Why Angular Beats Well-Rounded

It’s appropriate, especially given that this is the time of the year when high school seniors are opening acceptance packets and rejection letters from universities all around the world, to discuss the age old dilemma that many college applicants face: whether to be angular or well-rounded. Certainly it was the raging debate my high school classmates had when trying to sell themselves to colleges. They competed with each other for the most extracurricular activities (speech and debate, business club, sports, volunteering, music, arts, etc.) It became an arms race so ridiculous that we joked that to get into Stanford or the Ivy League, one had to be the captain of multiple sports teams, in student government, get > 4.0 GPA, have perfect SATs, and possess a “major” life accomplishment such as curing a major disease, starting a philanthropic organization, or winning one of the math/science Olympiads.

While being a modern Renaissance man (or woman) can be great for getting into these schools, and it certainly does make for a more interesting person, it’s not a guarantee for finding employment. Employers are looking more for an expert in a particular area, or at most someone with two related and complementary skills.

Just think of it from this approach. If you’re an employer looking at a candidate who has decent skills in finance, accounting, foreign affairs/diplomacy, programming, and photography, you may actually not want to hire that person. One worry is that by spreading him/her self out too thinly, the applicant may not truly be an “expert” in one particular area. Most jobs are defined by boundaries, specificity, and depth (you’re *just* going to crunch numbers), and while breadth is helpful in the upper echelons of management and for insightful business strategists, very rarely do companies recognize that and actually try to hire for those spots. More likely they luck onto a candidate with that vision from hires for other positions. Furthermore, companies like cheap worker drones that fit into narrow holes. A candidate with a diverse skill set is more likely to get bored, leave, or demand higher pay.

Therefore, it’s ok to have side dalliances and hobbies, but if you want to be a top worker bee and advance in a career, you’d better have a profession. Take for example the story of Urs Holzle. He was a pure computer scientist, and as such was able to push the boundaries of his own field, get hired at Google in a senior scientist position, and make bucketloads of money. If he had spent less time in his craft and more in say learning the violin to become “well-rounded” he may not have been as successful as he was.

As a last counterpoint, for those already on the well-rounded pathway, while you may not be the ideal workers, you are excellent entrepreneurs, possessing as you do the strategic thinking capabilities to integrate multiple fields and sense opportunities. Also important in the early days of a startup with limited manpower is the ability to fill and manage multiple business roles.

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Broke at Half A Million

Marketwatch ran an article about how one can still be broke despite earning half a million a year. Preposterous, you say? They do show the breakdown of sample spending for the rich family compared to an average family with $80,000 in yearly income.

Let’s break this down in an itemized manner:

  1. 401k contributions: a good thing, especially given the tax bracket
  2. Taxes: unavoidable, but the rich family should be looking to diversify more into legal tax shelters like mortgage interest deductions and maximizing HSAs
  3. Child care: I can’t explain this discrepancy. Does the wealthy family choose to use a premium service as opposed to the McDonalds of child care? Does that really provide any benefit? Both families have the same number of kids, so there’s no reason for spending to be any different. And besides, those in the know opt for live in Hispanic au-pairs so their kids can get a head start in life
  4. Food: both families eat way too much. I spend $40 per week on groceries (that includes household items like detergent) for myself. Multiply that by 4 gives you $8480 for a whole year. Even if you spend a bit more on eating out, you will still may just top out at what the average family spends. What does the rich family get by spending more? More calories? Whole grain organic quinoa?
  5. Housing: this is a big opportunity to cut back by living in a smaller house for less. A bigger house just adds to the housework, not necessarily truly improving happiness. Likewise, this allows for a corresponding reduction in property tax and insurance
  6. Gas: no reason that this needs to be different between the two families
  7. Life insurance: just self-insure by saving more. This is one of the biggest cons out there
  8. Clothes: do you really need to wear better clothes than the average family? If anything, standing out more in this era of Occupy Wall Street just makes you more of a target
  9. Children’s lessons: I’ll admit, probably a good investment. If anything, Asian families in the Bay Area spend much more in this category
  10. Charity: cut back on this, especially if you’re living on the edge
  11. Debt repayment: probably unavoidable, but you can save on this by studying overseas or in state schools
  12. Miscellaneous: I don’t even know what this means

Notice how I didn’t include vacations on this list? Generally, I will allow one budget busting “splurge”, either in clothing, house, car, or vacations. Among those, the one that gives the most lasting happiness is vacations.

