Act I: The Discovery of Conflict Invigoration
I recently discovered a phenomenon common among many highly successful people. I'm calling it "conflict invigoration" - this is a personality trait, a mixed blessing and curse. It's the kind of person who can move heaven and earth when inspired, but doesn't do as well when they aren't... and who is always invigorated by a fight.
I first noticed conflict invigoration among a number of the most successful people I knew personally. See, I don't think this is an entirely new observation, but a lot of the people that reach stratospheric levels of success are kind of deranged. You almost have to be, to keep going after you've "won" by every conceivable measure, to work yourself to the bone at the expense of your sanity and longevity and vitality, to neglect so many of the basic human needs and pleasures and comforts.
I saw this trait in lots of successful people, and then I started paying attention to biographies and histories. Indeed, many of the most expansive people in our generation and previous ones are conflict invigorated - they've perhaps always got a baseline of creativity and striving, but it really comes out when a fight breaks out.
"Competition is always a fantastic thing, and the computer industry is intensely competitive." - Bill Gates
"I have always loved the competitive forces in this business. You know I certainly have meetings where I spur people on by saying, "Hey, we can do better than this. How come we are not out ahead on that?" Thats what keeps my job one of the most interesting in the world." - Bill Gates
"Microsoft has had clear competitors in the past. It’s a good thing we have museums to document that." - Bill Gates
Steve Jobs had the same personality trait - in the last few years especially, he really just opened his mind up and blasted all challengers... you could see him always getting excited - invigorated - over systematically out-performing, rolling the competition.
""We think the current crop of seven-inch tablets are going to be DOA, Dead on Arrival. Their manufacturers will learn the painful lesson that their tablets are too small and increase the size next year, thereby abandoning both customers and developers who jumped on the seven-inch bandwagon with an orphan product. Sounds like lots of fun ahead." - Steve Jobs
It's not just that he enjoyed beating the competition - who doesn't? - but look at the pure invigorated glee taken from it. He's describing his competitors, their customers, and their whole ecosystems being caught in a bloodbath with - "Sounds like lots of fun ahead."
This isn't at all limited to the technology moguls and pioneers. Rockefeller? Conflict invigorated. Morgan? Conflict invigorated. Rothschild? Conflict invigorated. Nor is it limited to business -
"I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one." - Theodore Roosevelt
"If I must choose between righteousness and peace, I choose righteousness." - Theodore Roosevelt
Indeed, many of history's top thinkers, writers, and poets were conflict invigorated. Can you imagine Socrates being so vividly philosophical without the sophists to smash on? Can you imagine Dante writing the Divine Comedy without the additional glee he got from putting all his temporal opponents in the inferno? Can you imagine Martin Luther King becoming such a powerful orator without the repeated oppression and indignities he suffered? Without being able to smash on the Governor of Alabama, the vicious racist whose lips drip with the words of interposition and nullification?
Act II: Cold Servings
"What would you do, Tony?"
He starts to speak with a paternal calm. No, this isn't what I want to hear. I wave my hand, interrupt him.
"No, I'm not asking what you think I should do. You're going to tell me it's a waste of time, to forget it, to focus on business, because who gives a shit? But that's not what you'd do, if it happened to you. What would you do if this bullshit just happened?"
The bullshit I'm describing was spending five hours tracking down a top businessman and investor because I wanted to do something very cool for him, and I even had a halfway introduction. He'd told me to email him after I called him with a bunch of info. I sent it all to him, he didn't read any of it, and asked for the exact same info. I said it'd be faster to just meet in person, he said, no, send me more info. I did, and then he didn't reply.
Again, I was trying to do something legitimately cool and useful for him. It would be good for everyone. So persistently, I went about finding his office, which was part of the back of a hotel. It took a while. I met his secretary, somehow managed to talk my way from the lobby up to the office. He wasn't in the office at the moment, but I managed to get an invitation to an event he was hosting that very night.
I showed up, signed the guestbook, and sat down. It was a presentation to members of the media and some other important local people. I'd recently settled down again and gotten some high-end-everything tailored up, so I dressed up suit and such, shaved, and attended.
The presentation was in a language I don't speak so well, so I my mind was melting trying to decipher. Really, I should have tuned out, but I didn't. I caught up with the guy at the end of the event, but my mind was cooked and I fumbled around speaking to him.
Let's call the guy "Jack." Jack goes to brush off my fumbled pitch, and I say, "Jack, this is going to work great, and it'll only take 20 minutes. We can carve that out, it'll be --"
-- cuts me off. "Sebastian. You're persistent. But let me be very clear. NO." He practically shouts it in the middle of this high end media event, and then turns and strides away from me theatrically, making a big show of it.
