Schemes & Scams

August 4, 2010 — 60 Comments

During recessions there is almost always a rise in the reports of scams. People get sucked into get-rich-quick schemes and fall for outright cons. Sometimes it’s greed or laziness, and sometimes it’s more complicated. But it’s generally motivated by a sense of just

It’s really easy to assume this only happens to dumb people. The reality is that we fall for scams all the time, they differ only in name. And there are so many…

-Your ‘start-up‘ is a scam. Especially yours, you, the self-described “entrepreneur.”
-Reading Malcolm Gladwell articles is a scam
Traveling is a scam.
These colleges are a scam. Grad school is a scam.
-Ebooks are scams. Reading and writing.
Productivity blogs are a scam.
-Blogging is a scam.
-Adwords/SEO/Passive income/Multi-level marketing businesses are a scam. Wait, sorry, they are pyramid schemes.
Umair is a scam.

What I mean to see is that they are mostly bullshit. Promises we’ve been sold that simply cannot and will not deliver. Scams exploit the special confidence we place in our own judgment but have never actually earned. The critical ingredient is that a victim thinks they’ve found a loophole or advantage that the rest of the world missed. Because it’s this little confirmation of their sense of superiority that carries them over any doubts or objections. (Which is why you got all indignant when I called your start-up a scam)

One of the last steps in a con is called the “cool off” and it’s how an insiderman pacifies the mark after he’s been fleeced. For instance, they might arrange to be raided by a fake cop and let the mark flee thinking he is narrowly avoiding arrest. Or they might tear up the check as a token of their honesty, only to find later it was a duplicate and the original had already been cashed. The point is that a truly masterful conman never lets the gaffe know that he’s a victim. In fact, the idea is to part ways with them thinking they’ve walked away on top.

Of course, this is also key of so many of the scams above. What’s bold about them though is that most don’t even bother with the pretense of a specific payoff or an explicit promise. Who do you even hold accountable? The reward is so vague – “we’re creating thick value” – that you’ll never know you’ve been fucked. And you’ll never have anything to hold up as proof that you were besides the uneasy feeling that you were sold a bill of goods that wasn’t quite right.

The most disappointing part of internet has been watching young people breathlessly “discover” the same scams and charlatans that have always existed and convince themselves they are a revolutionary. It’s like a rookie reporter congratulating themselves for writing a trend piece that they’re too self-absorbed and young to know gets written every single year.

We should wonder why instead of getting more cynical, we’ve become wide-eyed optimists. Stop pretending its a “transition.” It is a CONTRACTION. Things are going away that will never come back. You will not own a house. You will not get Social Security. You will not get health insurance. Not the way your parents did, at least. Sure, the technology lowers barriers to entry in many ways, but they are much much higher in the ways that matter most.

A generation that’s been coddled and then suddenly kicked in the stomach should question what it finds attractive. At least believing that you won the Nigerian lottery has a naive innocence; it’s refreshingly free of the pathetic entitlement in living with your parents while you’re ‘building your personal brand.’ Now is not the time to travel or weigh your options but to get serious and acknowledge the magnitude of the disaster we woke up into and are stuck with.

Resist the temptation of get-rich-quick schemes. There is no easy way. Avoid what makes you feel like you’re onto something that makes you smarter than everyone else (see: Gladwell articles). That’s what the bait tastes like.


July 14, 2010 — 6 Comments

Try not to get upset by people’s rudeness. Notice: how it never seems to come from someone who has ‘earned’ the right to be rude. In other words, this attitude (or stupidity) has not served them well. It has held them back and punished them. So you pity it, place it properly in context with the costs, or pretend not to care but don’t feel resentment if you can help it. Because they’ve borne more of the burden than you.

Not Noticing

July 6, 2010 — 7 Comments

Think about all the near-misses that you never knew about. Fight-or-flight situations that passed unintentionally unnoticed. To not know and continue to never know without consequence is a wonderful gift.

