On small wins on rough days

Some days you will feel as though the work never ends, that you are always falling behind, that you have not done enough, that you are not good enough.

When this happens, do things.  Take action, even if it is only on the smallest and most trivial things.  Clean your desk.  Consolidate your notes.  Write short emails.  Update the to-do list.  And then maybe roll the small successes into progress on larger projects.  Schedule the difficult conversation.  Write the first draft of the proposal.  Get words down on paper, no matter how shitty and far from the final draft they are.

And if you cannot do that, if the day is simply lost, then let it go.  Be kind to yourself.  Go to sleep early and rest.  Tomorrow is a new day, and you’ll have another chance to try again.

On the Benefits of OCR – Part 1

Yesterday I completed one of my fitness milestones (resolutions? goals?) for the 2017–finishing the Spartan Super obstacle course race.

This Spartan Super was an 8.4 mile race with 24 obstacles across beautiful shrubby desert terrain.  We ran up and down chalky hills, navigated dry creek beds, and enjoyed vibrantly green(!) vistas of the desert landscape from ridge tops.  Of course, we also clambered (or vaulted) over 8ft walls, rolled under barbed wire, waded through mud, jumped through fire, shimmied up ropes, carried sandbags and buckets full of rocks, threw javelins, and burpee’d our way through any obstacles we couldn’t pass normally.

OCR (obstacle course racing) and Crossfit were my gateway drugs into fitness, so I’d like to list some of the benefits and life lessons learned from this race:

1.  Never give up

My goal for the race was just to finish, so success was just dependent on not giving up and making my way to the finish line (even if I had to crawl to get there).  An obstacle race is designed to throw hardship in your way to break you down, physically and mentally.  You’ve run hills for 6 miles and worn yourself out carrying sandbags and rocks and climbing walls and uneven monkey bars?  Great!  Now here is a nice pit of mud to wade through, and then some more hills, and then crawl under barbed wire, and then jump another wall…and oh by the way before you get to the finish line there’s a grueling gauntlet of upper body heavy obstacles (ring monkey bars, horizontal traverse wall with no footholds, javelin throw)…and then you’re 2 obstacles away from the finish line!  But hey you’re tired and muddy and you slip on an inclined rope climb 1 foot from the top and sprain your ankle.  What do you do?  You can tap out…or you can do your 30 burpee penalty on 1 foot, rest your injured ankle, and then do a sprint and jump through fire and hobble over the finish line.  Barring a significant lack of common sense/unacceptable consequences, “I give up” should not be in your vocabulary.

2.  Obstacle immunity (coined by Joe de Sena)

Compared to carrying a 70-100lb bucket of rocks up and down steep and slippery rocky hillsides, dealing with unexpected last minute product launch delays at work is easy.  Sitting in traffic doesn’t even phase you (at least you’re not covered in mud and pebbles).  Running laps in gym class is a breeze (at least the course is flat, you have access to water, and ALL you have to do is run).  Bad things (or really, inconvenient things) can happen, but if you’ve gone through some variant of hell, you can just recalibrate your expectations and gain some mental immunity to the normal hardships life throws your way.

3.  Test yourself (fitness, grit, persistence)

You think you’re such a badass.  You think you’re so smart, so strong, so determined, king of the hill.  But have you put your mettle to the test?  The only way you’ll know how fit, mentally and physically, you are is if you purposefully go out and attempt hard things, or even things that seem impossible.

4.  Temper the blade

Forging a strong but non-brittle blade requires hours of pounding, heating and cooling the steel.  Similarly, becoming a strong but non-brittle person requires undergoing a life filled with hardships and obstacles that teach you how to become mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually strong.  If normal life is too anesthetized to provide you with these learning opportunities, you must go out and seek them for yourself.  Not just to test yourself (as noted above), but to keep pushing your limits and learning how and where you can improve.

5.  Have fun!

It might not sound like it, but obstacle races are a lot of fun!  There’s nothing like spending a lovely day in the great outdoors, working up a sweat with interesting likeminded people, and seeing what kinds of exciting and unexpected obstacles the race designers have prepared for you (this is why I never check course maps on the day of the race).  It’s a great skill to be able to laugh your way through mud and burpees, and an even better skill if you can make other people laugh as well, which brings me to…

6.  Ask for help and help other people

I would’ve had to do a lot more burpees if I didn’t have teammates and fellow racers to give me an assist through different obstacles.  8 ft wall?  No problem, just ask someone for a boost.  And then pay it forward whenever you can.  People feel empowered and needed when they can help other people (esp. people in their tribe, and if you’re doing an obstacle race, you’re automatically part of this tribe), so don’t be afraid to ask for help!

