I was digging through some old posts recently and it occurred to me that I’ve been doing this ‘job-free’ thing for quite a while!
A few years have passed since I started the blog and even longer since I started living a job-free lifestyle.
A lot has changed since then and I thought a bit of an update was in order. So I wrote a really long one.
I was motivated to write this as a kind of accountability exercise as I’ve got some pretty ambitious goals and it’s time to make them public so at least a few people can make fun of me if I don’t live up to my own hype!
I hope this doesn’t come off as too self-indulgent as it’s all about me and some of my idiosyncrasies/obsessions rather than ‘nuts and bolts’ material on quitting the rat race. On the other hand, I’ve really benefitted from hearing other people’s accounts of how they worked towards finding a life purpose, so perhaps reading this update to my story might help you to get closer to understanding your own ‘big picture’.
Maybe it will even be the little nudge you need to spur you into action towards achieving your own audacious goal. After all, you mustn’t die with your music still in you.
As a bonus (if you make it to the end, that is) you might even get to learn how much of a strange man I really am!
Anyway, hold on to your hats – shit’s about to get philosophical…
Sometimes it seems like all I care about is money and micro-entrepreneurship. I know, I know… how dull! I suppose I talk and write about both subjects quite a lot, so you could be forgiven for coming to that conclusion.
And then there’s this idea of ‘freedom’ and its close cousin ‘autonomy’. I’d understand if you thought I was obsessed with these concepts too. After all, the idea of personal ‘liberation’ is baked right in to the name of this site.
I can’t deny it. The topics I’ve mentioned so far are all really important to me.
But talking to me about getting free from the rat race using smart money management and calculated risk taking will only scratch the surface if you really want to find out what I’m all about.
In fact, shaking off the daily grind and freeing up a large chunk of your life is pretty straightforward. Not easy. Bloody hard work actually. But not complicated.
The difficult part, at least in my experience, has been the quest for self-actualisation upon which I’ve had the time to embark since the last time I had a full-time job in 2012.
So let’s talk about that.
I believe in luck.
Well, obviously luck exists. Sometimes we’re lucky and sometimes we’re not. But I mean that I believe luck is a relevant factor in how things turn out.
It’s a weird thing to focus on when you’re usually screaming at people to work on developing an internal locus of control and stop whining about the state of the world.
But it’s important – because I am one very lucky person. I’m lucky because I have a lot of choices.
OK, I have choices because I did the engineering degree, got the well-paid skills and saved some money. But it’s very easy to argue that I only had the choices to do those things because I live in the UK, was born with a brain which could grasp second order differential equations and had a mum and dad who gave a shit about me. That’s a debate for a different day though…
Having choices is great. I hope I always have choices. But, the (First World) problem, it would seem, inherent to engineering your life to give you a lot of choices, is that, wait for it… you end up with too many choices!
I’ve mentioned before that I recognise in myself many of the traits implied by the label multipotentialite. I’m interested to some degree in almost everything, I think I’m quite creative, I have a habit of getting bored as soon as I’ve learned the fun bits and I’m a nightmare to manage!
This is obviously a double-edged sword.
If you want to know something superficial about any one of about a hundred different fields, I could probably tell you about it. I know a little about a lot of wacky things.
On the other hand, if you want me to actually finish something (and you’re not paying me to do it!) then you might be out of luck.
To illustrate my tendency to flit between interests, here’s a taste of some of the things that have occupied the ‘doing whatever I want’ part of my life for the last few years:
In 2012 I started, and subsequently bailed out of, one PhD programme (computational thermal modelling). In 2015-16 I was in talks with an academic from my alma mater about another possible PhD project more closely related to my real academic interests (computational neuroscience – see below). I didn’t do it because… FaderMate (also see below).
My Dropbox account is literally full of folders (50?) relating to business ideas ranging from side hustles all the way up to moonshot R & D projects which would require massive amounts of venture capital to get off the ground. Each time I’ve had a new idea, I’ve spent a couple of weeks dancing excitedly around the co-working space, plotting out the details with one of my friends whilst gesticulating wildly, much to the amusement of all of the ‘normal’ people.
