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Think of Yourself as a Cockroach
Issue 2 of the Small Bets Newsletter
Chinese immigrants called America 金山, the “Golden Mountain”. The nickname started during the 1849 Gold Rush, but it lasted because it was thought that opportunity in America flowed like the gold in Alaskan rivers.
Sadly, both of my grandfathers discovered that the reality didn’t match the myth.
My grandfather, my father’s father, left China when he was thirteen, by himself. The last dynasty had recently fallen and the country was tumultuous. Times were tough and he jumped at the chance to go to the Land of Opportunity.
My grandfather landed in California but jobs were scarce for a thirteen-year-old boy. The only prospect was a salmon canning factory - in Alaska. Coming from a subtropical climate, Alaska was definitely not on his bucket list (it wasn’t even a state back then!) yet it became his home for a few years. My grandfather continued to take any jobs that were available until he managed to return to the mainland US.
He eventually found restaurant jobs and learned how to cook, eventually opening his own restaurant. The restaurant was ostensibly a Chinese restaurant but he cooked whatever a customer wanted. Better to make up a dish than to turn a customer away. All to support his family back in China and eventually bring them to the US.
My other grandfather, my mother’s father, came to America in his twenties. Landing in Oakland, he and his seven siblings chased opportunities across the country. When one brother found an opening, he brought the others. They hop-scotched across the country from the west coast to Virginia.
Among other things, this grandfather became a mechanic, a bartender, a cleaner. He wasn’t the best at any, but he learned enough to pay the bills. He finally settled in New York City and opened a laundromat.
My grandfathers accomplished everything they set out to do when they left China. They not only supported and helped their relatives in China to emigrate, but they had thriving families of their own. They accomplished their goals, but I doubt they knew the winding journey it would take.
I wonder if they believed the stories and expected the ground to be covered in gold when they first stepped on American soil. I know that I would not be here today if they didn’t eventually face reality — if they focused on looking for gold rather than survival.
Today, most of us won't have to face the hardships our ancestors faced. But we can use their lessons to build a better lifestyle for ourselves. To confront the uncertainty of leaving our jobs and creating our own income, think about the idea of the Golden Mountain. You can take a narrow, treacherous path to the peak, or you can be happy that you’re on the mountain.
We all want to reach the peak, but we often don’t consider the fraught path. You may think of a brilliant business idea, you can form a company, and maybe you even find investors and hire a few people to help you. You’re a "founder and CEO", and every day you work hard to make that idea a reality. But every day, life throws obstacles at you; random things that seem to conspire to put you off course. And chances are that sooner or later, you will tumble off the mountain and your dream will crumble. It may sound harsh, but reality doesn't care. Destiny is not guaranteed to reward your hard work.
Most people never consider that just being on the mountain can be enough. The pinnacle doesn't matter. If it happens, it happens, but it shouldn’t even be on your radar. Your only goal is to survive the mountain; to avoid having your new lifestyle taken away from you. This may sound mediocre and uninspiring, but in reality, it's extremely liberating. Once you start to think of yourself as a cockroach — just trying to survive — you free yourself from the constraints of walking that precarious path to the top of the mountain. The random things that life throws at you won't always harm you. Sometimes the obstacles can actually help you. Sometimes they show you an opportunity that until a minute before you didn't even know existed. And you can seize that opening because you’re not fixated on a remote summit.
Do you want your future to be fragile or robust? Forget your mimetic goals and start living the life you want to be living. Then make sure nobody takes that away from you.
Thanks to Louie Bacaj and Daniel Vassallo for helping edit this piece.
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Small bets in the wild:
🔸 “Nobody ever thinks Go Big or Go Home will actually end in go home… but most of the time it does.” Tyler Tringas
🔗: Debt Free
🔸 "In order to succeed, you must first survive." — Warren Buffett
🔸 The mathematical concept behind Think Like a Cockroach is “ergodicity.” Leon Lin walks through an example of a game with a positive expected value — yet 94% of participants can be expected to lose money. Ergodicity is also the backbone behind Nassim Taleb’s book “Skin in the Game.”
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