December 10, 2020

Lifecamp Newsletter #9

Leveling up in the game of life, making better decisions, advice for people in their 20s, and book recs from Twitter smartest minds


This is the last edition of Lifecamp for 2020. I started this newsletter in March, just as the Western world was beginning to feel the impact of the coronavirus. Back then, I don’t think anyone had any idea the year would turn out the way it has. I certainly didn’t, even though I began following news about the virus before it hit the West. 

COVID has had many unforeseen consequences and will no doubt continue to do so for some time yet. It has accelerated a lot of change that was already taking place in the world, notably, the increasing role of technology in our lives.

While some of us already live largely online, many people and businesses have been forced to adapt quickly as the physical activities and opportunities we took for granted disappeared overnight. Working from home and talking to work colleagues, friends, and loved ones through a screen went from being a novelty to being the norm, and it’s still not clear when that will change.

The sudden impact of the virus has made us reflect on how we live our lives and consider what really matters to us more deeply. On some level, I guess those considerations have informed how this newsletter has taken shape. I hope reading it has brought you some value either in the form of information, inspiration, entertainment, or distraction during lockdown. I am excited to see how Lifecamp evolves in 2021 as the world continues to turn. Because change, as they say, is the only constant.

Here’s a rundown of things I have been writing, thinking about, and consuming over the last month.

How to Level Up in the Game of Life

A while back, I brain-dumped a list of the main personal qualities and principles I think are necessary for developing a well-rounded, competent approach to life into my phone. That list became the starting point for a more considered, longer article that expanded on each point.

In writing it, I realised each topic deserved a more detailed standalone article. Those articles will come in 2021. In the meantime, here’s an overview of what I consider to be the qualities we should cultivate to develop a practical approach to life and accomplish what we want to achieve. 

The Anti-library

The holiday season is the perfect time for buying books. Whether you want some interesting reading over the break, are looking for gift ideas, or want to make an early start on your reading list for 20201, check out the Anti-library. It compiles book recommendations from some of the smartest people on Twitter.

It is heavily weighted towards non-fiction, but the curation quality is high, and the book selection should appeal to readers of this newsletter. As the site’s creator says, the Anti-library was created “because Goodreads is just not good enough.”

Advice for people in their 20s

I have been enjoying Lex Fridman’s podcast recently. He’s an AI researcher at MIT who describes his podcast as being “conversations about the nature of intelligence, consciousness, love, and power.” Guests range from scientists and academics to military pilots and martial artists. The conversations get deep and philosophical, which I love, but a practical question he often asks his guests is what career or life advice they would give to people in their twenties. Some notable takeaways include:

  • Stay adaptable; we can’t even imagine the jobs that will exist in twenty years.
  • Everyone is different. Don’t judge them for it. Treat them with the respect they deserve.
  • The purpose of life is to live.
  • Do the work. Be willing to do the hard thing required to make change happen.
  • Learn to think deeply about problems and ask questions.
  • Find something you love doing that you are very good at.

Fridman chops his podcast up into YouTube clips, so if you want to skip the deeper science and philosophy and get straight to the practical takeaways, you can. One of the beautiful things about the answers to this question is that they are based on what some very smart people believe will happen in the near future. This makes them enlightening, not just for twenty-somethings, but for all of us. You can watch the clips here.

Investing advice from a GOAT

For some insight into the mind of a successful investor and how simple a successful investing approach can be if you know what you are investing in, take a look at this entertaining Peter Lynch lecture. It looks super-dated (this video is a sharp reminder of how much the world has changed in the last two decades), but it contains timeless advice along with some comedy gold. If Lynch hadn’t been a successful fund manager, an alternative career in stand-up was waiting for him. 

He does a great job explaining why you can safely ignore most of the minutiae that investing advice often gets hung up on. Instead, he advocates focusing on basic, real-world facts, like what people buy when they go shopping. I love the anecdote about how he researched hosiery brands by buying different pairs of tights, giving them to people, and asking them which ones they thought were the best. “That’s what research is,” he explains. 

There are plenty of nuggets to take away, such as his belief that you shouldn’t own a stock unless you can explain why you hold it to a ten-year-old in two minutes or less. If you are interested in building a simple, common-sense investment approach, it’s definitely worth your time.

Book of the Month: Thinking in Bets

In this book, former professional poker player Annie Duke takes the lessons she learned from her casino days and applies them to general life. We all know the phrase “life isn’t checkers, it’s chess.” But, as Duke correctly asserts, poker’s blend of skill, luck, and incomplete information make it a better metaphor for life. 

We often have to make decisions as best we can without knowing all the facts. This is something humans are pretty lousy at. We struggle to account for missing information, unseen factors, or other types of uncertainty. This, along with our unconscious biases, mean we often make sub-optimal decisions. 

Thinking In Bets is split into three parts; 

  • probabilistic concepts explained in the context of poker, 
  • how these concepts apply to everyday life, 
  • and strategies for overcoming them to make better decisions. 

As a former poker player myself, these concepts were not new to me. But the book’s exploration of how they intertwine with human tendencies to impact our everyday lives helped me develop a deeper understanding of my own biases and those of people in general. The book’s real value comes in the final third, which outlines specific strategies for overcoming our biases and improving our decisions.

This is not a poker book. There are scant few juicy gambling stories. Nor is it a probability or math book. It is a book about how to improve our objectivity and make better decisions as a result. There is a philosophical dimension to it regarding the importance of seeking the truth, but it is ultimately a practical book that can help people improve their self-awareness, sharpen their thinking, and make better decisions. 

As such, I recommend it for anybody wanting a better grasp on how to think in terms of probabilities without getting bogged down in technical math or for anybody wanting to develop more a more robust thought process and make better decisions when they don’t have all the facts.

Final Thought

Following on from reading Thinking in Bets, I have been musing on how much info you should have before making a decision. I remember once hearing how we spend relatively little time thinking about big life decisions like detailed retirement or career plans because they are complicated and stressful.

Conversely, we will happily spend disproportionate amounts of time on small decisions like choosing which coat to buy or what restaurant to eat at. I forget the exact study, but some behavioural economists found that we could spend 1/3 the amount of time thinking about most decisions except the big, impactful ones without getting significantly worse results. The implication being that in most cases, we do not need all the facts to make good decisions. 

Our desire for greater precision when making decisions may come from our school education, which trains us to think that we need to know everything to pass the exam. In reality, it is rarely possible to have all the facts. This is seldom a problem as long as we have a decent framework for thinking things through. And for that, as mentioned in my lead article and Thinking in Bets, we need a good grasp of mental models and underlying principles. 

One of my personal mantras is “be as specific as you can be and seek as much clarity as possible before acting.” Despite this, I am increasingly focusing less on specifics and more on general principles I can apply to different situations. While there is a tension between the two ideas, I accept that we rarely have perfect information to act on. Experience has taught me to rely on principles, as they give me a path to follow in search of the outcome I am hoping for. This idea is neatly articulated in a quote from Richard Koch’s book, The 80/20 Principle:

“Knowledge is great, but principles are better. Principles are ideas that enable you to sort the knowledge, help you to analyse it, and get to the essence of the matter as simply and quickly as possible.”

Until next time, stay curious, stay safe, and have a fantastic festive break. 

I’ll see you next year.