The Fragility of Income

Reading time: 5 minutes

I don’t know when the next recession will happen but I know it will. One of my current preoccupations is contemplating the risk that the state and individuals run by deriving their income from singular sectors and sources.

I am currently reading Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s a very stimulating read. It has certainly forced me to consider my own financial circumstances. This post is largely my take on a number of concepts Taleb describes, specifically antifragility and optionality. These are related concepts and I discuss them in more detail below particularly how they pertain to the question of income.

The rest of this post is written on the assumption that you the reader have a basic grasp of these concepts. If terms like antifragility, optionality and black swan are alien to you, take a minute to read my notes on Antifragile here before proceeding.

According to the Irish Central Statistics Office (CSO), the average industrial wage for a full time employee in Ireland (as of last year in the CSO Yearbook of Ireland) is €45,611. Let’s consider a given individual with an income of a nice round sum of €50,000. Let’s assume that all of this income is coming from one source. For argument’s sake, let’s say this person is employed by a Financial Services company. On the face of it, this person is in a “good” job with apparent good prospects. I believe this would be a reasonably common view of this individual’s situation and prospects.

However this income is inherently fragile, come the next economic shock, the probability of this person losing their job would be high, suddenly they could have an income of €0. Just like 2008, this could happen overnight.

A better alternative than the above single income source scenario would be to have many smaller independent sources of income. I will illustrate this graphically below.

Let’s start by visualising the individual’s income as not just €50,000 but ten units of €5,000. It is inherently fragile due to it being concentrated into one source.

Figure 1: Fragile Single Source Income

50k_one_source

Next let’s now assume that this same amount of income can be achieved from a variety of sources as per Figure 2 below. This is now a less fragile situation. It might even be considered antifragile although one cannot simply assume that multi-source implies antifragile.

Figure 2: Less Fragile Multi Source Income

50k_five_sources

You will probably have noted that simply taking one source and dividing by five is not realistic. Let’s instead look at a more realistic transition from fragility to antifragility and what that path might look like. Starting again from Figure 1 (which represents a position of fragility), Figure 3 shows what a less fragile state would look like. For argument’s sake, let’s assume that this represents an achievable reality in one year. The additional sources 2 and 3 are relatively small but are growing (green), the original Source 1 is static (grey).

Figure 3: Transitioning from Fragility

50k_two_new_sources

Over time, additional sources can be added, the picture will increasingly become a mixture of increasing and diminishing income sources. It can be reasonably stated that Figure 4 below represents something which is approaching robustness. Robustness implying that if any one of the below sources was to disappear overnight, then the situation would not be dire. Even if the €50,000 was to disappear than there would still be a total of €24,640 available. The removal of Source 1 would be a materially negative event but not terminal. Figure 4 also represents a better alternative than the scenario of the single source fragile state that we began from (Figure 1).

Figure 4: Approaching Robustness

50k_four_new_sources

Moving the dial forward again, Figure 5 now represents robustness, taking any one source out of the picture will not have a materially adverse effect on the general income picture. Even taking the largest two sources out of the picture would leave a healthy €36,760. You will also note that Source 3 has now begun to decline from where it was. Having many income sources will inevitably mean that some are growing and some are diminishing. This is expected and optimal. The purpose here is to have enough options that if one really explodes and goes through the roof, then you will have skin in the game and benefit massively. Alternatively, if one income source diminishes significantly or disappears entirely, it will not have a disproportionate impact. The more income sources available, the greater the absolute difference for each source from the previous snapshot. This volatility is welcome and valuable. It is something to be sought and embraced. It is both a warning signal and an indicator of opportunity.

Figure 5: Achieving Robustness

50k_seven_new_sources_Robustness

Given the fact that there are now seven independent income sources in play, optionality has increased significantly. Having several options provides limited downside and unlimited upside. Not only is this scenario a better defense against the removal of particular income sources, there is a better opportunity of benefiting asymmetrically from positive black swans. Let’s now introduce a positive black swan, you can see that Source 5 in Figure 6 below has increased by over five times from the last snapshot in Figure 5 from €13,446 to €70,837. This clearly demonstrates how due to the increased number and variety of income sources, the better an individual can benefit from unexpected upside. The rest of the sources are still in a slowly increasing or decreasing state.

