Acting Dead, Trading Up and Leaving the Middle Class

I want to share the story behind approximately $2700 dollars worth of my spending this year that reveals how I am finally starting to leave the middle class, materially, financially and psychologically. No, I am not moving up into the rich class or down into the poor class. I am doing something complicated called trading up. 

This $2700 is money that, if I’d decided to pull the trigger and spend it a few months earlier, would have spared me a ton of unnecessary frustration. Why didn’t I spend it when I should have?

One reason is that I still have residual middle-class financial programming in my head, expertly misguiding me to the wrong answers. Getting it out of my head feels like getting a bad malware and virus infection off a computer. It is painful and messy, and there are really no completely reliable tools that work in all cases. And you’re never quite sure if you got the last infected file off the system, when the infection is really bad.

Another reason is that I was (and remain to some extent) guilty of what science fiction writer Bruce Sterling calls acting dead: being irrationally averse to spending money where it matters, in a misguided attempt to “save” money to the point that the behavior paralyzes you. A large segment of the middle class is starting to act dead these days. Which makes sense since the class itself is dying. To stop acting dead, you have to resolve to exit the traditional middle class as well, unless you want to go down with it.

Not acting dead involves a strategic spending pattern that marketers are starting to call trading up: buying premium in some areas of your life, while buying budget or entirely forgoing spending in other areas. This pattern of conscious, discriminating consumption defines the emerging replacement for  the middle class.  As the picture above illustrates, there isn’t really one “New Middle Class.” Instead, it is a fragmented social space, with each little island being defined by a specific pattern of trading-up, and an associated lifestyle design script.

This effect is a sort of the opposite of what I called Gollumization earlier this year: unthinking, undiscriminating consumption to the point that consumption defines you.

There’s a pretty neat book about it, Trading Up by Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske, which you should read if you, like me, have exited or are planning to exit the traditional middle class.

But back to acting dead and my $2700 dollars, which I’ll use as my running example to get at various things.

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The Towers of Priority

First, let me get an announcement out of the way: Tempo is now out on the Kindle. Buy it, give it as a gift, tweet it etc. Whew! That’s a big, high-priority item checked off my to-do list.

Speaking of priorities. I had one of my weirder Aha! moments: you can use the well-known Towers of Hanoi game as a metaphor to understand the behavior of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (or any similar hierarchy of priorities) under changing life circumstances, and the role of compartmentalization as a costly coping strategy. Here’s a picture:

If the details and implications of the metaphor aren’t immediately obvious, read on for the help-text.

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The Evolution of the American Dream

Remember the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm and their sloganeering? In the beginning of the story, when they overthrow the humans, they lead with the chant, “four legs good, two legs bad!” By the end, they’ve  become human-corrupt, and lead the chant, “four legs good, two legs better!”

Just one word changed, and the new and old words both begin with b, bolstering the illusion of continuity and natural evolution.

Let’s call such a slowly shifting narrative, simple enough to be captured in a slogan, and designed to help a small predatory class dominate a larger prey class, a Pig Narrative.  The American Dream is a Pig Narrative. For the record, in case you are immediately curious about my politics, I think this Pigs-and-Prey structure of the world is the natural order of things. You can mitigate its effects, but not change it in any fundamental way. If I had to pick, I’d side with the pigs.  Moving on.

You can compare Pig Narratives on the basis of the degree of prey liberty (or conversely, predator control) they represent, allowing you to plot the evolution over time. If you plot the course of the American Dream through its many rewrites (9 so far by my count, each associated with a major coming-of-age event that defined a generation), you get something like the picture above.

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The Calculus of Grit

I find myself feeling strangely uncomfortable when people call me a generalist and imagine that to be a compliment.  My standard response is that I am actually an extremely narrow, hidebound specialist. I just look like a generalist because my path happens to cross many boundaries that are meaningful to others, but not to me. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know the degree to which I keep returning to the same few narrow themes.

I think I now understand the reason I reject the generalist label and resonate far more with the specialist label. The generalist/specialist distinction is an extrinsic coordinate system for mapping human potential.  This system itself is breaking down, so we have to reconstruct whatever meaning the distinction had in intrinsic terms. When I chart my life course using such intrinsic notions, I end up clearly a (reconstructed) specialist.

The keys to this reconstruction project are: the much-abused idea of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, the notion of grit, and an approach to keeping track of your journey through life in terms of an intrinsic coordinate system. Think of it as replacing compass or GPS-based extrinsic navigation with accelerometer and gyroscope-based  inertial navigation.

I call the result “the calculus of grit.” It is my idea of an inertial navigation system for an age of anomie, where the external world has too little usable structure to navigate by.

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On Being an Illegible Person

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Regenerations

I’ve been drifting slowly through California for the past three weeks at about 100 miles/week, and  several times I’ve been asked an apparently simple question that has become nearly impossible for me to answer: “What are you here for?”

Unlike regular travelers, I am not here for anything. I am just here, like area residents. The only difference is that I’ll drift on out of the Bay Area in a week.  The true answer is “I am nomadic for the time being. I just move through places, the way you stay put in places. I am doing things that constant movement enables, just like you do things that staying put enables.” That is of course too bizarre an answer to use in everyday conversation.

My temporary nomadic state is just one aspect of a broader fog of illegibility that is starting to descend on my social identity. And I am not alone. I seem to run into more illegible people every year. And we are not just illegible to the IRS and to regular people whose social identities can be accurately summarized on business cards. We are also illegible to each other. Unlike nomads from previous ages, who wandered in groups within which individuals at least enjoyed mutual legibility, we seem to wander through life as largely solitary creatures. Our scripts and situations are mostly incomprehensible to others.


