One of my favorite podcasts is The Tim Ferriss Show, hosted of course by 4 hour workweek mastermind Tim Ferriss. If you haven’t checked out his latest book, head over to Amazon right now, you need to get a copy of it: Tools of Titans.
One of the guests on Tim’s show was Derek Sivers, and I’m also a big fan of his blog, especially his book summaries.
So in this interview Tim asks Derek what advice he’d give to his thirty year old self.
Derek replies: “Don’t be a donkey”.
I found the reply and it’s explanation very fascinating and it really hit home.
So what does Derek mean by that?
Many 30 year olds are trying to pursue many different directions at once, but not making progress in any.
Or they get frustrated because the world wants them to pick one thing, and they want to do them all. Why do I have to choose?! I cannot choose!
The problem is that they’re acting short term, as if you don’t do them all this week, they won’t ever happen. But the solution is to think long term; to realize that you can do one of the things for a few years, then do another one for a few years, and so on.
The analogy with the donkey comes from a fable in which a donkey that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision to choose one over the other.
A donkey can’t think of the future, if he did clearly he would realize that he could first drink the water and then go eat the hay, or vice versa.
I’m in my early thirties and I can relate to this issue 100%, in fact I’ve already written about the shiny object syndrome in the past. I’m also currently stacking up books about decision making and going through them, precisely in order to help me make sense of the many opportunities that present themselves and avoid that dreaded FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and decision paralysis.
If I look back at my life it seems clear to me that my twenties were a period of experimentation and grappling at life to try to make some sense of things as well as try to enjoy my youth to the fullest. This was a journey that involved going abroad to study, being in several relationships, and trying my hand at different businesses. In the latter part of my twenties I also became a digital nomad and that was another huge personal growth spurt for me. Those were years of highly accelerated learning and changes in my outlook on life. They were enormously fruitful and led to what I can consider another section in my life, early thirties.
Derek was spot on with his analysis of the typical thirty year old. At this stage I feel that with the knowledge accumulated in my twenties I can do so many things and pursue different goals, many of them incompatible with each other or mutually exclusive. Clearly I can’t do everything but my mind still dreams and my heart still races at each different opportunity that I’m aware of.
I am therefore trying to follow Derek’s advice and think long term. I like to plan things on paper in terms of five year and ten year plans, and that helps me to space things out, but it’s still hard to actually choose what I want to pursue. There is a lot of pain in consciously giving up good opportunities to pursue others.
For this reason I am digging into research about decision making and strategy. Apart from that research proving essential in the area of business, I believe it will also help me on a personal level in order to make choices more rational and easier. Being able to clearly analyze an opportunity and describe why you choose to pursue it or leave it on the table is a very important skill to have and will be of great help against this “can’t choose, won’t choose” issue that Derek speaks about when he thinks of his thirty year old self.
Are you in the same boat? Are you a bit older and can relate to this? I’d love to know what others think and perhaps have some more advice on the topic.