Book Takeaways – Atomic Habits

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This year I’m a part of a book club. Each month we read one book in the genre of self-improvement and meet to discuss our findings and takeaways. January’s book was Atomic Habits by James Clear. Along with the regular book club meeting, I’m going to highlight some key ideas and actionable items for you, my readers. Books may be the single best source of knowledge and wisdom available to humans. I love reading, and I love sharing ideas I’ve read so this exercise will tick a few boxes for me. Here goes. 

  1. Outcomes are a lagging measure of our habits, we get what we repeat. This is great news because it means we can work to change our habits and get different outcomes. 
  2. Goals are not correlated to results. Clear makes an impactful point that winners and losers have the same goals. Goals are helpful for providing direction but mostly worthless in obtaining a desired result. For that, we need systems/habits.
  3. Habits change identities. I consider this Clear’s most profound and important contribution to the discussion of habits. We fail to make lasting behavior changes routinely, regardless of our intention or passion, the size or specificity of our goals, or the breadth of our knowledge. Even when faced with an ultimatum, change or die, (ie, change your diet or your diabetes will kill you) people fail to change. The reason is that our actions are closely knit with our identities, and we fail to change who we are. The antidote is to start with a tiny action. Just do something good, however small. Each good action is undeniable proof that we have acted like (been) a different person, and that begins to mold our identities. The point of all this self-improvement effort is not to accomplish goals, it’s to become different people. I don’t need to lose 20 pounds, I need to become a healthy person. I don’t need to make $200k in five years, I need to become a valuable coach. The pounds and money are only byproducts.
  4. Make good actions easier and bad actions harder. In order to begin taking the small actions that will shape our identities, it’s helpful to set ourselves up for success. Humans drift toward the path of least resistance by default, so remove resistance from good actions and add resistance for bad actions. A few examples: 1) Set out your workout clothes before bed so it’s easy to wake up and get dressed for the gym. 2) Unplug the TV after each use so you have to plug it in if you want to watch something.
  5. An implementation intention is critical for habit building and behavior change in general. We tend to set goals and hope for some motivation to begin working on them. The problem is that motivation is scarce and inconsistent. An implementation intention solves that problem, it means we make a plan to implement our new habit by giving the habit a regular time and a regular place. In order to do something different, you must have a plan for it. If you intend to work out, choose a regular time (that fits into your schedule), and a regular location (whether it’s a space in your house or gym nearby). We make plans for all sorts of important things in our lives, habits call for the same attention.
  6. As a general rule, the more immediate pleasure you get from something, the more suspicious you should be of its long-term benefit. Not that we need to stop doing things that make us happy, just be aware that immediate pleasure and long-term benefits are almost never congruous.
  7. At some point, it comes down to who can handle the boredom of taking regular good action, day after day. You become healthy by eating good meals every day. You get strong by lifting the same weights over and over. You gain wealth by doing the same important function of your work time after time after time. Fall in love with the process, embrace the boredom.
  8. Success is not a goal to achieve, it’s a system of improvement, an endless process of refinement. It’s incredible what you can build if you just don’t stop.

5 of the best books I read in 2019

 

1. Range – David Epstein.

Range is my 2019 winner. It was the best book I read last year, and one of my favorite books related to personal development ever. By range, Epstein refers to a set of broad experiences, inputs, interests, experiments, etc. In a world that values specialization and highlights the ‘10,000-hour rule’ (which says you must dedicate 10,000 hours to something to achieve mastery), Epstein argues that hyper-focus is actually not the path to success, far more often those who have range win. Epstein encourages us to pursue hobbies and interests, to be unafraid of making a change, to never feel behind, and not because life is more fun that way, it’s actually a more effective way to live. I can’t recommend it highly enough, read Range.

2. Atomic Habits – James Clear.

There are few personal development/self-improvement books that I consider must-read, but Atomic Habits is one of them. James Clear notes that winners and losers have the same goals, what sets them apart is their systems (habits). Humans operate by default and we relentlessly fail at improving ourselves because we fail to address our default behaviors. Goals are fine, they help give direction, but only our systems can take us where we want to go. Clear guides us through how habits operate and how to make meaningful and lasting changes by changing our defaults. It’s a fascinating and fun read, and one that has had a profound impact on how I think about behavior and pursue change.

