But What For Newsletter - No. 005

Old Age, Time, Happiness, Risky Endeavors, 85% Rule and Backup Plans

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Latest from But What For?

(Underlined titles are links to full articles)

“I think, my friends, that you marvel at a thing really far from difficult. For to those who have not the means within themselves of a virtuous and happy life every age is burdensome; and, on the other hand, to those who seek all good from themselves nothing can seem evil that the laws of nature inevitably impose…

But bear well in mind that in this entire discussion I am praising that old age which has its foundation well laid in youth. Hence it follows— as I once said with the approval of all who heard it— that that old age is wretched which needs to defend itself with words!


(Underlined titles are links to full articles)

“Our sense of time may be the scaffolding for all of our experience and behavior, but it is an unsteady and subjective one, expanding and contracting like an accordion. Emotions, music, events in our surroundings and shifts in our attention all have the power to speed time up for us or slow it down. When presented with images on a screen, we perceive angry faces as lasting longer than neutral ones, spiders as lasting longer than butterflies, and the color red as lasting longer than blue. The watched pot never boils, and time flies when we’re having fun

‘Everyone knows the saying that ‘time flies when you’re having fun,’’ said Sam Gershman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard University who was not involved in the study. ‘But the full story might be more nuanced: Time flies when you’re having more fun than you expected.’”

  • Takeaway: If you let others define happiness for you, you let them control you

“Happiness is in many ways the marketing breakthrough of the past decade, with self-care and anti-stress products now rounding out the bestseller list on Amazon (think of ‘gravity blankets’, ‘de-stressing’ adult colouring books and fidget spinners), where they nestle alongside chart-topping tomes by ‘happiness bloggers’. All of this is made possible by a specific, disturbing and very new version of ‘happiness’ that holds that bad feelings must be avoided at all costs

Happiness has, of course, not always been conceived of this way. The Epicurean outlook on happiness – which Thomas Jefferson was thinking of when he enjoined Americans to cherish ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence – is exceedingly simple and different. As Epicurus saw it, happiness is merely the lack of aponia – physical pain – and ataraxia – mental disturbance. It was not about the pursuit of material gain, or notching up gratifying experiences, but instead was a happiness that lent itself to a constant gratefulness

But if we continue to allow ourselves to be manipulated into pining after peak experiences, then we leave ourselves open not only to market manipulation but also to loneliness, poor judgment and, ironically, an abiding sadness. Epicurean happiness might not always make us ‘happy’ in the sense that we now use the word synonymously with being in an upbeat mood. But life would not be worth living if it floated only between peak experiences.

  • Takeaway: Most ideas don’t work out, so don’t go all-in too early

I’ve said many times on this blog that our target batting average is ‘1/3, 1/3, 1/3’ which means that we expect to lose our entire investment on 1/3 of our investments, we expect to get our money back (or maybe make a small return) on 1/3 of our investments, and we expect to generate the bulk of our returns on 1/3 of our investments.

It’s a generalization but one that’s pretty well accepted in venture circles and it’s how many VCs describe target fund distribution, myself included. But does this heuristic match reality?

Actually no.”

  • Takeaway: You are your word; you should work hard; but don’t try too hard

“If you get two invitations, if you get an invitation to go, uh, to—I don’t know—go across the road to your mate’s place for dinner, and then an hour later you get an invitation from the queen of England to go to the Buckingham Palace, you stick by your first one... You keep your word, even if it does not benefit you. You always keep your word. That was a big one. My dad was always big on ethics…

I don’t like the word career, particularly when I began, and I’d say to actors, I said, I’d be wary of the word career. I said, It’s not a right that you’re going to act. 98 percent of actors are unemployed. It’s a privilege when you get a job. And don’t expect there will always be one around the corner. Work your ass off, as though this is the last one, and you have to be at your best to get there because that’s kind of what it takes…

You know, that sense of having the right level of relaxation. I think that they call it the 85 percent rule. If you tell most, sort of, A-type athletes to run at their 85 percent capacity, they will run faster than if you tell them to run 100 because it’s more about relaxation and form and optimizing the muscles in the right way.”

  • Takeaway: Always have a back-up plan

“Though the world's attention has recently [2010 article] been focused on the unveiling of China's first ever stealth fighter jet, the Chinese military has been busy investing in another type of furtive flyer: the humble messenger pigeon. According to reports in state media, late last year, the Chengdu division of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) began training 10,000 pigeons as part of a push to build a "reserve pigeon army" that would provide support to the military's conventional communications infrastructure in the event that war rendered its plethora of modern technology unusable.”

  • Takeaway: If you have a back-up plan, make sure it actually works

“At 7:04 a.m. on an autumn Thursday in Tokyo, the stewards of the world’s third-largest equity market realized they had a problem.

A data device critical to the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s trading system had malfunctioned, and the automatic backup had failed to kick in. It was less than an hour before the system, called Arrowhead, was due to start processing orders in the $6 trillion equity market. Exchange officials could see no solution.”

Stoic’s Corner

Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1, 1.4, translation by Robin Hard

  • Takeaway: Progress is not what you have done, but who you have become

“Come now, show me what progress you're making in this regard. Suppose I were talking with an athlete and said, ‘Show me your shoulders’, and he were to reply, ‘Look at my jumping-weights.’ That's quite enough of you and your weights! What I want to see is what you've achieved by use of those jumping-weights.

‘Take the treatise On Motivation and see how thoroughly I've read it.’ That’s not what I'm seeking to know, slave, but how you're exercising your motives to act and not to act, and how you're managing your desires and aversions, and how you're approaching all of this, and how you're applying yourself to it, and preparing for it, and whether in harmony with nature or out of harmony with it…

If in harmony, give me evidence of that, and I'll tell you whether you're making progress; but if out of harmony, go away, and don't be satisfied merely to interpret those books, but also write some books of that kind yourself.

But What For? - Multidisciplinary insights for self development. Improve yourself in such a way that you might eventually improve more than you.

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