torsdag 11 december 2014

How aspiring for mediocrity can make you a happy millionaire - or a whore

At what point did you realize you had the potential and ambition to break out of mediocrity and live a special life? How did you go about it and what advice can you give a young person?

Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know you hadn't realized that yet...

Anyway, that's cool, I haven't either. Or, maybe I have... today, in that case.

Role models and aspiration are new phenomena

For most of humanity we have been ruled by a supreme primate, God, a king, a class or a guild system. There was no way of breaking out of anything, just the daily drudgery of doing the same thing your father or mother did.

The last 500 years or so, a few geniuses managed to climb socially, by excelling within art or science, and the last few hundred years some entrepreneurs and speculators struck gold, figuratively or literally.

In general, however, there wasn't much aspiring going on. Partly because it was futile, partly because there were so few relevant role models around. The last 100 years the backdrop has changed completely - during which you might actually have a relative or a friend that has been alive the entire time (!). My own father is over 70, covering more than 2/3 of the period.

Movies and TV made all the difference: moving life-like pictures of talented people created many more role models than before and made it much easier to aspire to be one of them. They were (moderately) rich, beautiful, spoke with scripted intelligence, still felt somewhat accessible and everybody knew who they were.

Andy Warhol got it right: Everybody will get their 15 minutes of fame, he said. And now everybody does. Everybody has a blog, a Facebook account, Instagram, Twitter etc. Everybody is trying to be famous and everybody is following more or less well-known people that inspire them.

Apart from the obvious waste of time watching thinspiration pics and painful fails, it creates a lot of aspiration. Everybody wants to be somebody, and being somebody is defined as being known or at least rich. And if you are rich you want two things: to become even richer and to be known, a celebrity (hopefully respected, but just known is good enough).

Beware of the false proximity trap

OK, all role models aren't bad, and everybody doesn't aspire to be on Jersey Shore (I hope!). A lot of people actually want to be the new Bill Gates, or Zuckerman or Elon Musk. That's a good thing.

What's not good, however, is that you can follow them in social media, come so close you almost think you are friends. That false proximity can divert your attention from doing what needs to be done, step by step: absorbing knowledge, creating value, growing, living in the process (not only for the target), in the now, and fool yourself into thinking you just need one big break to become like your "friend" Mr Musk. The accessibility of perfect role models feeds the focus on one big break and the end station, instead of gradually building skills and providing value doing something stimulating.

Today's media landscape makes it easy to think everybody actually can be rich celebrities, as if everybody could become millionaires on the lottery... (which many actually think they can)

Sweden, the land of institutionalized mediocrity - perfect for me

I never aspired. I almost still don't - at least not until very recently, let's say December 2014.

When the first question during today's interview was "When did you realize you could lead a life of non-mediocrity?" I was dumbfounded, since I simply had never come to that conclusion. The more we talked, the more I realized that even if I had always felt special (odd and contrarian in a "come here bullies, pick on me" kind of way), I never considered a life outside the very middle of the land of institutionalized mediocrity, Sweden.

When I was 4-7 years old I didn't realize I was years ahead my peers in terms of math, reading and writing. Other kids simply didn't concern me. I happily did 3rd grade math in 1st grade at school, and rode down slides on my bicycle blindfolded during breaks and weekends (I have had 8 concussions), without a thought of what other kids were doing.

Being told by grown-ups to stop being different

I turned 10 (in 1982) before I realized I was different (in a good way, I thought, but it still landed me a lot of trouble). I finally understood that I was much better at math, programming, reading, writing and English than the other kids my age.

The trigger was that my teachers stopped giving me any more math material from higher classes/grades. I was "deviating from the plan". They also told me to stop coming to school wearing just a t-shirt and no jacket in winter. (Well, who's the grown up now?! It's december 11th and I'm walking around wearing just a t-shirt).

In addition, I had decided for myself to only focus on real learning, like math and English, whereas geography ("maps"), history ("in the past") and other "useless text-based" topics were of no interest. As if I weren't in enough trouble already... I had to be threatened with taking 5th grade a second time before I realized I had to game the teachers and pretend to care about geography, history etc. The law says you have to complete school, so I simply had to whore out.

Street smart nerd

In grades 7-9, I always made my homework one week in advance. It provided me with a buffer in case I got ill, I got the opportunity to repeat what I had learned one more time, and It made me look superior. In addition, if anything was hard to understand, I knew what to focus on beforehand.

So, a lot of advantages and no disadvantages; I studied in exactly the same pace as everybody else, just one week ahead all the time. At this point, I couldn't help thinking I actually was different and superior, not more intelligent, just more street smart.

