Reflections: The Lessons of 2023
Let the arc of life bend towards sharing.
Alright, here are some final thoughts on 2023 before we venture into the fog of the unknown, towards the distant shapes of things to come.
It was a long year of inner and outer journeys and a lot of soul searching. My spreadsheet says I published 79 pieces or about one and a half per week. I experienced a similar shock to revisiting the year’s reading: I’d already forgotten a lot of what I’d written! But in this case too, forgetting was a valuable filter. Much of what we create is merely gravel on the path to the real treasure. It is best left in the dusty archive. For this piece, I tried to dig up a few pearls worth revisiting.
Buffett, by the way, is obsessed with the idea of filters and we should pay close attention when his biographer Alice Schroeder calls him a ‘master of time management.’ Legendary investors are obsessed with protecting their most valuable assets: their time and attention (Filtering The Idea Funnel). They also understand that memory can become an obstacle (The Market Has No Memory. Should We?, 2022)
Speaking of Buffett, this year we lost Charlie Munger. While Munger’s life offers numerous valuable lessons, it also poses a difficult question. It’s easy to say that we want to work with the best. But are we willing to do so if it requires being the junior partner? Could you be the Munger to a Buffett?
“People couldn’t believe that I suddenly made myself a subordinate partner to Warren. But there are some people that it’s okay to be subordinate partner to. I didn’t have the kind of ego that prevented it.” — Charlie Munger, Could You Bear Being the Sidekick?
“If it's trite, it's right,” Munger liked to say, pointing at the fundamental tension between knowing and doing. This applies to much of the important wisdom in life and investing. What’s easy to point out can be extremely difficult to put into action. In 11 Things I Learned About Investing I named a few of those trite but important ideas, such as “Your first job is to know yourself.” Well, that’s an endeavor that can take years (if not a lifetime) of work.
Investing mirrors life in its complexity which should make us wary of hero worship. If we look closely, we notice that the winners are often deeply flawed or even tragic figures. Success comes at a price and extreme success tends to indicate extreme sacrifice. If we don’t look closely, we risk making that same sacrifice unconsciously. This is what Alice Schroeder bemoaned about Buffett’s fans: they were stuck in indiscriminate admiration, unable to see the whole human being.
2023 also taught me an important lesson about the journey and meaning of life. There is meaning in the quest (for treasure, growth, transformation), but the real purpose is to return and share whatever you gained with the community (The Lonely Search for Purpose). It took me a long time to grasp this and shift my mindset from “how can I get what I want” to “what can I share/do for others?” Generally, the more we give, the more we receive.
The arc of life thus should bend towards sharing. I wrote about the value of seeing life in stages of 10,000 days: first you are open, explore, learn, and master. Then it’s time to ‘go deep’, to focus, craft and create, to compound what you gained. Finally, you regain freedom but are also called to teach, mentor, and share your knowledge and experience. Sharing of course happens at each stage, but as we acquire more it should take center stage.
Take Buffett who is giving away most of his wealth and wants to be remembered as a teacher. Munger also spent the last year of his life devoting energy to sharing wisdom publicly and privately. Their contemporary Roy Neuberger spent an incredible 68 years on Wall Street and at the end of his career sought to pass on enduring principles and lessons. He wanted to teach us how to think, not what to do (Roy Neuberger's Long Walk Down Wall Street).
The abundance mindset is particularly important for knowledge, wealth, and relationships, which are not meant to be hoarded. Learning should lead us to teaching. Gaining wealth should lead us to giving back. Connection should lead us to connecting others. A life of flow is found in surrendering to this subtle dance of giving and receiving.
The following are my reflections on key lessons from 2023’s writing.
