March 20th, 2021: Greetings from Taipei. Here’s a picture from a hike we did last weekend on the outskirts of town. Hoping to go back when the haze is a bit less.
✍ I published a post on the “accidental meaning hypothesis” I’ve shared in a few places on my blog.
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#1 The Default Script Is Boring
I once had a conversation with a young woman here in Taiwan last year who was a few years into her career, married and not too certain about her career. She was stressed because she didn’t really enjoy the work she was doing but didn’t know what to do about it.
I asked her about her goals. She told me that her and her husband were determined to own a home and had calculated that if they both worked full-time for about 10 years they could achieve this dream (Homes are insanely expensive here).
I asked her, “have you ever considered not owning a home.” She paused and told me in a rather confused voice, “No I really hadn’t.”
Venkatesh Rao had a great post in Art of Gig newsletter this week contemplating what the best way to orient one’s life as a gig worker might be. He argued that people should orient around a “fixed point” and argued this is what many do by default:
“in the US, the so-called “American Dream” has historically been based on the standard fixed point of home-ownership. As in, ‘no matter what happens in the future, I’ll be a homeowner.’”
This fixed point is absolute and non-negotiable. To someone orienting around owning a home, spending more than half a million dollars on a home is part of their life decisions and having to continue working at a high-paying job you don’t love is a worthwhile trade-off.
The Problem With Default Scripts
In the US there are also more advanced versions of this script like “get my kids into elite schools,” or other popular scripts like “make a shit-ton of money,” “take care of my family,” “become an executive,” “start a company,” and “become famous.”
Many people opt-in to these fixed points because they are popular and accepted but end up feeling stuck in one of three ways:
The script is too easy or achievable too young: Get the home and then move to the next level of the same game, like “get kids into elite school.” This is typically a lot less fun and much more stressful than the “buy a home” game but its hard to imagine anything else when people around you all act in the same way. Yet these people always sense that something is profoundly “off.” The top group that reached out during the pandemic.
The script is unattainable: I talked to a college senior with $150k in college debt and my heart was crushed. He was not distraught about alternative scripts but he had more or less given up on the default scripts at 22 and wasn’t sure how to think about this.
They are “off-script” but struggle with the uncertainty of an undefined path:: Many people don’t like the default scripts but then find themselves lost when they can’t define or come up with a coherent story that lets them make sense of their life. Some jump from project to project for years.
The issue with default scripts is that they succeed and fail in predictable ways. When we succeed, we know exactly how we compare to others and quickly realize that there are people doing better than us. This is why people making a high salary refuse to ever name a number when you ask them how much is “enough.” When you fail on a default script, we know exactly how you are supposed to feel and quickly find ourselves in that state as if we are a star in a movie,
Venkatesh offers an antidote to this with his idea of the “fixed point.” Pick something that has nothing to do with the default scripts and then orient your life around it.
It could be as simple as “I’ll only wear blue shirts from now on.” Now that’s something you have a good chance of making true whether the future is a zombie apocalypse or fusion-powered starships.
You might be thinking that this is pretty silly but that’s the point. Picking something that uniquely matters to you will shift your imagination to make trade-offs in ways that will result in interesting outcomes.
My Alternative Scripts
After reading his post I realized that this is exactly how I’ve oriented over the past four years, mostly around three “fixed points” that float around in my head.
Only Working Remotely / Asynchronously: My last paid gig that involved in-person work was in the Summer of 2018. Since moving to Taiwan I’ve had a 100% no policy to anything in-person, even if it is a project in the same city. In 2017 I was working on three projects in Boston and New York and did most of the work remotely. I realized that by saying no to in-person work I could learn how to work remotely, which I saw as an obvious trend.
In 2020 suddenly this became a lot more valuable.
Six months off at anytime: I’ve designed my work such that I can stop doing it at anytime. I’ve steered away from anything that looks like full-time work. This time off could be used for childcare, helping out family or friends, travel, working on a project (like writing my book, or studying Chinese), or even just a period of contemplation.
My bet is that the way to do develop this capacity is to take one-month breaks now rather than thinking about it as a financial calculation. In 5 or 6 one-month breaks over the past few years I’ve been able to develop a seasonal rhythm that feels sustainable for creating, writing and doing what I’m doing without burning out.
