Success Buys Freedom

by lsusr5 min read25th Nov 20204 comments



This is Part 2 of my series shamelessly ripping off the excellent writings of alkjash. Part 1 is here

I. Parables

A. Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein worked in a patent office. In 1905 he published 4 groundbreaking papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity and mass-energy equivalence. That year he was awarded a PhD by the University of Zurich.

Pretty soon he no longer had to work in a patent office. This freed him up to work on Einstein solids, the adiabatic principle, Bose–Einstein statistics, zero-point energy, stimulated emission, de Broglie waves, Einstein–Rosen bridges (wormholes) and other subjects. Einstein's early success bootstrapped him to engineering activities too. He patented the Einstein refrigerator in 1930. He helped convince the the US to develop nuclear weapons in 1939.

B. TheViper

TheViper is among the top Age of Empires II players in the world. He likes the game. When asked how much someone would have to pay him to not play Age of Empires II he answered something around the mid 6-figures.

After years perfecting his Age of Empires II play, TheViper played a few games of Age of Empires III. He doesn't seem to like it as much and has returned to Age of Empires II. When often employs silly strategies against weaker players. That way if he wins then the victory is spectacular and if he loses then it counts for little against his reputation. He frequently collaborates with and pokes fun at the caster T90Official.

C. Lsusr

I founded my own company. At first I had to do many annoying tasks like write mobile apps in Java and Swift. Now that I am successful, I get to do what I love: writing whole codebases in Lisp.

D. J. K. Rowling

J. K. Rowling started her career writing fantasy books for children. As the world's first billionaire author, she wrote The Casual Vacancy the for adults and then a crime fiction series under a pseudonym. The books do better than they would have if she weren't already extraordinarily famous.

E. Richard Feynmann

Early in his physics career, Richard Feynmann presented his research to faculty at his university including Wolfgang Pauli, John von Neumann and Albert Einstein. These eminent professors liked to attend students' seminars and ask insightful questions.

F. The Revolutionary

An associate of mine used to work for the school newspaper. He leveraged this into an internship at a real newspaper. He used his media manipulation skills to get his startup off the ground. When vandals damaged public property in hate crimes against his community he borrowed time from his startup's flexible schedule to organize a militia of middle-aged ladies.

G. Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson is a 58-year-old anthropologist. Suddenly thrust into the political limelight, he utilized his rhetorical skills and knowledge base to draw attention to ideas he feels are important. He leveraged this into a speaking tour around the world.

II. Motivation

What is personal success for?

We say success opens doors. Broadens horizons. Pushes the envelope. Shatters glass ceilings.

Success sets you free…IF you keep your expenses in line.

If you get rich and then raise your expenses to the point where you have to keep working to maintain your lifestyle then you are no longer rich.

Take a good hard look at the successful people around you.

I see all this potential and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaves with white collars, advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk became a successful author when his novel Fight Club was turned into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Brad Pitt. There was one problem. Readers were starting their own terrorist cells. They didn't understand that Tyler Durden was the villain.

What could Palahniuk do? If he said the wrong thing he might ruin his reputation as a respectable author who wrote Great Literature about stealing drugs. For a years he stuck to safe subjects like serial fornication and a 13-year-old in Hell.

Things kept getting out-of-hand no matter how thoroughly Palahniuk toed the line so eventually he connected Project Mayham to ISIS in Fight Club 2, an unpopular 4th-wall-breaking metafictional graphic novel with a cameo of himself, to clarify that Tyler Durden is the villain and Fight Club shouldn't be taken too seriously.

If Fight Club 2 isn't the physical manifestation of freedom and success then I don't know what those words mean.

Personal Experience

I was rejected from MIT, Caltech and Stanford. I went to a state University. I almost went into the Air Force ROTC but my scholarship application was rejected and I escaped 5 years of mandatory service.

I spent my first year of college trying not to play too much Age of Empires III while failing to ask the pretty girl in my dorm out on a date.

I spent my second year of college studying physics and math. When I discovered academia was too political for someone who spends zero effort impressing others I switched tracks to became a programmer. By that time, I couldn't afford a degree in computer science (and wouldn't have gotten accepted into the program anyway) so I taught myself instead.

I never got around to teaching myself how to pass a programmer interview. Without credentials, I couldn't even get a phone screen from Amazon. Eventually I landed a low-paying job writing server code for a startup. I rented an apartment surrounded by drug dealers and slept on an unpadded plywood slab from Home Depot.

I soon left that job. I hadn't yet figured out how to get hired at a reasonable rate so instead I phoned my brother and asked if he wanted to start our own startup.

Me: "Want to start a startup?"

Him: "But I'm not a programmer."

Me: "I'll write the software. You can handle the business side of things."

Him: "But I don't know anything about business."

Me: "I know real CEOs with Harvard MBAs. You're better than them."

Him: "But I'm a Communist."

Me: "Good. You understand economics."

I moved to China to conserve my living expenses. I slept in a kitchen cupboard in the city sector with boarded up shops, broken escalators—you get the idea. I moved home five months later when Amazon gave us a $96,000 grant. Five years after that, a quant[1] tried to recruit me to work for a prestigious hedge fund. I turned him down to do what I love: writing software to arbitrage the yen against the krone.

If it weren't for my previous successes then I would have to pick a more conservative occupation than a series of moonshots from my basement. I can afford high beta endeavors now that Wall Street is my backup career.

My friend at Google plans to live out of a bicycle once he is super-successful. Maybe I can beat him to it.

III. Factorization

Success is foundational to freedom. In this section I identify three main factors.

1. Better Peer Groups

We are constantly sorted together with people of the same age group, at similar levels of competence, at similar stages in our careers. These people are normal. If you are exceptionally capable then normal people are like a ball and chain shackle regressing you to the mean.

