Archive for the 'Life' Category

Gay marriage is asking a deeper question about humanity

In Australia right now, there is a intense debate about legalising gay marriage. The outcome of it will be significant. Although Supreme Courts and legislatures around the world have made it legal since 2003 (starting with Belgium), only Ireland has voted for it by the citizenry through a referendum. Australia isn’t doing a referendum, it’s a survey instead. It’s not binding, but it’s doing a good thing: creating debate.

I think this debate is a good thing because it will explore the issues, helping educate people. But I don’t think its going far enough. This is a debate that we will see again, thanks to the marvel of technology — and how Australia votes, actually helps establish the parameters of the future debates which is why it’s significant. However, before I go into that, I need to establish some assumptions with you.

(1) There is only one way to make humans without technology
(2) More humans is a universal goal of most institutions
(3) Marriage is about family

Now let me explain the assumptions

(1) There is only one way to make humans without technology

Whatever your views are on gay marriage, I hope you accept that the idea of creating a human, has long been through a male and female reproducing.

If it sounds ridiculous that I’m even pointing this out, it is because we have forgotten how much technology has changed our lives, starting with the test tube baby. For the first time in history, we could conceive a human outside of the body. In the years that have followed, we can now (almost) engineer sex cells so that two women or two men can have their DNA combined. Whatever your beliefs, you have to admit that’s a remarkable feat of science.

But the point remains, without technology, there is only one way to create humans.

(2) More humans is a universal goal of most institutions

There are two ways that an economy grows: through productivity improvements, or through population growth. This is a topic in itself, because in the next 50 years I believe there will be a crisis around economic growth as we’ve always taken for granted its growth due to population growth — with Japan, Italy and other western nations now declining in population and transioning to this new reality.

Population growth, for most countries (China being the notable exception) for most of history, have wanted more people for economic reasons. However, not just economic: if you’re fighting a war, pre 21st Century technology, you needed more people. If you’re running a institution that exists off its members contributions (like religions or nations), more people means more resources to advance the institution.

I could go on with this, but my point is simply this: let’s just take it as an assumption that human creation is built into nearly all human institutions as a positive thing.

(3) Marriage is about family

You don’t need society to have a loving relationship (other than freedom from persecution). You also don’t need society to make babies, as a man and woman. But if you’re going to have children, you want to be an integrated economic union with a partner, you want to be treated as a unit. You want to capture the tax benefits as well as the property rights to protect your progeny.  Marriage-lite, is about sharing a life with another person; but marriage full-blown, is about incubating new life into the world under the sponsorship of a couple.

(Which actually, is a point most people don’t realise about the US Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. It was about removing discrimination from couples, who were denied the same federal benefits in tax, pensions, and legal transfer as heterosexual couples.)

OK — that’s a lot of ground work. Argue if you wish on the above, but that’s not the interesting bit — let’s now get into the meat of the topic.

Gay marriage will be an issue in future about children thanks to technology and adoption rights

The US Supreme Court argument is intellectually a valid one around discrimination. But what it also does, is open up the can of worms on other issues, which I believe is at the core of resistance of gay marriage. Specifically, the rights of homosexual couples to bring up children.

If you are a progressive today, the question of gay marriage is “how could you deny people this benefit”. And for the true progressive, this would extend from not just relationships rights, but children rights — such as the right to adopt children, and engineer embryos in a test tube with the DNA of two people.

But to the progressive 50 years ago, they would have been befuddled. Because outside of adoption, the technology didn’t exist to create embryos outside of the body. Technology is now creating options we previously didn’t have available to us and it’s reasonable that we are taking time to consider its consequences.

Being against homosexual child rearing isn’t logical

If you can accept my second assumption, it can help you understand the resistance to homosexual unions and gender types beyond male and female. Because if you believe (as some people do) that being gay is a choice, then sanctioning against it is a way to preserve the growth of the population. However, technology is changing this.

If we can create a normal functioning human in a test tube, why does homosexuality matter any more?  I’ve heard the pain of gay people come out to their parents, and I assess the root issues is due to embarrassment but also a sense of loss: the parents won’t have grandchildren. However, we are nearly at the point where any two people can have their DNA recombined to form an embryo. And with the assistance of surrogates (currently banned in Australia: the ability for someone else to bring to term your baby) and a third person’s sex cell (you need a woman’s egg as a shell and for the critical mitichondia), we can give birth to a human of any combination of people.

Which, funnily enough, actually supports the goal of population growth. Homosexual couples, with technology, can be like heterosexual couples now. If we could just get over the embarrassment bit, which I think we’ve seen a sea change this decade but still not enough, we probably will see more families in future — a thing people are mourning to be in “decline”.

