21 min read

Gateless by Sebastian Marshall and Kai Zau - Summary and Book Notes

Gateless - a "self-improvement" book that will actually improve your life.

Gateless by Sebastian Marshall and Kai Zau


Fantastic, actionable advice on setting up your life to constantly improve. Marshall and Zau organize the book around "Four Currencies": Capacity, Network, Signal, and Assets. They go into depth about how to improve these areas and discuss common pitfalls. Finally, they discuss different approaches to finding meaning.

The writing is clear and actionable. Unfortunately the authors often head into tangents that, while interesting on their own, don't really fit the narrative. Despite this, the ideas expressed are well worth the read.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who want to succeed but hasn't yet found their calling. The author's breakdown of meaning, specifically the section on "Resource Mode" would be particularly valuable.

Buy Gateless on Amazon or check it out at your library.

Super Quick Summary

Deliberately improve your Capacity, Network, Signal, and Assets to create a life of meaning. Don't run on auto-pilot. Take the time and effort to excel in these "four currencies" and you will succeed.

Quick Notes

The following are rough notes I took while reading. These are mostly paraphrased or quoted directly from the book.

"Four Currencies"

  • Capacity: Your generalized ability to get results and make things happen.
  • Network: The sum of your friendships, collaborations, and mutual regard with others.
  • Signal: How you appear to the outside world.
  • Assets: Your tangible resources

If you can make things happen in general, you're valuable everywhere.

Most people leave all this stuff to chance, which is a terrible plan.

The first currency: Capacity

In a world with less defined careers and less clear paths, the simple ability to get a job done is incredibly prized and valuable.

4 levers for capacity: Biochemistry, Cognition, Action, Environment

Thinking ("cognition") and your body's biochemistry are not actually separate things.

On Environment: It's difficult for a person to abstain from doing harmful things when all of their neighbors smoke, eat sugary junk food, or get drunk regularly. Behaviors get copied; people follow the flock.

The value to breaking free from your nation's moral fashions in terms of consumption and biochemistry is enormous.

Abstract and far-future benefits are generally bad at motivating people.

Think about how you want to feel now and in the future -- healthy, thriving, vibrant, creative, effective -- and build your life to ensure you reach those places regularly.

Most work in medicine and biochemistry is built for people who are sick or deemed sick

Figure out the "what for."

Think: "I'm feeling bored, listless, restless, and somewhat depressed -- I wonder what's going on in my biochemistry, and healthy ways to solve that instead of the stupid impulse I just had?"

When things are bad and you're doing stupid stuff, consider what biochemical payoffs might be motivating and triggering the behavior.

When you find activities you love, study those too and figure out why

Most people do not make dramatic life-altering shifts very often, and when they start searching for a dramatic life-altering shift, they're usually in a bad place to be doing great thinking.

Carve out space to be reflective and break free from autopilot, get yourself into places that naturally lead to more free thought and escape from routine, and work on your biochemistry so that you feel good, have energy, and can think clearly.

Use "if/then statements" - If I want junk food, I will wait 10 minutes.

It's harder to see that things "that we just sort of dislike", periodically investigate dislikes that might be irrational

The way to do so is to actively search out skills and skill sets you don't have, and at least put a "mental asterisk" (*) by it.

Shift your thinking from, "I'm not a numbers person" to "I'm not really a numbers person, but I could learn a bit more about it..."

When your thoughts are "Negotiating? Yuck" or "Numbers? Yuck" or "Cooking? Yuck" -- you'll almost automatically shut down new sources of information and opportunities to pick up those skills.

You should regularly search for new skills and abilities to study and add to your life. If your life is going phenomenally well and you're having an immense amount of development in your effectiveness, you should still do this at least annually, devoting a good chunk of time to identifying new skills and seeking out feedback. If you're young or not on a track you love and are thriving on, you should do it more often.

The majority of people need less strategic, tactical, or operational guidance -- they need motivation.

Many of the obstacles you'll face can be easily overcome with a patient, attritional style of wearing down the obstacle and repeatedly taking small gains.

As you repeat patterns of action in your life, the thinking turns off. It's good, because it means patterns can built into your life, making a formerly very difficult task into an automatic one. It's bad, because if you don't pay attention, you're living your life on autopilot far below what you're capable of and not achieving the things you find meaningful.