"So yeah, that's what happened Tony. I spent five hours tracking this fucking guy down, I'm being very cool to him, I'm obviously doing something useful, and he's theatrically publicly over-the-top unnecessarily a dick to me. He could've said, 'Hey, Sebastian, you're persistent, but no. Good luck' - and it would have taken no extra energy... man, I don't know if 'humiliating' is the right word, but god damn I haven't been treated like that in years. That's got to be one of the worst ones I've gotten in a long time. So don't tell me I should forget it, cuz you sure as hell wouldn't."
"Okay. First off, I wouldn't spend five hours tracking anyone down like that.
"But let's say I did. Here's what I'd do. I'd write down his name. And I'd remember it forever. Eventually, if I'm in the same space as him, there'll be a time someone will want to bring him on a deal. And I'll just say to whoever, 'He's not the kind of person I work with, he's not invited and that's not negotiable.' Eventually, maybe, I'll be able to compete with him in his core business. And then I'll run him into the ground."
"But" - he holds up a finger - "But, the key is that you don't let this slow you down. Don't devote time to it. You can't do anything right now, so don't. Do keep working on business. Just remember his name."
My other partner chimes in, "Revenge is a dish best served cold... don't do anything now while you're heated up, emotional, stupid-thinking."
Huh - I didn't realize... "Is that what revenge is a dish best served cold means? I'd heard the expression before, but I didn't know that's what it meant."
He nods. "Don't let it take you off your game."
"Okay. Thanks guys, sorry to derail the start of the meeting with my rambling story here."
Tony speaks up. "Oh no, not at all. That was really interesting."
Other partner speaks up, "You said when you were going to go crash this guy's office that you'd either get a big win or you're get a story out of it..."
"You got the story."
We all laugh a little, and then get down to business.
Act III: The Anonymous Troll Unmasked
I was lying in bed. I couldn't sleep.
Maybe I'm too thin-skinned. Probably.
A number of months ago, I'd entirely abandoned fighting with people on the internet about anything. There's no sense to it, everyone roots for their partisan team, no one's mind is changed, nothing is accomplished.
For the first time, I'd really fully discovered the value of time. I'm turning away lucrative work, and I've got a couple proven business models that just putting in hours means long-term cash. One of the coolest ways is distributing art on the consignment model - getting these wonderful oil paintings taken by shops or cafes, where they get 30% of the sale price if one of their patrons buys it, we donate 10% to a children's art charity, and the talented artist and I split what's left 50/50.
There's also consulting, and doing business development on the projects I'm on. Hiring lots of people, getting a new office set up. Just had my paperwork and visas go through. Getting pitched a lot. Corresponding with more people than I can handle.
Despite that, I found that working all the time kills you. So I'm trying to divide my day into cycles - the first third working on expansive projects, the second third doing maintenance, and the final third going out to a park, to entertainment, chilling out a cafe with good music, getting a massage, or otherwise just not working.
Thus, anything I do takes away from something else. Literally every minute is accounted for. I can - and sometimes do - steal from my maintenance or world time if lots of expansion is happening. I worked 17 hours straight across four projects one day last week. Predictably, the next day I was wrecked. That's a bad idea to do that regularly.
I'm trying to systematically kill off all the low and mid level time in my life. If I can improve my cashflow enough, I'm going to pay to get rid of everything that doesn't generate a ton of value. I just found out you can hire a car and driver, all-in, for about $2000 per month in Beijing. If that saves 40 hours per month of errands, I only need to make $50 per hour to make it worthwhile. Fascinating, huh?
So I'm clearing the decks of all sorts of things that are even pretty valuable. I can't fit everyone in my schedule that I want to talk to. I just had to turn down a really lucrative and interesting performance deal with a high end web design boutique to build them out a cool service because I don't have the time to do it thoroughly. And I can literally mint small streams of income just by hanging out in cafes and shops with this cool art and connecting with owners and managers. Or take up some of the work I've said no to.
But now, I was lying in bed, both enervated and invigorated, because some guy was being an asshole on the internet. I'm probably too thin-skinned.
It was on Hacker News, and the guy was completely anonymous. His username was "0x12," he's acting like he should be the judge and jury of the site, but he only joined less than two months ago.
I saw a thread mention me, and he was really attacking me, insulting me, calling me a dick, saying I have bad motives, saying I'm cheap and cynical and a jerk, and all sorts of things like that. I tried to take the high road and reply, because HN is one of the few websites online where I really care about and identify with the community, and where I have a lot of friends. It can save a bit of time to just be proactive when some lunatic is trying to paint you as this awful horrible monster in just saying, "No, you're mistaken" in a neutral way and explaining why.
But the guy was really persistently being a prick. Calling me all sorts of names, unprovoked, unwilling to listen to logic, repeatedly insulting in the face of reasonable discourse. What's this guy's problem?
