Breakdancing and Mastery of the Universe

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I wanted to learn how to breakdance so I paid some kid $15 to teach me out of my hard-earned newspaper route money. I saw him in the street, spinning on a piece of linoleum. He had three friends with him, all of them were good at their own particular style of breakdancing. One kid was good doing the backspins, windmills, and headspins. Another kid was good at doing all the above floor stuff: like popping, etc. Another kid was good at waving. Like his body was made out of rubber.  I had lost a contact lens and was afraid to tell my parents they needed to spring for a new pair. So for the entire summer, way back in the mid 80s, I practiced breakdancing every day and I could only see out of one eye. Maybe the best summer of my life. Certainly the most embarrassing when I now think back on it.

In every spare moment I either hung out with my new friends, having no issues abandoning my other friends who weren’t cool enough to understand the finer subtleties of the windmill, or I practiced in front of a mirror. Its even embarrassing writing these words down.

Of course, like in all my remembrances, I thought that by learning how to spin on my back and do other random contortions with my body I would , of course, meet girls in clubs. I had gotten rid of my glasses and braces a year earlier so now I was ready. I was the new me. That’s what the braces were for, right? Now my teeth were straight and shiny. Good for kissing. But it didn’t happen because I still had “me” to deal with. The me that couldn’t talk to anyone or was too shy to ask anyone for their number.

Much later, when I applied to colleges I never mentioned this little episode in my life.  I focused on things like “chess” and my stupendous performance as a “mathlete”.

But its all related to making money.  My insecurity was so high that only by being the best at something could I muster the confidence to say, “this is me, this is what I do.”  If I wanted to pursue ANYTHING (and it has to be something I’m passionate about or it won’t work), I had to apply the following principles. Who knows if I ever really got good at anything, or mastered anything worth telling people about. But at the very least, I applied the principles below and got good at a few things. Good enough to make some money, good enough to have fun, good enough to have some interesting experiences along the way.

A)     Teacher: Get a teacher/mentor. I’ve done this with everything from chess, to stockpicking, hedge funds, entrepeneurship, etc. You absolutely need a teacher in anything you do to help you quickly jump over the basic mistakes.

B)      Read. Read everything you can. I have over 200 books about chess. I’ve read over 2-300 books on investing. In the early stages of the Internet I read every book that Tim O’Reilly ever published.  I learned every programming language, everything about networking and security, everything about design. I read everything I could on entrepeneurship. I read so many books about Warren Buffett I wrote my own book about Warren Buffett (“Trade Like Warren Buffett” (2005) ) 200 books on a topic seem to be about the right number. You need to also study the present. Every day new things are developing in your field. You need to know all of them. If you are a lawyer, you need to follow every case. If you’re a doctor, every new breakthrough technology. If you are an Internet entrepreneur, every new twist on website development, on business model innovations, on the new businesses being started every day, etc.

C)      History. You need to know the history of what you are doing. When Bobby Fischer was about 14 years old, after already proving he was a talented chess prodigy, he disappeared for about a year and studied every game played in the 1800s. By the time he reappeared he had developed some critical innovations to games played a hundred years earlier and handily won the US Championship, the youngest champion ever. In investing there are tons of books written in the 60s, 70s (Adam Smith’s “Supermoney” is a great example) and even in the early part of the century (Baruch’s autobiography, anything by LeFevre). I would study all of the so-called bubbles (I do not believe there ever was a tulip bubble or South Sea Bubble, for instance). Get software to model the markets so you can see the subtleties in the data over the past 100 years. It’s the only way to understand what is happening now.

D)     Fail. Study your mistakes. Repeatedly. You can’t improve by only studying your wins. In poker, you have to analyze every hand you lost and why. In chess, you have to run your losses thorugh the computer, through your teacher, you have to spend hours studying the games and looking for your weaknesses: the weaknesses in your knowledge and the weaknesses in your psychology, which are part of every loss. Ditto for investing. You’ll always have losses. But the second you blame it on “bad luck” then you’ve gone from having a loss to becoming a loser. You don’t want to be a loser.  Same goes for relationships. When it doesn’t work out, its just as much your fault as the other persons. Where did you go wrong? How can you be better?  There’s a corollary to this, which is that in order to succeed, you have to fail at many things (not always, but most likely). You will probably fail dozens of times. There’s countless examples in history (Edison, Einstein, Lincoln).

