Giving up self-cherishing

A little while ago I had the striking realization that all of my suffering—all of my hopes, cares, and tears—are private only to me.

I guess it made me feel like… why do I care so much about myself? If all of my desires to have a nice life are only going to affect me… why strive for it?

It made me want to change my endeavors from improving my life to improving the lives of others. The Dalai Lama speaks to this:

“Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”

But trying to change course to selflessness is difficult. It’s like jumping into a marathon fat with ego. So I’m starting with some exercises that are within my selfishness level:

The first exercise is to give up my vices. I figure, if I am going to help others, I should at least have myself in order. That whole “put your oxygen mask on first” bit.

The second exercise is to start to become conscious of self-cherishing. I’ve been trying to witness myself when I define myself as bad or good, when I become defensive or vain. I don’t try to change anything, just notice it without judgment.

The third exercise is to reorient my thoughts of others. When I think of someone, I try to redirect my thoughts to appreciating them and envisioning them happy.

It’s not a lot, and nothing that affects anyone but me. But it’s what I can do for now, and hopefully the beginning of a sea change.

That time I traded a comfortable life for a one-way ticket

One year ago, I traded a comfortable life for a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Hong Kong. I had no idea what was on the other side, just that I needed to leave everything to grow into whatever was next.

Travel reminded me that life is a single player game. I had a backpack, some health, some coins, and an unknown amount of time left in the game.

Who am I? What is this world about? What should I do in it?

Stripped of defaults and routine, I was forced to consciously choose every aspect of my life: work, relationships, and identity.

1. Work

At first I approached work as a means to make money, because if I had money I could do anything. I started a passive income project. I tried to get rich with crypto. But the more I worked on those, the more I grew empty, greedy, and sad. I stopped liking myself.

I questioned my pursuit of getting rich:

What would I do if I were rich?
I guess I’d probably want to put my energy into something meaningful with people I like.

Well, doesn’t that sound like a job?
Hmm…

I stopped pursuing money and started working on interesting projects. Life got better.

2. Relationships

In my first six weeks of solo travel, I spoke to almost no one. After all, I was an introvert who didn’t need anyone. I could spend all my time alone, so I did.

But then this new feeling, loneliness, came in. It ate away at my sense of cool, untouchable independence.

So I started showing up at events and meeting people.

Something about the humbling realization that I needed people made me willing to be vulnerable. I said what I really meant. I asked questions, even if they were rude. I wanted to connect with people with how I really was, not how I perceived they thought I should be.

I made friends and let them know me, as I am. Life got better.

3. Identity

I had been successful in my last job. I let that success define me, in part because it was a more flattering story than other parts of my life, like a marriage that went badly.

Now wandering aimlessly down Chiang Mai’s temple-studded streets, I felt like there wasn’t really a self there at all. Just a consciousness thinking, feeling.

I was but one of the zillion extrapolations of the big bang. I was but one consciousness driven by a primate body’s motives. One consciousness hoping its thoughts, tears, and carbon could positively impact something.

With less of a persona to defend, I gained the courage to ask dumb questions. I reached out to people I found interesting. I spoke when I had something to say.

While I hadn’t dissolved my ego, I started acting in accordance with a new mindset–one that felt like authenticity trumps protecting some false identity.

***

Settling into a new life, I finally see what was on the other side of the decision to leave everything. I’m glad I took a chance on what seemed like a crazy idea at the time.

We’re all going to be dead soon, there’s no point in playing it safe. Might as well explore. Might as well live from the truth of your being.

7 things I learned in 2017

  1. If you can’t repress a desire to change course, just trust it and let go. Check out what’s on the other side.
  2. Fight anxiety with curiosity. Both are valid responses to new situations. One is fun.
  3. The insights from travel can be more valuable than a year of staying in and reading.
  4. Possessions are weights binding you to your current self-construct. The fewer and simpler possessions you are content with, the easier it is to metamorphose.
  5. Marketers who create successful marketing solutions for a variety of businesses are better than marketers who find one solution for one company and sell the strategy as a cure-all.
  6. The world is full of intelligent, interesting, and kind people. Stop your introvert excuses; find them and be friends. Life is a richer adventure when shared with good company.
  7. Twitter is social media for people who have things to say. Not sure why I didn’t learn this in 2007.

Books Read in 2017

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Huari

Like Sapiens, Huari’s previous book, Homo Deus changed my perspective on reality. Homo Deus breaks down the forces shaping our future. Though the book’s close left me in a nihialistic depression, Homo Deus goes in my “must-read-if-you’re-a-human” category.

