Becoming wealthy

To be “famous” means that a lot of people know who you are. Fame can lead to money, but the two are not the same. Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were famous.

To be “rich” means that you have an amount of money that other people find impressive. A 2019 survey by Charles Schwab found this to be $2.3 million.

To be “wealthy” means that you have enough money to support your desired lifestyle without trading your time for money (i.e. having a job). Warren Buffet is wealthy, not because of his billions, but because he wakes up and chooses how to spend his time.

You can be one, two, or all three of these simultaneously, depending on your choices.

Who I want to become

I sat at the end of the bar at EBC, next to a man, perhaps in his mid-forties. He wore a tie, the top button undone; his hair was combed, but badly needing a cut; he wore a wedding ring, but sat alone; he drank a beer, eating a cookie cake for desert. He was reading The Economist. I imagined him a serious thinker, having little to say but much to teach. I would have thought him lonely if he didn’t look so keenly aware, so unabashedly himself.

Every so often we’re presented with an image of the person we’d like to become. That person–real or fictional–does nothing to convince you to be like him. He just is.

Then you become the person others want to become, not by doing, but by being.

What’s Fredonia for?

This came from a conversation with a student:

“What is it you think we’re doing here?”

“Trying to become better athletes.”

“Why should we want that?”

“So that we can win.”

“For what?”

“So that we can be the best.”

“For what?”

“Well, if we’re the best, then more people will hear about us, and if more people hear about us then more people will want to come to school here.”

“Is that good?”



“Because then we’ll have more money.”

“Then what?”

“Then we can build better facilities, and attract better athletes.”

“Then what?”

“Then we can be the best.”

“Then what?”

“Then we can win.”

I did not mention the logical fallacy at play here, and I did not mention that winning and suffering go hand-in-hand. John Wooden frequently said that the worst years of his life were when his UCLA teams were winning national championships. If one seeks to win, then one must be clear that she is willing to suffer for it. No pain, no gain.

There’s an alternative model, though it’s been buried by modern culture. It was well-articulated by the Puritans when they founded Harvard College:

“After God has carried us safe to New England, and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the civil government: One of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and to perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”

Selling your teammates out

I used to work in a juvenile detention center. The boys living in the center were not allowed to have money.

One day I found money on a boy, so I turned it into my supervisor. My supervisor thanked me, but looked at me with eyes that said, “You should not have turned this money into me.”

For in turning that money over I broke the boy’s trust, and in breaking the boy’s trust I abdicated by responsibility to help him.

Maybe students are antifragile

Something that’s fragile breaks when stress is applied to it. Think of a teacup falling to the ground.

Something that’s resilient does not break when stress is applied to it. Think of a stress ball returning to its former shape.

Something that’s antifragile gets stronger when stress is applied to it. Think of a human being.

But we don’t think of a human being; we think of humans as existing on a continuum between fragile and resilient, and we don’t consider that they have a fundamental need for stress, and in not considering their antifragile nature we tell ourselves they need our protection. But in protecting them we make them weak, and in so doing facilitate their need for more protection in the future.

When we tell students they’re weak they will run for our help; they will do exactly what we tell them to do.

[This case is made at length in The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.]

Fredonia’s soldiers; Fredonia’s artists

Soldiers are rewarded for taking the least amount of risk. A soldier succeeds when she “wins the battle,” or “grinds the hardest,” or “meets her numbers.” A soldier succeeds when she does the job she’s told to do, or when her organization becomes a “well-oiled machine.”

Artists are rewarded for taking the most risk. An artist succeeds when she creates controversy, or stimulates conversation, or “goes out on a limb.” An artist succeeds when she does a job she’s not told to do, and in so doing changes the culture.

A company can celebrate its soldiers, it’s artists, or it can separate them and recognize they both have something valuable to contribute. As far as I can tell, Fredonia is in the habit of celebrating only its soldiers.

A small list of companies that fell apart because they got in the habit of celebrating only soldiers: Kodak, Blockbuster, Pan American, Eastern Airlines, Borders Books.

