The author of The Algebra of Happiness: Notes on the Pursuit of Success, Love, and Meaning, Scott Galloway is a professor at New York University, where he teaches brand strategy and digital marketing. He is also a serial entrepreneur and has a YouTube channel with millions of fans.
When I first read the title of the book and Galloway’s bio, my first question was, “How is a business school professor and an entrepreneur qualified to write a book on happiness?”. After reading the book, I believe that Galloway brings a unique perspective to the topic of happiness based on his experiences that are very different from what you find in most self-help books written by psychologists. The book is divided into small, easy-to-read chapters. The author shares interesting real-life anecdotes that keep the reader entertained.
Scott Galloway teaches brand strategy courses at NYU’s Stern College of Business. In the last three-hour lecture of his class called “The Algebra of Happiness”, he talked about love, success, and the definition of a life well-lived. In May 2018, he posted an abridged version of his course on YouTube and it received millions of views in the first couple of weeks. That’s when Galloway decided to write a book on the topic.
Galloway attended UCLA but he wasn’t a very good student. He graduated in five years with poor grades. But he was able to get a job in investment banking at Morgan Stanley, partly motivated by his roommate who wanted to be an investment banker. After a few years, he attended Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and got an MBA. While at Berkley, he got interested in brand strategy and founded a strategy firm. He also incubated several e-commerce firms and hit a home run when one of his firms, Red Envelope, went public in 2002.
Here are few key insights everyone should understand about life and success.
- From your mid-twenties to your mid-forties – work and stress take a toll. But life gets better from your fifties as your children grow up and you start recognizing that your time on the planet is limited.
- When you are young, “balance” is not what you need. The slope of trajectory for your career is set in the first five years after graduation.
- A good indicator of success is how much time you spend sweating every day. Put in the work in your younger years.
- Choose your spouse carefully. Find a real partner to share your struggles and successes – someone who will soften the rough edges, someone who’s a good teammate, and someone whose goals and approaches to life are in sync with yours.
- Where you live matters a lot. Your zip code can be your destiny. When you are young, get credentialed and move to a city. It gets difficult to move when you are older.
- Money brings you happiness up to a point. But once you reach a certain level of economic security, the correlation between money and happiness flattens. Find out what you like – whether it’s cooking, wiring, playing the guitar, or mountain biking. Hobbies add a texture to your personality.
- Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe. Put money away and invest early and often. Compound interest works not only for money but also for relationships. But a little effort every day into your relationship to make them flourish.
- Economic security is not your salary. Stay invested in the stock market because you are not smart enough to jump in and out of the market. Being rich means your passive income is greater than your monthly expenses.
- Research shows that drinking too much is a good predictor of unhappiness.
- People overestimate the amount of happiness that things will bring them but underestimate the long-term positive effect of experiences. Drive a Hyundai but take your wife to a nice place for dinner.
- Spend time with your parents when they are old. You will cherish that time for the rest of your life.
- Everyone experiences failure and tragedy. The key to success is the ability to mourn and move on.
- Your successes and failures are not entirely your fault. Be less hard on yourself. One of the keys to a healthy relationship is forgiveness. You or your spouse will screw up. Learn to forgive and not hold grudges.
Talent is important and will help you enter a crowded VIP room. But talent alone Is not enough. You need hunger to succeed. Where hunger comes can help you understand the difference between success and fulfillment. Find something you are good at. The rewards and recognitions that come from being very good at something will make you passionate about it.
Every commencement speaker will ask you to follow your passion and never give up. Instead, find something you like, put hours of practice into it, and be great at it. Nobody starts their career being passionate about tax law. But great tax lawyers are passionate about peers who like them and can create economic security for their families.
Careers are like asset classes. If a sector becomes overinvested with human capital, returns on those efforts are suppressed. Don’t be attracted to cool things. Most rich people make their money in boring businesses – think insurance, pesticides, or iron/ore smelting.
The adult in the room
Everyone loves to talk about how rewarding it is to raise kids. But people rarely talk about how rewarding it is to take care of their parents. A good time to start is when you graduate. Tell your parents, “I got this”. Become a source of solutions to your parents versus stress.
Getting the easy stuff right, and Email
Have good manners. Show up early. Follow up. It’s not hard, is it? Galloway had plenty of difficulties responding to people on time and following up. His email to a student who showed up at his class an hour late and was kicked out became an embarrassment for himself and NYU.
Believe you deserve it
70% of Americans suffer from some kind of imposter syndrome. But realize that most successful people reach beyond their grasp. Believe that you deserve it. Share your achievements with the people you love and care about.
Find your charm
Galloway loves talking to people – the bigger the crowd the better. He is an introvert one-on-one but an extrovert when talking to a group. He uses his classes to hone his speaking skills. Find something you like and work on it.
You are (probably) not Mark Zuckerberg
Entrepreneurship sounds exciting. You work 80 hours a week and then need to write a check to keep the company afloat. It’s not easy to raise money from other people. Business failures are hard to hide and embarrassing to explain. Entrepreneurship is also a sales job. Are you comfortable calling people, again and again, especially people who don’t want to hear from you? Even Google has to hire thousands of people to sell Google to the masses.