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior by Geoffrey Miller

Reading Spent is like taking the red pill and awakening to our consumer society as it really is. Miller looks at consumer behavior through the lens of evolutionary psychology. He argues that purchases are driven by status seeking, social signaling, and sexual solicitation. While the book needs more judicious editing, it’s a must-read for marketers.

Zero to One by Peter Thiel

There’s some great questions in this book. Here’s my thoughts on a few of them:

“What are the big companies of the future that don’t exist yet?”

Obviously, augmented reality will be a big player. Instead of looking at screens, we’ll have digital elements incorporated into our line of sight. Here’s a creative imagining on what a world with AR could be like:
I predict another large company of the future will be an AI service that helps you make life decisions. The AI-powered service would monitor your vitals as you respond to situations around you. It would then compare your data to the data from lifetimes of other users, and use that data to help you make deicions that optimize your happiness.

For example, I might think that taking a well-paying job in a big city is the right life choice. The AI might disagree, telling me that people like me who make that choice have a 20% higher risk of heart disease. Moreover, the service would remind me that there’s a 65% chance my commute would be longer than 40 minutes. It knows from its history of monitoring my vitals that a lengthy commute elevates my blood pressure. The service predicts I’ll be at least 4% happier and have 16% fewer medical bills in a small town.

While this type of service may sound like science fiction, I’m already dependent on Spotify to predict my next favorite songs. Spotify pays attention to every track I play, knows which music I’ve never heard, and delivers me a custom playlist every week. On average I like 30% of its recommendations, a better win rate than friends’ recommendations.

Zero to One also asks:

“What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

I would say, “Buying X won’t make you happy.” While many people would agree with me on this one, few agree with it in action. Myself included.

One of my favorite passages in Zero to One:

If we already understand as much of the natural world as we ever will—if all of today’s conventional ideas are already enlightened, and if everything has already been done — then there are no good answers. Contrarian thinking doesn’t make any sense unless the world still has secrets left to give up.

Lean Analytics: Use Data to Build a Better Startup Faster by Alistair Croll and Benjamin

This book lays the groundwork for a deep comprehension of business analytics. Dense and helpful, I highlighted every other paragraph.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

This book manages to live up to its hype. Captivated, I devoured it in two days and felt I had lived Noah’s childhood myself. Go with the audiobook version to savor Noah’s knack for accents.

How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams

This is a rare gem in the self-help world because it manages to be humble, funny, and… actually helpful. Throughout the book I kept thinking, “Huh. I hadn’t thought about it that way.”

Adams argues that you should create systems instead of goals. I used to try to build habits by doing sprints. E.g., “Meditate every day for thirty minutes for 30 days.” I would succeed, but the behavior wouldn’t stick around. Building a ‘forever system’ in your life is more effective, albeit a slower process.

Adams doesn’t think failing matters as long as you fail forward–that is, you create knowledge and contacts from each failure. He thinks as long as you keep trying and learning, you’re bound to find success someday. It worked for him, will it work for everyone?

Average is Over by Tyler Cowen

Average is Over is a fascinating read on where technology is taking jobs and the economy. Cowen uses computer-aided chess tournaments to extrapolate how humans will work with intelligent machines.

What Doesn’t Kill Us by Scott Carney

Someone finally explains why animals have no trouble in the cold, but I freak out the minute the temperature drops below 67. It turns out that animals have brown fat that they burn to keep warm. We too could develop and use this fat, if only we stopped confining ourselves to temperature-controlled boxes. Carney, like Wim Hoff, proposes we have the power to condition ourselves to embrace the elements. As someone who’s dabbled in Hoff’s methods, I appreciated getting a deeper understanding of the science behind them. I closed the book enamored by the cold, but it may take a few more reads before I can keep my hands off the thermostat.

The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly

An entertaining book about where technology is going. Having adored Wired as a kid, I felt waves of nostalgia as Kelly described the evolution of the internet in the same excited tone as early Wired issues. I loved Kelly’s description of a future city where you basically own nothing — every gadget is provided on-demand through a seamless network. While I’m more concerned about AI’s problems than Kelly, I enjoyed the dose of optimism.

The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey

Lots of good ideas for productivity experimentation in here. My favorites:

  • Keep track of your productivity. As with everything, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.
  • Use caffeine strategically. Use it only when you want your brain at full capacity, not as a daily routine that your brain will normalize.
  • Write down each distraction as it arises and then ignore it.

Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life by Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields

Minimalism is scraping away the excess to live what is truly important to you. This is a good book to get started on minimalism, though reading a few minimalism blogs would suffice.

