Last summer, I took a seminar on family businesses. One group presented an interesting insight: When put under immense financial distress, family businesses take on less and less risk, whereas non-family businesses take on more.
This is due to a concept called socioemotional wealth, which means family members are so emotionally attached to their business, they’d rather try to preserve whatever little they have left, instead of putting it all on the line.
Ironically, when cash gets really tight, a few bold, risky bets are exactly what businesses need to survive, which is why the blue line above is the healthier one. When it comes to our careers, we can also place them inside this framework.
The question is: which line are you on and where?
On The Slowness Of Life
“In fact, the most interesting aspect of evolution is that it only works because of its antifragility; it is in love with stressors, randomness, uncertainty, and disorder — while individual organisms are relatively fragile, the gene pool takes advantage of shocks to enhance its fitness.”
A system that can put out an endless number of experiments, the success or failure of which serves to improve it, has an infinite capacity to absorb shocks. Take the stock market, for example. New companies keep entering, but only the best remain at any given time, which is why the overall market keeps growing.
It’s a slow process, however, as setting up such massive feedback nets and waiting for them to collect data takes a long time to bear fruit.
Great companies and careers are somewhat antifragile too. Instead of giving in to external shocks, the people behind them rally and come back stronger. That’s why at Wordpress, features that break aren’t fixed — not right away, anyway. They wait how many complaints roll in, and how fast, to validate whether the feature is needed in the first place. If no one laments its absence, it’s removed altogether.
This, too, takes time, which is why most of us don’t look to set up such antifragile systems in our lives, because we’d have to consider them as a whole, not in 5-year, 1-year, or even 3-month windows. But, as the Stoics remind us, this is the only proper perspective:
“Learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.” — Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life
We’re busy trying to build our lives fast, so we forget that from the moment we’re born, we’re slowly dying. That’s why it’s so hard to build momentum: you can’t feel it while you’re creating it, only see it in hindsight.
Paying With Insanity
In World War II, English mathematician Alan Turing was invited to be part of a secret task force, aimed at cracking the German encryption device Enigma. For two years, Turing and his team worked day and night, and eventually succeeded. The machine they built, the Bomba, came at a price, however.
Because it had so many parts, settings, levers, gears, and theory behind it, getting it exactly right nearly drove Turing insane. Funding was almost pulled several times, and Turing hadn’t been easy to get along with to begin with.
Given that they not just saved millions of lives and helped end the war early, but also laid the foundation for modern computers, it’s easy to see their sacrifices were worth making.
However, most of us aren’t on missions of similar magnitude. We want to be recognized for our work, make a good living, maybe even leave a legacy. But we’re not permanently threatened by bankruptcy, political persecution, or imminent death.
In the graph seen earlier, we reside right in the middle, where the occasional extra risk may pay dividends, but success is largely inevitable, as long as we continue on the path we’ve begun. But if we don’t zoom out, we miss this.
We perceive threats that aren’t there, constantly feel behind, and so, out of a false sense of urgency, we act more than we should. We’re slowly driving ourselves insane, because otherwise, life would be boring.
But insanity is a high price to pay. Are you sure what you desire is worth it?
The Lazy Shall Inherit The Earth
“The idea is that effort and decisions compound just as much as money and interest rates do. If you make a lot of really small, but good decisions, over time, they compound and they create massive change. If you make a lot of small, but bad decisions, those also compound over time.”
Therefore, he reminds his audience that often, the best thing to do for your portfolio is to do nothing at all. Rather than risk making a bad decision, wait until you’re sure you can make a good one.
“Instead of trying to think about how do you always do the big, massive, right thing, it’s often much more effective to think about ‘what is one thing I could do that’s very small, but I could do it every single day, that I know would lead to something really great in the future?’”
It’s akin to a Warren Buffett anecdote about good investing:
“I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only twenty slots in it so that you had twenty punches — representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you’d punched through the card, you couldn’t make any more investments at all. Under those rules, you’d really think carefully about what you did, and you’d be forced to load up on what you’d really thought about. So you’d do so much better.”
His partner Charlie Munger likes to quip with a similar, but more striking line:
“Don’t just do something, stand there!”
Most days, weeks, months, nothing spectacular happens. Life flows along, but rather than enjoying some extra down time, we make up stories, create artificial drama, or set grand schemes in motion that are doomed to fail.
The lesson? Be lazy. Not as in ‘don’t do anything,’ but as in ‘when nothing happens, don’t change anything.’ Just keep doing your work. Don’t get distracted by boredom.
“He observed, specifically, that many of the things the elite performers were doing were incredibly boring and mundane. They had the attitude and the discipline to show up, day in and day out, to work on small, tiny movements in a way that allowed them to internalize them into habits.”
But how do you cultivate this stubborn consistency?
If You Must Walk, Walk Slowly
“He always made the point, if they say you must run, insist on walking. If they say you must walk fast, insist on walking slowly. That was the whole point. We are going to set the terms.”
For every action he controlled, he chose to do it in a way that would make his life a little bit better, building momentum. No attempted breakouts, no resistance. He just relentlessly continued on his path, until its mundanity compounded into excellence.
“He said: ‘When you approach the ball like this, if you change the angle you’re attacking by just one or two millimeters in the very beginning, do you see how that changes the arc? This one is fitting on the green, one millimeter, now you’re in the water. One millimeter over here, now you’re in the sand.’
I thought what a great belief system that when all hell’s breaking loose and nothing’s working that you’re only one millimeter off.”
Don’t throw out your plans. You’re just one millimeter off. Keep your direction. Be lazy.
It might not be easy, but then again, if it was, everyone would do it.