The Compass, The "Success Paradox", and Summer Love
Very verbose programming note:
For the second consecutive year, I’ll be giving your inbox and me a summer break.
Last summer, I traveled with my family for 10 weeks, staying with friends and family around the US. After getting our vaccines last Spring we wanted to hit the road to reunite with loved ones. It was a summer I hope our boys remember forever. I know I will.
We also explored other places to live and even bought a house in TX on a whimsical overbid which turned into a lucky personal account trade. So much for diligence. But just as some people separate only to discover the grass isn’t greener, we have come back home and reaffirmed that CA is a beautiful place for us. It’s far from perfect but everywhere has warts. It’s the best place we’ve seen…for us. You won’t find me writing an indulgent Substack piece elaborating on that any further. You get enough of my indulgences as it is :-)
This summer we will be traveling again but only for 5 weeks. In an attempt to be present as possible during my kids’ summer (I’m trying to reign in my Twitter addiction as well), I find unplugging from Moontower to be helpful. I also want to be deliberate about my relationship with public writing. This letter has almost doubled its subs to nearly 5k in the first 5 months of this year even though I’ve been writing for 40 months. Sub count is a vanity metric (I’m more proud of the open rate staying above 50%), but I’m human — it nudges me towards wanting to see “number go up”. That represents a shift from an internal to external locus of control and I’m not cool with that. So taking a break is also a circuit breaker. I’ll come back, growth will have slowed, and I’ll realize this is fine.
Last year when I came back from the break I switched from Mailchimp to Substack and used the opportunity to bounce recipients that haven’t opened an email in 6 months. I will cull the list again when I return. If people want to read this, they’ll find it. If you don’t miss it, that’s totally cool. Attention is precious. Re-allocate it to the deluge of other awesome stuff out there (or other Substacks I recommend!)
Ok, sorry if this sounded self-important. I’m just managing my neurosis out loud. If it helps other writers who may feel reluctantly caught up in “growth” it will have been worthwhile.
You can expect Moontower to be back in mid-July. The list of stuff I want to write about grows about 5x faster than I can write, so there should be lots of fun things to come back to.
As always thanks for reading, y’all give me so much. I write to “find the others” and it’s working. I’m confident writing a free newsletter and blog will be the highest-yielding investment of my non-family time.
Last week, I waded into gun control thoughts to demonstrate what kindness by humility looks like to me. That was an unexpected detour given the horrible news from Uvalde. This week, I’ll return to where that post was originally headed.
The post started with Slatestar’s Fake Graduation Speech which I maintain as one of my favorite reads. Graduation speeches are irresistible. They are the prize for beating the final boss in the tightly-tracked 8-bit side-scrolling video game known more colloquially as “school”. A great speech can be used as a compass to the wide-open MMORPG the diploma achievement unlocks. The commencement speaker is the sage shopkeeper in Zelda — “It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.”
The compass points to a metaphysical place. The destination is meaning. But it doesn’t exist without you. You give your life meaning. So the compass is unique to you. It has a biometric lock, like your phone. Only your eyes can see where it points.
Without a compass, you’d be paralyzed. Overwhelmed by choices. Think of a grizzly bear. It eats, sleeps, socializes, and screws. It doesn’t buy a duplex as the forest gentrifies or join the Peace Corps to help its polar cousins learn to climb trees because the ice caps are melting. You are blessed and cursed to not be a grizzly bear.
Our awareness drives us to ponder meaning. This feels necessary to at least loosely rank our values so we can make decisions. I wasn’t finished referencing Jared Dillian last week. In Memento Mori he wonders:
Even though I am not religious, I tend to believe that there is some accumulated wisdom in organized religion. All major religions believe in an afterlife. Most believe in the concept of heaven and hell. And then we have empirical evidence of tens of thousands of people dying, being reanimated, and describing what seems to be heaven and hell. I don’t think this is a coincidence. So the first question is: what happens to you after you die? And the second question is: how do you avoid going to hell? People get a Starbucks on the way to work, sit in a chair all day, come home, watch some shows, and go to bed, without really pondering this question.
