Feb. 8, 2023

Paul Millerd | The Pathless vs Default Path

Paul Millerd | The Pathless vs Default Path

Discover Paul Millerd's journey through experiments, travels, and lessons learned, as he pieces together a set of principles to guide him from unfulfilled to the good life.

Join us for a compelling conversation with Paul Millerd, author of The Pathless Path. In this episode, Paul shares his insights on finding yourself in the wrong life and the real work of figuring out how to live. Discover his journey through experiments, travels, and lessons learned, as he pieces together a set of principles to guide him from unfulfilled to the good life.

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Srini: Paul, welcome to Unmistakable Creative. Thanks so much for taking the time to join.

Paul Millard: Excited to be here.

Srini: It is my pleasure to have you here. So I actually came across your story because, for some reason, Amazon recommended your book The Pathless Path to me. And uh, I remember reading the intro and thinking, "Yeah, I've got to buy this!" And I couldn't put it down. I thought it was one of those books that were so resonant and so thoughtful and really kind of speaks to so many things that people are feeling.

But before we get into the book, I wanted to start asking you: What is the very first job that you've ever had, and what did you learn from it? How did that impact the choices that you've made going forward?

Paul Millerd: First job. I mean, I had a bunch of like, do stuff around neighborhoods, yard work type stuff. But my first job was working at a gas station, a town over from mine, and I was, it was like a bagel shop slash gas station slash ice cream and hotdog place and I really hated it. Like, I was not one of these people that were like, oh, I ground when I was young. I was working every moment of my life. I was like, this sucks. Like, I gotta do better than this. And it's funny, I ended up quitting, um, the story I used to convince my mother was a good idea is like, I need to focus on school. Um, but, but really

Srini: I have a version of that. Let me finish your story and I'll tell you my version of it.

Paul Millerd: Me on Sundays and I wanted to watch the Patriots game, um, but I remember my mother saying, "You just don't have to." I'm worried about you. Um, and there was some truth in that. It didn't really bother me. I, I sort of just thought like, I don't see how learning how to just like muddle through this gas station job is good for me. And that's sort of a theme that stuck with me many years later.

Srini: Hmm. Well, okay. Go back to that. Like I, I'm with you. Uh, I didn't see how staying at McDonald's would be good for me, even though my parents made me stay there for eight months. In retrospect, it was the most humbling and one the most informative jobs I've ever had. Um, so I wonder, like when you look back at it, particularly being told that you don't have ambition, I'd imagine that kind of might have lit a fire under your ass.

But when you look back at a job like that, what do you take away from it now?

Paul Millerd: Yeah, I, I wonder if you learn more from McDonald's 'cause they're better run. The place I was at was just, just like everyone kind of hated working there. Everyone was like running scams to get free food and like our clientele was coming in, buying blunt wraps every day. I, I don't know if I learned a ton from it.

Srini: Yeah.

Paul Millard: Every job I had when I was young, I just felt like I wanted to escape and do something else. Um, so maybe

Srini: Hmm...

Paul Millerd: I just sort of thought, okay, you need to keep searching. This might be kind of hard.

Srini: Yeah. Well, I think, you know, I, of course, I didn't recognize at the time, I thought, you know, this is a sh*t job. Like, why would anybody want this? The thing that I realized in retrospect when I look back at McDonald's was that for me it was a pit stop, and for a lot of those people, this was the life that they were destined to lead, and I never appreciated how much privilege there was in that until I got older.

Paul Millard: Yeah. I think for me, I was always good at school and

Srini: Mmm-hmm.

Paul Millerd: I appreciate that. Now I sort of got lucky because if you aren't good at school, there are not a lot of tracks for you. A lot of parents will think you lot of people stress around not succeeding in school and we've placed so much emphasis on school when succeeding in school isn't the only measure of success.

There are many other types of intelligence, so I think I was lucky in that regard, in the sense that I probably knew, okay, I have many paths to pick from in the future. I don't have to.

Srini: Yeah!

Paul Millerd: Leaving this job.

Srini: Okay. But, you know, in concert with that, your mom also said you lacked ambition. Like, what do you think that was? Like, why would they say that? Because I don't think any kid who's good at school is ever told they lack ambition.

Paul Millerd: Yeah, I, I think it comes from this sort of industrial era script when I read about this in the book, which is that, work is sort of suffering, right? You need to learn how to suffer a lot in schools around this. You need to learn how to work hard. You need to learn how to put in the work to pay off the grades, and it's all suffering in the present for a payoff in the future. So, to succeed you need to learn how to get the approval of others in jobs in big companies and basically do things you don't want to do. Um, I have eventually now landed on a different definition of ambition, but I think that definition of ambition is both mapped to a reality of work, meaning there.

Srini: Hmm.

Srini: Yeah, I mean, I was talking to my dad about this a few weeks ago. I said, you know, when you guys came to this country, the American dream was alive and well. And truth is, in my generation, that is not really the case. I've seen so much of this, you know, and you even say this, you know, you say that for a lot of people, this means that the expectations of life are centered around a small number of positive events that occur while we're young.

Much of the rest of our lives remain unscripted. And when we face inevitable setbacks, they're left without instructions on how to think or feel. Uh, so for you, what was the narrative about careers growing up? Like, what was your parents' advice about making your way in the world?

