In today’s world, we’re always striving for more, more, more. More money, bigger companies, more market share, faster times, longer distances, heavier weights, etc. It’s all testosterone, adrenaline, and a lot of ego. It’s not all bad, as great things do come from it. But where does it end? How long can the effort be sustained? Often, it ends with injuries, burnout, broken relationships, or simply an aging body or mind that can’t compete anymore.
At this point in my life, my goal is no longer to be the best at something and hold on to the spotlight for as long as I can. Instead, I’m creating/finding activities and ways of being that I can enjoyably do and be for many years to come. I’m learning to be the tortoise instead of the hare. This is hard for me, because I’ve always had a sprinter’s mindset. I’ve always had two speeds: on or off, full-tilt or resting, 100-hours-a-week startup entrepreneur in launch phase or global vagabond backpacking South America for half a year. But what does the alternative look like? For me, it looks like slow rock climbing.
Slow Climbing Forever
In rock climbing, there’s a move called a dyno where if you’re strong and agile, you literally swing your whole body upward, let go of the wall, leap up as far as you can, and grab onto a big hold far above. Very rarely, it’s the only way up the wall to the next move. If you miss, you fall, slamming into the wall or even crashing to the ground 10-15 feet below. If you do catch the hold, you can easily tear a bunch of hand skin or injure your shoulder or fingers. Either way, you wear yourself out within a few minutes of trying dyno moves. Some teenage and 20-something males love showing off their dynos to each other. It’s pure ego, amounting to nothing more than party tricks (“Hey everyone, look what I can do!”), as there are usually better ways to climb up the same routes. I’m actually pretty good at dynos, because they play to my physical strengths as a climber (long reach, strong arms, good jumper).
However, I don’t do dynos anymore, because if I did, I wouldn’t be climbing anymore. I’d have gotten injured too much and have quit long ago. These days, I’d much rather get into flow state and enjoy rock climbing’s meditative aspects rather than the ego-building aspects. This means savoring time in nature with friends, climbing slightly easier or less dangerous routes for hours on end without noticing the passage of time, and almost never getting injured more than minor aches and pains. Because I don’t receive injuries that keep me off the wall for long periods, every month I keep getting a little stronger and more skillful. Ironically, as a direct result of focusing on flow, I’m a much stronger and better climber than I was in my teens and 20s when I climbed and trained with more intensity.
I plan to keep climbing indefinitely, for many more decades, or centuries even, if Ray Kurzweil is right. I’m already going on 25 years of climbing now, and, more importantly, I enjoy it much more than I did leaping around trying to look cool, prove my athletic prowess, and conquer mountains, ultimately getting injured repeatedly. Being motivated by flow is far more sustainable than ego-driven action. Flow is the antidote for ego.
What Are You Optimizing?
My approaches to entrepreneurship, relationships, writing, spirituality, etc. have all undergone similar shifts in the past several years. To do so, I’ve had to first consider what factors I’m optimizing for in each area of my life. Let me explain.
We’re all optimizing for something all the time. We try to maximize one thing and minimize something else. However, we all optimize for different things, and what we optimize for changes over time too.
For example, when I was in my 20s, I tried to maximize the amount of money I made in the minimum amount of time. I maximized the number and size of real estate investment properties and businesses I owned. I maximized the number of hours I could work at my mortgage company in any given week. I minimized the amount of capital invested in each property or business, because I had so little capital at the beginning. However, I didn’t make any effort to maximize work-life balance, minimize risk, maximize ethics, or minimize downside. Predictably, I eventually burned out, helped create a worldwide recession (along with millions of other people behaving similarly), and went bankrupt. Fortunately, I had the humility to realize I was doing it all wrong. I finally saw that I had missed something important, perhaps a lot.
I decided I would start over and do it all differently next time. I applied to and got into Acton School of Business, so I could learn directly from successful entrepreneurs. During and after attending Acton, I learned to:
- minimize and mitigate financial and operational risks,
- maximize the ethics of my actions by choosing more generally ethical industries (i.e. I now avoid ethical slippery slopes and cultures based primarily on greed, both of which are common in real estate and finance), and
- minimize the number of opportunities I say yes to instead of maximizing them (still learning that one, but I’m doing better).
Today, I’m once again questioning what factors I’m optimizing, and why. Specifically, I’m analyzing where I’m optimizing for ego instead of flow. I see areas where I’m making choices purely to make more money, build reputation and credibility, or gain access to future opportunities. These aren’t bad things, per se, but I’m certainly not feeling flow when I do the work associated with these choices and roles. Therefore, they probably aren’t sustainable in the long-term. I’m not going change these choices overnight, but being aware of why I chose them is a good step in the right direction.
Speaking of flow, I spent a couple hours writing all this and didn’t even notice. This is precisely why I continue to write. Often, an idea grabs a hold of me and I drop everything and write until it’s done. It’s not an assignment or intention, just something I feel I need to say. Usually only happens a few times a year, but it happens a lot more often when I give myself the space to do it. Sometimes it’s a fictional story, but usually it’s a personal essay like this one. Often the story or essay offers a perspective that I feel runs counter to the prevailing cultural stories, something that perhaps others would benefit from reading. I’ll very occasionally write all day and night or for days on end if feel compelled to, barely stopping to eat, drink, use the bathroom, or sleep. I’m finding some serious flow state. Somehow, I’m usually not tired when I’m finished. I may be a little dazed but still energized. Notably, it’s not about ego at all. I’m not trying to build myself up, get approval from others, or assuage my fears. I’m simply deeply focused on doing something I love. Once again, flow is the antidote to ego.