Harsh Truths and the 4 Traits You Can't Ignore

A harsh truth will shatter your world view. 

A harsh truth is uncomfortable. The first time you hear it you squirm knowing that you cannot delude yourself any longer. A few years back this was something I experienced when I read the line:

“What you produce does not have to make money, but it does have to benefit people.”

People don’t get hired to do a job because they are funny, smart, or creative. They get hired because they can provide value to the organization. A founder won’t see any success because they’re charismatic. All of the success comes from what you do with these qualities. 

As Alec Baldwin said in his famous Glengarry Glen Ross speech, “Nice guy? Who gives a shit? If you want to work here, close.” This harsh sentiment is often ignored because it’s unnerving to realize you have to earn whatever it is you want in life.

The internet has shifted the economic value of skills. The value of memorization continues to fall as information sits at everyone’s fingertips today. Generative AI is further causing once scarce skills to be democratized across the globe.

We live in the information economy which means today the world is driven less by memorization and more by creative application and synthesis. The real skill is being able to derive insights from infinite information (creating new forms of value in the market). Memorization is out. Application is in. Gathering insights for informed decision making matter more than ever in a world connected by the internet.

The 4 traits that determine how far you can go

Otto Ammon, a German economist, became the first to apply probability theory to major social questions.

He studied human ability. Built upon the work of Francis Galton, Ammon used probabilities to come up with 4 traits he outlined in his work Some Social Applications of the Doctrine of Probability. Otto Ammon claimed these traits would decide the “place which a man will occupy in life.”

The 4 traits he outlined were:

  1. Intellectual traits: the rational side of man-power. There are things like quick comprehension, memory, judgment, and the power of invention.
  2. Moral traits: the character you’ve developed. Including things like self control, will power, agency, perseverance, moderation, regard for family, and honesty.
  3. Economic traits: the talent you have to produce some benefit to the world. Your economic traits are things like business ability, organizational talent, technical skills, clever calculation, foresight, and thrift.
  4. Bodily traits: the physical ability you have. A mind is only capable of achieving things with qualities like power to work, endurance, rigor, and good health.

Thomas Jefferson was asked why he chose his secretary Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition across the continent instead of a qualified scientist. He responded by writing, “it was impossible to find a character who to a compleat science in botany, natural history, mineralogy & astronomy, who joined the firmness of constitution & character, prudence, habit adopted to the woods, & a familiarity with Indian manners & character, requisite for this undertaking. All the latter qualifications Capt. Lewis has.”

Lewis exhibited all 4 traits that Otto Ammon outlines. A rare combination for 1803, having all four of these traits led him to occupy a place in the American history books as the first person to go across the North American continent.

Each of the four traits can be carefully cultivated. Over time they compound on each other enabling you to occupy places you never imagined. There’s a catch.

Each trait must be developed and earned. Very few of the qualities are innate to your nature. They must be nurtured over time. Developing a deep rooted drive to improve these traits requires the improvement of them to become a source of dopamine to unlock your personal potential.

Intellectual traits

The frontiers are designed for generalists. 

Specialization only creates the opportunity to solve niche problems, which is valuable, not to push further into places unknown. Someone with high intellectual traits is capable of solving novel problems many other people are not.

Specialized experts always fall victim to the error of minimal expectations. Roy Amara, a researcher, said “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” This statement became known as Amara’s Law.

The generalist, with far ranging intellectual traits which is why you’ll always see them at the forefront of every new industry.

In the beginning of The Anthology of Balaji, Balaji himself said he has had above average success in many domains but has never been the best at any of them. He acquired specific knowledge, not specialized knowledge, setting him apart from others intellectually.

As a founder he had an exit but there were people better than him. As an investor he had successes but there were people more focused. He’s a good engineer but nothing like Steve Wozniak. He is a scientist but far behind the best in his field. Balaji has been a tech executive but there were people who could execute better. He’s a best-selling author but not close to writers like Tim Ferriss.

The point is Balaji is proficient at a lot of skills. He isn’t defined by a single category, instead sitting at the intersection of many categories.

Don’t aim to be the best intellectually, aim to be the only one capable of solving novel problems.