Lying by Sam Harris

Thought-provoking read that questions the harmlessness of white lies. Lies separate the liar from those around him.

Mini Habits by Stephen Guise

The premise of Mini Habits is that you do one super-easy thing every day to build lasting change. Guise argues that if you make your habit super easy and do it every day, you overcome your resistance and a major habit builds. It sounds good in theory, but so far my attempt at using mini habits has not yielded success.

Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts by Marshall Goldsmith

I wasn’t impressed with this book, but I liked the idea of doing daily ratings for values every evening. Such as, “Did I treat everyone with kindness today?” and then rate that from a 1-10. Or, “Did I make the best choices for my health today?” or “Did I make the wisest decisions for how to invest my time today?” You can set up this type of daily review and scoring system with the HabitBull app.

The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko

The Millionaire Next Door presents the findings from studies of America’s multi-millionaires. The authors found that the millionaires who keep their money are those who forego the status symbols of wealth. After all, expensive status symbols drain finances. “I am not my car,” says one millionaire studied, reflecting the sentiment of the many millionaires who drive regular trucks and sedans. While many of the millionaires studied made their fortunes from being in profitable industries (e.g., attorney, doctor), many simply scrimped and saved their way to financial independence.

This book made me reflect on my material desires and see if they originated from a desire to appear a certain way. For example, will people think less of me if I never update my wardrobe? Or will I get the societal belonging I crave if I focus that energy on helping others?

Wired to Eat by Robb Wolf

In Wired to Eat, Wolf recommends a paleo diet with the addition of select carbohydates. Wolf provides evidence that everyone processes carbohydrates differently. Thus he recommends that you test your own body with different carbohydrates to see which work best with your body. This idea made sense to me. Why are there so many conflicting opinions about what to eat? Perhaps because everyone’s body reacts to food differently.

The Complete Guide to Fasting by by Jimmy Moore and Dr. Jason Fung

Good overview on fasting. If you are already convinced of fasting’s health benefits, skip it unless you want more information.

Your Money or Your Life

Robin looks at money through the eyes of life energy. It takes you X number of hours to afford Y. Using this perspective, you get a better sense of the value of your money.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Women have difficulty negotiating in a society where both women and men expect women to be “nice.”

IF WE CLOSED THE GENDER PAY GAP… the average Hispanic woman would earn $1,000,000 more over the course of her career. – LeanIn.org

The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes

Fascinating book on the history and ramifications of sugar. So many things I didn’t know, such as how the British Empire was built on the sugar, coffee, tea, and cacao trade. “Sugar is a drug to make the suffering of every day bearable.”

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller

Light, artful read with a strong message. To live a good story and have a consequential life, you have to go beyond comfort and seek a meaningful challenge filled with risk and obstacles. You can also choose to solve problems by choosing a different story. A family became concerned that their daughter was dating a troublemaker. They realized that she was doing that because she didn’t have any better story to live than the story he brought to her life. So the dad decided that they were, as a family, going to build an orphanage. This meant a lot of work and sacrifice in everyone’s lives, but the family became engaged with the meaning it provided in their lives. The girl lost interest in the guy.

Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic & the Domestic by Esther Perel

To keep the spark alive in long-term relationships, introduce mystery. For most couples, this means spending more time apart. I’ve found Perel’s well-produced podcast similarly entertaining and thought-provoking.

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner

This was a perfect book for me as I tried to figure out where to travel and where to call home. Weiner chronicles his thoughts on what makes places and cultures happy, such as Icelanders’ freedom to reinvent their career without society’s disapproval.

Rejection Proof by Jia Jiang

A fun read on one man’s experiments with rejection. Jing argues that our fear of rejection stems from an evolutionary reliance on staying included in a tribe. Now that being rejected by someone has little impact on our survival, our fear of being rejected causes more harm than good. I loved how Jiang opened his life to adventure and connection by asking unusual questions.

The Go-Giver by Bob Burg and John David Mann

Cute parable on achieving success through a giving mindset. I have experienced this principle in my life. I’ve been successful when I aimed to do my best to help others succeed. When I didn’t worry about compensation; when I didn’t try to keep score.

Living Forward: A Proven Plan to Stop Drifting and Get the Life You Want by Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy

It’s a good book. But instead of reading it, consider meditating on your impending death.

The Wizard of Ads by Roy H. Williams

A little gem of a copywriting book.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

Why X would go viral: people look good by sharing X, a routine event prompts people to share about X, there’s emotion involved in sharing X, people can be helpful by sharing X, there’s a good story behind X.

