What I’ve Learned From: Raising a Daughter (so far)

About halfway through my hedge fund job, I lost my Xiaomi phone with the first six months of my daughter’s life in photos.

Six months old is a time when you can leave your child in the morning, and come back in the evening to perceive that she’s changed in all sorts of subtle ways – mannerisms, appearance, skills.

Like a fool, I hadn’t backed up any of the pictures, and it literally felt like I had no accounting of the last six months of my life – and hers.  This was still when I was working two jobs, so admittedly, I hadn’t been spending much time with her besides in the evenings.  I felt deprived and hollow.

This wasn’t the only reason, but it was a catalyst in a series of events that led me, a few months later, to quit my budding finance career.  I became a work-at-home-stay-at-home dad, at least in the afternoons.

And for the last three and a half years, I’ve taken care of her every day, for at least half of every day.  Playgrounds, playrooms, parks, bike rides, reading stories, swimming, etc.

Looking through my journals over the past three years, I’ve been astounded at how little I seem to have “accomplished”.

Because compared to my earlier years, I don’t have many notches.  And it was only after a momentary bit of confusion that I realized all the time had gone into raising a certain little rascal.

In many ways, you feel the presence of time when you have a child.  You hear that children bring you into the present, but you have no idea what that means until you have one.

They have no sense of past or future, everything is in the present.  Everything that is in front of them, including you, is their entire world, their here and now.  They emote with their whole bodies.  Their joy cannot be contained, they cannot help but to jump and shout.  When they’re sad, they curl up into balls.  They grow rigid and tense when fearful.  They droop and wilt, almost like flowers.  They cannot mean one thing and emote or say another.

They’re sheer expressions of energy and emotion, and if you forgot what things like joy, curiosity, excitement, and grateful mean, they’ll remind you.

In order to engage with them, you will bring yourself into the present too.  You can’t console a crying child with your mind on something else.  There is no meditation quite like holding a sleeping baby and peering into her face.  And negotiating meals, baths, and screen time against little machines designed to look for loopholes and the slightest contradiction, is no task for a distracted mind.  So yes, they bring you into the present.

And when you look back at that time spent raising them, you have to use an alternate measuring stick to keep track of your “accomplishments”.  I’m not sure I “accomplished” very much.  But every day, week, month, and year was full of drama, excitement, small terrors, triumphs, and wonderment.  It passed in a flash.  She’s so big, she’s a little miracle.  She’s our joy.  I didn’t accomplish anything, I just – lived.

*******

Parenting is immensely hard.  I know all the cliches about this, but let me explain why parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world.

I see my peers dread the weekends and look forward to Mondays, the direct opposite of when you’re single.  Why?

The things that comprise job satisfaction in the workplace are well-documented.  It’s not necessarily money.  They’re jobs that give you a sense of autonomy, mastery, flow.  These things give you a sense of progress and growth, and boost morale.  And if you’re far enough into a career, then you have at least one or a combination of them.

In parenting you have none of the above.

Autonomy?  Not when you have a tiny being dependent on you for food and shelter 24 hours every day.  Having even 15 minutes alone is a relief, parents take long showers for this reason.  Parenting is a marathon energy drain by a million cuts.  It’s maintaining a simmering tension and attention on them, 24/7.  When they’re really little, it’s hard to even go to the bathroom by yourself, let alone “go home” at the end of the day.  You can’t sleep to “turn off”, because they’re waking you up every two hours.  And at 5am, they’ll do a wind sprint into your room and ask to play, as energized as you would be after downing a caffeinated pitcher of something.

