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The Attention Span. “Hacksaws and Dinosaurs.”

I try to write about business and investing in a broader wisdom context. We all know there’s a huge psychological component to wealth. That makes it a tough but necessary topic to examine.

This piece is so personal that I’ve really wrestled with whether to publish it. But on balance I think it might help a couple of other people, and that makes it worth it.

If all this is too much awkward emotion, feel free to skip down to an awesome investing podcast at the bottom.

“Hacksaws and Dinosaurs.”

[9 minute read]

“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” - Rumi
Source: Getty Images.

At the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, U.S. combat medic Desmond Doss saved the lives of somewhere between fifty to a hundred men, all while under constant enemy fire. Due to his religious beliefs, Doss refused to carry a weapon. He thus became the only conscientious objector to ever win the Medal of Honor.

Doss was badly injured. He had seventeen pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body after unsuccessfully trying to kick a grenade away from him and his men. A sniper’s bullet also fractured his left arm while he tended to a soldier. It took him five hours to crawl the three hundred yards to safety. This event was considered so implausible that director Mel Gibson left it out of his Oscar-winning film about Doss, Hacksaw Ridge.

Doss’s example illustrates that a true hero is not solely defined by their strength, but by their willingness to make themselves vulnerable. This is a counterintuitive realization that can sometimes break people.

Brené Brown is a professor, researcher, and author primarily known for her study of shame. The emotional experience of shame is defined by a sense of utterly hellish disconnection and worthlessness. The pipe that runs between you and the flow of life is blocked. Your personal armor, protections, or trauma defines that blockage. For that pipe to be clear, there needs to be an opening, and the size of that hole is unavoidably defined by your capacity for vulnerability. This was one of Brown’s principal findings:

“Vulnerability is courage. We were looking at data the other day — we have 200,000 pieces of data now- and I can’t find a single example or incident of courage that is not completely defined by vulnerability.”

When all Brown’s research concluded that there was no route to connection, what she calls “wholeheartedness,” without genuine vulnerability, she suffered a nervous breakdown. Her article The Midlife Unravelling is one of the best things I’ve ever read (below). There’s a single line in it that has stuck with me for years: “your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts.”

The implication is that if you learn to see your blockage clearly, and then work to embrace and clear it, you’ll enjoy a richer connection to life. Open receptivity to the outside world is the single trait I’ve found that’s common of all forms of success and flourishing. Including in business and investing. In contrast, if something inhibits your vulnerability, it actually promotes disconnection and prevents you from evolving. It gets between you and your gifts.

Money as Armor?

I’m grateful to have recently met Nadja Taranczewski of CU Money. She arranged an enjoyable three way conversation with Peter Koenig (linked below). Peter has been studying the complex psychology of money since the early 1980s:

“We always start by asking: "What is money for you?" The answer, when it's not too reflected upon, always reveals a projection, sometimes quite superficial but gives a starting clue. Other times it can go straight to the point.”

For many people, as it was for me, their armor is projected onto money. It becomes a substitute for intrinsic self-worth and security. The obvious problem is that a projection not caused by money can’t always be solved with more money. For example, a study by Michael Norton asked more than two thousand people with a net worth of at least a million dollars (and often much more) how happy they were on a scale of one to ten. He then asked how much more money they would need to get up to a ten. Norton found: “all the way up the income-wealth spectrum basically everyone says [they’d need] two or three times as much to be perfectly happy.”

It’s too easy to moralize about other people’s money, and I don’t believe anything about wealth itself is intrinsically wrong. But money can sometimes create a false illusion of control and disconnection. As I discussed recently, I personally experienced an extremely debilitating and humiliating long-term depression. I have no desire to revisit the suffering (although I’m always open to speak to anyone who finds themselves in a similar hole). I only mention it here because it’s directly relevant. For an endless two years I could only feel a bone-deep worthlessness, disconnection, and shame. My internal monologue had turned so relentlessly hostile that I tried keeping a counter app on my phone of every time I had a negative thought. Looking back at the tally today, the top thought, by a mile, was “I don’t have enough money.” Money became my personal projection of a basic yearning for self-worth and security. When I had “enough” money, maybe I would finally be totally safe. But physics confirms that the only things that are totally safe are also dead.