The bigger question

All this is actually a debate on a much bigger issue: are we ready to play God, and evolve into a new human species?

The moment we can engineer sex cells, is the moment we can decide what DNA we want in that embryo. We are using technology to create human life with precision. Allowing gay couples to create their own baby is simply an insight into the much bigger debate of should we even be playing God?

Which is why I think more debate is needed. This isn’t just a debate about relationship equality, but about homosexual child rearing. But actually it’s not even that which matters: this debate will be seeding the battle of the future, which is human-designed embryos, where we will also be able to decide what genes we want.

This is an emotive topic. It’s complicated. But if we apply a purely rational, logical approach to this issue, what would it be?  Well, let me help with this and phrase it another way: I believe this evolution is inevitable because it won’t be practical to have the activity restricted. We would need every country in the world to ban it, but you only have to look on drugs as an example of how even that doesn’t work, a $360 billion industry.

Consequently, you will have a choice: where you can choose to remain a Homo Sapiens Sapiens, much like how the sibling of our shared ancestor chose to stay in the trees as monkeys and apes, or accept this evolution of the human species.

The irony being this isn’t actually a vote towards this future or not, because it’s going towards one outcome anyway. What it is actually is, is a vote of how ready you are for it.

And that’s ok if you’re not ready…because I’m sure if you ask the monkeys and apes, they are very happy.

Is this the f—g button?

Islamic terrorism distresses me just as much as the nationalistic movements that Brexit, Trumpism and the rest of Europe are working towards for the same reason: it’s not progress towards future.

Islamism bothers me because it crushes individual freedoms. Nationalism bothers me because it kills open trade and travel, which has underpinned the stability the world has seen post world war two. Truthfully, both repulse me as forces because they divide humanity.

I’ve often half-joked to friends that the only time human’s will finally unite is when we get a door knock from an alien civilisation wanting to take us and our planet over. But we don’t need to wait for that either.

One day, an asteroid could wipe out all living species on earth like it did with the dinosaurs. And if that does not happened, then the next ice-age will give us a run on our gas bills (like how we had remarkably as low as 40 “breeding pairs” of homo Sapiens 70,000 years ago, and ice ages happen more often than you realise like the last one which happened 12,000 years ago). If we have any  hope of surviving as a human species, to not consider the need to colonise other planets, develop technologies to survive from our own earth’s changes, or address the need to one day eliminate all disease which is, quite literally, killing us — is short-term (human species) thinking. Life is a magical mystery but the survival of our species depends on further exploration and technology — but we can’t get there until we start thinking like this. 

(There is nothing wrong with short term thinking: putting your right foot ahead of your left foot as you breathe is critically important. I just hope you appreciate, that equally, you’re an idiot if that’s all you do when there’s a pot hole with a sleeping alligator two steps ahead of you.)

I get what’s going on with all the politics and why the actors are doing it. The cost of it, is they are just wasting our potential (and survival) as a species. That potential will only eventuate when we don’t squander our mind space and energy. Which is why I’ve decided I don’t have the headspace for it any more (outside of entertainment). Unless your survival as an individual human is at risk — and for some of you, that’s more pressing that others and I respect that — I’m going to ask you join me and start thinking about what really matters, as humanity. When you start thinking like that, hopefully that will follow with the doing which is what we need right now.

If you need help to get into this frame of mind, let me help.  Just ask yourself this question next time you catch yourself reading the news or getting into a debate with someone: how does this help us — and what are you doing — from not getting frozen by aliens or injected with a deadly disease and while we are at it did anyone remember to make a fucking eject button to get us to Mars?

What Vivek Wadhwa taught us

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen two people I know become involved in an intense situation. They are Mary Trigiani, a board director of one of my companies, StartupHouse, and Vivek Wadhwa, the writer and speaker who I met several years ago and for some time was on his private mailing list.

Separate to the above, as a guy who doesn’t like how someone, on the face of it, was promoting women and was trashed quite explicitly — I’ve been talking to Trigiani to reconcile my own thoughts on what is happening.

I had no desire to enter the public conversation because there are enough people jumping on that bandwagon. But after being referred to a Facebook thread of tech personalities discussing the issue, seeing how Francisco Dao misses the point, and reading “What kind of a message does this give to other men who want to champion women?” I feel it’s no longer a question.  We are missing some perspective here.

Been under a rock? There’s a lot of background to this, like the Newsweek article that kicked it off, Amelia Greenhall’s blog post, the podcast that was taken down, the replacement podcast and the Verge interview. But if you only have time for one, here is The New York Times about the whole episode.