Mastery?  Ask any parent if they feel like they’ve “mastered” being a parent to get a full-throated laugh in your face.  Raising kids is like playing ten games of whack-a-mole simultaneously – you think you’ve gotten the hang of feeding them, they get fussy with their sleep.  You toilet train them, but now they throw tantrums for no reason.  You think they’ve started getting articulate, then they start throwing you attitude and using bad phrases they somehow picked up from hearing one time randomly on the radio.  They get picky with their food, they ask for inordinate amounts of screen time.  They regress, they have no sense of reason or logic, they cannot explain things to you, and their brains are literally exploding with neuron growth every second of every day.  And…there’s no  measuring stick.  No one to tell you or give you feedback about how good of a job you’re doing.  Your boss is the baby, and she doesn’t do evaluations.

Flow?  When you’re interrupted every minute because their sense of time is such that one hour to them is like one week to you?  No.  Your only uninterrupted time will be at 4am before they get up, or near midnight after they’re deep in their REM cycles.  Or after they’re in school.  School = daycare.

The reality is that I’m not sure everyone will think it’s worth it.  For me it is, because what else am I going to do, ha.

In all seriousness, being a parent is a choice.  I’m convinced there’s no right amount of time you need to spend with your kids, nor one right way to do it.

*******

Naval Ravikant says about happiness and diets, that there is no single truth to them, otherwise there wouldn’t be millions of books continuously published on them.  It’s the same thing when it comes to modern parenting.

When you’re a parent, you’re bombarded with hundreds of different ways to, well, do anything: feed them, put them to sleep, talk to and educate them.  These books and methods seem to be written mostly by people whose sole qualification is the fact that they’ve had kids, sometime in the distant past, and have idealized memories of the experience.  There is no barrier to entry in this literature, and anyone can feed on the anxious mind of a first-time parent.

Of all the things that are “supposed” to work but that didn’t work for us, of which there are many, was the genius idea that you’re supposed to lock away an infant in a dark room by herself, let her cry for you, until she learns that you won’t come back.  Only then, are we told, will she learn to sleep through the night.  The same for naps.  And if you don’t do this, supposedly it impacts their ability to become an independently functioning human being later on in life.

This is the “cry-it-out” method, or in languages other than English, “child abuse”.  If it sounds ludicrous to non-parents, it’s because it is, and if you’re a parent you know that this germ of an idea is prevalent in the literature.

We tried it.  For years.  The first clue that it didn’t work, should have been the fact that she didn’t stop crying after 30 to 45 minutes.  Sometimes she would cry for over an hour before falling asleep from pure exhaustion.  She wasn’t tired, you say?  Well, the experts also say that you have to put them to sleep at the same time every night, so there’s that..

It should also have been a clue that as an 18-month old, she developed the ability to climb the steep poles of her crib and fling herself over 3 feet of railing and land on hard tile, unscathed.  Or that at the same age, she learned to climb over the crib, stand atop an air filter, and open a closed door to peer out at us while precariously perched on a level above her standing height.  It could also have been a clue that no matter how hard we tried to “walk her back to her room”, as you’re supposed to do, she would end up asleep in the living room or next to the office, to be as close to us as possible.  And that no matter how many times we walked her back, trying cajolery and punishments, she would wake up terrified and call for us.

It is my embarrassment that we tried this horrifyingly inane “method” for as long as we did, indoctrinated as we were by “experts”: i.e., parents who did this with their own children and are trying to self-justify and absolve themselves by cloaking it in pseudo-psychological nonsense.  I’m sure it works for many people.  But not all people are the same, nor are their kids.

Looking back, this is one of my only regrets about her upbringing.

One economic principle of life is to be aware and cautious of, is the misalignment of incentives.  The modern parenting-industrial complex is one rife with them.

Kids are the ones “consuming” the product of daycare and educational programs, but parents are the ones paying for them.  Self-professed “experts” and psychologists are the ones peddling half-baked ideas about parenting and child psychology, and other families bear the costs to implement them.

There are all sorts of self-promoters out there.  You would think that in the field of parents and children, there would be governmental protections against these kinds of charlatans.  But there aren’t.

In this, as in all aspects of life, the only way forward is to think.  And treat experts as those with just another opinion.  Take their opinions into account, but do what works best for you and your child.

