6 things learned from leaving everything to travel

  1. It’s OK to change everything, to ruthlessly destroy the comfortable life you knew and loved. Life has a force that comes through you and sometimes you don’t know why but you have to follow it. Trust it.
  2. All that stuff I bought to make my life ‘perfect’ was misguided action. “If only I had X, my life would be perfect,” is an illusion; everything is always building and decaying and changing.

    Next time I get settled, I will hack my browser so that online shopping sites redirect to meditation timers.

  3. “But I’ll miss [this possession] so much…” No, I won’t.
  4. “I’ll hate wearing the same 5 things over and over.” Nope. It’s great.
  5. “I can’t wait until I get there.” No matter where I am, I’m still the same person with the same hope and the same discontent.
  6. “But what if…?” = “I’ll figure it out.”
  7. “No, but what if…” Just get on the plane.

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.

Book Read in 2017

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Huari – I wasn’t sure what to expect to a followup of one of my favorite books, Sapiens. But it similarly excelled in fundamentally changing one’s perspective. While it took me a few days to bounce back from a nihilistic depression after the book’s close, Homo Deus goes in my “must-read-if-you’re-a-human” category.

Zero to One by Peter Thiel – So many big ideas in this book. I love the question: “What are the big companies of the future that don’t exist yet?” Also, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

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 conventions secrets mysteries easy hard impossible 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.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah – Wow this book is fantastic, lives up to its hype. I swallowed it in two days and afterward felt so close to the piece that I felt I had lived his childhood. I would go with the audiobook version to savor Noah’s gift for accents and languages. I also appreciated the opportunity to learn more about South Africa.

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. While I already think similarly to Adams on many subjects, I repeatedly found myself reflecting, “Huh. I hadn’t thought about it that way.”

While I have always thought that health should come first because the healthier you are the more effective and happier you will be, Adams puts it in terms of having more energy. I liked that perspective, as it’s more positive-oriented than a nagging “I must to be healthy or else,” orientation that will occasionally summon my psyche’s rebellious side.

A lot of the book is about creating systems instead of goals, which I also have been coming to realize in my own life. For a long time I would do 30-day or 60-day health goals and succeed, but sprints to a goal will not make you a winner. Creating a forever system in your life is far more effective, albeit a slower process.

I also appreciated Adams’ perspective on failing. His list of all the ways he’s failed is a nice change from reading authors whose success appears untouchable. His point is that failing doesn’t matter as long as you fail forward–that is, you create knowledge and contacts from the failed endeavor. His perspective is that as long as you keep trying and learning, you’re bound to find success someday. I liked this “slow success” mentality.

Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life by Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields – I like the idea of minimalism in scraping away the excess and seeing what is truly important to you, and this was a fun read.

Average is Over by Tyler Cowen – A fantastic read on where technology is taking jobs and the economy — I can see why so many people reference it. Also a fascinating look into computer-aided chess tournaments. I’d put this book up there with Sapiens and The Power of Habit into the must-read-if-you’re-a-human category.

Lying by Sam Harris – Thought-provoking read that questions the harmlessness of white lies. I loved Harris’s portrayal of how 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 so easy but also do it every day, then you overcome your resistance and then a major habit builds based on a small change.

The Complete Guide to Fasting by by Jimmy Moore and Dr. Jason Fung – good overview on fasting. If you want to fast and are convinced of its health benefits, you probably don’t need to read a whole book on it, but I appreciated the depth of information.

Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts by Marshall Goldsmith – 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.

What Doesn’t Kill Us by Scott CarneyFinally someone explains why animals have no trouble in the cold, but the minute it goes below 67 I freak out. I loved the idea that we’re not meant to be kept in temperature-controlled boxes and that we have the power to condition ourselves to embrace the elements. As someone who’s dabbled in Wim Hoff’s methods, I also 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 Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko presents the findings from studies of America’s multi-millionaires. The authors argue that the millionaires who keep their money are those who forego the status symbols of wealth. After all, the status symbols of wealth necessarily drain finances and keeps one from accumulating wealth. “I am not my car,” says one millionaire studied, reflecting the sentiment of many of the millionaires who drive regular trucks and sedans. While many of the millionaires studied made their fortunes due to being in profitable industries (e.g., attorney, doctor, etc.), many simply scrimped and saved their way to financial independence.

I loved this book because it made me critically reflect on my material desires and see if they were driven from a desire to appear in a certain way, versus coldly reflecting the functionality of the item. Does it really matter that my car is 16 years old, has balding paint, and rolls its windows down every time I unlock the door? There’s actually a lot of benefit from not worrying about it or paying expensive protective insurance on it. Does it matter that my phone is cracked, or does it only matter that it is completely functional and provides me with the same tremendous value as the day I got it three years ago? Will people think less of me if I never update my wardrobe, or will people appreciate me more if I focus my attention on matters more useful and helpful to others?

The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly – A fabulously 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 most loved Kelly’s description of a future city where you basically own nothing, and every gadget is provided on-demand through a seamless network. While I’m much more concerned about AI’s problems than Kelly, I enjoyed the dose of optimism.

Wired to Eat by Robb Wolf – In Wired to Eat, Wolf proposes you adapt a paleo diet with the addition of particular carbohydrates that you individually test to see how your body responds. I really love that we’re getting into the era of more personalized nutrition. Why are there so many conflicting opinions about what to eat? Probably because everyone’s body reacts to food differently.

A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson – While I have issues with numerous aspects of this book, I found its overall message inspiring and one that feels true. Somewhere in the book I decided that life is just a game we play to overcome fear.

The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey – Fun read with lots of great ideas. My favorites:

  • keep track of your productivity (you can’t manage what’s not measured)
  • use caffeine strategically (use it only when you want to power on, not as just a daily routine that your brain gets accustomed to)
  • write down each distraction as it arises and then ignore it

Your Money or Your Life. Apparently 2017 is the year for me to read bestseller cheesy self-help finance books. But, like the others, this book was pretty much as good as everyone says. What I loved about it was that it looks at money through the eyes of your life energy. It takes you X number of hours to afford Y, and once you see that then you can start to make more conscious choices about your spending habits. I also loved the notion of being careful with one’s resources as a way to be careful with the Earth’s resources.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg – Powerful book on gender inequality. I appreciated Sandberg’s perspective on the difficulties negotiating as a woman 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 – Truly fascinating book on the 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. I also loved the descriptions of how 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. Humans like to be comfortable, but to live a good story and have a consequential life, you have to go beyond that and seek a meaningful challenge filled with risk and obstacles. My favorite example of this was a family was concerned because their daughter was hanging out with a guy who was getting her into trouble. 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 she was seeing.

Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic & the Domestic by Esther Perel – Great read on how to keep the spark alive in long-term relationships. I’ve found Perel’s well-produced podcast equally 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. I enjoyed Weiner’s observations about 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. I appreciated Jiang’s take that the fear of rejection is based on an evolutionary need to stay with 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 fun adventures and connections just by asking unusual questions.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger – Fun read on why some things get talked about.

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; my successes have stemmed from aiming to do my best to help others succeed and not worrying about compensation.