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Circle of Competence Issue #54


"Instead of having one or two true friends that we can sit and talk to for three hours at a time, we have 968 “friends” that we never actually talk to; instead we just bounce one-line messages off them a hundred times a day. This is not friendship, this is distraction." - William Deresiewicz


Focus and Solitude

One of the unfortunate realities of modern day life is that we live in a world with informational, sensory, and opinion overload. The overwhelming amount of stimulation can lead to a severe lack of focus and thoughtful solitude - I can certainly speak from experience. But the fact of the matter is that focus and thoughtful solitude in all areas of life leads to much higher returns on time invested than time spread too thin over too many activities. The over-dated bachelor feels emptier than a fulfilled one-woman-man just as an impatient trader will forfeit the long-term gains that accrue to the most patient shareholder. The best investors, athletes, and leaders roles achieve peak performance through their ability to FOCUS on the task at hand, get uninterrupted SOLITUDE with their 'craft', and keep extraneous distraction at bay.

Focus is ultimately saying 'NO' to things that do not support your current endeavors. A perfect example of focus (in education/self development) can be found in Shane Parrish's piece on Arthur Schopenhauer and the dangers of click bait whereby he expresses the importance of focusing your time and efforts on reading things that will outlive the moment (i.e. less news, more long form). If we want to build up a base of knowledge that is constantly expanding (or any skill!), we can't allow our focus to be on less informative material. This abides by Buffett's rule of consuming information with a very long half life (information that can be built upon and will not lose its importance very soon). Focusing on information that matters allows the reader to compound knowledge faster than consuming bite-sized news snippets that will be outdated tomorrow. In the same spirit of focus, an author has a moral obligation not to cheat his reader with click-bait material that is less than helpful. In agreement with this sentiment, I have slowly whittled the content each week that I send along down to only the pieces whose content will educate and outlive the moment. Otherwise, I am committing a moral error in the form of wasting your time. This is time that you cannot get back.

Continuing with the broader topic of focus, I listened to a solid podcast episode on the case for digital minimalism with Cal Newport (Village Global) that was worthy of sharing for its central message. Cal's entire interview underscores the severity of our addictions to our phones, to social media (short 'bites' of information), and to digital information consumption in general. He is an advocate of digital 'minimalism' which means eliminating digital distractions from a focused life in order to regain our ability to be present in our relationships, our work, and gain significant time benefits that can be 'reinvested' into other more important activities (such as reading, self development, a marriage, etc.).

Finally, solitude. This dovetails nicely with the topic of focus because if you are focusing on an area of your life, you are going to need to get significant uninterrupted alone time with it - whether it be your family, a particular skill, education, etc. In the same vein as Shane Parrish's piece above, I want to point your attention to the transcript of William Deresiewicz's lecture on solitude and leadership. Solitude runs hand in hand with focus in life. In order to focus on our craft better, on our relationships, on our education, on our top priorities, we must find solitude. Focus without solitude does not allow for deep development and solitude without focus leads to aimless pursuits.

Ask yourself, what area(s) is your top priority that you need to focus more on? Affirming our top priorities leads us to embrace a life of minimalism in those areas that matter most - a life devoid of extraneous distractions. A life rich with focus and solitude. A life worth living.


The theme of information flow from one to many (based on trust) has been shattered into a free for all where information flow has been democratized and trust in big institutions has decayed. Anyone can publish, sell, or educate themselves on the internet, leading to a flattening of the social hierarchies that used to exist. Well worth the read.

The need for solitude in our modern day's world of instant gratification and stimulation is paramount. More importantly, solitude allows for examination of the self and preparation for all of the tests that will inevitably occur in life - morally fraught situations, failure, death etc.

The author has a moral duty to not cheat the reader of his time. I believe wholeheartedly in this and hope that Circle of Competence has not wasted yours!

I have a feeling Ben Thompson would strongly disagree with the argument that tech companies have not innovated at all over their life spans, but might see things in a similar light regarding the acquisitive nature of the tech giants. This would be a great article to pair with Thompson's article from last week on why Senator Warren's plan is unreasonable.

“I think that there is an opportunity given the fact that we have land shortages in lots of our fast-growth cities and suburbs and we have an overabundance of golf courses.” As one industry flags, it seems to be the perfect time to redirect resources to the growing shortage of affordable housing in urban areas.


“Never before in human history could we get rid of every single moment of solitude in the day.” The need for solitude is dire. The ability to fill every waking moment with stimulation is pervasive. Highly recommend thinking deeply about how you spend your digital time.

This pairs well with Thompson’s earlier article on antitrust and goes more in depth on his thoughts around breaking up big tech. My biggest takeaway is that the “big is bad” political tag line is full of fallacious assumptions. The big tech companies are competing fiercely for consumers and this may not benefit competitors, but it has been very beneficial to consumers. The reason why these big tech companies are successful is because of their high utility to consumers. Isn’t antitrust law meant to help consumers in the end?

I recognize that not all readers of Circle of Competence are religious, but there is significant value in understanding what cultural expectations drive your identity, be they modern or more traditional. I would admit that I struggle with modern cultural definitions of 'success' more so than traditional cultural identities of success. It is impossible to live in a culture and not be impacted by it - and many people don't recognize what their underlying identity is based on in today's culture.

While there is a lot of personal banter on this episode of Tim's podcast, there are a couple nuggets that I enjoyed from this episode. Safi discusses what makes the greatest decision makers (chess players, companies, executives, etc.) tick by explaining that they do NOT review their mistakes and learn NOT to make the same mistake. Rather, they review their decision process leading up to the mistake to look for a broader, more generalizable pattern that they can apply in other situations. Thus, instead of correcting one mistake, they prevent potentially hundreds of future mistakes by altering their decision making process based on a pattern that can apply in other scenarios.

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