Paul Millerd: weren't many other options and that. Decent story to grasp onto because you don't have options, you should come up with a good story too, uh, sort of make yourself a little happier. But I think that has become less true and sort of just this like cargo cult of, call 'em sufferers, like people just like glorify suffering for the sake of suffering.

When I don't know how much value there is in just learning how to suffer in like a pointless job, um, I think that ends up trapping more people than it helps because the state of like climbing a ladder and things like that is just not as easy and flowing, um, through life as it once was.

Paul Millerd: It was pretty much like, put your head down, get good grades, and like everything will be taken care of. My, neither of my parents went to college and didn't really feel like they had options and possibilities in their life. Um, so I think they sort of felt stuck. They weren't like telling me about careers and jobs. It was just like, you should do this. And we've sort of bought into that this will work. And for the most part, it did pay off for me. Um

Srini: Yeah!

Paul Millerd: I think my issues are much more like mid- and late-career and finding things that are sustainable. I'm not against following the default path early in your career. The biggest challenge with the default path is there aren't really off-ramps because we are so collectively aligned around this idea that life can be planned on a linear path through large organizations and jobs. I just think that doesn't map to reality anymore, and it's not useful for an increasing number of people every year.

Srini: Yeah. Well, I mean, I was just thinking about the sheer number of tech layoffs that have been happening in anticipation of a potential recession. Like every day you're seeing these headlines of mass layoffs from companies where people probably thought they'd have stable jobs. I mean, Facebook for goodness' sake is laying people off.

Um, yeah. I, I appreciate the fact that you said that it's not a bad alternative early in your career because you need, you know what? Cal Newport calls career capital before you can just jump off the ship. Cause I've seen sort of two versions of this where people work, no end at a job they hate even though they have skills.

And then there are these other people who, you know, quote-unquote leap without a net and or, you know, jump out of a plane without a parachute and try to build it on the way down, which Reid Hoffman says, that's described building a startup. And I was like, yeah, that's easy to say if Reid Hoffman is funding your startup.

If not, that is more often a recipe for poverty than security or even following your passion to

Paul Millerd: Yeah. So I wanted to break into strategy consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG Consulting Group, and Bain. And I talked to a number of these people when I was in college and people were mostly dismissive or talked down to me. One guy explicitly told me, "You didn't go to the right schools. Like your best odds are to go work at a big company for a couple of years and then try to get into a top business school and then you might be able to get a job here." That just sort of lit a fire under me. I was like, "Who are these people? Why do they talk like this and think like this?" Um, I had gone to Yukon because I thought it would be rational, like the financial decision, like it was in-state tuition plus I got some scholarship money, so I was like, "Okay, this is a smart decision." Um, I sort of got captivated with trying to break into these worlds, so I just kept applying. I applied and got rejected from every consulting firm in the world my senior year, and then just applied again the following year. I sort of got lucky with my experience lined up with a very specific job at McKinsey and Company

Srini: Hmm. You know, the thing that strikes me most about that is you were captivated by this world and so many people are, uh, I mean, where I went to college, that was sort of the pinnacle of achievement was hey, you get into McKinsey and Berkeley hires like one McKinsey one student from Berkeley every year to work at McKinsey.

I know. 'Cause, it was one of my friend's girlfriends, and it was my brother-in-law from Stanford. Uh, you know, in his year he was the one and. Yeah, so the question for me is like, why do you think it is that people are so captivated by these sorts of symbols of prestige when they don't even often know what they're really getting themselves into?

Paul Millerd: So I think these companies actually get a slightly bad rap. Like I went from GE, which is a pretty good company, and decently well-run, better than most other big companies to McKinsey. And the actual reality of working there was way better. Like I, I was sort of blown away when people were railing at McKinsey about how bad things were. Um, people complain at every job, but it was actually wonderful — people gave a crap about me. Like I did a training that was incredible and radically helped me improve. So I think there's that reality that like, these jobs are good. Um, that's a result of like high-profit margins and continuously growing, um, companies, but, um, people get warped because like, it's basically just what other people pay attention to. Right. I think I have a definition in my book, prestige is basically like us using the heuristic of paying attention to what other people pay attention to. And people pay attention to these jobs because as a new grad, you can make good money, have great perks, and work on the most interesting problems in the business world. The plus side for that for me was when I landed at these firms. Like I

Srini: Hmm. The other thing that struck me about your story was that you didn't give up in the face of a no. Uh, particularly when you're at a place like Yukon, as we both talked about, that doesn't, you know, is not a place where companies like McKenzie recruit. I know this 'cause I faced this same dilemma when I was at Pepperdine, uh, going from Berkeley to Pepperdine.

I saw that, wait a minute, like none of these companies that are hiring MBA interns to come to Pepperdine to recruit. They go to places like Berkeley and Stanford. So what do you think it is about you that allowed you to persist in the face of being told no so many times?

Paul Millerd: I think it's a bit of an engineering mindset like I need to just figure things out for myself. I grew up tinkering on computers and figuring things out and I was always given enough time to figure things out. Like computers used to crash a lot in the nineties and I could always figure out what went wrong and then fix it. Um, I've always had this tinkering mindset of like, okay, this is what people say, but is that true? And then let me go find out on my own. Um, yeah, I, I don't know where that comes from. I've just always been a bit skeptical of what people say. I think I just have like a decent bullshit detector, like the amount.

Srini: Yeah.

Paul Millerd: People communicate what you need to do in life, how you need to work, what is risky and what is not. A lot of it is just nonsense; it's not tied to any sort of base reality. Like

Srini: Mm-hmm.

