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5 Naval Quotes: How His Practical Philosophy Can Change Lives

If you follow Naval Ravikant on social media, hardly a day goes by without someone thanking him for sharing his life-changing insights. The Indian-American angel investor aims to consolidate two seemingly contradictory life goals: wealth and happiness. His practical philosophy resonates. But what is it about his ideas that enable people to philosophise their way to a more pleasant existence? Let’s break down five inspiring Naval quotes to find out how his practical philosophy can change lives.

5 Inspiring Naval Quotes

The Naval quotes we’re going to reflect on are taken from The Almanack of Naval Ravikant by Eric Jorgensen, his interview appearances, or his personal website and podcast. We’re going to cover happiness and learning, desires and decision-making as well as the secret to breaking free from competition. As a bonus, we’ll also be looking into an answer on the meaning of life you haven’t heard yet. Let’s get started.

1. Naval on Happiness as a Skill

We start off with one of the biggest asks of them all. How can we achieve happiness? Is it even possible without becoming a hermit living in the woods? Do we even want to?

Happiness is a choice you make and a skill you develop.

The mind is just as malleable as the body. We spend so much time and effort trying to change the external world, other people, and our own bodies — all while accepting ourselves the way we were programmed in our youths.

We accept the voice in our head as the source of all truth. But all of it is malleable, and every day is new. Memory and identity are burdens from the past preventing us from living freely in the present. […]

A happy person isn’t someone who’s happy all the time.

It’s someone who effortlessly interprets events in such a way that they don’t lose their innate peace.

Naval Ravikant

In our first Naval quote, the philosopher gives us an alternative view of happiness. He doesn’t think of happiness as a perpetual state of joy and blissfulness that sets in unpredictably. For him, it’s not about chasing pleasures. Rather, the investor redefines happiness as peace from our thoughts. Conveniently, this makes it more attainable.

Essentially, Naval equates happiness with our ability to make peace with the things we cannot change; our memories and our thoughts. We think compulsively all the time. But we can learn to cope with our unsettling thoughts, unfulfilled desires, or regrets. In principle, anyone suffering from the normal burden of being can acquire such a skill. Just like anyone can learn to play chess if they put their minds to it.

One such exercise is to recognise the positive in every situation. Didn’t get the job you wanted? An opportunity to find something even better. You’re in the middle of nowhere and your car’s gearbox is leaking? Great, that means there’s still oil in it. What sounds like a trope (because it is one) gets a different character when we look at it in terms of a conscious daily mental workout.

Sometimes we just need a bit of optimism and encouragement. The Naval quote on happiness as a skill is a good example of how his practical philosophy provides just that. ‘You won’t be able to do it. You never were and never will be,’ would obviously be terrible advice. Instead, he sets realistic and uplifting goals that are self-perpetuating. If we buy into Naval’s happiness definition, watching and reinterpreting even the smallest of our unpleasant thoughts will get us closer to a calmer mind every day.

2. Learning Through Iterations

Our second Naval quote is about the key to mastering a new skill.

If I start a business where I go in everyday and I’m doing the same thing. Let’s say, I’m running a retail store down the street where I’m stocking the shelves with food and liquor every single day. I’m not gonna learn that much because I’m repeating things a lot. I’m putting in thousands of hours, but they’re thousands of hours doing the same thing.

Whereas if I was putting in thousands of iterations that would be different. It’s the number of iterations that drives the learning curve. So the more iterations you can have, the more shots on the goal you can have, the faster you’re gonna learn.

Naval Ravikant, Iterations Drive Learning

With this quote, the angel investor makes a fine but important distinction between repetition and iteration. The key to learning, so the idea, is to go for a new, preferably better version of something. In his mind, numerous small changes will eventually lead to compounding learning achievements and a natural progression in skill. His distinction also gives us a way to monitor our daily activities actively: Are we iterating or merely repeating a task?

We can apply this idea to our happiness exercise from above. If we think in iterations, we see every unpleasant thought that presents itself as an opportunity to build the habit of diffusing it. With every opportunity, we get better at turning a negative into a positive and — by Naval’s definition — become happier. In Naval’s reading, doing this badly at first is not a hurdle but almost a prerequisite for learning through iterations.

