Advice to a Would-Be Scholar

One of my strongest recollections is my 25th birthday. My grandmother told me, “You’ll be 30 before you know it.” I knew this already. What I didn’t know was that I would be 50 before I knew it. Think of the words of the patriarch, Jacob.

And Jacob said unto Pharaoh, The days of the years of my pilgrimage are an hundred and thirty years: few and evil have the days of the years of my life been, and have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage (Genesis 47:9).

Or, as Ben Franklin put it as Poor Richard, “A child thinks that twenty pounds or twenty years can never be spent.”

We always run out of time before we know it. We always feel short-changed when it comes to time. “Where did the time go?” We spent it: that’s where it went.

Retrospection in Advance

It is time for you to conduct a retrospective survey at the time of your 80th birthday party. What will you tell the attendees? What words of wisdom will you impart?

The answer will depend on what you will have accomplished. If what you have accomplished is equal to or greater than what you set out to do, your words of wisdom will be worth listening to. Someone may actually listen. Possibly. (Probably not.)

There are three crucial questions in planning for anything, long-run or short-run:

What do I want to accomplish?How soon do I want to accomplish it?What am I willing to pay?

To attain your goals, one by one, you must gain the voluntary cooperation of others. To gain their cooperation repeatedly, you need to do only three things.

Do what you promised to do.Complete the job on time or early.Do it at the price agreed to or less.

These are the six keys to personal success in life. Establish your answers to the first three questions, and then conduct your business by the second three.

Your only irreplaceable resource is time. You cannot make up for lost time. People say you can, but you can’t. As the ancient poem says, “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.” The past is economically irrelevant except as a tool of education. As my father says, “Don’t stand around looking down a dead horse’s throat.” (Or words to that effect.)

The value of work is established by its output, not by its input. The labor theory of value is wrong. Activity is no substitute for production. You must internalize this principle of economics. Don’t waste resources, but, above all, don’t waste time. Don’t invest time that you don’t need to invest to achieve your goals. Franklin said that time is money. That is the least of it. You can always make more money. You must design your plans of action more by their cost in time than their cost in money. Time is irreplaceable. If you can save time, do so. If you must sacrifice money to save time, do so. Above all, save time. You don’t know when it will run out. If you run out of money, you can always figure out a way to replace it, or come close.

You should not count on living to 90 with your mental faculties intact. You might make it to your late eighties. F. A. Hayek did. Ludwig von Mises did. Milton Friedman has. But this is rare.

Calling vs. Occupation

When you begin to make plans for your life’s output — not its input — you must ask yourself: “Who will pay me, and why?” Will someone pay you to do what you want to do? Probably not. If not, then you must pay. You must sell buyers what they want, so that you can achieve what you want. This was Adam Smith’s great observation.

Before you begin planning, you should clarify you thinking on this issue: calling vs. occupation. Your life’s calling is that which you should want to do: “the most important thing that you can do in which you would be most difficult to replace.”

Your vocation is selling buyers whatever they want that you have a competitive advantage in selling. Only rarely are calling and occupation the same in a man’s life. Until women entered the labor market, their calling was usually their vocation. Today, men and women must balance vocation and calling. They must find someone else who will pay them to do their calling, or else choose a vocation, and then self-fund their calling.

Formal Education

Never spend more money on formal education than you have to in order to achieve either your calling or your vocation. Formal education costs too much in forfeited time and forfeited income. Find a shortcut.

Formal education is mainly for vocations: earning a “union card.” But because so many people have earned their union cards, the market vale of the card is low. Forewarned is forearmed.

Self-discipline is a far less expensive substitute for formal education in the case of most callings. People with mediocre self-discipline substitute formal education for complete self-education or education under a master craftsman or professional, the way most education used to be. They need the routine of regular exams: intermediate formal sanctions. But they are rarely among the best and the brightest 30 years after graduation. Their lack of self-discipline undermines them.

Estimate what you will need to begin to earn your income. Pay the minimal price, in both time and money, in order to gain entry. But don’t pay for formal education that is not designed to overcome a barrier to entry.

If you want a formal reading list, write to the best academic men in a field and ask for a list. Or ask a university department for its list of recommended readings for an M.A. or Ph.D. Departments publish these. Write to the best departments. Then read as much as you think is benefiting you. Bibliographies at the end of really good books are of far greater value than assigned reading lists in a college or a seminary. Find out what the best men in any field have read and recommend reading, not what worn-out time-servers assign to lowest-common denominator beginners.

It is better to select a vocation that will throw off enough passive income after 20 years of work to enable you to do whatever you want. Build capital. Let your capital support you. Income-producing real estate is usually the most predictable way to do this. Your only other option is to get third parties to fund your calling. But how many third parties will do this? How many vocations persuade third parties to fund one service, allowing you enough free time to do your calling? Would-be professors in colleges hope to gain this advantage when they make their life’s plans, but only a handful of them ever gain full-time academic employment, and of those who do, only a few ever use the system to produce significant work. Surely, most of their students neither recognize nor appreciate significant academic performance within a discipline. Self-discipline is still the key to success.

So, I strongly suggest that you make your educational plans in terms of gaining entry into a vocation that will free you up after 20 years to do your calling full-time. Don’t invest in formal education for your calling. Invest in your vocation, but only on the assumption that you will retire by age 45 or 50. Then you will work on your calling full-time. The sooner you locate a vocation that will free you up at age 45 or 50, the better off you will be. It is better to amass capital early and skip all formal education that is not explicitly designed to break an entry barrier.

Compound Interest

Take a look at this compound interest chart: Investor A vs. Investor B. It reveals just how important early entry is. I wish I had seen it at age 18. I wish every young person could see it. But, unfortunately, seeing isn’t believing, any more than hearing is believing. On how to put this chart to work for you, read Richard Russell’s comments.

In your case, it’s already too late to take full advantage of this chart. But at least you can get started.


I suggest that you speed up your formal education. Don’t dawdle. Don’t spend one hour in any classroom that isn’t directly contributing to your ability to break through a vocational barrier to entry. Keep reading. Keep building your file of notes. You are in a marathon, not a sprint.

January 7 , 2002

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© 2002

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