I’ve read a lot of books. I’ve even started writing some. I still can’t quite put down the idea that I’ll write a book one day.
I’ve imagined parallel lives where I’m a sophisticated professional gambler using proprietary machine learning techniques to beat the bookmakers or a seed stage private equity investor in the tech industry backing crazy sci-fi-esque ideas.
There’s even my little music hobby. I know that it’s not what I want to devote my life to (and I’m not very good at it either!) though I do sometimes find myself picking up my guitar and writing every night for a fortnight.
However, despite all of these interests and the fact that the period between my late 20s and mid 30s has been one of the most prolific times for idea generation I’ve ever experienced, I have to admit that prior to about 2018 I was feeling a little at a loss when it came to working out how I wanted to spend the next few years.
What I now consider to be ‘the answer’ began to emerge gradually whilst I alternated between
- trying things
- fretting anxiously about the fact I wasn’t currently trying something and;
- reading about something I might want to try
But the epiphany really arrived with a bump when I immersed myself in actually seeing something through right to the end.
That’s right – not starting something and then getting bored, but making a commitment to another human being to finish something and then doing it!
You might remember that FaderMate is a niche electronic product in which my company owns a stake (I actually own all of the software and firmware intellectual property and licence it exclusively to the company which manufactures the product).
Developing the product was challenging, frustrating and fun. In fact it ticked a lot of boxes for me:
- It was technically interesting
- I got to meet some cool people
- The ‘problem domain’ is the professional recording studio environment (awesome for a musician/rock and roll nerd like me)
- I didn’t need it to succeed in order to eat
The licence fees I receive for FaderMate product sales certainly reduce the amount of consultancy work I need to do to survive, although I doubt we’ll ever sell enough product to allow me to live entirely on the proceeds.
But the real benefit I took away from the project was that it helped me to decide how I (currently believe I) want to direct my creative energy for the foreseeable future.
You see, even though I didn’t need FaderMate to be successful, it seems that the good old profit motive (coupled with the desire to keep some promises) was enough to keep me focussed on a single complex project for 2 years, until we got the product on the market.
So, that’s the answer then right? I should just design niche electronic/software products as a joint venture partner for the rest of my adult life and then I’ll be eternally happy?
Well, yes and no.
I’ve got a few really close friends. What marks them out in my head as ‘close’ friends, besides the fact that we quite like each other of course, is that I’ve had a particular debate with all of them. The two sides of the argument go roughly like this:
If you want to live a fulfilling life, make it so that you have autonomy, do work that you enjoy and get into flow state for a few hours every day.
You don’t need to be working towards an overarching goal. Just enough small goals (like a project or business you’re currently working on) to keep your day-to-day challenge level up will do.
An ongoing sense of fulfillment will emerge as a side effect of just doing this.
And the other side…
Whilst you should aim to make your day-to-day experience enjoyable by keeping a near-term focus and aiming to get into flow state regularly, this is only a necessary condition for feeling truly fulfilled. It is not sufficient.
In order to feel truly, continuously fulfilled, the daily challenges must be in pursuit of something ‘bigger’ (some dent you want to make in the world).
As you might have guessed, I believe in the second argument.
I’ve always needed to answer the question ‘why am I doing this?’ or ‘to what end?’ and, no matter how much I understand that ‘to keep you happy day-to-day’ is a valid answer, that’s always seemed really unsatisfactory to me.
For better or worse, I’ve always had my head in the clouds, dreaming of something big. In fact big won’t quite cut it. It has to be something big which sounds absolutely crazy.
And so the time has come. Level-headed, positive thinking, rational Andy is going to reveal exactly which part of the lunatic fringe he comes from…
My neighbourhood in the lunatic fringe has a few illustrious residents. They’re a heterogeneous bunch, but they’ve all got something in common: they’re interested in overcoming the limitations inherent to being a biological human using engineering.
