Guiding Positive Change


KP and me, at the start of a wonderful partnership.

If you came to KP and asked him to turn you into a champion then he’d start by having you dive into a cold pool, predawn, three days a week. At the beginning, it didn’t matter to him what you did at the workout. The key was getting there, and diving in.

There was a lot behind Kev’s instruction: wake up early, face the predawn, make a habit of tolerating discomfort and rack up an early win.

It’s a form of superpower.



I’m ticking down the final workouts in an eight-module series. It’s the longest challenge I’ve ever completed, going to take 60 weeks.

Expert level stuff, due to the pandemic.

Normally, I aim for focus block of 105 days (15 weeks). Stay put and make sure the first thing I do every day is one positive step towards my target.

I was in my 30s before I ever truly applied myself. The results were life changing.



My strength training history runs 37 years into my past, to a rickety Universal Gym in high school.

To “win” at strength training… dive in, and stick with it.

Over 37 years, the specifics don’t matter as much as I tend to think.

I like strength training for a few reasons:

  • You can always find something to improve.
  • It doesn’t take much time, to capture most the gains.
  • Done properly, it’s useful.

To contrast different meanings of “properly”, I’ll share a story from a Kiwi friend of mine. He used to train “hard”.

  • Hard… as in, bring a chair into the shower so you didn’t have to stand after swim practice.
  • Hard… as in, needing to pause walking up two flights of stairs after a track session.

His more moderate friends asked “why” and “what’s the point” => well, he was trying to get good. In his case, “good” for triathlon.

Proper training, getting good, optimal time allocation.. it helps to know the larger goal sitting behind your daily routine.

Where are my daily actions likely to take me?

I’m aiming towards being highly functional at 60 yo. For my kids, the techniques are similar but the goals are different.

So let’s take some lessons from sport and apply them into the larger world.

These techniques work.



The most important thing to remember is Coach KP’s advice to DIVE IN!

Above, is a picture of the swim finish at Ultraman Hawaii. I’m 33 yo and leading out. Just before my 30th birthday, I’d started swim training. When I started, I wasn’t able to swim more than 100m of freestyle without stopping.

Ultraman is 10,000 meters, point-to-point, in Hawaii. Because the coast is curved, there are times when the athletes are more than a mile offshore.

Daunting.

I’ve gone from zero-to-decent in a wide range of activities.

Passing skills to my kids, and my readers, is the main way I impact the world.


Let’s start by addressing what holds us back from diving in…

It takes way less than 10,000 hours to get proficient at something.

3 swims a week, every week, for three years, was enough for me to get proficient – defined as 57-minutes for an Ironman Swim.

From proficient to outstanding => the diminishing returns kicked hard… about 1,000,000 meters for each minute reduction in Ironman swim time (down to 50-minutes for 2.4 miles).

If I told myself the path to swimming greatness required 10,000,000 meters then I might not have started.

Here’s the thing, I captured most the value in my first 1,000 days of swimming – 30 to 33 yo.

In weightlifting… 15 to 18 yo.

In calculus… 18 to 21 yo.

In finance… 21 to 24 yo.

Think about your own skill development. There is a 1,000 day ramp up, after that, it’s about depth.



At the start of the pandemic, our schools closed and we had to figure out home school. One of our most popular sessions was Art-with-Mom.

My son didn’t think he had any talent. He had fallen prey to the hazard of thinking his current ability reflected his potential.

Turns out the kid is great, but he had to start to find out.



You might think you’re stuck in your ways. I’m not so sure. The capacity to change does not have a sell-by-date. Radical change can happen from seemingly small choices, done daily.

The picture above… What’s happening there?

Consistency => since my kids have been able to stand, they have done at least one swim workout per week, every week.

One session a week will not get you to the top.

However, a decade of consistency, might get you to a position where you can get really, really good by doing 10-sessions a week for a few years.

Option Value for Excellence => an opportunity to take myself some place interesting (but I got to dive in).

Regardless of outcome => positive habits are useful, to crowd out bad habits and surround one’s self with go-getter peers.



Sport, languages, art, academics, learning to read, vector math…

How might one go about making dramatic progress?

Set your daily hurdle at the 1,000-day rate.

Let’s use teaching a kid to read for example. Learning to read is the highest return activity I have ever come across. Improving reading comprehension yields a durable competitive advantage.

The best way to teach a kid to read is… “reading aloud with a kid.”

Thing is that’s often inconvenient for the parents. Fortunately, it takes very little support to change the life of a young reader.

5 minutes, AM and PM, every_single_day, for as long as it takes.

We saw progress after 15 weeks, about 1,000 minutes of my time.

Roll forward 1,000 days and my kids start each day with 20-minutes of reading.


A year ago, we tacked-on Spanish with a 5 minute daily hurdle. The younger kids started with Spanish School Bus and our oldest with Duolingo.

This summer, we progressed to hour-long classes with an online tutor. The progression seemed natural to the kids. We’re Zooming into Guatemala for the classes.

Five minutes, to 20 minutes, to an hour.