The study habits that formed then had an even greater impact in secondary school (grades 10-12) and landed me awards in chemistry, math, physics, a large scholarship directly from the hands of Sweden's king in front of a crowd of 10 000 (a tenth of the city's entire population) on Sweden's national day on June 6 (our 4th of July), as well as the honor of being the school's bearer of the national flag.

That day too kind of hinted I was special, but still didn't sway me from aiming for a life of mediocrity - of "making just enough money to afford meat on the plate every day" (my exact thought when I was 18, and just had been accepted as a student at Stockholm School of Economics (SSE), the most prominent higher education there is in Sweden, to study business administration and financial economics).

Becoming a hacienda jefe and shoe king in Argentina

I was just about to turn 24 (after 4 years at SSE and two years at my first job), when a girl I met in Argentina after climbing the summit of Aconcagua (Christmas 1995) asked me to stay and live with her there. That was the first time I considered another life than the typical school-work-retire model.

Oh, did I mention her family was the 20th richest in Argentina, with shoe stores all over south America, Portugal and Spain - and I got to sleep in my own 5-bedroom wing in one of their three large houses in that city (Mendoza)? It was very tempting to just leave everything to be with her...

Around the same time (1995-1996), my boss said "that's real Goldman Sachs level work, there" after an IT conference and an all-nighter, writing a summary of the conclusions and sending it to print shortly before sunrise. Perhaps, just perhaps I was destined for more than marrying rich, count shoes and make my own wine...?

Between 1996 and 2011, I reached various levels of success and gradually worked myself to mental and economic independence:
  • 1996 headhunted to another firm to be their head of IT research
  • 1998 ranked nr 1 analyst in Investment Companies (and nr 2-3 in IT)
  • 1999 By now I had had enough, enough of the industry, enough of crazy valuations, of client presentations, not to mention enough money for an upper-middle class life. I dreamt about mediocrity, about not working 70 hours/week, about becoming a bank clerk in a small town instead, having quality leisure time and getting enough sleep...
  • ...but got lured to a hedge fund right at the peak of the IT-bubble in March 2000, not even fully understanding what a hedge fund was. I just thought perhaps I could make a lot of money before quitting, as well as reducing my work week somewhat.
  • That happened, at least regarding face-time at the office (even if there was a lot of work done from home, meaning I still clocked 15 hours of work per day on weekdays). Already after 5 years I was thinking about leaving the industry again, this time with a little more money. "Within a year or two I'll probably have enough to retire", I thought. "It might even work right now (2005) but you never know...". I wanted a buffer.
  • ...and I got it in 2007-2011, when my net worth increased 10-fold. I suddenly didn't have just 1m USD but 10m USD.

Once I had enough money, I wanted out

After that, after 2011, I knew I wanted out of the industry. I had enough to live a comfortable life without ever working again. The question was what I wanted to do. I figured reading books and eventually writing one would be enough.

I eventually retired as portfolio manager in January 2014, but stayed on as the managing director for the rest of the year. Hence, as of January 1, 2015 I am a completely free retiree, aged 42 (the answer to everything by the way - Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy).

The last few months, I have realized I want to spread my word, be a role model, lend perspective to education, career, technology, philosophy etc. Hence, this year, this fall, I finally broke out of mediocrity and actually want to do more than just get by, get enough sleep and eat meat everyday. (ironically, I stopped eating land-living meat this fall).

The answer to the question, WHEN I realized I was destined for more, or had the potential and opportunity do lead a special life is today.

Even if my focus was whoring out, for enough money to be able to relax afterward with a book, a good night's sleep and a pork chop, I made it through most of my life by ignoring both the past and the future and just focused on the now, the process, the task at hand. I didn't want things or glory and wasn't burdened by ambition, I just did things - one small step at a time. I think that is why I have been a happy whore in the finance industry (well, that, and the fact I did quite well for myself)

I was expecting and aiming for mediocrity

I was expecting mediocrity, and inasmuch as I thought about it I was aiming for mediocrity as well; wanting an 8-hour work day, instead of 15, without having to think (instead of always being hyper alert), hoping for a future with 8 hours of sleep per night (instead of 4-6), and some nice Swedish binge drinking on Fridays and Saturdays, followed by a sleep-in, to top off the week.

Since I didn't want more than that, I could take 100-hour work weeks at the only job I got (third tier broker firm) with minimum pay (20-25k USD/year before taxes, Swedish taxes).

Somehow, not aspiring, not looking around too much, not caring about role models or strategic plans for world domination, made me simply do the work, made me absorb enough knowledge to solve the specific problem at hand and deliver value to my teacher/boss the next day, and the next and the next.

