Pointing the Finger Inward

Leave a comment
point-finger-inward

This brief article in The New York Times on cognitive dissonance and why’s it’s so difficult to admit that we’re wrong got me thinking about an important lesson that Sei-Wook and I learned some years ago–that it’s always better to find fault with what we did or didn’t do rather than trying to blame someone or something else.

Over the years, we’ve gotten better and better at developing a decision tree on how to handle things that don’t go right. Here are some examples of things that have “gone wrong” at Barrel:

  • Client is unhappy with a deliverable.
  • There is a communication mixup with a client (e.g. they expected something to be done/completed but we weren’t all on the same page).
  • We (leadership team) are unhappy with the quality of an employee’s work or the employee’s attitude towards work, our clients, and other team members.
  • A project team misses an important deadline.
  • We learn that an employee is disgruntled about working here.
  • A valuable employee quits and cites specific work-related issues as the cause (or it’s obvious that this was the case).
  • A deliverable is found to have bugs or flaws that shouldn’t be there.
  • Project team members complain about unnecessary struggles they had to endure due to lack of direction or progress.
  • We lose out on what looked like a very promising business opportunity.

Here’s an attempt to articulate the principles for handling these types of situations in 4 steps. I’m writing from the perspective of an employer/supervisor who often has to make decisions and act when faced with these situations.

  1. Do nothing at first. Try to understand what’s really happening and see if you have all the information. If necessary, ask questions and don’t make any snap judgments.
  2. If the situation causes stress or anxiety, don’t express or show it overtly. If you need to blow off steam, do it with someone unrelated to the business or at the same level as you. I usually do my venting with Sei-Wook or the other partners at Barrel or at home with my wife Melanie. I believe it’s important not to express negative emotions about a situation at work, especially if you are in a leadership position. I’ve learned the hard way that this only undermines your ability to lead and establish credibility in making sound decisions.
  3. Reflect. Point the finger inward. What could you have done better? What did you not do? How, to put it bluntly, are you to blame for all of this? Even if you’re not directly involved, you’ll certainly find something. Think about these things and then ask yourself: what can I change or do differently the next time to prevent this? What are systematic and process-related improvements I can help effect in order to avoid this situation in the future?
  4. Don’t be afraid to get personal. If the situation calls for it, take it a step further and ask yourself: how can I change as a person so that I can avoid, prevent, or better face this type of situation in the future?

When you put the examples of things “gone wrong” through the process above, the output can lead to very productive behavior. It quickly filters out the negativity and the need to place blame and instead, directs all energy into some kind of action.

Personally, I think the first two steps are often the hardest. It’s very easy, and often even tempting, to react quickly and want to “fix” things right away. This can lead to unfortunate behavior like directing blame at someone, immediately putting them on the defensive and making it harder to give productive feedback later on. It’s also very easy to express impatience or frustration through body posture or speech, so I have to be extra aware in order to catch myself. If I can get through the first two steps, I find that it’s easier to reflect and ask myself the questions that’ll result in productive outcomes.

The need to be right, feeling completely blameless, and unceasing stubbornness–these are counterproductive behaviors that take cues from our sense of self-importance and our unwillingness to let our ego take punches. I don’t like the limited upside of having a protected and well-fed ego. As much as it hurts and as much as I have to bear the cognitive dissonance (“the stress we experience when we hold two contradictory thoughts, beliefs, opinions or attitudes”) that comes with admitting that I didn’t know better or that I was flat out wrong, I prefer the upside of learning, changing my ways, and doing things differently the next time in hopes of a better outcome.

Basic Decision Patterns

Leave a comment
basic-decision-patterns

I’m grossly oversimplifying what author Venkatesh Rao puts forward in his book Tempo: Timing Tactics and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-making, but I liked his part on Basic Decision Patterns so much that I decided to create a more graphic representation of his 2×2 quadrant to help me remember it for later.

His quadrant shows “Information Location” across the x-axis going from Internal to External and “Visibility of Mental Models” on the y-axis going from Low to High. He says this of his matrix:

The distinctions among the four classes of basic decision patterns are not arbitrary. They are based on the distribution and visibility of situational information. Information either originates in the decision-maker’s head or in the environment, and we either consciously recognize or are oblivious to the influence it has on our behavior. 

I’ve paraphrased and summarized the four in the graphic and below:

Deliberative

High visibility of mental models, internal information location

Behaviors that arise from our ability to make predictions, inferences, and a priori computation; requires new information not present in the immediate environment.

Reactive

High visibility of mental models, external information location

Behaviors consciously selected from the situation at hand; focused on managing time, energy, and momentum; think mimicry & imitation.

Opportunistic

Low visibility of mental models, internal information location

Unconscious, improvisational behaviors that often combine and rearrange decisions due to recognition of potential for disproportionate rewards.

Procedural

Low visibility of mental models, external information location

Making highly effective and complex decisions without understanding the logic of his or her own behavior; reliant on set processes & systems.

Throughout the time I was reading Tempo, I found myself trying to relate its various topics and definitions back to my day-to-day work at Barrel. When thinking about the four basic decision patterns, I tried to think of the patterns that I found myself following throughout a typical work week and if there were instances where I could have behaved differently. In many ways, I found myself thinking that by forcing myself into a more Deliberative state, I could better set myself up for success when I defaulted into Reactive and Procedural states. As for Opportunistic patterns, I think these instances are characterized by the happy moments when I feel like I’ve found a clever way to finish an arduous task quickly or to benefit multiple clients through a single newly gained insight.

The beauty of Tempo‘s various models is that they force me to think about how the mind goes about performing its many complex functions in countless situations and how our awareness of time, space, and the various narrative and cognitive frameworks can help decode the factors that shape our decisions.

Examining the State of Distraction

Leave a comment
getty-garden

Distractions–the things that prevent us from giving someone or something our full attention–are present around us all the time. If it’s not coming externally through notifications on our devices, it’s likely to come from within. Maybe you remembered that you have to make an appointment or you’re really curious about the score of a game. Maybe you’re not quite engaged or feeling bored. Either way, we succumb so fast and so easily that we don’t even know that we’ve surrendered our attention.

Here are some common scenarios I observe both with myself and with people at work:

  • When you’re conversing with the other person and trying to work out a problem together, that person is either on his mobile device or on his laptop. In some cases, he may have been in the middle of something when you interrupted him, in which case, you were the distracting force. Either way, you’re sometimes unsure whether or not he heard and understood what you said and have to repeat yourself.
  • You are in a meeting with a group and you notice some people are barely paying attention, busy tapping on their devices or doodling illustrations on their notepads. These people typically don’t ask any questions, or if they do, it’s to ask about something that has already been covered. As with the first scenario, if they are directly asked a question, they may ask you to repeat because they weren’t paying full attention.
  • When you’re working on an assignment that requires some deep thinking or a bit of analytical and organizational effort, you find yourself taking text message breaks, peeks into your email inbox, or quick glances at social media or news. When you walk around the office, you notice this is a pretty normal thing and nobody is immune to it.

Why people don’t give something or someone their full attention? When, for example, you sit down to talk with someone and notice that this person is checking their phone every 5 minutes, what does it mean? Or, if you meet one-on-one with someone and need to figure something out together and this person continues to respond to emails for an unrelated project or responds to Slack messages with an unrelated group, what is he signaling? I’ve been able to think of a few reasons, but one of them isn’t disrespect. As much as I’ve been peeved to be at the receiving end of such interactions, I’ve also been on the giving end and I know that there was never any malicious intent. I think these reasons are more likely:

  • The person sincerely believes that he can multitask and is giving it a heroic effort (and failing). At its worst, this behavior looks as if the person has something more important and urgent to take care of than whatever task or interaction is at hand. But when made aware, the person will most likely apologize and give you undivided attention.
  • The person is bored and proactively seeking distraction to fill the boredom. The feeling of being bored may come from the topic not being relevant, not being clear enough, and/or requiring too much thinking to bother.
  • The person, mostly unaware, gravitates towards the behavior that feels the best, and being in a state of distraction–taking the mind from the task/interaction at hand and switching to something else–provides that good feeling.

Once you break it down this way, it’s less about email and social media and more about the ways we let our minds do what feels good. And oftentimes, feeling good means taking the road that requires a lighter cognitive load. This might mean that instead of completely switching from working on a long email to give your colleague your undivided attention, you continue to work on the email while hoping you can half absorb whatever your colleague is talking about, no disrespect intended, of course. Or, if you’re being exposed to a subject that feels foreign and has a steep learning curve, you soothe your mind by checking on the latest sports scores or stock prices. You can see where a behavior like procrastination creeps in. It’s the same reason you don’t want to rush into doing your last set of heavy squats or that 5-miler in the freezing rain–you want to delay the pain as much as possible and cocooning yourself in a state of distraction is a way to protect your mind from doing any deep thinking.

I’ve been consciously thinking about distraction and the ability to focus. Reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work was an inspiration. If reading isn’t your thing, check out this podcast interview with Ezra Klein. I’m also reminded every morning when I meditate how distracted my mind can get and what it takes to focus for a few moments. At work, I’m always amazed by how quickly I fall into a default mode of distraction. To get even a single hour of focused, deep thinking is an achievement. Most of my deep work happens on Sunday nights, when external distractions are at a minimum. The rest of the time, I seem to operate in a sort of reactive, troubleshooting mode.

I think the big challenge for myself personally is building the stamina and patience to see through more complex and non-urgent endeavors. I admire people who can put aside a couple hours a day to write stories or songs or to learn new skills like coding or a foreign language. This is a trait, a habit really, that I’m very eager to develop, but I also understand that it’ll will be harder than any of the other positive habits I’ve been able to gain so far.

 

One person who’s done a great job of containing distraction (literally, he contains it in a bag that prevents his mobile device from working!) is my buddy Welton Chang. He recently revised and I helped him release an updated e-book called Mastering Productivity: 20 Principles to Help You Achieve More Through Proven Systems & Lasting Habits. It’s full of actionable tips and insights, and it’s free to read online or as a downloadable PDF.

 

Trying to Get Smarter with Mental Models

Leave a comment
stonebarns-greenhouse

I’ve benefitted a great deal from reading more in the past 2-3 years than I did during my entire twenties. Each month, I felt myself thinking more clearly, rationally, and creatively about various topics and issues. The formula that I told myself was: read more books, get smarter. Sounds simple enough, right?

A couple sources have helped me to reframe my thinking on this. The first is Tempo: Timing Tactics and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-making by Venkatesh Rao. The other is the blog Farnam Street by Shane Parrish and especially his post on mental models.

Here’s the big takeaway: better decision-making (which I equate to being smarter or behaving in a smart way) gets a big boost when you have a solid supply of mental models that you can use to assess situations, process information, and ultimately draw conclusions that aid in your ability to take action, tell stories, and interact with other people (all which are types of decisions). Parrish, referencing Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger, labels this as “building a ‘latticework’ of mental models” and notes that it’s a lifelong project that’ll help us understand reality and make good decisions.

I’ve been thinking about all the people in my life that I respect as “wickedly smart” and they all seem to have this in common: a very strong latticework of mental models that help them quickly understand complex situations and to draw helpful insights that ultimately aid them in some way. One artifact of being smart is that these people ask very incisive questions that draw out additional bits of data to feed into their latticework. It makes me want to reword the phrase “there are no such thing as a stupid question” to be: “smart people ask smart questions; dumb people mostly stay silent.”

Knowing what I know now, I don’t think reading a lot of books is a surefire way to be smarter. While it may help and expose you to ideas and frameworks that ultimately make you smarter, it’s also possible that you may not quite connect the dots and deliberately practice with what you’ve learned if you’re not consciously trying to build your own supply/toolbox of mental models. On the flipside, if you’re conscious of adding to the toolbox, then reading becomes a very deliberate activity and you’ll find yourself trying to come away with certain types of insights and takeaways (or quickly discarding the book if it fails to provide such value). And beyond reading, this hunger for adding new mental models can make you rethink conversations with people, the websites you visit, the shows you watch, the podcasts you listen to, and whatever else you consume.