I can't sleep.
I got up from the bed in the hotel room.
Maybe there's more to this than meets the eye.
I recall something from forensic linguistics - you can search particularly uncommon strings of language people use in order to see if it matches anything. Apparently, law enforcement can somewhat frequently nail anonymous letters like this.
So I clicked on the troll's username and history and took a phrase from his most recent common that seemed uncommon - "subtle feedback loop" - and I searched it.
The troll? It's Jacques Matheij?! That can't be right...
If you're not familiar with him, Jacques is a guy that's brilliant, charming, and helpful most of the time. He describes himself prominently as stubborn and a troublemaker, and he can really be a bear when he's convinced he's morally right about something, but 90% his stubborn troublemaking is of the benevolent variety.
Eight months ago, he quit Hacker News, saying, "The downside for me is that I'm a person that is of an addictive nature and I can't do things half, so either HN is going to continue to dominate my days from now until eternity or I quit."
So, this can't be right. Jacques and I had a tiff about 13 months ago - he really disliked something I wrote, and he commented sixteen times on it, calling me all sorts of bad names and attributing the worst possible motives to me.
Now, that's particularly dangerous - one of the strangest things I've ever read about persuasion is that hearing the same message 60 times from one person is almost as convincing as hearing it from 60 different people. The mind can't filter well, especially if it's a trusted source.
So Jacques commenting negatively 16 times gave the appearance the reaction to the post was more negative than it was. And he's a great guy 90% to 95% of the time (really, I mean that), which makes it all the worse.
Now, this brand new anonymous troll - 0x12 - had commented multiple times insulting me and linked to that ancient post from 13 months ago. The troll Streissand-effected it, sending 1100 hits to a post that gets less than 10 hits a month. I don't link it at all, and I wrote it 13 months ago. I've written over 500 articles and a million words since then - nobody sees that post, except the troll just sent a huge traffic burst to it by complaining it shouldn't exist.
Conflict invigoration took me over - I have that personality trait. It's hard to pin down exactly where it comes from, but it's probably some mix of not being centered enough, taking things personally, being a little vain and self-important, and all sorts of other neurotic undesirable personality traits.
So there I am, lying awake. Can't sleep. Invigorated, full of half-manic energy. Simultaneously, the tranquility and flow of my life is slightly enervated - I'm ready to go, even though I don't want to. It's not a good thing, not a virtue in any way.
So I'm ready to fight. I think to myself. Okay, before you call anyone out, is that really Jacques?
I check up. I do a couple more searches on unique phrases. Yup, almost certainly him.
Man, what kind of idiocy was that rant where he calls me all sorts of juvenile names anyways? He just performed the grossest kind of hypocrisy - he's telling me I should have conducted my business privately if I really cared about the situation, instead of writing publicly. Yet he's stirring things up publicly. He's saying my old writing is destructive, and he's directing 1,100 people to read it. He's saying he's quit the site, then surreptitiously covertly registered a new account. He registered the account 54 days ago, and has already made 625 comments.
The conflict invigoration is taking over.
The facts speak for themselves - he's a hypocrite (claiming that private matters should be private, while being insulting, demanding, and aggressive in public), crass and impolite (throwing massive toilet-level insults around), massively counter-productive (drawing huge attention to something that's ancient history that he thinks shouldn't be seen). He's a liar - saying he's refused to read my site since 13 months ago, despite having written a public rebuttal to one of my posts a while back. He's unwilling to admit his own failings of willpower and massive obsessive-compulsion. He's antagonistic and insulting to someone that's basically inactive on the site these days, except being available to take questions and occasionally dropping by to write helpful commentary. He's using two accounts, and doesn't admit it.
Man, I start smiling at all the things I can point out. And I can go a step further - I could even write a message to him at the bottom of the post saying, "I know this is burning you up, because it's true. You'll try to restrain yourself from replying, but you won't be able to. You'll write obsessively in 30 times, 50 times, you'll key in and hone in on anything I do and stalk me around, because that's who you are. You haven't dropped an argument we had 13 months ago, you resurrected it out of the blue in an extremely dishonest way - claiming a moral high ground, where you would have been infinitely more effective just emailing me (which is what you said I should've done! oh the glorious hypocrisy!). You'll try to restrain yourself, but be unable to not reply. So you'll have to reply a billion times in the comments, or ask someone you're friends with to do it for you, or write a series of blog posts."
I was smiling with glee. "Sounds like lots of fun ahead... If I must choose between righteousness and peace, I choose righteousness..." - I get it. I get where those quotes come from - it's from this sort of mood.
I mentally formulated how I'd package the post - leading in with the 'search an abstract phrase if you think someone has multiple accounts' point, with a long build up of excitement about who the troll is? And then - bam! - shock!
