How I think about salary

Nobody gets rich from a salary.

Aggressive statement; it warrants some definitions. A salary, broadly speaking, is compensation for your labor — for your input into the machination of a company. The same is true for a hourly wage, except the relationship is more obvious there.

People join companies to magnify their efforts — to get leverage in the output. If you improve something 1% in your life, you might not notice it. If you improve something 1% for millions of people, that can translate into thousands or millions of dollars. Often, that’s real value creation, and, if the company is any good, it captures some of that value and translates it into wealth.

Wealth is freedom — the freedom to apply it to do something, and the freedom from having to do something you don’t want to. In the world of business, wealth comes from ownership. You can design and ship a 1% improvement, create millions of dollars of value, and capture it within a few days. Owning, say, 0.1% of the company that enabled you to do so allows you to personally capture some of that value. This compounds in many ways.

In general, a bump in salary leads to a commensurate bump in spending. On average, a higher salary lets you buy a more expensive lifestyle (which isn’t inherently bad), but it doesn’t create more value or more freedom.

Instead, think of salary as a tool to cover your downside risk. Sufficient salary allows you to avoid going into debt, and allows you to buy the experiences, environments, and things that bring you joy, keep you healthy, and drive your productivity. Once that’s met, optimize for finding a great company.

(All of this takes a backseat if you’re carrying debt with an interest rate. In that case, you’ll probably want to optimize for salary and pay that down first).

Personal Lessons from Taking Over SXSW

I just got back from taking over SXSW with Trustwork. It was an exhausting eight-day marathon, complete with an air mattress in the office, questionable food, and hundreds of rejections a day. I wouldn’t want to do it again. Despite all that, it was a fantastic experience, and I’m really glad it happened.

For reference — Trustwork is essentially a jobs marketplace, backed by professional profiles for each user. It’s like the marketplace of Craigslist plus the reputation of LinkedIn plus the on-demand aspect of Uber. For the past week, our team of 20 stood on various street corners in downtown Austin giving out a variety of free stuff in exchange for user signups, one at a time. Most days were 10+ hours across a day shift and night shift; at our best we were sustaining over 200 signups an hour.

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Our five giveaways, which played into a scavenger hunt with a mystery box at the end

Rejection

At some point on the second day, rejections started feeling normal. When someone said no to a free bag, it stopped feeling like a personal failure; I’d simply move on to the next person walking over. This was due in part to a natural detachment (more on this below), but mainly my track record — I knew that every few minutes, someone would come along who would say Yes and sign up. All those rejections in between were simply part of the process to getting to that Yes.

To be entirely fair: we had a signup goal each day, but we didn’t have anything personal on the line. We weren’t being paid per signup, or per day. We didn’t need to get Yeses so we could afford food or shelter. But none of us wanted to let the team down, and unlike hired/outsourced teams, it was our company.

Beginning with day three, I kept a personal rejection quota in mind — my goal was to get at least 200 rejections (an arbitrarily-chose number). I didn’t really keep track during the day; it was intended more as a way to prime my mind than an actual goal.

At some point I realized that the people passing by were only rejecting what I had to offer. It wasn’t personal; they were saying no to “free shirt?”, not me. This led to a natural detachment made it easy to de-personalize each rejection.

I spent time working each giveaway station, and came to see that the rejection rate varied dramatically based on the item and positioning. Free pizza and cupcakes were easiest. Free photos (akin to a mobile photo booth) were the hardest; we fell flat, and axed the idea halfway through the first day. (Photo booth was later resurrected as the hardest-to-find item on the scavenger hunt, to greater success.)

Finally, sometimes the rejections were downright funny. A sampling:

  • To “Free photo?”: “I can take my own **** photo”
  • To “Free cupcake?”: “I ain’t eatin’ that shit!”
  • To “Do you have a phone [for free pizza]?”: “No man, I lost it last night tripping hard on acid”
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Free cupcakes drew crowds

Personal Interactions

Sometimes, a Yes turns into a great interaction, in a variety of ways:

  • People have interesting stuff on their phones. Typing in “tr”, some brought up Trump results. Others surfaced a search for “trust fund baby”. Adult content, unsurprisingly, made an appearance as well.
  • Sometimes we’d ask people to add a profile photo. Many people took selfies on the spot, and posed in a variety of ways. Occasionally, they’d want to take a selfie with us. After one particular photo I took with a guy, he said “dang, you look like a damn model!”
  • The first step in our signup asks for a phone number. One guy saw that we were successfully exchanging pizza for numbers, asked us for an empty box, and proceeded to go around trying (unsuccessfully) to get phone numbers until I asked him to do that somewhere else.
  • A few days in, a group of guys came by and said “You guys are legends!” They’d gotten the free cupcakes, limo ride, and shirt, and told us that Trustwork made them think of “hustling entrepreneurs”.
  • Free pizza and free limo rides offered to a late-night crowd led to some interesting interactions. Details are left to the imagination.
  • I found myself matching the volume and mannerisms of the people I talked to. I slipped into more accents than I thought possible, and said “hey man” (which I normally never use) enough times to embarrass a hippie.
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We signed up a wide variety of people (as intended)

Satisfaction

The combination of late-night shifts and activation energy (the willpower needed to prime my mind at the start of each shift) made for an exhausting week. But on balance, the entire experience was deeply satisfying, and I’m very happy to have done it.

