Stop Grinding Your Gears: Says Abgrund

If you’ve read my blog for any longer time, you may have asked yourself: “Who the heck is this Abgrund guy?”

Well, you are about to find out.

…. Sort of.

Abgrund has made many interesting comments on the site and it’s got to the point where I’ve met readers IRL, and had them mention him & his comments.

(You can see his comment to a recent post here. And if you think that’s interesting, here are some other good ones: –On contrarianismOn school system  –On evolutionary mismatches.)

I don’t always agree with his opinions, but I think they are interesting.

In the same way that it’s important to have sparring partners, it’s important to have intellectual sparring partners.

I once wrote an article about contrarianism, and I think Abgrund is a contrarian. He thinks in weird ways that are hard to predict. This is valuable, but society does not always reward it.

Abgrund is now in his 50s and married. He is one of the world’s leading experts in a technical field (which he does not want to reveal).

In this guest post, Abgrund reflects on his life experiences; what he would and wouldn’t do over, living the good life versus getting trapped in the system, and his advice for young men. Three prominant themes are: Change, Learning, and Generalism.

Here’s a quote that resonated with me:

“In my twenties I made the decision never to retire, but instead to take as much leisure time as possible while still healthy, and to work to minimize future expenses rather than maximizing or hoarding income. This is the only decision I made in that time that I’ve never regretted – the skills and knowledge I acquired in my free time were infinitely more valuable than any money I might have accumulated.  Life lived learning is more rewarding than life lived earning.”


Abgrund Enters:

Have you ever heard anyone say, “Never trust anyone over thirty?” If you’re under thirty, chances are you haven’t – it was a Hippie slogan.

Adolf Hitler wrote that no one under thirty should be trusted – because they might still be able to change their core ideas, whereas an older man could be relied on for rigid thinking.

Youth is leverage, and it increases exponentially with your distance from “elderly”. At some point, anyone who lives long enough ossifies. But young men rarely have the patience and knowledge to take advantage of their leverage over life. The graph below can give you an idea of how the average person’s mental capacities evolve over time:

By far the easiest time to take control of your life is when you’re under thirty, but the most likely time to do it is between ages thirty and sixty. Typically that’s when a man has acquired some learning and maturity but isn’t yet worn out, and his ruts may not be too deep to climb out of.

The man who, when relatively young, cultivates the ability to change will have a tremendous advantage when he gets older. The man who sinks into the path of least resistance from age twenty is ruined by age forty.

Still….

One of the most outwardly content men I ever met was a bum I once picked up hitchhiking. Unlike some, he was quite articulate and not (perceptibly) insane. We talked at some length about his chosen life on the road. His existence was less comfortable and secure than most, but he had absolute freedom every minute of every day – no boss, no creditors, no enemies, no in-laws, no duty to anyone, ever. He had exactly what he wanted in life.

That man had gone outside the options prescribed by society.

When adults tell teenagers to follow their own path in life, what they really mean is to pick one of a few narrowly defined acceptable paths leading to “normal” success with their social class.

Not everyone needs to be a bum, but freedom begins with setting aside the idols and distraints of the mainstream.

On Success:

Money is one thing that modern societies idolize to excess.

I don’t have any tips on how to get rich quick, how to get rich slow, or how to get women. But I do know that –

The first requirement to getting what you want is to know what that is.

Young men almost always adopt specific models of success – rock stars, athletes, billionaires, etc. or, more pragmatically and less consciously, their own fathers. Aside from often being unrealistic, such models frequently don’t represent what a person really wants.

What I’ve seen over and over is men who overtly aspire to be rich, but never make any progress because they don’t do anything meaningful toward that end – they fumble around half-heartedly at one get-rich-quick scheme after another, dreaming of never having to work again and always failing; the less perspicacious get skinned by con artists.

They are stuck in their own variety of homeostasis, and they can’t break out until they confront the fact that their greed is inauthentic, merely a socially acceptable camouflage for “laziness” – i.e. a desire for leisure…

To be sure, everyone needs money and I suppose nearly everyone would prefer more of it… But if your main motive for wanting money is to avoid work and responsibility – what some call “passive income” – you’ll probably fail.

You won’t be able to sustain the hard work and take the responsibility needed to succeed; your only hope is luck.

You may try to claw your way Up The Ladder, or you may want to become an Entrepreneur. Society loves an Entrepreneur, but do you love being an entrepreneur?

I want to stress here that people who succeed in business usually have a very specific interest in that business, not just in “being my own boss”.

They don’t start with wanting to be independent and looking for a business; they start with a business they love and go independent in order to pursue it.

I never knew anyone who succeeded in a business they didn’t like.

On the Future:

It’s true that some people are held back merely by the fear of failure, and others by the fear of success. Most people fear nothing quite so much as the unpredictable.

