Productive Uncertainty

On My Mind | 2024.01.26

Welcome to all our new subscribers! But What For? is about anything — because anything can be interesting. History. People. Ideas. Investing.

If you enjoy the newsletter, please forward this along to one or more friends/colleagues or click here to share on Twitter to help us grow! 

Last week, I had some email deliverability troubles. I still haven’t figured out why, but if that email didn’t show up in your inbox, I am sorry about that and you can find last Friday’s email here.

I’ve enjoyed all the responses to the last four polls, so thank you for taking the time to respond. They have helped me better understand everyone here and what you all are interested in.

As many of you are aware, my day job is investing in venture capital and growth-focused companies. Before that, I spent a number of years investing in more mature businesses.

Based on all the poll responses, and my background — and in combination with restarting writing here over the last five weeks or so — I am thinking about a re-branding and re-orientation of how I approach writing.

I like history. I like ideas. I (used to but now have a baby and it feels impossible to find the time to) read as many random things as I can because its interesting. And I like to take all of that and apply it to investing and building companies.

If I pivoted a bit to be more focused on how what we read can be applied to investing — with a little bit about how it can be applied to investing in ourselves as well — would that be interesting?

Let me know — you can just reply to this email and I would love to hear from you.

ButWhatFor? Four for Friday

1. One Quote: A Battle Won

2. One Long: Productive Uncertainty

3. One Short: Two Sides of the Same Coin

4. One Poll: For a Living

One Quote

Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.

— The Duke of Wellington, 1815 at Waterloo

A book I often softly recommend is We Were Soldiers Once… And Young. In the book, Lt. Col Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway recount — through their own experiences having been on the ground in 1965 and interviews with the men that survived — the first major battle of the Vietnam War between the US Marines and North Vietnamese Army.

The above quote is shared at the start of Chapter 16, when, after three days in a Vietnamese jungle, it seems more likely than not that the US Marines are going to get back home.

The US Marines that are still alive, that is.

And that is the point of the quote — which I didn’t actually connect to until it was restated about sixty pages later in the authors’ own words:

There would be no cheap victory here this day for either side. There would be no victory at all — just terrible certainty of death in the tall grass.

The Marines may win the battle and make it back home, but can you really call it a victory when the bunk next to you is now empty in the morning?

I don’t always like to draw the parallels from military philosophy (I was never in the military… it doesn’t feel like I have the right to try to take something so painfully learned and apply it to a 9-to-5 lifestyle…) back to civilian life, but I do sometimes now think about what the cost of winning is — whatever it may be — while trying to make sure the game I am playing is something I actually care about winning relative to those costs.

One Long

It’s tempting, as a venture investor, to back companies developing amazing new technologies. But this often doesn’t work out as well as investing in companies that are using existing technologies in a new way. New technologies have a larger long-term societal impact but new markets are better investments…

What really happened is this: investors bet on startups whose products were better than their competitors’ products. This sounds like a good thing, but it is the wrong strategy: they bet on companies with competitors. Investors need companies that don’t have much competition to start and that can build moats to prevent competition later.

A BWF reader shared this article with me last week, which is written by a fairly well-know venture capital investor Jerry Neuman. Stealing from Google Books’ short biography, Neumann is “a twenty-five-year veteran of venture capital. He has invested in some of the most successful venture-funded companies of the past three decades, including Datadog and Trade Desk… Jerry also teaches entrepreneurship at Columbia University.”

Neuman dives into the idea that investors need to understand the kind of uncertainty their businesses are uniquely positioned to face and the kind that others are better situated to handle. While he talks in the context of investing in start-ups and how uncertainty can help / hurt you based on your company’s specific setup, it applies to people too.

For example, I personally handle a certain kind of uncertainty-related stress differently than my wife does. Uncertainty about what our finances will look like in a few years can drive me insane, but my wife seems to have minimal issues with that uncertainty. Uncertainty about what we are going to eat this evening doesn’t phase me, but my wife will strangle me if we haven’t figured it out 12 hours in advance.

Make sure you are taking on the uncertainty that is right for you and creating structure where you need less of it.

One Short

Two Sides of the Same Coin (Link)

However, the two-sided nature of spending and consumption seems to escape the consciousness of many people. Ultimately, we live in a free society and everyone can choose how to balance current consumption, savings, and future financial freedom for themselves.

But it is important is to do so with eyes wide open.

— Rational Walk

Frugality is freedom.

I don’t remember exactly when I started saying that phrase — but I got lucky in that I was somewhere around ~1 year into my first full-time, post-college job.

I just google’d that phrase and it doesn’t immediately pop up as having a source. I don’t think I came up with it on my own — so I might have stolen pieces and put them together into a short phrase.

Regardless, my wife and I (we married young) benefited greatly from the idea as we thought about expenses the first five years of our working lives. We are not wealthy by any stretch, but we feel a lot less stress than we would otherwise when there is a bump in the road.

I think Ravi makes an interesting point here, which I feel more and more every year that goes by. My wife and I are still large savers as a percentage of income — but every year there is a little cost creep.

It’s just around the edges. Life is busy so you buy more lunches whereas you used to make them. You finally find that brand of clothes that fits perfectly, and it is more expensive every year. That significantly more expensive scotch actually is significantly better… and so on.

But, if every year you add a bit more around the edges, one day you wake up with an expanded set of seemly fixed, immovable expenses pitched in battle against your future self’s financial security — because once you get used to a cost, it feels painful to remove it.

One Poll

These polls have been a great way to get back into the swing of things on my end. I feel like I am getting to know everyone’s interests here a bit better. Thank you for taking the time to response to these!

So — for this week, I’m curious, what do you all do for a living?

In what sector do you make a living?

You can share more details with me after selecting an option as well!

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

Results from last week’s poll:

  • Question: Which form of email do you prefer?

  • Results: 67% prefer the Friday emails! That was not what I expected!

  • Select Comments:

    • “I like the Four For Friday format because of the variety of topics covered and I can delve deeper into the ones that pique my interest.”

    • “Although mixing it up every now and again and doing a single topic would be fun too.”

    • “Love that format because it dangles stories that I might skip over with ones I want and I wind up reading them all. :)”

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

Have a great weekend,

— EJ

See here for a full archive of But What For? articles

But What For? Because anything can be interesting

Join the conversation

or to participate.