Ryan Holiday on Hobbies Without a Purpose

Richard Feynman did things that didn’t matter. That’s one reason he enjoyed what he did.

But you and I don’t need to be Nobel Prize-winning physicists to enjoy the benefits of leisure and pursuing things without purpose.

Shane Parrish at Farnam Street taught me to let go of the learning baggage.

Ryan Holiday, in his new book Stillness is the Key, taught me to value hobbies. The pursuit of something without a defined purpose.

There’s nothing to feel guilty about for being idle. It’s not reckless. It’s an investment. There is nourishment in pursuits that have no purpose–that is their purpose.

Leisure is also a reward for the work we do. When we think about the ideal “Renaissance man,” we see someone who is active and busy, yes, but also fulfilled and balanced. Getting to know yourself is the luxury of the success you’ve had. Finding fulfillment and joy in the pursuit of higher things, you’ve earned it. It’s there for you, take it.

You’re not a bad person for “turning off” to enjoy a personal hobby.

You’ve earned it. Go. Enjoy.

The Feynman Work Principle: Seek Enjoyment, Do Things That Don’t Matter

Richard Feynman loved physics.

From the time he was a young boy, Feynman had always had a special affinity for the physical world and its governing principles.

But as he grew older and worked in more “important” roles, Feynman came to a place where he no longer felt the same energized love for physics. After receiving multiple job offers from various universities and institutions within a small window who valued his work and wanted him to join their teams, Feynman pondered his relationship with his work and discovered some uncomfortable truths.

Then I had another thought: Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics.

On the heels of some incredible job offers, Feynman had to face the reality that he felt disgust for what he did. He didn’t enjoy it like he used to. With this in mind, he asked himself a simple question.

Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing—it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with.

What did he discover? He originally fell in love with physics because it felt like play.

When I was in high school, I’d see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it rather easy to do. I didn’t have to do it; it wasn’t important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn’t make any difference: I’d invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.

So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the supposed importance of what we’re doing that we forget to have fun. Our seriousness about work can be equally beneficial and detrimental to our enjoyment of and performance in our profession.

Returning to a playful attitude reduces the weight of pressure we feel over the importance of our work. We are reinvigorated by the enjoyment of what we do and begin to turn out better work.

This is not to say that everyone will understand your approach.

Some people—determined to act sophisticated—may be confused by your changed attitude. This happened to Feynman shortly after he renewed his manner of engaging his field.

Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.

I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate—two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?”

I don’t remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance to make it come out two to one.

I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, “Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is…” and I showed him the accelerations.

He says, “Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?”

“Hah!” I say. “There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.” His reaction didn’t discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked. (emphasis mine)

What might happen if you made up your mind to enjoy your field? Maybe you’d see Feynman-like results.

I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was “playing”—working, really—with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos; my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things.

It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

What might happen if you sought enjoyment of your field? What value would you add to others by doing things of seemingly no importance? What might you mistakingly accomplish?

To quote Dr. Suess: “Oh, the places you’ll go!”


All quotes come from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman

Zero to One: How to Build a Personal Monopoly

I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man. – Jay Z

Our society loves competition. We’re enamored with it.

Competition is deeply engrained in each one of us. We were ranked against our peers in standardized testing as 4th graders and fought hard to improve our high school class ranking because we were taught that it meant something. We do it all because we were taught to compete.

The irony of it all is that the more we compete, the less we gain. In all of our competition, we trap ourselves within a finite game.

What is a Monopoly?

Since our primary school days, we’ve been taught that monopolies are bad. Some of our teachers might have gone so far as to say that they are evil companies led by ever more evil people.

Peter Thiel thinks differently about that. In Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, he defines a monopoly as “the kind of company that’s so good at what it does that no other firm can offer a close substitute.”

This kind of monopoly is not evil. Instead, it’s a flourishing company. It’s a sign that somebody has innovated and made something truly incredible.

Thiel’s definition makes even more sense when we contrast it with perfect competition.

In our basic economics classes, we were taught about perfect competition. Generally held up as the gold standard, perfect competition does away with all profits. It’s perfectly competitive, and therefore nobody loses. Unfortunately, nobody wins either. Perfect competition is nothing more than a race to the bottom.

The goal of any company should be to escape competition. When you monopolize an industry (by becoming so good at what you do that nobody else can offer a close substitute), you have all sorts of new doors open up for you.

Becoming a Monopoly

Personally, I don’t aspire to build a startup any time soon. I suspect that most of you don’t either. What I am interested in is doing interesting things with interesting people. Maybe your goals are similar.

As I’ve contemplated how to do this, it’s become clear to me that the best way to do this is to become what I call a personal monopoly.

According to Thiel,

“Monopoly is the condition of every successful business…All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.”

Swap “business/companies” with “people” and you’ll see what I’m getting at.