Questions to ask yourself when Planning

"Don't act before thinking. Take the time to come up with a game plan. Take at least a few hours to think through your plan. Those hours will be virtually nothing in relation to the amount of time that will be spent doing, and they will make the doing radically more effective." -- Ray Dalio, "Principles"
  • What am I trying to achieve here?
  • Why am I trying to achieve it?
  • How will I know I'm successful?
  • When do I want this to be complete?
  • How much time do I estimate this will take?
  • What's my budget in time and money for this?
  • What are the most likely pitfalls?
  • What key advantages can I build for myself early?
  • What scares me the most that would make me unlikely to finish?
  • How good am I at achieving and finishing things like this in the past?
  • When will I check in and see how it's going on waypoints?
  • Who can help me stay on track with this?
  • What other types of allies, friends, and support do I need?
  • If I hit major setbacks, what will I do?
  • Under what circumstances would I quit, abandon, or change this plan?
  • How much effort and time do I want to make under this plan before reviewing and considering changing it?

Most people are too busy working to actually consolidate gains from the opportunities they get

Slow down and spend more time in planning, including f__iguring out how you are going to consolidate your gains.__

Pick "stake in the ground" dates - a date where you evalute whether what you're doing is working or not.

If there's anything you're trying to do regularly, it's a risky gamble to do after the 10th hour you've been awake and once you've already done a lot of cognitively or physically demanding tasks

The days for creative and smart people of inheriting a set of repeatable duties and doing them over and over again until retirement -- these days are ending, perhaps already ended.

Get good at starting, managing, and concluding projects. It is a project-centered world we enter.

Project Management

  • Defining: Goals, Specifications, Tasks, Responsibilities
  • Planning: Schedules, Budgets, Resources, Risks, Staffing
  • Executing: Status reports, Changes, Quality, Forecasts
  • Closing: Train customer, Transfer documents, Release resources, Evaluation, Lessons Learned

5-step process for achieving what you want

  • Set Goals: Higher-level thinking, synthesis, visualization, prioritization
  • Identify and don't tolerate problems: Perception, intolerance of badness, synthesis
  • Diagnose the root causes: Hyper-logical, willing to "touch the nerve," seeing multiple possibilities
  • Design a plan for eliminating problems: Visualization, practicality, creativity
  • Do what is set out in the plan: Self discipline, good work habits, results orientation, proactivity


When you're 90% done, you're half-finished.

Resistance Is Most Powerful At The Finish Line

Bring in an expediter / finisher / ally with no preconceptions at the end of the project.

Give yourself enough space to push through and finish.

Most of the biggest gains come from looking at what went well and ensuring that happens systematically.

Read my Article on Finishing

Character Traits

Training in character traits means repeatedly making decisions and taking actions in support of that trait. Eventually, you don't have to push yourself any more.

Pick a character virtue and explicitly focus on improving for a period of time.

You can train the ability to manage your thoughts and impulses, in a universal sense.

Mindfulness meditation is one of the oldest, most known, most proven ways to get a better understanding and mastery of your thoughts and impulses.

Thoughts become less imperative when you start observing them. simply acknowledge the thought, and choose to act on it or not.

gain exposure to unfavorable circumstances to make one stronger at life.


This means reducing costs to getting things done, setting up positive multipliers and inspiration, setting things up so that good habits and best practices happen automatically, and otherwise reducing friction to doing what you want.

The highest form of multiplier is not needing a favorable environment at all, and being able to flexibly thrive anywhere.

In the short term, eliminating distractions and temptations entirely can make things much easier.

In order to improve your environment, you need to recognize what stimuli are dangerous triggers for you.

It's absolutely necessary to master the computer -- so it doesn't master you.

Creates a second user account on his computer away from his normal work account and sets parental controls that only allow 60 minutes per day of usage.

Periodically analyze what distractions are setting you back, and set to fencing them in, or eliminating them temporarily or permanently.

Whenever possible, build automatic behavior cues into your environment.

If you have some activity you want to regularly do, consider "chaining" it into a routine, marked by physical locations where that activity always happens.

The average person spends an average of one to two hours per day locating food, always worth exploring for ways to have food completely handled with minimum time

Capacity: The ability to consciously effect outcomes in the world.