My teammate ripped his hands on the way down the rope climb and we approached different racers and volunteers asking for bandaids so that he could keep racing.  People who didn’t have bandaids offered him their racing gloves to protect his injured skin.  I had various racers offer me boosts over tall obstacles and I paid it forward by cheering other people on.

7.  Life is a team sport–it’s better when we’re together

If you can, run the race with a team (or at least a friend or a family member).  You’ll have people to encourage you and lend you a helping hand, people to cheer you on, people to care for you if you get injured, people to make sure you don’t quit when the going gets hard, and people to have a friendly competition with.

If you can’t do some obstacles alone, then get a partner or teammate to do it with you–for example, men had to flip 400+lb tires with poor grips, so my teammate found a fellow guy racer to help him flip tires together (they just had to do twice as many, but it meant not having to do burpees alone!).  On another wall climb, an overweight woman was able to get over with the help of several teammates giving her boosts, cheers, and a helping hand over the top.

8.  Get inspired

I like to get to races early in the morning so that I can watch some of the elite heats race for time.  The top racers move through obstacles with a speed and grace that is frankly inspiring.  And not all of them are young guys, either!  If a middle aged woman can breeze through the monkey bar rings, what excuse do you have?  Similarly, if an overweight person, or a frail-looking old man can run this obstacle race, can carry that bucket full of rocks, can shimmy up that rope like greased lightning, what excuse do you have?  You are not a special snowflake, and you have no excuses, so go out, train hard, and kick ass!

9.  There’s more than one way to skin a cat

Watching the best of the best run the race will teach you what is possible if you work for it.  Watching people who aren’t strong, fast, fit, etc. go through obstacles will teach you alternative ways of solving a problem.

For example, take the wall.  There are at least 2 ways to climb over a wall.  The first requires you to have enough upper body strength to do a muscle up in order to move from hanging from the top of the wall to levering your upper body over the wall so that you can just swing your legs over and cross over.  If you’re not strong enough to do a muscle up, though, you have options.  One option is to use physics–get your fingers over the top of the wall and get a good hand hold, and then keeping your back and arms straight, walk your feet up the wall until you can hook one foot over the top of the wall as well.  Then use your leg (and your 2 arms) to pull your body up to the top of the wall, and then roll yourself over to the other side.  Brute force is not the only way through.

10.  There is always a way through if you’re willing to work for it

If you can’t pass any obstacle successfully, or don’t want to make the attempt, you can always continue on the race if you do 30 penalty burpees.  This is a measure of your endurance, patience, and grit.  30 burpees is brutal if you’re in mile 8 and already exhausted from everything that came before, but if you break them up into sets and push through, there’s nothing stopping you from finishing the race.

OK, there are too many reasons to fit in one post, so tomorrow’s post will be Part 2 on what you can learn from OCR.  As the Spartan racers would say, Arooo!


Be the man in the arena

A quick reminder:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Do hard things, get dirty, make mistakes, and never give up.

Found Things

This week on the Internet I…

…loved these whimsical little balsa wood worlds in glass jars

…was reminded of childhood and how much I loved Brian Jacques’s Redwall series [public library] when I came across this chronology.  I need to reread the series again.  As an adult, the plot might seem more formulaic and oversimplified/idealistic, but I might also have a better appreciation for all of the poetry and cute little ditties Jacques wove into the stories.

…added fuel to a daydream/possible (but unlikely) future of living in Japan with this charming post about a house in the countryside

…spent time thinking and brainstorming about the work pact (why am I working now?  What factors am I maximizing and minimizing for?  How will this change in a few years?)

…drooled over this patisserie’s pistachio Paris-Brest.  It might be the kind of thing that tastes better in one’s imagination than in real life, but at least one can dream…

On Parental Advice

Parents want the best for you, but most of the time what they want is low-risk high security.  Study computer science so you can find a job.  Go work 20 years in a government job and get a pension.  For the love of god, don’t go haring off on some random startup that might not be able to pay your rent (and of course don’t even think about getting that art history degree).

Sometimes a bit of common sense is useful.  After all, a degree these days is mostly useful to get a good job.  If you only cared about learning, you should do self study, experimentation, and apprenticeships and skip the student debt.  (Or perhaps you were far-sighted enough, or well trained enough, or lucky enough, to get a scholarship.)

But generally in life, some amount of risk taking is required if you want higher returns.  And fun.  Fun is correlated with risk-taking to some degree.

So basically, you should listen to your parents knowing that they mean well, but weigh your other options and preferences.  After all, it’s your life, and what’s the point in being safe and secure if you’re also bored out of your mind?  As the Hunter S. Thompson quote goes, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!'”

Quick thoughts on sub-optimal environments

Environment is important.  Being surrounded by people who nag, complain, gossip, and dither all day long about mundane nonsense will distract you from the work and from the path you want to pursue.