Paul Millerd: My path, for example. Now, I don't find this risky whatsoever, because I find it a lot more sustainable because I'm excited and connected about the work I'm doing, but other people live in a reality where they can literally have millions of dollars and they see my path as, "I could never do that." And I'm just like, "I don't understand that. That's so crazy."

Srini: Hey Paul. Hold on just a second. I think my dad is here. I'm using his office. Gimme just a sec. He's knocking at the door. Okay. I'll wait here. Anyway, I have a meeting with a candidate. Okay. I'm in the middle of an interview right now. It's, sorry about that. Um, we'll cut this out. Uh, and Josh, make a note to edit here, please. Uh, yeah, well I know what you mean uh when you talk about this idea, cuz I, I think that this is something that I've observed with multiple conversations with college professors on this show. You go to college and it's almost like a fast food menu where they're like, these are the majors, these are just the jobs they lead to.

And it's funny because they seem to get narrower and narrower in terms of options as you get older and you have this sort of set idea of what the path is and the default path, you know, you know what you call the default path, by design seems almost limited. And you say in the book that we're convinced that the only way forward is the path

Paul Millerd: Yeah, and I, I think my perspective on this is that the world is becoming more like our paths, and it's probably useful to at least try this mindset on. That is kind of like what I want to convey in my book that the world is shifting in this direction. Reinventing yourself, recreating yourself, or at least coming up with a new story of what you're actually experiencing is going to lead to higher levels of sanity.

Like even doctors, they had this idea when they talked to so many of them. They thought they could help people, but now, for the most part, they find themselves as middle managers, as part of large hospital systems, doing lots of paperwork and dealing with bureaucracy and internal politics. That is not what they signed up for.

And they don't have some sort of story that can help them map to what they're experiencing, how to get out of that, how to even remix that path, like 10 to 15% around the edges, even if they want to stay in medicine and continue practicing. Um, and that's kind of like what I see as the big shift. Stuff is hard. Like our paths are weird and hard because there's unconcern

Srini: Hmm.

Paul Millard: Not experimenting at all is also a failure mode, I think.

Srini: Yeah. Well, I mean, I was just thinking about this having a job might seem like the most stable and secure thing in the world until you get laid off and realize it's the only way that you know how to make money.

Srini: Hmm.

Paul Millerd: Well, I see a lot of people in my older cohort, like older millennial cohort, like we actually did decently, we graduated right before the global financial crisis. We weren't making enough to get laid off and people crushed it in the late 2000s. Now I see people like couples making, uh, God knows how much like I've lost touch with what people actually make in knowledge work.

But making like $300,000 a year and buying these super expensive homes and like their life is sort of dependent on two people earning six figures a year. That, to me, would scare the shit out of me. Like, if you have a house where you need to pay $8,000 a month if somebody loses their job, suddenly you're burning cash. That's pretty risky for me. Whereas like

Paul Millerd: I can flex up and down my spending. Like I do a lot in terms of like, lifestyle compared to my peers. And this is the hardest thing about taking a path like mine. I call it a status tax. Like I don't own a home. I'm expecting, uh, we're expecting a daughter in March, and like one of the number one things people say to me is like, oh, are you guys gonna get a house? Like, that is another script in people's heads. To have a kid, you need to own your own home. Um, we, I don't have the resources to buy a home in a place where I wanna live right now, but that's totally fine with me. We're both perfectly happy with it. But that is a tax and that would be incredibly painful for a lot of people and they couldn't deal with that.

Srini: Yeah, well, talk to me about the actual impetus for walking away, because right before you and I hit record here, we were having sort of this interesting, you know, back and forth about sort of, uh, how we define success and often what we think is our own definition of success when we walk away from, you know, the default path or the society definition of success is just trading that definition of success for Chris Gilberto's definition of success, or Tim Ferriss's definition of success. And it took me a long time to realize that that's what we'd effectively done. We're actually not really making choices based on our own desires, but based on some other person who's in a position of status who just happens to be in a different context.

Paul Millerd: A lot of my writing and thinking came out of me being hyper-skeptical of all of that, including the Tim Ferriss definition or anything else I could gravitate onto. When I left my job, I wanted to escape the work life. I really just wanted to limit how much I was working. I wanted to escape the reality I was living in. Like I just couldn't do it anymore, and I was scared of creating another job for myself. So I went really slow the first chance I could get. After making some money freelancing in the first six months, I sort of created a mini-sabbatical for myself where I didn't try to get paid work for basically a year. I ended up getting one project that paid decently for like two months, but basically, for a year I didn't really work on anything paid, and it was in that space in which I was able to start reconnecting with myself, remembering the things I liked doing as a kid, like starting writing and realizing, wow, this is really enjoyable, just to do on my own terms, my own pace, and it might lead somewhere interesting. I started a podcast even though I didn't really have any business ambitions around that, and I just found a connection with like

Paul Millerd: Yeah, it's part of this, like shows like this. You get asked when is the moment you knew you had to go in a different path. You usually get asked that enough times that you start coming up with a good story to answer it. Right.

Srini: Mm-hmm. . Yeah. Uh, well, I, I think that the, I wanna appreciate that because it's not a sort of delusional, optimistic version of being able to do this, that we're sold. It's grounded in reality and you acknowledge the fact that wait, there are sacrifices, there's a "status tax". Like, I always have said like every decision that you make in your life is a trade-off between freedom and security.

