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How to create your own opportunity: The garbage picker’s choice

Updated: Jan 4

"Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."

—Andre Gide

We show you how to make investments in your future and achieve success. This is done with the one resource we all share equally. That resource is TIME. No matter who you are, there are 24 hours in a day and 168 hours in a week.

Psychologist Carol Dweck is a mindset expert. Think of mindset as the imagined environment our mind creates for us when the future is uncertain. Our mindset impacts our motivation to step into that uncertain future. Dweck explains our mindset along a continuum, with two kinds of mindset categories anchoring each end of the spectrum. [i] Those opposing mindset categories are the growth mindset and the fixed mindset. The growth mindset describes a way of viewing challenges and setbacks. People with a growth mindset believe that even if they struggle with certain skills, their abilities aren’t set in stone. They believe that with work, their skills can improve over time.  The growth mindset is generated from a personality psychology known as an internal locus of control. [ii]

People with the opposite belief — that abilities are what they are and won’t change — have a fixed mindset. They think their skills won’t improve over time, no matter how hard they try. Or, even if they do improve their skills over time, the fixed mindset worries their improvement will not be rewarded with opportunity. The fixed mindset is generated from a personality psychology known as an external locus of control.

power of time and mindset locus of control

In this article, we will focus on using a growth mindset as a catalyst for investing our TIME. But first, we will paint the picture from the ultimate fixed mindset, that is, someone believing in determinism. After painting the picture, the article provides a framework for rising out of a fixed mindset and pursuing an internal locus of control. This leads to prioritizing your time via the growth mindset for maximizing your value. The hero of the article is the garbage picker. But it could be anyone. Together, we will explore how to leverage a growth mindset to make massive investments in your future and achieve success.

Table of contents

  1. Introduction

  2. Painting the fixed mindset picture with determinism

  3. The source of the garbage picker's opportunity

  4. The framework for capturing the garbage picker's MASSIVE opportunity

  5. How the garbage picker makes high-value choices

  6. Conclusion and Notes

About the author:  Jeff Hulett is a career banker, data scientist, behavioral economist, and choice architect. Jeff has held banking and consulting leadership roles at Wells Fargo, Citibank, KPMG, and IBM. Today, Jeff is an executive with the Definitive Companies. He teaches personal finance at James Madison University and provides personal finance seminars. Check out his new book -- Making Choices, Making Money: Your Guide to Making Confident Financial Decisions -- at

2. Painting the fixed mindset picture with determinism

Neuroscientist and endocrinologist Robert Sapolsky provides an example of why our world may skew toward a more deterministic outcome.  Sapolsky’s rationale for “Determinism” is that people, owing to their environmental and genetic endowment, are hardwired for certain outcomes.  The policy implications for Sapolsky’s premise are enormous.  It calls into question all forms of criminal justice.  How can society punish people if they are not to blame for their actions?  It also calls into question free will.  How could our choices matter if we are hardwired for certain outcomes?

The prototypical example Sapolsky gives is that of the garbage picker. The example starts by describing a university graduation. The university grounds crew cleans up after graduation and the garbage picker is part of the grounds crew. The garbage picker is the model and hero of this article. However, the hero could be almost anyone.

Sapolsky paints the scene – a glorious spring day for college graduation.  Super proud and well-dressed families are in attendance.  Some graduates are first-generation college graduates, having broken the family’s education barrier to a hopeful future.  The attendee's support and excitement are alive!

Then, as the ceremony wraps up, the grounds crew swoops in to tidy up the graduation space.  So now, Sapolsky compares that new graduate to the garbage picker.  Sapolsky points out that the graduate and the garbage picker likely had very different influences from:

  • Nature → Genes and inherited traits from their past and

  • Nurture → Our environment in the womb up until the moment before graduation.

His theory is that the garbage picker’s life was determined by the life capacity wholly impacted by their nature and nurture.  The garbage picker’s nature and nurture past put them on a very different deterministic path than that newly minted college graduate.

This article addresses how to overcome the fixed mindset associated with determinism. In order to build the opportunity framework, we explore the economics and Stoic philosophy enabling our hero's opportunity.