Why Vivek Wadhwa Failed
What Wadhwa did in the wake of Amelia Greenhall’s blog post and NPR chat is a lesson for anyone, male or female, in how not to react to criticism.

The issue is grounded in the fact that Wadhwa decided himself to become the champion for women, using what he calls his research as a platform.  He wasn’t elected, but he has been deposed, I think, because of the lack of leadership — openness, understanding, listening, managing — he exhibited when criticised for his behavior (like for example, how he used his research to claim authority on behalf of women in areas the research didn’t cover).  He caused outrage because he silenced female critics and challengers (what fueled the fight), using bad Twitter and social media etiquette (where the discussions occurred), and what they believe was just his hogging of the limelight (the basis, for some, of their initial frustration).

To put a specific example of showing my point: Wadhwa called women “ token floozies” and Trigiani expressed concerns. Wadhwa then claimed it was due to his non-English speaking background and claimed she has personal issues. That’s not what a leader does.

Wadhwa damaged his own credibility by doing things like this.  As sorry as some of us may feel for seeing what some considered to be a good name trashed (including myself), he did this to himself — and it disappoints me he won’t take responsibility.  As a leader, you need to listen and adapt. You need to own your mistakes and move forward. You need to be aware what you say and do has an impact — but also realise that not responding is a statement in itself. Wadhwa, despite the impression of doing good in the big picture sense, has failed in the details as a champion and has actually done harm to the conversation he claims he was trying to lead by letting his ego get in the way.  As another case in point: after promising quite dramatically that he was exiting the conversation, he continues to return each time someone mentions his name in good favour on the topic.

Let’s stop denying the truth
It’s obvious to say, but I’m going to say it anyway: men and women really are different.  As in every endeavor when people of different cultures, wiring, and experience come together, there is scope for misunderstanding and potential conflict.  So for now, there is at best discovery and at worst tension between the sexes and we’re lying to ourselves if we don’t admit that.

Today’s leaders need to celebrate the differences and make it work for whatever endeavor is on the table.  I’m not using that as a line to make this post cliche-perfect but because I’ve actually seen it with my own eyes. I’ve worked on Sand Hill as a VC, in SoMa at a startup, travelled around the US, Europe and Australia to speak at events and mentor startups. But more relevantly, as a founder who runs two very different businesses (but have in common that they are community-centric businesses) — the global events-based “StartupBus” and the Silicon Valley real-estate based “StartupHouse” — I’ve always felt the need to understand these issues because it concerns my customers, employees and board of directors.

I have seen first-hand how a gender-balanced team leads to a stronger business both strategically and in operations. For example, we’ve attracted and retained a lot more customers because some women feel more comfortable when they see women in staff and management positions.  We’ve also become aware of issues that didn’t even cross the minds of the males on the team — including the board of directors that Trigiani sits on — that we’ve now acted on as a priority, making both male and female customers happier. Female employees bring a different perspective and have brought insights to me before anyone else in the team that affected team dynamics and even insights into approaching the market.  I could list many more but I cannot without giving specific examples that affect the business’s competitiveness.  The point is, it’s good business to have a gender-balanced team. The advocacy of stories like this is what Wadhwa should be remembered for his contributions, despite his failed leadership.

What we can do about it, together
To make the differences work in the female-male realm, both men and women in positions of leadership need to acknowledge the frustrations some women experience (such as unwanted advances and idea thievery). We need to stop denying these are ingrained habits, stop ignoring them, and stop them when we are in a position to do so.  Perhaps most important in this particular situation at this particular moment, all men — not just those in leadership positions — have to honour women’s outrage and support their expression of it.  We have to listen and suppress the “buts” as this anger is based on personal experience.  It is real and we have to welcome the expression of it.

As an executive and as a guy, I have made gigantic mistakes and wound up on the firing line.  What I’ve done differently from Wadhwa is that I took it.  Every shot with no reaction.  I asked what I did wrong and went to great effort to understand what I did to cause my offense.  My lesson from this is when you are criticised, you need to display humility. You need to stop feeding the anger by denying another person’s experience or criticising how they express it.  You need to issue one public statement saying you acknowledge what you did without pretending you didn’t say it or making excuses; simply acknowledge you now understand how you may have been wrong.  Do yourself the favour and make a genuine effort to understand it.

What I learned in this time of reflection is that men need to be conscious of how anything we say or do can be interpreted as patriarchal, intimidating, or sexual.  It may be we are none of those, but by ignoring our tone, we give people ammunition to further pull us down — but this is key, as language matters. Instead, give people what they want:  that we listened and heard them.

