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I need to stop doing this

I do not plan to start another startup. After ten years, it feels weird to say that.

Here's what happened. I spent an hour listing everything I cared about: human connection, self-education, wealth, and so on. In the process, I surprised myself: there's a much better way to achieve these goals than starting a startup.

And this applies to a lot of people.

So I'm publicly sharing my process for deciding what to work on. Perhaps it'll help you conclude that you should pursue startups. (They're wonderful, but know why you're doing them.)

Or perhaps—like me—you'll realize you've chased an outdated dream that made more sense in the past. Frankly, that's the tragic part: I could have done this exercise three years ago and saved a lot of time. All of us could, but we lack the discipline to periodically kill our momentum to ask, Should I still be doing this?

It hurts to ask this question earnestly. But it changes everything.

The afternoon that changed it all

What prompted my introspection was an article revealing how Elon Musk decides what to work on. Understanding his process made me feel like an amateur decision-maker. 

I wondered, Is the fundamental difference between Musk and others that he's better at knowing what to spend his time on—down to the tiniest detail?

I think so. Yeah.

So I took pen to paper. I wrote down the values I care about. My goal was to articulate how I subconsciously assess the value of any project.

These are the values I extracted from my brain:

It took 15 minutes to realize that those are the things I care about. The insane part? I didn’t do this exercise until I was 27. In 27 years, I never took 15 minutes to be more deliberate about my pursuit of... life itself.

How irrational is that? 

In fact, almost no one I've ever spoken to has done this. They have no framework for justifying what they're doing. School failed to teach us the life planning skills that matter.

We just ride the momentum of whatever we were already doing and whatever stumbles across our path.

So many years lost as a result.

This phenomenon, by the way, results from how difficult it is to know when to stop what we're doing. The problem is that our core values shift slowly over time. They quietly reach a tipping point where what we're doing today is no longer the right thing to be doing for our future. But it's not self-evident when this happens.

We're like frogs in boiling water. We don't know when to get out.

So, let's try using the values from above to kill our momentum and figure out what we should really be doing.

The Personal Values exercise

Personally, I wanted to decide whether I should pursue startups or double down on content creation on Julian.com.

Which satisfies my values more?

The first thing I did was order the values based on what I care most about today. Then I drew checkmarks next to the values fulfilled by the projects I was considering: startups and writing.

I call this the Personal Values exercise. It was eye opening. Writing had far more top-ranking checks than startups.

Here's the dialogue that played out in my head.

A benefit of startups is that they can make a lot of Money. But, making a lot of money is low on my values ranking. It used to be a lot higher—when I was younger—but this exercise is about being authentic to your present self.

The remaining two checkmarks for startups were Adventure and Exercising Talents. But, Adventure is near the bottom of my list. So that leaves Exercising Talents. I rank that one highly because it's pleasurable to be a craftsperson who's good at what they do. The "talents" I'm exercising at a startup include ideating products, keeping team members motivated, and getting customers. I enjoy that.

But let's turn to writing now. That would entail exercising different talents. Namely, researching, critical thinking, teaching, and marketing. Truthfully, that's far more self-actualizing, empowering, and fascinating to me.

Let's keep going. What other values does writing fulfill? Well, it builds an audience, which helps to achieve Fame. And Fame leads to Human Connection through all the people I'm having an impact on, getting feedback from, and chatting with.

And here's the thing: Human Connection is at the top of my list. 

So writing is looking pretty good right now. It lets me exercise the skills I care most about, and it delivers on Human Connection. But it's not yet a no-brainer to pursue writing over startups.

Until, that is, I factor in one last value: Knowledge. 

For me, writing guides is an excuse to indulge in obsessions. Over the coming years, I can guarantee I'll know a lot more about the world than I do today. I'll regularly change topics, which frees me from the treadmill of staleness. My career will be divided into distinct, memorable experiences. And that excites me. A lot.

And, guess what? Knowledge is ranked #2 on my values list.