A nuance in my own story is that, when my life was a relatively uninterrupted procession of success, money was merely a means to enjoying myself. As well as an “objective” indicator of my relative success. But somewhere along the path it shifted to my primary focus, exactly as I lost intrinsic passion for my work. My answer changed. In the absence of a fulfilling connection to life, I was only left with the empty projection.

If it wasn’t actually about the money, what was blocking my pipe? I’m fairly sure my own crisis was precipitated by my decision to have a child. Over the last few months I’ve been reflecting a lot on why. So my attention was grabbed recently when my friend Camellia Yang posted a great video that explains how Jurassic Park is actually an allegory for becoming a parent (below). I was extremely skeptical at first but it’s a compelling argument. The dinosaurs escaping into the park causes a crisis that compels Dr. Grant to protect two abandoned children. He undergoes a transition from an aloof intellectual interested only in dead fossils, to a nurturing father figure. From closed-off to open.

But what does becoming a father have to do with money? When I was preparing for The KCP Group’s recent talk with John Vervaeke, I heard him say something in an interview that stropped me dead in my tracks. He described loving his girlfriend as “making space inside himself for her.” This was the opposite of my own definition of a relationship: attachment and need. But, like a womb, you can’t make space for someone else in your life without a hole for them to grow into. A lot of love requires a big space, a lot of vulnerability. How much someone can hurt you is the shadow side of how much you love them. That can be terrifying.

Like Desmond Doss, the hero is defined by a voluntary sacrifice of a part of himself in the service of life. Like Brené Brown and Dr. Grant in Jurassic Park, life sometimes finds a way to break us open through a time of crisis.

Money represented the illusion that I could stay closed-off and still live a full life. It was either armor or gifts, not both. So now I try to ask what each incremental dollar is doing for me. Is it making me more isolated and less adventurous, or is it helping me directly engage with life with greater freedom? Is an inheritance creating the illusion of safety or a platform for lifelong experimentation? What fear does money protect me from? Can it?

Once my own space was broken, I’ve been surprised to find that it’s mostly love that has flooded in to fill it. This isn’t just pure sentimentality either- I believe we clumsily interpret a fundamental drive toward complexity as “love.” We just need a vulnerable “wholehearted” opening to receive the right signals.

“Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” - Rumi

Related Reading, Watching, and Listening.

  • Listen. Wealth, Power, and Vulnerability. My conversation with Nadja Taranczewski and Peter Koenig (1 hour 22 minute listen).

    • Why listen. More details on my own occasionally pitiful and desperate struggles with the relationship between money and self-worth. Nadja and Peter have deep expertise in the practical psychology of understanding your own relationship to wealth. Nadja has written a great book called Conscious You: Become the Hero of Your Own Story. Obviously you can imagine it resonated deeply with me! She’s also done the best job of anyone I’ve ever encountered in applying the Hero’s Journey to your real life in only a three minute video.

  • Read: The Midlife Unraveling by Brené Brown (15 minute read).

    • Why Read: This article won’t be for everyone. It contains profanity. It references “the universe.” It’s deeply vulnerable. It’s a bit mystical. But I think it’s just fantastic. Brown describes what it’s like to suffer a breakdown as a high achiever, and the dissonance of when your growth drive starts to overwhelm the desire for safety.

      • “All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go. Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts.”

  • Watch. Spielberg’s Subtext- Jurassic Park Analysis by Mike Hill (28 minute watch)

    • Why watch. Sometimes mythic analysis can be like those times in English class when your teacher over-interprets the meaning of everything. And I started out skeptically inclined to this interpretation. But the longer I watched the more I realized Hill was onto something that was a significant piece of my life’s puzzle. His other videos are really great too.

Totally unrelated listening.

  • Listen: Russell Napier on Hidden Forces (54 minute listen)

    • Why listen: Napier switched from a 20-year deflationista to an inflationista in the middle of 2020. That was a good call! His argument is simple, and I like simple. Essentially, governments now have control of the money supply. I think this has made central banks much less relevant. It seems like a defining feature of the next regime in investing and business is going to be government intervention in markets. Financial engineering will become much more politically difficult and anticipating strategic industries will be critical. Although deglobalization has been well underway since 2011, it’s been accelerated by the war in Ukraine, especially in Europe. This was recently reinforced in Macron’s speech a couple of weeks ago. Napier believes the likely targets of government investment is “old industry.” Investors in the last 30 years have not seen an investment environment or capex boom like the one he anticipates.

Have a great weekend!


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