Learning to Live

In my six years of publishing blog posts every Tuesday, I’ve never had the pleasure of releasing a post on my birthday…until now. But, rather than write one of those stereotypical “33 lessons in 33 years” kinds of posts, I thought it would be more useful to share six short stories and what I learned from them over the past year.

One Man’s Trash

Less than a year ago I was heading back home on the subway at night when a man who appeared to be homeless got on the train. Normally I wouldn’t notice anything (a homeless person in the NYC subway system isn’t exactly a rare sighting), but this man wasn’t acting normally.

As soon as he got on the subway, he began kicking around small bits of trash that were on the floor. Then he got down on his hands and knees and started sweeping any leftover debris under the seats toward one side of the train. No one else was on the train, besides a woman sitting across from me.

I shot her a glance and noticed that she was trying to ignore the commotion despite the concerned look on her face. As the man continued pacing around on the train and kicking around trash, my mind started to race. Was he going to do something to me or to that woman? Was I going to have to defend her? 

I avoided making eye contact so that he wouldn’t approach me. At the next stop, I saw him get off the train through my periphery and breathed a sigh of relief. Thank god that was over. But, once the train started moving again, I noticed that the man had gotten on the subway car next to mine and was doing the same thing. He was gathering trash. It made no sense.

I continued watching the man until the next stop when I saw him pick up his piles of trash, quickly run off the train, dump them in the trash can, then rush back on before the doors closed. I looked around my subway car and noticed that all the trash he had collected on one side of the train was gone. Then it hit me.

Oh my god. He was cleaning the train.

I’ve never felt so embarrassed. Here I was thinking that this man might harm me or someone else, yet he was providing a valuable service to society free of charge. I was judging this man with my negative thoughts while he was making the world a better place and getting absolutely no credit for it. I felt like an idiot and vowed to never make that mistake again.

Many times in life you’ll have the opportunity to assume negative intent in others. Don’t do it. You’ll often be wrong and even when you are right, assuming negativity all the time is no way to go through life. Most people don’t want to wrong you. Keep this in mind before rushing to judgment. After all, one man’s trash isn’t always what it seems.

Redundancy Reduces Risk

For most of my life, every time I had to travel I’d get my suitcase out and pack everything up the night before. My socks. My underwear. My deodorant. You get the picture. Invariably though, I’d overlook something along the way. I’d pack my clothes, but not my phone charger. I’d remember my toothbrush, but forget my toothpaste. And once at my destination, I’d have to spend my precious time (and money) searching for whatever I’d left behind.

At some point though, I figured out the solution to my problem—redundancy. I own duplicates of almost everything I travel with. I have two toothbrushes, two deodorants, two phone chargers, etc. One set stays with my luggage while the other stays at home. This simple hack has saved me more time and headaches than I can count (and it’s relatively cheap).

But, redundancy can do a lot more than just help you pack for your next trip. It can help improve your finances too. For example, having an extra large emergency fund is a form of financial redundancy. Instead of holding only three to six months of spending in cash, you can also hold another three to six months of spending in U.S. bonds as well. More redundancy means more layers of protection.

The same is true with exercise when it comes to improving health outcomes and increasing your lifespan. As I have written before:

Exercising regularly to improve your strength and your cardiovascular health is the most effective way to increase how much time left you have on this Earth.

By increasing your muscle mass and cardiovascular output, you’re building redundancy into your body to face future physical challenges. When you have additional muscle fibers, your chance of getting injured when you lift something heavy decreases. When you have a stronger cardiovascular system, you tire at a slower rate when doing the same repetitive physical work.

Ultimately, utilizing redundancy is about removing single points of failure throughout your life. Whether that be in your finances, your body, or for your next vacation, focusing on how to reduce risk and remove points of failure (through redundancy) can work wonders. 

Don’t Make People Change, Let Change Happen

I’ve always wanted my Dad to lose some weight. And I’ve tried everything to help him do it too. I’ve told him losing weight was good for his health. I’ve told him that he should lose weight so that he can be around for his future grandchildren. I’ve even offered to pay him $100 for every pound he lost (the offer still stands).

These methods worked…for a while. At one point he was down over 20 pounds and I was so happy for him, but it didn’t stick. I assumed he couldn’t lose weight because I wasn’t persuasive enough. If I just had a better argument, then it would happen. However, after talking with others who’ve had similar experiences with their loved ones, I’ve realized something—people will only change when they want to change.

The fact is that I could offer my Dad $1,000 for every pound he loses, but it wouldn’t make a difference. As the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.” He’s been trying at it for years and I know he’ll get there one day, but he’s going to do it on his own terms, not mine.

This is why I only provide advice to someone when they explicitly ask for it. That’s it. And, even then, I’m extra careful with my words. The problem with offering unsolicited advice is that people don’t like to be told what to do. More importantly, providing an unprompted recommendation to someone could strain your relationship with them more than you realize.

What should you do instead? Allow them to change on their own schedule. Give them the time and space to discover what is best for them. That’s all you can do. Don’t make people change, let change happen.

Choose Value Over Growth

When I first started blogging in 2017, I wrote on Medium under the (now deleted) publication Of Dollars And Data. At the time Medium ranked writers in different categories based on pageviews and audience engagement. So you could publicly see who was getting the most attention for their work.

Like most new writers, I wasn’t ranked in anything. But, after a few weeks of posting, I entered the top 100 writers in finance. After about six months, I hit number one.