I think about it every day.
So what is the solution?
His answer rhymes with Slatestar’s full-bodied endorsement of kindness.
Jared answers his own question:
The answer is love.
This is where people get confused. Most people equate love with falling in love, or romantic love, but that type of love is a feeling. Real love is not a feeling, it is an action. You see, people reverse cause and effect. They think that you feel love and as a result of that, you act selflessly towards someone. It is the other way around. You act selflessly toward someone, and then as a result, you feel love. [Comment from me: the surprising satisfaction of arranged marriages speaks to Jared’s inversion of cause and effect]
Real love should be given freely and without reservation.
Most people love their spouse, their kids, their pets, their family. That is the low-hanging fruit. What about everyone else? What about your dickhead coworkers? What about your grumpy neighbor? What about your enemies? Do you wish for them to get everything you want for yourself? Do you feel compassion and understanding towards them?
Do you strive to ease the burden of everyone you come in contact with?
Do you give people the gift of time?
I’m no saint. But the progress chart is going from the lower left to the upper right. The point is that I am constantly working on it.
That last line is the action dictated by the compass. There’s no right answer, your compass is your own. But in a life where I’m privileged enough to consider more than where my next meal is coming from, I don’t think my compass’ magnetic resonance with this is a coincidence.
Loosely Related Tangents
I tend to be more on the introspective end of the thinking-action continuum than I’d objectively prefer. If you lean more towards “doer”, that probably sounds like a weird, possibly pathetic, observation. Like why even waste a thought to put yourself on such a spectrum. But if you are a fellow over-caveating shoegazer you understand. It’s a pernicious form of self-sabotage. You can’t help seeing the tension in every platitude. I literally keep a file in my notes called “Tensions”. If I shared it, you’d quite possibly die of exhaustion. Here’s an example.
Jared: Real love should be given freely and without reservation.
Me ankle-biting: What lesson do people internalize when love is unconditional?
As Jared requests at the end of each letter, I’ll just go f myself now.
(Mumbling like Milton as I plod away: The thinking-action continuum is a false binary anyway, it’s more like…[Yinh proceeds to gag me])
Again this line: Real love should be given freely and without reservation.
I’m doing a mentorship program this summer where we work with HS students. These kids are defying long odds to even find this program. The training made their circumstances abundantly clear. This is a chance to help kids who may have never had a real conversation with an adult who is not a teacher, parent or coach. The kids are surprised an adult would even find them worth talking to. A story of a prior kid in the program was that he never bothered to learn to read because an adult once told him when he was young that he’d be dead by 19. Today, he’s 26 and regrets listening to that jerk.
As I prepare for my assignment, we were taught to navigate a too-common situation — the kids have been given paid internships this summer but when they go back home they are going to face tremendous pressure from their families and neighborhoods to share the money. Now there’s nothing wrong of course with being generous, but that’s the point. We are instructed to teach them to: give cheerfully.
The goal is to help these kids discern exploitation from genuine charity. A skill they have rarely had to practice because the concept of any surplus is foreign. Hearing this is more harrowing than surprising. Part of humility is expecting that we take things for granted, even if we don’t know what those things might be until we hear about them.
On an intellectual level, I know what the words “love freely” and “give cheerfully” mean. It would be a shame if the meaning stayed arrested at that level. Jared’s post is an invitation for all of us to stretch further.
In Professor Kevin Bracker’s essay on college, he explains: a lot of schools are starting to offer — courses on professionalism. Things like showing up on time, table manners at a business lunch, working with others, etc. These are more important skills than many people realize. Grow up in the right environment and you learn it through osmosis. Grow up in a different environment and you probably won’t.
The mentorship training is highly aware of this. Teaching the kids to carry themselves professionally (i.e. no slang) is a core objective. I can imagine many readers bristling at the conformity of etiquette courses, but that’s a sumptuous degree of naivete. The way we speak and act signals class. Hipsters (my favorite definition of them is “someone who identifies with both the counterculture and the dominant class”) lament that reality without appreciating its ramifications — the cost of non-conformity is much higher for the underprivileged.
