“There are many organizations that fret over small, direct expenses, yet have no misgivings about keeping superfluous staff tied up in a conference room for hours.”

JOHN ARNOLD is a co-chair of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. LJAF’s core objective is to improve the lives of individuals by strengthening our social, governmental, and economic systems. John founded and was CEO of Centaurus Energy, a multibillion-dollar energy commodity hedge fund, until he shocked Wall Street by announcing his retirement in 2012. Prior to founding Centaurus, he held various positions within Enron’s wholesale division, including head of Natural Gas Derivatives, and was known as “the King of Natural Gas.” John holds a BA from Vanderbilt University, and serves on the board of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investor-led venture capital firm dedicated to funding transformational technologies that will reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
Much of one’s attitude toward life depends on their level of optimism. An optimistic person will invest more in him-or herself, as the deferred reward is expected to be higher. A pessimistic person prefers the immediate returns at the expense of the long-term outcomes. However, the news cycle, driven by negative stories of the day, is the proverbial missing the forest for the trees. The reality, best captured in The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley and The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, is that the long-term trend in almost every measure is resolutely positive. Optimism is a reflexive trait, with a circular relationship between cause and effect. The more optimistic society is about the future, the better the future is. These books serve as a reminder of the great advances society has made.

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore? The unfortunate truth is that advice is almost always driven by anecdotal experience, and thus has limited value and relevance. Read a sampling of college commencement addresses, and you quickly realize each story is unique. For every entrepreneur who thrived by resolutely working on a singular idea for many years, there is another who pivoted wildly. For every successful individual who designed a master plan for life, there is another who was deliberately spontaneous. Ignore advice, especially early in one’s career. There is no universal path to success.

In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to?

I had not appreciated the maxim “Time is money” until recently. But for those whose time is a scarce resource, learning to say no to meetings is a necessary skill. Sitting through an unproductive meeting has huge opportunity costs. It seems obvious, but people struggle with equilibrating time and money. There are many organizations that fret over small, direct expenses, yet have no misgivings about keeping superfluous staff tied up in a conference room for hours. In recent years, I have become better at judging the opportunity cost of time.

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