The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy

What you do today matters because it adds onto what you did yesterday and builds the foundation for what you do tomorrow. Make it count.

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron

I’ve savored this one slowly and picked it up in hard times. Chodron’s writing is a gift.

Reflections on Effective Altruism 2017 San Franciso

I heard about the Effective Altruism organization through a blog post on Giving What We Can. Here’s how EA explains their aim:

Effective altruism is about answering one simple question: how can we use our resources to help others the most?

Rather than just doing what feels right, we use evidence and careful analysis to find the very best causes to work on.

Here’s an example of the effective altruism concept (from this excellent article):

Most donors say they want to “help people”. If that’s true, they should try to distribute their resources to help people as much as possible. Most people don’t. In the “Buy A Brushstroke” campaign, eleven thousand British donors gave a total of 550,000 pounds to keep the famous painting “Blue Rigi” in a UK museum. If they had given that 550,000 pounds to buy better sanitation systems in African villages instead, the latest statistics suggest it would have saved the lives of about one thousand two hundred people from disease. Each individual $50 donation could have given a year of normal life back to a Third Worlder afflicted with a disabling condition like blindness or limb deformity..

Most of those 11,000 donors genuinely wanted to help people by preserving access to the original canvas of a beautiful painting. And most of those 11,000 donors, if you asked, would say that a thousand people’s lives are more important than a beautiful painting, original or no. But these people didn’t have the proper mental habits to realize that was the choice before them, and so a beautiful painting remains in a British museum and somewhere in the Third World a thousand people are dead.

Interesting, right? I didn’t know a ton about the Effective Altruism community or ideas, so going to EA Global 2017 was a perfect crash course.

I was surprised by how much the conference focused on the dangers of AI. It makes sense — AI could very well be disastrous for humanity — but I thought that global warming would still be a focus. At least in the sessions I attended, it wasn’t. The only mention of global warming was from the numerous vegan groups at the conference, citing that a primary cause of global warming is meat consumption.

Speaking of the vegan groups, one of the highlights from the conference was learning about The Good Food Institute, an organization whose perspective is that educating the public about the immeasurable suffering in factory farms will not be effective enough to change people’s consumption patterns. The true solution to this truly horrific problem is to change the food supply itself. Their aim is to make lab-grown meat and other meat alternatives so much cheaper and palatable that those sources will simply replace meat in the food supply. I thought this was a genius and very promising approach.

I summoned my courage and tried iAnimal, a virtual reality experience of factory farming. While I have been aware of the horrors of factory farming (and even small animal farms), it was a very different experience to witness it in VR. VR has a quality of feeling more real than reality, and the experience had a way of sticking in my body and mind for weeks. It was effective. While I try to choose animal products from farms I think will be treated better, I have found myself just opting for vegan options instead. Why risk being the cause of any animal suffering, ever?

At the conference, I was introduced to the concept of QALYs. A QALY, defined as a year lived in perfect health, is a unit of measurement used to gauge the impact of disease or death prevention. One amazing EAer had created a board game where you had to work with the other players to earn thousands of human and animal QALYs. Each round, players would earn money based on their economic position and have the opportunity to donate toward the goal of accumulating QALYs. Donate to the Against Malaria Foundation and you’ll save people from malaria and rack up QALYs quickly. Donate to Make a Wish Foundation and you won’t help much at all.

My favorite part of the conference was meeting people and asking them questions. Everyone was super smart, kind, and happy to talk about any number of interesting topics they had spent years researching. It was easy to feel intimidated by these people with stacks of research papers to their name, so I was relieved when Will MacAskill said that marketing is one of the needed career paths for the movement. Phew, there’s a need for a plebian like myself. Despite my insecurities, everyone was incredibly open and willing to connect. I felt like I had finally found a community I felt inspired and positively challenged by.

For a much more thorough and informed review of the conference, please see Scott Alexander’s excellent blog post on it. (Thanks for the link, Justin.)

Is this moment over yet? Reflections on a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat

Meditation was always something reserved for my ideal self, the self that was ten pounds slimmer and religiously followed a budget. So I was intrigued when my friend said he never could meditate before the retreat, but after it, he regularly meditated an hour or more. I wanted to try it. But finding a spare ten days with no internet connection? That took me five years.

Leading up to the retreat, I figured I should meditate to prepare. So I set an alarm for ten minutes. No problem, just ten minutes.

Hmm it’s been a while. Maybe my alarm isn’t working. I should check.

Do I really need to che–

Oh look, it’s been four minutes. I have six minutes left.

Hmmm maybe this is good enough.