Being successful in a big firm is hard. You have to play nice with others, suffer injustice, and deal with office politics. But on a risk-adjusted basis, it’s still better than entrepreneurship.
When to take cover
Here are the signs to look for that the market or a company is about to end up on the wrong side of cyclicality.
- Lofty valuation metrics (eg. P/E ratios)
- Countries and firms start building huge buildings
- CEOs’ egos are out of hand – they go on a buying spree (buying companies at lofty valuations), get featured profiles on magazines
- Mediocre kids with 2 years of tech experience make six figures
- Bidding wars for real estate
- When times are good, people look for youth. When times are bad, people look to gray hair for leadership
What to do if you think you might be in a bubble
Whether a company is successful depends on when it is created. Companies created as the economy is coming out of recession are likely to be successful. Companies started in boom times struggle because people, services, and real estate are expensive.
If you are doing well, realize that you are probably caught up in a boom. Being humble and living within your means will prepare you financially and psychologically for the next economic cycle.
Measure what matters
Wealthy people claim to not think about their money much. But the truth is they are obsessed with money. They spend 80-hour weeks for decades to make their money.
Benchmarks, metrics, and milestones range from meaningless to profound. Reviewing the metrics in your life is a very useful exercise. How often you meet your parents? How many followers do you have on social media (if that matters to you in a meaningful way)? Your number of followers gives you feedback about your work.
Know the ends vs the means
We need to understand that professional success is the means. It’s not the end. The end is the economic security of your family and having meaningful relationships with your friends and family.
Learn from rejection
Galloway encountered many failures and rejections in his life. But he feels that enduring those rejections (from universities, peers, investors, etc.) has been hugely rewarding. For many people, the fear of rejection is a bigger obstacle than talent or the market. Take a risk every day and get comfortable by stretching beyond your comfort.
If you are not an employee, employ yourself
Entrepreneurs are glorified by the media. In reality, 90% of entrepreneurs start companies because they don’t have the skills necessary to be an employee.
Most employees are happy to commute when traffic is high, go to irrelevant meetings for decent pay. Bu working for yourself means you are in charge. Everything you do is for you, not for the company.
At small companies, the guy who runs the place can be a jerk. A few “A Players” work their asses off, but you can get by with hundreds or thousands of well-mannered B+ players in big companies.
When you are an employee, you don’t know what your managers have planned for you. They are the ones who determine your economic well-being. Galloway was insecure economically and that pushed him to entrepreneurship. It was not his vision.
Be a role model
Galloway had two men who shaped his life when he was 13 – his mother’s boyfriend Randy and Cy Cordner, a stockbroker at Dean Witter. Randy gave Galloway $200 to invest in the market and Cy educated him on the markets. These two men made Galloway visible and worthy of their time. Galloway is grateful that these two men took a passional interest in the well-being of a child that wasn’t theirs.
Love and relationships are the ends and everything else is just the means. Love is love received, love reciprocated, and love given unconditionally. The most important decision in your life is who you have kids with. Find someone who is kind, competent, and who you enjoy being with.
When it comes to love, everyone likes to punch above their weight class. That’s fine but don’t fall into the trap of believing that someone is better because they are not interested in you.
Marriage is beneficial economically. Two people combined make better decisions than single people. Married couples in their 50s have 3x more assets than single people.
Try to be a better partner in a marriage.
Don’t keep score – We like to inflate our contribution to the relationship and minimize our partner’s. Don’t track who does what – that just wastes energy. Be generous and do as much as possible for your partner and often. When your partner messes up, forgive. Forgiveness is a key attribute to happy relationships.
Don’t let your wife be cold or hungry
Don’t skip lunch. Don’t leave your house without energy bars. Make sure your wife is comfortable whether it’s in the car or a restaurant.
Express affection and desire as often as possible
Affection, touch, and sex solidify your relationship. Being with the right partner creates meaning for the human species. Express affection and make your wife feel secure in the relationship.
Keep your kids close
Build meaningful relationships with your kids. Small investments made several times a week pay off dividends. When your kids get older, they will remember that their parents chose them over anything else. When you get old, your children will comfort you, so you can sleep in peace, just like you did for them when they were young.
I love you
From his own failed first marriage and from watching his friends, Galloway learned a lot about love. Love is a willingness to take the life you have built for yourself and tear it up for the other person (this came from his therapist). Most of us suspend our lives until the kids come around. Very quickly, the answer to most questions is, “whatever is best for the kids”. Still, kids are great and make you a better person in every way.
Instinctively, you will do anything for your kids. Even the things you hate become just inconveniences in the presence of people you love. You are saying – my life is yours and I love you.
Tell people you love them. Galloway tells the story of his Crossfit instructor who gets a call from his grandfather. The grandfather, Galloway interprets, said ” I love you” to his grandson at least six times in a short conversation while the grandson was at work. The takeaway here is – invest time with your kids so that you can interrupt your kid’s kid at work and tell them how much you love them.