Figuring out your optimal workflows, habits, nutrition and fitness and biochemistry, mix of thinking skills, short-term and long-term patterns of thought, operations and how you manage complexity, the way you set up your environment, what tools you use, prioritization, and so on -- it varies, it's personal, and it's custom.

The authors have not come across a single "natural": an executive who was born effective.

You must experiment and test different ways of living and working to find what works best for you.

The Second Currency: Network

Network. Don't let the word stop you from realizing the robust importance of it, and definitely don't leave it to chance.

The cost of not seeking out great people in your life is incredibly high.

It's a lot easier to meet people if you're both likable and useful.

You can automatically be likable and useful by building elements into your character of being magnanimous, kind, cheerful, forgiving, optimistic, and pragmatic.

Radical Personal Responsibility: a near-delusional worldview in which everything is your responsibility.

Be Service Minded Without Being Servile

Humans are pattern-matching animals. Once they match you to a pattern, they fall into a similar pattern of how they act in response to you.

Engage who you're speaking with as more-or-less an equal.

No one likes the servile nature, any sort of suck-up-ness,

Take the time to share your victories with friends and collaborators

Never ask for favors from someone you wouldn't be happy to help equally as much.


Do not waste people's time. Do not waste people's time. Do not waste people's time. Before you meet anyone, take time to research them.

If you're always prepared, have smart things to say, and just come across as a standup guy or gal, it becomes easy to get introductions.

Types of People You Need In Your Life

The top five people you spend time with have a disproportionate impact on your life.

if there are people that are making you a worse person by being around them, it is crucial to reduce the amount of time you spend with them.

The key to turning "friends" into actual, real, sincere friends -- is mutual time and shared experiences.

Having someone to partner with on a creative project, business idea, event, or other civic/community activity greatly increases success rate.

Only a small fraction of people are actually good at followthrough when not directed or pushed. That's not a negative judgment; it's a fact.

To find good project partners and collaborators, look for someone who has a good history of finishing things.

"I'd like to do something with you at some point. Let's keep our eyes open for it."

Reach out or otherwise meet people who you admire. Ask for a small, relevant piece of advice. Then execute on it immediately, follow up, and say thank-you.

In your own life, you want to seek out and get involved with people who are exemplars of virtues you want to develop more of in yourself.

"Super connectors" are people that know dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of people well. You should go out of your way to stay in touch and build a relationship with them. Hyper-connected people are busy. So be prepared and keep it to the point.

Even if you're traditionally employed, you want to be making relationships with other hiring managers, owners, and executives in your industry or that use your specialty regularly.


A Lens is a core activity that you can filter everything you learn and do through.

Pick a single club, activity, line of work, business, or project -- and then filter everything you learn through that.

You could decide to write a research paper on a topic and use that as your lens. You could start a small business or freelancing service, and run that as your Lens.

A Lens gives you a way to see the world, a way to think about problems, and a way to communicate to other people about what you're looking to do.

Here's an article I wrote viewing Weightlifting training through the eyes of a knowledge worker


The best salespeople almost universally genuinely regard their product or service as excellent, refrain from selling to someone who the product isn't a good fit for, and conduct themselves in a way where they're sharing useful education, getting to know a person's goals who might want to be, and helping that person evaluate if it would be a good fit for them.

When someone "seems like a salesperson" to you, that means they're doing it wrong.

Your Signal is everything you're consciously and unconsciously broadcasting about yourself.

If you're interacting with other people, they're constantly forming opinions and judgments of you.

As you move through your life, everyone is matching you against patterns they already have in their mind. Do you seem trustworthy? Skilled? Competent? Like "their kind of person"? And so on.

People's minds are lazy and opinions do not shift easily once formed.

Think of your own Signal similar to building a new television channel. You're broadcasting something all the time.

Aspects of signal

  1. Artifacts of what you've built and done: One of the highest credibility aspects of Signal.
  2. Claims of what you can do: One of the lower credibility aspects of Signal. Better done with another method when possible.
  3. Opinions of third parties on you:
  4. Observations people make when seeing you:
  5. Context in which you first come across each other:
  6. Biases the other person brings to the table:

Turn Claims into Artifacts. Build and accumulate artifacts. [3]

"I've been fascinated by entrepreneurship, I'm learning right now, experimenting a little bit, and looking for an opportunity I want to commit to."