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The Four Kinds of Economies

I don’t normally do straight-up reblogs here, but the new post, Unifying the Value Universe from Greg Rader at is very relevant to some themes we are starting to attack here. It divides up value exchange into four types of economics: gift, transactional, relationship and attention that can be neatly arranged in a 2×2. As with any 2×2, the identification of the axis variables to use is key, and I think the ones Greg has picked really might be the right ones: relatedness of the parties and refinement of the value-add being exchanged (in the sense of rough vs. polished). Click on and read.  He has a more detailed analysis of how this diagram works and in particular, of transactions that cross quadrant boundaries.

The Las Vegas Rules II: Stuff Science

In lifestyle design, your relationship with your material possessions — “stuff” — is perhaps the central issue. Digital stuff is stuff too, since it has to physically live somewhere. Stuff is the locus where theories meet reality. It is not particularly hard to think about money, careers and investments in reasonably clear-eyed ways.  If it weren’t for stuff, execution on those fronts would also be easy.

Stuff is different. Even thinking about it is hard. We don’t even have a good word for it.  If you’ve been living on your own for at least a couple of years, getting a clear sense of all the stuff in your life takes an intense, draining and intellectually demanding exercise like a GTD Sweep (the first stage in getting on the GTD wagon; just spending a weekend making sense of all your stuff). By comparison, developing situation awareness of your finances is as simple as logging into your major accounts. Stuff diseases, such as extreme hoarding, seem to me to be much worse than financial diseases like being over-leveraged.

In lifestyle design discussions, I find that people vastly oversimplify the stuff side.  They pick unexamined philosophies about stuff, like “minimalism” or “go local,” without ever looking at how the stuff in their life actually works. This is like deciding to save $1000 a month without actually looking at your income, debt and expenses. Worse, they try to pitch their unexamined “stuff religion” to others.

So a few months back, I decided I needed to understand stuff and start experimenting with doing things to it, before getting all caught up in pretty lifestyle theories. Understanding stuff is Stuff Science.

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The Las Vegas Rules I: The Slightly Malevolent Universe

Update: Greg Rader pointed out over email that my diagram was messed up in Economics 101 terms: the production frontier is usually convex and the utility/indifference curves concave. I had things the other way around. Total sloppiness on my part. In fixing the picture, an additional insight struck me: the normal outcome of such diagrams usually the achievable optimum somewhere in the middle, where it can “kiss” the most valuable concave utility curve. The interesting thing is that it is much easier to gamble with a surplus of money or a surplus of time, than it is to gamble with an optimal mix. This suggests WHY lifestyle design may be hard: you have to move away from your current optimum in order to gamble effectively. The normal way is to work harder than you want to, in order to accumulate the surplus money to gamble with. Lifestyle design moves away from the optimum in a different direction.

I’ve been thinking  and writing about the idea of lifestyle businesses and lifestyle design for several years now, and attempting to actually play the game for a few months.  It is not easy, and I have not been satisfied with how others have been framing the subject. In particular, I have been disturbed by the “anyone can do this, guaranteed” attitude of cheery optimism around the subject. Unqualified optimism of any sort immediately makes me skeptical.  Perhaps this is because I am an engineer both by training and philosophical inclination. Engineering knowledge is usually expressed in terms of fundamental limits, conservation laws and constraints. So it was natural for me to frame the challenge of lifestyle design for myself with this time-money Pareto frontier diagram. 

I’ve been criticized in the past for talking a lot about lifestyle design, and critiquing others’ ideas, but never actually adopting a definite position myself. So I am about to start taking one. In honor of my new home and the central role of gambling and risk-taking in my model, I am calling it the Las Vegas Rules.

I am going to bite off one little piece at a time, and point out differences compared to other models as I go along. This time, I just want to talk about the role of gambling in lifestyle design.

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My Experiments with Introductions

Introductions are how unsociable introverts do social capital. Community building is for extroverts. But introductions I find stimulating. Doing them and getting them. This is probably a direct consequence of the type of social interaction I myself prefer. My comfort zone is 1:1, and an introduction is a 3-way that is designed to switch to a 2-way in short order, allowing the introducer to gracefully withdraw once the introducees start talking. As groups get larger than two, my stamina for dealing with them starts to plummet, and around 12, I basically give up (I don’t count speaking/presentation gigs; those feel more like performance than socializing to me).

I am pretty good at introductions. I’ve helped a few people get jobs, and helped one entrepreneur raise money. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least a half-dozen very productive relationships that I have catalyzed. I think my instincts around when I should introduce X to Y are pretty good: 2 out of 3 times that I do an introduction, at the very least an interesting conversation tends to start. Since I’ve been getting involved in a lot of introductions lately, I thought I’d share some thoughts based on my experiments with introductions.

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Memories of Namdapha

This piece was originally published in 1999, and is based on a 1996 camping trip. My thoughts have been drifting back to this experience lately, so I thought I’d share it. It’s a little overwrought, but it is significant for me personally because my writing voice first started emerging with this piece. Besides a few copy-editing and internationalization touches, I haven’t changed anything.

– One –

Namdapha, in an obscure corner of the subcontinent. Unobtrusive in a list of National Parks, among more famous names like Kaziranga and Corbett.

There is magic here.

I mean it. Many people know about it, and they carefully try to keep the place safe, by calling it a “National Park”. Not because there are tigers here, not because there are snow leopards, but because there is magic. There are other places that are wild — but nowhere else is there magic. You ride your bus through quaint places with names like Digboi and Miao, quaint but not magical; you pass through miles of lightly wooded country, green and natural, but again, not magical.

And then you enter.

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