2 years ago habryka4 mentioned he'd love to see a comment I made developed into an article, and I agreed and said I was planning on doing it next Monday... anyway, 2 years later on <some> Monday I finally found the time.

Money is abundant and meaningless.

There are good founders with few relationships able to raise upwards of half a million as the first investment in ideas that seem impossibly difficult to monetize. With decent connections, you can pocket upwards of 10 million to start a company that seems hot.

You can learn programming in 3-12 months and earn 6 figures with low taxes working remotely in a few years. You can make bank by doing the most niche and easy to learn of jobs as long as you know how to follow the market. You can probably make it even if you just follow your nose and invest in trends like crypto or high-throughput sequencing early on.

Earning much is easy for many people and it provides no direct meaning. The rich man that’s unable to find happiness because he doesn’t realize the goal of life is altruism/nirvana/love/enjoying-the-moment/god is beyond cliche.


Money is, to some extent, equivalent to power over others, but that power doesn’t scale if we look at the realm of all possible options:

If I don’t know how to efficiently turn power into a GDP increase, or money into a cure for cancer, then throwing more power/money at the problem will not make much difference.

King Louis XV of France was one of the richest and most powerful people in the world. He died of smallpox in 1774, the same year that a dairy farmer successfully immunized his wife and children with cowpox. All that money and power could not buy the knowledge of a dairy farmer - the knowledge that cowpox could safely immunize against smallpox. There were thousands of humoral experts, faith healers, eastern spiritualists, and so forth who would claim to offer some protection against smallpox, and King Louis XV could not distinguish the real solution.

This in turn tempts many people, especially young people, to swear off the making of money as a valuable goal.

In itself, this can be fine if you smell your goals well enough from an early age. If you are certain that what you want is to hobo-backpack across the globe thrice, or have a quiet cliffside Mediterranean restaurant, or seek enlightenment ... then yeah, you probably shouldn’t aim to make money.

But there’s also a typology of a person that is young, doesn’t have a clear set of “meanings” for their life in mind, yet chooses not to focus on money because it seems to be inherently meaningless.

I’d single out this: a type of person that feels like there are meaningful things to do, but they are unachievable. Things like settling on Mars or the Arctic, stopping violence, eliminating poverty, curing disease and death, eliminating “evil”, “solving” human biology, or physics, or finding a perfect system of metaphysics.

This results in a lot of intellectual meandering in the best-case scenario and in depressive behavior in the worst-case scenario. It leads anywhere from doing a bachelor's in philosophy and a Ph.D. in a quantitative field, to being lethargic, and staying in bed watching Youtube(TikTok?) all day.

If you count yourself among such people, I want to try and persuade you that money might actually be a generator of meaning if pursued and thought about properly.

i - What Does Wealth Mean?

 

First, I think I need to get across the idea that wealth isn’t linear nor uni-dimensional.

It’s not worth joining the rat race when you make 50k this year, 55 the next, 100k ten years later. Because the difference between 50 and 100k is indeed very little.

But the difference between 100m and 100k isn't, 100m would allow you to pursue projects that are far more interesting than whatever you are doing right now.

Nor is there a clear number for the “amount of money you need in order to achieve a paradigm shift”. For some people, having 200k worth of savings might be enough to shift their paradigm to “now I can live frugally off savings and dedicate my life to joining a deworming project in Africa”. Others might need 50m to shift their paradigm to “now I can lead the world into colonizing space and solving last-mile clean energy delivery issues”.

Wealth can result in a paradigm shift, both for people and companies. But if you read about people or companies that made an impact assisted by their assets, one thing of note is that the paradigm shift usually didn’t come until they realized they had the assets to pursue new “unimaginable” goals.

Finally, there’s the oft-repeated but true line: wealth is inflow minus outflow. Many people that we think of as rich are dirt poor once you account for taxes and monthly expenses. Money is useful when it opens up degrees of freedom in the socio-economic environment, it’s useless when spent on status goods and other zero-sum games (e.g. housing in large cities).

ii - Knowledge Without Money Is Often Called Insanity

 

Another common pitfall is trying to gain knowledge instead of money.