3. The source of the garbage picker's opportunity

First, our world is incredibly diverse.  Our diversity is on a continuum defined along the nature and nurture dimensions.  There are about 8 Billion people on the planet and about 350 Million people in the United States.  Let’s say a small proportion, like 1%, are born into the world with an extreme condition making someone very challenged to achieve much more than survival.  Maybe they have extreme Cystic Fibrosis, an overwhelming and untreatable form of schizophrenia, or profound, non-verbal autism. [iii] For this article, we are assuming the garbage picker is in the 99%.  This article assumes that 99% of people, plus or minus, have enough life capacity to find occupations made possible because of their diversity, not despite their diversity.

Our garbage picker hero likely has a comparative advantage enabling their occupation choice. Comparative advantage is a time-tested economics concept initialized by David Ricardo in the early 1800s. It has since been built upon and refined by many economists. [iv] Comparative advantage is diversity's economic validator and the great source of opportunity for our garbage picker hero. Comparative advantage describes how people do not have to be the best at anything and still create economic value. Because we all have the same TIME fixed resource, it makes more sense for a person to specialize because we all cannot do everything. In fact, it is this specialization that has created great global wealth for market economies like the United States. It is comparative advantage and specialization that gives great opportunity to our diverse population, including the garbage picker. [v]

A comparative advantage example: Please consider the 2 people already mentioned in this article, both of whom have the same TIME fixed resource.

  • Dr. Sapolsky - is a well-educated neuroscientist and endocrinologist. Throughout his career, he taught at fine universities, accomplished amazing research, and was - and still is - a prodigious author. In a head-to-head comparison with our garbage picker hero, for this example, Sapolsky is superior at both neuroscience and garbage picking.

  • Garbage picker ("GP") hero - has little formal education and is relatively young. Our GP hero finished high school and is not sure if they will pursue additional formal education. In a head-to-head comparison with Sapolsky, our GP hero is inferior at both neuroscience and garbage-picking.

The question is, who should do the neuroscience and who should do the garbage picking - Sapolsky or the GP hero? The initial response may be: "Hey, Sapolsky is better at both neuroscience and garbage picking, so he should do both." Ricardo teaches us that the initial response is wrong. The market signals Sapolsky to pursue a specialization in neuroscience because the demand for neuroscience pays more than garbage picking.

Here is the thing, if Sapolsky does garbage picking, it will take away from his time available for neuroscience. Since Sapolsky has a fixed amount of time, he is better off specializing in neuroscience. For Sapolsky, dedicating any of his valuable TIME to garbage picking creates an opportunity cost. This leaves an opportunity for our GP hero to pursue garbage picking or ANYTHING ELSE outside of Sapolsky's market-signaled specialty AND in the context of the TIME that Sapolsky has available for that specialty.

Now, let's add a nuance. What if Sapolsky enjoys garbage picking as a relaxing diversion? That is different. We all need to relax and recharge. That is separate from the time we use for our vocations. I, the author, love being outside and gardening. Does this mean I am at odds with landscapers. No. It just means I enjoy piddling outside at something that helps me recharge.

Of course, there is not always a clean line between vocations and diversions. The point is, via the price mechanism, the market signals how society values economic activities. Since our time is fixed, anything we do outside one economic activity creates an opportunity cost for another.

Stoic philosophy has much to say about our choices, in terms of free will and determinism. [vi] Stoic philosophy recognizes the determinism found in part of our life. Stoicism recommends we focus on what we can control. Stoicism suggests the good life is found in what we can control, mainly our actions and our judgments. The Stoic dichotomy of control is found in 3 levels.

  • High influence: Our choices and judgments. This is our free will.

  • Partial influence: Health, wealth, relationships, and behavior outcomes flowing from our and others choices and judgments.

  • No influence: Weather, environment, genetics, and most other environmental factors - this is Sapolsky's determinism focus area. Notice that the Stoics agree.

Circling back to graduation day, the garbage picker woke up that glorious graduation day with a job to do. To live the good life of a Stoic, the garbage picker did that which they have in their control TODAY. They showed up to work. Our hero is working for a university or a university contractor.  They make a modest wage and some benefits - either that or a wage that allows them to buy their insurance.  Let’s assume the garbage picker has enough essential health care and money to provide simple shelter and food ... a basic subsistence.  Nothing fancy for sure, but a baseline.  The garbage picker may have some past demons or bad habits.  What if they gamble or drink a little too much?  More on bad habits are discussed in the next section. The remainder of this article focuses on that which we can control. That is, how we invest our TIME to get the most out of our life.

