The last few weeks has been tough for all of us. I wanted to share with you my personal experience, and the mindset I’m relying on to move forward.
The calm before the storm
I remember first hearing about this in mid January. My friend was about to head out to China, and she was worried about it. She tends to over-worry, so I reassured her and jokingly told her how she would be fine.
One week in, my coworker visited from China. From his eyes and his stories I could tell this was serious. I called my friend and found out she came back early. Since I was 18, I constantly thought about exponential growth, tail risks, and black swans (1). This fit the bill — I understood it conceptually. But it stopped there. Conceptually.
From February to mid March, I was going through the motions of preparation. Though I thought I understood that the world could shift in a few days, my understanding was only hypothetical. In early February I told my parents to buy up food, and ordered food in San Francisco as well. In some respects I was preparing, but in another, I was simply fitting preparation to the amount of time I had. I didn’t think it was important enough to change priorities.
As things escalated, I increased my attention, but never to the level that this deserved. I canceled my plan to go to New York and tried to distance more. Again this was going through the motions — even with all this happening, the most important thing on my mind was my existing work and personal projects. Even when we were told to work from home. Even as I saw the markets begin to crash, and a significant portion of my personal wealth disappear with them.
Towards the end of the week, it began to hit me. I realized that we were in much worse shape than China. Complete social isolation was on the way. We could enter a serious recession.
In the same day, two of my friends and I decided to move to a cabin and isolate there. We thought we’d go for a month, starting Wednesday. By the evening we decided to go for two months, the very next day. The timing was on the nose, as the very next day shelter in place was announced in San Francisco.
The next 48 hours was a blur. We got everything together, I ended up liquidating my entire portfolio, and we got out of San Francisco. I remember feeling like I was in a war zone — making multiple drastic, high impact decisions a day. After a night of being stranded, we arrived safe and sound in the cabin. After those 48 hours, my eyes cleared up.
As we move towards the present, there’s uncertainty all around us. Many of us are worried about our loved ones. We’re worried about the future. Will hospitals flood with patients and will military cars carry coffins? How long will this last? In a matter of days, many have lost their jobs and many have lost significant wealth. Are we about to experience the great depression?
That’s a lot of uncertainty, but we can come together and manage it. Here’s how I’m thinking about it:
- Amor Fati (2)
Character is forged through adversity and judged by action rather than thought. Will you let the panic consume you or will you strengthen your resolve? Will you focus inward or will you focus outward? Many of us have felt fear and when we feel fear, the reaction is knee-jerk. As you act, keep this top of mind: how you behave now, no matter what you think inside, is what determines your character.
Let this idea guide you gently: you can feel fear of course, and you can make mistakes, but keeping the idea top of mind will gently evolve and shape your behavior.
- Come together
Some have experienced a significant loss of wealth, yet still won’t have to worry about their livelihood. Others have lost their jobs. Some have families that are in trouble. We have experienced pain, we are all in different circumstances, and we all have some ways that we can support our community.
We can’t fix this overnight. No big brother can make sweeping changes. Let’s do what we can as individuals, whether that’s financial support, a phone call, or a kind word--it all counts. Use this adversity to come together.
- Roll with the punches
When there’s volatility and change, the panic and fear can make it hard to adjust. Yet, we must adjust. If you’re in quarantine — what can you do because of it? How can you grow and how can you be helpful? Adjusting will calm you and give you mental clarity: whether that’s adjusting what you do at work, reading new books, or finding new ways to connect — make the change.
First time I’ve made a dish in 7 years
I think long term, we face two primary fears.
The first, health: will we lose lives?
This is fundamentally up to us. What we do to today will ultimately decide tomorrow. Physically isolate, wash your hands, and stay safe. This is directly under our control, so let’s give ourselves completely to it.
The second, wealth: will we enter a great depression?
We may feel that the world will change and we won’t keep up — what if we lose our wealth, lose our job, and our skills aren’t relevant anymore? What if we’re not safe, never mind that we may never achieve our dreams?
Let’s break this down.
Kill the fear: Even if you lose all our wealth, your job, and your skills aren’t relevant anymore, you still have your wits. The skills you have today didn’t just pop up when you were born. You learned them. You will learn and adapt with whatever is next.
Evolve the vision: Instead of judging your future by outcome (how much wealth you have), judge it by character: what kind of person will you be? You will be the kind of person who generates value, who is strengthened by adversity. Your character and your behavior is under your control.
Putting it together
Thinking about it, both the short term and the long term fall under one idea: focus on what you can control. You can only control your character and your actions. So focus on that, and judge yourself only by that.
Thanks to Bipin Suresh, whose stoic ideas inspired the realization that all of these actions fit under one umbrella.
Thanks to Jacky Wang and Luba Yudasina for convincing me to include my personal story.
Thanks to Bipin Suresh, Victoria Chang, Luba Yudasina, Mark Shlick, Jacky Wang, Aamir Patel, Nino Parunashvili, Daniel Woelfel, Avand Amiri, Abraham Sorock for reviewing drafts of this essay
(1) Black Swans: Rare events in certain domains, where their magnitude is so large that in the long run they are all that matter. See Nassim Taleb’s Incerto for the concept and some of the most profound essays on risk
(2) Amor Fati: “To love one’s fate” — from Nietzche