To be explicit, I’m interested in transhumanism (particularly ideas related to radical life extension and whole brain emulation) and, in learning about those things over the last 15 years, I’ve come across such crazy geniuses as:
- Ray Kurzweil. Futurist. Wrote The Singularity is Near which was my first exposure to transhumanism and the idea that it might be possible to make the human body less shit by designing cool things like robotic red blood cells.
- Aubrey de Grey. Impressive wizard beard wearer. On a quest to cure aging. Sunk the majority of his 8 figure inheritance into the SENS Research Foundation which he also co-founded. Wrote Ending Aging which I read on the beach at Woolacombe eating fish and chips while everybody else was surfing – I’m not a nerd at all 😉
- Ken Hayworth. Takes very sophisticated pictures of very thin slices of brains. The Brain Preservation Foundation of which he is President sponsors the Brain Preservation Prize.
- Randal Koene. Probably the one I’d most like to be friends with. Founded Carboncopies and is dedicated to the goal of making it possible to emulate whole individual human brains (think living forever inside a computer). Founding scientific advisor at Kernel which was seed funded by…
- Bryan Johnson. Almost billionaire. Invested $100M US of his own fortune into Kernel. Keen on interfacing human brains and computers. Personal website contains the following Kierkegaard quote which basically sums up the meaning of life to me:
To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose one’s self…and to venture in the highest sense is precisely to become conscious of one’s self.
- Nick Bostrom. Philosopher of technology and proposer of The Simulation Argument which got me interested in both virtual reality and metaphysics (my gateway drug to an interest in philosophy)
- Elon Musk. Needs no introduction. Says things like ‘let’s go to Mars’ and then either makes it happen or fails spectacularly. Disliked by some. Now also in to building brain-computer interfaces. Not the most laid back boss, apparently.
- Tim Urban. Blogger who has a couple more readers than I do (mailing list of half a million people, give or take). Learns and writes about the more sci-fi end of possible future technologies amongst many other interesting topics. A smart guy who just generally ‘gets it’.
Well, I believe that they might hold (between them) the answer to the next question.
I’ll try to explain.
I think I’ve dealt with the ‘how can I enjoy the rest of the individual days in my life?’ question (assuming that I don’t do anything stupid like forgetting to exercise). I need to keep doing challenging projects which I see through to completion with people I respect.
But I currently feel like my sci-fi fantasies about living forever inside a computer simulation might be an answer to ‘why?’. I appreciate that what I just wrote probably sounds absolutely… fucking… crazy.
But give me a couple of minutes to at least get what’s in my head into words.
I mentioned earlier in the article that a few years ago, I’d started to tee up a PhD project in computational neuroscience. At the time, I was thinking something like
I think I’d get meaning and fulfillment from taking a bite (however small) out of the ‘how do you copy a human brain into a computer so that the consciousness gets transferred?’ question.
I’ve got about 60% of my productive adult life to devote to this (the other 40% is required for earning money to keep the kids alive).
There was definitely a voice in the back of my head saying
That’s not making a dent in the world you idiot! Even in 40 years of being a part-time, privately-funded researcher, you’d barely contribute anything to the field.
You will have absolutely no effect upon making this wacky idea real.
And another voice saying
Are you kidding me?
You, Andy sticking at something so specialised for the rest of your life when you’re interested in almost everything in the entire world. What the fuck have you been smoking?
But then I started to put together a few different concepts.
I mentioned SENS Research Foundation previously. Well, that is a serious research organisation, but one that is admittedly at the ‘adventurous’ edge of the mainstream to say the least. It is vastly underfunded when you consider what the organisation’s raison d’etre is.
But, imagine if SENS suddenly inherited the entire estate of somebody like Warren Buffett. Billions upon billions of dollars. What could it accomplish then?
And then think about Aubrey de Grey.