Unmask the troll, and cast his hypocrisy into the inferno. Unleash pure invigorated a language, like Dante's red pinnacle, the red-hot cone of iron glowing through the dim immensity of gloom.
Epilogue: The Dust Settles
But then I stopped.
Reflected on Tony's words.
"Don't let this slow you down."
This is petty. Normally my writing time is my downtime, after I've done everything critical. I only interrupt the day if I'm particularly inspired.
How much time have I spent thinking about this? I couldn't sleep for a few hours after conflict broke out with all those insults and belligerence thrown at me. And then... I got kind of invigorated and excited, but it wasn't to work on my most important stuff.
How much did the time I spent thinking about this cost me? I'm estimating $900 over the next year.
And so I decided, you know what? I shouldn't bash the anonymous troll. All those arguments I could have formulated about how he's a neurotic, obsessive, underhanded, real jerk of a guy, masquerading as a white knight with hands stained pitch black with skullduggery?
I'll just skip it. It's totally unnecessary.
Somehow, I still wind up writing a 3,000 word post. The opportunity cost makes me cringe. But it wasn't the most terrible use of $900. I'm all invigorated now, I'm going to work the next two days without sleeping.
I too am tempted to carry on time consuming arguments over the internet. They are, as you say, a waste of time.
But I would like to gently point out that in this post, entitled "Why I'm not writing a post bashing the Anonymous Troll" you actually do just that.
There were a lot of things to think about in this post. I struggle with not lashing out in anger and emotion when I am attacked. I think to a certain extent that is just human nature, but it is definitely not productive. I agree with Ian; redirecting your energy was the better way to handle it.
As a veterinarian, I have studied some animal behavior and usually the best way to make an unwanted behavior stop is to ignore it. Unfortunately, dogs learn this much faster than humans and you have to ignore certain behaviors in humans for a much longer time before they quit doing that behavior around you. Just like a dog, the troll is seeking attention. I think you did the right thing in giving it enough of your attention to analyze the situation and your reaction to it and then moving on. Sometimes doing nothing is the best “revenge” because it cost you almost no energy at all once you have your emotional reaction worked out and usually costs the attention seeker a lot because they are not getting what they wanted.
Sebastian, I think redirecting your energy was key. This is something I do almost on purpose at times, pick a fight in my mind to build energy to fight another problem. Taking other people's negative energy and redirecting it in a positive direction. Great ideas in this article.
Avoiding slowing down is important—very important—but I wouldn't call it the key. The key is to look at the situation and determine what your motivations are. What are your actions likely to effect?
Tony, when pressed, outlined a plan for revenge. That's what I'm seeing when I read his words. And I don't buy it. Revenge is a dish best thrown out; it's justice gone rancid. If you follow Tony's plan, and...
"...just say to whoever, ‘He’s not the kind of person I work with, he’s not invited and that’s not negotiable.’ Eventually, maybe, I’ll be able to compete with him in his core business. And then I’ll run him into the ground.”
...then what you are planning to do is damage this person's business or social power. Now, I can see the reason in this if you have strong reasons to believe that this person is evil, hurting people, etc., and I can see value in driving business away from a bad businessman, but have you definitely determined this person to be a bad businessman? Or to have an overall hurtful effect on people? Based on your knowledge and reasoning, is it impossible for the fact of his rudeness to you in this situation to coexist with the possibility of him being, in fact, a nice guy?
Think of the worst way you've treated someone in the past five years. The rudest you've been, from an objective standpoint. Maybe you were having a bad day, or were stressed out, or just accidentally said the wrong thing. How would you feel about a future associate or competetitor, someone with power, basing their entire opinion of you on that one event?
Hah, very entertaining post, I gotta say!
It reminded me about something that happened a few years back: someone was bashing me on a forum (for something I said - nothing bad, nothing personal, I guess it just struck a nerve), I replied, he wouldn't back off, so I decided I'm smarter and I can get him banned from the site. I registered a bunch of fake accounts, gave him negative rep, his account was banned... and so was mine! I guess I should've used a better proxy provider :-). Fun? Yes. Useful? Hell no. I wish I just ignored his posts from the start...
August 11th, 2011. Chiba, Japan.
A mix of confusion and awe as I step off the platform.
I must have made a mistake. But maybe a good mistake.
Birds caw and cicadas click gently, filling the warm afternoon air with sounds of nature. The train platform is open to the air and on the other side of the tracks is a high fence. Beyond it, a bicycle and walking path leading to a park.
Children are running around and playing in the park, but surprisingly quietly. Very Japanese.
First off, I'm really sorry for bothering all of you like this.
Well, I wrote back to my ex last night (finally.) I basically said that he is a great guy, I don't regret what we were, but we made a whole lot of mistakes (in slightly more words.)
He wrote back.