Category Archives: philosophy

Ada Developers Academy and Life Pivots

I had the amazing fortune to meet the charter class of Ada Developers Academy students when they took a tour of my office today.

Ada Developers Academy is a tuition-free programming school for women. The only pre-requisite (other than “for women”) is that you can’t already be a programmer.

In other words, every woman I met today woke up one morning and said “I’m going to quit my comfortable job (or education-path) and become a programmer.”

In addition, the software industry is dominated by males (unfortunately, for everybody who uses software), so not only did these folks make a risky life-pivot, they also pivoted into an industry where the deck is stacked against them.

This takes an amount of moxie that I may never comprehend, and meeting the class was very inspirational. It got me thinking about how the metaphor of startup pivots (i.e. a course-correction designed to test a hypothesis about the business) can be applied to life.

The common (and incorrect) definition of a startup’s “runway” is “the amount of time a startup has until it runs out of money.” A more accurate definition is “the number of pivots a startup can make before it runs out of money.” In other words, the number of new things it can try, the number of experiments it can run.

Perhaps the “runway” of your life isn’t the amount of time you have left to live, but it’s the number of interesting, experimental things you can do before your time is up?

Just as a business should structure itself to get to each pivot faster (by finding ways to learn at lower cost and in a shorter time), one should structure one’s life to get to get to the interesting parts faster!

How can you structure your life like this? There are probably countless ways, but here are a few that come to mind:

  1. Have interesting friends (and the harsh corollary: don’t waste your time with boring or uninspiring people)
  2. Live someplace interesting where you can make lots of interesting friends (and do interesting stuff with them)
  3. Double-check your life assumptions every once in a while. Who knows what you’ll find?

PS: Registration for the next ADA program is almost open. Check it out if you’re a female in the Seattle area (or willing to relocate).

(I tried something new on this post and didn’t spend much time editing it. The result is probably more raw and train-of-thought, but also closer to the original vision in my head. What do you think?)

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Wizards Rule! Join the Good Judgement Project

The Good Judgement Project is a large-scale, government-funded prediction game. Similar to the markets where you can bet on who’s gonna be elected president, but with no actual money. You can read more about it in this Freakonomics article from a few years ago.

The project only accepts a limited number of participants at a time, because participating includes free, ongoing training on becoming a better prognosticator. You see, the researchers behind the GJP have actually distilled prediction down to a science, and they’re happy to share it with you.

Perfectly predicting the future still requires a crystal ball, but their training has helped me realize that good forecasting is a skill that one can cultivate, with practice and guidance. In other words, anyone can become a wizard.

I’ll give you a little peak into what I’ve learned: non-wizards tend to focus on the unique qualities of a situation, but wizards increase their forecasting accuracy by abstracting the situation and looking at outcomes of similar past situations. This is called reference class forecasting, and it also involves learning how to reframe problems and hunt for the right information.

Forecasting is a really awesome talent to have, so I’m totally pumped about leveling up.  The GJP is open for enrolment now. Register if you want to become more wizardy: http://www.goodjudgmentproject.com/

Just a heads-up,  registration includes a timed knowledge test that is rather rigorous. It mostly covers politics and current-events, and also includes brain-teasers and a few “personality test” questions. Nobody ever said becoming a wizard would be easy.

The Anti-Accumulation Holiday [Guest Sermon]

not my synagogue Each week, my Rabbi gives a moving and informative sermon. They’re always top-notch, but this week’s was also very topical for Foundry in the Forest. I asked him if he’d be willing to let me turn it into a guest post, and he was kind enough to oblige.

The holiday of Passover is coming up next week, so Jews around the world are doing spring cleaning: literally, to get rid of the bread crumbs in the cupboards, and also metaphorically to try to rid ourselves of the excess in our lives.

The sermon is long but I encourage you to read the whole thing, regardless of your faith, as the message is universal.

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The Anti-Accumulation Holiday
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum

I have made it known over the years that the most valuable lessons I have learned in life come from television. But, today, I’m not going to limit my comments to TV. I’m going to start with a television show. But, then, I’m also going to talk about an insight into the Exodus story I learned from a Muslim friend, and how it’s connected to the show.

