This is a guest post from Ludvig Sunström. Ludvig is the author of Breaking out of Homeostasis. Together with former hedge fund manager Mikael Syding, he hosts the popular Swedish business podcast “25 Minuter,” which has been ranked #1 on iTunes several times. His content has been read and listened to by millions of people. You can read his blog is at: www.startgainingmomentum.com
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You should live your life like it starts at age 30.
Why age 30? Because before age 30 is when your brain is at its most malleable and your body at its peak, in terms of energy levels and adapting to change.
This has to do with a bunch of physiological factors. Three big ones are that: (1) homeostasis grows in strength with age, weakening your body’s tolerance to stress, (2) dopamine levels go down in the brain, making it harder to do creative work for long bursts of time, and (3) testosterone levels decline, lowering ambition and energy levels.
To make up for this natural decline, you want to maximize for the health of your brain and body after age 30.
This article is divided in two parts. The first part lays out helpful guidelines for how to live your life and manage your career up until age 30, while making use of the advantages of a youthful brain. The second part is about how to engineer your lifestyle for high mental engagement after age 30.
Part 1: Before Age 30 You Want to Maximize Your Chances of Becoming a Pioneer and Financially Independent
“A man’s character is formed before he is 30.”
The older you get, the harder it becomes to change.
Carve Out Your Character: Be Who You Want to Be By 30, or Else. . .
Napoleon said it. Lee Kuan Yew agreed. Neuroscience and biology indicate it, and I believe it.
The brain—including one’s personality, habits, and worldview—is most malleable before the age of somewhere around 25-35. So let’s call it age 30.
The philosopher William James (who lived between 1842 and 1910) wrote much about the phenomenon that we now know to be homeostasis. At that time, science had little information about the brain, the endocrine system, and the formation of habits. Still, James wrote:
“The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague.”
The big idea is to push yourself a little harder than what feels comfortable while you’re young and extra malleable. Then, when you’re older, it will become easier for you to go that extra mile and stay resilient to stress.
Broadly speaking, you want to: 1) Use your brain as much as you can, 2) Delve into new areas of knowledge, and 3) Deliberately incur stress on yourself and raise your pain-tolerance,
Sounds easy, except most people don’t do it because it goes against homeostasis (which wants you to stay in your comfort zone and perpetuate the body’s current feedback loops).
Craft Your Career: How to Maximize Your Youthful Brain and Become a Pioneer
Historically, most new inventions or innovations have been made by young people, typically no older than 30 years old.
The science philosopher Thomas Kuhn said, “Almost always the men who achieve fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.”
This is because young people are less cognitively blocked by outdated information from previous paradigms, and they have a higher degree of raw creativity. For example, consider these incredible achievements by young pioneers:
As an interesting side note: We just interviewed Nicholas Sundén-Cullberg, the co-founder of Lendify (one of the fastest growing fintech companies in Sweden), for our podcast. Nicholas was 30 when he quit Morgan-Stanley and started Lendify. The goal is to create a new segment for the Swedish financial market through peer-to-peer lending and it’s going well for them so far.
Anyway: This doesn’t mean you’re screwed if you haven’t created your magnum opus by age 30, but you need to understand that innovation becomes more likely than invention as you grow older.
Most “Post-30 Successes” Happen in Complex Fields
There’s a strong historic trend that people who succeed big (and become very rich or make a ground-breaking discovery) after the age of 30, typically do so in a complex field.
In slower-moving (established) fields such as business, politics, or older branches of science, you usually need to learn a lot more before you can contribute something new.
Will this trend go on? Yes. And it will only grow in power, because the bar continues to be pushed up higher in almost all existing areas of life.
Ever since the time of Isaac Newton (mid-17th century) the combined knowledge of science has roughly DOUBLED for every year. This means that every generation of scientists has had to solve more difficult problems than the last one.
In Newton’s time there was just one branch of science: Natural Philosophy. In 1995 there existed roughly 10,000 fields of specialty. No one knows the exact number today, but it’s a LOT more. If you’re a devious scientist, you can just make up your own title.
In 1905, Nobel-winning physicists (on average) made their breakthrough discoveries at the age of 37. In 1985, the corresponding age was 50. In chemistry, the age increased from 36 to 47 during the same period, and for medical scientists the age rose from 38 to 46.
This leads us to two implications: 1) It’s taking longer to become an innovator in the established fields of science because the basics—that you have to know just to keep up with others—are expanding and 2) By simple reasoning of supply and demand, we can see that for as long as the trend of over-specialization and increased complexity continues, there will be a premium on synthesis and the creative combining of existing ideas. That is: innovation over invention.
Pop culture scientists don’t invent anything new, they just popularize existing knowledge. I bet you 9 out of 10 people know who Neil Tyson Degrasse or Michio Kaku is, but don’t know who John von Neumann is. I’m sure you can think of many similar examples from areas you are familiar with… Now consider “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” or “Cross-fit”. Nothing new there for anyone who knows even the basics about psychology and fitness. Yet, both are remarkably successful franchise concepts.
