“Avoid boring people”
This warning is the title of scientist James D. Watson’s memoir. (That’s Watson of Watson & Crick. DNA. Double helix. Adenine-Thymine base pairs. Bueller?)
Don’t worry about high school bio. Focus on the title. First, note the double meaning. It’s an admonition about who to avoid as well as a prescription for yourself. Two pieces of advice in one punchy aphorism. What a value. I can see how people might use the advice as a compass to find their orientation when they feel life has spun them around a few times.
You know me too well by now to know I can’t leave a perfectly fine adage with its ankles unbitten. Let’s deconstruct.
What does it even mean to be boring?
Feels a bit rubbery when you try to pin it down. Like that time the Supreme Court tried to define porn by appealing to common sense — “I know it when I see it”.
Maybe it’s easier to answer “what’s not boring?”
- Ordinary people with extraordinary life paths. Extreme example: Louie Zamperini from Unbroken whose life was Forrest Gump-esque.
- Very rich or famous people. They have access to exclusive life experiences. And their day-to-day life is hard to recognize to us normies. Chrissy Teigen did a candid AMA last December on Twitter if you want proof. (Link)
- People with dangerous jobs. CIA agents. Navy Seals. Lion tamers. Orca trainers. If you hang out with these people, you won’t even want to talk about yourself. You will naturally ask questions and listen.
- Excellence. This one might be personal, but I happen to find anyone who is elite at anything to be interesting. Maybe it’s a byproduct of the “unusual life path” definition. I’m strangely fascinated by the idea of spending 10,000 hours of shuffling cards to develop sleight of hand.
Even after listing what’s not boring, it’s hard to shake the sense that I’m just projecting my own preferences rather than honing in on some universal acceptance of “interesting”.
Why being less boring might not make you happier?
Tyler Cowen brought my attention to a 4-line short story:
We know only four boring people. The rest of our friends we find very interesting. However, most of the friends we find interesting find us boring: the most interesting find us the most boring. The few who are somewhere in the middle, with whom there is reciprocal interest, we distrust: at any moment, we feel, they may become too interesting for us, or we too interesting for them. — excerpted from Lydia Davis’ Samuel Johnson is Indignant (Link)
1) Within the dynamics of a relationship the spread of boringness between 2 individuals moderates trust. If your friend became famous and dropped into a different life petri dish of experience is it reasonable to expect your relationship to change? Probably.
2) Maybe boringness, like status, is zero-sum. If nobody is boring the word’s meaning calibrates to once again set a fixed proportion of people of and below the bar. If everyone shoots like Steph Curry the 3-point line will just get pushed back. Mental model fanboys and fangirls will recall the “red queen effect”.
“Avoid boring people” as a North Star is easily contradicted
1) Boringness is relative.
The pretty, rich brat teen Astrid in the Politician runs away from home because she’s bored of being part of the Santa Barbara super-affluent crowd. (I’m sure there are better examples but I couldn’t resist a dog whistle for fans of the Netflix series). She wants to be broke and feel risk, believing it will recharge her deadened senses.
Speculating aloud, if “boring” is indeed relative then our novelty-seeking instinct may be a vestige that outlived its usefulness. Boring may be nothing more than a perspective.
2) Dutiful grandmas
This is how I describe my mother and mother-in-law. I am thinking most people would look at these women’s lives and think “boring”. But they are tremendous inspirations because of how committed they are to their duties. I don’t need to expand on this. We all know these people. Unheralded heroes in our life stories. Nobody writes a Wikipedia page for them. They got a dance when their sons married for all they endured. Big whoop.
“Avoid boring people” feels like elitist advice when you put it under a microscope.
It’s just hustleporn
Venkat Rao, as he does, stirred the pot with a Twitter thread. (Link)
Here’s how I understand it. Self-described “lifelong learners” and the growth mindsetters are just following a religion they think will make them rich. These people are actually boring and if they ever fell into FU money, personal growth would cease being an altar to worship at. Being one of these self-described lifelong learners I had to take the bait and read the thread. Ouch.
So then I started wondering: is the “avoid boring people” crowd the same as the “lifelong learner” crowd? Is everyone in this Venn diagram just trying to get to any combo that includes “rich”? If you ever figure it out let me know.
If you have the time to actually be bored, sure shake it up. Get a pet. Do a local Skillshare or class. Find a rabbit hole. Get arrested. But organizing your life so as to not be boring is hardly a proven recipe for anything valuable. It might work for you. But remember “Avoid Boring People” is just a book title. Lots of them can work for you, I’m not convinced this one is special.
The Money Angle
2 brief things this week.
1) Remember nobody is bigger than the market.