E)      Ideas. Generate new ideas. When you work at a company, its not enough that you be a good employee of that company (i.e. you do everything well that your boss asks you to do). You must actually BECOME the company. You need to act as if you are the force that brings that company to life. And every company, just like every endeavor you embark on, needs new ideas. Once you inject your own life force into an endeavor, then you inevitably will bring to it new ideas. You’ll develop new chess openings that match your style. You’ll discover a new risk arbitrage technique that matches the type of risk profile you’re comfortable with. You’ll bring a company or academic discipline into a new direction that nobody’s ever thought of before. You’ll start a new company where everyone says, “gosh, that was so easy. Why didn’t I think of it?”  But in order to do that you have to first do all of the techniques above, then do everything you can to develop the idea muscle. Every day, making a list of ten to twenty new ideas in your chosen field.

F)      Do. You need to not just “read” and “study” but “do”. If you want to write a screenplay, every day you need to write. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you must start right away thinking of services or products you can provide and sell people. If you want to invest, open an account and start buying stocks. Nobody is going to do it for you.

G)     How long does it take? You need to be patient. I think to properly follow the steps outlined above its at least a three to five year process. Three years before you can say, “I understand this field”, five years before you can say “I can make a living doing this”, and eight years before you can say, “I’m one of the best in the world at this.” Its ok not to be the best in the world at something. But if you want to make a difference you need to put in the time, whether its art, internet, sports, etc.

Finally, you need to maintain. Everything I’ve ever done, I still keep track of and stay in at least “maintenance” mode.  I’m not saying I’ve mastered anything. And I haven’t created billions in value. But if you threw out a piece on linoleum and wanted me to spin on my back, I can probably still do that, although when I do it in front of my kids they laugh at me.

p.s. My current favorite breakdancing video: (I like how the guy is confident enough to go slowly. He doesn’t need to jam every second with moves. That’s confidence! Note the 24mm views on this video).

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  • Steven Goff

    I cant emphasize your recommendation to read everything ya can get hands on.
    It speaks volumes…is the best I can muster ;)

  • James Altucher

    @Steve, in 2001-2 all I did all day was wait out the Internet bust and read investing books. It was the only thing that kept me going. That and then programming hundreds of different investment strategies to see what would work. Finally, after 2 years of doing that, I got a chance to invest some money, and I started writing for Now, I’m going in a bit of a different direction and waiting to see where it takes me.

  • doug

    LOL – Of all the things you’ve written this past month, the only thing you’ve admitted to being embarassed by so far is your breakdancing????

  • Steven Goff

    I cant emphasize enough your recommendation to read everything ya can get hands on. It speaks volumes…is the best I can muster ;)
    I meant to write it like this above…I left out the word “enough” in my original. We need and edit window for responses James. Even if it’s like a minute or so. That word “enough” was important….I think it sounded or could’ve been construed/interpreted like I was mocking… not the case.
    I am a super huge reader….you know that James.

  • baronkurtz

    I think you should feel very lucky to have gotten as far as you have. It not only belies the odds, it belies ..oh never mind.

  • ko

    i think its true about reading to an extent- im also a voracious reader.
    right now im reading about homeopathy and energetic medicine-
    but- the really important part of reading, being, doing is the appetite
    and passion for learning something, the ability to put it all together, AND
    the courage to take the risk and use that information when faced with a
    puzzle piece that needs a match.


    love the breakdance kid- is it u??? ;-)

  • Tobeyspaniel

    Mr. Altucher,

    I’ve read all of your your recent posts and I have learned a lot from them. Some reinforce things I already know, others show me new and more beneficial ways to look at and feel about things. Many thanks for sharing.

    I hope you realize that despite your impressive achievements in diverse fields, your true calling, actually, seems to be teaching, and I think you have been preparing for it your entire life.