Speaking of deliberate activity, I think the work I do at Barrel provides me with fertile ground for putting mental models to the test. A common activity is communicating with prospective and existing clients and navigating ways to land new engagements. I’ve found myself consciously thinking about people’s motivations (incentives, such as impact on career for working with us), their attachment to sunk costs, their reliance on social proof (“Who else that’s just like us have you done this for?”), as well as the way they’re influenced by authority (e.g. known experts on specific topics) and anchoring (e.g. the first price you tell them). Every few weeks, I find myself having been exposed to a different mental model that I’d want to stick into my repertoire. It’s too early to tell if I’m getting better results by thinking this way, but I’d like to think that I’m asking better questions and making better decisions for the company.

A big part of understanding and appreciating mental models is to constantly scrutinize the way our mind works. This goes nicely hand-in-hand with meditation as well as with a work activity like managing employees. The mind is rife with biases (e.g. confirmation bias, recency bias, consistency bias, etc.) as well as emotionally charged irrational thoughts that have little or no basis in fact (e.g. jealousy, inferiority complex, persecution complex, over-confidence). By consciously observing the way thoughts pop up into my mind, I can become a better driver who avoids the potholes (e.g. emotionally-driven outbursts or stubborn adherence to what I believe “must be the only way”) and emerges onto a smoother road where I can take in the full view and make sounder, more rational decisions.

The mind, in addition to our physical health, is our greatest asset. This concept of building a latticework of mental models is very thrilling, and I’ll continue to share the treasures I pick up along the way.

Breathing to Ten

Leave a comment
breathing-to-ten

I struggle mightily to close my eyes, focus, and breathe to a count of ten.

At around four or five seconds, I can find my mind trying its best to fend off the thoughts knocking violently at its gates. By six or seven, there’s usually a breach. By eight or nine, I’ve already been overrun with a half dozen thoughts.

And this is after more than a year of using Headspace, the meditation app. There may be a few instances when I find that I can get to 10 with a clear mind, but these are a rarity.

I sometimes feel like my mind is a Superfund site, contaminated and polluted with many years of distractions and poor habits. It’ll take years of cleanup before it’s safe for sustained, quiet thoughts.

I’ve been thinking about how reluctant I am to lose myself in my own thoughts. I am always reacting to external stimuli. The smartphone is the ultimate distraction tool. Even without the social networking apps that I’ve deleted as well as the notifications I’ve turned off, I still find myself checking for text messages, headlines on ESPN and NY Times, and email. Sometimes, I’m barely conscious of the fact that I reach over and check these things. If I want a more mindful type of engagement, I’m consuming content, either reading on Kindle or Medium or listening on Audible or Podcasts. These often lead to more productive outcomes, but they still put my mind in a reactive mode. There is no quiet. It’s as if I’m afraid to go on a walk without the sound of a book narrator or a podcast host talking into my ears.

Why do I care about breathing to ten, about having quiet? I’d like to think that giving my mind the space to calm down, get bored, and slowly explore itself internally may help me develop the abilities I feel I lack: the patience and the willpower to think about various things in-depth, to not lose the thread of cohesion, and to synthesize familiar ideas into something new. I’ve experienced such moments in bits and pieces, but I’m hopeful that more than a chunk of my waking days can be spent this way. And even if these moments don’t come easily or don’t come at all, I’d like to steer my senses to absorb more of the world beyond the screens I put in front of my eyes. It’s not that I dislike or want to escape the technology. I’d love to exercise, or feel that I exercise, a small degree of control in how I spend my conscious time. Wish me luck.

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now by Gordon Livingston (Quotes & Thoughts)

Leave a comment
too-soon

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now by Gordon Livingston is a collection of thirty essays by a seasoned psychiatrist (he passed away in 2016 at age 77) who reflects on various lessons learned from his time with patients and also from the ups and downs of his own life. There’s a poignancy to his writing, especially when he mentions the deaths of his two sons over a 13-month period, one to suicide and the other to leukemia, but his overall outlook on facing challenges and living life left me feeling optimistic and hopeful, although a bit sad.

A few quotes that I highlighted and thought about throughout the book:

We demonstrate courage in the numberless small ways in which we meet our obligations or reach out to try the new things that might improve our lives.

Amen. Because I am a junkie for all things sports, I keep thinking of two maxims: “Do Your Job” (thank you Coach Belichick) and “Just Do It”. As trite as these may sound, I really do believe in the power of consistently doing what you’re supposed to do and being fearless when it comes to trying new things.

In general we get, not what we deserve, but what we expect.

This is a hard-learned lesson for me because at various junctures of my life, I would find myself resigned to thinking that I simply wasn’t good enough to achieve something and that I would fall short. This mindset inevitably became self-fulfilling prophecies. I think there’s a healthy way to confidently and optimistically believe in oneself and to support that with hard work, self-awareness, and discipline. This way, what we expect is not a delusion but just a point on the map we’re making our way to reaching.

The three components of happiness are something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.

I don’t get tired of reading about the various lenses/frameworks for thinking about happiness, and this simple lens by Livingston is a solid one. The “something to look forward to” is a component I actually hadn’t given much thought to, but is definitely important. I think for me personally, the “something to look forward to” is often something very simple and mundane, like anticipating a nice jog or a tasty breakfast, date night with Mel, or listening to a new episode of a favorite podcast. These small pleasures bring a series of happy moments that impact my overall happiness.

The point is that love is demonstrated behaviorally. Once again we define who we are and who and what we care about, not by what we promise, but by what we do.

This reminded me of a quiz I recently took with Mel, the 5 Love Languages (Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, and Physical Touch). I think Livingston would discount the “words of affirmation” and give more weight to the other languages. My quiz results weighted my love language heavily towards Quality Time and Physical Touch and very minimally when it came to Receiving Gifts.

The other thing that true love requires of us is the courage to become totally vulnerable to another.

Made me think about Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, an excellent book on this topic.

Acquiring some understanding of why we do things is often a prerequisite to change. This is especially true when talking about repetitive patterns of behavior that do not serve us well.

If people are reluctant to answer “Why?” questions in their lives, they also tend to have trouble with “Why not?” The latter implies risk. Steeped in habit and fearful of change, most of us are to some degree risk-averse. Particularly in activities that may involve rejection, we tend to act as if our sense of ourselves is fragile and must be protected.

Change is hard. I know this because I’ve often felt like I was constantly learning and changing in a good a way, only to be blind or in denial about habits and behaviors I had a tough time letting go. I still struggle with this in various aspects of my life, and a big part of it is an unwillingness to examine certain aspects of myself more carefully, most likely due to fear.

This is the final and controlling paradox: Only by embracing our mortality can we be happy in the time we have. The intensity of our connections to those we love is a function of our knowledge that everything and everyone is evanescent. Our ability to experience any pleasure requires either a healthy denial or courageous acceptance of the weight of time and the prospect of ultimate defeat.

Sigh. I thought about John Mayer’s Stop This Train when I read this.

The most secure prisons are those we construct for ourselves.

I’ve mentioned a few times about how doing daily meditation has helped me in a number of ways. I think one of the biggest benefits has been the ability to shed and let go of miserable and unproductive thoughts. Feelings of being slighted, jealousy, self-pity, stress, and a host of other negative thoughts are indeed prisons we create for ourselves.

It is a primary task of parents throughout their lives to convey to the young a sense of optimism. Whatever other obligations we have to our children, a conviction that we can achieve happiness amid the losses and uncertainties that life contains is the greatest gift that can pass from one generation to the next.

Whether directly or indirectly, I think my parents have done a good job of instilling a sense of optimism in me. And I hope that when I, too, get the opportunity to become a parent, I can do the same.

One of the common fantasies entertained by those seeking change in their lives is that it can be rapidly achieved.

This is why I love running because it reminds me in a very physical way that change takes work and nothing comes easy. I’ve tried to take this mentality into business and any other endeavor I take on. I expect difficulty, challenges, and a slow slog. It’s the only way that real, meaningful change can happen. When you grow to love the toil, then change will come much more easily.

One of the things that makes us human is the ability to contemplate the future. If we are to bear the awful weight of time with grace or acceptance, we have to come to terms with the losses that life inevitably imposes upon us. Primary among these is the loss of our younger selves.

I know that with enough gray hairs and lines on my face, I’ll start to move into that phase of my life where I can no longer look in the mirror and fancy myself a young man. This would have troubled me in my late twenties, but as I approach my mid-thirties, there are more important and worthwhile things to care about. I’ll miss aspects of my younger self, but I’m optimistic that I’ll like my older self more.

As long as we measure others and ourselves by what we have and how we look, life is inevitably a discouraging experience, characterized by greed, envy, and a desire to be someone else.

I think about Warren Buffett’s Inner Scorecard and how you can live a truer and more fulfilling life by measuring yourself by your own standards. I used to compare the growth and progress of Barrel to other agencies, and it would drive me nuts that we weren’t keeping pace or not doing as well. I’ve gotten a lot better at focusing on an inner scorecard, and this has made work a lot more enjoyable.

Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between two points, life has a way of confounding geometry. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition, and a willingness to be surprised.

This quote reminds me of my sister, who has traveled wide and far across the world, living a nomadic and adventurous existence. She has really embraced a life full of surprises. I used to think that this way of life was irresponsible, but I’ve come to appreciate her experiences and how it’s shaped her into a thoughtful and open-minded person, far beyond what I can imagine. For someone who has worked on the same business the past ten years in the same city, it’s a good reminder for me to open my mind to chance and some surprises.

The process of learning consists not so much in accumulating answers as in figuring out how to formulate the right questions.

I’ve given a lot of thought to the idea of formulating questions and how the ability to ask good questions can create a lot of value. At work, I often find myself evaluating the performance of employees based on the types of questions they’re able to ask. I evaluate my own performance in client meetings and calls based on the types of questions I’m able to ask. Questions reveal a great deal about how much someone understands and grasps certain subjects and concepts and also speaks to the person’s level of curiosity and intellect. Sort of related: the topic of questions also makes me think about a line from an old ESPN commercial with Chris Berman where he says, “There is no such thing as a stupid question. Just stupid people who ask questions.” Kinda mean, but it’s funny.

One of the things that define us is what we worry about. Life is full of uncertainty and random catastrophe. It is easy, therefore, to justify almost any anxiety. The list of fears that people carry with them is long and varied, and a function of the information with which we are bombarded.

I’ll mention meditation again. I worry a lot less about unimportant things by being able to let go quickly. The things I worry about, I try my best to process them into tasks I can work on. Anything outside of my control, I try my best to keep off my worry radar.

To imagine that we are solely, or even primarily, responsible for the successes and failures of our children is a narcissistic myth.

Here, too, I’m reminded of my parents and how hands-off they’ve been in my life. They only wish me happiness and good health and are unconcerned with any specifics of my successes or failures unless I want to share with them. I am eternally grateful, and I, too, will strive to be such a parent.

Nostalgia for an idealized past is common and usually harmless. Memory can, however, distort our attempts to come to terms with the present… What happens as we try to come to terms with our pasts is that we see our lives as a process of continual disenchantment. We long for the security provided by the comforting illusions of our youth. We remember the breathless infatuation of first love; we regret the complications imposed by our mistakes, the compromises of our integrity, the roads not taken. The cumulative burdens of our imperfect lives are harder to bear as we weaken in body and spirit. Our yearning for the past is fueled by a selective memory of our younger selves… Our constant challenge is not to seek perfection in ourselves and others, but to find ways to be happy in an imperfect world. We are impeded in this effort if we cling to an idealized vision of the past that insures dissatisfaction with the present.