Kids Without Default-To-Daycare: My wife and I could both get more stable jobs as we plan to move back to the US, but for us the real game is to have long-term flexibility to be able to spend time with our future potential kids without having to depend on the dual-income + daycare hustle which I am 100% positive I would be incredibly stressed with. By orienting around this vision of the future it nudges me to make decisions that seem bad from the outside. You see a one month writing gig where I make $1,200 and think that it wasn’t a good use of my time and I see the bigger aim of being able to flexibly do many kinds of work.
If these make you a bit uncomfortable that is probably a good thing. These scripts are uniquely mine, have been battle-tested, and won’t work for you.
Sorry but you need to find your own.
Which I hope you find. I encourage all Boundless readers to select some sort of secret mission that they will orient around over the next few years. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Own a home AND never have to own a car
Give away 50% of my income above $X
Never wear a dress shirt for anything work-related
Move every three years
Pay for a yearly vacation for close friends and family in a unique location
Never work past 5pm, ever
Live in a place where I can bike as my primary mode of transportation
Only work on things that can be done asynchronously or earn money passively
4-Day Workweek or Busy
No work for first 10 years of kid’s lives
The benefit to weird scripts is that since they are not common you will not know how you are supposed to feel if you come up short and you can afford to tweak your plan without incurring shame. The hardest part of these alternative scripts is that if it emerges as your primary aim you will have some explaining to do. We live in a world dominated by default path energy and the fierce competition of that path. If you don’t compete in predictable ways you will need a story to explain why.
Regardless, coming up with these kind of fixed points is vital to living in the weird post-2010 world and the earlier you start the better you’ll be The era of default path accidental meaning is over. Living in a weird world without weird aims and you will increasingly feel like something has gone terribly wrong.
I stumbled upon this way of thinking by accident.
No one tells you that as soon as you stop earning a salary that your desires, interests, and priorities change dramatically and that you’ll be okay with it. I expected some change but never predicted that my imagination would be generated ideas for how to live in 100 new directions.
The key to thriving off the default path is finding a few possibilities that are worth optimizing around over and over again AND finding some friends who are orienting in similar directions.
These “fixed points” are perfect first steps. Pick one and then see if it works for you. If not, tweak it or abandon it. Over time you’ll find one that works for you. Pursue it publicly or secretly.
For me these scripts add a level of fun and interestingness to life that is hard for others to understand. To me the work full-time, maximize salary, and build an upper middle income lifestyle is both not that exciting and highly stressful for me in predictable ways.
Here the thing: We may end up opting into similar choices to that script such as buying a house, but it will be downstream of fixed points decision making rather than being the aims itself. This will make it easier to abandon and tweak over time.
If you have similar off-the-default path scripts, what are they? Leave a comment below and I’ll share some of the responses next week or feel free to share on twitter and I’ll respond.
#2 Taiwan Fixed Points
In Taiwan one popular fixed point among young people is to open a café. Taiwan has more high-end instagram friendly cafes than any other place I’ve been. This might explain some of the extreme differentiation in my neighborhood.
#3 Risks When Your Job Is Your Life
A new paper finds that CEO lifespan “decreases by 1.5 years in response to an industry-wide downturn.”
#4 Global World Order
I find the economic situation that was established after WWII fascinating mostly because it was the first time anything like it was done. We still don’t know how this ends and when. Erik Torenberg had two recent posts on this and the detail the changing dynamics of politics and the money system internationally.
What changed? In 2008, the U.S. proved that it would going to print however much money it needed to take care of its interests first, everyone else be damned. In contrast to how Paul Volcker handled it a few decades earlier, this was a loss of confidence globally—it’s hard for other countries to rely on a currency that will inflate as needed.
As the U.S. backs away, few players have any inkling of how to operate in a world where markets are not open, transportation is unsafe, and energy cannot be secured easily. Zeihan thinks those that come to terms with their necessary independence from the global order will be successful in the long run. This means that countries that depended on the global order will be screwed (China, Germany, Russia, Iran, etc.) and the countries that flourished without the global order will continue to flourish (Japan, France, Argentina, Turkey, etc.).
#5 Friend Of The Newsletter Corner
✍ Ben Putao is writing “Great Founders Write” and is looking for feedback on Chapter 1, which he published here.
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