Figure 6: Positive Black Swan

50k_seven_new_sources_+BlackSwan

Let’s now take our income picture and throw 2008 at it. 2008 was a classic black swan as few people knew how destructive the crash would be or whether there would even be one in the first place. Under these conditions, one would expect a general negative picture.  Looking at Figure 7, there are some significant decreases amongst most of the sources. However because of optionality, there are some income sources which have increased in these conditions. In every recession, there are counter cyclical enterprises which benefit or parts of the economy that are sheltered from an economic storm. Note that the original Source 1 has now gone to zero, Sources 3 and 4 have approximately halved with Source 6 about a quarter of what it was. Despite the significant destruction of income, the overall picture is still positive.

Figure 7: Next Recession (Negative Black Swan)

50k_seven_new_sources_next_recession

It is unrealistic to assume that there will be a positive black swan event before the next recession so let’s default source 5 back to the level shown in Figure 5. Even after the removal of the positive Black Swan impact on Source 5, there is still a grand total of €55,327 being generated from six sources in Figure 8. This is better than the initial situation at the start with one source generating €50,000 which in the meantime has gone to zero.

Figure 8: Next Recession (Remove Positive Black Swan Event)

50k_seven_new_sources_next_recession_less_+_black_swan

While the above numbers and description of the transition from fragile to antifragile are entirely fictional, it clearly demonstrates the stark contrast between having a single income source and having multiple income sources. The latter providing optionality and thus antifragility. The antifragility being the result of a net positive outcome from a large dose of volatility which in most scenarios would be viewed as a negative event yielding negative consequences.

Assuming that there is a sufficient diversity to the above sources, the probability of them all going to zero at the same time due to the same event is much lower than the odds of any given source being adversely effected. It should also be noted that the amount of income derived from a given source or its recent growth has no bearing on whether it is likely to go to zero or not.

Furthermore the general antifragility of the individual’s income situation is undermined where the income sources are derived from the same sector or have inbuilt dependencies on each other or indeed one general common dependency.

In closing, I believe that the establishment of an antifragile income situation is advantageous and indeed necessary in today’s world.

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Antifragile Notes & Terminology

Reading Time: 1 minute
The purpose of this post is to act as a reference point and primer for the topics and terminology used in Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nicholas Nassim Taleb.
I will add to this post over time as I write on these topics in more detail.
The Triad
Taleb describes Fragility, Robustness and Anti-Fragility as the Triad. I like to think about them as follows. Imagine holding a glass in your hand, you drop it from several metres to a concrete floor.
  • A fragile glass breaks upon on impact
  • A robust glass does not break upon on impact
  • An antifragile glass is enhanced by the impact. It is now a better glass.
Optionality
Optionality can be defined as the ability to asymmetrically benefit from a given set of circumstances. I like to consider as the difference between an a la carte and a prix fix menu. The a la carte provides options for each course. Perhaps you are not sure whether you want dessert, no need to make your mind up until you have to whereas a prix fix requires a single decision upfront with subsequent less flexibility.
Black Swans
A black swan is an event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and is extremely difficult to predict . It can be positive or negative. Using optionality to expose yourself to positive black swans is advantageous. Achieving antifragility will ensure that in the event of a negative black swan you can still benefit from it.
Related Posts:

How to Hedge Against Uncertainty

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Trump, Brexit, the rise of the far right, sometimes it feels that there is no end to the current uncertainty. In the current climate, how does one set themselves up to mitigate this uncertainty?

I don’t pretend for a moment to have all of the answers but I will attempt in this post to promote thought on this topic and to identify the requisite characteristics to hedge effectively against uncertainty.

Agility
My use of the word agility here is intended to capture the rate at which you can move into a different career. Let’s say you’re a blocklayer and making a decent wedge. All of a sudden, there’s a property crash and your livelihood is effectively decimated. How quickly can you transition to a new career?

Another way of looking at this is, what transferable skills do you possess which you can use to transition to a new career? The above use of a blocklayer is not intended to limit this analogy to only manual labour. Currently there are many “desk jobs” under threat from automation, artificial intelligence and economic change.