One transformation that I’ve felt within myself in recent years is a distancing from the feeling of nostalgia. I was once fond of thinking and talking a lot about “the good old days”, often as an escape from whatever I had to face in the present moment. Part of the transformation has come from becoming more and more comfortable with embracing whatever stands in front of me. In fact, I get excited thinking about what’s next, whether it’s tackling a hairy problem or engaging in a strenuous activity. The other part is about repressing the tendency to wallow in regrets and what could have been. I try hard to block this out of my mind. I accept that I’ve made mistakes, that I’ve learned a great deal, and that what matters most is my next move. A great book that I think about from time to time is Ken Grimwood’s Replay, in which a man dies and wakes up as his 18-year-old self, “replaying” his life over and over again. The big takeaway for me was that the game is available to play every single day. But instead of going back 25 years to a younger self, I’m already in the game playing for my older, future self.

For most of us the process of nursing blame for past injury distracts us from the essential question of what we need to do now to improve our lives.

Breathe, let go, be productive. In living my life, I want to be the person who can consistently overcome “past injury” and work towards a better future. The right thing to do takes courage and discipline. It’s also a lot less taxing and drama-free.

 

 

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown (Quotes & Thoughts)

Leave a comment

I like to highlight sentences and passages when I read a book on the Kindle app. Over time, this builds up a nice collection of quotes that I can reference. Unfortunately, I haven’t been as disciplined about revisiting the highlights. So, in an effort to get myself to revisit books and ideas that I found useful, I decided to pick a few quotes and write a few sentences on why I found the material worth highlighting and how I found them impactful.

The first book is Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. It’s a quick read with a simple, yet powerful message: that by being mindful and deliberate (and even protective) of our choices and how we spend our time, we can be more effective, better focused, and happier in living our lives. Here are some quotes and my thoughts:

Essentialists are powerful observers and listeners. Knowing that the reality of trade-offs means they can’t possibly pay attention to everything, they listen deliberately for what is not being explicitly stated. They read between the lines… Nonessentialists listen too. But they listen while preparing to say something. They get distracted by extraneous noise. They hyperfocus on inconsequential details. They hear the loudest voice but they get the wrong message. In their eagerness to react they miss the point.

I find this especially relevant when it comes to conversations with clients or employees. Rather than reacting to everything being said, which can often be distractions or misleading signals, taking the time to carefully observe and parse what’s being said and not said can reveal valuable insights. A good example is when we conduct interviews for prospective employees. It’s easy to get caught up on the details of where they worked and what they did, but if you pay closer attention, it’s possible to spot certain patterns or omissions that may reveal untapped strengths or raise big flags. One thing this part of the book made me think about was how a good listener doesn’t just sit back and passively take in information. A good listener continually probes and connects the dots, asking thoughtful questions that provide new data points and help piece together a clearer view of who the other person is or what the other person thinks.

For the last ten years now I have kept a journal, using a counterintuitive yet effective method. It is simply this: I write less than I feel like writing. Typically, when people start to keep a journal they write pages the first day. Then by the second day the prospect of writing so much is daunting, and they procrastinate or abandon the exercise. So apply the principle of “less but better” to your journal. Restrain yourself from writing more until daily journaling has become a habit.

I love this quote. I started keeping a physical journal a couple months ago. I write in it almost every day, but I prescribe to the principle of writing less than I feel like writing. Sometimes, I just write one or two sentences. I might comment on the weather. I might congratulate myself on a nice morning run. Other times, I might write a paragraph about a quote from a book that really struck me. By not “maxing out” on my writing, I’ve never felt journalling to be a taxing activity. It’s just a small thing that I can do everyday without dread or a sense of obligation.

We should serve, and love, and make a difference in the lives of others, of course. But when people make their problem our problem, we aren’t helping them; we’re enabling them. Once we take their problem for them, all we’re doing is taking away their ability to solve it.

I reflected on this a bit because I could distinctly remember times at work when, seeing someone struggle with a certain task or assignment, I would swoop in to “do it for them”. This is terrible behavior and one that erodes the confidence, competency, and trust within an organization. The right way is to pause, take the time to listen to the problem, and, in a non-prescriptive way, offer guidance or resources that can assist in the completion of the task or assignment. A Nonessentialist, constantly reacting and playing defense, would only be focused on “fixing” what doesn’t seem to be going right. An Essentialist would take the long view and address what’s truly important–making sure the other person builds the capacity within themselves to take care of their own problems.

Essentialists accept the reality that we can never fully anticipate or prepare for every scenario or eventuality; the future is simply too unpredictable. Instead, they build in buffers to reduce the friction caused by the unexpected.

Another piece of advice that McKeown offers up is to build a lot of buffer to the things you do. For example, projects should have time and budget buffers because there are always uncertainties that will pop up and require additional work. Personally, I’ve taken to the idea of having buffers when it comes to my schedule. When possible, I try not to book too many meetings in a given week. I space them out and say no where appropriate. By giving myself the space, I can have some time to focus on what’s really important–exploring ideas on the future of the business, thinking through an especially complex challenge for a client, or crafting messaging on a way to position our business to prospective clients. Space allows me to be proactive rather than reactively going from meeting to meeting and emails to emails. It also enables me to work on the business rather than exclusively in the business.

An Essentialist understands that clarity is the key to empowerment. He doesn’t allow roles to be general and vague. He ensures that everyone on the team is really clear about what they are expected to contribute and what everyone else is contributing.

I love the idea of clarity, and it’s something that’s taken me a long time to better understand. I used to equate clarity with transparency, but just because you tell everyone about everything doesn’t mean the message is any clearer. Clarity comes from a thoughtful distillation of ideas into simple messages that everyone can understand and embrace. It’s also something that needs to be repeated many times. A one-time email to the team with a “clear message” can quickly be forgotten or misremembered. Repetition and tie-ins with daily discourse are a must. I saw this in action in the past year with the core behaviors that we established at work. We’ve tried our best to bring them up at interviews, new employee on-boarding, one-on-one performance reviews, monthly team meetings, and emails to the team. I still think we can do more, but I’m also very pleased to see that people are using the same words to recognize each other and describe what we do as a company.

Essentialism shows that there’s beauty and many benefits to living a simple life. But creating a simple life takes work and discipline. It’s about saying no, taking care of yourself, and being clear about what’s important. I’ve continued to reflect on ways to simplify my life and identify what’s absolutely essential for me. It’s a worthwhile exercise that’s helped me quickly shed trivial worries and annoyances that ultimately matter very little. Instead, I’ve found many things to be grateful and optimistic about on a daily basis.

Recently, I listened to an interview of legendary Coach John Wooden by self-help guru Tony Robbins. This was a recording from some years ago when Coach Wooden was alive. In it, Coach Wooden shares a 7-point creed for life that his father shared with him when he was a boy. He had kept a sheet with the 7 points in his wallet all his life. Listening to this, I thought that Coach Wooden was definitely an Essentialist of the first order. I hope to check out some of Coach Wooden’s books later this year, so I’m sure I’ll bring this up again, but here are the seven points:

  1. Be true to yourself.
  2. Make each day your masterpiece.
  3. Help others.
  4. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.
  5. Make friendship a fine art.
  6. Build a shelter against a rainy day.
  7. Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.

2016: Habits that Stuck

comment 1
2016-habits

Last year, I wrote about new habits that I picked up in 2015 that impacted my life positively. Fortunately for me, 2016 allowed me to continue in my experimentation with new behaviors. I hope to make my habits recap an annual practice.

2016 New Habits

Weekday Meditation

I began using the Headspace app in early 2016. It was tough to get used to as I kept falling asleep during the 10-minute guided sessions. But after a couple of months, meditating became as automatic as brushing my teeth. During the work week, my immediate action upon waking up is to sit up on my bed and turn on Headspace. It is only after I complete a session that I’ll jump out of bed and start my morning routine. On weekends, since Melanie is around when I wake up (she’s usually gone to work by the time I wake up during the week), I choose not to use the app, which is fine because my weekend morning routine is very different.

Meditating with Headspace has been great in many ways. It’s helped me deal with stress, both work and personal, in a much more effective way than say, drinking or binging on TV shows. By teaching me to breathe and to focus on the body, and to let thoughts come and go, meditating has become a very powerful tool for discarding thoughts and feelings that are ultimately unproductive. What’s kept things interesting for me are the different categories, such as Performance, Relationships, and Sports along with packs of 10 sessions under themes like Focus, Creativity, Balance, and Kindness. While the format of focusing on breathing, your surroundings, and your body is consistent from session to session, the app poses different questions and presents new thought exercises, like imagining a growing spot of sunshine on your chest.

As I worked my way through nearly 40 hours of meditation in 2016, I’ve found myself generally feeling calmer and less anxious. A big part of this is from being more aware of how I’m feeling and why. Rather than getting caught up in the heat of some stressful situation, meditating has helped condition me so that I can take a few deep breaths, take a step back and see the situation for what it really is rather than blowing it out of proportion with the dangerous fuel of my uncontrolled emotions. Being able to catch myself like this has been very helpful in allowing me to make sounder decisions and in keeping me from making unwise, unfiltered remarks to people. Sure, I still fall victim to my emotions from time to time, but the practice of meditation is a daily reminder that I can work with my mind in a calm and productive way.

Tuesday Date Nights

Mel and I established a weekly Date Night on Tuesdays so we can spend quality time during the work week. No matter how busy we are, we’ve been committed to keeping Date Nights on. We both have it as a recurring event on our respective calendars so we can plan around and for it. We typically go to a restaurant in Brooklyn and enjoy a nice meal while sharing what’s going on at work and talking about potential weekend plans or an upcoming vacation.

There have been weeks where we’ve gone out more than once and those have been great, but for the weeks when I have a deadline or she has to put in extra hours at work, Date Night allows us to stick to a minimum number of hours together and keeps our communication bond strong during the week when we hardly have the opportunity to talk. We’ve been very happy with this arrangement because it’s helped us overcome a problem we’ve had for years. Because Mel’s work starts hours before mine, she wakes up much earlier and is gone before I wake up. She also goes to bed much earlier, so if I come home anytime after 9PM, there’s a chance she’s already in bed. This schedule difference often led to weeks where we wouldn’t see each other awake at all until the weekends. The lack of communication was becoming problematic for us, so we decided to give Date Night a try. I’m happy to say that it’s a shared habit that’s stuck for us and I look forward to our weekly evenings in 2017.

Weekly Basketball

I made time to play more basketball this year than I have in over 15 years. As a baseline, I try to play once a week after my Monday workout. This might be a one-on-one game with a friend or a few pick-up games with whoever is on the court. Additionally, I’ve tried my best to get in one more session, usually a couple of hours, of basketball during the week. This usually comes in the form of pickup games either at a friend’s apartment gym in Koreatown, at a community center on the Upper East Side, or at the YMCA near my place. Except for the occasional jammed finger, I’ve luckily been able to avoid injuries. I’ve improved my long distance shooting accuracy and having better cardio fitness from running has allowed me to play tighter, more aggressive defense.

Breakfast

I’ve become addicted to breakfast. In 2016, I started making more time for breakfast, waking up early enough each morning so I can fully enjoy the meal before work. My two go-to meals have been oatmeal (with blueberries, nuts, maple syrup, and flax seed) and whole grain/spelt English muffins (with peanut butter, flax seed, nuts, and honey or vegan mayo with avocado). I’ll supplement these with grapefruit or oranges. It’s felt great going to work feeling energized and fully awake.

What Happened to Habits I Picked Up in 2015?

I thought it would be worthwhile to check up on the habits from the previous year to see if I stuck with them in 2015 or, if not, why I abandoned them.

Reading List

I’m happy to report that I continued my practice of keeping a reading list and read 34 books in 2016 (see full list here). This is still probably the single most important habit in the past 2 years in that it’s been the source of inspiration and ideas for all of my other habits.