It might not be fair that something akin to “acting white” is required to get ahead, but the change to that is going to come from above. Not below. Being unrealistic is a luxury these 18-year-olds can’t afford.
I was going to write about how to measure implied skew. The post would also have been a nice demonstration of why I write about options stuff in the first place (hint: it’s not because I think you should be trading options). You would walk away from the post excited by a new insight but rattled because it would crack a door you’d definitely prefer to keep closed.
The anticipation is a tad cruel because I’m going to table that post for next time. I didn’t feel like breaking up today’s letter with nerd stuff.
Dazed and Confused transpires over the last day of school. Randy “Pink” Floyd ain’t doing homework in the moontower and I’m not gonna be the cruel teacher who’s gonna put your mind in problem set mode.
Instead, I give you one of my favorite videos. Watch it through to the end. It’s worth it.
As tensions go, it presents one of the most difficult tensions an intellectually honest person needs to contend with. I’ve come to the same conclusion its author does — the “Success Paradox” cannot be resolved without some controlled self-deception1.
You will recognize the same thinking in this 2-part series:
✍️ My Personal Trigger (5 min read)
✍️Why ‘Deserve’ Makes My Skin Crawl (8 min read)
I’ve always been sensitive to the “success paradox”. It informs my politics. My worldview. It’s why I find Freddie deBoer’s views on education impossible to look away from. (I will be writing more about learning in the back half of this year. You can expect Money Angle to get some of that treatment in the context of investing as well.)
For now, watch the video. At worst, you are introduced to a beautiful YT channel.
From My Actual Life
Yinh and I have covid this weekend and the timing couldn’t be worse.
Our first inaugural Cousins Camp was supposed to start today.
We were scheduled to have 8 nieces and nephews staying with our kids this week. We hired a teacher and chess coach to guide enrichment programs from 8 until noon every day. The kids would do crafts, write and perform a song, play games, and present/public-speak. Afternoons were left open for play, sports and pool time. 80’s summer kid mode.
Our plan is to rotate this every year at a different family’s home (the other parents are going on mini-vacations without their kids, so this is a win-win for everyone!). We decided to do this because it will be a great series of memories to gift both the children and the parents.
We had a different version of this idea in 2020. Boardgame Week. A local parent offered their amazing backyard as a site. I was planning a week of PTO to host 14 kids (I wasn’t charging so it was oversubscribed amongst our parent friends before Yinh finished typing the text message) for 3 hours a day of gaming and then play time.
Covid blew it all up and then last year we traveled all summer so I was so stoked that we were finally going to pull this off. Until yesterday when it became clear we had to cancel because we and some of the guests have covid.
[I’ve had chills, fevers and razor blade throat since Friday night but it’s all been manageable. I took a my 3rd covid test in 3 days and finally tested positive. I was getting nervous that my sickness could somehow be not covid and that I was going to get covid too.]
Anyway, I’ll be back in your inbox sometime in July. I’ll still be around on Twitter a little bit and you can always email me.
Enjoy the start of summer. Summer is for memories. Spread kindness. Make joy a priority for someone else and it will just as easily be your own. A little intention goes a long way. Whoever your they is, they will remember.
In a crazy coincidence, I just hung out with the family that rented our house before we leased it (they are tight with our neighbors and visited from the East Coast). Apparently, they did this same camp idea with their family and friends at the house we live in now! They showed us a video of the finale performance the kids put on and pictures throughout the week. The mom couldn’t believe we randomly settled on a similar plan. She’s an artist and said something to the effect of “there’s just something about that house”.
Our house is a 1950s 3/2.5 CA ranch that looks straight outta Boogie Nights. Mirrors, bricks, and cabin interior. Everyone would be piled up on each other. I’m too cheap to put the A/C on. And everyone gets chores. If there were movie props on the premises you’d think I was recreating the commune on Spahn Ranch. Without the sex, drugs, and ya know, murder.
Although you might hear some Brian Wilson in the background.
Moontower On The Web
The advice takes 23 seconds to dispense. From timestamp 10:35 to 10:58