Take affection back
Touch is fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health. Yet, we live in society whether men are asked to refrain from touching each other. Italian men kiss each other on the lips. Kiss your kids. Over time, you kids will stop what they are doing and develop a respect for the moment. They will know that everything else can wait.
Galloway’s immigrant parents were living the American dream. Two people with eight grade education worked hard and flourished in the American economy. Then they got divorced and Galloway got to see his dad only on weekends. But he has fond memories of the time they spent as a family and lived near a beach.
Attach to people
Affection strengthens bonds, provides access to resources, and communicates your potential as a parent. Galloway credits his success to two things – being born in America and having a mom who was passionate about his well-being. His mom was divorced and was making $15,000 per year but she made him feel connected. She gave him confidence that he had value and that he was capable and deserving of things.
What makes a home
The American dream is homeownership. That’s the case even though homes are not any better than other investments once you account for maintenance. A good proxy for your life isn’t your first home but your last. Towards the end of your life, you are not adding much value. The people who look after you are very generous or are reciprocating your love and support.
How to deal with the end of a life
Where you die and who is around you at the end is a signal of your success or failure in life. Take care of caregivers because they support your parents while you are not there or help you with things you can’t do.
There is no manual on how to deal with the end of life. Make time to care for your parents but don’t put your career on hold. Economic security is important and people live longer than their prognosis.
Relive their life. Look at pictures and share stories. Leave nothing unsaid. If they are sick, they may say mean things. It’s not them, it’s the illness speaking.
Love a kid who isn’t your own
50% of marriages end in divorce. Then there’s death and disease. That leaves a lot of kids in single-parent households where the odds are worse for the kids. Become passionate about the well-being of a child who isn’t yours. It will make you more human.
Appreciate how fortunate you are
Galloway lost many friends to AIDS, which was termed a “gay disease” in the 1980s. Society decided that they weren’t victims. Ronald Reagan never mentioned the word, “AIDS”, in his eight years in office. Few of his friends caught a break when science made treatments possible.
Find your own heaven
When you are with your family, loved and in peace, you are in heaven. In life, we all want more – more money, more praise, more relevance, and a cooler experience. The only time you feel satisfied ever is when you are with your family.
Love the ones you are with
We don’t spend enough time thinking about the mother of all important decisions that will set the tone for the rest of our lives – picking the right mate. The right partners that share the joy with you. Students spend a lot of time choosing their career but not enough time thinking about their future partner. The dopamine rush you get when you are excited to see someone you love keeps you young. When you are with people you love – family, friends, and colleagues, you are blessed with happiness.
Kids: It’s all about them
We segment our kids into favorites. As awful as it sounds and makes you a terrible parent, know that your favorite child changes back and forth. Kids keep score and you will work hard to satisfy their needs.
There are very few absolutes. Getting to a place economically, emotionally, and spiritually where you love someone completely without expecting anything in return is absolute. Your life is finite. Focus on loving, forgiving, and pursuing.
Work out regularly (most CEOs do as well). Demonstrate your physical and mental strength at work. Stay calm in the face of stress. Stay calm and don’t sweat over your next presentation or project.
Cry – it’s good for you
In our society, men don’t cry. It’s considered a weakness. But crying relieves stress brought on by the onslaught of emotions that are difficult to process. As you get older, you will realize the finite time you have. You want to freeze time and have the moments when you feel something. Crying in the company of others or thinking about loves ones is healthy and brings joy.
Trade closeness for harmony
Galloway doesn’t have a close relationship with his dad and sister but it’s harmonious. They like taking a trip every few years and having a great time. Taking care of parents can be taxing but it’s rewarding. Find meaning in taking your parents around in a wheelchair.
Get lost in the moment
The fastest-growing demographic is the centenarians. The secret to a long life is good genes, a healthy lifestyle, and loving others. But then there are “x-factors” – a friend who dies too young.
Try to stay in the moment. It takes a lot of effort. It’s true that delayed gratification can build a better future for you and your family. But staying in the moment can help you enjoy your life than working your ass off with a promise of some reward in the future.
Don’t be an assh*ole
Be nice. Even billionaires, contrary to what is shown on TV, are generous and well-behaved. Being grateful is consistently correlated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish life’s experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity and build strong relationships.
Praise and admire others. Complementing others is not a zero-sum game. Acknowledging others’ accomplishments and attributes take nothing away from you. If anything, they help you in the long run.
Sustenance > Addictive substances
Food, sex, and kids. We are wired to be addicted to the things fundamental to the survival of the species. Offer your kids not a dopamine hit (eg. video game) but sustenance. Be there, be predictable.
Who is this book for?
The Algebra of Happiness has nuggets of wisdom for readers of all ages but young people in their early twenties are likely to benefit the most from the advice. This book also makes a great high school or college graduation gift.
Listen to Scott Galloway’s interview on Bloomberg here. In the wide-ranging interview, Galloway discusses Uber, Lyft, and WeWork in addition to his book.
Here is a highly-rated 10-minute video of Galloway discussing his principles. I guarantee you that it will be worth your time. Also, check out Galloway’s Youtube channel for his latest views on technology and business.