You may feel women should not share their personal experiences or express outrage regarding this particular situation with Wadhwa.  That may be debatable, but the presence of and need for women in the workplace are facts of life.  So whatever your position on how people express themselves, make sure you realise that women deserve to be heard.  By defending Wadhwa’s reaction to his challengers and criticising women (who he claimed to represent) for sharing their personal experiences with him and their subsequent outrage, you are denying those experiences and ignoring their voices.  That’s not helpful.

Dudes — let me just make my point super clear. When it comes to women’s issues in technology and society, before you open your mouth, let the women have the mic first. Get comfortable with amplifying their messages and supporting them — rather than putting the message out there yourself. We’ve had our shot at being the messengers, and from my vantage point, not only are women more qualified on the topic, but we’ve messed up enough that it’s time to stand back. There is enough debate between women themselves on how they approach this issue: our role is to listen and support the viewpoints that makes sense for men and women.

Which means the next time something like this happens (and you know it will), do us all a favor and be quiet.  Which is what Wadhwa should have done in the first place.

So to follow my own advice, here are the words of Jamie Roth, a woman on the StartupBus Global Council (what I’m developing to be the community elected aspect of the board of directors for StartupBus, my other company) which is this: “I’m glad you’re posting this — it’s important for men’s voices to be a part of the conversation. I don’t think the answer should be ‘keep quiet,’ though. It should be ‘don’t be a dick’.”

Many thanks to Jennifer Shaw, Jamie Roth, Falon Fatemi, Rose Jeantet and Mary Trigiani for their feedback on the draft of this post

Make a new year’s promise to yourself

I’m reflecting on my business, my life and what I want to achieve next year and the next decade which is at the back of my mind every minute of every day as I work through the days. It’s now lunch time so time to stop: once I’m hungry, my mind is useless — off I go.

My legs take me towards the locality of one of the regular places I’ve been eating this last week, a food court. “What am I going to eat?” I murmur in my mind. “How about just keep walking in that (different) direction where you don’t know what exists to eat, Elias, and work it out”, I say to myself.

I walk, and there’s nothing and turn the block only to enter the department store that hosts the food court from the other side (it’s a Westfield  with two opposite street facing sides). Not knowing how to get there from this direction, I follow my intuition.

Low and behold, I made a discovery: I come across food stores I never knew existed.

I keep exploring fascinated that there is an entirely new food court in the same building and am excited at the chance to try a completely new lunch meal (Brazilian BBQ!). I order, I pay — and off I walk back to the office, once again, not really sure how I get out of here but I just follow my intuition.

Moments later, it turns out it was the same food court I always go to, exiting how I always exit it (and previously entered it). The difference is when I enter I would turn right and would walk to the end of the food stores thinking that was it whereas had I walked straight in previous times I would have found this additional food court that was hidden behind a corner.

I can’t help but think this is a metaphor for life and what we should all try to attempt in 2015. Don’t make resolutions, make instead promises to yourself: walk the unknown path and trust your intuition to guide you. It might end up taking you to the same place, but who knows, you might end up with a completely different perspective.

Ok, I need to finish my lunch now. Happy new year!

Be gluey: a leader in function, not name

I just read this great article on leadership quotes. Go on, read it. Which brings me to share one of the first lessons I learned of what leadership is.

In my high school, cadets was a major part of the school’s tradition which basically meant we dressed up in army clothes and got to roll around in the mud every so often. Our cadet unit did an expedition in the Australian outback which was a 40 kilometre trek and we had to travel with our backpacks (filled with camping gear, cooking utensils, etc). In the cadet unit, there was a platoon and each platoon had corporals all responsible for a half dozen cadets in ‘sections’ in addition to the two sergeants and a commanding officer.

This particular platoon had to make its way up the hills in the intense heat, along with an embedded ‘commando’ corporal from the commando platoon who considered himself a ‘leader’, which he was. As corporals, you would assume that they would lead the charge, which is what the commando corporal did. It was, after all, important to have someone navigate where we were going and something the ‘section’ corporal would have done normally,

As the front of pack role was taken up, not to be made redundant in his role as the ‘section’ corporal, he instead  kept an eye on his guys, so would shuffle through the line that was made. It would tun out that as the day progressed, one of the cadets was lagging. Slightly overweight, but also by no means because it was easy to carry 10-20 kilograms on your back in this heat and up a hill, he was practically at breaking point. Not allowing it to be a discussion but with great relief, this section corporal had him hand over his backpack who made it up the hill with both of their backpacks so the crew could make it up the hill quicker and by dusk.