Um, you know, you're gonna give up freedom in one place for security in another, or give up security in another place for freedom in another. And, what I appreciated was that you said that choosing to leave full-time work was not a single bold decision, but a slow and steady awakening that the path I was on was not my path.

My conclusion from this is simple. Beyond the headlines of dramatic life changers are almost always longer and slower and more interesting stories. And that's the funny thing is that people don't see everything that happens in between, they only see the headlines.

Srini: Yeah.

Paul Millerd: Um, and I noticed I was doing that and also through my podcast, I started just interviewing people and going super deep. Um, I didn't ask, "When is the moment you decided to quit your job?" I would ask questions like, "You quit your job, like maybe years before that, were there signs that you were interested in other things?" and you get answers like that? Or "When you were growing up, did you have, uh, evidence of being creative or naturally interested in things?" and you start hearing these completely different timelines of people's past and how they ended up there. And sometimes it seems super obvious upon reflection, but this is the challenge. Like it never seems obvious at the moment.

Srini: Mm-hmm. . Yeah. Well, it's similar to a question that John Dumas would ask people when he interviewed them, an entrepreneur on fire. And I remember he asked me this question and ended up writing a blog post about it. He said, have you ever felt like you have had an "I've made it" moment? And it's funny because every single moment that I've ever thought would be the quote, unquote, "I've made it" moment, never felt like it.

It never was, and I realized why that was. I was like, one, if you believe that you have an "I've made it" moment, you're done. That is when you stop working, you start to rest on your laurels. And I just realized, I was like, there is no such thing. It's to your point, like a series of really, really small things that all add up over time.

It's just that you only see the end result. You don't see, you know what Scott Belsky calls the "messy middle", like all the awful parts in between. You know, like you see somebody writing a book and you're

Paul Millerd: Yeah. I did like a tweet thread about my journey of how the book happened. And it started with, I wrote, when I was young, I had blogs, I had things like this. I goofed around in college. I had Tumblrs, I had a blog for grad school about getting into business school. I wrote on Quora for years. I wrote on LinkedIn. Um, I had different sites, and someone goes, one of my friends, he just commented, oh, everything makes sense now. Because you often don't see that work. You're often like seeing the final product. You stumble upon someone. And, um, like you, I'm not super familiar with your work, but I've dug in a little bit.

It'd be very easy for me to think like, you arrived at this. Now I'm smart enough to know that my own journey to know that you've probably been headed in this direction and creating awesome stuff now because you started probably decades ago, um, in whatever form that took. Um, but people really just want to be saved.

People want an easy answer. This is why they gravitate to, "I just want to follow the Tim

Srini: Yeah.

Paul Millerd: Is there any arrival? You might get to a higher level of, like, "Oh, okay, I can stay on this path a little longer." My first year, I was like, "Okay, I think I could probably make two years." Now I'm five and a half years in. I was like, "Eh, I could probably make 10." Um, that's a form of making it, but I don't ever expect to arrive, nor do I want to, because then I would stop having fun.

Srini: Well, uh, I think there's this notion of the next level, right? I, I don't know if people have ever asked you about this when you've been interviewed. It's like, do you feel like you've reached this next level of success? And I remember Ryan Holiday and I talking about this once, uh, and it's his realization that the next level is really a false horizon. He said because if you think about it, nobody ever gets to the thing they say they want to achieve, and achieves it and says, all right, that's it. I'm done. He said, you know, you, you basically hit, hit a home run and you say, no, it's hitting a home run in the World Series, or it's hitting a grand slam, or it's having the highest contract in baseball.

And the thing that he said to me was, he said, it's good on the aggregate because it drives achievement. If nobody, if everybody is happy being a senator, nobody would run for president, he said, but on the individual level, it's a lie because it never gives you the satisfaction you think it will. And I realized, I was like

Paul Millard: Yeah, I think Ryan's an interesting case. He talks a lot about being content and happy with what he's doing, but through his actions

Srini: Alright.

Paul Millerd: His actions, he also just reads books like a maniac. Like I definitely have learned a lot from him, but, I do wonder if they're just different psychologies and personalities. Like, I don't resonate with what he's saying there. Like, I actually feel pretty good, like in my

Srini: Hmm.

Paul Millerd: This is from some of my successes in my career. Like, for me making six figures and making it into grad school at MIT and working at McKinsey, I honestly feel like I've had enough external achievement in the business world. I'm very skeptical of doing anything for something else. Like, X for Y, I think, is such a trap. People are like, "Oh, has your book helped you land speaking gigs?" I'm like, "Uh, is that a thing I'm supposed to be doing? I wrote the book because I wanted to write the book."

Srini: Yeah.

Paul Millerd: And like, I just feel so content with like, everything I've done. I like writing and I want to keep doing it. And like, the value of being slightly more ambitious is that you can work on new and more interesting things. But like, I really don't have that like, next thing I

Srini: Yeah!

Paul Millard: I need to create. Maybe I'm a bit of a weirdo sometimes, 'cause it seems like everyone else is just like, "I don't resonate with that. I need more."