Yup, my meditation practice was like that. So it came as no surprise that the first three days were incredibly difficult. I felt like I was breaking my mind, forcing it to PAY ATTENTION. Just focus on the breath. There’s the breath, there’s the– HEY! STOP SINGING TAYLOR SWIFT SONGS.

“The mind is in the past or the future. It’s never in the present,” said S. N. Goenka, the teacher. Or something like that. I’m not sure, they wouldn’t let us take notes. Or write anything. Or read. Or run. Or do yoga. Or speak.

But I was rarely bored. Struggling with my mind was immensely entertaining. It wasn’t pleasurable by any means, but it did a great job occupying my attention.

I expected I would spend the whole week in some great peace. And there were moments of that. There were moments walking through the forest where I would watch each tree coming closer and closer and then passing behind me. And there was nothing else but that experience.

There was a moment watching the late afternoon sun through the leaves when I realized that all I needed to be fulfilled was to be present. All my yearning for money or possessions or status or love was just a misguided substitute for just. being. here. Totally aware.

From that experience, I felt myself change. My goals were different. I saw myself in a garden being present. The ego and greed and desire melted away. Or at least some of it did.

But getting to that stillness took hours. Hours of suffering, hours of commanding myself to not move, hours of guilt when I’d let my mind scamper hungrily out of the present.

Halfway through the retreat, I felt I could access any childhood memory. All the random moments I assumed I would never remember came flooding back. My mind loved presenting me with memories because I would drop the meditation to pay attention to them.

I came to distrust my mind. You know the super weird, random stuff you get in dreams? Well it turns out you also get that stuff when you’re meditating for hours on end. Images of pandas came out of nowhere. What’s with the pandas, mind? (No answer.) Then there were lots of images of cats. Not any cat I knew. Just randomly generated cat images. Striped cats. Cute cats. Cats gazing at me, wondering what I was doing.

My favorite mental image was of me as a child, drawing with a crayon over the meditation hall walls. Drawing a line portraying the hills and valleys of my breath rising, falling, rising, falling.

I’m glad no one told me how hard it was. It was so. hard. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I kept expecting someone to jump up and run out of the meditation hall, screaming, “I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!!!”

But no one did.

I was impressed by my fellow meditators. They were into it. They were committed. It was inspiring.

Then there was the weird shit that happened.

One day I got out of the meditation hall and couldn’t find my shoes. Did someone take them by accident? Then where were the shoes they had? I couldn’t figure it out. I searched and searched. Eventually, I decided to walk barefoot back to my tent for my other shoes. All over the stones and the pine cones. Ow ow ow ow. Later that day I discovered my shoes outside of the bathroom, right where I had left them earlier that morning. This would mean that I had walked really far barefoot on stones and pine cones without noticing, or some magical thing had magically transported my shoes back to where I had left them.

I still can’t decide what happened.

One day we were watching the video instruction of the teacher (the majority of the instruction is by video recording of Goenka filmed in the early 90s. Surprisingly, it works). Suddenly the entire room changed to look like a palace in a spirit world. I saw the image of Goenka floating above me, still the video but suddenly as if he was coming through space and time to speak to me directly. He was talking about karma. He was talking to my soul about karma.

And then there was the night that I was completely sure I was going insane. I started getting paranoid. Who is this organization? What kind of organization takes all these random people and houses and feeds them and teaches them torturous meditation techniques for ten days without payment up front? Everyone is silent! I can’t talk to anyone! I can’t trust any of these people. The fear and anxiety mounted. I felt like I was about to break. I need to leave tomorrow. As soon as it’s light, I’m going to leave.

But the next morning I felt fine. Okay, maybe I’ll stick with it. Only six days left. By the sixth day, I was stable enough in the silence of myself that I let the material come up. I cried and released. It was hard, but I was free.

Several weeks after the retreat, while I’m not enlightened, I do feel a change. I’m more able to sit with situations that make me uncomfortable. I was driving through traffic and I just hated it. It was dark and an unfamiliar highway and traffic and I was late and it just felt so uncomfortable and overwhelming.

And my mind said, “This will pass.”

And I breathed and felt the sensations of my discomfort and just was present. And it passed.

This whole life is uncomfortable and uncontrollable and an infinite loop of desire and aversion. And I don’t know the answer or the meaning to it all, but breathing and feeling sensation is like finding a home in the quiet eye of an inescapable storm.

Interested in having this type of experience yourself? See dhamma.org for information on Vipassana meditation retreats. There are tons of locations around the world and all retreats are by donation.