Writing online offers near infinite leverage. More importantly, the process of writing is a teacher. It forces you to find stillness, face your inner world, and accept your role as but one voice in the world’s choir. Writing in public teaches acceptance and equanimity in the face of temporary defeat. — Three Years of Writing Online
I don’t like calling things a ‘superpower’, but the ability to focus in a world conspiring to distract you comes close. Macro focus means to discover what is important. Micro focus is to remember it at all times. One without the other can be disastrous. Combining both with consistent effort unlocks a tremendous force. — Focus: The Last Superpower
The good life is neither exciting nor profitable. It therefore has no advocate in the marketplace of attention. Happiness requires an investment not primarily of money but of that which is truly precious: time, attention, vulnerability, effort, energy. — The Paradox of Happiness
Do not let the narratives of progress and prosperity shame you for feeling unfulfilled. Do not feel flawed for wanting a whole life, a life rich in all dimensions. You don’t have to choose between happiness and success. It’s a false dichotomy. There is a middle way leading to both. Unfortunately, it is an invisible path with few role models. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be to overcome your established habits and identity. — The Paradox of Happiness
Delayed gratification is a powerful skill to master and a terrifying thing to be mastered by. Delayed gratification doesn’t know when to stop. At its extreme, it turns life into a never-ending chain of opportunities to delay, to be patient, and to compound. All attention becomes focused on the future, the domain of Marshmallow Mind. — Marshmallow Mind
Personal growth occurs in both the inner and outer dimensions fitting together like a ladder. The ladder must be periodically re-aligned to remain stable. Ideally, it resembles the infinite twisting double helix of DNA. — The Infinite Ladder
Fear can be the signal that you’re going in the right direction. Inner resistance reflects the importance of what you’re about to do. Invert this idea: choices that create no resistance contain no growth, no challenge, no important lessons. — The Path of Fear
The truth and treasure of your life wait at the center of your maze. Both what you want and what you avoid are waiting in its darkness. Like the hero Theseus you need a thread connecting you to allies on the outside. — The Maze
You navigate the world using a collection of masks (what Jung called the persona). You must never confuse your mask with your true face. — Beware the Mask You Wear
Real growth is disruptive. It doesn’t happen on demand or when it’s convenient. Once we touch its essence, it works on us. One day we wake up, look around, and notice that this life we lived is no longer ours. — Real Growth is Scary
Want to unlock more creativity and insights? Don’t work more. Instead, let your unconscious work for you. — Working Without Working: The Creative Night Shift
Pain is a teacher. Avoidance of pain is why most people never discover their true limits. — Pain as a Teacher
The drama of history is written with indifference to the shortness of our lives. This warps our perception of time and makes it easier to observe the fate of your world than your own. — The Roman Empire Fallacy
Success in investing can require extreme patience. Legendary investors don’t count on their willpower and capacity to suffer. They create conditions that support patience. That put in place the right structures (capital structure, cash flow, community, expense structure). — Andy Beal: Lessons from America's Richest Banker
There is nothing new under the sun. Even the best (especially the best!) study and copy success. — The Pritzkers: Buffett's Blueprint
We are trained to think of success as the outcome of actions. However, it is often the conditions that repeat themselves. — From Predators to Icons
The path to wealth is straightforward: create value, capture it, apply forms of leverage, survive and compound. Wealth is lost through over-consumption, catastrophe, and disruptive change. — A Simple Framework for Wealth
Legendary investors, by definition, survive. The patterns that end great careers repeat themselves and include ego, emotion, overconfidence, concentration, failure to correct mistakes or adapt to change, drifting into games without edge, lack of financial resilience due to leverage or fragile capital structure, and lack of personal resilience or burnout. — Why Great Investors Are Rare
Experts inhabit a different world. In their domain, they see the deeper structure of reality. As an expert you can find the pearls hidden in plain sight. — Great Investors See Things Differently
The difference between Warren Buffett and his mentor Ben Graham? Buffett cared more about winning the money game. But Graham knew when he had enough and retired to enjoy his life. — The Forgotten Lesson of Ben Graham's Life
Finally, try on these mantras for life: There are no coincidences. Everything happens for a reason. Everything is connected. There is something to be learned from everyone we meet. — Three Mantras I Like
Thank you for reading. Have a great week!