Something really interesting happens when you work closely with a group of people and share in the struggle of a difficult task. At some point, quite suddenly, people let down their guard, and you get to know what they’re like at a more human level. This leads to better stories, funnier jokes, and shifts the balance of selective memory (more on this below).

Across hundreds of interactions with strangers, I was fortunate to make a bunch of observations on human behavior and how people used their phones. More on this in Part 2.

Most of those interactions were a net positive — ranging from the satisfaction of closing a Yes, the incredulity when people realized we were giving away free pizza (I was asked “why are you doing this?” several times), and the excitement of our scavenger hunt winners. This further shifts the balance of selective memory and contributes to that feeling of deep satisfaction.

Since each interaction was relatively quick and occurred frequently, it formed a rapid feedback loop allowing me to improve my pitch and selling ability. I settled on three versions of my pitch, tailored to different listeners and varying in complexity, and committed them to muscle memory so I could focus on other interaction details (identifying who was interested, who had the slowest phone in a group, and loading the signup page on my phone to make it easy to set everyone up). Mastering the pitch allowed me to get into a state of flow when interacting with a group of people, and it was exhilarating to perfectly narrate and time the pitch and signup process across a group of three or four people.

Coming into this week, I would not have thought that street-corner sales was something that I could do. I’m happy to have proven myself wrong — to know that it’s something I’m capable of doing, and that I even enjoy it.

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Working hard or hardly working?

Selective Memory

Selective memory is an extension of the idea that people remember how they felt, but not the details, as well as the peak-end rule. If you know yourself well, you’ll know the types of details that you’ll remember and forget after an experience is over. For example, I know I’ll remember the conversations where everyone can’t stop laughing, the satisfaction of delivering joy to strangers, and discovering cool restaurants in a new city — but I’ll forget the hassle of setting up an air mattress each night.

If you’re deciding whether to do something, selective memory can be used as a framework (possibly in combination with fear-setting) to discount certain aspects of the experience to determine if it will be a net positive.

Stuff

I’ve moved 8 times in the last 6 years. Every time, I somehow manage to package my life into a few boxes, bags, and loose bundles of stuff. Every time, it seems simple at first — looking around, I have a cup on the counter, some spices, tea, and chocolate in the cabinet, a few scant pieces of furniture, and seemingly not much else. A few shelves’ worth of books, some toiletries, and cookware. Oh, and a full closet of clothes (plus overflow on a shelf, on the floor, or left in the dryer from the last time I did laundry) … the sheer amount of stuff I have only becomes apparent as I take everything out of its hiding place in drawers, shelves, and nooks, laying it bare on my countertop and floor.

I’m very conscious of this because I don’t like having stuff. I certainly like the idea of having less stuff in my life, and often wish I had fewer, painstakingly-researched items rather than the smorgasbord of mismatches and seemed-like-a-good-deal-at-the-time things I’ve somehow accumulated. Carrying around a bunch of stuff that doesn’t inspire joy feels oppressive, almost as if the items have become an unpleasant part of my identity. It probably doesn’t help that every time I pick up an item, my mind starts thinking about how I could use the thing in the future, or what-ifs where I would need the thing, overlooking the fact that I haven’t actually used the thing in years.

During my most recent move, I got rid anything that I hadn’t used in the past year, although there were certainly many times when I tried very hard to talk myself out of doing so. Now that it’s done, I’m glad to have been able to get rid of a small closet’s worth of stuff. Next, as I unpack, I’m planning to go through everything meticulously, and hope to repeat that accomplishment.

Deleting Facebook

A week ago I deactivated my Facebook. It’s tempting to indulge in hyperbole and say that it’s the best thing I’ve done for my life, but I don’t feel any different. And I think that’s the point.

After college, I moved across the country, and my mindshare shifted dramatically to figuring out how to be a functioning adult. My Facebook feed started to feel quaint, irrelevant, sometimes inane. At one point, I moved and had to wait a few weeks to get internet setup at my new apartment; not having internet made it easy to not come back to Big Blue.

(Years ago, I ran out of space on my phone while taking photos. Facebook was the first app I deleted to free up space, and I’ve never re-installed it).

When I did come back, I had a big number in the notifications badge. Each seemed mundane, not worthy of a notification. This was especially pronounced since many of the notifications were about things that had happened weeks ago — clicking through the old notifications broke the dopamine feedback cycle for me, as I started associating notifications with irrelevance.

This pattern continued, more or less, over the past two years. The emails were easy to filter out. Every time I visited the site, I wondered why I was there. Occasionally, I’d visit to post something, or start writing a comment, before I’d snap awake and realize there’s no value in doing so, besides collecting a few ephemeral internet points. Definitely not worth the ding to my RescueTime score.

After coming back to a few generic notifications yet again after a week away, I decided to get rid of the temptation — like any sort of vice, I knew that having an account meant I would always be tempted to click in. Deactivating, while not technically deleting my account, would provide a psychological barrier if I tried to go back. Seeing the login page would trigger my competitive desire to maintain my streak. For me, that’s a much stronger force than the temptation to check my notifications.

So far, life doesn’t feel any different. Nothing has broken. Big Blue has disappeared from my “Frequently Visited” list. All the people I talk to are still on iMessage (and the occasional email), as they have been for years. All the photos I care to share with family and friends are polished and saved on Flickr, as I’ve been doing for years. Twitter has been great for connecting with friends, acquaintances, and strangers over topics that I’m genuinely interested in.

But I feel a little more in control of my mind. And — if happiness is reality minus expectations — by eliminating a source of false expectations, a little happier as well.