Friday, December 30, 2022

Four Ways to Ensure Success in Business and in Life

By Whitney Tilson (View Archive)

Editor's note: Today, we're continuing our special series of essays from Empire Financial Research founder Whitney Tilson. In today's edition, Whitney talks about "playing offense" – providing some tips to set yourself up for success...

Earlier this week, I wrote about avoiding calamities – in other words, playing defense. In today's essay, I'd like to talk about playing offense...

Up first is developing good habits. As legendary investor Warren Buffett says...

You can transform yourself into the person you want to be, but you have to decide early because the chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

Think about that...

All the little things you do dozens of times every day – your habits – define who you are, and once these patterns are set, they're really tough to change. Thus, it's critically important to develop good habits early in life.

Buffett tells students to look at the people you work or go to school with and ponder this question: Who do you think is going to be really successful in life, not just financially, but in every way?

As you think about this, what are the characteristics you're focusing on? Are they smart? Do they work really hard and not give up easily? Do they have integrity? Is their word their bond? Are they 100% reliable? Are they well organized? Do they take care of themselves and not take foolish risks? Are they kind and a pleasure to spend time with? Do they make the world a better place?

Now ask yourself: "What are they doing that I can't do as well?" I think you'll find at least 90% of these traits are things over which you have total control.

So you see, you don't need me to tell you what habits you should try to adopt – you already know. There's no secret – they're obvious! The real question is: What are you going to do about it?

Next is maximizing your time...

Tim Ferriss' book, The 4-Hour Workweek, is one of the dumbest I've ever read.

Of course, you should try to be efficient and delegate well, as he advocates, but, especially early in your career, there's no substitute for hard work. Trust me, you are far more likely to get ahead if you are the first one in the office every morning and the last to leave.

I've never forgotten the line from a famous Hollywood executive, Peter Guber, who came to speak at Harvard Business School while I was there. He said: "I've gotten ahead by working half days. And you know what? It doesn't matter which 12 hours a day I work!"

That's not hyperbole...

Do the math: 12 hours a day dedicated toward your job/career/studying/learning leaves 12 hours a day for everything else: eight hours of sleep, one hour of exercise, and three hours of eating, socializing, relaxing, etc. Then on weekends, cut your work in half to six hours – and be sure to take some wonderful vacations!

By the way, it's not just about putting in a lot of hours but also overcoming obstacles and having grit, determination, and resilience. We all face setbacks in life – it's how we handle them that's critical.

One study measured students' IQ and grit and discovered that grit is twice as important in determining life outcomes. (The best research in this area is being done by Angela Duckworth, who wrote a book about it called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.)

Next is the importance of getting eight hours of sleep...

For most of my adult life, I felt guilty about getting anything more than seven hours of sleep each night. I know a handful of people – like my friend Wendy Kopp, with whom I helped start Teach for America in 1989 – who perform at a high level yet only sleep four hours a night. How I envy them – I would pay a lot of money for a pill that allowed me to do this!

A few years ago, I tried to train myself to function on six hours of sleep, staying up until midnight and setting my alarm for six o'clock in the morning, but it didn't work – it just made me tired all the time, and I could tell my brain wasn't functioning at 100%.

So I went back to my usual seven hours and felt guilty, until a few years ago when I saw a 19-minute TED Talk by Matt Walker called Sleep Is Your Superpower.

In it (and in his book that I subsequently read, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams), he shared the results of numerous studies, all of which show the importance of getting at least eight hours of sleep – and the terrible consequences of sleep deprivation. Premature aging ("the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life"). Early-onset dementia. Reduced ability to absorb, process, and remember things. Impotence. A suppressed immune system, resulting in higher cancer risk. Increased chances of auto accidents (like one that my wife was in!), suicide, cardiovascular disease, and heart attacks.

Walker concluded:

Sleep, unfortunately, is not an optional lifestyle luxury. Sleep is a nonnegotiable biological necessity. It is your life-support system, and it is Mother Nature's best effort yet at immortality.

And the decimation of sleep throughout industrialized nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our wellness, even the safety and education of our children.