Srini: Well, you know, I realized I was writing about this the other day, um, because I think that there's this sort of psychological component, right? Like we're all apparently driven by our need for status. Like status is a human desire, and you've got that from both, you know, MIT and McKinsey. I mean, I got that the moment I got the Penguin portfolio book deal, I was like, okay, this is an elevation in status to a degree. And humans apparently are hardwired to need status. Um, but the thing that I realized I was writing about this the other day is that when more becomes the end rather than the means, there's literally no end to it. It's just a recipe for perpetual dissatisfaction. And I think you made a really interesting point about, you know, doing X for Y because you say similar to expectations around meaningful work, far too many people limit their imagination of work worth doing to things that either come with a paycheck, require qualifications, or have a socially accepted story of impact, which, you know, particularly on the internet, it's, you know, building an audience that's massive or having, you know, thousands of fans.

Paul Millerd: Yeah, I don't know. I, I think one. I have always been skeptical of other people's opinions. So we were talking about that even in college and stuff. Like people's opinions were, I couldn't work in consulting and I was like, that's bullsh*t. Similarly, I'm also skeptical of other people's opinions of, what's worth doing, right? It's very clear that if I tried to maximize income and make more money, I could get more attention and some form of status. But I don't know if I actually want that form of status. Like, building an audience online mostly because it usually makes my life better in the form of meeting actual people in real life that I become friends with. That's why I typically only share things that I want to continue talking about, right?

Srini: Uh, yeah, I think that's a great idea.

Paul Millerd: Ways to like scale attention if I like, went a little harder on the hustle language and things like that. But it's just totally uninteresting to me. Um, yeah, I, I don't know what, um, how to avoid those traps. Um, I think things that help me, one, leaving the US, the US is an insatiable culture for more in every aspect of our culture. It's not like that in many other countries. So just befriending people and being around people and immersing yourself in cultures that aren't obsessed with more and don't have easy access to goods and things all the time. That was helpful. And two was just like literally making no money for a long stretch of time, and realizing, oh, I'm okay. And like, something I value is just spending time wandering and spending time reading and spending time with the people in my life. Super valuable. I'm gonna have a daughter in March, so I'm gonna price that time at like a million dollars an hour.

Srini: No.

Paul Millerd: It, it's gonna be awesome. So I'm

Srini: Well, I, I can relate. I mean, my sister just had a baby, he's seven weeks old as of today. And, uh, something that really struck me, uh, was when my sister said, you know, this is actually really special, the four of us getting to be here together because it's just kind of unusual that we all happen to have this much time off and all living at my parent's house.

And my old roommate kept just saying, he's like, you can't live there forever, man. And I was like, yeah, I'm not planning on living here forever, but right now, I'm really not in any hurry to make a commitment or a decision about where I'm going next because I'm not going to get this time back with my nephew.

Uh, this is literally probably the only time in my life where I'm ever gonna get to do this and to get to be with him. In these early phases, there's no price that you can put on that.

Paul Millerd: Yeah, I sense there are moments in our life that open up like this. I had a similar period in Taiwan where I sort of arrived there. I was able to lower my cost of living to under a thousand dollars a month. Um, wasn't buying anything, was spending very little on food. Um, and couldn't land freelance gigs either.

I was living abroad in 2018 and was kind of failing at that. Um, but I sort of had this deep sense that like, let's just sit with this time. Like, I don't know how that emerges, like it's sort of this, this deep intuition, but I did, and a lot of things that have emerged five years later really were planted in those moments, in those months where I sort of just would soften into the world and myself a little bit.

Srini: Hmm. Well, one of the things that you say is that making life changes requires overcoming the discomfort of not knowing what will happen. Facing uncertainty. We make long mental lists of things that might go wrong and use these as reasons why we must stay on our current path. So how do you navigate the psychological and emotional aspects of navigating this kind of uncertainty?

Uh, because I think that this can drive some people to absolute madness.

Paul Millerd: Yeah, for sure. And I think what drives people mad is thinking about it and not actually experiencing it. The benefit of actually just stepping into the uncertainty is you can actually do something about it, right? And actually face those fears directly. This is one of the hidden benefits of taking an uncertain path, is that you can learn to develop a relationship with that uncertainty. You can develop a capacity for managing the chaos and uncertainty of life, which is underneath the surface of all our stories about how smooth our lives are. It's there.

Srini: Yeah.

Paul Millerd: The uncertainty of the universe is uncertain, weird, chaotic, and unpredictable. We just don't imagine life working that way, so we sort of blind ourselves to it. Full-time jobs are one of the best ways to blind ourselves from it because everyone else who's doing a full-time job agrees never to talk about the uncertainty of the universe. But when you take a path like ours, boom, you're hit with it. The thing that's hard is, if you're imagining all the things that will go wrong, it can be like torture. But when you're actually experiencing the things that go wrong, you can actually act in the world.

Like when I wasn't making money, it's like, okay, I need to start trying stuff and having a better approach to figuring out how to make this path sustainable. Or when I get bit by a dog in a country, it's like, okay, probably gotta figure out if I have rabies and what's happening here. Or just all these things I've experienced.

It's like, over time, you start to realize there's wisdom in the unknown and the chaos.

Srini: Hmm.

Paul Millard: You faith, because they will teach you about life and give you more confidence about being able to move forward.

Srini: Ah. Well, I think that the thing about the unknown is that it takes us perfectly into this idea of what you call a fixed point, right? You say we all have fixed points that we aim towards in our lives. Homeownership is one of the most popular, but others include paying for children's college expenses, becoming an executive partner, founding a company, or reaching a certain net worth.

