Three Mistakes. The Path to Success

There were three mistakes. The first was when I hit a guy in a car accident. It was my fault. I was 18 and had just finished a chess lesson with the US champion. I had beaten him in a game and I was daydreaming about it. I ran a red light. A 70 year old man broke his leg and three fences were destroyed. I went through a window but somehow didn’t have a scratch.

The second mistake was when I was 9 (hey, who said I had to go in chronological order) and I loved football cards. I was in the Kaybee Toy & Hobby Shop in Brunswick Square Mall in NJ. I kept hiding packs of cards in a hole in my jacket and hoped nobody would notice. Finally an employee came up to me and said, “can you come into the back with us, sir.” Later, when my grandfather came to pick me up, and there were police with me, he turned to me and said with the saddest look of disappointment on his face, “What did you do!”  None of us can cast the first stone. We’re all trying to climb  up on the backs of our pasts and attempt to achieve some modicum of success.

The third mistake was losing all my money. I lost my house, my friends at the time (because they were only friends when they thought I had money), my business colleagues (because nobody wants to do business with a loser), and even my family (long story). I went from a feeling of immortality to feeling not just mortal but dead. I was certainly suicidal. But most of all, I needed to survive. I would add up the dwindling numbers in my bank account every day just to make sure I could survive the next month, maybe two months before I…what? Disappeared. Because if I had no money then certainly I would not exist anymore. I would disappear. Not only would my friends disappear, but so would my table, my chairs, my clothes, my sense of “James Altucher”.

I can’t wait until I’m 90. When you’re 90 all the stress is over. No need to rush anymore. You made it! You’re here! Congratulations! No need to worry about next month. there might not be a next month. Heck, today the weather was good. I’m happy! Thats how I think I’ll feel when I’m 90. At least I hope so. What if I’m 90 and I wake up every morning thinking, “I can’t believe so-and-so said that yesterday. I’m going to GET him!”. That would be pretty awful. Please God, when I’m 90, make me a Buddha, or something like that.

I should be able to do that now. But desire for success comes before Buddha-hood. Actually, thats not true. But I do know with success comes freedom, and with freedom there are activities I can pursue that will more easily help me reach a state of no-worry, no-stress, perfect bliss. Money doesn’t solve all of your problems but it certainly solves your money problems.

There’s all sorts of success:

A) Freedom. You have enough money to not work a job and to more or less do whatever you want in life.

B) Luxury. You have enough money to enjoy any luxury you wish

C) Satisfaction. You do the work you love so, in a sense, you’ve bought yourself freedom – the freedom to do what you love.

D) Charity. You feel good doing work that  others will benefit. When Henry Ford invented the car he was engaged in great charity even though there was a profit-motive.

E) Entertainment. What you do makes other immediately happy for intangible reasons. Watching Seinfeld made a lot of people happy. So Jerry Seinfeld deserves his every success.

F) Being Loved. Warren Buffett once told me (and thousands of others at Berkstock 2003) that the best way to measure success is to count the number of people who love you. And the best way to be loved is to be lovable.

G) Health. If you are feeling good each day, then certainly your life is not going poorly.

At different points in my life I’ve achieved all of the above measures of success and I’ve also lost all of the above measures of success.

I’m somewhere between the poles on each one. Each day right now, when I finish adding up my numbers, walking by the river, having my coffee,I try to make incremental progress in all of the above areas. How do you make incremental progress.

Practice the Brainstorming Muscle

Take out your little pad and a pen, and brainstorm.  You need to brainstorm every day to keep the most important muscle in your body from atrophying – the idea muscle. How can you get a tiny bit more freedom in your life today? How can you save one person’s life today? Which person? How can you make one more person laugh today? Thats entertainment. I repeat every morning, “today im going to save lives.” I’m the superhero I always wanted to be. I’m the Green Lantern and the  White Shadow (from the 1970s tv series about a basketball coach in an inner city neighborhood) all rolled together. And I have a secret identity. Nobody knows I’m a superhero. But I am one.

What can you do to be a little healthier? What new people can you come into contact with who can help you make money? But money doesn’t come for free. You have to give them something. And if your idea muscle is in tip-top shape then focus right now on coming up with 10 ideas that could help each new person you want to meet. Get as specific as possible. Then get more specific. Write it down. Send them your ideas. Build community around your ideas. Success comes in these tiny increments, day by day, and if you persist each day then success in each area is unavoidable.

In chess, the grandmaster wins by accumulating tiny tiny advantages all over the chess board until, the cloak of deception is removed, and the opponent realizes his position is utterly hopeless. The loser in chess attacks mindlessly until his attacks run out and he loses. My advice for myself, and on the rare occasion I give it to others, is to just do one thing to improve your life in all the areas above of potential success.

After a mere thousand days, you should have enormous success in each area.

What gets in the way of success?

A) Deception. Since success achieved without integrity could backfire

B) Greed. Since too much luxury can ultimately come into conflict with the goal of Freedom.

C) Satisfaction only for yourself. I like playing video games, but society doesn’t benefit from it. So some satisfactions need to be kept to a minimum.

D) Being Loved by Too Many. And never being able to juggle the needs of all who love you. Most Heroes also become Villains.

E) Stress. Every day you start off with a finite number of thoughts you can make that day. Adding up numbers, calculating the emotional reactions of others, being anxious about expected values of far flung future outcomes – all of these take up a lot of thoughts, maybe up to 10-20% of the thoughts you’ve been allocated that day. Try not to waste them.

F) Not enough persistence. Each day, one thing. Each day, one thing. Repeat it like a mantra.

But when I’m 90, all of this goes away. Did I wake up today? Will I make it to the end of the day? What is success then? Only the ability to be grateful that another sunrise has come and gone. I’m still alive.


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