Of course, there’s much more to learning than just iterations. That being said, we can see this kind of simplification of an abstract field as a fourth integral part of Naval’s practical philosophy. He has the ability to go both ways, distil a complex concept into a single memorable aphorism as well as elaborate on his simplified messages if needed.

3. Taming Your Desires

An important part of learning how to be happy is the question of how we should deal with life’s perpetual desires. Here’s Naval again:

Desire to me is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want. And I keep that in front of my mind. So when I’m unhappy about something, I look for what is the underlying desire that I have that’s not being fulfilled?

It’s okay to have desires. You’re a biological creature, you’re put on this earth, you have to do something. You have to have desires. You have a mission. But don’t have too many, don’t pick them up unconsciously, don’t pick them up randomly, don’t have thousands of them. ‘My coffee is too cold, doesn’t taste quite right. I’m not sitting perfectly. Oh, I wish it was warmer. My dog pooped in the lawn. I didn’t like that.’ Whatever it is.

Pick your one overwhelming desire. It’s okay to suffer over that one. But on all the others you wanna let them go so you can be calm and peaceful and relaxed.

Naval Ravikant

In this quote, Naval starts out by demystifying the idea of desire. He conceptualises it as a more tangible contract between two parties who both happen to be ourselves. This makes the human feeling more predictable and manageable. Because if we think of it as a silent agreement with ourselves, we can bring it out in the open and start to negotiate. Taming our desires becomes a negotiation skill that can be learned.

If we think of desires as a contract, we realise how often we enter into one carelessly. Though, the solution is not a cut-throat take-it-or-leave-it approach either. Rather the angel investor takes a non-judgemental view that acknowledges our need for desires. One that declares the situation as the problem, not the things we wish for. Just like in a negotiation, we need to be clear on what we want and what we’re willing to sacrifice for it.

This Naval quote beautifully illustrates the role of focus and prioritisation. As recurring themes of his ideas, both are essential strategies to overcome the abundance problem of modern life.

4. A Decision-Making Heuristic

Speaking of abundance. Our next Naval quote is all about complex decisions in a world full of choices.

If you cannot decide, the answer is no. And the reason is, modern society is full of options. There are tons and tons of options. We live on a planet of seven billion people, and we are connected to everybody on the internet. There are hundreds of thousands of careers available to you. There are so many choices.

You’re biologically not built to realize how many choices there are. Historically, we’ve all evolved in tribes of 150 people. When someone comes along, they may be your only option for a partner.

When you choose something, you get locked in for a long time. Starting a business may take ten years. You start a relationship that will be five years or maybe more. You move to a city for ten to twenty years. These are very, very long-lived decisions. It’s very, very important we only say yes when we are pretty certain. You’re never going to be absolutely certain, but you’re going to be very certain.

If you find yourself creating a spreadsheet for a decision with a list of yes’s and nos, pros and cons, checks and balances, why this is good or bad…forget it. If you cannot decide, the answer is no.

Naval Ravikant

A heuristic is a mental shortcut we take when confronted with a complex and difficult question or problem. While it can lead to wrong decisions for sure, heuristics save us time and energy. They tend to happen intuitively without us noticing. But in a world of abundance, using heuristics more consciously seems to be key to keeping a calm mind. It’s no surprise Naval considers the ability to say ‘No’ a superpower.

Naval’s quote is an acknowledgement that it’s impossible to approach every decision as if we could judge all of its consequences reliably. His solution is to have more trust in our intuition and listen less to the part of our brain that wants to rationalise a decision we’re uncomfortable with. In other words, creeping doubts about a choice should cause us to stick with the status quo. Naval’s decision-making heuristic is one more tool to free up our minds so we can worry more about that one desire we want to focus on.

The philosopher’s mental shortcut illustrates the fourth characteristic of his insights. An abstract philosophy has no discernible application to our everyday lives. His practical philosophy, however, boils a complex problem down to realistic and implementable behaviour changes. It’s that famous millimetre shift that makes all the difference.

5. Escaping Competition

Now, how does this all tie into wealth creation? How can we be successful without sacrificing our happiness?

Sometimes you get trapped in the wrong game because you’re competing. The best way to escape competition — to get away from the spectre of competition, which is not just stressful and nerve-wracking but also will drive you to the wrong answer — is to be authentic to yourself.

No one can compete with you on being you: If you are building and marketing something that’s an extension of who you are, no one can compete with you.