Go for "process" more than "state."

When someone claims they're going to work on something, and then are good at it six months or a year or two later, that's very impressive.

Don't make Claims if you can just show what you can do.

Ask to get testimonials and feedback after work.

If you find your work was shared or forwarded by someone, reach out and thank them. If it shows up at an online community you like, go join in commenting there.

[Ways to deal with criticism]:

  1. Making a joke of it
  2. Taking it seriously, working harder, acknowledging it
  3. Ignoring it and letting the work stand for yourself
  4. Trying to make it a non-issue and avoiding it

Questions to ask yourself about your Signal

  • What am I broadcasting about myself right now, intentionally and unintentionally?
  • How are others perceiving me?
  • How are the people I most want in my life responding to my Signal?
  • How can I change what I'm broadcasting (and still in line with my values) so that the type of people I want in my life come into my life?"

Don't try to look good; be good. Work on yourself constantly.

Start saying:

  • Okay, how can I be a better friend?
  • How can I be more thoughtful?
  • How can I deliver better results?
  • How can I be more useful?
  • Do I waste people's time ever? How can I do less of that?
  • How can I think more clearly, make decisions more effective, and use good judgment and goodwill towards other people more often.
  • How do I do more and produce more?"

If you don't have any skills you can deliver and don't have interesting Artifacts under your belt, don't worry. Billions of people -- literally billions -- have started from that position and overcome it.

Don't over promise

If people are making "Halo Effect" assumptions that you're good at everything, set them straight and let them know what you can and can't do well.

The Third Currency: Assets

Most people relate to Money as a sort of "fuel"; it's consumed when we use it. Combined with the right combinations of Capacity, Network, and Signal, Money can become a "fountain" that produces even more of everything else.

Huge gains are possible, because many people are operating in a completely non-deliberate way.

The real benefit of having money the bank is optionality.

You can't "fake hold the line" if you feel desperate. Desperation can be sensed.

Money can buy pleasure and advantage, but it is not so easy or efficient to buy character with.

Most people that are "afraid of money" aren't afraid of money itself. Rather, they're afraid of the pain they'll feel if they carefully investigate their current financial situation.

The only way to break through that fear is to acknowledge and move into it.

Most people don't really understood food very well, don't understand money very well, and don't understand people very well. But you've been around food, money, and people your whole life.

Study money management. Get good at it.

Carefully investigate your own spending and get off autopilot. Make conscious choices that lead to an excellent life.

Discard Class-based scripts

Housing and transportation are huge expenses; so are vacations. These also tend to follow class-based scripts. Same with clothing.

If you're following class scripts for your spending, you're doing some insanely wasteful and harmful things to yourself. You're overspending on stuff you don't actually like and care about by a lot, and underspending on other stuff that could bring you much better results.

Be careful when you get a pay increase or income increase; most people just start randomly spending that money on slightly better stuff but don't get additional benefit from it.

When things are very bad, the mind's inclination and bias is towards short-term activities. While drowning, it's almost impossible to think clearly.

Purchasing the clear-headedness that comes from having additional runway and breathing room is worth near infinitely more than any individual pleasure.

As you get wealthier, stay modest.

[4]: More on Money Management

How money "feels" and how it actually works are radically different.

Failure is normal; don't let it teach you to be helpless.

Fix underlying problems instead of spending on alleviating symptoms.

Pay attention to absolute dollar amounts; it's better to save 11% on the purchase of your house and 0% off your toothpaste than 10% of each.

There's times in your life when you're on tilt. You've been embarrassed, frustrated, gotten bored, or whatever. You've got two choices -- stabilize very quickly or get up and walk away.

Evaluate how well you can adhere to plans based on how well you've done in the past. If possible, automate financial decisions so that you automatically do the correct things.

The "broadly correct behavior" you'll actually stick with is superior to the "perfect behavior" you won't.

It's no fun to be broke, but there's actually profit in it. You can learn greater resilience, improvisation, and develop greater compassion and empathy for others

ask the question, "How can I make the most of it?" This isn't blind optimism. There are actually lessons that are difficult to learn at other points on the economic spectrum.

Question all your constraints periodically. Committing to constraints without carefully considering the reasoning behind them leads to inflated spending.