What most people wind up devoting their lives to is their children. There’s nothing wrong with this and I’ve met very few who regretted it (if they actually got to raise their own offspring). It’s not even impossible to get rich at the same time. But once you have children, your options are dramatically curtailed and the rest of your life will be conditioned by parenthood.

The outcome of long term commitments like baby-making is never predictable. Most people overestimate the amount of control they have over their future; it’s risky to put all your eggs in one basket when you have to carry that basket for twenty years or longer.

For every person who planned out their life at age sixteen and methodically followed through with the plan, there are a hundred others whose plans were derailed by events beyond their control, or because they came up with something better, or because they (like me) realized they had their head up their ass all along. Better to keep multiple options open, and not work solely for the long term.

“Retirement” is an almost universal goal in America. Indoctrination on the necessity to plan for retirement begins in adolescence, and anyone who doesn’t have a retirement plan is practically a criminal. But from what I’ve seen, people who retire in old age rarely live much more than five years after they quit working.

Before sacrificing 90% of your adult life for the gamble of five or ten years of future idleness, consider that retirement can very easily be taken away by accident, illness, divorce, or legislative crime – and how do you know prolonged idleness is desirable, if you never experience it until you are 70?

On What to Learn:

In my twenties I made the decision never to retire, but instead to take as much leisure time as possible while still healthy, and to work to minimize future expenses rather than maximizing or hoarding income. This is the only decision I made in that time that I’ve never regretted – the skills and knowledge I acquired in my free time were infinitely more valuable than any money I might have accumulated. Life lived learning is more rewarding than life lived earning.

Another important thing I’ve always done – more through necessity than choice – is to do as much as possible for myself. There’s a lot of benefit in doing things for yourself. Sometimes it saves money and even time; sometimes it costs money as well as wasting time. But the real benefits are less direct: doing things yourself builds initiative, skills, knowledge, confidence, and a habit of activity; it exposes you to a greater variety of the innumerable aspects of life; and it keeps you learning. The ability to acquire new abilities will, itself, deteriorate if left idle.

Lots of people overestimate how difficult things are and use that as an excuse to leave things to specialists.

I do almost all of my own mechanic work. It’s hard, dirty, and time consuming; sometimes I fail. But when I do go to a mechanic, I know what does and doesn’t need to be done and how much work it really takes.

When I buy a used car, I know how to search out its hidden defects. When my car breaks down, I can usually make it limp home. Troubleshooting automobiles (and making dead ones move using tools and materials dug out of pockets and ash trays) is a class of problem that has been very valuable to learn how to solve, combining science, logic, observation, experience, research, imagination, lateral thinking, etc.

In a similar vein, it’s good to cultivate a variety of interests, even if they have no (immediate) practical application.

They may or may not turn out to have some unexpected value or synergy, but knowing about different things stimulates you to think and to learn more.

Some kinds of games can also stimulate the intelligence and imagination. Variety is more important than expertise: games with multiple players require a different kind of thinking than solo puzzles; games with an element of chance are different from those (like chess) that are complex but deterministic; games with a definite conclusion and winner are different from those without.

Albert Einstein is (after Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler) the third most famous person in Western tradition.  He is famous for being intelligent; so much so that the only thing most people know about him is that he was smarter than God, and every dipshit with a stupid idea or quote attributes it to Einstein.

Einstein was great at physics, but a brief reading of anything he wrote on any other subject would disabuse you of the idea that he was an all-around genius. He was too good at just one thing to be expert at many things.

This reflects a broad truth in life: the generalist is always at a disadvantage competing with a specialist in their specialty, but the latter has no flexibility.

Some degree of specialization is necessary when one needs maximal competence – I sure hope my surgeon is fucking specialized – but everyone has the option to be a generalist in at least their personal life. Someone who is marginally competent at chess, gardening, history, meteorology, programming, plumbing, and fifty other things will–mutatis mutandis–have more versatility and a better grasp of real life than a person who spends all their spare time becoming invincible at chess or who works eighty hours a week clearing drains (guess who makes more money!)

The principle of avoiding unnecessary specialization applies also to reading and learning: a wider perspective on life gives you better judgment, more chances to see opportunities, and most importantly the ability to understand and correct your own weaknesses and errors.

Other suggestions based on things I’ve done right, or would if I had a “Do Over”:

The best age for learning to learn and building a habit of flexibility is “young”, but if you didn’t totally drown your twenties in conformity you will always have room to improve.

As much as I despise popular culture, I have to admit that the Serenity Prayer has it nailed. You need to accept the things you can’t change, and change (at least some of) the things you can. Part of getting older is learning to tell the difference, even though some things may have shifted from the latter category to the former.

When you’re older, you must prioritize better.

You won’t have time to change all of the things that you could change. To succeed at doing anything dramatically different from what you’ve been doing, you have to focus on it completely.