As you go through your career, you’ll find you gravitate towards the things you’re good at, which by definition are the things you enjoy doing. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be good at them. You wouldn’t have put in the time.

Other people will push you towards the things you’re good at, too. Because your smart bosses, co-workers and investors will realize you’re world-class in this one thing. And you can recruit people to help you with other things.

Ideally, you want to end up specializing in being you.

Naval Ravikant, Escape Competition Through Authenticity

Our fifth Naval quote is a concept I’ve reflected on together with Warren Buffet’s Circle of Competence. In the quote, Naval fills the notion of ‘being authentic to yourself’ with life. What seems to be at the bottom of his idea is the individual as the ultimate minority. People are similar in many ways. But nobody has exactly the same thoughts, skills, experiences, training, interest and points of view.

How to monetise our individuality is obviously the hard part. According to the investor, it will solve itself if we pay attention to where our minds and those around us take us. In the iterative spirit, we can’t expect to know the answer from an early age. There’s going to be a lot of trial and error. We will be guided by positive and especially negative experiences. The important part is to pay attention to all those clues and draw the right conclusions from them.

There’s a fifth aspect of Naval’s practical philosophy embedded in our final quote about escaping competition through authenticity. It’s his promotion of long-term thinking. While quick and easy wins are possible, all of the above life changes require consistency and patience.

BONUS: The Meaning of Life

The longer you live, the banaler the question about the meaning of life starts to sound. Answers can easily become a trope, an insufferable sermon, or both. But here’s one you probably haven’t heard. It addresses the nature of the question itself.

If I gave you an answer. If I said, the meaning of life is to please god. Well, which god? Okay, the Judea-Christian god. Why that one? Why this thing? The problem is that it’s a why question. You can keep asking why forever. Any answer I give you just ask why again, why again, why again. And you end up in a place called Agrippa’s trilemma. This is a philosophical exercise. […]

Agrippa’s Trilemma says that any questioning like this will always end in one of three places. First is infinite regress. Why? Because of this. Why that? It will keep on forever. The second is circular reasoning: Well, A. Why A? Because B. Why B? Because A. The third is an axiom. And the most popular axiom is god. But it could be anything because of math, because of science, because of the big bang, because of the simulation, these are all axioms. These are all just stopping points. Saying we’re in a simulation or saying it’s the big bang is just another way of saying god. God is a dirty word we don’t use it as much anymore but it’s the same thing.

So you end up in one of these three dead ends essentially. So there is no answer. The real answer is: Because. ‘You get to make up your own answer,’ is the beauty. If there was a single answer we would not be free.

Naval Ravikant, The Joe Rogan Experience #1309

Naval’s point is clear: Even the best and most noble answers to the eternal question are not immune to the logic of Agrippa’s Trilemma. Is it to take responsibility, to leave the world a better place or 42? There’s no escaping the dreaded ‘why’-question. Sometimes, life just feels like being trapped in a car with a three-year-old.

Now, applying his happiness skills, Naval positively interprets this conundrum. The fact that there isn’t a universal answer means we are all free to explore our own. If true, this has even bigger implications. If even the most fundamental question of our existence is structured that way, there’s plenty of room for free expression beyond.

This brings us to one last characteristic of Naval’s practical philosophy, its openness to individual answers and solutions. While his insights give people a clear direction, there’s a humility in the philosopher’s admission that at the end of the day we all get to make up our own answers.

Closing Thoughts

Obviously, we can’t philosophise our way to wealth and happiness. Thinking alone isn‘t going to cut it. But Naval Ravikant’s practical philosophy provides an excellent foundation for small but meaningful behaviour changes. Based on our Naval quotes, I think there are at least six elements as to why his insights are so inspiring:

  1. Encouragement and optimism
  2. Simplification
  3. Focus and prioritisation
  4. Realistic and implementable behaviour changes
  5. Long-term thinking
  6. Openness to individual answers & solutions

By his own admission, many of the angel investor’s ideas are not new. It’s how he delivers his answers to age-old questions that seem to make the difference. Not to mention his business success, which lends him authority, and his humility, which makes people listen to him in the first place. We could look at his insights as plain old wine in shiny new bottles. Or we see them as an inspiring way of combining the familiar with the novel while leaving enough room for personal interpretation.