Eventually, I had done so for 16 years in school and 20 years at work and found myself accomplished and wealthy. Part of it might be luck, but most of all it's hard work, every week for my entire life. It didn't feel too bad, in part since it was done in small increments, one day at a time, one obstacle after another, and in part since it all went well.

Can you copy my formula? I think you can, but be careful and think closely about what it is that you actually want, and when. Slaving as a prostitute to buy a fancy tourbillion-featured watch is not a way to spend your life. Setting up camp by the sea, living on grilled lobster however is a whole different pancake...

Decide how much of a whore you want to be, and know your own pleasure buttons
  • Decide exactly how much you are willing to whore out to achieve a future liberty
  • Start projects (business, education...) and then forget the project and just do the tasks and solve the problems minute by minute, hour by hour. The mental burden of the entire project is unnecessary
  • Don't compare yourself to your social media friends, whether it is your friend, neighbor or an entrepreneur billionaire. Sure, take hints, try to learn their secrets, but don't try to copy them or their lifestyle. First just learn and do, then if you are successful do what you like
  • Focus on skills and value - become good, become valuable to yourself and to others. Do not waste your years on useless formal education or meaningless work
  • Have fun, be happy, be meaningful and mindful, learn and teach. Buy a sports car (I've had my Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini convertibles) for fun after your business has made it, but don't covet a ridiculously expensive car just because you have seen it in a rap video. And definitely don't buy it before you can afford it. Most of all, never buy anything to show off to others.
  • Know yourself, your actual drivers and play to them. If you are happy you are happy, and if you are rich, you are just that; rich.

5 kommentarer:

  1. This is a very insight article. It makes me think that although you were whoring yourself out, you were also developing useful skills. You weren't simply trading your time for money. After reading your last two posts, along with WSPB's study advice, I've been thinking more about the art of learning and gaining/improving skills. Do you have any advice on that from your perspective?

    1. On the one hand there is a lot of research-based study tools and techniques (scientifically timed flash cards, e.g., that maximize brain plasticity).

      I on the other hand focus more on motivation: What you study must be (made) interesting. It is to difficult to study and learn something you don't like or don't interest you. Since all things aren't appealing from the get go you have to make it interesting for you and your brain.

      Some people use short term rewards ("If I learn this and can solve these 5 problems correctly, I get to listen to my favorite song").

      Others use long term rewards ("I'll be rich someday. I'll show them")

      I put whatever I study into a True Learning Context. With TLC I mean I picture something tangible in the short term that I can use the new knowledge for (nifty party trick? build a stock valuation app? write a blog post?)

      The ACTUAL reason for studying something might be to start a business or get a job, but to get the hourly studying done, I use TLC. Actually, this is one of the things I hate the most with school.

      Teachers and text books hardly ever made things interesting and pedagogical by explaining what anything could be USED for. We are all just supposed to learn a lot of stuff that every generation has been taught. Most teachers probably still don't know what the knowledge or skill is actually good for.


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  2. The irony here is incredible. Despite your highly informative finance posts, this is your best one yet.

    I am going to be controversial here and give you my opinion of what I would have done in your position.

    "Sweden, the land of institutionalized mediocrity - 'perfect for me'."

    I would have left Sweden right out of college. High tax rate, and like you said, you were surrounded by mediocrity. With your intelligence and balls of courage, who knows what opportunities may have lay ahead?

    "I was just about to turn 24 (after 4 years at SSE and two years at my first job), when a girl I met in Argentina after climbing the summit of Aconcagua (Christmas 1995) asked me to stay and live with her there."

    From what I have seen, Argentine girls are beautiful. Obviously depends on how much you liked her, but if you did, this could have had potentially higher opportunity cost relative to your success with your HF. Marrying into wealth could have freed your time to do the things that you want to do. From my trajectory it looks like I will be a 'finance/investment whore' as well, but come on, we both know that finance adds no direct value to society besides lending and pricing, and even that can be argued.

    "The 'retarded' HF departure."

    I would have kept the Managing Partner position. A 2/20 HF structure is nothing to laugh at, especially when you're set up to make a killing on the next downturn. Let the your partners run the day to day activities, yet semi-routinely check into the office and give your needed opinions and oversight. Higher AUM will send exponentially higher (relative to historical) returns straight to your bank account.

    Sounds like a very interesting stage in your life. You're still young and capable of developing any skill that you desire. Like you said focus on one thing at a time--step by step.

    2015 will be a great year.

    1. Thanks for that long and insightful comment Kyle.

      Well, I'm not called "retarded" for nothing...

      Yeah, she was beautiful and I was in love. However, I wanted to be my own man, not least have a backup plan. I could have ended up managing the family money with no way out...

      Yes, I'm looking forward to 2015. So far, I think every new year has been the best ever. I see no reason 2015 would be any different.