No New Year’s Resolution — Just Burn Away the Deadwood

The truth is something that burns, it burns off deadwood and people don’t like having their deadwood burnt off often because they’re 95% deadwood.
— Jordan Peterson

This year, I don’t have a New Year’s Resolution. As the new year approaches, people are often filled with regret and say, “I’m going to do this better… that better…”, but they rarely follow through. Gymrats hate the New Year’s Resolutioners in the gym. They claim that it’s because they are doing dumb things and occupy their favorite equipments. That might be the superficial short term reason, but that’s not the main reason. The main reason is that people love to see each other make actual self improvements, but not futile efforts. They know that the New Year’s Resolutioners aren’t actually improving themselves for the long run and will be gone by February. Why waste time on something without long term pay offs?

The typical guru would tell you that you have to endure the difficulty and stick with your New Year’s Resolution. That sounds nice, but it’s not reality. I learned an important lesson from trading cryptocurrencies for the past 2 years and from reading What I Learned Losing A Million Dollars: it’s easy to make money, you can make money from any investment strategy you can think of, but it’s VERY difficult to keep money. You can spend months or years to earn a million dollars, and it could be gone in an instant from one bad decision. It’s like that not just with investing, but everything in life. This is why Warren Buffet said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Anyone can improve themselves quickly, but it’s very difficult to prevent yourself from regressing. It’s easy to make big improvements on what you’re focusing on, but it’s very hard to not regress in other aspects of your life. You could be making big money, but without realizing it, you might suddenly encounter black swan tragedies in health or family, because you weren’t vigilant in these other aspects. Most New Year’s Resolutions are about doing something new, but benefits per cost is actually higher when you do less. Nassim Nicholas Taleb discussed iatrogenesis, doctors doing harm via treatment, in Antifragile. This also applies to New Year’s Resolutions. When’s the last time you analyzed risks, opportunity costs, and benefits when determining your New Year’s Resolutions? Chances are that if you’re adding a new activity as a New Year’s Resolution, you’re doing more harm than good, because you haven’t considered the opportunity costs. Why do people quit the gym in February? It’s not because that they don’t have the determination. It’s because they’ve failed to account for opportunity costs. In February, they realize that because they’ve been going to the gym all month in January, they’ve neglected other important tasks, which have snuck up behind them and bit them in the ass. Tunnel vision makes you fragile to black swans.

Avoiding iatrogenesis is central to Stoic philosophy. Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, “If you seek tranquility, do less… Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’” This is an uncomfortable question to ask, because humans are psychologically wired for loss aversion, as demonstrated in the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. People who are into self-improvement get a high from getting better at new things, but don’t like to think about their regressions. But as Taleb points out, loss aversion isn’t irrationality, it’s justified prevention against risk of ruin. Asking yourself uncomfortable questions is worth it, because it’s a loss of temporary comfort to prevent future real ruins. In Jordan Peterson’s words, it’s confronting your dragon.

It wasn’t in a war. 
It wasn’t in a battle.
It isn’t in a melee of fire and destruction that 
most of us succumb to weakness.
We are taken apart, slowly.
Convinced to take an easier path.
Enticed by comfort.
Most of us aren’t defeated in on decisive battle. 
We are defeated on tiny, seemingly insignificant 
surrender at a time that chips away at who we 
should really be.
It isn’t that you wake up one day and decide
that’s it: I am going to be weak.
No. It is a slow incremental process.
It chips away at our will — it chips away at our discipline.
We sleep in a little later.
We miss a workout, then another.
We start to eat what we shouldn’t eat
and drink what we shouldn’t drink.
And, without realizing it — one day, you wake
up and you have become something that you never would have allowed.
Instead of strong — you are weak.
Instead of disciplined — you are disorganized
and lost.
Instead of moving forwards and progressing — you
are moving backwards and decaying.
And those things happen without you seeing them.
You have to BE VIGILANT. You have to be ON GUARD.
You have to HOLD THE LINE on the seemingly insignificant little things — 
things that shouldn’t matter — but that do.
Jocko Willink, Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual

Now initially, this message might seem contradictory to the above message that you could lose everything in a single instant, but it’s actually complementary. The full message is to make yourself antifragile to black swan risks. If you’re disciplined and vigilant, you are resilient or antifragile when shit hits the fan, since you haven’t been decaying without realizing it. If you’ve been decaying, then you’d suffer even greater losses from the black swans. When you burn away deadwood, you avoid iatrogenesis, which means less clutter occupies your mind. This means that you can actually be vigilant about everything that you do.

The quote from the book reflects the lesson Jocko learned from Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer. His podcast about this book had a profound impact on my life. The Native Americans weren’t conquered by the American military in one final epic battle, but were slowly bribed to defeat by comfort. So for your New Year’s Resolution, don’t get distracted by something new. Pay attention to wherever you’re currently decaying.

Giving in to comfort is equivalent to prolonged risk exposure. Taleb points out, “smoking a single cigarette is extremely benign, so a cost-benefit analysis would deem one irrational to give up so much pleasure for so little risk! But it is the act of smoking that kills, with a certain number of pack per year, tens of thousand of cigarettes –in other words, repeated serial exposure.”

Forming a new good habit is incredibly difficult, and careful opportunity cost analysis might even reveal that it’s a bad habit in disguise. But what you can always do regardless of the time of the year is burning away deadwood. Stop doing things that add negative marginal value. If you stop losses that you weren’t previously addressing, you can keep more of your gains. To have long run gains, you have to frequently burn away the deadwood and avoid the temptations of comfort.