Yes, you could try spending your youth pursuing wealth, but, you say, why not spend it learning, putting a foundation on which to build your later works.

Let me start with a story about a fantastically talented programmer by the name of Terry Davis.

He built TempleOS:

developed it alone over the course of a decade after a series of manic episodes that he later described as a revelation from God.

TempleOS is a fully-fledged operating system, not just a kernel (e.g. Linux). On top of that Davis build games for it, an IDE, and even his own specification and compiler for a C dialect called HolyC. That’s not to mention drivers, a custom-made filesystem, and so on.

He did all of this, more or less, from scratch, and the thing ran on x86 architecture.

This is rather insane, for one man to build all of this alone, some of it while homeless and in between debilitating schizophrenic episodes (oh yeah, the guy was, by the way, rather insane).

Granted, part of this was dedication, but a lot of knowledge and intelligence was required to build it. It’s really hard to quantify how “good” he was, but I think everyone would agree it’s insane to think a person with his talent would not become a tenured CS professor at a good university or the head of engineering for a moderately famous project or the CTO of a successful software company.


Alas, he was most certainly insane, writing racist aggressive dribble on forums, unable to work or properly communicate with people, unable to fend for himself in the world, or at least be agreeable enough to live with the support of others.

This is a very extreme failure mode, but it shows that one can gather knowledge, very real and practical knowledge, while still utterly failing at integrating it or themselves into society as a whole.

As it stands, TempleOS is the software equivalent of outsider art, immensely impressive yet utterly useless. It’s a shame really, because who knows what someone like Davis could have done had he joined forces with other people to build.


Similarly, people doing various "blind Inuit pottery making success gender gap Ph.D." style learning think they are acquiring knowledge, but I assume most of my readers would agree they aren't. Or at least that they are acquiring knowledge of little consequence, which will not help them live more happily or affect positive change, or really any change, upon the world.

The problem is that it’s really hard to know if the knowledge you are acquiring is in any way “correct”, and often enough the only way to validate that is through other people.

This is not to say “other people say you’re doing things right” is a sufficient condition, I think many would agree with me in saying there are collective forms of insanity around the world that serve to focus thought on fictive matters (think qanon, homeopathic medicine, churches).


Even so, how are you to tell that other people think the knowledge you are gathering is valuable and valid? Rather easy, sell your knowledge to others’ benefit.

Money is a very objective measure, everyone wants it. Most need it. Everyone, to some extent, won't give up theirs or print more of it very easily. It's also instant. Given 10 minutes I can tell you +/-1% how much liquidity I have access at this very moment. That number will then be honored by millions of businesses and thousands of banks across the world who will give me services, goods, precious metals, stakes in businesses, and government bonds in exchange for it. I can't have any such validation with “pure” knowledge.

A 1-1 knowledge-money mapping is harmful because some form of knowledge might suffer “long tails”, or step functions, where you need to get past a threshold before people will actually pay you to disperse or use it. If you demand that everything you learn pays dividends in a few weeks, you’ll end up with a very odd understanding of the world.

But some knowledge has to pay some dividends at some point, otherwise, you might just be stumbling into your own little hole of insanity. Conceptualizing the world in a way that produces nothing and seems inherently flawed to everyone else.

iii - Money Is Hard To Fake

 

Fine, you say, but knowledge can pay other forms of dividends. Is it not better to use knowledge in order to craft yourself a stoic mind inside an adonisiac body? To reach the peaks of athletic performance? The depths of meditative joy? The highs of child-like curiosity?

Well... yes. The end goal of knowledge should be that. I’d rather my broker steal everything from me than spend a year drinking, overeating junk, dumping political propaganda on my brain, and letting my muscle atrophy.

But the problem with “personal” goals is that they are, to some extent, easy to fake. You can lie about “progress” in your social life, fitness, or state of mind. You can shamelessly switch goalposts at the subconscious level and alter your self-perception without even noticing.

Some of this can be fixed by “quantified self” methods, using external devices, but even those suffer from goodhearting.

Money is by far one of the hardest objectives to lie to yourself about. There’s a reason all companies that succeed use profits as their ultimate KPI, and that’s not necessarily a will to maximize instantaneous profits at all costs.