It would be prudent to identify what your transferable skills are and how they might be useful in pursuing a new path. If you find that you don’t have many transferable skills, can you take steps to develop some?

Frugality
Are you leading a debt fuelled lifestyle? Do you really need to splurge on pay day on that needless item? Have you got a rainy day fund? The ability to live off scraps ensures that in the instance of a recession, you will be relatively less worse off then a colleague who is in up to their eyes in debt. When your existing career goes kaput the ability to live off less will ensure that you have:
a. Some savings put aside.
b. More time to live off those savings while you develop an alternative income source.

Here’s a piece I wrote on how to save more: Show Me The Money

Resilience
Faced with a negative event, how quickly can you pick yourself off the floor and get back on your feet? What are your thought processes when confronted with a setback? Do you spend time blaming external events and looking for sympathy or are you already formulating a plan to move forward?

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

Everyone has set backs, it’s those of us who recover quickest generally achieve more.

Have a Back-Up Plan
I’ve currently reading The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha.
In it, there is a process called “Plan ABZ”. It’s a simple yet powerful way of having multiple options available to you regardless of what situation you find yourself in. It’s written focusing on career topics but stems from the start up world and can be easily re-used in many other walks of life.

Plan ABZ

  • Plan A: This is what you are doing right now. You make minor adjustments and iterate regularly.
  • Plan B: This is in the same general ballpark as Plan A. It’s what you pivot to when you need to change your goal or your means to achieve it. Pivoting can occur because Plan A is not working or because you’ve just discovered a new opportunity and Plan B is now more promising.
  • Plan Z: This is your fallback, effectively your lifeboat. The certainty of a reliable, stable Plan Z allows you to take on more risk and uncertainty in A and B.

The benefit of this method that no matter what stage of life you are at, you will always be planning and adapting. This method is thus not a time specific event but rather a habitual process.

Another variation on the Plan ABZ theme is the phrase “Two is one and one is none”. This phrase stems from military circles. It means that if you are out on a mission and you bring one of anything, then effectively you have no alternative when that item, tool or weapon breaks or has been mislaid. Having two of everything will ensure that when your knife breaks, you have another ready to go and the mission will not be jeopardised.

Bringing this back to civilian affairs and specifically in a career sense, most people have one source of income. If that disappears or is greatly reduced, they are significantly adversely effected. Writing these words has made me think about this more, I hope it has the same effect on you.

In summary, a combination of agility, frugality, resilience and the presence of a back up plan will ensure that no matter what scenario you find yourself in, you will be able to get your life back on track.

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The 6 Most Influential Books I’ve Read

Reading Time: 12 minutes

The below list of books are not necessarily the “best” books in the world but they are all books which have had a significant influence on my life and the way I think.  While I enjoy fiction, I’m strongly biased towards reading non-fiction. Most of the below points I make are mainly applicable to non-fiction material. Within non-fiction, I generally go for books that I believe I’ll “get something out of”, be that a new insight or technique.

When I say influential, what I mean is that there are points in the below books where I stopped, considered what I just read, perhaps daydreamed or my mind began to wander off into space and dream up some mad plan.

So what do I mean by “get something out of”?

  • The book provided an insight into something which I didn’t know or understand before
  • I learned an “Unknown Unknown” i.e. something which I didn’t know I didn’t know
  • The book caused me to reflect on something that I had done or was doing and/or cause me to change my behaviour

Often it can be something very simple, a great example of this is from “Poor Charlie’s Almanack”. The story about how Charlie Munger credits the cash register with rapid commercial development in American retail businesses is quite profound. It encouraged employees to be honest and reduced theft by employees; who might have otherwise allowed some cash to go missing. This is such a simple example, but it clearly demonstrates the powerful effect the cash register had. The point here is that everyone understands what a cash register is but not everyone understands the fundamental role it has played in the evolution of commerce.

