Legend has it that a great American by the name of Levi Strauss invented blue jeans in 1873.
Like a great many popular myths, the truth is a different story.
A Latvian tailor by the name of Jākobs Jufess emigrated to the United States in 1854. The New York immigration authorities couldn’t spell his name, so he became Jacob Davis.
18 years later a customer complained that her husband was too tough on his trousers. In an effort to help her out Davis invented some tough working pants, the now ubiquitous denim jeans.
The husband’s friends and colleagues liked the look of his new threads, and before long denim jeans were in great demand. Almost as quickly, Davis’ competitors began copying his design.
Execution is far more important than originality
Davis lacked the means to protect his invention, so he sought financial assistance from his raw materials supplier, a Bavarian-born dry goods wholesaler called Levi Strauss. Together they successfully applied for a patent in 1873.
The popularity of denim jeans grew, and Davis couldn’t keep up. Levi Strauss stepped in, establishing a garment factory to meet the ever-growing demand for Davis’ denim jeans. Davis closed his tailor shop and became an employee of Strauss, managing the factory for over 30 years.
The rest is history. While denim jeans reside in the majority of our wardrobes, few people have ever heard of Jacob Davis. The Levi Strauss & Co company turned over nearly USD$5 billion in 2017.
Owning a successful business is better than working for one
There are a couple of valuable lessons to be learned from Jacob Davis’ story:
“Execution is far more important than originality.”
“Owning a successful business will make you far wealthier than working for one.”
Denim jeans: The uniform of the masses
The first item of clothing I ever purchased with my own money was a pair of Levi’s. In another first, to make the purchase I caught the bus across the city, unsupervised. I must have been around 10 years old, back in the days of free range kids.
It wasn’t until I was at university that I first became aware of the cultural phenomenon that is people obsessing about their weight. Some of the older guys had reached that fateful age where they had started to wear their beer. Many of the girls seemed to be forever on one fad diet or another.
Happy joggers and happy dieters are the stuff of myth and legend
I quickly realised that much as you never see a happy looking jogger, you rarely meet a happy person who is currently on a diet (and if they are, they are almost certainly cheating!).
That said, I didn’t fancy becoming a fat bastard either. At the time I had an occasional six-pack, the result of spending far too much of my free time swimming, playing rugby, and chasing pretty girls.
Possessed by the arrogance of youth, I devised a diabolically simple approach to monitoring whether I was leading a healthy lifestyle.
I chose my favourite pair of jeans, an old pair of 501s. While ever they comfortably fit I was golden. Should they get a bit tight then it was time to adopt the “eat a little less, and exercise a little more” approach to healthy living.
This philosophy served me well over the years, allowing me to be blissfully ignorant about things like calories, weight, and the inevitable changes of age.
“Everybody has a plan until they are punched in the face“
Imagine my dismay last summer when I was scrolling through the day’s beach holiday photos, to be stopped in my tracks by a perfectly focused full-colour image of the classic “Dad bod” that I was sporting in my current incarnation.
How could this be? My 501s still fit just fine!
My lady wife, who is far smarter than I am, saw my aghast expression and asked what was wrong. I explained my jeans philosophy to her then showed her the photo (that she had taken).
People are such savages
She burst out laughing.
Laughing so hard she nearly wet herself.
Laughing so hard that she actually fell out of her train seat as we returned from the beach.
[Sigh]. People can be so unkind!
Eventually she calmed down enough to return to her seat and point out a fatal flaw in my philosophy: I hadn’t actually been using the same pair of 501s to keep score.
Being paranoid does not mean they aren’t out to get you
Over the years a mysterious pattern had emerged. Each birthday or Father’s Day I would generously be given gifts containing near-identical copies of my favourite clothes.
I would gratefully thank my family, fold the gifts up and shove them in the back of my wardrobe for that distant day when the clothes in my current rotation wore out sufficiently to need replacing. I can’t recall a time when that has ever actually happened, but I’m pretty sure it will be inevitable at some point.
It had never occurred to me that my wardrobe must possess a magical Tardis-like capacity, as despite having more clothes shoved in each year it never overflowed.
Shortly after receiving these gifts, my favourite clothes would often mysteriously vanish. I would unsuccessfully hunt around for them until I had exceeded my attention span, before giving up and grabbing the next item of clothing off the pile.
Turns out there had been a long-running conspiracy at play, and my whole family were collaborators! It also explained how I had been able to go for years between visits to a clothes shop.
Despite many years evidence to the contrary, I was convinced that this time my wife couldn’t possibly be correct. So what if my jeans weren’t the same pair, they were the same size and style, so it shouldn’t matter.
“I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means“
That night I did some research into the history of Levis 501s. I had, mistakenly as it turns out, figured were the same now as those first produced under the supervision of Jacob Davis back in the 1890s.
The same as those worn by John Wayne, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood… the iconic Bruce Springsteen “Born In the USA” album cover… even Steve Jobs wore them with his black turtlenecks.
It turns out over the years there have been all sorts of subtle changes to these jeans.
They are now made from stretch denim.
They copied most of the clothing brands by adopting vanity sizing to increase sales, meaning the “marked size of your jeans today is actually smaller than your true waist size”.