Boot Camp at the YMCA

I stopped going to this because it conflicted with days I wanted to play basketball. However, because of my participation in Spartan Races in 2016, my Monday workouts have evolved to incorporate a lot of boot camp elements including a ton of burpees and lots of plyometric exercises.

Running

I upped my running game in 2016, hiring a running coach to help me prep for my first ever half marathon in March. I continued to run weekly during the year although I scaled back my mileage considerably, averaging about 5-6 miles a week. I’ll be upping my training in the coming weeks as I prep for another half marathon in 2017.

Paying Attention to Credit Card Rewards

I redeemed several airline tickets using rewards points in 2016 and got some bonus points for referring friends to Chase Sapphire. I’ll be on the lookout for any outstanding deals from new credit cards, but I’ve been pretty happy with my current setup. I unfortunately didn’t qualify for the Chase Sapphire Reserve card because I opened up too many new credit accounts in the past year, including a few business credit cards for Barrel under my name. Doh.

Embracing a Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet

I mostly stuck with my plant-based diet in 2016. I was a bit more lax about consuming fish every few weeks, especially as Mel and I hit up sushi joints for Date Night. But overall, for meals where I was alone and in absolute control, I felt no desire to deviate from a plant-based menu. On vacations with friends and family, I let myself eat some meat and cheeses, which was no big deal. For example, I had a steak at Warren Buffett’s favorite steakhouse when I went to Omaha for the annual Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Meeting. And in Portugal, where Mel and I vacationed this past week and where the concept of vegan dishes doesn’t really seem to exist, I was fine eating cured meats, all types of cheeses, and lots of salted cod. In fact, eating non-plant-based foods occasionally has made me appreciate so much more the healthy, clean feeling I get from sticking to plant-based foods most of the time.

Habits I’m Hoping for in 2017

In addition to looking back, I want to look ahead and share some habits I hope to fully adopt in 2017. These are habits that have started to form at the tail end of 2016 but need more time to solidify.

Journal Writing

I’ve started to take anywhere between 10-30 minutes each morning during breakfast to jot down some thoughts in a journal. First of all, writing thoughts down by hand feels great because it’s something I had gotten away from for a good number of years. Also, writing something daily without any specific aim has been fun. Some days, I’ll just recap what happened the day before. Other times, I’ll write a thought or two about a book I’m reading or a problem I’m having at work. I set no expectations. The only requirement is that I write something. I hope this keeps going.

Daily Mobility Exercises

I’ve written about this in a previous post. I think this will do wonders in helping me prevent injuries and in becoming a better athlete in general.

Putting My Clothes Away Every Night

In the past month, I’ve been very diligent about hanging up, folding away, or throwing into the laundry basket any clothes I’ve worn that day. Previously, the default habit was to throw everything on the ground and batch process them on the weekend. This meant that during the week, our bedroom became a war zone littered with clothes. These days, I can see the floor the entire week, and there’s a feeling of tidiness that’s nice to wake up to each morning. I’m hoping this habit doesn’t go away.

Parting Thoughts

The beauty of habits is that when a habit is fully ingrained, performing it feels natural and doesn’t require a heavy lift in terms of the brain’s resources. It’s akin to setting up your finances to automatically pull X amount of dollars for savings each month and invest in a certain allocation of assets so you don’t have to even think about it. Knowing that you can program yourself to automatically perform all kinds of tasks, some that are very beneficial for you and some that are very enjoyable, I think putting in the upfront work to develop desirable habits is one of the most valuable things you can do. Habits compound because they repeat over and over again. Sure, some behaviors that I hoped would become habits have turned out to be too hard to keep or don’t feel worthwhile keeping after a period of time, but that’s only made me want to continually experiment and try new ways to make life healthier, more fun, and more challenging. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about myself and about the world I live in, and it’s something that I plan on keeping up.

Learning to Run Pain-Free

Leave a comment

I’ve been raving to my friends about Ready to Run, a book by Crossfit San Francisco founder and physiotherapist Kelly Starrett. As I start my training for a half marathon in March, the biggest concern I had was the fear of injury. Last year, when I trained for the Brooklyn Half, I had a couple of weeks where pain in my ankles and toes kept me from being able to run the full program. It was only after ample rest that I could get back into it, but even then, I would have to endure a good deal of discomfort. My assumption was that this was just part of running and that gritting through it was the only way.

In Ready to Run, Starrett contends that the pain and injuries from running are often a result poor mobility in our bodies. And that lack of mobility is more often than not caused by our lifestyle: sitting hunched over at our desks all day, wearing shoes with high heels, not hydrating ourselves enough, and not performing routine maintenance to keep our bodies flexible, strong, and properly aligned. We try to compensate by buying expensive shoes or taking medicine for pain, but these do not solve the underlying issue of poor mechanics and lack of supporting structures in the body to make running a more fluid movement.

The book presents 12 Standards that you can use to assess your readiness to run and supplements each standard with a number of mobility exercises that you can do everyday. I went through all of the Standards and have been performing mobility exercises consistently for 10-15 minutes a day for the past 2 weeks. It’s still early, but I’m feeling great about the gains and will continue with the daily routine. Here are the 12 Standards and how I fared:

  1. Neutral Feet: Are your feet habitually in a neutral position?
    Result: Yes. Starrett provides some really good tips on how to keep a good standing posture, which I had not been doing. I’ve been trying my best to brace my back, keep my chest up, and keep my shoulders from rolling forward too much.
  2. Flat Shoes: Do you wear flat shoes?
    Result: No, but they may be flat enough. Starrett talks about the harmful impact of high-heeled shoes and how shoes with thick heels promote a heel-striking style of running, which can cause all kinds of pain and injuries long term. I have a pair of minimal running shoes that I plan to work into my workouts more regularly in the coming weeks (slowly and carefully) and I hope to be purchasing some cushioned flat (“zero drop”) running shoes in the coming weeks. Starrett also says you should avoid wearing flip-flops. They’re terrible for your feet and promote an unhealthy walking technique.
  3. A Supple Thoracic Spine: Do you have a pliant, properly organized thoracic spine?
    Result: No. Years of hunched-over sitting in front of a computer have done a number to my spine including a default hunched-over standing posture, constantly strained neck, and tight, forward-rolled shoulders. I’ve been extra conscious of my standing posture in recent weeks, and I’ve also tried to limit the consecutive number of minutes I spend sitting down in front of the computer.
  4. An Efficient Squatting Technique: Can you squat correctly?
    Result: Yes. Fortunately, squatting with good technique isn’t problematic for me. I’ve noticed some tightness in my ankles, but I’ve found it relatively easy to execute proper squats as outlined in the book. The thing to note from the squat test is that the depth of the squat should go way beyond the quarter squat that I learned in high school.
  5. Hip Flexion: Can you stand on your left leg and express normal range of hip flexion with your right hip for 30 seconds, then repeat with your right leg and left hip?
    Result: Yes, this is actually pretty easy for me.
  6. Hip Extension: Do you have normal amount of hip extension?
    Result: No, needs work. The Couch Stretch (see below) is the recommended exercise for improving hip extension. The problem for me is that I can’t do a proper Couch Stretch. There’s too much tightness in my quads and hip flexors that I can’t quite do the full stretch without moving away a bit from the wall. Hoping that doing the Couch Stretch every single day will improve the range.

    Couch Stretch

  7. Ankle Range of Motion: Do you have normal range of motion in your ankles?
    Result: No. I can’t execute the pistol position (see below) without lifting my heel. My ankle is definitely a problem area for me, so I’ll be paying extra attention to mobility exercises in the lower leg and ankle regions.

    Pistol Position

  8. Warming up and cooling down: Do you routinely perform pre-run warm-ups and post-run cool-downs?
    Result: Yes. I started doing this as soon as I read about it. I won’t run until I’ve had a good 10-15 minutes of warm-ups in, mainly a combination of air squats, jumps, and 3-4 mobilizations.
  9. Compression: Are you wearing compression socks?
    Result: Sort of. I’ve been wearing leggings when I go running, which achieves the same effect. I’m going to order a few pairs of compression socks as well. Starrett recommends wearing compression socks after work outs and when traveling by airplane as a way to boost blood circulation in the legs.
  10. No Hotspots: Are you free of hotspots of pain?
    Result: Yes. Luckily, I don’t have any hotspots of pain right now. This might change as I begin to up my weekly mileage in preparation for my half marathon race.
  11. Hydration: Are you hydrated?
    Result: No. Starrett recommends 2-3 liters of fluids a day and talks about how important it is hydrate properly before putting in the running workout. I find it tough to drink anything other than tea or coffee in the mornings, so this will be a challenging habit to adopt. I’ve purchased some Nuun hydration tablets to see if flavored water with electrolytes will be helpful.
  12. Jumping and Landing: Can you jump and land with good mechanics?
    Result: Yes. I’m happy to report that my jumping mechanics are very good. Starrett points out that running is pretty much a continuous series of jumps, so if your jumping mechanics are off (e.g. collapsed knees or feet pointed outwards on landing) then you’re likely going to have trouble maintaining proper running form.

With more than two-thirds of the standards covered, I’m feeling pretty good. The four areas I need to work on are pretty clear, and I know that by sticking to a daily mobility exercise routine, I can continue to build up a buffer of strength and range of motion that can help protect me as I run.

Memorable Fiction: Books I Haven’t Forgotten

Leave a comment
fiction books

I’ve been trying to work more fiction into my reading mix recently. I only finished 1 fiction book in 2015 and I’m on pace to read about 8 or 9 fiction titles this year, still less than one a month. I remember a time when fiction made up 90-100% of my reading. But I’m not so sure I’ve retained much from many of the books I’ve read. I think part of it is that I’m not a very close and critical reader. When Melanie and I compare thoughts on the same books we’ve read, I often feel like I’ve missed important chunks or failed to pick up on certain, illuminating points. A big part of it may be due to an intellectually lazy mind–I am a sucker for plot and physical descriptions of characters and things but easily miss out on nuances of dialogue and underlying themes. I feel like I have much to improve when it comes to knowing how to read.

In the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking back to fiction titles that have stuck with me. For all the fiction I consumed in my twenties, I realized that many were forgettable and that I could hardly recall the plot or main characters much less any themes or symbolism. I started jotting down the names of books that I haven’t easily forgotten. These are books that pop up in my mind from time to time, sometimes randomly and sometimes because a passage vaguely reminds me of a similar real-life situation. I pulled these titles off of my bookshelf and took another look. They’re all very excellent books, so I highly recommend them.

Saturday by Ian McEwan

I’ve enjoyed many Ian McEwan books over the years (Sweet Tooth and The Children Act are also very good), but Saturday stands out for me. Aside from the intensity of its 24-hour timeframe, the precise and technical descriptions (a McEwan hallmark), and the movie-like build-up of the plot, I think the very relatable bourgeois life of main character Henry Perowne, a successful neurosurgeon with a loving family, and the preoccupations and ruminations running through his mind as he encounters normal and extraordinary circumstances on an eventful day, were most memorable for me.

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

A renowned pianist has come to a Central European city for an important performance, but it’s as if he’s trapped in a maze as he struggles with a hazy memory and has very frustrating encounters with numerous characters. There was something really difficult about this book, but when I finished it, I thought it was brilliant. I read this about ten years ago, and I still think about it every now and then, especially when I have maddeningly illogical dreams where I feel stuck, either unable to remember why I’m there or frustrated that the people I meet are only confusing me.

The Adventures of Auggie March by Saul Bellow

A classic, and the sweeping nature of this bildungsroman is hard to forget.

Everyone tries to create a world he can live in, and what he can’t use he often can’t see. But the real world is already created, and if your fabrication doesn’t correspond, then even if you feel noble and insist on there being something better than what people call reality, that better something needn’t try to exceed what, in its actuality, since we know it so little, may be very surprising. If a happy state of things, surprising; if miserable or tragic, no worse than what we invent.

