Written in response to a personal plateau.
“Substance Over Signal” - Me, before, ironically attempting to signal how enlightened I was.
I’ll be using the two words “Substance” and “Signal” frequently here, so let’s start with my own interpretation of the words:
- Substance - outstandingly significant accomplishments. Many would consider any level of progress to be “substance”, but for my purposes and goals I want to measure it by the bar of being exceptional.
- Signal - the intentional or unintentional message that one projects to others through their actions / words, which indicates their value.
The purpose of this blog is to reject the “sophisticated” notion that signaling is bad.
To come to this conclusion, I went through the bell curve lifecycle:
To be clear, for me signal is not more important than substance. I see signal is a tool, not an objective. In the end, my only goal is to make shit happen in my life and for the world.
Three Lessons About Substance & Signal
Here’s the Substance and Signal graph over my 26 years
The levels on the substance graph are mostly going up!
But I am not satisfied.
I’n not satisfied with a flattening substance graph because I want to always be raising the bar. Especially since I’m measuring substance as “outstandingly significant accomplishments”, to be outstanding means to be great relative to those around you. So the progress I care about is relative to an ever increasing substance base, in blue below:
Below is the final graph, adjusted so that the success curve is relative to the blue baseline in the previous graph.
Now that we have my profile, we’ll focus on three key lessons learned at ages 20, 23, and 26.
Lesson 1: Signal creates momentum
- Age 20
Life started with a comfy, lower plateau. Then university knocked me on my ass and I entered a decline. I was suddenly surrounded by people who were I perceived as better than me. I felt like a loser. As a result, I gained significant weight and lost all of my social confidence.
My eyes were opened one day February 2016, when I was feeling particularly down on myself. My friends pulled me aside and challenged me with a bit of tough love:
“we believe you have the capacity to be outstanding, so why aren’t you doing that?” -paraphrased to make my friends not sound insensitive ”hey Erik you’re fat, why don’t you just be not fat?” -actual
I wanted to be a winner.
So why the fuck was I not?
—> Inflection time.
I got really intense, firstly with fitness. I started documenting my long runs on snapchat and instagram, ramping from couch to full marathon. I read all the self-help books, and cleaned up my diet. My weight melted off of me, 60lbs over half a year. Life got substantially better.
Along the way, people who I thought were cooler than me were cheering me on and looking up to me. It became a drug to ascend beyond them. So I kept posting. I felt so good. I used that energy and dumped it right back into my training, fueling a flywheel that brought me up to the highest point of my life.
Signal was an extremely powerful tool for momentum.
Lesson 2: Signal alone is uncool
- Age 23
My early 20s are interesting on the graph, as it’s the only time that Substance and Signal don’t follow each other.
These years were my “Lifestyle Influencer” years.
My confidence was sky high from the rapid increase in success, and enjoyed flexing that success:
- Going to motivational speaker conferences
- Doing pitch competitions
- Writing how-to-be-successful pieces
- Going on multiple dates a week, just to be condescending to the girls and then ghost
As an effect of my new high-signal lifestyle, I started dating an Instagram influencer. She’d built her following by leveraging small signal wins (a couple marketing clients) to get higher signal wins (writing a how-to-be-successful book), and then leveraging that to get even higher signal wins (giving a TEDx Talk).
I’ll give her massive credit in that the effort was very impressive, and real marketing skills were needed. It’s a valid and viable way to make a living.
But I walked away from this experience disillusioned.
As you can see in the graphs, while I’d been dumping so much attention into the signal work, my Substance had slipped. My “work” had devolved into just pitch competitions and hustling meetings out of people just to waste their time. My final year of undergrad was marked by simply playing startup, with signal being the objective.
I graduated without much fanfare and moved to Silicon Valley.
When I first became exposed to the Silicon Valley coastal elite demographic, I learned the word “Signal” for the first time. I quickly found found that the people around me were notably more aware of social dynamics, and gained status by being intelligent enough to label others’ behavior as signaling.
a surprising trap for smart people is hanging around people who think being jaded is cool and sophisticated - Sam Altman
Humans are social creatures, so naturally I wanted to fit in, and I started embodying these new values.
I looked back at my past self and the other “entrepreneurs” and labeled that behavior is unacceptable. “Substance over Signal”, I’d say.
In life, humans seem to have the tendency to experience a few examples of something, and then form whole aspects of their identity around those few examples.
In my case, I saw myself, my hustling ex, and pitch competition friends as high signal, low substance people, and concluded that if someone is intense, they’re just signalling and not actually doing anything.
If someone is intense, they’re just signalling and not actually doing anything -my fatal conclusion
This blanket conclusion was probably the biggest mistake of my early 20s.
Lesson 3: Signal does not need to imply lack of substance
- Age 26
As you can see, I’m currently in a plateau, which is unacceptable. I need to be crushing it.
I’ve been wondering how to replicate the magical feeling I had at 20, to initiate another “inflection” in my life graph. But I was getting frustrated because I’m doing a lot of the same stuff I was doing back then: running long distances, eating well, working on things I care about. What else is missing? It’s the signal. I’d dropped my signal.
In parallel, I’d formed a negative mental association between hard workers and lack of substance.
Looking back at how I behaved with my team, this made total sense. I’d bought into the narrative that “work life balance” == “not working long hours”. In our team slack, I was very vocal about making sure people weren’t being “degens” by working on weekends. Example:
I’d later learned that some team members took to DMs to work on the weekends, because I was signalling against hard work. They WANTED to work.
It’s idiotic for me to stifle that.
As you can see in above history, my cofounder Kyle and I had already been talking on this topic of shaming hard work. After a few months of observing myself do it, and incrementally correcting, something finally clicked and I realized how much I was failing myself with this mentality.
When a team wants to work, let them work. I should be ECSTATIC that the people I work with have such passion for our mission, and are happily working.
And this extends onward to me.
Just as my university friends did for me in undergrad, my cofounder did for me:
”when you work hard you do such incredible work, so it baffles me that you’re not simply choosing to do that.” - Kyle
I want to work hard.
So why the fuck was I not?
—> Inflection time.
Epilogue: How I’m Growing
July 24, two weeks after writing the above blog.
I’ve begun what I believe to be a proper inflection, just as I’d desired.
I’m pushing myself on both signal and substance. I’ll try to keep this updated with any concrete examples of me pushing myself in public to have real substantial outcomes.