And so it became clear after just 15 minutes:

I should stop my decades-long pursuit of startups. It's time to write.

I slept on it for a day. When I woke up, I still couldn't shake a nagging feeling:

Why do I still feel the overwhelming need to start a Startup? 

Wait, am I really quitting startups?

It's not as if this exercise suddenly extinguished my passion for starting a startup. It simply suggested I should prioritize writing—if I could only choose one.

But how do I actually come to terms with a big, new priority? How do I kill my momentum and not feel like part of identity is missing? 

I don't want to die without having a huge startup success on my hands.

I realized that the first step is confronting why I want to pursue startups in them first place.

I've spent my life idolizing entrepreneurial impact. Bill Gates was my childhood answer to "Who do you want to be?"

Okay, but why do you revere entrepreneurial impact, Julian?

I guess because I want to attain Money and Power. And I want to impart meaningful change onto the world.

Hold on. So those are the values guiding your decision to become a startup founder?

Yes.

But, didn't you just go through an exercise where you concluded there was an alternative path that better fulfills the values you most care about today?

Yes. I guess I can't hide behind values as an excuse to sustain my startup momentum.

There must be another reason why I can't put startups behind me. The only way to break such a strong spell is to find a framework to help internalize that future Julian will wish he had moved on sooner.

I recently discovered that framework. Revelation. Eureka.

It's called Regret Minimization:

 

Watch that video in full. It's only two minutes, and it's what helped me move on:

What choices can you make today to minimize the regret you'll feel as an 80-year-old looking back on your life? When you aim to minimize future regret, you sleep well knowing you're maximizing fulfillment.

The moment I understood I'd be more regretful if I failed to become a successful writer than a successful founder, I was no longer clasping onto the fading aspiration of pursuing startups. Instead, I was focused on ensuring I didn't die unhappy.

The startling clarity of that realization helped me close the door. 

At least for now.

The goal of this exercise is to determine what I should do based on my values today. We can't predict the future. My values will possibly change again. Perhaps they’ll drift back toward startups. If so, that’s when I’ll start one. 

But not one minute before.

Every minute spent doing something other than what you love most today is a minute you’ll regret when you’re 80.

Let's recap:

Running the exercise effectively

To run the Personal Values exercise, it helps to understand the significance of your key values.

To start, be careful about ordering Knowledge and Exercising Talents low on your list. They're required for sustaining enthusiasm throughout long-term projects: 

Personal growth through knowledge accumulation is how you avoid the intellectual stagnation of most jobs. It's that feeling of standing still while the world passes by. Meanwhile, being challenged is how you remain intellectually engaged. It's that feeling that you're playing the game of life.

You see, success isn't an end state. Success is having the freedom to focus on the grind you actually enjoy.

For me, writing satisfies both objectives: Every guide I write is a new puzzle that's challenging and rewarding. The more guides I write, the better I navigate the world's knowledge and meaningfully affect it.

Let's paint a contrast. Let's say I was instead a table maker. If you're 80 years old looking back on how you made 5,000 nearly identical tables, you're not going to feel like you fully realized your potential.

However, if I made 5,000 distinct tables—drawing on various cultures, aesthetics, materials, and functions, then we're actually following the Personal Values framework. We'll pass the regret minimization test—because in order to make distinct tables, you're accumulating knowledge and challenging yourself every time.

Again, here's the list:

I want to caution you about one more value: Money. Nearly everyone gets this wrong.

Lessen the importance of money

Have you heard of hedonistic adaptation? It's the phenomenon where people revert to their baseline of happiness no matter how much more money they earn.

If you're part of America's middle class, there's a relatively low ceiling for how much you need to earn before earning more stops increasing your happiness. For most Americans, that number is around $80,000 per year.

Meaning, most people would be far happier earning $80,000-$150,000 from a three-day workweek than they would hustling overtime to earn $400,000. 