A Stoic and growth mindset example - Jon B:  As a James Madison University undergraduate, a good friend of mine was Jon B.  Jon was a kind, happy, and bright college student.  He was unassuming and friendly.  Jon needed money to support himself in college.  So, Jon got a job at the local McDonalds.  He cooked fast food and worked the drive-through.  He always smiled and McDonald's loved him.  He showed up on time and did his job well.  Jon graduated with honors and went on to become a doctor.

4. The framework for capturing the garbage picker's MASSIVE opportunity

Now, let’s transition to the garbage picker's opportunity.  The biggest opportunity starts with their biggest resource: TIME.  The next graphic summarizes an estimate for the great investment opportunity.  We separate TIME into 2 chunks.  Think of these chunks the way an economist thinks about savings and consumption.  Savings is defined as consumption in the future.  Whereas consumption is defined as consumption today.  So, the only difference between consumption and savings is the TIME in which we choose to consume the resource. In total, we have about 170 total hours a week in TIME resources.  We may consume the TIME resource today OR we may invest it for the future.

The first chunk is our TIME consumption needed for sleep [vii], sustenance, and work.  That leaves about 80 hours for saving and investment. 

For our second chunk, we need to sleep and eat for our future well-being, exercise, and to manage our life. Everyone's daily needs are a little different so the chunk components may vary.

Please notice that I separate food and sleep between the absolute minimum time needed to survive in the consumption-based first chunk and the food and sleep needed to thrive in the future-based second chunk. This is my hypothesis based on longevity research by Peter Attia and Dan Buettner. [viii]

Of course, treating your TIME as an investable currency takes some practice and discipline. Let's dig into what is meant by the TIME investment. As a rule of thumb, your TIME investment is how you deploy your attention. [ix] It is what we attend to and the quality of that attention that creates, or does NOT create, value for us. As an example of potentially suboptimizing attention, large social media platforms have figured out how to tap into monetizing your attention. Some people would much rather scroll through their social media than attend to other life investments. Check out your smartphone to determine how much time you spend on it. This may be unnecessarily detracting from your TIME investment capacity.  We will discuss bad habits in the next section. The point is that success comes from respecting our TIME as our most important investable resource to both improve the quality of and the prioritization of our attention. Success comes from being intentional with how you invest your most valuable TIME resource.

So, after our fixed investments, this leaves about 60 hours per week available for forward, long-term investment!  Wow!

time investment

Back of the envelope estimate of TIME allocation. Individual allocations may vary. It is the framework that matters.

Dr. Sapolsky and the determinism crowd would say, “Ya, but our ability to realize that investment gets wiped out by nature and nurture." My response is, "The TIME investment is possible in the context of a growth mindset and focusing on that which you can control."  To be fair:

  • Do all those nature and nurture impacts make proper TIME investing more challenging?  Sure they do.

  • Do some social classes have more challenges to make TIME investments than other classes? Absolutely - and it stinks that they do. 

But the future is our playing field and the choices we ALL make today have an impact on our future growth opportunities.

"Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today." 

- Ernest Hemmingway

5. How the garbage picker makes high-value choices

First, resolving the sins of the past is important.  Above, I mentioned a few bad habits like gambling, drinking, or overindulging on social media … but everyone’s situation is different and may relate to your parents' parenting style or other childhood environmental conditions. [x]  Making headway on our bad habit challenges is important.  Neuroscience and behavior psychology teach us that bad habits feel normal. [xi] Sapolsky's determinism premise certainly relates to bad habits. If we let our bad habits dominate then our path is likely to be deterministic.

Also, the challenges that may hinder us may go beyond more typical and changeable bad habits. For example, alcoholism as a disorder that certainly goes beyond drinking a little too much. Recovering alcoholics often consider their condition as permanent, so they completely abstain from drinking any alcohol. For this article, we lump changeable or unchangeable but controllable habits under the "bad habits" umbrella. In a very real sense, breaking free of bad habits is breaking free of the fixed mindset and determinism.

