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What you should do with your life

Author

I'm Julian. I try to write the best guide on every topic I'm interested in:
Build Muscle Grow a Startup

Julian Shapiro headshot

I should be doing something else

I do not plan to start another startup. It feels crazy to say that.

Here's what happened: I spent an afternoon listing out everything I cared about. It became obvious that startups were no longer the best use of my time. 

Writing was. And I could prove it.

To get to this conclusion, I created a rubric to compare career choices. 

I'm going to share that rubric. With it, perhaps you'll conclude you really should be pursuing startups. (They're amazing, but you must know why you're doing them.) 

Or perhaps you'll realize you've been chasing an outdated dream that made more sense for you five years ago. But no longer. 

Here's why it's likelier than you think: We mistakenly believe epiphanies suddenly thrust us into new narratives such as, "I'm so inspired! I want to move to Italy, learn Italian, and become a chef!" 

In reality, we slowly change until we reach a tipping point where the pros of pursuing something new ever-so-slightly outweigh the pros of what we're doing now.

We're oblivious when this happens — so we must periodically self-assess.

That's what this post is about.

The paper that changed it all

What prompted my introspection was a post detailing how Elon Musk decides what to work on. Peering into his process made me feel like an immature decision maker. 

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

I think so. Yeah.

So I took pen to paper. I wrote down all the things I care about when choosing what to work on. Then I tallied up how much of those criteria my two potential paths — startups and writing guides — satisfied for me:

("Guides" refers to writing in-depth guides like How to Build Muscle.)

My goal was to identify the values — even those of low significance — I use to assess the worthiness of a project. For each, I asked, Does the project allow me to attain:

Creating a formula to weight each criterion would be going down a rabbit hole, so instead I re-wrote the list in order of which criteria I cared about the most. 

I then tried to conclude which of the two potential projects had a greater likelihood of fulfilling more of the criteria I valued the most.

For example: One selling point of pursuing a Startup is that it could make a lot of money. But, making a lot of money is low on my ordered list. 

The remaining two Startup selling points are then Adventure and Exercising Talents. As for Adventure, no matter what happens to your startup — even if you fail spectacularly — you're definitely going on a wild ride. 

But Adventure isn't high on my list either. 

Hmm.

That leaves Exercising my Talents. I rank that highly because it's pleasurable to be good at what you do and to put it to use. (In contrast, pushing a dinglebop through a glumbo gets mundane fast.)

As for my Startup talents, I'm good at ideating products, keeping people motivated, and marketing. Those are the talents I'd be exercising.

Writing guides, meanwhile, really only exercises two skills: writing and marketing. So that's the first knock against Writing Guides: I don't get to wear a lot of hats.

However, Writing Guides does build an audience of readers ("Fame"). Intriguingly, an audience leads to human connection through dialogue and impact. 

And Human Connection is at the very top of my list. 

So Writing Guides is looking decent right now. But it's not yet a slam dunk.

... Until you factor in one last criteria: Knowledge. Every guide I write is an excuse to dive into a new topic. Over the coming years, I can guarantee I'll know a lot more about the world than I do now. 

The frequency of that context shifting is incredibly important to sustaining long-term interest in a project. (Context shifting breaks your timeline into discrete, memorable experiences where you encounter new challenges.)

And, guess what? Gaining Knowledge is #2 on my criteria list.

And so it became startlingly clear:

♖ I should be writing.

As long as I can make acceptable money from it, that is. Which so far I've proven I can: My first guide, the Science of Building Muscle, was read by enough people in its first few months (a few hundred thousand) that the Amazon affiliate and bonus content revenue justified my time input.

Slow down. Am I really quitting startups?

After concluding I should be Writing, I wondered, Why do I still feel the overwhelming desire to start a Startup? 

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

But wait. Why do I care about having a huge startup success? 

Well, I've spent my whole life idolizing entrepreneurial impact.

Yeah, but why do you idolize entrepreneurial impact, Julian?

I guess because I want to attain money, fame, and power. And I want to impart change.

Hold on. So those are the values underlying your decision to be an entrepreneur. But, didn't you just go through an exercise where you concluded there was an alternative project that better fulfills the values you care most about?

Oh, right. I guess I've changed over the last few years, and I'm stuck in the old way of valuing projects... But still, I've wanted to build a really big startup for since I was a kid. You can't just expect me to disassociate from my past in the course of an afternoon. 

I mean, what framework am I supposed to use to put the past behind me, appreciate that my criteria have changed, and wholeheartedly move on to something new?

I'm glad you asked, internal dialogue version of Julian.