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

It took me several tries to finish this book, but the effort was well worth it. The structure is unconventional–over the span of decades, a narrator meets a handful of times with architectural historian Jacque Austerlitz, who recounts his efforts to discover his lost personal history. The sad and melancholy feel of Austerlitz’s lost past, the haunting black and white imagery scattered throughout the book that recall the ghostly aftermath of the Holocaust, and the free-flowing dreamlike cadence of the prose and dialogue gives the book a very distinct feeling that I can recall whenever I see its spine on our bookshelf.

Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul

I love this collection of vignettes from life in Trinidad and Tobago. The stories are sad, comical, and endearing. The characters–Bogart, Hat, Bhakcu, Popo, Big Foot, etc.–are unforgettable. After all these years, the writing style in here is still my favorite. A small sampling:

Big Foot was really big and really black, and everybody in Miguel Street was afraid of him. It wasn’t his bigness or his blackness that people feared, for there were blacker and bigger people about. People were afraid of him because he was so silent and sulky; he looked dangerous, like those terrible dogs that never bark but just look at you from the corner of their eyes.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

This passage from Robert Penn Warren’s epic novel on American politics always comes back to me:

There’s nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain. I was in the car. And I was glad of it. Between one point on the map and another point on the map, there was the being alone in the car in the rain. They say you are not you except in terms of relation to other people. If there weren’t any other people there wouldn’t be any you because what you do, which is what you are, only has meaning in relation to other people. That is a very comforting thought when you are in the car in the rain at night alone, for then you aren’t you, and not being you or anything, you can really lie back and get some rest. It is a vacation from being you. There is only the flow of the motor under your foot spinning that frail thread of sound out of its metal gut like a spider, that filament, that nexus, which isn’t really there, between the you which you have just left in one place and the you which you will be when you get to the other place.

You ought to invite those two you’s to the same party, some time. Or you might have a family reunion for all the you’s with barbecue under the trees. It would be amusing to know what they would say to each other.

But meanwhile, there isn’t either one of them, and I am in the car in the rain at night.

Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee

I still think of John Kwang, the Korean-American councilman from Queens with mayoral aspirations. His charisma, his flaws, and his Koreanness and Americanness–Lee does a great job in crafting a memorable character. This is a story with many parallels to All the King’s Men in characters, structure, and themes, but for me, Native Speaker has an intimately familiar feel that reminds me of my own immigrant and Korean upbringing as well as the uncertain feeling I’ve always had about my identity and place in America.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

I remember distinctly thinking to myself when I read this book: I wish it never ends. My favorite part is the thick middle volume The Savage Detectives (1976-1996) which is a sprawling collection of interviews with forty or so characters that recall the two main characters of the book, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. The different perspectives that come together to paint a picture of these two poets is quite rich and done in a way that was completely new and fresh to me.

Replay by Ken Grimwood

I’ve thought about this book at least once a week since I read it earlier this year. It’s about a 43-year-old man with a dead-end job and a failing marriage who suddenly “dies” and wakes up as his 18-year-old self back in time. This is ultimately a story about taking control of your life, being deliberate with your decisions, and living in a way that leaves no room for regrets.

Update: I asked Melanie about her selection of memorable books. Here were six that she mentioned: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Home, and Lila (counting as one although they are three related books); Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri; A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee as well; Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro; Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck; The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.

Am I Getting Enough Protein Without Meat?

Leave a comment
Breakfast featuring grapefruit, blueberries, and dates with green tea.

After switching my diet to a mostly plant-based one, the question I continue to get asked the most is: “How do you get enough protein?”

My standard answer would be: “Oh, I eat a good amount of tofu, beans, and nuts.”

But the thing was, I actually didn’t know how much protein I consumed and if it was indeed “enough”. I assumed that with my weight and muscle mass in a pretty stable place, I was getting as much protein as I needed to. However, it’s one thing to assume and another to actually measure, so I decided to analyze some typical meals to see how much protein I eat on a daily basis.

How Much Protein Do I Really Need?

I’ve read up on protein requirements on a few different websites and the number seems to vary. The government’s Dietary Reference Intake suggests 0.36 grams per pound of protein per day. At 153 lbs, that means I should be getting at least 55 grams of protein every day. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that for active males, the protein intake should be in the 0.64 to 0.82 grams of protein per pound each day. Let’s say I’m on the lower spectrum of active (I exercise 3-4 times a week) and need 0.64 grams of protein per pound or 97.92 grams total per day. Do I get enough?

Breakfast
My go to meal, especially when it’s chilly out, is a bowl of oatmeal. My oatmeal consists of the following (protein amount in parentheses):

  •  1/2 cup of oats (7g)
  • 1/4 cup of blueberries (.25g)
  • 1 tbsp of flaxseed (2g)
  • 1/4 cup of walnuts (4g)

Total: 13.25g of protein

Lunch
During the week, I’ll make myself a quick stir fry at work or order something from Maple. Here’s a breakdown for a stir fry (protein amount in parentheses):

  • 1 cup of white rice (4g) — I really should be eating brown rice!
  • 1/4 cup of red peppers (.1g)
  • 1/2 cup of zucchini (1.4g)
  • 1/2 cup of mushrooms (1.1g)
  • 1 cup of broccoli (2.5g)
  • 2 cups of spinach (2g)
  • 1 avocado (4g)

Total: 15.1g of protein

Snack
Throughout the day, I’ll eat some fruit or take fistfuls of cereal.

  • 2 Medjool dates (0.8g)
  • 1 orange (1.2g)
  • 3/4 cup of cereal (2g)
  • 1/2 of cashew-nut based vegan ice cream (4g)

Total: 8g of protein

Dinner
It takes me about 10 minutes to cook this dish. I absolutely love it and never get tired of it. I really overdo it on the soba, though.

  • 2 cups soba noodles (12g)
  • 2 cups of spinach (2g)
  • 1 avocado (4g)
  • 1/2 block of tofu (18g)
  • 1 serving of kimchi (2g)

Total: 38g of protein

The Grand Total

From this exercise, my total ends up being 74.35 grams of protein per day. It’s lower than the 97.92 grams but higher than the 55 grams suggested by the Dietary Reference Intake. I’m not too concerned about the amount. There are times during the week when I’ll have more beans, tofu, and quinoa and the typical meals above and some days when I’m not as hungry and probably come in lower. Overall, I’ve felt great about my diet, and I know that I’m eating more greens and getting more fiber and antioxidants on a regular basis than I did throughout my twenties.

Takeaway

To paraphrase Peter Drucker, what gets measured gets improved. I think this has been a pretty enlightening exercise in showing me that without tofu, soba noodles, and oats, my protein intake can take a big hit. I’ve been trying to find ways to incorporate more beans into the diet, and I also want to get back to eating more quinoa and chia seeds, two rich sources of protein. I’ll have to revisit this measurement exercise in a few months to see how I’ve made progress. For now, I’m going to hit the sack and think about the warm oatmeal I’ll have in the morning.

Organizing Clothes

Leave a comment

I’ve been reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing on and off for the past few months. I recently bought some new clothes taking advantage of a Black Friday sale on Bonobos and also a sample sale by our client Gitman Bros. I thought it’d be a good opportunity to reassess my wardrobe and get rid of some things.

One thing that was immediately apparent to me was that I just have too many t-shirts. Over the years, I’ve amassed a number of t-shirts from work, various startup events, athletic competitions, and online shopping. I decided to do a purge and really went at it. I know MariKon method was to ask if each piece of clothing brought me joy, but I went about it in a bit more pragmatic way. Any negative answer to the following meant the shirt would get tossed. Here was my decision tree:

  • Does it still fit well?
  • Are the collars frayed?
  • Are the colors faded?
  • Do I still like the design on the shirt (if it has a graphic)?

I was able to toss out about a dozen shirts this way, and with the shirts that are left, it’s definitely easier to say “this piece of clothing brings me joy.” Afterwards, I took to the MariKon way of folding clothes and reorganized my dresser to have all of my shirts standing up so I can see them all at once. I’m not sure how sustainable this is, but right now, things look really neat.

I repeated the process for the sweaters and my dress shirts. I also introduced some taxonomy into the way my dress shirts are organized so that solids, plaids, and tailored shirts are grouped together. I never paid much attention to the organization of my clothing in the past, but it was refreshing to take stock of everything I own and to know what combinations are possible. I also like that I’ve been able to dismiss pieces of clothing that only made me feel so-so.

Besides middle school and parts of high school, when it was possible to get made fun of for wearing something off, I never paid much attention to clothing. I did have a phase when I collected a lot of neckties, but I grew to despise wearing them and got rid of my fifty-plus necktie collection some years ago. Recently, I’ve been paying more attention to clothing than usual. It’s not that I wish to be fashionable all of a sudden, but I’ve been trying to find a reliable brand that delivers fit and an appropriate style. I thought Everlane was the brand for me, but after a couple of years, I realized that their clothes fit me poorly (their smalls run a bit loose) and the construction of their clothing is terrible–they seem to fall apart after a half a dozen washes. These days, I’ve been buying mostly Bonobos. The fit is much better and I like the selection of their styles. Hopefully, their sweaters and dress shirts will get a good amount of use. Hoping one day there is a brand that makes a range of clothes that truly fit my body type–broad shoulders, short arms, and short torso.

I’ll admit that, with a slimmer physique owing to a better diet and more exercise, I’ve wanted to wear clothes that accentuate the “fit”-ness. It’s a nice confidence booster. And by making sure my closet is well organized and stocked with only the clothes I want to wear, I’m taking the extra step to automate the process and reduce the cognitive load that dressing up has on me each day. I’m not yet at the stage where I’ll lay out my clothes the night before, but I’m pleased that there’s been much progress in what I wear and how I get dressed.

Toughness

Leave a comment

I’m working my way through Toughness by Jay Bilas. It was recommended to me by one of our designers at Barrel. It’s an excellent read so far, and I decided to look up the article that inspired the book. Jay Bilas is an ESPN basketball analyst, and he wrote about toughness back in 2009 that became a very popular piece. The article is hidden behind the paywall, but you can check out a saved PDF here.

Having grown up playing and watching sports, especially football and basketball, I’m a huge fan of any life lessons that can be drawn from the struggles and challenges faced by coaches, athletes, and teams. Bilas’s 31 examples of toughness observed in basketball serve as great lessons in selflessness, responsibility, hustling, being proactive, self-awareness, and resilience.

I want to quote the last four especially as they made me reflect on my day-to-day:

Move on to the next play: Tough players don’t waste time celebrating a good play or lamenting a bad one. They understand that basketball is too fast a game to waste time and opportunities with celebratory gestures or angry reactions. Tough players move on to the next play. They know that the most important play in any game is the next one.

I find this to be so true during the work week. On a given day, there are all kinds of highs and lows. The lows–losing out on a potential new business deal, dissatisfaction with an employee’s performance, problems with delivering a solution to a client, etc.–can cause anxiety, anger, or even disengagement if I let them overtake my mind and fester for too long. The highs are dangerous as well–placing too much importance on a new business win or a successful project launch can lead to complacency and a less motivated effort. Being disciplined about moving on to what’s next is important. The celebrating and relaxing and can happen on the weekend.

Be hard to play against, and easy to play with: Tough players make their teammates’ jobs easier, and their opponents’ jobs tougher.

I’m reminded of another book, Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday. It doesn’t pay to make a big fuss to make sure others pay attention to you and feel your presence, especially if it means being stubborn about having your way or being loud about your contributions. Setting aside your ego and focusing on being a great teammate while tackling challenges together is a much more rewarding way to work and live. I’ve had my own personal battles with ego and continue to come across it every now and then. This lesson is a great reminder that others are impacted negatively when I don’t embrace the role of being a great teammate.

