A Self-Investment Strategy or How a Brogrammer Made Me a Better Dad

I try to avoid eye contact when I pass them on the street. I judge them because of their economic status, their clothes, and their behavior. They are tech bros.

Five years ago when my wife and I moved to San Francisco we were more likely to meet someone who worshipped the lightning God then someone who created the lightning cable. But now our city, and my neighborhood specifically is full of young programmers, courageous entrepreneurs, and brilliant designers. Tech jobs are at an all time high and there is no slow down in sight.

Many SFians are standoffish with the “brogrammers” but rather than rolling my eyes at my new neighbors (or doing this), I thought it kind to forfeit my hubris and get to know one of them.

I met Brad while he was washing his Audi.

Honestly I was just hoping to become the “friendly neighbor” so that he would respond to me asking he and his roommates to tone it down during their weekend long beer pong tournaments (sponsored by The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Shock Top). We small talked about his car, how many roommates he has, and about my big news: the upcoming arrival of my wife and I’s twins. Then I asked him what he did for work. He told me that he was the lead mobile programmer for a very popular dating application. I asked him if he enjoyed his work.

“The company? Sure. The app? Not at all. I don’t care about helping people have one night stands.”

Dating apps are for hooking up? I had no idea.

Then why do you spend so much time working on it?” I asked.

“Because I can make a killing right now. People think that all of us tech people are greedy. We’re not greedy. We’re being strategic. Or at least that’s the way I see it. This bubble won’t be around forever and I want to make sure that I take advantage of it.”

I went on to learn that Brad graduated MIT when he was 20 years old and that he has a passion for international development and urban gardening. Brad is not a greedy gentrifier out to take away all that is good about our city. He seems to be a thoughtful discerner who understands that now is a good time to invest his skills for disproportionate economic return (granted, just his own short term economic gain) that can be leveraged to do work he loves in the future. Oh, how I hope he’s telling the truth.

What surprised me, but shouldn’t have, is that Brad has a self-investment strategy. He reminded me that thoughtful, discerned, effort creates disproportionate results. In this case it is Brad’s invested talent and his growing bank account.

Our conversation also reminded me that you and I are assets. We are full of goodness to be invested. We have hours in a day, calories to burn, conversations to have, insights to bring, and dreams to create. But we can do it wrong. We can invest them at the wrong time or in the wrong people. Or what is more often true, we invest them in too many places. Differently than our finances, investing our selves in too many places ensures that we are a mile wide and an inch deep, not reaping the kind of return we want.

There are other areas of life in which we can apply this thinking — like parenting. Here is another situation in which focused effort, at a specific strategic time, can yield disproportionate results. My friend Elliot introduced me to this graph.

brain growth and spending

Noble prize winning economist Jacques Vandergaag published this graph to show that our public expenditure may be misplaced if we intend to improve human health and wellbeing. I share this not to make a political case for more dollars for early childhood intervention (yes I do), but to invite us to think a bit more like audi-boy-Brad. Ages 0–3 are a never popping “human development bubble.” As the chart shows parents, teachers, friends, and family will have the largest impact on the development of a human life in their first three years of life (and even before).

Yet as a society we spend almost nothing on it and perhaps that is why four out of ten 0-3 year olds are not attaching to their parents, the US is dead last in government supported time offwe send our children to daycare more than ever before (much of which is unavoidable given how much we have to work to afford it), and a new survey shows that Tweeting, Tindering, and Facebooking gets more time than our families.

What if we saw the 0-3 window as the optimal opportunity for a return on our parenting? Would things change? Would we see more traction withorganizations emphasizing the first five years of a child’s lifeWould we have more paternity leave? Change in policy for working mothers on welfare? Would those having children later in life save money for their child’s first years in the same ways we save for retirement? If Brad was in charge I think there would be an app for all of these things.