If you must be in contact with bad habits, then take greater care to remind yourself of what you strive towards, and what you strive to avoid.  Look for the good where you can, steer the conversation to safer waters where possible, and immerse yourself in a more optimal environment as soon as possible.

Scribblings at Lunch

1. Nothing comes from worrying so save your energy and don’t bother.

2. A little kindness goes a LONG way.  Remember that.

3. There are other people’s sandboxes.  If playing in them is no fun, make your own.  (Then let other play in it as well.)

4. The dark times are temporary.  Take heart.

5. The good times are temporary.  Remember that Ayumi Hamasaki song and cherish them.

6. Make time for poetry and art and beautiful things.

7. A.  And Not A.  Usually not both at the same time.

8. Most of the time, follow the to do list.  Some of the time, follow your joy/curiosity/gut.

9. Cultivate and appreciation for the absurd.  Irrationality and tail events are inevitable, better to at least be amused.

10. You are not your work.  Your work is you (at least some version of you at some point in time).

11. You contain multitudes.  Don’t forget that you are more than just one, or two, or three, … aspects of your identity.  The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

12. Don’t be afraid to kill, revive, and evolve different versions of yourself.

13. Consistency is a pipe dream.  Embrace paradox.

14. Change your mind when the facts change.  Seek timeless truths.

15. Build a tool set with more than just 1 hammer, OR get really good at finding the right kinds of nails.

16. Maybe there are no new ideas, just rediscovering or repurposing old ones.

17. You exist (maybe).  Don’t bother looking for a why.  If you must, weave a useful story for your why.

18. Tell lies in your 1st, 2nd, …, (n-1)th thoughts if they are useful, but nth thoughts should seek the truth.

19. Read what you love.  Then read what you hate.  Read what is useful, beautiful, provocative, lovely, but not what puts you to sleep unless right before bedtime.

20. You have an obligation to share good ideas.  To be a standard-bearer in ideological wars.  But also to switch sides if the facts warrant it.

21. Go outside and smell the flowers, dance in the rain.

22. Maybe no one else is real.  Have fun on your adventures and feel free to ignore NPCs.

Focus on What You Can Control

It bears repeating: only focus on the things within your control.  Keep an inner scorecard, and don’t let external events sway you.

  • You can’t control the weather, but you can take an umbrella, buy rain boots, wear warm waterproof clothing, or even take a car.
  • You can’t control other teams, but you can keep asking questions and making sure information is shared, expectations are set, give feedback for next time, grease the wheels as much as you can.
  • You can’t control what other people decide to do, but you can influence them by telling them what you want, why it’s the best course of action, why they should help, why they should care.
  • You can control what you work on.  Go find things that YOU care about and do those, fill your time up so full with these things that you don’t have bandwidth for the nonsense other stuff.
  • You can control who you work with.  Go find the people you love to work with and make beautiful useful things with them.  Go play with them and fill your roster up with so many things that there is no room for the complainypants and information silos and hot/cold cats and all talk no action windbags.  And if you can’t find the good people here, just leave.
  • You can control where you work.  If the office is too full of distractions, if your neighbors are loud, if everyone wants a piece of your day, go somewhere else.  Go work in the cozy hidden nook with plenty of sunshine and stuffed animals.  Go find the quiet spots where other people want to do heads down no talking work.  Go into hermit mode and turn off email, phone, IM, everything.  Say no.

At the end of the day, a lot of things are within your control.  You have flexibility to make your environment enjoyable and productive.  You have skills, glowing reviews, vacation days, and a financial cushion.  You have optionality.  If you want to leave, it’s pretty easy to do so.  Just be sure that you’re not going to repeat old mistakes if you leave.

If you stay or if you leave, make a reasoned conscious decision.  If you stay, what are the factors here worth staying for that other teams and companies don’t have?  If you go, what are the factors on the new team, at the new company, that would be different from what they are now?  New is not always better by default.  On the other hand, if you already know something is not working, you shouldn’t bother to keep doing it.  Drop it and pivot to try something else.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier Book Notes

I love books about war.  In particular, books about how war changes human psychology and group dynamics, how it is evolutionarily inevitable or a consequence of certain accidents in history that led us to develop as a species to where we are now.

Last night, I read A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah [public library].  This is not one of those detached overarching examinations of war as a concept and historical/sociological mechanism.  It’s a narrative about one person’s experience of civil war in Sierra Leone as a child and a teen.

Given that people tend to repress, forget, or edit over traumatic memories, I wonder how many of the stories in the book are actually true ones that happened to him, vs. stories that he picked up from fellow child soldiers, aid workers, the media, etc.  I wonder how reliable the narrator is, and whether there are things he left out because they were too painful, or because he feared judgment.  The narration is very matter of fact and detached–I wonder if that is because he isn’t able to emotionally write about how it affected him, or whether the feelings the memories evoke are just not translatable without going through the experience yourself.

