The world is not always the one that we perceive. I have come to realize three mental traps that are counter-intuitive enough that we would quickly dismiss and yet powerful enough that we can not ignore. I want to share these with you.
Lesson #1: Attention > Time > Money
Compared to time and attention, money is actually the least valuable.
Born in China, I was raised to be humble and to be frugal. I still recall the time when China was poor. Clothes need to be worn long enough, often time with patches, before passing down to the younger cousins. Money was squeezed and saved. Like regular working-class families in China, mine was no different — money was more valuable than our time.
However, as I grow up and see the world, I observe how successful people are able to leverage their money to save their time. I learned to happily spend money on services and productivity tools that I need so that I’m not drawn into the ocean of trivia tasks and so that I stay focused on the things that I really want to do. But that’s not enough.
Plenty of time with no attention given is a waste of time.
In a fast-paced, tech-enabled society, we are accustomed to attention-harvest machines like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. Those apps were designed to be highly sticky. And they are great businesses. But they have adverse consequences on people, both adults and children. Just like sugar — subtle yet addictive. They are the enemies of your attention span. Could you think of a productive time when you were using social media?
I bet you couldn’t. And neither could I.
Attention is the most valuable resource one can have. To command such valuable resource, you would need to stay in the present. With the help of “time,” one would be able to observe, to learn and to get things done.
Next time when you are in a meeting, I challenge you to close your laptop and turn off your phone and say “Now you have my full attention.”
Lesson #2: The best way to gain return is to expect no return.
It’s the ultimate long-term view.
I learned this lesson a bit later, when I become more secure about myself.
This lesson applies to both life and investments. On the life side, it’s fairly straightforward. Give first, and expect no return. And when it comes back, it would truly surprise you and delight you. I’m fortunate enough that I can attribute many life-turning events and life-long friends to this valuable framework.
But I do want to talk about the effect on the investments side, especially the early stage investments. It’s true that venture capital is long-term capital because (again, with the help of time) that’s the only way to gain superior returns against other asset classes.
However, psychologically, it’s often seen that many VCs would fall into the trap of “sunk cost,” which is always a tricky one to deal with. In other words, investors often times could not help but discriminate investments based on ones’ own dollar amount and self-interests, instead of the company’s. The trap is enticing but harmful. Not only it sours the investments returns (good money after bad) in the long run but also produces unhelpful service to the companies during the tough times.
I have confronted such psychological traps myself. And I've learned the best mental remedy is to forget about the return for a while but focus on the company’s long-term value creation. With time, the market always decides if a company gets to thrive, survive or die — strangely similar to how nature works.
Warren Buffett famously said: “When we own portions of outstanding businesses with outstanding managements, our favorite holding period is forever.” With the extreme long-term view of “forever,” the investors can then truly zoom in on the fundamental value of the business they are funding.
The best breed of investors understand this, accept this and are able to achieve the best returns by expecting no returns.
Lesson #3: The amount of efforts for staying mediocre is the same for thriving to be the best.
Over the years, I’ve observed different levels of efforts and struggles — by companies, by people; for achieving the best or simply staying mediocre — and strangely, it felt like the both directions equally take a lot of your time, energy and happiness. Such lesson magnified itself in the startup and venture world, where power law rules.
It’s not uncommon to see the best founders and VCs putting countless hours, thoughts and mental energy into their work. The journey of getting to the top is undoubtedly tricky, twisted and often less traveled. It’s hard. But even if you are not at the top, it seems equally hard treading water constantly to stay afloat. You are still putting *just* as much time, thinking and emotion into things — mostly smaller things, on surviving and staying afloat. Interestingly, it’s often not the case that work/life would become easier, if you simply settle.
The difference between the two outcomes lays in the factor of passion. Passion is like light — it’s hard to describe and you can’t touch it, and yet it gives you direction. Once equipped with passion, one can go on to find the courage and to pursue one’s “personal legend.”
Here is the question: if you are putting in just as much the work and time in life, why not be the best?