Habits and survival – long term always wins

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“How did you go bank­rupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways”, Mike an­swered. “Grad­u­al­ly, then sud­den­ly”

This di­a­logue is tak­en from Ernest Hem­ing­ways nov­el The Sun Also Ris­es and has been wide­ly pop­u­larised to in­clude many phe­nom­e­na, from tech­no­log­i­cal change to can­cer by means of smok­ing.

While we may grin at Hem­ing­ways la­con­ic way of de­scrib­ing a uni­ver­sal truth of com­pound­ing, many of us ex­pe­ri­ence change only in the lat­ter way – sud­den­ly. In an act of self de­nial we ig­nore the ac­tu­al path to dis­as­ter, con­ceal­ing an ob­vi­ous self de­cep­tion some­where along the way.

Per­son­al cat­a­stro­phes are viewed as black swans, they are hand­ed to us ex­ternal­ly and, at least in our own minds, with­out warn­ing, fol­lowed by life chang­ing con­se­quences.

Be it a break up or burnout – they sel­dom hap­pen sud­den­ly. Only hind­sight is 20/20. It is only af­ter stand­ing among fresh wreck­age we start think­ing, mak­ing con­nec­tions, ad­mit­ting to our­selves maybe we should have seen it com­ing.

For my part, it hap­pened sud­den­ly, my burnout, that is. But it was grad­ual, of course. For some rea­son it didn’t feel like it. I was up liv­ing my best start­up life. And then I wasn’t. Sud­den­ly.

Habits ac­cu­mu­late. Read­ing mails in bed, both evening and morn­ing, hard endurance train­ing, missed meals, con­stant trav­els, jet­lag, bad sleep. It all ac­cu­mulates. For years. And even­tu­al­ly it all comes crash­ing down. I know.

Even smart habits such as work­ing out will turn against you if you miss out on oth­er re­cov­er­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.

The phi­los­o­phy of win­ning and sur­vival

The per­son that has taught me the most about how to look at cer­tain long term phe­nom­e­na is Nas­sim Taleb. With bril­liant books such as An­tifrag­ile and Skin in the Game, he takes a con­trar­i­an ap­proach to main­stream think­ing. (His should be the  main­stream).

In the end its all about long term sur­vival. Whether its busi­ness or life. To ex­em­pli­fy, con­sid­er two types of in­vestors:

The first one fol­lows a tra­di­tion­al path – in­vest­ing to get 5% an­nu­al re­turns on stock. This in­vestor makes small wins every year. All good. Then comes the in evitable mar­ket crash. All is lost overnight.

The sec­ond one is look­ing for big wins. Let’s say she in­vests in star­tups. The investor los­es mon­ey when the com­pa­nies fail, un­til one day one com­pa­ny ex­its. Small loss­es every year. Then, a mas­sive pay­out.

In our cur­rent world, in­vestor num­ber one is praised for con­sis­tent re­turns. But in the long term that in­vestor goes bank­rupt, not sur­viv­ing.

The first one needs to be right all the time but los­es every­thing in one go. The sec­ond in­vestor is con­sid­ered a los­er. Los­ing mon­ey year af­ter the oth­er.  But the sec­ond one only has to be right once. And giv­en that the in­vestor does not  de­fault by her loss­es she not only stays alive but makes a great prof­it. The tru­ly suc­cess­ful in­vestor in the long term is the sec­ond. The first one is gone, al­beit cheered on dur­ing the good times.

The sec­ond one both sur­vives and makes a prof­it.It’s not about win­ning, it’s about sur­vival. You can­not win if you first don’t sur­vive. Win­ning is al­ways con­di­tioned on sur­viv­ing.

It may sound dra­mat­ic to talk about sur­vival. We can use the term sus­tain­abil­i­ty  in­stead. Are the habits we em­ploy in our busi­ness or in a per­son­al set­ting sus­tain able for 5 years? 15 years?

Re­mem­ber, your bad habits will ac­cu­mu­late. As well as your good.

This same anal­o­gy can be ap­plied to many real life sit­u­a­tions such as main­taining your health or build­ing a com­pa­ny. It is giv­en that in a start­up en­vi­ron­ment  some­times you have to push above and be­yond for cer­tain pe­ri­ods of time. That is fine. But its not sus­tain­able for 5-15 years.

And some­times, some habits are praised in the short term but lead to dis­as­ter in the long term.

Be­ing on­line and re­spon­sive 24/7 might be ap­pre­ci­at­ed by in­vestors and colleagues in the short term, but they’re not that hap­py if that leads to a long term sick leave.

Com­pound­ing bad and good habits

The good thing is – bad habits are eas­i­ly recog­nis­able and turned into good habits. They are eas­i­ly recog­nised, but hard to im­ple­ment.

Con­sid­er sleep. I’d say I’ve done some hard things in my life, Iron­man triathlons for ex­am­ple. But do you want to know which is the hard­est thing I have ever as pired to and still failed? Get­ting 7-8 hours sleep every night. Noth­ing is hard­er than that.

And if we are to take sleep sci­en­tist Matthew Walk­er’s take on sleep – no sin­gle habit in your life has a greater im­pact on your well­be­ing than sleep. Full stop. There­fore, make good sleep your num­ber one com­pound­ing good habit. Close­ly re­lat­ed to good sleep is smart­phones in bed. That’s an ob­vi­ous no go. I per­son­al­ly have a bed­room ban on smart­phones and I can say it is fan­tas­tic. Nowadays tak­ing it with me to the bed­room when tak­ing ear­ly flights and mak­ing sure I wake up feels like I am con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing my bed­room. The smart­phone does not be long there. In gen­er­al, it stays in the liv­ing room or kitchen.

Imag­ine trig­ger­ing your brain to re­act to prob­lems first thing in the morn­ing when you body is wak­ing up and as a last thing be­fore need­ing rest.

Make off­line be­fore bed and first hour af­ter wak­ing up the com­pound­ing good habit.

This is an easy fix with mar­vel­lous re­sults.

The third one is move­ment dur­ing your work­day. Small mi­cro breaks 3-5 minutes 1-3 times per day. They can be short stretch­es, pushups, crunch­es or any­thing  that gets your blood flow­ing for a while. Three mi­cro breaks three times a day during work­days com­pounds to rough­ly 39 hours of move­ment per year. A full work week of tak­ing care of your body. By hard­ly do­ing any­thing.

That’s it. I have many more habits in my per­son­al tool­box but these are the ones that I thought mat­tered the most. They are prob­a­bly ob­vi­ous for most peo­ple. But I hope I man­aged to give some con­text on the com­pound­ing and the mat­ter of sus­tain­abil­i­ty, or sur­vival, if you will.

I mean, what good does it do if you make an exit at 45 (HBR av­er­age exit age) and then get a heart at­tack at 46 due to un­sus­tain­able grad­u­al­ly com­pound­ing stress re­lat­ed life­style choic­es?

Per­son­al­ly I don’t like quick wins, I like sus­tain­able wins. Long term sur­vival, remem­ber.

In or­der to win, you need to sur­vive first.Tomi Kauki­nen is a se­r­i­al en­trepreneur and speak­er work­ing as CMO and partner at Cuck­oo. He ex­pe­ri­enced a life chang­ing burnout in 2018 and has been a vocal speak­er about the hid­den risks of burnout and de­pres­sion in the start­up commu­ni­ty and so­ci­ety in gen­er­al.