What Matters In The End?
Buffett and Bezos on protecting your most important asset.
[7 minute read]
When I was at last month’s Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting, Warren Buffett was asked how to avoid major mistakes in investing and life. He replied with a simple but powerful piece of advice:
“Write your obituary and figure out how to live up to it.”
That exercise would surely help clarify what’s important to us.
The columnist David Brooks has made a similar distinction between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues”. The contrast implies that there are good and bad ways to prioritise your attention in life. Would you want your child to stand up at your funeral and talk about your fishing trips together, or your unerring ability to use Excel without touching the mouse?
I think it’s pretty intuitive that your time and attention are valuable. It’s why we use financial metaphors for paying attention and spending time. “Wisdom” is just one way of describing how we can get increasingly better at focusing on what’s important. It is therefore unsurprising that the pursuit of wisdom strongly correlates with flourishing, growth, meaning and pretty much everything we’d want in our lives.
Wealth can play a central role. But not always in ways that are immediately obvious…
Tinder… for Reality?
A helpful way to think of the pursuit of wisdom is like a dating app. Imagine a grid of attractive faces. One of them will stand out to you, and you’ll pick that one. Why? Because you’re attracted to it!
The idea is that there are an infinite number of potential romantic partners and our sense of attraction helps limit our choices. When we pick one partner we discard a vastly larger number of other options.
The 85 year Harvard Study of Adult Development is the longest in-depth longitudinal study on human life ever conducted. The strongest predictor of who was going to be happy and healthy as they grew older was the quality of their personal relationships.
Who we choose to pay attention to matters because our social time is more limited than we think. Robin Dunbar found that we average 150 friends and 3.5 social hours per day, so that’s 1 minute 24 seconds a day per friend. But it’s not linear. Roughly 40% of our attention is typically devoted to the 5 people who make up our innermost social circle. Who you put in those limited slots really matters. Who will speak at your funeral and what will they say?
But you can extend this dating app metaphor to almost everything you do. There will be topics, books or activities you’re attracted to and that bring you energy. You’ll feel better after consuming them. The main task will be quickly filtering out the wrong stuff. As Morgan Housel wrote just last week:
“The best reading strategy I’ve come across is the idea of a wide funnel and tight filter. Be willing to read anything that looks even a little interesting, but abandon it quickly and without mercy if it’s not working for you.”
The pursuit of wisdom is primarily about using the sense of attraction, or “interestingness”, to discard information. Joseph Campbell’s study of human myth gave him profound insights into the mysterious way reality actually works. My life philosophy is now pretty much summarised by his most famous line:
“Follow your bliss and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be.”
The problem is I think many people ignore the most important part of this observation.
The Part We Miss…
“One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves. You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you.”
- Jeff Bezos
The key to dating apps is that the other person needs to match with you too. This is obviously true of human relationships; the same Harvard study showed that deep relationships need to be maintained and reciprocated. Love the people that love you back!
But, once again, I believe this dynamic applies to everything.
This is why “follow your bliss” is such a widely misunderstood piece of advice. It doesn’t mean “do whatever feels good”, it means do what reality rewards you for.
Why would reality “reward” you for anything? One idea I’ve been drawn to recently is that evolution tends towards greater complexity. If you become the most individualized you can be, while still acting in harmony with the whole system, that’s maximum complexity. The violinist’s passionate pursuit of individual excellence makes the entire symphony more beautiful. But they still need to be in tune with everyone else. This is the win-win relationship that’s the cornerstone of successful evolution.
Campbell also emphasized his belief that your flourishing is somehow tailored to your individual gifts: “when you are on your path, and it is truly your path, doors will open for you where there were no doors for someone else.”
The catch is that none of this will make any sense to you if you’re closed to the idea of guiding “attractors”.
The “doors opening” is life swiping back on your dating profile. Synchronicities, meaningful coincidences, are just one way that reality shows love back to you. I have no idea how it works, but I’ve seen enough evidence in my own life to be certain that it does.
That’s why wisdom correlates so closely with openness. It’s your ability to feel the attraction, the love, as well as your sensitivity to when you’re being guided in a beneficial direction. Our environment is not indifferent to our actions; our passions choose us as much as we choose them. There are an unlimited amount of things to pay attention to in the world, so it makes sense that evolution has made the optimal path for us feel more meaningful. When it’s beneficial for our environment it’s also plausible that our environment will somehow reward us too. Quite how mysteriously and intelligently it does it is an open question, one of the most interesting ones.
Our brain’s right hemisphere is based around sensation, it is primarily non-verbal. In contrast our left hemisphere is logical, rational and highly verbal. It also lies (the right doesn’t). Our right hemisphere is significantly more connected to our bodies, hearts and the outside world. It helps direct our curiosity. Following our bliss requires openness to the same “attractors” that our closed rationality denies even exist.
This is where the role of wealth comes in.
Perhaps the hardest part is structuring a life that allows you to change paths when you’ve gone in the wrong direction or have focused on the wrong thing. You also need the freedom to ignore the vastly larger number of things that won’t ultimately matter. There’s an incredibly strong connection between curiosity and happiness. But the competing demands of daily life mean we can’t all focus on pursuing eulogy virtues over resume virtues as much as we’d like.
This is the most valuable link between wealth and wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to pursue what you love and ignore what you don’t. Wealth provides that freedom, both to you and your children.
Video series. Intimations of a New Worldview by Brett Andersen. This a new YouTube lecture series by Brett Andersen. It’s an expansion of the themes raised in his remarkable essay Intimations of a New Worldview. When I read it last year, I thought the insights were so revelatory Brett and I even appeared together on an Infinite Loops podcast with Jim O’Shaughnessy to discuss it. It’s such a rich and complex essay, I think we were only partially successful. This longer format might help illustrate some of the most important ideas. All of Brett’s work relates back to the key ideas in this piece. Please consider giving it your attention.
“John Vervaeke has repeatedly argued that the ability to solve combinatorially explosive problems is largely determined by our ability to realize relevance, which is our ability to intelligently ignore the vast number of non-optimal solutions and zero in on the small subset of solutions that are optimal or nearly optimal.”
“One of the most common sources of psychopathology is the refusal to pay attention to one’s own accumulating errors.”
Article. Paying Attention by Morgan Housel (7 minute read). A short but typically great article from Morgan. I feel like I write that every time. Maybe it means I need to be shorter and better...
“Deciding what to pay attention to is hard, overlooked, and most important, it’s a negative skill – it’s about what you willfully ignore as much as what you actively seek out.”
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