He could have bought a lot of ‘comfort’ with the $13m of his inheritance he sunk into SENS. At least a big mansion and being ‘comfortably’ FI with the lifestyle of an aristocrat. But he didn’t. He took what was basically an ovarian lottery win and put his money where his mouth is. He wants to cure aging so he put almost every penny into finding cures for aging.
Arguably, the $13m is just noise compared to the trillions required to start making people live healthily to the age of 200, but that doesn’t mean that de Grey is not a pioneer on the leading edge of that technological achievement.
Thinking about SENS got me thinking about my own ‘what would I do if I won the lottery?’ question.
Just to make it clear, of course I don’t play the lottery – that would be ridiculous. I mean ‘what would I do with a ridiculously big windfall?’.
Well, we’ve already established which dent I’d like to see made in the world: progress towards whole brain emulation.
And we’ve also established that me being a researcher in the field is not going to make that progress happen appreciably faster.
That’s it – I’d take enough of the lottery winnings to mean I was modestly (as in keeping my 10 year old car!) FI and then either donate the rest to an organisation like Carboncopies or set up a charitable foundation to manage the money and use the investment returns to fund the research (assuming it was enough money to make this sensible).
OK. Thought experiment over. Back down to Earth with a bump! This is my ‘actually doing things rather than speculating’ blog so lottery winning/waiting for a windfall will never be part of the plan.
But what could I achieve if I tried? What dent could I make in my chosen problem?
I’m never going to be a Bryan Johnson or an Elon Musk, if for no other reason than I’m never going to cede my hard won autonomy to the venture capitalist dominated board of a moonshot startup that might make me a billionaire.
Beyond that reason, the vast majority of moonshots fail anyway (and we only hear about the Musks and Johnsons) so going down that path is almost a guarantee that I’d be starting from scratch again in 5 years.
However, I currently put 60% of my full-time work schedule (I was never really semi-retired for very long 😉 ) into speculative ventures like Rebo and FaderMate. I enjoy doing this for its own sake. It’s on my terms and I have almost zero downside risk.
So… what if I just keep doing that for the next 20 or 30 years? That is: carry on the ‘Millionaire Next Door’ lifestyle of living way more frugally than I can afford to, bootstrapping niche product businesses and then reinvesting all of the profits (above the £40-50k a year I need) into similarly risky projects to achieve a high expected rate of return.
If I run out of opportunities to invest in my own businesses, I’ll switch to seed stage private equity (tech industry) investing (via fund managers at first) to effectively outsource the entrepreneurship to other people.
Fast forward 30 years.
I’ve done a shit ton of products. Some have succeeded, some have failed. But overall, I’ve made a lot of money. A lot is still invested in the business. Some is in my early stage private equity portfolio and all proceeds from ‘exits’ just get fed back in to new investments. Perhaps if I’m rich enough, I’ve even started a seed fund of my own.
The business is entirely managed by other people.
Imagine if I could generate roughly a 20% internal rate of return on my wealth (not crazy for a diverse angel portfolio or a successful small business). Well, assuming I could turn the returns into cashflow (dividends from the business + exit proceeds from the angel portfolio)… I would have the mother of all cash cows.
50 full-time researchers. What would they cost? Let’s call it £100k a year each (£40k salary + expenses + equipment costs?) so £5 million per year altogether.
The total wealth required would be in the region of £5 million / 0.2 = £25 million.
So there you have it.
I think I’m publicly stating an aim to accumulate wealth of about £25 million (2019 pounds) by the time I’m in my mid-sixties by making niche products about which I’m passionate and investing all surplus income in other high risk ventures.
When the machine is generating enough cash to start making something like a reasonable dent in the problem I’m interested in solving, the donations can begin.
Mmm… sounds doable.
Bloody hell! That was a long post and I think I’ve just surrendered any appearance of sanity I had to begin with 🙂
Anyway, I’d be interested to hear what you think. I left out a lot of details and could have written three times as much so I fully expect to be quizzed.