Sometimes it’s just a great quote or line that I hear or read. Like this one from Tools of Titans “What might you do to accomplish your 10 year goals in the next 6 months,  if you had a gun against your head?” – Peter Thiel. When I read this, it caused me to step back and reflect on what I was doing to achieve my goals and what I could do to realise them sooner. The value in this exercise is not whether a given goal can be done in a much shorter timeframe, it’s that going through this thought experiment encourages you to identify gaps in your logic and challenges assumptions you may have made.

Another way of measuring influence is: “Did the book make you want to write down a note about something you just read like a quote, did it give you some inspiration or cause you to take some action?” When I am stopping regularly to take a note on something I’m reading, I know I’m onto something excellent. While I wouldn’t make this a prerequisite to make it onto the below list, it’s a strong factor.  The trade off is that this note taking approach reduces reading speed but I still believe it’s a valuable exercise and leads to better recall.

A final measure is when you finish a book, do you want to go back to the start and read it again, or feel at least that some parts are worth revisiting a second time?

Inverting the above, if you are reading a book and you are not experiencing any of the above, then it’s probably either something you already understand well or are familiar with. Or being blunt, it’s just no good. Stop reading. Move on. Life is too short to throw good time after bad.

Now that I’ve set out my criteria of measuring influence, let’s jump straight into the most influential book I’ve ever read.

Book #1

Title: Poor Charlie’s Almanack

Author: Charlie Munger

Channel: Physical

Year read: 2010/2011

Link: https://www.poorcharliesalmanack.com/orderform_2016.php

poor_charlies_almanack_2

Lest he need an introduction, Charlie Munger has been Warren Buffett’s business partner in running the highly successful Berkshire Hathaway for over six decades.

I recall that despite my pretty high expectations when I began to read this book, I realised very quickly that it was an epic. It blew my mind and expanded my worldview. It very clearly explains the approach, specifically the mental model approach, which Charlie Munger espouses and has used successfully to make brilliant investment decisions. It consists of having a strong general knowledge but with a focus on principles from the natural sciences and engineering.

It’s a heavy read in places and I can understand why some people wouldn’t find it as enthralling as I did. It costs $49 (+ delivery cost) which I’m sure acts as a deterrent to some people making the purchase, but I would say two things to that, how much do you value your knowledge and the extension of same? The second point is that all profits from the book go to charity (The Munger Research Center of the Huntington Library). A word of caution about it’s physical size. It’s an absolute tome. You won’t be shoving it in your carry on bag for a trip.

The main takeaway from this book is: Read a lot. Continue to learn. Build approaches from first principles (a concept heavily emphasised below by Elon Musk). I honestly can’t think of any person who wouldn’t benefit from reading it.

Regarding the above point about making you want to take notes, I literally have notebooks worth of notes from when I read this book:

img_20170209_185535

In short, buy it. Read it. Study it. Absorb it.

Book #2
Title: Zero to One: Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future

Author: Peter Thiel (with Blake Masters)

Channel: Physical

Year read: 2016

Amazon Associates Link:

Zero to One: Notes on Start Ups, or How to Build the Future

thielbinb

While Charlie Munger is an old school businessman, Peter Thiel is most definitely new school. From being the CEO of Paypal to being one of the major investors in Facebook to various other business ventures including Palantir and Thiel Capital, he is certainly someone who has a big influence on the tech scene. I enjoy reading about and listening to Peter Thiel because he has a different slant on things. He doesn’t subscribe to traditional thinking and is unwilling to accept a basic premise or assumption without coming to a considered conclusion after deeply thinking about it for himself.

The basic premise of this book is that many businesses are just incremental steps building on what already exists and that to really build a very successful business, you need to do something very innovative, in other words you need to go from zero to one. He espouses building a monopoly in some sector or area where there is little or no competition and that without creating a monoply, a given business cannot be a sustained success.

It’s not a very long book and it’s well structured into various different chapters which were derived from the notes that Blake Masters took while Peter Thiel was guest lecturing at Stanford University (and which are available here: http://blakemasters.com/post/20400301508/cs183class1)

Not without his critics, Peter Thiel has a very clear worldview, he is quite strident and not afraid to stand up for what he believes in, whether he’s right or wrong on particular topics is a completely different matter, but what is really fascinating about him is the way that he frames a question or challenges an existing assumption.