 

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Passive Clearly Beating Active

These past few years have not been good to actively managed funds, or their managers. As this Morningstar article shows, funds are continuing to lose investor money and as a result, they have to lay off their fund directors. Shed no tears for them though, as they’ve had several years of high six figure+ income without providing a corresponding return to their investors.

Let Uncle Warren and Jack Bogle light the way. It’s no secret why the biggest indexer, Vanguard, is growing more than everyone else combined!

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Advice For Struggling Families

We all know that Americans don’t have much in savings, but it’s really more a problem with rising expenses than lack of savings. As this Marketwatch article shows, poor people do save, but they consume those savings in short order:

Robert understands the need to save for the long term, but he puts only $25 into his employer-provided retirement account each month. He knows that won’t be enough, but he also knows he’s supposed to save something and that’s what he can do. But his lack of retirement saving for later is hardly because he is overspending now.

Instead, he is contributing toward food and rent and saving for needs coming up soon — renting his own place. For that, he saved several thousand dollars, an impressive share of his annual income. That saving activity won’t show up in surveys about how much “emergency” or retirement savings people have. It won’t show up anywhere at all once Robert finds an apartment because he will hand the money he’s accumulated over to his landlord and his “balance” will go right back down. And then he’ll start saving all over again for a different need.

The strategies some people are using to save are similar to what I recommend in my book. In other words, they employ mental tricks to hide money away so that they are not tempted to consume. Hilariously, they also call these tricks “hacks”.

The financial services industry can help, too. Many families we met developed workarounds that made their savings strategies more effective. For Robert, it was giving his savings to his mom to hold. He said she was “like Fort Knox,” so he knew he would have to stick to his budget. Another Diaries participant stashed her savings in a credit union an hour away, and cut up her ATM card, so that she would only withdraw for “really, really needs.” A third preferred to save by stocking her pantry rather than filling her bank account. Financial providers can learn from these kinds of hacks. They can adjust their products to make it easier for people to save and harder for them to spend.

In reality, there’s not much for these families to do other than to increase income. Practically this can mean:

  1. Advancing up the ranks at one’s job
  2. Finding a second job (the gig economy is perfect for this)
  3. Maximizing resources through the sharing economy
  4. Going back to school for a degree that pays
  5. Starting a business (even low-capital tech entrepreneurism is possible)

At the same time, while they’ve already cut spending substantially, there’s more they can do to reduce everyday life expenses. Consider:

  1. Buying the old model of electronics rather than the latest and greatest
  2. Buying clothes from the consignment store
  3. Shacking up with extra roommates or living with family
  4. Going without a car, TV, and cable
  5. Cook at home instead of eating out
  6. Go for free or low cost entertainment (the article describes one person getting free concert tickets from giveaways and raffles). Especially with more time and less money, lining up for raffles and giveaways become viable.

Details of how to do this and much more are included in my book.

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The Few Proud Stock Winners

Remember my exhortation against stock picking, due to the few winners driving gains and the majority of stocks being meh or losers? This Morningstar article posted an insightful finding based on a recent study:

Half of U.S. stock-market wealth creation has come from 0.33% of listed companies.

Please note, that figure is not 33%. It is one third of 1%—one security out of 300.
Of the 26,000 stocks that appear in CRSP’s database, 86 provided half the aggregate wealth creation, 282 are required to reach the 75% figure, and 983 account for the full 100%. That is, after the 983 highest wealth creators, the remaining 25,000-plus securities are net neutral. Some made money for their investors, and some lost, but overall they were a wash.
Let’s re-emphasize. 86 stocks drove half of the gains of the market as a whole. If you were to randomly pick a stock to place your bets on, you would only have a 0.33% chance of picking a major winner. What’s the lesson, Morningstar?
In other words, do as your columnist prescribes, not as he does: Diversify. Widely and broadly.
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Advice for a Young Investor

Warren Buffett says that today’s crop of babies are the luckiest ever. This may be true in some respects – technological advancements have certainly improved the quality of life. Today’s commoners live a life undreamed of by previous monarchs. However, in other respects, young people today have it harder than ever.