*******

Parenting is a choice, but you could also argue it’s a biological imperative.  I guess.  Something like patriotism, but at the homo sapiens level.

Though if you take this to the next level, in biology there’s also the concept of extinctions – meaning, why would there be any particular reason our species has to keep going?

Anyway, all this is to say, when you get the readings for your second daughter, and you see that she has chromosomal abnormalities, meaning that she’ll be developmentally disabled  – you make the choice to keep her.

It’s hard, but she’ll be our joy, and that’s once again, our choice 🙂

De-Retiring

My wife and I fully bought into the philosophy of early retirement.  Amass enough financial assets that generate income, calibrate spending so it’s under that, and you’ll be free.

But, we knew we couldn’t be completely idle.  Two years ago, we quit our existing jobs and built/acquired a few online businesses, so that we could each work maybe ~10 hours a week and keep our minds fresh.

In the rest of the time, we’d spend time with our daughter, read, exercise, and do things that were fulfilling.

It sounded great at the time.

But it wasn’t.

What happened is that by going into “early” retirement, my mindset shifted from that of a striver, to that of a maintainer (of the status quo).

The shift is subtle but insidious.  After all, when you’ve reached the supposed finish line, how can the mind or body not help but let up a bit?

I’ve found myself approaching things with less rigor, less intense concentration than before.  I’ve found myself waking up later, making all sorts of excuses for myself – after all, I’m retired!  What does it matter?

Your standards slip because they can.  Your work ethic frays because it can.

Simultaneously, because I’m time rich, I’ve been assaulted by Parkinson’s Law, the principle that things take just as long as the time allotted to it.

With so much time, I procrastinate.  I write down three things on my calendar for the day, and sometimes I have one or two things crawl across the page from Monday, to Tuesday, Wednesday…then to Friday without crossing it off.

And sometimes those things are like, ‘mail a letter’.

The good thing is that with so much time now, I spend almost all my free time with my daughter.  So much so, that even despite all the time (mornings, afternoons, and evenings) I spend with her, I still feel like I’m not spending enough.  Because when I have so much time, why not just spend it all on her?

I feel myself making excuses, because I live in an abundance of time and resources.  I feel myself becoming a dabbler in things, like the active management of our financial assets.

But the one thing I have not become a dabbler in, is in physical training with weights and martial arts, six days a week, sometimes twice a day.  This, ironically, even though I’m at the age where I cannot become world class in either.  I find myself being bested in both by kids half my age (sigh) and I tell myself that it is a natural process of aging.

Again, more excuses.

But what I’ve realized from the physical training?  I return to it every day because I long to see progress.

Progress and personal growth are what I miss.  I miss intensity.  I miss (at least some) pressure to perform.  I miss setting crazy goals and hitting them.  I miss doing more than I thought possible.

All these things associated with work – pressure, intensity, rigor, discipline, etc., etc., are things that bring out the best in you.  And why would you not want to be the best version of yourself, always?

I’ve been looking for all of these things in physical activity, which does not seem like the best goal for a man on the wrong side of 35.

Effectively I’ve shifted from a win mode, to a don’t-lose mode.  In jiu-jitsu, you cannot win in a don’t-lose mode.  You will actually eventually lose.

In life I think it’s the same way.  Shifting into this mode has deep effects.  You become dull by just trying not to lose, or by trying just to float on the cushion created by your passive income over your expenses.  It causes you to think and act differently than when you have a livelihood, reputation, and the service of others at stake.

This mindset shift causes a sliding in your standards.  It engenders fear.  Because now you’re waiting for things to happen, instead of being proactive.

While obsessing over not losing is the primary rule for professional investors, as a general principle I am not sure it is well suited to anything else besides a life of mediocrity.

When you’re in a passive mindset, your standards change.  You’re not looking actively for opportunities.  You’re waiting.  This is lethal for a young person.

This philosophy is not for everyone, obviously.  But I don’t think early retirement is for strivers.  And ironically, I think most people who read about early retirement are strivers.

