On What Matters


As most people do, I cycle through phases where I wonder if what I’m doing has any impact.

From Sam Altman’s blog:

“Like most people, I sometimes go through periods of a week or two where I just have no motivation to do anything (I suspect it may have something to do with nutrition).

This sucks and always seems to happen at inconvenient times. I have not figured out what to do about it besides wait for the fog to lift, and to trust that eventually it always does.”

Indeed, clearing the “fog” takes both a certain physical and mental prowess.

A book I finished recently was Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage concerning Ernest Shackleton’s daring voyage across the Antarctic continent (ending the Heroic Age). Without spoilers – even though it’s a real story – Shackleton leads his men to safety with zero deaths: quite a mean feat for someone who lived a century ago. Before the journey, Shackleton is highlighted as irreverent and irresponsible by his peers and staff.

Yet, his men proclaim:

“He was, as one of his men put it, “the greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none.”’

People like Shackleton, Lansing states, have a power that is not meant for daily life, but that can only be harnessed in the heat of battle.

For Shackleton that was leading his men with the hope that they would hopefully see their loved ones again when the odds were incredibly against him and his crew.

“But the great leaders of historical record—the Napoleons, the Nelsons, the Alexanders—have rarely fitted any conventional mold, and it is perhaps an injustice to evaluate them in ordinary terms.”

Sometimes that battle is within ourselves as Altman mentioned and we can’t help ourselves to the full extent of our abilities if we lack the fundamentals – eating healthy, not drinking (too much), and exercise. Mentally, journaling and reading can turn the rocky, unsettled waters inside our heads into a still river, calming us in the process.

On this note, a video that a friend and I watched recently was about Ashton Kutcher and from his speech at the 2013 Nickelodeon Teen Awards. You would not on first glance expect truisms from Ashton; to date Kutcher has created Thorn, aiding children that are victims of sexual abuse, and Sound Ventures, a venture capital fund investing in unicorns like Uber and Airbnb. It’s worth hearing him out at the very least.

Marc Andreessen said this about Kutcher when Forbes delved deeper into how he generated $30 million into nearly $250 million:

“If you can routinely return 3x, you’re considered one of the best VCs,” says Marc Andreessen. […]

If you can return 5x, it’s considered to be a home run. I took my math classes: 8x is seriously higher than 5x.”

In the video, Kutcher says that there are three things that he’s learned in his life thus far: they fall in the categories of creating opportunity, being sexy, and building a life rather than just existing in one.

Kutcher’s first job was carrying shingles to the roof with his dad and while that might sound lame, it creates a sense of humbleness for work in general. Like he says, he was always just “lucky to have a job” – personally, I have had the experience of believing that I was definitely too intelligent for some of the companies I was working for. If you have ambition, it might feel demeaning in our heads to be just a developer, business developer, plumber, or cat caretaker.

As MLK said:

Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry.”

The next is a bit more controversial. He elucidates by saying that “being sexy” isn’t necessarily about gracing the cover of Vanity Fair; rather it’s being smart, thoughtful, and generous.

“[Everything else] is just crap people sell to you to make you feel like less.”

This seems like trite advice on first glance – step one, be attractive and step two, don’t be unattractive, right? Still, everyone is curious to some extent. We see the world in our own perspective. To reference George Berkeley, “perception is reality” and we all live in our own realities.

Anyone can be more curious and thus smarter about the world we live in. Indeed, it’s the desire to learn that is scarce: before it used to be that it was impossible to distribute scholarly materials in a fashion similar to the internet. Most of us – even though we would never admit it to ourselves – would take the blue pill from the Matrix.

Everyone would also agree with the last two, acting in a way that is thoughtful and generous pays you back in the years to come perhaps in a selfish manner.In an earlier post, I discussed the effective altruism movement – people didn’t want to donate as effectively as possible, rather they wanted to “feel good” in the moment and give money to beggars on the street.

If you’re generous people remember and they’ll especially remember if you’re thoughtful. It’s the opposite of every networking event where the organizers supposedly promise that you’ll meet the Wozniak to your Jobs. Take, Take, Take. Whereas giving and not feeling entitled to anything results in what we actually need from others in the years to come (if anything at all).

His last point, based off the famous Steve Jobs commencement speech, is that we should seek to build a life instead of just living one. This is perhaps the one that causes most of the depression we see rampant in society today.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

I remember in high school, I was told from one of my teachers that his friends would come back home from work and watch TV. When they would meet they would complain that they weren’t achieving their dreams as a singer, artist, etc. That made sad enough to the point that I left the room mid-lecture.

The current western school system of wake up, school, homework, then sleep was invented in the height of the Prussian empire to produce a docile populace. That already speaks volumes about contemporary Western culture and behavior. Everyone knows that the education system is broken – only a monumental change will fix the issue. However, a minor but exponential difference could be seen if teachers told students even the idea that the world is theirs to make, not just to live in. See a mistake in the world? Then change it. We lose track of the future through competition with our peers in a mimetic way unfortunately.

Above all, the Kutcher video showed me once more that some people contain a greater amount of dimensionality than we give them credit for. Shackleton could have been shackled (no pun intended) to the whims of his peers and not left for the Antarctic. His and even our fog clears away when we stick true to our north star and not let the madness of crowds affect us: after all, it’s just crap anyway.

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