Maintenance August 2018

I have been thinking more about the concept of maintenance. At a certain point in your life, the percentage of your time that you spend starting things and leveling up rapidly levels off. As time goes on, the percentage of time spent maintaining existing things (relationships, sources of income, skills, housing, tools) increases, because you start to have the components you want.

Acquisition is step one but most of the effort involved in an asset (in the broadest sense possible) has to go into maintenance. But it seems like people have a dopamine driven inclination to prefer acquisition behaviors (new relationships, sources of income, skills, housing, tools) to maintenance ones. And yet so much value seems to come from the maintenance activities as opposed to the acquisition driven ones, because they tend to compound.

I’m starting to see from the various areas of my life that my efforts and interests have stabilized. In order to get the most value possible from something, you really have to stick with it through adversity. It seems like there is a human bias that when something is in a failure state, you should just start over. The problem there is that you are more or less throwing away everything, except maybe the lesson, involved in the lifetime of that investment that you made.

The other observation is that entire (large) categories of the economy are dedicated to maintenance. Health care and the trades are mainly about maintaining people and buildings. Many of the highest paying forms of “work” are actually maintenance work. There are so many good things in existence, but there is an expense in order to maintain them. It is a classical human bias to underprice the cost of maintenance. For an example, see public infrastructure.

This follows the other subject I have been thinking about, which is entropy. The tendency for things that exist to decay unless provided with the necessary level of maintenance. It seems like this is something people learn the hard way, during an economic contraction. But on a long enough time scale, there is significant upside to maintenance as well. We should focus on maintaining the things that we have. It may be better for reconciling dopamine to lose something and then pursue it again, but dopamine is actually a terrible measuring stick for progress.

This isn’t an argument against acquisition or growth, either. Acquisition and growth are important, for dopamine but also for self improvement. The balance of time spent on each should reflect the maturity of that area of your life. Some people wait until they have financial sustainability in order to have kids: that means their finances are being maintained while they grow in another area. This is nice if you have the patience, but my experience has been that starting many things at once can be a good way to get psyched up enough to get past the hump. And it gives you more things to maintain which still means plenty of dopamine involved.

The thesis, since this is the beginning of my interest in maintenance as a formal thing to pursue, is that maintaining things can be equally satisfying, takes longer than acquisition but leads to significant more value on an objective basis. The reason being that maintaining an existing asset allows you to recognize more value from the same level of acquisition thanks to compounding. Investing mechanics seem to apply to life. We’ll see if this turns out to be true.