[Inspiration for this post comes from Safi Bahcall’s Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries.]

The belfie

One should be able to post a butt selfie–a “belfie”–whenever one likes, without fear of reprimand. I would not want to live in a county which restricted its peoples’ freedom of expression.

And yet, the wisdom of the “belfie” must be called into question; for freedom of any kind, taken to extremes, leads to isolation, loneliness, and depression. In this case, attention becomes a stand-in for human intimacy, and when no intimacy arrives, loneliness does instead.

One could instead wake up, and realize there is only now.

This was a subject of Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In it, our young character Dorian is infatuated with his own self-portrait, coming to believe that beauty is the only thing worth pursuing. Dorian wishes his portrait would age, as he remains young and beautiful forever.

And indeed, as the novel progresses Gray remains young, self-indulgent, violent, sensual, intensely sexual, and yes, very beautiful. Meanwhile, his portrait magically ages, turning grotesque, becoming a portrait of Dorian’s inner life, his soul you might say.

In the end, Dorian comes to regret his misdeeds–though only in vain–hoping that in rectifying them his portrait will return to it’s former beauty. When it doesn’t, Dorian stabs the picture with a knife.

The next morning, Dorian, now an old man, is found dead on the ground, while the picture has returned to its former beauty.

Lizard people

The “Reptilian Conspiracy Theory” posits that shape-shifting reptilian humanoids have come from the Alpha Draconis star system to gain political power and manipulate human societies. Folks who believe this–which includes some 12 million Americans–think the Bush family, the British Royal Family, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden are all “lizard people,” though it’s not clear why lizard people have taken such an interest in human affairs.

When the Puritans founded Harvard College in 1636 they envisioned it as a model for learning life’s meaning in the tradition of the education they’d received at Oxford and Cambridge. Students in early Harvard classrooms read Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Cicero, and Aristotle; they read the Bible in Greek; they studied natural sciences; they assumed life’s meaning was encompassed in an all-knowing, all-loving God. Every Harvard professor had the confidence to teach life’s meaning in a systematic fashion.

Things changed after the Civil War: the German research ideal perpetuated a declining interest in the meaning of life. People began to suspect that religious truth and scientific truth were at odds, and if the university were to accept scholarship as its primary mode of achievement it could not also teach life’s meaning to it’s students. The question of how to live a life was relegated to professors in the humanities. Some would say the question was abandoned altogether, students forced to seek if for themselves.

When students look for life’s meaning by themselves, sometimes they look for lizard people.

Life is beautiful

And maybe our problems are nothing more than the resistance to the flow of life’s beauty. Perhaps the trauma, the pain, the illness, the loneliness, the anxiety and depression, even while asking for treatment, are also part of the beauty.

I just read a New Yorker profile of Suzy Batiz, inventor of the toilet spray Poo-Pourri which made her worth $240 million (people really don’t want their shit to stink). Batiz’s quote at the end of the article reveals a beautiful contradiction:

“In Buddhism, a lotus grows out of mud . . . Interestingly enough, the shit in our lives is what usually produces the most beautiful flowers, right? It’s the fertilizer.”

“What leads to Winning?”

This is a very different question from, “What leads to human flourishing?”, as the two aim in different directions. In order to win at a high level you must do something you’re not proud of. You must bend the rules; you must break them outright.

Take the story of runner Mary Cain, which was just featured in The Times. Cain was a prodigy: the fastest runner in the world. Then she went to Nike under the tutelage of Alberto Salazar and was destroyed: she became depressed, body-shamed, suicidal even. This was my favorite New York Times Picks’ comment:

“This is sport at the elite level, where the only object is winning. Both male and female athletes are asked to make sacrifices for short-term improvements in performance that are harmful in the long-term. For women, this means deciding whether or not they want to maintain a level of body fat sufficient to support a regular menstrual period. The hard fact of the matter is that, other things equal, a woman who is unwilling to make this sacrifice will lose to a woman who is.”

A year ago I watched the movie Whiplash, which forever changed my thinking on this matter: