Journal: The Writing Mission (is to be curious), a New Covenant, and Twelve Questions
If you asked an oracle the secret to doing great work and the oracle replied with a single word, my bet would be on ‘curiosity.’ — Paul Graham
It often feels like I write for an audience of one. Or more accurately, my best work flows when I become selfish, unreasonable, and lean deeply into what feels interesting and urgent. The faucet to interesting ideas seems to open only when I manage to mute the world and listen to my own curiosity.1
Curiosity ensures that we show up to work with passion. “Writing for yourself is fun, and it shows,” Morgan Housel wrote. “Writing for others is work, and it shows.” I could not have put it any better.
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Curiosity is demanding. It asks that we sit with questions that feel almost overwhelming. Curiosity’s fingers point towards the glow of distant fires, its ears are tuned to the storms raging through our age. Curiosity opens the door to our inner Maze.
Curiosity is unreasonable. It demands a price most people are not prepared to pay. Its breadcrumbs lead us out of our comfort zone, into dark forests beyond stale knowledge and worn-out ideas. To follow curiosity is to venture into the unknown and accept the risk of dead-end roads or looking like a fool. Only there, at the point of confusion and exhaustion, in quiet conversation with questions that feel meaningful, can we hope to do the work we are meant to do.
Curiosity is like a muse. It does not expect perfection but accepts nothing less than an all-out effort in exchange for inspiration. It demands honest writing: look, I’m just like you, trying to make sense of this insane world one day at a time. Evidence of the quest must be shared, or curiosity will vanish and seek a more worthy vessel.
Following curiosity wherever it leads is an unreasonable idea in an age that glorifies efficiency, grinding, grifting, and wealth.
I am back in Germany for my annual Christmas visit. In December, the country turns gray, wet, dark, and brooding — just like me when I write what I think I should write. Or worse, when I write what I think people would pay for.
My parents grew up at opposite ends of the country, yet both families were tied to swamp forests and the cutting of peat. My father grew up near Northern Germany’s Teufelsmoor, my mother near the Swabian Federsee (where my great grandfather operated a small zoo and wildlife theme park with snakes!). I know what it’s like to get bogged down, literally and metaphorically. What looked like a shortcut ends with your boots stuck in the soggy soil, with no way forward yet too stubborn to turn back (hello, sunk cost bias).
Just like I’ve lost rubber boots in the mud of my ancestral lands, I’ve spent countless hours this year trying to extract myself from drafts that no longer aligned with my curiosity. After much struggle, the wanderer emerges with something that is just okay. But at what price?
A while ago, a reader asked for advice on how to get started writing online. Knowing what I know now, what one or two things would I “focus / go all in on early as a small creator with a small audience?” I confidently answered I would tackle this in a follow-up piece, but never did. I collected some ideas, then realized I was too unreasonable to follow my own advice.
You can find much practical guidance about writing that will increase your chances of success, if you are mad enough to try and make a living with it. Commit to a writing habit, publish regularly, master one platform for distribution (I used to do threads and share old newspaper clippings on Twitter). Develop your creative nightshift. Tell prospective readers clearly what they can expect and why they should care. Crack the content-value formula: how much ‘value’ (information or entertainment) do you offer for the time invested by the reader? The longer or more complex your work, the higher the bar. Which is why you’d have to be a masochist to write long-form text in the age of short form video.2
But this is reasonable advice and we’re not here to be reasonable. We’re here to commit to our curiosity with vigor. We’re here to fight for our right to venture into the unreasonable and unknown.
A New Covenant
All I really care about is the why. Why does this need to be written? And why does it need to be written by me?
The best writing feels urgent, emotional, important, and uncomfortable. It feels like a tiny Jerry Stiller is preparing for the ‘airing of grievances’ during Seinfeld’s Festivus, yelling that he’s “got a lot of problems with you people, and now you're gonna hear about it!” (‘You people’ being society at large, not the readers.) The best writing needs to be spilled out on the page, it cannot be held back. This is a selfish way to write, but the only one I’ve found worth pursuing.
I no longer pretend to know where the journey will take me. I don’t pretend to be in control of its direction. I try to remember that Real Growth is Scary and resembles a descent into the darkness of the Maze. We simply don’t know what we will encounter. All we know is that we must go.
Why did I write about the infinite ladder? I started the year by falling out of life and since then, the ground has shifted. I’ve crossed numerous fault lines with practices and events like meditation, prayer, plant medicine, new communities, sound, breath work, travel, and new teachers. Now, everything is in need of re-alignment.
There are people who write online professionally, successfully, and who treat their newsletter like a business. They show up rain or shine and separate the work from their passion when required. That’s a valuable skill, but not one I have or managed to develop. When I tried to separate my work from my personal journey, I ended up straight back in the mud.