He pulled this from Michael Batnick’s post about how when you were born dominates your investment performance. (Link)
Be humble about what is actually in your control and structure your life as best you can within that understanding. This thing we call the market is a tyrant. Nobody can live outside what it allows for. This is true of all markets. Consider most businesses. A dumb realtor in a bull market vs a smart realtor in the recession. The market is the biggest factor. This gives credence to the strategy of trying to put yourself in front of the wave of a growing industry. I can see you smart people stewarding “run-off” industries solemnly nodding.
How about the labor market? This is bonus season on Wall Street so lots of little violins playing for people who felt they got screwed. But screw you once, shame on them. Screw you twice? Shame on you. If you don’t leave a crappy employer then you have validated your place in the market. Management is not bigger than the market. If they really screwed you, you can appeal to the labor market. Your boss only gets one swing at your pinata. If you let them take more then perhaps you’re at the only party in town.
2) Morgan Housel’s latest about the psychology of the country leading up to the Great Depression is instructive. (Link)
A timeless takeaway:
The problem when studying historical events is that you know how the story ends, and it’s impossible to un-remember what you know today when thinking about the past. It’s hard to imagine alternative paths of history when the actual path is already known. So things always look more inevitable than they were.
The post is worth a full read. Learn how the collective mindset of the country changed in the decade after WWI and the Spanish Flu. American despair gave way to prosperity before lapsing into the worst economic disaster in US history. He relies on newspaper clippings to provide the real-time perspective countering our hindsight view.
Here’s the nuggets that seem to have burrowed into my long-term memory since reading it:
- The stock market fell 89% from the peak and took 25 years and another world war before it got back to it’s 1929 level. Birth rates fell 17%. Sobering. Especially when you consider what the path of something like that looks like. If you had bought stocks down 80% from the highs, by the time they got to the lows you were down 50% on your money.
- The 1920s seemed to be the cradle of how American’s think of prosperity even today. I take it for granted when apparently it has roots that are less than 100 years old.
Investing lessons written in blood shouldn’t fade. This post will stay with me.
This week I’ll share some lists that have recently entertained me:
- Gary Basin’s 100 tweets about rich people (Link)
- Tim Ferriss’ 11 Reasons To Not Become Famous. Don’t dismiss this because of the title. This is a dark and heavy post. I have never read anything that was so raw on the subject of fame. Even if you never desired fame, you have probably wondered what life is like for a celebrity. Tim knows he’s just a minor celeb and that’s enough of a window into the disturbing reality of fame (Link)
- The number of amazing things that were created quickly before the year 1970 is astonishing especially in contrast to how much legal and bureaucratic quicksand we see today. Patrick Collison’s Fast list is staggering. At the end of the post, he links to several theories of what happened to bog us down. (Link)
- Highly amusing, somewhat irreverent list on How to Live Better. Favorites were:
- #26. But I’d include the Envy cultivar
- #34. The Japanese are winning.
- #60. Re-casting is underrated.
- #71. This is also my strategy at a conference. Connect deeply with a few instead superficially with everyone.
- #84. Something I plan to work on.
- #85. This goes for school too.
- #91. The alternative is you are annoying.
- #94. This sounds fun. Who wants to go first?
- #98. Similar idea to #71
- #99 Reminded me of this great interview with Priya Parker
I’ll add an observation from this list which ties together this week’s “Explore/Exploit Tradeoff” with #71 and #98:
The gap between good and great can be exponential. When you decide how to spend your time it’s probably the case that you should read the best books multiple times at the expense of reading lots of books which just came out. This goes for listening to music. How we invest in our relationships. Of course, we aren’t benefit-maximizing robots, but there are times when you might feel indifferent between going broad vs diving deep and defaulting to mining what we know is great can be a handy default.
From my actual life
Instead, trust that your friends have done the work since they are putting the effort to raise money. By offering you a chance to give, they are actually doing you a favor. You get to act instead of just meaning to do good. Even if you accidentally give to shyster.org, over the course of your life you will have maximized area under the curve.
I didn’t grow up with money. Not poor but no real savings. The way the remaining middle class lives today. My mother then and now always gives. Small amounts, what she feels comfortable with. But it’s a thing that just sort of stuck with me in watching her. I’m not a political or activist type person. Those people tend to be more wired to give and ask for money from what I’ve seen firsthand. But I think a willingness to give comes from observing others. So if it’s something you value and you have kids, show them that you do this. It probably matters.
A practical note: if you deduct your giving from your taxes, it’s easy to create a label in Gmail for every tax year. When you get the receipt emailed to you just file it under the year’s label. Your receipts will be in one place when you sit down to prepare your taxes.