First the show. There is a show on HBO called “Enlightened” starring Laura Dern as Amy. In one of the episodes, there is a five minute encounter between Amy’s mother, Helen, and Helen’s old friend Carol, played by Barbara Billingsley.

Helen and Carol used to be good friends. They were both married to successful husbands, and they ran in the same circles. They run into each other in the store, after not having seen each other for several years. At first, they are delighted to see each other, and they start to catch up on each other’s lives.

Carol tells Helen about her daughter who is married and has two beautiful little children. She pulls out her iPhone to show Helen the photos. Then Carol asks Helen about her children. Well, Helen has one daughter, who has a child, but she hasn’t spoken to this daughter in years.

Her other daughter, Amy has just gotten divorced from Levi. They used to be the envy of everyone in high school—the energetic, beautiful blonde that all the boys wanted to date, and the handsome, star athlete. But, things haven’t worked out for them. And, now Amy has been demoted from her job and is living with her mother, trying to figure things out.

When Helen tells Carol about her children, Carol makes a feeble attempt at sympathy, but change of facial expression and tone of voice reflect a sense of superiority laced with contempt. “You know,” she says to Helen, “my daughter was always jealous of Amy in high school. Everyone wanted to be Amy. She had it all.” And, it was clear that Carol believed she had won the race. She had children, she had grandchildren who were flourishing. And, the former prom queen had nothing. And, she was happy about it.

The whole conversation lasted no more than five minutes, but it was brilliantly done. Because it showed how a simple exchange between two women who were supposedly friends and interested in each other’s welfare, was really about an intense jockeying for power and position. No one pulled out a gun, no voice was raised even a notch. But, this was war. It wasn’t enough for Carol that she had so much to be grateful for in her life. She had to derive additional satisfaction from the fact that her friend Helen had less than she did, and so she had won.

What causes human beings to behave this way? Here I would like to turn to a story we spoke about a few weeks ago, but which I saw differently because of a discussion we had in our Muslim-Jewish dialogue group this week. We were studying the story of the manna. After our people left Egyptian slavery, and we were traveling in the desert, we were anxious about not having enough food. So, God gave us a guaranteed food supply for forty years. But, God only gave us one day’s supply of manna at a time.

And, there were rules. We were not allowed to save any manna for the next day. We were to take only as much as we needed and no more. And, the Torah tells us that no matter how much we gathered, every one of us had just enough, but no surplus. So, clearly, many of us tried to grab as much as we could, but to no avail.

Many of us tried to save the manna for the next day, but it spoiled. We were only allowed to save the manna once. That was on Friday, when God gave us a double portion, so we wouldn’t have to gather on Shabbat. But, that didn’t prevent the Jewish people from going out the next day and looking for more.

Why did God choose this particular method of feeding the Jewish people at the moment we had been released from slavery? What would have been wrong with allowing us to save up some of the manna, and relieve us of the anxiety that we wouldn’t have enough for tomorrow?

When we were studying this story in our Muslim-Jewish dialogue group, one of the Muslims, David Suissa, remembered that in the Joseph story, there was an opposite scenario. Joseph was the ultimate saver of food. He presided over the saving of food in Egypt during the years of plenty so that when the famine hit, there would be enough to feed everyone.

That sounds so sensible. But, what actually happened? Joseph controlled the entire food supply for Egypt. He rationed out food as he saw fit. Initially, people bought the food. When they ran out of money, they sold their land to the government in exchange for food. When they ran out of land, they sold themselves to Pharoah in exchange for food. Now Pharoah controlled all the land in Egypt and he had a huge slave force.

When we look at life as a zero-sum battle for scarce resources, the result will be slavery. In our fear that we will not have enough, we will want to grab as much as we can. We will horde, we will try to corner the market. And, the result of that kind of unbridled competition is always going to be that a small number of people are going to control a disproportionate share of the resources, and a huge population is going to have little or nothing. The resource could be land, money, oil, water, and even things like friendship, or sexual partners.