Observing this taught me an important life lesson: leadership is about being the last guy in line. Leadership is not about walking in front of a group of people; it’s about helping the fat guy that’s behind everyone and holding back the group.

In my restaurant waiter days as a teenager, I learned the best kind of waiter is one that is invisible: filling your water without you noticing, clearing your plates without you asking, reading your mind before it has a chance to be processed by you as needing it done. That’s what the best kind of leader is my eyes: like what glue does or like what inspiration provides, it’s invisible but the essential reason why things are happening.

Put another way, be gluey. Be a leader in function, not name.

Global citizenship

Due to unexpected events, I’ve had to spend five weeks in Australia in the last six months. I’ve also by no means had time for holidays with a backlog of work so it’s made me wonder how practical a dual location life is.

For one thing, its completely redefined my view on being away from my family and friends. While not without some issues on my business, the upside has been my aging parents are happier, I’m more connected with old friends (and family, which makes me happy), and less home sick. Meanwhile I can continue to chase my ambitions in America.

Why would you want this?

  • Because we can now. Flights are quicker and cheaper. They say in ten years time, Sydney to London will take 4 hours (currently 24 hours). But even then, today it takes 14 hours Sydney to San Francisco; and 10 hours SF to London. With inflight wifi becoming standard (increasingly on domestic flights now, and I’ve done it once before on a international flight over the Pacific ocean so only a matter of time), it’s no longer wasted time.
  • Work is becoming more flexible. For example, smart engineers and designers I know just contract now, and small businesses give you flexibility when it doesn’t hurt the business — like how my old employer Vast had a virtual team for many years to attract top talent. Even our StartupHouse team is currently spread across three continents right now (and it’s a real estate business!) not to mention the entire StartupBus leadership team live in as many cities as we have people. While face time is crucial, I have to say from a business point of view, I’ve unexpectedly discovered having such strong networks in multiple locations opens up opportunities not to mention increased satisfaction from the team in the job.
  • health care is becoming more globalised  where medical tourism is a very real trend. I’ve heard of people I know getting plastic surgery in Thailand; eye laser surgery in Singapore; jaw bone surgery in Bulgaria — all because it was cheaper. Actually just this week, I was getting medical care in Australia for a quick checkup and prescription, which ended up being way cheaper without insurance than what it costs in the US with insurance.
  • Education is becoming more flexible, with remote study for adults and what we are seeing with kids being brought up on iPads is just the start. The success I’ve been hearing about AltSchool (where two former colleagues of mine are now working there) is another example how technology is enabling us to have more flexible and higher quality education

Of course, this isn’t a life for all people. Most people are quite happy to stay in the one location and for reasons of work can’t be flexible. But for those of us like me, with the travel bug or with global ambitions in business or with family spread across the world or with a multi-geography upbringing — the advances in technology are now enabling us to have a richer fuller life we desire.

Why do we need money?

Here’s a question for you: if I was to give you money for reading this post, what would you spend it on? $100,000 to be exact. Imagine what you could do with that money? Now hold that thought, because I’m going to ask you again after you walk through this thought experiment.

Our economic system is designed to make us think that making more money is a good thing. Society is measured on GDP which is based on the concept of aggregate demand. What we spend reflects what our demand at all price points are for the good and services in an economy, thereby allowing economists to measure the value of the economy (or better said, to price the value of gross domestic product). So if more aggregate spending makes a bigger GDP, then more personal spending is considered wealth.

And bingo, that’s why we have a materialistic society. But without going into the value judgement of that, let’s dig deeper. Because to spend, it means you need money. Money you generate from an income. (It’s why you want that pay rise.) The more money we can make, the better off we are…we are made to think. Because after all, more money means more spending. And more spending results in a enthusiastic nod from the economists that society has a more valuable economy.

Let’s break this down now: what is money? When it all boils down, money is an agreement in society, to represent value (because money itself has no real intrinsic value outside of the raw materials). Therefore, with money, you can exchange that value with something else of value. Which brings me to the question behind this post: what value does money allow us to purchase?

I mean, buying a car is value — but what are we really buying? It is the convenience enabled by this transportation? It is the dignity generated from being associated with an asset?

What value does money purchase?
As humans, we are governed by two instincts: survival and procreation. If we lived in caves with no food stores, we would spend every waking hour trying to generate sources of food. And because all living beings have a life cycle that eventually ends, we’ve developed an instinct in procreation, which I believe is ‘survival’ in a different sense: of the genes, the kind, the species we are. These two instincts are at the core of value that we purchase with value, but there’s more.