A good example of this, is in Chapter 4 “The Ideology of Competition”, he describes how competition is inherently destructive and thus should be avoided at all costs. He makes a number of interesting points about competition:

  • Competition means no profits for anyone whereas a creative monopoly means new products and sustainable profits
  • Aping competitors behaviour rather than focusing on original products and services is destructive
  • There is a genereal unhealthy obsession with competition driven by the education system

This kind of view on such a fundamental part of the business world is not common and therefore all the more refreshing.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book on the basis that it provides a very good insight into how Peter Thiel thinks and the ways that he evaluates businesses.

Book #3
Title: Tools of Titans

Author: Tim Ferriss

Channel: Physical

Year read : 2017

Amazon Associates Link:

Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers

tot

Tim Ferriss is a well known author, blogger and investor who has now turned his hand to podcasting. Over the last number of years, he has interviewed over one hundred guests on his show (http://tim.blog/podcast/) and this book is a summary of the best bits from his guests featuring tons of book recommendations, quotes, advice etc. I very much enjoy the podcast, listen to it regularly and initially I was sceptical as how much extra I would get out of buying the book.

However that said, at the time of writing I’m only about two thirds of the way through this book but I’ve already got enough out of it to give it a strong recommendation. The book is divided into three sections: Healthy, Wealthy and Wise. It features gems from various different folks across many industries and walks of life.

A typical example of the kind of advice you will find is from the chapter on Reid Hoffman about giving the mind an overnight task:

“What are the kinds of key things that might be constraints on a solution, or might be the attributes of a solution, and what are tools or assets I might have? I actually think most of our thinking is subconscious. Part of what I’m trying to do is allow the fact that we have this kind of relaxation, rejuvenation period in sleeping, to essentially possibly bubble up the thoughts and solutions to it.”

This is one of many techniques to improve your life that are dotted throughout this book. The above in isolation is potentiallly very powerful, but getting multiple techniques makes reading this book a no-brainer.

I would mention that this book is not quite in the same mind-blowing intelligence as the two above books. But then again it’s not trying to be that kind of book. It’s effectively a well chosen and tightly edited list of useful stuff. It does exactly what it says on the tin.

Book #4
Title: The Four Hour Workweek

Author: Tim Ferriss

Channel: Physical

Year read : 2011

Amazon Associates Link:

The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich

4hw

It’s a been nearly six years since I lay on a beach in sunny Biarritz and in between drinking red wine and shitetalking, I managed to read this book. At the time, it had a profound influence on me and definitely got me thinking about my career, what I value, how much time is spent at work versus leisure time et cetera.

One of the major takeaways is how most of our lives are centred around delayed gratification, the whole concept of getting a good job, working your way up the ladder, managing to retire with a nice nest egg and then begin “enjoying” life in retirement. This book encourages you to clearly identify what you want to do, how much that particular lifestyle will cost to sustain and then attempt to build an income stream to achieve that lifestyle.

This approach inverts the stereotypical question of  “What will I spend my income on?” to “What life do I want to lead and therefore what income do I need to support it?”

Like most things which challenge the status quo, it’s not about about radically altering your lifestyle but instead looking at the alternatives and modifying the techniques and approaches to your individual circumstances.

I also really liked the strategy outlined as DELA (I wonder why…):

  • Define
  • Eliminate
  • Liberate
  • Automate

An excerpt describing the above technique in more detail can be read at the below link:

http://tim.blog/introduction/

Book #5
Title: Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

Author: Ashlee Vance

Channel: Physical

Year read : 2016

Amazon Associates Link:

Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future

elon

In the last six months or so, I have become a fully signed up member of the Elon Musk fanboy club and this recommendation isn’t so much about the book (which is very good) as much about the man himself. Previously, I would have been aware of who he was but I never really paid that much in depth attention to him.