Books I think everyone should read

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

There’s a reason why everyone recommends this book. Sapiens peels away the frame of reference that comes from waking up a homo sapien in modernity.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

If you aspire to create meaningful work, read this. If you wonder why you can’t concentrate or get things done, read this. If you use social media or a smartphone, read this.

The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

I never understood stoicism until this book. Stoicism, it turns out, is a philosophy that’s actually helpful. A strong medicine, stoicism is really helpful and really hard.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Habits are the operating system of our lives. By gaining conscious control over our habits, we become empowered to re-engineer our lives.

Influence by Robert B. Cialdini

Because others are always seeking to influence us, it’s important to be aware of the levers and pulleys in our psyches.

The Top 3 Regrets of the Dying

A palliative nurse recorded the most common regrets of the dying. It’s not surprising to see what made the list as they are all things that touch each of our lives as we struggle to pay attention to and make time for things that we truly love.

1. “I wish I had checked Facebook more often.”

“This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many hours have gone unfulfilled by not being on Facebook.”

2. “I wish I had binge watched more TV shows.”

“When faced with the possibility of never seeing the final season of their favorite show, many patients are devastated by how the thought of how many series they will never begin.”

3. “I wish I had stayed at home more.”

“Many people report suppressing their desire to stay inside in order to improve their Instagram feeds or make their lives appear more interesting. As a result, they missed out on countless hours in their home routines. By going outside, they endured many instances where things were not exactly quite as they preferred.”

How about now?
Is this moment enough?

“Most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.

Acknowledging that this is the structure of the game we are playing allows us to play it differently. How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives.”

― Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Finally, someone brought to light what I’ve known but haven’t had the courage to articulate myself. While I find great satisfaction in striving towards goals, living for sometime-tomorrow-if-I-get-there-maybe-I-should-try-harder is a shallow form of living. It’s like your life is dry ramen sitting on the shelf and you’re waiting for some magical time in the future when you’ll get hot water and become something real.

I agree with Harris that being present in our lives is fulfilling in a way that meeting goals and obtaining life situations can never be. As I reorient my awareness to the present, though, I’m surprised to discover: it hurts in the present. I’m a better, more accomplished person in the future. Being present faces me with my limitations and flaws, the uncomfortable sensations arising in my body.

And yet, being present is empowering. Breaking away from a false fantasy is all there is to do.

And hey, look. Maybe this moment is enough.

Books read in 2016, from most to least highly recommended

Deep Work by Cal Newport

If you want your career to survive technology, I recommend reading this book. Since reading it I have drastically cut out notifications, social media, interruptions, and multitasking, but there’s still far more to go. Reading the book is really just the beginning to shifting your life and training your brain so you can achieve meaningful work. Required reading for anyone who designs an office or says, “Let’s make work chat required!”

The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

I never understood stoicism until I read this book. Stoicism, it turns out, is philosophy that’s actually helpful. It’s a strong medicine. Really helpful and really hard.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

There’s a reason why everyone recommends this book. Sapiens peels away the frame of reference that comes from waking up a homo sapien in this 100-year timespan.

Influence by Robert B. Cialdini

This book is powerful. Like scarily so. Just like Sapiens, this is a must-read for being a homo sapien. The best book on marketing I’ve read.

The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer

Presents mindfulness in a unique and approachable way. There’s something about the writing style that opened up the experience for me. I found the book more impactful in text than audio.

Waking Up by Sam Harris

Gives a compelling argument for the importance of mindfulness practices. This book is particularly useful for someone skeptical of Buddhism and ‘gurus’ but who wants to reap the benefits of meditation. I found Harris’s argument against the existence of a self particularly enlightening.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

One of those books that made me lose sleep because I had to finish it in one sitting. So rich with the pain, majesty, and beauty that is life. Also written in the second person! Who pulls that off? This guy, Mohsin Hamid. Excerpt here — go read it!

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

Not sure why it took me until 2016 to read this classic. I love Eckhart Tolle’s story and message. However, I would agree with Dan Harris (author of 10% Happier, below) when he says that Tolle’s message can be a little tricky to apply. Still, reading this is useful as it gives a window to a way of being where every moment is enough.

Grit by Angela Ducksworth

Don’t attribute talent to people who succeed; attribute perseverance. Another book I wish I’d read at 15 instead of 30.

Superhuman by Habit by Tynan

This is a great quick read for those who have read The Power of Habit but want more ideas and inspiration for growing their habits. I loved being reminded of how much you can consciously shape your life and your thoughts, words, and actions if you just take the time to ‘load’ the habit. I also appreciated Tynan’s conviction that habits must be done daily in order to stick. This made me reevaluate the habits I’m working on and critically examine if they were important enough to do daily.