We no longer live in caves. We’ve freed ourselves from this burden of daily food generation to enable our being — which in itself reflects a fundamental concept, which is “time”. Significant, because we remove this burden by purchasing time — we go to restaurants and we purchase tomatoes from the super market, buying outputs from the labour of other people who did what we would have done ourselves (what’s stoping you from growing a tomato in your backyard?). But what’s even more significant, is that as we generate value elsewhere in society so that we can then purchase other people’s time (which we would have otherwise had to do ourselves), we end up having more available time. And humans then ask: what next?

Given we have senses in hearing, touching, seeing, smelling and tasting — by activating our senses, we give a sense of purpose to what we do with our available time. Which is why we seek an ‘experience’. The pursuit of experiences give us, at their base level, a sense of sensory fulfillment.

I believe a final super-category outside of survival, procreation, time and experiences  is power. Because without power, we cannot control our behaviour. We cannot determine how we use our time. Power enables us to shape our environment in a way which further aligns with our goals in survival, procreation, and stimulating our senses. Without power, we can’t use our time. Freedom in my eyes — one of the key dimensions to success in life — is a combination of time and power: the ability to do what you want whenever you want.

Applying those thoughts
You go to the doctor to ensure you are healthy: that’s survival. But you go to the dermatologist to clear that awkward (but harmless) skin imperfection on your face: that’s your desire to remove an impediment to your status in society, which amongst other things, can impact your ability to procreate. You purchase a car so that you can experience more in life, buy time so that you can do more, and give you a rush due to the sensory excitement of driving — but potentially also to have status which will lead to better procreation opportunities.

In my eyes, of all the things I mentioned above, the ultimate of all value is survival and procreation. To say purchasing time is the ultimate, is not true because it’s simply a means to an end. But time, despite this, is probably the most significant of all the factors for what we purchase. If you dedicated you life to one goal, arguably you will be able to get access to that prize. But it could take years, require other people to assist — purchasing access provides value. Think of how advertisers purchase space in publications: they purchase access to an audience that has taken many years to develop by the mast head. (But if the company, like how Apple has, invests in building its own brand and audience — the need to advertise and access those audiences becomes less necessary.)

I mean hey, who needs to purchase more time when you can survive, procreate, and have your senses stimulated with the power to do so as you please? Well, of course we wil always feel like we need more time: because we will never get enough of a good thing. And which is why time dominates our purchasing decisions.

What do we need money for?
Now let’s me ask that question again: if I was to give you $100,000 for the labour you went through to read this post — what would you spend it on? And when you’ve answered that, is money necessary for you to achieve that?

If money is the goal in your life, then maybe you’ve drunk too much cool-aid from the economists who have mistakenly identified the basis of aggregate demand. Which is done on the assumption that humans have unlimited wants and are only limited in achieving them due to scarcity in supply. And short of disputing the fundamental problem in our society, which is based on an inappropriate theoretical understanding of what us human’s desire in life, just remember this one indisputable fact: money purchases value, but money doesn’t create value (in the ultimate sense).

Benjamin Franklin made the observation that time is money, which as a cliche, is to mean your time is valuable like how it is to making money. I wonder though when he said it, he actually called it out for what it really is.

Measuring success

In March this year, I posted my still evolving thought process on what success is. In the post, I said how success, like religion, is a personal thing and so there is no right answer. But I proposed a framework to think about the question: whereby I defined success as having three dimensions, which have no minimum or maximum value but simply are a constant pursuit of development. Those dimensions are existence, freedom, and impact and which I suggest you read before continuing with this post.

The problem with that framework, is it actually is still too broad. And where it lacks in detail, it also lacks in something fundamental: metrics to measure success. Six months later, this is how my thought process has evolved — still evolving, but I hope can stimulate your own thinking about your life.

On the pursuit of existence
You can define existence as a variety of ways, but I think a fundamental concept is your life expectancy as well as the quality of it. How long can you live, in years, to your full ability — being the ultimate (never ending) goal.

Number of years you are alive I think is a pretty self-explanatory thing to say as a goal: 75 years is better than 50 years. Less obvious, is how able you are: a 65 year old on life support due to lungs, kidneys and liver issues from poor dietary habits, is by no means the same as a healthy 65 year old. If life span is the number to measure this dimension of success, then your health is the factor to create an expected value: 65 years at 25% capacity versus 65 at 95% is 16 years versus 62 years. Literally, a life time apart.

Which is why your nutrition matters: look after yourself in your 20s and you’ll be doing better in your 40s, not just in life span but life quality. Drinking soft drinks at 30 once  a day hurts your  long term health quality and will reduce your life span expected value. We forget that, and it’s only when people get older do they regret not thinking about this (so I’m told).