3. Factfulness – Hans Rosling.

Hans Rosling made it his life’s mission to reinform commonly help misconceptions about our world. He penned Factfulness as he battled the cancer which would eventually take his life. Through ten chapters he addresses ten fascinating topics that we routinely misunderstand (world population, poverty, bias, etc.). He emphasizes the fact that the world can sometimes be bad, while still being significantly better than it was before. By offering clarity, thoughtfulness, and objective facts, Rosling helps us to see things they way they are. It’s occasionally mind-bending, which is a good thing, and always enjoyable.

4. Born a Crime – Trevor Noah.

Born a Crime is an autobiography. Trevor Noah takes us through his wild, funny, and unlikely childhood in one of the more engaging books I’ve ever read. It’s at times hilarious (I literally laughed out loud more than once), sentimental (his relationship with his mother is remarkable), thoughtful (interacting with apartheid in South Africa), and ultimately a completely rewarding read.

5. Billion Dollar Whale – Tom Wright.

Billion Dollar Whale consistently made my jaw drop as I read it. The story is absurd, unbelievable, scandalous, incredible, and completely true! It’s about a young Malaysian fancier/businessman (Jho Low) who cons billions of dollars from the Malaysian government in a stream of devious business deals and spends it on some of the most extravagant partying the world has ever seen. The story involves Hollywood actors and actresses, world-leading finance companies, even the president of the United States. Another interesting part of this story (as if it wasn’t interesting enough) is that it hasn’t concluded yet. Jho Low is currently a wanted man hiding out, most believe, in China, but is certainly still active. In fact, his team of lawyers aggressively campaigned to ban Billion Dollar Whale from being sold, and succeeded to keep the book off British bookshelves for a year! Truly, a remarkable read.

Index issues (part 2)

 

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Alright, so we know passive investing trumps active investing, and we know that index investing, while passive, has some serious deficiencies. So what’s left?
We want to own the market passively, but that doesn’t mean we’re restricted to index funds. There is a much more responsible way to allocate money to different companies and sectors – structured funds. Structured funds deal with each of the index funds issues:

1. Instead of an arbitrary grouping of companies, a structured fund can make it’s own set of rules to decide which companies are in an asset class or fund and which are not. The S&P 500 is 500 of the largest companies in the U.S., but what if that’s not the best way to own the U.S. Large growth asset class? The same question can be asked of any index. Instead of abiding by the arbitrary index rules, a structured fund makes its own rules based on a century of market data. Just like the S&P 500 has rules to decide which companies are in and which are out (largely based on that 500 number), a structured fund has a set of rules that a company has to meet (size, profitability, book to value ratio, etc.) in order to be included in that fund. It’s still passive (in fact, often more passive than index funds), the rules are what determine which companies are in and out not an advisor’s gut feelings, but it’s a different type of investing. And it’s based on actual market research instead of arbitrary measurements.

2. We know that small companies outperform large companies over time, but indexes, by necessity (because of cap-weighting), own the least amount of the small companies. Even small company indexes like the Russell 2000 (which owns the smallest 2,000 companies in the U.S.) have much more money invested in the larger several companies than in the smaller hundreds of companies. If you’re in a target dated fund (the ones with a year at the end) in a 401k or a total U.S. market index fund, you’re missing out on the best returns the market has to offer because of cap-weighting.

3. Structured funds are not as cheap to own, and they’re much more scarce than index funds. You’ll probably have to work with an advisor to gain access to them. They rarely let investors put their finger on the trigger. Over time, these funds outperform traditional index funds because they’re designed to maximize return. An index fund would have to pay you to achieve similar returns, even after the additional costs of structured funds are considered. And because investors can only access them through an advisor, the likely-hood that investors consistently realize the returns (instead of hopping in or out or all around at the wrong time) increases significantly.

Often times index funds are the only decent option available (this is true in many 401k accounts), but when the options are open, a good advisor offering good structured funds is the best option.