[As an exercise, the Stoics would] "slum it" and live incredibly inexpensively, eat the worst food, sleep outside, and so on. This served as a visceral reminder that the life we're accustomed to is not necessarily the life we need.

If you're a freelancer, contract worker, or someone who can go remote, then it's very worthwhile to question whether you need an apartment.

it's not fatal to occasionally test a different quality of life to know that you've got more options and more freedom. Experiment.

Where to spend your money

Yes, you can buy your time back (hire assistants to do errands)

You can spend/invest money to get more money

You can buy better tools

could spend almost nothing at all in almost every category of your life -- and use that money to absolutely max out one single category.

minimizing every expense to barely above your constraints while in a top international city, and then have the resources to wander for literally decades in developing countries, free to write, paint, train in some art or endeavor, or just travel.

What is there to be said about balance? Not much. It's what most people do.

But you can always consider greatly minimizing certain categories of expected spend, down to your constraints, and pour what's left into what matters to you.

The more things you own, the higher your overhead is

the less job flexibility you have the more committed you are to one place.

This is not a bad thing, but it is worth considering.

the vast majority of people put down roots -- though doing so explicitly, when you choose to, tends to be the smart call.


The authors' position is that you choose the meaning of your own life.

At the end of the day, all of your resource-getting and using resolves to meaning.

The First, Clear Path to Meaning

Ataturk is a good case to speak of, because he spent the first four decades of his life just gradually becoming excellent before that sharp and crystal-clear meaning of life came into definition for him when external circumstances shifted badly for his people.

You can set on one path to intensely accomplish something, and then change directions afterwards.

you have to reject having some things you want in order to get other things you want more."

What is getting serious? It's when you pick something, you make it an overriding first priority, and you give it a long time horizon.

You start turning down things that you'd like to do, just because it gives you more time for your first priority. Not direct schedule conflicts, just more time.

It's easy to call something your first priority, but harder to turn down fun things for the sake of work.

Pragmatism includes not assuming benevolence on the part of other people without proof, and not assuming that good intentions will always produce good results.

Hidden parameters are especially dangerous because you can't easily reason through a hidden requirement that you're not consciously aware you have. [See Ramit Sethi on Invisible Scripts]

Regular action is what ensures progress and wards against idle fantasizing.

There's generally two ways to set up and approach clear-meaning-of-life type goals:

  • set things up so that you can't lose, and to dig yourself in for the long haul.
  • "...or die trying" type activities, where you'll either succeed or fail in a given period of time, and not have another shot at success in things in that particular way.

The Second Path to Meaning, The Unclear Path Where You Must Get Proximate

Being broadly "interested" or "committed" -- without any wins -- usually doesn't lead to an increasing accumulation of the ability to get the job done.

Wins are important. Bringing any win to the table of a cause you care about gets you momentum and new resources.

learn how to set proximate objectives.

proximate objective -- one that is close enough at hand to be feasible. A proximate objective names a target that the organization can reasonably be expected to hit, even overwhelm."

the trouble with big problems can't be just that they promise no immediate reward and might cause you to waste a lot of time.

Big problems are terrifying.

You have to work on small things that could grow into big things, or work on successively larger things, or split the moral load with collaborators.

"What is 'making it'? Well, what do you want to be?

When you set a precise objective, it starts dictating its own objectives to you. What to do becomes clear.

Once you've chosen and fully committed to a proximate objective, managing it becomes nearly identical to the "clear path to meaning" -- because you have one.

Choose shorter rather than longer proximate objectives, if possible.

The Third Path to Meaning, Resource Mode

You don't need to be miserable when you don't know what you're doing.

It's possible to have no idea what you're building towards, but yet to select intelligent things to do that are clearly wins, and to do them cheerfully, and to trust that when you do eventually find a sense of meaning you'll then be better and more well-equipped for it for the cheerful actions you've done now.

Here is a third path to meaning -- Serve Future You. conceptualize future-you, looking back and being grateful that present-you got the kitchen clean.

the vast majority of reflective and thoughtful people eventually find something to become passionately meaningful about.

Future-You will be very grateful if Future-You has more ability to get things done, more good people in one's life, a sterling proven reputation, and cash and assets working for... working for you.

"What are you doing with your life?"
"I'm in Resource Mode."