But then there is a flip side to being a health freak:  being 30 worrying about what you eat hurts you in different ways, like your freedom and experiences. More on that below.

On the pursuit of freedom
Whether you claim to chase money or not, the point is moot: money is what makes the world go around because it’s what we’ve agreed to be a mutually exchagable form of value. Money simply represents value, and its accumulation has value not from the paper bills/plastic notes/lumps of metal itself that money is printed as but what it represents: purchasing power to save your time (not a representation of your capital base, which is materialism).

In society, we are so focussed on the material and the bigger numbers but we forget the character of what matters. But its key to understand income  — recurring monetary inflow — is such a key concept to success, because it enables freedom: without the ability to pay for food and shelter, you’re going to spend the rest of your waking time trying to find solutions to these issues, an opportunity cost.

When I spent nine months backpacking around Europe in 2005, I observed how people travelling, like how I had become, are very primitive in their activities: look for a new hostel to sleep in, find a new place to eat food.  I was quite literally, a cave man. Even with cash to pay for these, the search took time. Now imagine you need a summer job as a working holiday to experience the travel, and you’ve just knocked out more time outs during the day to experience your “travel”. Travel might be temporary, but rephrase what I said now for regular life and the point remains. “Living” means surviving as its most basic, but we can do better than that as humans.

When it comes to measuring success on freedom, understandably income should be considered a core benchmark. Not how much you spend, but how much you can make — that spending power gives you not material wealth, but something much more valuable: your time. Income can buy you food, shelter, and the ability to outsource or delegate functions in your life that time would otherwise need to be expended.

However, how much you make is not the ultimate because its not secured. Which is why the ultimate measure of income in capital: after all, capital is simply the accumulation of income. Capital is the result of income, without the need to personally exert yourself from getting the benefit of it; more specifically, capital can been monetised, generating a passive income which is the ultimate in enabling freedom.

Therefore when it comes to success in terms of capital, $100,000 is much more valuable than $10,000, obviously. But a subtle point to remember, is that to get the value of capital it either is locked up making a passive income (say, in real estate with a rental) or it’s liquid so that it enables the ability for you to use that purchasing power for your life.

One million dollars in the bank that can be withdrawn tomorrow? Very successful. One million dollars invested in a property making a 10% return? Also, very successful though not very liquid:but that’s ok becayse it’s generating $100,000 a year in passive income, on top of the capital base that grows through capital gain. One million dollars locked up in an stock market investment that can’t be liquidated for a month? Not good — but very good if it generates a 10% return on say, the stock market in that month.

But simply attaining capital is not life accomplished because if inflation rates are 9%, then that 10% return on real estate and stock is actually only a 1% return. That passive income (or rather, purchasing power) now is only 1% of the capital base. And that’s fine because capital has value in immediate liquidity (also purchasing power), but sometimes it’s worth trading short term liquidity to grow that capital base otherwise inflation will catch up and any income dependent on that capital will actually erode in value. Capital generates passive income, but that capital needs to be secured through investment to not have it be eroded.

Therefore the ultimate measure of capital is lifetime cashflow in real purchasing power. You can try to accumulate it, and you want to grow it above inflation. But once you’ve done that, you’re now getting greedy: the time cost in your life now actually impacts on your freedom, the whole point of capital accumulation, passive income and purchasing power. But as you dance with growing your capital base , income stream, and ultimately freedom, let’s not forget being busy we dream of more time, but when you have too much time on your hands it can be downright depressing. Enter impact.

On the pursuit of impact
Impact, like existence and freedom, is a core tenent to life about what I think matters if you want to define success. Impact not only gives you purpose but it gives you direction in life. Impact boost your self esteem. Better still, impact benefits your surroundings better than how you found it.

However impact is a hard thing to quantify. Is it number of people you “impacted” and what does that mean? As a raw score, sure helping one person once a day is better than helping one person once a month. But nothing in life is free: “helping” often comes with a benefit for the other party, such as profit for the business merchant, conversion for the religious zealot, or an orgasm for the sexual expectant.

If you go though life travelling the world, you leave an impact through the people you meet; if you toil yourself to build a business, you leave an impact through the products you create. But when impact is simply measured by “number of people”, it’s actually not all that solid: their needs to be not a mutual exchange, but a net positive where an interaction outputted more than what was entered with.