You can partially mitigate civilizational inadequacy by repeatedly starting over in new fields where your inexperience drags you closer to the mean. But if you train effectively then you will quickly surpass the overwhelming majority of specialists in any particular field. The only way to get anything approaching competent peers is via extreme personal success.

Visiting that gathering of the mid-level power elite, it was suddenly obvious why the people who attended that conference might want to only hang out with other people who attended that conference. So long as they can talk to each other, there's no point in taking a chance on outsiders who are statistically unlikely to sparkle with the same level of life force.

When you make it to the power elite, there are all sorts of people who want to talk to you. But until they make it into the power elite, it's not in your interest to take a chance on talking to them. Frustrating as that seems when you're on the outside trying to get in! On the inside, it's just more expected fun to hang around people who've already proven themselves competent.

Competent Elites by Eliezer Yudkowsky

I have only ever met one person with whom I could discuss advanced machine learning without explaining (what are to me) obvious fundamentals of informatics. Ze is a Wall Street quant and I never would have met zem if I had not already been personally successful.

2. Now that you are good at at least one important thing you can afford to do unimportant things too

If you are unsuccessful then you have to work hard just to make ends meet. When you are successful you have the financial cushion to try novel activities.

3. Success gives you capital to bet

The fastest way to establish credibility is to stake capital. To do this, you need capital. That capital comes from success.

IV. Kids

My 11-year-old cousins insist I am a kid, despite the fact I am older than both of them put together. When pressed, they say it is because I spend time with them, laugh a lot, walk barefoot outside and am not "serious". Responsibility (or lack thereof) is irrelevant according to these experts on being a kid.

Try to keep the sense of wonder you had about programming at age 14. If you're worried that your current job is rotting your brain, it probably is….

One difference I've noticed between great hackers and smart people in general is that hackers are more politically incorrect. To the extent there is a secret handshake among good hackers, it's when they know one another well enough to express opinions that would get them stoned to death by the general public….

Can you cultivate these qualities? I don't know. But you can at least not repress them.

Great Hackers by Paul Graham

An antonym to "serious" is "happy".

Success gives you power. Power gets you what you want. If it doesn't then there is something wrong with you!

  1. You know who you are. Thank you for the offer! Your company sounds like a fantastic place to work and is at the top of my list if I ever get bored of the startup game. ↩︎


4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:44 PM
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I appreciate your series and the first examples in this article.

The "Personal Experience" section doesn't seem like evidence for "success buys freedom."  Your examples seem like weak evidence in favor of alkjash's theory.  

You say, "If it weren't for my previous successes," having discussed failing to get into top universities, failing to be accepted by the Air Force, failing to try to get a date, failing [maybe the wrong verb?] to be able to afford a programming degree, failing to not live surrounded by drug dealers on a plywood slab, and failing several times to get hired at a reasonable rate.  (If a nearby you got into the Air Force, it would be very hard for zir to also run a startup from a cupboard in China.)  The only thing your description indicates you [conventionally] succeeded at before your startup was teaching yourself to code (which is a success, for sure).

Maybe it's a matter of framing?

Maybe as another article in the series, write the story of a nearby counterfactual you who went to the Air Force Academy and did five years as a lieutenant, then captain, in IT security (so server programming, similar to the low-paying job you had), then got out.  Of the skills and psychological traits that you have needed to be successful in the exact same startup, which ones would have been harmed by the Air Force?  Which ones would have been augmented?  (My prediction is that lbh jbhyq unir rdhvinyrag be uvture fxvyyf nsgre gur Nve Sbepr ohg gung fbzr bs lbhe "znirevpx" crefbanyvgl genvgf jbhyq unir orra erqhprq, ohg abg rabhtu gb xrrc lbh sebz fhpprrqvat va gur fgneghc svryq.)  

It would be trivial to re-write my personal experience into "Success is the Enemy of Freedom".

The point of my story is that repeated failures restricted my access to resources. (I have succeeded at things I didn't mention, like teaching myself magic tricks and learning Chinese. These earned me freedom like "being able to live cheaply in China".) My post would have been clearer if I had gone deeper into my successes. Instead, I focused on how failure restricted my freedom of action.

Of all the skills and psychological traits I need for the same startup, every single one would have been harmed by going into the Air Force compared to the factual. My inability to get an Air Force scholarship was a failure. But it was my lack of confidence and resources (due to other failures) which drove me to such desperation. My lack of resources originated in failure. In this way, one failure helped mitigate (but not entirely cancel) previous failures.

Another counterfactual is the one where I am hired at Amazon instead of my first programming job. I'd probably keep working there for one more year and then quit with years of extra runway for my startup. My ordinary daily living situation would be a lot easier. I wouldn't have to spend as much effort on survival. I could put more effort into networking which pays dividends. I could afford to take more risks. I could invest a greater fraction of my time into my business. It would be far easier to start a startup but I would be less desperate to do so.

For ordinary people, desperation may be more useful than absolute resources because desperation fuels effort. I am anomalously self-motivated. Effort has never been my limiting factor. Success wins capital and failure loses capital. My historical success is driven by the Kelly criterion.

I wrote the above before reading your ROT13 spoiler.

My maverick personality traits would have been suppressed by going into the Air Force. My technical skills would have been annihilated.

I'm enjoying the counter-alkjash series! In contrast to my comment on the previous installment, I think this installment has a structured model with gears, and told me something about the world. (Still not much mental tech to counter failure modes.)

This sounds about right. I would bet capital points that some of this has to do with amount of dopamine in the brain. The points on freedom after transcending survival, experimentation, and self-motivation... those are bought with dopamine (which, based on your other writings, can sometimes be bought with pain, which is kinda convenient in a way!)