Take for instance public comments Morningstar’s advice to a young investor:

Check out the vesting options on your match in the 401K before you let that match influence what you do. My own Millennial daughter has worked at 3 places now with generous matches on paper. She has yet to get any of her matches to vest because they all have 3 year cliff vesting. She got laid off (in one case just before 3 years) before any of her matches vested.

and

That should be a wake-up call to today’s 20/30-somethings. Were those terminations part of some evil, greedy attempt to cut corporate costs? Just the fact there was a long “cliff” should say something: corporate America is desperate to wash its hands of any responsibility for their employees’ retirement.

That means: save, save, save your money. Retirement is in your hands, more than ever! Each dollar wasted on alcohol, pot, tattoos, new cell phones every year, data plans, new cars, bar tabs, trips to Mexico, music festivals, is actually ***two or three*** dollars you won’t have for retirement.

That’s the time value of money. Blowing money on toys and “experiences” early on in life, is what’s killing the retirements of many a baby-boomer today. Forcing older boomers to reverse-mortgage their homes for money to live on.
Don’t repeat your parents’ mistakes.

With how perilously insecure jobs are today, it’s more important than ever for young people to have multiple income streams. This means side gigs (e.g. Uber, independent tutoring, Etsy), monetizing resources (e.g. Airbnb), investment income (rental, stocks, bonds), and entrepreneurship (low cost digital startups). Without a diversified stream such as the above, we will fall prey to the whims of an unscrupulous employer who can can us at a moment’s notice in the name of cost savings.

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The Trend Towards Minimalism

Feels good to be vindicated, yet again, or perhaps my own behaviour is not so uncommon but merely representative of the prevailing attitude of my generation. After all, it’s “widely known” that Millennials value experiences over things.

As for retail, owners have to adapt or die. Innovative retail stores are experimenting with ways to blend a more experiential type of shopping with brands and goods. As the article recognizes:

“Shoppers are reaching a tipping point around American consumption,” it read. “Feelings of angst about acquiring too much ‘stuff’ is driving a shift toward purchasing experiences rather than things.”

Those of us who are involved in entrepreneurship recognize this. As the older generation dies out, Millennial preferences will increasingly drive profitable product lines. We see this in the traditional media, which initially resisted the move to digital (Napster was merely early) before eventually acquiescing (see: Hulu) to the tidal shift. Those that continue to resist (ESPN, Comcast) face declining revenues from cord cutters.

In general, being “light”, mobile, portable, flexible, and catering to the customer’s preferences for when, where, and how to consume something is the new name of the game. Amazon recognizes this. Old retail still tries to force someone to come into a brick and mortar store and be assailed by rude and unhelpful sales representatives. That’s not a winning approach.

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Follow Your Passions, After Your Career

The story of the Hong Kong banker who quit his job to work in humanitarian aid is truly inspiring and definitely relatable.

One question that Asian children (probably others as well, but I’m speaking from experience here) agonize over when growing up is whether to pursue something profitable (often at the behest of their parents), or something that they’re truly passionate about. It’s rare that these intersect, unless your passion is money. Many times, these kids get so immersed into their studies in school that they don’t even find their passion until much later in life. Then they are filled with regret and resentment.

My approach is to have the best of both worlds. Grind through school in your 20s and get out into a great career. Work overtime and make tons of money early. Guaranteed high income fields like banking and medicine are very suitable for this. The reason is that it’s easier to learn new things quickly when we’re still young. Also, money earned when young is more valuable because it has time to compound.

Do this when you’re young enough and you can emerge in your mid 30s with enough money to retire and live purely off your investments. Then it’s time to find and focus on your passion. I suggest at this point some combination of travel, volunteering, philanthropy, teaching/mentoring, and entrepreneurship. More details on this to come in my upcoming book on happiness.

Doing the opposite by finding your passion when young generally means you have a brief happy time in your adolescence, but at the cost of potential financial destitution in mid life. You also lose out on important things like compounded savings and moving up the career ladder. This can make you profoundly unhappy. One caveat remains. This option may be a good choice that maximizes happiness if you know you’ll die young.