If your top priority is e.g. to go into business for the first time, you should turn your back on things that aren’t necessary for that goal – like quitting smoking, losing weight, or becoming a Pick-Up Artist.

Don’t base your plan to turn your life around on something you can’t sustain. Failure often comes from relying on a level of exertion or discipline that an individual can only achieve briefly.

Maximal efforts should be reserved for your single highest life priority, or for tasks that can be finished before you burn out.

People perform at their highest when they have no choice. When Hernando Cortés invaded Mexico, he burned his ships on arrival, leaving him no choice but victory or death. If you really want to push yourself to the limit, burn your bridges. If you can’t bring yourself to that level of commitment to your goals, it’s time to reconsider what they should be….

I have also learned these various unintuitive things:

It’s important to build a wide base of knowledge, not just for its own sake but so you can get a handle on how much you don’t know.  You can’t explore what you never see.

Self-knowledge goes a long way, and knowing a little about “scientific” psychology can’t hurt with that. Personally I have found the principles of Transactional Analysis very helpful in breaking out of unhealthy patterns of relating to unhealthy people.

Being flexible entails being able to change your mind. Hanging onto ideas or plans just to avoid the ego jolt of admitting error is probably the most pervasive of human flaws.

Everyone makes mistakes; the faster you suck it up and go on the easier it will be and the fewer mistakes you’ll make in the future – and most people will respect you more, not less. But if you refuse to change your mind when you are young, you will be unable to change your mind when you are older. Convictions, as Nietzsche wrote, are prisons.

One critical step to attaining the freedom to be who you want to be is to quit seeking or needing approval, and instead become a giver of approval to others.

If you want to be rich, meditate on what your wealthy life will be like. Immerse yourself in the details of an ordinary day; when will you wake up or eat, what will you do minute by minute? [this kind of contemplation is what persuaded me I don’t care enough to build “passive income” or to retire. I like to work and I get bored very quickly with anything else] If you want to run a business, imagine yourself doing just that, task by task, in minute detail – doing paperwork, filling in for a sick employee, firing someone you like, dealing with a cash crisis, making a sales call. The same applies to most ambitions that many entertain but few fulfill – a realistic contemplation of the reality can help you succeed or persuade you to try something else.

Meditate regularly on the experience of your own death, in different scenarios, and how it will affect others. Everyone dies, including you and I. Some of us are killed suddenly and unexpectedly; some succumb to a lingering and painful illness; some gradually lose their mind and are dead long before their heart stops beating. The “lucky” ones wither away in extreme old age.

When one of those things, inevitably, happens to you, how will you feel?

–Abgrund

Comments

  1. Abgrund,
    I read your article and it really resonated with me. My only concern is (with all due respect): why should I trust a random guy under a pseudonym posting comments and articles for free on this blog? Spending time in the commenting section of a blog doesn’t quit fit the moral of the article. So, why do you do this and what do you get out of it?

    • That should not be too tough to figure out. My guess is Ludvig has an audience and Abgrund doesn’t. Why else do people guest post?

      Linus, you come off as passive – aggressive. If you got value out of Abgrund’s advice, why “neg” it? Just say thank you or don’t say anything. This is proper etiquette in the real world and should also apply online.

      I feel compelled to write this little defense of Abgrund because I have debated with him in the comments before.

    • Abgrund says:

      Thank you Anon.

      If one is in doubt as to the value of someone else’s advice, it is reasonable to consider their motives. If someone is trying to sell you a car and tells you that black exhaust smoke is caused by a newly-rebuilt engine that they somehow lost the receipt for, you would certainly question their motives and advice.

      But I have difficulty imagining what would motivate me to deliberately disseminate bad (and non-specific) advice online. If someone doesn’t agree with me, that’s fine, I don’t care. If someone finds value in what I write, that’s also fine, but I don’t profit in any way. I’m not selling anything, pumping stocks, or even trying to attract traffic to a website.

      Does every tree have to conceal an Indian?

    • I’m sorry. It wasn’t my intention to come off as passive – aggressive or hostile in any form. I simply found Abgrunds post insightful and wanted to find out more about the source of the advice. I do not suspect Abgrund is trying to fool anyone, but I think it’s reasonable to question any information before applying it to my own life (which I plan on doing). Don’t you?

      “If you got value out of Abgrund’s advice, why “neg” it? Just say thank you or don’t say anything. This is proper etiquette in the real world and should also apply online.”.

      To me, that quote sounds like ”If something SOUNDS good, why try to find out if it actually IS good? Shut up and don’t question anything or look for proof of usefulness because it’s against the rules.”.

      Since you (Anon) used the term ”neg” I assume you might be familiar with the term ”keyboard jockey”. It wouldn’t be a total surprise that an anonymous person that gives advice for free on a forum haven’t really created success for himself with that advice. I’m not saying Abgrund is a keyboard jockey, but how can I know that for sure?

