Paul Graham's been on a roll lately, and his new essay "Ramen Profitable" presents, like the best of his writings, an idea generalizable well beyond the domain for which he formulated it.1 But first, permit me to spotlight the rice-and-beans recipe he includes in a footnote as an alternative to literally living on unhealthy instant ramen:
olive oil or butter
n yellow onions
other fresh vegetables; experiment
3n cloves garlic
n 12-oz cans white, kidney, or black beans
n cubes Knorr beef or vegetable bouillon
n teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
3n teaspoons ground cumin
n cups dry rice, preferably brown
Put rice in rice cooker. Add water as specified on rice package. (Default: 2 cups water per cup of rice.) Turn on rice cooker and forget about it.
Chop onions and other vegetables and fry in oil, over fairly low heat, till onions are glassy. Put in chopped garlic, pepper, cumin, and a little more fat, and stir. Keep heat low. Cook another 2 or 3 minutes, then add beans (don't drain the beans), and stir. Throw in the bouillon cube(s), cover, and cook on lowish heat for at least 10 minutes more. Stir vigilantly to avoid sticking.
Why can't more recipes be written like this? When I read others, they're all "2 apples, 3 teaspoons vanilla, 1 pound white stilton, serves 4" (or, worse, "yields 4 servings"). Just get some basic freakin' algebra in there — algebra — and everything's clearer, more readable and adaptable. In short, broken.
In any case, "ramen profitability," as Graham defines it, is the condition a startup company has attained upon bringing in a stable enough revenue to cover the founders' living expenses. The cheaper the lifestyles, the sooner ramen profitability comes. Why would you want to live in this materially sorry state? Leverage. When you're maintaining or slowly growing rather than trying to stop the bleeding, no matter how thin a trickle, the upper hand is yours in negotiations with parties who've got money to offer. This frees you to work on the product rather than dick for better terms or worry that the deal will fall through. If you close it, fantastic. If you don't, no sweat; you're no nearer the grave for it.
But this gets me thinking: businesses, hell. How many lives are even ramen profitable? Most of the twentysomethings I know seem to be praying for the best while the debt gradually mounts. Thirty-, forty-, fifty- and etc.-somethings don't appear to fare much better, and in some cases have only compounded their youth's problems. Some might respond that startups and lives aren't comparable; I'd submit that they are. Aren't the ways in which we're all like businesses inescapable? We own capital, we buy and sell, we lend and borrow, we make and lose. Our checkbook is our balance sheet, our use of our skills our product, our name and reputation components of our brand.
This proposition will draw protests from those claiming they don't base their lives "only on money," but as Peter Altenberg asked of the young girl who lamented that his interest in her was only sexual, "What's so only?" While there's much wisdom to the cliché about money not being able to buy the best things in life — to which I would tack on the caveat "not directly buy" — a lack of it is the most effective known means to attract the worst things in life. I do not — repeat, not — advocate the notion that dropping millions on the plasma TV, the mansion, the sports car, the hair plugs, the yacht and and the trophy wife will buy happiness. That way lies suffocating existential dread. But the freedom that the possession of money grants, as distinct from the spending of money (and the associated morass of stuff), is invaluable.
I call this "the buffer." In this specific case I mean the financial bulwark between you and the dole line, but the importance of the buffer in all resources cannot be denied. Amassing a sizable amount of cash on hand for the proverbial rainy day, coloquially referred to as "fuck-you money" (FYM) — not an expression original to me, though I do use it all the time — is a goal toward which I work. Slowly. Very slowly. Near-imperceptibly. But still! Combine a healthy FYM level with the life equivalent of ramen profitability, and you're free. I think of it in terms of, to lay another three-letter abbreviation on you, the current lifestyle month (CLM): the cost of one month of your current lifestyle. Your FYM divided by your CLM, then, tells you how long you could keep chugging along if all your income dried up today; your buffer, in other words. A ramen profitable life gets a lot more out of the same buffer — and it's much more likely to have one in the first place — than an extravagant one.
For a firm or an individual, an inadequate buffer is an engraved invitation to catastrophe. More specifically, it's an offer of an extended stay and full fridge to passing troubles that, given time and energy, can grow catastrophic. I meet people who've been living with a negative buffer so long that they've mentally recalibrated a perpetual state of catastrophe as normal. And there's a good reason for the FY in FYM: it's a phrase these people can't use in any situation that matters, though I often hear them shouting it in parking lots at, say, their equally catastrophically-lived boyfriends. They're effectively enslaved to crappy jobs, irresponsible roommates, shoddy vehicles and often even shoddier significant others because they lack the leverage — there's that word again — to do anything about it.
(And yeah, I know Peter Altenberg lived the quintessential unmoneyed, seat-of-the-pants bohemian lifestyle. Shut up.)
But this is all bone-stock common sense: mo' money, mo' choices. (Contra Chris Wallace, you get to choose whether you use it to generate mo' problems.) What's got me thinking is the question of which areas of life besides finance are amenable to buffering. A better way to phrase the generalization might be to ask, "Where is there most benefit in having more than you need?" The returns to being in better physical shape than you need to are obvious: nonessential but profitable tasks requiring physical strength still come up from time to time, even though we're a getting uncomfortable close to George Orwell's world operable by "little fat men" with stumps for arms. Much of the developed world only "needs" the capacity to reach their desks, remain there for eight hours, and return home.
Seems to me that the same goes for knowledge: none of us "need" to know very much, but the opportunities to score bonus points with a thick knowledge buffer arise with surprising frequency. None of us "need" all that many friends, but rare is the day when a few more in the buffer wouldn't come in handy. Allowing only the time we "need" to complete a project appears to be one of humanity's most common blunders; a time buffer, or being "ahead," alleviates the racing-the-clock pressure that, for some, harms the end product. (For others, it seems mysteriously to improve it. But, honestly, which one are you?)
We can, if not boil it down to, then at least frame all of this in the context of that Brian Eno quote I reference with alarming regularity: "Luck is being ready." How much more could there be to readiness than maintaining as many and as thick buffers as possible?
1 The slightly newer "The Trouble with the Segway" is also spot-on, and actually extremely compelling despite its apparently narrower potential purview.