Make every game important: Tough players don’t categorize opponents and games. They know that if they are playing, it is important. Tough players understand that if they want to play in championship games, they must treat every game as a championship game.

My toughness is tested on this front every day. With numerous clients as well as internal projects and various management responsibilities, it’s tempting to take shortcuts and mail it in where possible. I know that in order to be effective and to achieve my vision of success, I’ll need to bring focus and sincere efforts to all of my responsibilities.

Make getting better every day your goal: Tough players come to work every day to get better, and keep their horizons short. They meet victory and defeat the same way: They get up the next day and go to work to be better than they were the day before. Tough players hate losing but are not shaken or deterred by a loss. Tough players enjoy winning but are never satisfied. For tough players, a championship or a trophy is not a goal; it is a destination. The goal is to get better every day.

Yes. This is why I look forward to each new day. What I fail to accomplish or achieve today, I know I can work towards doing better and making progress tomorrow as long as I show up, ready to put in the work.

The Foundation of Growth Concept

Leave a comment

For our Grove Ave venture, Welton and I have been working through a concept that we’re calling “Foundation of Growth”. As we begin to build up the Grove Ave brand and philosophy, we’ve been looking for ways to articulate the company’s mission. I wanted to jot down some of our thoughts here and explain how the Foundation of Growth tie into the Grove Ave mission.

Over the past couple of years, Welton and I have talked at great lengths about adopting good habits. We believe it’s fundamental to living a productive and fulfilling life. As we talked more and more about good habits, we started to identify categories that these habits could fall into. The categories, taken together, started to feel like a support structure for further growth. We worked through the categories, combining some and editing out others, until we arrived at five of them. We called these five the Foundation of Growth. The five categories, which have become “elements”, are as follows: Diet, Fitness, Sleep, Mind, and Relationships.

The Foundation of Growth is about establishing a baseline through a system of good habits. By being mindful and embracing a standard for what you eat, how much you exercise, how well you sleep, how you expand your knowledge, and how you get along with others, we believe that it becomes easier to set new goals for growth and achieve them. The Foundation of Growth is about deliberately making choices in critical areas that will protect your health, make you smarter, and also make you happier. With these in place, you can set your sights higher and challenge yourself to take on ambitious endeavors with confidence.

I want to share a few thoughts on why we chose these five elements:

1 – Diet

Eating is an everyday activity that plays a crucial role in our health and well-being. If you eat 3 meals a day, snack at least once a day, and go out for pre-dinner drinks a few times a week, that’s more than 30 times you’re making choices on what goes into your body. Over the course of a few weeks, a few months, and a few years, these choices add up. We see a great deal of possibilities in the types of habits you can develop when it comes to diet.

2 – Fitness

Our bodies were built to move, and yet, we often struggle to get an adequate amount of exercise. We want to explore habits, motivations, and incentives that can get people to embrace an active lifestyle. We’re also fascinated by the discipline, endurance, and personal challenges that exercise and sports present.

3 – Sleep

We know that a deep, rejuvenating sleep can jumpstart your day and greatly improve performance in many areas of your life. Whether it’s getting enough sleep or the quality of your sleep, we think sleeping is an activity worth much consideration.

4 – Mind

We debated on whether to call this Intellect or Mind. We went back and forth on it a few times. In the end, we decided on Mind because we like its more expansive definition and thought that Intellect could be a subset of Mind. I think the topics we explore with this building block may evolve over time, but our initial focus will be on the mind’s ability to learn and process new knowledge and the way the mind perceives and reacts to external forces.

5 – Relationships

So much of our happiness is tied to how we feel about our relationships with other people. These may be family members, significant others, co-workers, friends, classmates, and neighbors. We’re interested in how habits can strengthen and provide greater meaning to these relationships, whether it’s through outward behaviors or through internal reflections.

Focus on Growth

Growth can come in many forms. It can be the acquisition of a new skill through endless hours of practice and learning. It can be progress on a monumental project that takes years to pull off. It can be designing a life that allows you to maximize time with family while making a comfortable living. The Foundation of Growth, we believe, provides a firm support layer that equips the individual with the stamina, energy, motivation, and positive attitude to really focus on growth.

We see a great deal of opportunity in mining these five elements for content and products that can help our audience become more mindful about their habits and everyday choices. We’re currently collaborating on an e-book that will expand upon the Foundations of Growth concept and introduce what we’re calling Microhabits. If you’d like to receive an update when the book is ready, sign up to receive updates at www.groveave.co.

 

Escaping Bad Habits at Work

Leave a comment

This is a reminder for myself to reassess my day-to-day activities and to focus my efforts on areas that will have greater positive impact on the company. In recent months, I’ve had some difficulty prioritizing and identifying the areas where my efforts will have the greatest impact. As a result, I’ve found myself frustrated, scatter-brained, and also uncertain about a number of things. While this feeling has been on my mind, I’ve also been evasive about confronting it. Instead, I’ve been taking the easier path of accomplishing small, repetitive tasks and reacting to whatever challenges and problems come up at work. The proactive planning and big-picture thinking that I felt so strongly about earlier in the year has receded, and I’ve felt a bit overwhelmed by the lack of control I exert over my own time and assignments.

I know it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, the reason I’m writing this is to help myself snap out of it and visualize a different path. I’ve got Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive on me to help reinforce the way I should be behaving. The two practices that come most to mind are know thy time and first things first.

Knowing My Time

Showing up early to work and staying late isn’t helpful. I have to take a closer account of my hour-by-hour activities and also take steps to clear out the activities that aren’t ultimately helpful to the company. There are several areas where I have become a bottleneck in the process or where I feel like my input is necessary for progress. I should re-evaluate these and see what kind of process or delegation can be put into place in order to free up my time and to smooth out the flow of work.

First Things First

On a given day, I can immerse myself in a number of things: calls with clients about a new project, overseeing some deliverable that our team is working on, sitting in on a new project kickoff meeting, training team members on a new process, etc. Finding the most impactful thing to do is tough because the most impactful things are often not that urgent, whereas so many things that pop up on my radar label themselves as “important, urgent”. Both Drucker in The Effective Executive and Richard Rumelt in Good Strategy Bad Strategy talk about the difficulty and importance of deciding what not to do. It is in saying no to certain activities that good choices are allowed to emerge and take form. The frustrating thing for me right now is that I feel like I have a decent idea of the things I need to focus on and prioritize, but a) I find these tasks and initiatives more mentally taxing and triggering my procrastinator impulses and b) I feel like I am lacking the courage to say no to certain things for fear of something catastrophic (even though I know most things will just be fine).

It Boils Down to Courage

I think the last statement is essentially what my problems come down to. In some ways, it feels easier to keep doing what I’m doing because the frustrations are subtle and I can always distract myself for long enough to momentarily forget my troubles. But to proactively reassess how I spend my time, to restructure my days, to boldly say no, and to mentally focus on the hard things–these things take discipline and energy, and things will feel a lot worse before they feel better. Am I willing to go through with that? The answer has to be yes, of course. That I let myself even get to this point is a bit disappointing, but I’m hopeful that I’ll break some of these bad habits and establish a new and better way of working.

Inventorying Some Small Pleasures

Leave a comment

I just finished taking my 2-week antibiotic treatment for an H.Pylori infection. For over a month, I felt sharp stomach pains whenever I finished a meal or went running. I got myself checked out, got a diagnosis, and quickly started the treatment. Fortunately for me, the pains are gone, and I feel pretty good. I’ll have to start loading up on probiotics to build up the good bacteria that the antibiotics destroyed.

My ordeal was fairly minor and quickly resolved, but it reminded me that health and comfort can’t be taken for granted. It was incredibly frustrating when I had to pull up mid-run because of my stomach pains. My legs and lungs felt great and were hungering for more, but each additional stride felt like a punch to the gut. When I ran a 4-mile loop last weekend for the first time in over a month, it felt amazing, and I was grateful that the pain was gone.

I think the occasional discomfort is actually a good thing. It puts things into perspective and helps me realize that there’s so much to appreciate and enjoy each day. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the small things that make me feel good and help me see clearly the luxurious and lucky life that I lead. Here are a few of those small pleasures:

Slicing Up and Eating a Cold Mango

I think it was in Australia that I got really hooked on mangoes. The mangoes there were smaller, so I ended up eating a couple every morning. Back at home, I’ve been eating mangoes regularly, and on a hot summer day, I find myself craving a cold and sweet mango. If I’m alone, I’ll stand at the kitchen counter and slowly carve up the mango, pausing to eat a couple of pieces and then continuing to slice the flesh down to the pit. I used to just go bonkers and gnaw around the pit, but I found that carving away with the knife is cleaner and actually a better way to get more fruit. I’m sure my cravings will diminish as the weather turns colder, but these days, I sometimes go to bed thinking about eating a cold mango the next morning.

Watching a Movie at BAM

I don’t care that there are more state of the art theaters in the city with comfier seats and better concession stands. BAM Rose Cinemas in the Peter Jay Sharp Building is still my favorite place to watch movies. Going there, grabbing a Diet Coke and a bag of M&Ms, and settling down into a seat is one of my favorite pastimes. My only complaint is that they don’t always play movies I want to see there, but if I can go at least 10 times a year, I’m a very happy person. Last movie I saw there was Don’t Think Twice directed by Mike Birbiglia.

Throwing My Socks Up for Sidney

The first thing I typically do when I come home is to take off my socks. Our dog Sidney goes bonkers for the opportunity to catch a sock in midair. Through repetition and deliberate practice, I’ve trained Sidney to become the Odell Beckham Jr. of sock receiving. It gives me such joy to see Sidney excel at this. Though my wife Melanie has called it the “most useless trick ever”, I think it’s quite an achievement for both me and our dog. One interesting thing is that the socks need to be warm. As in, it has to come straight from my feet. Melanie finds this part a bit gross, but Sidney has some kind of built-in sensor that makes him only want the warmest sock. So if I take one sock off and then throw it at him, he’ll catch it and play with it a bit. The moment he sees me take off the other sock, he puts the sock in his mouth down on the floor and eagerly waits for me to throw the warmer sock. It’s really interesting that he goes for warm socks only. If you threw him a cold sock that’s been laying on the ground, he’ll ignore it.

Sharing Dividend Payments

My buddy Welton and I have been avid dividend stock investors for the past couple of years. We’ve squirreled away shares of dividend-paying blue chip stocks as well as REITs and other high-yield investments with the hope that one day, our dividend payments will be enough to cover our basic living expenses. We’re both far from it, but we love sharing our progress. Each week, we’ll update each other via text message whenever we’ve received a dividend payment. For example, a text message might read: “OKE $12, ABT $8, KMI $14, OHI $103”, meaning that four stocks paid a collective dividend of $137 on a single day. Sometimes, it’ll be a single stock that pays a few bucks, but whenever we have a day where multiple companies pay out, we text each other nice and early, putting me in a good mood to start the day.

Welton and I often talk about building our “snowball” that’ll help our investments compound. In 2015, my total dividend payments could have covered almost 3 months of living expenses. Of course, I poured that money right back into new dividend-paying investments, but it was a great feeling to know that my steady and patient investments were starting to pay off. I’m hoping the figure continues to grow at a good clip.

Listening to Revisionist History Podcast

For the past 9 weeks, I’ve looked forward to Thursday mornings. It’s when I can download the latest episode of Malcom Gladwell’s Revision History podcast. Each week, Gladwell examines a past event, idea, or person and reinterprets it in a new light. I love the way Gladwell tells the stories and it makes my entire morning routine that much more special. From brushing my teeth, to walking the dog, to commuting to work, I’ve made the past six or so Thursday mornings all about the podcast. I loved his series on education and I especially loved the episode on Elvis Costello and the song Hallelujah.