That Vandergaag graph means something to me in part because I have a two year old. The other part? I have two more twin baberinos who will be here any day now. I often question if I am investing well in the three of them. I wonder if I hurt their college fund when I bought a $300 jacket. I wonder if the 5 minutes that I spent on Instagram could have been better used on practicing counting. When at home I wonder if it would be better to work Audi-Brad-style so that my family did not have to worry about finances in the future. I question my investment strategy daily.

I was reminded I am not alone in this questioning when last week, Max Schireson left his position as CEO of a very successful technology company. His reason? His family. The whole letter is worth a read. One portion that caught my attention was,

I recognize that by writing this I may be disqualifying myself from some future CEO role. Will that cost me tens of millions of dollars someday? Maybe. Life is about choices. Right now, I choose to spend more time with my family and am confident that I can continue to have an meaningful and rewarding work life while doing so.

Emphasis is mine. There are times in our lives where an investment will yield disproportionate results. Right now Max believes that his life will have more meaning if he leaves this job. A good investor of one’s self does not believe that they can do it all, but that there is a proper time to do a few things well. Think of it like planting seasons. If you plant corn in December you’ll be lucky to get any crop at all. Yet, plant it on a sunny and humid April day and you’ll be eating corn like this guy for months!

So with all of these self-investment trade-offs, how do I/we — parents, entrepreneurs, middle managers, CEOs, photographers, and welp, humans – determine where and when to invest our selves so that we see disproportionate results?

  1. Admit we don’t know much about investing — Someone once told me that “your life is perfectly designed to give you the results that you are currently receiving.” The Vandergaag graph is a great example of this. America’s education system is one of the worst in the developed world. We are designed to be that bad because we don’t invest in development when the human brain is most primed for it! But like the Vandergaag graph suggests, we invest mindlessly. We invest ourselves into people and things often because those who came before us did it that way oreveryone else does it that way. This mindless investing is what is likely to cause regret and confusion (like my personal parenting queries). When we turn off auto-pilot and become aware of the ways we could spend time, money, and energy we will reduce confusion, unleash creativity, and likely find increased return. ASK YOURSELF: How do I currently invest? Why? How could I invest?
  2. Identify the kind of return you want — if we are mindlessly investing, we are likely unsure of the kind of return we want. Most of us pursue a definition of the good life that is up and to the right economically and professionally. But has this not left many of us (like CEO Max) exhausted physically, spiritually, and relationally? We must redefine it for ourselves. And I believe a new definition requires we think about the whole of life — our bodies, our relationship to our family and neighbors, our spirituality, our work, our integrity….the list could go on. ASK YOURSELF: How do I define the good life?
  3. Have a strategy — In How Will You Measure Your Life, Clayton Christensen says, “You can talk all you want about having a clear purpose and strategy for your life, but ultimately this means nothing if you are not investing the resources you have in a way that is consistent with your strategy. In the end, a strategy is nothing but good intentions unless it’s effectively implemented.” A strategy could look like short term weekly goals, employing the GTD system, or better aligning your time to achieve your desired Self-ROI. Each of our strategies will be different and will definitely change, but all good strategies have one thing in common: they are written down. ASK YOURSELF: What must I do to have my redefined good life?
  4. Measure and Adjust — Making the commitment to be a mindful investor of your time, energy, and talent means that we will make decisions, often fail, and learn from them. Life is full of trade offs and sometimes we make bad ones. Or we start making decisions, experience success as defined by broader culture, and forget how it is that we define success. Regardless, it is imperative that we find time and relationships where we can reflect on our “return on self investment” and adjust our strategies accordingly. ASK YOURSELF: Are the “results” I am receiving, the results that I want? What in my behavior needs to be redesigned in order to see different results?

Neither Brad or I have been a dad of three. And though he didn’t exactly give me parenting advice he helped me more clearly see how, when and where, to invest a great deal of my self. He’ll keep building apps and washing his Audi, I’ll be building a home and washing my babies.


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