Personal Moats in the 21st Century

People will often define a company by economic moats: network effects, scale economics and so forth. I also think we should be all developing our personal moats. Things that will help you maintain an edge over everyone else. Below are mine. What are yours?

Read long-form content. The ability to read and focus for lengthy periods of time is going to be an increasingly rare trait. On a million-year time-scale, the popularity of the written word will seem like a fad. We’ll go back to what we had before: video and audio of other humans. They’re just so much more interesting than words. I believe the pastime of reading will be a hobby of the elite. Some believe that video will be just as good a medium to consume. I doubt it[1]. It’s certainly worthy investment as a Pascal’s wager.

Write frequently. Writing helps you organize your thoughts. It encourages you to have structured thinking, which is very helpful when communicating concepts to other people.

A healthy body. You cannot succeed if your mind is clouded because you’re not sleeping well or eating sugar all the time. Don’t overeat carbohydrates. Give yourself enough time to sleep. Make time for exercise. Work hard and smart. Get used to eating healthy food. Get started on these routines ASAP. It seems to get harder to change habits later in life.

Get lucky. We’re all born with a metal detector, but few people use it. You should constantly be hunting for golden opportunities. Expose yourself to new and interesting people. Notice when the detector fires (when a good opportunity comes by), and take advantage of it. Three specific suggestions I can offer on increasing luck:

Generate unique ideas. To quote Steve Jobs: “at some point you look around the world and realize that it was built by people no smarter than yourself.” Get in the habit of thinking about what you’d improve in the world. Notice all the things that annoy you. Try to think about how you’d fix them.

Be skeptical and optimistic. Don’t just nod along when someone says something. Think. Is what they’re saying correct? Don’t try to be contrarian for the sake of it, but get in the habit of judicious thinking.

Embrace adventure. Even when they find hidden gold, many people struggle to act on it. Opportunity involves risk. People worry too much about the potential downside and forget the upside. Your biggest enemy is your own status-quo. Be ambitious. Break out of your local maxima.

Get busy. Get in the habit of doing stuff. If you enjoy your job, great. If not, develop a hobby. Don’t over-optimize this. It doesn’t have to be a grand project. Do anything you enjoy that also provides value to other humans. Try to do it as much as possible. Brag to people about it. Mould your identity such that you’re known as a productive person.

Know your mind. Quoting Buffett: “If you have an IQ of 160, give away 30 points to somebody else. What you do need is emotional stability.” If you sleep and eat well, you should be off to a good start. But life can always catch you off guard. You need to be able to identify your own emotions in the third person and not get caught up in them. Meditation can help with this. Once you’re more self aware you can exploit your personality to your benefit. Are you more productive in the morning or evening? Optimize your schedule around that. Reflect on what motivates you, and use that to hold yourself accountable.

Develop an inspiring environment. Surround yourself with people who motivate you. If you can’t, spend a lot of time reading about great people. Reading often gives me ideas that I couldn’t have learned in a bulleted point answer (I will find myself “acting” like Ben Franklin after reading his biography). I’d also try to find people to bounce ideas off of, regardless of their intellect. Talking is a great way to define and sharpen your thoughts.

Oh, and always, always wear sunscreen.

[1] I couldn’t find any reputable studies supporting this. Yet. But I believe in the (just invented) Michael Bay Law: Capitalism will optimize all media towards short-term interestingness, not knowledge retention. The ideal movie will be The Transformers++. Incredibly engaging, not very educational.