Identifying and changing bad habits may be difficult, but is essential.  Ultimately, not creating bad habits in the first place is the habit to which we should aspire.  Employing a “progress, not perfection” mindset is important.  Voltaire got it right – “Perfect is the enemy of good.”  So bang away at your demons and ask for help. 

Let’s say headway on your past demons is an investment of 10 hours/week.  This leaves you about 50 hours for positive momentum!  You may want to make headway on those bad habits before jumping into forward investment.

Now, how do you deploy this MASSIVE 60-hour per week investment capacity?  Everyone is different and at different life stages to make this investment. Let us assume you are the garbage picking hero of our story and a young adult looking to set a career direction.

If garbage picking is for you, talk to the owner or manager.  Do you see a future in garbage picking?  I’m serious! What if the university is using a contractor and this grounds crew company has some special technology, competitive advantage, or market relationships?  You could get on the ground floor of an entrepreneurial opportunity!  If there is a path forward in this company or industry, can you get into management someday?  Perhaps you can earn equity in the company?  Consider using your 60-hour-per-week TIME war chest to invest in the garbage-picking industry!

What if garbage picking is not for you?  Then consider using your massive 60 hours per week to make an educational investment.  Start slow.  There are lots of very low or no-cost online courses, such as Kahn Academy. [xii] If you did not graduate from high school, get your GED.  If you did graduate from high school but do not have much money, go to the local community college and get an associate’s degree.  Leverage low-cost community college to bootstrap to an undergraduate degree.  The university or contracting firm you work for is a great place to consider.  They may have employee education assistance.

What should you choose to study? Our economy is incredibly dynamic. New and growing industries are the employer's demand. Position yourself to be part of the employee supply of that high-value industry. I would go to the government “Occupation Outlook Handbook” and choose a major supporting a job from this list.

Please see the latest list on the BLS website.

How do you position yourself to be highly recruited? Get good grades. A good GPA signals potential employers the 3 Cs:

  • The first C is “intellectual Competence” → which is the willingness and ability to learn.

  • The next C is Conscientiousness” → which is a resilient and hard worker.

  • Finally, the last C is Collaborativeness” → which is a team player.

GPA signaling is controversial.  Some people have the belief that college makes us smart and it is worth doing without regard to future jobs. Of course, many who believe this are also employees of the college system providing the research platform. There is an implicit conflict of interest because those getting paid to do college research are usually paid by the same college system subject to that research. Incentives matter. As Upton Sinclair said:  

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

Increasing our smarts is another name for what we economists call "increasing human capital." The experience of how a college employee, like a professor, helps a student build human capital is easy to confuse with what causes someone to increase their human capital. Correlation is not causation. Frankly, many people increase their human capital without college.

However, as a former managing consultant in a large firm that hired thousands of college graduates per year, I have a fine-tuned understanding of the college system's value to an employer. [xiii] First, put yourself in the mindset of a hiring manager. We are so busy doing our day job running a business that we simply do not have enough time to fully research the rich diversity of every college job applicant. To simplify the gathering and processing of recruit information, the college 3 Cs GPA is a singular and heavily relied upon signal. The signal to employers is that you can apply sustained effort over many years to achieve a goal.  Employers want to hire people like that!  The rest can be trained.  Think about what this means. The fact that you got an education is a college byproduct. What employers really want is hard working, trainable team players.

In the context of college recruiting, after GPA, an employer is likely to use a major field of study to break a tie between new hire recruits.  So, the GPA gets you in the door, the major breaks the tie between those invited inside.

Earlier, two paths were offered, based on whether or not garbage picking is for you. Of course, garbage picking is a metaphor. Whatever your current situation is, you have a choice to either pursue that occupation or pursue changing the path. The basis for pursuit is your TIME investment. Certainly, there are many other path alternatives.

Generally, whether staying the path or changing the path, higher education is part of that path. To be clear, higher education is not necessarily a college degree. They are not the same. Not all industries value formal education credentials. Human capital can be acquired by experience and lower cost certifications. Think of higher education more broadly and in the context of being a lifetime learner. Increasingly, the learning habit can be pursued without the formal, credentialed education system. Please consider the lifetime learning habit as essential for the growth mindset. I recommend a portion of your 60 hour forward investment warchest should always be dedicated to lifetime learning.