5 ways your investing app is ruining your retirement

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In the last five years, we’ve seen the explosion of alternative investment avenues, especially through apps. While technological advances (computers, algorithms, the internet, you get it) certainly make investing a better and easier experience than it’s ever been, they’ve also promoted some troubling trends in popular consumer investing apps.

Here are a few ways your investing app is ruining your retirement:

  1. Investing apps are built for active trading which loses money compared to the market. In order for investing apps to be interesting, they promote active trading. No one wants or needs an app to help them buy and hold and never make trades. Unfortunately, active trading is a recipe for disaster. Even professionals lose to the market when they actively trade stocks, not because of any inherent flaws in themselves, but because it’s literally impossible to consistently beat the market.
  2. No great offerings. Because they’re designed to encourage active investing, investing apps don’t offer many great investing options. Even if you could ignore all the crap, the best funds aren’t in there. Sure, you can find some cheap ETF and index funds, which aren’t the worst options in the world, but they’re definitely not the best. And investing apps know you might try them out, but ultimately you’re going to be moving money around.
  3. Your earliest years are the most important years and you’re wasting them. Investing apps appeal unilaterally to younger people. The great thing about investing when you’re young is that money invested early will compound far more significantly over time than money invested later. Unfortunately, many young people fall prey to these investment apps which do the opposite of maximizing investment dollars.
  4. Mis-education, worthless news. In order to make active investing seem legitimate, investing apps often share news and information regarding the market. Unfortunately, the news is not helpful for investing. Instead of learning about how the market works and how to prudently invest money over time, these excerpts simply validate terrible investing strategies.
  5. Encourage bad behavior. This is the biggest problem. Instead of educating investors, investing apps take advantage of them. Active investing feels right, it seems legitimate, and investing apps only encourage that feeling. Unfortunately, the feelings of investors have no correlation with successful investing, if anything they’re negatively correlated.

So dump the investment app. Learn about important investing concepts like Efficient Market Hypothesis, Modern Portfolio Theory, the Three-Factor Model. Get a good advisor who will get you into the best funds and help you remain disciplined through scary markets. Take your purpose seriously, it’s probably something worth more than speculating and gambling with your investments.

Be a failure

So here’s a question, why do we love motion so much? If motion isn’t what moves us forward, if it’s more like wasted time than productive time, how come we spend so much time on it? James Clear (author of Atomic Habits) has one more helpful suggestion here, he says it’s because motion lets us feel productive without risking anything. Action necessarily involves some risk of failure, which is obviously not ideal. Failure is the worst, or at least it seems like the worst. It’s super uncomfortable, awkward, humiliating, and generally terrifying as a prospect. It makes sense that we want to avoid it.
Malcolm Gladwell has some compelling thoughts on this topic. Based on the multitude of interviews he’s conducted with entrepreneurs and successful people, he discovered that a disproportionate ratio of them are dyslexic. Research backs this up, for some reason around 35% of company founders suffer from dyslexia compared to about 15% of the broader American population. Dyslexia is thought to be a great hindrance, what about a learning disability could push people to succeed? Gladwell suggests that the main reason for this implausible statistic is the fact that those who suffer from dyslexia have become so acquainted with failure. Take school for example, grade school provides an endless arena for dyslexic children to fail from early childhood. Reading, writing, test-taking, all of it is perfectly primed to flunk a dyslexic child. So while the rest of us were earning kudos and awards for our normal learning styles, those with dyslexia were learning a much more valuable lesson, how to fail again and again and again. People with dyslexia often demonstrate proficiency with verbal communication (because writing is very difficult), comfort with delegation (because they’ve had to rely on people for help), and other very helpful characteristics of an entrepreneur in a free market society. These characteristics are grown out of a response to failure and weakness. They’re more than a natural or genetic lean, these are learned out of necessity.
Gladwell is not the only one to theorize on the value of failure, Winston Churchill stated that “success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” C.S. Lewis said “failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.” Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps most famously, said “far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
Failure seems scary, but maybe it’s time for a new perspective. Failure is actually your friend. Failure means that you’re taking risks, that you’re in the game, that you’re learning. So let’s embrace failure, let’s get comfortable with it. No more playing it safe with endless motion, we’re here to act. Be a failure, and find success.