The problem with these default fixed points is that they're culturally derived rather than a product of our unique motivations and desires. The fixed points along the default path are not inherently bad, but they do tend to push people toward doing what others do. And for me, that one is getting married because I'm Indian and I'm still single and in my forties, right?

Like that is sort of in my mind. It's like, okay, is this the fixed point at which my parents will be like, all right, you have your shit together? Uh, but I think we all have versions of that, and yet in this path that you're talking about, there is really no fixed point that you're aiming for. It kind of takes us back to that whole idea of enough and.

Paul Millerd: Yeah, and it makes a lot of other people uncomfortable. I love this path. I'm having a ton of fun on it. The questions from other people never cease. And I realized at the beginning I was super defensive. I would try to convince them that, if it's really thought out, I know what I'm doing. I had no idea what I was doing at the beginning, but now I sort of know what I'm doing and I have the wisdom to know that other people's questions are just projecting their uncertainty onto me. So I'm a little more patient and I just sort of listen to these things. But it's fascinating too like we're having a kid, we're living in a two-bedroom rental and many, many people have been like, "Well, you guys are probably gonna buy a home soon, right?" It's so embedded in people's minds that you have to own a home to have kids. I literally said to somebody, "I was like, 'They let you have kids in rentals?'" And she goes, "Wow, never thought of that." It's like, "Wow, these scripts are deep in people's heads," and they're just sort of endless. Many people will

Srini: Yeah, yeah, it's amazing how much we make decisions about our entire lives based on some unknown future that we can't predict or control.

Paul Millerd: Yeah, I saw this post today. Somebody shared it, um, on Twitter. The title is "How are people buying these $10 million homes, feeling frustrated after years of hard work?" Mid-thirties, engineering director at a FANG company, um, salary and stock have tanked and his net worth is down to 2.5 million at the end. He goes, um, what's it, I'm not. I've been a 1% student and am now a top 1% high-performing professional. I've been hardworking, bold, and driven for as long as I can remember, but now I worry that I'll never be able to afford a house like this. It's like, what is happening here? Like, let's deconstruct this: a human has 2.5 million, one of the richest humans at the richest point in the history of the world, and he's feeling like he's on the wrong path, stuck like things have gone terribly wrong. Like this person should be thriving, like he's playing the wrong games. And part of this is just like figuring out how to play a better game that's aligned with what you actually want in life.

Srini: Yeah, no, absolutely. Well, one thing that I appreciate that you say is that many people struggle to start making a living from their creative endeavors because they're still operating within the logic of the default path. On the default path, you have to get the job before you can do the work. On the pathless path, you simply do the work first and then decide if you want to continue. And it, that's the funny thing, like people don't realize that you don't get to monetize your creative work or get attention for it until you've earned that. Do you know? And I see so many people wanting to shortcut that and think about how, you know, how do I make more money doing this? And it's like, well, you do it and prove that you're doing something that's worth people paying you for.

Paul Millerd: Yeah, and I think the key, not being naive, there's a lot of marketing and branding around the passion economy and creator economy. I've been writing pretty consistently since 2015. The money I've made from writing has been in 2022, and that is mostly a surprise to me. I didn't expect my book to do as well as it did. And that's sort of still how I'm orienting. Like I have no idea what the income from my book will be next year, but I'm sort of mentally expecting it to just be a lot lower because

Srini: Mmm-hmm.

Paul Millerd: To grow a blog is really hard. Um, but I'm still writing. I love it like it's so much fun. Um, I learn about things, I get to share them, I get to connect with other people sharing about those ideas. And I get some intrinsic value from it. And I want to continue writing for 30 years. So the only reason I'm having success is 'cause I stayed in a game I actually liked. And what I've seen is most people quit or drop out. A lot of people start writing online. Um, most people don't last more than a couple of years.

Srini: Yeah, well, trust me, I, I know this 'cos there are bloggers, people who had popular blogs way more popular than mine, uh, when I started in 2009, who are no longer around. And I appreciate the fact that you have, uh, called out this whole idea of the passion economy or the creator economy. I remember reading this headline on, uh, a Medium article titled "The Creator Economy is Booming."

And I was like, no, it's not. It's booming for a small subset of people. The creator economy is a developing country. It's basically rife with inequality just in digital form. You know, a handful of creators basically take the bulk of the revenue and, uh, you know, I, I said like, it's rampant with inequality.

There's a venture capitalist who wrote an article titled "The Creator Economy Needs a Middle Class," and I was like, yeah, there is no middle class in the creator economy.

Paul Millerd: It's not a good opportunity for people. Now, the hidden story about the creator economy is that it's transforming the lives of people in lower-income countries, especially those who can speak English because they can immediately tap into this global network of people sharing interesting things. And their opportunity cost is just much lower. So they're much more willing to compete. And if they can make three or four hundred dollars a month in many countries, that's going to change someone's life. And it's been interesting; as I do some online course stuff and the most motivated people are almost categorically non-rich, non-western countries.

Srini: Interesting.

Paul Millerd: And that is just over and over again. Like people that are helping me on my podcast are in Poland, are in India, um, Ukraine, and they're so good. And they're so driven. They're not gonna work with me for a long time because they're getting better, they're leveling up their learning and they're gonna go beyond me like I'm not gonna be able to afford them soon. And over and over again, these are the people I encounter. So this whole American mindset is based on this second half of the 20th century, we sort of had what the economist, David Autor from MIT called "Middle-Skill Jobs." These were comfortable jobs at big companies with good benefits and you sort of didn't need to have exceptional skills. You could kind of just show up, coast and you would get your life taken care of. This is the "accidental meritocracy" idea in my book that like, just put your head down, work hard, and you'll be okay. That is no longer true on the margin at the high end of the workforce. In the US it has never been better, but people are expecting more at the high end too. And yeah, this idea that

Srini: Yeah!

