Saturday, September 12, 2020

Of Geeks and Gurus

 Hacking Life | The MIT Press

I'm in the middle reading this awesome piece on Lifehackers by Joseph Reagle and it has given me quite a lot to think about the relationship between the FIRE movement, Life hackers, and the self-help movement.

In the book Hacking Life, Joseph Readle divides life hackers into two categories, the first being Geeks and the second, being Gurus. Geeks are otakus who are obsessed with studying a system and then finding ways to game it for the purposes of personal efficiency. Gurus leverage on personal branding and self-promotion to earn a decent living dispensing life advice to others. My view is that the two categories are not mutually exclusive and Investment Trainers often need to be both to survive in the competitive landscape of investment training.

My analysis will focus on the FIRE movement which is, in essence, Lifehackers focused on the domain of Personal Finance. This is one of the hardest domains to master as financial markets are often more random walk than a predictable system that can be gamed easily. Instead in the financial blogosphere, you may find tiny subcultures of geeks who specialise in credit card point manipulation. 

Understanding that Geek/Gurus is not mutually exclusive allows us to analyse this divide in a 2x2 matrix, which I will do as follows:

a) Not a Geek / Not a Guru

If you are neither a geek nor a guru, you are likely a victim of the capitalist system. Money Maverick on his own FB wants the FIRE movement to forgive "dispassionate" consumers who just want to get on with their lives and lack an interest in hacking the financial system. Actually, we forgive them, but this puts them under the mercy of the financial institutions that can extract close to 50% of their insurance premiums paid on the first year and a fraction of that thereafter. 

Financial advisors thrive in Singapore because most citizens aren't geeks or gurus. 

b) A Geek but not a Guru

If you scour the financial FB groups, engage in battles against financial trolls and know how to buy IWDA on Interactive brokers to save on investing fees, you might well be a financial geek. 

Financial geeks are an important piece in the FIRE community because they keep the finance industry honest. Members of the public, thanks to the Internet, can fund a lot of honest criticism of the financial industry and we no longer rely on journalists to call our unethical practices. 

Most financial bloggers fall into this category.

c) You're a Geek and a Guru

I'd like to say that an investment trainer needs to be both to survive. You need to understand the financial markets as a system to extract some above-average gains, position your findings clearly, but also do enough self-promotion to survive this world where style is paid higher premiums than substance. 

I have a long way to go, but the author that maximises both guru and geek perfectly is Tim Ferriss of The 4-hour Work Week. His generalised approach of deconstructing an activity into key steps, selecting crucial steps, sequencing them in optimal order and creating stakes to increase motivation is a very powerful tool for any personal situation. His self-promotion comes from using this framework to win a martial arts competition.

d) You're a Guru but not a Geek 

 I got three words for folks into this category : 


When I was starting out in investing in the 2000s, beyond the CFA and University programs, short courses in investing can be fatal as the industry was dominated by the technical and options trading gurus who have a methodology that needs a degree of faith from the audience with a confirmation of this faith is often a price-tag over $5k. 

You can tell a guru is not a geek if you see the following:

  • Dubious academic or industrial qualifications.
  • Options training without a rigorous treatment in options 'greeks'
  • Warren Buffett is the sole evidence for the success of the methodology. 
  • Statements that cannot be falsified by market performance or statements that appeal to feelings
  • Too many references to a set of popular purple books in Personal finance
Finally, how does one begin a journey as a geek in life-hacking? 

This can also be deconstructed and optimised into simple steps:
  • Productivity - You read Getting Things Done by David Allen and actually enjoy applying the system to clear your emails. ( I struggled and ultimately failed to use it )
  • Personal Finance - You get an Interactive Broker accounts, build a portfolio with UCITs ETFs, calculate your expenses and then use it to troll your insurance agent to provide the expenses data on ILPs. 


  1. "calculate your expenses and then use it to troll your insurance agent to provide the expenses data on ILPs."

    Salespeople don't get hurt by geeky maths.

    They get hurt by profits & gains. If you can show your BTITR portfolio out-performs & out-insures their WL+Endowment+ILP then they'll slink away with tails between their legs.

    Especially if you showcase publicly to potential target groups of these salespeople.

  2. One game I can't beat is when advisors cherry pick their client's best portfolios.

    I have consolidated returns for all my batches of students, it can beat the STI benchmark but if somebody shows off a technology stocks unit trust, most real retail investor accounts will not be able to beat that.