Fashions changed, with the waist gradually moving from the old school “Grandpa jeans” belly button position down to the hips where people generally wear them today. Hopefully the don’t keep chasing trends, nobody wants to see my ass hanging out of the top of my jeans the way gormless teenagers seem to like wearing them!
When combined these changes create a huge scope for unnoticed expansion… or perhaps that should read scope for a huge expansion?
Fortunately all was not lost with my philosophy. My belt had remained constant throughout my adult years, and I have not (yet) capitulated by loosening it.
Suddenly I got old
So how did this happen?
On the inside nothing has changed.
Like most middle-aged men I still think of myself as being that arrogant 21 year old with the six pack, looking just the same in a pair of jeans.
As a 21 year old I loved listening to a whole bunch of bands. I still enjoy most of those same bands today. Though I have observed the energetic long-haired band members I used to watch in concerts have mysteriously morphed into the pot-bellied balding old guys I observe on stage today!
As a 21 year old I admit to surreptitiously ogling pretty 20-something-year-old girls. Some things don’t change.
As a 21 year old I ate and drank as much as I wanted of whatever I wanted and… outwardly much has changed!
Discipline and process for the win
I decided to treat this tricky puzzle like I would any business problem.
I wanted to ask the right questions.
I wanted to analyse real-world data.
I wanted to correctly interpret what it had to tell me.
Most of all I wanted to make well-informed data-driven decisions.
300 days ago I decided to start recording everything I ate or drank, to validate whether my impression of leading a generally healthy lifestyle was supported by the data. Always “trust, but verify!”.
After a bit of internet research, I stumbled upon a free app called Lose It, which provides a capability to easily log whatever the user consumes. The app looks up a huge database of nutritional information about that food, then brings the information to life via some easy to comprehend charts.
First, let me observe that keeping score of everything I shoved in my mouth was no fun at all.
Second, this proved to be a valuable exercise as it made me aware of some behaviour patterns I exhibited that I hadn’t been conscious of.
Third, it made me start thinking about whether I really needed to consume whatever it was I about to eat. Was I eating because I was hungry, out of habit, or just bored?
So what did I discover?
What does the data tell us?
- I did not eat large quantities of “not everyday food”.
- I did eat “not everyday food” often. A sneaky cookie yesterday, some crisps with lunch today, some birthday cake tomorrow, etc.
- Portion size is treacherous, yet so very important. Eating too much of a good thing is still eating too much. Eating too little at meal times leads to snacking.
- I frequently fell into the “trigger foods” trap, where eating one salty food like crisps or peanuts leads to eating more salty food. There is a lot of truth behind the old Pringles slogan of “once you pop, you can’t stop”.
- I drink a lot more alcohol, a lot more often, than I had thought.
Measure wealth in time. Measure calories the same way.
Long ago I attached a premium to my time. I choose to invest my time in activities that either provide enjoyment or generate more value than this premium.
I started to evaluate the cost of the food and drink I consumed in a similar way.
From a consumption perspective, the calories I consume are similar to the time investment decisions I described above.
In a given day I have a finite number of hours available to invest.
In a given day I have a limited number of calories I should consume. Regularly exceeding this amount results in the “Dad bod” phenomenon I observed on the photo.
When viewed through this lens consumption choices became opportunity cost decisions.
A peanut butter sandwich on fresh sourdough bread is the food of the gods, but ships with more calories than two bowls of Cheerios with skim milk.
Roughly speaking from a calorie perspective 1/2 a Big Mac = 1 Mars Bar = 3 bananas = 1 pint of Guinness = 1 steak sandwich. Turns out there is some science behind the cliché my old colleague Morton Sausagefingers used to espouse: “there is a steak sandwich in every Guinness”!
You get the idea.
Choose your poison
Once I became consciously aware of the consumption choices I was making, I started investing my available calories more wisely. I steer clear of the biscuits and crisps, preferring to allocate the calories to a nice glass of wine instead. It is worth noting that alcohol is also a “trigger food”. I came to understand how a couple of functional alcoholics I know were able to remain so thin… they just didn’t eat!
Exercise provides a limited means of offsetting those calories, but the approach doesn’t scale.
A Guinness can be run off with a 20-minute jog. That delicious fully loaded Five Guys cheeseburger would require a running for more than an hour. Add some fries and a milkshake to that and now you need to complete a marathon.
Time remains the most precious of commodities, which means attempting to outrun a crap diet just isn’t realistic. Usain Bolt once ate 1000 chicken nuggets in a week, while Michael Phelps is almost as famous for swimming as he is for consuming 12,000 calories a day… but each was a full-time professional athlete at the time, winning more gold medals than they have fingers.
I applied the dietary lessons I learned, and within a couple of months had returned to my university weight.
I briefly considered venturing to Portobello Road market to try on a “vintage” pair of 501s circa my university days, but then realised that would involve visiting an actual shop… to try on clothes… that somebody else had already owned and discarded… happiness does not reside in that direction!
Instead that night I raised a glass to the memory Jacob Davis, but only after I swapped my lunchtime peanut butter toastie for a salad to free up the calories!
- Like finance, healthy living is a journey rather than a destination.
- You pay for calorie debts just like financial ones!
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