“Monopoly is the condition of every successful person…All happy people are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed people are the same: they failed to escape competition.”

Now, I’m not saying that you have to become a personal monopoly to be happy. Nor am I saying that you are a failure if you choose the route of competition.

But, if you want to design a remarkable career, building a personal monopoly is your best chance.

2 Types of People

Within the Zero to One framework, there are two types of people. First, there is The Competitor. Second, The Monopolist. Let’s learn more.

The Competitor

If you want to be a Competitor, build a skillset that is general in nature. Competitors generally do things well, but they don’t do any one thing exceptionally well.

They’re mostly tasked with executing instructions and they don’t add anything new to the world. They don’t innovate. They do a great job of maintaining the status quo and adding more of what already exists.

The Monopolist

On the flip side, The Monopolist does one thing exceptionally well. So well, in fact, that no one else offers a close substitute.

They develop a monopolistic skillset. That is, something that is so much better than others in their same line of work that nobody else even comes close. Because of their skillset, they escape job competition.

As a result of no longer needing to place their energy and focus on their competition, they navigate their way into interesting opportunities. They may even find that an organization they admire creates a role specifically for them, just to have them on their team.

Building a Monopolistic Skillset

I don’t want you to believe this is easy. Becoming a personal monopoly is difficult. Building the skillset required to have this type of career takes years of focused attention.

But there are a few nuggets of wisdom that Thiel shared in Zero to One that are worth considering.

Think From First Principles

Indeed, the single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.

Successful people think different than unsuccessful people. They simplify problems by breaking complex issues down to their understandable and foundational parts. If you want to be successful, apply first principles thinking to difficult problems.

Don’t Be Common

The lesson for entrepreneurs is clear: if you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.

The same thing can be said for your career. If you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t have the same skill sets as those you’re in competition with. This will ensure that you stay in competition until the day you retire.

Start Small and Monopolize

What’s something small within your industry that you could learn to do better than everyone else? Bill Belichick built his personal monopoly by noticing things others didn’t on film and building game plans around other coaches’ blind spots. What will you do?

Scale Up

Once you dominate that niche market, how can you scale that up? How can your skillset become more valuable as the market for it gets bigger?

Don’t Disrupt

“Disruption” is a huge buzzword in the tech space. Thiel recommends not seeking to disrupt. Did you actually like that disruptive kid in Mrs. Smith’s 3rd grade classroom? No, of course not. You wanted nothing more than for him to stop talking.

In other words, don’t seek to compete with others just because you think you should. The beauty of starting small and scaling up is that you may never need to disrupt anybody. Nobody needs to know that what you’re actually doing is becoming so good they can’t ignore you.

And when you’re so good they can’t ignore you, you’ll have built your personal monopoly.

Rhinophobia: Why Humans Don’t Like Having Extra

No, Rhinophobia isn’t the fear of rhinos.

It’s not even a general term describing the fear of animals you’ll find in the safari.

Instead, rhinophobia describes a psychological state of investors. It’s a term that is rooted in Wall Street but has enormous implications for everyday life when applied broadly.

I first learned about rhinophobia in Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist. (Which is a marvelous biography, by the way.)

To provide context, Warren Buffett had made some good financial decisions and accumulated cash. A lot of cash. More cash than you or I have probably ever conceived of.

When you have a lot of cash, a natural question arises.

“What should I do with all of this?”

Enter Buffett’s own rhinophobia.

With the stock market soaring, Buffett (who was just buying his last Coca-Cola shares) was on the sidelines there, too. But he needed someplace to put his cash. And this had become a much tougher problem with Berkshire’s greater size. Ever since the early years of the Buffett Partnership, Buffett had been prophesying the day when the law of averages would finally catch him — prophesying it, yet somehow putting it off. But as he warned his stockholders, “A high growth rate eventually forges its own anchor.” To have any chance of continuing his gravity-defying act he had to put his money to work.

Such a compulsion to invest can be dangerous. It has been wittily defined as rhinophobia, an investors’ disease meaning “the dread of ever having any cash.” Buffett admitted to such feelings; having cash around was “an enormous temptation.”

There is an itch that comes about, and I get it, I confess. There is an itch to do things, particularly when you haven’t done anything in a while.

Why would Warren Buffett and all the investors around the globe occasionally loathe cash?

To them, cash is a signal that they should make another investment.

Step inside their shoes.

They just made a smart business decision. As a result, they made millions of dollars. The new money is theirs to work with as they please, and they all have a bias to action. They want to put that money to work for them.

What happens when there aren’t any prospects out there that intrigue them? Will they hold out, or make an investment into a company they’re not entirely sold on? If they hold out, how long will they be able to as the effects of rhinophobia eat at them?

Rhinophobia is addressing the human trait of impatience. It’s putting a term on our natural tendency to want to do something. Anything.