You can set campaigns to train more effectiveness and skills into yourself, meet great people and form good bonds, tangibly prove that you're trustworthy and effective, and get assets going that will serve you. even if you're not sure what these various resources will eventually translate into.

In two years, you'll be two years older regardless.

Stack up useful resources. They will aid you greatly when you inevitably discover a great sense of precise meaning, which you don't have to be in any hurry to do.

having "more than enough" very good friends you greatly admire is a very good place to be.

Once you've met more people that you really like and admire than you can even stay in touch with constantly, you've got more than enough great people in your life.

meet some high-character people that you really harmonize well with.

Managing your work habits, making friends, being trustworthy, a reputation for effectiveness, a checking account with many months of living expenses -- these come with you regardless of the field you originally built them in.

Look for areas where, once you've improved at them, the improvements are permanent.

Then start looking at things that no one ever regrets doing.

  • No one ever regrets paying off debt.
  • building a buffer of many months of living expenses -- this is hard to regret.
  • No one who got good at sales ever says, "I wish I hadn't done that."

Demonstrated effectiveness at anything makes it easier to get cooperation anywhere.

There is a danger of not capturing possible resources when you feel like "it's not your calling" -- resist

Improve your Capacity, Network, Signal, and Assets.

A very important rule: do not allow yourself to quit things that are 90% complete.

You must not self-destruct at the finish line. It creates a terribly bad habit.

You do not want to get be someone nor get the reputation of being someone who does all of the work and gets none of the gains, self-destructing at the end.

get repetitions in the fine art of finishing. Finishing is hard, and finishing anything is worthwhile.

Even if they're not "the perfectly best theoretically possible thing to do" -- whatever that means -- doing anything at all gives you feedback.

The Fourth Path to Meaning, Search Mode

"What should I do with my life?" is a highly complex question. There are plenty of clear, simple, and wrong answers.

"making a living" isn't even the biggest risk or worry. For many Westerners, "making my life make sense to others and fitting in" seems to be the primary driver and function of work life.

Paul Graham recommends divorcing your understanding of the "idea of work" and "what you do for a living."

consider divorcing your understanding of your identity and how you fit into the community from what you find deeply meaningful.

There is no law that says you must immediately begin a search for meaning if you don't precisely have one.

Sometimes just enjoying and doing what you want, taking care of yourself, perhaps gathering resources in the process -- this might be the best thing.

"Make a list of every crazy goal you can think of. Then rate each goal on three factors: how much the goal excites you, from one to ten; your probability of success if you tried as hard as you could; and how long it would take in hours. Then sort the goals by excitement times probability of success divided by time required and pick some of the most efficient goals."

you can't accurately gauge how much you truly like an activity until your skill level is high enough to actually get good feedback and grip with the interesting challenges in the field.

Plenty of activities that are awful to learn the foundations of are incredibly stimulating and enjoyable once you reach higher levels of skill and take on real challenges.

research on happiness shows people are bad at predicting what they'll enjoy in the long term,

when you're in Search Mode for something deeply meaningful, you won't be entirely sure if you found something you can bet on for the long-term until you've been doing it for a while.

you need to be courageous after you've gotten deeply into something.

"Player 1" exercise.
You woke up as them one day. You're you, but you can do whatever you want.
In that case, if they're doing something particularly dumb, you would just stop doing it.
Of course, you don't actually get to wake up as someone else. But you can do this as yourself.

People attempt to be consistent with what they did in the past, at the expense of getting stuck doing things they dislike.

If you have an incredibly honest and thoughtful friend or mentor, you might also ask them to help you go through the Player 1 exercise.

Asking Oneself About One's Ideal Day, Week, Month

"spare time" - don't regard this time as the prize and the time you spend working is the pain you endure to earn it."

search until you find something you like more than unproductive pleasures

If your work is not your favorite thing to do, you'll have terrible problems with procrastination. You'll have to force yourself to work, and when you resort to that the results are distinctly inferior."

more people find what they find deeply meaningful through action and trying things than they do through pure philosophy.

people sometimes take this "meaning" stuff way too seriously.

Buy Gateless on Amazon  or check it out at your library.

Further Reading

1 The Calculus of Caffeine Consumption2 3 https://www.iwillteachyoutoberich.com/blog/freelance-portfolio/ 4 Mr. Money Mustache