But, then crypto came along. It was the middle of 2017 when my rank started to drop. Bitcoin was the hot new thing and no one wanted to read about stocks anymore. Within a few months, I saw my standing slowly decline until I was the 10th ranked financial writer on Medium. After being number one, this was a hard pill to swallow. I saw my decline as a slide into irrelevance. Maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought. Maybe my work wasn’t that interesting. Maybe I should just give up. I started to question everything. 

But, once the Bitcoin boom of late 2017 came undone, so did interest in reading about crypto. Slowly, but surely I moved back up the ranks and eventually retook the number one spot.

With my rise, fall, and rise again, I learned a valuable lesson about content creation and life. While you can do very well by following trends and chasing what’s sexy, it’s far better in the long run if you focus on what will always be useful to others.

In the investment world (specifically within stocks), this dichotomy is broken down into value and growth. Growth stocks are those trendy companies that take the world by storm, while value stocks are those companies that aren’t exciting, but never go out of style. 

And, if you apply this dichotomy outside of investing, it’s even more powerful. Because the people that I’ve admired the most in life have chosen value over growth every step of their journey. They didn’t do something because it was cool or because it was popular. They did it because they believed in it. They did it because they loved it. They rejected the algorithm of their time and forged their own path to success.

You can ignore my advice and try to take the quicker path. But, even if you make it, you probably won’t stay there. As Benjamin Graham once said:

In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run, it is a weighing machine.

So let them vote while you continue to do what you love. It’s the only way to live.

Your Appearance Matters More Than You Think

When I was in high school, I didn’t care much about how good I looked. I wore heavy metal band shirts, acid washed jeans, and had long brown hair. That’s me in the Megadeth shirt (front and center):

I dressed for the style of music I loved, but I didn’t care as much about my hygiene and fitness as I do now. It’s one of my few regrets in life.

But at age 27, everything changed. I started lifting weights more seriously. I bought nicer clothes. I cared more about my diet. And people started treating me differently as well. It was subtle at first, but became more noticeable over time. While my change in confidence could’ve played a role in this, showing others that you take care of yourself sends a strong signal about how they should treat you.

And you don’t have to buy designer clothes to do it either. For me, exercising frequently, buying clothes that fit, and cleaning up my diet has done most of the work. Compared to the skinny me in high school, I have bigger arms, a more defined jawline, and far more sense of style. More importantly, by improving my appearance I’m benefitting my overall health as well. As researchers at Harvard found, men that could do over 40 pushups had a 96% lower risk of heart disease compared to those who could do 10 pushups or fewer. It’s a win-win.

Though you might see appearance as superficial (as I once did), most people don’t. There’s tons of evidence that you will be treated differently based on how you look. For example, attractive people tend to earn more than less attractive people, get hired more frequently, and get promoted sooner.

Why does this happen? Because people have limited information about you. So they tend to create snap judgements based on whatever information they have. This includes how you look and how you carry yourself. It’s no wonder why people can swipe so quickly on Tinder.

So get clothes that fit (they don’t have to be expensive), take care of your health, and have excellent hygiene. The rest will take care of itself. Trust me, I know.

Never Settle

Since age 27 I’ve been on over 120 first dates. I swiped. I met people in bars. I DM’d on social media. I dated, had flings, and even had a few relationships over the last six years. But nothing ever worked out. I was never quite sure I had found the right person for me.

I was what Logan Ury, the author of How to Not Die Alone, calls a maximizer. I was trying to maximize my mate potential. I wanted the best partner I could find. As Ury states about maximizers:

You love doing research, exploring all your options, turning over every stone until you’re confident you’ve found the right one. You make decisions carefully. And you want to be 100 percent certain about something before you make your choice. Your motto: why settle?

This description fits me so well. I’ve had issues with over-optimization before. Was this situation any different? At the end of last year (when I was 32), I started to question my approach. Maybe I was the problem. Maybe I was setting my bar too high. Maybe I needed to stop being so picky.

But, I knew how important this particular decision was. So I vowed to keep going, to keep searching. Well, it worked.

I met Fifi, my current girlfriend, in March and it’s been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. She’s gorgeous, intelligent, funny (way funnier than me), goofy, and just so unique. We met on Hinge after I told her that my NYC restaurant list was better than hers. And, after countless dinner dates in the city, I’m happy to report that she agrees. I feel like I have a true partnership for the first time in my life and it’s fantastic.

Of course, maybe I just got lucky. Maybe there’s another version of the world where I keep trying to maximize forever and I never find my Fifi. I don’t know. But I’m thankful that I didn’t give up.

I hope you don’t give up either. Because, when it comes to the biggest decisions in life, you should never settle. You should never let the things that define you (i.e. where you live, what you do, who you partner with, etc.) be a product of random chance. If that means visiting 100 cities, interviewing at 100 jobs, or going on 100 dates, so be it. You only get one chance to live, so you should live it in the way you want to.

With that being said, I just wanted to say thank you for allowing me to live the way I want to. I’ve had the privilege of writing online since 2017 and I couldn’t be happier with all the positive support I’ve received over the years. You guys also helped make my first book into a huge success (far beyond my expectations) this year and I cannot thank you enough.

Lastly, I hope you enjoyed the stories I shared today. And, if you didn’t…well, I’m still learning to live.

Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for reading!

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This is post 322. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering: https://github.com/nmaggiulli/of-dollars-and-data


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