ButWhatFor? Four for Friday | No. 030

The Khmer Rouge, Parable of the Talents, 12 Things and Ending it

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ButWhatFor Four for Friday

  • One Quote: We had not been in favor… We had not been against…

  • One Long: The Parable of the Talents

  • One Short: Things I’ve learned about investing and business

  • One Extra: Ending a (Second…) Hiatus

One Quote

We had not been in favor of the revolution. We had not been against it. We didn’t even care about politics much.

But now that the revolution had come, we had been bulldozed by it, reduced to the same level as the other exiles around us. And there was no new society building. Just the rubble of the old one.

Haing Ngor, in the Survival in the Killing Fields

Haing Ngor was a young OB/GYN in Cambodia when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975. The military coup threw the country back into the dark ages with an authoritarian regime built on murder, torture, racism, xenophobia, and misguided reverse-progress social engineering programs.

Haing survived but lost his child, wife, and parents before the Vietnamese military invaded Cambodia and summarily dismantled the Khmer Rouge. He was able to escape to Thailand, and thereafter to the US. I am debating re-reading his autobiography and doing an email on it - so I will hold off on more details here for the sake of brevity.

However, the quote above stands on its own and highlights something that is annoying and feels unfair at times: choosing to ignore something that is happening can be the same as choosing to support it. And that hits many different areas of life. Sure, in Haing’s hellish situation, this was about politics and corruption - and it’s easy to see how charismatic but unskilled government leaders could, well, govern poorly.

But what simpler things?

For example, I am currently putting on incremental unhealthy weight every month. I am ignoring those pounds right now. I am not making any changes to my daily habits. Isn’t that actually a vote of support for a future fat me?

One Long

The Jews also talk about how God judges you for your gifts. Rabbi Zusya once said that when he died, he wasn’t worried that God would ask him “Why weren’t you Moses?” or “Why weren’t you Solomon?” But he did worry that God might ask “Why weren’t you Rabbi Zusya?”

And this is part of why it’s important for me to believe in innate ability, and especially differences in innate ability. If everything comes down to hard work and positive attitude, then God has every right to ask me “Why weren’t you Srinivasa Ramanujan?” or “Why weren’t you Elon Musk?”

If everyone is legitimately a different person with a different brain and different talents and abilities, then all God gets to ask me is whether or not I was Scott Alexander.

This seems like a gratifyingly low bar.

It is easy to get caught up in thoughts like “But he is a 30-year old billionaire, and I am not. I’m a failure.” or “I have been playing piano for longer than that child prodigy has been alive and he blows me out of the water. I’m a failure.” and so on.

As I have gotten older (ouch, slept wrong… neck hurts…), I’ve realized that I wasted a good part of my younger years worrying about how to be someone I idolized. I never stopped to think about what am I good at, and of those few things I do well, which of them do I enjoy enough to use to make a better version of myself over time.

Now, I still have the same problem of always constantly comparing myself to others… but at least now I know I am doing it… progress… right?

One Short

“We like to say that ‘more startups die of indigestion than starvation.’ We are all fascinated by the stories of Steve Jobs and Jack Dorsey, who work on two companies at once, but this is not the norm.”

The root cause of “running out” of cash is often that the business lost focus and diverted resources to things not on the critical path toward success. Starvation is often a symptom of things like premature scaling and wild goose chases. Sometimes when a company tries to do everything, it ends up doing nothing.

Back in 2013, Tren Griffin shared a list of mental models he picked up from Bill Gurley, a successful early-stage technology investor. Most of you are aware that I, in a much smaller and less successful kind of way, also work in early-stage investing, so I tend to find articles like this interesting.

The above quote stood out - that at certain times and in certain roles, a narrowed focus and concerted effort where you have a comparative advantage is important. Whereas a lack of focus can lead to a bankrupt company, in this example. But this applies to people as well - your investment in your personal life is your time.

On my end, one of the things that I struggle with is choosing not to do something. Wouldn’t it be great to have a blog? Learn piano? What about guitar? Singing maybe? I better start running? Well, lifting too. Oh, and I am married - I should find time for hobbies my wife can do too. Right - I forgot I need to work on Chinese. And Russian, right? And I really haven’t put as much time as I should into those farm investments. And… and… and so on.

At the end of a year where you are pretending to be focused on all of that, you are no better off than when you started. A person only has so much time - and people are not machines… 24 hours in a day doesn’t sound like that much, but then you have to think about how much of that is actually “free time.” If you are scattered in how you use that time, is it really all that different than just not having that time at all?

One Extra

Ending a (Second) Hiatus…

Well, as you are aware, back in September of this year, for a second time since I started, I stopped writing this newsletter. I enjoyed it but found it impossible to keep the pace and consistency I promised.

So, I had done nothing new for a few months… and then this happened…

That’s right - a couple of months after I stopped writing, I had my single largest daily view count since inception (and top 5 daily subscribers - thanks!). As you can see above, most of the views come in spurts when a Facebook, Twitter, HackerNews, Reddit, or other site picks it up. (Hint… Hint… if you like something, sharing it on those sites is super helpful 🧡)

So in the midst of basically calling it quits, that event showed me that randomly and if the stars align, something I write prompts a discussion and sharing amongst others. And that is pretty cool. But, I always fail at consistency. So everyone here is living up to their end of the deal - reading and sharing - while I am failing to do my part.

A friend of mine who is much smarter reminded me that this is a hobby at the moment, meaning I can design the hobby in a way that works better. Given this hobby involves all of you who have been nice enough to subscribe and stick with me, I want it to work for you as well - which means consistency and reliability.

So, I am changing things slightly - instead of trying and then inevitably failing at writing a new long read every week, I will instead target sharing one long-read email at the end of every month. Every Friday, I will continue to do these shorter emails as they actually get more email responses than the long reads (for some reason you all don’t like the comment section… hint… hint… 🧡) - which is interesting. Almost all new subscribers join because of a long-read email that gets shared with them, but I get more emails back to me on these shorter emails.

Hopefully, that works for you and I can uphold my end of the bargain.

Thank you!

If you made it all the way down here, please take a moment to share it with someone that might find it interesting — I appreciate your support greatly!

Have a great weekend,

— EJ

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