Especially if you’re someone like me who internalizes theses crises. I feel them churning in my stomach. My heart races or I get sick with frustration and anger.

But so many of these situations come to mean nothing. Like, absolutely nothing. You miss a surprise phone call from someone important. The wasted opportunity nags at you. But how many times has your phone eaten a call and you never knew about it? Someone gets the last word and it hurts. But what if you’d never heard it?

Your life remains utterly unchanged by these moments. The mistakes you’re aware of, but can do nothing about, pale in comparison to the countless mistakes you didn’t even realize. The last word isn’t acted on, it’s just resented or aggravating.

What you do, for example, in a heated discussion is decide the point at which the things the other person says become meaningless. And then don’t listen when it turns into excuses or rationalizations or bullshit. If it’s an email chain, don’t even open it. You can choose to make it irrelevant. In terms of your decisions and life, it already is.

Syrus wrote that we should “always shun that which makes you angry.” Meaning, you identify the triggers and you opt out of being a part of pulling them. The body has ingrained responses to certain stimuli. It’s more severe in people like me. So you avoid those stimuli because they represent nothing. They are false.

Maybe you don’t take is as far as being purposely ignorant, but you do take into consideration how easily you could have just not known about this thing before you let it matter too much.


June 25, 2010 — 7 Comments

“Who is wise? He that learns from everyone
Who is powerful? He that governs his passions
Who is rich? He that is content
Who is that? Nobody”

Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1755


June 17, 2010 — 6 Comments

When I run, I’ve always had this habit of breaking down whatever distance I set out to accomplish in increasingly diminutive yet illogical units to keep my mind busy. 4 miles becomes just 2 miles when it’s halfway done and 2 miles is easy because you’re hardly even warmed up at .5 which is already halfway to the halfway point of the first leg. And of course the 4th mile has the end in sight so it goes by the quickest. Or when I’m swimming, I change strokes for a pocket in the middle before changing back, so there is a rising up, a hoop to jump through, and a winding down.

This works, I think, because it keeps you immediately and constantly focused on a single point directly in front of you, and when that point is passed, another presents itself and is passed in turn at just the right interval between manageable and significant.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how Darwin spent something like eight years studying barnacles. Or Stuart Kauffman spending a decade on the mutations of fruit flies. And how we pass along little tidbits like this without any empathy for what they must have meant. These weren’t foundational education periods at the beginning of their careers, they were detours and tangents—years of learning to clear up a few details. We lose the humanity behind that decision, what it must have been like for them in this phase: waiting it out, putting in the hours. We look at it with the hindsight of knowing that it ended, thinking that they probably broke it up like we could—a few years to get familiar, a few for theorizing, and of course the last year flew by because it was finally over. But it wasn’t like that at all.

Try to think of the humility and of the patience. Wading into a pool you have no idea if you’ll ever get out of. Going back and forth until you’d done what you’d needed. No clue yet that it will tie their theories together. To bear this with grace and commitment and a quiet sense of self-control. To accept that no one will ever know what it all felt like.

For me, this year was about wanting less. Being okay with less. Learning how to tolerate dissonance and cultivate indifference. At 23, I’m thinking this is the skill everybody assumed was obsolete.

All the talk about real estate, working at a startup or internships—so much of it is about convincing yourself that you’re “investing” when its really just a way to give yourself what you want now and pretend the payoff is somehow deferred into the future. What part is delayed? What have you gone without? How have you learned to deal with uncertainty? Or the growing bewilderment of the people around you? The truth is that we make these decisions precisely because they’re thought to be “sure things.” But that is not strategy, it’s not even real.

To be able to handle even a fraction of the tension of one of these multi-year draw-down periods. To do the time on the treadmill and then a little more and then get off to do the next thing (and not take the baggage with you). To steadily increase the amount of time that we can stand without getting anxious or restless. And in this process of teaching yourself to do it, to complain as little as possible.