    • Steven Goff

      “I hope you realize that despite your impressive achievements in diverse fields, your true calling, actually, seems to be teaching, and I think you have been preparing for it your entire life.”
      Do we have a thumbs up or a place to vote for good post?…… THUMBS UP!

      It takes the right person to be a teacher….it takes more of the right person to be a holistic method/tactic using teacher. The best kind INO.

  • tonx

    The Vanilla Popper LIVES!!!! LOL

  • Stacy

    “When you work at a company, its not enough that you be a good employee of that company (i.e. you do everything well that your boss asks you to do). You must actually BECOME the company. You need to act as if you are the force that brings that company to life.”

    This line really stood out to me. It speaks to leadership, and anyone can do it. You don’t have to be a high-profile executive to bring fresh thinking into an organization. In fact, the front-line workers probably have more good ideas than they realize, but they’re not always inclined to speak up. Those of us in corporate leadership positions need to encourage this in our teams.

  • Shawn

    So spot on. I really think THE most important point you made was to DO. Study, learn, soak up all you can about your passion, but not to the exclusion of acting on it. Of course that helps with the FAIL (and to some extent IDEA) concept, too.

  • theonepercentgirl

    I am a college professor, and I tell my students all the time that they need to just get that first draft on paper, even if the only way to accomplish this is to sit down with the explicit intent to write a piece of crap. I tell them to just take the pressure off and write, because editing is always, always easier than filling a blank page. I managed to write a 400+ page book with a friend after agreeing from the beginning that we were just writing to each other and would pour it out without any censoring or editing. I am, apparently, prolific once I turn off my mean head. That’s the thing, though. Seems turning off my mean head is the most difficult thing for me. Now that it’s all down I’ve got to do something with it. I was overwhelmed by the thought of how to clean it up, what direction to take it, so I asked an acquaintance who is an editor of books like mine. She loved it, read the whole thing and pitched it to her group, who decided it needs to be cleaned up and the narrative more narrowly focused. This I already knew, but still feel overwhelmed and paralyzed thinking about doing it. She sent me to some agents, and I’ve gotten similar feedback from them. So there it sits… I know what I need to do, but can’t seem to do it without help and can’t seem to ask for help.

    I’ve been reading Mindset, which talks about how people who are praised and valued for their achievements are reluctant to try anything new for fear their failure will indicate to the world (and themselves) that they are not, in fact, brilliant. People who are praised for their effort instead worry less about how others will perceive their failure and welcome the opportunity to challenge themselves to learn new and interesting things. I was raised in a family who feared the ‘mistake’ and emphasized achievement above all else and I can tell you this only after years of working to identify and reframe these messages. I believe the key to finishing my project is turning off my mean head and the key to turning off my mean head is figuring out how to switch from a fixed (the former) to a growth (the latter) mindset, so that failing isn’t failure, but a step along the way to growth. I need to find someone to help me edit this project and find direction, but I’m reluctant to ask for help because I fear being judged and found lacking and therefore not a particularly good writer/smart person. Overcoming this perspective would most likely accomplish a lot toward achieving my aspiration to complete, sell + publish the book. (And others that are demanding to be written.)

    In any event, I’m feeling stuck and inspired by your blog at the same time and I welcome any insight you might have since your views seem to speak to me. Also I wanted to thank you for writing your blog. It’s amazingly helpful for me. Sharing our experience is so powerful. I’m grateful you’re willing to share yours.

  • Preemptive Placebo

    This is excellent advice. 

    I would add one thing.  Once you’ve found mentors or teachers, absorb them.  Learn not only what they have to teach, but also the subtleties.  Take in their posture, their way of thinking, their dress, their demeanor. 

    Our mind can sometimes be our own worst enemy.  One of the secrets to being able to actually do something lies in convincing your mind that you can.  If we act as if we can already do what we want to do, we trick our brain into believing it. 

    As Henry Ford famously said, “If you think you can do a thing or you think you can’t do a thing, you are right.”

  • Nolan Walker

    As a huge fan of David Elsewhere, I love that you end this post with a video of one of his performances. The guy is next level.