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NYT Discovers What the Rest of Us Already Know

NYT publishes an article on the superstar effect, only this time applied to firms and not individuals. Let’s take a look.

For much of the last century it seemed that the slice of the total economic pie going to workers was — like the speed of light — constant. No matter what the economy’s makeup, labor could collectively depend on taking home roughly two-thirds of the country’s total output as compensation for its efforts. Workers’ unchanging share, the economist John Maynard Keynes declared in 1939, was “one of the most surprising, yet best-established, facts in the whole range of economic statistics.”

But in recent decades, that steady share — which includes everything from the chief executive’s bonuses and stock options to the parking-lot attendant’s minimum wage and tips — started to flutter. In the 2000s, it slipped significantly. Although the numbers have inched up in the last couple of years, labor’s portion has not risen above 59 percent since before the recession.

The decline has coincided with a slowdown in overall growth as well as a stark leap in inequality. “Labor is getting a shrinking slice of a pie that’s not growing very much,” David Autor, an economist at M.I.T., said. It is a development that is upending political establishments and economic policies in the United States and abroad.

Some economists argue that technological advancements are to blame as employers have replaced workers with machines. Others point to trade powered by cheap foreign labor, a view championed by President Trump that particularly resonated among voters. 

Alternate culprits include tax policies that treat investment income more favorably than wages; flagging skills and education that have rendered workers less productive or unsuited to an information- and service-based economy; or a weakening of labor unions that has chipped away at workers’ bargaining power and protections.

(…)

The article goes into superstar firms briefly.

The idea of superstars vacuuming up a majority of goodies is perhaps more obvious on the individual level. Because of technology like cable and satellite television and the internet, music luminaries like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift or sports phenoms like LeBron James or Cristiano Ronaldo can reach a much larger audience and gain a greater proportion of the revenue generated.

Writing about the advent of superstars in the modern era, the economist Sherwin Rosen noted in 1981 that there was “a strong tendency for both market size and reward to be skewed toward the most talented people in the activity.”

What was once true of pop stars can now be seen in more mundane industries. “Over the past several decades, only the highest earners have seen steady wage gains,” a report from the president’s Council of Economic Advisers concluded late last year. “For most workers, wage growth has been sluggish and has failed to keep pace with gains in productivity.”

This is more interesting. He cites the Sherwin Rosen paper that I reference in my book. The examples cited also are entertainment (media and sports) sensations, with an indirect contribution from technology making it easier to share that with a wider audience, allowing superstars to take more and more of the overall spending pie on entertainmment. That’s exactly what I wrote in my book.

It feels good to be vindicated.

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Business Idea – Specialty Daycare

Post inspired by this article

Given that my previous post was about the advantages of catering to the whims of the rich (and their desire for “exceptional” good/services), it’s to be expected that I’ll have thought about a particular implementation of an idea that does this.

Rich people, and even some busy working professionals in the upper middle class, living in the big cities have a hard time finding affordable child care. Yes, there are those large magnet places (one colleague called Kiddie Academy the Burger King of daycares) you can just drop off your kids at, but why not aim for the best and most specialized?

What if you (I use this term loosely) start a daycare that offers something different? I suspect most rich people want to give their kids a leg up in life without creating a pressure cooker environment so early in life. So instead of a daycare that forces kids to do homework, why not one that allows them to learn and play but immersed in another language? Mandarin is the hot niche language of the age, and any educated parent knows that being a childhood learner is better than trying to learn it as an adult.

The ideal owner-operator will be a white female (whites are more comfortable with their own kind, and Asians think whites are more loving and nurturing, while women are see in general as better with people, not to mention less likely to molest/abuse a child) who speaks fluent Mandarin at the same time. Playtime, lessons, and general language of conduct will be entirely in Mandarin. Other usual child activities like puzzles, stories, and colouring books will of course be present. The service will be marketed to wealthy upscale urban couples.

The idea was inspired in part by another coworker, who specifically hired a Hispanic au-pair to babysit her child. She specifically wanted someone who could speak Spanish to the baby. Apparently, this phenomenon of getting a leg up on your peers is starting earlier and earlier in the competitive Bay Area.

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