Paul Millerd: There are more opportunities in the upper class, which is probably a good thing and an under-told story in the US. The EC economic data is pretty clear about that. But the middle class is shrinking and the lower class in terms of income is increasing. So you have a like barbell effect happening in the US and, sure, it needs a middle class, but you can't start with that as a point of view. The only logical conclusion of that is basically just like subsidizing people.

Srini: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Paul Millerd: Which is sort of like where I thought she was going, but...

Srini: I, I'm with you. I, I agree. Like when I read the article, I said, yeah, the Creator economy needs a middle class. It's not going to have one. Um, it's just to your point, like, I couldn't agree more with the idea that it maps to the reality of America. You know, the internet is a developing country where you have extreme inequality. And the other thing I think that is often left out of this story, uh, about the so-called passionate creator economy is that it's rife with survivorship bias.

Paul Millerd: Yeah

Srini: Almost all the stories are about outliers. Like, you know, I remember asking my editor at Penguin, I was like, how many people want this opportunity? She said, one in 5,000.

Paul Millerd: Yeah. And I think there's a more nuanced version of that though. Um, if you are a certain type of hyper-curious person who likes technology and is driven to create in some way if you can figure out how to structure your life around doing that for a few years, I think your odds of success are actually very high.

Srini: Yeah!

Paul Millerd: It's

Srini: Well

Paul Millerd: A lot of people don't want to go all in or don't have those traits.

Srini: Hmm. Well, I apologize.

Paul Millard: They stumble upon these paths, and like, freak out like me. I'm like, "Oh my gosh, this is incredible!"

Srini: Yeah. Well, I appreciate the idea of having those traits because I think that, um, genetic determinism is something that people hate in the world of self-improvement, and they can't stand the idea that genetics actually play a role in all of this. And I'm like, you are kidding yourself if you don't think they play a role; genetics, culture, environment, upbringing, all those things influence these things in ways that we can't control.

Paul Millerd: Yeah, if you give me two hours of free time, I'm gonna be reading books and articles and then trying to make sense of them in my head. I don't know where that came from. I've just always been like this.

Srini: Yeah. Or, yeah, or if you put me on the court with LeBron James, I'm gonna get my ass handed to me; I'm a scrawny Indian. Hey, I'm

Paul Millerd: Um, but yeah, it's, and the thing is like there are far more people that could succeed in this environment. I think it's a growing space and I think people are still underestimating the opportunities.

Srini: Mm-hmm.

Paul Millerd: Most people with the skills don't actually want to follow my path.

Srini: Yeah!

Paul Millerd: My incomes, the first five years were like 40k, 30k, 25k, 50k then like 70k last year. And then this year it is going to be almost double that, which is mind-blowing, but it's still less than I made in my previous job. If I had stayed just on my career path, I'd probably have about a million dollars more, but I have like a

Srini: Yeah

Paul Millerd: Thousand[s] saved for retirement.

And I just share those numbers because I want to be transparent and let people know where I'm coming from. Um, a lot of people assume I have millions of dollars in the bank, which is really funny. Like I talk to a lot of people in tech who just have a completely disconnected sense of reality about what things cost. And they're like, yeah, you must have saved like a few million before you left. And I'm like, what are you talking about?

Paul Millerd: But I do sense, like I, I bet you have some sense that you're onto something pretty incredible that has incredible opportunities. Now the great thing about the paths we're on is you don't actually need to opt into those opportunities, but

Srini: Yeah. Well, don't worry, I, after the whole Indian matchmaking experience, people on Reddit were speculating my net worth, and I laughed and was like, you know, I, according to a bunch of people who watched Indian matchmaking and decided to talk about me on Reddit, I have a million-dollar net worth, which I just couldn't help but laugh at.

When I saw that, I was like, yeah, I'm like, too bad. That doesn't map to reality.

Srini: Now.

Paul Millerd: You're aware of them. The longer you stay in the game, you figure out what they are and the moves that are aligned with your own drivers. And that is incredible. Like, that's real wealth to me.

Srini: Yeah!

Paul Millard: The wealth of like opportunities, time, and your own autonomy and attention.

Srini: Yeah. I mean, as I said, I get to hang out with my seven-week-old nephew. I wouldn't be able to do that if I were constrained by somebody else's restrictions. Something that you talk about in the book is the fact that you still do worry about money. So talk to me about that, because I think that that is a part of the conversation that people might have probably glossed over and thought, "Wait, this guy doesn't sound like he worries about money at all, but you do."

Paul Millerd: Of course. Yeah. I think, um, when you make very little, you worry about it all the time, and I think I actually went too far. Um, not pursuing money opportunities in my first couple of years and I was sort of playing the like, minimize expense game. I realized that was not a healthy mode for me to be in terms of how I was oriented toward my life because I was focusing on cost minimization rather than maximizing possibility. So I sort of leaned more active in trying to make money after the first couple of years and, that was great because like my possibility brain could be a lot more generative and exploratory. Um, but yeah, I basically was micromanaging my finances and expenses, but also at this time I sort of did the math.