Finally, what if after all that, you do not see an opportunity to deploy your TIME investment? Also, what if the time consumed for work does not leave enough investment TIME? Then it is time to move. Economic and social mobility is important. Do not feel like you are stuck. Search for community alternatives providing a better platform for your TIME investment.

"The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

—Nelson Mandela

6. Conclusion

The determinism crowd makes a good point.  Our past nature and nurture factors make choosing a different path than the one we are already on a challenge.  This article shows an approach to using our amazing TIME investment capacity to make smart decisions about our future.  The future is your playing field.  Use your choice to play well!

Our diverse neurobiology and the diverse situations of our lives make decision-making a challenge.  Building and maintaining a strong decision process is your countermeasure for diversity challenges and leveraging diverse opportunities.  My book, Making Choices, Making Money provides frameworks and smartphone resources to help you make the best decisions.



[ii] Goddard, Locus of control, Core Psychiatry, 3rd Ed, 2012

[iii] The impact of nature and nurture is explored in the article:

[v] Russ Roberts provides a stark but appropriate way of thinking about the power of specialization:

"Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty"

[vi] Epictetus, Enchiridion, 125 CE

The Reverend Thomas Bayes (1701-1761) is credited with developing the mathematics to help make judgments based on an uncertain, or probabilistic, future. The probability-based math is called Bayesian Inference and is based on the conditional probability construct. For a deeper dive into how to make choices and impact our belief-informed judgments, please see:

How to make free will work for you

[vii] "Sleep" could easily be dropped into the 2nd fixed investment chunk instead of the 1st consumption chunk. Science teaches that sleep is an investment in future health. The old adage that "I will sleep when I'm dead" has been flipped. Today, science teaches us that a "lack of sleep will cause me to be dead." This is owing to neurodegenerative disease associated with inadequate sleep.

Sleep was placed in the first chunk because we consume it every day. However, sleep should NOT be considered a source of long-term source of investable TIME. Sure, in a pinch, a night or 2 of little sleep is probably ok. However, persistent sleep deprivation should be avoided.

[ix] "... the right hemisphere has a kind of sustained, broad, vigilant attention instead of this narrow, focused, piecemeal attention (found in the left hemisphere). And it sustains a sense of being, a continuous being, in the world. So, these are very different kinds of attention." - Iain McGilchrist

Dr. McGilchrist discusses the different kinds of attention emanating from different brain hemispheres. It is our left hemispheric originated "narrow, focused, piecemeal attention" on point for our evolutionary-based linear focus for survival. It is the understanding of non-linearity needing a "sustained, broad, vigilant attention" associated with our right hemispheric originated attention.

[x] There is a correlation between parenting style and one's growth mindset predisposition and related opportunity achievement. The authoritative or demanding and responsive parenting style is known as the most likely to start a young adult on a growth mindset trajectory. The authoritarian or demanding but unresponsive parenting style is less likely to enable a growth mindset. For this article, we consider parenting styles as "sins of the past" habits that the child may need to update as a young adult.

One of my favorite examples of overcoming parenting style is Pat Summitt. Coach Summitt was an Olympic basketball player and women's college basketball coach trailblazer. Based on her memoir, she admittedly grew up in a traditional, southern United States authoritarian parented environment. She transitioned from the fixed mindset of her upbringing to becoming one of the most successful college coaches in history.

Summitt's example also provides a sad, cautionary tale. Related to the TIME investment framework, Summitt appeared to trade sleep from Chunk 1 as a forward investment. In other words, she deprived herself of sleep to invest in her basketball career. Unfortunately for the world, her life was cut short by early-onset neurodegenerative disease. The causes of neurodegenerative disease are complex. However, neuroscience teaches there is a strong correlation between sleep deprivation and neurodegenerative disease. Summitt was famous for sleep deprivation, especially in-season.

Summitt, Jenkins, Sum It Up, 2013

[xi] Bad habits, such as those related to drinking, smoking, and social media have their source in the dopamenic processes of our neurobiology.

[xii] A potential future for the higher education system is explored and the use of low-cost educational resources.

Hulett, Higher Education Reimagined, The Curiosity Vine, 2020


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