The framework you're looking for is Regret Minimization. In essence:

♖ The moment I realized I'd be much more regretful of not being a successful writer by the time I'm dead than not being a successful entrepreneur, I didn't look back.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, created this framework. Listen to it in full (2min):

 

Here's the thing: To pursue either Startups or Writing Guides in earnest requires a long-term allocation of resources. So, if you're not willing to half-ass what you're working on, you should consider which path you'd be more regretful of not having pursued by the time you're 80 looking back at your life.

In the past, it was Startups for me. Today, it's Writing. And darn am I thankful that I did this exercise now and not in another 2 years.

But we're not done here. There's one more realization I needed to wholeheartedly put Startups behind me: appreciating that I may change again in the future.

It's entirely possible startups will be the best use of my time in 10 years from now. If so, that's when I'll start one. 

But not a minute before.

Because every minute spent doing something other than what you love most is a minute you'll probably regret when you're 80. I don't want to live like that.

Think long-term

You'll need some pointers on how to prioritize values when deciding between projects.

If you plan to pursue a project for the long-term, don't undervalue knowledge acquisition (personal growth) and exercising your talent (being useful).

Personal growth entails acquiring knowledge and skill. This is how you avoid depressing stagnation.

Being useful entails putting your talents to use. You want to find something that regularly rewards your talents while still challenging you. This equilibrium allows you to slip into a low-friction flow state that still requires mental horsepower. This is how you'll avoid feeling insignificant.

Lessen the importance of money

In addition to not undervaluing knowledge acquisition and exercising talent, don't overvalue money when ordering your list.

Have you heard of hedonistic adaptation? It's the phenomenon that humans always revert to their baseline of happiness no matter how much more wealth they attain.

Consider how, if you're middle class, there's a fairly low ceiling for how much you have to earn before earning more actually stops improving your happiness. For many in the U.S., that number is $75,000 per year. (Most people don't accept this in their teens.)

Point being, most people would be happier earning $75,000-$150,000 per year from a three-day workweek than they would hustling for a <1% chance at making tens of millions from a startup.

So you better pursue a startup for the criteria you value other than just money.

Yes, it would be awesome to have billions to do crazy Tony Stark sh!# with. But you can live an exciting and incredible life without that wealth. If you can't figure out how to do that right now, don't expect to be handed the keys to happiness when you receive a windfall of cash. That money will just keep boredom at bay for a couple extra years before you revert to your baseline.

Beware the echo chamber

Now for the final warning about ordering your values: beware the echo chamber of "how to make the most out of life."

Consider my attempt at painting in broad strokes:

Hustlers think that “making the most out of life” means exploiting everything around them to gain as much wealth and power while they have the energy to grind.

Artists and spiritualists don’t necessarily have a working definition of “making the most out of life,” but they strive to fully express themselves, and to connect with people and nature as profoundly as they can.

Academics think that “making the most out of life” means amassing knowledge so that they can deliver new insights and advance debate.

Entrepreneurs think “making the most out of life” means having the biggest impact on the world and making money while doing it.

Many other people think "making the most out of life" means finding a loving spouse, buying a nice home, and securing a steady job.

There's nothing wrong with any of this. I'm not passing judgment. The point simply is: 

♖ Ask yourself, Has prolonged exposure to other people in these personality categories overshadowed my perception of which criteria I truly value? Have I been living inside an echo chamber?

If so, take a moment to identify what you would actually, deeply regret not having done by the time you're 80. The shortcut for getting a real response out of yourself is to answer this question: What would I do if I could start all over again?

Get a piece of paper

Write out the criteria you honestly value when pursuing a project.

For many, it will be Knowledge, Adventure, Fame, Power, Money, Talents, Human Connection. I'm missing others that matter to you. That's good! My list isn't universal.

Next, for each project you're considering pursuing, place a checkmark beside the criteria that it has a high likelihood of fulfilling. 

Based on how many checkmarks each project has, and how much you value the corresponding criteria, try your best to compare the combined value of each project. 

Finally, come to terms with the fact that your ordering of values may change in the future. Just focus on, Which project would I most regret not having accomplished by the end of my life — in terms of the motivations I have today?

It might take you a day to decide. It might take a year.

All that matters is that you're consciously moving in the direction of periodic self-assessment. This is how you'll remain real with yourself and your values.

Once you discover what you really want to do and you can wholeheartedly justify pursuing it, there's nothing more empowering.

If you conclude a startup is the best thing for you to pursue — but can't find the right idea — consider starting a pet project in the interim.

I write a new piece every few weeks if you'd like to be given a heads up:

— Julian

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Author

I'm Julian. I try to write the best guide on every topic I'm interested in:
Build Muscle Grow a Startup

Julian Shapiro headshot

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