There’s not much I admire about my younger self, but I look back at the kid that was striving and hustling and willing to do what others didn’t or couldn’t do, and I admire that about him.  Now I wonder what he would think about me.  Because in the fog of the last two years, I have definitely not been doing that.

I did it wrong.  What I should have done, and what anyone else should do, is to reframe this concept of early retirement, which we Americans imbue with quasi-religious undertones: a future imagined state where you’re free of toil.

The reality is that many people die when they retire.  And people suffer from anxiety and FOMO when they feel they’re no longer relevant.

The question is not how to retire, it is about finding something that will lead to personal growth and fulfillment, at all stages of your life.

What you should strive for is not to be “free”, or to stop working/retire.  Again, as with many things, the avoidance of a thing is a subpar solution compared to the active pursuit of a some thing.  I.e., not losing versus trying to win (not working versus trying to find fulfillment).

Always strive for something.

What I should have done was to think just as hard about what I was going to do afterwards and whether I’d truly like it, as I did thinking about the financial schemery that retirement would require.

It’s trendy to bash that old chestnut, do what you love.  This has turned into a favorite straw man among self-improvement gurus and Gladwellian pivoters and unsolicited advice-givers.  Instead, “do what you’re good at”, the correctors say.  “Love what you do”, the inversionists say.  “Follow your effort,” Mark Cuban says.  But the underlying sentiment of it all is the same: find work or activities full of purpose and meaning.

The simple fact is that retirement is boring, especially when you do it when you can and should still work.  And you might not like the person you become when you do it early.  People were meant to strive and struggle against something.

Don’t retire, find fulfillment and joy in your work.  Whatever that work means.  And yes, again, I think people were meant to strive for something.

Strive.

I was foolish.  I’m de-retiring.

Zombies

When you mention anything to him, he waves it off dismissively.  You talk about what the young people are doing.  He scoffs.  He watches Bitcoin prices obsessively – in hopes that it will fall – and vindicate his preconceived notions about it.

It’s hard to hold a conversation with him, because he sits with his arms crossed, leaning back from you in a fortress of resistance, and interrupts every few seconds.  Squinting.

He has worked a long time, a long, long time, sacrificing time with family and friends, might be on his second or third wife, and most of all – has waited.  In his waiting, he has soothed himself from vicious bosses, midnight revisions, 20-hour flights, drudgery, and the career voyeurism of former colleagues making it big – or busting, with one simple mantra.  Which was that he was on the right path.  That all he had to do was stick around, avoid conflict, and he would rise in the ranks.  Meaningfulness, in his job, has been lost decades ago.  Chaos at home, disrespect and slights, politics – against all these things he’s sought solace at work.  And has found it.

And most likely, he’s been lucky.  Lucky to survive recessions, lucky his firm was either an indirect beneficiary of the tax code or secret bailouts, and most of all, lucky to have chosen this firm, which had been a toss-up at the time.  He is lucky that the way roles and responsibilities have been divided at the firm, have likely inflated his accomplishments and hidden his failures.  He is lucky that the company has such a strong culture that likely if he does not exist, the firm would do just as well.  But he does not believe in such things as luck.

By his will and determination alone, he has made it.  He’s a partner, director, C-suite exec, producer, whatever.  And now, the decades of self-soothing and justification have paid off, and because it’s no longer necessary, he has let the motivational rafters, break.

And thus other things have broken.

He is impatient, he does not listen past a few sentences.  He listens and reads only things that confirm his worldview and soothe him.  Things are put neatly into binary categories, the simplest of which is good and bad, useful and worthless – especially when it comes to people.  In the decades he has spent supporting his fragile, illusory motivations, his logic has turned to cobwebs.  His empathy does not exist.  His ability to listen is gone.  He knows everything already, does not need to change himself, his diet, his friends, his opinions, anything.

He knows everything.  He is already dead.

Kids, don’t be like these men.