Looking Back on an Eventful Month

Leave a comment

June felt particularly eventful this year. I jotted down some of the memorable moments over the past few weeks and thought I’d reflect on my favorite happenings. I can’t tell if June was actually more eventful than other months or if it was because I took the time to think about my experiences more so than usual. I wouldn’t mind if it was the latter. Too many months go by in a blur, one indistinguishable from the next except for the change in weather. I think if I can build up a habit of taking the time to focus a bit on how I’ve spent my time, I might find that the months don’t have to be a blur.

Barrel 10-Year Anniversary

Barrel 10 Year Anniversary Party

We had a lovely celebration for our team at Frankies 457 in Carroll Gardens. A few of my close friends showed up as well. I couldn’t have felt more grateful–for the opportunity, for the memories, and for all the great people I’ve been able to work with and learn from. And most of all, I was grateful for my friendship and partnership with Sei-Wook. For all the crap I’ve given him and all the times I’ve teased him over the years, Wook’s been a patient, loyal, generous, and incredibly dedicated partner who’s given Barrel everything. None of this would have been possible without him. I think we’re only at the start of what I believe will be a rewarding and fulfilling journey.

Check out more pics and video of the event here.

New Partner at Barrel

We promoted our Senior Developer Wes Turner to the role of Director of Technology and also made him a partner. Wes has been with Barrel for over 5 years. He’s a true professional who brings amazing discipline to work every single day. I really admire his poise and patience, and I know he’s going to add so much to our leadership team.

Wes joined me, Wook, and Boram at our partner’s quarterly planning meeting on a Saturday in June. It was an all-day session at the office in which we followed the format outlined in Traction and came away with four solid Rocks to tackle in the next 90 days. Afterward, we went out to celebrate Wes’s promotion with a sushi dinner. I gladly put my plant-based diet on pause for the occasion.

Dance Websites

Dance websites for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Jacob's Pillow Dance.

Our team at Barrel launched a number of websites in June. Two of them were for prestigious dance organizations. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Company, a site almost a year in the making, finally launched in early June. A couple of weeks later, we launched a new website for Jacob’s Pillow Dance, which hosts the country’s largest dance festival each year at its national landmark location in the Berkshires. These were two very large-scale projects that took the involvement of more than half of our team members to complete.

24 Hours in San Diego

San Diego Pitch Trip -- 24 hours

Sei-Wook, our Senior Designer Lucas, and I flew out on a Monday night to San Diego for a pitch. The meeting was early in the morning, so we had some time afterwards to hang out for a bit. After spending a few hours at a Starbucks catching up on emails and communicating with the team back in New York, the three of us went exploring in San Diego. We saw sea lions at the La Jolla Cove. We then drove up to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and did a short hike down to the beach. We then drove through Balboa Park before heading to the airport. Not bad for a short trip. We flew the red eye back to New York and were back at our desks the next morning. I would rather not have to travel red eye again.

Side note: I’ve been using Google Photos for a while now and I absolutely love the Assistant feature that automatically creates videos, collages, and albums based on the photos I take. I created the collage above in a couple minutes using Google Photos and stitched two of them together.

Spartan Sprint at Tuxedo Park

Spartan Race Sprint at Tuxedo Park, NY

Reggie, Sei-Wook, Andy, and I completed our first Spartan Race in June. We participated in the sprint, which ended up being 5.2 miles and 21 obstacles. I’m so happy that we did it together as a team. Going through a tough race with buddies is incredible fun, and while our times were less than stellar, I was happy that I got through almost all the obstacles with relative ease. The only one I failed at was the Hercules Hoist, which was too heavy for my 150 lbs frame. I promised myself that I would do more strength training and get through it the next time. The four of us are signed up for the Spartan Super in October.

For those who are interested in doing Spartan, I would highly recommend working on grip strength. A lot of the obstacles are about holding on to things, whether it’s your own body weight or other heavy objects like a bucket full of rocks or a sandbag. I think pull-ups and chin-ups are essential, and in the weeks leading up to the race, we did a lot of negative pull-ups to further develop grip strength. I also have a hand gripper at home that I try to use once a day to strengthen my hands.

Taste Tests at Home

Reggie making Taiwanese food.

Reggie, who’s been living with me and Mel at our apartment, began working seriously on a menu for a potential restaurant concept in June. I decided to put my dietary preferences aside and taste his dishes, most of which contained some kind of meat. It’s been a pleasure to watch Reggie methodically create and improve his dishes. I really admire his discipline and the way he dedicates entire weekends to working on his dream goal. His Taiwanese beef scallion pancake roll is a standout.

Good Strategy Bad Strategy

I finished reading Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters in June. The book had instant impact as it helped me clarify my thinking on the way I frame challenges at work and go about solving them. Here’s the basic gist:

  • A good strategy, according to Rumelt, has a structure that he calls “the kernel”. The kernel of a strategy contains three elements: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent action.
    • The diagnosis defines or explains the nature of the challenge; a good diagnosis will simplify what seems overwhelmingly complex and highlight the most critical aspects that need to be addressed.
    • The guiding policy is an overall approach for overcoming the challenges identified by the diagnosis; the guiding policy does not explicitly define the actions but sets the “guardrails” on the types of actions that should be taken
    • Coherent actions are steps that are coordinated with one another to work together in accomplishing the guiding policy
  • Good strategy requires making tough decisions, especially when it comes to deciding on what you should and shouldn’t do. Rumlet writes: “Strategy does not eliminate scarcity and its consequence—the necessity of choice. Strategy is scarcity’s child and to have a strategy, rather than vague aspirations, is to choose one path and eschew others.”
  • And I think Rumelt’s “good strategy” is best defined by what it isn’t–he writes this about bad strategy: “Bad strategy, I explained, is not the same thing as no strategy or strategy that fails rather than succeeds. Rather, it is an identifiable way of thinking and writing about strategy that has, unfortunately, been gaining ground. Bad strategy is long on goals and short on policy or action. It assumes that goals are all you need. It puts forward strategic objectives that are incoherent and, sometimes, totally impracticable. It uses high-sounding words and phrases to hide these failings.”

I’ve found myself thinking about this book at least once a day when it comes to how I’m spending my time, what things I’m assigning my direct reports, and what kinds of initiatives are happening across the company. Our quarterly planning meeting was useful for diagnosing the challenges and setting the guiding policy, but I think defining and executing on the coherent actions is going to require great discipline and a whole lot of effort. It’s a really good framework, and I’m glad I came across it while randomly reading a Quora entry on strategy. I also have to admit that I’ve done a whole lot of bad strategy. I cringe at all the goals I’ve set in the past with little to show for in terms of concrete progress.

Miscellaneous Things & Conclusion

June was also filled with quality entertainment. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the NBA Finals (I had $100 on the Cavs and seeing them come back from 3-1 was awesome even if it meant enduring Andy’s taunts for a week). The shows on HBO were great, especially Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley. I also watched Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, a parody film by the Lonely Island that pokes fun at Justin Beiber and other self-centered pop stars. It was a dumb movie, but some of its stupid songs (Ibitha, Finest Girl – Bin Laden song, and I’m So Humble) still keep me laughing weeks after I first heard them.

Another book I finished in June was Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday. It’s  a quick read and was a great reminder that there’s much to gain by recognizing our limitations and embracing humility. Peppered with stories of historical figures, athletes, generals, politicians, and entrepreneurs, the book does a nice job of giving solid examples in which the suppression of ego led to better outcomes. While reading the book, I couldn’t help but think of all the moments, both recent and in the distant past, when I let ego get the best of me and cloud my judgment. Even with heightened awareness, I know I’ll continue to battle the urges of my ego (e.g. getting the last word, feeling like I’m right, pushing for my decision, getting “payback” for a perceived injustice, etc.), but I hope that with on-going reflection and reminders from books like this one, I can minimize the influence of ego and behave more in a humble, confident, and quiet manner.

Sidney havanese dog pics.

When I think about the passage of time, I often think about our dog Sidney. We think he’s about three years old now. He’s as big as he’s going to get (about 9 lbs) and still a ball of energy. I enjoy playing with him every single day. I still find myself “awwing” and wanting to pick him up to hug him every hour. I put up with his barking and his napkin thieving from the dining table. I think about how wonderful it is to have a dog like him, and then feel a bit sad when I realize that a dog’s expected life is much shorter than ours. Another 10-15 years may feel like a lot, but I think about how quickly the first 10 years of Barrel went by and it’s not hard to imagine how quickly the next 10 years will go. And who knows what’ll happen in that time? The only certainty is that all kinds of changes and unexpected turns lay ahead. In the meantime, I hope I can exert enough control over my mind to slow things down a bit, appreciate and fully immerse myself in the experiences as they come, and give myself some time to reflect on the past and get excited about the future. Life’s too short to let the mind go on auto-pilot.

 

Thoughts on Running the Brooklyn Half Marathon

Leave a comment

My first time running the Brooklyn Half Marathon

Last Saturday, I participated in the Brooklyn Half Marathon. It was a 13.1 mile run that began in front of the Brooklyn Museum, looped around Grand Army Plaza, circled through Prospect Park, and made its way down Ocean Parkway to Coney Island, where it finished up on the boardwalk.

I thought I’d jot down some of the things I remember about the race as well as some of the prep leading up to it.

First of all, my results. My time for the race was 1:44:26 with a 7:58/mile pace. I placed in 4,424th place out of 27,430 finishers.

In terms of training, I started working with a running coach back in January. Training with Geoffrey Badner of JGB Coaching has been one of my best decisions in 2016. Although we’ve yet to meet in person, he’s been a constant presence each week via email, customizing my training schedule, providing me with tips, and checking in on my runs. By following the workouts and patiently building up my fitness, I felt so much more confident going into the race. While toe and foot pains slowed me down for a few weeks and made me temper my goals for a faster pace, I still saw vast improvement in my ability to run longer distances. Minus a couple of weeks missed due to sickness, injury, and travel, I was able to consistently run 3 times a week over 4 months with distances ranging from 15 to 24 miles total each week.

I absolutely love Prospect Park. I’ve run in different states and continents, but nothing beats the familiar beauty and comfort of my neighborhood park. The fact that the race went through my “home field” made it so much easier. I knew exactly how to pace up the hill and when to expect the easy downhill descent.

On the day of the race, I woke up at 5AM and had some breakfast. One banana, a bowl of blueberries, two English muffins with peanut butter, walnuts, and honey, and plenty of water. I avoided alcohol for an entire week.

I used the bathroom three times before the race, and yet, about 3 miles into the race, I had to go pee again. I probably lost 30 seconds in the porta-potty, but I think it was a worthwhile trade.

I felt strong for most of the race. I tried not to worry about people who passed me and kept my focus on my pace, accepting anything under 8 min/mile that felt reasonably comfortable. When I got thirsty, I grabbed water at the stations along the way and came to a full stop to down the drink before moving on. I didn’t mind losing a few seconds this way because I had some bad experiences in the past of choking on water while trying to drink and run at the same time.

The two hardest parts came towards the end. The last 2 miles along Ocean Parkway felt like an eternity. It wasn’t that I was physically overtaxed, but with no headphones or any distractions, I found myself becoming bored and impatient with my pace. But I knew better than to overdo it and potentially hit a wall, so I tried to persevere mentally. The last 200 meters was the other hard part. I had picked up my pace significantly around 400 meters out and halfway through, I could feel my body wanting to puke. I fought off the gag reflex and powered my way towards the finish. Thankfully, I crossed the finish line just fine and caught my breath a few moments later.

I’m grateful that my buddy Reggie was there to greet me at the finish line. Melanie couldn’t make it due to a conference, but it was nice to see a familiar and supportive face in Reggie. I had seen Reggie participate in the New York Triathlon some years ago, and he said watching me made him want to get back into some kind of competitive training.