No, I’ve ventured too far and there is no turning back now. What feels interesting has changed. My curiosity is restless and pointing in new directions and towards more difficult questions. The infinite ladder needs to be mended. If I don’t show up fully here, sharing my travel notes from following curiosity wherever it leads, I might as well do something else.
To go forward, I need two simple things: a list of questions and a new covenant with you, dear reader.
The new covenant is very simple: drop the labels and forget about this being a financial newsletter. I will do my best to write honestly, without expectations, and follow what feels most interesting. Ideas and stories at the intersection of money and life may still play a prominent role, but there is much more to explore. I have a vague map in mind, and I believe there is real treasure to be found. Occasionally, it’s going to get weird, and I know the ride won’t be for everyone. If it’s not for you, that’s okay. Otherwise, I’m excited for us to share the journey.
Alright, let’s talk about the pointers for the new year.
Your 12 Favorite Questions
I love how physicist Richard Feynman once framed his approach to creativity:
You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind ... Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while, there will be a hit, and people will say, ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius.’
Feynman was talking about problems in physics, but it’s a very useful practice to try and pin these down in your own life. Try to define them clearly. A dozen allows for openness but still imposes a constraint. Perhaps try to alternate between thinking big and abstract and being specific or practical.
I’ve modified it a bit for my own purposes. I separate bigger life questions, whose threads will keep evolving, from ‘problems’ I want to tackle in my creative work.
My life questions include stuff like how to find the right romantic partner, how to be a great partner, how to be a great parent, how to build lasting friendships, how to heal trauma, how to grow and evolve as a person, how to overcome setbacks and doubts, what creates meaning, and what would make for a life well lived.
The second set of questions is about one’s work or intellectual pursuits.
I’ve written a lot about money and investing and learning from those who mastered the game. But what really is the nature of money? What are the subtle laws by which it operates? Money shapes our world and permeates our lives. How do we master it without it mastering us?
I wrote that ‘you can learn from any great investor, but often not what you expect.’ A nuanced understanding of success is important because the blind pursuit can extract a terrible toll. Charlie Munger was that rare example of a highly visible role model who succeeded in many areas of life. Why is that so rare? What are the recurring archetypes in the world of money? Why is the invisible path so difficult to follow? Who should we look to as teachers and inspiration?
I also wrote that ‘your first job is to know yourself.’ But what does that really mean? How do you truly get to know yourself, generally and in the context of money? Success with money is often not an issue of knowledge (we are drowning in an abundance of information), but of misunderstanding ourselves and our (emotional) relationship to money.
What are the ingredients to a truly rich life — filled with love, abundance, meaning, happiness, creativity, health — and how can we create this in a world lacking advocates?
More generally, how does one live a ‘good life’ in an age of inner and outer upheaval? This requires taking a step back to ask: what is going on with our society? Why has life become so alienating and disorienting? Yes, a lot of things are getting better. But it’s obvious to anyone not frantically distracting themselves that some things are going quite wrong, that we collectively seem to have lost something important and subtle. I have some thoughts but that is a big, big question: what have we lost and what does it mean to re-discover wholeness? Who are the poets, thinkers, and prophets who see our age clearly and can help us navigate its straights?
What are the most powerful and valuable stories and ideas we need to (re-)discover? What wisdom has been encoded in the myths and metaphors that served humanity for centuries, if not millennia? This question also applies to ancient practices like breath and meditation that can serve as an antidote to the forces of the modern world. More to come.
In other words: what is this crazy world, who can explain it, why do so many people feel lost, and how can we find wholeness and abundance in our lives in spite of it all?
And since we all need to have a thread connecting us to a sangha, a community outside the Maze, how can we create spaces and communities that allow us to connect, explore, learn, and slay our demons together?
Many of these questions felt too big and unwieldy for the substack. They felt too complex to define, too difficult to tackle, too far out of my depth. Then I realized that my job is not to have all the answers. That’s the trap. That’s the mud. My job is to commit to the questions, go look for good ideas, and share my notes. My job is to find the specific that allow us to better understand the general. My job is to follow my curiosity and not get distracted.
You don’t have to be a writer or scientist to take your twelve favorite questions seriously. Take a moment and truly sit quietly with your curiosity. Don’t accept what comes up first. Keep digging. Go deeper. Allow bigger questions. Follow what feels meaningful. Lean into what seems urgent. Trust that the core of your being knows what is important.
In the end, allow yourself to aim for the unreasonable. The world needs your best effort and highest ambition.
Thank you for reading and happy holidays,
The metaphor of ‘muting the world’ is based on Henry Singleton and my conversation with David Senra.