      With that said, the quality of Abgrund’s text is enough for me to apply some of the advice to my own life regardless. Thank you, Abgrund, for an excellent post.

      • Now I’m the one who is Sorry. I misread your intentions. When you explain it like this I agree with you, this is the problem with communication over the Internet and Social Media. It is easy to misunderstand.

      • I agree. Add to that I’m knew to this blog and English is not my native language. I will try to chose my words more carefully in future comments. Thank you for reconsidering my intentions.

  2. Guys
    I just want to say THANKS TO YOU for sharing your wisdom and don’t stop doing it!

  3. transientsalaryman says:

    Abgrund, did your thoughts on marriage change? For some reason, I was previously under the impression you did not favor marriage.

    • Yes, I changed my mind, partly because Ludvig’s book Breaking out of Homeostasis challenged me to rethink some things – not that I went looking for a wife, I just got lucky.

      I still think marriage (and more especially making babies with or without marriage) is a very high-risk proposition for a man, particularly a young man. Young people often choose partners quite naïvely, and most likely neither partner will be mature enough for the stresses and sacrifices of living together, let alone raising children. Typically they will also be under financial strain. Unfortunately for the man, he is the legally responsible partner when things go wrong.

  4. Abgrund, how do you feel about the future? What skills are worth learning for people under 30?

    • I think the future holds bleak prospects for most or all of humanity. There is a new kind of totalitarianism emerging in the West – a world where everyone is continuously monitored, privacy is intolerable, and the majority have abdicated all responsibility for their own lives. There will be no limits whatever on the intrusiveness of government.

      As to skills: I think it’s impossible to say for certain which specific skills will be valuable. The direction of society and technology is uncertain, and many skills may be replaced by AI within the foreseeable future. However, there are three categories of learning that I think are likely to be worthwhile: cultivating the ability to learn, learning about yourself, and learning how to influence other people.

      In general, *position* is (and always has been) more important than skill. U.S. doctors are not rich because they have exotic skills, but because they have legal control over the right of citizens to purchase medications. Schoolteachers are highly paid because for generations they’ve brainwashed children with the notion that teachers are underpaid. In business, it’s all about networking, or so I hear.

  5. How did Transactional Theory help you exactly? To stay away from insane people?

    • No, if you have the option of simply staying away from insane people there’s no need for transactional (or any other) analysis. TA is an extension of Freudian-like psychodynamics to understand interpersonal relations – including interaction patterns that are toxic and refractory to change.

      One common example: the person who endlessly complains about some problem they have, but steadfastly refuses to do anything about it and finds some objection to even the most reasonable solution. Trying to “help” such a person is counterproductive; the attention only encourages them to complain more. They say (and may believe) they are seeking advice, but what they really get out of the communication (transaction) is sympathy and reinforcement of their own victimhood – “Look, there’s no solution to my problem after all!”

  6. Hi Abgrund – I have read many of your comments over the last few years and agree that they never fail to add an interesting – and often contrary – perspective.

    My main takeaway from your article is not to take the future for granted.

    • Erik Tres says:

      Death can happen fast. Today the worlds most famous DJ died and he was just 28. But he probably lived one hell of a life.

    • Thank you Dave. In Tolstoy’s words, it is not given to man to know his own needs.

  7. Common sense goes a long way, I suppose.

    It would have been interesting to hear some more details about your background. Like for example what you did in your twenties while making the decision to learn on your own, and, what you chose to learn.

    Another thing I’m curious about is how you became an expert in your field (as mentioned by Ludvig in beginning). Specifically, whether this is due to working in the field for a long time or if it is because it’s a new field with less “competition”.

    • What I did in my twenties was earn a living. What I chose to learn was anything with even the remotest potential usefulness – that is, everything except pop culture such as sports. I read textbooks in nearly every field of knowledge, encyclopedias, compendiums of statistics, historical, philosophical and political commentary, and guides on things as diverse as piloting a sailboat or interrogating a criminal suspect.

      Back then, of course, there was no Internet, so there was no risk of being drawn into an endless sequence of clicking on links that look interesting but only lead to useless trivia and more links to fresh novelties. A book may contain a lot of information you never use, but it does force you to pay continuous attention to one subject and actually understand it.

      I got to be an expert in my field because it was extremely new and there was less (essentially no) competition. Within a couple of years I had already tapped out and surpassed what little knowledge existed. This was just a matter of stumbling on an opportunity; at the beginning I didn’t even realize how wide the opportunity was.

  8. @Abgrund
    Why don’t you want to reveal the technical field you have expertise in? I believe it is quite vast to not expose yourself.

  9. Thanks for sharing. I’m sure it will be helpful to the right people.

    If anything is unclear, feel free to leave a comment to Abgrund.

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