Let that sink in. Why aren't we doing it?

I pursued startups for longer than I should have because they have unparalleled potential for generating stupid amounts of money and impact, and that's what I wanted.

But what would huge amounts of money really do for me? 

I guess it would help me fulfill more of the values I care about. I can spend money to attain Knowledge, Fame, Power, Adventure, and so on.

But, if writing gets me more of those values immediately... then what's the point of taking a decades-long detour to turn Money into my values? 

There is no point.

In observing friends who’ve sold startups and made millions: After just a year, they’re back to toying with their old side projects. They used their money to buy a nice home and eat well. That’s it. They’re otherwise back to who they were.

Point: Aim to be fulfilled—not rich. There's a reason why lottery winners are just as miserable as they were before. Hedonistic adaptation is inescapable. 

Ultimately, most people should spend way less energy trying to get rich and way more energy building a tight-knit friend group that will be with them until old age.

However, there is of course critical value in at least reaching a baseline of income to avoid suffering and to save for retirement:

  1. Money frees you from doing the things you don't want to do.
  2. Money removes your financial anxiety about your future stability.

But be wary of trying to earn way more than that. Sure, it would be epic to have billions to do crazy Tony Stark stuff with. But if you can't figure out how to live a crazy, great life with a middle class income, don't expect to be handed the keys to excitement when you're struck by a windfall of cash.

Here's the truth about Money: Money is a magnet for those who've never wholeheartedly achieved fulfillment. If they felt the joy of Knowledge and Adventure, they'd just shortcut to doing that.

Be thoughtful about how high you place Money on your Personal Values list.

"In today's materialistic world, there is a risk of people becoming slaves to money. As though they were simply cogs in a huge money-making machine. This does nothing for human dialogue, dignity, freedom, and genuine well-being. Wealth should serve humanity, and not the other way around." —Dalai Lama

Beware groupthink

A final caution. The people you surround yourself with will distort your perception of your personal values. You're the average of the people you hang out with, so if your friends are talking about startups all the time... that will seep into your brain through osmosis.

Let me paint with very broad strokes to show you what I mean. Here are the types of people you might socialize with:

For everyone else, "making the most out of life" usually means finding a spouse, buying a home, securing a job, and raising kids—and nothing else.

Ask yourself, has your social circle caused you to overvalue certain definitions of life's meaning? To break free from groupthink, ask yourself:

What would I do with my life if I could start all over again?

Or, what would you regret not having done by the time you're 80-years-old?

"I’ve noticed that many people compete in games they don’t understand because they are modeling the behavior of people around them. Most common is the competition for wealth as a proxy for happiness." —Michael Seibel

It's your turn

It's time to get out a piece of paper.

Write down the values you passionately care about when pursuing anything in life.

For many, that list will include Knowledge, Adventure, Fame, Power, Money, Exercising Talent, and Human Connection. I'm certainly missing others that matter to you. My list isn't universal.

Order these values from most to least important today.

Next, for each project you're considering, place a checkmark next to the value that it has a high likelihood of fulfilling. 

Finally, based on how many checkmarks each project has, and how highly you rank those values, compare the fulfillment potential of each project. 

Don't forget to think long-term: value Knowledge and Exercisting Talents and lessen the importance of Money. 

Throughout this process, calm your uncertainty by remembering that it's okay if you change again in the future. For now, just focus on:

Which project would I most regret not having accomplished by the time I'm 80—given the motivations I have for my foreseeable future?

That's all you can ever do. You cannot predict your future self. So act on your present.

If this exercise fails you today, that's okay. What matters is that you establish the routine of periodic self-assessment. That's the takeaway of this post: We fundamentally change over time, but it's not obvious that we do unless we self-assess. If we're lazy and just ride life's momentum, we tend to regret how we spent our time.

Once you discover what you should truly be working on—and you can wholeheartedly justify it—there's really nothing more empowering.

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Who's Julian?

I deconstruct how things work.

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