Investors dread having cash because they want to do things. They want to purchase stocks, make deals, do investor things. Yet they know a fundamental truth.

There won’t automatically be a slam dunk investment at the exact moment you acquire the cash. At this moment, the investor needs to decide whether he will choose to just do something or if he will find the right opportunity.

Will the investor wait to find the right opportunity or will he investor grow impatient and make an investment to satisfy their craving for action? It seems easy to make the right decision now, but things are more complicated when you’re the one with the decision-making power.

At the end of it all, rhinophobia comes down to patience. If an investor can feel the weight of rhinophobia and make the mature decision to exhibit patience, they will be much more likely to succeed in the future. If they can’t, they’re more likely to fail.

Rhinophobia and Your Life

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that rhinophobia isn’t isolated to investing. Instead, it’s a useful mental model that will help you make better decisions.

You may have already begun to see how rhinophobia could apply to your life.

The #1 way I see rhinophobia applied to our life is through it’s application to excess time. We all feel busy, but what if we simply don’t know how to handle extra time?

The Dread of Excess Time

We live in a world without boredom.

Any moment of time can be filled by scrolling through our phones. The moments that used to invite boredom — waiting in line at the grocery store, standing curbside for the bus, riding through open country — are now filled with pictures, tweets, posts, podcasts, and feeds that are engineered to keep us scrolling.

We’ve been sold on a lie that every moment of our day needs to be filled with something. We can’t imagine a moment where we are just alone with our own thoughts. Time to decompress. Time to truly recharge.

Rhinophobia — in this context — refers to our internal urge to do something with my time. If we have any extra time in my days, we must find something to fill it with. Most of us turn to social media feeds, but it’s dependent on the individual. On a personal level, my boredom urge is to open up Pocket and read through blog articles I’ve saved from across the web.

Since we feel this inner unrest to do something with our time, we have choices to make.

Like the wise investor, we can choose to wait out for something worthwhile. We fought hard to have extra time in our day. We shouldn’t be so ready to give that away.

Conversely, we can choose to give ourselves to anything that seems remotely interesting. To stay on the topic of social media, do you close out your nights with a final scroll through the Big Three — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram? You know, just gotta make sure you didn’t miss something BIG before you go to bed, right?

But it’s not just social media. We can choose to give our time to plenty of poor options simply because we feel we must do something with the leftover time we have. TV (The average American watches 5 hours per day, apparently), various supbar causes, unnecessary meetings, addicting iPhone games, and infinite other things.

I would like to propose a better way.

We must be slow to give away our most valuable resource. In a world that is fighting for our time and attention, we must decide what to give our time to.

If you’re giving too much time to social media, start by deleting the apps off of your phone.

If you get sucked into commitments that you later dread, take a commitment vacation. It gives you an excuse to say no.

If you spend too much time watching meaningless content on glowing boxes, pick up a book — a real book — that interests you and read it. One side benefit is that you might actually learn something useful.

It comes down to identifying the right thing to invest in. Think of your time like the investor would money in the stock market. Find the right fit for you. It’s either a resounding yes or a no. If the right fit doesn’t exist, do not give away your resources.

Because the worst thing that could happen is for the right opportunity to finally arise and you don’t have the resources to invest.

Goodbye Instagram. Goodbye Twitter.

At the start of 2019, I stopped checking my Instagram account.

A few months later, I deleted my Twitter account, and let the 30 days pass that rendered my account gone forever.

In an age of ever-connectedness and constant communication, I’ve decided to step away.

But why?

I realized that there were algorithms beyond my understanding that were set up to manipulate me and disrupt my life. I didn’t like that. I wanted to regain control.

I realized that a key component to developing skills that matter is long periods of uninterrupted, focused work. Social media was doing its best to claim my attention. I wanted my attention back.

I realized that I wanted to live, not just exist.

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

Oscar Wilde

I realized that each trip through my feed made grumpier and generally more dissatisfied with life more often than not. I like being happy.

I realized that a better alternative would be to create my own platform, a place I can control and mold into whatever I want it to be.

I realized that “dead time” social media checks were depriving me of the necessary inner solitude to process life and disconnect.

I realized that I could better upgrade my brain by reading books than by scrolling through everyone’s 280-character brain dumps.

I realized that I needed to create margin in my life. I needed breathing room. Social media chokes out every last bit of breathing room.

I realized that I could be more present with my wife on a daily basis if there was no pull to check social media.

I realized my life would be better off without social media.

And that’s why I quit.

Simple as that.

Will you be next?

Endnote: It seems like every blogger I follow has written about their experience with a social media detox or quitting social media altogether. I don’t want to mimic those books and articles, but I do want to highlight a few pieces of writing that had a profound impact on my decision to essentially quit all social media. Check out the books and blog below if you are thinking of doing the same things.