. That’s how good a salesman he is. He could sell sand to Saddam Hussein and ice to inuits.
More evidence on the value of explorative living:
- According to this TED talk about children’s minds, babies think and behave like scientists; ever curious, with 360 degree attention. That’s part of the magic behind learning language by just listening and moving such a complex thing as a human body through a complex world. The drawback is a complete lack of focus. Adults have the opposite characteristics.
- And this video about teaching and learning, states that 98% of children have genius-level creativity before the uniformity of school wrings it out of them.
- And, finally, as part of our hiring process at my hedge fund, I had the prospects explain how and why all the physical money in the country would fit in a famous building. The case showed whether the prospective employee was level-headed and creative, focused, arithmetic but still holistic and had common sense, and was able to verify his own work on the fly, through quick bird’s eye view sanity checks, before delving into the details again. All four chosen this way turned out to be incredibly valuable additions to the firm.
- Life will seem fuller and longer in retrospect
People who say time passes by faster and faster
are simply drowning themselves in routines,
creating the feeling of boredom in the now
and an ephemeral life in retrospect;
– the worst of both worlds
flow now, and a feeling of a productive and fulfilling life
where time has passed at a comfortable pace when looking back.
Lateral living, summary
Live through managed chaos (try a lot of different things and combinations) for better odds at success and happiness (and knowing yourself), even when you have found your long term strategy and chosen area of focus in life.
Pace yourself. Add just small increments, but do it consistently. Don’t aim too high in the short-term, but do set your long-term vision infinitely high if you like. Live life instead of pushing the fast forward button.