Like a lot of people in the US um, don't really do the math of like what they actually need. Very few people actually just start with what they're spending and do an audit on their spending. A lot of people, because they work full-time work, they start with their salary.

Srini: Mmm-hmm.

Paul Millerd: Then budget and expenses around that, and then maybe they have a tight margin and assume they're struggling. What I did after I left my job is I went from spending like six grand a month to like two grand a month. And I was like, "Oh, that wasn't as hard as I expected!"

Srini: Sounds. It sounds like you've spent a lot of time reading up on the material.

Paul Millerd: I actually haven't. Um, I've heard a lot about it though.

Srini: Really?

Paul Millerd: It's like a couple like I've read it now and it's very resonant with my own approach to

Srini: Yeah.

Paul Millerd: Um, like just live below your means and like you have time freedom. I think I just

Srini: You

Paul Millard: I have always valued my free time higher than most people do. I've always had this kind of mental script of like, I'm gonna price my free time at a million dollars per hour.

Srini: Wow. You know, there's one thing that caught my attention when you said, um, you know, minimizing expenses, you didn't say maximizing income, but you said maximizing possibilities.

Paul Millerd: Yeah.

Srini: I, I feel, I feel like there's a reason you specifically chose that word

Paul Millerd: Yeah, I'm very much wired similarly. I'm at my best when I'm dreaming and imagining new paths and possibilities, new ways of working. I love trying out new things, little experiments, and such. It sounds like you're wired in a similar way.

Srini: Well, I think that the thing that's fascinating about that right, is maximizing possibilities is so much more generative than maximizing income because you only, when you think only in terms of income, it reminds me of one of my friends who told me, he's like, I don't have goals. Uh, he said, I have a worldview, and that is three things. Go to interesting places, meet interesting people, and do interesting things. And I was like, that is so much more expansive than a set goal.

Paul Millerd: Yeah, and I think that's a great phrase. I'm gonna steal that but yeah, so I have a coaching and consulting business where I work with big companies and train them on strategy consulting skills. I actually really enjoy the work; it pays well and I've sort of figured it out and tinkered with it enough to get it working, which like I have fun with it and I find it sustainable. I don't do much outreach or push on sales. Like I'll send somebody like, here are my packages, here's what I do. But I don't even follow up. Um, now if I needed to, could I triple down on that and like make a lot of money from that? I see a path to doing that. But for the most part, I use that to subsidize my time, and when I pay attention to what I actually want to be doing, I want to be having conversations like this. I want to be writing about our relationship to work and I want to be writing for free. So, those are the things that generate possibilities and interesting connections in my life, so it's sort of just working now.

So I'm gonna keep that going and when it stops working, I'll

Srini: Mm-hmm.

Paul Millerd: He was saying this in a podcast recently. He's like when you're on an uncertain path or an infinite game, change is information. So you actually want to inject change in your path because you need more information. And that's kind of how I think about things.

Srini: I love this. This is why I wanted to talk to you because I think that what I appreciated so much about your book was that it was a compass, not a map, uh, which is one of my sort of catchphrases. I tell people, I'm like, I don't have advice, just observations.

Paul Millerd: Yeah, that's my book's basically just a book of observations about my own take on things.

Srini: No, yeah.

Paul Millerd: Three pages of advice at the end of the book, which is like, here are 10 steps, uh, you can take. Um, because people really just kept asking for that. Um

Srini: Yeah.

Paul Millerd: But um, it's really just like a, hey, here's a bunch of different thoughts. I want people to cherry-pick things, take a few things, remix them, and make better versions of them. The pathless path is really just an excuse for what many people are experiencing—they feel like they are failures or weirdos or can't quite fit in. The pathless path should really just be a deep breath for people to say, "Huh, there are other people like me. I'm not crazy. Maybe the world is shifting. This is an interesting mental model of how things are shifting. Maybe some of it's right, maybe I disagree with parts of it, but it gives me permission to keep experimenting and trying to come up with a better way forward for me."

Srini: Beautiful. Well, I have one final question, which is how we finish all of our interviews at Unmistakable Creative. What do you think it is that makes somebody, or something, unmistakable?

Paul Millerd: I think it's daring to actually be true to yourself, which I think in today's world where possible paths, unconventional paths like being a digital nomad, being a podcaster, all these things are legible. I think all these to-do lists and PA-like roadmaps and how-to lists are how we should approach life. Well, shouldn't I do X? I think what makes people unmistakable is they look at the word 'should' and are highly skeptical. They say, "You know what? I need to trust, like the worldly wisdom of what people have been saying for centuries and just getting in touch with myself and sort of connecting with that intuition and seeing where it takes me."

Srini: Amazing. Um, I have really, really enjoyed our conversation and I love conversations like this because they just make you think. I can't thank you enough for taking the time to join us and share your story, your wisdom, and your insights with our listeners. Where can people find out more about you, your book, your work, and everything else you're up to?

Paul Millerd: I write every week, um, on my newsletter right now that's on substack.com. I'm also on Twitter for as long as that is still around. Miller. Um, but yeah, I'm the most Googlable Paul Miller. I think there are only two of us in the world anyway. But Google me, uh, you should be able to find me and, uh, I'm gonna add my email to the site so I can meet amazing people like you.

Srini: Amazing. And for everybody listening, we'll wrap the show with that.