Career Conclusions: Enter a New Area or Go With the 2X Rule
You should put yourself in a position where you have incentive to learn as much as possible. For example, by becoming a free agent, an entrepreneur, or by working for a small company where people let you execute on your ideas freely and you’re given a lot of responsibility.
If your interests are not related to business you should get involved in some (scientific) field where you have the opportunity to pursue your curiosity unhinged by bureaucracy, ideology, obsolete tradition, regulations, and other things that put your brain on a leash.
However—statistically speaking—the chances of you entering a new industry are low, because the school system is set up in such a way as to train you for the old established industries, where it’s harder to make an impact. School does not help you become an inventor or an innovator. Or an entrepreneur for that matter.
Assuming you’re under 30 and entering an established industry, you should follow the 2X Rule. This means your wage would have to be up to TWICE as high in order to justify working in an old industry or for a large hierarchical organization.
Let’s assume you don’t care about becoming a pioneer, an inventor, or an innovator; all you want is to make a lot of money and live the good life. Well, you should still go with the 2x Rule.
Why? Because most of the money being made right now (and in the foreseeable future) is in fields with new and fast-growing niches. These have a common denominator: most are in the intersection of science, finance, marketing, and online. To stereotype, let’s call it “Online X”.
The thing about “Online X” is that it’s a complex field; you need to understand how multiple pieces of the puzzle come together. This means you need either a strong talent for synthesis or (most likely) a couple of years’ experience before you stand a chance of making the big money.
So, the conclusion is pretty much the same: Try to get a head start and be willing to pay a premium for a steeper learning curve.
Now, let’s look at what NOT to do.
Top 3 Career Mistakes to Avoid
Do not: 1) Have a career in a field you’re not interested in, along substandard coworkers. 2) Go into an established industry or a bureaucratic research institution. 3)Take a monotonous entry-level job with low incentives for initiative (in exchange for a slightly higher starting salary). This is like shooting Future-You in the foot.
If you can just stay away from these herd behavior choices, you’ll do more than fine.
However, if you feel like maximizing. . .
High Probability Area of Success #1: Sales/Autonomy
Work in a small organization where you are given relatively free reins, so long as you provide results.
High Probability Area of Success #2: Top-Tier Firm
Work in an esteemed corporation/organization where you can learn from some of the best in the industry and gain valuable insights not easily available elsewhere (this is what Nicholas did).
High Probability Area of Success #3: Pioneer Path
Enter a new industry or field of research.
High Probability Area of Success #4: Free Agent/Entrepreneur
Become self-employed as soon as possible if you can combine it with maximizing your learning.
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Assuming you’ve taken one of these paths, and you’ve been able to put yourself in a position of power and upward acceleration by the time you’re around 30, what’s next?
Part 2: After Age 30 You Want to Maximize for the Health of Your Brain & Body
“When I’m bored, my sense of values goes to sleep. But it’s not dead, only asleep. A crisis can wake it up and make the world seem infinitely important and interesting. But what I need to learn is the trick of shaking them awake myself.”
The Four Pillars of Wakefulness
When you meet older people—over the age of 50—the first thing you notice is their level of energetic vitality; are they wakefully alive and mentally engaged, or are they subdued and passive? The biological tendency is toward the latter, and the extent to which a person is able to prevent this decay has to do with consistent upkeep of the four pillars of wakefulness.
The four pillars are novelty, variation, randomness, and goal-orientation. They are the main controllable forces which stimulate dopamine-release and keep your prefrontal cortex activated. They allow you to sustain a state of wakeful concentration throughout the day.
Here’s how I define each pillar:
- Novelty: Being exposed to new stimuli (people, environments, foods) or learning new things.
- Variation: Varying, changing, mixing, or shocking your routine behavior in some way.
- Randomness: Everything that manages to break the expectations of the neocortex’s predictive ability. Like humor or the unlikely outcome in a presidential election.
- Goal-orientation: Adjusting your behavior and delaying gratification in pursuit of a chosen outcome that is experienced as rewarding or meaningful.
[Your wakefulness and mental engagement can be likened to a temple held up by four pillars. If you do not tend to the upkeep of the pillars consistently, they will weaken and the temple will fall apart.]
Let’s look at how these four pillars act as strong motivators for different situations in ordinary life.
1. Novelty: Why Kids Are the Pickiest of All Consumers
Guess which is the most fast-changing industry when it comes to product innovation? It’s not computers and microprocessors. It’s the toy business!
Children get bored quickly. They are picky consumers who don’t put up with the same toys for long. For toy manufacturers to adjust to this, and keep up the production cycle, toys generally come without a return policy.