Moral traits

When 1,000s of candidates get hired without compliant forms someone has to answer to it. Two weeks after launching a new feature, we realized a big issue. None of the candidate’s forms in that time span had signatures collected on the completed form.

Our client wanted answers to what caused the bug. Except it wasn’t a bug. It was my failure to communicate how the feature needed to be configured after launch that caused the issue. In that moment of realization I knew I could blame someone else. Enough people had been involved in it that the responsibility could be diffused. But I didn’t blame anyone. I owned that it was my mistake.

Shortly after accepting responsibility I got messages from different people in the company commending me on how I handled the situation. Why was that the response?

I was honest and failed with high-integrity.

This is what moral traits are about. Your character is only tested in times of dismay. You have to hope that your values and principles hold up during those times. It can only be earned through self-awareness.

Economic traits

Economic traits are your talent. The difference between economic and intellectual traits is that talent is more of a hard skill. However, the same principles apply to developing strong economic traits.

Scott Adam’s has the idea of the Talent Stack. The idea is that you can stack certain talents over time, and if done intelligently they’re worth a lot more than being an expert at one thing 

Hence why intellectual traits and economic traits go hand and hand (judgment is required to make this work). Before co-founding PayPal, Max Levchin was really into security and mobile software development. It was a scarce skill combination in the 1990s. He even described this skill as “sort of an art and science unto its own.” His assumption was that enterprises would all use handheld devices for their primary communications (stemming from intellect).

Levchin learned how to develop software for handheld devices and cryptography to fill the gap he believed would grow. Both skills were complex. They were poorly understood skills. No one wanted to dig deep into either because of the time it would take to master them.

Instead of focusing on being in the top 1% of either, Levchin reverse-engineered what existed today until he built enough knowledge to navigate the software development of both. He wanted to combine these scarce skills to start a company that encrypted handheld devices. 

Turns out there was a better use of these skills. They birthed PayPal, which based all the initial development around the talent stack Max Levchin had built.

Bodily traits

Naval Ravikant said, "nothing like a health problem to turn up the contrast dial on the rest of life."

Without good health you’ll always be behind on what you’re setting out to achieve. It’s hard to provide a benefit to other people when most of your time is spent trying to take care of yourself and stay alive.

Today, we often neglect health for other things. It’s pushed off to become a problem for our future self. Stop putting off a good night's rest to get more work done. Stop skipping workouts. Stop eating shit foods.

The easiest way to make every other trait hard to cultivate is to neglect your bodily traits. You’re in survival mode as you’re playing the game of life.

I’m not a trainer, physician, or nutritionist. My girlfriend is a nurse and the body is her domain of expertise. But there’s simple things that have worked wonders for me. If you put a focus on movement, healthy foods, hydration, and sleep, not a lot else matters.

These four traits cannot be swindled, bought, or stumbled into. They’re the four most important areas to focus on in your life. Having all four traits allows you to reach new heights. They’ll set the ceiling for the place you’ll occupy in life.

  1. Pargin, J. (2012) 6 harsh truths that will make you a better person, Cracked.com. Available at: https://www.cracked.com/blog/6-harsh-truths-that-will-make-you-better-person (Accessed: 14 January 2024).
  2. Alec Baldwin's Glengarry Glen Ross speech: https://youtu.be/elrnAl6ygeM?si=WEM_RD1kAV9nYd_x
  3. Davidson, J.D. and Rees-Mogg, W. (1998) in The sovereign individual: How to survive and prosper in it. London: Pan, p. 256.
  4. Ammon, O. (1899). Some Social Applications of the Doctrine of Probability. Journal of Political Economy, 7(2), 204–237. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1820577
  5. Ambrose, S.E. (2016) in Undaunted courage. Simon & Schuster Ltd, p. 76.
  6. Jorgenson, E. and Srinivasan, B.S. (2023) in The Anthology of Balaji: A Guide to Technology, Truth, and Building the Future. Smart Friends Publishing, p. 14.
  7. Jorgenson, E. (2022) in Almanack of naval ravikant: A guide to wealth and happiness. S.l.: HARPERBUSINESS, pp. 40-52.
  8. Livingston, J. (2010) in Founders at work: Stories of startups’ Early Days. Berkeley, CA: Apress, p. 2.

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