The ability to dream the dream and then have the chutzpah to make it happen is a unique combination. This is underscored further by his actions during the 2008 economic crisis that when push came to shove and he was staring bankruptcy in the face, where he displayed the gumption to turn things around and keep his businesses afloat. While I can’t imagine what the world would look like if everyone was like Elon Musk, we could definitely do with more people with his level of ambition, vision and sheer bloody-mindedness to get things done. I sincerely believe that we will have people on Mars in the near future. That is exhilarating and extremely inspiring. For a great overview of Musk intends to make this happen, have a look at the below:

I wouldn’t necessarily be putting Elon Musk up there as the nicest guy around or some image of perfection, but as an engineer, a physicist, a multi-industry entrepreneur, he’s simply incomparable.

One of the hallmarks of his approach to business is first principles thinking. That being to keep asking why until you get to the root of a problem. A classic use of this technique was was in the early days of SpaceX where attempts were being made to purchase old ICBM rockets and re-purpose them in order to get their space transport business up and running. The general assumption being that buying an existing rocket was the easiest way of breaking into the space industry. On a fact finding mission to Russia, a price of the order of $21 million was being quoted per rocket when the trip was being made on the basis that three rockets would be available for $21 million. This amount was far above what the fledgling space business could afford. On the plane home, Musk unveils a spreadsheet to his colleagues detailing an inventory of materials and components which would be required to build their own rocket. This total spend was significantly less than the outlay required to purchase an already built rocket. The point here is that when you take what appears to be a difficult/impossible objective i.e. build a rocket and strip back to its bare bones, then there may be a different option which would otherwise not have been thought about.

This reasoning process used by Musk is described very well by Wait But Why blogger Tim Urban in his excellent series on Elon Musk (http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/11/the-cook-and-the-chef-musks-secret-sauce.html). I read this before I read this book. My expectation was that I wouldn’t learn that much more from the book as the Wait But Why series is quite detailed. However I think it’s a pretty strong endorsement of Ashlee Vance’s effort that he adds a lot of background detail and provides a thrillling narrative of Musk’s life to date.

Book #6
Title: Ego is the Enemy

Author: Ryan Holiday

Channel: Audible

Year: 2016

Amazon Associates Link:

Ego Is the Enemy

ego

Ryan Holiday is a strong advocate of stoicism, both this book and his other related book “The Obstacle is the Way” are excellent. Stoicism is viewed as almost a “personal operating system” and encourages you to “control the controllables”. It is also in stark contrast to the consumerist world we live in particularly with such principles as “practicing poverty”.

What I really enjoyed about this book was the intertwining of his personal experience with the experience of well known figures from history to make his argument. I listened to this on Audible and what really makes it special is that Ryan Holiday narrates the book himself. I believe that hearing the author stress and emphasise various points throughout the book adds a lot and makes it a very unique experience.

There are many great nuggets in this book, one of particular note is the story of Kirk Hammett, the lead guitarist of Metallica, who shortly after getting the gig with Metallica decided he needed to improve his skills further. He sought out Joe Satriani, one of the most accomplished guitarists around, and over a three year period consistently went for guitar lessons with Satriani, working on his craft until such a time as he felt he could learn no more from him. This is such a powerful example of an ego-less person, clearly talented and successful, just after getting his big break but being humble enough to want to improve and address his weaknesses.1

In case you’ve never heard of Kirk Hammett, here’s the solo from Fade to Black (Skip to 5:45)…enjoy!

In closing:

  • Read Munger to become wiser.
  • Read Thiel to reset your worldview.
  • Read Ferriss for lifehacks and general self improvement.
  • Read Musk for inspiration.
  • Read Holiday to become a more in control humble person.

Postscipt:

I’ve added the year I read the relevant book in case there is an element of bias towards recent books which I think to be fair, there probably is. A valid reason for more recently read books is that I have tried to make a conscience effort to read more in the last six months alongside my investment in an Audible subscription.

You will have also noticed that I have put in the channel in the above sections. While obviously all of the above can be consumed in physical format, I genuinely believe that particular kinds of books read by the author actually communicate the subject in question in a more convincing and cogent manner. Tone of voice is massively important in communicating a message and two people reading same text can potentially draw divergent conclusions. Another great example of the authors narrating their own book is Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, a book I have recently finished and will come back to in a future post.

Audible Offer:

I signed up for the free month on Audible thinking I’ll definitely cancel. I didn’t and it has been an excellent investment in terms of getting through at least one book a month. Click on the below link to start your free month:

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