You have to start by admitting that you don’t actually know what your customers want.

You have to start by admitting that you don’t actually know what your customers want. When you think you know what they want, if you invest really heavily in building the product for a customer based on a hypothesis that’s wrong, you end up investing lots of time, money, and resources in something that generates no results and isn’t actually what somebody wants. So the Lean Startup methodology is all about defining a hypothesis upfront about what a customer wants, finding the fastest and most efficient way to test that hypothesis, and designing an experiment that can validate or invalidate your hypothesis.

— John McBride

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.

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

Like Sapiens, Homo Deus eroded my species-centric perspective. Great extrapolations on AI’s potential impact.

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 advantageous to be aware of the inner switches in our psyches.

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.