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

Key takeaway: Elon Musk is a superhuman who eats ice cream. I was surprised to learn how much Elon Musk had to lose at one point. Speaks to the power of sitting with tension. Hoping for a live action version of this sometime. 🙂

The Code of the Extraordinary Mind by Vishen Lakhiani

I feel like this is “The Universe Has Your Back” but with actual depth and substance. A treasure trove of interesting and unconventional ideas.

10% Happier by Dan Harris

Hilarious read on why meditation is the answer. Also made me realize that reporters are people, too.

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain by John J. Ratey

High schoolers were trained to exercise to hit their target heart rate. These kids started doing really well in school without any different instruction. The point? Exercise makes your brain work. I read 1/4 of this and put it down because I was like “I get it! Important! Will do!” I then proceeded to do the bare minimum amount of exercise for the next six months while avoiding the part of my head that had absorbed the ideas in this book. Then I started running every day and BAM! it turns out this book is right: exercise is the key to peak brain performance. I can’t believe I’ve spent most of my life *not* exercising. What a waste of mental productivity.

Mindset – the New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck

There’s nothing you inherently can’t do or aren’t good at — you just haven’t gotten good at it yet. By adopting this mindset you can do far more. A must-read for parents, teachers, and managers.

The Diamond Cutter by Geshe Michael Roach

Correct your thinking, habits, and attitudes to solve your business problems.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Biggest takeaway: neurosurgery is WAY harder than my job. Also, you’re alive and it’s precious so enjoy it before you get cancer and don’t finish writing a book. This book didn’t quite live up to its hype for me, but that says more about the hype than anything.

The Power of Full Enagement by Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr

My takeaway from this book is that YES, there is something necessary about time with loved ones, time in nature, time restoring. By filling your batteries you’re able to work more effectively. There’s way more to the book than that, but that was what I hadn’t fully heard until that time.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

I wish I had had this book when I was 16, 18, 21, and 27. It argues that finding your passion is poor advice, as job satisfaction comes from mastery and craftsmanship.

Essentialism by Grego McKeown

Think you can do everything? Well you’re wrong. Cutting things and focusing on only what is truly essential is the path to success.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson

You can’t give a fuck about everything, so be selective. This is a fun, light read that’s a little bit helpful but mostly entertaining. As someone who cares way too much about most things, Manson’s message was appreciated.

The End of Jobs by Taylor Pearson

The era of you stay at a job for your whole life is over. Also, don’t expect to be able to find a job. Instead, become an entrepreneur—not the crazy, unsafe bet it’s made out to be in contrast to the shrinking job market.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Art, or any creative activity, is suuuuuper hard. So just do it.

I Will Teach You to Be Rich by Ramit Sethi

Open a Roth IRA and invest in a lifecycle fund. Limit investment fees to the minimum. Have your savings be deducted automatically before you get paid.

Anything You Want by Derek Sivers

Inspired me to be more like Derek Sivers, quirky and 100% willing to think beyond the collective thinking.

The Dip by Seth Godin

Good advice on when to keep with it vs. when to pull out.

Growth Hacker Marketing by Ryan Holiday

Good introduction to growth hacking.

Ready Player One

Fun science fiction. I appreciated the ongoing plotline of VR vs. real life.

Algorithms to Live By

I appreciated the introduction to interesting computer science ideas, but it wasn’t as applicable as I expected. What I found most interesting was the “explore/exploit” problem. I have thought a lot about this myself—do I go visit cities around the world to find the best place to live, or should I settle down where I am because, from what I’ve seen so far, it’s pretty damn good? It turns out this is a computer science problem.

The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod

Wake up early and do everything you know you should do (exercise, meditate, read, etc). Instead of reading the book, you could just put the idea into practice.

The Surrender Experiment by Michael A. Singer

A story of what happens if you decide to just keep surrendering to whatever was happening in his life.

Daring Greatly by Dr. Brene Brown

Be vulnerable, it’s how to be happy. I was hoping for more in this book, as everyone else seems to love it. Maybe I should read it again?

Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson

If things change, change with them. Don’t keep looking for the same reward when times have changed; get looking for new rewards. Seems like common sense, but this parable is useful.

The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber

This is a business classic. I found it a overly drawn out to make one point: Make your business franchise-able, meaning that every role and training process is replicable.

The New One Minute Manager by Spencer Johnson and Ken Blanchard

If your employees know their priorities and then you don’t have to manage them much.