Indeed, this might be the reason most people don’t like to judge their achievements proportional to their wealth or income, because it might pain a picture less glamorous than the ideal they are trying to achieve, but those achievements are usually translatable to self-control or agency of some sort, so is it not reasonable to try and cash out on 20% of that? Just to make sure you’re heading in the correct direction.

iv - Optionality

 

So money can be a decent indicator for heading in a positive direction, even if impressive, and a guardrail for insanity. It’s not linear but rather a complex function that factors in your goals, ability to self-evaluate, inflow, outflow, and liquid wealth.

But its transient properties also make it ideal for changing goals.

After all, money is never a burden (status goods and spending are, of course, but not liquid wealth), and can be used to acquire the help of others on whatever projects you want.

Sure, thinking that you want to be a doctor until your mid-30s then realizing you were meant to be a recluse yogi is worst than giving in to your calling in your early 30s. But you know what’s worst? Being a self-thought nihilist until your late 30s. At least the doctor has the capital to settle his affairs, get a jungle house in Burma and start his yogic journey.

More traditionally, we have goal changes around things like the city we live in, the amount of leisure we require, travel, kids, marriage, housing, healthcare, drugs we consume, the company we keep, and so on. These goal changes may be irrational, but so are all preferences, ultimately, and fulfilling them still pays hedonic dividends with a bit of care.

In that sense, liquidity helps us account not only for our current set of preferences, which might be fulfillable with little to no money but for a wide set of future possible preferences which may require it and form independently of us having it.

Of course, the other branch of this dichotomy is preferences forming because of having money, which in some cases may be a good thing (e.g. realizing you’ve got enough to fulfill a hard and ethical project) but in most cases will be harmful desires for status good and transitory highs.

Alas, I’m happy taking responsibility over optionality, even if freedom comes with the possibility of undertaking a wrong action. I wager you might feel the same.

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Even so, how are you to tell that other people think the knowledge you are gathering is valuable and valid? Rather easy, sell your knowledge to others’ benefit.

Knowledge without knowledge of salesmanship is rarely sell-able. On the other hand, not-valueble and invalid knowledge with knowledge of salesmanship is highly sell-able and unfortunately rampant.

This over-exploited surface layer of making something appear more valuable than it really is --  through marketing, advertising, and salesmanship -- enables value to be to be faked. Collectively, we succumb to schemes like this on a daily basis.

I agree, and in so far as avoiding "sales" goes I think it's been very useful for me to have the knowledge just for avoiding people with knowledge of salesmanship.

Then again, I'm pretty sure I've avoided "good" things people were trying to "sell" to me in the past just because they seemed to have little knowledge and a lot of knowledge-of-salesmanship.

One of the important things you can buy for money is your own time. Not having to spend 8 hours a day at a job means you have 8 extra hours (maybe 10 if we include commute) to do whatever you want. From the perspective of free time, that's almost like getting a few extra decades of life.

It's even better than that, because now the time you spend on your own projects is not interrupted regularly by something that takes your attention away; also travelling is not limited to a few days a year; so you can not only do twice as much, but you can also do things that would otherwise be almost impossible.

Agree, and I'd say the traveling and time buy-back bit is very much gradual, which I enjoy.

I.e. 4-hour work week lifestyles are kind of a pipe dream, but 20-hour work week digital nomading is pretty run of the mill.

After all, money is never a burden (status goods and spending are, of course, but not liquid wealth), and can be used to acquire the help of others on whatever projects you want.

If you have a lot of money, people will ask you for money and you have to say no. When getting to know new people you have to think about whether the other person just wants to associate with you for your money. Having money is worth it but it doesn't come without burdens.

This is the burden of literally anything worth having in the world though.

You're a famous person, you're afraid people want to befriend you just because you're kinda famous, you have to refuse to come to your friend's parties just because they want you there to attract people.

You're a politician, you're afraid people want to befriend you just to influence policy, you have to refuse your friend's requests for having an unethical word with x or y to help them.

Fill in for professor, doctor, and so on.

Money is actually very anonymous compared to almost all other "things worth having". Maybe past a point it does "get out" but you're talking billionaire, and that's a very niche state that's not worth concerning ourselves with. 