Anyways, onto the interesting quotes.

War (and perhaps all traumatic experiences) leaves an indelible mark on the landscape of your inner mind.  “These days I live in three worlds: my dreams, and the experiences of my new life, which trigger memories from the past.”

This is dangerous because without psychological guidance (or an innate tendency towards post-traumatic growth), the mind is unequipped to process everything that has happened to it and turn brutal violence into a coherent narrative for a meaningful life.

The civil war was particularly hard psychologically because of the uncertainty of violence–where would the rebels, the army, strike next?  Was any place truly safe?  “One of the unsettling things about my journey, mentally, physically, and emotionally, was that I wasn’t sure when or where it was going to end.  I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.  I felt that I was starting over and over again.  I was always on the move, always going somewhere.  While we walked, I sometimes lagged behind, thinking about these things.  To survive each passing day was my goal in life. …It was much easier to be sad than to go back and forth between emotions, and this gave me the determination I needed to keep moving.  I was never disappointed, since I always expected the worst to happen.”

The uncertainty of death and the constant brushes against death is extremely psychologically taxing, especially to a child whose support system is ripped away from him: “Every time people come at us with the intention of killing us, I close my eyes and wait for death.  Even though I am still alive, I feel like each time I accept death, part of me dies.  Very soon I will completely die and all that will be left is my empty body walking with you.  It will be quieter than I am.”  (The speaker dies of some unexplained natural cause soon afterwards.)

And when the narrator finds himself alone in hiding, the loneliness and time to think is almost worse than the actual times of running away from attack: “The most difficult part of being in the forest was the loneliness.  It became unbearable each day.  One thing about being lonesome is that you think too much, especially when there isn’t much else you can do.  I didn’t like this and I tried to stop myself from thinking, but nothing seemed to work.  I decided to just ignore every thought that came to my head, because it brought too much sadness.  Apart from eating and drinking water and once every other day taking a bath, I spent most of my time fighting myself mentally in order to avoid thinking about what I had seen or wondering where my life was going, where my family and friends were.”

After the narrator is recruited to join the army at the age of 12, the army leaders brainwash their soldiers by dehumanizing the rebels, using drug addictions to deaden emotions or get people wired to fight, and using war movie propaganda to set a standard for aspirational behavior.

“Over and over in our training he would say that same sentence: Visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you.

They have lost everything that makes them human.  They do not deserve to live.  That is why we must kill every single one of them.  Think of it as destroying a great evil.  It is the highest service you can perform for your country.”

“‘Our job is a serious one and we have the most capable soldiers, who will do anything to defend this country.  We are not like the rebels, those riffraffs who kill people for no reason.  We kill them for the good and betterment of this country.  …’ The lieutenant went on and on with his speech, which was a combination of instilling in the civilians that what we were doing was right and boosting the morale of his men, including us, the boys.  I stood there holding my gun and felt special because I was part of something that took me seriously and I was not running from anyone anymore.”

“We were always either at the front lines, watching a war movie, or doing drugs.  There was no time to be alone or to think.  When we conversed with each other, we only talked about the war movies and how impressed we were with the way either the lieutenant, the corporal, or one of us had killed someone.  It was as if nothing else existed outside our reality.”

“My squad was my family, my gun was my provider and protector, and my rule was to kill or be killed.  The extent of my thoughts didn’t go much beyond that.  We had been fighting for over two years, and killing had become a daily activity.  I felt no pity for anyone.  My childhood had gone by without my knowing, and it seemed as if my heart had frozen.”

In some ways, though, being a child soldier was better than just running away without a tribe to belong to, feeling powerless, living a life without meaning, and always uncertain whether you were going to die the next day or not.  Joining the army was empowering because people were given a coherent narrative for the violence around them, they were given meaning and a narrative to live by, and they were given the resources to be proactive rather than merely reactive (running away).  “I had my gun now, and as the corporal always said, ‘This gun is your source of power in these times.  It will protect you and provide you all you need, if you know how to use it well.’”

Found Things

This week on the Internet I…

…heard an old Mozart sonata on the radio and remembered the dear friend who used to play it for me in middle school

…thought about how organizations could introduce more distributed processing and antifragility into their operations after reading this Farnam Street post about the brain

…discovered that Neil Gaiman (one of my favorite authors) writes his books by hand!

…put this book, Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic [public library] on my reading list–the author is a Harvard professor who teaches how to really see the magical details of the ordinary world

…was touched by these love letters between Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman.  There are more forms of platonic love in relationships than modern society recognizes and encourages.  Those loves might fill empty niches in one’s inner world.  Experiment for life: find and cultivate a platonic love relationship with a friend where I could experience the depth of feeling that fuels love letter exchanges like this.