It's a silent sleep-loss epidemic, and it's quickly becoming one of the greatest public health challenges that we face in the 21st century.

Walker's wisdom changed my life. Instead of strategizing how to get less sleep, I now try to get more. Rather than viewing it as a wasteful luxury, I try to get a minimum of eight hours each night – and nine is even better!

While I am, of course, only a sample size of one, I can tell you that ever since I started getting more sleep, I feel more energetic and stronger, both physically and mentally.

(If you have trouble falling/staying asleep, there are many websites with lots of advice – and for serious cases, there's therapy. I've also found that Ambien works very well for me, with no side effects, though I recommend avoiding this prescription drug if you can. Instead, try following Walker's tips, which include avoiding naps during the day and alcohol and caffeine in the evenings, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, including weekends, and keeping the nighttime bedroom temperature at 65 degrees.)

And finally, reduce distractions...

Spending a lot of hours in the office or library isn't worth much if you're constantly distracted, which is increasingly common.

I'll admit to being very prone to distractions. As a kid, I loved video games – even the primitive ones like Space Invaders, Asteroids, Defender, and Donkey Kong. I remember one year in high school when I memorized the patterns for every level of Pac-Man so I could play for hours for only a quarter – I shudder to think of how much time I wasted, sitting there alone like a zombie. After college, I binge-played Risk on the computers at Boston Consulting Group when I should have been doing work.

It's a constant struggle for me to rein in these distractions – and it's getting exponentially harder. Staying on track and focused is a bigger challenge today than at any time in history thanks to these three notorious time-killers:

  1. Smartphones and Social Media

Our smartphones are the single-most pernicious distraction in society today. They beep and buzz constantly with updates, text messages, and e-mail, making it a real challenge to get any work done.

It even cost one woman her job... A business-owner friend of mine employs two dozen people to package and ship products from his warehouse in Dallas. One of these workers, a young woman in her 20s, was constantly checking her phone. Exasperated, my friend asked her to put it away.

"There's work to do," he said.

"Well," she replied, clearly annoyed, "I do have a personal life."

"Not on my clock, you don't," he said.

Ten minutes later, she pulled it out again.

My friend just pointed to the nearest exit and said, "There's the door. Get out. You're fired."

Smartphones are highly addictive, and I suspect this young woman is symbolic of a wider problem. Our brains have become used to the constant stimulation our smartphones give us, and we're now like rats in a science experiment, mindlessly checking our phones over and over throughout the day and getting little hits of dopamine every time to satisfy our craving.

  1. Binge-Watching 

Not too long ago, there were only a dozen channels on TV, and you had to watch when a show aired or miss it forever. But today, streaming video services like Netflix and YouTube have not only killed rental chains like Blockbuster and impacted traditional television but also ushered in an era in which an unlimited amount of video entertainment is only a few swipes or clicks away.

And it's not all schlock. In many ways, we're in a golden era of television, with thousands of hours of tremendously compelling content like my favorites, The Sopranos, The Wire, Homeland, and Game of Thrones, available at low costs.

It's so easy (I speak from personal experience) to get hooked on one or more of these shows and waste ungodly amounts of time!

  1. Video Games

Modern video games like Fortnite, Minecraft, Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, and Call of Duty are wildly addictive, with their immersive plots and amazing graphics. Plus, you can play with friends (or strangers) all over the world. According to the Entertainment Software Association, more than 150 million Americans play video games (more than half of our adult population), wasting an average of six hours per week. Sixty percent of Americans play video games daily.

I'm not one of them... Ever since I broke my addiction to Risk at age 24, I've deliberately never played them because I know how addicted I became to the primitive games of my youth, so I can't imagine what would happen if I started playing these vastly superior games!

If you want to be successful, you need to make a conscious effort to reduce the distractions in your life.

Best regards,

Whitney Tilson
December 30, 2022

Editor's note: The Empire Financial Research offices are closed on Monday in observance of New Year's Day. Look for the next Empire Financial Daily in your inbox on Tuesday, January 3.