In the "small and medium time millionaire" club I expect hiding wealth to be both very easy and very "profitable", it just involves not buying status goods, and maybe one or two white lies around inheriting this or that or this or that costing less than they did.

Heck, even if word "got out" that you were rich --  you can go for 2 months to Bali -- coming back with a story about falling in love, getting married to <this girl>, and having it all taken away -- or some such. You can't white lie your way out of being seen as a dentist if you are a dentist, your cabinet is a physical thing people can see, so good luck explaining to your friends that you won't do their expensive procedures for free.

Yeah, status and fame are non-anonymous almost by definition.

Perhaps we should redesign the society to protect prestigious professions by giving them a second identity. After passing the exams, you get your Dentist Name and a mask you need to wear all the time at your job. No one would suspect that Joe, officially working at the local hospital as a janitor / IT guy / administrative worker, is secretly the famous dentist Paracelsus. ;)

Money is useful even when spent invisibly. Unless people observe you 24/7, they do not really know how much total money you spend. You could have a private palace full of servants, and then another ordinary appartment in an ordinary part of town, to invite your middle-class friends. You could pretend to have a job; whenever you leave your town, you are on a "business trip"; whenever someone sees you having some kind of fun in the middle of a workday, you are having a "vacation". You pretend to call a cab, but actually call your private driver. If Batman can fight crime in his spare time, certainly you can pretend to live a middle-class lifestyle.

Some people, such as myself, are not good at working with others, and end up in the Terry Davis position by default. Only my "knowledge" is mostly abstract philosophical theorizing that I constantly worry is of no use to anyone, and that I have hitherto never been able even to organize into a book or wiki others can read - though I have tried and am trying. What would your advice be to people who 1. have no money with which to start making more money and 2. have limited social skills and get extremely anxious and overwhelmed whenever they try to coordinate with others on any kind of shared project?

Bootstrapped SaaS starting from AWS' free tier? Substack?

But the difference between 100m and 100k isn't, 100m would allow you to pursue projects that are far more interesting than whatever you are doing right now.

There aren't many people who have the agency and personal fit to aim to make $100M from scratch. Being a cofounder is the primary way to achieve this.

But the difference between 100m and 100k isn't, 100m would allow you to pursue projects that are far more interesting than whatever you are doing right now.

Agree with this.

But this is also why one could pursue knowledge instead of more wealth. The hurdle between making "enough runway that you can dedicate yourself to something with low / no pay for a few years" and "enough money you can fund a talented team doing something that doesnt generate profit" for instance, is quite large. And most projects of the latter type end up eventually relying on other people's money anyway (either VC or philanthropic) once they scale, so you might as well become good at raising funding instead, if you wanna do something big.

This somewhat applies to me personally too. Having some runway was really helpful (<$100k given my CoL is <$10k), but then I didn't have as much drive to make more money because I realised the next checkpoints aren't all that interesting until you reach atleast $10M or so. And aiming for $10M from scratch still basically means becoming a founder. It is not practical to ask everyone to go from say $500k to $10M via investing, although I'm sure some have done it. And niche opportunities are ofcourse possible but non-trivial to find.

I'm sure someone will say you could make $1M and save 100 kids from malaria but that doesn't at a gut level seem that interesting either, although I respect those who choose this path.

Also to be clear I'm not saying being a founder is not worth it (either for me or for anyone else), just pointing out there arent all that many paths to cross this hurdle, and that you might choose accumulating knowledge if you do not wish to pursue those paths.

I guess the main reason for that bit of the article is not to make a prescriptive claim about the "amount one should aim for" but rather to say that the non-linear nature does mean that investing in it linearly is non-optimal. So it's essentially conceding to the point that there might be caps, much like your point out. I don't think I disagree with anything you said above.

Thanks this is fair!

This is an excerpt I want to highlight for everyone in this forum: 

> I agreed and said I was planning on doing it next Monday... anyway, 2 years later on <some> Monday I finally found the time.

Write your thinking, expand on your comments, even if it takes 2 years!! I think there will always be someone which will derive value from it.

There are good founders with few relationships able to raise upwards of half a million as the first investment in ideas that seem impossibly difficult to monetize. With decent connections, you can pocket upwards of 10 million to start a company that seems hot.