It Starts with Food by Melissa Hartwig and Dallas Hartwig

Some good information on paleo thinking. I did a Whole 30 and it was helpful, though not life-changing (probably because my eating habits are already pretty good — I can imagine if you’re on the Standard American Diet this would be life-changing). Instead of doing more of these “I’ll eat perfect for X number of days” things, I’m working on iterative eating habits to slowly improve my diet habits in lasting ways.

Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter

Eating grains and sugars causes dementia. Put that in your sandwich.

Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh

I liked the descriptions of the SF rave scene back in the day. Other than nostalgia for a party scene I missed, I didn’t find this book as inspiring as I had hoped.

The Bulletproof Diet by Dave Asprey

Drink coffee (well the coffee sold by Asprey) blended with butter and coconut oil (well the coconut oil sold by Asprey) for breakfast. Eat paleo with products sold by Asprey.

The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss

Eat paleo with beans.

Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie

Not a remarkable book, but fun to learn about the history of Toms.

The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson

Eat paleo. Live as caveman-like as possible.

The Universe Has Your Back by Gabrielle Bernstein

At first I loved this book. Then I started questioning its feel-good message. I’m spiritual enough to believe there’s some truth to it, but it felt way too sugary and sweet. Maybe my cynicism is just blocking the light.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

I got halfway through before giving up on my hopes it would live up to its praise. I didn’t care about the characters or where the story was going, and the VR part failed to captivate. Maybe I’m missing something here?

The Goal by Jeff Cox and Eliyahu M. Goldratt

Maybe this book’s just for people in manufacturing, but I found it to have one point drawn out over too many pages.

Grit

Grit by Angela Duckworth

I expected Grit to be a pop-psychology book that reiterates one point (persist and succeed) over and over. While that is an apt summary of Grit, I was delighted to find the book entertaining, inspiring, and insightful.

Duckworth convincingly argues that everyone loves the idea of a “genius” or someone with “inborn talent,” but what actually makes up the amazing skill and achievement of remarkable people ultimately comes down to tons of hard work.

My biggest takeaway is that, according to Duckworth, someone of average talent who persists in their goal over time will achieve far greater accomplishments than someone of great talent who gives up more quickly or who diverts their energy to other pursuits. As you can see in Duckworth’s formulas, effort is a far greater predictor of achievement than talent:

Talent x effort = skill
Skill x effort = achievement

Deep Work

deep-work-cal-newport Though I had heard most of the ideas in Deep Work before (e.g., distractions destroy your ability to do anything of consequence, Facebook notifications are rewiring your brain to mush), Newport presented the ideas in a way where doing the deep work and cutting out the distractions and focusing for long stretches of time became the shiny toy.

The general idea is that deep work (that is, work of significant consequence or value) requires periods of deep concentration and no distractions. Newport says it requires about 90 minutes to fully become engaged in the level of focus required. The reason why there can’t be any distractions (e.g., text messages, email notifications) is that, to think deeply, neural networks need to make new deep connections–and if you use more surface, habitual neural networks (say, to reply to an email), you will block yourself from being able to forge the deeper connections.

One of the reasons I was excited about Deep Work was because I was finding I would work long weeks, feeling ultra-busy and doing a seeming mountain of tasks, but in the end would feel dissatisfied with the lasting significance of what I had accomplished. Here Newport offers a lot of advice for saying no to trivial tasks and commitments, as they won’t amount to much. He quotes Neal Stephenson, who says:

If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.

Obviously, not everyone is a novelist who can shut out the world, but for those whose work inherently needs both deep work and shallow work (e.g., correspondence, meetings), Newport suggests the following methods to integrate regular periods of deep work into your life:

  • Taking a day or longer to dive completely in. He references Bill Gates and his famous “think weeks” where he would spend a week in a cabin in the woods, just reading and contemplating
  • A rhythmic approach, such as a daily routine to do 2 hours of deep work at 7am every weekday.
  • The “journalist approach,” where you do deep work whenever you can find it. Newport says he uses this approach because his schedule is so unpredictable, but he tries to plan out his week for when he will have deep work time and schedule it

What I have also found is that, although I love the idea of deep work, getting myself to do it consistently is harder than reading a book extolling its virtues. Here Newport also offers helpful advice–he tracks his hours of deep work by logging a tick for every deep work hour each week, and circles the ticks when he makes a breakthrough (photo and blog about this). This helps him gauge how much deep work it takes to reach goals, and motivates him to be consistent in getting the hours in.

Deep Work TL;DR:

High quality work produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus)

And if you’re a nerd like me, you may be interested in a desktop background of the formula.