Nobody noticed…


The Power of Incentives is always under-estimated, not just in executive compensation!

I pay for achieving a streak.

The first 100 days of the minimum is worth a $100 gift.

  • Paying off a summer reading streak was how I bought my way into the 20-minutes every morning.
  • With a top-up from his grandparents, my son rolled a 300-day Spanish streak into the lego you see at the top of this section.
  • My daughter did a deal for a guitar by committing to 100 lessons.

Track your streaks, and don’t mess with them!



Positive Cascades Start With Action Before Dawn

I pay attention to what I do before 7am.

There seems to be a positive cascade that results when I can get something useful done before 7am.

If you have kids then getting them on this schedule also makes bedtimes easier => for years, bedtimes were the absolute toughest part of my emotional life.

If you have trouble falling asleep then don’t worry about it. Consistently wake up early and start getting stuff done. Your sleep will sort itself out, or not. Either way, you will be better off.


Back to 37 years of strength training…

Focus on completion, not results.

For my kids => focus on staying in the game, building good habits and playing well with others – it’s easy to peak a kid WAY too early in life.

I’m glad I saved my downhill slide for adulthood… 😉

For myself => Pay attention to what screws up tomorrow.

  • Increasing my hurdle to the point where I get hurt, burnt out or lose interest.
  • Creating a crisis so I skip the minimum.
  • Travel, late-nights

Now that I’m able to look back 30+ years, there isn’t any session, day, week or year that stands out. What made a difference was consistent positive action.

If you miss, or start to dread, the minimum then you’ve set the bar too high.


Two things I learned from watching kids and parents:

  • Less is OK, quitting is not.
  • (Just like us…) kids don’t know what they want.

Back to that cold pool, in the dark, before sunrise… well, sometimes the pool is warm, you’ve had a nice breakfast and you still don’t want to dive in….

How do you deal with that?

With myself, I focus on the result. To get the result, I need to accept what’s required.

What’s required? Action before dawn, or a lower daily target.

With our kids, sometimes we need a little bit of negotiation… we agree to “less” so long as we hit the minimum => of weekly swimming, or daily reading, or whatever our current focus area. With the minimum set at the 1,000-day level, we can maintain a streak without undue strain.

The idea here is to stay in the game, today, while creating an option to become great, later.

By the way, the road to greatness can be different than we imagined (see below).



I often hear athletes say, “I need an event to get out the door.”

Here’s the thing about anything… …for me to do it right, I am tempted to take risks with my health, my relationships and my future.

I’ve found this lesson applies to high-performance everything.

Along with diminishing returns, came increased risks.

As a young man, my one dimensional periods were a mixed bag – athletics, by far, the least harmful of my single-minded earthly pursuits.

Choose Wisely.


Limits of Knowledge


A online physics course reminded me of the ways we get ourselves in trouble. I tried to explain this to a buddy and he replied, “there’s simply too much to worry about.”

I’ll give the explanation another shot.

Better thinking is not building the capacity to worry constantly, about more things. Better thinking is about training ourselves to focus on making a limited number of excellent choices, given imperfect information.

  • When to worry?
  • Where to focus?


Limits to Knowledge

Snowflakes: even if a human mind could know everything there is to know about water molecules, it would not be possible to predict a snowflake’s structure.

Mobs: understanding individuals, in isolation, tells us very little about the actions of mobs, or markets, or cities, or nations.

Lots of other examples: DNA to elephants; Neurons to consciousness; the patterns of a sandbar; the shape of a cloud, politics, wars, life sciences.

Clouds are a current favorite of mine – a reminder to stay humble with any bet that requires me to be correct about outcome.

I’m currently debt-free. As a result, I’m able to make more mistakes, be less correct and less impacted by outside factors. The value of this position doesn’t show up in conventional analysis.



Properties that emerge, at scale, make prediction impossible. Joe Norman’s presentation at RWRI helped open my eyes to this aspect of our reality.

I don’t need to become a complexity expert to apply this knowledge. What is essential is understanding the nature of the system in which we find ourselves.

  • Are we in a complex system?
  • Are we in a system subject to extreme events?

To answer my friend’s question, “when to worry?”

Complex systems, subject to extreme events… exposures here are worth the time to carefully consider.

You don’t need to be the CEO of AIG to get bitten on the butt by complexity. If you’ll get fired for the mistakes of one of your direct reports then, given enough time, you’re fired.

Sudden unemployment is one way the nature of universe can come home to roost. Happened to me in 90-days at the end of the last boom.

Here’s another… if you woke up and discovered an undisclosed $20 billion dollar loss in an important counterparty then what would that mean to your life?

What about your family, your employer and your portfolio?

Concentration is a risk we can mitigate. It’s why I have unrelated jobs and several cash flow sources. Here again, conventional analysis fails to capture the value of this position.

In 2021, in a very benign financial environment, we’ve seen multi-billion dollar losses pop up in a week, or less. Rapidly emerging, massive losses are a feature of our system.

Things, that have been stable for a very long time, can disappear quickly.