The pleasant surprise about running the half was that I didn’t feel too sore or tired afterwards. In fact, I was able to put in a fairly rigorous workout at the gym two days later. I think part of it was that I didn’t overexert myself and stayed within the confines of my training and target time. I also think good diet and not drinking alcohol was beneficial for my recovery. The nice thing about feeling good and not too beaten down is that I can more easily imagine myself doing another race in the near future–perhaps another half marathon, a 10k, or even a marathon. This is where I appreciate the approach of not overdoing things and experiencing something so unpleasant that I’ll never want to do it again. By keeping things fairly tolerable, and at times very enjoyable, I’ve made it possible for myself mentally to continue the activity of running. Plus, I’m quite motivated to get my mile pace down by 30 or so seconds.

The Moral of the Story

So this is the part where I talk about running as a metaphor for so many things in life. Three years ago, I struggled to run a mile. I told myself that I was a “sprinter” type who didn’t like to run long distance. But slowly, I tried to fit running into my schedule at least once a week. One mile became two and two became three. I remember the first time I did a full loop around Prospect Park. It felt like a monumental accomplishment, and I was also sore as hell the next few days. I ended up participating in a sprint triathlon relay with my friends and ran the 5k. I continued to run and build up my distance. I remember running 6+ miles for the first time almost exactly a year ago with my brother-in-law. It gave me the confidence to imagine myself running a longer distance.

When I run, I often think about running and running a business. A week from today, we’ll be celebrating ten years of Barrel. I think about the “race” I’ve run at Barrel. A lot of undisciplined stretches with little training and planning, especially in the early years. More recently, I’ve been deliberate about the pacing, the breathing, the form, and the preparation. I’ve come to appreciate mental toughness and patience. I’ve also come to ignore those who zip by me and those I pass by–I know all too well that some will flame out and others will end up overtaking me. I can only control what I can control. I have much to gain by enjoying the process, by feeling my feet hit the pavement, by hearing my steady breathing. If I’m lucky, I notice the scenery and appreciate what I can sense in the moment. I can also feel good about how far I’ve come, how lucky that the run has lasted this long. Sure I want to finish higher in my age group, sure I want to finish with a faster time, and sure I wish my splits were impressive, but in the end, what’s important is that I tried, I ran the race, and even when things got tough or unpleasant, I never quit.

A Progress Report of Sorts

Leave a comment

As I gear up for my Sunday evening routine of prepping for the week ahead, catching up with my inbox, and making sure all my projects at work are on track, I realized that it’s been a while since I updated my blog. In fact, it’s been a while since I paused to reflect on some of the things that have happened. The weeks, it feels like, have progressed at an unceasing, unrelenting pace. This is my time out and a chance to make note of certain things both in the spirit of celebration and as a reminder that I can always be better.

I got LASIK

In February, I went through with LASIK surgery. It was uncomfortable and painful for a few days, but the results have been amazing. No more glasses or contact lenses. I wear sunglasses when it’s bright out, something I never used to do. I look different in pictures. I wake up each morning and I see 20/20.

Of course, I got used to it really quickly. I had told myself before the surgery that not having to put on contact lenses would make it so much easier for me to wake up and work out each morning. That was wishful thinking. It’s still a battle, and I find myself battling my own excuses that it’s too cold out or that I should be careful not to push myself too hard and get sick.

Eating and drinking

I’ve been good about sticking with my plant-based diet. It’s pretty automatic for me now. On long trips or special occasions, I’ll allow myself some dairy, meat, and fish. It’s no big deal. But when I’m at home or at work, I’m pretty steadfast in my diet of fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, and grains. My favorite go-to foods: dates and avocados. I still need to work more greens into the diet.

I’ve cut down alcohol consumption pretty heavily. Some weeks, I’ll only drink once. And when I do, I try to keep it light. This has led to some additional weight loss. I don’t think I’ve been as light as I am since middle school.

Meditation

I started using Headspace, a meditation app, back in January and I’ve stuck with it. I use it five times a week on weekday mornings. I wake up, push my pillow against the bed headboard, sit up, and go through the 10-minute session. I’ve finished the Foundation sessions, completed the pack on Focus, and now almost done with the Anxiety pack. I can honestly say that meditating has really made a big difference in how I go about my day-to-day. I’ve found myself processing day-to-day situations differently with greater awareness. It’s as if I’ve been able to develop a more detached view of the inner workings of my mind and, when lucky, been able to call bullshit on myself. There’s so much more to learn and practice–I’m looking forward to continuing and hope these packs never run out.

Travel & Running

I’ve been fortunate to do some traveling in the past few months. I’ve also been training to run my first half marathon, which is coming up in a few weeks. On my trips, I’ve made it a point to bring my running gear and sneakers so I can keep up with my training. These were some memorable runs in memorable places:

  • Santa Monica, CA where I ran along the beach with the iconic Ferris wheel in view.
  • Land’s End in San Francisco, CA where I could see the Golden Gate Bridge while running up and down the hilly trail.
  • Stone Mountain Park in GA where I ran the loop and saw the Confederate Memorial Carving depicting Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis–all while listening to Team of Rivals, a book about Lincoln and his presidency.
  • Paris, France where I ran along the Seine, passed by Notre Dame, and circled inside Luxembourg Garden.

I especially love the feeling of going for a run in the morning, letting my body feel and wake up to the the outdoors, and then making my way back knowing that I’ll reward myself with a hearty breakfast and a cup of coffee. I think it’s one of the best ways to start the day.

Reading

I’ve been less diligent about reading these past few months, but I did finish a few books that have left quite an impression on me. They are:

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
After reading this, I have even more respect for Abraham Lincoln and the kind of leader and human being he was. His capacity for compassion, kindness, and generosity (expressed often in the book as his “magnanimity”) was almost superhuman, especially as he readily forgave and embraced those who undermined and betrayed him. His shrewdness for strategy, politics, and playing the long game was also admirable. He saw the bigger picture and was patient with his moves while his opponents and detractors could only see what was in front of them. When I finally got to the part of the book when Lincoln is assassinated, I couldn’t help but feel an incredible sadness. I wondered what would have been had he not died. What did America lose with his death?

Replay by Ken Grimwood
In this science fiction novel, the protagonist Jeff Winston dies suddenly at the age of 43 only to wake up as his 18-year-old self back in time. Without giving much more away, I’ll say that Jeff has multiple opportunities to “replay” his life but always ends up “dying” at age 43. I couldn’t put this book down, and found myself taking long walks replaying my own life for the past fifteen or so years. In reminiscing my blunders, successes, and luck, it became clear to me that the book’s lesson wasn’t about looking backward with regret and nostalgia. It was about taking control and savoring what lies ahead.

Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman
This business book, which introduces the Traction Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS), has been a helpful guide for our management team at Barrel. The biggest benefit has been the framework for setting goals and keeping us accountable on a weekly basis. I hope to share more about this and its impact on the company in a separate post in the future. While we’re just scratching the surface of truly instituting the EOS company-wide, I like the progress I’m seeing so far.

Ten Years

The ten-year anniversary of Barrel is coming up in a few weeks. I’ve been thinking about the milestone, where we are right now, and where we want to go. It’s been a mixed bag of emotions. I’m grateful for so many things and there are plenty of fond and pleasing moments directly associated with the company and the people who’ve been a part of it. I’m also regretful and disappointed in what could have been had I been more focused and mature over the years, but I also tell myself that I’ll have plenty of opportunities to contribute, lead, and raise the bar of my performance. Overall, my mind’s been trending in an optimistic direction, and I’m excited about what lies ahead for Barrel.

Miscellaneous

A few other random things from the past few months:

  • I went to Omaha, Nebraska for the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholder Meeting. I saw Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger speak and walked around a large convention center where I picked up some boxes of See’s Candies and took a photo with the GEIOC Gekko. It was a short trip, but memorable in that I got to spend time with my good buddies Andy, Sei-Wook, and Welton.
  • My favorite piece of entertainment consumed so far this year has been The Night Manager, a 6-episode miniseries starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie. It was an incredibly entertaining spy thriller.
  • I’ve been continuing to work on Grove Ave with my buddies, mostly on weekends. Since launching our website and e-book in February, we’ve sent out 15 email newsletters and created a Growth Library page that currently features a list of 18 carefully selected books. We have some other pieces of the business coming together in the coming months, so I think it’ll be a very active summer.

Melanie and I took selfies in front of a couple different triumphal arches in the past few weeks:

Arc de Triomphe and the Washington Square Arch

Selfies in front of Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Washington Square Arch in New York.

Was It Sleep?

Leave a comment

Today was President’s Day. Our office was closed, so I slept in. I finally got up at 10AM as Sidney’s whining reached peak levels and I had to take him out for a walk.

I went to bed late the night before, around 2:30AM. I had been binge watching episodes of Mozart in the Jungle on my laptop. Let’s say I finally got into a sound sleep mode around 3AM and started waking up around 9, falling in and out of sleep and lingering in bed. Point is, I felt pretty well rested on about 6-7 hours of sleep.

I had a leisurely breakfast with Mel, took my coffee and later my tea, and caught up on work. Around 6PM, I made the hourlong trek to Chelsea Piers for my Monday evening workout with Andy.

We take our Monday evening workouts seriously. We have a nice structure to it, and we’ve been sticking with it for almost two years. We start off with a one-mile jog. We then stretch for 10 minutes. Then we go into our various routines that mix up high intensity interval training with some standard fare lifting and some stuff that reminds me of drills I used to do when I played football in high school. We wind down with an ab workout and then stretch for another 10 minutes. All of this takes anywhere between 90-100 minutes. And then we change our sneakers and get down to business on the basketball court.

It’s pretty late by the time we hit the court, so there aren’t many games going on. Sometimes we’ll get in on a 5-on-5 or 4-on-4 game, but we’ve often been disappointed by the no-defense style of play. So we usually opt for an intense best-out-of-three one-on-one matchup. We play with 1- and 2-pointers up to 12 points. If you can drain six 2-pointers, you win the game.

I’m sharing all of this because today, I felt different. Usually, by the time I’m done with the workout, I am beat. My legs and arms are uncooperative, and I’m fighting mental fatigue. My shots mostly fall short, and I usually find myself taking poorly formed jumpers that overcompensate for my failing strength. I falter, my defense breaks down, and I don’t go after loose balls. And, sadly, Andy typically gets the best of three games.

Maybe it was because my shot was on and I was lucky, but I was more impressed by the strength I had in my legs. I felt great jumping, shifting, and changing directions. I gave Andy some trouble whenever he drove to the hoop. I gobbled up the loose balls. And I had no trouble pulling up for a jumper and making the shot. I beat Andy 13-1 and 13-2 the first two games. We rarely blow each other out this badly. I even shot a two-pointer to end both games so I could earn a little extra credit. Andy was pissed, and we ended up playing a third game even though I had won the best of three. The third one was a lot closer, but when Andy pulled up to within one at 9-8, I sank a couple of two pointers to end the game, 13-8. Another game with extra credit.

As I reflected on the game over our post-workout dinner at Westville, I could only point to one difference: the fact that I didn’t have work and that I was able get more sleep the night before. A typical Monday for me starts at 6:30AM. The night before, trying to finish all my work, I’m usually up until 12:30AM or somethings 1AM. I’m finally fully asleep probably around 1/1:30AM, which means about 5 or so hours in bed. Add to that the stresses of getting ready in the morning. I’m going to write up a post one of these days that details the number of actions I need to take to get from my waking state in bed to the office. It’s a very complex set of moves that all need to go well in order for me to make it to work on time. I know everyone has some variation of this, and no matter how much you try to simplify it, I’m still amazed at the various mental and physical functions required for a successful get-up-and-go-to-work routine. Without going through this and being able to sleep as long as I want to, I found my energy level much higher than usual. I also think it helped that I didn’t have work, but I did spend a big chunk of time doing work at home.

I have more investigating to do, but as I burn precious sleep minutes trying to finish writing, I know I’ll have to devise some systems to ensure that I get more sleep.