“Where is my arc?” | Random thoughts | Who I am | Yaniv Hamo

“Where is my arc?”

One of my favorite thinking exercises is about what it means to be living as opposed to merely exist. The essence of what separates the living from the grey masses. Working 9‐5, family and kids, watching TV and going on trips – does not make the cut. That’s what the masses are doing.

For years I used to think that the answer is “change”. If I change, then I am alive. If I keep stable, I am reduced to existing only. Biologist Jack Cohen phrased it nicely when he said “There is this special biologist word we use for 'stable'. It is 'dead'.”. Constantly changing, regularly getting out of one’s comfort zone, could be the key. So “living = changing”.

Then one day, at the annual motor show in Geneva, I saw something that has made me rethink this definition. What I saw was a Bugatti Veyron, completely made of blue carbon fiber, apparently manufactured especially for that exhibition. There was also a small price tag next to one of the wheels – it was to the tune of two million euros, nothing special here. What got me thinking was a small writing on the tag, in black pen – “sold”.

Someone was strolling around looking at the cars on display, liked the blue one, and then asked the attendant to please order it to go. There was one thing I could tell for sure about that someone, without knowing them – at some point in their lives, they did not work 9‐5 and watched TV with their family. They did something more. They could have inherited the money (although less than 10% of the multi‐ millionaires do), or they may have been top criminals, but if we assume for one moment they are self‐ made, honest people – and there are enough of these – then it becomes clear that what separates them from the crowd is: risk.

At some point, these individuals had to assume a non‐trivial risk. Otherwise, anyone would have made it. Risk is the fence that keeps the grey masses from exiting the meadows. People are afraid of taking risks, more than they are afraid to change. Afraid to put aside the safety of their 9‐5 jobs, be it even for one month. Yet achieving extraordinary things (and I am not talking about cars anymore) cannot be done from the comfort of a safe, ordinary life.

Since people can change in a variety of meaningless ways, thereby walking around my first definition, I changed it to “living = taking risks”. I was happy with this definition for a while. Recently I decided to replace it again. What bothered me the most about it, is that it implies that one needs to keep on assuming risks, otherwise they are “dead”. There is a better answer, one that was there in front of me the whole time.

Many of us study, or acquire skill, at one point in life. It takes several years of going through a learning curve with the help of a teacher or mentor, to reach the end where a profession awaits us. Acquiring a profession is pretty much mandatory in our society, not really up to us, so we just do it. But look around you, and count how many professionals you know who have assumed another 5+ years learning curve, when their income (survival) is no longer dependent on it.

Such individuals are becoming increasingly rare. In general, our attention span is shrinking, and just the thought of starting a 5 years path can cause some people to panic. Think about it – 20 years ago it was still common to write physical letters to one another. Multipage letters, full with colorful descriptions and decorations, text in the corners, text in diagonal, the page could take it all. Then we moved to emails. Lost the creativity in presentation, but retained most of the expressive power of the original letters.

Next came the SMS, and our brains started getting accustomed to splitting thoughts to 160 characters segments. After a while, reading a mass of text started to become a challenge, our brains got used to information in chunks of 160 characters and would dose off reading paper letters from the past. Twitter came with 140 character limit to relieve some of the processing pain. But it was Facebook who popularized the shortest unit of communication ‐ “Like”. Now we can communicate using just one bit, which reduces our attention span even more.

Short attention span demands immediate satisfaction, our brain is constantly seeking external stimulation to keep interested, this constant stream of small chunks of information. A study I recently read shows that while watching a video, the brain activity spikes whenever there is a new scene. While keeping at the same scene, it gradually lessens. Producers of movies and commercials know and exploit this fact – they use frequent cuts and fast camera movements to keep giving our brains these addictive spikes. Otherwise, we will wander off. Put on an action movie from the 80’s, say “The Escape from New York”, and you’ll see what I mean.

To transcend from existing as a reactive entity, digesting and emitting small chunks of information, to a living human being, we need an arc. We need to be on a learning curve, a 5+ years path in which we persist amidst the increasing background noise of modern life. When we reach the end of that curve, we need to assume another one lest we fall into the abyss of the grey masses. There are plenty of learning curves around, covering all disciplines. I picked the one of trading the financial markets. To paraphrase on the words of Christopher from The Sopranos ‐ where is your arc?