The reason children want new toys all the time is because their PFC is only in a rudimentary stage of development, with novelty being the main stimulatory force. When they get older, other functions—like decision-making and concentration—improve, and they become less reliant on just novelty.
2. Variation: How Christopher Nolan Got Famous Actors to Star in His Movies When he Was Still a Nobody
Christopher Nolan is a successful director who knows a lot about making popular movies. For instance: He knows that movies are an economic gamble and that getting a famous cast is the #1 factor in determining box office figures. So he makes sure to get A-list actors to star in his movies: Al Pacino in Insomnia, Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception, Christian Bale in Batman. The list goes on.
The question is: How did Nolan attract actors of that caliber when he wasn’t famous? He did it by targeting soon-to-be stereotyped actors and offering them a welcome variation in their work. (And probably also without them having to compromise their position by stepping down in pay-grade.)
Those actors were BORED, but they rationalized their boredom as a necessary evil in order to maintain their esteemed careers. When they laid eyes on Nolan’s script, they thought, “Oh, this is a chance for me to remain as a lead, but try out something new and exciting, and keep from being typecasted!”
3. Randomness: Why We Don’t Want to Know What’s Going to Happen
While we’re on the subject of movies, I should tell you that there’s a western film from the 90s called The Quick and the Dead. It features Russell Crowe, Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, and a young Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead parts.
The movie has a simple plot: You have a bunch of shady characters who’ve traveled to a western saloon town to take part in a dueling competition. Whoever draws their gun the fastest and shoots the other duelist wins the bout. Hence, the name of the movie.
What makes this movie stand out is its characteristic “bell-scenes”, which take place before each duel. And there are many duels, probably around 20. Now, it’s not that the bell is interesting in itself, but that its ringing sound becomes associated with the anticipation of not knowing what will happen next. Every time the bell rings you wonder who’s going to die.
This type of randomness can be addictive. This is why Homeostasis Dwellers (who lack self-control) are drawn to slot machines, video games, gambling sites, online news feeds, and secret new methods of speculating in the financial markets.
It’s also why people like to watch sports—especially fast-paced sports like basketball, fighting, and race sports—where it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen next. The revenues of Formula One went down like crazy during the period of 2002-2003 because the viewers (correctly) expected Michael Schumacher to win every time, and stopped watching.
4. Goal-Orientation: Why the Spartans Were Happier Than Many People Today Are
In many religions, there is a strong tradition of asceticism. Non-thinking followers are led to believe that abstaining from their desires will lead to them becoming more “holy”, which in turn will lead to something good. But they’re mistaking the cause for the effect.
It’s not that abstention and asceticism by default lead to a happy and meaningful life; it’s that having strong goals and convictions allow for these things to become meaningful. This is because delayed gratification in pursuit of a goal stimulates dopamine to the prefrontal cortex.
So when people today look at the Spartans and think, “oh, poor things, to be forced to live like that!” they’ve got it all wrong; the Spartans had a strong culture, a simple hierarchy, and clear convictions. The more likely scenario is that they derived a great sense of meaning and purpose from their ascetic practices.
Also: When we think about the Egyptians—and what an achievement the Pyramids are—we should think one step further, and ask ourselves how they were able to construct a society where the belief in an afterlife was perceived as so meaningful that they willingly suffered the opportunity cost of having tens of thousands of slaves working on something non-productive for hundreds of years.
What The Four Pillars of Wakefulness Mean for How You Should Live Your Life 1) Novelty: Is most easily available when you’re young, but it’s available later too for anyone who has at least a modest interest in learning, traveling, and experimenting. 2) Variation: Is the easiest of the four pillars to tend to, because not only is it wholly under your own control, but it’s also the one that you’re least likely to engage in by default. 3) Randomness: Becomes less available the older you grow, assuming that you’re getting wiser with age. Either way, it’s hard to infuse extra randomness into your life in a healthy and sustainable way (you don’t want to watch sports or gamble, but you might consider becoming a venture capitalist). 4) Goal-orientation: Remains at about the same level of control all throughout life, theoretically. But, in practice, it’s easier for most people to come up with meaningful goals when they’re young and haven’t achieved much yet.
Make a list with these four columns and add items to it continually over time.
This is a natural way to increase your baseline levels of intrinsic motivation. It’s most important for people older than 35 and for those who sit by the computer all day and don’t get exposed to a variety of different stimulation.
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This article was adapted from my new book Breaking out of Homeostasis: Achieve Mind-Body Mastery and Continue Evolving When Others Stagnate.
Breaking out of Homeostasis is the book to read for young men in a hurry to succeed but also for those who are in the middle of their career and feel like they’re stuck in a rut, or those who’ve made their fortune and want to improve their health and life quality.
It has received positive praise from people such as European hedge fund manager of the decade Mikael Syding, fasting innovator Martin Berkhan, and finance billionaire Martin Sandquist. You might like it too.