The Write to Roam

The Personal Blog of Ethan Brooks

Ethical Selfishness and Systems Over Goals

The Write to Roam -- How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win BigOne of the reasons I love biographies is that they help you to see that successful people are riddled with problems too. Did you know that Scott Adams, best-selling author and the artist behind the Dilbert cartoon, once struggled with spasmodic dysphonia, and was mysteriously unable to talk to any other human being for more than three years?

It is just one of the struggles he talks about in his sort-of-biography How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. The book was recommended to me by a mentor, and from it I got two interesting lessons.

The first is regarding generosity, and the need to take care of yourself. As a business owner, I enjoy talking about business, and helping other people to pursue their ideas. But every once in a while, I’ll get so excited that I commit to something I shouldn’t, and then get crushed under the workload. Whether it’s offering free help, or just taking on a long term project that I don’t have time for, I have to consciously restrain myself from saying yes to opportunities on a daily basis. Sometimes I feel bad about this. I’ve got specialized knowledge in a few areas. Why shouldn’t I share it?

Adams, who is a straight shooter almost to a fault, says that when it comes to generosity there are only three types of people in the world:

  1. Selfish
  2. Stupid
  3. Burden to Others

In order to help others, he says, you first need to take care of yourself. You need to take care of your health. You need to make a good living. You need to pursue “enlightened selfishness”.

“If you neglect your health, or your career you slip into the second category — stupid — which is a short slide from becoming a burden on society.”

People who look out for themselves have the resources to help others. Whereas someone who’s overcommitted, under-charging, or otherwise too “generous”, winds up with neither time nor money nor enthusiasm to contribute. They become a ball of stress — a broke ball of stress… I’ve been there.

The second, and much more profound lesson is perhaps best introduced with a question:

If you woke up tomorrow with the thing you currently dream of having — money, abs, love, etc — based on the way you lived today, how long would it last?

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Let’s See

“Sometimes the stupid succeed because they don’t know that they’re stupid, and if they were only 5 percent less stupid they would be smart enough to know that they’re plans won’t work” —Neil Gaiman

 

“Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.” —Warren Buffett

 

Two successful men. Two different takes on the value of information. Each has its own risks.

Go into the frey with too little information, and you run the risk of being underprepared. You learn costly lessons the hard way, and may never make it out alive.

Seek out too much information, on the other hand, and like Adam eating from the tree of knowledge, you’re suddenly aware of your own ineptitude. You look upon the masses who’ve gone before you and failed, the warning signs, and pessimistic YouTube comments, and run the risk of snuffing out your enthusiasm before the fight even begins.

So which do you choose? The safety of knowledge, or the bliss of ignorance?

I offer a third option: Adopt a “Let’s see” mindset.

Let’s see if I have a special talent for this. Let’s see if OldRaven729 really knows what he’s talking about. Let’s see what would happen if I tried exactly the opposite of what everyone’s saying.

Being informed of the risks can help us to sidestep the traps that uninformed competitors never see coming. Adopting an experimental mindset, one that’s okay with uncertainty, can help us side-step the traps we lay for ourselves.

Reading List: Life of Pi

I love this book. It was gifted to me by the owner of The Creekside Paradise, a B&B where I once spent three days convalescing before a steep trek up into the Smoky Mountains. She said she’d found the movie mesmerizing, but the book rather dull, and that I could take it so long as I promised not to bring it back. I’m glad that I did.

When you live out of a pack, each item you carry needs to be worth its weight several times over, and in that way Life of Pididn’t disappoint.

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On Life’s Big Fucking Hills

Adventure starts at the place where your plans end. Sometimes, you set out with the goal of having an adventure, and so you purposefully avoid planning. Nothing more than a blank spot on the calendar, a sacked lunch, and an inkling to wander in one direction or another. Other times you’re thrust into adventure when you take a wrong turn, or the power goes out, or any of a thousand other things happen that shake you from the fragile web of your own carefully laid plans. This is more commonly known as misadventure.

Of the two, I tend to find the latter more enjoyable.

For nearly six months I had been traveling in Europe, doing work-trades in exchange for hot meals and a roof over my head. It wasn’t a bad way to live. Staying with local families felt authentic, and I’d lucked into some pretty posh digs. One house had two kitchens, and bedrooms overlooking the sea. Another had a walled garden with its own heated indoor pool. I was living like a millionaire without spending a dime.

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On Small Deaths and the Need for Adventure

Why do we go away? This is the question that every adventurer wrestles with at one point or another. Why can’t we be happy with a settled life, a quiet town, a loving partner, a stable job? What pushes us out the door again and again, away from home and into the punishing reality of a life “out there”? Makes us draw taught the sails, and point the bow towards the irresistible siren song of a distant horizon? What are we hoping to find?

In a word, clarity.

Clarity of mind, and of purpose. For I am never so clear as in those days just before the beginning of some new and dangerous undertaking.

There is a certain noise to civilized life, a clashing and clanging of the grand machine; Of politics, and bills, appointments, and grocery lists. The ruckus of obligation, which grows louder with time. Death alone brings silence from the noise.

Each big adventure is like a very small death. Unlike a vacation, an adventure is filled with risk and contains within it the very real possibility that you may never return. It’s this possibility that allows you to step outside the life you’re currently building, and examine it as though you were about to leave it behind forever. As a trip draws near, the volume on life’s noise goes down each day until soon you’re left with the pleasant hum of nothing but the essentials; The thing’s you’re truly passionate about; The people you want to spend time with; The things you want to say to them.

And then you go. Out to the edges of the map, the places unknown. There you live a different sort of life. It’s difficult, but not in the same way as life back home. You eat less, and sleep less. You’re colder than you want to be, hotter than you think you can bear. You come face to face with your own smallness, and realize that the world truly doesn’t care whether you live or die. And somehow, in the face of that, your own will to live is fanned to a roaring blaze.

The world you left behind no longer seems chaotic and full of noise, but colorful and set to music. Life, you realize, is full of possibilities. It’s there for the taking, and there are no rules except that you must be willing to reap whatever it is that you sow. Your eyes turn once more towards civilized life and the sweet promises of building a place for yourself, shredding endless piles of junk mail, falling in love, and watching TV talent shows.

And so in this way adventure is partly about escaping civilized life so that you can learn to love it once again. It is the winter that strips away all the excess, so that spring can usher in a new bloom. We go, not just because adventure is out there. We go so that we can come back.

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