So what makes it a net positive? When you’ve really touched someone. But you can never know if you did that, so failing that we need to make sure one person was touched by the impact: you. You might have spent three months suffering, but that story will inspire, educate, and benefit 1000 other people in a profound way — and we may never know until your funeral, though you remember those three months. You might travel speaking to one hundred thousand people, of which only 1% where meaningful conversations: but no one remembers your name to prove it, but you remember the experience.

So when it comes to measuring impact, it’s not just number of people but number of people’s who’s lives you have touched. And by touch, it’s not a number but a meaningful impact that comes from your own life experience. One hour a day in a homeless soup kitchen is a different kind of impact from one hour a day building a game that someone plays on their smart phone. And neither is better than the other, so long as someone’s soul was touched; the most important one, being your own.

Meaning, whatever it is you’re doing, you’re leaving an impact by touching the lives of other people, but one person who we can measure is your own in the form of experience which is the only number that we can reliably count.

Success: measured
For those that think in numbers, success as a number  = (Number of years you are alive times by how able you are due to health) multiplied by (capital base times by return) multiplied by (number of people impacted times percentage that were truly touched). That gives the theoretical optimum to the ultimate thing.

Otherwise said, if you have a long healthy long life and you have a lot of purchasing power to buy freedom, then you have more time to impact which ultimately leads to the only thing that matters: number of life experiences (which along they way, benefited others as well that increased their own existence, freedom, and impact).

And that, I believe, is a what a rich life is.

Defining success and its pursuit

People often think I’m joking when I say I’m not successful. They perceive the jobs I’ve had, the education I’ve gone through, the media exposure I’ve generated, and other fake indicators of success as somehow meaning I’ve made it. Not quite, status symbols are not what I consider success.

If you’re not quite sure what I mean, let’s say you measure success on money — then how much is enough? Or for those that consider fame to be success — how many media mentions is enough?

A few months ago, I did my first ever meditation and came up with an amazing insight on some thoughts that had been stewing in my head. It was what I realised was *my* meaning to life — what I needed to be happy in life. Today, I Tweeted a summary version of that insight and have had several people retweet and favourite it, flagging to me that maybe my meaning to life is actually something that a lot of other people can relate to.

So here it is my thought process; who knows maybe it can help you define your own success.

What’s the point of life if you can’t be alive to enjoy it? That one question should pretty much explain what I mean by this — and you can broaden this to mean more than that. For example, our mental health is just as important as our physical health — family is something we consider a chore, but I personally consider an emotional need. Good nutrition, regular excercise, a close connection with your family, good friends around you, being in control of the demons in your head: each of us can interpret our existence in different ways, but they all fundamentally point to the same fact that without your full and able self, there is no life.

When I went backpacking in 2005 for nine months, I would often start the day not knowing what country I would end up in. I was in between finishing my university degree and a guaranteed job at PricewaterhouseCoopers; I was living off my savings and had no need to work that year; and had complete freedom to do whatever I wanted whenever. I had never been happier.

Freedom to me is a relative term: personally, if I lost the functional use of all of my limbs or was convicted for a life in prison, I would die on the inside because my personality perceives those aspects for my life as essential to my freedom. That’s not to say I correctly perceive it,  but that’s my own personal interpretation to freedom. And without drilling down into this any more with the many anecdotes to guide this insight for me, having creative control can be one of the most liberating experiences you will ever experience and can bestow on someone. I call that freedom.

If you drill into the psychology of great entrepreneurs, it’s not money or fame that drives them even though they may say it is. It’s the fact they are building something of value. We’re all like that — our self esteem benefits from knowing we’ve done something that improves our surrounding. That’s why charity is deep down such a selfish act: it makes us feel good.

Again, impact is different for different people that no one person has the right answer. For me, I’ve come to realise the impact I want to have on the world is something that improves the quality of life for us all in society. What that means, is something I’d rather save for when I do it and can look back  but in essence I get extreme satisfaction that I’ve played a role that improves life on this planet by enabling the entrepreneurs and scientists who have the potential to do that.


What’s success?

The American forefathers may have not only already come up with this before me but put it much more eloquently. Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  Whatever you want to call it, it begs the big question: what does existence (life), freedom (liberty), and impact (pursuit of happiness) have to do with success? Money is not success. But income is: because that enables freedom. Fame is not success. But influence is: it enables you do perform the actions you believe ought to occur.

Success, like religion, should be a personal thing. There isn’t a right answer — but above, I believe is the framework that we can all apply to our own lives to think about what we want to do with our lives. Instead of thinking of what should you do, instead ask yourself — how can I exist more fully, have more freedom, and have a bigger impact with my being? This framework might not be the right one, but it’s a start to asking ourselves all the right questions that lead to the answer.