The Torah traces human oppression to the propensity of every human being to take more than we need. It’s why the Torah says of the king, ‘The king was not to accumulate too much gold, too many horses, and too many women.’ Because if the criterion of a successful life is having more and more and more—if the more we have, the better we are, that’s a recipe for gross inequality and mass human misery.

When the Jewish people left Egypt, the goal was to create an egalitarian society, How do you do it? You attack the source of inequality—our human tendency to want more than we need. If God had allowed the Jewish people to collect as much manna as they could, there would have been a fierce competition, with the Jewish people stepping on each other to grab as much as possible.

The result would be that a small number of people would control the majority of the food supply. They could sell it at any price they wanted. And, now, once again, you have a slave society. By forbidding the Jewish people from even saving for one day, God was reversing what went wrong in the Joseph story, where hording led to slavery.

And, the way we celebrate Passover is a reflection of this philosophy. In the month before Pesach, it’s a liability to save. You’ll end up throwing things out.

Passover is the anti-accumulation holiday. To get ready for the holiday of freedom, we have to un-save, we have to un-accumulate. We have to get rid of all the extra stuff that we don’t need. It’s a way to rid us of the insecurity that leads us to horde and take as much as we can. Because it’s this compulsion to take more than we need that leads us to be blind to what others need.

It’s no accident that the most popular song at the Seder is Dayenu, which means “We have enough.” To create a truly just society, it is essential that each of us master the ability to take what we need, and no more. Passover challenges us to ask ourselves: what do we really need to be happy and fulfilled?

And, not just in regard to material resources. There are many ways to play the hunger games. We can hunger for attention. We can hunger for applause. We can look at life as a bank account in which we have to continually pile up credits to our name. In our mussar class in the Fall, Ann Trail called them merit badges. The more badges we have, the more worthwhile we are. When that hunger to accumulate becomes obsessive, even in the most polite society, we can end up taking joy in our neighbor’s unhappiness.

Passover encourages us to live more simply, to live more modestly, not only in our physical needs, but in our emotional needs, too: to take for ourselves enough attention, enough praise, enough appreciation, but not more.

Passover encourages us to sing Dayenu, not only at the Seder, but in our lives, as well.

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Who knew that the main theme of Your Money Or Your Life (having enough) has its roots in an old Jewish Passover song?

Thank you to Rabbi Rosenbaum for allowing me to publish his sermon. Happy Passover, Happy Easter, Happy Spring, no matter what you celebrate!

What do you think of this new tagline?

oxygenNot that it makes a huge difference in the whole scheme of things, but I put a new tagline up at the top of my blog. Here’s why…

I figured that there are a thousand frugal blogs out there (even though this was the only “frugalism” blog), so I needed something more unique and inspiring. The new tagline is:

Work to earn. Earn to save. Save to invest. Stop working.

It was inspired by this awesome article on what “retirement” means in this day and age. The full context is:

I demonstrated a very typical Generation X attitude to finance. Rather than thinking of it as having a pension plan, getting vested, putting in my time, and making monthly installments on my defined contribution plan, I looked at the “rules” of the game. How does the money system work? Should I work to earn and earn to consume? Or should I work to earn and earn to save and save to invest so I can stop working?

I broke it into four sections that are really the four main topics of Foundry in the Forest

  1. Work to earn means Maximizing Income. Reading your average frugal blog has a diminishing return on your time, since there’s a limit to how little you can spend (Jacob, the guy who wrote the above article, seems to have found that limit, $7k a year per person). On the other hand, there’s no limit to how much you can earn. That’s why I recommend most people focus their efforts on maximizing income. Once you’re past 6 figures, you’re probably good in this department.
  2. Earn to save means Minimizing Spending. Figure out how much is enough and don’t spend a penny more. If you increased the frequency of your breathing, you could gulp up so much more oxygen. But you don’t because you have all the oxygen you need.
  3. Save to invest means Educating yourself about Investing. I wrote a series of posts on this topic that will help start your investing education. But never stop learning!
  4. Stop working means Becoming Financially Independent, and no longer requiring paid employment. That part should be self-explanatory. But maybe not, since smart people are still re-working the definition of “retirement” these days.