Prediction: our minds love to predict, to assign causation and to tell stories about the world around us.

Grasping for a “why” is a waste of time.

When operating in complex environments, most importantly when surprises can bite me in the butt, I need to constantly remind myself NOT to make predictions.

For myself, I actually need to go further, I need to implement a policy of NEVER making predictions and NOTING surprises. There is useful information contained in every surprise.

Even further, I shun input from individuals (especially smooth talkers) who make predictions. A reason why I try to never watch videos — too persuasive.

I’ve found that even a little prediction, it leads me down a path of wasting thought.

  • What’s likely to happen – what happens to me if the opposite happens?
  • What’s the worst that can happen – can I mitigate?
  • Does the situation appear reasonable – given the above
  • There are games, investments, relationships and opinions… I don’t need to play, make, engage or have

There are a lot of business where “the burden of the worst” falls outside of the beneficiary class (government, general partners, VC, private equity, OPM, CEO-class, banking).

We can waste a lot of energy railing against the system, I’ve found it much more useful to make sure I understand…

My family cannot afford to take the same risks as my employers, my shareholders and my government.

This is a lesson I learned through, rather expensive, experience when I left Private Equity.



Families…

No Prediction => focus on getting rid of ruin => subject to not becoming a casualty myself… education of youth “buys” more than portfolio returns, or my personal savings rate.

Conventional analysis fails to capture the present value of teaching how to avoid future mistakes.

Risks => practices that make sense for large entities, given time, will wipe out my family


So my point was…

There is more to reality than we are capable of comprehending.

Stable situations can become fragile at scale.

There are certain domains where acting “irrationally conservative” can make rational sense.

We are going to be surprised over, and over, and over, again.


Philosophically, one could say reality is pointing towards a deeper form of intelligence.

From a more linear point of view… the next time you are on an airplane, write a list of your concentrations and counterparty risks. Blow them up, one-by-one, and carefully consider if you need to mitigate.

Crypto

The capacity to see beauty

I was going to take a break from posting but this topic gives me an opening to share something useful with you.

So here goes.


Sunrises

First, I know next to nothing about crypto.

Fortunately, my life has been set up to take into account that I am clueless about many things!

I think we can start by agreeing that crypto is volatile.

So I’d suggest you start by thinking deeply about how you, your significant other, your family and your coworkers tolerate volatility.

I don’t need to think deeply. My family abhors volatility. They get nervous about stuff we don’t own.

Personally, I tolerate volatility but tend to sell early. By way of example, I am absolutely certain that I would have sold Amazon 20+ years ago. Grateful I didn’t short it.

So, regardless of the fundamentals, I’m not a good fit for the asset.


About those fundamentals, I can’t see them.

I could learn about crypto but, while learning about an asset class that isn’t a good fit, I am not working on something else.

Let’s repeat that… while thinking about one thing, I am not thinking about another thing.

The opportunity cost of mis-directed thought.


Say I get there – I’m comfortable with the asset class, and I’ve gotten myself and my investment committee past the volatility issue.

Will it make a difference?

Buying, not buying, selling, not selling. Being right will not make a difference in my life.

The opportunity cost of incorrect focus. Big one.


Shades of green

If asset classes don’t make a difference then what does?

I was thinking about this on my run this morning. So let’s start with that… dropping fat, maintaining a stable weight, daily movement in nature, improved strength… big difference!

Since shifting my primary focus away from money, my body has had the opportunity to do a lot of cool stuff.

Trying to get more, of what I don’t need, can prevent me from getting something useful.


A flower

Leaving => I wrote about considering if an asset is a good fit for an owner. What about life?

Leaving makes a difference.. every single time I realize I have different values than my peers, I exit => patiently, quietly, doing a good job on the way out.

I need to watch this tendency. Making a habit of leaving is not going to take me where I’d like to go. Stay where I belong.


Building => Don’t look for easy money, build something.

I helped a friend build a business. Unfortunately, he lied to me and stole money from the investors. Interestingly, when the dust settled, that didn’t make a huge difference. If someone isn’t trustworthy then it’s better to know, as soon as possible. In the end, I learned a lot and walked away with 25-years living expenses.

Learning, while building capital => made a difference, up to a point of rapidly diminishing returns.


A reminder of my first kiss with my wife

As you age, I recommend you transition your focus from money to relationships. Because…

Family => marrying well, raising my children to be exceptionally kind and athletic… makes a huge difference, much more than spending the last ten years building wealth would have done.

Having the courage to change, so my kids’ values are a better fit with my own.


My smiling, lovable savages. You have my eyes…

We tend to over-value what we see.

We see crypto rocketing and we think it must be a good idea. It might be. Like I said, I know nothing about it.

But what we don’t see is often more important.

Thinking about that on my run… the decision “to not” has helped in ways I will never see.

Errors not made.

Not smoking, not using scheduled drugs, not taking sleeping pills, not giving into anger, not quitting…

1/. Will this make a difference?

2/. Will “not this” make a difference?

A useful filter on where to focus, and what to avoid.