You can learn programming in 3-12 months and earn 6 figures with low taxes working remotely in a few years. You can make bank by doing the most niche and easy to learn of jobs as long as you know how to follow the market. You can probably make it even if you just follow your nose and invest in trends like crypto or high-throughput sequencing early on.

 

OK, you make a case for money here, because making money is possible and there are actual outcomes.

The outcomes maybe true to market value.

Earning much is easy for many people and it provides no direct meaning. The rich man that’s unable to find happiness because he doesn’t realize the goal of life is altruism/nirvana/love/enjoying-the-moment/god is beyond cliche.

In what way is this rational or meaningful statement. 

A wrong and un factual thing,to proposes the alternative is better and therefore true.

It must be true, because making money is the goal? 

Then you are stating what you already stated as assumption.

Making money is goal, therefore its a true thing that is good.

Its good, because its money. But that is not a rational. It could be considered a rationalization.

That is just fact, when you make money then you have money. 

So you are operating still with tautological truth.

We live and do things with money, and therefore they are good.

This is not "the case for money", this is in my understanding just saying what we already have and operate on.

Unless there is no money we cannot operate on assumption that money is not the case. 

It is the case. The question would be then where is "your case?"

 

Wealth can result in a paradigm shift, both for people and companies. But if you read about people or companies that made an impact assisted by their assets, one thing of note is that the paradigm shift usually didn’t come until they realized they had the assets to pursue new “unimaginable” goals.

Finally, there’s the oft-repeated but true line: wealth is inflow minus outflow. Many people that we think of as rich are dirt poor once you account for taxes and monthly expenses. Money is useful when it opens up degrees of freedom in the socio-economic environment, it’s useless when spent on status goods and other zero-sum games (e.g. housing in large cities).

Then again you cannot have the money and not the product.

In essence the highest asset for companies is the ability to develop things through time.

Time can be in some sense gotten by money, but essentially, then you are buying time with money, by making money through time. 

Its a simple loop. I don't think you made a realistic case. I think this accounts for the case everyone knows.

When companies invest they invest into values. 

So a company that has coal invests in coal. 

A company that can make coal into gold through some magic philosophers stone through magic transmutation, is still investing in its highest asset. 

Now it would be the philosophers stone. Where did the stone come from? If it were merely function of money it would mean most companies would have philosophers stone. 

In my understanding then the case is still the same. "money" There seems to me something missing. 

Another common pitfall is trying to gain knowledge instead of money.

Yes you need to survive to have knowledge.

Money takes in such case precedence, because knowledge is slow, money works faster.

iii - Money Is Hard To Fake

Can you even be wrong in this statement though? 

When you live in society where everything including my body, has monetary value, can you falsify this? 

Well no. 

But what case are you making then? We either live in world where money is the "thing which we want or not"

For every person this is true. 

Saying that money is best indicator of whatever is not true though. What it indicates is what we already know.

Its the value of market working. It works because markets are build around financial concepts. 

That alone explains merely that we don't know the alternative of value on market with out putting a price tag on it.

But if we all subject goals to financial goal posts, we essentially have no alternative, but to put money as priority. 

Then you mean to say that unless we put money as priority, we cannot, be objective?

Sure, thinking that you want to be a doctor until your mid-30s then realizing you were meant to be a recluse yogi is worst than giving in to your calling in your early 30s. But you know what’s worst? Being a self-thought nihilist until your late 30s. At least the doctor has the capital to settle his affairs, get a jungle house in Burma and start his yogic journey.

No? Where are you making the "case"

Alas, I’m happy taking responsibility over optionality, even if freedom comes with the possibility of undertaking a wrong action. I wager you might feel the same.

 

Yes, but is this statement necessary? 

Are we in state of mind, where this is somehow questioned? 

Making money equates having options true.

I think you used lots of concrete examples, and statements that are true, but I was expecting 

"the case for money". Something different from what we already somewhat on some level know.

After all money is useful in a world where everything is valued by monetary means.

But the way I see it you essentially said "money is good"

with many examples and statements.

The contrary statements are that some dudes did not make it without money. 

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