So that’s the new tagline. What do you think?

Any investing can be Socially Responsible Investing [foundry mailbag]

Last week was Gold Week here at the Foundry, and the past few weeks are turning into Investing Week, a topic that I’m still learning a lot about and totally fascinated by.

Foundry Friend and reader Betsy commented with a great suggestion for a topic, so-called “socially responsible investing” or simply “social investing.” She writes:

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on having one’s investments match their values, even if it means lessening returns.

In fact, Venessa recently asked “Exactly which companies are these index funds investing in?” And we both had an “ew” moment when we read down the list. Most were companies we dislike or distrust, and a few are brands we actively boycot!

So what’s going on here? Is there a way to reconcile the wisdom of diversified index fund investing with one’s personal values? Or does the conscientious investor just need to hold one’s nose while building wealth?

For most people, investing is really going to be a little of both. Apparently there is a way to attain an acceptable level of diversification while limiting investments to “socially responsible” funds, at least according to this academic paper. Maybe this is callous of me, but I don’t really have time to read academic papers, and to pick and choose funds. I have a “set it and forget it” method to investing.

However, there is a bright side. I’m here to argue that one’s level of social responsibility is determined less by the investments themselves, and more by what you do with your life once you’re living off those investments.

If someone lives the Foundry lifestyle and becomes financially independent at age 40, they have the opportunity to spend the majority of their adult life doing whatever moves them. Personally, I plan on spending much of my time volunteering and that’s what lets me sleep at night, regardless of what’s in my portfolio. I know that I have a finite number of years until I reach this goal, and that my investments are a means to a very socially responsible end.

In my next post, I’ll discuss a method of investing that I feel is very socially responsible that won’t replace the traditional index fund investing style, but is a good way to complement it.

Why you SHOULD invest in gold [guest post]

This is a guest post from my friend Katie, at Oakhill Organics. She isn’t a “goldbug,” but she has some interesting counter-arguments to my last post about gold, the most interesting one is that we’re not seeing a gold bubble, but rather the crash of the value of the US dollar (which makes it look like gold is relatively worth more). This would make investment in gold a way to at least preserve the value of your stash.

Take it away Katie…

I haven’t personally invested in precious metals (we’re on the “100 acres of farmland” model — literally!), and I tend to think cigarettes, coffee, and alcohol will be most valuable “currency” when the shit truly hits the fan. BUT I’m not sure that gold fits the same “bubble” model as houses and tulips. The housing bubble (and most bubbles, including dot-com, etc.) are generally created by artificially low interest fueling unwise investment choices. If you have to pay a lot in interest, you really think through your borrowing choices — on the other hand, if it seems gravy and borrowing is easy-peasy, then why pause? (especially if there’s wide-spread hype)

I think the current bubble-about-to-burst is higher education. An undergraduate college degree has already lost a ton of value at the same time that the price of that degree has skyrocketed, and I think we’re going to see a day when a basic college degree is almost worthless (ESPECIALLY in comparison to the extreme debt loads people are acquiring to attain them right now — with a few exceptions, you literally can’t get a job out of college that would even begin to pay off a 100k debt).

Graphs don’t always tell the whole story. Gold and silver were the original historical currencies and have held their value amazingly well — really, they’ve just held their value, while the dollar has lost its value. Most investors of gold are not trying to increase their monies — they’re just trying to hold on to liquid assets in an era when interest rates are low and all other cash type investments are losing traction! Right now we have over $10k in the bank and only earn about $0.57/month in interest.

Not many people are concerned with the 100 year timespan for their investments — they want to have money in 5, 10 or 20 years — and they want it to increase in value to at LEAST keep up with the rate of inflation (impossible right now from what I can see for cash type investments — we feel great about investing in land and our farm). The stock market is no longer a safe place for these shorter-term holdings. I’m not an expert on this subject, nor even a real “believer,” but I do think it’s fundamentally different, especially since people are buying gold with cash and not with easy-to-get loans.